Mederic Rompel, the postman, who was familiarly called by the country people Mederi, started at the usual hour from the posthouse at Rouy-le-Tors. Having passed through the little town with his big strides of an old trooper, he first cut across the meadows of Villaumes in order to reach the bank of the Brindelle, which led him along the water’s edge to the village of Carvelin, where his distribution commenced. He went quickly, following the course of the narrow river, which frothed, murmured, and boiled along its bed of grass, under an arch of willow-trees. The big stones, impeding the flow, had around them a cushion of water, a sort of cravat ending in a knot of foam. In some places, there were cascades, a foot wide, often invisible, which made under the leaves, under the tendrils, under a roof of verdure, a big noise at once angry and gentle; then, further on, the banks widened out, and you saw a small, placid lake where trouts were swimming in the midst of all that green vegetation which keeps undulating in the depths of tranquil streams.
Mederic went on without a halt, seeing nothing, and with only this thought in his mind: “My first letter is for the Poivron family, then I have one for M. Renardet; so I must cross the wood.”
His blue blouse, fastened round his waist by a black leathern belt moved in a quick, regular fashion above the green hedge of the willow-trees; and his stick of stout holly kept time with the steady movement of his legs.
Then, he crossed the Brindelle over a bridge formed of a single tree thrown lengthwise, with a rope attached to two stakes driven into the river’s banks as its only balustrade.
The wood, which belonged to M. Renardet, the Mayor of Carvelin, and the largest landowner in the district, consisted of a number of huge old trees, straight as pillars, and extending for about half a league along the left-bank of the stream which served as a boundary for this immense arch of foliage. Alongside the water there were large shrubs warmed by the sun; but under the trees you found nothing but moss, thick, soft, plastic moss, which exhaled into the stagnant air a light odor of loam with withered branches.
Mederic slackened his pace, took off his black cap adorned with red lace, and wiped his forehead, for it was by this time hot in the meadows, though it was not yet eight o’clock in the morning.
He had just recovered from the effects of the heat, and resumed his accelerated pace when he noticed at the foot of a tree a knife, a child’s small knife. When he picked it up, he discovered a thimble and also a needle-case not far away.
Having taken up these objects, he thought: “I’ll intrust them to the Mayor,” and he resumed his journey, but now he kept his eyes open expecting to find something else.
All of a sudden, he drew up stiffly as if he had knocked himself against a wooden bar; for, ten paces in front of him, lay stretched on her back a little girl, quite naked, on the moss. She was about twelve years old. Her arms were hanging down, her legs parted, and her face covered with a handkerchief. There were little spots of blood on her thighs.
Mederic advanced now on tiptoe, as if he were afraid to make a noise, apprehended some danger, and he glanced towards the spot uneasily.
What was this? No doubt, she was asleep. Then, he reflected that a person does not go to sleep thus naked, at half-past seven in the morning under cool trees. So then she must be dead; and he must be face to face with a crime. At this thought, a cold shiver ran through his frame, although he was an old soldier. And then a murder was such a rare thing in the country, and above all the murder of a child, that he could not believe his eyes. But she had no wound — nothing save this blood stuck on her leg. How, then, had she been killed?
He stopped quite near her; and he stared at her, while he leaned on his stick. Certainly, he knew her, as he knew all the inhabitants of the district; but, not being able to get a look at her face, he could not guess her name. He stooped forward in order to take off the handkerchief which covered her face, then paused with outstretched hand, restrained by an idea that occurred to him.
Had he the right to disarrange anything in the condition of the corpse before the magisterial investigation? He pictured justice to himself as a kind of general whom nothing escapes, and who attaches as much importance to a lost button as to a stab of a knife in the stomach. Perhaps under this handkerchief evidence to support a capital charge could be found; in fact if there were sufficient proof there to secure a conviction, it might lost its value, if touched by an awkward hand.
Then, he raised himself with the intention of hastening towards the Mayor’s residence, but again another thought held him back. If the little girl was still alive, by any chance, he could not leave her lying there in this way. He sank on his knees very gently, a little bit away from her through precaution, and extended his hand towards her feet. It was icy cold, with the terrible coldness which makes the dead flesh frightful, and which leaves us no longer in doubt. The letter-carrier, as he touched her, felt his heart in his mouth, as he said to himself afterwards and his lips were parched with dry spittle. Rising up abruptly he rushed off under the trees towards M. Renardet’s house.
He walked on in double-quick time, with his stick under his arm, his hands clenched, and his head thrust forward, and his leathern bag, filled with letters and newspapers, kept regularly flapping at his side.
The Mayor’s residence was at the end of the wood which he used as a park, and one side of it was washed by a little pool formed at this spot by the Brindelle.
It was a big, square house of gray stone, very old, which had stood many a siege in former days, and at the end of it was a huge tower, twenty meters high, built in the water.
From the top of this fortress the entire country around it could be seen in olden times. It was called the Fox’s tower, without anyone knowing exactly why; and from this appellation, no doubt, had come the name Renardet, borne by the owners of this fief, which had remained in the same family, it was said, for more than two hundred years. For the Renardets formed part of the upper middle class all but noble to be met with so often in the provinces before the Revolution.
The postman dashed into the kitchen where the servants were taking breakfast, and exclaimed:
“Is the Mayor up? I want to speak to him at once.”
Mederic was recognized as a man of weight and authority, and it was soon understood that something serious had happened.
As soon as word was brought to M. Renardet, he ordered the postman to be sent up to him. Pale and out of breath, with his cap in his hand, Mederic found the Mayor seated in front of a long table covered with scattered papers.
He was a big, tall man, heavy and red-faced, strong as an ox and was greatly liked in the district, though of an excessively violent disposition. Very nearly forty years old, and a widower for the past six months, he lived on his estate like a country gentleman. His choleric temperament had often brought him into trouble, from which the magistrates of Rouy-le-Tors, like indulgent and prudent friends, had extricated him. Had he not one day thrown the conductor of the diligence from the top of his seat because he was near crushing his retriever, Micmac? Had he not broken the ribs of a gamekeeper, who abused him for having, with a gun in his hand, passed through a neighbor’s property? Had he not even caught by the collar the sub-prefect, who stopped in the village in the course of an administrative round described by M. Renardet as an electioneering round; for he was against the government, according to his family tradition.
The Mayor asked:
“What’s the matter now, Mederic?”
“I found a little girl dead in your wood.”
Renardet rose up, with his face the color of brick.
“Do you say — a little girl?”
“Yes, m’sieur, a little girl, quite naked, on her back, with blood on her, dead — quite dead!”
The Mayor gave vent to an oath:
“My God, I’d make a bet ’tis little Louise Roqué! I have just learned that she did not go home to her mother last night. Where did you find her?”
The postman pointed out where the place was, gave full details, and offered to conduct the Mayor to the spot.
But Renardet became brusque:
“No, I don’t need you. Send the steward, the Mayor’s secretary, and the doctor immediately to me, and resume your rounds. Quick, quick, go and tell them to meet me in the woods.”
The letter-carrier, a man used to discipline, obeyed and withdrew, angry and grieved at not being able to be present at the investigation.
The Mayor, in his turn, prepared to go out, took his hat, a big soft hat, and paused for a few seconds on the threshold of his abode. In front of him stretched a wide sward, in which three large patches were conspicuous — three large beds of flowers in full bloom, one facing the house and the others at either side of it. Further on, rose skyward the principal trees in the wood, while at the left, above the Brindelle widened into a pool, could be seen long meadows, an entirely green flat sweep of the country, cut by dikes and willow edges like monsters, twisted dwarf-trees, always cut short, and having on their thick squat trunks a quivering tuft of thick branches.
