The Three Eyes/Chapter 18
CHAPTER XVIII. THE CHATEAU DE PRE-BONYEdit
THE exclamation of the crowd proved to me that, at the sight of the great old man, who was known to all by his portraits and by the posters exhibited at the doors of the Yard, the same thought had instantaneously struck us all. We understood from the first. After the series of criminal pictures, we knew the meaning of Noel Dorgeroux's appearance on the screen and knew the inexorable climax of the story which we were being told. There had been six victims. My uncle would be the seventh. We were going to witness his death and to see the face of the murderer.
All this was planned with the most disconcerting skill and with a logic whose implacable rigour wrung our very souls. We were as though imprisoned in a horribly painful track which we were bound to follow to the end, notwithstanding the unspeakable violence of our sensations. I sometimes ask myself, in all sincerity, whether the series of miraculous visions could have been continued much longer, so far did the nervous tension which they demanded exceed our human strength.
A succession of pictures showed us several episodes of which the first dated back to a period when Noel Dorgeroux certainly had not discovered the great secret, for his son was still alive. It was the time of the war. Dominique, in uniform, was embracing the old fellow, who was weeping and trying to hold him back; and, when Dominique went, Noel Dorgeroux watched him go with all the distress of a father who is not to see his son again.
Next we have him again, once more in the Yard, which is encumbered with its sheds and workshops, as it used to be. Berangere, quite a child, is running to and fro. She is thirteen or fourteen at most.
We now follow their existence in pictures which tell us with what hourly attention my uncle Dorgeroux's labours were watched from up yonder. He became old and bent. The little one grew up, which did not deter her from playing and running about.
On the day when we are to see her as I had found her in the previous summer, we see at the same time Noel Dorgeroux standing on a ladder and daubing the wall with a long brush which he keeps dipping into a can. He steps back and looks with a questioning gaze at the wall where the screen is marked out. There is nothing. Nevertheless something vague and confused must already have throbbed in the heart of the substance, because he seems to be waiting and seeking....
A click; and everything is changed. The amphitheatre arises, unfinished in parts, as it was on the Sunday in March when I discovered my uncle's dead body. The new wall is there, surrounded by its canopy. My uncle has opened the recess contained in the basement and is arranging his carboys.
But, now, beyond the amphitheatre, which grows smaller for an instant, we see the trees in the woods and the undulations of the adjoining meadow; and a man comes up on that side and moves towards the path which skirts the fence. I for my part recognize his figure. It is the man with whom I was to struggle, half an hour later, in the wood through which he had just come. It is the murderer. He is wrapped in a rain-coat whose upturned collar touches the lowered brim of his hat. He walks uneasily. He goes up to the lamp-post, looks around him, climbs up slowly and makes his way into the Yard. He follows the road which I myself took that day after him and thrusts forward his head as I did.
Noel Dorgeroux is standing before the screen. He has closed the recess and jotted down some notes in a book. The victim suspects nothing.
Then the man throws off his wrap and his hat. He turns his face in our direction. It is Massignac.
The crowd was so much expecting to find that it was he that there was no demonstration of surprise. Besides, the pictures on this day were of a nature that left no room for alien thoughts or impressions. The consequences which might ensue from the public proof of Massignac's guilt were not apparent to us. We were not living through the minutes which were elapsing in the past but through those which were elapsing in the present; and until the last moment we thought only of knowing whether Noel Dorgeroux, whom we knew to be dead, was going to be murdered.
The scene did not last long. In reality my uncle was not conscious for a second of the danger that threatened him; and, contrary to what was elicited at the enquiry, there was no trace of that struggle of which the signs appeared to have been discovered. This struggle occurred afterwards, when my uncle had been struck down and was lying on the ground, motionless. It took place between a murderer seized with insensate fury and the corpse which he seemed bent upon killing anew.
