At exactly half-past seven that morning there came a peremptory knock at the door of the antichambre, and as Rondeau was busy in the bedroom, Heriot went himself to see who his unexpected visitor might be. On the landing outside stood an extraordinary-looking individual—more like a tall and animated scarecrow than a man—who in a tremulous voice asked if he might speak with the citizen Heriot.
“That is my name,” said the deputy gruffly, “what do you want?”
He would have liked to slam the door in the old scarecrow’s face, but the latter, with the boldness which sometimes besets the timid, had already stepped into the anti-chambre and was now quietly sauntering through to the next room into the one beyond. Heriot, being a representative of the people and a social democrat of the most advanced type, was supposed to be accessible to every one who desired speech with him. Though muttering sundry curses, he thought it best not to go against his usual practice, and after a moment’s hesitation he followed his unwelcome visitor.
The latter was in the sitting-room by this time; he had drawn a chair close to the table and sat down with the air of one who has a perfect right to be where he is; as soon as Heriot entered he said placidly:
“I would desire to speak alone with the citizen-deputy.”
And Heriot, after another slight hesitation, ordered Rondeau to close the bedroom door.
“Keep your ears open in case I call,” he added significantly.
“You are cautious, citizen,” merely remarked the visitor with a smile.
To this Heriot vouchsafed no reply. He, too, drew a chair forward and sat opposite his visitor, then he asked abruptly: “Your name and quality?”
“My name is Lepine at your service,” said the old man, “and by profession I write letters at the rate of five sous or so, according to length, for those who are not able to do it for themselves.”
“Your business with me?” queried Heriot curtly.
“To offer you two thousand francs for the letters which you stole from deputy Fabrice when you were his valet,” replied Lepine with perfect calm.
In a moment Heriot was on his feet, jumping up as if he had been stung; his pale, short-sighted eyes narrowed till they were mere slits, and through them he darted a quick, suspicious glance at the extraordinary out-at-elbows figure before him. Then he threw back his head and laughed till the tears streamed down his cheeks and his sides began to ache.
“This is a farce, I presume, citizen,” he said when he had recovered something of his composure.
“No farce, citizen,” replied Lepine calmly. “The money is at your disposal whenever you care to bring the letters to my pitch at the angle of the Rue Dauphine and the Quai des Augustins, where I carry on my business.”
“Whose money is it? Agnes de Lucines’ or did that fool Fabrice send you?”