THE CHURCH OF SAINT PIERRE.
THE HOUR OF DEATH.
Several days passed, and Master Zacharius, though almost dead, rose from his bed and returned to active life under a supernatural excitement. He lived by pride. But Gerande did not deceive herself; her father’s body and soul were for ever lost.
The old man got together his last remaining resources, without thought of those who were dependent upon him. He betrayed an incredible energy, walking, ferreting about, and mumbling strange, incomprehensible words.
One morning Gerande went down to his shop. Master Zacharius was not there. She waited for him all day. Master Zacharius did not return.
Gerande wept bitterly, but her father did not reappear.
Aubert searched everywhere through the town, and soon came to the sad conviction that the old man had left it.
“Let us find my father!” cried Gerande, when the young apprentice told her this sad news.
“Where can he be?” Aubert asked himself.
An inspiration suddenly came to his mind. He remembered the last words which Master Zacharius had spoken. The old man only lived now in the old iron clock that had not been returned! Master Zacharius must have gone in search of it.
Aubert spoke of this to Gerande.
“Let us look at my father’s book,” she replied.
They descended to the shop. The book was open on the bench. All the watches or clocks made by the old man, and which had been returned to him because they were out of order, were stricken out excepting one:—
“Sold to M. Pittonaccio, an iron clock, with bell and moving figures; sent to his château at Andernatt.”
It was this “moral” clock of which Scholastique had spoken with so much enthusiasm.
“My father is there!” cried Gerande.
“Let us hasten thither,” replied Aubert. “We may still save him!”
“Not for this life,” murmured Gerande, “but at least for the other.”
“By the mercy of God, Gerande! The château of Andernatt stands in the gorge of the ‘Dents-du-Midi’ twenty hours from Geneva. Let us go!”
That very evening Aubert and Gerande, followed by the old servant, set out on foot by the road which skirts Lake Leman. They accomplished five leagues during the night, stopping neither at Bessinge nor at Ermance, where rises the famous château of the Mayors. They with difficulty forded the torrent of the Dranse, and everywhere they went they inquired for Master Zacharius, and were soon convinced that they were on his track.
The next morning, at daybreak, having passed Thonon, they reached Evian, whence the Swiss territory may be seen extended over twelve leagues. But the two betrothed did not even perceive the enchanting prospect. They went straight forward, urged on by a supernatural force. Aubert, leaning on a knotty stick, offered his arm alternately to Gerande and to Scholastique, and he made the greatest efforts to sustain his companions. All three talked of their sorrow, of their hopes, and thus passed along the beautiful road by the water-side, and across the narrow plateau which unites the borders of the lake with the heights of the Chalais. They soon reached Bouveret, where the Rhone enters the Lake of Geneva.
On leaving this town they diverged from the lake, and their weariness increased amid these mountain districts. Vionnaz, Chesset, Collombay, half lost villages, were soon left behind. Meanwhile their knees shook, their feet were lacerated by the sharp points which covered the ground like a brushwood of granite;—but no trace of Master Zacharius!
He must be found, however, and the two young people did not seek repose either in the isolated hamlets or at the château of Monthay, which, with its dependencies, formed the appanage of Margaret of Savoy. At last, late in the day, and half dead with fatigue, they reached the hermitage of Notre-Dame-du-Sex, which is situated at the base of the Dents-du-Midi, six hundred feet above the Rhone.
The hermit received the three wanderers as night was falling. They could not have gone another step, and here they must needs rest.
The hermit could give them no news of Master Zacharius. They could scarcely hope to find him still living amid these sad solitudes. The night was dark, the wind howled amid the mountains, and the avalanches roared down from the summits of the broken crags.
Aubert and Gerande, crouching before the hermit’s hearth, told him their melancholy tale. Their mantles, covered with snow, were drying in a corner; and without, the hermit’s dog barked lugubriously, and mingled his voice with that of the tempest.
“Pride,” said the hermit to his guests, “has destroyed an angel created for good. It is the stumbling-block against which the destinies of man strike. You cannot reason with pride, the principal of all the vices, since, by its very nature, the proud man refuses to listen to it. It only remains, then, to pray for your father!”
