The Secret of Sarek/Chapter XV
CHAPTER XV. THE HALL OF THE UNDERGROUND SACRIFICES
VORSKI had never known fear and he was perhaps not yielding to an actual sense of fear in taking to flight now. But he no longer knew what he was doing. His bewildered brain was filled with a whirl of contradictory and incoherent ideas in which the intuition of an irretrievable and to some extent supernatural defeat held the first place.
Believing as he did in witchcraft and wonders, he had an impression that Vorski, the man of destiny, had fallen from his mission and been replaced by another chosen favourite of destiny. There were two miraculous forces opposed to each other, one emanating from him, Vorski, the other from the ancient Druid; and the second was absorbing the first. Veronique's resurrection, the ancient Druid's personality, the speeches, the jokes, the leaps and bounds, the actions, the invulnerability of that spring-heeled individual, all this seemed to him magical and fabulous; and it created, in these caves of the barbaric ages, a peculiar atmosphere which stifled and demoralized him.
He was eager to return to the surface of the earth. He wanted to breathe and see. And what he wanted above all to see was the tree stripped of its branches to which he had tied Veronique and on which Veronique had expired.
“For she is dead,” he snarled, as he crawled through the narrow passage which communicated with the third and largest of the crypts. “She is dead. I know what death means. I have often held it in my hands and I make no mistakes. Then how did that demon manage to bring her to life again?”
He stopped abruptly near the block on which he had picked up the sceptre:
“Unless...” he said.
Conrad, following him, cried:
“Hurry up, instead of chattering.”
Vorski allowed himself to be pulled along; but, as he went, he continued:
“Shall I tell you what I think, Conrad? Well, the woman he showed us, the one asleep, wasn't that one at all. Was she even alive? Oh, the old wizard is capable of anything! He'll have modelled a figure, a wax doll, and given it her likeness.”
“You're mad. Get on!”
“I'm not mad. That woman was not alive. The one who died on the tree is properly dead. And you'll find her again up there, I warrant you. Miracles, yes, but not such a miracle as that!”
Having left their lantern behind them, the three accomplices kept bumping against the wall and the upright stones. Their footsteps echoed from vault to vault. Conrad never ceased grumbling:
“I warned you.... We ought to have broken his head.”
Otto, out of breath with walking, said nothing.
Thus, groping their way, they reached the lobby which preceded the entrance-crypt; and they were not a little surprised to find that this first hall was dark, though the passage which they had dug in the upper part, under the roots of the dead oak, ought to have given a certain amount of light.
“That's funny,” said Conrad.
“Pooh!” said Otto. “We've only got to find the ladder hooked to the wall. Here, I have it... here's a step... and the next....”
He climbed the rungs, but was pulled up almost at once:
“Can't get any farther.... It's as if there had been a fall of earth.”
“Impossible!” Vorski protested. “However, wait a bit, I was forgetting: I have my pocket-lighter.”
He struck a light; and the same cry of anger escaped all three of them: the whole of the top of the staircase and half the room was buried under a heap of stones and sand, with the trunk of the dead oak fallen in the middle. Not a chance of escape remained.
Vorski gave way to a fit of despair and collapsed on the stairs:
“We're tricked. It's that old brute who has played us this trick... which shows that he's not alone.”
He bewailed his fate, raving, lacking the strength to continue the unequal struggle. But Conrad grew angry:
“I say, Vorski, this isn't like you, you know.”
“There's nothing to be done against that fellow.”
“Nothing to be done! In the first place, there's this, as I've told you twenty times: wring his neck. Oh, why did I restrain myself?”
“You couldn't even have laid a hand on him. Did any of our bullets touch him?”
“Our bullets... our bullets,” muttered Conrad. “All this strikes me as mighty queer. Hand me your lighter. I have another revolver, which comes from the Priory: and I loaded it myself yesterday morning. I'll soon see.”
