The Three Eyes/Chapter 16
CHAPTER XVI. WHERE LIPS UNITE
WE have but to read the newspapers of the period, to realize that the excitement caused by the Meudon pictures reached its culminating point as the result of Benjamin Prevotelle's essay. I have four of those newspapers, dated the following day, on my table as I write. Not one of them contains throughout its eight pages a single line that does not refer to what at once became known as the Splendid Theory.
For the rest, the chorus of approval and enthusiasm was general, or very nearly so. There were barely a few cries of vehement protest uttered by experts who felt exasperated by the boldness of the essay even more than by the gaps occurring in it. The great mass of the public saw in all this not a theory but a fact and accepted it as such with the faith of true believers confronted with the divine truth. Every one contributed his own proof as yet one more stone added to the edifice. The objections, however strong they might me — and they were set forth without compromise — seemed temporary and capable of being removed by closer study and a more careful confirmation of the phenomena.
And it is with this conclusion, Benjamin Prevotelle's own conclusion, that all the articles, all the interviews and all the letters that appeared end. The measures recommended by Benjamin Prevotelle were loudly called for. Action must be taken without delay and a series of experiments must be made in the Meudon amphitheatre.
Amid this effervescence, the kidnapping of Massignac went for little. The man Massignac had disappeared? There was nothing to enable one to tell who had carried him off or where he was confined? Very well. It made very little difference. As Benjamin Prevotelle said, the opportunity was too good to miss. The doors of the Yard had been sealed on the first morning. What were we waiting for? Why not begin the experiments at once?
As for me, I did not breathe a word of my Bougival adventure, in the constant fear of implicating Berangere, who was directly involved in it. All the same, I returned to the banks of the Seine. My rough and ready enquiries showed that Massignac and Velmot had lived on the island during a part of the winter in the company of a small boy who, when they were away, looked after the house which one of them had hired under a false name. I explored the island and the house. No one was living there now. I found a few pieces of furniture, a few household implements, nothing more.
On the fourth day, a provisional committee, appointed ad hoc, met in the Yard about the middle of the afternoon. As the sky was cloudy, they contented themselves with examining the carboys discovered in the basement of the walls and, after lowering the curtain, with cutting off strips of the dark-grey substance at different points of the screen along the edges.
The analysis revealed absolutely nothing out of the way. They found an amalgam of organic materials and acids which it would be tedious to enumerate and which, however employed, supplied not the smallest explanation of the very tiniest phenomena. But, on the sixth day, the sky became clear and the committee returned, together with a number of official persons and mere sightseers who had succeeded in joining them.
The wait in front of the screen was fruitless and just a little ridiculous. All those people looking out for something that did not happen, standing with wide-open eyes and distorted faces, in front of a wall that had nothing on it, wore an air of solemnity which was delightfully comical.
An hour was spent in anxious expectation. The wall remained impassive.
The disappointment was all the greater inasmuch as the public had been waiting for this test as the expected climax of this most sensational tragedy. Were we to give up all hope of knowing the truth and to admit that Noel Dorgeroux's formula alone was capable of producing the pictures? I, for one, was convinced of it. In addition to the substances removed, there was a solution, compounded by Massignac from Noel Dorgeroux's formula, which solution he kept carefully, as my uncle used to do, in blue phials or bottles and which was spread over the screen before each exhibition in order to give it the mysterious power of evoking the images.
A thorough search was instituted, but no phials, no blue bottles came to light.
There was no doubt about it: people were beginning to regret the disappearance, perhaps the death of the man Massignac. Was the great secret to be lost at the very moment when Benjamin Prevotelle's theory had proved its incomparable importance?
Well, on the morning of the eleventh day after the date of Benjamin Prevotelle's essay, that is to say, the 27th of May, the newspapers printed a note signed by Theodore Massignac in which he announced that, in the late afternoon of that same day, the third exhibition in the Yard would take place under his own direction.
He actually appeared at about twelve o'clock in the morning. The doors were closed and guarded by four detectives and he was unable to obtain admission. But at three o'clock an official from the Prefecture of Police arrived, armed with full powers of negotiation.
Massignac laid down his conditions. He was once more to become the absolute master of the Yard, which was to be surrounded by detectives and closed between the performances to everybody except himself. None of the spectators was to carry a camera or any other instrument.
Everything was conceded; everything was overlooked, in order to continue the interrupted series of miraculous exhibitions and to resume the communications with Venus. This capitulation on the part of the authorities before the audacity of a man whose crime was known to them showed that Benjamin Prevotelle's theory was adopted in government circles.
