The Three Eyes/Chapter 1
CHAPTER I. BERGEBONNETTE
FOR me the strange story dates back to that autumn day when my uncle Dorgeroux appeared, staggering and unhinged, in the doorway of the room which I occupied in his house, Haut-Meudon Lodge.
None of us had set eyes on him for a week. A prey to that nervous exasperation into which the final test of any of his inventions invariably threw him, he was living among his furnaces and retorts, keeping every door shut, sleeping on a sofa, eating nothing but fruit and bread. And suddenly he stood before me, livid, wild-eyed, stammering, emaciated, as though he had lately recovered from a long and dangerous illness.
He was really altered beyond recognition! For the first time I saw him wear unbuttoned the long, threadbare, stained frock-coat which fitted his figure closely and which he never discarded even when making his experiments or arranging on the shelves of his laboratories the innumerable chemicals which he was in the habit of employing. His white tie, which, by way of contrast, was always clean, had become unfastened; and his shirt-front was protruding from his waistcoat. As for his good, kind face, usually so grave and placid and still so young beneath the white curls that crowned his head, its features seemed unfamiliar, ravaged by conflicting expressions, no one of which obtained the upper hand over the others: violent expressions of terror and anguish in which I was surprised, at moments, to observe gleams of the maddest and most extravagant delight.
I could not get over my astonishment. What had happened during those few days? What tragedy could have caused the quiet, gentle Noel Dorgeroux to be so utterly beside himself?
“Are you ill, uncle?” I asked, anxiously, for I was exceedingly fond of him.
“No,” he murmured, “no, I'm not ill.”
“Then what is it? Please, what's the matter?”
“Nothing's the matter... nothing, I tell you.”
I drew up a chair. He dropped into it and, at my entreaty, took a glass of water; but his hand trembled so that he was unable to lift it to his lips.
“Uncle, speak, for goodness' sake!” I cried. “I have never seen you in such a state. You must have gone through some great excitement.”
“The greatest excitement of my life,” he said, in a very low and lifeless voice. “Such excitement as nobody can have ever experienced before... nobody... nobody....”
“Then do explain yourself.”
“No, you wouldn't understand.... I don't understand either. It's so incredible! It is taking place in the darkness, in a world of darkness!...”
There was a pencil and paper on the table. His hand seized the pencil; and mechanically he began to trace one of those vague sketches to which the action of an overmastering idea gradually imparts a clearer definition. And his sketch, as it assumed a more distinct form, ended by representing on the sheet of white paper three geometrical figures which might equally well have been badly-described circles or triangles with curved lines. In the centre of these figures, however, he drew a regular circle which he blackened entirely and which he marked in the middle with a still blacker point, as the iris is marked with the pupil:
“There, there!” he cried, suddenly, starting up in his agitation. “Look, that's what is throbbing and quivering in the darkness. Isn't it enough to drive one mad? Look!....”
He had seized another pencil, a red one, and, rushing to the wall, he scored the white plaster with the same three incomprehensible figures, the three “triangular circles,” in the centre of which he took the pains to draw irises furnished with pupils:
“Look! They're alive, aren't they? You see they're moving, you can see that they're afraid. You can see, cant you? They're alive! They're alive!”
I thought that he was going to explain. But, if so, he did not carry out his intention. His eyes, which were generally full of life, frank and open as a child's, now bore an expression of distrust. He began to walk up and down and continued to do so for a few minutes. Then, at last, opening the door and turning to me again, he said, in the same breathless tone as before:
“You will see them, Vivien; you will have to see them too and tell me that they are alive, as I have seen them alive. Come to the Yard in an hour's time, or rather when you hear a whistle, and you shall see them, the three eyes, and plenty of other things besides. You'll see.”
He left the room.
- * * * *
The house in which we lived, the Lodge, as it was called, turned its back upon the street and faced an old, steep, ill-kept garden, at the top of which was the big yard in which my uncle had now for many years been squandering the remnants of his capital on useless inventions.
