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CHAPTER XVI Strange Phenomenon of the Dissociation of Matter
(EXTRACT FROM THE NOTE-BOOK OF JOSEPH ROULETABILLE, continued)
"I am again at the window-sill," continues Rouletabille, "and once more I raise my head above it. Through an opening in the curtains, the arrangement of which has not been changed, I am ready to look, anxious to note the position in which I am going to find the murderer, - whether his back will still be turned towards me! - whether he is still seated at the desk writing! But perhaps - perhaps - he is no longer there! - Yet how could he have fled? - Was I not in possession of his ladder? I force myself to be cool. I raise my head yet higher. I look - he is still there. I see his monstrous back, deformed by the shadow thrown by the candle. He is no longer writing now, and the candle is on the parquet, over which he is bending - a position which serves my purpose.
"I hold my breath. I mount the ladder. I am on the uppermost rung of it, and with my left hand seize hold of the window-sill. In this moment of approaching success, I feel my heart beating wildly. I put my revolver between my teeth. A quick spring, and I shall be on the window-ledge. But - the ladder! I had been obliged to press on it heavily, and my foot had scarcely left it, when I felt it swaying beneath me. It grated on the wall and fell. But, already, my knees were touching the window-sill, and, by a movement quick as lightning, I got on to it.
"But the murderer had been even quicker than I had been. He had heard the grating of the ladder on the wall, and I saw the monstrous back of the man raise itself. I saw his head. Did I really see it? - The candle on the parquet lit up his legs only. Above the height of the table the chamber was in darkness. I saw a man with long hair, a full beard, wild-looking eyes, a pale face, framed in large whiskers, - as well as I could distinguish, and, as I think - red in colour. I did not know the face. That was, in brief, the chief sensation I received from that face in the dim half-light in which I saw it. I did not know it - or, at least, I did not recognise it.
"Now for quick action! It was indeed time for that, for as I was about to place my legs through the window, the man had seen me, had bounded to his feet, had sprung - as I foresaw he would - to the door of the ante-chamber, had time to open it, and fled. But I was already behind him, revolver in hand, shouting 'Help!'
"Like an arrow I crossed the room, but noticed a letter on the table as I rushed. I almost came up with the man in the ante-room, for he had lost time in opening the door to the gallery. I flew on wings, and in the gallery was but a few feet behind him. He had taken, as I supposed he would, the gallery on his right, - that is to say, the road he had prepared for his flight. 'Help, Jacques! - help, Larsan!' I cried. He could not escape us! I raised a shout of joy, of savage victory. The man reached the intersection of the two galleries hardly two seconds before me for the meeting which I had prepared - the fatal shock which must inevitably take place at that spot! We all rushed to the crossing-place - Monsieur Stangerson and I coming from one end of the right gallery, Daddy Jacques coming from the other end of the same gallery, and Frederic Larsan coming from the 'off-turning' gallery.
"The man was not there!
"We looked at each other stupidly and with eyes terrified. The man had vanished like a ghost. 'Where is he - where is he?' we all asked.
'It is impossible he can have escaped!' I cried, my terror mastered by my anger.
"'I touched him!' exclaimed Frederic Larsan.
"'I felt his breath on my face!' cried Daddy Jacques.
"'Where is he?' - where is he?' we all cried.
"We raced like madmen along the two galleries; we visited doors and windows - they were closed, hermetically closed. They had not been opened. Besides, the opening of a door or window by this man whom we were hunting, without our having perceived it, would have been more inexplicable than his disappearance.
"Where is he? - where is he? - He could not have got away by a door or a window, nor by any other way. He could not have passed through our bodies!
"I confess that, for the moment, I felt 'done for.' For the gallery was perfectly lighted, and there was neither trap, nor secret door in the walls, nor any sort of hiding-place. We moved the chairs and lifted the pictures. Nothing! - nothing! We would have looked into a flower-pot, if there had been one to look into!"
When this mystery, thanks to Rouletabille, was naturally explained, by the help alone of his masterful mind, we were able to realise that the murderer had got away neither by a door, a window, nor the stairs - a fact which the judges would not admit.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XVII The Inexplicable Gallery