The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne
IN the morning Nic Deck and Doctor Patak prepared to start at nine o’clock. The forester’s intention was to ascend the Vulkan and take the shortest way to the suspicious castle.
After the phenomenon of the smoke on the donjon, after the phenomenon of the voice heard in the saloon of the “King Mathias,” we need not be astonished at the people being as if deranged. Some of the Tsiganes already spoke of leaving the district. During the night nothing else had been spoken of at home—and in a low voice. Could there be any doubt that it was the Chort who had spoken in so threatening a way to the young forester? At Jonas’s inn there had been about fifty people, and these the most worthy of belief, who had all heard the strange words. To suppose that they had all been duped by some illusion of the senses was inadmissible. There could be no doubt that Nic Deck had been formally warned that misfortune would overtake him if he persisted in his intention of visiting the Castle of the Carpathians.
And yet the young forester was preparing to leave Werst, and without being forced to do so. In fact, whatever advantage Master Koltz might gain in clearing up the mystery of the castle, whatever interest the village might have in knowing what was taking place, a powerful effort had been made to get Nic Deck to go back on hi's word. Weeping and in despair, with her beautiful eyes wet with tears, Miriota had besought him not to persist in this adventure. After the warning given by the voice it was a serious matter; it was a mad adventure. On the eve of his marriage Nic Deck was about to risk his life in the attempt, and his betrothed clung to his knees to prevent him, but all in vain.
Neither the objurgations of his friends, nor the tears of Miriota had any effect on the young forester.
And no one was surprised at it. They knew his indomitable character, his tenacity, his obstinacy, if you will. He had said he would go to the Castle of the Carpathians, and nothing would stop him; not even the threat which had been addressed straight to him. Yes! he would go to the castle even if he never returned.
When the hour of parting came, Nic Deck pressed Miriota for the last time to his heart, while the poor girl made the sign of the thumb and two first fingers, according to Roumanian custom, which is an emblem of the Holy Trinity.
And Doctor Patak? Well, Doctor Patak had tried to get out of it, but without success. All that could be said he had said. All the objections imaginable he had mentioned. He tried to entrench himself behind the formal injunction not to go to the castle, which had been so distinctly heard.
“That menace only concerns me,” said Nic Deck.
“But if anything happens to you, forester,” said Doctor Patak, “shall I get away without injury?”
“Injury or not, you have promised to come with me to the castle, and you will come because I am going.”
Seeing that nothing would prevent his keeping his promise, the people of Werst had resolved to help the forester. It was better that Nic Deck should not enter alone on this affair. And, much to his disgust, the doctor, feeling that he could not go back, that it would compromise his position in the village, that it would be a disgrace for him to go back after all his boastings,* resigned himself to the adventure with terror in his soul, and fully resolved to profit by the least obstacle on the road to make his companion turn back.
Nic Deck and Doctor Patak set out, and Master Koltz, Magister Hermod, Frik, and Jonas accompanied them up to a turning out of the main road, where they stopped.
Here Master Koltz for the last time brought his telescope—which he was never without—to bear on the castle. There was now no smoke from the donjon chimney, and it would have been easy to see it on the clear horizon of a beautiful spring morning. Were they to conclude that the guests, natural or supernatural, of the castle had vanished on finding that the forester took no heed of their threats? Some of them thought so, and therein appeared a decisive reason for bringing the adventure to a satisfactory termination, And so they all shook hands, and Nic Deck, dragging the doctor away with him, disappeared round the hill.
The young forester was in full visiting costume, laced cap with large peak, belted vest with a cutlass in its sheath, baggy trousers, iron-shod boots, cartridge-belt at his waist, and long gun on his shoulder. He had the deserved reputation of being a first-rate shot, and in default of ghosts it was as well to be prepared for robbers, or even bears with evil intentions.
The doctor had armed himself with an old flint pistol, which missed fire three times out of five. He also carried a hatchet which his companion had given him in case it was necessary to cut a way through the thick underwoods of Plesa. He wore a large country hat, and was buttoned up in a thick travelling cape, and shod with big iron-soled boots; but this heavy costume would not have stopped him from running away if opportunity presented itself.
Both he and Nic Deck carried a few provisions in their wallets, so as to prolong the exploration if necessary.
