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The Apple Tree, Page 3

Daphne Du Maurier

  After a few moments' silence he continued talking. "I said to Anna, 'What shall we do?', and she answered me without hesitation, 'We must go on.' I did not argue, I knew perfectly well that would be her wish. The place had put a spell on both of us."

  They left the valley, and began the ascent.

  "It was a wonderful day," said Victor, "hardly a breath of wind, and not a cloud in the sky. Scorching sun, you know how it can be, but the air clean and cold. I chaffed Anna about that other climb, up Snowdon, and made her promise not to leave me behind this time. She was wearing an open shirt, and a brief kilted skirt, and her hair was loose. She looked... quite beautiful."

  As he talked, slowly, quietly, I had the impression that it must surely be an accident that had happened, but that his mind, unhinged by tragedy, baulked at Anna's death. It must be so. Anna had fallen. He had seen her fall and had been powerless to help her. He had then returned, broken in mind and spirit, telling himself she still lived on Monte Verità.

  "We came to a village an hour before sundown," said Victor. "The climb had taken us all day. We were still about three hours from the peak itself, or so I judged. The village consisted of some dozen dwellings or so, huddled together. And as we walked towards the first one, a curious thing happened."

  He paused and stared in front of him.

  "Anna was a little ahead of me," he said, "moving swiftly with those long strides of hers, you know how she does. I saw two or three men, with some children and goats, come on to the track from a piece of pasture land to the right of us. Anna raised her hand in salute, and at sight of her the men started, as if terrified, and snatching up the children ran to the nearest group of hovels, as if all the fiends in hell were after them. I heard them bolt the doors and shutter the windows. It was the most extraordinary thing. The goats went scattering down the track, equally scared."

  Victor said he had made some joke to Anna about a charming welcome, and that she seemed upset; she did not know what she could have done to frighten them. Victor went to the first hut and knocked upon the door.

  Nothing happened at all, but he could hear whispers inside and a child crying. Then he lost patience and began to shout. This had effect, and after a moment one of the shutters was removed and a man's face appeared at the gap and stared at him. Victor, by way of encouragement, nodded and smiled. Slowly the man withdrew the whole of the shutter and Victor spoke to him. At first the man shook his head, then he seemed to change his mind and came and unbolted the door. He stood in the entrance, peering nervously about him, and, ignoring Victor, looked at Anna. He shook his head violently and, speaking very quickly and quite unintelligibly, pointed towards the summit of Monte Verità. Then from the shadows of the small room came an elderly man, leaning on two sticks, who motioned aside the terrified children and moved past them to the door. He, at least, spoke a language that was not entirely patois.

  "Who is that woman?" he asked. "What does she want with us?"

  Victor explained that Anna was his wife, that they had come from the valley to climb the mountain, that they were tourists on holiday, and they would be glad of shelter for the night. He said the old man stared away from him to Anna.

  "She is your wife? " he said. " She is not from Monte Verità?"

  "She is my wife," repeated Victor. "We come from England. We are in this country on holiday. We have never been here before."

  The old man turned to the younger and they muttered together for a few moments. Then the younger man went back inside the house, and there was further talk from the interior. A woman appeared, even more frightened than the younger man. She was literally trembling, Victor said, as she looked out of the doorway towards Anna. It was Anna who disturbed them.

  "She is my wife," said Victor again, "we come from the valley."

  Finally the old man made a gesture of consent, of understanding.

  "I believe you," he said. "You are welcome to come inside. If you are from the valley, that is all right. We have to be careful."

  Victor beckoned to Anna, and slowly she came up the track and stood beside Victor, on the threshold of the house. Even now the woman looked at her with timidity, and she and the children backed away.

  The old man motioned his visitors inside. The living-room was bare but clean, and there was a fire burning.

  "We have food," said Victor, unshouldering his pack, "and mattresses too. We don't want to be a nuisance. But if we could eat here, and sleep on the floor, it will do very well indeed."