As far back as I could remember, I had always seen that old garden ill-tended and the long, low house in a constant state of dilapidation, with its yellow plaster front cracked and peeling. I used to live there in the old days with my mother, who was my aunt Dorgeroux's sister. Afterwards, when both the sisters were dead, I used to come from Paris, where I was going through a course of study, to spend my holidays with my uncle. He was then mourning the death of his poor son Dominique, who was treacherously murdered by a German airman whom he had brought to the ground after a terrific fight in the clouds. My visits to some extent diverted my uncle's thoughts from his grief. But I had had to go abroad; and it was not until alter a very long absence that I returned to Haut-Meudon Lodge, where I had now been some weeks, waiting for the end of the vacation and for my appointment as a professor at Grenoble.
And at each of my visits I had found the same habits, the same regular hours devoted to meals and walks, the same monotonous life, interrupted, at the time of the great experiments, by the same hopes and the same disappointments. It was a healthy, vigorous life, which suited the tastes and the extravagant dreams of Noel Dorgeroux, whose courage and confidence no trial was able to defeat or diminish.
- * * * *
I opened my window. The sun shone down upon the walls and buildings of the Yard. Not a cloud tempered the blazing sky. A scent of late roses quivered on the windless air.
“Victorien!” whispered a voice below me, from a hornbeam overgrown with red creeper.
I knew that it must be Berangere, my uncle's god-daughter, reading, as usual, on a stone bench, her favourite seat.
“Have you seen your god-father?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “He was going through the garden and back to his Yard. He looked so queer!”
Berangere pushed aside the leafy curtain at a place where the trelliswork which closed the arbour was broken; and her pretty face, crowned with rebellious golden curls, came into view.
“This is pleasant!” she said laughing. “My hair's caught. And there are spiders' webs too. Ugh! Help!”
These are childish recollections, insignificant details. Yet why did they remain engraved on my memory with such precision? It is as though all our being becomes charged with emotion at the approach of the great events which we are fated to encounter and our senses thrilled beforehand by the impalpable breath of a distant storm.
I hastened down the garden and ran to the hornbeam. Berangere was gone. I called her. I received a merry laugh in reply and saw her farther away, swinging on a rope which she had stretched between two trees, under an arch of leaves.
She was delicious like that, graceful and light as a bird perched on some swaying bough. At each swoop, all her curls flew now in this direction, now in that, giving her a sort of moving halo, with which mingled the leaves that fell from the shaken trees, red leaves, yellow leaves, leaves of every shade of autumn gold.
Notwithstanding the anxiety with which my uncle's excessive agitation had filled my mind, I lingered before the sight of this incomparable light-heartedness and, giving the girl the pet name formed years ago from her Christian name of Berangere, I said, under my voice and almost unconsciously:
She jumped out of her swing and, planting herself in front of me, said:
“You're not to call me that any longer, Mr. Professor!”
“It was all right once, when I was a little mischief of a tomboy, hopping and skipping all over the place. But now...”
“Well, your god-father still calls you that.”
“My god-father has every right to.”
“No right at all.”
This is not a love-story; and I did not mean to speak of Berangere before coming to the momentous part which, as everybody knows, she played in the adventure of the Three Eyes. But this part was so closely interwoven, from the beginning and during all the early period of the adventure, with certain episodes of our intimate life that the clearness of my narrative would suffer if it were not mentioned, however briefly.
Well, twelve years before the time of which I am speaking, there arrived at the Lodge a little girl to whom my uncle was god-father and from whom he used to receive a letter regularly on each 1st of January, bringing him her good wishes for the new year. She lived at Toulouse with her father and mother, who had formerly been in business at Meudon, near my uncle's place. Now the mother had died; and the father, without further ceremony, sent the daughter to Noel Dorgeroux with a short letter of which I remember a few sentences:
“The child is dull here, in the town.... My business”— Massignac was a wine-agent — “takes me all over the country... and Berangere is left behind alone.... I was thinking that, in memory of our friendly relations, you might be willing to keep her with you for a few weeks.... The country air will restore the colour to her cheeks....”
My uncle was a very kindly, good-hearted man. The few weeks were followed by several months and then by several years, during which the worthy Massignac at intervals announced his intention of coming to Meudon to fetch the child. So it came about that Berangere did not leave the Lodge at all and that she surrounded my uncle with so much gay and boisterous affection that, in spite of his apparent indifference, Noel Dorgeroux had felt unable to part with his goddaughter. She enlivened the silent old house with her laughter and her charm. She was the element of disorder and delightful irresponsibility which gives a value to order, discipline and austerity.