At the right, behind the stables, the outhouses, all the buildings connected with the property, might be seen the village, which was wealthy, being mainly inhabited by rearers of oxen.
Renardet slowly descended the steps in front of his house, and turning to the left, gained the water’s edge, which he followed at a slow pace, his hand behind his back. He went on with bent head, and from time to time he glanced round in search of the persons for whom he had sent.
When he stood beneath the trees, he stopped, took off his hat, and wiped his forehead as Mederic had done; for the burning sun was falling in fiery rain upon the ground. Then the Mayor resumed his journey, stopped once more, and retraced his steps. Suddenly, stooping down, he steeped his handkerchief in the stream that glided at his feet, and stretched it round his head, under his hat. Drops of water flowed along his temples over his ears always purple over his strong red neck, and made their way, one after the other, under his white shirt-collar.
As nobody yet appeared he began tapping with his foot, then he called out —
A voice at his right, answered:
And the doctor appeared under the trees. He was a thin little man, an ex-military surgeon, who passed in the neighborhood for a very skillful practitioner. He limped, having been wounded while in the service, and had to use a stick to assist him in walking.
Next came the steward and the Mayor’s secretary, who, having been sent for at the same time, arrived together. They looked scared, and hurried forward out of breath, walking and trotting in turn in order to hasten their progress, and moving their arms up and down so vigorously that they seemed to do more work with them than with their legs.
Renardet said to the doctor:
“You know what the trouble is about?”
“Yes, a child found dead in the wood by Mederic.”
“That’s quite correct. Come on.”
They walked on side by side, followed by the two men.
Their steps made no noise on the moss, their eyes were gazing downward right in front of them.
The doctor hastened his steps, interested by the discovery. As soon as they were near the corpse, he bent down to examine it without touching it. He had put on a pair of glasses, as when one is looking at some curious object, and turned round very quietly.
He said without rising up:
“Violated and assassinated, as we are going to prove presently. This little girl moreover, is almost a woman — look at her throat.”
Her two breasts, already nearly full-developed, fell over her chest, relaxed by death.
The doctor lightly drew away the handkerchief which covered her face. It looked black, frightful, the tongue protruding, the eyes bloodshot. He went on:
“Faith, she was strangled the moment the deed was done.”
He felt her neck:
“Strangled with the hands without leaving any special trace, neither the mark of the nails nor the imprint of the fingers. Quite right. It is little Louise Roqué, sure enough!”
He delicately replaced the handkerchief:
“There’s nothing for me to do — She’s been dead for the last hour at least. We must give notice of the matter to the authorities.”
Renardet, standing up, with his hands behind his back, kept staring with a stony look at the little body exposed to view on the grass. He murmured:
“What a wretch! We must find the clothes.”
The doctor felt the hands, the arms, the legs. He said:
“She must have been bathing, no doubt. They ought to be at the water’s edge.”
The Mayor thereupon gave directions:
“Do you, Princépe” (this was his secretary), “go and look for those clothes for me along the river. Do you, Maxime” (this was the steward), “hurry on towards Roug-le-Tors, and bring on here to me the examining magistrate with the gendarmes. They must be here within an hour. You understand.”
The two men quickly departed, and Renardet said to the doctor:
“What miscreant has been able to do such a deed in this part of the country.”
The doctor murmured:
“Who knows? Everyone is capable of that? Everyone in particular and nobody in general. No matter, it must be some prowler, some workman out of employment. As we live under a Republic, we must expect to meet only this kind of person along the roads.”
Both of them were Bonapartists.
The Mayor went on:
“Yes, it can only be a stranger, a passer-by, a vagabond without heart or home.”
The doctor added with the shadow of a smile on his face:
“And without a wife. Having neither a good supper nor a good bed, he procured the rest for himself. You can’t tell how many men there may be in the world capable of a crime at a given moment. Did you know that this little girl had disappeared?”
And with the end of his stick he touched one after the other the stiffened fingers of the corpse, resting on them as on the keys of a piano.
“Yes, the mother came last night to look for me about nine o’clock, the child not having come home from supper up to seven. We went to try and find her along the roads up to midnight, but we did not think of the wood. However, we needed daylight to carry out a search with a practical result.”
“Will you have a cigar?” said the doctor.
“Thanks, I don’t care to smoke. It gives me a turn to look at this.”
They both remained standing in front of this corpse of a young girl, so pale, on the dark moss. A big fly with a blue belly that was walking along one of the thighs, stopped at the bloodstains, went on again, always rising higher, ran along the side with his lively, jerky movements, climbed up one of the breasts, then came back again to explore the other, looking out for something to drink on this dead girl. The two men kept watching this wandering black speck.
The doctor said:
“How pretty it is, a fly on the skin! The ladies of the last century had good reason to paste them on their faces. Why has this fashion gone out?”
The Mayor seemed not to hear, plunged as he was in deep thought.
But, all of a sudden, he turned round, for he was surprised by a shrill noise. A woman in a cap and a blue apron rushed up under the trees. It was the mother, La Roqué. As soon as she saw Renardet she began to shriek:
“My little girl, where’s my little girl?” in such a distracted manner that she did not glance down at the ground. Suddenly, she saw the corpse, stopped short, clasped her hands, and raised both her arms while she uttered a sharp, heartrending cry — the cry of a mutilated animal. Then she rushed towards the body, fell on her knees, and took off, as if she would have snatched it away, the handkerchief that covered the face. When she saw that frightful countenance, black and convulsed, she rose up with a shudder, then pressed her face against the ground, giving vent to terrible and continuous screams with her mouth close to the thick moss.
Her tall, thin frame, to which her clothes were clinging tightly, was palpitating, shaken with convulsions. They could see her bony ankles and her dried up calves covered with thick blue stockings, shivering horribly; and she went digging the soil with her crooked fingers as if in order to make a hole there to hide herself in it.
The doctor moved, said in a low tone:
“Poor old woman!”
Renardet felt a strange rumbling in his stomach; then he gave vent to a sort of loud sneeze that issued at the same time through his nose and through his mouth; and, drawing his handkerchief from his pocket, he began to weep internally, coughing, sobbing, and wiping his face noisily.
He stammered —
“Damn — damn — damned pig to do this! I would like to see him guillotined.”
But Princépe reappeared, with his hands empty. He murmured —
“I have found nothing, M’sieu le Maire, nothing at all anywhere.”
The doctor, scared, replied in a thick voice, drowned in tears:
“What is that you could not find?”
“The little girl’s clothes.”
“Well — well — look again, and find them — or you’ll have to answer to me.”
The man, knowing that the Mayor would not brook opposition, set forth again with hesitating steps, casting on the corpse indirect and timid glances.
Distant voices arose under the trees, a confused sound, the noise of an approaching crowd; for Mederic had, in the course of his rounds carried the news from door to door. The people of the neighborhood, stupefied at first, had gone chatting from their own firesides into the street, from one threshold to another. Then they gathered together. They talked over, discussed, and commented on the event for some minutes, and they had now come to see it for themselves.
