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CHAPTER XII. THE “SHAPES”Edit

ON the morning of the day following this memorable spectacle, I woke late, after a feverish night during which I twice seemed to hear the sound of a shot.

“Nightmare!” I thought, when I got up. “I was haunted by the pictures of the bombardment; and what I heard was the bursting of the shells.”

The explanation was plausible enough: the powerful emotions of the amphitheatre, coming after my meeting with Berangere in the course of that other night and my struggle with Theodore Massignac, had thrown me into a state of nervous excitement. But, when I entered the room in which my coffee was served, Theodore Massignac came running in, carrying a heap of newspapers which he threw on the table; and I saw under his hat a bandage which hid his forehead. Had he been wounded? And was I to believe that there had really been shots fired in the Yard?

“Pay no attention,” he said; “a mere scratch. I've bruised myself.” And, pointing to the newspapers: “Read that, rather. It's all about the master's triumph.”

I made no protest against the loathsome brute's intrusion. The Master's triumph, as he said, and Berangere's safety compelled me to observe a silence by which he was to benefit until the completion of his plans, he had made himself at borne in Noel Dorgeroux's house; and his attitude showed that he was alive to his own rights and to my helplessness. Nevertheless, despite his arrogance, he seemed to me to be anxious and absorbed. He no longer laughed; and, without his cheery laugh, Theodore Massignac disconcerted me more than ever.

“Yes,” he continued, drawing himself up, “it's a victory, a victory accepted by everybody. Not one of all these articles strikes a false note. Bewilderment and enthusiasm, stupefaction and high-flown praises, all running riot together. They're everyone of them alike; and, on the other hand, there is no attempt at a plausible explanation. Those fellows are all astounded. They're like blind men walking without a stick. Well, well, it's a thick headed world!”

He came and stood in front of me and, bluntly:

“What then?” he said. “Can't you guess? It's really too funny! Now that I understand the affair, I'm petrified by the idea that people don't see through it. An unprecedented discovery, I agree, and yet so simple! And, even then, you can hardly call it a discovery. For, when all is said and done... Look here, the whole story is so completely within the capacity of the first-comer that it won't take long to clear it up. To-morrow or the next day, some one will say, 'The trick of the Yard?' I've got it! And that's that. You don't want to be a man of learning for that, believe me. On the contrary!”

He shrugged his shoulders:

“And besides, I don't care. Let them find out what they like: they'll still need the formula; and that's hidden in my cellar and nowhere else. Nobody knows it, not even our friend Velmot. Noel Dorgeroux's steel plate? Melted down. The instructions which he left at the back of D'Alembert's portrait? Burnt to ashes. So there's no danger of any competition. And, as the seats in the amphitheatre are selling like hot cakes, I shall have pocketed a million in less than a fortnight, two millions in less than three weeks. And then good-bye, gentlemen all, I'm off. By Jove! It won't do to tempt Providence or the gendarmes.”

He took me by the lapels of my jacket and, standing straight in front of me, with his eyes on mine, said, in a more serious voice:

“There's only one thing that would ruffle me, which is to think that all these beautiful pictures can no longer appear upon the screen when I am gone. It seems impossible, what? No more miraculous sights? No more fairy-tales to make people talk till Doomsday? That would never do, would it? Noel Dorgeroux's secret must not be lost. So I thought of you. Hang it, you're his nephew! Besides, you love my dear Berangere. Some day or other you'll be married to her. And then, as I'm working for her, it doesn't matter whether the money comes to her through you or through me, does it? Listen to me, Victorien Beaugrand, and remember every word I say. Listen to me. You've observed that the base of the wall below the screen stands out a good way. Noel Dorgeroux contrived a sort of recess there, containing several carboys, filled with different substances, and a copper vat. In this vat we mix certain quantities of those ingredients in fixed proportions, adding a fluid from a little phial prepared on the morning of the performances, according to your uncle's formula. Then, an hour or two before sunset, we dip a big brush in the wash thus obtained and daub the surface of the screen very evenly with it You do that for each performance, if you want the pictures to be clear, and of course only on days when there are no clouds between the sun and the screen. As fop the formula, it is not very long: fifteen letters and twelve figures in all, like this...”