The fact is — and there was no one who failed to see it — that those in power were giving way in the hope of presently turning the tables and, by some subterfuge, laying hands on the screen at the moment when it was in working-order. Massignac felt this so clearly that, when the doors opened, he had the effrontery to distribute a circular couched in the following terms:
“The audience is hereby warned that any attack on the management will have as its immediate consequence the destruction of the screen and the irreparable loss of Noel Dorgeroux's secret.
For my part, as I had had no proof of Massignac's death, I was not surprised at his return. But the alteration in his features and attitude astounded me. He looked ten years older; his figure was bent; and the everlasting smile, which used to be his natural expression, no longer lit up his face, which had become emaciated, yellow and anxious.
He caught sight of me and drew me to one side:
“I say, that scoundrel has played the very devil with me! First he beat me black and blue, down in a cellar. Next he lowered me into the water to make me talk. I was ten days in bed before I got over it!... By Jingo, it's not his fault if I'm not there now, the villain!... However, he's had his share too... and he caught it worse than I did, at least I hope so. The hand that struck him was steady enough and showed no sign of trembling.”
I did not ask him what hand he meant or how the tragedy had ended in the darkness. There was only one thing that mattered:
“Massignac, have you read Benjamin Prevotelle's report?”
“Does it agree with the facts? Does it agree with my uncle's account, the one which you've read?”
He shrugged his shoulders:
“What business is that of yours? What business is it of anybody's? Do I keep the pictures to myself? You know I don't. On the contrary, I'm trying to show them to everybody and honestly to earn the money which they pay me. What more do they want?”
“They want to protect a discovery...”
“Never! Never!” he exclaimed, angrily. “Tell them to shut up and stop all that nonsense! I've bought Noel Dorgeroux's secret, yes, bought and paid for it. Very well, I mean to keep it for myself, for myself alone, against everybody and in spite of any threat. I shan't talk now any more than I did when Velmot had me in his grip and I was on the point of crooking. I tell yon, Victorien Beaugrand, Noel Dorgeroux's secret will perish at my death. If I die, it dies: I've taken my oath on it.”
- * * * *
When Theodore Massignac, a few minutes later, moved towards his seat, he no longer wore his former air of a lion-tamer entering a cage, but rather the aspect of a hunted animal which is startled by the least sound and trembles at the approach of the man with the whip. But the chuckers-out were there, wearing their ushers' chains and looking as fierce and aggressive as ever. Their wages had been doubled, I was told.
There was no need for the precaution. The danger that threatened Massignac did not come from the crowd, which preserved a religious silence, as though it were preparing to celebrate some solemn ritual. Massignac was received with neither applause nor invective. The spectators waited gravely for what was about to happen, though no one guessed that that was on the point of happening. Those seated on the upper tiers, of whom I was one, often turned their heads upwards. In the clear sky, shimmering with gold, shone Venus, the Evening Star.
What a moment! For the first time in the world's history men felt certain that they were being contemplated by eyes which were not human eyes and watched by minds which differed from their own minds. For the first time they were connected in a tangible fashion with that beyond, formerly peopled by their dreams and their hopes alone, from which the friendly gaze of their new brothers now fell upon them. These were not legends and phantoms projected into the empty heavens by our thirsting souls, but living beings who were addressing us in the living and natural language of the pictures, until the hour, now near at hand, when we should talk together like friends who had lost and found one another.
Their eyes, their Three Eyes, were infinitely gentle that day, filled with a tenderness which seemed born of love and which thrilled us with an equal tenderness, with the same love. What were they presaging, those women's eyes, those eyes of many women that quivered before us so attractively and with such smiles and such delightful promise? Of what happy and charming scenes of our past were we to be the astonished witnesses?
I watched my neighbours. All, like myself, were leaning towards the screen. The sight affected their faces before it occurred. I noticed the pallor of two young men beside me. A woman whose face was hidden from my eyes by a thick mourning-veil sat with her handkerchief in her hand, ready to shed tears.
The first scene represented a landscape, full of glaring light, which appeared to be an Italian landscape, with a dusty road along which cavalry-men, wearing the uniform of the revolutionary armies, were galloping around a travelling-carriage drawn by four horses. Then, immediately afterwards, we saw in a shady garden, at the end of an avenue of dark cypresses, a house with closed shutters standing on a flower-decked terrace.
The carriage stopped at the foot of the terrace and drove off again after setting down an officer who ran up to the door and knocked at it with the pommel of his sword.