They arrived in groups a little faltering and uneasy through fear of the first impression of such a scene on their minds. When they saw the body they stopped, not daring to advance, and speaking low. They grew bold, went on a few steps, stopped again, advanced once more, and soon they formed around the dead girl, her mother, the doctor, and Renardet, a thick circle, agitated and noisy, which crushed forward under the sudden pushes of the last comers. And now they touched the corpse. Some of them even bent down to feel it with their fingers. The doctor kept them back. But the mayor, waking abruptly out of his torpor, broke into a rage, and, seizing Dr. Labarbe’s stick, flung himself on his townspeople, stammering:
“Clear out — clear out — you pack of brutes — clear out!”
And in a second, the crowd of sightseers had fallen back two hundred meters.
La Roqué was lifted up, turned round, and placed in a sitting posture, and she now remained weeping with her hands clasped over her face.
The occurrence was discussed among the crowd; and young lads’ eager eyes curiously scrutinized this naked body of a girl. Renardet perceived this, and abruptly taking off his vest, he flung it over the little girl, who was entirely lost to view under the wide garment.
The spectators drew near quietly. The wood was filled with people, and a continuous hum of voices rose up under the tangled foliage of the tall trees.
The Mayor, in his shirt sleeves, remained standing, with his stick in his hands, in a fighting attitude. He seemed exasperated by this curiosity on the part of the people, and kept repeating:
“If one of you come nearer, I’ll break his head just as I would a dog’s.”
The peasants were greatly afraid of him. They held back. Dr. Labarbe, who was smoking, sat down beside La Roqué, and spoke to her in order to distract her attention. The old woman soon removed her hands from her face, and she replied with a flood of tearful words, emptying her grief in copious talk. She told the whole story of her life, her marriage, the death of her man, a bullsticker, who had been gored to death, the infancy of her daughter, her wretched existence as a widow without resources and with a child to support. She had only this one, her little Louise, and the child had been killed — killed in this wood. All of a sudden, she felt anxious to see it again, and dragging herself on her knees towards the corpse, she raised up one corner of the garment that covered her; then she let it fall again, and began wailing once more. The crowd remained silent, eagerly watching all the mother’s gestures.
But all of a sudden, a great swaying movement took place, and there was a cry of “the gendarmes! the gendarmes!”
The gendarmes appeared in the distance, coming on at a rapid trot, escorting their captain and a little gentleman with red whiskers, who was bobbing up and down like a monkey on a big white mare.
The steward had just found M. Putoin, the examining magistrate, at the moment when he was mounting his horse to take his daily ride, for he posed as a good horseman to the great amusement of the officers.
He alighted along with the captain, and passed the hands of the Mayor and the Doctor, casting a ferret-like glance on the linen vest which swelled above the body lying underneath.
When he was thoroughly acquainted with the facts, he first gave orders to get rid of the public, whom the gendarmes drove out of the wood, but who soon reappeared in the meadow, and formed a hedge, a big hedge of excited and moving heads all along the Brindelle, on the other side of the stream.
The doctor in his turn, gave explanations, of which Renardet took a note in his memorandum book. All the evidence was given, taken down, and commented on without leading to any discovery. Maxime, too, came back without having found any trace of the clothes.
This disappearance surprised everybody; no one could explain it on the theory of theft, and as these rags were not worth twenty sous, even this theory was inadmissible.
The examining magistrate, the mayor, the captain, and the doctor, set to work by searching in pairs, putting aside the smallest branches along the water.
Renardet said to the judge:
“How does it happen that this wretch has concealed or carried away the clothes, and has thus left the body exposed in the open air and visible to everyone?”
The other, sly and knowing, answered:
“Ha! Ha! Perhaps a dodge? This crime has been committed either by a brute or by a crafty blackguard. In any case we’ll easily succeed in finding him.”
The rolling of a vehicle made them turn their heads round. It was the deputy magistrate, the doctor and the registrar of the court who had arrived in their turn. They resumed their searches, all chatting in an animated fashion.
Renardet said suddenly:
“Do you know that I am keeping you to lunch with me?”
Everyone smilingly accepted the invitation, and the examining magistrate, finding that the case of little Louise Roqué was quite enough to bother about for one day, turned towards the Mayor:
“I can have the body brought to your house, can I not? You have a room in which you can keep it for me till this evening.”
The other got confused, and stammered:
“Yes — no — no. To tell the truth, I prefer that it should not come into my house on account of — on account of my servants who are already talking about ghosts in-in my tower, in the Fox’s tower. You know — I could no longer keep a single one. No — I prefer not to have it in my house.”
The magistrate began to smile:
“Good! I am going to get it carried off at once to Roug, for the legal examination.”
Turning towards the door:
“I can make use of your trap can I not?”
Everybody came back to the place where the corpse lay. La Roqué now, seated beside her daughter, had caught hold of her head, and was staring right before her, with a wandering listless eye.
The two doctors endeavored to lead her away, so that she might not witness the dead girl’s removal; but she understood at once what they wanted to do, and, flinging herself on the body, she seized it in both arms. Lying on top of the corpse, she exclaimed:
“You shall not have it — ’tis mine — ’tis mine now. They have killed her on me, and I want to keep her — you shall not have her —!”
All the men, affected and not knowing how to act, remained standing around her. Renardet fell on his knees, and said to her:
“Listen, La Roqué, it is necessary in order to find out who killed her. Without this, it could not be found out. We must make a search for him in order to punish him. When we have found him, we’ll give her up to you. I promise you this.”
This explanation shook the woman’s mind, and a feeling of hatred manifested itself in her distracted glance.
“So then they’ll take him?”
“Yes, I promise you that.”
She rose up, deciding to let them do as they liked; but, when the captain remarked:
“’Tis surprising that her clothes were not found.”
A new idea, which she had not previously thought of, abruptly found an entrance into her brain, and she asked:
“Where are her clothes. They’re mine. I want them. Where have they been put?”
They explained to her that they had not been found. Then she called out for them with desperate obstinacy and with repeated moans.
“They’re mine — I want them. Where are they? I want them!”
The more they tried to calm her the more she sobbed, and persisted in her demands. She no longer wanted the body, she insisted on having the clothes, as much perhaps through the unconscious cupidity of a wretched being to whom a piece of silver represents a fortune, as through maternal tenderness.
And when the little body rolled up in blankets which had been brought out from Renardet’s house, had disappeared in the vehicle, the old woman standing under the trees, held up by the Mayor and the Captain, exclaimed:
“I have nothing, nothing, nothing in the world, not even her little cap — her little cap.”
The curé had just arrived, a young priest already growing stout. He took it on himself to carry off La Roqué, and they went away together towards the village. The mother’s grief was modified under the sugary words of the clergyman, who promised her a thousand compensations. But she incessantly kept repeating:
“If I had only her little cap.”
Sticking to this idea which now dominated every other.
Renardet exclaimed some distance away:
“You lunch with us, Monsieur l’Abbé — in an hour’s time.”
The priest turned his head round, and replied:
“With pleasure, Monsieur le Maire. I’ll be with you at twelve.”
And they all directed their steps towards the house whose gray front and large tower built on the edge of the Brindelle, could be seen through the branches.
The meal lasted a long time. They talked about the crime. Everybody was of the same opinion. It had been committed by some tramp passing there by mere chance while the little girl was bathing.
Then the magistrates returned to Roug, announcing that they would return next day at an early hour. The doctor and the curé went to their respective homes, while Renardet, after a long walk through the meadows, returned to the wood where he remained walking till nightfall with slow steps, his hands behind his back.
He went to bed early, and was still asleep next morning when the examining magistrate entered his room. He rubbed his hands together with a self-satisfied air. He said:
“Ha! ha! You’re still sleeping. Well, my dear fellow, we have news this morning.”