  The old man nodded. "I am satisfied," he said, "I believe you."

  Then he withdrew with his family.

  Victor said he and Anna were both puzzled at their reception, and could not understand why the fact of their being married, and coming from the valley, should have gained them admittance, after that first odd show of terror. They ate, and unrolled their packs, and then the old man appeared again with milk for them, and cheese. The woman remained behind, but the younger man, out of curiosity, accompanied the elder.

  Victor thanked the old fellow for his hospitality, and said that now they would sleep, and in the morning, soon after sunrise, they would climb to the summit of the mountain.

  "Is the way easy?" he asked.

  "It is not difficult," came the reply. "I would offer to send someone with you, but no one cares to go."

  His manner was diffident, and Victor said he glanced again at Anna.

  "Your wife will be all right in the house here," he said. "We will take care of her."

  "My wife will climb with me," said Victor. "She won't want to stay behind."

  A look of anxiety came into the old man's face.

  "It is better that your wife does not go up Monte Verità," he said. "It will be dangerous."

  "Why is it dangerous for me to go up Monte Verità?" asked Anna.

  The old man looked at her, his anxiety deepening. "For girls," he said, "for women, it is dangerous."

  "But how?" asked Anna. "Why? You told my husband the path is easy."

  "It is not the path that is dangerous," he answered; "my son can set you on the path. It is because of the..." and Victor said he used a word that neither he nor Anna understood, but that it sounded like 'sacerdotessa', or 'sacerdozio'."

  "That's priestess, or priesthood," said Victor. "It can't be that. I wonder what on earth he means?"

  The old man, anxious and distressed, looked from one to the other of them.

  "It is safe for you to climb Monte Verità, and to descend again," he repeated to Victor, "but not for your wife. They have great power, the 'sacerdotesse'. Here in the village we are always in fear for our young girls, for our women."

  Victor said the whole thing sounded like an African travel tale, where a tribe of wild men pounced out of the jungle and carried off the female population into captivity.

  "I don't know what he's talking about," he said to Anna, "but I suppose they are riddled with some sort of superstition, which will appeal to you, with your Welsh blood."

  He laughed, he told me, making light of it, and then, being confoundedly sleepy, arranged their mattresses in front of the fire. Bidding the old man good evening, he and Anna settled themselves for the night.

  He slept soundly, in the profound sleep that comes after climbing, and woke suddenly, just before daybreak, to the sound of a cock crowing in the village outside.

  He turned over on his side to see if Anna was awake. The mattress was thrown back, and bare. Anna had gone...

  No one was yet astir in the house, Victor said, and the only sound was the cock crowing. He got up and put on his shoes and coat, went to the door and stepped outside.

  It was the cold, still moment that comes just before sunrise. The last few stars were paling in the sky. Clouds hid the valley, some thousands of feet below. Only here, near the summit of the mountain, was it clear.

  At first Victor felt no misgiving. He knew by this time that Anna was capable of looking after herself and was as sure-footed as he—more so, possibly. She would t
ake no foolish risks, and anyway the old man had told them that the climb was not dangerous. He felt hurt, though, that she had not waited for him. It was breaking the promise that they should always climb together. And he had no idea how much of a start she had in front of him. The only thing he could do was to follow her as swiftly as he could.

  He went back into the room to collect their rations for the day—she had not thought of that. Their packs they could fetch later, for the descent, and they would probably have to accept hospitality here for another night.

  His movements must have roused his host, for suddenly the old man appeared from the inner room and stood beside him. His eye fell on Anna's empty mattress, then he searched Victor's eyes, almost in accusation.

  "My wife has gone on ahead," Victor said. "I am going to follow her."

  The old man looked very grave. He went to the open door and stood there, staring away from the village, up the mountain.

  "It was wrong to let her go," he said, "you should not have permitted it." He appeared very distressed, Victor said, and shook his head to and fro, murmuring to himself.

  "It's all right," said Victor. "I shall soon catch her up, and we shall probably be back again, soon after midday."

