Little Louise Roque by Guy de Maupassant
The former soldier, Mederic Rompel, familiarly called Mederic by the
country folks, left the post office of Roily-le-Tors at the usual hour.
After passing through the village with his long stride, he cut across the
meadows of Villaume and reached the bank of the Brindille, following the
path along the water's edge to the village of Carvelin, where he
commenced to deliver his letters. He walked quickly, following the course
of the narrow river, which frothed, murmured and boiled in its grassy bed
beneath an arch of willows.
Mederic went on without stopping, with only this thought in his mind: "My
first letter is for the Poivron family, then I have one for Monsieur
Renardet; so I must cross the wood."
His blue blouse, fastened round his waist by a black leather belt, moved
in a quick, regular fashion above the green hedge of willow trees, and
his stout stick of holly kept time with his steady tread.
He crossed the Brindille on a bridge consisting of a tree trunk, with a
handrail of rope, fastened at either end to a stake driven into the
The wood, which belonged to Monsieur Renardet, the mayor of Carvelin and
the largest landowner in the district, consisted 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 to this immense dome of
foliage. Alongside the water large shrubs had grown up in the sunlight,
but under the trees one found nothing but moss, thick, soft and yielding,
from which arose, in the still air, an odor of dampness and of dead wood.
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 quick
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 needlecase
not far away.
Having taken up these objects, he thought: "I'll entrust 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 stopped short, as if he had struck against a wooden
barrier. Ten paces in front of him lay stretched on her back on the moss
a little girl, perfectly nude, her face covered with a handkerchief. She
was about twelve years old.
Meredic advanced on tiptoe, as if he apprehended some danger, and he
glanced toward the spot uneasily.
What was this? No doubt she was asleep. Then he reflected that a person
does not go to sleep naked at half-past seven in the morning under the
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 a spot of blood on her leg.
How, then, had she been killed?
He stopped close to her and gazed at her, while he leaned on his stick.
Certainly he must know her, for 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 official 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 the stab of a knife in the stomach. Perhaps under
this handkerchief evidence could be found to sustain a charge of murder;
in fact, if such proof were there it might lose its value if touched by
an awkward hand.
Then he raised himself with the intention of hastening toward the mayor's
residence, but again another thought held him back. If the little girl
were still alive, by any chance, he could not leave her lying there in
this way. He sank on his knees very gently, a little distance from her,
through precaution, and extended his hand toward her foot. It was icy
cold, with the terrible coldness of death which leaves us no longer in
doubt. The letter carrier, as he touched her, felt his heart in his
mouth, as he said himself afterward, and his mouth parched. Rising up
abruptly, he rushed off under the trees toward Monsieur Renardet's house.
He walked on faster than ever, with his stick under his arm, his hands
clenched and his head thrust forward, while his leathern bag, filled with
letters and newspapers, kept flapping at his side.
The mayor's residence was at the end of the wood which served as a park,
and one side of it was washed by the Brindille.
It was a big square house of gray stone, very old, and had stood many a
siege in former days, and at the end of it was a huge tower, twenty
metres high, rising out of the water.
From the top of this fortress one could formerly see all the surrounding
country. It was called the Fox's tower, without any one 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 province 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 standing and authority, and they
understood that something serious had happened.
As soon as word was brought to Monsieur 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 at a long table covered with scattered
He was a large, tall man, heavy and red-faced, strong as an ox, and was
greatly liked in the district, although of an excessively violent
disposition. Almost 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 Roily-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 came near running over his retriever, Micmac? Had he
not broken the ribs of a gamekeeper who abused him for having, gun in
hand, passed through a neighbor's property? Had he not even caught by the
collar the sub-prefect, who stopped over in the village during an
administrative circuit, called by Monsieur Renardet an electioneering
circuit, for he was opposed to the government, in accordance with family
The mayor asked:
"What's the matter now, Mederic?"
"I found a little girl dead in your wood."
Renardet rose to his feet, his face the color of brick.
"What do you say—a little girl?"