He examined the weapon and was not long in discovering that the seven cartridges which he had put in the cylinder had been replaced by seven cartridges from which the bullets had been extracted and which could therefore fire nothing except blank shots.
“That explains it,” he said, “and your ancient Druid is no more of a wizard than I am. If our revolvers had been really loaded, we'd have shot him down like a dog.”
But the explanation only increased Vorski's alarm:
“And how did he unload them? At what moment did he manage to take our revolvers from our pockets and put them back after drawing the charges? I did not leave go of mine for an instant.”
“No more did I,” Conrad admitted.
“And I defy any one to touch it without my knowing. So what then? Doesn't it prove that that demon has a special power? After all, “we must look at things as they are. He's a man who possesses secrets of his own... and who has means at his disposal, means which...”
Conrad shrugged his shoulders:
“Vorski, this business has shattered you. You were within reach of the goal and yet you let go at the first obstacle. You're turned into a dish-cloth. Well, I don't bow my head like you. Tricked? Why so? If he comes after us, there are three of us.”
“He won't come. He'll leave us here shut up in a burrow with no way out of it.”
“Then, if he doesn't come, I'll go back there, I will! I've got my knife; that's enough for me.”
“You're wrong, Conrad.”
“How am I wrong? I'm a match for any man, especially for that old blighter; and he's only got a sleeping woman to help him.”
“Conrad, he's not a man and she's not a woman. Be careful.”
“I'm careful and I'm going.”
“You're going, you're going; but what's your plan?”
“I've no plan. Or rather, if I have, it's to out that beggar.”
“All the same, mind what you're doing. Don't go for him bull-headed; try to take him by surprise.
“Well, of course!” said Conrad, moving away. “I'm not ass enough to risk his attacks. Be easy. I've got the bounder!”
Conrad's daring comforted Vorski.
“After all,” he said, when his accomplice was gone, “he's right. If that old Druid didn't come after us, it's because he's got other ideas in his head. He certainly doesn't expect us to return on the offensive; and Conrad can very well take him by surprise. What do you say, Otto?”
Otto shared his opinion:
“He has only to bide his time,” he replied.
Fifteen minutes passed. Vorski gradually recovered his assurance. He had yielded to the reaction, after an excess of hope followed by disappointment too great for him to bear and also because of the weariness and depression produced by his drinking-bout. But the fighting spirit stimulated him once more; and he was anxious to have done with his adversary.
“I shouldn't be surprised,” he said, “if Conrad had finished him off by now.”
By this time he had acquired an exaggerated confidence which proved his unbalanced state of mind; and he wanted to go back again at once.
“Come along, Otto, it's the last trip. An old beggar to get rid of; and the thing's done. You've got your dagger? Besides, it won't be wanted. My two hands will do the trick.”
“And suppose that blasted Druid has friends?”
He once more went towards the crypts, moving cautiously and watching the opening of the passages which led from one to the other. No sound reached their ears. The light in the third crypt showed them the way.
“Conrad must have succeeded,” Vorski observed, “If not, he would have shirked the fight and come back to us.”
“It's a good sign, of course, that we don't see him. The ancient Druid must have had a bad time of it. Conrad is a scorcher.”
They entered the third crypt. Things were in the places where they had left them: the sceptre on the block and the pommel, which Vorski had unfastened, a little way off, on the ground. But, when he cast his eyes towards the shadowy recess where the ancient Druid was sleeping when they first arrived, he was astounded to see the old fellow, not exactly at the same place, but between the recess and the exit to the passage.
“Hang it, what's he doing?” he stammered, at once upset by that unexpected presence. “One would think he was asleep!”
The ancient Druid, in fact, appeared to be asleep. Only, why on earth was he sleeping in that attitude, flat on his stomach, with his arms stretched out on either side and his face to the floor? No man on his guard, or at least aware that he was in some sort of danger, would expose himself in this way to the enemy's attack. Moreover — Vorski's eyes were gradually growing accustomed to the half-darkness of the end crypt — moreover the white robe was marked with stains which looked red, which undoubtedly were red. What did it mean?
