The Secret of Sarek/Chapter I
CHAPTER I. THE DESERTED CABIN
INTO the picturesque village of Le Faouet, situated in the very heart of Brittany, there drove one morning in the month of May a lady whose spreading grey cloak and the thick veil that covered her face failed to hide her remarkable beauty and perfect grace of figure.
The lady took a hurried lunch at the principal inn. Then, at about half-past eleven, she begged the proprietor to look after her bag for her, asked for a few particulars about the neighbourhood and walked through the village into the open country.
The road almost immediately branched into two, of which one led to Quimper and the other to Quimperle. Selecting the latter, she went down into the hollow of a valley, climbed up again and saw on her right, at the corner of another road, a sign-post bearing the inscription, “Locriff, 3 kilometers.”
“This is the place,” she said to herself.
Nevertheless, after casting a glance around her, she was surprised not to find what she was looking for and wondered whether she had misunderstood her instructions.
There was no one near her nor any one within sight, as far as the eye could reach over the Breton country-side, with its tree-lined meadows and undulating hills. Not far from the village, rising amid the budding greenery of spring, a small country house lifted its grey front, with the shutters to all the windows closed. At twelve o'clock, the angelus-bells pealed through the air and were followed by complete peace and silence.
Veronique sat down on the short grass of a bank, took a letter from her pocket and smoothed out the many sheets, one by one.
The first page was headed:
“Absolute Discretion Guaranteed.”
Next came an address:
And the letter ran:
“You will hardly believe the pleasure which it gave me to fulfill the two commissions which you were good enough to entrust to me in your last favour. I have never forgotten the conditions under which I was able, fourteen years ago, to give you my practical assistance at a time when your life was saddened by painful events. It was I who succeeded in obtaining all the facts relating to the death of your honoured father, M. Antoine d'Hergemont, and of your beloved son Francois. This was my first triumph in a career which was to afford so many other brilliant victories.
“It was I also, you will remember, who, at your request and seeing how essential it was to save you from your husband's hatred and, if I may add, his love, took the necessary steps to secure your admission to the Carmelite convent. Lastly, it was I who, when your retreat to the convent had shown you that a life of religion did not agree with your temperament, arranged for you a modest occupation as a dressmaker at Besancon, far from the towns where the years of your childhood and the months of your marriage had been spent. You had the inclination and the need to work in order to live and to escape your thoughts. You were bound to succeed; and you succeeded.
“And now let me come to the fact, to the two facts in hand.
“To begin with your first question: what has become, amid the whirlwind of war, of your husband, Alexis Vorski, a Pole by birth, according to his papers, and the son of a king, according to his own statement? I will be brief. After being suspected at the commencement of the war and imprisoned in an internment-camp near Carpentras, Vorski managed to escape, went to Switzerland, returned to France and was re-arrested, accused of spying and convicted of being a German. At the moment when it seemed inevitable that he would be sentenced to death, he escaped for the second time, disappeared in the Forest of Fontainebleau and in the end was stabbed by some person unknown.
“I am telling you the story quite crudely, Madam, well knowing your contempt for this person, who had deceived you abominably, and knowing also that you have learnt most of these facts from the newspapers, though you have not been able to verify their absolute genuineness.
“Well, the proofs exist. I have seen them. There is no doubt left. Alexis Vorski lies buried at Fontainebleau.
“Permit me, in passing, Madam, to remark upon the strangeness of this death. You will remember the curious prophecy about Vorski which you mentioned to me. Vorski, whose undoubted intelligence and exceptional energy were spoilt by an insincere and superstitious mind, readily preyed upon by hallucinations and terrors, had been greatly impressed by the prediction which overhung his life and which he had heard from the lips of several people who specialize in the occult sciences:
“'Vorski, son of a king, you will die by the hand of a friend and your wife will be crucified!'
“I smile, Madam, as I write the last word. Crucified! Crucifixion is a torture which is pretty well out of fashion; and I am easy as regards yourself. But what do you think of the dagger-stroke which Vorski received in accordance with the mysterious orders of destiny?
“But enough of reflections. I now come...”
