The Best Mystery and Detective Stories HTML version

The Conscript
[The inner self] ... by a phenomenon of vision or of locomotion has been known at
times to abolish Space in its two modes of Time and Distance—the one
intellectual, the other physical.
On a November evening in the year 1793 the principal citizens of Carentan were
assembled in Mme. de Dey's drawing-room. Mme. de Dey held this reception every night
of the week, but an unwonted interest attached to this evening's gathering, owing to
certain circumstances which would have passed altogether unnoticed in a great city,
though in a small country town they excited the greatest curiosity. For two days before
Mme. de Dey had not been at home to her visitors, and on the previous evening her door
had been shut, on the ground of indisposition. Two such events at any ordinary time
would have produced in Carentan the same sensation that Paris knows on nights when
there is no performance at the theaters—existence is in some sort incomplete; but in those
times when the least indiscretion on the part of an aristocrat might be a matter of life and
death, this conduct of Mme. de Dey's was likely to bring about the most disastrous
consequences for her. Her position in Carentan ought to be made clear, if the reader is to
appreciate the expression of keen curiosity and cunning fanaticism on the countenances
of these Norman citizens, and, what is of most importance, the part that the lady played
among them. Many a one during the days of the Revolution has doubtless passed through
a crisis as difficult as hers at that moment, and the sympathies of more than one reader
will fill in all the coloring of the picture.
Mme. de Dey was the widow of a Lieutenant-General, a Knight of the Orders of Saint
Michael and of the Holy Ghost. She had left the Court when the Emigration began, and
taken refuge in the neighborhood of Carentan, where she had large estates, hoping that
the influence of the Reign of Terror would be but little felt there. Her calculations, based
on a thorough knowledge of the district, proved correct. The Revolution made little
disturbance in Lower Normandy. Formerly, when Mme. de Dey had spent any time in the
country, her circle of acquaintance had been confined to the noble families of the district;
but now, from politic motives, she opened her house to the principal citizens and to the
Revolutionary authorities of the town, endeavoring to touch and gratify their social pride
without arousing either hatred or jealousy. Gracious and kindly, possessed of the
indescribable charm that wins good will without loss of dignity or effort to pay court to
any, she had succeeded in gaining universal esteem; the discreet warnings of exquisite
tact enabled her to steer a difficult course among the exacting claims of this mixed
society, without wounding the overweening self-love of parvenus on the one hand, or the
susceptibilities of her old friends on the other.
She was about thirty-eight years of age, and still preserved, not the fresh, high-colored
beauty of the Basse-Normandes, but a fragile loveliness of what may be called an
aristocratic type. Her figure was lissome and slender, her features delicate and clearly cut;
the pale face seemed to light up and live when she spoke; but there was a quiet and