ST. Ives

Page 45

I have forgotten the details; no doubt they were high- coloured. No doubt I rejoiced to fool these jolter-heads; and no doubt the sense of security that I drank from their dull, gasping faces encouraged me to proceed extremely far. And for my sins, there was one silent little man at table who took my story at the true value. It was from no sense of humour, to which he was quite dead. It was from no particular intelligence, for he had not any. The bond of sympathy, of all things in the world, had rendered him clairvoyant.

Dinner was no sooner done than I strolled forth into the streets with some design of viewing the cathedral; and the little man was silently at my heels. A few doors from the inn, in a dark place of the street, I was aware of a touch on my arm, turned suddenly, and found him looking up at me with eyes pathetically bright.

'I beg your pardon, sir; but that story of yours was particularly rich. He--he! Particularly racy,' said he. 'I tell you, sir, I took you wholly! I SMOKED you! I believe you and I, sir, if we had a chance to talk, would find we had a good many opinions in common. Here is the "Blue Bell," a very comfortable place. They draw good ale, sir. Would you be so condescending as to share a pot with me?'

There was something so ambiguous and secret in the little man's perpetual signalling, that I confess my curiosity was much aroused. Blaming myself, even as I did so, for the indiscretion, I embraced his proposal, and we were soon face to face over a tankard of mulled ale. He lowered his voice to the least attenuation of a whisper.

'Here, sir,' said he, 'is to the Great Man. I think you take me? No?' He leaned forward till our noses touched. 'Here is to the Emperor!' said he.

I was extremely embarrassed, and, in spite of the creature's innocent appearance, more than half alarmed. I thought him too ingenious, and, indeed, too daring for a spy. Yet if he were honest he must be a man of extraordinary indiscretion, and therefore very unfit to be encouraged by an escaped prisoner. I took a half course, accordingly--accepted his toast in silence, and drank it without enthusiasm.

He proceeded to abound in the praises of Napoleon, such as I had never heard in France, or at least only on the lips of officials paid to offer them.

'And this Caffarelli, now,' he pursued: 'he is a splendid fellow, too, is he not? I have not heard vastly much of him myself. No details, sir--no details! We labour under huge difficulties here as to unbiassed information.'

'I believe I have heard the same complaint in other countries,' I could not help remarking. 'But as to Caffarelli, he is neither lame nor blind, he has two legs and a nose in the middle of his face. And I care as much about him as you care for the dead body of Mr. Perceval!'

He studied me with glowing eyes.

'You cannot deceive me!' he cried. 'You have served under him. You are a Frenchman! I hold by the hand, at last, one of that noble race, the pioneers of the glorious principles of liberty and brotherhood. Hush! No, it is all right. I thought there had been somebody at the door. In this wretched, enslaved country we dare not even call our souls our own. The spy and the hangman, sir--the spy and the hangman! And yet there is a candle burning, too. The good leaven is working, sir--working underneath. Even in this town there are a few brave spirits, who meet every Wednesday. You must stay over a day or so, and join us. We do not use this house. Another, and a quieter. They draw fine ale, however--fair, mild ale. You will find yourself among friends, among brothers. You will hear some very daring sentiments expressed!' he cried, expanding his small chest. 'Monarchy, Christianity--all the trappings of a bloated past--the Free Confraternity of Durham and Tyneside deride.'

Here was a devil of a prospect for a gentleman whose whole design was to avoid observation! The Free Confraternity had no charms for me; daring sentiments were no part of my baggage; and I tried, instead, a little cold water.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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