Veronique dropped the letter for a moment into her lap. M. Dutreillis' pretentious phrasing and familiar pleasantries wounded her fastidious reserve. Also she was obsessed by the tragic image of Alexis Vorski. A shiver of anguish passed through her at the hideous memory of that man. She mastered herself, however, and read on:
“I now come to my other commission, Madam, in your eyes the more important of the two, because all the rest belongs to the past.
“Let us state the facts precisely. Three weeks ago, on one of those rare occasions when you consented to break through the praiseworthy monotony of your existence, on a Thursday evening when you took your assistants to a cinema-theatre, you were struck by a really incomprehensible detail. The principal film, entitled 'A Breton Legend,' represented a scene which occurred, in the course of a pilgrimage, outside a little deserted road-side hut which had nothing to do with the action. The hut was obviously there by accident. But something really extraordinary attracted your attention. On the tarred boards of the old door were three letters, drawn by hand: 'V. d'H.,' and those three letters were precisely your signature before you were married, the initials with which you used to sign your intimate letters and which you have not used once during the last fourteen years! Veronique d'Hergemont! There was no mistake possible. Two capitals separated by the small 'd' and the apostrophe. And, what is more, the bar of the letter 'H' carried back under the three letters, served as a flourish, exactly as it used to do with you!
“It was the stupefaction due to this surprising coincidence that decided you, Madam, to invoke my assistance. It was yours without the asking. And you knew, without any telling, that it would be effective.
“As you anticipated, Madam, I have succeeded. And here again I will be brief.
“What you must do, Madam, is to take the night express from Paris which brings you the next morning to Quimperle. From there, drive to Le Faouet. If you have time, before or after your luncheon, pay a visit to the very interesting Chapel of St. Barbe, which stands perched on the most fantastic site and which gave rise to the 'Breton Legend' film. Then go along the Quimper road on foot. At the end of the first ascent, a little way short of the parish-road which leads to Locriff, you will find, in a semicircle surrounded by trees, the deserted hut with the inscription. It has nothing remarkable about it. The inside is empty. It has not even a floor. A Totten plank serves as a bench. The roof consists of a worm-eaten framework, which admits the rain. Once more, there is no doubt that it was sheer accident that placed it within the range of the cinematograph. I will end by adding that the 'Breton Legend' film was taken in September last, which means that the inscription is at least eight months old.
“That is all, Madam. My two commissions are completed. I am too modest to describe to you the efforts and the ingenious means which I employed in order to accomplish them in so short a time, but for which you will certainly think the sum of five hundred francs, which is all that I propose to charge you for the work done, almost ridiculous.
“I beg to remain,
Veronique folded up the letter and sat for a few minutes turning over the impressions which it aroused in her, painful impressions, like all those revived by the horrible days of her marriage. One in particular had survived and was still as powerful as at the time when she tried to escape it by taking refuge in the gloom of a convent. It was the impression, in fact the certainty, that all her misfortunes, the death of her father and the death of her son, were due to the fault which she had committed in loving Vorski. True, she had fought against the man's love and had not decided to marry him until she was obliged to, in despair and to save M. d'Hergemont from Vorski's vengeance. Nevertheless, she had loved that man. Nevertheless, at first, she had turned pale under his glance: and this, which now seemed to her an unpardonable example of weakness, had left her with a remorse which time had failed to weaken.
“There,” she said, “enough of dreaming. I have not come here to shed tears.”
The craving for information which had brought her from her retreat at Besancon restored her vigour; and she rose resolved to act.
“A little way short of the parish-road which leads to Locriff... a semicircle surrounded by trees,” said Dutreillis' letter. She had therefore passed the place. She quickly retraced her steps and at once perceived, on the right, the dump of trees which had hidden the cabin from her eyes. She went nearer and saw it.
It was a sort of shepherd's or road-labourer's hut, which was crumbling and falling to pieces under the action of the weather. Veronique went up to it and perceived that the inscription, worn by the rain and sun, was much less clear than on the film. But the tree letters were visible, as was the flourish; and she even distinguished, underneath, something which M. Dutreillis had not observed, a drawing of an arrow and a number, the number 9.
Her emotion increased. Though no attempt had been made to imitate the actual form of her signature, it certainly was her signature as a girl. And who could have affixed it there, on a deserted cabin, in this Brittany where she had never been before?
