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List Of Contents | Contents of Derues, by Alexandre Dumas, Pere
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piled the latter together, and standing on tiptoe on this very
insecure basis, fastened one end of the cord to a horizontal bough,
and put his neck into a running knot at the other end, endeavouring
to imitate the contortions of an actual sufferer.  Shouts of laughter
greeted him, and the victim laughed loudest of all.  Three archers
went to call the rest to behold this amusing spectacle; one, tired
out, remained with the prisoner.

"Ah, Hangman," said Pierre, putting out his tongue at him, "are the
books firm?  I thought I felt them give way."

"No," replied Antoine; it was he who remained.  "Don't be afraid,
Pierre."

"It is a good thing; for if they fell I don't think the cord is long
enough."

"Don't you really think so?"

A horrible thought showed itself like a flash on the child's face.
He resembled a young hyena scenting blood for the first time.  He
glanced at the pile of books Pierre was standing on, and compared it
with the length of the cord between the branch and his neck.  It was
already nearly dark, the shadows were deepening in the wood, gleams
of pale light penetrated between the trees, the leaves had become
black and rustled in the wind.  Antoine stood silent and motionless,
listening if any sound could be heard near them.

It would be a curious study for the moralist to observe how the first
thought of crime develops itself in the recesses of the human heart,
and how this poisoned germ grows and stifles all other sentiments; an
impressive lesson might be gathered from this struggle of two
opposing principles, however weak it may be, in perverted natures.
In cases where judgment can discern, where there is power to choose
between good and evil, the guilty person has only himself to blame,
and the most heinous crime is only the action of its perpetrator.  It
is a human action, the result of passions which might have been
controlled, and one's mind is not uncertain, nor one's conscience
doubtful, as to the guilt.  But how can one conceive this taste for
murder in a young child, how imagine it, without being tempted to
exchange the idea of eternal sovereign justice for that of blind
-fatality?  How can one judge without hesitation between the moral
sense which has given way and the instinct which displays itself?
how not exclaim that the designs of a Creator who retains the one and
impels the other are sometimes mysterious and inexplicable, and that
one must submit without understanding?

"Do you hear them coming?" asked Pierre.

"I hear nothing," replied Antoine, and a nervous shiver ran through
all his members.

"So much the worse.  I am tired of being dead; I shall come to life
and run after them.  Hold the books, and I will undo the noose."

"If you move, the books will separate; wait, I will hold them."

And he knelt down, and collecting all his strength, gave the pile a
violent push.

Pierre endeavoured to raise his hands to his throat.  "What are you
doing?" he cried in a suffocating voice.

"I am paying you out;" replied Antoine, folding his arms.

Pierre's feet were only a few inches from the ground, and the weight
of his body at first bent the bough for a moment; but it rose again,
and the unfortunate boy exhausted himself in useless efforts.  At
every movement the knot grew tighter, his legs struggled, his arms
sought vainly something to lay hold of; then his movements slackened,
his limbs stiffened, and his hands sank down.  Of so much life and
vigour nothing remained but the movement of an inert mass turning
round and round upon itself.

Not till then did Antoine cry for help, and when the other boys
hastened up they found him crying and tearing his hair.  So violent
indeed were his sobs and his despair that he could hardly be
understood as he tried to explain how the books had given way under
Pierre, and how he had vainly endeavoured to support him in his arms.

This boy, left an orphan at three years old, had been brought up at
first by a relation who turned him out for theft; afterwards by two
sisters, his cousins, who were already beginning to take alarm at his
abnormal perversity.  This pale and fragile being, an incorrigible
thief, a consummate hypocrite, and a cold-blooded assassin, was
predestined to an immortality of crime, and was to find a place among
the most execrable monsters for whom humanity has ever had to blush;
his name was Antoine-Francois Derues.

Twenty years had gone by since this horrible and mysterious event,
which no one sought to unravel at the time it occurred.  One June
evening, 1771, four persons were sitting in one of the rooms of a
modestly furnished, dwelling on the third floor of a house in the rue
Saint-Victor.  The party consisted of three women and an
ecclesiastic, who boarded, for meals only, with the woman who
tenanted the dwelling; the other two were near neighbours.  They were
all friends, and often met thus in the evening to play cards.  They
were sitting round the card-table, but although it was nearly ten
o'clock the cards had not yet been touched.  They spoke in low tones,
and a half-interrupted confidence had, this evening, put a check on
the usual gaiety.

