The Secret of Sarek/Chapter XIV

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CHAPTER XIV. THE ANCIENT DRUID

THE three accomplices, who were perfectly acquainted with all the niceties of the French language and familiar with every slang phrase, did not for a moment mistake the true sense of that unexpected exclamation. They were astounded.

Vorski put the question to Conrad and Otto.

“Eh? What does he say?”

“What you heard.... That's right,” said Otto.

Vorski ended by making a fresh attack on the shoulder of the stranger, who turned on his couch, stretched himself, yawned, seemed to fall asleep again, and, suddenly admitting himself defeated, half sat up and shouted:

“When you've quite finished, please! Can't a man have a quiet snooze these days, in this beastly hole?”

A ray of light blinded his eyes: and he spluttered, in alarm:

“What is it? What do you want with me?”

Vorski put down his lantern on a projection in the wall; and the face now stood clearly revealed. The old man, who had continued to vent his ill temper in incoherent complaints, looked at his visitor, became gradually calmer, even assumed an amiable and almost smiling expression and, holding out his hand, exclaimed:

“Well, I never! Why, it's you, Vorski! How are you, old bean?”

Vorski gave a start. That the old man should know him and call him by his name did not astonish him immensely, since he had the half-mystic conviction that he was expected as a prophet might be. But to a prophet, to a missionary clad in light and glory, entering the presence of a stranger crowned with the double majesty of age and sacerdotal rank, it was painful to be hailed by the name of “old bean!”

Hesitating, ill at ease, not knowing with whom he was dealing, he asked:

“Who are you? What are you here for? How did you get here?”

And, when the other stared at him with a look of surprise, he repeated, in a louder voice:

“Answer me, can't you? Who are you?”

“Who am I?” replied the old man, in a husky and bleating voice. “Who am I? By Teutates, god of the Gauls, is it you who ask me that question? Then you don't know me? Come, try and remember.... Good old Segenax — eh, do you get me now — Velleda's father, good old Segenax, the law-giver venerated by the Rhedons of whom Chateaubriand speaks in the first volume of his Martyrs?... Ah, I see your memory's reviving!”

“What are you gassing about!” cried Vorski.

“I'm not gassing. I'm explaining my presence here and the regrettable events which brought me here long ago. Disgusted by the scandalous behaviour of Velleda, who had gone wrong with that dismal blighter Eudorus, I became what we should call a Trappist nowadays, that is to say, I passed a brilliant exam, as a bachelor of Druid laws. Since that time, in consequence of a few sprees — oh, nothing to speak of: three or four jaunts to Paris, where I was attracted by Mabille and afterwards by the Moulin Rouge — I was obliged to accept the little berth which I fill here, a cushy job, as you see: guardian of the God-Stone, a shirker's job, what!”

Vorski's amazement and uneasiness increased at each word. He consulted his companions.

“Break his head,” Conrad repeated. “That's what I say: and I stick to it.”

“And you, Otto?”

“I think we ought to be on our guard.”

“Of course we must be on our guard.”

But the old Druid caught the word. Leaning on a staff, he helped himself up and exclaimed:

“What's the meaning of this? Be on your guard... against me! That's really a bit thick! Treat me as a fake! Why, haven't you seen my axe, with the pattern of the swastika? The swastika, the leading cabalistic symbol, eh, what?... And this? What do you call this?”

He lifted his string of beads. “What do you call it? Horse-chestnuts? You've got some cheek, you have, to give a name like that to serpents' eggs, 'eggs which they form out of slaver and the froth of their bodies mingled and which they cast into the air, hissing the while.' It's Pliny's own words I'm quoting! You're not going to treat Pliny also as a fake, I hope!... You're a pretty customer! Putting yourself on your guard against me, when I have all my degrees as an ancient Druid, all my diplomas, all my patents, all my certificates signed by Pliny and Chateaubriand! The cheek of you!... Upon my word, you won't find many ancient Druids of my sort, genuine, of the period, with the bloom of age upon them and a beard of centuries! I a fake, I, who boast every tradition and who juggle with the customs of antiquity!... Shall I dance the ancient Druid dance for you, as I did before Julius Caesar? Would you like me to?”

