The Secret of Sarek/Chapter XVI

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The Secret of Sarek by Maurice Leblanc, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Chapter XVI. The Hall of the Kings of Bohemia


DON LUIS interrupted himself after delivering his opening sentence and stood enjoying the effect produced. Captain Belval, who knew his friend, was laughing heartily. Stephane continued to look anxious. All's Well had not budged.

Don Luis continued:

“Let me begin by confessing, ladies and gentlemen, that my object in fixing my date so precisely was to some extent to stagger you. In reality I could not tell you within a few centuries the exact date of the scene which I shall have the honour of describing to you. But what I can guarantee is that it is laid in that country of Europe which to-day we call Bohemia and at the spot where the little industrial town of Joachimsthal now stands. That, I hope, is fairly circumstantial. Well, on the morning of the day when my story begins, there was great excitement among one of those Celtic tribes which had settled a century or two earlier between the banks of the Danube and the sources of the Elbe, amidst the Hyrcanian forests. The warriors, assisted by their wives, were striking their tents, collecting the sacred axes, the bows and arrows, gathering up the pottery, the bronze and tin implements, loading the horses and the oxen.

“The chiefs were here, there and everywhere, attending to the smallest details. There was neither tumult nor disorder. They started early in the direction of a tributary of the Elbe, the Eger, which they reached towards the end of the day. Here boats were waiting, guarded by a hundred of the picked warriors who had been sent ahead. One of these boats was conspicuous for its size and the richness of its decoration. A long yellow cloth was stretched from side to side. The chief of chiefs, the King, if you prefer, climbed on the stern thwart and made a speech which I will spare you, because I do not wish to shorten my own, but which may be summed up as follows: the tribe was emigrating to escape the cupidity of the neighbouring populations. It is always sad to leave the places where one has dwelt. But it made no difference to the men of the tribe, because they were carrying with them their most valuable possession, the sacred inheritance of their ancestors, the divinity that protected them and made them formidable and great among the greatest, in short, the stone that covered the tomb of their kings.

“And the chief of chiefs, with a solemn gesture, drew the yellow cloth and revealed a block of granite in the shape of a slab about two yards by one, granular in appearance and dark in colour, with a few glittering scales gleaming in its substance.

“There was a single shout raised by the crowd of men and women; and all, with outstretched arms, fell flat on their faces in the dust.

“Then the chief of chiefs took up a metal sceptre with a jewelled handle, which lay on the block of granite, brandished it on high and spoke:

“'The all-powerful staff shall not leave my hand until the miraculous stone is in a place of safety. The all-powerful staff is born of the miraculous stone. It also contains the fire of heaven, which gives life or death. While the miraculous stone was the tomb of my forefathers, the all-powerful staff never left their hands cm days of disaster or of victory. May the fire of heaven lead us! May the Sun-god light our way!'

“He spoke: and the whole tribe set out upon its journey.”

Don Luis struck an attitude and repeated, in a self-satisfied tone:

“He spoke: and the whole tribe set out upon its journey.”

Patrice Belval was greatly amused; and Stephane, infected by his hilarity, began to feel more cheerful. But Don Luis now addressed his remarks to them:

“There's nothing to laugh at! All this is very serious. It's not a story for children who believe in conjuring tricks and sleight of hand, but a real history, all the details of which will, as you shall see, give rise to precise, natural and, in a sense, scientific explanations. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, scientific: I am not afraid of the word. We are here on scientific ground; and Vorski himself will regret his cynical merriment.”'

Don Luis took a second sip of water and continued:

“For weeks and months the tribe followed the course of the Elbe; and one evening, on the stroke of half-past nine, reached the sea-board, in the country which afterwards became the country of the Frisians. It remained there for weeks and months, without finding the requisite security. It therefore determined upon a fresh exodus.