"Yes, m'sieu, a little girl, quite naked, on her back, with blood on her,
The mayor gave vent to an oath:
"By God, I'd make a bet it is little Louise Roque! I have just learned
that she did not go home to her mother last night. Where did you find
The postman described the spot, gave full details and offered to conduct
the mayor to the place.
But Renardet became brusque:
"No, I don't need you. Send the watchman, the mayor's secretary and the
doctor to me at once, and resume your rounds. Quick, quick, go and tell
them to meet me in the wood."
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 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 were three large beds of flowers in full
bloom, one facing the house and the others at either side of it. Farther
on the outlying trees of the wood rose skyward, while at the left, beyond
the Brindille, which at that spot widened into a pond, could be seen long
meadows, an entirely green flat sweep of country, intersected by trenches
and hedges of pollard willows.
To the right, behind the stables, the outhouses and all the buildings
connected with the property, might be seen the village, which was
wealthy, being mainly inhabited by cattle breeders.
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 walked on, with bent head, and from time to
time glanced round in search of the persons he had sent for.
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 darting its
fiery rays on the earth. 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 along at his feet and spread it
over his head, under his hat. Drops of water flowed down his temples over
his ears, which were always purple, over his strong red neck, and made
their way, one after the other, under his white shirt collar.
As nobody had appeared, he began tapping with his foot, then he called
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 watchman 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 running alternately 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 along, side by side, followed by the two men.
Their steps made no sound on the moss. Their eyes were gazing ahead in
front of them.
Suddenly the doctor, extending his arm, said:
"See, there she is!"
Far ahead of them under the trees they saw something white on which the
sun gleamed down through the branches. As they approached they gradually
distinguished a human form lying there, its head toward the river, the
face covered and the arms extended as though on a crucifix.
"I am fearfully warm," said the mayor, and stooping down, he again soaked
his handkerchief in the water and placed it round his forehead.
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 his pince-nez, as one does in examining some curious
object, and turned round very quietly.
He said, without rising:
"Violated and murdered, as we shall prove presently. This little girl,
moreover, is almost a woman—look at her throat."
The doctor lightly drew away the handkerchief which covered her face,
which looked black, frightful, the tongue protruding, the eyes bloodshot.
He went on:
"By heavens! 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 Roque, sure enough!"
He carefully 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
"What a wretch! We must find the clothes."
The doctor felt the hands, the arms, the legs. He said:
"She had been bathing no doubt. They ought to be at the water's edge."
The mayor thereupon gave directions:
"Do you, Principe" (this was his secretary), "go and find those clothes
for me along the stream. You, Maxime" (this was the watchman), "hurry on
toward Rouy-le-Tors and bring with you the magistrate with the gendarmes.
They must be here within an hour. You understand?"
The two men started at once, and Renardet said to the doctor:
"What miscreant could have done such a deed in this part of the country?"
The doctor murmured:
"Who knows? Any one is capable of that. Every one in particular and
nobody in general. No matter, it must be some prowler, some workman out
of employment. Since we have become a Republic we 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 hearth
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
became reckless. 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
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
"Yes, the mother came last night to look for me about nine o'clock, the
child not having come home at seven to supper. We looked for her along
the roads up to midnight, but we did not think of the wood. However, we
needed daylight to carry out a thorough search."
"Will you have a cigar?" said the doctor.
"Thanks, I don't care to smoke. This thing affects me so."
They remained standing beside the corpse of the young girl, so pale on
the dark moss. A big blue fly was walking over the body with his lively,
jerky movements. The two men kept watching this wandering 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, surprised by a shrill noise. A
woman in a cap and blue apron was running toward them under the trees. It
was the mother, La Roque. As soon as she saw Renardet she began to
"My little girl! Where's my little girl?" so distractedly 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 wounded animal. Then she
rushed toward the body, fell on her knees and snatched away the
handkerchief that covered the face. When she saw that frightful
countenance, black and distorted, she rose to her feet with a shudder,
then sinking to the ground, face downward, she pressed her face against
the ground and uttered frightful, continuous screams on the thick moss.