The door was opened almost at once. A tall young woman rushed out of the house, with her arms outstretched towards the officer. But, at the moment when they were about to embrace, they both took a few steps backwards, as though to delay their happiness and in go doing to taste its delights more fully.
Then the screen showed us the woman's face; and words cannot depict the expression of joy and headlong love that turned this face, which was neither very beautiful nor very young, into something more alive with youth and beauty than anything in this world.
After that, the lovers flung themselves into each others' arms, as though their lives, too long separated, were striving to make but one. Their lips united.
We saw nothing more of the French officer and his Italian lover. A new picture followed, less bright but equally clear, the picture of a long, battlemented rampart, marked with a series of round, machicolated towers. Below and in the centre, among the ruins of a bastion, were trees growing in a semicircle around an ancient oak-tree.
Gradually, from the shade of the trees, there stepped into the sunlight a quite young girl, clad in the pointed head-dress of the fifteenth century and a full-skirted gown trailing along the ground. She stopped with her hands open and raised on high. She saw something that we were unable to see. She wore a bewitching smile. Her eyes were half-closed; and her slender figure seemed to sway as she waited.
What she was awaiting was the arrival of a young page, who came to her and kissed her lips while she flung herself on his shoulder.
This enamoured couple certainly moved us, as the first couple had done, by reason of the passion and the languor that possessed them, but even more by reason of the thought that they were an actual couple, living, before our eyes and at the present day, their real life of long ago. Our sensations were no longer such as we experienced at the earlier exhibitions. They had then been full of hesitation and ignorance. We now knew. In this late period of the world's existence, we were beholding the life of human beings of the fifteenth century. They were not repeating for our entertainment actions which had been performed before. They were performing them for the first occasion in time and space. It was their first kiss of love.
This, the feeling that one is seeing this, is a feeling which surpasses everything that can be imagined! To see a fifteenth-century page and damsel kissing each other on the lips!
To see, as we saw immediately afterwards, a Greek hill! To see the Acropolis standing against its sky of two thousand years ago, with its houses and gardens, its palm-trees, its lanes, its vestibules and temples, the Parthenon, not in ruins, but in all its splendour and perfection!
A host of statues surround it. Men and women climb its stairways. And these men and women are Athenians of the time of Pericles or Demosthenes!
They come and go in all directions. They talk together. Then they drift away. A little empty street runs down between two white walls. A group passes and moves away, leaving behind it a man and woman who stop suddenly, glance around them and kiss each other fervently. And we see, underneath the veil in which the woman's forehead is shrouded, two great, black eyes whose lids flutter like wings, eyes which open, close, laugh and weep.
Thus we go back through the ages and we understand that those who, gazing down upon the earth, have taken these successive pictures wish, in displaying them to us, to show us the act, for-ever youthful and eternally renewed, of that universal love of which they proclaim themselves, like us, to be the slaves and the zealous worshippers. They too are governed and exalted by the same law, though perhaps not expressed in them by the intoxication of a like caress. The same impulse sweeps them along. But do they know the adorable union of the lips?
Other couples passed. Other periods were reviewed. Other civilizations appeared to us.
We saw the kiss of an Egyptian peasant and a young girl; and that exchanged high up in a hanging garden of Babylon between a princess and a priest; and that which transfigured to such a degree as to make them almost human two unspeakable beings squatting at the door of a prehistoric cave; and more kisses and yet more.
They were brief visions, some of which were indistinct and faded, like the colours of an ancient fresco, but yet searching and potent, because of the meaning which they assumed, full at the same time of poetry and brutal reality, of violence and serene loveliness.
And always the woman's eyes were the centre, the purpose, as it were the justification of the pictures. Oh, the smiles and the tears, the gladness and the despair and the exquisite rapture of all those eyes! How our friends up aloft must also have felt all the charm of them, thus to dedicate them to us! How they must have felt and perhaps regretted all the difference between those eyes of ecstasy and enchantment and their own eyes, so gloomy and void of all expression! There was such sweetness in those women's eyes, such grace, such ingenuousness, such adorable perfidy, such distress and such seductiveness, such triumphant joy, such grateful humility... and such love, when they offered their submissive lips to the man!
I was unable to see the end of those pictures. There was a movement round about me in the midst of the crowd, which was beside itself with painful excitement; and I found myself next to a woman in mourning, whose face was hidden beneath her veils.
She thrust these aside. I recognized Berangere. She raised her passionate eyes to mine, flung her arms round my neck and gave me her lips, while she stammered words of love. And in this way I learnt, without any need of explanation, that Massignac's insinuations against his daughter were false, that she was the terror-stricken victim of the two scoundrels and that she had never ceased to love me.