Veronique no longer had a friend in the world. Thanks to a succession of circumstances, the whole of her past girlhood had, so to speak, disappeared with the death of those whom she had known and loved. Then how was it possible for the recollection of her signature to survive apart from her and those who were dead and gone? And, above all, why was the inscription here, at this spot? What did it mean?
Veronique walked round the cabin. There was no other mark visible there or on the surrounding trees. She remembered that M. Dutreillis had opened the door and had seen nothing inside. Nevertheless she determined to make certain that he was not mistaken.
The door was closed with a mere wooden latch, which moved on a screw. She lifted it; and, strange to say, she had to make an effort, not a physical so much as a moral effort, an effort of will, to pull the door towards her. It seemed to her that this little act was about to usher her into a world of facts and events which she unconsciously dreaded.
“Well,” she said, “what's preventing me?”
She gave a sharp pull.
A cry of horror escaped her. There was a man's dead body in the cabin. And, at the moment, at the exact second when she saw the body, she became aware of a peculiar characteristic: one of the dead man's hands was missing.
It was an old man, with a long, grey, fan-shaped beard and long white hair falling about his neck. The blackened lips and a certain colour of the swollen skin suggested to Veronique that he might have been poisoned, for no trace of an injury showed on his body, except the arm, which had been severed clean above the wrist, apparently some days before. His clothes were those of a Breton peasant, clean, but very threadbare. The corpse was seated on the ground, with the head resting against the bench and the legs drawn up.
These were all things which Veronique noted in a sort of unconsciousness and which were rather to reappear in her memory at a later date, for, at the moment, she stood there all trembling, with her eyes staring before her, and stammering:
“A dead body!... A dead body!...”
Suddenly she reflected that she was perhaps mistaken and that the man was not dead. But, on touching his forehead, she shuddered at the contact of his icy skin.
Nevertheless this movement roused her from her torpor. She resolved to act and, since there was no one in the immediate neighbourhood, to go back to Le Faouet and inform the authorities. She first examined the corpse for any clue which could tell her its identity.
The pockets were empty. There were no marks on the clothes or linen. But, when she shifted the body a little in order to make her search, it came about that the head drooped forward, dragging with it the trunk, which fell over the legs, thus uncovering the lower side of the bench.
Under this bench, she perceived a roll consisting of a sheet of very thin drawing-paper, crumpled, buckled and almost wrung into a twist. She picked up the roll and unfolded it. But she had not finished doing so before her hands began to tremble and she stammered:
“Oh, God!... Oh, my God!
She summoned all her energies to try and enforce upon herself the calm needed to look with eyes that could see and a brain that could understand.
The most that she could do was to stand there for a few seconds. And during those few seconds, though an ever-thickening mist that seemed to shroud her eyes, she was able to make out a drawing in red, representing four women crucified on four tree-trunks.
And, in the foreground, the first woman, the central figure, with the body stark under its clothing and the features distorted with the most dreadful pain, but still recognizable, the crucified woman was herself! Beyond the least doubt, it was she herself, Veronique d'Hergemont!
Besides, above the head, the top of the post bore, after the ancient custom, a scroll with a plainly legible inscription. And this was the three initials, underlined with the flourish, of Veronique's maiden name, “V. d'H.”, Veronique d'Hergemont.
A spasm ran through her from head to foot. She drew herself up, turned on her heel and, reeling out of the cabin, fell on the grass in a dead faint.
Veronique was a tall, energetic, healthy woman, with a wonderfully balanced mind; and hitherto no trial had been able to affect her fine moral sanity or her splendid physical harmony. It needed exceptional and unforeseen circumstances such as these, added to the fatigue of two nights spent in railway-travelling, to produce this disorder in her nerves and will.
It did not last more than two or three minutes, at the end of which her mind once more became lucid and courageous. She stood up, went back to the cabin, picked up the sheet of drawing-paper and, certainly with unspeakable anguish, but this time with eyes that saw and a brain that understood, looked at it.
She first examined the details, those which seemed insignificant, or whose significance at least escaped her. On the left was a narrow column of fifteen lines, not written, but composed of letters of no definite formation, the down-strokes of which were all of the same length, the object being evidently merely to fill up. However, in various places, a few words were visible. And Veronique read:
“Four women crucified.”