Her tall, thin frame, with its close-clinging dress, was palpitating,
shaken with spasms. One could see her bony ankles and her dried-up calves
covered with coarse blue stockings shaking horribly. She was digging the
soil with her crooked fingers, as though she were trying to make a hole
in which to hide herself.
The doctor, much affected, said in a low tone:
"Poor old woman!"
Renardet felt a strange sensation. Then he gave vent to a sort of loud
sneeze, and, drawing his handkerchief from his pocket, he began to weep
internally, coughing, sobbing and blowing his nose noisily.
"Damn—damn—damned pig to do this! I would like to seem him
Principe reappeared with his hands empty. He murmured:
"I have found nothing, M'sieu le Maire, nothing at all anywhere."
The mayor, alarmed, 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 a timid side glance at the corpse.
Distant voices were heard 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, dazed
at first, had gossiped about it in the street, from one threshold to
another. Then they gathered together. They talked over, discussed and
commented on the event for some minutes and had now come to see for
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. Then they grew
bolder, went on a few steps, stopped again, advanced once more, and
presently formed around the dead girl, her mother, the doctor and
Renardet a close circle, restless and noisy, which crowded forward at the
sudden impact of newcomers. 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, flew into a rage, and
seizing Dr. Labarbe's stick, flung himself on his townspeople,
"Clear out—clear out—you pack of brutes—clear out!"
And in a second the crowd of sightseers had fallen back two hundred
Mother La Roque had risen to a sitting posture and now remained weeping,
with her hands clasped over her face.
The crowd was discussing the affair, and young lads' eager eyes curiously
scrutinized this nude young form. Renardet perceived this, and, abruptly
taking off his coat, he flung it over the little girl, who was entirely
hidden from view beneath the large garment.
The secretary drew near quietly. The wood was filled with people, and a
continuous hum of voices rose up under the tangled foliage of the tall
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 Roque and spoke to her in order to
distract her attention. The old woman at once removed her hands from her
face and 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 cattle drover, 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. Then she
felt anxious to see her again, and, dragging herself on her knees toward
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 suddenly there was a great commotion at the cry of "The gendarmes!
Two gendarmes appeared in the distance, advancing 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 watchman had just found Monsieur Putoin, the 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 dismounted, along with the captain, and pressed the hands of the mayor
and the doctor, casting a ferret-like glance on the linen coat beneath
which lay the corpse.
When he was made acquainted with all the facts, he first gave orders to
disperse the crowd, 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, on the other side of the stream.
The doctor, in his turn, gave explanations, which Renardet noted down 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 except on
the theory of theft, and as her rags were not worth twenty sous, even
this theory was inadmissible.
The magistrate, the mayor, the captain and the doctor set to work
searching in pairs, putting aside the smallest branch 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 sight of every one?"
The other, crafty and sagacious, answered:
"Ha! ha! Perhaps a dodge? This crime has been committed either by a brute
or by a sly scoundrel. In any case, we'll easily succeed in finding him."
The noise of wheels 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 search, all chatting in an animated
Renardet said suddenly:
"Do you know that you are to take luncheon with me?"
Every one smilingly accepted the invitation, and the magistrate, thinking
that the case of little Louise Roque had occupied enough attention for
one day, turned toward 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 became 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 will have it taken at once to Roily for the legal examination."
And, turning to his deputy, he said:
"I can make use of your trap, can I not?"
They all came back to the place where the corpse lay. Mother La Roque,
now seated beside her daughter, was holding her hand 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 threw both arms
round it. Lying on top of the corpse, she exclaimed:
"You shall not have it—it's mine—it's mine now. They have
killed her for me, and I want to keep her—you shall not have
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 Roque, it is necessary, in order to find out who killed her.
Without this, we could not find out. We must make a search for the man in
order to punish him. When we have found him we'll give her up to you. I
promise you this."
This explanation bewildered the woman, and a feeling of hatred manifested
itself in her distracted glance.
"So then they'll arrest him?"
"Yes, I promise you that."
She rose up, deciding to let them do as they liked, but when the captain
"It is surprising that her clothes were not found," a new idea, which she
had not previously thought of, abruptly entered her mind, and she asked:
"Where are her clothes? They're mine. I want them. Where have they been
They explained to her that they had not been found. Then she demanded
them persistently, crying and moaning.
