"Your hand high, ready to fire!" repeated Raoul's companion quickly.
The wall, behind them, having completed the circle which it described upon itself, closed again; and the two men stood motionless for a moment, holding their breath.
At last, the Persian decided to make a movement; and Raoul heard him slip on his knees and feel for something in the dark with his groping hands. Suddenly, the darkness was made visible by a small dark lantern and Raoul instinctively stepped backward as though to escape the scrutiny of a secret enemy. But he soon perceived that the light belonged to the Persian, whose movements he was closely observing. The little red disk was turned in every direction and Raoul saw that the floor, the walls and the ceiling were all formed of planking. It must have been the ordinary road taken by Erik to reach Christine's dressing-room and impose upon her innocence. And Raoul, remembering the Persian's remark, thought that it had been mysteriously constructed by the ghost himself. Later, he learned that Erik had found, all prepared for him, a secret passage, long known to himself alone and contrived at the time of the Paris Commune to allow the jailers to convey their prisoners straight to the dungeons that had been constructed for them in the cellars; for the Federates had occupied the opera-house immediately after the eighteenth of March and had made a starting-place right at the top for their Mongolfier balloons, which carried their incendiary proclamations to the departments, and a state prison right at the bottom.
The Persian went on his knees and put his lantern on the ground. He seemed to be working at the floor; and suddenly he turned off his light. Then Raoul heard a faint click and saw a very pale luminous square in the floor of the passage. It was as though a window had opened on the Opera cellars, which were still lit. Raoul no longer saw the Persian, but he suddenly felt him by his side and heard him whisper:
"Follow me and do all that I do."
Raoul turned to the luminous aperture. Then he saw the Persian, who was still on his knees, hang by his hands from the rim of the opening, with his pistol between his teeth, and slide into the cellar below.
Curiously enough, the viscount had absolute confidence in the Persian, though he knew nothing about him. His emotion when speaking of the "monster" struck him as sincere; and, if the Persian had cherished any sinister designs against him, he would not have armed him with his own hands. Besides, Raoul must reach Christine at all costs. He therefore went on his knees also and hung from the trap with both hands.
"Let go!" said a voice.
And he dropped into the arms of the Persian, who told him to lie down flat, closed the trap-door above him and crouched down beside him. Raoul tried to ask a question, but the Persian's hand was on his mouth and he heard a voice which he recognized as that of the commissary of police.
Raoul and the Persian were completely hidden behind a wooden partition. Near them, a small staircase led to a little room in which the commissary appeared to be walking up and down, asking questions. The faint light was just enough to enable Raoul to distinguish the shape of things around him. And he could not restrain a dull cry: there were three corpses there.
The first lay on the narrow landing of the little staircase; the two others had rolled to the bottom of the staircase. Raoul could have touched one of the two poor wretches by passing his fingers through the partition.
"Silence!" whispered the Persian.
He too had seen the bodies and he gave one word in explanation:
The commissary's voice was now heard more distinctly. He was asking for information about the system of lighting, which the stage-manager supplied. The commissary therefore must be in the "organ" or its immediate neighborhood.
Contrary to what one might think, especially in connection with an opera-house, the "organ" is not a musical instrument. At that time, electricity was employed only for a very few scenic effects and for the bells. The immense building and the stage itself were still lit by gas; hydrogen was used to regulate and modify the lighting of a scene; and this was done by means of a special apparatus which, because of the multiplicity of its pipes, was known as the "organ." A box beside the prompter's box was reserved for the chief gas-man, who from there gave his orders to his assistants and saw that they were executed. Mauclair stayed in this box during all the performances.
But now Mauclair was not in his box and his assistants not in their places.
The stage-manager's voice echoed through the cellars. But Mauclair did not reply.
I have said that a door opened on a little staircase that led to the second cellar. The commissary pushed it, but it resisted.
"I say," he said to the stage-manager, "I can't open this door: is it always so difficult?"
