What in all these fifty years had he forgotten? His name, his rank, his very origin? Much, no doubt. But that there was one haunting memory that had dwelt with him throughout, his child and her lover were to learn—one memory, and that dreadful recurring illusion of the guillotine.
“When Black Venn slips his apron, I shall be in a position to consider your suit.”
Surely that was an odd and enigmatical condition, entirely remote from the subject at issue? Yet from the moment of the first impassioned pleadings of the stricken George, De Jussac had insisted upon it as one from which there should be no appeal.
Now the Black Venn referred to was a great mound of lias that rolled up and inland, in the far sweep of the bay, from the giddy margin of the lower ruin of cliffs. These—mere compressed mountains of mud, blown by the winds and battered by the sea—were in a constant state of yawn and collapse. Yard by yard they yielded to the scourge of Time, and landslides were of common occurrence.
All along the middle slope of Black Venn itself, a wide, deep fissure, dark and impenetrable, had stretched from ages unrecorded. But the eventual opening-out of this crevasse, and the consequent subsidence of the incline, or apron, below it, had been foretold by Mr. De Jussac; and this, in fact, was the condition to which he had alluded.
“Mr. De Jussac! do you hear me?”
“I am coming, my friend.”
The light shining steadily through a front window of the cottage flickered and shifted. The young man in the rain and storm outside danced with impatience.
Suddenly the door opened, and Plancine’s father stood there, candle in hand.
“What is it, my George?”
“The hill, sir—the hill! It’s fallen! You were right. You must stand by your word. Black Venn has slipped his apron!”
“My God, no!”
There were despair and exultation in his voice.
“My God, no!” he whispered again, and dived into a cupboard under the stair.
Thence he reappeared with a horn lantern and his old blue cloak.
“Come, then!” he cried. “My hour is upon me!”
“Mr. De Jussac, it will wait till the morning.”
“No, no, no! Do you trifle with your destiny? It has happened opportunely, while all are within doors and we have a clear field. How do you know? have you seen? Is it possible to descend to it from above?”
“I passed there less than an hour ago. It is possible, I am sure.”
They set off hurriedly through the rain-beaten night. Not a word passed between them as they left the village and struck into the high-valley road that ran past, at a moderate distance, the head of the bay. De Jussac strode rapidly in advance of his companion. His long cloak whirled in the blast; it flogged his gaunt limbs all set to intense action. He seemed uplifted, translated—like one in whom the very article of a life-long faith, or monomania, is about to be justified.