And the bottom line of all ran:
“The God-Stone which gives life or death.”
The whole of this column was surrounded by a frame consisting of two perfectly straight lines, one ruled in black, the other in red ink; and there was also, likewise in red, above it, a sketch of two sickles fastened together with a sprig of mistletoe under the outline of a coffin.
The right-hand side, by far the more important, was filled with the drawing, a drawing in red chalk, which gave the whole sheet, with its adjacent column of explanations, the appearance of a page, or rather of a copy of a page, from some large, ancient illuminated book, in which the subjects were treated rather in the primitive style, with a complete ignorance of the rules of drawing.
And it represented four crucified women. Three of them showed in diminishing perspective against the horizon. They wore Breton costumes and their heads were surmounted by caps which were likewise Breton but of a special fashion that pointed to local usage and consisted chiefly of a large black bow, the two wings of which stood out as in the bows of the Alsatian women. And in the middle of the page was the dreadful thing from which Veronique could not take her terrified eyes. It was the principal cross, the trunk of a tree stripped of its lower branches, with the woman's two arms stretched to right and left of it.
The hands and feet were not nailed but were fastened by cords which were wound as far as the shoulders and the upper part of the tied legs. Instead of the Breton costume, the woman wore a sort of winding-sheet which fell to the ground and lengthened the slender outline of a body emaciated by suffering.
The expression on the face was harrowing, an expression of resigned martyrdom and melancholy grace. And it was certainly Veronique's face, especially as it looked when she was twenty years of age and as Veronique remembered seeing it at those gloomy hours when a woman gazes in a mirror at her hopeless eyes and her overflowing tears.
And about the head was the very same wave of her thick hair, flowing to the waist in symmetrical curves:
And above it the inscription, “V. d'H.”
Veronique long stayed thinking, questioning the past and gazing into the darkness in order to link the actual facts with the memory of her youth. But her mind remained without a glimmer of light. Of the words which she had read, of the drawing which she had seen, nothing whatever assumed the least meaning for her or seemed susceptible of the least explanation.
She examined the sheet of paper again and again. Then, slowly, still pondering on it, she tore it into tiny pieces and threw them to the wind. When the last scrap had been carried away, her decision was taken. She pushed back the man's body, closed the door and walked quickly towards the village, in order to ensure that the incident should have the legal conclusion which was fitting for the moment.
But, when she returned an hour later with the mayor of Le Faouet, the rural constable and a whole group of sightseers attracted by her statements, the cabin was empty. The corpse had disappeared.
And all this was so strange, Veronique felt so plainly that, in the disordered condition of her ideas, it was impossible for her to answer the questions put to her, or to dispel the suspicions and doubts which these people might and must entertain of the truth of her evidence, the cause of her presence and even her very sanity, that she forthwith ceased to make any effort or struggle. The inn-keeper was there. She asked him which was the nearest village that she would reach by following the road and if, by so doing, she would come to a railway-station which would enable her to return to Paris. She retained the names of Scaer and Rosporden, ordered a carriage to bring her bag and overtake her on the road and set off, protected against any ill feeling by her great air of elegance and by her grave beauty.
She set off, so to speak, at random. The road was long, miles and miles long. But such was her haste to have done with these incomprehensible events and to recover her tranquillity and to forget what had happened that she walked with great strides, quite oblivious of the fact that this wearisome exertion was superfluous, since she had a carriage following her.
She went up hill and down dale and hardly thought at all, refusing to seek the solution of all the riddles that were put to her. It was the past which was reascending to the surface of her life; and she was horribly afraid of that past, which extended from her abduction by Vorski to the death of her father and her child. She wanted to think of nothing but the simple, humble life which she had contrived to lead at Besancon. There were no sorrows there, no dreams, no memories; and she did not doubt but that, amid the little daily habits which enfolded her in the modest house of her choice, she would forget the deserted cabin, the mutilated body of the man and the dreadful drawing with its mysterious inscription.
But, a little while before she came to the big market-town of Scaer, as she heard the bell of a horse trotting behind her, she saw, at the junction of the road that led to Rosporden, a broken wall, one of the remnants of a half-ruined house.
And on this broken wall, above an arrow and the number 10, she again read the fateful inscription, “V. d'H.”