The stage-manager forced it open with his shoulder. He saw that, at the same time, he was pushing a human body and he could not keep back an exclamation, for he recognized the body at once:
"Mauclair! Poor devil! He is dead!"
But Mr. Commissary Mifroid, whom nothing surprised, was stooping over that big body.
"No," he said, "he is dead-drunk, which is not quite the same thing."
"It's the first time, if so," said the stage-manager
"Then some one has given him a narcotic. That is quite possible."
Mifroid went down a few steps and said:
By the light of a little red lantern, at the foot of the stairs, they saw two other bodies. The stage-manager recognized Mauclair's assistants. Mifroid went down and listened to their breathing.
"They are sound asleep," he said. "Very curious business! Some person unknown must have interfered with the gas-man and his staff ... and that person unknown was obviously working on behalf of the kidnapper ... But what a funny idea to kidnap a performer on the stage! ... Send for the doctor of the theater, please." And Mifroid repeated, "Curious, decidedly curious business!"
Then he turned to the little room, addressing the people whom Raoul and the Persian were unable to see from where they lay.
"What do you say to all this, gentlemen? You are the only ones who have not given your views. And yet you must have an opinion of some sort."
Thereupon, Raoul and the Persian saw the startled faces of the joint managers appear above the landing—and they heard Moncharmin's excited voice:
"There are things happening here, Mr. Commissary, which we are unable to explain."
And the two faces disappeared.
"Thank you for the information, gentlemen," said Mifroid, with a jeer.
But the stage-manager, holding his chin in the hollow of his right hand, which is the attitude of profound thought, said:
"It is not the first time that Mauclair has fallen asleep in the theater. I remember finding him, one evening, snoring in his little recess, with his snuff-box beside him."
"Is that long ago?" asked M. Mifroid, carefully wiping his eye-glasses.
"No, not so very long ago ... Wait a bit! ... It was the night ... of course, yes ... It was the night when Carlotta—you know, Mr. Commissary—gave her famous 'co-ack'!"
"Really? The night when Carlotta gave her famous 'co-ack'?"
And M. Mifroid, replacing his gleaming glasses on his nose, fixed the stage-manager with a contemplative stare.
"So Mauclair takes snuff, does he?" he asked carelessly.
"'Yes, Mr. Commissary ... Look, there is his snuff-box on that little shelf ... Oh! he's a great snuff-taker!"
"So am I," said Mifroid and put the snuff-box in his pocket.
Raoul and the Persian, themselves unobserved, watched the removal of the three bodies by a number of scene-shifters, who were followed by the commissary and all the people with him. Their steps were heard for a few minutes on the stage above. When they were alone the Persian made a sign to Raoul to stand up. Raoul did so; but, as he did not lift his hand in front of his eyes, ready to fire, the Persian told him to resume that attitude and to continue it, whatever happened.
"But it tires the hand unnecessarily," whispered Raoul. "If I do fire, I shan't be sure of my aim."
"Then shift your pistol to the other hand," said the Persian.
"I can't shoot with my left hand."
Thereupon, the Persian made this queer reply, which was certainly not calculated to throw light into the young man's flurried brain:
"It's not a question of shooting with the right hand or the left; it's a question of holding one of your hands as though you were going to pull the trigger of a pistol with your arm bent. As for the pistol itself, when all is said, you can put that in your pocket!" And he added, "Let this be clearly understood, or I will answer for nothing. It is a matter of life and death. And now, silence and follow me!"
The cellars of the Opera are enormous and they are five in number. Raoul followed the Persian and wondered what he would have done without his companion in that extraordinary labyrinth. They went down to the third cellar; and their progress was still lit by some distant lamp.
The lower they went, the more precautions the Persian seemed to take. He kept on turning to Raoul to see if he was holding his arm properly, showing him how he himself carried his hand as if always ready to fire, though the pistol was in his pocket.
Suddenly, a loud voice made them stop. Some one above them shouted:
"All the door-shutters on the stage! The commissary of police wants them!"