“This time it was a naval exodus. Thirty boats put out to sea — observe this number thirty, which was that of the families composing the tribe — and for weeks and months they wandered from shore to shore, settling first in Scandinavia, next among the Saxons, driven off, putting to sea again and continuing their voyage. And I assure you it was really a strange, moving, impressive sight to see this vagrant tribe dragging in its wake the tombstone of its kings and seeking a safe, inaccessible and final refuge in which to conceal its idol, protect it from the attack of its enemies, celebrate its worship and employ it to consolidate the tribal power.

“The last stage was Ireland; and it was here that, one day, after they had dwelt in the green isle for half a century or perhaps a century, after their manners had acquired a certain softening by contact with nations which were already less barbarous, the grandson or great-grandson of the great chief, himself a great chief, received one of the emissaries whom he maintained in the neighbouring countries. This one came from the continent. He had discovered the miraculous refuge. It was an almost unapproachable island, protected by thirty rocks and having thirty granite monuments to guard it.

“Thirty! The fateful number! It was an obvious summons and command from the mysterious deities. The thirty galleys were launched once more and the expedition set forth.

“It succeeded. They took the island by assault. The natives they simply exterminated. The tribe settled down; and the tombstone of the Kings of Bohemia was installed... in the very place which it occupies to-day and which I showed to our friend Vorski. Here I must interpolate a few historical data of the greatest significance. I will be brief.”

Adopting a professorial tone, Don Luis explained:

“The island of Sarek, like all France and all the western part of Europe, had been inhabited for thousands of years by a race known as the Liguri, the direct descendants of the cave-dwellers, part of whose manners and customs they had retained. They were mighty builders, those Liguri, who, in the neolithic period, perhaps under the influence of the great civilizations of the east, had erected their huge blocks of granite and built their colossal funeral chambers.

“It was here that our tribe found and made great use of a system of caves and natural crypts adapted by the patient hand of man and of a cluster of enormous monuments which struck the mystic and superstitious imagination of the Celts.

“We find therefore that, after the first or wandering phase, there begins for the God-Stone a period of rest and worship which we will call the Druidical period. It lasted for a thousand or fifteen hundred years. The tribe became mingled with the neighbouring tribes and probably lived under the protection of some Breton king. But, little by little, the ascendancy had passed from the chiefs to the priests; and these priests, that is to say, the Druids, assumed an authority which increased in the course of the generations that followed.

“They owed this authority, beyond all doubt, to the miraculous stone. True, they were the priests of a religion accepted by all and also the instructors of Gallic childhood (it seems certain, incidentally, that the cells under the Black Heath were those of a Druid convent, or rather a sort of university); true, in obedience to the practices of the time, they presided over human sacrifices and ordained the gathering of the mistletoe, the vervain and all the magic herbs; but, before all, in the island of Sarek, they were the guardians and the possessors of the stone which gave life or death. Placed above the hall of the underground sacrifices, it was at that time undoubtedly visible in the open air; and I have every reason to believe that the Fairies' Dolmen, which we now see here, then stood in the place known as the Calvary of the Flowers and sheltered the God-Stone. It was there that ailing and crippled persons and sickly children were laid to recover their health and strength. It was on the sacred slab that barren women became fruitful, on the sacred slab that old men felt their energies revive.

“In my eyes it dominates the whole of the legendary and fabled past of Brittany. It is the radiating centre of all the superstitions, all the beliefs, all the fears and hopes of the country. By virtue of the stone or of the magic sceptre which the archdruid wielded and with which he burnt men's flesh or healed their sores at will, we see the beautiful tales of romance springing spontaneously into being, tales of the knights of the Round Table, tales of Merlin the wizard. The stone is at the bottom of every mystery, at the heart of every symbol. It is darkness and light in one, the great riddle and the great explanation.”

Don Luis uttered these last words with a certain exaltation. He smiled:

“Don't let yourself be carried away, Vorski. We'll keep our enthusiasm for the narrative of your crimes. For the moment, we are at the climax of the Druidical period, a period which lasted far beyond the Druids through long centuries during which, after the Druids had gone, the miraculous stone was exploited by the sorcerers and soothsayers. And thus we come gradually to the third period, the religious period, that is to say, actually to the progressive decline of all that constituted the glory of Sarek: pilgrimages, commemorative festivals and so forth.

