The Three Eyes/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI. THE CATHEDRAL[edit]

THE crowd could not recover from its stupefaction. It sat and waited. It had heard through me of the Three Eyes, of their significance as a message, a preliminary illustration, something like the title or picture-poster of the coming spectacle. It remembered Edith Cavell's eyes, Philippe Dorgeroux's eyes, Berangere's eyes, all those eyes which I had seen again after-wards; and it sat as though cramped in obstinate silence, as though it feared lest a word or a movement should scare away the invisible god who lay hidden within the wall. It was now filled with absolute certainty. This first proof of my sincerity and perspicacity was enough; there was not a single unbeliever left. The spectators stepped straight into regions which I had reached only by painful stages. Not a shadow of protest impaired their sensibility. Not a doubt interfered with their faith. Really, I saw around me nothing but serious attention, restrained enthusiasm, suppressed exaltation.

And all this suddenly found vent in an immense shout that rose to the skies. Before us, on the screen which had but now been empty and bare as a stretch of sand, there had come into being, spontaneously, in a flash, hundreds and thousands of men, swarming in unspeakable confusion.

It was obviously the suddenness and complexity of the sight which so profoundly stirred the crowd. The sudden emergence of life innumerable out of nothingness convulsed it like an electric shock. In front of it, where there had been nothing, there now swarmed another crowd, dense as itself, a crowd whose excitement mingled with its own and whose uproar, which it was able to divine, was added to its own! For a few seconds I had the impression that it was losing its mental balance and swaying to and fro in an access of delirium.

However, the crowd once more regained its self-control. The need, not of understanding — it seemed not to care about that at first — but of seeing and grasping the entire manifestation of the phenomena mastered the force let loose in its midst. It became silent again. It gazed. And it listened.

Yonder — I dare not say on the screen, for, in truth, so abnormal were its dimensions that the picture overflowed the frame and was propelled into the space outside — yonder, that which had impressed us as being disorder and chaos became organized in accordance with a certain rhythm which at length grew perceptible to us. The movement to and fro was that of artisans performing a well-regulated task; and the task was accomplished about an immense fabric in the course of erection.

How all these artisans were clad in a fashion absolutely different from our own; and, on the other hand, the tools which they employed, the appearance of their ladders, the shape of their scaffoldings, their manner of carrying loads and of hoisting the necessary materials in wicker baskets to the upper floors, all these things, together with a multitude of further details, brought us into the heart of a period which must have been the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

There were numbers of monks supervising the works, calling out orders from one end of the vast site to the other, setting out measurements and not disdaining themselves to mix the mortar, to push a wheel-barrow or to saw a stone. Women of the people, uttering their cries at the top of their voices, walked about bearing jars of wine with which they filled cups that were at once emptied by the thirsty labourers. A beggar went by. Two tattered singers began to roar a ditty, accompanying themselves on a sort of guitar. And a troop of acrobats, all lacking an arm, or a leg, or both legs, were preparing to give their show, when the scene changed without any transition, like a stage setting which is altered by the mere pressure of a button.

What we now saw was the same picture of a building in process of construction. But this time we clearly distinguished the plan of the edifice, the whole base of a Gothic cathedral displaying its huge proportions. And on these courses of masonry, which had reached the lower level of the towers, and along the fronts and before the niches and on the steps of the porch, everywhere, in fact, swarmed stone-hewers, masons, sculptors, carpenters, apprentices and monks.

And the costumes were no longer the same. A century or two had passed.

Next came a series of pictures which succeeded one another without our being able to separate the one from the other or to ascribe a beginning or an end to any one of them. By a method no doubt similar to that which, on the cinematograph, shows us the growth of a plant, we saw the cathedral rising imperceptibly, blossoming like a flower whose exquisitely-moulded petals open one by one and, lastly, being completed before our eyes, all of itself, without any human intervention. Thus came a moment when it stood out against the sky in all its glory and harmonious strength. It was Rheims Cathedral, with its three recessed doorways, its host of statues, its magnificent rose-windows, its wonderful towers flanked by airy turrets, its flying buttresses and the lacework of its carvings and balconies, Rheims Cathedral such as the centuries had beheld it, before its mutilation by the Huns.

A long shudder passed through the crowd. It understood what those who were not present cannot easily be made to understand now, by means of insignificant words: it understood that in front of it there stood something other than the photographic presentment of a building; and, as it possessed the profound and accurate intuition that it was not the victim of an unthinkable hoax, it became imbued and overwhelmed by an utterly disturbing sense of witnessing a most prodigious spectacle: the actual erection of a church in the Middle Ages, the actual work of a thirteenth-century building-yard, the actual life of the monks and artists who built Rheims Cathedral. Enlightened by its subtle instinct, not for a second did it doubt the evidence of its eyes. What I had denied, or at least what I had admitted only as an illusion, with reservations and flashes of incredulity, the crowd accepted with a certainty against which it would have been madness to rebel. It had faith. It believed with religious fervour. What it saw was not an artificial evocation of the past but that past itself, revived in all its living reality.

Equally real was the gradual transformation which continued to take place, no longer in the actual lines of the building, but as one might say in its substance and which was revealed by progressive changes that could not be attributed to any other cause than that of time. The great white mass grew darker. The grain of the stones became worn and weathered and they assumed that appearance of rugged bark which the patient gnawing of the years is apt to give them. It is true, the cathedral did not grow old, yet lived, for age is the beauty and the youth of the stones by means of which man gives shape to his dreams.

It lived and breathed through the centuries, seeming all the fresher as it faded and the more ornate as its legions of saints and angels became mutilated. It chanted its solemn hymn into the open sky over the houses which had gradually concealed its doorways and aisles, over the town above whose crowded roofs it towered, over the plains and hills which formed the dim horizon.

At different times people came and leant against the balustrade of some lofty balcony or appeared in the frame of the tall windows; and the costume of these people enabled us to note their successive periods. Thus we saw pre-Revolutionary citizens, followed by soldiers of the Empire, who in turn were followed by other nineteenth-century civilians and by labourers building scaffoldings and by yet more labourers engaged in the work of restoration.

Then a final vision appeared before our eyes: a group of French officers in service uniform. They hurriedly reached the top of the tower, looked through their field-glasses and went down again. Here and there, over the town and the country, hovered those small, woolly clouds which mark the bursting of a shell.

The silence of the crowd became anguished. Their eyes stared apprehensively. We all felt what was coming and we were all judging as a whole a spectacle which had shown us the gradual birth and marvellous growth of the cathedral only by way of leading up to the dramatic climax. We expected this climax. It followed from the dominant idea which gave the film its unity and its raison d'etre. It was as logical as the last act of a Greek tragedy. But how could we for-see all the savage grandeur and all the horror contained in that climax? How could we foresee that the bombardment of Rheims Cathedral itself formed part of the climax only as a preparation and that, beyond the violent and sensational scene which was about to rack our nerves and shock our minds, there would follow yet another scene of the most terrible nature, a scene which was strictly accurate in every detail?

The first shell fell on the north-east part of the cathedral at a spot which we could not see, because the building, though we were looking down upon it from a slight elevation, presented only its west front to our eyes. But a flame shot up, like a flash of lightning, and a pillar of smoke whirled into the cloudless sky.

And, almost simultaneously, three more shells followed, three more explosives, mingling their puffs of smoke. A fifth fell a little more forward, in the middle of the roof. A mighty flame arose. Rheims Cathedral was on fire.

Then followed phenomena which are really inexplicable in the present state of our cinematographic resources. I say cinematographic, although the term is not perhaps strictly accurate; but I do not know how else to describe the miraculous visions of the Yard. Nor do I know of any comparison to employ when speaking of the visible parabola of the sixth shell, which we followed with our eyes through space and which even stopped for a moment, to resume its leisurely course and to stop again at a few inches from the statue which it was about to strike. This was a charming and ingenuous statue of a saint lifting her arms to God, with the sweetest, happiest and most trusting expression on her face; a masterpiece of grace and beauty; a divine creature who had stood for centuries, cloistered in her shelter, among the nests of the swallows, living her humble life of prayer and adoration, and who now smiled at the death that threatened her. A flash, a puff of smoke... and, in the place of the little saint and her daintily-carved niche, a yawning gap!

It was at this moment that I felt that anger and hatred were awakening all around me. The murder of the little saint had roused the indignation of the crowd; and it so happened that this indignation found an occasion to express itself. Before us, the cathedral grew smaller, while at the same time it approached us. It seemed to be leaving its frame, while the distant landscape came nearer and nearer. A hill, bristling with barbed wire, dug with trenches and strewn with corpses, rose and fell away; and we saw its top, which was fortified with bastions and cupolas of reinforced concrete.

Enormous guns displayed their long barrels. A multitude of German soldiers were moving swiftly to and fro. It was the battery which was shelling Rheims Cathedral.

In the centre stood a group of general officers, field-glasses in hand, with sword-belts unbuckled. At each shot, they watched the effect through their glasses and then nodded their heads with an air of satisfaction.

But a great commotion now took place among them. They drew up in single rank, assuming a stiff and automatic attitude, while the soldiers continued to serve the guns. And suddenly, from behind the fortress, a motor-car appeared, accompanied by an escort of cavalry. It stopped on the emplacement and from it there alighted a man wearing a helmet and a long fur-cloak, which was lifted at the side by the scabbard of a sword of which he held the hilt. He stepped briskly to the foreground. We recognised the Kaiser.

He shook hands with one of the generals. The others saluted more stiffly than ever and then, at a sign from their master, extended and formed a semicircle around him and the general whose hand he had shaken.

A conversation ensued. The general, after an explanation accompanied by gestures that pointed towards the town, called for a telescope and had it correctly pointed. The Kaiser put his eye to it.

One of the guns was ready. The order to fire was given.

Two pictures followed each other on the screen in quick succession: that of a carved stone balustrade smashed to pieces by the shell and that of the emperor drawing himself up immediately afterwards. He had seen! He had seen; and his face, which appeared to us suddenly enlarged and alone upon the screen, beamed with intense delight!

He began to talk volubly. His sensual lips, his upturned moustache, his wrinkled and fleshy cheeks were all moving at the same time. But, when another gun was obviously on the point of firing, he held his peace and looked in the direction of the town. Just then he raised his hand to a level just below his eyes, so that we saw them by themselves, between the hand and the peak of the helmet. They were hard, evil, proud, implacable. They wore the expression of the miraculous Three Eyes that had throbbed before us on the screen.

They lit up, glittering with an evil smile. They saw what we saw at the same time, a whole block of capitals and cornices falling to the ground and more flames rising in angry pillars of fire. Then the emperor burst out laughing. One picture showed him doubled up in two and holding his sides amid the group of generals all seized with the same uncontrollable laughter. He was laughing! He was laughing! It was so amusing! Rheims Cathedral was ablaze! The venerable fabric to which the kings of France used to come for their coronation was falling into ruins! The might of Germany was striking the enemy in his very heart! The German heavy guns were things that were noble and beautiful! And it was he who had ordained it, he, the emperor, the King of Prussia, master of the world, William of Hohenzollern!.... Oh, the joy of laughing his fill, laughing to his heart's content, laughing the frank, honest laughter of a jolly German!

A storm of hoots and hisses broke loose in the amphitheatre. The crowd had risen in a body, shaking their fists and bellowing forth insults. The attendants had to struggle with a troop of angry men who had invaded the orchestra.

Theodore Massignac, behind the bars of his cage, stooped and pressed the button.

The iron curtain rose.