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CHAPTER V. THE KISSEdit

BERANGERE next day resumed her place at meals, looking a little pale and wearing a more serious face than usual. My uncle, who had not troubled about her during the last two days, kissed her absent-mindedly. We lunched without a word. Not until we had nearly ended did Noel Dorgeroux speak to his god-child:

“Well, dear, are you none the worse for your fall?”

“Not a bit, god-father; and I'm only sorry that I didn't see... what you saw up there, yesterday and the day before. Are you going there presently, god-father?”

“Yes, but I'm going alone.”

This was said in a peremptory tone which allowed of no reply. My uncle was looking at me. I did not stir a muscle.

Lunch finished in an awkward silence. As he was about to leave the room, Noel Dorgeroux turned back to me and asked:

“Do you happen to have lost anything in the Yard?”

“No, uncle. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” he answered, with a slight hesitation,” because I found this on the ground, just in front of the wall.”

He showed me a lens from an eye-glass.

“But you know, uncle,” I said, laughing, “that I don't wear spectacles or glasses of any kind.”

“No more do I!” Berangere declared.

“That's so, that's so,” Noel Dorgeroux replied, in a thoughtful tone. “But, still, somebody has been there. And you can understand my uneasiness.”

In the hope of making him speak, I pursued the subject:

“What are you uneasy about, uncle? At the worst, some one may hare seen the pictures produced on the screen, which would not be enough, so it seems to me, to enable the secret of your discovery to be stolen. Remember that I myself, who was with you, am hardly any wiser than I was before.”

I felt that he did not intend to answer and that he resented my insistence. This irritated me.

“Listen, uncle,” I said. “Whatever the reasons for your conduct may be, you have no right to suspect me; and I ask and entreat you to give me an explanation. Yes, I entreat you, for I cannot remain in this uncertainty. Tell me, uncle, was it really your son whom you saw die, or were we shown a fabricated picture of his death? Then again, what is the unseen and omnipotent entity which causes these phantoms to follow one another in that incredible magic lantern? Never was there such a problem, never so many irreconcilable questions. Look here, last night, while I was trying for hours to get to sleep, I imagined — it's an absurd theory, I know, but, all the same, one has to cast about — well, I remembered that you had spoken to Berangere of a certain inner force which radiated from us and emitted what you have named the B-rays, after your god-daughter. If so, might one not suppose that, in the circumstances, this force, emanating, uncle, from your own brain, which was haunted by a vague resemblance between the expression of the Three Eyes and the expression of your own, might we not suppose that this force projected on the receptive material of the wall the scene which was conjured up in your mind? Don't you think that the screen which you have covered with a special substance registered your thoughts just as a sensitive plate, acted upon by the sunlight, registers forms and outlines? In that case...”

I broke off. As I spoke, the words which I was using seemed to me devoid of meaning. My uncle, however, appeared to be listening to them with a certain willingness and even to be waiting for what I would say next. But I did not know what to say. I had suddenly come to the end of my tether; and, though I made every effort to detain Noel Dorgeroux by fresh arguments, I felt that there was not a word more to be said between us on that subject.

Indeed, my uncle went away without answering one of my questions. I saw him, through the window, crossing the garden.

I gave way to a movement of anger and exclaimed to Berangere:

“I've had enough of this! After all, why should I worry myself to death trying to understand a discovery which, when you think of it, is not a discovery at all? For what does it consist of? No one can respect Noel Dorgeroux more than I do; but there's no doubt that this, instead of a real discovery, is rather a stupefying way of deluding one's self, of mixing up things that exist with things that do not exist and of giving an appearance of reality to what has none. Unless... But who knows anything about it? It is not even possible to express an opinion. The whole thing is an ocean of mystery, over-hung by mountainous clouds which descend upon one and stifle one!”

My ill-humour suddenly turned against Berangere. She had listened to me with a look of disapproval, feeling angry perhaps at my blaming her god-father; and she was now slipping towards the door. I stopped her as she was passing; and, in a fit of rancour which was foreign to my nature, I let fly:

“Why are you leaving the room? Why do you always avoid me as you do? Speak, can't you? What have you against me? Yes, I know, my thoughtless conduct, the other day. But do you think I would have acted like that if you weren't always keeping up that sulky reserve with me? Hang it all, I've known you as quite a little girl! I've held your skipping-rope for you when you were just a slip of a child! Then why should I now be made to look on you as a woman and to feel that you are indeed a woman... a woman who stirs me to the very depths of my heart?”