All four knelt down, when the barking of the dog redoubled, and some one knocked at the door of the hermitage.
“Open, in the devil’s name!”
The door yielded under the blows, and a dishevelled, haggard, ill-clothed man appeared.
“My father!” cried Gerande.
It was Master Zacharius.
“Where am I?” said he. “In eternity! Time is ended—the hours no longer strike—the hands have stopped!”
“Father!” returned Gerande, with so piteous an emotion that the old man seemed to return to the world of the living.
“Thou here, Gerande?” he cried; “and thou, Aubert? Ah, my dear betrothed ones, you are going to be married in our old church!”
“Father,” said Gerande, seizing him by the arm, “come home to Geneva,—come with us!”
The old man tore away from his daughter’s embrace and hurried towards the door, on the threshold of which the snow was falling in large flakes.
“Do not abandon your children!” cried Aubert.
“Why return,” replied the old man sadly, “to those places which my life has already quitted, and where a part of myself is for ever buried?”
“Your soul is not dead,” said the hermit solemnly.
“My soul? O no,—its wheels are good! I perceive it beating regularly—”
“Your soul is immaterial,—your soul is immortal!” replied the hermit sternly.
“Yes—like my glory! But it is shut up in the château of Andernatt, and I wish to see it again!”
The hermit crossed himself; Scholastique became almost inanimate. Aubert held Gerande in his arms.
“The château of Andernatt is inhabited by one who is lost,” said the hermit, “one who does not salute the cross of my hermitage.”
“My father, go not thither!”
“I want my soul! My soul is mine—”
“Hold him! Hold my father!” cried Gerande.
But the old man had leaped across the threshold, and plunged into the night, crying, “Mine, mine, my soul!”
Gerande, Aubert, and Scholastique hastened after him. They went by difficult paths, across which Master Zacharius sped like a tempest, urged by an irresistible force. The snow raged around them, and mingled its white flakes with the froth of the swollen torrents.
As they passed the chapel erected in memory of the massacre of the Theban legion, they hurriedly crossed themselves. Master Zacharius was not to be seen.
At last the village of Evionnaz appeared in the midst of this sterile region. The hardest heart would have been moved to see this hamlet, lost among these horrible solitudes. The old man sped on, and plunged into the deepest gorge of the Dents-du-Midi, which pierce the sky with their sharp peaks.
Soon a ruin, old and gloomy as the rocks at its base, rose before him.
“It is there—there!” he cried, hastening his pace still more frantically.
The château of Andernatt was a ruin even then. A thick, crumbling tower rose above it, and seemed to menace with its downfall the old gables which reared themselves below. The vast piles of jagged stones were gloomy to look on. Several dark halls appeared amid the debris, with caved-in ceilings, now become the abode of vipers.
A low and narrow postern, opening upon a ditch choked with rubbish, gave access to the château. Who had dwelt there none knew. No doubt some margrave, half lord, half brigand, had sojourned in it; to the margrave had succeeded bandits or counterfeit coiners, who had been hanged on the scene of their crime. The legend went that, on winter nights, Satan came to lead his diabolical dances on the slope of the deep gorges in which the shadow of these ruins was engulfed.
But Master Zacharius was not dismayed by their sinister aspect. He reached the postern. No one forbade him to pass. A spacious and gloomy court presented itself to his eyes; no one forbade him to cross it. He passed along the kind of inclined plane which conducted to one of the long corridors, whose arches seemed to banish daylight from beneath their heavy springings. His advance was unresisted. Gerande, Aubert, and Scholastique closely followed him.
Master Zacharius, as if guided by an irresistible hand, seemed sure of his way, and strode along with rapid step. He reached an old worm-eaten door, which fell before his blows, whilst the bats described oblique circles around his head.
An immense hall, better preserved than the rest, was soon reached. High sculptured panels, on which serpents, ghouls, and other strange figures seemed to disport themselves confusedly, covered its walls. Several long and narrow windows, like loopholes, shivered beneath the bursts of the tempest.
