Chapter XVII: The Inexplicable Gallery
"Mademoiselle Stangerson appeared at the door of her ante-room," continues Rouletabille's note-book. "We were near her door in the gallery where this incredible phenomenon had taken place. There are moments when one feels as if one's brain were about to burst. A bullet in the head, a fracture of the skull, the seat of reason shattered--with only these can I compare the sensation which exhausted and left me void of sense.
"Happily, Mademoiselle Stangerson appeared on the threshold of her ante-room. I saw her, and that helped to relieve my chaotic state of mind. I breathed her--I inhaled the perfume of the lady in black, whom I should never see again. I would have given ten years of my life--half my life--to see once more the lady in black! Alas! I no more meet her but from time to time,--and yet!--and yet! how the memory of that perfume--felt by me alone--carries me back to the days of my childhood.* It was this sharp reminder from my beloved perfume, of the lady in black, which made me go to her --dressed wholly in white and so pale--so pale and so beautiful! --on the threshold of the inexplicable gallery. Her beautiful golden hair, gathered into a knot on the back of her neck, left visible the red star on her temple which had so nearly been the cause of her death. When I first got on the right track of the mystery of this case I had imagined that, on the night of the tragedy in The Yellow Room, Mademoiselle Stangerson had worn her hair in bands. But then, how could I have imagined otherwise when I had not been in The Yellow Room!
*When I wrote these lines, Joseph Rouletabille was eighteen years of age,--and he spoke of his "youth." I have kept the text of my friend, but I inform the reader here that the episode of the mystery of The Yellow Room has no connection with that of the perfume of the lady in black. It is not my fault if, in the document which I have cited, Rouletabille thought fit to refer to his childhood.
"But now, since the occurrence of the inexplicable gallery, I did not reason at all. I stood there, stupid, before the apparition --so pale and so beautiful--of Mademoiselle Stangerson. She was clad in a dressing-gown of dreamy white. One might have taken her to be a ghost--a lovely phantom. Her father took her in his arms and kissed her passionately, as if he had recovered her after being long lost to him. I dared not question her. He drew her into the room and we followed them,--for we had to know!--The door of the boudoir was open. The terrified faces of the two nurses craned towards us. Mademoiselle Stangerson inquired the meaning of all the disturbance. That she was not in her own room was quite easily explained--quite easily. She had a fancy not to sleep that night in her chamber, but in the boudoir with her nurses, locking the door on them. Since the night of the crime she had experienced feelings of terror, and fears came over her that are easily to be comprehended.
"But who could imagine that on that particular night when he was to come, she would, by a mere chance, determine to shut herself in with her women? Who would think that she would act contrary to her father's wish to sleep in the drawing-room? Who could believe that the letter which had so recently been on the table in her room would no longer be there? He who could understand all this, would have to assume that Mademoiselle Stangerson knew that the murderer was coming --she could not prevent his coming again--unknown to her father, unknown to all but to Monsieur Robert Darzac. For he must know it now--perhaps he had known it before! Did he remember that phrase in the Elysee garden: 'Must I commit a crime, then, to win you?' Against whom the crime, if not against the obstacle, against the murderer? 'Ah, I would kill him with my own hand!' And I replied,
'You have not answered my question.' That was the very truth. In truth, in truth, Monsieur Darzac knew the murderer so well that --while wishing to kill him himself--he was afraid I should find him. There could be but two reasons why he had assisted me in my investigation. First, because I forced him to do it; and, second, because she would be the better protected.
"I am in the chamber--her room. I look at her, also at the place where the letter had just now been. She has possessed herself of it; it was evidently intended for her--evidently. How she trembles! --Trembles at the strange story her father is telling her, of the presence of the murderer in her chamber, and of the pursuit. But it is plainly to be seen that she is not wholly satisfied by the assurance given her until she had been told that the murderer, by some incomprehensible means, had been able to elude us.
"Then follows a silence. What a silence! We are all there--looking at her--her father, Larsan, Daddy Jacques and I. What were we all thinking of in the silence? After the events of that night, of the mystery of the inexplicable gallery, of the prodigious fact of the presence of the murderer in her room, it seemed to me that all our thoughts might have been translated into the words which were addressed to her. 'You who know of this mystery, explain it to us, and we shall perhaps be able to save you. How I longed to save her --for herself, and, from the other!--It brought the tears to my eyes.
"She is there, shedding about her the perfume of the lady in black. At last, I see her, in the silence of her chamber. Since the fatal hour of the mystery of The Yellow Room, we have hung about this invisible and silent woman to learn what she knows. Our desires, our wish to know must be a torment to her. Who can tell that, should we learn the secret of her mystery, it would not precipitate a tragedy more terrible than that which had already been enacted here? Who can tell if it might not mean her death? Yet it had brought her close to death,--and we still knew nothing. Or, rather, there are some of us who know nothing. But I--if I knew who, I should know all. Who?--Who?--Not knowing who, I must remain silent, out of pity for her. For there is no doubt that she knows how he escaped from The Yellow Room, and yet she keeps the secret. When I know who, I will speak to him--to him!"
"She looked at us now--with a far-away look in her eyes--as if we were not in the chamber. Monsieur Stangerson broke the silence. He declared that, henceforth, he would no more absent himself from his daughter's apartments. She tried to oppose him in vain. He adhered firmly to his purpose. He would install himself there this very night, he said. Solely concerned for the health of his daughter, he reproached her for having left her bed. Then he suddenly began talking to her as if she were a little child. He smiled at her and seemed not to know either what he said or what he did. The illustrious professor had lost his head. Mademoiselle Stangerson in a tone of tender distress said: 'Father!--father!' Daddy Jacques blows his nose, and Frederic Larsan himself is obliged to turn away to hide his emotion. For myself, I am able neither to think or feel. I felt an infinite contempt for myself.