The Mayor sat up on his bed.
“Oh! Something strange. You remember well how the mother yesterday clamored for some memento of her daughter, especially her little cap? Well, on opening her door this morning, she found on the threshold, her child’s two little wooden shoes. This proves that the crime was perpetrated by some one from the district, some one who felt pity for her. Besides, the postman, Mederic comes and brings the thimble, the knife and the needle case of the dead girl. So then the man in carrying off the clothes in order to hide them, must have let fall the articles which were in the pocket. As for me, I attach special importance about the wooden shoes, as they indicate a certain moral culture and a faculty for tenderness on the part of the assassin. We will therefore, if I have no objection, pass in review together the principal inhabitants of your district.”
The Mayor got up. He rang for hot water to shave with, and said:
“With pleasure, but it will take rather a long time, and we may begin at once.”
M. Putoin had sat astride on a chair, thus pursuing even in a room, his mania for horsemanship.
Renardet now covered his chin with a white lather while he looked at himself in the glass; then he sharpened his razor on the strop and went on:
“The principal inhabitant of Carvelin bears the name of Joseph Renardet, Mayor, a rich landowner, a rough man who beats guards and coachmen — ”
The examining magistrate burst out laughing:
“That’s enough; let us pass on to the next.”
“The second in importance is ill. Pelledent, his deputy, a rearer of oxen, an equally rich landowner, a crafty peasant, very sly, very close-fisted on every question of money, but incapable in my opinion, of having perpetrated such a crime.”
M. Putoin said:
“Let us pass on.”
Then, while continuing to shave and wash himself, Renardet went on with the moral inspection of all the inhabitants of Carvelin. After two hours’ discussion, their suspicions were fixed on three individuals who had hitherto borne a shady reputation — a poacher named Cavalle, a fisher for trails and crayfish named Paquet, and a bullsticker named Clovis.
The search for the perpetrator of the crime lasted all the summer, but he was not discovered. Those who were suspected and those who were arrested easily proved their innocence, and the authorities were compelled to abandon the attempt to capture the criminal.
But this murder seemed to have moved the entire country in a singular fashion. There redisquietude, a vague fear, a sensation of mysterious terror, springing not merely from the impossibility of discovering any trace of the assassin, but also and above all from that strange finding of the wooden shoes in front of La Roqué‘s door on the day after the crime. The certainty that the murderer had assisted at the investigation, that he was still living in the village without doubt, left a gloomy impression on people’s minds, and appeared to brood over the neighborhood like an incessant menace.
The wood besides, had become a dreaded spot, a place to be avoided, and supposed to be haunted.
Formerly, the inhabitants used to come and sit down on the moss at the feet of the huge tall trees, or walk along the water’s edge watching the trouts gliding under the green undergrowth. The boys used to play bowls, hide-and-seek and other games in certain places where they had upturned, smoothed out, and leveled the soil, and the girls, in rows of four or five, used to trip along holding one another by the arms, and screaming out with their shrill voices ballads which grated on the ear, and whose false notes disturbed the tranquil air and set the teeth on edge like drops of vinegar. Now nobody went any longer under the wide lofty vault, as if people were afraid of always finding there some corpse lying on the ground.
Autumn arrived, the leaves began to fall. They fell down day and night, descended from the tall trees, round and round whirling to the ground; and the sky could be seen through the bare branches. Sometimes when a gust of wind swept over the tree-tops, the slow, continuous rain suddenly grew heavier, and became a storm with a hoarse roar, which covered the moss with a thick carpet of yellow water that made rather a squashing sound under the feet. And the almost imperceptible murmur, the floating, ceaseless murmur gentle and sad, of this rainfall seemed like a low wail, and those leaves continually falling, seemed like tears, big tears shed by the tall mournful trees which were weeping, as it were, day and night over the close of the year, over the ending of warm dawns and soft twilights, over the ending of hot breezes and bright suns, and also perhaps over the crime which they had seen committed under the shade of their branches, over the girl violated and killed at their feet. They wept in the silence of the desolate empty wood, the abandoned, dreaded wood, where the soul, the childish soul of the dead little girl must be wandering all alone.
The Brindelle, swollen by the storms, rushed on more quickly, yellow and angry, between its dry banks, between two thin, bare willow-hedges.
And here was Renardet suddenly resuming his walks under the trees. Every day, at sunset, he came out of his house decended the front steps slowly, and entered the wood, in a dreamy fashion with his hands in his pockets. For a long time he paced over the damp soft moss, while a legion of rooks, rushing to the spot from all the neighboring haunts in order to rest in the tall summits, unrolled themselves through space, like an immense mourning veil floating in the wind, uttering violent and sinister screams. Sometimes, they rested, dotting with black spots the tangled branches against the red sky, the sky crimsoned with autumn twilights. Then, all of a sudden, they set again, croaking frightfully and trailing once more above the wood the long dark festoon of their flight.
They swooped down at last, on the highest treetops, and gradually their cawings died away while the advancing night mingled their black plumes with the blackness of space.
Renardet was still strolling slowly under the trees; then, when the thick darkness prevented him from walking any longer, he went back to the house, sank all of a heap into his armchair in front of the glowing hearth, stretching towards the fire his damp feet from which for some time under the flames vapor emanated.
Now, one morning, an important bit of news was circulated around the district; the Mayor was getting his wood cut down.
Twenty woodcutters were already at work. They had commenced at the corner nearest to the house, and they worked rapidly in the master’s presence.
At first, the loppers climbed up the trunk. Tied to it by a rope collar, they cling round in the beginning with both arms, then, lifting one leg, they strike it hard with a blow of the edge of a steel instrument attached to each foot. The edge penetrates the wood, and remains stuck in it; and the man rises up as if on a step in order to strike with the steel attached to the other foot, and once more supports himself till he lifts his first foot again.
And with every upward movement he raises higher the rope collar which fastens him to the tree. Over his loins, hangs and glitters the steel hatchet. He keeps continually clinging on in an easy fashion like a parasitic creature attacking a giant; he mounts slowly up the immense trunk, embracing it and spurring it in order to decapitate it.
As soon as he reaches the first branches, he stops, detaches from his side the sharp ax, and strikes. He strikes slowly, methodically, cutting the limb close to the trunk, and, all of a sudden, the branch cracks, gives away, bends, tears itself off, and falls down grazing the neighboring trees in its fall. Then, it crashes down on the ground with a great sound of broken wood, and its slighter branches keep quivering for a long time.
The soil was covered with fragments which other men cut in their turn, bound in bundles, and piled in heaps, while the trees which were still left standing seemed like enormous posts, gigantic forms amputated and shorn by the keen steel of the cutting instruments.
And when the lopper had finished his task, he left at the top of the straight slender shaft of the tree the rope collar which he had brought up with him, and afterwards descends again with spurlike prods along the discrowned trunk, which the woodcutters thereupon attacked at the base, striking it with great blows which resounded through all the rest of the wood.
When the foot seemed pierced deeply enough, some men commenced dragging to the accompaniment of a cry in which they joined harmoniously, at the rope attached to the top; and, all of a sudden, the immense mast cracked and tumbled to the earth with the dull sound and shock of a distant cannon-shot.
And each day the wood grew thinner, losing its trees which fell down one by one, as an army loses its soldiers.
