The Three Eyes/Chapter 4
CHAPTER IV. NOEL DORGEROUX'S SONEdit
THE spectator who has just been watching the most tragic of films finds it easy to escape from the sort of dark prison-house in which he was suffocating and, with the return of the light, recovers his equilibrium and his self-possession. I, on the other hand, remained for a long time numb and speechless, with my eyes riveted to the empty panel, as though I expected something else to emerge from it. Even when it was over, the tragedy terrified me, like a nightmare prolonged after waking, and, even more than the tragedy, the absolutely extraordinary manner in which it had been unfolded before my eyes. I did not understand. My disordered brain vouchsafed me none but the most grotesque and incoherent ideas.
A movement on the part of Noel Dorgeroux drew me from my stupor: he had drawn the curtain across the screen.
At this I vehemently seized my uncle by his two hands and cried:
“What does all this mean? It's maddening! What explanation are you able to give?”
“None,” he said, simply.
“But still... you brought me here.”
“Yes, that you might also see and to make sure that my eyes had not deceived me.”
“Therefore you have already witnessed other scenes in that same setting?”
“Yes, other sights... three times before.”
“What, uncle? Can you specify them?”
“Certainly: what I saw yesterday, for instance.”
“What was that, uncle?”
He pushed me a little and gazed at me, at first without replying. Then, speaking in a very low tone, with deliberate conviction, he said:
“The battle of Trafalgar.”
I wondered if he was making fun of me. But Noel Dorgeroux was little addicted to banter at any time; and he would not have selected such a moment as this to depart from his customary gravity. No, he was speaking seriously; and what he said suddenly struck me as so humorous that I burst out laughing:
“Trafalgar! Don't be offended, uncle; but it's really too quaint! The battle of Trafalgar, which was fought in 1805?”
He once more looked at me attentively:
“Why do you laugh?” he asked.
“Good heavens, I laugh, I laugh... because... well, confess...”
He interrupted me:
“You're laughing for very simple reasons, Victorien, which I will explain to you in a few words. To begin with, you are nervous and ill at ease; and your merriment is first and foremost a reaction. But, in addition, the spectacle of that horrible scene was so — what shall I say? — so convincing that you looked upon it, in spite of yourself, not as a reconstruction of the murder, but as the actual murder of Miss Cavell. Is that true?”
“Perhaps it is, uncle.”
“In other words, the murder and all the infamous details which accompanied it must have been — don't let us hesitate to use the word — must have been cinematographed by some unseen witness from whom I obtained that precious film: and my invention consists solely in reproducing the film in the thickness of a gelatinous layer of some kind or other. A wonderful, but a credible discovery. Are we still agreed?”
“Yes, uncle, quite.”
“Very well. But now I am claiming something very different. I am claiming to have witnessed an evocation of the battle of Trafalgar! If so, the French and English frigates must have foundered before my eyes! I must have seen Nelson die, struck down at the foot of his mainmast! That's quite another matter, is it not? In 1805 there were no cinematographic films. Therefore this can be only an absurd parody. Thereupon all your emotion vanishes. My reputation fades into thin air. And you laugh! I am to you nothing more than an old impostor, who, instead of humbly showing you his curious discovery, tries in addition to persuade you that the moon is made of green cheese! A humbug, What?”
We had left the wall and were walking towards the door of the garden. The sun was setting behind the distant hills. I stopped and said to Noel Dorgeroux:
“Forgive me, uncle, and please don't think that I am over lacking in the respect I owe you. There is nothing in my amusement that need annoy you, nothing to make you suppose that I suspect your absolute sincerity.”
“Then what do you think? What is your conclusion?”
“I don't think anything, uncle. I have arrived at no conclusion and I am not even trying to do so, at present. I am out of my depth, perplexed, at the same time dazed and dissatisfied, as though I felt that the riddle was even more wonderful than it is and that it would always remain insoluble.”
We were entering the garden. It was his turn to stop me:
“Insoluble! That is really your opinion?”
“Yes, for the moment.”
“You can't imagine any theory?”
“Still, you saw? You have no doubts?”
“I certainly saw. I saw first three strange eyes that looked at us; then I witnessed a scene which was the murder of Miss Cavell. That is what I saw, just as you did, uncle; and I do not for a moment doubt the undeniable evidence of my own eyes.”
He held out his hand to me:
“That's what I wanted to know, my boy. And thank you.”
