Jean-Luc could see the long line of lights from innumerable candles, stretching out in front of him. Each candle was set into its own little arched niche and was flickering intermittently in the gentle drafts always found underground. Glancing around again, he noticed something strange - no, two things that were strange about the passageway. Firstly, the lights at the far end of the corridor seemed to be somehow enveloped in a dense white mist, or at least they were progressively harder to see. Secondly, the lights at the far end of the tunnel were burning steadily, and did not seem to be flickering at all, compared with the candle right next to him.
The young Frenchman peered cautiously out of the blind alcove in which he hiding. Behind him, the brick-lined arched opening was filled with an immense stack of bottles of champagne, intended to lie undisturbed for years, maturing steadily in the coolness of the cellars.
It was a scene of frantic activity. In the main corridor, teams of porters moved to and fro, some of them carrying heavy bundles or supporting large boxes between them. Others were pushing handcarts and wheelbarrows, all loaded high with goods of all kinds, although it did seem that a substantial number of the transports were loaded down with wooden cases containing champagne bottles.
There seemed to be some kind of guards on duty as well, their stern-faced silence at odds with the shouts and imprecations of the overseers and the harsh oaths of the porters. Looking more closely, he could see what looked very much like a guard-room - no, two guardrooms - at a more well-lit point about half-way along the corridor. This central point was marked by a stone archway decorated with elaborate carvings, unlike the plain brickwork elsewhere in these caverns. There were guards on both sides on the arch and Jean-Luc could now see that they wore different uniforms - almost as if it was some kind of a border crossing.
Jean-Luc was deep inside the Forbidden Cellars - Les Caves Interdites - and he was all too well aware that he would be in very serious trouble if he was discovered. He shrank back into the alcove that formed his hiding-place and watched with one eye the frenzied movements around the grand arch.
He considered himself just an ordinary Champagne worker, like his father before him. He worked in the vineyards during Spring and Summer, pruning and tying the vines at one time of year, and harvesting the ripe grapes in another. This work was by its very nature seasonal and he turned his hand to whatever task was required at that time.
After the harvest, the urgency turned to the pressing and bottling, and it was this work that had given Jean-Luc familiarity of the vast system of underground cellars - laboriously dug into the chalk by hand and lined with brick - whose consistent coolness was essential to the maturing of the bottled Champagne.
By now he knew the layout of the caverns extremely well, and had discovered that certain areas were out-of-bounds. Here and there throughout the network of caves were locked and bolted doors and gates, and grilles formed from a grid of stout wrought-iron bars filled certain tunnels floor-to-ceiling. The bars and posts were deeply embedded in the chalk floor and brickwork ceilings, and seemed immovably stout.
Jean-Luc had explored the boundary of the forbidden area with considerable curiosity. The inaccessible region was bounded on three sides by corridors he knew well, and appeared to occupy an area perhaps one-third of the size of the remainder of the passageways. Nothing could ever be seen through the bars, as the short corridors always faced a blank wall, but occasional mysterious sounds suggested movement and activity just around the corner.
He knew that some workers did sometimes pass through the gates, individuals from a certain cadre who did not mix with the other working men. These labourers were a gruff lot and always kept themselves to themselves, and spoke French with a strong accent which suggested that it was not their mother tongue. Jean-Luc thought he recognised some of these individuals amongst the porters who scurried urgently to and fro, although his hiding place was sufficiently far away that he could not be sure.
Jean-Luc spent every moment he could exploring the boundaries of the Forbidden Cellars, lurking in hidden spots, watching those who passed the iron gates. His patience had been rewarded this very morning, when a small party carrying a collection of wooden boxes had approached the locked entrance that he had been watching assiduously from a prudent distance.
The leader of the group had taken a bunch of keys from his belt and fumbled for a moment, presumably selecting the correct key for this particular lock. The man opened the gate with a creak of inadequately oiled hinges, held it wide for his cohort to pass through, then looked around carefully before pushing the noisily-complaining gate back into position. The leader, obviously under some pressure, was distracted at the critical moment by some shouted query, and failed to close the gate completely before turning the key in the lock.
Jean-Luc could not contain his curiosity. It was exactly this kind of opportunity that he had been seeking all this time. Waiting as little time as he dared, he darted across the vaulted corridor and slipped though, opening and closing the gate as slowly and quietly as he could, and set off in the direction that the party had taken.
The frenetic activity along the corridor seemed to be reaching some kind of conclusion. The last of the boxes and wagons had been carried through the stone archway and along the corridor on the other side. The bulk of the labourers seemed to remain on the far side, disappearing into the fog or the cross-passages wheeling or carrying their loads.
The guards who were stationed on the nearer side of the stone arch saluted their counterparts, then formed up into a line and marched off, clattering past Jean-Luc's hiding-place and making him shrink back behind the dusty stacks of bottles. By the time Jean-Luc felt he could safely re-emerge from his hiding place, the guards on the far side had also retreated, leaving the archway unguarded, which seemed incongruous after the effort applied hitherto.