Renardet no longer walked up and down. He remained from morning till night, contemplating, motionless, and with his hands behind his back the slow death of his wood. When a tree fell, he placed his foot on it as if it were a corpse. Then he raised his eyes to the next with a kind of secret, calm impatience, as if he had expected, hoped for, something at the end of this massacre.
Meanwhile, they were approaching the place where little Louise Roqué had been found. At length, they came to it one evening, at the hour of twilight.
As it was dark, the sky being overcast, the woodcutters wanted to stop their work, putting off till next day the fall of an enormous beech-tree, but the master objected to this, and insisted that even at this hour they should lop and cut down this giant, which had overshadowed the crime.
When the lopper had laid it bare, had finished its toilets for the guillotine, when the woodcutters were about to sap its base, five men commenced hauling at the rope attached to the top.
The tree resisted; its powerful trunk, although notched up to the middle was as rigid as iron. The workmen, altogether, with a sort of regular jump, strained at the rope, stooping down to the ground, and they gave vent to a cry with throats out of breath, so as to indicate and direct their efforts.
Two woodcutters standing close to the giant, remained with axes in their grip, like two executioners ready to strike once more, and Renardet, motionless, with his hand on the bark, awaited the fall with an uneasy, nervous feeling.
One of the men said to him:
“You’re too near, Monsieur le Maire. When it falls, it may hurt you.”
He did not reply and did not recoil. He seemed ready himself to catch the beech-tree in his open arms in order to cast it on the ground like a wrestler.
All at once, at the foot of the tall column of wood there was a rent which seemed to run to the top, like a painful shake; and it bent slightly, ready to fall, but still resisting. The men, in a state of excitement, stiffened their arms, renewed their efforts with greater vigor, and, just as the tree, breaking, came crashing down, Renardet suddenly made forward step, then stopped, his shoulders raised to receive the irresistible shock, the mortal shock which would crush him on the earth.
But the beech-tree, having deviated a little, only rubbed against his loins, throwing him on his face five meters away.
The workmen dashed forward to lift him up. He had already risen to his knees, stupefied, with wandering eyes, and passing his hand across his forehead, as if he were awaking out of an attack of madness.
When he had got to his feet once more, the men, astonished, questioned him, not being able to understand what he had done. He replied, in faltering tones, that he had had for a moment a fit of abstraction, or rather a return to the days of his childhood, that he imagined he had to pass his time under a tree, just as street-boys rush in front of vehicles driving rapidly past, that he had played at danger, that, for the past eight days, he felt this desire growing stronger within him, asking himself whether, every time one was cracking, so as to be on the point of falling, he could pass beneath it without being touched. It was a piece of stupidity he confessed; but everyone has these moments of insanity, and these temptations towards boyish folly.
He made this explanation in a slow tone, searching for his words, and speaking in a stupefied fashion.
Then, he went off, saying:
“Till tomorrow, my friends — till tomorrow.”
As soon as he had got back to his room, he sat down before his table, which his lamp, covered with a shade, lighted up brightly, and, clasping his hands over his forehead, he began to cry.
He remained crying for a long time, then wiped his eyes, raised his head, and looked at the clock. It was not yet six o’clock.
“I have time before dinner.”
And he went to the door and locked it. He then came back, and sat down before his table. He pulled out a drawer in the middle of it, and taking from it a revolver, laid it down over his papers, under the glare of the sun. The barrel of the fire-arm glittered and cast reflections which resembled flames.
Renardet gazed at it for some time with the uneasy glance of a drunken man; then he rose by, and began to pace up and down the room.
He walked from one end of the apartment to the other, and stopped from time to time, and started to pace up and down again a moment afterwards. Suddenly, he opened the door of his dressing room, steeped a napkin in a water-jug and moistened his forehead, as he had done on the morning of the crime.
Then he went walking up and down once more. Each time he passed the table the gleaming revolver attracted his glance, tempted his hand; but he kept watching the clock, and reflected:
“I have still time.”
It struck half-past six. Then he took up the revolver, opened his mouth wide with a frightful grimace, and stuck the barrel into it, as if he wanted to swallow it. He remained in this position for some seconds without moving, his finger on the lock, then, suddenly, seized with a shudder of horror, he dropped the pistol on the carpet.
And he fell back on his arm-chair, sobbing:
“I can’t. I dare not! My God! My God! How can I have the courage to kill myself?”
There was a knock at the door. He rose up in a stupefied condition. A servant said:
“Monsieur’s dinner is ready.”
“All right. I’m going down.”
Then he picked up the revolver, locked it up again in the drawer, then he looked at himself in the glass over the mantelpiece to see whether his face did not look too much convulsed. It was as red as usual, a little redder perhaps. That was all. He went down, and seated himself before the table.
He ate slowly, like a man who wants to drag on the meal, who does not want to be alone with himself.
Then he smoked several pipes in the hall while the plates were being removed. After that, he went back to his room.
As soon as he was shut up in it, he looked under his bed, opened all his cupboards, explored every corner, rummaged through all the furniture. Then he lighted the tapers over the mantelpiece, and, turning round several times, ran his eye all over the apartment with an anguish of terror that made his face lose its color, for he knew well that he was going to see her, as on every night — Little Louise Roqué, the little girl he had violated and afterwards strangled.
Every night the odious vision came back again. First, it sounded in his ears like a kind of snorting such as is made by a threshing machine or the distant passage of a train over a bridge. Then he commenced to pant, to feel suffocated, and he had to unbutton his shirt-collar and his belt. He moved about to make his blood circulate, he tried to read, he attempted to sing. It was in vain. His thoughts, in spite of himself, went back to the day of the murder, and made him begin it all over again in all its most secret details, with all the violent emotions he had experienced from the first minute to the last.
He had felt on rising up that morning, the morning of the horrible day, a little stupefaction and dizziness which he attributed to the heat, so that he remained in his room till the time came for breakfast.
After the meal he had taken a siesta, then, towards the close of the afternoon, he had gone out to breathe the fresh, soothing breeze under the trees in the wood.
But, as soon as they were outside, the heavy, scorching air of the plain oppressed him more. The sun, still high in the heavens, poured out on the parched soil, dry and thirsty, floods of ardent light. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves. Every beast and bird, even the grasshoppers, were silent. Renardet reached the tall trees, and began to walk over the moss where the Brindelle sent forth a slight, cool vapor under the immense roof of trees. But he felt ill at ease. It seemed to him that an unknown, invisible hand, was squeezing his neck, and he scarcely thought of anything, having usually few ideas in his head. For the last three months, only one thought haunted him, the thought of marrying again. He suffered from living alone, suffered from it morally and physically. Accustomed for ten years past to feeling a woman near him, habituated to her presence every moment, to her embrace each successive day, he had need, an imperious and perplexing need of incessant contact with her and the regular touch of her lips. Since Madame Renardet’s death, he had suffered continually without knowing why, he had suffered from not feeling her dress brush against his legs every day, and, above all, from no longer being able to grow calm and languid between her arms. He had been scarcely six months a widower, and he had already been looking out through the district for some young girl or some widow he might marry when his period of marrying was at an end.
He had a chaste soul, but it was lodged in a powerful Herculean body, and carnal images began to disturb his sleep and his vigils. He drove them away; they came back again; and he murmured from time to time, smiling at himself:
“Here I am, like St. Antony.”
Having had this morning several besetting visions, the desire suddenly came into his breast to bathe in the Brindelle in order to refresh himself and appease the ardor of his heat.
He knew, a little further on, a large deep spot where the people of the neighborhood came sometimes to take a dip in summer. He went there.