And in fact it was this act of savage brutality that let loose the rage of the crowd. Held back until then by a sort of unreasoning hope and petrified, in its terror, at the sight of the loathsome act accomplished on the screen, it was stirred with anger and hatred against the living and visible murderer whose existence suddenly provoked it beyond endurance. It experienced a sense of revolt and a need for immediate justice which no considerations were able to stay. It underwent an immediate change of attitude. It withdrew itself abruptly from any sort of memory or evocation of the past, to fling itself into the reality of the present and to play its part in the necessary action. And, obeying an unanimous impulse, pouring helter-skelter down the tiers and flowing like a torrent through every gangway, it rushed to the assault of the iron cage in which Massignac was sheltering.
I cannot describe exactly the manner in which things took place. Massignac, who attempted to take flight at the first moment of the accusation, found in front of him the twelve policemen, who next turned against the crowd when it came dashing against the rails of the high grille. But what resistance were those twelve men able to offer? The grille fell. The police were borne down in the crush. In a flash I saw Massignac braced against the wall and taking aim with two revolvers held in his outstretched hands. A number of shots rang out. Some of the aggressors dropped. Then Massignac, taking advantage of the hesitation which kept back the others, stooped swiftly towards the electric battery in the foundation. He pressed a button. Right at the top of the wall, the canopy overhanging the two pillars opened like a sluice and sent forth streams of a bluish liquid, which seethed and bubbled in a cascade over the whole surface of the screen.
I then remembered Massignac's terrible prophecy:
“If I die, it means the death of Noel Dorgeroux's secret. We shall perish together.”
In the anguish of peril, at the very bottom of the abyss, he had conceived the abominable idea and had the courage to carry out his threat. My uncle's work was utterly destroyed.
Nevertheless I darted forward, as though I could still avert the disaster by saving the scoundrel's life. But the crowd had seized upon its prey and was passing it from hand to hand, like a howling pack worrying and rending the animal which it had hunted down.
I succeeded in shouldering my way through with the aid of two policemen and then only because Massignac's body had ended by falling into the hands of a band of less infuriated assailants, who were embarrassed by the sight of the dying man. They formed themselves into a group to protect his death-struggles and one of them even, raising his voice above the din, called to me:
“Quick, quick!” he said, when I came near. “He is speaking your name.”
At the first glance at the mass of bleeding flesh that lay on one of the tiers, between two rows of seats, I perceived that there was no hope and that it was a miracle that this corpse was still breathing. Still it was uttering my name. I caught the syllables as I stooped over the face mauled beyond recognition and, speaking slowly and distinctly, I said:
“It's I, Massignac, it's Victorien Beaugrand. What have you to say to me?”
He managed to lift his eyelids, looked at me with a dim eye which closed again immediately and stammered:
“A letter... a letter... sewn in the lining...”
I felt the rags of cloth which remained of his jacket Massignac had done well to sew up the letter, for all the other papers had left his pocket I at once read my name on the envelope.
“Open it... open it,” he said, in a whisper.
I tore open the envelope. There were only a few lines scribbled in a large hand across the sheet of paper, a few lines of which I took the time to read only the first, which said:
“Berangere knows the formula.”
“Berangere!” I exclaimed. “But where is she? Do you know?”
I at once understood the imprudence of which I had been guilty in thus mentioning the girl's name aloud; and, bending lower down, I put my ear to Massignac's mouth to catch his last words.
He repeated the name of Berangere time after time, in the effort to pronounce the answer which I asked for and which his memory perhaps refused to supply. His lips moved convulsively and he stammered forth some hoarse sounds which were more like a death-rattle but which yet enabled me to distinguish the words:
“Berangere.... Chateau... Chateau de Pre-Bony....”
However great the tension of the mind may be when concentrated on an idea which entirely absorbs it, we remain more or less subject to the thousand sensations that assail us. Thus, at the very moment when I rose and, in a whisper, repeated, “Chateau de Pre-Bony... de Pre-Bony,” the vague impression that another had heard the address which Massignac had given began to take shape and consistency within me. Nay more, I perceived, when it was too late, that this other man, thanks to his position at my side, must have been able to read as I had read, the opening words of Theodore Massignac's letter. And that other man's able make-up suddenly dropped away before my eyes to reveal the pallid features of the man Velmot.
I turned my head. The man had just made his way out of the band of onlookers who stood gathered round us and was slipping through the shifting masses of the crowd. I called out. I shouted his name. I dragged detectives in his wake. It was too late.
