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CHAPTER II. THE “TRIANGULAR CIRCLES”Edit

WHAT was known at Meudon as Noel Dorgeroux's Yard was a piece of waste-land in which the paths were lost amid the withered grass, nettles and stones, amid stacks of empty barrels, scrap-iron, rabbit-hutches and every kind of disused lumber that rusts and rots or tumbles into dust.

Against the walls and outer fences stood the workshops, joined together by driving-belts and shafts, and the laboratories filled with furnaces, pneumatic receivers, innumerable retorts, phials and jars containing the most delicate products of organic chemistry.

The view embraced the loop of the Seine, which lay some three hundred feet below, and the hills of Versailles and Sevres, which formed a wide circle on the horizon towards which a bright autumnal sun was sinking in a pale blue sky.

“Victorien!”

My uncle was beckoning to me from the doorway of the workshop which he used most often. I crossed the Yard.

“Come in,” he said. “We must have a talk first. Only for a little while: just a few words.”

The room was lofty and spacious and one corner of it was reserved for writing and resting, with a desk littered with papers and drawings, a couch and some old, upholstered easy-chairs. My uncle drew one of the chairs up for me. He seemed calmer, but his glance retained an unaccustomed brilliance.

“Yes,” he said, “a few words of explanation beforehand will do no harm, a few words on the past, the wretched past which is that of every inventor who sees fortune slipping away from him. I have pursued it for so long! I have always pursued it. My brain had always seemed to me a vat in which a thousand incoherent ideas were fermenting, all contradicting one another and mutually destructive.... And then there was one that gained strength. And thenceforward I lived for that one only and sacrificed everything for it. It was like a sink that swallowed up all my money and that of others... and their happiness and peace of mind as well. Think of my poor wife, Victorien. You remember how unhappy she was and how anxious about the future of her son, of my poor Dominique! And yet I loved her so devotedly....”

He stopped at this recollection. And I seemed to see my aunt's face again and to hear her telling my mother of her fears and her forebodings:

“He will ruin us,” she used to say. “He keeps on making me sell out. He considers nothing.”

“She did not trust me,” Noel Dorgeroux continued. “Oh, I had so many disappointments, so many lamentable failures! Do you remember, Victorien, do you remember my experiment on intensive germination by means of electric currents, my experiments with oxygen and all the rest, all the rest, not one of which succeeded? The pluck it called for! But I never lost faith for a minute!... One idea in particular buoyed me up and I came back to it incessantly, as though I were able to penetrate the future. You know to what I refer, Victorien: it appeared and reappeared a score of times under different forms, but the principle remained the same. It was the idea of utilizing the solar heat. It's all there, you know, in the sun, in its action upon us, upon cells, organisms, atoms, upon all the more or less mysterious substances that nature has placed at our disposal. And I attacked the problem from every side. Plants, fertilizers, diseases of men and animals, photographs: for all these I wanted the collaboration of the solar rays, utilized by the aid of special processes which were mine alone, my secret and nobody else's.”

My uncle Dorgeroux was talking with renewed eagerness; and his eyes shone feverishly. He now held forth without interrupting himself:

“I will not deny that there was an element of chance about my discovery. Chance plays its part in everything. There never was a discovery that did not exceed our inventive effort; and I can confess to you, Victorien, that I do not even now understand what has happened. No, I can't explain it by a long way; and I can only just believe it. But, all the same, if I had not sought in that direction, the thing would not have occurred. It was due to me that the incomprehensible miracle took place. The picture is outlined in the very frame which I constructed, on the very canvas which I prepared; and, as you will perceive, Victorien, it is my will that makes the phantom which you are about to see emerge from the darkness.”

He expressed himself in a tone of pride with which was mingled a certain uneasiness, as though he doubted himself and as though his words overstepped the actual limits of truth.

“You're referring to those three — sort of eyes, aren't you?” I asked.

“What's that?” he exclaimed, with a start. “Who told you? Berangere, I suppose! She shouldn't have. That's what we must avoid at all costs: indiscretions. One word too much and I am undone; my discovery is stolen. Only think, the first man that comes along...”

I had risen from my chair. He pushed me towards his desk:

“Sit down here, Victorien,” he said, “and write. You mustn't mind my taking this precaution. It is essential. You must realize what you are pledging yourself to do if you share in my work. Write, Victorien.”

“What, uncle?”

“A declaration in which you acknowledge that... But I'll dictate it to you. That'll be better.”

I interrupted him:

“Uncle, you distrust me.”

“I don't distrust you, my boy. I fear an imprudence, an indiscretion. And, generally speaking, I have plenty of reasons for being suspicious.”

“What reasons, uncle?”

“Reasons,” he replied, in a more serious voice, “which make me think that I am being spied upon and that somebody is trying to discover what my invention is. Yes, somebody came in here, the other night, and rummaged among my papers.”

“Did they find anything?”

“No. I always carry the most important notes and formulae on me. Still, you can imagine what would happen if they succeeded. So you do admit, don't you, that I am obliged to be cautious? Write down that I hare told you of my investigations and that you have seen what I obtain on the wall in the Yard, at the place covered by a black-serge curtain.”