And, without waiting for a reply, the old man, flinging aside his staff, began to cut the most extravagant capers and to execute the wildest of jigs with perfectly astounding agility. And it was the most laughable sight to see him jumping and twisting about, with his back bent, his arms outstretched, his legs shooting to right and left from under his robe, his beard following the evolutions of his frisking body, while the bleating voice announced the successive changes in the performance:

“The ancient Druids' dance, or Caesar's delight! Hi-tiddly, hi-tiddly, hi-ti, hi!... The mistletoe dance, vulgarly known as the tickletoe!... The serpents' egg waltz, music by Pliny! Hullo there! Begone, dull care!... The Vorska, or the tango of the thirty coffins!... The hymn of the Red Prophet! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Glory be to the prophet!”

He continued his furious jig a little longer and then suddenly halted before Vorski and, in a solemn tone, said:

“Enough of this prattle! Let us talk seriously. I am commissioned to hand you the God-Stone. Now that you are here, are you ready to take delivery of the goods?”

The three accomplices were absolutely flabbergasted. Vorski did not know what to do, was unable to make out who the infernal fellow was:

“Oh, shut up!” he shouted, angrily. “What do you want? What's your object?”

“What do you mean, my object? I've just told you; to hand you the God-Stone!”

“But by what right? In what capacity?”

The ancient Druid nodded his head:

“Yes, I see what you're after. Things are not happening in the least as you thought they would. Of course, you came here feeling jolly spry, glad and proud of the work you had done. Just think; furnishings for thirty coffins, four women crucified, shipwrecks, hands steeped in blood, murders galore. Those things are no small beer; and you were expecting an imposing reception, with an official ceremony, solemn pomp and state, antique choirs, processions of bards and minstrels, human sacrifices and what not; the whole Gallic bag of tricks! Instead of which, a poor beggar of a Druid, snoozing in a corner, who just simply offers you the goods. What a come down, my lords! Can't be helped, Vorski; we do what we can and every man acts according to the means at his disposal. I'm not a millionaire, you know; and I've already advanced you, in addition to the washing of a few white robes, some thirty francs forty for Bengal lights, fountains of fire and a nocturnal earthquake.”

Vorski started, suddenly understanding and beside himself with rage:

“What! So it was...”

“Of course it was me! Who did you think it was? St. Augustine? Unless you believed in an intervention of the gods and supposed that they took the trouble last night to send an archangel to the island, arrayed in a white robe, to lead you to the hollow oak!... Really, you're asking too much!”

Vorski clenched his fists. So the man in white whom he had pursued the night before was no other than this impostor!

“Oh,” he growled, “I'm not fond of having my leg pulled!”

“Having your leg pulled!” cried the old man. “You've got a cheek, old chap! Who hunted me like a wild beast, till I was quite out of breath? And who drove bullets through my best Sunday robe? I never knew such a fellow! It'll teach me to put my back into a job again!”

“That'll do!” roared Vorski. “That'll do. Once more and for the last time... what do you want with me?”

“I'm sick of telling you. I am commissioned to hand you the God-Stone.”

“Commissioned by whom?”

“Oh, hanged if I know! I've always been brought up to believe that some day a prince of Almain would appear at Sarek, one Vorski, who would slay his thirty victims and to whom I was to make an agreed signal when his thirtieth victim had breathed her last. Therefore, as I'm a slave to orders, I got together my little parcel, bought two Bengal lights at three francs seventy-five apiece at a hardware shop in Brest, plus a few choice crackers, and, at the appointed hour, took up my perch in my observatory, taper in hand, all ready for work. When you started howling, in the top of the tree, 'She's dead! She's dead!' I thought that was the right moment, set fire to the lights and with my crackers shook the bowels of the earth. There! Now you know all about it.”

Vorski stepped forward, with his fists raised to strike. That torrent of words, that imperturbable composure, that calm, bantering voice put him beside himself.

“Another word and I'll knock you down!” he cried. “I've had enough of it.”

“Is your name Vorski?”

“Yes; and then?”

“Are you a prince of Almain?”

“Yes, yes; and then?”

“Have you slain your thirty victims?”

“Yes, yes, yes!”

“Well, then you're my man. I have a God-Stone to hand you and I mean to hand it you, come what may. That's the sort of hairpin I am. You've got to pocket it, your miracle-stone.”