And so the man Velmot, the implacable enemy who had not hesitated to torture Massignac in order to extract my uncle Dorgeroux's formula from him, knew that Berangere was acquainted with the formula! And he bad at the same time learnt, what he doubtless did not know before, where Berangere was concealed.
- * * * *
The Chateau de Pre-Bony! Where was this country-house? In what corner of France had Berangere taken refuge after the murder of her godfather? It could not be very far from Paris, seeing that she had once asked for my assistance and that, two days ago, she had come to the Yard. But, whatever the distance, how was I to find it? There were a thousand country-houses within a radius of twenty-five miles from Paris.
“And yet,” I said to myself, “the solution of the tragedy lies there, in that country-house. All is not lost and all may still be saved, but I have to get there. Though, the miraculous screen is destroyed, Massignac has given me the means of reconstructing it, but I have to get there. And I have to get there by day break, or Velmot will have Berangere at his mercy.”
I spent the whole evening in enquiries. I consulted maps, gazetteers, directories. I asked everywhere; I telephoned. No one was able to supply the least hint as to the whereabouts of the? Chateau de Pre-Bony.
It was not until the morning, after an agitated night, that a more methodical scrutiny of recent events gave me the idea of beginning my investigations in the actual district where I knew that Berangere had stayed. I hired a motor-car and had myself driven towards Bougival. I had no great hope. But my fear lest Velmot should discover Berangere's retreat before I did caused me such intense suffering that I never ceased repeating to myself:
“That's it.... I'm on the right track.... I'm certain to find Berangere; and the villain shall not touch a hair of her head.”
My love for the girl suddenly became purged of all the doubts and suspicions that had poisoned it. For the rest, I did not trouble about these details and troubled myself neither to explain her conduct nor to establish the least proof for or against her. Even if her kiss had not already wiped out every disagreeable recollection, the danger which she was incurring was enough to restore all my faith in her and all my affection.
My first enquiries at Ville d'Avray, Marnes and Vaucresson told me nothing. The Chateau de Pre-Bony was unknown. At La Cello-Saint-Cloud I encountered a fresh check. But here, in an inn, I seemed to recover, thanks to the accident of a casual question, the traces of the man Velmot: a tall, white-faced gentleman, I was told, who often motored along the Bougival road and who had been seen prowling outside the village that very morning.
I questioned my informant more closely. It really was Velmot. He had four hours' start of me. And he knew where to go! And he was in love with Berangere! Four hours' start, for that clever and daring scoundrel, who was staking his all on this last throw of the die! Who could stop him? What scruples had he? To seize upon Berangere, to hold her in his power, to compel her to speak: all this was now mere child's play. And he was in love with Berangere!
I remember striking the inn-table with my fist and exclaiming, angrily:
“No, no, it's not possible!... The house in question is bound to be somewhere near here!... They must show me the way!”
Thenceforward I did not experience a moment's hesitation. On the one hand, I was not mistaken in coming to this district. On the other hand, I knew that Velmot, having heard what Massignac said and knowing the country by having lived in it, had begun his campaign at dawn.
There was a crowd of people outside the inn. Feverishly I put the questions Which remained unanswered. At last, some one mentioned a cross-roads which was sometimes known by the name of Pre-Bony and which was on the Saint-Cucufa road, some two or three miles away. One of the roads which branched from it led to a new house, of not very imposing appearance, which was inhabited by a young married couple, the Comte and Comtesse de Roncherolles.
I really had the impression that it was my sheer will-power that had brought about this favourable incident and, so to speak, created, lock, stock and barrel and within my reach, that unknown country-house which it behooved me to visit that very instant.
I made my way there hurriedly. At the moment when I was walking across the garden, a young man alighted from horseback at the foot of the steps.
“Is this the Chateau de Pre-Bony?” I asked.
He flung the reins of his horse to a groom and replied, with a smile:
“At least that is what they call it, a little pompously, at Bougival.”
“Oh,” I murmured, as though taken aback by an unhoped for piece of news, “it's here... and I am in time!”
The young man introduced himself. It was the Comte de Roncherolles.
“May I ask to whom I have the honour...”
“Victorien Beaugrand,” I replied.
