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CHAPTER X. THE CROWD SEESEdit

THEODORE MASSIGNAC was installed at the box-office! Theodore Massignac, when a dispute of any kind occurred, left his desk and hastened to settle it! Theodore Massignac walked up and down, examining the tickets, showing people to their places, speaking a pleasant word here, giving a masterful order there and doing all these things with his everlasting smile and his obsequious graciousness.

Of embarrassment not the slightest sign, Everybody knew that Theodore Massignac was the fellow with the broad face and the wide-cleft mouth who was attracting the general attention. And everybody was fully aware that Theodore Massignac was the man of straw who had carried out the whole business and made away with Noel Dorgeroux. But nothing interfered with Theodore Massignac's jovial mood: not the sneers, nor the apparent hostility of the public, nor the more or less discreet supervision of the detectives attached to his person.

He had even had the effrontery to paste on boardings, to the right and left of the entrance, a pair of great posters representing Noel Dorgeroux's handsome face, with its grave and candid features!

These posters gave rise to a brief altercation between us. It was pretty lively, though it passed unnoticed by others. Scandalized by the sight of them, I went up to him, a little while before the time fixed for the opening; and, in a voice trembling with anger, said:

“Remove those at once. I will not have them displayed. The rest I don't care about. But this is too much of a good thing: it's a disgrace and an outrage.”

He feigned an air of amazement:

“An outrage? You call it an outrage to honour your uncle's memory and to display the portrait of the talented inventor whose discovery is on the point of revolutionizing the world? I thought I was doing homage to him.”

I was beside myself with rage:

“You shan't do it,” I spluttered. “I will not consent, I will not consent to be an accomplice in your infamy.”

“Oh, yes, you will!” he said, with a laugh. “You'll consent to this as you do to all the rest. It's all part of the game, young fellow. You've got to swallow it. You've got to swallow it because Uncle Dorgeroux's fame must be made to soar above all these paltry trifles. Of course, I know, a word from you and I'm jugged. And then? What will become of the great invention? In the soup, that's where it'll be, my lad, because I am the sole possessor of all the secrets and all the formulae. The sole possessor, do you understand? Friend Velmot, the man with the glasses, is only a super, a tool. So is Berangere, Therefore, with Theodore Massignac put away, there's an end of the astounding pictures signed 'Dorgeroux.' No more glory, no more immortality. Is that what you want, young man?” Without waiting for any reply, he added: “And then there's something else; a word or two which I overheard last night. Ha, ha, my dear sir, so we're in love with Berangere! We're prepared to defend her against all dangers! Well, in that case — do be logical — what have I to fear? If you betray me, you betray your sweetheart. Come, am I right or wrong? Daddy and his little girl... hand and glove, you might say. If you cut off one, what becomes of the other?... Ah, you're beginning to understand! You'll be good now, won't you? There, that's much better! We shall see a happy ending yet, you'll have heaps of children crowding round your knee and who will thank me then for getting him a nice little settlement? Why, Victorien!

He stopped and watched me, with a jeering air. Clenching my fists, I shouted, furiously:

“You villain!... Oh, what a villain you make yourself appear!”

But some people were coming up and he turned his back on me, after whispering:

“Hush, Victorien! Don't insult your father-in-law elect.”

I restrained myself. The horrible brute was right. I was condemned to silence by motives so powerful that Theodore Massignac would soon be able to fulfil his task without having to fear the least revolt of conscience on my part. Noel Dorgeroux and Berangere were watching over him.

  • * * * *

Meanwhile, the amphitheatre was filling; and the motorcars continued to arrive in swift succession, pouring forth the torrent of privileged people who, because of their wealth or their position, had paid from ten to twenty louis for a seat. Financiers, millionaires, famous actresses, newspaper-proprietors, artistic and literary celebrities, Anglo-Saxon commercial magnates, secretaries of great labour unions, all flocked with a sort of fever towards that unknown spectacle, of which no detailed programme was obtainable and which they were not even certain of beholding, since it was impossible to say whether Noel Dorgeroux's processes had really been recovered and employed in the right way. Indeed, no one, among those who believed the story, was in a position to declare that Theodore Massignac had not taken advantage of the whole business in order to arrange the most elaborate hoax. The very tickets and posters contained the anything but reassuring words:


“In the event of unfavourable weather, the tickets will be available for the following day. Should the exhibition be prevented by any other cause, the money paid for the seats will not be refunded; and no claims to that effect can be entertained.”