Steps were heard and shadows glided through the darkness. The Persian drew Raoul behind a set piece. They saw passing before and above them old men bent by age and the past burden of opera-scenery. Some could hardly drag themselves along; others, from habit, with stooping bodies and outstretched hands, looked for doors to shut.
They were the door-shutters, the old, worn-out scene-shifters, on whom a charitable management had taken pity, giving them the job of shutting doors above and below the stage. They went about incessantly, from top to bottom of the building, shutting the doors; and they were also called "The draft-expellers," at least at that time, for I have little doubt that by now they are all dead. Drafts are very bad for the voice, wherever they may come from.
The two men might have stumbled over them, waking them up and provoking a request for explanations. For the moment, M. Mifroid's inquiry saved them from any such unpleasant encounters.
The Persian and Raoul welcomed this incident, which relieved them of inconvenient witnesses, for some of those door-shutters, having nothing else to do or nowhere to lay their heads, stayed at the Opera, from idleness or necessity, and spent the night there.
But they were not left to enjoy their solitude for long. Other shades now came down by the same way by which the door-shutters had gone up. Each of these shades carried a little lantern and moved it about, above, below and all around, as though looking for something or somebody.
"Hang it!" muttered the Persian. "I don't know what they are looking for, but they might easily find us ... Let us get away, quick! ... Your hand up, sir, ready to fire! ... Bend your arm ... more ... that's it! ... Hand at the level of your eye, as though you were fighting a duel and waiting for the word to fire! Oh, leave your pistol in your pocket. Quick, come along, down-stairs. Level of your eye! Question of life or death! ... Here, this way, these stairs!" They reached the fifth cellar. "Oh, what a duel, sir, what a duel!"
Once in the fifth cellar, the Persian drew breath. He seemed to enjoy a rather greater sense of security than he had displayed when they both stopped in the third; but he never altered the attitude of his hand. And Raoul, remembering the Persian's observation—"I know these pistols can be relied upon"—was more and more astonished, wondering why any one should be so gratified at being able to rely upon a pistol which he did not intend to use!
But the Persian left him no time for reflection. Telling Raoul to stay where he was, he ran up a few steps of the staircase which they had just left and then returned.
"How stupid of us!" he whispered. "We shall soon have seen the end of those men with their lanterns. It is the firemen going their rounds."
The two men waited five minutes longer. Then the Persian took Raoul up the stairs again; but suddenly he stopped him with a gesture. Something moved in the darkness before them.
"Flat on your stomach!" whispered the Persian.
The two men lay flat on the floor.
They were only just in time. A shade, this time carrying no light, just a shade in the shade, passed. It passed close to them, near enough to touch them.
They felt the warmth of its cloak upon them. For they could distinguish the shade sufficiently to see that it wore a cloak which shrouded it from head to foot. On its head it had a soft felt hat ...
It moved away, drawing its feet against the walls and sometimes giving a kick into a corner.
"Whew!" said the Persian. "We've had a narrow escape; that shade knows me and has twice taken me to the managers' office."
"Is it some one belonging to the theater police?" asked Raoul.
"It's some one much worse than that!" replied the Persian, without giving any further explanation.
"It's not ... he?"
"He? ... If he does not come behind us, we shall always see his yellow eyes! That is more or less our safeguard to-night. But he may come from behind, stealing up; and we are dead men if we do not keep our hands as though about to fire, at the level of our eyes, in front!"
The Persian had hardly finished speaking, when a fantastic face came in sight ... a whole fiery face, not only two yellow eyes!
Yes, a head of fire came toward them, at a man's height, but with no body attached to it. The face shed fire, looked in the darkness like a flame shaped as a man's face.
"Oh," said the Persian, between his teeth. "I have never seen this before! ... Pampin was not mad, after all: he had seen it! ... What can that flame be? It is not HE, but he may have sent it! ... Take care! ... Take care! Your hand at the level of your eyes, in Heaven's name, at the level of your eyes! ... know most of his tricks ... but not this one ... Come, let us run ... it is safer. Hand at the level of your eyes!"