And, without farther preamble, confiding in the man's looks, which were frank and friendly, I said:
“I have come about Berangere. She's here, isn't she? She has found a shelter here?”
The Comte de Roncherolles flushed slightly and eyed me with a certain attention. I took his hand:
“If you please, monsieur, the position is very serious. Berangere is being hunted down by an extremely dangerous man.”
“Who is that?”
The count threw off all further disguise as useless and repeated:
“Velmot! Velmot! The enemy whom she loathes!... Yes, she has everything to fear from the man. Fortunately, he does not know where she is.”
“He does know... since yesterday,” I exclaimed.
“Granted. But he will need time to make his preparations, to plan his move.”
“He was seen not far from here, yesterday, by people of the village.”
I began to tell him what I knew. He did not wait for me to finish. Evidently as anxious as myself, he drew me towards a lodge, standing some distance from the house, which Berangere occupied.
He knocked. There was no answer. But the door was open. He entered and went upstairs to Berangere's room. She was not there.
He did not seem greatly surprised.
“She often goes out early,” he said.
“Perhaps she is at the house?” I suggested.
“With my wife? No, my wife is not very well and would not be up yet.”
“I presume she has gone for her ordinary walk to the ruins of the old castle. She likes the view there, which embraces Bougival and the whole river.”
“Is it far?”
“No, just at the end of the park.”
Nevertheless the park stretched some way back; and it took us four or five minutes' walk to reach a circular clearing from which we could see a few lengths of broken wall perched on the top of a ridge among some fallen heaps of stonework.
“There,” said the count. “Berangere has been to this bench. She has left the book which she was reading.”
“And a scarf too,” I said, anxiously. “Look, a rumpled scarf.... And the grass round about shows signs of having been trampled on.... My God, I hope nothing has happened to the poor child!”
I had not finished speaking when we heard cries from the direction of the ruins, cries for help or cries of pain, we could not tell which. We at once darted along the narrow path which ran up the hill, cutting across the winding forest-road. When we were half-way up, the cries broke out again; and a woman's figure came into view among the crumbling stones of the old castle.
“Berangere!” I cried, increasing my pace.
She did not see me. She was running, as though she had some one in pursuit of her, and taking advantage of every bit of shelter that the ruins offered. Presently a man appeared, looking for her and threatening her with a revolver which he carried in his hand.
“It's he!” I stammered. “It's Velmot!”
One after the other they entered the huddle of ruins, from which we were now separated by forty yards at most. We covered the distance in a few seconds and I rushed ahead towards the place through which Berangere had slipped.
As I arrived, a shot rang out, some little way off, and I heard moans. Despite my efforts, I could get no farther forward, because the passage was blocked by brambles and trails of ivy. My companion and I struggled desperately against the branches which were cutting our faces. At length we emerged on a large platform, where at first we saw no one among the tall grass and the moss-grown rocks. Still, there was that shot... and those cries of pain quite close to where we stood....
Suddenly the count, who was searching a short distance in front of me, exclaimed:
“There she is!... Berangere! Are you hurt?”
I leapt towards him. Berangere lay outstretched in a tangle of leaves and herbage.
She was so pale that I had not a doubt but that she was dead; and I felt very clearly that I should not be able to survive her. I even completed my thought by saying, aloud:
“I will avenge her first. The murderer shall die by my hand, I swear it.”
But the count, after a hurried inspection, declared.
“She's not dead, she's breathing.”
And I saw her open her eyes.
I fell on my knees besides her and, lifting her fair and sorrow-stricken face in my hands, asked her:
“Where are you hurt, Berangere? Tell me, darling.”
“I'm not hurt,” she whispered. “It's the exertion, the excitement.”
“But surely,” I insisted, “he fired at you?”
“No, no,” she said, “it was I who fired.”
“Do you mean that? You fired?”
“Yes, with his revolver.”
“But you missed him. He has made his escape.”
“I did not miss him. I saw him fall... quite close to this... on the edge of the ravine.”
This ravine was a deep cut in the ground, on our right. The count went to the spot and called to me. When I was standing beside him, he showed me the body of a man lying head downwards, his face covered with blood. I approached and recognized Velmot. He was dead.