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CHAPTER III. AN EXECUTIONEdit

IT must be understood that, notwithstanding the explanations which I must needs offer, the development of all these events took but very little time: exactly eighteen seconds, as I had the opportunity of calculating afterwards. But, during these eighteen seconds — and this again I observed on many an occasion — the spectator received the illusion of watching a complete drama, with its preliminary expositions, its plot and its culmination. And when this obscure, illogical drama was over, you questioned what you had seen, just as you question the nightmare which wakes you from your sleep.

Nevertheless it must be said that none of all this partook in any way of those absurd optical illusions which are so easily contrived or of those arbitrary ideas on which a whole pseudo-scientific novel is sometimes built up. There is no question of a novel, but of a physical phenomenon, an absolutely natural phenomenon, the explanation of which, when it comes to be known, is also absolutely natural.

And I beg those who are not acquainted with this explanation not to try to guess it. Let them not worry themselves with suppositions and interpretations. Let them forget, one by one, the theories over which I myself am lingering: all that has to do with B-rays, materializations, or the effect of solar heat. These are so many roads that lead nowhere. The best plan is to be guided by events, to have faith and to wait.

“It's finished, uncle, isn't it?” I asked.

“It's the beginning,” he replied.

“How do you mean? The beginning of what? What's going to happen?”

“I don't know.”

I was astounded:

“You don't know? But you knew just now, about this, about those strange eyes!...”

“It all starts with that. But other things come afterwards, things which vary and which I know nothing about!”

“But how can that be possible?” I asked. “Do you mean to say that you don't know anything about them, you who prepared everything for them?”

“I prepared them, but I do not control them. As I told you, I have opened a door which leads into the darkness; and from that darkness unforeseen images emerge.”

“But is the thing that's coming of the same nature as those eyes?”

“No.”

“Then what is it, uncle?”

“The thing that's coming will be a representation of images in conformity with what we are accustomed to see.”

“Things which we shall understand, therefore?”

“Yes, we shall understand them; and yet they will be all the more incomprehensible.”

I often wondered, during the weeks that followed, if my uncle's words were to be fully relied upon and if he had not uttered them in order to mislead me as to the origin and meaning of his discoveries. How indeed was it possible to think that the key to the riddle remained unknown to him? But at that moment I was wholly under his influence, steeped in the great mystery that surrounded us; and, with a constricted feeling at my heart, with all my overstimulated senses, I thought of nothing but gazing into the miraculous panel.

A movement on my uncle's part warned me. I gave a start. The dawn was rising over the grey surface.

I saw, first of all, a cloudy radiance whirling around a central point, towards which all the luminous spirals rushed and in which they were swallowed up while whirling upon themselves. Next, this point expanded into an ever wider circle, covered with a light, hazy veil which gradually dispersed, revealing a vague, floating image, like the apparitions raised by spiritualists and mediums at their sittings.

Then followed as it were a certain hesitation. The phantom image was striving with the diffuse shadow and seeking to attain life and light. Certain features became more pronounced. Outlines and separate planes took shape; and at last a flood of light issued from the phantom image and turned it into a dazzling picture, which seemed to be bathed in sunlight.

It was a woman's face.

I remember that at that moment my mental confusion was such that I felt like darting forward to feel the marvellous wall and lay my hands upon the living material in which the incredible phenomenon was vibrating. But my uncle dug his fingers into my arm:

“I won't have you move!” he growled. “If you budge an inch, the whole thing will fade away. Look!”

I did not move; indeed, I doubt whether I could have done so. My legs were giving way beneath me. Both of us, my uncle and I, dropped into a sitting posture on the fallen trunk of a tree.

“Look, look!” he commanded.

The woman's face had approached in our direction until it was twice the size of life. The first thing that struck us was the cap, which was that of a nurse, with the head-band tightly drawn over the forehead and the veil around the head. The features, handsome and regular and still young, wore that look of almost divine dignity which the primitive painters used to give to the saints who are suffering or about to suffer martyrdom, a nobility compounded of pain and ecstasy, of resignation and hope, of smiles and tears. Bathed in that light which really seemed to be an inward flame, the woman opened, upon a scene invisible to us, a pair of large dark eyes which, though filled with nameless terror, nevertheless were not afraid. The contrast was remarkable: her resignation was defiant; her fear was full of pride.

“Oh,” stammered my uncle, “I seem to observe the same expression as in the Three Eyes which were there just now. Do you see: the same dignity, the same gentleness... and also the same dread?”

“Yes,” I replied, “it's the same expression, the same sequence of expressions.”

And, while I spoke and while the woman still remained in the foreground, outside the frame of the picture, I felt certain recollections arise within me, as at the sight of the portrait of a person whose features are not entirely unfamiliar. My uncle received the same impression, for he said:

“I seem to remember...”

But at that moment the strange face withdrew to the plane which it occupied at first. The mists that created a halo round it, drifted away. The shoulders came into view, followed by the whole body. We now saw a woman standing, fastened by bonds that gripped her bust and waist to a post the upper end of which rose a trifle above her head.

