The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne
THE country people and travellers who passed backwards or forwards over the Vulkan hill knew only the Castle of the Carpathians from its exterior aspect. At the respectful distance at which fear kept the bravest of Werst and its environs, it presented to the eye but an enormous mass of rocks which they might take to be ruins.
But within the enclosure was the castle as dilapidated as they supposed? No; and within the shelter of its solid walls and buildings, the old feudal fortress could have accommodated quite a garrison.
Vast vaulted halls, deep excavations, innumerable corridors, courts of which the stonework was hidden beneath the lofty fence of herbage, subterranean redoubts to which the light of day never penetrated, narrow staircases contrived in the thickness of the walls, casemates lighted by narrow loopholes in the external wall, a central donjon with three floors of apartments sufficiently habitable, crowned by a crenellated platform; and among the other buildings of the enclosure, interminable corridors capriciously entangled, mounting to the platform of the bastions, diving to the depths of the lower structure, with a few cisterns in which the rain-water was caught, the overflow feeding the torrent of the Nyad, and then long tunnels, not stopped up as was believed, but giving access to the Vulkan road—such was the state of the Castle of the Carpathians, the geometrical plan of which was as complicated as that of the labyrinths of Porsena, of Lemnos, or of Crete.
As Theseus was led on by his love for the daughter of Minos, so was it the power of love, more intense and more irresistible, which had led the count within the intricacies of the castle. Would he find an Ariadne’s thread to guide him, as the Greek hero had done?
Franz had had but one thought—to get within the enclosure, and he had got there. But one thing might have struck him, and that was that the drawbridge, which had always been raised, seemed to have been expressly lowered to admit him. Perhaps he might have been uneasy when the gate shut suddenly behind him? But he gave no thought to these things. He was at last in the castle where Rodolphe de Gortz was keeping La Stilla, and he would sacrifice his life to reach her.
The gallery into which Franz had advanced was wide, lofty, and with a vaulted roof, and it was quite dark, and its pavement was broken up, so that it had to be trodden carefully.
Franz took to the left wall, and kept to it, feeling his way along the facing, the efflorescent surface of which rubbed off on his hands. He heard no sound except that of his steps, which echoed in the distance. A draught of warm air with an ancient, frowsy smell swept gently past him, as if there were an opening at the other end of the gallery
After passing a stone pillar which served as a buttress in the last angle to the left, Franz found himself in a much narrower corridor. He had only to open his arms to touch the walls.
He went on in this way, his body bent forward, feeling with hands and feet, and endeavouring to discover if the passage were a straight one.
Two hundred yards after passing the buttress Franz felt the wall curving off to the left, to take the exactly opposite direction fifty paces farther on. Did it return to the outer wall, or did it lead to the foot of the donjon?
Franz endeavoured to quicken his advance, but every moment he was hindered by a rise in the ground, against which he stumbled, or by some sharp angle which changed his direction. From time to time he would reach some opening in the wall leading off to lateral ramifications. But all was dark, unfathomable, and it was in vain he sought to make out where he was in this maze in a molehill.
He had to retrace his steps several times on ascertaining that he had gone where there was no thoroughfare. One thing he had to fear was that some badly-fastened trapdoor would give way under his feet and drop him into some underground cell from which he could not escape. And so whenever he touched a piece that sounded hollow he took care to cling to the walls, though he went forward with an ardour that hardly left him time for reflection.
At the same time, as he had neither gone upwards nor downwards, the floor was clearly on the level of the inner courts arranged among the different buildings within the enclosure, and it was possible that the passages ended in the central donjon, perhaps at the foot of the staircase.
Certainly there ought to exist a more direct means of communication between the gate and the central buildings. When the Gortz family had lived there it had not been necessary to enter these interminable passages. A second gate, which faced the gate opposite the first gallery, opened on to the place of arms, in the centre of which rose the keep; but it had been stopped up, and Franz had not been able to see where it had been.
For an hour the young count continued his advance at a venture, listening if he could hear any distant sound, and not daring to shout for La Stilla lest the echoes should carry it to the upper floors of the donjon. He was in no way discouraged, and would go on until strength failed him, or some impassable obstacle compelled him to stop.
But although he took 110 notice of it, Franz was already nearly exhausted. Since he left Werst he had eaten nothing. He suffered from hunger and thirst. His step was not sure, his legs were failing him. In this warm, humid air his respiration had become irregular, and his heart beat violently.
It was nearly nine o’clock when Franz, putting out his left foot, found no ground to tread upon.
He stooped down and felt there was a step, and then another below it.
It was a staircase.
Did these stairs go down to the foundations of the castle, with no way of exit?
Franz did not hesitate to go down them, and he counted the steps, which went off obliquely from the passage.
Seventy-seven steps were thus descended to the level of a second passage which led to many gloomy windings.
Franz went along these for half an hour, and, tired out, had just stopped when a luminous point appeared several hundred feet in advance.
Whence came this light? Was it merely a natural phenomenon, the hydrogen of some will-o’-the-wisp that had lighted itself at this depth? Was it a lantern carried by one of the inhabitants of the castle?
“Can it be La Stilla?” murmured Franz. And the thought occurred to him that a light had already appeared as if to show him the way into the castle when he was wandering among the rocks on the Orgall plateau. If it had been La Stilla who had shown this light at one of the windows of the donjon, was it not La Stilla who was now trying to guide him amid the sinuosities of these subterranean passages?
Hardly master of himself, Franz bent down and looked ahead without moving. It was more a diffused effulgence than a luminous point that seemed to fill a sort of vault at the end of the passage,
Franz crawled towards it, for his limbs could scarcely support him, and passing through a narrow entrance he fell on the threshold of a crypt.