"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
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, sustained by the mayor and the captain,
"I have nothing, nothing, nothing in the world, not even her little cap
—her little cap."
The cure, a young priest, had just arrived. He took it on himself to
accompany the mother, and they went away together toward the village. The
mother's grief was modified by the sugary words of the clergyman, who
promised her a thousand compensations. But she kept repeating: "If I had
only her little cap." This idea now dominated every other.
Renardet called from the distance:
"You will lunch with us, Monsieur l'Abbe—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 toward the house, whose gray front,
with the large tower built on the edge of the Brindille, 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 Rouy, announcing that they would return
next day at an early hour. The doctor and the cure 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
magistrate entered his room. He was rubbing his hands together with a
"Ha! ha! You are still sleeping! Well, my dear fellow, we have news this
The mayor sat up in his bed.
"Oh! Something strange. You remember well how the mother clamored
yesterday 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, brought me the thimble, the knife and
the needle case of the dead girl. So, then, the man in carrying off the
clothes to hide them must have let fall the articles which were in the
pocket. As for me, I attach special importance to 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 you have no objection, go
over together the principal inhabitants of your district."
The mayor got up. He rang for his shaving water and said:
"With pleasure, but it will take some time, and we may begin at once."
M. Putoin sat astride a chair.
Renardet covered his chin with a white lather while he looked at himself
in the glass. Then he sharpened his razor on the strop and continued:
"The principal inhabitant of Carvelin bears the name of Joseph Renardet,
mayor, a rich landowner, a rough man who beats guards and
The examining magistrate burst out laughing.
"That's enough. Let us pass on to the next."
"The second in importance is Pelledent, his deputy, a cattle breeder, 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."
"Continue," said M. Putoin.
Renardet, while proceeding with his toilet, reviewed the characters 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 fisherman named Paquet, who
caught trout and crabs, and a cattle drover named Clovis.
The search for the perpetrator of the crime lasted all summer, but he was
not discovered. Those who were suspected and 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
manner. There remained in every one's mind a disquietude, 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
Roque's door the day after the crime. The certainty that the murderer had
assisted at the investigation, that he was still, doubtless, living in
the village, possessed all minds and seemed to brood over the
neighborhood like a constant menace.
The wood had also become a dreaded spot, a place to be avoided and
supposed to be haunted.
Formerly the inhabitants went there to spend every Sunday afternoon. They
used to sit down on the moss at the feet of the huge tall trees or walk
along the water's edge watching the trout gliding among the weeds. The
boy's used to play bowls, hide-and-seek and other games where the ground
had been cleared and levelled, and the girls, in rows of four or five,
would trip along, holding one another by the arms and screaming songs
with their shrill voices. Now nobody ventured there for fear of finding
some corpse lying on the ground.
Autumn arrived, the leaves began to fall from the tall trees, whirling
round and round 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 rough storm that
covered the moss with a thick yellow carpet that made a kind of creaking
sound beneath one's feet.
And the sound of the falling leaves seemed like a wail and the leaves
themselves like tears shed by these great, sorrowful trees, that wept in
the silence of the bare and empty wood, this dreaded and deserted wood
where wandered lonely the soul, the little soul of little Louise Roque.
The Brindille, swollen by the storms, rushed on more quickly, yellow and
angry, between its dry banks, bordered by 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, descended the front steps
slowly and entered the wood in a dreamy fashion, with his hands in his
pockets, and paced over the damp soft moss, while a legion of rooks from
all the neighboring haunts came thither to rest in the tall trees and
then flew off like a black cloud uttering loud, discordant cries.
Night came on, and Renardet was still strolling slowly under the trees;
then, when the darkness prevented him from walking any longer, he would
go back to the house and sink into his armchair in front of the glowing
hearth, stretching his damp feet toward the fire.
One morning an important bit of news was circulated through the district;
the mayor was having his wood cut down.
Twenty woodcutters were already at work. They had commenced at the corner
nearest to the house and worked rapidly in the master's presence.