Massignac repeated slowly, in a less decided tone:

“Fifteen letters and twelve figures. Once you know them by heart, you can be easy. And I too. Yes, what do I risk in speaking to you? You swear that you won't tell, eh? And then I hold you through Berangere. Well, those fifteen letters....”

He was obviously hesitating. His words seemed to cost him an increasing effort; and suddenly he pushed me back, struck the table angrily with his fist and cried:

“Well, no, then, no, no, no! I shall not speak. It would be too silly! No, I shall keep this thing in my own hands, yes! Is it likely that I should let the business go for two millions? Not for ten millions! Not for twenty! I shall mount guard for months, if necessary, as I did last night, with my gun on my shoulder... and if any one enters the Yard I'll shoot him as I would a dog. The wall belongs to me, Theodore Massignac. Hands off! Let no one dare to touch it! Let no one try to rob me of the least scrap of it! It's my secret! It's my formula! I bought the goods and risked my neck in doing it. I'll defend them to my last breath; and, if I kick the bucket, it can't be helped; I'll carry them with me to the grave!”

He shook his fist at invisible enemies. Then suddenly, he caught hold of me again: “That's what things have come to. My arrest, the gendarmes... I don't care a hang. They'll never dare. But the thief lurking in the darkness, the murderer who fires at me, as he did last night, while I was mounting guard.... For you must have heard, Victorien Beaugrand? Oh, a mere scratch! And I missed him too. But, next time, the swine will give himself time to take aim at me. Oh, the filthy swine!”

He began to shake me violently to and fro.

“But you too, Victorien, he's your enemy too! Don't you understand? The man with the eyeglass? That scoundrel Velmot? He wants to steal my secret, but he also wants to rob you of the girl you love. Sooner or later, you'll have your hands full with him, just as I have. Won't you defend yourself, you damned milksop, and attack him when you get the chance? Suppose I told you that Berangere's in love with him? Aha, that makes you jump! You're not blind surely? Can't you see for yourself that it was for him she was working all the winter and that, if I hadn't put a stop to it, I should have been diddled? She's in love with him, Victorien. She is the handsome Velmot's obedient slave. Why don't you smash his swanking mug for him? He's here. He's prowling about in the village. I saw him last night. Blast it, if I could only put a bullet through the beast's skin!”

Massignac spat out a few more oaths, mingled with offensive epithets which were aimed at myself as much as at Velmot. He described his daughter as a jade and a dangerous madwoman, threatened to kill me if I committed the least indiscretion and at length, with his mouth full of insults and his fists clenched, walked out backwards, like a man who fears a final desperate assault from his adversary.

He had nothing to be afraid of. I remained impassive under the storm of abuse. The only things that had roused me were his accusation against Berangere and his blunt declaration of her love for the man Velmot. But I had long since resolved not to take my feelings for her into account, to ignore them entirely, not even to defend her or condemn her or judge her and to refuse to accept my suffering until events had afforded me undeniable proofs. I knew her to be guilty of acts which I did not know of. Was I therefore to believe her guilty of those of which she was accused?

At heart, the feeling that seemed to persist was a profound pity. The horrible tragedy in which Berangere was submerged was increasing in violence. Theodore Massignac and his accomplice were now antagonists. Once again Noel Dorgeroux's secret was about to cause an outburst of passion; and everything seemed to foretell that Berangere would be swept away in the storm.

What I read in the newspapers confirmed what Massignac had told me. The articles lie before me as I write. They all express the same, more or less pugnacious, enthusiasm; and none of them gives a forecast of the truth which nevertheless was on the point of being discovered. While the ignorant and superficial journalists go wildly to work, heaping up the most preposterous suppositions, the really cultivated writers maintain a great reserve and appear to be mainly concerned in resisting any idea of a miracle to which a section of the public might be inclined to give ear:

“There is no miracle about it!” they exclaim. “We are in the presence of a scientific riddle which will be solved by purely scientific means. In the meantime let us confess our total incompetence.”

In any case, the comments of the press could not fail to increase the public excitement to the highest degree. At six o'clock in the evening the amphitheatre was taken by assault The wholly inadequate staff vainly attempted to stop the invasion of the crowd. Numbers of seats were occupied by main force by people who had no right to be there; and the performance began in tumult and confusion, amid the hostile clamour and mad applause that greeted the man Massignac when he passed through the bars of his cage.