It was suddenly quiet and still, the noise and bustle of the porters and guards receding into the distance. There was no movement, no sound, for ten minutes or more, and Jean-Luc began to wonder if he could remember the way back to the gate he had used to enter this zone.
Then, in the stillness, he could just make out the sound of slow footsteps approaching, echoing in the silence. Jean-Luc could just make out a lone figure approaching, emerging from the white mist that still seemed to permeate the corridor on the other side of the stone arch. He was a tall man with a ramrod-straight straight back despite his long white hair and beard. He was clothed in a long green robe and walking with a long staff, the kind that travellers used, although he did not seem to be relying on it for much support.
The man stopped a few paces on the far side of the stone arch, and stood apparently inspecting the archway and the brickwork that surrounded it. After a few moments, he was joined by two other figures, both women and both also tall and wearing the same rich green robes.
The three figures stood in conversation for a long time, their heads bowed together. Jean-Luc could not make out their words, except for one word that was repeated frequently and seemed to invoke strong emotions in all three. Who, or what, Jean-Luc wondered, motionless in his hiding-place, was "Lyndesfarne"?
The threesome stood in a line facing the arch. As one, they lifted their hands, drawing back the voluminous sleeves of their robes, and began gesturing fluidly and with great complexity. Jean-Luc wondered at the complex synchronisation of the movements of the three people. It was all artfully orchestrated, as if some great piece of music was being conducted, some symphony of action which Jean-Luc could neither see nor hear.
Belatedly, Jean-Luc realised that there was something to be sensed. The ground beneath his feet began shaking and the damp brickwork of the wall where he was resting his hand seemed to be becoming warm. There was a dull rumbling which seemed to be coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. The white fog which permeated the corridor on the far side of the stone arch seemed to get thicker, so that the three figures became more indistinct by the second.
As Jean-Luc watched, the movements of the three robed figures seemed to reach some kind of crescendo, or perhaps conclusion. There were some final emphatic gestures and then the figures dropped their hands to their sides. They turned their heads and looked to one another, nodding with a surprisingly prosaic workman's sense of a good job well done. Without further fuss, the three mysterious people walked backwards a few steps, looking closely at the archway which was now vibrating visibly, then as one they turned on their heels and strode away into the fog.
No sooner had they disappeared when the noise and commotion increased dramatically. Here and there, bricks fell from the lined ceilings of the corridor, and dust seemed to swirl up on every side. There was a rolling crash and a series of bangs, and the stone arch itself seemed to collapse inwards on itself in a way that, later, he would find impossible to explain.
The white fog seemed to thicken and solidify, here and there showing irregular darker marks in grey and brick-red. The rumbling noises suddenly increased in intensity, followed by an explosive thump accompanied by a gust of wind which stirred the dust into a frenzy of movement.
Then there was only settling dust and silence, interrupted by the occasional pop of a champagne bottle exploding - a common enough occurrence at any time when the pressure of the fermenting gases within overcame a flaw in the glass of the bottle, now exacerbated by the violence Jean-Luc had just witnessed.
He lay still for several long minutes, wondering if there was worse to come. Finally, he screwed up his courage and emerged from his hiding-place, and picked his way through the dust and fallen bricks to the spot where the stone arch had stood. Now, there was just a blank wall of chalk and fragments of broken bricks, as if the ceiling of the section beyond had long ago collapsed. Jean-Luc ran his hand over the unexpectedly smooth surface. He could barely feel the transition from brick to chalk, as if the entire wall had been made together by a single stroke from a giant's sword.
Shaking his head in shock and confusion, he picked his way back along the corridors and returned to the caverns he knew well via the open gate he had used earlier.
Unlike most of his peers, Jean-Luc could both read and write reasonably proficiently, thanks to the influence of his Mother. Maman had been a servant in a nearby Grand Chateau for many years after she was widowed and, with the blessing of her patron, she had taught letters and numbers at a local church school.
As might have been expected, Maman included her son in her own classes, carefully disciplining him just very slightly more than other children in order to demonstrate her lack of school-time favouritism. She was firm but fair, with him as well as the other children, and her lessons had stuck firmly in his head even after all these years.
Latterly, she had returned to work as a ladies maid and was now accompanying her employer on a visit to a distant cousin somewhere in the south of the country. She never spoke to Jean-Luc of the accident that had killed his father, although he understood that some freak stroke of lightening from a blue sky had struck the older man down one summer's day.
That evening, in the quietness of his lodgings and remembering the lessons from Maman, Jean-Luc sat down to compose a letter to send to her. He still had a few precious sheets of parchment in the little wooden box he kept locked and hidden under his bed. Laboriously forming the characters with the quill pen and ink he had been presented with as a school prize by some long-forgotten philanthropic aristocrat, Jean-Luc sat long into the night and wrote a rambling account of the events he had witnessed that day.
|© 2007-2009 Trevor Hopkins. All rights reserved.||Webmaster||Last updated 19 September 2009|