I took a sheet of paper and a pen. But he stopped me quickly:

“No, no,” he said, “it's absurd. It wouldn't prevent... Besides, you won't talk, I'm sure of that. Forgive me, Victorien. I am so horribly worried!”

“You needn't fear any indiscretion on my part,” I declared. “But I must remind you that Berangere also has seen what there was to see.”

“Oh,” he said, “she wouldn't understand!”

“She wanted to come with me just now.”

“On no account, on no account! She's still a child and not fit to be trusted with a secret of this importance.... Now come along.”

But it so happened that, as we were leaving the workshop, we both of us at the same time Berangere stealing along one of the walls of the Yard and stopping in front of a black curtain, which she suddenly pulled aside.

“Berangere!” shouted my uncle, angrily.

The girl turned round and laughed.

“I won't have it! I will not have it!” cried Noel Dorgeroux, rushing in her direction. “I won't have it, I tell you! Get out, you mischief!”

Berangere ran away, without, however, displaying any great perturbation. She leapt on a stack of bricks, scrambled on to a long plank which formed a bridge between two barrels and began to dance as she was wont to do, with her arms outstretched like a balancing-pole and her bust thrown slightly backwards.

“You'll lose your balance,” I said, while my uncle drew the curtain.

“Never!” she replied, jumping up and down on her spring-board.

She did not lose her balance. But the plank shifted and the pretty dancer came tumbling down among a heap of old packing-cases.

I ran to her assistance and found her lying on the ground, looking very white.

“Have you hurt yourself, Berangere?”

“No... hardly... just my ankle... perhaps I've sprained it.”

I lifted her, almost fainting, in my arms and carried her to a wooden bench a little farther away.

She let me have my way and even put one arm round my neck. Her eyes were closed. Her red lips opened and I inhaled the cool fragrance of her breath.

“Berangere!” I whispered, trembling with emotion.

When I laid her on the bench, her arm held me more tightly, so that I had to bend my head with my face almost touching hers. I meant to draw back. But the temptation was too much for me and I kissed her on the lips, gently at first and then with a brutal violence which brought her to her senses.

She repelled me with an indignant movement and stammered, in a despairing, rebellious tone:

“Oh, it's abominable of you!... It's shameful!”

In spite of the suffering caused by her sprain, she had managed to stand up, while I, stupefied by my thoughtless conduct, stood bowed before her, without daring to raise my head.

We remained for some seconds in this attitude, in an embarrassed silence through which I could catch the hurried rhythm of her breathing. I tried gently to take her hands. But she released them at once and said:

“Let me be. I shall never forgive you, never.”

“Come, Berangere, you will forget that.”

“Leave me alone. I want to go indoors.”

“But you can't, Berangere.”

“Here's god-father. He'll take me back.”

  • * * * *

My reasons for relating this incident will appear in the sequel. For the moment, notwithstanding the profound commotion produced by the kiss which I had stolen from Berangere, my thoughts were so to speak absorbed by the mysterious drama in which I was about to play a part with my uncle Dorgeroux. I heard my uncle asking Berangere if she was not hurt. I saw her leaning on his arm and, with him, making for the door of the garden. But, while I remained bewildered, trembling, dazed by the adorable image of the girl whom I loved, it was my uncle whom I awaited and whom I was impatient to see returning. The great riddle already held me captive.

“Let's make haste,” cried Noel Dorgeroux, when he came back. “Else it will be too late and we shall have to wait until to-morrow.”

He led the way to the high wall where he had caught Berangere in the act of yielding to her curiosity. This wall, which divided the Yard from the garden and which I had not remarked particularly on my rare visits to the Yard, was now daubed with a motley mixture of colours, like a painter's palette. Red ochre, indigo, purple and saffron were spread over it in thick and uneven layers, which whirled around a more thickly-coated centre. But, at the far end, a wide curtain of black serge, like a photographer's cloth, running on an iron rod supported by brackets, hid a rectangular space some three or four yards in width.

“What's that?” I asked my uncle. “Is this the place?”

“Yes,” he answered, in a husky voice, “it's behind there.”

“There's still time to change your mind,” I suggested.

“What makes you say that?”

“I feel that you are afraid of letting me know. You are so upset.”

“I am upset for a very different reason.”

“Why?”

“Because I too am going to see!”

“But you have done so already.”

“One always sees new things, Victorien; that's the terrifying part of it.”

I took hold of the curtain.

“Don't touch it, don't touch it!” he cried. “No one has the right, except myself. Who knows what would happen if any one except me were to open the closed door! Stand back, Victorien. Take up your position at two paces from the wall, a little to one side.... And now look!”

His voice was vibrant with energy and implacable determination. His expression was that of a man facing death; and, suddenly, with a single movement, he drew the black-serge curtain.

  • * * * *

My emotion, I am certain, was just as great as Noel Dorgeroux's and my heart beat no less violently. My curiosity had reached its utmost bounds; moreover, I had a formidable intuition that I was about to enter into a region of mystery of which nothing, not even my uncle's disconcerting words, was able to give me the remotest idea. I was experiencing the contagion of what seemed to me in him to be a diseased condition; and I vainly strove to subject it in myself to the control of my reason. I was taking the impossible and the incredible for granted beforehand.