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, with his hands behind his back, the
slow destruction 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 expected, hoped for something at the
end of this slaughter.
Meanwhile they were approaching the place where little Louise Roque had
been found. They came to it one evening in the 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 mayor objected to this and insisted that they should at once lop
and cut down this giant, which had sheltered the crime.
When the lopper had laid it bare and the woodcutters had sapped its base,
five men commenced hauling at the rope attached to the top.
The tree resisted; its powerful trunk, although notched to the centre,
was as rigid as iron. The workmen, all together, with a sort of
simultaneous motion,' strained at the rope, bending backward and uttering
a cry which timed and regulated 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 trunk, awaited the fall with an uneasy,
One of the men said to him:
"You are too near, Monsieur le Maire. When it falls it may hurt you."
He did not reply and did not move away. He seemed ready to catch the
beech tree in his open arms and to cast it on the ground like a wrestler.
All at once, at the base of the tall column of wood there was a rent
which seemed to run to the top, like a painful shock; 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 came crashing down, Renardet suddenly made a forward step,
then stopped, his shoulders raised to receive the irresistible shock, the
mortal shock which would crush him to the earth.
But the beech tree, having deviated a little, only rubbed against his
loins, throwing him on his face, five metres away.
The workmen dashed forward to lift him up. He had already arisen to his
knees, stupefied, with bewildered eyes and passing his hand across his
forehead, as if he were awaking from 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 been dazed for a moment, or, rather, he had
been thinking of his childhood days; that he thought he would have time
to run under the 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 each time a tree began to fall whether he could pass beneath it
without being touched. It was a piece of stupidity, he confessed, but
every one has these moments of insanity and these temptations to boyish
He made this explanation in a slow tone, searching for his words, and
speaking in a colorless tone.
Then he went off, saying:
"Till to-morrow, my friends-till to-morrow."
As soon as he got back to his room he sat down at his table which his
lamp lighted up brightly, and, burying his head in his hands, he began to
He remained thus 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, sitting
down at his table, pulled out the middle drawer. Taking from it a
revolver, he laid it down on his papers in full view. The barrel of the
firearm glittered, giving out gleams of light.
Renardet gazed at it for some time with the uneasy glance of a drunken
man. Then he rose and began to pace up and down the room.
He walked from one end of the apartment to the other, stopping from time
to time, only to pace up and down again a moment afterward. Suddenly he
opened the door of his dressing-room, steeped a towel in the water
pitcher and moistened his forehead, as he had done on the morning of the
Then he, began walking up and down again. 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 trigger. Then, suddenly seized with a
shudder of horror, he dropped the pistol on the carpet.
He fell back on his armchair, sobbing:
"I cannot. I dare not! My God! my God! How can I have the courage to kill
There was a knock at the door. He rose up, bewildered. A servant said:
"Monsieur's dinner is ready."
"All right. I'm coming down."
Then he picked up the revolver, locked it up again in the drawer and
looked at himself in the mirror over the mantelpiece to see whether his
face did not look too much troubled. It was as red as usual, a little
redder perhaps. That was all. He went down and seated himself at table.
He ate slowly, like a man who wants to prolong the meal, who does not
want to be alone.
Then he smoked several pipes in the hall while the table was being
cleared. After that he went back to his room.
As soon as he had locked himself in he looked, under the bed, opened all
the closets, explored every corner, rummaged through all the furniture.
Then he lighted the candles on the mantelpiece, and, turning round
several times, ran his eye all over the apartment with an anguish of
terror that distorted his face, for he knew well that he would see her,
as he did every night—little Louise Roque, the little girl he had
attacked and afterward strangled.
Every night the odious vision came back again. First he seemed to hear a
kind of roaring sound, such as is made by a threshing machine or the
distant passage of a train over a bridge. Then he commenced to gasp, to
suffocate, and he had to unbutton his 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 that morning, the morning of the horrible day, a
little dizziness and headache, which he attributed to the heat, so that
he remained in his room until breakfast time.
