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I WAS LEANING OVER THE BALUSTRADE OF THE TERRACE, WOOING THE COOL AIR TO BREATHE UPON MY ACHING HEAD, WHEN I FELT A LITTLE HAND, SOFT AND WARM AS THE BREAST OF A DOVE, FALL GENTLY UPON MINE.
walking away dreamily. The glass doors leading on to the verandah were open, and I passed through them into the cool and fragrant air of the night. It was like an awakening. Behind me was the ghostly company from whom I had escaped; but I was awake, and the ebony mass of fir-trees before me, with their tips silvered in the moonlight, were a reality. Think for a moment of the companions who had been sitting at the table with me-the white-headed and sorrowstricken father of the murdered child; the sister, who had consented to his death; and the priest, fresh from the hearing of the tragical secret. I could scarcely tell whose presence made me shudder most.
I was leaning over the balustrade of the terrace, when I felt a little hand, soft and warm as the breast of a dove, fall gently upon mine, as if half designedly and half accidentally. It was the first time Désirée's hand had thus touched mine, and a thrill of mingled rapture and repugnance trembled through me.
Why are you triste to-night, mon ami ?" she murmured.
Triste! That was her word, sad but soft, like a causeless sigh, when my heart was groaning an unutterable groan. I had not time to answer her, for already the vigilant priest was beside us, speaking in calm and pleasant tones of the beauty of the night. I could not stay with them, and apologising incoherently for leaving them, I retired to my chamber.
You will easily believe that I could not sleep. Again and again I went through with painful minuteness every incident of the evening. I entered the quiet church; I examined curiously the confessional; I seated myself on the kneeling-bene' within; I began to fancy the trivial faults Désirée had confessed there. I could recount distinctly every moment till I fell asleep. After that, had I been awakened, or dreaming still? I repeated this process, but always with the same result; at that last instant the chain of self-consciousness was broken, and left me ever with the same doubt. At length there dawned before me a thought, against which I would have willingly closed my mind; but like the day-break it gathered strength irresistibly, in spite of my reluctance. It was possible to verify the truth of the wretched woman's confession by going to the spot where she had hidden the murdered child, and which she had described with singular minuteness. Yet I shrank from it with a cowardly shrinking. If it were possible to drug my conscience with the assurance that the whole was the play of my fevered imagination,
I should save myself the deadly pang of discovering the unnatural guilt of Désirée, and spare the already sorrow-stricken father from a deeper anguish. But the thought tyrannized over me; and just as the long twilight of the summer night began to redden with the dawn, I crept stealthily through the house, and made my way into the fresh and dewy air of the morning.
There was something-I do not know what-of buoyancy in the free atmosphere, and of innocence in the pure grey light, which seemed to give the lie indignantly to the foul suspicions born of the heat and languor of the preceding day. The cool air bathed my forehead, and the pale dawn rested my wearied eyes. Except myself, all the world was asleep, and the few cottages on my way seemed wrapped in slumber themselves, with only a faint twitter of swallows awaking under their great eaves, and a rustling of the long leaves of the purple iris, which crowned their thatched roofs. A genial feeling of satisfaction and repose succeeded to the agitation of the last few hours. I pursued my route almost without design; strolling onwards, bareheaded, with an exquisite sense of reverence for the purity of the morning. The long lanes, glistening with dew, stretched before me peaceful and solitary, not yet tainted by any guilty or toiling footstep; and here and there, when I reached an eminence, I looked round upon the whole slumbering landscape, already beginning to wake up as a child rouses itself drowsily from its happy dreams. I went on, as I said, unconsciously, but always in one direction, where the sun was lifting itself up to look down upon a wide moor, flat as a table-land, and bounded on one side by a forest.
When I had once attained the edge of this wild moor, the old dread and an agony of suspense again took possession of me. There was a haggard, accursed aspect about it, altogether at variance with the sweetness of the dewy lanes which had led me to it. In the wondrously clear atmosphere, across which no breath of smoke had ever blown, I could see, far ahead of me, but minutely distinct, the distant landmark of which I was in search. It consisted of a row of pollardtrees, such as one sees everywhere in Normandy, which have been robbed, season after season, of their shooting branches, until the thickened and deformed heads assume monstrous and grotesque forms. The tallest of these trees had been blasted by lightning, and it reared its leafless head, scarred and seamed, but bearing an uncouth resemblance to a human face, lifted up to the sky above it with an aspect at once insolent and agonized-a caricature of impo
tent human suffering and rebellion. If I had not been the sport of a horrible dream, under the shadow of those weird trees, lay the body of the murdered child.
I was hours in crossing the moorland. The sun vaulted up, hot and sultry, and made the sky grow white and quivering with heat. It beat down upon me ruthlessly, as I wandered to and fro upon the dreary waste, gradually, and almost against my will, drawing nearer and nearer to the fatal spot. I can recall to this day the whizzing and humming of the insects upon the black soil, and the swift but stealthy retreat of the vipers, as they slid away noiselessly before my tread. I remember the odd and ghastly stones, bleached and hollowed, which strewed the ground like the scattered bones of a skeleton. As the hours wore on, my mind wandered. I wondered what Désirée was doing at the château, or whether the morning mass was over, and the priest gone back to his lonely dwelling. Then I thought of my mother and Margaret in their quiet and sweet home, into which the gravest sin that found entrance was some womanly vanity or passing illhumour, which were enough to cloud and sadden their tender consciences. I fancied I heard the chiming of English church-bells, for it was Sunday morning, and the hour for the morning prayers. I loitered and lingered; but whenever I lifted up my heavy eyes, I saw that the mocking face was nearer to me, and that in the end we should meet, it and I, and the secret it hid at its foot. At last I rallied myself, and hastened towards the place I had been avoiding.
As I write I feel myself once more pushing aside the heap of dry leaves and branches; but slowly and carefully, as one would draw aside the winding-sheets which cover the dead; and after a minute or two, which seemed like years in their slow transit, catching a glimpse, amidst the moss and leaves, of a child's golden curls. Murdered! and Désirée herself had known that he would never return to his father's house alive.
I have no memory of retracing my path across the moor, until I find myself in the pleasant lane, and under the shady hedgerow, shivering with a deadly chill, though all the air is dry and hot as a furnace. As instinctively as my feet had carried me to the dreaded place, so they bore me back again, in the direction of the château, where my absence must have caused some surprise, and it might be some misgivings, in the minds of the culprits. Yet that was impossible, for it could not enter into their thoughts that I had found any trace of their crime, far less that I had listened to it word for