Thick willow trees hid this clear volume of water where the current rested and went to sleep for a little while before starting its way again. Renardet, as he appeared, thought he heard a light sound, a faint smell which was not that of the stream on the banks. He softly put aside the leaves and looked. A little girl, quite naked in the transparent water, was beating the waves with both hands, dancing about in them a little and dipping herself with pretty movements. She was not a child nor was she yet a woman. She was plump and formed, while preserving an air of youthful precocity, as of one who had grown rapidly, and who was now almost ripe. He no longer moved, overcome with surprise, with a pang of desire, holding his breath with a strange poignant emotion. He remained there, his heart beating as if one of his sensual dreams had just been realized, as if an impure fairy had conjured up before him this creature so disturbing to his blood, so very young this little rustic Venus, was born in the waves of the sea.
Suddenly the little girl came out of the water, and without seeing came over to where he stood looking for her clothes in order to dress herself. While she was gradually approaching with little hesitating steps, through fear of the sharp pointed stones, he felt himself pushed towards her by an irresistible force, by a bestial transport of passion, which stirred up all his flesh, stupefied his soul, and made him tremble from head to foot.
She remained standing some seconds behind the willow tree which concealed him from view. Then, losing his reason entirely, he opened the branches, rushed on her, and seized her in his arms. She fell, too scared to offer any resistance, too much terror-stricken to cry out, and he possessed her without understanding what he was doing.
He woke up from his crime, as one wakes out of a nightmare. The child burst out weeping.
“Hold your tongue! Hold your tongue! I’ll give you money.”
But she did not hear him, she went on sobbing.
He went on:
“Come now, hold your tongue! Do hold your tongue. Keep quiet.”
She still kept shrieking, writhing in the effort to get away from him. He suddenly realized that he was ruined, and he caught her by the neck to stop her mouth from uttering these heartrending, dreadful screams. As she continued to struggle with the desperate strength of a being who is seeking to fly from death, he pressed his enormous hands on the little throat swollen with cries, and in a few seconds he had strangled her so furiously did he grip her, without intending to kill her but only to make her keep silent.
Then he rose up overwhelmed with horror.
She lay before him with her face bleeding and blackened. He was going to rush away when there sprang up in his agitated soul the mysterious and undefined instinct that guides all beings in the hour of danger.
It was necessary to throw the body into the water; but another impulse drove him towards the clothes, of which he made a thin parcel. Then as he had a piece of twine in his pocket, he tied it up and hid it in a deep portion of the stream, under the trunk of a tree, the foot of which was steeped in the Brindelle.
Then he went off at a rapid pace, reached the meadows, took a wide turn in order to show himself to some peasants who dwelt some distance away at the opposite side of the district, and he came back to dine at the usual hour, and told his servants all that was supposed to have happened during his walk.
He slept, however, that night; he slept with a heavy brutish sleep, such as the sleep of persons condemned to death must be occasionally. He only opened his eyes at the first glimmer of dawn, and he waited, tortured by the fear of having his crime discovered, for his usual waking hour.
Then he would have to be present at all the stages of the inquiry as to the cause of death. He did so after the fashion of a somnambulist, in a hallucination which showed him things and human beings in a sort of dream, in a cloud of intoxication, in that dubious sense of unreality which perplexes the mind at the time of the greatest catastrophe.
The only thing that pierced his heart was La Roqué‘s cry of anguish. At that moment he felt inclined to cast himself at the old woman’s feet, and to exclaim —
But he restrained himself. He went back, however, during the night, to fish up the dead girl’s wooden shoes, in order to carry them to her mother’s threshold.
As long as the inquiry lasted, as long as it was necessary to guide and aid justice, he was calm, master of himself, sly and smiling. He discussed quietly with the magistrates all the suppositions that passed through their minds, combated their opinions, and demolished their arguments. He even took a keen and mournful pleasure in disturbing their investigations, in embroiling their ideas in showing the innocence of those whom they suspected.
But from the day when the inquiry came to a close he became gradually nervous, more excitable still than he had been before, although he mastered his irritability. Sudden noises made him jump up with fear; he shuddered at the slightest thing, trembled sometimes from head to foot when a fly alighted on his forehead. Then he was seized with an imperious desire for movement, which compelled him to keep continually on foot, and made him remain up whole nights walking to and fro in his own room.
It was not that he was goaded by remorse. His brutality did not lend itself to any shade of sentiment or of moral terror. A man of energy and even of violence, born to make war, to ravage conquered countries and to massacre the vanquished, full of the savage instincts of the hunter and the fighter, he scarcely took count of human life. Though he respected the church through policy, he believed neither in God nor in the devil, expecting consequently in another life neither chastisement nor recompense for his acts. As his sole belief, he retained a vague philosophy composed of all the ideas of the encyclopedists of the last century; and he regarded religion as a moral sanction of the law, the one and the other having been invented by men to regulate social relations. To kill anyone in a duel, or in war, or in a quarrel, or by accident, or for the sake of revenge, or even through bravado, would have seemed to him an amusing and clever thing, and would not have left more impression on his mind than a shot fired at a hare; but he had experienced a profound emotion at the murder of this child. He had, in the first place, perpetrated it in the distraction of an irresistible gust of passion, in a sort of spiritual tempest that had overpowered his reason. And he had cherished in his heart, cherished in his flesh, cherished on his lips, cherished even to the very tips of his murderous fingers, a kind of bestial love, as well as a feeling of crushing horror, towards this little girl surprised by him and basely killed. Every moment his thoughts returned to that horrible scene, and, though he endeavored to drive away this picture from his mind, though he put it aside with terror, with disgust, he felt it surging through his soul, moving about in him, waiting incessantly for the moment to reappear.
Then, in the night, he was afraid, afraid of the shadow falling around him. He did not yet know why the darkness seemed to seem frightful to him; but he instinctively feared it, he felt that it was peopled with terrors. The bright daylight did not lend itself to fears. Things and beings were seen there, and so there were only to be met there natural things and beings which could exhibit themselves in the light of day. But the night, the unpenetrable night, thicker than walls, and empty, the infinite night, so black, so vast, in which one might brush against frightful things, the night when one feels that mysterious terror is wandering, prowling about, appeared to him to conceal an unknown danger, close and menacing.
What was it?
He knew it ere long. As he sat in his armchair, rather late one evening when he could not sleep, he thought he saw the curtain of his window move. He waited, in an uneasy state of mind, with beating heart. The drapery did not stir; then, all of a sudden it moved once more. He did not venture to rise up; he no longer ventured to breathe, and yet he was brave. He had often fought, and he would have liked to catch thieves in his house.
Was it true that this curtain did move? he asked himself, fearing that his eyes had deceived him. It was, moreover, such a slight thing, a gentle flutter of lace, a kind of trembling in its folds, less than an undulation such as is caused by the wind.
Renardet sat still, with staring eyes, and outstretched neck; and he sprang to his feet abruptly ashamed of his fear, took four steps, seized the drapery with both hands, and pulled it wide apart. At first, he saw nothing but darkened glass, resembling plates of glittering ink. The night, the vast, impenetrable sketched behind as far as the invisible horizon. He remained standing in front of this illimitable shadow, and suddenly he perceived a light, a moving light, which seemed some distance away.
