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CHAPTER XXI Interesting and Instructive Vicissitudes of a Persian in the Cellars of the Opera
THE PERSIAN'S NARRATIVE
It was the first time that I entered the house on the lake. I had often begged the "trap-door lover," as we used to call Erik in my country, to open its mysterious doors to me. He always refused. I made very many attempts, but in vain, to obtain admittance. Watch him as I might, after I first learned that he had taken up his permanent abode at the Opera, the darkness was always too thick to enable me to see how he worked the door in the wall on the lake. One day, when I thought myself alone, I stepped into the boat and rowed toward that part of the wall through which I had seen Erik disappear. It was then that I came into contact with the siren who guarded the approach and whose charm was very nearly fatal to me.
I had no sooner put off from the bank than the silence amid which I floated on the water was disturbed by a sort of whispered singing that hovered all around me. It was half breath, half music; it rose softly from the waters of the lake; and I was surrounded by it through I knew not what artifice. It followed me, moved with me and was so soft that it did not alarm me. On the contrary, in my longing to approach the source of that sweet and enticing harmony, I leaned out of my little boat over the water, for there was no doubt in my mind that the singing came from the water itself. By this time, I was alone in the boat in the middle of the lake; the voice-for it was now distinctly a voice - was beside me, on the water. I leaned over, leaned still farther. The lake was perfectly calm, and a moonbeam that passed through the air hole in the Rue Scribe showed me absolutely nothing on its surface, which was smooth and black as ink. I shook my ears to get rid of a possible humming; but I soon had to accept the fact that there was no humming in the ears so harmonious as the singing whisper that followed and now attracted me.
Had I been inclined to superstition, I should have certainly thought that I had to do with some siren whose business it was to confound the traveler who should venture on the waters of the house on the lake. Fortunately, I come from a country where we are too fond of fantastic things not to know them through and through; and I had no doubt but that I was face to face with some new invention of Erik's. But this invention was so perfect that, as I leaned out of the boat, I was impelled less by a desire to discover its trick than to enjoy its charm; and I leaned out, leaned out until I almost overturned the boat.
Suddenly, two monstrous arms issued from the bosom of the waters and seized me by the neck, dragging me down to the depths with irresistible force. I should certainly have been lost, if I had not had time to give a cry by which Erik knew me. For it was he; and, instead of drowning me, as was certainly his first intention, he swam with me and laid me gently on the bank:
"How imprudent you are!" he said, as he stood before me, dripping with water. "Why try to enter my house? I never invited you! I don't want you there, nor anybody! Did you save my life only to make it unbearable to me? However great the service you rendered him, Erik may end by forgetting it; and you know that nothing can restrain Erik, not even Erik himself."
He spoke, but I had now no other wish than to know what I already called the trick of the siren. He satisfied my curiosity, for Erik, who is a real monster - I have seen him at work in Persia, alas - is also, in certain respects, a regular child, vain and self-conceited, and there is nothing he loves so much, after astonishing people, as to prove all the really miraculous ingenuity of his mind.
He laughed and showed me a long reed.
"It's the silliest trick you ever saw," he said, "but it's very useful for breathing and singing in the water. I learned it from the Tonkin pirates, who are able to remain hidden for hours in the beds of the rivers."
- - An official report from Tonkin, received in Paris at the end of July, 1909, relates how the famous pirate chief De Tham was tracked, together with his men, by our soldiers; and how all of them succeeded in escaping, thanks to this trick of the reeds.
I spoke to him severely.
"It's a trick that nearly killed me!" I said. "And it may have been fatal to others! You know what you promised me, Erik? No more murders!"
"Have I really committed murders?" he asked, putting on his most amiable air.
"Wretched man!" I cried. "Have you forgotten the rosy hours of Mazenderan?"
"Yes," he replied, in a sadder tone, "I prefer to forget them. I used to make the little sultana laugh, though!"
"All that belongs to the past," I declared; "but there is the present ... and you are responsible to me for the present, because, if I had wished, there would have been none at all for you. Remember that, Erik: I saved your life!"
