The Three Eyes/Chapter 14
CHAPTER XIV. MASSIGNAC AND VELMOT
CLOUDS were floating.... Clouds were floating....”
These words of the report, which I repeated mechanically while trying to decipher what followed, were the last that I was able to read. Night was falling rapidly. My eyes, tired by the strain and difficulty of reading, strove in vain against the increasing darkness and suddenly refused to obey any further effort.
Besides, Velmot rose soon after and walked to the bank of the river. The time had come for action.
What that action was to be I did not ask. Since the beginning of my captivity, I had entertained no personal fears, even though Velmot had referred to an interview, accompanied by “a little plain-speaking,” which he had in store for me. But the great secret of the Yard continued to possess my thoughts so much that nothing that happened had any effect upon me except in so far as it was useful or injurious to Noel Dorgeroux's cause. There was some one now who knew the truth; and the world was about to learn it. How could I trouble about anything else? How could anything interest me except Benjamin Prevotelle's accurate arguments, the ingenuity of his investigations and the important results which he had achieved? Oh, how I too longed to know! What could the new theory be? Did it fit in with all the teaching of reality? And would it fully satisfy me, who, when all was said, had penetrated farther than any other into the heart of that reality and reaped the largest harvest of observations? What astonished me was that I did not understand. And I am even more astonished now. Though standing on the very threshold of the sanctuary, the door of which was opened to me, I was unable to see. No light flashed upon me. What did Benjamin Prevotelle mean to say? What was the significance of those clouds drifting in a corner of the sky? If they tempered the light of the sunset and thus exerted an influence over the pictures of the screen, why did Benjamin Prevotelle ask me on the telephone about the surface of the wall which faced precisely the opposite quarter of the heavens, that is the east? And why did he accept my answer as confirming his theory?
Velmot's voice drew me from my dreams and brought me back to the window which I had left a few minutes earlier. He was stooping over the grating and sneering:
“Well, Massignac, are you ready for the operation? I'll get you out this way: that'll save my dragging you round by the stairs.”
Velmot went down the stairs; and I soon heard beneath me the loud outburst of a renewed argument, ending in howls and then in a sudden silence which was the most impressive of all. I now received my first notion of the terrible scene which Velmot was preparing; and, without-wasting my pity on the wretched Massignac, I shuddered at the thought that my turn might come next.
The thing was done as Velmot had said. Massignac, bandaged like a swathed mummy, rigid and gagged, rose slowly from the cellar. Velmot then returned, dragged him by the shoulders to the edge of the river and tipped him into the boat.
Then, standing on the bank, he addressed him as follows:
“Now, Massignac, my beauty, this is the third time that I'm appealing to your common sense; and I'll do it again presently, for the fourth time, if you force me to. But you're going to give in, I fancy. Come, think a moment. Think what you would do in my place. You'd act yourself as I am doing, wouldn't you? Then what are you waiting for? Why don't you speak? Does your gag bother you? Just nod your head and I'll move it. Do you agree? No? In that case you mustn't be surprised if we start upon the fourth and last phase of our conversation. All my apologies if it strikes you as still more unpleasant.”
Velmot sat down beside his victim, wielded the boat-hook and pushed the boat between the two stakes projecting above the water.
These two stakes marked the boundaries of the field of vision which the gap in the shutter afforded me. The water played around them, spangled with sparks of light. The moon had appeared from behind the clouds; and I distinctly saw every detail of the “operation,” to use Velmot's expression.
“Don't resist, Massignac,” he said. “It won't help.... Eh? What? You think I'm too rough, do you? My lord's made of glass, is he? Now then! Yoop! Is that right? Capital!”
He had stood Massignac up against himself and placed his left arm round him. With his right hand he took hold of the iron hook fastened to the rope between the two stakes, pulled it down and inserted the point under the bonds with which Massignac was swathed, at the height of the shoulders.
“Capital!” he repeated. “You see, I needn't trouble to hold you. You're standing up all by yourself, my boy, like a monkey on a stick.”
He took the boat-hook again, hooked it into the stones on the bank and made the boat glide from under Massignac's body, which promptly sank. The rope had sagged. Only half of his body emerged above the water.
And Velmot said to his former confederate, in a low voice, which I could hear, however, without straining my ears. I have always believed that Velmot spoke that day with the intention that I should hear —:
“This is what I had in mind, old chap; and we haven't much more to say to each other. Remember, in an hour from now, possibly sooner, the water will be above your mouth, which won't make it very easy for you to speak. And of that hour I ought in decency to give you fifty minutes for reflection.”
He splashed a little water over Massignac's head with the boat-hook. Then he continued, with a laugh:
“You quite grasp the position, don't you? The rope by which you're fastened, like an ox in a stall, is fixed to the two stakes by a couple of slip-knots, nothing more... so that, at the least movement, the knots slip down an inch or so. You will have noticed it just now, when I let you go. Blinkety blump! You went down a half a head lower! Besides that, the weight alone of your body is enough.... You're slipping, old fellow, you're slipping all the time; and nothing can stop you... unless, of course, you speak. Are you ready to speak?”
The moonbeams shifted to and fro, casting light or shade upon the horrible scenes. I could see the black shape of Massignac, who himself always remained in semidarkness. The water came half-way up his chest.
“Logically, old fellow, you're bound to speak. The position is so clear. We plotted between us a little piece of business which succeeded, thanks to our joint efforts; but you have pocketed all the profits, thanks to your trickery. I want my share, that's all. And for this you need do no more than tell me Noel Dorgeroux's famous formula and supply me with the means of making the experiment to begin with. After that I'll give you back your liberty for I shall feel certain that you will allow me my share of the profits, for fear of competition. Is it a bargain?”
Theodore Massignac must have made a gesture of denial or uttered a grunt of refusal, for he received a smack across the face which resounded through the silence.
“I'm sure you'll excuse me, old fellow,” said Velmot, “but you'd try the patience of a plaster saint! Do you really mean to say that you would rather croak? Or perhaps you think I intend to give in? Or that some one will come and help you out of your mess? You ass! You chose this place yourself last winter! No boats come this way. Opposite, nothing but fields. So there's no question of a rescue. Nor of pity either! Why, hang it all, don't you realize the positions? And yet I showed you the article in this morning's paper. With the exception of the formula, it's all set out there: all Dorgeroux's secret and all yours! So who's to tell us that they won't quite easily find the formula? Who's to tell us that, in a fortnight, in a week, the whole thing won't be given away and that I shall have had my hands on a million of money, like a fool, without grabbing it? Oh, no, that would never do!”
There was a pause. A ray of light gave me a glimpse of Massignac. The water had risen above his shoulders.
“I've nothing more to say to you,” said Velmot.
“We'll make an end of it. Do you refuse?” He waited for a moment and continued: “In that case, since you refuse, I won't insist: what's the good? You shall decide your own fate and take the final plunge. Good-bye, old man. I'm going to drink a glass and smoke a pipe to your health.”
He bent towards his victim and added: “Still, it's a chap's duty to provide for everything. If, by chance you think better of it, if you have an inspiration at the last moment, you have only to call me, quite softly.... There, I'm loosening your gag a bit.... Good-bye, Theodore.”
Velmot pushed the boat back and landed, grumbling:
“It's a dog's life! What a fool the brute is!” As arranged, he sat down again, after bringing the chair and table to the water's edge, poured himself out a glass of liqueur and lit his pipe:
“Here's to your good health, Massignac,” he said. “At the present rate, I can see that, in twenty minutes from now, you'll be having a drink too. Whatever you do, don't forget to call me. I'm listening for all I'm worth, old chum.”
The moon had become veiled with clouds, which must have been very dense, for the bank grew so dark that I could hardly distinguish Velmot's figure. As a matter of fact, I was persuaded that the implacable contest would end in some compromise and that Velmot would give way or Massignac speak. Nevertheless, ten or perhaps fifteen minutes passed, minutes which seemed to me interminable. Velmot smoked quietly and Massignac gave a series of little whimpers, but did not call out. Five minutes more. Velmot rose angrily:
“It's no use whining, you blasted fool! I've had enough of messing about. Will you speak? No? Then die, you scamp!”
And I heard him snarling between his teeth:
“Perhaps I shall manage better with the other one.”
Whom did he mean by “the other one”? Me?
In point of fact, he turned to the left, that is towards the part of the house where the door was:
“Damn it!” he swore, almost immediately.
There was an ejaculation. And then I heard nothing more from that direction.
What had happened? Had Velmot knocked against the wall, in the dark, or against an open shutter?
I could not see him from where I stood. The table and chair were faintly outlined in the gloom.
Beyond was the pitchy darkness from which came Massignac's muffled whimper.
“Velmot is on his way,” I said to myself. “A few seconds more and he will be here.”
The reason for his coming I did not understand, any more than the reason for trepanning me. Bid he think that I knew the formula and that I had refrained from denouncing Massignac because of an understanding between him and myself? In that case, did he mean to compel me to speak, by employing with me the same methods as with his former accomplice? Or was it a question of Berangere between us, of the Berangere whom we both loved and whose name, to my surprise, he had not even mentioned to Massignac? These were so many problems to which he would provide the reply:
“That is,” I thought, “if he comes.”
For, after all, he was not there; and there was not a sound in the house. What was he doing? For some little while I stood with my ear glued to .the door by which he should have entered, ready to defend myself though unarmed.
He did not come.
I went back to the window. There was no sound on that side either.
And the silence was terrible, that silence which seemed to increase and to spread all over the river and into space, that silence which was no longer broken even by Massignac's stifled moaning.
In vain I tried to force my eyes to see. The water of the river remained invisible. I no longer saw and I no longer heard Theodore Massignac.
I could no longer see him and I could no longer hear him. It was a terrifying reflection! Had he slipped down? Had the deadly, suffocating water risen to his mouth and nostrils?
I struck the shutter with a mighty blow of my fist. The thought that Massignac was dead or about to die, that thought which until then I had not realised very clearly, filled me with dismay. Massignac's death meant the definite and irreparable loss of the secret. Massignac's death meant that Noel Dorgeroux was dying for the second time.
I redoubled my efforts. There was certainly no doubt in my mind that Velmot was at hand and that he and I would have to fight it out; but I did not care about that. No consideration could stop me. I had then and there to hasten to the assistance not of Massignac, but as it appeared to me, of Noel Dorgeroux, whose wonderful work was about to be destroyed. All that I had done hitherto, in protecting by my silence, Theodore Massignac's criminal enterprise, I was bound to continue by saying from death the man who knew the indispensable formula.
As my fists were not enough, I broke a chair and used it to hammer one of the bars. Moreover, the shutter was not very strong, as some of the slats were already partly missing. Another split and yet another. I was able to slip my arm through and to lift an iron cross-bar hinged to the outside. The shutter gave way at once. I had only to step over the window-sill and drop to the ground below.
Velmot was certainly leaving the field clear for me.
Without losing an instant, I passed by the chair, threw over the table and easily found the boat:
“I'm here!” I shouted to Massignac. “Hold on!”
With a strong push I reached one of the stakes, repeating:
“Hold on! Hold on! I'm here!”
I seized the rope in both hands, at the level of the water, and felt for the hook, expecting to strike against Massignac's head.
I touched nothing. The rope had slipped down; the hook was in the water and carried no weight. The body must have gone to the bottom; and the current had swept it away.
Nevertheless, on the off-chance, I dipped my hand as far as I could into the water. But a shot suddenly pulled me up short. A bullet had whistled past my ear. At the same time, Velmot, whom I could just make out crouching on the bank, like a man dragging himself on all fours, stuttered, in a choking voice:
“Oh, you scum, you took your opportunity, did you? And you think perhaps you're going to save Massignac? Just you wait a bit, you blighter!”
He fired two more shots, guessing at my whereabouts, for I was sculling away rapidly. Neither of them touched me. Soon I was out of range.