She was standing against the door and gazing at me with an undefinable smile, which contained a gleam of mockery, but nothing provocative and not a shade of coquetry. I noticed for the first time that her eyes, which I thought to be grey, were streaked with green and, as it were, flecked with specks of gold. And, at the same time, the expression of those great eyes, bright and limpid though they were, struck me as the most unfathomable thing in the world. What was passing in those limpid depths? And why did my mind connect the riddle of those eye«r with the terrible riddle which the three geometrical eyes had set me?

However, the recollection of the stolen kiss diverted my glance to her red lips. Her face turned crimson. This was a last, exasperating insult.

“Let me be! Go away!” she commanded, quivering with anger and shame.

Helpless and a prisoner, she lowered her head and bit her lips to prevent my seeing them. Then, when I tried to take her hands, she thrust her outstretched arms against my chest, pushed me back with all her might and cried:

“You're a mean coward! Go away! I loathe and hate you!”

Her outburst restored my composure. I was ashamed of what I had done and, making way for her to pass, I opened the door for her and said:

“I beg your pardon, Berangere. Don't be angrier with me than you can help. I promise you it shan't occur again.”

  • * * * *

Once more, the story of the Three Eyes is closely bound up with all the details of my love, not only in my recollection of it, but also in actual fact. While the riddle itself is alien to it and may be regarded solely in its aspect of a scientific phenomenon, it is impossible to describe how humanity came to know of it and was brought into immediate contact with it, without at the same time revealing all the vicissitudes of my sentimental adventure. The riddle and this adventure, from the point of view with which we are concerned, are integral parts of the same whole. The two must be described simultaneously.

At the moment, being somewhat disillusionized in both respects, I decided to tear myself away from this twofold preoccupation and to leave my uncle to his inventions and Berangere to her sullen mood.

I had not much difficulty in carrying out my resolve in so far as Noel Dorgeroux was concerned. We had a long succession of wet days. The rain kept him to his room or his laboratories; and the pictures on the screen faded from my mind like diabolical visions which the brain refuses to accept. I did not wish to think of them; and I thought of them hardly at all.

But Berangere's charm pervaded me, notwithstanding the good faith in which I waged this daily battle. Unaccustomed to the snares of love, I fell an easy prey, incapable of defence. Berangere's voice, her laugh, her silence, her day-dreams, her way of holding herself, the fragrance of her personality, the colour of her hair served me as so many excuses for exaltation, rejoicing, suffering or despair. Through the breach now opened in my professorial soul, which hitherto had known few joys save those of study, came surging all the feelings that make up the delights and also the pangs of love, all the emotions of longing, hatred, fondness, fear, hope... and jealousy.

It was one bright and peaceful morning, as I was strolling in the Meudon woods, that I caught sight of Berangere in the company of a man. They were standing at a corner where two roads met and were talking with some vivacity. The man faced me. I saw a type of what would be described as a coxcomb, with regular features, a dark, fan-shaped beard and a broad smile which displayed his teeth. He wore a double eye-glass.

Berangere heard the sound of my footsteps, as I approached, and turned round. Her attitude denoted hesitation and confusion. But she at once pointed down one of the two roads, as though giving a direction. The fellow raised his hat and walked away. Berangere joined me and, without much restraint, explained:

“It was somebody asking his way.”

“But you know him, Berangere?” I objected.

“I never saw him before in my life,” she declared.

“Oh, come, come! Why, from the manner you were speaking to him... Look here, Berangere, will you take your oath on it?”

She started:

“What do you mean? Why should I take an oath to you? I am not accountable to you for my actions.”

“In that case, why did you tell me that he was enquiring his way of you? I asked you no question.”

“I do as I please,” she replied, curtly.

Nevertheless, when we reached the Lodge, she thought better of it and said:

“After all, if it gives you any pleasure, I can swear that I was seeing that gentleman for the first time and that I had never heard of him. I don't even know his name.”

We parted.

“One word more,” I said. “Did you notice that the man wore glasses?”

“So he did!” she said, with some surprise. “Well, what does that prove?”

“Remember, your uncle found a spectacle-lens in front of the wall in the Yard.”

She stopped to think and then shrugged her shoulders:

“A mere coincidence! Why should you connect the two things?”

Berangere was right and I did not insist. Nevertheless and though she had answered me in a tone of undeniable candour, the incident left me uneasy and suspicious. I would not admit that so animated a conversation could take place between her and a perfect stranger who was simply asking her the way. The man was well set-up and good-looking. I suffered tortures.

That evening Berangere was silent. It struck me that she had been crying. My uncle, on the contrary, on returning from the Yard, was talkative and cheerful; and I more than once felt that he was on the point of telling me something. Had anything thrown fresh light on his invention?