Otto said, in a low voice:
“He's lying in a queer attitude.”
Vorski was thinking the same thing and put it more plainly:
“Yes, the attitude of a corpse.”
“The attitude of a corpse,” Otto agreed “That's it, exactly.”
Vorski presently fell back a step:
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “can it be?”
“What?” asked the other.
“Between the two shoulders.... Look.”
“Conrad's,” Vorski declared. “Conrad's dagger. I recognise it. Driven in between the shoulders.” And he added, with a shudder, “That's where the red stains come from.... It's blood... blood flowing from the wound.”
“In that case,” Otto remarked, “he is dead?”
“He's dead, yes, the ancient Druid is dead.... Conrad must have surprised him and killed him.... The ancient Druid is dead.”
Vorski remained undecided for a while, ready to fall upon the lifeless body and to stab it in his turn. But he dared no more touch it now that it was dead than when it was alive; and all that he had the courage to do was to run and wrench the dagger from the wound.
“Ah,” he cried, “you scoundrel, you've got what you deserve! And Conrad is a champion. I shan't forget you, Conrad, be sure of that.”
“Where can Conrad be?”
“In the hall of the God-Stone. Ah, Otto, I'm itching to get back to the woman whom the ancient Druid put there and to settle her hash too!”
“Then you believe that she's a live woman?” chuckled Otto.
“And very much alive at that... like the ancient Druid! That wizard was only a fake, with a few tricks of his own, perhaps, but no real power. There's the proof!”
“A fake, if you like,” the accomplice objected. “But, all the same, he showed you by his signals the way to enter these caves. Now what was his object in that? And what was he doing here? Did he really know the secret of the God-Stone, the way to get possession of it and exactly where it is?”
“You're right. It's all so many riddles,” said Vorski, who preferred not to examine the details of the adventure too closely. “But it's so many riddles which'll answer themselves and which I'm not troubling about for the moment, because it's no longer that creepy individual who's putting them to me.”
For the third time they went through the narrow communicating passage. Vorski entered the great hall like a conqueror, with his head high and a confident glance. There was no longer any obstacle, no longer any enemy to overcome. Whether the God-Stone was suspended between the stones of the ceiling, or whether the God-Stone was elsewhere, he was sure to discover it. There remained the mysterious woman who looked like Veronique, but who could not be Veronique and whose real identity he was about to unmask.
“Always presuming that she's still there,” he muttered. “And I very much suspect that she's gone. She played her part in the ancient Druid's obscure schemes: and the ancient Druid, thinking me out of the way...”
He stepped forward and climbed a few steps.
The woman was there. She was there, lying on the lower table of the dolmen, shrouded in veils as before. The arm no longer hung towards the ground. There was only the hand emerging from the veils. The turquoise ring was on the finger.
“She hasn't moved,” said Otto. “She's still asleep.”
“Perhaps she is asleep,” said Vorski. “I'll watch her. Leave me alone.”
He went nearer. He still had Conrad's dagger in his hand: and perhaps it was this that suggested killing to him, for his eyes fell upon the weapon and it was not till then that he seemed to realise that he was carrying it and that he might make use of it.
He was not more than three paces from the woman, when he perceived that the wrist which was uncovered was all bruised and as it were mottled with black patches, which evidently came from the cords with which she had been bound. Now the ancient Druid had remarked, an hour ago, that the wrists showed no signs of a bruise!
This detail confounded him anew, first, because it proved to him that this was really the woman whom he had crucified, who had been taken down and who was now before his eyes and, secondly, because he was suddenly reentering the domain of miracles; and Veronique's arm appeared to him, alternately, under two different aspects, as the arm of a living, uninjured woman and as the arm of a lifeless, tortured victim.
His trembling hand clutched the dagger, clinging to it, in a manner of speaking, as the only instrument of salvation. Once more in his confused brain the idea arose of striking, not to kill, because the woman must be dead, but of striking the invisible enemy who persisted in thwarting him and of conjuring all the evil spells at one blow.
