For a minute or more we all stayed with straining ears while the wind still whimpered in the chimney or rattled the crazy window.
'It was nothing,' said Lesage at last, with a nervous laugh.
'The storm makes curious 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 blaze and grind them down with his heel.
Toussac seized the wood-axe which leaned against the wall. The thin man dragged the pile of decayed netting from the corner, and opened a small wooden screen, 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 I would be safe there, and that they could lay their hands upon me when they wished.
The cupboard – for it was little more – into which I had been hurried was low and narrow, and I felt in the darkness that it was heaped with peculiar round wickerwork baskets, the nature of which I could by no means imagine, although I discovered afterwards that they were lobster traps. The only light which entered was through the cracks of the old broken door, but these were so wide and numerous that I could see the whole of the room which I had just quitted. Sick and faint, with the shadow of death still clouding my wits, I was none the less fascinated by the scene which lay before me.
My thin friend, with the same prim composure upon his emaciated face, had seated himself again upon the box. With his hands clasped round one of his knees he was rocking slowly backwards and forwards; and I noticed, in the lamplight, that his jaw muscles were contracting rhythmically, like the gills of a fish. Beside him stood Lesage, his white face glistening with moisture and his loose lip quivering with fear. Every now and then he would make a vigorous attempt to compose his features, but after each rally a fresh wave of terror would sweep everything before it, and set him shaking once more. As to Toussac, he stood before the fire, a magnificent figure, with the axe held down by his leg, and his head thrown back in defiance, so that his great black beard bristled straight out in front of him. He said not a word, but every fibre of his body was braced for a struggle. Then, as the howl of the hound rose louder and clearer from the marsh outside, he ran forward and threw open the door.
'No, no, keep the dog out!' cried Lesage in an agony of apprehension.
'You fool, our only chance is to kill it.'
'But it is in leash.'
'If it is in leash nothing can save us. But if, as I think, it is running free, then we may escape yet.'
Lesage cowered up against the table, with his agonised eyes fixed upon the blue-black square of the door. The man who had befriended me still swayed his body about with a singular half-smile upon his face. His skinny hand was twitching at the frill of his shirt, and I conjectured that he held some weapon concealed there. Toussac stood between them and the open door, and, much as I feared and loathed him, I could not take my eyes from his gallant figure. As to myself, I was so much occupied by the singular drama before me, and by the impending fate of those three men of the cottage, that all thought of my own fortunes had passed completely out of my mind. On this mean stage a terrible all-absorbing drama was being played, and I, crouching in a squalid recess, was to be the sole spectator of it. I could but hold my breath and wait and watch.
And suddenly I became conscious that they could all three see something which was invisible to me. I read it from their tense faces and their staring eyes. Toussac swung his axe over his shoulder and poised himself for a blow. Lesage cowered away and put one hand between his eyes and the open door. The other ceased swinging his spindle legs and sat like a little brown image upon the edge of his box. There was a moist pattering of feet, a yellow streak shot through the doorway, and Toussac lashed at it as I have seen an English cricketer strike at a ball. His aim was true, for he buried the head of the hatchet in the creature's throat, but the force of his blow shattered his weapon, and the weight of the hound carried him backwards on to the floor. Over they rolled and over, the hairy man and the hairy dog, growling and worrying in a bestial combat. He was fumbling at the animal's throat, and I could not see what he was doing, until it gave a sudden sharp yelp of pain, and there was a rending sound like the tearing of canvas. The man staggered up with his hands dripping, and the tawny mass with the blotch of crimson lay motionless upon the floor.
'Now!' cried Toussac in a voice of thunder, 'now!' and he rushed from the hut.
Lesage had shrunk away into the corner in a frenzy of fear whilst Toussac had been killing the hound, but now he raised his agonised face, which was as wet as if he had dipped it into a basin.
'Yes, yes,' he cried; 'we must fly, Charles. The hound has left the police behind, and we may still escape.'
But the other, with the same imperturbable face, motionless save for the rhythm of his jaw muscles, walked quietly over and closed the door upon the inside.
'I think, friend Lucien,' said he in his quiet voice, 'that you had best stay where you are.'
Lesage looked at him with amazement gradually replacing terror upon his pallid features.
'But you do not understand, Charles,' he cried.
'Oh, yes, I think I do,' said the other, smiling.
'They may be here in a few minutes. The hound has slipped its leash, you see, and has left them behind in the marsh; but they are sure to come here, for there is no other cottage but this.'
'They are sure to come here.'
'Well, then, let us fly. In the darkness we may yet escape.'
'No; we shall stay where we are.'
'Madman, you may sacrifice your own life, but not mine. Stay if you wish, but for my part I am going.'
He ran towards the door with a foolish, helpless flapping of his hands, but the other sprang in front of him with so determined a gesture of authority that the younger man staggered back from it as from a blow.
'You fool!' said his companion. 'You poor miserable dupe!'
Lesage's mouth opened, and he stood staring with his knees bent and his spread-fingered hands up, the most hideous picture of fear that I have ever seen.
'You, Charles, you!' he stammered, hawking up each word.
'Yes, me,' said the other, smiling grimly.
'A police agent all the time! You who were the very soul of our
society! You who were in our inmost council! You who led us on!
Oh, Charles, you have not the heart! I think I hear them coming,
Charles. Let me pass; I beg and implore you to let me pass.'
The granite face shook slowly from side to side.
'But why me? Why not Toussac?'
'If the dog had crippled Toussac, why then I might have had you both.
But friend Toussac is rather vigorous for a thin little fellow like me.
No, no, my good Lucien, you are destined to be the trophy of my bow and my spear, and you must reconcile yourself to the fact.'
Lesage slapped his forehead as if to assure himself that he was not dreaming.