And they fled down the long passage that opened before them.
After a few seconds, that seemed to them like long minutes, they stopped.
"He doesn't often come this way," said the Persian. "This side has nothing to do with him. This side does not lead to the lake nor to the house on the lake ... But perhaps he knows that we are at his heels ... although I promised him to leave him alone and never to meddle in his business again!"
So saying, he turned his head and Raoul also turned his head; and they again saw the head of fire behind their two heads. It had followed them. And it must have run also, and perhaps faster than they, for it seemed to be nearer to them.
At the same time, they began to perceive a certain noise of which they could not guess the nature. They simply noticed that the sound seemed to move and to approach with the fiery face. It was a noise as though thousands of nails had been scraped against a blackboard, the perfectly unendurable noise that is sometimes made by a little stone inside the chalk that grates on the blackboard.
They continued to retreat, but the fiery face came on, came on, gaining on them. They could see its features clearly now. The eyes were round and staring, the nose a little crooked and the mouth large, with a hanging lower lip, very like the eyes, nose and lip of the moon, when the moon is quite red, bright red.
How did that red moon manage to glide through the darkness, at a man's height, with nothing to support it, at least apparently? And how did it go so fast, so straight ahead, with such staring, staring eyes? And what was that scratching, scraping, grating sound which it brought with it?
The Persian and Raoul could retreat no farther and flattened themselves against the wall, not knowing what was going to happen because of that incomprehensible head of fire, and especially now, because of the more intense, swarming, living, "numerous" sound, for the sound was certainly made up of hundreds of little sounds that moved in the darkness, under the fiery face.
And the fiery face came on ... with its noise ... came level with them! ...
And the two companions, flat against their wall, felt their hair stand on end with horror, for they now knew what the thousand noises meant. They came in a troop, hustled along in the shadow by innumerable little hurried waves, swifter than the waves that rush over the sands at high tide, little night-waves foaming under the moon, under the fiery head that was like a moon. And the little waves passed between their legs, climbing up their legs, irresistibly, and Raoul and the Persian could no longer restrain their cries of horror, dismay and pain. Nor could they continue to hold their hands at the level of their eyes: their hands went down to their legs to push back the waves, which were full of little legs and nails and claws and teeth.
Yes, Raoul and the Persian were ready to faint, like Pampin the fireman. But the head of fire turned round in answer to their cries, and spoke to them:
"Don't move! Don't move! ... Whatever you do, don't come after me! ... I am the rat-catcher! ... Let me pass, with my rats! ..."
And the head of fire disappeared, vanished in the darkness, while the passage in front of it lit up, as the result of the change which the rat-catcher had made in his dark lantern. Before, so as not to scare the rats in front of him, he had turned his dark lantern on himself, lighting up his own head; now, to hasten their flight, he lit the dark space in front of him. And he jumped along, dragging with him the waves of scratching rats, all the thousand sounds.
Raoul and the Persian breathed again, though still trembling.
"I ought to have remembered that Erik talked to me about the rat-catcher," said the Persian. "But he never told me that he looked like that ... and it's funny that I should never have met him before ... Of course, Erik never comes to this part!"
[Illustration: two page color illustration]
"Are we very far from the lake, sir?" asked Raoul. "When shall we get there? ... Take me to the lake, oh, take me to the lake! ... When we are at the lake, we will call out! ... Christine will hear us! ... And HE will hear us, too! ... And, as you know him, we shall talk to him!" "Baby!" said the Persian. "We shall never enter the house on the lake by the lake! ... I myself have never landed on the other bank ... the bank on which the house stands. ... You have to cross the lake first ... and it is well guarded! ... I fear that more than one of those men—old scene-shifters, old door-shutters—who have never been seen again were simply tempted to cross the lake ... It is terrible ... I myself would have been nearly killed there ... if the monster had not recognized me in time! ... One piece of advice, sir; never go near the lake... And, above all, shut your ears if you hear the voice singing under the water, the siren's voice!"