Yet nothing had restrained the tremendous outburst of curiosity. Whether confident or suspicious, people insisted on being there. Besides, the weather was fine. The sun shone out of a cloudless sky. Why not indulge in the somewhat anxious gaiety that filled the hearts of the crowd?

Everything was ready. Thanks to his wonderful activity and his remarkable powers of organization, Theodore Massignac, assisted by architects and contractors and acting on the plans worked out, had completed and revised Noel Dorgeroux's work. He had recruited a numerous staff, especially a large and stalwart body of men, who, as I heard, were lavishly paid and who were charged with the duty of keeping order.

As for the amphitheatre, built of reinforced concrete, it was completely filled up, well laid out and very comfortable. Twelve rows of elbowed seats, supplied with movable cushions, surrounded a floor which rose in a gentle slope, divided into twelve tiers arranged in a wide semicircle. Behind these was a series of spacious private boxes, and, at the back of all, a lounge, the floor of which, nevertheless, was not more than ten or twelve feet above the level of the ground.

Opposite was the wall.

It stood well away from the seats, being built on a foundation of masonry and separated from the spectators by an empty orchestra. Furthermore, a grating, six feet high, prevented access to the wall, at least as regards its central portion; and, when I say a grating, I mean a businesslike grating, with spiked rails and crossbars forming too close a mesh to allow of the passage of a man's arm.

The central part was the screen, which was raised to about the level of the fourth or fifth tier of seats. Two pilasters, standing at eight or ten yards' distance from each other, marked its boundaries and supported an overhanging canopy. For the moment, all this space was masked by an iron curtain, roughly daubed with gaudy landscapes and ill-drawn views.

At half-past three there was not a vacant seat nor an unoccupied corner. The police had ordered the doors to be closed. The crowd was beginning to grow impatient and to give signs of a certain irritability, which betrayed itself in the hum of a thousand voices, in nervous laughter and in jests which were becoming more and more caustic.

“If the thing goes wrong,” said a man by my side, “we shall see a shindy.”

I had taken up my stand, with some journalists of my acquaintance, in the lounge, amid a noisy multitude which was all the more peevish inasmuch as it was not comfortably seated like the audience in the stalls.

Another journalist, who was invariably well-informed and of whom I had seen a good deal lately, replied:

“Yes, there will be a shindy; but that is not the worthy Massignac's principal danger. He is risking something besides.”

“What?” I asked.

“Arrest.”

“Do you mean that?”

“I do. If the universal curiosity, which has helped him to preserve his liberty so far, is satisfied, he's all right. If not, if he fails, hell be locked up. The warrant is out.”

I shuddered. Massignac's arrest implied the gravest possible peril to Berangere.

“And you may be sure,” my acquaintance continued, “that he is fully alive to what is hanging over his head and that he is feeling anything but chirpy at heart.”

“At heart, perhaps,” replied one of the others. “But he doesn't allow it to appear on the surface. There, look at him: did you ever See such swank?”

A louder din had come from the crowd. Below us, Theodore Massignac was walking along the pit and crossing the empty space of the orchestra. He was accompanied by a dozen of those sturdy fellows who composed the male staff of the amphitheatre. He made them sit down on two benches which were evidently reserved for them and, with the most natural air, gave them his instructions. And his gestures so clearly denoted the sense of the orders imparted and expressed so clearly what they would have to do if any one attempted to approach the wall that a loud clamour of protest arose.

Massignac turned towards the audience, without appearing in the least put out, and, with a smiling face, gave a careless shrug of the shoulders, as though to say:

“What's the trouble? I'm taking precautions. Surely I'm entitled to do that!”

And, retaining his bantering geniality, he took a key from his waist-coat pocket, opened a little gate in the railing and entered the last enclosure before the wall.