He raised his arm. He chose the spot. His face assumed an expression of extreme savagery, lit up with the joy of murder. And suddenly he swooped down, striking, like a madman, at random, ten times, twenty times, with a frenzied unbridling of all his instincts.
“Take that and die!” he spluttered. “Another!... Die!... And let's have an end of this.... You are the evil genius that's been resisting me... and now I'm killing you.... Die and leave me free!... Die so that I shall be the only master!”
He stopped to take breath. He was exhausted. And while his haggard eyes stared blindly at the horrible spectacle of the lacerated corpse, he received the strange impression that a shadow was placing itself between him and the sunlight which came through the opening overhead.
“Do you know what you remind me of?” said a voice.
He was dumbfounded. The voice was not Otto's voice. And the voice continued, while he stood with his head lowered and stupidly holding his dagger planted in the dead woman's body:
“Do you know what you remind me of, Vorski? You remind me of the bulls of my country. Let me tell you that I am a Spaniard and a great frequenter of the bull-ring. Well, when our bulls have gored some poor old cab-horse that is only fit for the knacker's yard, they go back to the body, from time to time, turn it over, gore it again, keep on killing it and killing it. You're like them, Vorski, You're seeing red. In order to defend yourself against the living enemy, you fall desperately on the enemy who is no longer alive; and it is death itself that you are trying to kill. What a silly beast you're making of yourself!”
Vorski raised his head. A man was standing in front of him, leaning against one of the uprights of the dolmen. The man was of the average height, with a slender, well-built figure, and seemed to be still young, notwithstanding his hair, which was turning grey at the temples. He wore a blue-serge jacket with brass buttons and a yachting-cap with a black peak.
“Don't trouble to rack your brains,” he said. “You don't know me. Let me introduce myself: Don Luis Perenna, grandee of Spain, a noble of many countries and Prince of Sarek. Yes, don't be surprised: I've taken the title of Prince of Sarek, having a certain right to it.”
Vorski looked at him without understanding. The man continued:
“You don't seem very familiar with the Spanish nobility. Still, just test your memory: I am the gentleman who was to come to the rescue of the d'Hergemont family and the people of Sarek, the one whom your son Francois was expecting with such simple faith.... Well, are you there?... Look, your companion, the trusty Otto, he seems to remember!... But perhaps my other name will convey more to you? It is well and favourably known. Lupin.... Arsene Lupin....”
Vorski watched him with increasing terror and with a misgiving which became more accentuated at each word and movement of this new adversary. Though he recognized neither the man nor the man's voice, he felt himself dominated by a will of which he had already felt the power and lashed by the same sort of implacable irony. But was it possible?
“Everything is possible,” Don Luis Perenna went on, “including even what you think. But I repeat, what a silly beast you're making of yourself! Here are you playing the bold highwayman, the dashing adventurer; and you're frightened the moment you set eyes on one of your crimes! As long as it was just a matter of happy-go-lucky killing, you went straight ahead. But the first little jolt throws you off the track. Vorski kills; but whom has he killed? He has no idea. Is Veronique d'Hergemont dead or alive? Is she fastened to the oak on which you crucified her? Or is she lying here, on the sacrificial table? Did you kill her up there or down here? You can't tell. You never even thought, before you stabbed, of looking to see what you were stabbing. The great thing for you is to slash away with all your might, to intoxicate yourself with the sight and smell of blood and to turn live flesh into a hideous pulp. But look, can't you, you idiot? When a man kills, he's not afraid of killing and he doesn't hide the face of his victim. Look, you idiot!”
He himself stopped over the corpse and unwrapped the veil around the head.
Vorski had closed his eyes. Kneeling, with his chest pressed against the dead woman's legs, he remained without moving and kept his eyes obstinately shut.
