Low-class wine-shops, and their spawn of quarrellings and sudden deaths, abounded. Crime, in fact, attracted little attention so long as it held no menace to the public peace. Life had been so very cheap, and blood had flowed so freely, that the public ear had dulled to its cry.
Le Marchant led the way through the dark, ill-smelling streets to a cafe in the outskirts.
The Cafe au Diable Boiteux looked all its name and more. It was as ill-looking a place as ever I had seen. But here it was that the free-traders made their headquarters, and here, said Le Marchant, we might find men from the Islands, and possibly even from Sercq itself, and so get news from home.
The cafe itself opened not directly off the road, but off a large courtyard surrounded by a wall, which tended to privacy and freedom from observation.
It was quite dark when we turned in through a narrow slit of a door, in a larger door which was chained and bolted with a great cross-beam. There were doubtless other outlets known to the frequenters.
Le Marchant led the way across the dark courtyard, which was lighted only by the red-draped windows of the cafe, and opened a door out of which poured a volume of smoke and the hot reek of spirits, and a great clash of talk and laughter.
The room was so thick with smoke that, coming in out of the darkness, I could only blink, though there was no lack of lamps, and the walls were lined with mirrors in gilt frames which made the room look almost as large as the noise that filled it, and multiplied the lights and the smoke and the people in a bewildering fashion.
Three or four men had risen in a corner and were slowly working their way out, with back-thrown jests to those they were leaving. Following close on Le Marchant’s heels, I stepped aside to let them pass, and in doing so bumped against the back of a burly man who was leaning over the table in close confidential talk with one opposite him.
“Pardon!” I said, and, looking up, saw two grim eyes scowling at me, through the smoke, out of the looking-glass in front.
I gave but one glance, and felt as if I had run my head against a wall or had received a blow over the heart. For those fierce black eyes were full of menace. They had leaped to mine as blade leaps to blade, touches lightly, slides along, and holds your own with the compelling pressure that presages assault. They were like thunderclouds charged with blasting lightnings. They were full of understanding and dreadful intention, and all this I saw in one single glance.
I gripped Le Marchant’s jacket.
“Out quick!” I whispered, and turned and went.
“What—?” he began.
“Torode of Herm is there.”
“The devil! Did he see you?”
“I think so. Yes, he looked at me through the looking-glass.”
“No time to lose then!” and he sped down the yard, and through the slit of a door, and down the dark road, and I was not a foot behind him.