Then all this, which hitherto had given the impression of fixed outlines, like the outlines of a photograph, for instance, suddenly became alive, like a picture developing into a reality, a statue stepping straight into life. The bust moved. The arms, tied behind, and the imprisoned shoulders were struggling against the cords that were hurting them. The head turned slightly. The lips spoke. It was no longer an image presented for us to gaze at: it was life, moving and living life. It was a scene taking place in space and time. A whole background came into being, filled with people moving to and fro. Other figures were writhing, bound to posts. I counted eight of them. A squad of soldiers marched up, with shouldered rifles. They were spiked helmets.

My uncle observed:

“Edith Cavell.”

“Yes,” I said, with a start, “I recognize her: Edith Cavell; the execution of Edith Cavell.”

Once more and not for the last time, in setting down such phrases as these, I realize how ridiculous they must sound to any one who does not know to begin with what they signify and what is the exact truth that lies hidden in them. Nevertheless, I declare that this idea of something absurd and impossible did not occur to the mind when it was confronted with the phenomenon. Even when no theory had as yet suggested the smallest element of a logical explanation, people accepted as irrefutable the evidence of their own eyes. All those who saw the thing and whom I questioned gave me the same answer. Afterwards, they would correct themselves and protest. Afterwards, they would plead the excuse of hallucinations or visions received by suggestion. But, at the time, even though their reason was up in arms and though they, so to speak, “kicked” against facts which had no visible cause, they were compelled to bow before them and to follow their development as they would the representation of a succession of real events.

A theatrical representation, if you like, or rather a cinematographic representation, for, on the whole, this was the impression that emerged most clearly from all the impressions received. The moment Miss Cavell's image had assumed the animation of life, I turned round to look for the apparatus, standing in some corner of the Yard, which was projecting that animated picture; and, though I saw nothing, though I at once understood that in any case no projection could be effected in broad daylight and without omitting shafts of light, yet I received and retained that justifiable impression. There was no projector, no, but there was a screen: an astonishing screen which received nothing from without, since nothing was transmitted, but which received everything from within. And that was really the sensation experienced. The images did not come from the outside. They sprang to the surface from within. The horizon opened out on the farther side of a solid material. The darkness gave forth light.

Words, words, I know! Words which I heap upon words before I venture to write those which express what I saw issuing from the abyss in which Miss Cavell was about to undergo the death-penalty. The execution of Miss Cavell! Of course I said to myself, if it was a cinematographic representation, if it was a film — and how could one doubt it? — at any rate it was a film like ever so many others, faked, fictitious, based upon tradition, in a conventional setting, with paid performers and a heroine who had thoroughly studied the part. I knew that. But, all the same, I watched as though I did not know it. The miracle of the spectacle was so great that one was constrained to believe in the whole miracle, that is to say, in the reality of the representation. No fake was here. No make-believe. No part learned by heart. No performers and no setting. It was the actual scene. The actual victims. The horror which thrilled me during those few minutes was that which I should have felt had I beheld the murderous dawn of the 8th of October, 1915, rise across the thrice-accursed drill-ground.

It was soon over. The firing-platoon was drawn up in double file, on the right and a little aslant, so that we saw the men's faces between the rifle-barrels. There were a good many of them: thirty, forty perhaps, forty butchers, booted, belted, helmeted, with their straps under their chins. Above them hung a pale sky, streaked with thin red clouds. Opposite them... opposite them were the eight doomed victims.

There were six men and two women, all belonging to the people or the lower middle-class. They were now standing erect, throwing forward their chests as they tugged at their bonds.

An officer advanced, followed by four Feld-webel carrying unfurled handkerchiefs. Not any of the people condemned to death consented to have their eyes bandaged. Nevertheless, their faces were wrung with anguish; and all, with an impulse of their whole being, seemed to rush forward to their doom.

The officer raised his sword. The soldiers took aim.

A supreme effort of emotion seemed to add to the stature of the victims: and a cry issued from their lips. Oh, I saw and heard that cry, a fanatical and desperate cry in which the martyrs shouted forth their triumphant faith.

The officer's arm fell smartly. The intervening space appeared to tremble as with the rumbling of thunder. I had not the courage to look; and my eyes fixed themselves on the distracted countenance of Edith Cavell.

She also was not looking. Her eyelids were closed. But how she was listening! How her features contracted under the clash of the atrocious sounds, words of command, detonations, cries of the victims, death-rattles, moans of agony. By what refinement of cruelty had her own end been delayed? Why was she condemned to that double torture of seeing others die before dying herself?

Still, everything must be over yonder. One party of the butchers attended to the corpses, while the others formed into line and, pivoting upon the officer, marched towards Miss Cavell. They thus stepped out of the frame within which we were able to follow their movements; but I was able to perceive, by the gestures of the officer, that they were forming up opposite Nurse Cavell, between her and us.

The officer stepped towards her, accompanied by a military chaplain, who placed a crucifix to her lips. She kissed it fervently and tenderly. The chaplain then gave her his blessing; and she was left alone. A mist once more shrouded the scene, leaving her whole figure full in the light. Her eyelids were still closed, her head erect and her body rigid.

She was at that moment wearing a very sweet and very tranquil expression. Not a trace of fear distorted her noble countenance. She stood awaiting death with saintly serenity.

And this death, as it was revealed to us, was neither very cruel nor very odious. The upper part of the body fell forward. The head drooped a little to one side. But the shame of it lay in what followed. The officer stood close to the victim, revolver in hand. And he was pressing the barrel to his victim's temple, when, suddenly, the mist broke into dense waves and the whole picture disappeared....