“The Church in fact was unable to put up with that crude fetish-worship. As soon as she was strong enough, she was bound to fight against the block of granite which attracted so many believers and perpetuated so hateful a religion. The fight was an unequal one; and the past succumbed. The dolmen was moved to where we stand, the slab of the kings of Bohemia was buried under a layer of earth and a Calvary rose at the very spot where the sacrilegious miracles were once wrought.

“And, over and above that, there was the great oblivion!

“Let me explain. The practices were forgotten. The rites were forgotten and all that constituted the history of a vanished cult. But the God-Stone was not forgotten. Men no longer knew where it was. In time they even no longer knew what it was. But they never ceased to speak of and believe in the existence of something which they called the God-Stone. From mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, they handed down on to one another fabulous and terrible stories, which became farther and farther removed from reality, which formed a more and more vague and, for that matter, a more and more frightful legend, but which kept alive in their imaginations the recollection of the God-Stone and, above all, its name.

“This persistence of an idea in men's memories, this survival of a fact in the annals of a country had the logical result that, from time to time, some enquiring person would try to reconstruct the prodigious truth. Two of these enquiring persons, Brother Thomas, a member of the Benedictine Order, who lived in the middle of the fifteenth century, and the man Maguennoc, in our own time, played an important part. Brother Thomas was a poet and an illuminator about whom we possess not many details, a very bad poet, to judge by his verses, but as an illuminator ingenuous and not devoid of talent. He left a sort of missal in which he related his life at Sarek Abbey and drew the thirty dolmens of the island, the whole accompanied by instances, religious quotations and predictions after the manner of Nostradamus. It was this missal, discovered by Maguennoc aforesaid, that contained the famous page with the crucified women and the prophecy relating to Sarek; it was this missal that I myself found and consulted last night in Maguennoc's bedroom.

“He was an odd person, this Maguennoc, a belated descendant of the sorcerers of old; and I strongly suspect him of playing the ghost on more than one occasion. You may be sure that the white-robed, white-bearded Druid whom people declared that they had seen on the sixth day of the moon, gathering the mistletoe, was none other than Maguennoc. He too knew all about the good old recipes, the healing herbs, the way to work up the soil so as to make it yield enormous flowers. One thing is certain, that he explored the mortuary crypts and the hall of the sacrifices, that it was he who purloined the magic stone contained in the knob of the sceptre and that he used to enter these crypts by the opening through which we have just come, in the middle of the Postern path, of which he was obliged each time to replace the screen of stones and pebbles. It was he also who gave M. d'Hergemont the page from the missal. Whether he confided the result of his last explorations to him and how much exactly M. d'Hergemont knew does not matter now. Another figure looms into sight, one who is henceforth the embodiment of the whole affair and claims all our attention, an emissary dispatched by fate to solve the riddle of the centuries, to carry out the orders of the mysterious powers and to pocket the God-Stone. I am speaking of Vorski.”

Don Luis swallowed his third glass of water and, beckoning to the accomplice, said:

“Otto, you had better give him a drink, if he's thirsty. Are you thirsty, Vorski?”

Vorski on his tree seemed exhausted, incapable of further effort or resistance. Stephane and Patrice once more intervened on his behalf, fearing an immediate consummation.

“Not at all, not at all!” cried Don Luis. “He's all right and he'll hold out until I've finished my speech, if it were only because he wants to know. You're tremendously interested, aren't you, Vorski?”

“Robber! Murderer!” spluttered the wretched man.

“Splendid! So you still refuse to tell us where Francois is hidden?”

“Murderer! Highwayman!”

“Then stay where you are, old chap. As you please. There's nothing better for the health than a little suffering. Besides, you have caused so much suffering to others, you dirty scum!”

Don Luis uttered these words harshly and in accents of anger which one would hardly have expected from a man who had already beheld so many crimes and battled with so many criminals. But then this last one was out of all proportion.