After leaving the by-road, Nic Deck and the doctor went along the right bank of the Nyad for a few hundred yards. Had they followed the road which winds through the valleys, they would have gone too far to the westward. It was a pity they could not follow the river and thereby reduce their distance by a third, for the Nyad rises in the folds of the Orgall plateau. But though it was practicable at first, the bank became eventually so deeply cut into by ravines and barred with rocks that progress along it was impossible even to pedestrians. They had therefore to bear away obliquely to the left, so as to return to the castle after traversing the lower belt of the Plesa forests.
And this was the only side on which the castle was approachable from where they were. When it had been inhabited by Count Rodolphe de Gortz, the communication between the village of Werst, the Vulkan Hill, and the valley of the Syl had been through a gap which had been opened in this direction. But abandoned for twenty years to the invasions of vegetation, it had become obstructed by an inextricable thicket of underwood, and the trace of a footpath or a passage would be sought for in vain.
When they left the deep bed of the Nyad, which was filled with roaring water, Nic Deck stopped to take his bearings. The castle was no longer visible. It would only appear again beyond the curtain of forests which stood in rows one above the other on the lower slopes of the mountain, an arrangement common to the whole orographic system of the Carpathians. As there was no landmark the direction was not easily made out. It could only be arrived at from the position of the sun, whose rays were lighting up the distant crests in the southwest.
“You see, forester,” said the doctor, “you see there is not even a road, or, rather, no more road.”
“There will be one,’’ said Nic Deck.
“That is easy to say, Nic.”
“And easy to do, Patak.”
“You are resolved, then?”
The forester was content to reply by an affirmative gesture, and started off towards the trees.
The doctor had a strong inclination to retrace his steps, but his companion, happening to turn round, gave him such a determined look that he thought it better not to remain behind.
Doctor Patak then conceived another hope: Nic Deck might get lost amid this labyrinth of woods, where his duties had not yet called him. But he reckoned without that marvellous scent, that professional instinct, that animal aptitude, so to speak, which takes notice of the least indications, projections of branches in such and such directions, irregularities of the ground, colours of the bark, hues of the mosses as they are exposed to different winds. Nic Deck was a perfect master of his trade, and practised it with too much sagacity to go astray even in localities unknown to him. He was worthy to be ranked with Leatherstocking or Chingachgook in the land of Cooper.
But the crossing of this zone of trees was not free from real difficulties. Elms, beeches, a few of those maples known as false planes, mighty oaks, occupied the first line up to the line of the birches, pines, and spruces, massed on the higher-shoulders of the col to the left. Magnificent were these trees with their powerful stems, their boughs warm with the new sap, their thick leafage intermingling to form a roof of verdure which the sun’s rays could not pierce.
By stooping beneath their lower branches a passage was relatively easy; but many were the obstacles on the surface of the ground, and much work was needed to clear them away, to get through the nettles and briars, to avoid the thousands of thorns that clung to them at the least touch. Nic Deck was not a man to become anxious about these matters; and, providing he got through the wood, he did not worry himself about a few scratches. The advance, however, under such conditions was necessarily slow, and that was regrettable, for Nic Deck and Doctor Patak wished to reach the castle in the afternoon, in order that they might return to Werst before night.
Hatchet in hand, the forester worked at clearing a passage through these thick thorn-bushes, bristling with vegetable bayonets, in which the foot met a rugged soil, hummocky, broken, with roots or stumps to stumble over when it did not sink in a swampy bed of dead leaves which the wind had never swept away. Myriads of pod~ shot off like fulminating peas to the great alarm of the doctor, who started back at the crackle, and came again when some twig would catch on to his vest like a claw that wished to keep him. No! poor man, he was not at all comfortable. But now he dared not return alone, and h had to make an effort to keep up with his intractable companion.
Occasionally capricious clearings appeared in the forest. A shower of light would penetrate it. A couple of black storks, disturbed in their solitude, escaped from the higher branches and flew off with powerful strokes of the wing The crossing of these clearings made the advance still more fatiguing. In them were piled up enormous masses of trees blown down by the storm or fallen from old age, as if the axe of the woodman had given them their death-stroke. There lay enormous trunks eaten into with decay, which no tool would ever cut into billets, and no waggon would ever carry to the bed of the Wallachian Syl. Faced by these obstacles, which were difficult to clear and at times impossible to turn, Nic Deck and his companion had no easy time of it. If the young forester, active, supple, vigorous, managed well, the doctor with his short legs, his large corporation, breathless and exhausted, could not save himself from occasional falls, and Nic had to come to his assistance.
“You will see, Nic, that I shall end by breaking one of my limbs!” he said.