And yet I saw nothing at first; and there was, in fact, nothing. This part of the wall was bare. The only detail worthy of remark was that it was not vertical and that the whole base of the wall had been thickened so as to form a slightly inclined plane which sloped upwards to a height of nine feet. What was the reason for this work, when the wall did not need strengthening?

A coating of dark grey plaster, about half an inch thick, covered the whole panel. When closely examined, however, it was not painted over, but was rather a layer of some substance uniformly spread and showing no trace of a brush. Certain gleams proved that this layer was quite recent, like a varnish newly applied. I observed nothing else; and Heaven knows that I did my utmost to discover any peculiarity!

“Well, uncle?” I asked.

“Wait,” he said, in an agonized voice, “wait!... The first indication is beginning.”

“What indication?”

“In the middle... like a diffused light. Do you see it?”

“Yes, yes, I think I do.”

It was as when a little daylight is striving to mingle with the waning darkness. A lighter disk became marked in the middle of the panel; and this lighter shade spread towards the edges, while remaining more intense at its centre. So far there was no very decided manifestation of anything out of the way; the chemical reaction of a substance lately hidden by the curtain and now exposed to the daylight and the sun was quite enough to explain this sort of inner illumination. Yet something gave one the haunting though perhaps unreasonable impression that an extraordinary phenomenon was about to take place. For that was what I expected, as did my uncle Dorgeroux.

And all at once he, who knew the premonitory symptoms and the course of the phenomenon, started, as though he had received a shock.

At the same moment, the thing happened.

It was sudden, instantaneous. It leapt in a flash from the depths of the wall. Yes, I know, a spectacle cannot flash out of a wall, any more than it can out of a layer of dark-grey substance only half an inch thick. But I am setting down the sensation which I experienced, which is the same that hundreds and hundreds of people experienced afterwards, with a like clearness and a like certainty. It is no use carping at the undeniable fact: the thing shot out of the depths of the ocean of matter and it appeared violently, like the rays of a lighthouse flashing from the very womb of the darkness. After all, when we step towards a mirror, does our image not appear to us from the depth of that horizon suddenly unveiled?

Only, you see, it was not our image, my uncle Dorgeroux's or mine. Nothing was reflected, because there was nothing to reflect and no reflecting screen. What I saw was...

On the panel were three geometrical figures which might equally well have been badly described circles or triangles composed of curved circles. In the centre of these figures was drawn a regular circle, marked in the middle with a blacker point, as the iris is marked by the pupil.”

I am deliberately using the terminology which I employed to describe the images which my uncle had drawn in red chalk on the plaster of my room, for I had no doubt that he was then trying to reproduce those same figures, the appearance of which had already upset him.

“That's what you saw, isn't it, uncle?” I asked.

“Oh,” he replied, in a low voice, “I saw much more than that, very much more!... Wait and look right into them.”

I stared wildly at the three “triangular circles,” as I have called them. One of them was set above the two others; and these two, which were smaller and less regular but exactly alike, seemed, instead of looking straight before them, to turn a little to the right and to the left. Where did they come from? And what did they mean?

“Look,” repeated my uncle. “Do you see?”

“Yes, yes,” I replied, with a shudder. “The thing's moving!”

It was in fact moving. Or rather, no, it was not: the outlines of the geometrical figures remained stationary; and not a line shifted its place within. And yet from all this immobility something emerged which was nothing else than motion.

I now remembered my uncle's words:

“They're alive, aren't they? You can see them opening and showing alarm! They're alive!”

They were alive! The three triangles were alive! And, as soon as I experienced this precise and undeniable feeling that they were alive, I ceased to regard them as an assemblage of lifeless lines and began to see in them things which were like a sort of eyes, misshapen eyes, eyes different from ours, but eyes furnished with irises and pupils and throbbing in an abysmal darkness.

“They are looking at us!” I cried, quite beside myself and as feverish and unnerved as my uncle.

He nodded his head and whispered:

“Yes, that's what they're doing.”

The three eyes were looking at us. We were conscious of the scrutiny of those three eyes, without lids or lashes, but full of an intense life which was due to the expression that animated them, a changing expression, by turns serious, proud, noble, enthusiastic and, above all, sad, grievously sad.

I feel how improbable these observations must appear. Nevertheless they correspond most strictly with the reality as it was beheld at a later date by the crowds that thronged to Haut-Meudon Lodge. Like my uncle, like myself, those crowds shuddered before three combinations of motionless lines which had the most heart-rending expression, just as at other moments they laughed at the comical or gayer expression which they were compelled to read into those same lines.

And on each occasion the spectacle which I am now describing was repeated in exactly the same order. A brief pause, followed by a series of vibrations. Then, suddenly, three eclipses, after which the combination of three triangles began to turn upon itself, as a whole, slowly at first and then with increasing rapidity, which gradually became transformed into so swift a rotation that one distinguished nothing but a motionless rose-pattern.

After that, nothing. The panel was empty.