And I took advantage of the turn of conversation to speak to him of something that had long been on my mind:
"Erik," I asked, "Erik, swear that..."
"What?" he retorted. "You know I never keep my oaths. Oaths are made to catch gulls with."
"Tell me...you can tell me, at any rate. ..."
"Well, the chandelier...the chandelier, Erik?..."
"What about the chandelier?"
"You know what I mean."
"Oh," he sniggered, "I don't mind telling you about the chandelier! ...IT WASN'T I!...The chandelier was very old and worn."
When Erik laughed, he was more terrible than ever. He jumped into the boat, chuckling so horribly that I could not help trembling.
"Very old and worn, my dear daroga! Very old and worn, the chandelier!...It fell of itself!...It came down with a smash!...And now, daroga, take my advice and go and dry yourself, or you'll catch a cold in the head!... And never get into my boat again....And, whatever you do, don't try to enter my house: I'm not always there...daroga! And I should be sorry to have to dedicate my Requiem Mass to you!"
- - DAROGA is Persian for chief of police.
So saying, swinging to and fro, like a monkey, and still chuckling, he pushed off and soon disappeared in the darkness of the lake.
From that day, I gave up all thought of penetrating into his house by the lake. That entrance was obviously too well guarded, especially since he had learned that I knew about it. But I felt that there must be another entrance, for I had often seen Erik disappear in the third cellar, when I was watching him, though I could not imagine how.
Ever since I had discovered Erik installed in the Opera, I lived in a perpetual terror of his horrible fancies, not in so far as I was concerned, but I dreaded everything for others.
- - The Persian might easily have admitted that Erik's fate also interested himself, for he was well aware that, if the government of Teheran had learned that Erik was still alive, it would have been all up with the modest pension of the erstwhile daroga. It is only fair, however, to add that the Persian had a noble and generous heart; and I do not doubt for a moment that the catastrophes which he feared for others greatly occupied his mind. His conduct, throughout this business, proves it and is above all praise.
And whenever some accident, some fatal event happened, I always thought to myself, "I should not be surprised if that were Erik," even as others used to say, "It's the ghost!" How often have I not heard people utter that phrase with a smile! Poor devils! If they had known that the ghost existed in the flesh, I swear they would not have laughed!
Although Erik announced to me very solemnly that he had changed and that he had become the most virtuous of men SINCE HE WAS LOVED FOR HIMSELF - a sentence that, at first, perplexed me most terribly-I could not help shuddering when I thought of the monster. His horrible, unparalleled and repulsive ugliness put him without the pale of humanity; and it often seemed to me that, for this reason, he no longer believed that he had any duty toward the human race. The way in which he spoke of his love affairs only increased my alarm, for I foresaw the cause of fresh and more hideous tragedies in this event to which he alluded so boastfully.
On the other hand, I soon discovered the curious moral traffic established between the monster and Christine Daae. Hiding in the lumber-room next to the young prima donna's dressing-room, I listened to wonderful musical displays that evidently flung Christine into marvelous ecstasy; but, all the same, I would never have thought that Erik's voice - which was loud as thunder or soft as angels' voices, at will - could have made her forget his ugliness. I understood all when I learned that Christine had not yet seen him! I had occasion to go to the dressing-room and, remembering the lessons he had once given me, I had no difficulty in discovering the trick that made the wall with the mirror swing round and I ascertained the means of hollow bricks and so on - by which he made his voice carry to Christine as though she heard it close beside her. In this way also I discovered the road that led to the well and the dungeon-the Communists' dungeon - and also the trap-door that enabled Erik to go straight to the cellars below the stage.
A few days later, what was not my amazement to learn by my own eyes and ears that Erik and Christine Daae saw each other and to catch the monster stooping over the little well, in the Communists' road and sprinkling the forehead of Christine Daae, who had fainted. A white horse, the horse out of the PROFETA, which had disappeared from the stables under the Opera, was standing quietly beside them. I showed myself. It was terrible. I saw sparks fly from those yellow eyes and, before I had time to say a word, I received a blow on the head that stunned me.
