I had little time given me to realise the extraordinary and humiliatin_osition in which I found myself, for I was lifted up by my ankles, as if _ere a fowl pulled off a perch, and jerked roughly down into the room, my bac_triking upon the stone floor with a thud which shook the breath from my body.
'Don't kill him yet, Toussac,' said a soft voice. 'Let us make sure who he i_irst.'
I felt the pressure of a thumb upon my chin and of fingers upon my throat, an_y head was slowly forced round until the strain became unbearable.
'Quarter of an inch does it and no mark,' said the thunderous voice. 'You ca_rust my old turn.'
'Don't, Toussac; don't!' said the same gentle voice which had spoken first. '_aw you do it once before, and the horrible snick that it made haunted me fo_ long time. To think that the sacred flame of life can be so readily snuffe_ut by that great material finger and thumb! Mind can indeed conquer matter, but the fighting must not be at close quarters.'
My neck was so twisted that I could not see any of these people who wer_iscussing my fate. I could only lie and listen.
'The fact remains, my dear Charles, that the fellow has our all-importan_ecret, and that it is our lives or his. 'I recognised in the voice which wa_ow speaking that of the man of the cottage. 'We owe it to ourselves to put i_ut of his power to harm us. Let him sit up, Toussac, for there is n_ossibility of his escaping.'
Some irresistible force at the back of my neck dragged me instantly into _itting position, and so for the first time I was able to look round me in _azed fashion, and to see these men into whose hands I had fallen. That the_ere murderers in the past and had murderous plans for the future I alread_athered from what I had heard and seen. I understood also that in the hear_f that lonely marsh I was absolutely in their power. None the less, _emembered the name that I bore, and I concealed as far as I could th_ickening terror which lay at my heart.
There were three of them in the room, my former acquaintance and two ne_omers. Lesage stood by the table, with his fat brown book in his hand, looking at me with a composed face, but with that humorous questioning twinkl_n his eyes which a master chess-player might assume when he had left hi_pponent without a move. On the top of the box beside him sat a very ascetic- faced, yellow, hollow-eyed man of fifty, with prim lips and a shrunken skin, which hung loosely over the long jerking tendons under his prominent chin. H_as dressed in snuff-coloured clothes, and his legs under his knee-breeche_ere of a ludicrous thinness. He shook his head at me with an air of sa_isdom, and I could read little comfort in his inhuman grey eyes. But it wa_he man called Toussac who alarmed me most. He was a colossus; bulky rathe_han tall, but misshapen from his excess of muscle. His huge legs were crooke_ike those of a great ape; and, indeed, there was something animal about hi_hole appearance, something for he was bearded up to his eyes, and it was _aw rather than a hand which still clutched me by the collar. As to hi_xpression, he was too thatched with hair to show one, but his large blac_yes looked with a sinister questioning from me to the others. If they wer_he judge and jury, it was clear who was to be executioner.
'Whence did he come? What is his business? How came he to know the hiding- place?' asked the thin man.
'When he first came I mistook him for you in the darkness,' Lesage answered.
'You will acknowledge that it was not a night on which one would expect t_eet many people in the salt-marsh. On discovering my mistake I shut the doo_nd concealed the papers in the chimney. I had forgotten that he might see m_o this through that crack by the hinges, but when I went out again, to sho_im his way and so get rid of him, my eye caught the gap, and I at onc_ealised that he had seen my action, and that it must have aroused hi_uriosity to such an extent that it would be quite certain that be would thin_nd speak of it. I called him back into the hut, therefore, in order that _ight have time to consider what I had best do with him.'
'Sapristi! a couple of cuts of that wood-axe, and a bed in the softest corne_f the marsh, would have settled the business at once,' said the fellow by m_ide.
'Quite true, my good Toussac; but it is not usual to lead off with your ace o_rumps. A little delicacy—a little finesse—'
'Let us hear what you did then?'
'It was my first object to learn whether this man Laval—'
'What did you say his name was?' cried the thin man.
'His name, according to his account, is Laval. My first object then was t_ind out whether he had in truth seen me conceal the papers or not. It was a_mportant question for us, and, as things have turned out, more importan_till for him. I made my little plan, therefore. I waited until I saw yo_pproach, and I then left him alone in the hut. I watched through the windo_nd saw him fly to the hiding-place. We then entered, and I asked you, Toussac, to be good enough to lift him down—and there he lies.'
The young fellow looked proudly round for the applause of his comrades, an_he thin man clapped his hands softly together, looking very hard at me whil_e did so.
'My dear Lesage,' said he, 'you have certainly excelled yourself. When our ne_epublic looks for its minister of police we shall know where to find him. _onfess that when, after guiding Toussac to this shelter, I followed you i_nd perceived a gentleman's legs projecting from the fireplace, even my wits, which are usually none of the slowest, hardly grasped the situation. Toussac, however, grasped the legs. He is always practical, the good Toussac.'
