It was delightful to see the glow and twinkle of the fire and to escape fro_he wet wind and the numbing cold, but my curiosity had already risen so hig_bout this lonely man and his singular dwelling that my thoughts ran rathe_pon that than upon my personal comfort. There was his remarkable appearance,
the fact that he should be awaiting company within that miserable ruin in th_eart of the morass at so sinister an hour, and finally the inexplicabl_ncident of the chimney, all of which excited my imagination. It was beyond m_omprehension why he should at one moment charge me sternly to continue m_ourney, and then, in almost the same breath, invite me most cordially to see_he shelter of his hut. On all these points I was keenly on the alert for a_xplanation. Yet I endeavoured to conceal my feelings, and to assume the ai_f a man who finds everything quite natural about him, and who is much to_bsorbed in his own personal wants to have a thought to spare upon anythin_utside himself.
A glance at the inside of the cottage, as I entered, confirmed me in th_onjecture which the appearance of the outside had already given rise to, tha_t was not used for human residence, and that this man was only here for _endezvous. Prolonged moisture had peeled the plaster in flakes from th_alls, and had covered the stones with blotches and rosettes of lichen. Th_hole place was rotten and scaling like a leper. The single large room wa_nfurnished save for a crazy table, three wooden boxes, which might be used a_eats, and a great pile of decayed fishing-net in the corner. The splinters o_ fourth box, with a hand-axe, which leaned against the wall, showed how th_ood for the fire had been gathered. But it was to the table that my gaze wa_hiefly drawn, for there, beside the lamp and the book, lay an open basket,
from which projected the knuckle-end of a ham, the corner of a loaf of bread,
and the black neck of a bottle.
If my host had been suspicious and cold at our first meeting he was no_toning for his inhospitality by an overdone cordiality even harder for me t_xplain. With many lamentations over my mud-stained and sodden condition, h_rew a box close to the blaze and cut me off a corner of the bread and ham. _ould not help observing, however, that though his loose under-lipped mout_as wreathed with smiles, his beautiful dark eyes were continually runnin_ver me and my attire, asking and re-asking what my business might be.
'As for myself,' said he, with an air of false candour, 'you will very wel_nderstand that in these days a worthy merchant must do the best he can to ge_is wares, and if the Emperor, God save him, sees fit in his wisdom to put a_nd to open trade, one must come to such places as these to get into touc_ith those who bring across the coffee and the tobacco. I promise you that i_he Tuileries itself there is no difficulty about getting either one or th_ther, and the Emperor drinks his ten cups a day of the real Mocha withou_sking questions, though he must know that it is not grown within the confine_f France. The vegetable kingdom still remains one of the few which Napoleo_as not yet conquered, and, if it were not for traders, who are at some ris_nd inconvenience, it is hard to say what we should do for our supplies. _uppose, sir, that you are not yourself either in the seafaring or in th_rading line?'
I contented myself by answering that I was not, by which reticence I could se_hat I only excited his curiosity the more. As to his account of himself, _ead a lie in those tell-tale eyes all the time that he was talking. As _ooked at him now in the full light of the lamp and the fire, I could see tha_e was even more good-looking than I had at first thought, but with a type o_eauty which has never been to my taste. His features were so refined as to b_lmost effeminate, and so regular that they would have been perfect if it ha_ot been for that ill-fitting, slabbing mouth. It was a clever, and yet it wa_ weak face, full of a sort of fickle enthusiasm and feeble impulsiveness. _elt that the more I knew him the less reason I should probably find either t_ike him or to fear him, and in my first conclusion I was right, although _ad occasion to change my views upon the second.
'You will forgive me, Monsieur Laval, if I was a little cold at first,' sai_e. 'Since the Emperor has been upon the coast the place swarms with polic_gents, so that a trader must look to his own interests. You will allow tha_y fears of you were not unnatural, since neither your dress nor you_ppearance were such as one would expect to meet with in such a place and a_uch a time.'
It was on my lips to return the remark, but I refrained.
'I can assure you,' said I, 'that I am merely a traveller who have lost m_ay. Now that I am refreshed and rested I will not encroach further upon you_ospitality, except to ask you to point out the way to the nearest village.'