“Are you there now?” chuckled Don Luis. “If you daren't look, it's because you've guessed or because you're on the point of guessing, you wretch: am I right? Your idiot brain is working it out: am I right? There were two women in the Isle of Sarek and two only, Veronique and the other... the other whose name was Elfride, I understand: am I right? Elfride and Veronique, your two wives, one the mother of Raynold, the other the mother of Francois. So, if it's not Francois' mother whom you tied on the cross and whom you've just stabbed, then it's Raynold's mother. If the woman lying here, with her wrists bruised by the torture, is not Veronique, then she's Elfride. There's no mistake possible; Elfride, your wife and your accomplice; Elfride, your willing and subservient tool. And you know it so well that you would rather take my word for it than risk a glance and see the livid face of that dead woman, of your obedient accomplice tortured by yourself. You miserable poltroon!”
Vorski had hidden his head in his folded arms. He was not weeping. Vorski could not weep. Nevertheless, his shoulders were jerking convulsively; and his whole attitude expressed the wildest despair.
This lasted for some time. Then the shaking of the shoulders ceased. Still Vorski did not stir.
“Upon my word, you move me to pity, you poor old buffer!” said Don Luis. “Were you so fond of your Elfride as all that? She had become a habit, what? A mascot? Well, what can I say? People as a rule aren't such fools as you! They know what they're doing. They look before they leap! Hang it all, they stop to think! Whereas you go floundering about in crime like a new-born babe struggling in the water! No wonder you sink and go to the bottom.... The ancient Druid, for instance: is he dead or alive? Did Conrad stick a dagger into his back, or was I playing the part of that diabolical personage? In short, are there an ancient Druid and a Spanish grandee, or are the two individuals one and the same? This is all a sealed book to you, my poor fellow. And yet you'll want an explanation. Shall I help you?”
If Vorski had acted without thinking, it was easy to see, when he raised his head, that on this occasion he had taken time to reflect; that he knew very well the desperate resolve which circumstances called upon him to take. He was certainly ready for an explanation, as Don Luis suggested, but he wanted it dagger in hand, with the implacable intention of using it. Slowly, with his eyes fixed on Don Luis and without concealing his purpose, he had freed his weapon and was rising to his feet.
“Take care,” said Don Luis. “Your knife is faked as your revolver was. It's made of tin-foil.”
Useless pleasantry! Nothing could either hasten or delay the methodical impulse which urged Vorski to the supreme contest. He walked round the sacred table and took up his stand in front of Don Luis.
“You're sure it's you who have been thwarting all my plans these last few days?”
“The last twenty-four hours, no longer. I arrived at Sarek twenty-four hours ago.”
“And you're determined to go on to the end?”
“Yes; and farther still, if possible.”
“Why? And in what capacity?”
“As a sportsman; and because you fill me with disgust.”
“So there's no arrangement to be made?”
“Would you refuse to go shares with me?”
“Ah, now you're talking!”
“You can have half, if you like.”
“I'd rather have the lot.”
“Meaning that the God-Stone...”
“The God-Stone belongs to me.”
Further speech was idle. An adversary of that quality has to be made away with; if not, he makes away with you. Vorski had to choose between the two endings; there was not a third.
Don Luis remained impassive, leaning against the pillar. Vorski towered a head above him: and at the same time Vorski had the profound impression that he was equally Don Luis' superior in every other respect, in strength, muscular power and weight. In these conditions, there was no need to hesitate. Moreover, it seemed out of the question that Don Luis could even attempt to defend himself or to evade the blow before the dagger fell. His parry was bound to come late unless he moved at once. And he did not move. Vorski therefore struck his blow with all certainty, as one strikes a quarry that is doomed beforehand.
And yet — it all happened so quickly and so inexplicably that he could not tell what occurred to bring about his defeat — and yet, three or four seconds later, he was lying on the ground, disarmed, defeated, with his two legs feeling as though they had been broken with a stick and his right arm hanging limp and paining him till he cried out.