'Enough words!' growled the hairy creature beside me. 'It is because we hav_alked instead of acting that this Buonaparte has a crown upon his head or _ead upon his shoulders. Let us have done with the fellow and come t_usiness.'
The refined features of Lesage made me look towards him as to a possibl_rotector, but his large dark eyes were as cold and hard as jet as he looke_ack at me.
'What Toussac says is right,' said he. 'We imperil our own safety if he goe_ith our secret.'
'The devil take our own safety!' cried Toussac. 'What has that to do with th_atter? We imperil the success of our plans—that is of more importance.'
'The two things go together,' replied Lesage. 'There is no doubt that Rule 1_f our confederation defines exactly what should be done in such a case. An_esponsibility must rest with the passers of Rule 13.'
My heart had turned cold when this man with his poet's face supported th_avage at my side. But my hopes were raised again when the thin man, who ha_aid little hitherto, though he had continued to stare at me very intently, began now to show some signs of alarm at the bloodthirsty proposals of hi_omrades.
'My dear Lucien,' said he, in a soothing voice, laying his hand upon the youn_an's arm, 'we philosophers and reasoners must have a respect for human life.
The tabernacle is not to be lightly violated. We have frequently agreed tha_f it were not for the excesses of Marat—'
'I have every respect for your opinion, Charles,' the other interrupted. 'Yo_ill allow that I have always been a willing and obedient disciple. But _gain say that our personal safety is involved, and that, as far as I see, there is no middle course. No one could be more averse from cruelty than I am, but you were present with me some months ago when Toussac silenced the ma_rom Bow Street, and certainly it was done with such dexterity that th_rocess was probably more painful to the spectators than to the victim. H_ould not have been aware of the horrible sound which announced his ow_issolution. If you and I had constancy enough to endure this—and if _emember right it was chiefly at your instigation that the deed was done—the_urely on this more vital occasion—'
'No, no, Toussac, stop!' cried the thin man, his voice rising from its sof_ones to a perfect scream as the giant's hairy hand gripped me by the chi_nce more. 'I appeal to you, Lucien, upon practical as well as upon mora_rounds, not to let this deed be done. Consider that if things should g_gainst us this will cut us off from all hopes of mercy. Consider also—'
This argument seemed for a moment to stagger the younger man, whose oliv_omplexion had turned a shade greyer.
'There will be no hope for us in any case, Charles,' said he. 'We have n_hoice but to obey Rule 13.'
'Some latitude is allowed to us. We are ourselves upon the inner committee.'
'But it takes a quorum to change a rule, and we have no powers to do it.' Hi_endulous lip was quivering, but there was no softening in his eyes. Slowl_nder the pressure of those cruel fingers my chin began to sweep round to m_houlder, and I commended my soul to the Virgin and to Saint Ignatius, who ha_lways been the especial patron of my family. But this man Charles, who ha_lready befriended me, darted forwards and began to tear at Toussac's hand_ith a vehemence which was very different from his former philosophic calm.
'You _shall_ not kill him!' he cried angrily.
'Who are you, to set your wills up against mine? Let him go, Toussac! Tak_our thumb from his chin! I won't have it done, I tell you!' Then, as he sa_y the inflexible faces of his companions that blustering would not help him, he turned suddenly to tones of entreaty. 'See, now! I'll make you a promise!'
said he. 'Listen to me, Lucien! Let me examine him! If he is a police spy h_hall die! You may have him then, Toussac. But if he is only a harmles_raveller, who has blundered in here by an evil chance, and who has been le_y a foolish curiosity to inquire into our business, then you will leave hi_o me.'
You will observe that from the beginning of this affair I had never onc_pened my mouth, nor said a word in my defence, which made me mightily please_ith myself afterwards, though my silence came rather from pride than fro_ourage. To lose life and self-respect together was more than I could face.
But now, at this appeal from my advocate, I turned my eyes from the monste_ho held me to the other who condemned me. The brutality of the one alarmed m_ess than the self-interested attitude of the other, for a man is never s_angerous as when he is afraid, and of all judges the judge who has cause t_ear you is the most inflexible.
My life depended upon the answer which was to come to the appeal of m_hampion. Lesage tapped his fingers upon his teeth, and smiled indulgently a_he earnestness of his companion.
'Rule 13! Rule 13!' he kept repeating, in that exasperating voice of his.
'I will take all responsibility.'
'I'll tell you what, mister,' said Toussac, in his savage voice. 'There'_nother rule besides Rule 13, and that's the one that says that if any ma_helters an offender he shall be treated as if he was himself guilty of th_ffence.'
This attack did not shake the serenity of my champion in the least.
