The Three Eyes/Chapter 17
CHAPTER XVII. SUPREME VISIONS
THE exhibition of the following day was preceded by two important pieces of news which appeared in the evening papers. A group of financiers had offered Theodore Massignac the sum of ten million francs in consideration of Noel Dorgeroux's secret and the right to work the amphitheatre. Theodore Massignac was to give them his answer next day.
But, at the last moment, a telegram from the south of France announced that the maid-of-all-work who had nursed Massignac in his house at Toulouse, a few weeks before, now declared that her master's illness was feigned and that Massignac had left the house on several occasions, each time carefully concealing his absence from all the neighbours. Now one of these absences synchronized with the murder of Noel Dorgeroux. The woman's accusation therefore obliged the authorities to reopen an enquiry which had already elicited so much presumptive evidence of Theodore Massignac's guilt.
The upshot of these two pieces of news was that my uncle Dorgeroux's secret depended on chance, that it would be saved by an immediate purchase or lost for ever by Massignac's arrest. This alternative added still further to the anxious curiosity of the spectators, many of whom correctly believed that they were witnessing the last of the Meudon exhibitions. They discussed the articles in the papers and the proofs or objections accumulated for or against the theory. They said that Prevotelle, to whom Massignac was refusing admission to the amphitheatre, was preparing a whole series of experiments with the intention of proving the absolute accuracy of his theory, the simplest of which experiments consisted in erecting a scaffolding outside the Yard and setting up an intervening obstacle to intercept the rays that passed from Venus to the screen.
I myself who, since the previous day, had thought of nothing but Berangere, whom I had pursued in vain through the crowd amid which she had succeeded in escaping me, I myself was smitten with the fever and that day abandoned the attempt to discover upon the close-packed tiers of seats the mysterious girl whom I had held to me all quivering, happy to abandon herself for a few moments to a kiss on which she bestowed all the fervour of her incomprehensible soul. I forgot her. The screen alone counted, to my mind. The problem of my life was swallowed up in the great riddle which those solemn minutes in the history of mankind set before us. They began, after the most sorrowful and heart-rending look that had yet animated the miraculous Three Eyes, they began with that singular phantasmagoria of creatures which Benjamin Prevotelle proposed that we should regard as the inhabitants of Venus and which, for that matter, it was impossible that we should not so regard. I will not try to define them with greater precision nor to describe the setting in which they moved. One's confusion in the presence of those grotesque Shapes, those absurd movements and those startling landscapes was so great that one had hardly time to receive very exact impressions or to deduce the slightest theory from them. All that I can say is that we were the observers, as on the first occasion, of a manifestation of public order. There were numbers of spectators and a connected sequence of actions tending towards a clearly-defined end, which seemed to us to be of the same nature as the first execution. Everything, in fact — the grouping of certain Shapes in the middle of an empty space and around a motionless Shape, the actions performed, the cutting up of that isolated Shape — suggested that there was an execution in progress, the taking of a life. In any case, we were perfectly well aware, through the corresponding instance, that its real significance resided only in the second part of the film. Since nearly all the pictures were twofold, impressing us by antithesis or analogy, we must wait awhile to catch the general idea which directed this projection.
This soon became apparent; and the mere narrative of what we saw showed how right my uncle Dorgeroux's prophecy was when he said:
“Men will come here as pilgrims and will fall upon their knees and weep like children!”
A winding road, rough with cobbles and cut into steps, climbs a steep, arid, shadowless hill under a burning sun. We almost seem to see the eddies rising, like a scorching breath, from the parched soil.
A mob of excited people is scaling the abrupt slope. On their backs hang tattered robes; their aspect is that of the beggars or artisans of an eastern populace.
The road disappears and appears again at a higher level, where we see that this mob is preceding and following a company consisting of soldiers clad like the Roman legionaries. There are sixty or eighty of them, perhaps. They are marching slowly, in a ragged body, carrying their spears over their shoulders, while some are swinging their helmets in their hands. Now and again one stops to drink.