After the meal he had taken a siesta, then, toward 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 he was outside, the heavy, scorching air of the plain
oppressed him still more. The sun, still high in the heavens, poured down
on the parched soil waves of burning 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
Brindille produced a slight freshness of the air beneath the immense roof
of branches. But he felt ill at ease. It seemed to him that an unknown,
invisible hand was strangling him, 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, he had need, an imperious and perplexing need of such
association. Since Madame Renardet's death he had suffered continually
without knowing why, he had suffered at not feeling her dress brushing
past him, and, above all, from no longer being able to calm and rest
himself in her arms. He had been scarcely six months a widower and he was
already looking about in the district for some young girl or some widow
he might marry when his period of mourning was at an end.
He had a chaste soul, but it was lodged in a powerful, herculean body,
and carnal imaginings 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. Anthony."
Having this special morning had several of these visions, the desire
suddenly came into his breast to bathe in the Brindille in order to
refresh himself and cool his blood.
He knew of a large deep pool, a little farther down, where the people of
the neighborhood came sometimes to take a dip in summer. He went there.
Thick willow trees hid this clear body of water where the current rested
and went to sleep for a while before starting on its way again. Renardet,
as he appeared, thought he heard a light sound, a faint plashing 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 water with both hands, dancing about in it and dipping
herself with pretty movements. She was not a child nor was she yet a
woman. She was plump and developed, while preserving an air of youthful
precocity, as of one who had grown rapidly. He no longer moved, overcome
with surprise, with desire, holding his breath with a strange, poignant
emotion. He remained there, his heart beating as if one of his sensuous
dreams had just been realized, as if an impure fairy had conjured up
before him this young creature, this little rustic Venus, rising from the
eddies of the stream as the real Venus rose from the waves of the sea.
Suddenly the little girl came out of the water, and, without seeing him,
came over to where he stood, looking for her clothes in order to dress
herself. As she approached gingerly, on account of the sharp-pointed
stones, he felt himself pushed toward her by an irresistible force, by a
bestial transport of passion, which stirred his flesh, bewildered his
mind 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 pushed aside the
branches, rushed on her and seized her in his arms. She fell, too
terrified to offer any resistance, too terror-stricken to cry out. He
seemed possessed, not understanding what he was doing.
He woke from his crime as one wakes from a nightmare. The child burst out
"Hold your tongue! Hold your tongue!" he said. "I'll give you money."
But she did not hear him and went on sobbing.
"Come now, hold your tongue! Do hold your tongue! Keep quiet!" he
She kept shrieking as she tried to free herself. 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 screaming, and in a few seconds he had strangled her, so furiously
did he grip her. He had not intended to kill her, but only to make her
Then he stood up, overwhelmed with horror.
She lay before him, her face bleeding and blackned. He was about 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.
He was going to throw the body into the water, but another impulse drove
him toward the clothes, which he made into a small package. 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, beneath the trunk of a tree that overhung the
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 came back to dine at the usual
hour, telling his servants all that was supposed to have happened during
He slept, however, that night; he slept with a heavy, brutish sleep like
the sleep of certain persons condemned to death. He did not open his eyes
until the first glimmer of dawn, and he waited till his usual hour for
riding, so as to excite no suspicion.
Then he had to be present at the inquiry as to the cause of death. He did
so like a somnambulist, in a kind of vision which showed him men and
things as in a dream, in a cloud of intoxication, with that sense of
unreality which perplexes the mind at the time of the greatest
But the agonized cry of Mother Roque pierced his heart. At that moment he
had felt inclined to cast himself at the old woman's feet and to exclaim:
"I am the guilty one!"
But he had restrained himself. He went back, however, during the night to
fish up the dead girl's wooden shoes, in order to place them on her
As long as the inquiry lasted, as long as it was necessary to lead
justice astray he was calm, master of himself, crafty 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 as soon as the inquiry was abandoned he became gradually nervous,
more excitable than he had been before, although he mastered his
irritability. Sudden noises made him start with fear; he shuddered at the
slightest thing and trembled sometimes from head to foot when a fly
alighted on his forehead. Then he was seized with an imperious desire for
motion, which impelled him to take long walks and to remain up whole
nights pacing up and down his room.
