The Secret of Sarek/Chapter XIII
CHAPTER XIII. “ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI!”
THE preparations were soon made; and Vorski himself took an active part in them. Resting the ladder against the trunk of the tree, he passed one end of the rope round his victim and the other over one of the upper branches. Then, standing on the bottom rung, he instructed his accomplices:
“Here, all you've got to do now is to pull. Get her on her feet first and one of you keep her from falling.”
He waited a moment. But Otto and Conrad were whispering to each other; and he exclaimed:
“Look here, hurry up, will you?... Remember I'm making a pretty easy target, if they took it into their heads to send a bullet or an arrow at me. Are you ready?”
The two assistants did not reply.
“Well, this is a bit thick! What's the matter with you? Otto! Conrad!”
He leapt to the ground and shook them:
“You're a pair of nice ones, you are! At this rate, we should still be at it to-morrow morning... and the whole thing will miscarry.... Answer me, Otto, can't you?” He turned the light full on Otto's face. “Look here, what's all this about? Are you wriggling out of it? If so, you'd better say so! And you, Conrad? Are you both going on strike?”
Otto wagged his head:
“On strike... that's saying a lot But Conrad and I would like a word or two of explanation?”
“Explanation? What about, you pudding-head? About the lady we're executing? About either of the two brats? It's no use taking that line, my man. I said to you, when I first mentioned the business, 'Will you go to work blindfold? There'll be a tough job and plenty of bloodshed. But there's big money at the end of it.'”
“That's the whole question,” said Otto.
“Say what you mean, you jackass!”
“It's for you to say and repeat the terms of our agreement. What are they?”
“You know as well as I do.”
“Exactly, it's to remind you of them that I'm asking you to repeat them.”
“I remember them exactly. I get the treasure; and out of the treasure I pay you two hundred thousand francs between the two of you.”
“That's so and it's not quite so. We'll come back to that. Let's begin by talking of this famous treasure. Here have we been grinding away for weeks, wallowing in blood, living in a nightmare of every sort of crime... and not a thing in sight!”
Vorski shrugged his shoulders:
“You're getting denser and denser, my poor Otto! You know there were certain things to be done first. They're all done, except one. In a few minutes, this will be finished too and the treasure will be ours!”
“How do we know?”
“Do you think I'd have done all that I have done, if I wasn't sure of the result... as sure as I am that I'm alive? Everything has happened in a certain given order. It was all predetermined. The last thing will come at the hour foretold and will open the gate for me.”
“The gate of hell,” sneered Otto, “as I heard Maguennoc call it.”
“Call it by that name or another, it opens on the treasure which I shall have won.”
“Very well,” said Otto, impressed by Vorski's tone of conviction, “very well. I'm willing to believe you're right. But what's to tell us that we shall have our share?”
“You shall have your share for the simple reason that the possession of the treasure will provide me with such indescribable wealth that I'm not likely to risk having trouble with you two fellows for the sake of a couple of hundred thousand francs.”
“So we have your word?”
“Your word that all the clauses of our agreement shall be respected.”
“Of course. What are you driving at?”
“This, that you've begun to trick us in the meanest way by breaking one of the clauses of the agreement.”
“What's that? What are you talking about? Do you realize whom you're speaking to?”
“I'm speaking to you, Vorski.”
Vorski laid violent hands on his accomplice:
“What's this? You dare to insult me? To call me by my name, me, me?”
“What of it, seeing that you've robbed me of what's mine by rights?”
Vorski controlled himself and, in a voice trembling with anger:
“Say what you have to say and be careful, my man, for you're playing a dangerous game. Speak out.”
“It's this,” said Otto. “Apart from the treasure, apart from the two hundred thousand francs, it was arranged between us — you held up your hand and took your oath on it — that any loose cash found by either of us in the course of the business would be divided in equal shares: half for you, half for Conrad and myself. Is that so?”
“Then pay up,” said Otto, holding out his hand.
“Pay up what? I haven't found anything.”
“That's a lie. While we were settling the sisters Archignat, you discovered on one of them, tucked away in her bodice, the hoard which we couldn't find in their house.”
“Well, that's a likely story!” said Vorski, in a tone which betrayed his embarrassment.
“It's absolutely the truth.”
“Just fish out that little parcel, tied up with string, which you've got pinned inside your shirt, just there,” said Otto, touching Vorski's chest with his finger. “Fish it out and let's have a look at those fifty thousand-franc notes.”