"But then, what are we here for?" asked Raoul, in a transport of fever, impatience and rage. "If you can do nothing for Christine, at least let me die for her!" The Persian tried to calm the young man.
"We have only one means of saving Christine Daae, believe me, which is to enter the house unperceived by the monster."
"And is there any hope of that, sir?"
"Ah, if I had not that hope, I would not have come to fetch you!"
"And how can one enter the house on the lake without crossing the lake?"
"From the third cellar, from which we were so unluckily driven away. We will go back there now ... I will tell you," said the Persian, with a sudden change in his voice, "I will tell you the exact place, sir: it is between a set piece and a discarded scene from ROI DE LAHORE, exactly at the spot where Joseph Buquet died... Come, sir, take courage and follow me! And hold your hand at the level of your eyes! ... But where are we?"
The Persian lit his lamp again and flung its rays down two enormous corridors that crossed each other at right angles.
"We must be," he said, "in the part used more particularly for the waterworks. I see no fire coming from the furnaces."
He went in front of Raoul, seeking his road, stopping abruptly when he was afraid of meeting some waterman. Then they had to protect themselves against the glow of a sort of underground forge, which the men were extinguishing, and at which Raoul recognized the demons whom Christine had seen at the time of her first captivity.
In this way, they gradually arrived beneath the huge cellars below the stage. They must at this time have been at the very bottom of the "tub" and at an extremely great depth, when we remember that the earth was dug out at fifty feet below the water that lay under the whole of that part of Paris.
The Persian touched a partition-wall and said:
"If I am not mistaken, this is a wall that might easily belong to the house on the lake."
He was striking a partition-wall of the "tub," and perhaps it would be as well for the reader to know how the bottom and the partition-walls of the tub were built. In order to prevent the water surrounding the building-operations from remaining in immediate contact with the walls supporting the whole of the theatrical machinery, the architect was obliged to build a double case in every direction. The work of constructing this double case took a whole year. It was the wall of the first inner case that the Persian struck when speaking to Raoul of the house on the lake. To any one understanding the architecture of the edifice, the Persian's action would seem to indicate that Erik's mysterious house had been built in the double case, formed of a thick wall constructed as an embankment or dam, then of a brick wall, a tremendous layer of cement and another wall several yards in thickness.
At the Persian's words, Raoul flung himself against the wall and listened eagerly. But he heard nothing ... nothing ... except distant steps sounding on the floor of the upper portions of the theater.
The Persian darkened his lantern again.
"Look out!" he said. "Keep your hand up! And silence! For we shall try another way of getting in."
And he led him to the little staircase by which they had come down lately.
They went up, stopping at each step, peering into the darkness and the silence, till they came to the third cellar. Here the Persian motioned to Raoul to go on his knees; and, in this way, crawling on both knees and one hand—for the other hand was held in the position indicated—they reached the end wall.
Against this wall stood a large discarded scene from the ROI DE LAHORE. Close to this scene was a set piece. Between the scene and the set piece there was just room for a body ... for a body which one day was found hanging there. The body of Joseph Buquet.
The Persian, still kneeling, stopped and listened. For a moment, he seemed to hesitate and looked at Raoul; then he turned his eyes upward, toward the second cellar, which sent down the faint glimmer of a lantern, through a cranny between two boards. This glimmer seemed to trouble the Persian.
At last, he tossed his head and made up his mind to act. He slipped between the set piece and the scene from the ROI DE LAHORE, with Raoul close upon his heels. With his free hand, the Persian felt the wall. Raoul saw him bear heavily upon the wall, just as he had pressed against the wall in Christine's dressing-room. Then a stone gave way, leaving a hole in the wall.
This time, the Persian took his pistol from his pocket and made a sign to Raoul to do as he did. He cocked the pistol.
And, resolutely, still on his knees, he wiggled through the hole in the wall. Raoul, who had wished to pass first, had to be content to follow him.