Returning this year after a long absence, I had found, instead of the child whom I had known, a girl of twenty, just as much a child and just as boisterous as ever, but exquisitely pretty, graceful in form and movement and possessed of the mystery which marks those who have led solitary lives within the shadow of an old and habitually silent man. From the first I felt that my presence interfered with her habits of freedom and isolation. At once audacious and shy, timid and provocative, bold and shrinking, she seemed to shun me in particular; and, during two months of a life lived in common, when I saw her at every meal and met her at every turn, I had failed to tame her. She remained remote and wild, suddenly breaking off our talks and displaying, where I was concerned, the most capricious and inexplicable moods.
Perhaps she had an intuition of the profound disturbance that was awaking within me; perhaps her confusion was due to my own embarrassment. She had often caught my eyes fixed on her red lips or observed the change that came over my voice at certain times. And she did not like it. Man's admiration disconcerted her.
“Look here,” I said, adopting a roundabout method so as not to startle her, “your god-father maintains that human beings, some of them more than others, give forth a kind of emanation. Remember that Noel Dorgeroux is first and foremost a chemist and that he sees and feels things from the chemist's point of view. Well, to his mind, this emanation is manifested by the emission of certain corpuscles, of invisible sparks which form a sort of cloud. This is what happens, for instance, in the case of a woman. Her charm surrounds you...”
My heart was beating so violently as I spoke these words that I had to break off. Still, she did not seem to grasp their meaning; and she said, with a proud little air:
“Your uncle tells me all about his theories. It's true, I don't understand them a bit. However, as regards this one, he has spoken to me of a special ray, which he presupposed to explain that discharge of invisible particles. And he calls this ray after the first letter of my name, the Bray.”
“Well done, Berangere; that makes you the god-mother of a ray, the ray of seductiveness and charm.”
“Not at all,” she cried, impatiently. “It's not a question of seductiveness but of a material incarnation, a fluid which is even able to become visible and to assume a form, like the apparitions produced by the mediums. For instance, the other day...”
She stopped and hesitated; her face betrayed anxiety; and I had to press her before she continued:
“No, no,” she said, “I oughtn't to speak of that. It's not that your uncle forbade me to. But it has left such a painful impression....”
“What do you mean, Berangere?”
“I mean, an impression of fear and suffering. I saw, with your uncle, on a wall in the Yard, the most frightful things: images which represented three — sort of eyes. Were they eyes? I don't know. The things moved and looked at us. Oh, I shall never forget it as long as I live.”
“And my uncle?”
“Your uncle was absolutely taken aback. I had to hold him up and bring him round, for he fainted. When he came to himself, the images had vanished.”
“And did he say nothing?”
“He stood silent, gazing at the wall. Then I asked him, 'What is it, god-father?' Presently he answered, 'I don't know, I don't know: it may be the rays of which I spoke to you, the B-rays. If so, it must be a phenomenon of materialization.' That was all he said. Very soon after, he saw me to the door of the garden; and he has shut himself up in the Yard ever since. I did not see him again until just now.”
She ceased. I felt anxious and greatly puzzled by this revelation:
“Then, according to you, Berangere,” I said, “my uncle's discovery is connected with those three figures? They were geometrical figures, weren't they? Triangles?”
She formed a triangle with her two fore-fingers and her two thumbs:
“There, the shape was like that.... As for their arrangement...”
She picked up a twig that had fallen from a tree and wag beginning to draw lines in the sand of the path when a whistle sounded.
“That's god-father's signal when he wants me in the Yard,” she cried.
“No,” I said, “to-day it's for me. We fixed it.”
“Does he want you?”
“Yea, to tell me about his discovery.”
“Then I'll come too.”
“He doesn't expect you, Berangere.”
“Yes, he does; yes, he does.”
I caught hold of her arm, but she escaped me and ran to the top of the garden, where I came up with her outside a small, massive door in a fence of thick planks which connected a shed and a very high wall.
She opened the door an inch or two. I insisted:
“Don't do it, Berangere! It will only vex him.”
“Do you really think so?” she said, wavering a little.
“I'm positive of it, because he asked me and no one else. Come, Berangere, be sensible.”
She hesitated. I went through and closed the door upon her.