Vorski made no reply. He was dazed, like a man who does not understand what is happening to him and who is trying to guess how his adversary procured a weapon against him.
“Do you admit it?” asked Otto.
“Why not?” he rejoined. “I meant to square up later, in the lump.”
“Square up now. We'd rather have it that way.”
“And suppose I refuse?”
“You won't refuse.”
“Suppose I do?”
“In that case, look out for yourself!”
“I have nothing to fear. There's only two of you.”
“There's three of us, at least.”
“Where's the third?”
“The third is a gentleman who seems cleverer than most, from what Conrad tells me: brrr!... The one who fooled you just now, the one with the arrow and the white robe!”
“You propose to call him?”
Vorski felt that the game was not equal. The two assistants were standing on either side of him and pressing him hard. He had to yield:
“Here, you thief! Here, you robber!” he shouted, taking out the parcel and unfolding the notes.
“It's not worth while counting,” said Otto, snatching the bundle from him unawares.
“We'll do it this way: half for Conrad, half for me.
“Oh, you blackguard! Oh, you double-dyed thief! I'll make you pay for this. I don't care a button about the money. But to rob me as though you'd decoyed me into a wood, so to speak! I shouldn't like to be in your skin, my lad!”
He continued to insult the other and then, suddenly, burst into a laugh, a forced, malicious laugh:
“After all, Otto, upon my word, well played! But where and how did you come to know it? You'll tell me that, won't you?... Meanwhile, we've not a minute to lose. We're agreed all round, aren't we? And you'll get on with the work?”
“Willingly, since you're taking the thing so well,” said Otto. And he added, obsequiously, “After all... you have a style about you, sir! You're a fine gentleman, you are!”
“And you, you're a varlet whom I pay. You've had your money, so hurry up. The business is urgent.”
The “business,” as the frightful creatures called it, was soon done. Climbing on his ladder, Vorski repeated his orders, which were executed in docile fashion by Conrad and Otto.
They raised the victim to her feet and then, keeping her upright, hauled at the rope. Vorski seized the poor woman and, as her knees were bent, violently forced them straight. Thus flattened against the trunk of the tree, with her skirt tightened round her legs, her arms hanging to right and left at no great distance from her body, she was bound round the waist and under the arms.
She seemed not to have recovered from her blow and uttered no sound of complaint. Vorski tried to speak a few words, but spluttered them, incapable of utterance. Then he tried to raise her head, but abandoned the attempt, lacking the courage to touch her who was about to die: and the head dropped low on the breast.
He at once got down and stammered:
“The brandy, Otto. Have you the flask? Oh, damn it, what a beastly business!”
“There's time yet,” Conrad suggested.
Vorski took a few sips and cried:
“Time... for what? To let her off? Listen to me, Conrad. Rather than let her off, I'd sooner... yes, I'd sooner die in her stead. Give up my task? Ah, you don't know what my task or what my object is! Besides...”
He drank some more:
“It's excellent brandy, but, to settle my heart, I'd rather have rum. Have you any, Conrad?”
“A drain at the bottom of a flask.”
“Hand it over.”
They had screened the lantern lest they should be seen; and they sat close up to the tree, determined to keep silence. But this fresh drink went to their heads. Vorski began to hold forth very excitedly:
“You've no need of any explanations. The woman who's dying up there, it's no use your knowing her name. It's enough if you know that she's the fourth of the women who were to die on the cross and was specially appointed by fate. But there's one thing I can say to you, now that Vorski's triumph is about to shine forth before your eyes. In fact I take a certain pride in telling you, for, while all that's happened so far has depended on me and my will, the thing that's going to happen directly depends on the mightiest of will, wills working for Vorski!”
He repeated several times, as though smacking his lips over the name:
“For Vorski... For Vorski!”
And he stood up, impelled by the exuberance of his thoughts to walk up and down and wave his arms:
“Vorski, son of a king, Vorski, the elect of destiny, prepare yourself! Your time has come! Either you are the lowest of adventurers and the guiltiest of all the great criminals dyed in the blood of their fellow-men, or else you are really the inspired prophet whom the gods crown with glory. A superman or a highwayman: that is fate's decree. The last heart-beats of the sacred victim sacrificed to the gods are marking the supreme seconds. Listen to them, you two!”
Climbing the ladder, he tried to hear those poor beats of an exhausted heart. But the head, drooping to the left, prevented him from putting his ear to the breast; and he dared not touch it. The silence was broken only by a hoarse and irregular breath.