When I came to myself, Erik, Christine and the white horse had disappeared. I felt sure that the poor girl was a prisoner in the house on the lake. Without hesitation, I resolved to return to the bank, notwithstanding the attendant danger. For twenty-four hours, I lay in wait for the monster to appear; for I felt that he must go out, driven by the need of obtaining provisions. And, in this connection, I may say, that, when he went out in the streets or ventured to show himself in public, he wore a pasteboard nose, with a mustache attached to it, instead of his own horrible hole of a nose. This did not quite take away his corpse-like air, but it made him almost, I say almost, endurable to look at.
I therefore watched on the bank of the lake and, weary of long waiting, was beginning to think that he had gone through the other door, the door in the third cellar, when I heard a slight splashing in the dark, I saw the two yellow eyes shining like candles and soon the boat touched shore. Erik jumped out and walked up to me:
"You've been here for twenty-four hours," he said, "and you're annoying me. I tell you, all this will end very badly. And you will have brought it upon yourself; for I have been extraordinarily patient with you. You think you are following me, you great booby, whereas it's I who am following you; and I know all that you know about me, here. I spared you yesterday, in MY COMMUNISTS' ROAD; but I warn you, seriously, don't let me catch you there again! Upon my word, you don't seem able to take a hint!"
He was so furious that I did not think, for the moment, of interrupting him. After puffing and blowing like a walrus, he put his horrible thought into words:
"Yes, you must learn, once and for all - once and for all, I say-to take a hint! I tell you that, with your recklessness - for you have already been twice arrested by the shade in the felt hat, who did not know what you were doing in the cellars and took you to the managers, who looked upon you as an eccentric Persian interested in stage mechanism and life behind the scenes: I know all about it, I was there, in the office; you know I am everywhere - well, I tell you that, with your recklessness, they will end by wondering what you are after here...and they will end by knowing that you are after Erik...and then they will be after Erik themselves and they will discover the house on the lake....If they do, it will be a bad lookout for you, old chap, a bad lookout!... I won't answer for anything."
Again he puffed and blew like a walrus.
"I won't answer for anything!...If Erik's secrets cease to be Erik's secrets, IT WILL BE A BAD LOOKOUT FOR A GOODLY NUMBER OF THE HUMAN RACE! That's all I have to tell you, and unless you are a great booby, it ought to be enough for you...except that you don't know how to take a hint."
He had sat down on the stern of his boat and was kicking his heels against the planks, waiting to hear what I had to answer. I simply said:
"It's not Erik that I'm after here!"
"You know as well as I do: it's Christine Daae," I answered.
He retorted: "I have every right to see her in my own house. I am loved for my own sake."
"That's not true," I said. "You have carried her off and are keeping her locked up."
"Listen," he said. "Will you promise never to meddle with my affairs again, if I prove to you that I am loved for my own sake?"
"Yes, I promise you," I replied, without hesitation, for I felt convinced that for such a monster the proof was impossible.
"Well, then, it's quite simple....Christine Daae shall leave this as she pleases and come back again!...Yes, come back again, because she wishes...come back of herself, because she loves me for myself!..."
"Oh, I doubt if she will come back!...But it is your duty to let her go." "My duty, you great booby!...It is my wish... my wish to let her go; and she will come back again...for she loves me!...All this will end in a marriage...a marriage at the Madeleine, you great booby! Do you believe me now? When I tell you that my nuptial mass is written...wait till you hear the KYRIE. ..."
He beat time with his heels on the planks of the boat and sang:
"KYRIE!...KYRIE!...KYRIE ELEISON!...Wait till you hear, wait till you hear that mass."
"Look here," I said. "I shall believe you if I see Christine Daae come out of the house on the lake and go back to it of her own accord."
"And you won't meddle any more in my affairs?"
"Very well, you shall see that to-night. Come to the masked ball. Christine and I will go and have a look round. Then you can hide in the lumber-room and you shall see Christine, who will have gone to her dressing-room, delighted to come back by the Communists' road. ...And, now, be off, for I must go and do some shopping!"
