She again took my arm, and we proceeded.
“These vaults,” she said, “are extensive.”
“The Maidens,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.”
“I forget your arms.”
“A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.”
“And the motto?”
“Nemo me impune lacessit.”
“Good!” she said.
The wine sparkled in her eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the tea. We had passed through long walls of piled skeletons, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs. I paused again, and this time I made bold to seize Shinku by an arm above the elbow.
“The nitre!” I said: “see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river’s bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough ——”
“It is nothing,” she said; “let us go on. But first, another draught of the tea.”
I broke and reached him a box of pocky. She emptied it at a breath. Her eyes flashed with a fierce light. She laughed and threw the box upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.
I looked at her in surprise. She repeated the movement — a grotesque one.
“You do not comprehend?” she said.
“Not I,” I replied.
“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”
“You are not of the masons.”
“Yes, yes,” I said; “yes, yes.”
“You? Impossible! A mason?”
“A mason,” I replied.
“A sign,” he said, “a sign.”
“It is this,” I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel.
“You jest,” she exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. “But let us proceed to the Yakult.”
“Be it so,” I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak and again offering her my arm. She leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Yakult. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.
At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth side the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones, we perceived a still interior crypt or recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. It seemed to have been constructed for no especial use within itself, but formed merely the interval between two of the colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of their circumscribing walls of solid granite.
It was in vain that Shinku, uplifting her dull torch, endeavoured to pry into the depths of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see.
“Proceed,” I said; “herein is the Yakult. As for Suiseiseki ——”
“She is an ignoramus,” interrupted my sister, as she stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at her heels. In an instant she had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding her progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered her to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about her waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. She was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess.
“Pass your hand,” I said, “over the wall; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed, it is very damp. Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I will positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power.”
“The Yakult!” ejaculated my sister, not yet recovered from her astonishment.
“True,” I replied; “the Yakult.”
As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.
I had scarcely laid the first tier of my masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Shinku had in great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken doll. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth; and then I heard the furious vibration of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now nearly upon a level with my breast. I again paused, and holding the flambeaux over the mason-work, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.
A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated, I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of her who clamoured. I re-echoed — I aided — I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamourer grew still.
It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognising as that of the noble Shinku. The voice said —
“Ha! ha! ha! — he! he! he! — a very good joke, indeed — an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo — he! he! he! — over our tea — he! he! he!”
“The Yakult!” I said.
“He! he! he! — he! he! he! — yes, the Yakult. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo — Jun and rest? Let us be gone.”
“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.”
“For the love of God, Suigintou!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud —
No answer. I called again —
“Shinku!” No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. Requiescat in pace!