This manner of playing the lion-tamer who takes refuge behind the bars of his cage made so comic an impression that the hisses became mingled with bursts of laughter.

“The worthy Massignac is right,” said my friend the journalist, in a tone of approval. “In this way he avoids either of two things: if he fails, the malcontents won't be able to break his head; and, if he succeeds, the enthusiasts can't make a rush for the wall and learn the secret of the hoax. He's a knowing one. He has prepared for everything.”

There was a stool in the fortified enclosure.

Theodore Massignac sat down on it half facing the spectators, some four paces in front of the wall, and, holding his watch towards us, tapped it with his other hand to explain that the decisive hour was about to strike.

The extension of time which he thus obtained lasted for some minutes. But then the uproar began anew and became deafening. People suddenly lost all confidence. The idea of a hoax took possession of every mind, all the more as people were unable to grasp why the spectacle should begin at any particular time rather than another, since it all depended solely on Theodore Massignac.

“Curtain! Curtain!” they cried.

After a moment, not so much in obedience to this order as because the hands of his watch seemed to command it, he rose, went to the wall, slipped back a wooden slab which covered two electric pushes and pressed one of them with his finger.

The iron curtain descended slowly and sank into the ground.

The screen appeared in its entirety, in broad daylight and of larger proportions than the ordinary.

I shuddered before this flat surface, over which the mysterious coating was spread in a dark-grey layer. And the same tremor ran through the crowd, which was also seized with the recollection of my depositions. Was it possible that we were about to behold one of those extraordinary spectacles the story of which had given rise to so much controversial discussion? How ardently I longed for it! At this solemn minute, I forget all the phases of the drama, all the loathing that I felt for Massignac, all that had to do with Berangere, the madness of her actions, the anguish of my love, and thought only of the great game that was being played around my uncle's discovery. Would what I had seen vanish in the darkness of the past which I myself, the sole witness of the miracles, was beginning to doubt? Or would the incredible vision arise once again and yet again, to teach the future the name of Noel Dorgeroux? Had I been right in sacrificing to the victim's glory the vengeance called for by his death? Or had I made myself the accomplice of the murderer in not denouncing his abominable crime?

Yes, I was becoming his accomplice and even, deep down in my consciousness, his collaborator and his ally. Had I imagined that Massignac had need of me, I would have hastened to his aide. I would have encouraged him with all my confidence and assisted him to the full extent of my ability. First and foremost I wished him to emerge victoriously from the struggle which he had undertaken. I wanted my uncle's secret to come to life again. I wanted light to spring from the shadow. I did not wish twenty years of study and the supreme idea of that most noble genius to be flung back into the abyss.

Now not a sound broke the profound silence. The people's faces were set. Their eyes pierced the wall like so many gimlets. They experienced in their turn the anxiety of my own waiting for that which was yet invisible and which was preparing in the depths of the mysterious substance. And the implacable will of a thousand spectators united with that of Massignac, who stood there below, with his back bent and his head thrust forward; wildly questioning the impassive horizon of the wall.

He was the first to see the first premonitory gleam. A cry escaped his lips, while his two hands frantically beat the air. And, almost at the same second, like sparks crackling on every side, other cries were scattered in the silence, which was instantly restored, heavier and denser than before.

The Three Eyes were there.

The Three Eyes marked their three curved triangles on the wall.

The onlookers had not, in the presence of this inconceivable phenomenon, to submit to the sort of initiation through which I had passed. To them, from the outset, three geometrical figures, dismal and lifeless though they were, represented three eyes; to them also they were living eyes even before they became animated. And the excitement was intense when those lidless eyes, consisting of hard, symmetrical lines, suddenly became filled with an expression which made them as intelligible to us as the eyes of a human person.

It was a harsh, proud expression, containing flashes of malignant joy. And I knew — and we all knew — that this was not just a random expression, with which the Three Eyes had been arbitrarily endowed, but that of a being who looked upon real life with that same look and who was about to appear to us in real life.

Then, as always, the three figures began to revolve dizzily. The disk turned upon itself. And everything was interrupted....