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CELEBRATED CRIMES VOLUME 5 (of 8), Part 1

By Alexandre Dumas, Pere



DERUES


One September afternoon in 1751, towards half-past five, about a
score of small boys, chattering, pushing, and tumbling over one
another like a covey of partridges, issued from one of the religious
schools of Chartres.  The joy of the little troop just escaped from a
long and wearisome captivity was doubly great: a slight accident to
one of the teachers had caused the class to be dismissed half an hour
earlier than usual, and in consequence of the extra work thrown on
the teaching staff the brother whose duty it was to see all the
scholars safe home was compelled to omit that part of his daily task.
Therefore not only thirty or forty minutes were stolen from work, but
there was also unexpected, uncontrolled liberty, free from the
surveillance of that black-cassocked overseer who kept order in their
ranks.  Thirty minutes! at that age it is a century, of laughter and
prospective games!  Each had promised solemnly, under pain of severe
punishment, to return straight to his paternal nest without delay,
but the air was so fresh and pure, the country smiled all around!
The school, or preferably the cage, which had just opened, lay at the
extreme edge of one of the suburbs, and it only required a few steps
to slip under a cluster of trees by a sparkling brook beyond which
rose undulating ground, breaking the monotony of a vast and fertile
plain.  Was it possible to be obedient, to refrain from the desire to
spread one's wings?  The scent of the meadows mounted to the heads of
the steadiest among them, and intoxicated even the most timid.  It
was resolved to betray the confidence of the reverend fathers, even
at the risk of disgrace and punishment next morning, supposing the
escapade were discovered.

A flock of sparrows suddenly released from a cage could not have
flown more wildly into the little wood.  They were all about the same
age, the eldest might be nine.  They flung off coats and waistcoats,
and the grass became strewn with baskets, copy-books, dictionaries,
and catechisms.  While the crowd of fair-haired heads, of fresh and
smiling faces, noisily consulted as to which game should be chosen, a
boy who had taken no part in the general gaiety, and who had been
carried away by the rush without being able to escape sooner, glided
slyly away among the trees, and, thinking himself unseen, was beating
a hasty retreat, when one of his comrades cried out--

"Antoine is running away!"

Two of the best runners immediately started in pursuit, and the
fugitive, notwithstanding his start, was speedily overtaken, seized
by his collar, and brought back as a deserter.

"Where were you going?" the others demanded.

"Home to my cousins," replied the boy; "there is no harm in that."

"You canting sneak!" said another boy, putting his fist under the
captive's chin; "you were going to the master to tell of us."

"Pierre," responded Antoine, "you know quite well I never tell lies."

"Indeed!--only this morning you pretended I had taken a book you had
lost, and you did it because I kicked you yesterday, and you didn't
dare to kick me back again."

Antoine lifted his eyes to heaven, and folding his arms on his
breast

Dear Buttel," he said, "you are mistaken; I have always been taught
to forgive injuries."

"Listen, listen!  he might be saying his prayers!" cried the other
boys; and a volley of offensive epithets, enforced by cuffs, was
hurled at the culprit.

Pierre Buttel, whose influence was great, put a stop to this
onslaught.

"Look here, Antoine, you are a bad lot, that we all know; you are a
sneak and a hypocrite.  It's time we put a stop to it.  Take off your
coat and fight it out.  If you like, we will fight every morning and
evening till the end of the month."

The proposition was loudly applauded, and Pierre, turning up his
sleeves as far as his elbows, prepared to suit actions to words.

The challenger assuredly did not realise the full meaning, of his
words; had he done so, this chivalrous defiance would simply have
been an act of cowardice on his part, for there could be no doubt as
to the victor in such a conflict.  The one was a boy of alert and
gallant bearing, strong upon his legs, supple and muscular, a
vigorous man in embryo; while the other, not quite so old, small,
thin, of a sickly leaden complexion, seemed as if he might be blown
away by a strong puff of wind.  His skinny arms and legs hung on to
his body like the claws of a spider, his fair hair inclined to red,
his white skin appeared nearly bloodless, and the consciousness of
weakness made him timid, and gave a shifty, uneasy look to his eyes.
His whole expression was uncertain, and looking only at his face it
was difficult at first sight to decide to which sex he belonged.
This confusion of two natures, this indefinable mixture of feminine
weakness without grace, and of abortive boyhood, seemed to stamp him
as something exceptional, unclassable, and once observed, it was
difficult to take one's eyes from him.  Had he been endowed with
physical strength he would have been a terror to his comrades,
exercising by fear the ascendancy which Pierre owed to his joyous
temper and unwearied gaiety, for this mean exterior concealed
extraordinary powers of will and dissimulation.  Guided by instinct,
the other children hung about Pierre and willingly accepted his
leadership; by instinct also they avoided Antoine, repelled by a
feeling of chill, as if from the neighbourhood of a reptile, and
shunning him unless to profit in some way by their superior strength.
Never would he join their games without compulsion; his thin,
colourless lips seldom parted for a laugh, and even at that tender
age his smile had an unpleasantly sinister expression.

