The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne
THE thin crescent of the moon, like a silver sickle, disappeared almost as soon as the sun set. A few clouds rising in the west, soon extinguished the last gleams of twilight. Darkness gradually rose from below and covered all. The ring of mountains was blotted out in obscurity, and the castle soon disappeared beneath the pall of night.
If the night promised to be very dark, there was nothing to indicate that it would be troubled by any atmospheric disturbance, rain or storm; and this was fortunate for Nic Deck and his companion, who were about to encamp in the open air.
There was no clump of trees on this barren plateau of Orgall. Here and there were a few shrubs, which afforded no shelter against the nocturnal cold. There were rocks in plenty, some half-buried in the ground, others in such a state of equilibrium that the slightest push would have sent them rolling down into the fir-woods.
The only plant that grew in profusion on the rocky soil was the thistle known as Russian thorn, whose seeds, says Elisée Reclus, were carried in their coats by the Muscovite horses—”a present of cheerful conquest which the Russians gave the Transylvanians.”
A search was made for a more comfortable place in which to pass the night, and which would afford some shelter against the fall in temperature which is remarkable in these altitudes.
“We have more than chances enough—to be miserable!” murmured Doctor Patak.
“Are you not satisfied, then?” asked Nic Deck.
“Certainly not! What a splendid place to catch a good cold or the rheumatism, which I do not know how I shall ever get cured of!”
A very artless confession on the part of the old quarantine officer. How he regretted his comfortable little house at Werst, with its room so snug and its bed so well furnished with pillows and counterpane!
Among the stones on the Orgall plateau one had to be selected whose position offered the best shelter against the south-west wind, which was beginning to freshen. This was what Nic Deck did, and soon the doctor joined him behind a large rock which was as flat as a table on its upper surface.
This stone was one of those stone benches amid the scabiouses and saxifrages which are frequently met with at the turnings of the road in Wallachia. While the traveller sits on them he can quench his thirst with the water contained in a vase placed on them, and which is every day renewed by the country people. When Baron Rodolphe de Gortz lived at the castle, this bench bore a bowl which the family servants never left empty. But now it was dirty and worn and covered with green mosses, and the least shock would have reduced it to dust.
At the end of the seat rose a granite shaft, the remains of an ancient cross, nothing being left of the arms, although a half-effaced groove showed where they had been.
Doctor Patak, being a strong-minded man, was unable to admit that this cross could protect him against supernatural apparitions. But by an anomaly common to a good many of the incredulous, although he did not believe in God, he was not very far from believing in the devil. In his heart he believed the Chort was not far off; he it was that haunted the castle, and neither the closed gate, the raised drawbridge, the lofty wall, nor the deep ditch would keep him from coming out, if the fancy took him, to come and twist both their necks.
And when the doctor saw that he had to spend a whole night under these conditions, he shuddered with terror. No! It was too much to require of a human creature, and it would be more than the most energetic of characters could bear.
And then an idea came to him tardily—an idea he had not thought of before he left Werst. It was Thursday evening, and on that day the people of the district, the country people, were careful not to go out after sundown. Thursday they knew to be a day of evil deeds. Their legends told them that if they ventured abroad on that day, they ran the risk of meeting with some evil spirit. And so no one moved about on the roads and by-ways after nightfall.
And here was Doctor Patak not only away from home, but close to a haunted castle, two or three miles from the village. And here he would have to stop until the dawn came—if it ever came again! In truth, this was simply tempting the devil!
Deep in the6e thoughts, the doctor saw the forester carefully take out of his bag a piece of cold meat, after having a good drink from his flask. The best thing, it occurred to him, was to do likewise, and he did so. A leg of a goose, a thick slice of bread, the whole well moistened with rakiou, was the least he could take to revive his strength. But if that calmed his hunger, it did not calm his fears.
“Now let us sleep,” said Nic Deck, as soon as he had put his bag at the foot of the stone.
“Good-night—that is easy to wish, but I am afraid it will not end well.”
Nic Deck, being in no humour for conversation, made no reply. Accustomed by his vocation to sleep amid the woods, he threw himself down close to the stone seat and was soon in a deep sleep. And the doctor could but grumble between his teeth when he heard his companion breathing at regular intervals.
As for him, it was impossible for him for some minutes to deaden his senses of hearing and seeing. In spite of his fatigue he continued to see and to listen. His brain was a prey to those extravagant visions which are due to the troubles of insomnia.
What was he looking for in the depths of darkness?—the hazy shapes of the objects which surrounded him, the scattered clouds across the sky, the almost imperceptible mass of the castle? The rocks on the Orgall plateau seemed to be moving in a sort of infernal saraband. And if they were to crumble on their bases, slip down the slope, roll on to the two adventurers, and crush them at the castle gate to which admission was denied them!