The hole was very narrow. The Persian stopped almost at once. Raoul heard him feeling the stones around him. Then the Persian took out his dark lantern again, stooped forward, examined something beneath him and immediately extinguished his lantern. Raoul heard him say, in a whisper:
"We shall have to drop a few yards, without making a noise; take off your boots."
The Persian handed his own shoes to Raoul.
"Put them outside the wall," he said. "We shall find them there when we leave."
He crawled a little farther on his knees, then turned right round and said:
"I am going to hang by my hands from the edge of the stone and let myself drop INTO HIS HOUSE. You must do exactly the same. Do not be afraid. I will catch you in my arms."
Raoul soon heard a dull sound, evidently produced by the fall of the Persian, and then dropped down.
He felt himself clasped in the Persian's arms.
"Hush!" said the Persian.
And they stood motionless, listening.
The darkness was thick around them, the silence heavy and terrible.
Then the Persian began to make play with the dark lantern again, turning the rays over their heads, looking for the hole through which they had come, and failing to find it:
"Oh!" he said. "The stone has closed of itself!"
And the light of the lantern swept down the wall and over the floor.
The Persian stooped and picked up something, a sort of cord, which he examined for a second and flung away with horror.
"The Punjab lasso!" he muttered.
"What is it?" asked Raoul.
The Persian shivered. "It might very well be the rope by which the man was hanged, and which was looked for so long."
And, suddenly seized with fresh anxiety, he moved the little red disk of his lantern over the walls. In this way, he lit up a curious thing: the trunk of a tree, which seemed still quite alive, with its leaves; and the branches of that tree ran right up the walls and disappeared in the ceiling.
Because of the smallness of the luminous disk, it was difficult at first to make out the appearance of things: they saw a corner of a branch ... and a leaf ... and another leaf ... and, next to it, nothing at all, nothing but the ray of light that seemed to reflect itself ... Raoul passed his hand over that nothing, over that reflection.
"Hullo!" he said. "The wall is a looking-glass!"
"Yes, a looking-glass!" said the Persian, in a tone of deep emotion. And, passing the hand that held the pistol over his moist forehead, he added, "We have dropped into the torture-chamber!"
What the Persian knew of this torture-chamber and what there befell him and his companion shall be told in his own words, as set down in a manuscript which he left behind him, and which I copy VERBATIM.
 M. Pedro Gailhard has himself told me that he created a few additional posts as door-shutters for old stage-carpenters whom he was unwilling to dismiss from the service of the Opera.
 In those days, it was still part of the firemen's duty to watch over the safety of the Opera house outside the performances; but this service has since been suppressed. I asked M. Pedro Gailhard the reason, and he replied:
"It was because the management was afraid that, in their utter inexperience of the cellars of the Opera, the firemen might set fire to the building!"
 Like the Persian, I can give no further explanation touching the apparition of this shade. Whereas, in this historic narrative, everything else will be normally explained, however abnormal the course of events may seem, I can not give the reader expressly to understand what the Persian meant by the words, "It is some one much worse than that!" The reader must try to guess for himself, for I promised M. Pedro Gailhard, the former manager of the Opera, to keep his secret regarding the extremely interesting and useful personality of the wandering, cloaked shade which, while condemning itself to live in the cellars of the Opera, rendered such immense services to those who, on gala evenings, for instance, venture to stray away from the stage. I am speaking of state services; and, upon my word of honor, I can say no more.
 All the water had to be exhausted, in the building of the Opera. To give an idea of the amount of water that was pumped up, I can tell the reader that it represented the area of the courtyard of the Louvre and a height half as deep again as the towers of Notre Dame. And nevertheless the engineers had to leave a lake.
 These two pairs of boots, which were placed, according to the Persian's papers, just between the set piece and the scene from the ROI DE LAHORE, on the spot where Joseph Buquet was found hanging, were never discovered. They must have been taken by some stage-carpenter or "door-shutter."