Don Luis did not even trouble to bind him. With one foot on the big, helpless body, half-bending over his adversary, he said:
“For the moment, no speeches. I'm keeping one in reserve for you. It'll strike you as a bit long, but it'll show you that I understand the whole business from start to finish, that is to say, much better than you do. There's one doubtful point: and you're going to clear it up. Where's your son Francois d'Hergemont?”
Receiving no reply, he repeated:
“Where's Francois d'Hergemont?”
Vorski no doubt considered that chance had placed an unexpected trump in his hands and that the game was perhaps not absolutely lost, for he maintained an obstinate silence.
“You refuse to answer?” asked Don Luis. “One... two... three times: do you refuse?... Very well!”
He gave a low whistle.
Four men appeared from a corner of the hall, four men with swarthy faces, resembling Moors. Like Don Luis, they wore jackets and sailor's caps with shiny peaks.
A fifth person arrived almost immediately afterwards, a wounded French officer, who had lost his right leg and wore a wooden leg in its place.
“Ah, is that you, Patrice?” said Don Luis.
He introduced him formally:
“Captain Patrice Belval, my greatest friend; Mr. Vorski, a Hun.”
Then he asked:
“No news, captain? You haven't found Francois?”
“We shall have found him in an hour and then we'll be off. Are all our men on board?”
“Everything all right there?”
He turned to the three Moors:
“Pick up the Hun,” he ordered, “and carry him up to the dolmen outside. You needn't bind him: he couldn't move a limb if he tried. Oh, one minute!”
He leant over Vorski's ear:
“Before you start, have a good look at the God-Stone, between the flags in the ceiling. The ancient Druid wasn't lying to you. It is the miraculous stone which people have been seeking for centuries... and which I discovered from a distance... by correspondence. Say good-bye to it, Vorski! You will never see it again, if indeed you are ever to see anything in this world.”
He made a sign with his hand.
The four Moors briskly took up Vorski and carried him to the back of the hall, on the side opposite the communicating passage.
Turning to Otto, who had stood throughout this scene without moving:
“I see that you're a reasonable fellow, Otto, and that you understand the position. You won't get up to any tricks?”
“Then we shan't touch you. You can come along without fear.”
He slipped his arm through Belval's and the two walked away, talking.
They left the hall of the God-Stone through a series of three crypts, each of which was on a higher level than the one before. The last of them also led to a vestibule. At the far side of the vestibule, a ladder stood against a lightly-built wall in which an opening had been newly made. Through this they emerged into the open air, in the middle of a steep path, cut into steps, which wound about as it climbed upwards in the rock and which brought them to that part of the cliff to which Francois had taken Veronique on the previous morning. It was the Postern path. From above they saw, hanging from two iron davits, the boat in which Veronique and her son had intended to take flight. Not far away, in a little bay, was the long, tapering outline of a submarine.
Turning their backs to the sea, Don Luis and Patrice Belval continued on their way towards the semicircle of oaks and stopped near the Fairies' Dolmen, where the Moors were waiting for them. They had set Vorski down at the foot of the tree on which his last victim had died. Nothing remained on the tree to bear witness to the abominable torture except the inscription, “V. d'H.”
“Not too tired, Vorski?” asked Don Luis. “Legs feeling better?”
Vorski gave a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.
“Yes, I know,” said Don Luis. “You're pinning your faith to your last card. Still, I would have you know that I also hold a few trumps and that I have a rather artistic way of playing them. The tree behind you should be more than enough to tell you so. Would you like another instance? While you're getting muddled with all your murders and are no longer sure of the number of your victims, I bring them to life again. Look at that man coming from the Priory. Do you see him? He's wearing a blue reefer with brass buttons, like myself. He's one of your dead men, isn't he? You locked him up in one of the torture-chambers, intending to cast him into the sea; and it was your sweet cherub of a Raynold who hurled him down before Veronique's eyes. Do you remember? Stephane Maroux his name was. He's dead, isn't he? No, not a bit of it! A wave of my magic wand; and he's alive again. Here he is. I take him by the hand. I speak to him.”