This crypt was in a good state of preservation, about twelve feet high, and circular in shape. The arches of the vault sprang from the capitals of eight dwarf columns, and met in a hanging boss, in the centre of which was a glass vase filled with a yellowish light.
Facing the entrance, between two of the columns, was another door which was closed, and the large rounded bolts showed where the outer ironwork of the hinges was fastened.
Franz dragged himself up to this second door and tried to move it.
His efforts were in vain.
Some old furniture was in the crypt; there was a bed, or rather a bench, in old heart-of-oak, on which were a few bedclothes; there was a stool with twisted feet; there was a table fixed to the wall with iron tenons. On the table were a large jug full of water, a dish with a piece of cold venison, a thick piece of bread like a sea-biscuit. In a corner murmured a fountain fed by a narrow stream, the overflow of which passed away at the base of one of the columns.
Did not these arrangements show that some guest was expected in this crypt, or rather a prisoner in this prison? Was this prisoner Franz? and had he been lured by a stratagem into the interior of the castle?
In the trouble of his thoughts Franz had no suspicion of this. Exhausted by want and fatigue, he dashed at the food on the table, quenched his thirst with the contents of the jug, and then fell on the rough bed, where a sleep of a few minutes might recruit his strength.
But when he tried to collect his thoughts it seemed as though they escaped like the water he might try to hold in his hand.
Would he then have to wait for daylight to recommence his search? Had his will so far forsaken him that he was no longer master of his acts?
“No,” said he, “I will not wait! To the donjon! I must reach the donjon to-night.”
Suddenly the light in the vase went out, and the crypt . was plunged in complete darkness.
Franz would have risen. He could not do so, and his thoughts went to sleep, or rather stopped suddenly, like the hand of a clock when the spring breaks. It was a strange sleep, or rather an overpowering torpor, an absolute annihilation of being, which did not proceed from the soothing of the mind.
How long the sleep lasted Franz did not know. His watch had run down and did not show the time. But the crypt was again bathed in artificial light.
Franz jumped off the bed, and stepped towards the first door, which was open all the time, then towards the second, which was still closed.
He began to reflect, and found he could not do so without difficulty.
If his body had recovered from the fatigues of the night before, he felt his head empty and heavy.
“How long have I slept?” he asked. “Is it night or is it day?”
Within the crypt nothing had changed, except that the light had been renewed, the food replaced, and the jug filled with clear water.
Some one, then, must have been there while Franz was deep in this overpowering slumber? It was known that he was in the depths of the castle! He was in the power of Baron Rodolphe de Gortz! Was he doomed to have no further communication with his fellow-men?
That was not possible, and, besides, he would escape, for he could do so; he would re-traverse the gallery that led to the gate, he would leave the castle.
Leave? He then remembered that the gate was closed behind him.
Well! He would try to reach the outer wall, and by one of the embrasures he would try to slip down into the ditch. Cost what it might, in an hour he would have escaped from the castle.
But La Stilla? Would he give up reaching her? Would he go away without rescuing her from Rodolphe de Gortz?
Yes! And what he could not do single-handed he would do with the help of the police, which Rotzko would bring from Karlsburg to the village of Werst. They would rush to the assault of the old stronghold, they would search the castle from top to bottom.
Having come to this determination, he decided to put it into execution without losing an instant.
Franz rose, and was walking towards the passage by which he had come, when he heard a noise behind the other door.
It was certainly the sound of footsteps approaching very slowly.
Franz put his ear against the door and, holding his breath, he listened intently.
The steps seemed to come at regular intervals, as if they were going upstairs. No doubt there was a .second staircase which connected the crypt with the interior courts.
In readiness for whatever might happen, Franz drew from the sheath his hunting-knife, which he wore at his belt, and gripped it firmly.
If it were to be one of the Baron de Gortz’s servants who entered, he would throw himself on him, take away the keys, and make it impossible for him to follow him. And then Franz would rush along this new road and try to reach the donjon.
If it were the Baron de Gortz—and he would recognize him, although he had only seen him once, at the moment La Stilla fell on the stage of San Carlo—he would attack him without mercy.
However, the footsteps stopped on the landing which formed the outer threshold.
Franz did not move, but waited until the door was opened.
It did not open, but a voice of infinite sweetness was heard by the young count.
It was the voice of La Stilla—yes!—her voice a little weakened, her voice which had lost nothing of its inflections, of its inexpressible charm, of its caressing modulations, that admirable instrument of its marvellous art, which seemed to have died with the artiste.
And La Stilla repeated the plaintive melody which he had heard in his dream when he slept in the saloon of the inn at Werst:—
The song entered into Franz to the depths of his soul. He breathed it, he drank it like a divine liquor, while La Stilla seemed to invite him to follow her, repeating,—
But why did not the door open to let him through? Could he not reach her, clasp her in his arms, take her with him out of the castle?
“Stilla—my Stilla!” he shouted, and he threw himself against the door, which stood firm against his efforts.
Already the song seemed to grow fainter, the footsteps were heard going away.
Franz knelt down, trying to shake the planks, tearing his hands with the ironwork, calling all the time to La Stilla, whose voice had died away in the distance.
It was then that a terrible thought flashed through his mind.
“Mad!” he exclaimed. “She is mad, for she did not recognize me and did not reply to me. For five years she has been shut up in this castle, in the power of this man—my poor Stilla—her reason has left her!”
Then he rose, his eyes haggard, his head as if on fire.
“I also—I feel that I am going mad!" he repeated; “I am going mad—mad like her!”
He strode backwards and forwards across the crypt like a wild beast in its cage.
“No!” he repeated. “No! I must not go mad. I must get out of this castle. I will go!”
And he went towards the first door. It had just shut silently.
Franz had not noticed it while he was listening to the voice of La Stilla.
He had been imprisoned within the enclosure, and now he was a prisoner within the crypt.