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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."
Turn to the next chapter: XIX THE TSAR