The fire had sunk to a heap of red-grey ashes. I piled on fresh boughs till the embers caught flame again and the bright spears danced under the pines. The reek of smoking pine logs is in my nostrils yet.
My rest was miserable. In a succession of brief dreams I fled with Jacqueline over a wilderness of ice, while in the distance, ever drawing nearer, followed Leroux, Lacroix, and Pere Antoine. I heard Jacqueline’s despairing cries as she was torn from me, while my weighted arms, heavier than lead, drooped helplessly at my sides, and from afar Simon mocked me.
Then ensued a world without Jacqueline, a dead eternity of ice and snow.
I must have fallen sound asleep at last, for when I opened my eyes the sun was shining brightly low down over the Riviere d’Or. The door of the tent stood open and Jacqueline was not inside.
With the remembrance of my dream still confusing reality, I ran toward the trees, shouting for her in fear.
“Jacqueline! Jacqueline!” I called.
She was coming toward me. She took me by the arm. “Paul!” she began with quivering lips. “Paul!”
She led me into the recesses of the pines. There, in a little open place, clustered together upon the ground, were the bodies of our dogs. All were dead, and the soft forms were frozen into the snow, which the poor creatures had licked in their agony, so that their open jaws were stuffed with icicles.
Jacqueline sank down upon the ground and sobbed as though her heart would break. I stood there watching, my brain paralyzed by the shock of the discovery.
Then I went back to the sleigh, on the rear of which the frozen fish was piled. I noticed that it had a faint, slightly aromatic odor. I flung the hard masses aside and scooped up a powdery substance with my hands.
Mycology had been a hobby of mine, and it was easy to recognize what that substance was.
It was the amanita, the deadliest and the most widely distributed of the fungi, and the direst of all vegetable poisons to man and beast alike. The alkaloid which it contains takes effect only some hours after its ingestion, when it has entered the blood-streams and begun its disintegrating action upon the red corpuscles. The dogs must have partaken of it on the preceding afternoon.
Jacqueline joined me. The tears were streaming down her cheeks; she slipped her arm through mine and looked mutely at me.
I knew this was Leroux’s work. He had tricked me again. I had seen clusters of the frozen fungus outside St. Boniface. I suppose that, when winter comes suddenly, such growths remain standing till spring thaws and rots them, retaining in the meanwhile all their noxious qualities.
It would have been an easy matter for one of Leroux’s agents to have cast a few handfuls of the deadly powder over the fish while the sleigh stood waiting outside Danton’s door, and the jolting of the vehicle would have shaken the substance down into the middle of the heap, so that it would be three or four days before the dogs got to the poisoned fish.