- * * * *
I have given a faithful account of what happened that afternoon. In the evening we dined together by ourselves, Berangere having sent word to say that she was indisposed and would not leave her room. My uncle was deeply absorbed in thought and did not say a word on what had happened in the Yard.
I slept hardly at all, haunted by the recollection of what I had seen and tormented by a score of theories, which I need not mention here, for not one of them was of the slightest value.
Next day, Berangere did not come downstairs. At luncheon, my uncle preserved the same silence. I tried many times to make him talk, but received no reply.
My curiosity was too intense to allow my uncle to get rid of me in this way. I took up my position in the garden before he left the house. Not until five o'clock did he go up to the Yard.
“Shall I come with you, uncle?” I suggested, boldly.
He grunted, neither granting my request nor refusing it. I followed him. He walked across the Yard, locked himself into his principal workshop and did not leave it until an hour later:
“Ah, there you are!” he said, as though he had been unaware of any presence.
He went to the wall and briskly drew the curtain. Just then he asked me to go back to the workshop and to fetch something or other which he had forgotten. When I returned, he said, excitedly:
“It's finished, it's finished!”
“What is, uncle?”
“The Eyes, the Three Eyes.”
“Oh, have you seen them?”
“Yes; and I refuse to believe... no, of course, it's an illusion on my part.... How could it be possible, when you come to think of it? Imagine, the eyes wore the expression of my dead son's eyes, yes, the very expression of my poor Dominique. It's madness, isn't it? And yet I declare, yes, I declare that Dominique was gazing at me... at first with a sad and sorrowful gaze, which suddenly became the terrified gaze of a man who is staring death in the face. And then the Three Eyes began to revolve upon themselves. That was the end.”
I made Noel Dorgeroux sit down:
“It's as you suppose, uncle, an illusion, an hallucination. Just think, Dominique has been dead so many years! It is therefore incredible...”
“Everything is incredible and nothing is,” he said. “There is no room for human logic in front of that wall.”
I tried to reason with him, though my mind was becoming as bewildered as his own. But he silenced me:
“That'll do,” he said. “Here's the other thing beginning.”
He pointed to the screen, which was showing signs of life and preparing to reveal a new picture.
“But, uncle,” I said, already overcome by excitement, “where does that come from?”
“Don't speak,” said Noel Dorgeroux. “Not a word.”
I at once observed that this other thing bore no relation to what I had witnessed the day before; and I concluded that the scenes presented must occur without any prearranged order, without any chronological or serial connection, in short, like the different films displayed in the course of a performance.
It was the picture of a small town as seen from a neighbouring height. A castle and a church-steeple stood out above it. The town was built on the slope of several hills and at the intersection of the valleys, which met among clumps of tall, leafy trees.
Suddenly, it came nearer and was seen on a larger scale. The hills surrounding the town disappeared; and the whole screen was filled with a crowd swarming with lively gestures around an open space above which hung a balloon, held captive by ropes. Suspended from the balloon was a receptacle serving probably for the production of hot air. Men were issuing from the crowd on every hand. Two of them climbed a ladder the top of which was leaning against the side of a car. And all this, the appearance of the balloon, the shape of the appliances employed, the use of hot air instead of gas, the dress of the people; all this struck me as possessing an old-world aspect.
“The brothers Montgolfier,” whispered my uncle.
These few words enlightened me. I remembered those old prints recording man's first ascent towards the sky, which was accomplished in June, 1783. It was this wonderful event which we were witnessing, or, at least, I should say, a reconstruction of the event, a reconstruction accurately based upon those old prints, with a balloon copied from the original, with costumes of the period and no doubt, in addition, the actual setting of the little town of Annonay.
But then how was it that there was so great a multitude of townsfolk and peasants? There was no comparison possible between the usual number of actors in a cinema scene and the incredibly tight-packed crowd which I saw moving before my eyes. A crowd like that is found only in pictures which the camera has secured direct, on a public holiday, at a march-past of troops or a royal procession.
However, the wavelike eddying of the crowd suddenly subsided. I received the impression of a great silence and an anxious period of waiting. Some men quickly severed the ropes with hatchets. Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier lifted their hats.
And the balloon rose in space. The people in the crowd raised their arms and filled the air with an immense clamour.
For a moment, the screen showed us the two brothers, by themselves and enlarged. With the upper part of their bodies leaning from the car, each with one arm round the other's waist and one hand clasping the other's, they seemed to be praying with an air of unspeakable ecstasy and solemn joy.