Going up to the newcomer, he shook hands with him and said:
“You see, Stephane? I told you that it would be all over at twelve o'clock precisely and that we should meet at the dolmen. Well, it is twelve o'clock precisely.”
Stephane seemed in excellent health. He showed not a sign of a wound. Vorski looked at him in dismay and stammered:
“The tutor.... Stephane Maroux....”
“The man himself,” said Don Luis. “What did you expect? Here again you behaved like an idiot. The adorable Raynold and you throw a man into the sea and don't even think of leaning over to see what becomes of him. I pick him up.... And don't be too badly staggered, old chap. It's only the beginning; and I have a few more tricks in my bag. Remember, I'm a pupil of the ancient Druid's!... Well, Stephane, where do we stand? What's the result of your search?”
“Not to be found.”
“And All's Well? Did you send him on his master's tracks, as we arranged?”
“Yes, but he simply took me down the Postern path to Francois' boat.”
“There's no hiding-place on that side?”
Don Luis was silent and began to pace up and down before the dolmen. He seemed to be hesitating at the last moment, before beginning the series of actions upon which he had resolved. At last, addressing Vorski, he said:
“I have no time to waste. I must leave the island in two hours. What's your price for setting Francois free at once?”
“Francois fought a duel with Raynold,” Vorski replied, “and was beaten.”
“You lie. Francois won.”
“How do you know? Did you see them fight?”
“No, or I should have interfered. But I know who was the victor.”
“No one knows except myself. They were masked.”
“Then, if Francois is dead, it's all up with you.”
Vorski took time to think. The argument allowed of no debate. He put a question in his turn:
“Well, what do you offer me?”
“And with it?”
“Yes, the God-Stone.”
Don Luis shouted the word, accompanying it with a vehement gesture of the hand, and he explained:
“Never! Your liberty, yes, if the worst comes to the worst and because I know you and know that, denuded of all resources, you will simply go and get yourself hanged somewhere else. But the God-Stone would spell safety, wealth, the power to do evil...”
“That's exactly why I want it,” said Vorski; “and, by telling me what it's worth, you make me all the more difficult in the matter of Francois.”
“I shall find Francois all right. It's only a question of patience; and I shall stay two or three days longer, if necessary.”
“You will not find him; and, if you do, it will be too late.”
“Because he has had nothing to eat since yesterday.”
This was said coldly and maliciously. There was a silence; and Don Luis retorted:
“In that case, speak, if you don't want him to die.”
“What do I care? Anything rather than fail in my task and stop midway when I've got so far. The end is within sight: those who get in my way must look out for themselves.”
“You lie. You won't let that boy die.”
“I let the other die right enough!”
Patrice and Stephane made a movement of horror, while Don Luis laughed frankly: .”Capital! There's no hypocrisy about you, Plain and convincing arguments. By Jingo, how beautiful to see a Hun laying bare his soul! What a glorious mixture of vanity and cruelty, of cynicism and mysticism! A Hun has always a mission to fulfil, even when he's satisfied with plundering and murdering. Well, you're better than a Hun: you're a Superhun!”
And he added, still laughing:
“So I propose to treat you as Superhun. Once more, will you tell me where Francois is?”
He turned to the four Moors and said, very calmly:
“Go ahead, lads.”
It was a matter of a second. With really extraordinary precision of gesture and as though the act had been separated into a certain number of movements, learnt and rehearsed beforehand like a military drill, they picked up Vorski, fastened him to the rope which hung to the tree, hoisted him up without paying attention to his cries, his threats or his shouts and bound him firmly, as he had bound his victim.
“Howl away, old chap,” said Don Luis, serenely, “howl as much as you like! You can only wake the sisters Archignat and the others in the thirty coffins! Howl away, my lad! But, good Lord, how ugly you are! What a face!”