True, the crowd lapsed into silence as soon as the Three Eyes appeared, but it remained nervous and irritable; and the spectacle that followed was not one to alleviate those symptoms. It was a strange spectacle, the most difficult to understand of all those which I saw. In the case of the others, those which preceded and those which followed, the mystery lay solely in the fact of their presentment. We beheld normal, natural scenes. But this one showed us things that are contrary to the things that are, things that might happen in the nightmare of a madman or in the hallucinations of a man dying in delirium.

I hardly know how to speak of it without myself appearing to have lost my reason; and I really should not dare to do so if a thousand others had not witnessed the same grotesque phantasmagoria and above all if this crazy vision — it is the only possible adjective — had not happened to be precisely the determining cause which set the public in the track of truth.

A thousand witnesses, I said, but I admit, a thousand witnesses who subsequently differed in their evidence, thanks to the inconsistency of the impressions received and also to the rapidity with which they succeeded one another.

And I myself, what did I see, after all? Animated shapes. Yes, that and nothing more. Living shapes. Every visible thing has a shape. A rock, a pyramid, a scaffolding round a house has a shape; but you cannot say that they are alive. Now this thing was alive. This thing bore perhaps no closer relation to the shape of a live being than to the shape of a rock, a pyramid or a scaffolding. Nevertheless there was no doubt that this thing acted in the manner of a being which lives, moves, follows this or that direction, obeys individual motives and attains a chosen goal.

I will not attempt to describe these shapes. How indeed could I do so, considering that they all differed from one another and that they even differed from themselves within the space of a second! Imagine a sack of coal (the comparison is forced upon one by the black and lumpy appearance of the Shapes), imagine a sack of coal swelling into the body of an ox, only to shrink at once to the proportions of the body of a dog, and next to grow thicker or to draw itself out lengthwise. Imagine this mass, which has no more consistency than a jellyfish, now again putting forth three little tentacles, resembling hands. Lastly, imagine the picture of a town, a town which is not horizontal but perpendicular, with streets standing up like ladders and, along these arteries, the Shapes rising like balloons. This is the first vision; and, right at the top of the town, the Shapes come crowding from every side, gathering upon a vast horizontal space, where they swarm like ants.

I receive the impression — and it is the general impression — that the space is a public square. A mound marks its centre. Shapes are standing there motionless. Others approach by means of successive dilations and contractions, which appear to constitute their method of advancing. And in this way, on the passage of a group of no great dimensions, which seems to be carrying a lifeless Shape, the multitude of the living Shapes falls back.

What happens next? However clear my sensations may be, however precise the memory which I have retained of them, I hesitate to write them down in so many words. I repeat, the vision transcends the limits of absurdity, while provoking a shudder of horror of which you are conscious without understanding it. For, after all what does it mean? Two powerful Shapes protrude their three tentacles, which wind themselves round the lifeless Shape that has been brought up, crush it, rend it, compress it and, rising in the air, wave to and fro a small mass which they have separated, like a severed head, from the original Shape and which contains the geometrical Three Eyes, staring, void of eyelids, void of expression.

No, it means nothing. It is a series of unconnected, unreal visions. And yet our hearts are wrung with anguish, as though we had been present at a murder or an execution. And yet those incoherent visions were perhaps what contributed most to the discovery of the truth. Their absence of logic brought about a logical explanation of the phenomena. The excessive darkness kindled a first glimmer of light.

To-day those things which, in looking up the past, I describe as incoherent and dark seem to me quite orderly and absolutely clear. But on that late afternoon, with a storm brewing in the distant sky, the crowd, recovering from its painful emotion, became more noisy and more aggressive. The exhibition had disappointed the spectators. They had not found what they expected and they manifested their dissatisfaction by threatening cries aimed at Theodore Massignac. The incidents that were to mark the sudden close of the performance were preparing.

“Massignac! Massignac!” they shouted, in chorus.

Standing in the middle of his cage, with his head turned towards the screen, he was watching for possible premonitory signs of a fresh picture. And, as a matter of fact, if you looked carefully, the signs were there. One might say that, rather than pictures, there were reflections of pictures skimming over the surface of the wall like faint clouds.

Suddenly Massignac extended one arm. The faint clouds were assuming definite outlines; and we saw that, under this mist, the spectacle had begun anew and was continuing.