“But I don't care a hang for the God-Stone!” roared Vorski, stamping his foot. “And I don't care a hang for you! I want nobody. The God-Stone! Why, I've got it, it's mine. I've got it on me.”

“Let's have a look.”

“What do you call that?” said Vorski, taking from his pocket the little stone disk which he had found in the pommel of the sceptre.

“That?” asked the old man, with an air of surprise. “Where did you get that from?”

“From the pommel of this sceptre, when I unfastened it.”

“And what do you call it?”

“It's a piece of the God-Stone.”

“You're mad.”

“Then what do you say it is?”

“That's a trouser-button.”

“A what?”

“A trouser-button.”

“How do you make that out?”

“A trouser-button with the shaft broken off, a button of the sort which the niggers in the Sahara wear. I've a whole set of them.”

“Prove it, damn you!”

“I put it there.”

“What for?”

“To take the place of the precious stone which Maguennoc sneaked, the one which burnt him and obliged him to cut off his hand.”

Vorski was silent. He was nonplussed. He had no notion what to do next or how to behave towards this strange adversary.

The ancient Druid went up to him and, gently, in a fatherly voice:

“No, my lad,” he said, “you can't do without me, you see. I alone hold the key of the safe and the secret of the casket. Why do you hesitate?”

“I don't know you.”

“You baby! If I were suggesting something indelicate and incompatible with your honour, I could understand your scruples. But my offer is one of those which can't offend the nicest conscience. Well, is it a bargain? No? Not yet? But, by Teutates, what more do you want, you unbelieving Vorski? A miracle perhaps? Lord, why didn't you say so before? Miracles, forsooth: I turn 'em out thirteen to the dozen. I work a little miracle before breakfast every morning. Just think, a Druid! Miracles? Why, I've got my shop full of 'em! I can't find room to sit down for them. Where will you try first? Resurrection department? Hair-restoring department? Revelation of the future department? You can choose where you like. Look here, at what time did your thirtieth victim breathe her last?”

“How should I know?”

“Eleven fifty-two. Your excitement was so great that it stopped your watch. Look and see.”

It was ridiculous. The shock produced by excitement has no effect on the watch of the man who experiences the excitement. Nevertheless, Vorski involuntarily took out his watch: it marked eight minutes to twelve. He tried to wind it up: it was broken.

The ancient Druid, without giving him time to recover his breath and reply, went on:

“That staggers you, eh? And yet there's nothing simpler for a Druid who knows his business. A Druid sees the invisible. He does more: he makes anyone else see it if he wants to. Vorski, would you like to see something that doesn't exist? What's your name? I'm not speaking of your name Vorski, but of your real name, your governor's name.”

“Silence on that subject!” Vorski commanded. “It's a secret I've revealed to nobody.”

“Then why do you write it down?”

“I've never written it down.”

“Vorski, your father's name is written in red pencil on the fourteenth page of the little note-book you carry on you. Look and see.”

Acting mechanically, like an automaton whose movements are controlled by an alien will, Vorski took from his inside pocket a case containing a small note-book. He turned the pages till he came to the fourteenth, when he muttered, with indescribable dismay:

“Impossible! Who wrote this? And you know what's written here?”

“Do you want me to prove it to you?”

“Once more, silence! I forbid you...”

“As you please, old chap! All that I do is meant for your edification. And it's no trouble to me! Once I start working miracles, I simply can't stop. Here's another funny little trick. You carry a locket hanging from a silver chain round your shirt, don't you?”

“Yes,” said Vorski, his eyes blazing with fever.

“The locket consists of a frame, without the photograph which used to be set in it.”

“Yes, yes, a portrait of...”

“Of your mother, I know; and you lost it.”

“Yes, I lost it last year.”

“You mean you think you've lost the portrait.”

“Nonsense, the locket is empty.”

“You think the locket's empty. It's not. Look and see.”

Still moving mechanically, with his eyes starting from his head, Vorski unfastened the button of his shirt and pulled out the chain. The locket appeared. There was the portrait of a woman in a round gold frame.

“It's she, it's she,” he muttered, completely taken aback.

“Quite sure?”

“Yes.”

“Then what do you say to it all, eh? There's no fake about it, no deception. The ancient Druid's a smart chap and you're coming with him, aren't you?”