The unhappy doctor got up; he listened to the noises which are ever present on lofty table-lands—those disquieting murmurs which seem to whisper and groan and sigh. He heard the nyctalops fanning the rocks with frenzied wing, the stryges in their nocturnal flight, and two or three pairs of funereal owls whose hooting echoed like a cry of pain. Then his muscles contracted all at once, and his body trembled, bathed in icy perspiration.
In this way the long hours went by until midnight. If the doctor had been able to talk, to exchange but a few words now and then, to give free course to his recriminations, he would have been less afraid. But Nic Deck slept and slept in a deep slumber.
Midnight—that terrible hour for all, the hour of apparitions, the hour of evil deeds!
What could it be?
The doctor had just got up again. He was asking himself if he were awake, or if he were suffering from a nightmare.
Overhead he thought he saw—no! he really did see—the strangest of shapes, lighted by a spectral light, pass from one horizon to the other, rise, fall, and drift down with the clouds. * They looked like monsters, dragons with serpents’ tails, hippogryphs with huge wings, gigantic krakens, enormous vampires, fighting to seize him in their claws or swallow him in their jaws.
Then everything appeared to be in motion on the Orgall plateau—the rocks, the trees at its edge. And very distinctly a clanging at short intervals reached his ear.
“The bell!” he murmured, “the castle bell!”
Yes! It was indeed the bell of the old chapel, and not that of the church at Vulkan, which the wind would have borne in the opposite direction.
And now the strokes became more hurried. The hand that struck no longer tolled a funeral knell. No! It was an alarm, whose urgent strokes were awaking the echoes of the Transylvanian frontier.
As he listened to these dismal vibrations, Doctor Patak was seized with a convulsive fear, an insurmountable anguish, an irresistible terror which thrilled his whole body with cold shudderings.
But the forester had been awakened by the alarming clanging of the bell. He rose while Doctor Patak seemed as if beside himself.
Nic Deck listened, and his eyes tried to pierce the deep darkness which overhung the caşţle.
“That bell! That bell!” repeated Doctor Patak.
“It is the Chort that is ringing it!”
Decidedly the poor terrified doctor was thinking more than ever of the devil.
The forester remained motionless, and did not reply.
Suddenly a series of roars as if from some huge animal at a harbour's mouth broke forth in tumultuous undulations.
For a long distance around the air resounded with this deafening growl.
Then a light darted from the centre of the donjon, an intense light, from which leapt flashes of penetrating clearness and blinding coruscations. From what could come this powerful light, the irradiations of which spread in long sheets over the Orgall plateau? From what furnace came this photogenic stream, which seemed to embrace the rocks at the same time as it bathed them with a strange lividity?
“Nic—Nic!” exclaimed the doctor. “Look at me! Am I a corpse like you?”
In fact they had both assumed a corpse-like look. Their faces were pallid, their eyes seemed to have gone, the orbits being apparently empty; their cheeks were greyish-green, like the mosses which the legend says grow on the heads of those that are hanged.
Nic Deck was astounded at what he saw, at what he heard. Doctor Patak was in the last stage of fright: his muscles retracted, his skin bristled, his pupils dilated, his body was seized with tetanic rigidity. As the poet of the “Contemplations” remarks, “he breathed in terror.”
A minute—a minute or more—lasted this terrifying phenomenon. Then the strange light gradually went out, the groaning ceased, and the Orgall plateau resumed its silence and obscurity.
Neither of the men thought any more of sleep. The doctor overwhelmed with stupor, the forester upright against the stone seat, awaited the return of the dawn.
What did Nic Deck think of these things, which were evidently so supernatural to his eyes? Were they not enough to shake his resolution? Did he still intend to pursue this reckless adventure?
Certainly he had said that he would enter the castle, that he would explore the donjon. But was it not enough for him to have come to its insurmountable wall, to have evoked the anger of its guardian spirits, and provoked this trouble of the elements? Would he be reproached with not having kept to his promise if he returned to the village without having urged his folly to the end in entering this diabolic castle?
Suddenly the doctor threw himself upon him, seized him by the hand, and strove to drag him away, saying in a hoarse voice, “Come! come!”
“No!” said Nic Deck.
And in turn he caught hold of Doctor Patak, who fell at this last effort.
At last the night ended, and such was their mental state that neither forester nor doctor knew the time that elapsed until daybreak. They remembered nothing of the hours which preceded the first rays of the morning.
At that moment a rosy streak appeared on the crest of Paring, on the eastern horizon, on the other side of the valley of the two Syls. The faint white rays of dawn dispersed over the depth of the sky, and striped it as if it were a zebra-skin.
Nic Deck turned towards the castle. He saw it grow clearer and clearer: the donjon revealed itself from the high mists which came floating down the Vulkan slope; the chapel, the galleries, the outer walls emerged from the nocturnal mists; and there on the corner bastion appeared the beech-tree, with its leaves rustling in the easterly breeze.
There was no change in the ordinary aspect of the castle. The bell was as motionless as the old feudal weather-vane. No smoke arose from the donjon chimneys, and the barred windows remained obstinately closed.