  He put his hand on the old fellow's arm, to reassure him.

  "I fear very much that it will be too late," said the old man. "She will go to them, and once she is with them she will not come back."

  Once again he used the word 'sacerdotesse', the power of the 'sacerdotesse', and his manner, his state of apprehension, now communicated itself to Victor, so that he too felt a sense of urgency, and of fear.

  "Do you mean that there are living people at the top of Monte Verità?" he said. "People who may attack her, and harm her bodily?"

  The old man began to talk rapidly, and it was difficult to make any sense out of the torrent of words that now sprang from him. No, he said, the 'sacerdotesse' would not hurt her, they hurt no one; it was that they would take her to become one of them. Anna would go to them, she could not help herself, the power was so strong. Twenty, thirty years ago, the old man said, his daughter had gone to them: he had never seen her again. Other young women from the village, and from down below, in the valley, were called by the 'sacerdotesse'. Once they were called they had to go, no one could keep them back. No one saw them again. Never, never. It had been so for many years, in his father's time, his father's father's time, before that, even.

  It was not known now when the 'sacerdotesse' first came to Monte Verità. No man living had set eyes upon them. They lived there, enclosed, behind their walls, but with power, he kept insisting, with magic. "Some say they have this from God, some from the Devil," he said, "but we do not know, we cannot tell. It is rumoured that the 'sacerdotesse' on Monte Verità never grow old, they stay forever young and beautiful, and that it is from the moon they draw their power. It is the moon they worship, and the sun."

  Victor gathered little from this wild talk. It must all be legend, superstition.

  The old man shook his head and looked towards the mountain track. "I saw it in her eyes last night," he said, "I was afraid of it. She had the eyes they have, when they are called. I have seen it before. With my own daughter, with others."

  By now the rest of the family had woken and had come by turn into the room. They seemed to sense what had happened. The younger man, and the woman, even the children, looked at Victor with anxiety and a strange sort of compassion. He said the atmosphere filled him not so much with alarm as with anger and irritation. It made him think of cats, and broomsticks, and sixteenth century witchcraft.

  The mist was breaking slowly, down in the valley, and the clouds were going. The soft glow in the sky, beyond the range of mountains to the eastward, heralded the rising sun. The old man said something to the younger, and pointed with his stick. "My son will put you on the track," he said, "he will come part of the way only. Further he does not care to go."

  Victor said he set off with all their eyes upon him; and not only from this first hut, but from the other dwellings in the little village, he was aware of faces looking from drawn shutters, and faces peering from half-open doors. The whole village was astir now and intent upon watching him, held by a fearful fascination.

  His guide made no attempt to talk to him. He walked ahead, his shoulders bent, his eyes on the ground. Victor felt that he went only on command of the old man, his father.

  The track was rough and stony, broken in many places, and was, Victor judged, part of an old water-course that would be impassable when the rains came. Now, in full summer, it was easy enough to climb. Verdure, thorn and scrub they left behind them, after climbing steadily for an hour, and the summit of the mountain pierced the sky directly above their heads, split into two like a divided hand. From the depths of the valley, and from the village even, this division could not be seen; the two peaks seemed as one.

  The sun had risen with them as they climbed, and now shone in full upon the south-eastern face, turning it to coral. Great banks of clouds, soft and rolling, hid the world below. Victor's guide stopped suddenly and pointed ahead, where a jutting lip of rock wound in a razor's edge and curved southward out of sight.

  "Monte Verità," he said, and then repeated it again, "Monte Verità."

  Then he turned swiftly and began scrambling back along the way that they had come.

  Victor called to him, but the man did not answer; he did not even bother to turn his head. In a moment he was out of sight. There was nothing for it but to go on alone, round the lip of the escarpment, Victor said, and trust that he found Anna waiting for him on the further side.

  It took him another half-hour to encircle the projecting shoulder of the mountain, and with every step he took his anxiety deepened, because now, on the southward side, there was no gradual incline—the mountain face was sheer. Soon further progress would be impossible.