“Yes.”

Vorski was beaten. The man had subjugated him. His superstitious instincts, his inherited belief in the mysterious powers, his restless and unbalanced nature, all imposed absolute submission on him. His suspicion persisted, but did not prevent him from obeying.

“Is it far?” he asked.

“Next door, in the great hall.”

Otto and Conrad had been the astounded witnesses of this dialogue. Conrad tried to protest. But Vorski silenced him:

“If you're afraid, go away. Besides,” he added, with an affectation of assurance, “besides, we shall walk with our revolvers ready. At the slightest alarm, fire.”

“Fire on me?” chuckled the ancient Druid.

“Fire on any enemy, no matter who it may be.”

“Well, you go first, Vorski.... What, won't you?”

He had brought them to the very end of the crypt, in the darkest shadow, where the lantern showed them a recess hollowed at the foot of the wall and plunging into the rocks in a downward direction.

Vorski hesitated and then entered. He had to crawl on his hands and knees in this narrow, winding passage, from which he emerged, a minute later, on the threshold of a large hall.

The other joined him.

“The hall of the God-Stone,” the ancient Druid declared, solemnly.

It was lofty and imposing, similar in shape and size to the broad walk under which it lay. The same number of upright stones, which seemed to be the columns of an immense temple, stood in the same place and formed the same rows as the menhirs on the walk overhead: stones hewn in the same uncouth way, with no regard for art or symmetry. The floor was composed of huge irregular flagstones, intersected with a network of gutters and covered with round patches of dazzling light, falling from above at some distance one from the other.

In the centre, under Maguennoc's garden, rose a platform of unmortared stones, fourteen or fifteen feet high, with sides about twenty yards long. On the top was a dolmen with two sturdy supports and a long, oval granite table.

“Is that it?” asked Vorski, in a husky voice.

Without giving a direct answer, the ancient Druid said:

“What do you think of it? They were dabs at building, those ancestors of ours! And what ingenuity they displayed! What precautions against prying eyes and profane enquiries! Do you know where the light comes from? For we are in the bowels of the island and there are no windows opening on to the sky. The light comes from the upper menhirs. They are pierced from the top to bottom with a channel which widens as it goes down and which sheds floods of light below. In the middle of the day, when the sun is shining, it's like fairyland. You, who are an artist, would shout with admiration.”

“Then that's if?” Vorski repeated.

“At any rate, it's a sacred stone, declared the ancient Druid, impassively, “since it used to overlook the place of the underground sacrifices, which were the most important of all. But there is another one underneath, which is protected by the dolmen and which you can't see from here; and that is the one on which the selected victims were offered up. The blood used to flow from the platform and along all these gutters to the cliffs and down to the sea.”

Vorski muttered, more and more excited:

“Then that's it? If so, let's go on.”

“No need to stir,” said the old man, with exasperating coolness. “It's not that one either. There's a third; and to«see that one you have only to lift your head a little.”

“Where? Are you sure?”

“Of course! Take a good look... above the upper table, yes, in the very vault which forms the ceiling and which is like a mosaic made of great flagstones.... You can twig it from here, can't you? A flagstone forming a separate oblong, long and narrow like the lower table and shaped like it.... They might be two sisters.... But there's only one good one, stamped with the trademark....”

Vorski was disappointed. He had expected a more elaborate introduction to a more mysterious hiding-place.

“Is that the God-Stone?” he asked. “Why, it has nothing particular about it.”

“From a distance, no; but wait till you see it close by. There are coloured veins in it, glittering lodes, a special grain: in short, the God-Stone. Besides, it's remarkable not so much for its substance as for its miraculous properties.”

“What are the miracles in question?” asked Vorski.

“It gives life and death, as you know, and it gives a lot of other things.”

“What sort of things?”

“Oh, hang it, you're asking me too much! I don't know anything about it.”

“How do you mean, you don't know?”

The ancient Druid leant over and, in a confidential tone:

“Listen, Vorski,” he said, “I confess that I have been boasting a bit and that my function, though of the greatest importance — keeper of the God-Stone, you know, a first-class berth — is limited by a power which in a manner of speaking is higher than my own.”

“What power?”

“Velleda's.”

Vorski eyed him with renewed uneasiness:

“Velleda?”