From time to time we become aware that these soldiers are serving as escort to a central group, consisting of a few officers and of civilians clad in long robes, like priests, and, a little apart from them, four women, the lower half of whose faces is hidden by a long veil. Then, suddenly at a turn in the road, where the group has become slightly disorganized, we see a heavy cross outspread, jolting its way upwards. A man is underneath, as it were crushed by the intolerable burden which he is condemned to bear to the place of martyrdom. He stumbles at each step, makes an effort, stands up again, falls again, drags himself yet a little farther, crawling, clutching at the stones on the road, and then moves no more. A blow from a staff, administered by one of the soldiers, makes no difference. His strength is exhausted.
At that moment, a man comes down the stony path. He is stopped and ordered to carry the cross. He cannot and quickly makes his escape. But, as the soldiers with their spears turn back towards the man lying on the ground, behold, three of the women intervene and offer to carry the burden. One of them takes the end, the two others take the two arms and thus they climb the rugged hill, while the fourth woman raises the condemned man and supports his hesitating steps.
At two further points we are able to follow the painful ascent of him who is going to his death. And on each occasion his face is shown by itself upon the screen. We do not recognize it. It is unlike the face which we expected to see, according to the usual representations. But how much more fully satisfied the profound conception which it evokes in us by its actual presence!
It is He: we cannot for a moment doubt it. He lives before us. He is suffering. He is about to die before us. He is about to die. Each of us would fain avert the menace of that horrible death; and each of us prays with all his might for some peaceful vision in which we may see Him surrounded by His Disciples and His gentle womenfolk. The soldiers, as they reach the place of torture, assume a harsher aspect. The priests with ritual gestures curse the stones amid which the tree is to be raised and retire, with hanging heads.
Here comes the cross, with the women bending under it. The condemned man follows them. There are two of them now supporting Him. He stops. Nothing can save Him now. When we see Him again, after a short interruption of the picture, the cross is set up and the agony has begun.
I do not believe that any assembly of men was ever thrilled by a more violent and noble emotion than that which held us in its grip at this hour, which, let it be clearly understood, was the very hour at which the world's destiny was settled for centuries and centuries. We were not guessing at it through legends and distorted narratives. We did not have to reconstruct it after uncertain documents or to conceive it according to our own feelings and imagination. It was there, that unparalleled hour. It lived before us, in a setting devoid of grandeur, a setting which seemed to us very lowly, very poverty-stricken. The bulk of the sightseers had departed. A dozen soldiers were dicing on a flat stone and drinking. Four women were standing in the shadow of a man crucified whose feet they bathed with their tears. At the summit of two other hillocks hard by, two figures were writhing on their crosses. That was all.
But what a meaning we read into this gloomy spectacle! What a frightful tragedy was enacted before our eyes! The beating of our hearts wrung with love and distress was the very beating of that Sacred Heart. Those weary eyes looked down upon the same things that we beheld, the same dry soil, the same savage faces of the soldiers, the same countenances of the grief-stricken women.
When a last vision showed us His rigid and emaciated body and His sweet ravaged head in which the dilated eyes seemed to us abnormally large, the whole crowd rose to its feet, men and women fell upon their knees and, in a profound silence that quivered with prayer, all arms were despairingly outstretched towards the dying God.
Such scenes cannot be understood by those who did not witness them. You will no more find their living presentment in the pages in which I describe them than I can find it in the newspapers of the time. The latter pile up adjectives, exclamations and apostrophes which give no idea of what the vivid reality was. On the other hand, all the articles lay stress upon the essential truth which emerges from the two films of that day and, very rightly, declare that the second explains and completes the first. Yonder also, among our distant brethren, a God was delivered to the horrors of martyrdom; and, by connecting the two events, they intended to convey to us that, like ourselves, they possessed a religious belief and ideal aspirations. In the same way, they had shown us by the death of one of their rulers and the death of one of our kings that they had known the same political upheavals. In the same way, they had shown us by visions of lovers that, like us, they yielded to the power of love. Therefore, the same stages of civilizations, the same efforts of belief, the same instincts, the same sentiments existed in both worlds.