Next day, he was just as lively:

“Life is very pleasant, at times,” he said.

And he left us, rubbing his hands.

Berangere spent all the early part of the afternoon on a bench in the garden, where I could see her from my room. She sat motionless and thoughtful.

At four o'clock, she came in, walked across the hall of the Lodge and went out by the front door.

I went out too, half a minute later.

The street which skirted the house turned and likewise skirted, on the left, the garden and the Yard, whereas on the right the property was bordered by a narrow lane which led to some fields and abandoned quarries. Berangere often went this way; and I at once saw, by her slow gait, that her only intention was to stroll wherever her dreams might lead her.

She had not put on a hat. The sunlight gleamed in her hair. She picked the stones on which to place her feet, so as not to dirty her shoes with the mud in the road.

Against the stout plank fence which at this point replaced the wall enclosing the Yard stood an old street-lamp, now no longer used, which was fastened to the fence with iron clamps. Berangere stopped here, all of a sudden, evidently in obedience to a thought which, I confess, had often occurred to myself and which I had had the courage to resist, perhaps because I had not perceived the means of putting it into execution.

Berangere saw the means. It was only necessary to climb the fence by using the lamp, in order to make her way into the Yard without her uncle's knowledge and steal a glimpse of one of those sights which he guarded so jealously for himself.

She made up her mind without hesitation; and, when she was on the other side, I too had not the least hesitation in following her example. I was in that state of mind when one is not unduly troubled by idle scruples; and there was no more indelicacy in satisfying my legitimate curiosity than in spying upon Berangere's actions. I therefore climbed over also.

My scruples returned when I found myself on the other side, face to face with Berangere, who had experienced some difficulty in getting down. I said, a little sheepishly:

“This is not a very nice thing we're doing, Berangere; and I presume you mean to give it up.”

She began to laugh:

“You can give it up. I intend to go on. If god-father chooses to distrust us, it's his lookout.”

I did not try to restrain her. She slipped softly between the nearest two sheds. I followed close upon her heels.

In this way we stole to the end of the open ground which occupied the middle of the Yard and we saw Noel Dorgeroux standing by the screen. He had not yet drawn the black-serge curtain.

“Look,” Berangere whispered, “over there: you see a stack of wood with a tarpaulin over it? We shall be all right behind that.”

“But suppose my uncle looks round while we're crossing?”

“He won't.”

She was the first to venture across; and I joined her without any mishap. We were not more than a dozen yards from the screen.

“My heart's beating so!” said Berangere. “I've seen nothing, you know: only those — sort of eyes. And there's a lot more, isn't there?”

Our refuge consisted of two stacks of small short planks, with bags of sand between the stacks. We sat down here, in a position which brought us close together. Nevertheless Berangere maintained the same distant attitude as before; and I now thought of nothing but what my uncle was doing.

He was holding his watch in his hand and consulting it at intervals, as though waiting for a time which he had fixed beforehand. And that time arrived. The curtain grated on its metal rod. The screen was uncovered.

From where we sat we could see the bare surface as well as my uncle could, for the intervening space fell very far short of the length of an ordinary picture-palace. The first outlines to appear were therefore absolutely plain to us. They were the lines of the three geometrical figures which I knew so well: the same proportions, the same arrangement, the same impassiveness, followed by that same palpitation, coming entirely from within, which animated them and made them live.

“Yes, yes,” whispered Berangere, “my godfather said so one day: they are alive, the Three Eyes.”

“They are alive,” I declared, “and they gaze at you. Look at the two lower eyes by themselves; think of them as actual eyes; and you will see that they really have an expression. There, they're smiling now.”

“You're right, they're smiling.”

“And see what a soft and gentle look they have now... a little serious also.... Oh, Berangere, it's impossible!”

“What?”

“They have your expression, Berangere, your expression.”

“What nonsense! It's ridiculous!”

“The very expression of your eyes. You don't know it yourself. But I do. They have never looked at me like that; but, all the same, they are your eyes, it's their expression, their charm. I know, because these make me feel... eh, as yours do, Berangere!”

But the end was approaching. The three geometrical figures began to revolve upon themselves with the same dizzy motion which reduced them to a confused disk which soon vanished.

“They're your eyes, Berangere,” I stammered; “there's not a doubt about it; it was as though you were looking at me.”

Yes, she had the same look; and I could not but remember then that Edith Cavell had also looked in that way at Noel Dorgeroux and me, through the three strange eyes, and that Noel Dorgeroux similarly had recognized the look in his son's eyes before his son himself appeared to him. That being so, was I to assume that each of the films — there is no other word for them — was preceded by the fabulous vision of three geometrical figures containing, captive and alive, the very expression in the eyes of one of the persons about to come to life upon the screen.

