For answer I stepped out in front of him, so that the light fell upon my face.
‘I am afraid, sir—’ said I.
But I had no time to finish my sentence. He struck at me with both hands like an angry cat, and, springing back into the room, he slammed the door with a crash in my face.
The swiftness of his movements and the malignity of his gesture were in such singular contrast with his appearance that I was struck speechless with surprise. But as I stood there with the door in front of me I was a witness to something which filled me with even greater astonishment.
I have already said that the cottage was in the last stage of disrepair. Amidst the many seams and cracks through which the light was breaking there was one along the whole of the hinge side of the door, which gave me from where I was standing a view of the further end of the room, at which the fire was burning. As I gazed then I saw this man reappear in front of the fire, fumbling furiously with both his hands in his bosom, and then with a spring he disappeared up the chimney, so that I could only see his shoes and half of his black calves as he stood upon the brickwork at the side of the grate. In an instant he was down again and back at the door.
‘Who are you?’ he cried, in a voice which seemed to me to be thrilling with some strong emotion.
‘I am a traveller, and have lost my way.’ There was a pause as if he were thinking what course he should pursue.
‘You will find little here to tempt you to stay,’ said he at last.
’I am weary and spent, sir; and surely you will not refuse me shelter. I have been wandering for hours in the salt-marsh.’
‘Did you meet anyone there?’ he asked eagerly.
’Stand back a little from the door. This is a wild place, and the times are troublous. A man must take some precautions.’
I took a few steps back, and he then opened the door sufficiently to allow his head to come through. He said nothing, but he looked at me for a long time in a very searching manner.
‘What is your name?’
‘Louis Laval,’ said I, thinking that it might sound less dangerous in this plebeian form.
‘Whither are you going?’
‘I wish to reach some shelter.’
‘You are from England?’
‘I am from the coast.’
He shook his head slowly to show me how little my replies had satisfied him.
‘You cannot come in here,’ said he.
‘No, no, it is impossible.’
‘Show me then how to find my way out of the marsh.’
’It is easy enough. If you go a few hundred paces in that direction you will perceive the lights of a village. You are already almost free of the marsh.’
He stepped a pace or two from the door in order to point the way for me, and then turned upon his heel. I had already taken a stride or two away from him and his inhospitable hut, when he suddenly called after me.