Then he put his face close to the window-pane, thinking that a person looking for crayfish might be poaching in the Brindelle, for it was past midnight, and this light rose up at the edge of the stream, under the trees. As he was not yet able to see clearly, Renardet placed his hands over his eyes; and suddenly this light became an illumination, and he beheld little Louise Roqué naked and bleeding on the moss. He recoiled frozen with horror, sank into his chair, and fell backward. He remained there some minutes, his soul in distress, then he sat up and began to reflect. He had had a hallucination — that was all; a hallucination due to the fact that a marauder of the night was walking with a lantern in his hand near the water’s edge. What was there astonishing, besides, in the circumstance that the recollection of his crime should sometimes bring before him the vision of the dead girl?
He rose up, swallowed a glass of wine and sat down again.
“What am I to do if this come back?”
And it did come back; he felt it; he was sure of it. Already his glance was drawn towards the window; it called him; it attracted him. In order to avoid looking at it, he turned aside his chair. Then he took a book and tried to read; but it seemed to him that he presently heard something stirring behind him, and he swung round his armchair on one foot.
The curtain still moved — unquestionably, it did move this time; he could no longer have any doubt about it.
He rushed forward and seized it in his grasp so violently that he knocked it down with its fastener. Then, he eagerly pasted his face against the glass. He saw nothing. All was black without; and he breathed with the delight of a man whose life has just been saved.
Then, he went back to his chair, and sat down again; but almost immediately he felt a longing once more to look out through the window. Since the curtain had fallen the space in front of him made a sort of dark patch fascinating and terrible on the obscure landscape. In order not to yield to this dangerous temptation, he took off his clothes, blew out the light, went to bed, and shut his eyes.
Lying on his back motionless, his skin hot and moist, he awaited sleep. Suddenly a great gleam of light flashed across his eyelids. He opened them, believing that his dwelling was on fire. All was black as before, and he leaned on his elbow in order to try to distinguish his window which had still for him an unconquerable attraction. By dint of straining his eyes, he could perceive some stars, and he arose, groped his way across the room, discovered the panes with his outstretched hands, and placed his forehead close to them. There below, under the trees, the body of the little girl glittered like phosphorus, lighting up the surrounding darkness.
Renardet uttered a cry and rushed towards his bed, where he lay till morning, his head hidden under the pillow.
From that moment, his life became intolerable. He passed his days in apprehension of each succeeding night; and each night the vision came back again. As soon as he had locked himself up in his room, he strove to struggle; but in vain. An irresistible force lifted him up and pushed him against the glass, as if to call the phantom, and ere long he saw it lying at first in the spot where the crime was committed, lying with arms and legs outspread, just in the way the body had been found.
Then the dead girl rose up and came towards him with little steps just as the child had done when she came out of the river. She advanced quietly, passing straight across the grass, and over the border of withered flowers. Then she rose up into the air towards Renardet’s window. She came towards him, as she had come on the day of the crime towards the murderer. And the man recoiled before the apparition — he retreated to his bed and sank down upon it, knowing well that the little one had entered the room, and that she now was standing behind the curtain which presently moved. And until daybreak, he kept staring at this curtain, with a fixed glance, ever waiting to see his victim depart.
But she did not show herself any more; she remained there behind the curtain which quivered tremulously now and then.
And Renardet, his fingers clinging to the bedclothes, squeezed them as he had squeezed the throat of little Louise Roqué.
He heard the clock striking the hours; and in the stillness the pendulum kept ticking in time with the loud beatings of his heart. And he suffered, the wretched man, more than any man had ever suffered before.
Then, as soon as a white streak of light on the ceiling announced the approaching day, he felt himself free, alone, at last, alone in his room; and at last he went to sleep. He slept then some hours — a restless, feverish sleep in which he retraced in dreams the horrible vision of the night just past.
When, later on, he went down to breakfast, he felt doubled up as if after prodigious fatigues; and he scarcely ate anything, still haunted as he was by the fear of what he had seen the night before.
He knew well, however, that it was not an apparition, that the dead do not come back, and that his sick soul, his soul possessed by one thought alone, by an indelible remembrance, was the only cause of his punishment, the only evoker of the dead girl brought back by it to life, called up by it and raised by it before his eyes in which the ineffaceable image remained imprinted. But he knew, too, that he could not cure it, that he would never escape from the savage persecution of his memory; and he resolved to die, rather than to endure these tortures any longer.
Then, he thought of how he would kill himself. He wished for something simple and natural, which would preclude the idea of suicide. For he clung to his reputation, to the names bequeathed to him by his ancestors; and if there were any suspicion as the cause of his death, people’s thoughts might be perhaps directed towards the mysterious crime, towards the murderer who could not be found, and they would not hesitate to accuse him of the crime.
A strange idea came into his head, that of getting himself crushed by the tree at the foot of which he had assassinated little Louise Roqué. So he determined to have his wood cut down, and to simulate an accident. But the beech-tree refused to smash his ribs.
Returning to his house, a prey to utter despair he had snatched up his revolver, and then he did not dare to fire it.
The dinner bell summoned him. He could eat nothing, and then he went up-stairs again. And he did not know what he was going to do. Now that he had escaped the first time, he felt himself a coward. Presently, he would be ready, fortified, decided, master of his courage and of his resolution; now, he was weak and feared death as much as he did the dead girl.
“I will not venture it again — I will not venture it.”
Then he glanced with terror, first at the revolver on the table, and next at the curtain which hid his window. It seemed to him, moreover that something horrible would occur as soon as his life was ended. Something? What? A meeting with her perhaps. She was watching for him; she was waiting for him; she was calling him; and her object was to seize him in her turn, to draw him towards the doom that would avenge her, and to lead him to die so that she might exhibit herself thus every night.
He began to cry like a child, repeating:
“I will not venture it again — I will not venture it.” Then, he fell on his knees, and murmured:
“My God! my God!” without believing, nevertheless, in God. And he no longer dared, in fact, to look out through his window where he knew the apparition was visible nor at his table where his revolver gleamed.
When he had risen up, he said:
“This cannot last; there must be an end of it.”
The sound of his voice in the silent room made a shiver of fear pass through his limbs, but, as he could not bring himself to come to a determination as he felt certain that his finger would always refuse to pull the trigger of his revolver, he turned round to hide his head under the bedclothes, and plunged into reflection.
He would have to find some way in which he could force himself to die, to invent some device against himself, which would not permit of any hesitation on his part, any delay, any possible regrets. He envied condemned criminals who are led to the scaffold surrounded by soldiers. Oh! if he could only beg of some one to shoot him; if he could, confessing the state of his soul, confessing his crime to a sure friend who would never divulge it, obtain from him death.
But from whom could he ask this terrible service? From whom? He cast about in his thoughts among his friends whom he knew intimately. The doctor? No, he would talk about it afterwards, most certainly. And suddenly a fantastic idea entered his mind. He would write to the examining magistrate, who was on terms of close friendship with him and would denounce himself as the perpetrator of the crime. He would in this letter confess everything, revealing how his soul had been tortured, how he had resolved to die, how he had hesitated about carrying out his resolution, and what means he had employed to strengthen his failing courage. And in the name of their old friendship he would implore of the other to destroy the letter as soon as he had ascertained that the culprit had inflicted justice on himself. Renardet might rely on this magistrate, he knew him to be sure, discreet, incapable of even an idle word. He was one of those men who have an inflexible conscience governed, directed, regulated by their reason alone.
Scarcely had he formed this project when a strange feeling of joy took possession of his heart. He was calm now. He would write his letter slowly, then at daybreak he would deposit it in the box nailed to the wall in his office, then he would ascend his tower to watch for the postman’s arrival, and when the man in the blue blouse showed himself, he would cast himself head foremost on the rocks on which the foundations rested. He would take care to be seen first by the workmen who had cut down his wood. He could then climb to the step some distance up which bore the flag staff displayed on fête days. He would smash this pole with a shake and precipitate it along with him.