“You will soon patch it up, if you do.”
“Come, forester, be reasonable; we need not strive against the impossible!”
But Nic Deck was already on in front, and the doctor, obtaining no reply, hastened to rejoin him.
Were they in the right direction to come out in front of the castle? They would have been puzzled to prove it. But as the ground was on the rise all the time, they must be reaching the edge of the forest; and they arrived there at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Beyond, up to the plateau of Orgall extended the curtain of green trees, much more scattered the farther they were up the mountain.
The Nyad appeared among the rocks, either because it had curved to the north-west, or because Nic Deck had struck off obliquely towards it. The young forester was thus assured he had made a good course, for the brook took its rise in the Orgall plateau.
Nic Deck could not refuse the doctor an hour's rest on the bank of the torrent. Besides, the stomach claimed its due as well as the limbs. The wallets were well furnished; rakiou filled the doctor’s flask as well as Nic’s. Besides, water, fresh and limpid, filtered amid the pebbles below, and flowed a few paces off. What more could they desire? They had lost much; they must repair the loss.
Since their departure the doctor had scarcely had the leisure to talk with Nic Deck, who had been in front of him all the time, But he made up for lost time when they were seated on the bank of the Nyad. If one was not talkative, the other fully made up for it; and we need not be astonished if the questions were prolix and the answers brief.
“Let us talk a little, forester, and talk seriously,” said the doctor.
“I am listening to you,” replied Nic Deck.
“I think we halted here to recover our strength?”
“Nothing could be more correct.”
“Before returning to Werst?”
“No; before going to the castle.”
“But, Nic, we have been walking for six hours, and we are hardly halfway.”
“That shows we have no time to lose.”
“But we shall not reach the castle before night, and as I imagine, forester, you will not be mad enough to run any risks until you have had a clear view of it, we shall have to wait for daylight.”
“We will wait for daylight.”
“And so you will not give up this project, which has no common sense in it?”
“What! Here we are exhausted, wanting a good table in a good room, and a good bed in a good room, and you are going to pass the night in the open air?”
“Yes, if any obstacle prevents us from penetrating into the castle.”
“And if there is no obstacle?”
“We will sleep in the rooms in the donjon.”
“The rooms in the donjon!” exclaimed Doctor Patak.
“Do you think, forester, that I shall ever consent to spend a whole night inside that cursed castle?”
“Certainly, unless you prefer to stay outside alone.”
“Alone, forester! That was not in the bargain; and if we are to separate, I would rather start at once and go back to the village.”
“It was in the bargain that you would follow me into the castle.”
“In the day, yes! In the night, no!”
“Well, you can go if you like; but take care you do not get lost in the thickets.”
Lost! That was what troubled the doctor. Abandoned to himself unaccustomed to these interminable circuits in the Plesa forests, he felt he was incapable of finding the way back to Werst. Besides, to be alone when night fell—a very dark night, perhaps—to descend the slopes of the hill at the risk of collapsing in the bottom of a ravine, that certainly was not agreeable to him. He was freed from having to enter the castle when the sun was down, and if the forester persisted, he had better follow him up to the enclosure. But the doctor made a last effort to stop his companion.
“You know well, my dear Nic,” he continued, “that I will never consent to separate from you. If you persist in going to the castle, I will not allow you to go there alone.”
“Well spoken, Doctor Patak, and I think you ought to stick to that.”
“No! One word more, Nic. If it is night when we arrive, promise me not to try and enter the castle.”
“What I promise you, doctor, is not to go back one footstep until I have discovered what is going on there.”
“What is going on there, forester!” said Doctor Patak, shrugging his shoulders. “But what do you want to go on there?”
“I know nothing, and as I have made up my mind to know, I will know.”
“But shall we ever reach this devil’s castle?” asked the doctor, whose arguments were exhausted. “To judge by the difficulty we have had up to now, and the time it has taken us to get through the Plesa forests, the day will end before we are in sight of the wall.”
“I do not think so,” said Nic Deck. “In the higher ranges the pines have no such thickets as do the elms or maples or beeches.”
“But the ground is rough.”
“What does that matter, if it is not impracticable?”
“But I believe that bears are met with on the outskirts of the plateau.”
“I have my gun, and you have your pistol to defend yourself with, doctor.”
“But if night falls we may be lost in the darkness.”
“No; for we now have a guide, which guide will, I hope, not leave us any more.”
“A guide?” exclaimed the doctor. And he rose abruptly to cast an anxious look around him.