Slowly the ascent continued. And it was then that something utterly inexplicable occurred: the balloon, as it rose above the little town and the surrounding hills, did not appear to my uncle and me as an object which we were watching from an increasing depth below. No, it was the little town and the hills which were sinking and which, by sinking, proved to us that the balloon was ascending. But there was also this absolutely illogical phenomenon, that we remained on the same level as the balloon, that it retained the same dimensions and that the two brothers stood facing us, exactly as though the photograph had been taken from the car of a second balloon, rising at the same time as the first with an exactly and mathematically identical movement!
The scene was not completed. Or rather it was transformed in accordance with the method of the cinematograph, which substitutes one picture for another by first blending them together. Imperceptibly, when it was perhaps some fifteen hundred feet from the ground, the Montgolfier balloon became less distinct and its vague and softened outlines gradually mingled with the more and more powerful outlines of another shape which soon occupied the whole space and which proved to be that of a military aeroplane.
Several times since then the mysterious screen has shown me two successive scenes of which the second completed the first, thus forming a diptych which displayed the evident wish to convey a lesson by connecting, across space and time, “two events which in this way acquired their full significance. This time the moral was clear: the peaceable balloon had culminated in the murderous aeroplane. First the ascent at Annonay. Then a fight in mid-air, a fight between the monoplane which I had seen develop from the old-fashioned balloon and the biplane upon which I beheld it swooping like a bird of prey.
Was it an illusion or a “faked representation?” For here again we saw the two aeroplanes not in the normal fashion, from below, but as if we were at the same height and moving at the same rate of speed. In that case, were we to admit that an operator, perched on a third machine, was calmly engaged in “filming” the shifting fortunes of the terrible battle? That was impossible, surely!
But there was no good purpose to be served by renewing these perpetual suppositions over and over again. Why should I doubt the unimpeachable evidence of my eyes and deny the undeniable? Real aeroplanes were manoeuvring before my eyes. A real fight was taking place in the thickness of that old wall.
It did not last long. The man who was alone was attacking boldly. Time after time his machine-gun flashed forth flames. Then, to avoid the enemy's bullets, he looped the loop twice, each time throwing his aeroplane in such a position that I was able to distinguish on the canvas the three concentric circles that denote the Allied machines. Then, coming nearer and attacking his adversaries from behind, he returned to his gun.
The Hun biplane — I observed the iron cross — dived straight for the ground and recovered itself. The two men seemed to be sitting tight under their furs and masks. There was a third machine-gun attack. The pilot threw up his hands. The biplane capsized and fell.
I saw this fall in the most inexplicable fashion. At first, of course, it seemed swift as lightning. And then it became infinitely slow and even ceased, with the machine overturned and the two bodies motionless, head downwards and arms outstretched.
Then the ground shot up with a dizzy speed, devastated, shell-holed fields, swarming with thousands of French poilus.
The biplane came down beside a river. From the shapeless fuselage and the shattered wings two legs appeared.
And the French plane landed almost immediately, a short way off. The victor stepped out, pushed back the soldiers who had run up from every side and, moving a few yards towards his motionless prey, took off his mask and made the sign of the cross.
“Oh,” I whispered, “this is dreadful! And how mysterious!...”
Then I saw that Noel Dorgeroux was on his knees, his face distorted with emotion:
“What is it, uncle?” I asked.
Stretching towards the wall his trembling hands, which were clasped together, he stammered:
“Dominique! I recognize my son! It's he! Oh, I'm terrified!”
I also, as I gazed at the victor, recovered in my memory the time-effaced image of my poor cousin.
“It's he!” continued my uncle. “I was right... the expression of the Three Eyes.... Oh! I can't look!... I'm afraid!”
“Afraid of what, uncle?”
“They are going to kill him... to kill him before my eyes... to kill him as they actually did kill him... Dominique! Dominique! Take care!” he shouted.
I did not shout: what warning cry could reach the man about to die? But the same terror brought me to my knees and made me wring my hands. In front of us, from underneath the shapeless mass, among the heaped-up wreckage, something rose up, the swaying body of one of the victims. An arm was extended, aiming a revolver. The victor sprang to one side. It was too late. Shot through the head, he spun round upon his heels and fell beside the dead body of his murderer.
The tragedy was over.
My uncle, bent double, was sobbing pitifully a few paces from my side. He had witnessed the actual death of his son, foully murdered in the great war by a German airman!