'Tut; you had best stay where you are, for the night grows wilder ever_nstant.' As he spoke there came a whoop and scream of wind in the chimney, a_f the old place were coming down about our ears. He walked across to th_indow and looked very earnestly out of it, just as I had seen him do upon m_irst approach. 'The fact is, Monsieur Laval,' said he, looking round at m_ith his false-air of good fellowship, 'you may be of some good service to m_f you will wait here for half an hour or so.'
'How so?' I asked, wavering between my distrust and my curiosity.
'Well, to be frank with you'—and never did a man look less frank as h_poke—'I am waiting here for some of those people with whom I do business; bu_n some way they have not come yet, and I am inclined to take a walk round th_arsh on the chance of finding them, if they have lost their way. On the othe_and, it would be exceedingly awkward for me if they were to come here in m_bsence and imagine that I am gone. I should take it as a favour, then, if yo_ould remain here for half an hour or so, that you may tell them how matter_tand if I should chance to miss them.'
The request seemed reasonable enough, and yet there was that same obliqu_lance which told me that it was false. Still, I could not see what harm coul_ome to me by complying with his request, and certainly I could not hav_evised any arrangement which would give me such an opportunity of satisfyin_y curiosity. What was in that wide stone chimney, and why had he clambered u_here upon the sight of me? My adventure would be inconclusive indeed if I di_ot settle that point before I went on with my journey.
'Well,' said he, snatching up his black broad-brimmed hat and running ver_riskly to the door, 'I am sure that you will not refuse me my request, and _ust delay no longer or I shall never get my business finished.' He closed th_oor hurriedly behind him, and I heard the splashing of his foot-steps unti_hey were lost in the howling of the gale.
And so the mysterious cottage was mine to ransack if I could pluck its secret_rom it. I lifted the book which had been left upon the table. It wa_ousseau's 'Social Contract'—excellent literature, but hardly what one woul_xpect a trader to carry with him whilst awaiting an appointment wit_mugglers. On the fly-leaf was written 'Lucien Lesage,' and beneath it, in _oman's hand, 'Lucien, from Sibylle.' Lesage, then, was the name of my good-
looking but sinister acquaintance. It only remained for me now to discove_hat it was which he had concealed up the chimney. I listened intently, and a_here was no sound from without save the cry of the storm, I stepped on to th_dge of the grate as I had seen him do, and sprang up by the side of the fire.
It was a very broad, old-fashioned cottage chimney, so that standing on on_ide I was not inconvenienced either by the heat or by the smoke, and th_right glare from below showed me in an instant that for which I sought. Ther_as a recess at the back, caused by the fall or removal of one of the stones,
and in this was lying a small bundle. There could not be the least doubt tha_t was this which the fellow had striven so frantically to conceal upon th_irst alarm of the approach of a stranger. I took it down and held it to th_ight. It was a small square of yellow glazed cloth tied round with whit_ape. Upon my opening it a number of letters appeared, and a single larg_aper folded up. The addresses upon the letters took my breath away. The firs_hat I glanced at was to Citizen Talleyrand. The others were in the Republica_tyle addressed to Citizen Fouche, to Citizen Soult, to Citizen MacDonald, t_itizen Berthier, and so on through the whole list of famous names in war an_n diplomacy who were the pillars of the new Empire. What in the world coul_his pretended merchant of coffee have to write to all these great notable_bout? The other paper would explain, no doubt. I laid the letters upon th_helf and I unfolded the paper which had been enclosed with them. It did no_ake more than the opening sentence to convince me that the salt-marsh outsid_ight prove to be a very much safer place than this accursed cottage.
These were the words which met my eyes:—
'Fellow-citizens of France. The deed of to-day has proved that, even in th_idst of his troops, a tyrant is unable to escape the vengeance of an outrage_eople. The committee of three, acting temporarily for the Republic, ha_warded to Buonaparte the same fate which has already befallen Louis Capet. I_venging the outrage of the 18th Brumaire—'
So far I had got when my heart sprang suddenly into my mouth and the pape_luttered down from my fingers. A grip of iron had closed suddenly round eac_f my ankles, and there in the light of the fire I saw two hands which, eve_n that terrified glance, I perceived to be covered with black hair and of a_normous size.
'So, my friend,' cried a thundering voice, 'this time, at least, we have bee_oo many for you.'