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Chapter 18

XVIII

A SINGULAR EXPERIENCE

The five minutes ticked away and the watch commenced to strike the
hour's seven strokes. Did it sound the death of Rouletabille?
Perhaps not! For at the first silver tinkle they saw Rouletabille
shake himself, and raise his head, with his face alight and his
eyes shining. They saw him stand up, spread out his arms and cry:

"I have found it!"

Such joy shone in his countenance that there seemed to be an aureole
around him, and none of those there doubted that he had the solution
of the impossible problem.

"I have found it! I have found it!"

They gathered around him. He waved them away as in a waking dream.

"Give me room. I have found it, if my experiment works out. One,
two, three, four, five..."

What was he doing? He counted his steps now, in long paces, as in
dueling preliminaries. And the others, all of them, followed him
in silence, puzzled, but without protest, as if they, too, were
caught in the same strange day-dream. Steadily counting his steps
he crossed thus the court, which was vast. "Forty, forty-one,
forty-two," he cried excitedly. "This is certainly strange, and
very promising."

The others, although they did not understand, reframed from
questioning him, for they saw there was nothing to do but let him
go ahead without interruption, just as care is taken not to wake
a somnambulist abruptly. They had no mistrust of his motives, for
the idea was simply untenable that Rouletabille was fool enough to
hope to save himself from them by an imbecile subterfuge. No,
they yielded to the impression his inspired countenance gave them,
and several were so affected that they unconsciously repeated his
gestures. Thus Rouletabille reached the edge of the court where
judgment had been pronounced against him. There he had to mount
a rickety flight of stairs, whose steps he counted. He reached
a corridor, but moving away from the side where the door was
opening to the exterior he turned toward a staircase leading to the
upper floor, and still counted the steps as be climbed them. Some
of the company followed him, others hurried ahead of him. But he
did not seem aware of either the one or the other, as he walked
along living only in his thoughts. He reached the landing-place,
hesitated, pushed open a door, and found himself in a room furnished
with a table, two chairs, a mattress and a huge cupboard. He went
to the cupboard, turned the key and opened it. The cupboard was
empty. He closed it again and put the key in his pocket. Then he
went out onto the landing-place again. There he asked for the key
of the chamber-door he had just left. They gave it to him and he
locked that door and put that key also in his pocket. Now he
returned into the court. He asked for a chair. It was brought
him. Immediately he placed his head in his hands, thinking hard,
took the chair and carried it over a little behind the shed. The
Nihilists watched everything he did and they did not smile, because
men do not smile when death waits at the end of things, however
foolish.

Finally, Rouletabille spoke:

"Messieurs," said he, his voice low and shaken, because he knew
that now he touched the decisive minute, after which there could
only be an irrevocable fate. "Messieurs, in order to continue
my experiment I am obliged to go through movements that might
suggest to you the idea of an attempt at escape, or evasion. I
hope you don't regard me as fool enough to have any such thought."

"Oh, monsieur," said the chief, "you are free to go through all
the maneuvers you wish. No one escapee us. Outside we should
have you within arm's reach quite as well as here. And, besides,
it is entirely impossible to escape from here."

"Very well. Then that is understood. In such a case, I ask you
now to remain just where you are and not to budge, whatever I do,
if you don't wish to inconvenience me. Only please send someone
now up to the next floor, where I am going to go again, and let
him watch what happens from there, but without interfering. And
don't speak a word to me during the experiment."

Two of the revolutionaries went to the upper floor, and opened a
window in order to keep track of what went on in the court. All
now showed their intense interest in the acts and gestures of
Rouletabille.

The reporter placed himself in the shed, between his death-stool
and his hanging-rope.

"Ready," said he; "I am going to begin"

And suddenly he jumped like a wild man, crossed the court in a
straight line like a flash, disappeared in the touba, bounded up
the staircase, felt in his pocket and drew out the keys, opened
the door of the chamber he had locked, closed it and locked it
again, turned right-about-face, came down again in the same haste,
reached the court, and this time swerved to the chair, went round
it, still running, and returned at the same speed to the shed. He
no sooner reached there than he uttered a cry of triumph as he
glanced at the watch banging from a post. "I have won," he said,
and threw himself with a happy thrill upon the fatal scaffold.
They surrounded him, and he read the liveliest curiosity in all
their faces. Panting still from his mad rush, he asked for two
words apart with the chief of the Secret committee.

The man who had pronounced judgment and who had the bearing of
Jesus advanced, and there was a brief exchange of words between
the two young men. The others drew back and waited at a distance,
in impressive silence, the outcome of this mysterious colloquy,
which certainly would settle Rouletabille's fate.

"Messieurs," said the chief, "the young Frenchman is going to be
allowed to leave. We give him twenty-four hours to set Natacha
Feodorovna free. In twenty-four hours, if he has not succeeded,
he will return here to give himself up."

A happy murmur greeted these words. The moment their chief spoke
thus, they felt sure of Natacha's fate.

The chief added:

"As the liberation of Natacha Feodorovna will be followed, the
young Frenchman says, by that of our companion Matiew, we decide
that, if these two conditions are fulfilled, M. Joseph Rouletabille
is allowed to return in entire security to France, which he ought
never to have left."

Two or three only of the group said, "That lad is playing with us;
it is not possible."

But the chief declared:

"Let the lad try. He accomplishes miracles."

Gaston Leroux

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