It was not that he was goaded by remorse. His brutal nature 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 outwardly, from policy, he believed neither in God nor the
devil, expecting neither chastisement nor recompense for his acts in
another life. His sole belief was a vague philosophy drawn from 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 any one 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 heat of
an irresistible gust of passion, in a sort of tempest of the senses that
had overpowered his reason. And he had cherished in his heart, in his
flesh, on his lips, even to the very tips of his murderous fingers a kind
of bestial love, as well as a feeling of terrified horror, toward this
little girl surprised by him and basely killed. Every moment his thoughts
returned to that horrible scene, and, though he endeavored to drive 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, as evening approached, he was afraid of the shadow falling around
him. He did not yet know why the darkness seemed 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
visible then, and only natural things and beings could exhibit themselves
in the light of day. But the night, the impenetrable 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 a
mysterious terror is wandering, prowling about, appeared to him to
conceal an unknown threatening danger, close beside him.
What was it?
He knew 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, uneasily, with beating heart. The drapery did not stir; then, all
of a sudden, it moved once more. He did not venture to rise; 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 drapery, a kind of trembling in its folds, less than an
undulation caused by the wind.
Renardet sat still, with staring eyes and outstretched neck. 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 night, stretched beyond 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
Then he put his face close to the window pane, thinking that a person
looking for crabs might be poaching in the Brindille, 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 Roque naked and bleeding on the moss. He recoiled,
frozen with horror, knocked over his chair and fell over on his back. He
remained there some minutes in anguish of mind; then he sat up and began
to reflect. He had had a hallucination—that was all, a
hallucination due to the fact that a night marauder 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 from the ground, swallowed a glass of wine and sat down again. He
"What am I to do if this occurs again?"
And it would occur; he felt it; he was sure of it. Already his glance was
drawn toward the window; it called him; it attracted him. In order to
avoid looking at it, he turned his chair round. 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 was moving again; unquestionably, it moved this time. He
could no longer have any doubt about it.
He rushed forward and grasped it so violently that he pulled it down with
its pole. Then he eagerly glued his face to the glass. He saw nothing.
All was black outside, and he breathed with the joy 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 to look out once more through the window. Since the
curtain had fallen down, the window made a sort of gap, fascinating and
terrible, on the dark landscape. In order not to yield to this dangerous
temptation, he undressed, blew out the light and closed his eyes.
Lying on his back motionless, his skin warm 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 to try to distinguish the window which had
still for him an unconquerable attraction. By dint of, straining his eyes
he could perceive some stars, and he rose, 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, lay the body of the
little girl gleaming like phosphorus, lighting up the surrounding
Renardet uttered a cry and rushed toward 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
resist it, but in vain. An irresistible force lifted him up and pushed
him against the window, as if to call the phantom, and he saw it at once,
lying first in the spot where the crime was committed in the position in
which it had been found.
Then the dead girl rose up and came toward 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 bed of withered flowers.
Then she rose up in the air toward Renardet's window. She came toward him
as she had come on the day of the crime. 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
But she did not show herself any more; she remained there behind the
curtain, which quivered tremulously now and then.
And Renardet, his fingers clutching the clothes, squeezed them as he had
squeezed the throat of little Louise Roque.
He heard the clock striking the hours, and in the stillness the pendulum
kept ticking in time with the loud beating 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 he went to sleep. He slept several hours—a restless, feverish
sleep in which he retraced in dreams the horrible vision of the past
When he went down to the late breakfast he felt exhausted as after
unusual exertion, 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 torture,
was what brought the dead girl back to life and raised her form before
his eyes, on which it was ineffaceably imprinted. But he knew, too, that
there was no cure, 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, It must be something simple
and natural, which would preclude the idea of suicide. For he clung to
his reputation, to the name bequeathed to him by his ancestors; and if
his death awakened any suspicion people's thoughts might be, perhaps,
directed toward the mysterious crime, toward 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 allowing himself to be crushed
by the tree at the foot of which he had assassinated little Louise Roque.
So he determined to have the wood cut down and to simulate an accident.
But the beech tree refused to crush his ribs.