Who would suspect that it was not an accident? And he would be killed completely, having regard to his weight and the height of the tower.
Presently he got out of bed, went over to the table, and began to write. He omitted nothing, not a single detail of the crime, not a single detail of the torments of his heart, and he ended by announcing that he had passed sentence on himself, that he was going to execute the criminal, and begging of his friend, his old friend, to be careful that there should never be any stain on his memory.
When he had finished his letter, he saw that the day had dawned.
He closed and sealed it, wrote the address; then he descended with light steps, hurried towards the little white box fastened to the wall in the corner of the farm-house, and when he had thrown into it the paper which made his hand tremble, he came back quickly, shut the bolts of the great door, and climbed up to his tower to wait for the passing of the postman, who would convey his death sentence.
He felt self-possessed, now. Liberated! Saved!
A cold dry wind, an icy wind, passed across his face. He inhaled it eagerly, with open mouth, drinking in its chilling kiss. The sky was red, with a burning red, the red of winter, and all the plain whitened with frost glistened under the first rays of the sun, as if it had been powdered with bruised glass.
Renardet, standing up, with his head bare, gazed at the vast tract of country before him, the meadow to the left, and to the right the village whose chimneys were beginning to smoke with the preparations for the morning meal. At his feet he saw the Brindelle flowing towards the rocks, where he would soon be crushed to death. He felt himself reborn on that beautiful frosty morning, full of strength, full of life. The light bathed him, penetrated him like a new-born hope. A thousand recollections assailed him, recollections of similar mornings, of rapid walks on the hard earth which rang under his footsteps, of happy chases on the edges of pools where wild ducks sleep. All the good things that he loved, the good things of existence rushed into memory, penetrated him with fresh desires, awakened all the vigorous appetites of his active, powerful body.
And he was about to die? Why? He was going to kill himself stupidly, because he was afraid of a shadow — afraid of nothing? He was still rich and in the prime of life! What folly! But all he wanted was distraction, absence, a voyage in order to forget.
This night even he had not seen the little girl because his mind was preoccupied, and so had wandered towards some other subject. Perhaps he would not see her any more? And even if she still haunted him in this house, certainly she would not follow him elsewhere! The earth was wide, the future was long.
His glance traveled across the meadows, and he perceived a blue spot in the path which wound alongside the Brindelle. It was Mederic coming to bring letters from the town and to carry away those of the village.
Renardet got a start, a sensation of pain shot through his breast, and he rushed towards the winding staircase to get back his letter, to demand it back from the postman. Little did it matter to him now whether he was seen. He hurried across the grass moistened by the light frost of the previous night, and he arrived in front of the box in the corner of the farm-house exactly at the same time as the letter carrier.
The latter had opened the little wooden door, and drew forth the four papers deposited there by the inhabitants of the locality.
Renardet said to him:
“Good morrow, Mederic.”
“Good morrow, M’sieu le Maire.”
“I say, Mederic, I threw a letter into the box that I want back again. I came to ask you to give it back to me.”
“That’s all right, M’sieur le Maire — you’ll get it.”
And the postman raised his eyes. He stood petrified at the sight of Renardet’s face. The Mayor’s cheeks were purple, his eyes were glaring with black circles round them as if they were sunk in his head, his hair was all tangled, his beard untrimmed, his necktie unfastened. It was evident that he had not gone to bed.
The postman asked:
“Are you ill, M’sieur le Maire?”
The other, suddenly comprehending that his appearance must be unusual, lost countenance, and faltered —
“Oh! no — oh! no. Only I jumped out of bed to ask you for this letter. I was asleep. You understand?”
He said in reply:
“The one you are going to give back to me.”
Mederic now began to hesitate. The Mayor’s attitude did not strike him as natural. There was perhaps a secret in that letter, a political secret. He knew Renardet was not a Republican, and he knew all the tricks and chicaneries employed at elections.
“To whom is it addressed, this letter of yours?”
“To M. Putoin, the examining magistrate — you know my friend, M. Putoin, well!”
The postman searched through the papers, and found the one asked for. Then he began looking at it, turning it round and round between his fingers, much perplexed, much troubled by the fear of committing a grave offense or of making an enemy for himself of the Mayor.
Seeing his hesitation, Renardet made a movement for the purpose of seizing the letter and snatching it away from him. This abrupt action convinced Mederic that some important secret was at stake and made him resolve to do his duty, cost what it may.
So he flung the letter into his bag and fastened it up, with the reply:
“No, I can’t, M’sieur le Maire. From the moment it goes to the magistrate, I can’t.”
A dreadful pang wrung Renardet’s heart, and he murmured:
“Why, you know me well. You are even able to recognize my handwriting. I tell you I want that paper.”
“Look here, Mederic, you know that I’m incapable of deceiving you — I tell you I want it.”
“No, I can’t.”
A tremor of rage passed through Renardet’s soul.
“Damn it all, take care! You know that I don’t go in for chaffing, and that I could get you out of your job, my good fellow, and without much delay either. And then, I am the Mayor of the district, after all; and I now order you to give me back that paper.”
The postman answered firmly:
“No, I can’t, M’sieur le Maire.”
Thereupon, Renardet, losing his head, caught hold of the postman’s arms in order to take away his bag; but, freeing himself by a strong effort, and springing backwards, the letter carrier raised his big holly stick. Without losing his temper, he said emphatically:
“Don’t touch me, M’sieur le Maire, or I’ll strike. Take care, I’m only doing my duty!”
Feeling that he was lost, Renardet suddenly became humble, gentle, appealing to him like a crying child:
“Look here, look here, my friend, give me back that letter, and I’ll recompense you — I’ll give you money. Stop! Stop! I’ll give you a hundred francs, you understand — a hundred francs!”
The postman turned on his heel and started on his journey.
Renardet followed him, out of breath, faltering:
“Mederic, Mederic, listen! I’ll give you a thousand francs, you understand — a thousand francs.”
The postman still went on without giving any answer.
Renardet went on:
“I’ll make your fortune, you understand — whatever you wish — fifty thousand francs — fifty thousand francs for that letter! What does it matter to you? You won’t? Well, a hundred thousand — I say — a hundred thousand francs. Do you understand? A hundred thousand francs — a hundred thousand francs.”
The postman turned back, his face hard, his eye severe:
“Enough of this, or else I’ll repeat to the magistrate everything you have just said to me.”
Renardet stopped abruptly. It was all over. He turned back and rushed towards his house, running like a hunted animal.
Then, in his turn, Mederic stopped, and watched this flight with stupefaction. He saw the Mayor re-entering his own house, and he waited still as if something astonishing was about to happen.
In fact, presently the tall form of Renardet appeared on the summit of the Fox’s tower. He ran round the platform, like a madman. Then he seized the flagstaff and shook it furiously without succeeding in breaking it, then, all of a sudden, like a swimmer taking a plunge, he dashed into the air with his two hands in front of him.
Mederic rushed forward to give succor. As he crossed the park, he saw the woodcutters going to work. He called out to them telling them an accident had occurred, and at the foot of the walls they found a bleeding body the head of which was crushed on a rock. The Brindelle surrounded this rock, and over its clear, calm waters, swollen at this point, could be seen a long red stream of mingled brains and blood.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58