Don Luis continued:

“About thirty-five years ago, a very beautiful woman, who came from Bohemia but who was of Hungarian descent, visited the watering-places that swarm around the Bavarian lakes and soon achieved a great reputation as a fortune-teller palmist, seer and medium. She attracted the attention of King Louis II, Wagner's friend, the man who built Bayreuth, the crowned mad-man famed for his extravagant fancies. The intimacy between the king and the clairvoyant lasted for some years. It was a violent, restless intimacy, interrupted by the frequent whims of the king; and it ended tragically on the mysterious evening when Louis of Bavaria threw himself out of his boat into the Starnbergersee. Was it really, as the official version stated, suicide following on a fit of madness? Or was it a case of murder, as some have held? Why suicide? Why murder? These ate questions that have never been answered. But one fact remains: the Bohemian woman was in the boat with Louis II and next day was escorted to the frontier and expelled from the country after her money and jewellery had been taken from her.

“She brought back with her from this adventure a young monster, four years old, Alex Vorski by name, which young monster lived with his mother near the village of Joachimsthal in Bohemia. Here, in course of time, she instructed him in all the practices of hypnotic suggestion, extralucidity and trickery. Endowed with a character of unexampled violence but a very weak intellect, a prey to hallucinations and nightmares, believing in spells, in predictions, in dreams, in occult powers, he took legends for history and falsehoods for reality. One of the numerous legends of the mountains in particular had impressed his imagination: it was the one that describes the fabulous power of a stone which, in the dim recesses of the past, was carried away by evil genii and which was one day to be brought back by the son of a king. The peasants still show the cavity left by the stone in the side of a hill.

“'The king's son is yourself,' his mother used to say. 'And, if you find the missing stone, you will escape the dagger that threatens you and will yourself become a king.'

“This ridiculous prophecy and another, no less fantastic, in which the Bohemian woman announced that her son's wife would perish on the cross and that he himself would die by the hand of a friend, were among those which exercised the most direct influence on Vorski when the fateful hour struck. And I will go straight on to this fateful hour, without saying any more of what our conversations of yesterday and last night revealed to the three of us or of what we have been able to reconstruct There is no reason to repeat in full the story which you, Stephane, told Veronique d'Hergemont in your cell. There is no need to inform you, Patrice, you, Vorski, or you, All's Well, of events with which you are familiar, such as your marriage, Vorski, or rather your two marriages, first with Elfride and next with Veronique d'Hergemont, the kidnapping of Francois by his grandfather, the disappearance of Veronique, the searches which you set on foot to find her, your conduct at the outbreak of the war and your life in the internment-camps. These are mere trifles besides the events which are on the point of taking place. We have cleared up the history of the God-Stone. It is the modern adventure, which you, Vorski, have woven around the God-Stone, that we are now about to unravel.

“In the beginning it appears like this: Vorski is imprisoned in an internment-camp near Pontivy in Brittany. He no longer calls himself Vorski, but Lauterbach. Fifteen months before, after a first escape and at the moment when the court martial was about to sentence him to death as a spy, he escaped again, spent some time in the Forest of Fontainebleau, there found one of his former servants, a man called Lauterbach, a German like himself and like himself an escaped prisoner, killed him, dressed the body in his clothes and made the face up in such a way as to give him the appearance of his murderer, Vorski. The military police were taken in and had the sham Vorski buried at Fontainebleau. As for the real Vorski, he had the bad luck to be arrested once more, under his new name of Lauterbach, and to be interned in the canro at Pontivy.

“So much for Vorski. On the other hand, Elfride, his first wife, the formidable accomplice in all his crimes and herself a German — I have some particulars about her and their past life in common which are of no importance and need not be mentioned here — Elfride, I was saying, his accomplice, was hidden with their son Raynold in the cells of Sarek. He had left her there to spy on M. d'Hergemont and through him to ascertain Veronique d'Hergemont's whereabout. The reasons which prompted the wretched woman's actions I do not know. It may have been blind devotion, fear of Vorski, an instinctive love of evil-doing, hatred of the rival who supplanted her. It doesn't matter. She has suffered the most terrible punishment. Let us speak only of the part she played, without seeking to understand how she had the courage to live for three years underground, never going out except at night, stealing food for herself and her son and patiently awaiting the day when she could serve and save her lord and master.

