The German Classics, v. 20 Masterpieces of German Literature

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In the little town of Rodez, situated on the western side of the Cévennes and washed by the waters of the river Aveyron, there lived a lawyer by the name of Fualdes, a commonplace man, neither good nor bad. Notwithstanding his advanced age, he had only recently retired from affairs, and his finances were in such a bad shape that he was obliged, in the beginning of the year 1817, to dispose of his estate of La Morne. With the proceeds he meant to retire to some quiet spot and live on the interest of his money. One evening—it was the nineteenth of March—he received from the purchaser of the estate, President Seguret, the residue of the purchase-money in bills and securities, and, after locking the papers in his desk, he left the house, having told the housekeeper that he had to go to La Morne once more in order to make some necessary arrangements with the tenant.

He neither reached La Morne nor returned to his home. The following morning a tailor's wife from the village of Aveyron saw his body lying in a shallow of the river, ran to Rodez and fetched some people back with her. The rocky slope was precipitously steep at that point, rising to a height of about forty feet. A great piece of the narrow footpath which led from Rodez to the vineyards had crumbled away, and it was doubtless owing to that circumstance that the unfortunate man had been precipitated to the bottom. It had rained very heavily the day before, and the soil on top had, according to the testimony of a number of people who worked in the vineyards, been loose for a long time. It seemed a singular fact that there was a deep gash in the throat of the dead man; but as jagged stones projected all over the rocky surface of the slope, such an injury explained itself. On examination of the steep wall, no traces of blood were found on stone or earth. The rain had washed away everything.

The news of the occurrence spread rapidly, and all through the day two or three hundred people from Rodez—men, women, and children—were standing on both shores staring with a look of fascination and self-induced horror into the depths of the ravine. The question was raised whether it was not a will-o'-the-wisp that had misled the old man. A woman alleged that she had spoken with a shepherd who declared he had heard a cry for help; this, it is true, occurred about midnight, and Fualdes had left his house at eight o'clock. A stout tinker contended that the darkness had not been as dense as all believed; he himself had crossed the fields, on his way from La Valette, at nine o'clock, and the moon was then shining. The inspector of customs took him severely to task, and informed him that a new moon had made its appearance the day before, as one could easily find out by looking in the calendar. The tinker shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that in such conjunctures even the calendar was not to be trusted.

When it grew dusk the people wandered homeward, in pairs and groups, now chatting, no-w silent, now whispering with an air of mystery. Like dogs that have become suspicious and keep circling about the same spot, they strained with hungry eagerness for a new excitement. They looked searchingly in front of them, heard with sharpened ears every word that was uttered. Some cast suspicious side-glances at each other; those who had money closed their doors and counted their money over. At night in the taverns the guests told of the great riches that the miserly Fualdes had accumulated; he had, it was said, sold La Morne only because he shrank from compelling the lessee, Grammont, who was his nephew, by legal means to pay two years' arrears of rent.

The spoken word hung halting on the lips, carrying a half-framed thought in its train. It was an accepted fact among the citizens that Fualdes, the liberal Protestant, a former official of the Empire, had been annoyed by threats against his life....