“Yes, or at least the woman whom I call Velleda, the last of the Druidesses: I don't know her real name.”

“Where is she?”

“Here.”

“Here?'

“Yes, on the sacrificial stone. She's asleep.”

“What, she's asleep?”

“She's been sleeping for centuries, since all time. I've never seen her other than sleeping: a chaste and peaceful slumber. Like the Sleeping Beauty, Velleda is waiting for him whom the gods have appointed to awake her; and that is...”

“Who?”

“You, Vorski, you.”

Vorski knitted his brows. What was the meaning of this improbable story and what was his impenetrable interlocutor driving at?

The ancient Druid continued:

“That seems to ruffle you! Come, there's no reason, just because your hands are red with blood and because you have thirty coffins on your mind, why you shouldn't have the right to act as Prince Charming. You're too modest, my young friend. Look here, Velleda is marvellously beautiful: I tell you, hers is a superhuman beauty. Ah, my fine fellow, you're getting excited! What? Not yet?”

Vorski hesitated. Really he was feeling the danger increase around him and rise like a swelling wave that is about to break. But the old man would not leave him alone:

“One last word, Vorski; and I'm speaking low so that your friends shan't hear me. When you wrapped your mother in her shroud, you left on her fore-finger, in obedience to her formal wish, a ring which she had always worn, a magic ring made of a large turquoise surrounded by a circle of smaller turquoises set in gold. Am I right?”

“Yes,” gasped Vorski, taken aback, “yes, you're right: but I was alone and it is a secret which nobody knew.”

“Vorski, if that ring is on Velleda's finger, will you trust me and will you believe that your mother, in her grave, appointed Velleda to receive you, that she herself might hand you the miraculous stone?”

Vorski was already walking towards the tumulus. He quickly climbed the first few steps. His head passed the level of the platform.

“Oh,” he said, staggering back, “the ring... the ring is on her finger!”

Between the two supports of the dolmen, stretched on the sacrificial table and clad in a spotless gown that came down to her feet, lay the Druidess. Her body and face were turned the other way; and a veil hanging over her forehead hid her hair. Almost bare, her shapely arm lay along the table. On the forefinger was a turquoise ring.

“Is that your mother's ring all right?” asked the ancient Druid.

“Yes, there's no doubt about it.”

Vorski had hurried across the space between himself and the dolmen and, stooping, almost kneeling, was examining the turquoises.

“The number is complete,” he whispered. “One of them is cracked. Another is half covered by the gold setting which has worked down over it.”

“You needn't be so cautious,” said the old man. “She won't hear you; and your voice can't wake her. What you had better do is to stand up and pass your hand lightly over her forehead. That is the magic caress which will rouse her from her slumber.”

Vorski stood up. Nevertheless he hesitated to approach the woman, who inspired him with ungovernable fear and respect.

“Don't come any nearer, you two,” said the ancient Druid, addressing Otto and Conrad. “When Velleda's eyes open, they must rest on no one but Vorski and behold no other sight. Well, Vorski, are you afraid?”

“No, I'm not afraid.”

“Only you're not feeling comfortable. It's easier to murder people than to bring them to life, what? Come, show yourself a man! Put aside her veil and touch her forehead. The God-Stone is within your reach. Act and you will be the master of the world.”

Vorski acted. Standing against the sacrificial altar, he looked down upon the Druidess. He bent over the motionless bust. The white gown rose and fell to the regular rhythm of the breathing. With an undecided hand he drew back the veil and then stooped lower, so that his other hand might touch the uncovered forehead.

But at that moment his action remained, so to speak, suspended and he stood without moving, like a man who does not understand but is vainly trying to understand.

“Well, what's up, old chap?” exclaimed the Druid. “You look petrified. Another squabble? Something gone wrong? Must I come and help you?”

Vorski did not answer. He was staring wildly, with an expression of stupefaction and affright which gradually changed into one of mad terror. Drops of perspiration trickled over his face. His haggard eyes seemed to be gazing upon the most horrible vision.

The old man burst out laughing:

“Lord love us, how ugly you are! I hope the last of the Druidesses won't raise her divine eyelids and see that hideous mug of yours! Sleep, Velleda, sleep your pure and dreamless sleep.”