He took a few steps back, to appreciate the sight better:
“Excellent! You look very well there; it couldn't be better. Even the inscription fits: 'V. d'H.,' Vorski de Hohenzollern! For I presume that, as the son of a king, you are allied to that noble house. And now, Vorski, all you have to do is to lend me an attentive ear: I'm going to make you the little speech I promised you.”
Vorski was wriggling on the tree and trying to burst his bonds. But, since every effort merely served to increase his suffering, he kept still and, to vent his fury, began to swear and blaspheme most hideously and to inveigh against Don Luis:
“Robber! Murderer! It's you that are the murderer, it's you that are condemning Francois to death! Francois was wounded by his brother; it's a bad wound and may be poisoned....”
Stephane and Patrice pleaded with Don Luis. Stephane expressed his alarm:
“You can never tell,” he said. “With a monster like that, anything is possible. And suppose the boy's ill?”
“It's bunkum and blackmail!” Don Luis declared. “The boy's quite well.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well enough, in any case, to wait an hour. In an hour the Superhun will have spoken. He won't hold out any longer. Hanging loosens the tongue.”
“And suppose he doesn't hold out at all?”
“What do you mean?”
“Suppose he himself expires, from too violent an effort, heart-failure, a clot of blood to the head?”
“Well, his death would destroy the only hope we have of learning where Francois is hidden, his death would be Francois' undoing!”
But Don Luis was inflexible:
“He won't die!” he cried. “Vorski's sort doesn't die of a stroke! No, no, he'll talk, he'll talk within an hour. Just time enough to deliver my lecture.”
Patrice Belval began to laugh in spite of himself:
“Have you a lecture to deliver?”
“Rather! And such a lecture!” exclaimed Don Luis. “The whole adventure of the God-Stone! An historical treatise, a comprehensive view extending from prehistoric times to the thirty murders committed by the Superhun! By Jove, it's not every day that one has the opportunity of reading a paper like that; and I wouldn't miss it for a kingdom! Mount the platform, Don Luis, and fire away with your speech!”
He took his stand opposite Vorski:
“You lucky dog, you! You're in the front seats and you won't lose a word. I expect you're glad, eh, to have a little light thrown upon your darkness? We've been floundering about so long that it's time we had a definite lead. I assure you I'm beginning not to know where I am. Just think, a riddle which has lasted for centuries and centuries and which you've merely muddled still further.”
“Thief! Robber!” snarled Vorski.
“Insults? Why? If you're not comfortable, let's talk about Francois.”
“Never! He shall die.”
“Not at all, you'll talk. I give you leave to interrupt me. When you want me to stop, all you've got to do is to whistle a tune: 'En r'venant de la r'vue' or Tipperary. I'll at once send to see; and, if you've told the truth, we'll leave you here quietly, Otto will untie you and you can be off in Francois' boat. Is it agreed?”
He turned to Stephane and Patrice Belval:
“Sit down, my friends,” he said, “for it will take rather long. But, if I am to be eloquent, I need an audience... and an audience who will also act as judges.”
“We're only two,” said Patrice.
“Here's your third.”
It was All's Well. He came trotting along, without hurrying more than usual. He frisked round Stephane, wagged his tail to Don Luis, as though to say, “I know you: you and I are pals,” and squatted on his hind-quarters, with the air of one who does not wish to disturb people.
“That's right, All's Well!” cried Don Luis. “You also want to hear all about the adventure. Your curiosity does you honour; and I won't disappoint you.”
Don Luis appeared to be delighted. He had an audience, a full bench of judges. Vorski was writhing on his tree. It was an exquisite moment.
He cut a sort of caper which must have reminded Vorski of the ancient Druid's pirouettes and, drawing himself up, bowed, imitated a lecturer taking a sip of water from a tumbler, rested his hands on an imaginary table and at last began, in a deliberate voice:
“Ladies and Gentlemen:
“On the twenty-fifth of July, in the year seven hundred and thirty-two B. C....”