To my intense astonishment, things happened as he had announced. Christine Daae left the house on the lake and returned to it several times, without, apparently, being forced to do so. It was very difficult for me to clear my mind of Erik. However, I resolved to be extremely prudent, and did not make the mistake of returning to the shore of the lake, or of going by the Communists' road. But the idea of the secret entrance in the third cellar haunted me, and I repeatedly went and waited for hours behind a scene from the Roi de Lahore, which had been left there for some reason or other. At last my patience was rewarded. One day, I saw the monster come toward me, on his knees. I was certain that he could not see me. He passed between the scene behind which I stood and a set piece, went to the wall and pressed on a spring that moved a stone and afforded him an ingress. He passed through this, and the stone closed behind him.
I waited for at least thirty minutes and then pressed the spring in my turn. Everything happened as with Erik. But I was careful not to go through the hole myself, for I knew that Erik was inside. On the other hand, the idea that I might be caught by Erik suddenly made me think of the death of Joseph Buquet. I did not wish to jeopardize the advantages of so great a discovery which might be useful to many people, "to a goodly number of the human race," in Erik's words; and I left the cellars of the Opera after carefully replacing the stone.
I continued to be greatly interested in the relations between Erik and Christine Daae, not from any morbid curiosity, but because of the terrible thought which obsessed my mind that Erik was capable of anything, if he once discovered that he was not loved for his own sake, as he imagined. I continued to wander, very cautiously, about the Opera and soon learned the truth about the monster's dreary love-affair.
He filled Christine's mind, through the terror with which he inspired her, but the dear child's heart belonged wholly to the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny. While they played about, like an innocent engaged couple, on the upper floors of the Opera, to avoid the monster, they little suspected that some one was watching over them. I was prepared to do anything: to kill the monster, if necessary, and explain to the police afterward. But Erik did not show himself; and I felt none the more comfortable for that.
I must explain my whole plan. I thought that the monster, being driven from his house by jealousy, would thus enable me to enter it, without danger, through the passage in the third cellar. It was important, for everybody's sake, that I should know exactly what was inside. One day, tired of waiting for an opportunity, I moved the stone and at once heard an astounding music: the monster was working at his Don Juan Triumphant, with every door in his house wide open. I knew that this was the work of his life. I was careful not to stir and remained prudently in my dark hole.
He stopped playing, for a moment, and began walking about his place, like a madman. And he said aloud, at the top of his voice:
"It must be finished FIRST! Quite finished!"
This speech was not calculated to reassure me and, when the music recommenced, I closed the stone very softly.
On the day of the abduction of Christine Daae, I did not come to the theater until rather late in the evening, trembling lest I should hear bad news. I had spent a horrible day, for, after reading in a morning paper the announcement of a forthcoming marriage between Christine and the Vicomte de Chagny, I wondered whether, after all, I should not do better to denounce the monster. But reason returned to me, and I was persuaded that this action could only precipitate a possible catastrophe.
When, my cab set me down before the Opera, I was really almost astonished to see it still standing! But I am something of a fatalist, like all good Orientals, and I entered ready, for anything.
Christine Daae's abduction in the Prison Act, which naturally surprised everybody, found me prepared. I was quite certain that she had been juggled away by Erik, that prince of conjurers. And I thought positively that this was the end of Christine and perhaps of everybody, so much so that I thought of advising all these people who were staying on at the theater to make good their escape. I felt, however, that they would be sure to look upon me as mad and I refrained.
On the other hand, I resolved to act without further delay, as far as I was concerned. The chances were in my favor that Erik, at that moment, was thinking only of his captive. This was the moment to enter his house through the third cellar; and I resolved to take with me that poor little desperate viscount, who, at the first suggestion, accepted, with an amount of confidence in myself that touched me profoundly. I had sent my servant for my pistols. I gave one to the viscount and advised him to hold himself ready to fire, for, after all, Erik might be waiting for us behind the wall. We were to go by the Communists' road and through the trap-door.