“I am also ignorant of the series of events that enabled her to take action, nor do I know how Vorski and Elfride managed to communicate. But what I know most positively is that Vorski's escape was long and carefully prepared by his first wife. Every detail arranged. Every precaution was taken. On the fourteenth of September of last year, Vorski escaped, taking with him the two accomplices with whom he had made friends during his captivity and whom he had, so to speak, enrolled: the Otto and Conrad whom you know of.

“It was an easy journey. At every cross-roads, an arrow, accompanied by a number, one of a series, and surmounted by the initials 'V. d'H.,' which initials were evidently selected by Vorski, pointed out the road which he was to follow. At intervals, in a deserted cabin, some provisions were hidden under a stone or in a truss of hay. The way led through Guemene, Le Faouet and Rosporden and ended on the beach at Beg-Meil.

“Here Elfride and Raynold came by night to fetch the three fugitives in Honorine's motor-boat and to land them near the Druid cells under the Black Heath. They clambered up. Their lodgings were ready for them and, as you have seen, were fairly comfortable. The winter passed; and Vorski's plan, which as yet was very vague, became more precisely outlined from day to day.

“Strange to say, at the time of his first visit to Sarek, before the war, he had not heard of the secret of the island. It was Elfride who told him the legend of the God-Stone in the letters which she wrote to him at Pontivy. You can imagine the effect produced by this revelation on a man like Vorski. The God-Stone was bound to be the miraculous stone wrested from the soil of his native land, the stone which was to be discovered by the son of a king and which, from that time onward, would give him power and royalty. Everything that he learnt later confirmed his conviction. But the great fact that dominates his subterranean life at Sarek was the discovery of Brother Thomas' prophecy in the course of the last month. Fragments of this prophecy were lingering on every hand, which he was able to pick up by listening to the conversations of the fisherfolk in the evenings, lurking under the windows of the cottages or on the roofs of the barns. Within mortal memory, the people of Sarek have always feared some terrible events, connected with the discovery and the disappearance of the invisible stone. There was likewise always a question of wrecks and of women crucified. Besides, Vorski was acquainted with the inscription on the Fairies' Dolmen, about the thirty victims destined for the thirty coffins, the martyrdom of the four women, the God-Stone which gives life or death. What a number of disturbing coincidences for a mind as weak as his!

“But the prophecy itself, found by Maguennoc in the illuminated missal, constitutes the essential factor of the whole story. Remember that Maguennoc had torn out the famous page and that M. d'Hergemont, who was fond of drawing, had copied it several times and had unconsciously given to the principal woman the features of his daughter Veronique. Vorski became aware of the existence of the original and of one of the copies when he saw Maguennoc one night looking at them by the light of his lamp. Immediately, in the darkness, he contrived somehow to pencil in his note-book the fifteen lines of this precious document. He now knew and understood everything. He was dazzled by a blinding light. All the scattered elements were gathered into a whole, forming a compact and solid truth. There was no doubt possible: the prophecy concerned him! And it was his mission to realize it!

“This, I repeat, is the essence of the whole matter. From that moment, Vorski's path was lighted by a beacon. He held in his hand Ariadne's clue of thread. The prophecy represented to him an unimpeachable text. It was one of the Tables of the Law. It was the Bible. And yet think of the stupidity, of the unspeakable silliness of those fifteen lines scribbled at a venture, with no other motive than rhyme! Not a phrase showing a sign of inspiration! Not a spark, not a gleam! Not a trace of the sacred madness that uplifted the Delphian pythoness or provoked the delirious visions of a Jeremiah or an Ezekiel! Nothing! Syllables, rhymes! Nothing! Less than nothing! But quite enough to enlighten the gentle Vorski and to make him burn with all the enthusiasm of a neophyte!