He said, in a low whisper:
“Veronique, do you hear me? Veronique.... Veronique....”
After a moment's hesitation:
“I want you to know it... yes, I myself am terrified at what I'm doing. But it's fate.... You remember the prophecy? 'Your wife shall die on the cross.' Why, your very name, Veronique, demands it!... Remember St. Veronica wiping Christ's face with a handkerchief and the Saviour's sacred image remaining on the handkerchief.... Veronique, you can hear me, surely? Veronique...”
He ran down hurriedly, snatched the flask of rum from Conrad's hands and emptied it at a draught.
He was now seized with a sort of delirium which made him rave for a few moments in a language which his accomplices did not understand. Then he began to challenge the invisible enemy, to challenge the gods, to hurl forth imprecations and blasphemies:
“Vorski is the mightiest of all men, Vorski governs fate. The elements and the mysterious powers of nature are compelled to obey him. Everything will fall out as he has determined; and the great secret will be declared to him in the mystic forms and according to the rules of the Kabala. Vorski is awaited as the prophet. Vorski will be welcomed with cries of joy and ecstasy; and one whom I know not, one whom I can only half see, will come to meet him with palms and benedictions. Let the unknown make ready! Let him arise from the darkness and ascend from hell! Here stands Vorski. To the sound of bells, to the singing of alleluias, let the fateful sign be revealed upon the face of the heavens, while the earth opens and sends forth whirling flames!”
He fell silent, as though he had descried in the air the signs which he foretold. The hopeless death-rattle of the dying woman sounded from overhead. The storm growled in the distance; and the black clouds were rent by lightning. All nature seemed to be responding to the ruffian's appeal.
His grandiloquent speech and his play-acting made a great impression on the two accomplices.
“He frightens me,” Otto muttered.
“It's the rum,” Conrad replied. “But all the same he's foretelling terrible things.”
“Things which prowl round us,” shouted Vorski, whose ears noticed the least sound, “things which make part of the present moment and have been bequeathed to us by the pageant of the centuries. It's like a prodigious childbirth. And I tell the two of you, you will be the amazed witnesses of these things! Otto and Conrad, be prepared as I am: the earth will shake; and, at the very spot where Vorski is to win the God-Stone, a column of fire will rise up to the sky.”
“He doesn't know what he's saying,” mumbled Conrad.
“And there he is on the ladder again,” whispered Otto. “It'll serve him right if he gets an arrow-through him.”
But Vorski's exaltation knew no bounds. The end was at hand. Extenuated by pain, the victim was in her death-agony.
Beginning very low, so as to be heard by none save her, but raising his voice gradually, Vorski said:
“Veronique.... Veronique.... You are fulfilling your mission.... You are nearing the top of the ascent.... All honour to you! You deserve a share in my triumph.... All honour to you! Listen! You hear it already, don't you? The artillery of the heavens is drawing near. My enemies are vanquished; you can no longer hope for rescue! Here is the last beat of your heart „... Here is your last cry: 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani! My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?'”
He screamed with laughter, like a man laughing at the most riotous adventure. Then came silence. The roars of thunder ceased. Vorski bent forward and suddenly, from the top of the ladder, shouted:
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani! The gods have forsaken her. Death has done its work. The last of the four women is dead. Veronique is dead!”
He was silent once again and then roared twice over:
“Veronique is dead! Veronique is dead!”
Once again there was a great, deep silence.
And all of a sudden the earth shook, not with a vibration produced by the thunder, but with a deep inner convulsion, which came from the very bowels of the earth and was repeated several times, like a noise reechoing through the woods and hills.
And almost at the same time, close by, at the other end of the semicircle of oaks, a fountain of fire shot forth and rose to the sky, in a whirl of smoke in which flared red, yellow and violet frames.
Vorski did not speak a word. His companions stood aghast. One of them stammered:
“It's the old rotten oak, the one which has already been struck by lightning.”
Though the fire had disappeared almost instantly, the three men retained the fantastic vision of the old oak, all aglow, vomiting flames and smoke of many colours.
“This is the entrance leading to the God-Stone,” said Vorski, solemnly. “Destiny has spoken, as I said it would: and it has spoken at the bidding of me who was once its servant and who am now its master.”
He advanced, carrying the lantern. They were surprised to see that the tree showed no trace of fire and that the mass of dry leaves, held as in a bowl where a few lower branches were outspread, had not caught fire.