Master Zacharius, on reaching the middle of this hall, uttered a cry of joy.
On an iron support, fastened to the wall, stood the clock in which now resided his entire life. This unequalled masterpiece represented an ancient Roman church, with buttresses of wrought iron, with its heavy bell-tower, where there was a complete chime for the anthem of the day, the “Angelus,” the mass, vespers, compline, and the benediction. Above the church door, which opened at the hour of the services, was placed a “rose,” in the centre of which two hands moved, and the archivault of which reproduced the twelve hours of the face sculptured in relief. Between the door and the rose, just as Scholastique had said, a maxim, relative to the employment of every moment of the day, appeared on a copper plate. Master Zacharius had once regulated this succession of devices with a really Christian solicitude; the hours of prayer, of work, of repast, of recreation, and of repose, followed each other according to the religious discipline, and were to infallibly insure salvation to him who scrupulously observed their commands.
Master Zacharius, intoxicated with joy, went forward to take possession of the clock, when a frightful roar of laughter resounded behind him.
He turned, and by the light of a smoky lamp recognized the little old man of Geneva.
“You here?” cried he.
Gerande was afraid. She drew closer to Aubert.
“Good-day, Master Zacharius,” said the monster.
“Who are you?”
“Signor Pittonaccio, at your service! You have come to give me your daughter! You have remembered my words, ‘Gerande will not wed Aubert.’”
The young apprentice rushed upon Pittonaccio, who escaped from him like a shadow.
“Stop, Aubert!” cried Master Zacharius.
“Good-night,” said Pittonaccio, and he disappeared.
“My father, let us fly from this hateful place!” cried Gerande. “My father!”
Master Zacharius was no longer there. He was pursuing the phantom of Pittonaccio across the rickety corridors. Scholastique, Gerande, and Aubert remained, speechless and fainting, in the large gloomy hall. The young girl had fallen upon a stone seat; the old servant knelt beside her, and prayed; Aubert remained erect, watching his betrothed. Pale lights wandered in the darkness, and the silence was only broken by the movements of the little animals which live in old wood, and the noise of which marks the hours of “death watch.”
When daylight came, they ventured upon the endless staircase which wound beneath these ruined masses; for two hours they wandered thus without meeting a living soul, and hearing only a far-off echo responding to their cries. Sometimes they found themselves buried a hundred feet below the ground, and sometimes they reached places whence they could overlook the wild mountains.
Chance brought them at last back again to the vast hall, which had sheltered them during this night of anguish. It was no longer empty. Master Zacharius and Pittonaccio were talking there together, the one upright and rigid as a corpse, the other crouching over a marble table.
Master Zacharius, when he perceived Gerande, went forward and took her by the hand, and led her towards Pittonaccio, saying, “Behold your lord and master, my daughter. Gerande, behold your husband!”
Gerande shuddered from head to foot.
“Never!” cried Aubert, “for she is my betrothed.”
“Never!” responded Gerande, like a plaintive echo.
Pittonaccio began to laugh.
“You wish me to die, then!” exclaimed the old man. “There, in that clock, the last which goes of all which have gone from my hands, my life is shut up; and this man tells me, ‘When I have thy daughter, this clock shall belong to thee.’ And this man will not rewind it. He can break it, and plunge me into chaos. Ah, my daughter, you no longer love me!”
“My father!” murmured Gerande, recovering consciousness.
“If you knew what I have suffered, far away from this principle of my existence!” resumed the old man. “Perhaps no one looked after this timepiece. Perhaps its springs were left to wear out, its wheels to get clogged. But now, in my own hands, I can nourish this health so dear, for I must not die,—I, the great watchmaker of Geneva. Look, my daughter, how these hands advance with certain step. See, five o’clock is about to strike. Listen well, and look at the maxim which is about to be revealed.”
Five o’clock struck with a noise which resounded sadly in Gerande’s soul, and these words appeared in red letters:
“YOU MUST EAT OF THE FRUITS OF THE TREE OF SCIENCE.”
