The Tenth Chamber


The Périgord Region, France, 1899

The two men were breathing hard, scrambling over slippery terrain, struggling to make sense of what they had just seen.

A sudden late-summer rain burst had caught them by surprise. The fast-moving squall moved in while they were exploring the cave, drenching the limestone cliffs, darkening the vertical rock faces and shrouding the Vézère River valley in a veil of low clouds.

Only an hour earlier, from their high perch on the cliffs, the schoolmaster, Édouard Lefevre, had been pointing out landmarks to his younger cousin, Pascal. Church spires far in the distance stood out crisply against a regal sky. Sunbeams glanced the surface of the river. Wholesome barley fields stretched across the flat plain.

But when they emerged blinking from the cave, their last wooden match spent, it was almost as if a painter had decided to start again and had brushed over his bright landscape with a grey wash.

The outbound hike had been casual and leisurely but their return journey took on an element of drama as torrents of water cascaded onto the undercliffs, turning their trail muddy and treacherous. Both men were adequate hikers and both had decent shoes but neither was so experienced they would have chosen to be high on a slick ledge in pelting rain. Still, they never considered returning to the cave for shelter.

‘We’ve got to tell the authorities!’ Édouard insisted, wiping his forehead and holding back a branch so Pascal could safely pass. ‘If we hurry we can be at the hotel before nightfall.’

Time and again, they had to grab on to tree limbs to steady themselves and in one heart-stopping instance Édouard seized Pascal’s collar when he thought his cousin had lost footing and was about to plunge.

When they arrived at their car they were soaked through. It was Pascal’s vehicle, actually his father’s, since only someone like a wealthy banker could afford an automobile as novel and sumptuous as a Type 16 Peugeot. Although the car had a roof, the rain had thoroughly drenched the open cabin. There was a blanket under the seat that was relatively dry but at the cruising speed of twelve miles per hour, both men were soon shivering and the decision to stop at the first café they came to for a warming drink was easily taken.

The tiny village of Ruac had a single café which at this time of day was hosting a dozen drinkers at small wooden tables. They were rough stock, coarse-looking peasants, and all of them, to a man, stopped talking when the strangers entered. Some had been hunting birds, their rifles propped up against the back wall. One old fellow pointed through the window at the motor car, whispered something to the bartender and startled cackling.

Édouard and Pascal sat at an empty table, looking like drowned rats. ‘Two large brandies!’ Édouard ordered the bartender. ‘The quicker the better, monsieur, or we’ll be dead of pneumonia!’

The bartender reached for a bottle and twisted out the cork. He was a middle-aged man with jet-black hair, long sideburns and calloused hands. ‘Is that yours?’ he asked Édouard, gesturing out the window.

‘Mine,’ Pascal answered. ‘Ever seen one before?’

The bartender shook his head and looked like he was inclined to spit on the floor. Instead he asked another question. ‘Where’ve you come from?’

The patrons in the café hung on the conversation. It was their evening’s entertainment.

‘We’re on holiday,’ Édouard answered. ‘We’re staying in Sarlat.’

‘Who comes to Ruac on holiday?’ the bartender smirked, laying down the brandies.

‘A lot of people will come soon enough,’ Pascal said, offended by the man’s tone.

‘What do you mean by that?’