“Yet another miracle,” said Vorski. “It is all an inconceivable miracle.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Conrad.
“Go in by the entrance revealed to us.... Take the ladder, Conrad, and feel with your hand in that heap of leaves. The tree is hollow and we shall soon see...”
“A tree can be as hollow as you please,” said Otto, “but there are always roots to it; and I can hardly believe in a passage through the roots.”
“I repeat, we shall see. Move the leaves, Conrad, clear them away.”
“No, I won't,” said Conrad, bluntly.
“What do you mean, you won't? Why not?”
“Have you forgotten Maguennoc? Have you forgotten that he tried to touch the God-Stone and had to cut his hand off?”
“But this isn't the God-Stone!” Vorski snarled.
“How do you know? Maguennoc was always speaking of the gate of hell. Isn't this what he meant when he talked like that?”
Vorski shrugged his shoulders:
“And you, Otto, are you afraid too?”
Otto did not reply: and Vorski himself did not seem eager to risk the attempt, for he ended by saying:
“After all, there's no hurry. Let's wait till daylight comes. We will cut down the tree with an axe: and that will show us better than anything how things stand and how to go to work.”
They agreed accordingly. But, as the signal had been seen by others besides themselves and as they must not allow themselves to be forestalled, they resolved to sit down opposite the tree, under the shelter offered by the huge table of the Fairies Dolmen.
“Otto,” said Vorski, “go to the Priory, fetch us something to drink and also bring an axe, some ropes and anything else that we're likely to want.”
The rain was beginning to pour in torrents. They settled themselves under the dolmen and each in turn kept watch while the other slept.
Nothing happened during the night. The storm was very violent. They could hear the waves roaring. Then gradually everything grew quiet.
At daybreak they attacked the oak-tree, which they soon overthrew by pulling upon the ropes.
They now saw that, inside the tree itself, amid the rubbish and the dry rot, a sort of trench had been dug, which extended through the mass of sand and stones packed about the roots.
They cleared the ground with a pick-axe. Some steps at once came into sight: there was a sudden drop of earth: and they saw a staircase which followed a perpendicular wall and led down into the darkness. They threw the light of their lantern before them. A cavern opened beneath their feet.
Vorski was the first to venture down. The others followed him cautiously.
The steps, which at first consisted of earthen stairs reinforced by flints, were presently hewn out of the rock. The cave which they entered was in no way peculiar and seemed rather to be a vestibule. It communicated, in fact, with a sort of crypt, which had a vaulted ceiling and walls of rough masonry of unmortared stones.
All around, like shapeless statues, stood twelve small menhirs, each of which was surmounted by a horse's skull. Vorski touched one of these skulls; it crumbled into dust.
“No one has been to this crypt,” he said, “for twenty centuries. We are the first men to tread the floor of it, the first to behold the traces of the past which it contains.”
He added, with increasing emphasis:
“It is the mortuary-chamber of a great chieftain. They used to bury his favourite horses with him... and his weapons too. Look, here are axes... and a flint knife; and we also find the remains of certain funeral rites, as this piece of charcoal shows and, over there, those charred bones....”
His voice was husky with emotion. He muttered: “1 am the first to enter here. I was expected. A whole world awakens at my coming.”
Conrad interrupted him:
“There are other doorways, another passage; and there's a sort of light showing in the distance.”
A narrow corridor brought them to a second chamber, through which they reached yet a third. The three crypts were exactly alike, with the same masonry, the same upright stones, the same horses' skulls.
“The tombs of three great chieftains,” said Vorski. “They evidently lead to the tomb of a king; and the chieftains must have been the king's guards, after being his companions during his lifetime. No doubt it's the next crypt.”
He hesitated to go farther, not from fear, but from excessive excitement and a sense of inflamed vanity which he was enjoying to the full:
“I am on the verge of knowledge,” he declaimed, in dramatic tones. “Vorski is approaching the goal and has only to put out his hand to be regally rewarded for his labours and his struggles. The God-Stone is there. For ages and ages men have sought to fathom the secret of the island and not one has succeeded. Vorski came and the God-Stone is his. So let it show itself to me and give me the promised power. There is nothing between it and Vorski, nothing but my will. And I declare my will! The prophet has risen out of the night. He is here. If there be, in this kingdom of the dead, a shade whose duty it is to lead me to the divine stone and place the golden crown upon my head, let that shade arise! Here stands Vorski!”
He went in.