"It was the first time that Frederic Larsan, like myself, found himself face to face with Mademoiselle Stangerson since the attack in The Yellow Room. Like me, he had insisted on being allowed to question the unhappy lady; but he had not, any more than had I, been permitted. To him, as to me, the same answer had always been given: Mademoiselle Stangerson was too weak to receive us. The questionings of the examining magistrate had over-fatigued her. It was evidently intended not to give us any assistance in our researches. I was not surprised; but Frederic Larsan had always resented this conduct. It is true that he and I had a totally different theory of the crime.
"I still catch myself repeating from the depths of my heart: 'Save her!--save her without his speaking!' Who is he--the murderer? Take him and shut his mouth. But Monsieur Darzac made it clear that in order to shut his mouth he must be killed. Have I the right to kill Mademoiselle Stangerson's murderer? No, I had not. But let him only give me the chance! Let me find out whether he is really a creature of flesh and blood!--Let me see his dead body, since it cannot be taken alive.
"If I could but make this woman, who does not even look at us, understand! She is absorbed by her fears and by her father's distress of mind. And I can do nothing to save her. Yes, I will go to work once more and accomplish wonders.
"I move towards her. I would speak to her. I would entreat her to have confidence in me. I would, in a word, make her understand --she alone--that I know how the murderer escaped from The Yellow Room--that I have guessed the motives for her secrecy--and that I pity her with all my heart. But by her gestures she begged us to leave her alone, expressing weariness and the need for immediate rest. Monsieur Stangerson asked us to go back to our rooms and thanked us. Frederic Larsan and I bowed to him and, followed by Daddy Jacques, we regained the gallery. I heard Larsan murmur:
'Strange! strange!' He made a sign to me to go with him into his room. On the threshold he turned towards Daddy Jacques.
"'Did you see him distinctly?' he asked.
"'Saw him!--why, he had a big red beard and red hair.'
"'That's how he appeared to me,' I said.
"'And to me,' said Larsan.
"The great Fred and I were alone in his chamber, now, to talk over this thing. We talked for an hour, turning the matter over and viewing it from every side. From the questions put by him, from the explanation which he gives me, it is clear to me that--in spite of all our senses--he is persuaded the man disappeared by some secret passage in the chateau known to him alone.
"'He knows the chateau,' he said to me; 'he knows it well.'
"'He is a rather tall man--well-built,' I suggested.
"'He is as tall as he wants to be,' murmured Fred.
"'I understand,' I said; 'but how do you account for his red hair and beard?'
"'Too much beard--too much hair--false,' says Fred.
"'That's easily said. You are always thinking of Robert Darzac. You can't get rid of that idea? I am certain that he is innocent.'
"'So much the better. I hope so; but everything condemns him. Did you notice the marks on the carpet?--Come and look at them.'
"'I have seen them; they are the marks of the neat boots, the same as those we saw on the border of the lake.'
"'Can you deny that they belong to Robert Darzac?'
"'Of course, one may be mistaken.'
"'Have you noticed that those footprints only go in one direction? --that there are no return marks? When the man came from the chamber, pursued by all of us, his footsteps left no traces behind them.'
"'He had, perhaps, been in the chamber for hours. The mud from his boots had dried, and he moved with such rapidity on the points of his toes--We saw him running, but we did not hear his steps.'
"I suddenly put an end to this idle chatter--void of any logic, and made a sign to Larsan to listen.
"'There--below; some one is shutting a door.'
"I rise; Larsan follows me; we descend to the ground-floor of the chateau. I lead him to the little semi-circular room under the terrace beneath the window of the 'off-turning' gallery. I point to the door, now closed, open a short time before, under which a shaft of light is visible.
"'The forest-keeper!' says Fred.
"'Come on!' I whisper.
"Prepared--I know not why--to believe that the keeper is the guilty man--I go to the door and rap smartly on it. Some might think that we were rather late in thinking of the keeper, since our first business, after having found that the murderer had escaped us in the gallery, ought to have been to search everywhere else, --around the chateau,--in the park--
"Had this criticism been made at the time, we could only have answered that the assassin had disappeared from the gallery in such a way that we thought he was no longer anywhere! He had eluded us when we all had our hands stretched out ready to seize him--when we were almost touching him. We had no longer any ground for hoping that we could clear up the mystery of that night.
"As soon as I rapped at the door it was opened, and the keeper asked us quietly what we wanted. He was undressed and preparing to go to bed. The bed had not yet been disturbed.
"We entered and I affected surprise.
"'Not gone to bed yet?'
"'No,' he replied roughly. 'I have been making a round of the park and in the woods. I am only just back--and sleepy. Good-night!'
"'Listen,' I said. 'An hour or so ago, there was a ladder close by your window.'
"'What ladder?--I did not see any ladder. Good-night!'
"And he simply put us out of the room. When we were outside I looked at Larsan. His face was impenetrable.
"'Well?' I said.
"'Well?' he repeated.
"'Does that open out any new view to you?'
"There was no mistaking Larsan's bad temper. On re-entering the chateau, I heard him mutter:
"'It would be strange--very strange--if I had deceived myself on that point!'
"He seemed to be talking to me rather than to himself. He added:
'In any case, we shall soon know what to think. The morning will bring light with it.'"Next