  "Then," Victor said, "I came out through a sort of gully-way, over a ridge about three hundred feet only from the summit; and I saw it, the monastery, built out of the rock between the two peaks, absolutely bare and naked; a steep rock wall enclosing it, a drop of a thousand feet beneath the wall to the next ridge, and above, nothing but the sky and the twin peaks of Monte Verità."

  It was true, then. Victor had not lost his mind. The place existed. There had been no accident. He sat there, in his chair by the gas-fire, in the nursing-home; and this had happened, it was not fantasy, born out of tragedy.

  He seemed calm, now that he had told me so much. A great part of the strain had gone, his hands no longer trembled. He looked more like the old Victor, and his voice was steady.

  "It must have been centuries old," he said, after a moment or two. "God knows how long it must have taken to build, hewn out of the rock-face like that. I have never seen anything more stark and savage, nor, in a strange way, more beautiful. It seemed to hang there, suspended, between the mountain and the sky. There were many long narrow slits, for light and air. No real windows, in the sense we know them. There was a tower, looking west, with a sheer drop below. The great wall encircled the whole place, making it impregnable, like a fortress. I could see no way of entrance. There was no sign of life. No sign of anyone. I stood there staring at the place, and the narrow window-slits stared back at me. There was nothing I could do but wait there until Anna showed herself. Because now, you see, I was convinced the old man had been right, and I knew what must have happened. The inhabitants had seen Anna, from behind those slit windows, and had called to her. She was with them now, inside. She must see me, standing outside the wall, and presently would come out to me. So I waited there, all day..."

  His words were simple. just a plain statement of fact. Any husband might have waited thus for a wife who had, during their holiday, ventured forth one morning to call upon friends. He sat down, and later ate his lunch, and watched the rolling banks of cloud that hid the world below move, and disperse, and form again; and the sun, in all its summer strength, beat down upon the unp
rotected face of Monte Verità, on the tower and the narrow window-slits, and the great encircling wall, from whence came no movement and no sound.

  "I sat there all the day," said Victor, "but she did not come. The force of the sun was blinding, scorching, and I had to go back to the gully-way for shelter. There, lying under the shadow of a projecting rock, I could still watch that tower and those window-slits. You and I in the past have known silence on the mountains, but nothing like the silence beneath those twin peaks of Monte Verità.

  "The hours dragged by and I went on waiting. Gradually it grew cooler, and then, as my anxiety increased, time raced instead. The sun went too fast into the west. The colour of the rock-face was changing. There was no longer any glare. I began to panic then. I went to the wall and shouted. I felt along the wall with my hands, but there was no entrance, there was nothing. My voice echoed back to me, again and again. I looked up, and all I could see were those blind slits of windows. I began to doubt everything, the old man's story, all that he had said. This place was uninhabited, no one had lived there for a thousand years. It was something built long ago in time, and now deserted. And Anna had never come to it at all. She had fallen, on that narrow lip-way where the track ended and the man had left me. She must have fallen into the sheer depths where the southern shoulder of the mountain ridge began. And this is what had happened to the other women who had come this way, the old man's daughter, the girls from the valleys; they had all fallen, none of them had ever reached the ultimate rock-face, here between the peaks."

  The suspense would have been easier to bear if the first strain and sign of breakdown had come back into Victor's voice. As it was, sitting there in the London nursing-home, the room impersonal and plain, the routine bottles of medicines and pills on the table by his side, and the sound of traffic coming from Wigmore Street, his voice took on a steady monotonous quality, like a clock ticking; it would have been more natural had he turned suddenly, and screamed.

  "Yet I dared not go back," he said, "unless she came. I was compelled to go on waiting there, beneath the wall. The clouds banked up towards me and turned grey. All the warning evening shadows that I knew too well crept into the sky. One moment the rock-face, and the wall, and the slit-windows were golden; then suddenly, the sun was gone. There was no dusk at all. It was cold, and it was night."