Returning to his house, a prey to utter despair, he had snatched up his
revolver, and then did not dare to fire it.
The dinner bell summoned him. He could eat nothing, and he went upstairs
again. And he did not know what to do. Now that he had escaped the first
time, he felt himself a coward. Presently he would be ready, brave,
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 dare not venture it again—I dare 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 it was in order to seize him in
her turn, to draw him toward the doom that would avenge her, and to lead
him to die, that she appeared 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 at his window, where he knew the
apparition was hiding, 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 chill 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 began to reflect.
He would have to find some way in which he could force himself to die, to
play some trick on 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 after confessing his crime to a true
friend who would never divulge it he could procure death at his hand. But
from whom could he ask this terrible service? From whom? He thought of
all the people he knew. The doctor? No, he would talk about it afterward,
most probably. And suddenly a fantastic idea entered his mind. He would
write to the 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 could rely on this
magistrate; he knew him to be true, 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
outside wall of his office; then he would ascend his tower to watch for
the postman's arrival; and when the man in the blue blouse had gone away,
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 climb to the projecting stone which bore the
flagstaff displayed on festivals, He would smash this pole with a shake
and carry it along with him as he fell.
Who would suspect that it was not an accident? And he would be killed
outright, owing 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 begged his friend, his old friend, to be careful that there should
never be any stain on his memory.
When he had finished this letter he saw that the day had dawned.
He closed, sealed it and wrote the address. Then he descended with light
steps, hurried toward the little white box fastened to the outside wall
in the corner of the farmhouse, and when he had thrown into it this
letter, which made his hand tremble, he came back quickly, drew the bolts
of the great door and climbed up to his tower to wait for the passing of
the postman, who was to bear away 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,
a wintry red, and all the plain, whitened with frost, glistened under the
first rays of the sun, as if it were covered with powdered glass.
Renardet, standing up, his head bare, gazed at the vast tract of country
before him, the meadows to the left and to the right the village whose
chimneys were beginning to smoke in preparation for the morning meal. At
his feet he saw the Brindille flowing amid the rocks, where he would soon
be crushed to death. He felt new life on that beautiful frosty morning.
The light bathed him, entered his being like a new-born hope. A thousand
recollections assailed him, recollections of similar mornings, of rapid
walks on the hard earth which rang beneath his footsteps, of happy days
of shooting on the edges of pools where wild ducks sleep. All the good
things that he loved, the good things of existence, rushed to his 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! All he needed 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 had wandered toward 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.
Why should he die?
His glance travelled across the meadows, and he perceived a blue spot in
the path which wound alongside the Brindille. It was Mederic coming to
bring letters from the town and to carry away those of the village.
Renardet gave a start, a sensation of pain shot through his breast, and
he rushed down 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 damp from the light frost of the
previous night and arrived in front of the box in the corner of the
farmhouse 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, Monsieur 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, Monsieur 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 anxious
and sunken, with black circles round them, his hair was unbrushed, his
beard untrimmed, his necktie unfastened. It was evident that he had not
been in bed.
The postman asked:
"Are you ill, Monsieur 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
chicanery employed at elections.
"To whom is it addressed, this letter of yours?"
"To Monsieur Putoin, the magistrate—you know, my friend, Monsieur
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 either committing a grave
offence or of making an enemy 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, Monsieur le Maire. As long as it is for the magistrate, I
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 never trifle 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, Monsieur 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 backward, the letter carrier raised his big holly stick.
Without losing his temper, he said emphatically:
"Don't touch me, Monsieur 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 whimpering 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, stammering:
"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
toward his house, running like a hunted animal.
Then, in his turn, Mederic stopped and watched his flight with
stupefaction. He saw the mayor reenter his house, and he waited still, as
if something astonishing were 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 diver, with his two hands before him, he
plunged into space.
Mederic rushed forward to his assistance. He saw the woodcutters going to
work and called out to them, telling them an accident had occurred. At
the foot of the walls they found a bleeding body, its head crushed on a
rock. The Brindille surrounded this rock, and over its clear, calm waters
could be seen a long red thread of mingled brains and blood.