Above the platform, in the higher zones of the sky, a few birds were flying and gently calling to each other.
Nic Deck turned to look at the principal entrance to the castle. The drawbridge up against the bay closed the postern between the two stone pillars which bore the arms of the barons of Gortz.
Had the forester resolved to continue this adventurous expedition to the end? Yes; and his resolution had not been shaken by the events of the night. A thing said was a thing done—that was his motto as we know. Neither the mysterious voice which had threatened him personally in the saloon of the “King Mathias,” nor the inexplicable phenomenon of sound and light he had just witnessed, would stop him from entering the castle. An hour would be enough for him to hurry through the galleries, visit the keep, and then, having fulfilled his promise, he would return tö Werst, where he would arrive during the morning.
As to Doctor Patak, he was now only an inert machine, without either the strength to resist or to insist. He would go where he was driven. If he fell, it would be impossible to lift him again. The terrors of the night had reduced him to complete imbecility, and he made no observation when the forester pointed to the castle and said,—
And yet the day had returned, and the doctor could have got back to Werst without fear of losing himself in the Plesa forests. He had no reason to wish to remain with Nic Deck, and if he did not abandon his companion to return to the village, it was that he was no longer conscious of the state of affairs, and was merely a body without a mind. And so when the forester dragged him towards the slope of the counterscarp he made no resistance.
But was it possible to enter the castle otherwise than by the gate? That was what Nic Deck endeavoured to discover.
The wall showed no breach, no falling in, no excavation, giving access to the interior. It was indeed surprising that these old walls were in such a state of preservation, but this was doubtless due to their thickness. To climb to the line of crenellations which crowned them appeared to be impracticable, as they rose some forty feet above the ditch. And it seemed as though Nic Deck, at the very moment of reaching the Castle of the Carpathians, was to fail owing to insurmountable obstacles.
Fortunately—or very unfortunately for him—there stood above the postern a sort of loophole, or rather an embrasure, through which formerly pointed the muzzle of a culverin. By making use of one of the chains of the drawbridge which hung down to the ground, it would not be very difficult for an active, vigorous man to hoist himself up to this embrasure. Its width was sufficient to allow of a man to pass, unless it was barred on the inside, and Nic Deck could probably manage to get through it within the castle wall.
The forester saw at once that this was the only way open to him, and that is why, followed by the unconscious doctor, he went obliquely down the inner slope of the counterscarp.
They were soon at the bottom of the ditch, which was strewn with stones amid the thickets of wild plants. They could hardly find a place to step, and they were not sure that myriads of venomous beasts did not swarm in the herbage of this humid excavation.
In the middle of the ditch, and parallel to the wall, was the ancient trench, now nearly dry, which they could just stride across.
Nic Deck, having lost nothing of his mental or bodily energy, went on coolly and quietly, while the doctor followed him mechanically, like an animal at the end of a string.
After crossing the trench, the forester went along the base of the curtain for some twenty yards, and stopped underneath the gate close to one end of the chain of the drawbridge. By the help of his hands and feet he could thence easily reach the line of stonework that jutted out just below the embrasure.
Evidently Nic did not intend to compel the doctor to take part with him in this escalade. So heavy a man could not have done so. He therefore contented himself with giving him a vigorous shake to make him understand, and then advised him to wait without moving at the bottom of the ditch.
Then Nic Deck commenced to climb the chain; and this was merely child’s play for his mountaineer’s muscles.
But when the doctor found himself alone, the true position of things, to a certain extent, recurred to him. He understood, he looked, he saw his companion already suspended a dozen feet from the ground, and in a voice choking with the bitterness of fear, he cried,—
The forester heard him not.
“Come—come—or I will go away!” cried the doctor.
“Go, then,” said Nic.
And he continued to raise himself along the chain of the drawbridge.
Doctor Patak, in a paroxysm of terror, would have gone back again up the slope of the counterscarp, so as to reach the crest of the Orgall plateau and return full speed to Werst.
But—prodigy to which the wonders of the preceding night were as nothing—he could not move. His feet were held fast as if they had been seized in the jaws of a vice. Could he place one before the other? No. They stuck by the heels and soles of his boots. Had the doctor been taken in a trap? He was too much frightened to look, but it seemed as though he was held by the nails in his boots.
Whatever it was, the poor man was immovable. He was fixed to the ground. Not having strength to cry out, he stretched out his hands in despair. It looked as though he sought to be rescued from the embrace of some tarask hidden in the bowels of the earth.
Meanwhile Nic Deck had got as high as the postern, and was placing his hand on the ironwork in which the hinges of the drawbridge were embedded.
A cry of pain escaped him; then throwing himself back, as if he had been struck by lightning, he slipped along the chain, which a final instinct made him clutch, and rolled to the bottom of the ditch.
“The voice truly said that misfortune would come to me,” he murmured, and then he lost consciousness.