But it continued as though under difficulties, with intervals of total suspension and others of semi-darkness during which the visions were covered by a mist. At such moments we saw almost deserted streets in which most of the shops were closed. There was no one at the doors or windows.

A cart, of which we caught sight now and again, moved along these streets. It contained, in front, two gendarmes dressed as in the days of the Revolution and, at the back, a priest and a man in a full-skirted coat, dark breeches and white stockings.

An isolated picture showed us the man's head and shoulders. I recognised and, generally speaking, the whole audience in the amphitheatre recognised the heavy-jowled face of King Louis XVI. This expression was hard and proud.

We saw him again, after a few interruptions, in a great square surrounded by artillery and black with soldiers. He climbed the steep steps of a scaffold. His coat and neck-tie had been removed. The priest was supporting him. Four executioners tried to lay hold of him.

I am obliged to interrupt my narrative, which I am deliberately wording as dryly as possible, of these fleeting apparitions, in order to make it quite clear that they did not at the moment produce the effect of terror which my readers might suppose. They were too short, too desultory, let me say, and so bad from the strictly cinematographic point of view which the audience adopted, in spite of itself, that they excited irritation and annoyance rather than dread.

The spectators had suddenly lost all confidence. They laughed, they sang. They hooted Massignac. And the storm of invective increased when, on the screen, one of the executioners held up the head of the king and faded away in the mist, together with the scaffold, the soldiers and the guns.

There were a few more timid attempts at pictures, attempts on the part of the film, in which several persons say that they recognized Queen Marie Antoinette, attempts which sustained the patience of the onlookers who were anxious to see the end of a spectacle which they had paid so heavily to attend. But the violence could no longer be restrained.

Who started it? Who was the first to rush forward and provoke the disorder and the resultant panic? The subsequent enquiries failed to show. There seems no doubt that the whole crowd obeyed its impulse to give full expression to its dissatisfaction and that the more turbulent of its members seized the opportunity of belabouring Theodore Massignac and even of trying to take the fabulous screen by storm. This last attempt, at any rate, failed before the impenetrable rampart formed by the attendants, who, armed with knuckle-dusters or truncheons, repelled the flood of the invaders. As for Massignac, who, after raising the curtain, had the unfortunate idea of leaving his cage and running to one of the exits, he was struck as he passed and swallowed up in the angry swirl of rioters.

After that everybody attacked his neighbour, with a frantic desire for strife and violence which brought into conflict not only the enemies of Massignac and the partisans of order, but also those who were exasperated and those who had no thought but of escaping from the turmoil. Sticks and umbrellas were brandished on high. Women seized one another by the hair. Blood flowed. People fell to the ground, wounded.

I myself did my best to get out and shouldered my way through this indescribable fray. It was no easy work, for numbers of policemen and many people who had not been able to obtain entrance were thronging towards the exit-doors of the amphitheatre. At last I succeeded in reaching the gate through an opening that was made amid the crowd.

“Boom for the wounded man!” a tall, clean-shaven fellow was shouting, in a stentorian voice.

Two others followed, carrying in their arms an individual covered with rugs and overcoats.

The crowd fell back. The little procession moved out. I seized my opportunity.

The tall fellow pointed to a private motor-car waiting outside:

“Chauffeur, I'm requisitioning you. Orders of the prefect of police. Come along, the two of you, and get a move on!”

The two men put the victim into the car and took their places inside. The tall fellow sat down beside the chauffeur; and the car drove off.

It was not until the very second when it turned the corner that I conceived in a flash and without any reason whatever the exact idea of what this little scene meant. Suddenly I guessed the identity of the wounded man who was hidden so attentively and carried off so assiduously. And suddenly also, notwithstanding the change of face, though he wore neither beard nor glasses, I gave a name to the tall, clean-shaven fellow. It was the man Velmot.

I rushed back to the Yard and informed the commissary of police who had hitherto had charge of the Dorgeroux case. He whistled up his men. They leapt into taxi-cabs and cars. It was too late. The roads were already filled with such a block of traffic that the commissary's car was unable to move.

And thus, in the very midst of the crowd, by means of the most daring stratagem, taking advantage of a crush which he himself doubtless had his share in bringing about, the man Velmot had carried off his confederate and implacable enemy, Theodore Massignac.