The fourth room was much larger and shaped like a dome with a slightly flattened summit. In the middle of the flattened part was a round hole, no wider than the hole left by a very small flue; and from it there fell a shaft of half-veiled light which formed a very plainly-defined disk on the floor.
The centre of this disk was occupied by a little block of stones set together. And on this block, as though purposely displayed, lay a metal rod.
In other respects, this crypt did not differ from the first three. Like them it was adorned with menhirs and horses' heads, like them it contained traces of sacrifices.
Vorski did not take his eyes off the metal rod. Strange to say, the metal gleamed as though no dust had ever covered it. He put out his hand.
“No, no,” said Conrad, quickly.
“It may be the one Maguennoc touched and burnt his hand with.”
“Oh, I'm not afraid of anything!” Vorski declared taking hold of the rod. It was a leaden sceptre, very clumsily made, but nevertheless revealing a certain artistic intention. Round the handle was a snake, here encrusted in the lead, there standing out in relief. Its huge, disproportionate head formed the pommel and was studded with silver nails and little green pebbles transparent as emeralds.
“Is it the God-Stone?” Vorski muttered.
He handled the thing and examined it all over with respectful awe; and he soon observed that the pommel shifted almost loose. He fingered it, turned it to the left, to the right, until at length it gave a click and the snake's head became unfastened.
There was a space inside, containing a stone, a tiny, pale-red stone, with yellow streaks that looked like veins of gold.
“It's the God-Stone, it's the God-Stone!” said Vorski, greatly agitated.
“Don't touch it!” Conrad repeated, filled with alarm.
“What burnt Maguennoc will not burn me,” replied Vorski, solemnly.
And, in bravado, swelling with pride and delight, he kept the mysterious stone in the hollow of his hand, which he clenched with all his strength:
“Let it burn me! I will let it! Let it sear my flesh! I shall be glad if it will!”
Conrad made a sign to him and put his finger to his lips.
“What's the matter?” asked Vorski. “Do you hear anything?”
“Yes,” said the other.
“So do I,” said Otto.
What they heard was a rhythmical, measured sound, which rose and fell and made a sort of irregular music.
“Why, it's close by!” mumbled Vorski. “It sounds as if it were in the room.”
It was in the room, as they soon learnt for certain; and there was no doubt that the sound was very like a snore.
Conrad, who had ventured on this suggestion, was the first to laugh at it; but Vorski said:
“Upon my word, I'm inclined to think you're right. It is a snore.... There must be some one here then?”
“It comes from over there,” said Otto, “from that corner in the dark.”
The light did not extend beyond the menhirs. Behind each of them opened a small, shadowy chapel. Vorski turned his lantern into one of these and at once uttered a cry of amazement:
“Some one... yes... there is some one.... Look....”
The two accomplices came forward. On a heap of rubble, piled up in an angle of the wall, a man lay sleeping, an old man with a white beard and long white hair. A thousand wrinkles furrowed the skin of his face and hands. There were blue rings round his closed eyelids. At least a century must have passed over his head.
He was dressed in a patched and torn linen robe, which came down to his feet. Round his neck and hanging over his chest was a string of those sacred beads which the Gauls called serpents' eggs and which are actually sea-eggs or sea-urchins. Within reach of his hand was a handsome jadeite axe, covered with illegible symbols. On the ground, in a row, lay sharp-edged flints, some large, flat rings, two ear-drops of green jasper and two necklaces of fluted blue enamel.
The old man went on snoring.
“The miracle continues.... It's a priest... a priest like those of the olden time... of the time of the Druids.”
“And then?” asked Otto.
“Why, then he's waiting for me!”
Conrad expressed his brutal opinion:
“I suggest we break his head with his axe.”
But Vorski flew into a rage:
“If you touch a single hair of his head, you're a dead man!”
“He may be an enemy... he may be the one whom we were pursuing last night.... Remember... the white robe.”
“You're the biggest fool I ever met! Do you think that, at his age, he could have kept us on the run like that?”
He bent over and took the old man gently by the arm, saying:
“Wake up!... It's I!”
There was no answer. The man did not wake up.
The man moved on his bed of stones, mumbled a few words and went to sleep again.
Vorski, growing a little impatient, renewed his attempts, but more vigorously, and raised his voice:
“I say, what about it? We can't hang about all day, you know. Come on!”
He shook the old man more roughly. The man made a movement of irritation, pushed away his importunate visitor, clung to sleep a few seconds longer and, in the end, turned round wearily and, in an angry voice, growled: