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THE SECRET OF SAREK

by

MAURICE LEBLANC

Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos


[Illustration: "We're Done For! They Are Aiming At Us!"]






[Illustration]

FRONTISPIECE

A. L. Burt Company
Publishers New York

Published by arrangement with The Macaulay Company

Copyright, 1920
By The Macaulay Company

Printed in U. S. A.




FOREWORD


The war has led to so many upheavals that not many people now remember
the Hergemont scandal of seventeen years ago. Let us recall the details
in a few lines.

One day in July 1902, M. Antoine d'Hergemont, the author of a series of
well-known studies on the megalithic monuments of Brittany, was walking
in the Bois with his daughter Véronique, when he was assaulted by four
men, receiving a blow in the face with a walking-stick which felled him
to the ground.

After a short struggle and in spite of his desperate efforts,
Véronique, the beautiful Véronique, as she was called by her friends,
was dragged away and bundled into a motor-car which the spectators of
this very brief scene saw making off in the direction of Saint-Cloud.

It was a plain case of kidnapping. The truth became known next morning.
Count Alexis Vorski, a young Polish nobleman of dubious reputation but
of some social prominence and, by his own account, of royal blood, was
in love with Véronique d'Hergemont and Véronique with him. Repelled and
more than once insulted by the father, he had planned the incident
entirely without Véronique's knowledge or complicity.

Antoine d'Hergemont, who, as certain published letters showed, was a
man of violent and morose disposition and who, thanks to his capricious
temper, his ferocious egoism and his sordid avarice, had made his
daughter exceedingly unhappy, swore openly that he would take the most
ruthless revenge.

He gave his consent to the wedding, which took place two months later,
at Nice. But in the following year a series of sensational events
transpired. Keeping his word and cherishing his hatred, M. d'Hergemont
in his turn kidnapped the child born of the Vorski marriage and set sail
in a small yacht which he had bought not long before.

The sea was rough. The yacht foundered within sight of the Italian
coast. The four sailors who formed the crew were picked up by a
fishing-boat. According to their evidence M. d'Hergemont and the child
had disappeared amid the waves.

When Véronique received the proof of their death, she entered a
Carmelite convent.

These are the facts which, fourteen years later, were to lead to the
most frightful and extraordinary adventure, a perfectly authentic
adventure, though certain details, at first sight, assume a more or less
fabulous aspect. But the war has complicated existence to such an extent
that events which happen outside it, such as those related in the
following narrative, borrow something abnormal, illogical and at times
miraculous from the greater tragedy. It needs all the dazzling light of
truth to restore to those events the character of a reality which, when
all is said, is simple enough.




CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE
I THE DESERTED CABIN 11
II ON THE EDGE OF THE ATLANTIC 25
III VORSKI'S SON 43
IV THE POOR PEOPLE OF SAREK 67
V "FOUR WOMEN CRUCIFIED" 87
VI ALL'S WELL 113
VII FRANÇOIS AND STÉPHANE 133
VIII ANGUISH 149
IX THE DEATH-CHAMBER 167
X THE ESCAPE 181
XI THE SCOURGE OF GOD 200
XII THE ASCENT OF GOLGOTHA 221
XIII "ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI!" 243
XIV THE ANCIENT DRUID 262
XV THE HALL OF THE UNDERGROUND SACRIFICES 283
XVI THE HALL OF THE KINGS OF BOHEMIA 309
XVII "CRUEL PRINCE, OBEYING DESTINY" 328
XVIII THE GOD-STONE 349





THE SECRET OF SAREK




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 Quimperlé. 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.

Véronique 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:

"DUTREILLIS' AGENCY.

_"Consulting Rooms._
_"Private Enquiries._
_"Absolute Discretion Guaranteed."_

Next came an address:

_"Madame Véronique,_
_"Dressmaker,_
_"BESANÇON."_

And the letter ran:

"MADAM,

"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 François. 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 Besançon, 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 . . ."

Véronique 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!
Véronique 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
Quimperlé. 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 rotten 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,
"Madam, &c."

Véronique 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
Besançon 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 clump 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. Véronique 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 three 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?

Véronique 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?

Véronique 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 Véronique 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 Véronique 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, through 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, Véronique 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 Véronique's maiden
name, "V. d'H.", Véronique 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.

* * * * *

Véronique 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 Véronique read:

"Four women crucified."

Lower down:

"Thirty coffins."

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 Véronique 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 Véronique's face,
especially as it looked when she was twenty years of age and as
Véronique 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."

Véronique 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


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