'You are an excellent man of action, Toussac' said he calmly; 'but when i_omes to choosing the right course, you must leave it to wiser heads than you_wn.'
His air of tranquil superiority seemed to daunt the fierce creature who hel_e. He shrugged his huge shoulders in silent dissent.
'As to you, Lucien' my friend continued, 'I am surprised, considering th_osition to which you aspire in my family, that you should for an instan_tand in the way of any wish which I may express. If you have grasped the tru_rinciples of liberty, and if you are privileged to be one of the small ban_ho have never despaired of the republic, to whom is it that you owe it?'
'Yes, yes, Charles; I acknowledge what you say,' the young man answered, wit_uch agitation. 'I am sure that I should be the last to oppose any wish whic_ou might express, but in this case I fear lest your tenderness of heart ma_e leading you astray. By all means ask him any questions that you like; bu_t seems to me that there can be only one end to the matter.'
So I thought also; for, with the full secret of these desperate men in m_ossession, what hope was there that they would ever suffer me to leave th_ut alive? And yet, so sweet is human life, and so dear a respite, be it eve_o short a one, that when that murderous hand was taken from my chin I heard _udden chiming of little bells, and the lamp blazed up into a strang_antastic blur. It was but for a moment, and then my mind was clear again, an_ was looking up at the strange gaunt face of my examiner.
'Whence have you come?' he asked.
'But you are French?'
'When did you arrive?'
'In a lugger from Dover.'
'The fellow is speaking the truth,' growled Toussac. 'Yes, I'll say that fo_im, that he is speaking the truth. We saw the lugger, and someone was lande_rom it just after the boat that brought me over pushed off.'
I remembered that boat, which had been the first thing which I had seen upo_he coast of Prance. How little I had thought what it would mean to me!
And now my advocate began asking questions—vague, useless questions—in a slow, hesitating fashion which set Toussac grumbling. This cross-examinatio_ppeared to me to be a useless farce; and yet there was a certain eagernes_nd intensity in my questioner's manner which gave me the assurance that h_ad some end in view. Was it merely that he wished to gain time? Time fo_hat? And then, suddenly, with that quick perception which comes upon thos_hose nerves are strained by an extremity of danger, I became convinced tha_e really was awaiting something—that he was tense with expectation. I read i_pon his drawn face, upon his sidelong head with his ear scooped into hi_and, above all in his twitching, restless eyes. He expected an interruption, and he was talking, talking, talking, in order to gain time for it. I was a_ure of it as if he had whispered his secret in my ear, and down in my numb, cold heart a warm little spring of hope began to bubble and run.
But Toussac had chafed at all this word-fencing, and now with an oath he brok_n upon our dialogue.
'I have had enough of this!' he cried. 'It is not for child's play of thi_ort that I risked my head in coming over here. Have we nothing better to tal_bout than this fellow? Do you suppose I came from London to listen to you_ine phrases? Have done with it, I say, and get to business.'
'Very good,' said my champion. 'There's an excellent little cupboard her_hich makes as fine a prison as one could wish for. Let us put him in here, and pass on to business. We can deal with him when we have finished.'
'And have him overhear all that we say,' said Lesage.
'I don't know what the devil has come over you,' cried Toussac, turnin_uspicious eyes upon my protector. 'I never knew you squeamish before, an_ertainly you were not backward in the affair of the man from Bow Street. Thi_ellow has our secret, and he must either die, or we shall see him at ou_rial. What is the sense of arranging a plot, and then at the last momen_urning a man loose who will ruin us all? Let us snap his neck and have don_ith it.'
The great hairy hands were stretched towards me again, but Lesage had sprun_uddenly to his feet. His face had turned very white, and he stood listenin_ith his forefinger up and his head slanted. It was a long, thin, delicat_and, and it was quivering like a leaf in the wind.
'I heard something,' he whispered.
'And I,' said the older man.
'What was it?'
For a minute or more we all stayed with straining ears while the wind stil_himpered in the chimney or rattled the crazy window.
'It was nothing,' said Lesage at last, with a nervous laugh. 'The storm make_urious sounds sometimes.'
'I heard nothing,' said Toussac.
'Hush!' cried the other. 'There it is again!'
A clear rising cry floated high above the wailing of the storm; a wild, musical cry, beginning on a low note, and thrilling swiftly up to a keen, sharp-edged howl.
'They are following us!'
Lesage dashed to the fireplace, and I saw him thrust his papers into the blaz_nd grind them down with his heel.
Toussac seized the wood-axe which leaned against the wall. The thin ma_ragged the pile of decayed netting from the corner, and opened a small woode_creen, which shut off a low recess.
'In here,' he whispered, 'quick!'
And then, as I scrambled into my refuge, I heard him say to the others that _ould be safe there, and that they could lay their hands upon me when the_ished.