Vorski stood muttering between his teeth incoherent words which conveyed the menace of an increasing anger. The truth became partly revealed to him in a series of flashes. A word rose to his lips which he refused to utter, as though, in uttering it, he feared lest he should give life to a being who was no more, to that woman who was dead, yes, dead though she lay breathing before him: she could not but be dead, because he had killed her. However, in the end and in spite of himself, he spoke; and every syllable cost him intolerable suffering:

“Veronique.... Veronique....”

“So you think she's like her?” chuckled the ancient Druid. “Upon my word, may be you are right: there is a sort of family resemblance.... I dare say, if you hadn't crucified the other with your own hands and if you hadn't yourself received her last breath, you would be ready to swear that the two women are one and the same person... and that Veronique d'Hergemont is alive and that she's not even wounded... not even a scar... not so much as the mark of the cords round her wrists.... But just look, Vorski, what a peaceful face, what comforting serenity! Upon my word, I'm beginning to believe that you made a mistake and that it was another woman you crucified! Just think a bit!... Hullo, you're going to go for me now! Come to my rescue, O Teutates! The prophet wants to have my blood!”

Vorski had drawn himself up and was now facing the ancient Druid. His features, fashioned for hatred and fury, had surely never expressed more of either than at this moment. The ancient Druid was not merely the man who for an hour had been toying with him as with a child. He was the man who had performed the most extraordinary feat and who suddenly appeared to him as the most ruthless and dangerous foe. A man like that must be got rid of on the spot, since the opportunity presented itself.

“I'm done!” said the old man. “He's going to eat me up! Crikey, what an ogre!... Help! Murder! Help!... Oh, look at his iron fingers! He's going to strangle me!... Unless he uses a dagger... or a rope.... No, a revolver! I prefer that, it's neater.... Fire away, Alexis. Two of the seven bullets have already made holes in my best Sunday robe. That leaves five. Fire away, Alexis.”

Each word aggravated Vorski's fury. He was eager to get the work over and he shouted:

“Otto... Conrad... are you ready?”

He raised his arm. The two assistants likewise took aim. Four paces in front of them stood the old man, laughingly pleading for mercy:

“Please, kind gentlemen, have pity on a poor beggar.... I won't do it again.... I'll be a good boy.... Kind gentlemen, please....”

Vorski repeated:

“Otto... Conrad... attention!... I'm counting three: one... two... three... fire!”

The three shots rang out together. The Druid whirled round with one leg in the air, then drew himself up straight, opposite his adversaries, and cried, in a tragic voice:

“A hit, a palpable hit! Shot through the body! Dead, for a ducat!... The ancient Druid's kaput!... A tragic development! Oh, the poor old Druid, who was so fond of his joke!”

“Fire!” roared Vorski. “Shoot, can't you, you idiots? Fire!”

“Fire! Fire!” repeated the Druid. “Bang! Bang! A bull's eye!... Two!... Three bull's eyes!... Your shot, Conrad: bang!... Yours, Otto: bang!”

The shots rattled and echoed through the great resounding hall. The bewildered and furious accomplices were gesticulating before their target, while the invulnerable old man danced and kicked, now almost squatting on his heels, now leaping up with astounding agility:

“Lord, what fun one can have in a cave! And what a fool you are, Vorski, my own! You blooming old prophet!... What a mug! But, I say, however could you take it all in? The Bengal lights! The crackers! And the trouser-button! And your old mother's ring!... You silly juggins! What a spoof!”

Vorski stopped. He realized that the three revolvers had been made harmless, but how? By what unprecedented marvel? What was at the bottom of all this fantastic adventure? Who was that demon standing in front of him?

He flung away his useless weapon and looked at the old man. Was he thinking of seizing him in his arms and crushing the life out of him? He also looked at the woman and seemed ready to fall upon her. But he obviously no longer felt equal to facing those two strange creatures, who appeared to him to be remote from the world and from actuality.

Then, quickly, he turned on his heel and, calling to his accomplices, made for the crypts, followed by the ancient Druid's jeers:

“Look at that now! He's slinging his hook! And the God-Stone, what about it? What do you want me to do with it?... I say, isn't he showing a clean pair of heels!... Hi! Are your trousers on fire? Yoicks, tally-ho, tally-ho! Proph — et Proph — et!...”