"Will you fight?" again demanded Pierre.

Antoine glanced hastily round; there was no chance of escape, a
double ring enclosed him.  To accept or refuse seemed about equally
risky; he ran a good chance of a thrashing whichever way he decided.
Although his heart beat loudly, no trace of emotion appeared on his
pallid cheek; an unforeseen danger would have made him shriek, but he
had had time to collect himself, time to shelter behind hypocrisy.
As soon as he could lie and cheat he recovered courage, and the
instinct of cunning, once roused, prevailed over everything else.
Instead of answering this second challenge, he knelt down and said to
Pierre--

"You are much stronger than I am."

This submission disarmed his antagonist.  "Get up," he replied;
"I won't touch you, if you can't defend yourself.

"Pierre," continued Antoine, still on his knees, "I assure you, by
God and the Holy Virgin, I was not going to tell.  I was going home
to my cousins to learn my lessons for to-morrow; you know how slow I
am.  If you think I have done you any harm, I ask your forgiveness."

Pierre held out his hand and made him get up.

"Will you be a good fellow, Antoine, and play with us?"

"Yes, I will."

"All right, then; let us forget all about it."

"What are we to play at?" asked Antoine, taking off his coat.

"Thieves and archers," cried one of the boys....

"Splendid!" said Pierre; and using his acknowledged authority, he
divided them into two sides--ten highwaymen, whom he was to command,
and ten archers of the guard, who were to pursue them; Antoine was
among the latter.

The highwaymen, armed with swords and guns obtained from the willows
which grew along the brook, moved off first, and gained the valleys
between the little hills beyond the wood.  The fight was to be
serious, and any prisoner on either side was to be tried immediately.
The robbers divided into twos and threes, and hid themselves in the
ravines.

A few minutes later the archers started in pursuit.  There were
encounters, surprises, skirmishes; but whenever it came to close
quarters, Pierre's men, skilfully distributed, united on hearing his
whistle, and the Army of justice had to retreat.  But there came a
time when this magic signal was no longer heard, and the robbers
became uneasy, and remained crouching in their hiding-places.
Pierre, over-daring, had undertaken to defend alone the entrance of a
dangerous passage and to stop the whole hostile troop there.  Whilst
he kept them engaged, half of his men, concealed on the left, were to
come round the foot of the hill and make a rush on hearing his
whistle; the other half, also stationed at some, little distance,
were to execute the same manoeuvre from above.  The archers would be
caught in a trap, and attacked both in front and rear, would be
obliged to surrender at discretion.  Chance, which not unfrequently
decides the fate of a battle, defeated this excellent stratagem.
Watching intently; Pierre failed to perceive that while his whole
attention was given to the ground in front, the archers had taken an
entirely different road from the one they ought to have followed if
his combination were to succeed.  They suddenly fell upon him from
behind, and before he could blow his whistle, they gagged him with a
handkerchief and tied his hands.  Six remained to keep the field of
battle and disperse the hostile band, now deprived of its chief; the
remaining four conveyed Pierre to the little wood, while the robbers,
hearing no signal, did not venture to stir.  According to agreement,
Pierre Buttel was tried by the archers, who promptly transformed
themselves into a court of justice, and as he had been taken
red-handed, and did not condescend to defend himself, the trial was
not a long affair.  He was unanimously sentenced to be hung, and the
execution was then and there carried out, at the request of the
criminal himself, who wanted the game to be properly played to the
end, and who actually selected a suitable tree for his own execution.

"But, Pierre," said one of the judges, "how can you be held up
there?"

"How stupid you are!" returned the captive.  "I shall only pretend to
be hung, of course.  See here!" and he fastened together several
pieces strong string which had tied some of the other boys' books,

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