“Stephane, Patrice, listen to the prophecy of Brother Thomas. The Superhun wrote it down on ten different pages of his note-book, so that he might wear it ten times next to his skin and engrave it in the very substance of his being. Here's one of the pages. Stephane, Patrice, listen! Listen, O faithful Otto! And you yourself, Vorski, for the last time listen to the doggerel of Brother Thomas! Listen as I read!

“In Sarek's isle, in year fourteen and three,

There will be shipwrecks, terrors, grief and crimes,

Death-chambers, arrows, poison there will be

And woe, four women crucified on tree!

For thirty coffins victims thirty times.

“Before his mother's eyes, Abel kills Cain.

The father then, coming forth of Almain,

A cruel prince, obeying destiny,

By thousand deaths and lingering agony,

His wedded wife one night of June hath slain.

“Fire and loud noise will issue from the earth

In secrecy where the great treasure lies

And man again will on the stone set eyes

Once stolen from wild men in bygone days

O'er the sea; the God-Stone which gives life or death.”

Don Luis Perenna had begun to read in emphatic tones, bringing out the imbecility of the words and the triteness of the rhythm. He ended in a hollow voice, without resonance, which died away in an anguished silence. The whole adventure appeared in all its horror.

He continued:

“You understand how the facts are linked together, don't you Stephane, you who were one of the victims and who knew or know the others? So do you, Patrice, don't you? In the fifteenth century, a poor monk, with a disordered imagination and a brain haunted by infernal visions, expresses his dreams in a prophecy which we will describe as bogus, which rests on no serious data, which consists of details depending on the exigencies of the rhyme or rhythm and which certainly, both in the poet's mind and from the standpoint of originality, possesses no more value than if the poet had drawn the words at random out of a bag. The story of the God-Stone, the legends and traditions, none of all this provides him with the least element of prophecy. The worthy man evolved the prophecy from his own consciousness, not intending any harm and simply to add a text of some sort to the margin of the devilish drawing which he had so painstakingly illuminated. And he is so pleased with it that he takes the trouble to take a pointed implement and engrave a few lines of it on one of the stones of the Fairies' Dolmen.

“Well, four or five centuries later, the prophetic page falls into the hands of a Superhun, a criminal lunatic, a madman eaten up with vanity. What does the Superhun see in it? A diverting puerile fantasy? A meaningless caprice? Not a bit of it! He regards it as a document of the highest interest, one of those documents which the most Superhunnish of his fellow countrymen love to pore over, with this difference, that the document to his mind possesses a miraculous origin. He looks upon it as the Old and New Testament, the Scriptures which explain and expound the Sarek law, the very gospel of the God-Stone. And this gospel designates him, Vorski, him, the Superhun, as the Messiah appointed to execute the decrees of Providence.

“To Vorski, there is no possibility of mistake. No doubt he enjoys the business, because it is a matter of stealing wealth and power. But this question occupies a secondary position. He is above all obeying the mystic impulse of a race which believes itself to be marked out by destiny and which flatters itself that it is always fulfilling missions, a mission of regeneration as well as a mission of pillage, arson and murder. And Vorski reads his mission set out in full in Brother Thomas' prophecy. Brother Thomas says explicitly what has to be done and names him, Vorski, in the plainest terms, as the man of destiny. Is he not a king's son, in other words a 'prince of Almain?' Does he not come from the country where the stone was stolen from the 'wild men o'er the sea?' Has he not also a wife who is doomed, in the seer's prophecies, to the torture of the cross? Has he not two sons, one gentle and gracious as Abel, and the other wicked and uncontrolled as Cain?

“These proofs are enough for him. He now has his mobilization-papers, his marching-orders in his pocket. The gods have indicated the objective upon which he is to march; and he marches. True, there are a few living people in his path. So much the better; it is all part of the programme. For it is after all these living people have been killed and, moreover, killed in the manner announced by Brother Thomas that the task will be done, the God-Stone released and Vorski, the instrument of destiny, crowned king. Therefore, let's turn up our sleeves, take our trusty butcher's knife in hand, and get to work! Vorski will translate Brother Thomas' nightmare into real life!”