The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 21

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Let us state this geometrical problem in the simplest words: an express train has to cover the ground between two little stations three miles apart. It is announced at the second when it passes the first; and yet they wait for it at the second in vain. They hurry from both stations down the line to find the wreck; but they do not so much as find the train, an express train in which there are perhaps a hundred passengers.

That the station-master of A should have fallen down dead at the shock of this unheard-of, bewildering, stupefying, absurd, diabolical, and yet how simple (as we shall learn later) disappearance of the train, is not greatly to be wondered at. The minds of all of them were shaken by the occurrence. The station-master of B was not in a much better condition than his colleague. Everyone present uttered incoherent cries. They kept calling the train, as if the train could have answered! They did not hear it, and on that flat plain they did not see it! The ticket-clerk of station A knelt down beside the body of his chief, and presently said, "I am quite sure he is dead!" The rest gathered round the body of the dead man; and then, tearing up two of the little trees from the side of the road which runs beside the railway, they laid him on them. Carrying the body on this rude litter, they returned towards station A. We must bear in mind that the express had passed station B, and that no one had seen it reach station A.

But they had not yet reached station A when, on the line, on the line along which they had just come, they perceived a railway-carriage, or rather a railway-carriage and a guard's-van! They greeted the sight in their excitable French way with the howls of madmen. Where did this end of a train come from? And what had become of the beginning of the train, that is to say, of the engine, the tender, the dining-car, and the three corridor carriages?

Look at the plan. C marks the point on the line at which the staffs of stations A and B met, when they were hunting for the train. It is also the point at which the station-master of A fell down dead. The two staffs then, in a body, were bringing back the dead station-master towards A, when at the point D, a point they had passed a few minutes before, and at which they had seen nothing, they find a railway-carriage and a guard's-van.

These people greeted this sight with the cries of madmen; and then they perceived an odd-looking head looking out of one of the windows of the railway-carriage. It waggled. This head had no ears; and the earless man had his head out of the carriage window. They shouted to him. From the moment they caught sight of him they asked him what had happened. But the man did not answer. The odd thing was that his head waggled from left to right, as if it were moved by the wind which was blowing at the time with some force. It was a head with crinkly hair. It was bent downwards; and the cravat round a high collar, very white on that grey day, was untied and streaming in the wind.

At last when they came quite near (they moved slowly owing to the fact that they were carrying the station-master) they saw clearly the shocking reality. The man not only had his head out of the window, he had also got it caught in the window. The unfortunate wretch must have opened the window and stuck his head out while the train was in motion; and the window must have been jerked up violently and cut his head half off! On seeing this, the two staffs howled afresh; then they set down the body of the station-master, ran round the guard's-van, in which there was nobody, and opening a door on the other side of the carriage, they found that it was empty, except for the man whose head was caught in the window, and that his body, inside the carriage, was stripped of every rag of clothing.

The news of these fantastic horrors at once spread throughout the district. An enormous crowd thronged the platforms of station A all the rest of the day. The chief officials of the line came from Paris. Not only were they unable to explain, on that day and the days following, the death of the man who had had his head out of the carriage window, but they were still unable to find either the train or the passengers. They talked of nothing but this strange affair at the funeral of the station-master of A, which was celebrated with great solemnity, and also throughout Europe and America.