How could messages so positive, so stimulating have failed to increase our longing to know more about it all and to communicate more closely? How could we do other than think of the questions which it was possible to put and of the problems which would be elucidated, problems of the future and the past, problems of civilization, problems of destiny?
But the same uncertainty lingered in us, keener than the day before. What would become of Noel Dorgeroux's secret? The position was this: Massignac accepted the ten millions which he was offered, but on condition that he was paid the money immediately after the performance and that he received a safe-conduct for America.
Now, although the enquiries instituted at Toulouse confirmed the accusations brought against him by the maid-of-all-work, it was stated that the compact was on the point of being concluded, so greatly did the importance of Noel Dorgeroux's secret outweigh all ordinary consideration of justice and punishment. Finding itself confronted with a state of things which could not be prolonged, the government was yielding, though constraining Massignac to sell the secret under penalty of immediate arrest and posting all around him men who were instructed to lay him by the heels at the first sign of any trickery. When the iron curtain fell, twelve policemen took the place of the usual attendants.
And then began an exhibition to which special circumstances imparted so great a gravity and which was in itself so poignant and so implacable.
As on the other occasions, we did not at first grasp the significance which the scenes projected on the screen were intended to convey. These scenes passed before our eyes as swiftly as the love-scenes displayed two days before.
There was not the initial vision of the Three Eyes. We plunged straight into reality. In the middle of a garden sat a woman, young still and beautiful, dressed in the fashion of 1830. She was working at a tapestry stretched on a frame and from time to time raised her eyes to cast a fond look at a little girl playing by her side. The mother and child smiled at each other. The child left her sand-pies and came and kissed her mother.
For a few minutes there was merely this placid picture of human life.
Then, a dozen paces behind the mother, a tall, close-trimmed screen of foliage is gently thrust aside and, with a series of imperceptible movements, a man comes out of the shadow, a man, like the woman, young and well-dressed.
His face is hard, his jaws are set. He has a knife in his hand.
He takes three or four steps forward. The woman does not hear him, the little girl cannot see him. He comes still farther forward, with infinite precautions, so that the gravel may not creak under his feet nor any branch touch him.
He stands over the woman. His face displays a terrible cruelty and an inflexible will. The woman's face is still smiling and happy.
Slowly his arm is raised above that smile, above that happiness. Then it descends, with equal slowness; and suddenly, beneath the left shoulder, it strikes a sharp blow at the heart.
There is not a sound; that is certain. At most, a sigh, like the one sigh emitted, in the awful silence, by the crowd in the Yard.
The man has withdrawn his weapon. He listens for a moment, bends over the lifeless body that has huddled into the chair, feels the hand and then steals back with measured steps to the screen of foliage, which closes behind him.
The child has not ceased playing. She continues to laugh and talk.
The picture fades away.
The next shows us two men walking along a deserted path, beside which flows a narrow river. They are talking without animation; they might be discussing the weather.
When they turn round and retrace their steps, we see that one of the two men, the one who hitherto had been hidden behind his companion, carries a revolver.
They both stop and continue to talk quietly. But the face of the armed man becomes distorted and assumes the same criminal expression which we beheld in the first murderer. And suddenly he makes a movement of attack and fires; the other falls; and the first flings himself upon him and snatches a pocket-book from him.
There were four more murders, none of which had as its perpetrator or its victim any one who was known to us. They were so many sensational incidents, very short, restricted to the essential factors; the peaceful representation of a scene in daily life and the sudden explosion of crime in all its bestial horror.
The sight was dreadful, especially because of the expression of confidence and serenity maintained by the victim, while we, in the audience, saw the phantom of death rise over him. The waiting for the blow which we were unable to avert left us breathless and terrified.
And one last picture of a man appeared to us. A stifled exclamation rose from the crowd. It was Noel Dorgeroux.