It was a lunatic assumption, as were all those which I was making! I blush to write it down. But, in that case, what were the three geometrical figures? A cinema trade-mark? The trademark of the Three Eyes? What an absurdity! What madness! And yet...

“Oh,” said Berangere, making as if to rise, “I oughtn't to have come! It's suffocating me. Can you explain?”

“No, Berangere, I can't. It's suffocating me too. Do you want to go?”

“No,” she said, leaning forward. “No, I want to see.”

And we saw. And, at the very moment when a muffled cry escaped our lips, we saw Noel Dorgeroux slowly making a great sign of the cross.

Opposite him, in the middle of the magic space on the wall, was he himself this time, standing not like a frail and shifting phantom, but like a human being full of movement and life. Yes, Noel Dorgeroux went to and fro before us and before himself, wearing his usual skull-cap, dressed in his long frock-coat. And the setting in which he moved was none other than the Yard, the Yard with its shed, its workshops, its die-order, its heaps of scrap-iron, its stacks of wood, its rows of barrels and its wall, with the rectangle of the serge curtain!

I at once noticed one detail: the serge curtain covered the magic space completely. It was therefore impossible to imagine that this scene, at any rate, had been recorded, absorbed by the screen, which, at that actual moment, must have drawn it from its own substance in order to present that sight to us! It was impossible, because Noel Dorgeroux had his back turned to the wall. It was impossible, because we saw the wall itself and the door of the garden, because the gate was open and because I, in my turn, entered the Yard.

“You! It's you!” gasped Berangere.

“It's I on the day when your uncle told me to come here,” I said, astounded, “the day when I first saw a vision on the screen.”

At that moment, on the screen, Noel Dorgeroux beckoned to me from the door of his workshop. We went in together. The Yard remained empty; and then, after an eclipse which lasted only a second or two, the same scene reappeared, the little garden-door opened again and Berangere, all smiles, put her head through. She seemed to be saying:

“Nobody here. They're in the office. Upon my word, I'll risk it!”

And she crept along the wall, towards the serge curtain.

All this happened quickly, without any of the vibration seen in the picture-theatres, and so clearly and plainly that I followed our two images not as the phases of an incident buried in the depths of time, but as the reflection in a mirror of a scene in which we were the immediate actors. To tell the truth, I was confused at seeing myself over there and feeling myself to be where I was. This doubling of my personality made my brain reel.

“Victorien,” said Berangere, in an almost inaudible voice, “you're going to come out of your uncle's workshop as you did the other day, aren't you?”

“Yes,” I said, “the details of the other day are beginning all over again.”

And they did. Here were my uncle and I coming out of the workshop. Here was Berangere, surprised, running away and laughing. Here she was, climbing a plank lying across two barrels and dancing, ever so gracefully and lightly! And then, as before, she fell. I darted forward, picked her up, carried her and laid her on the bench. She put her arms round me; our faces almost touched. And, as before, gently at first and then roughly and violently, I kissed her on the lips. And, as on that occasion, she pose to her feet, while I crouched before her.

Oh, how well I remember it all! I remember and I still see myself. I see myself yonder, bending very low not daring to lift my head, and I see Berangere, standing up, covered with shame, trembling with indignation.

Indignation? Did she really seem indignant? But then why did her dear face, the face on the screen, display such indulgence and gentleness? Why did she smile with that expression of unspeakable gladness? Yes, I swear it was gladness. Yonder, in the magic space where that exciting minute was being reenacted, there stood over me a happy creature who was gazing at me with joy and affection, who was gazing at me thus because she knew that I could not see her and because she could not know that one day I should see her.

“Berangere!... Berangere!...”

But suddenly, while the adorable vision yonder continued, my eyes were covered as with a veil. Berangere had turned towards me and put her two hands over my eyes, whispering:

“Don't look. I won't have you look. Besides, it's not true. That woman's lying, it's not me at all.... No, no, I never looked at you like that.”

Her voice grew fainter. Her hands dropped to her sides. And, with all the strength gone out of her, she let herself fall against my shoulder, gently and silently.

  • * * * *

Ten minutes later, I went back alone. Berangere had left me without a word, after her unexpected movement of surrender.

Next morning I received a telegram from the rector of the university, calling me to Grenoble. Berangere did not appear as I was leaving. But, when my uncle brought me to the station, I saw her, not far from the Lodge, talking with that confounded coxcomb whom she pretended not to know.