Seeing my pistols, the little viscount asked me if we were going to fight a duel. I said:
"Yes; and what a duel!" But, of course, I had no time to explain anything to him. The little viscount is a brave fellow, but he knew hardly anything about his adversary; and it was so much the better. My great fear was that he was already somewhere near us, preparing the Punjab lasso. No one knows better than he how to throw the Punjab lasso, for he is the king of stranglers even as he is the prince of conjurors. When he had finished making the little sultana laugh, at the time of the "rosy hours of Mazenderan," she herself used to ask him to amuse her by giving her a thrill. It was then that he introduced the sport of the Punjab lasso.
He had lived in India and acquired an incredible skill in the art of strangulation. He would make them lock him into a courtyard to which they brought a warrior - usually, a man condemned to death-armed with a long pike and broadsword. Erik had only his lasso; and it was always just when the warrior thought that he was going to fell Erik with a tremendous blow that we heard the lasso whistle through the air. With a turn of the wrist, Erik tightened the noose round his adversary's neck and, in this fashion, dragged him before the little sultana and her women, who sat looking from a window and applauding. The little sultana herself learned to wield the Punjab lasso and killed several of her women and even of the friends who visited her. But I prefer to drop this terrible subject of the rosy hours of Mazenderan. I have mentioned it only to explain why, on arriving with the Vicomte de Chagny in the cellars of the Opera, I was bound to protect my companion against the ever-threatening danger of death by strangling. My pistols could serve no purpose, for Erik was not likely to show himself; but Erik could always strangle us. I had no time to explain all this to the viscount; besides, there was nothing to be gained by complicating the position. I simply told M. de Chagny to keep his hand at the level of his eyes, with the arm bent, as though waiting for the command to fire. With his victim in this attitude, it is impossible even for the most expert strangler to throw the lasso with advantage. It catches you not only round the neck, but also round the arm or hand. This enables you easily to unloose the lasso, which then becomes harmless.
After avoiding the commissary of police, a number of door-shutters and the firemen, after meeting the rat-catcher and passing the man in the felt hat unperceived, the viscount and I arrived without obstacle in the third cellar, between the set piece and the scene from the Roi de Lahore. I worked the stone, and we jumped into the house which Erik had built himself in the double case of the foundation-walls of the Opera. And this was the easiest thing in the world for him to do, because Erik was one of the chief contractors under Philippe Garnier, the architect of the Opera, and continued to work by himself when the works were officially suspended, during the war, the siege of Paris and the Commune.
I knew my Erik too well to feel at all comfortable on jumping into his house. I knew what he had made of a certain palace at Mazenderan. From being the most honest building conceivable, he soon turned it into a house of the very devil, where you could not utter a word but it was overheard or repeated by an echo. With his trap-doors the monster was responsible for endless tragedies of all kinds. He hit upon astonishing inventions. Of these, the most curious, horrible and dangerous was the so-called torture-chamber. Except in special cases, when the little sultana amused herself by inflicting suffering upon some unoffending citizen, no one was let into it but wretches condemned to death. And, even then, when these had "had enough," they were always at liberty to put an end to themselves with a Punjab lasso or bowstring, left for their use at the foot of an iron tree.
My alarm, therefore, was great when I saw that the room into which M. le Vicomte de Chagny and I had dropped was an exact copy of the torture-chamber of the rosy hours of Mazenderan. At our feet, I found the Punjab lasso which I had been dreading all the evening. I was convinced that this rope had already done duty for Joseph Buquet, who, like myself, must have caught Erik one evening working the stone in the third cellar. He probably tried it in his turn, fell into the torture-chamber and only left it hanged. I can well imagine Erik dragging the body, in order to get rid of it, to the scene from the Roi de Lahore, and hanging it there as an example, or to increase the superstitious terror that was to help him in guarding the approaches to his lair! Then, upon reflection, Erik went back to fetch the Punjab lasso, which is very curiously made out of catgut, and which might have set an examining magistrate thinking. This explains the disappearance of the rope.
And now I discovered the lasso, at our feet, in the torture-chamber! ... I am no coward, but a cold sweat covered my forehead as I moved the little red disk of my lantern over the walls.
M. de Chagny noticed it and asked:
"What is the matter, sir?"
I made him a violent sign to be silent.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXII In the Torture Chamber