Someone knocked gently at the door, although no sound of steps on the
creaking wooden staircase had been heard, and a wheedling voice asked
for admittance.  The occupier of the room, Madame Legrand, rose, and
admitted a man of about six-and-twenty, at whose appearance the four
friends exchanged glances, at once observed by the new-comer, who
affected, however, not to see them.  He bowed successively to the
three women, and several times with the utmost respect to the abbe,
making signs of apology for the interruption caused by his
appearance; then, coughing several times, he turned to Madame
Legrand, and said in a feeble voice, which seemed to betoken much
suffering--

"My kind mistress, will you and these other ladies excuse my
presenting myself at such an hour and in such a costume?  I am ill,
and I was obliged to get up."

His costume was certainly singular enough: he was wrapped in a large
dressing-gown of flowered chintz; his head was adorned by a nightcap
drawn up at the top and surmounted by a muslin frill.  His appearance
did not contradict his complaint of illness; he was barely four feet
six in height, his limbs were bony, his face sharp, thin, and pale.
Thus attired, coughing incessantly, dragging his feet as if he had no
strength to lift them, holding a lighted candle in one hand and an
egg in the other, he suggested a caricature-some imaginary invalid
just escaped from M. Purgon.  Nevertheless, no one ventured to smile,
notwithstanding his valetudinarian appearance and his air of affected
humility.  The perpetual blinking of the yellow eyelids which fell
over the round and hollow eyes, shining with a sombre fire which he
could never entirely suppress, reminded one of a bird of prey unable
to face the light, and the lines of his face, the hooked nose, and
the thin, constantly quivering, drawn-in lips suggested a mixture of
boldness and baseness, of cunning and sincerity.  But there is no
book which can instruct one to read the human countenance correctly;
and some special circumstance must have roused the suspicions of
these four persons so much as to cause them to make these
observations, and they were not as usual deceived by the humbug of
this skilled actor, a past master in the art of deception.

He continued after a moment's silence, as if he did not wish to
interrupt their mute observation--

"Will you oblige me by a neighbourly kindness?"

"What is it, Derues?" asked Madame Legrand.  A violent cough, which
appeared to rend his chest, prevented him from answering immediately.
When it ceased, he looked at the abbe, and said, with a melancholy
smile--

"What I ought to ask in my present state of health is your blessing,
my father, and your intercession for the pardon of my sins.  But
everyone clings to the life which God has given him.  We do not
easily abandon hope; moreover, I have always considered it wrong to
neglect such means of preserving our lives as are in our power, since
life is for us only a time of trial, and the longer and harder the
trial the greater our recompense in a better world.  Whatever befalls
us, our answer should be that of the Virgin Mary to the angel who
announced the mystery of the Incarnation: 'Behold the handmaid of the
Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.'"

"You are right," said the abbe, with a severe and inquisitorial look,
under which Derues remained quite untroubled; "it is an attribute of
God to reward and to punish, and the Almighty is not deceived by him
who deceives men.  The Psalmist has said, 'Righteous art Thou, O
Lord, and upright are Thy judgments.'"

"He has said also, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and
righteous altogether,'"  Derues promptly replied.  This exchange of
quotations from Scripture might have lasted for hours without his
being at a loss, had the abbe thought fit to continue in this strain;
but such a style of conversation, garnished with grave and solemn
words, seemed almost sacrilegious in the mouth of a man of such
ridiculous appearance--a profanation at once sad and grotesque.
Derues seemed to comprehend the impression it produced, and tuning
again to Madame Legrand, he said--

"We have got a long way from what I came to ask you, my kind friend.
I was so ill that I went early to bed, but I cannot sleep, and I have
no fire.  Would you have the kindness to have this egg mulled for
me?"

"Cannot your servant do that for you?" asked Madame Legrand.

"I gave her leave to go out this evening, and though it is late she
has not yet returned.  If I had a fire, I would not give you so much
trouble, but I do not care to light one at this hour.  You know I am
always afraid of accidents, and they so easily happen!"

"Very well, then," replied Madame Legrand; "go back to your room, and
my servant will bring it to you."

"Thank you," said Derues, bowing,--"many thanks."

As he turned to depart, Madame Legrand spoke again.

"This day week, Derues, you have to pay me half the twelve hundred

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