Aubert and Gerande looked at each other stupefied. These were no longer the pious sayings of the Catholic watchmaker. The breath of Satan must have passed over it. But Zacharius paid no attention to this, and resumed—
“Dost thou hear, my Gerande? I live, I still live! Listen to my breathing,—see the blood circulating in my veins! No, thou wouldst not kill thy father, and thou wilt accept this man for thy husband, so that I may become immortal, and at last attain the power of God!”
At these blasphemous words old Scholastique crossed herself, and Pittonaccio laughed aloud with joy.
“And then, Gerande, thou wilt be happy with him. See this man,—he is Time! Thy existence will be regulated with absolute precision. Gerande, since I gave thee life, give life to thy father!”
“Gerande,” murmured Aubert, “I am thy betrothed.”
“He is my father!” replied Gerande, fainting.
“She is thine!” said Master Zacharius. “Pittonaccio, them wilt keep thy promise!”
“Here is the key of the clock,” replied the horrible man.
Master Zacharius seized the long key, which resembled an uncoiled snake, and ran to the clock, which he hastened to wind up with fantastic rapidity. The creaking of the spring jarred upon the nerves. The old watchmaker wound and wound the key, without stopping a moment, and it seemed as if the movement were beyond his control. He wound more and more quickly, with strange contortions, until he fell from sheer weariness.
“There, it is wound up for a century!” he cried.
Aubert rushed from the hall as if he were mad. After long wandering, he found the outlet of the hateful château, and hastened into the open air. He returned to the hermitage of Notre-Dame-du-Sex, and talked so despairingly to the holy recluse, that the latter consented to return with him to the château of Andernatt.
If, during these hours of anguish, Gerande had not wept, it was because her tears were exhausted.
Master Zacharius had not left the hall. He ran every moment to listen to the regular beating of the old clock.
Meanwhile the clock had struck, and to Scholastique’s great terror, these words had appeared on the silver face:—
“MAN OUGHT TO BECOME THE EQUAL OF GOD.”
The old man had not only not been shocked by these impious maxims, but read them deliriously, and flattered himself with thoughts of pride, whilst Pittonaccio kept close by him.
The marriage-contract was to be signed at midnight. Gerande, almost unconscious, saw or heard nothing. The silence was only broken by the old man’s words, and the chuckling of Pittonaccio.
Eleven o’clock struck. Master Zacharius shuddered, and read in a loud voice:—
“MAN SHOULD BE THE SLAVE OF SCIENCE, AND SACRIFICE TO IT RELATIVES AND FAMILY.”
“Yes!” he cried, “there is nothing but science in this world!”
The hands slipped over the face of the clock with the hiss of a serpent, and the pendulum beat with accelerated strokes.
Master Zacharius no longer spoke. He had fallen to the floor, his throat rattled, and from his oppressed bosom came only these half-broken words: “Life—science!”
The scene had now two new witnesses, the hermit and Aubert. Master Zacharius lay upon the floor; Gerande was praying beside him, more dead than alive.
Of a sudden a dry, hard noise was heard, which preceded the strike.
Master Zacharius sprang up.
“Midnight!” he cried.
The hermit stretched out his hand towards the old clock,—and midnight did not sound.
Master Zacharius uttered a terrible cry, which must have been heard in hell, when these words appeared:—
“WHO EVER SHALL ATTEMPT TO MAKE HIMSELF THE EQUAL OF GOD, SHALL BE FOR EVER DAMNED!”
The old clock burst with a noise like thunder, and the spring, escaping, leaped across the hall with a thousand fantastic contortions; the old man rose, ran after it, trying in vain to seize it, and exclaiming, “My soul,—my soul!”
The spring bounded before him, first on one side, then on the other, and he could not reach it.
At last Pittonaccio seized it, and, uttering a horrible blasphemy, ingulfed himself in the earth.
Master Zacharius fell backwards. He was dead.
The old watchmaker was buried in the midst of the peaks of Andernatt.
Then Aubert and Gerande returned to Geneva, and during the long life which God accorded to them, they made it a duty to redeem by prayer the soul of the castaway of science.
THE CHURCH OF SAINT PIERRE.