“Yes,” said Nic, “and this guide is the Nyad. We have only to go up the right bank to reach the very crest of the plateau where it takes its source. I think we shall be at the castle gate in two hours, if we get on the road without delay.”
“In two hours if not in six!” replied the doctor.
“Are you ready?”
“Already? Nic, already? Why, our halt has only lasted a few minutes—”
“A few minutes which make a good half-hour. For the last time, are you ready?”
“Ready—when my legs are like lumps of lead? You know well enough, Nic Deck, my legs are not forester’s legs. My feet are swollen in my boots, and it is cruel to make me follow you—”
“Ah! You annoy me, Patak! You can go back alone if you like! Pleasant journey to you!”
And Nic rose.
“For the love of God, forester,” cried Doctor Patak, “listen to me.”
“Listen to your foolery?”
“It is already late, why not remain here? why not encamp under the shelter of these trees? We can start at daylight, and have all the morning to reach the plateau.”
“Doctor,”replied Nic Deck, “I tell you again it is my intention to spend the night in the castle.”
“No!” cried the doctor; “no, you shall not do it, Nic! I will stop you—”
“I will cling to you! I will drag you back! I will thrash you, if necessary!”
The unfortunate doctor did not know what he was saying.
As to Nic Deck, he did not even reply. Putting his arm through the gun-strap, he started to go up the Nyad.
“Wait—wait!” cried the doctor piteously. “What a fiend of a man! One moment! My limbs are stiff, my joints will not work.”
But they soon had to work, for the doctor had to trot along on his little legs to catch up the forester, who never looked back.
It was four o’clock. The solar rays just tipped the crest of Plesa, which intercepted them, and by an oblique reflection lighted up the higher branches of the pine-forest. Nic Deck had cause to hurry, for the woods below were growing dark at the decline of day.
Of a different character were the higher forests, which consisted mainly of the commoner Alpine species. Instead of being deformed and twisted and gnarled, the stems were straight and upright and far apart, and bare of branches for fifty or sixty feet from their roots, and then their evergreen verdure spread out like a roof. There was little brushwood or entanglement at their base; but the long roots crept along the ground as if they were snakes grown torpid with the cold. The ground was carpeted with close yellowish moss, scattered over with dry twigs, and dotted with cones which crackled under the feet. The slope was rough and furrowed with crystalline rocks, the sharp edges of which made themselves felt through the thickest leather. For a quarter of a mile the passage through the pine-wood was difficult. To climb these blocks required a suppleness, a vigour, and a sureness of foot which Doctor Patak could no longer claim. Nic Deck would have got through in an hour if he had been alone, but it took him three with the hindrance of his companion, whom he had to stop to attend to, and to help over rocks too high for his little legs. The doctor had but one fear—a terrible fear—that of being left alone in these gloomy solitudes.
However, if the slopes became more painful to climb, the trees began to get thinner and thinner on the Plesa ridge. They were now in isolated clumps and of small size. Between these clumps could be seen the ranges of mountains in the background, with their outline still traceable in the evening mist.
The torrent of the Nyad, which the forester had continued to follow, was now not larger than a brook, and rose not so very far off. A few hundred feet above the last folds of the ground lay the rounded plateau of Orgall, crowned by the castle buildings.
Nic Deck at length reached the plateau after a final effort which reduced the doctor to the state of an inert mass. The poor man had not strength to drag himself twenty yards farther, and he fell like the ox before the axe of the butcher.
Nic Deck hardly felt the fatigue of this painful ascent. Erect, motionless, he devoured with his gaze this Castle of the Carpathians he had never before been so near.
Before his eyes lay a crenellated wall defended by a deep ditch, the only drawbridge of which was drawn up against a gate surrounded by a ring of stone.
Around the wall, on the plateau, all was bare and silent.
In the twilight the mass of castle buildings was confusedly distinguishable. There was no one visible on either wall or donjon, nor on the circular terrace. Not a trace of smoke curled round the vane.
“Well, forester,” said Doctor Patak, “are you convinced that it is possible to cross the ditch, lower the drawbridge, and open the gate?”
Nic Deck did not reply. He saw that it would be necessary to halt before the castle walls. Amid the darkness, how could he descend into the ditch and climb the slope so as to enter the wall? Evidently the best thing to do was to wait for the coming dawn, and work in broad daylight.
And that was what it was decided to do, to the great annoyance of the forester and the extreme satisfaction of the doctor.