The derelict itself was one of a row of houses, some inhabited, others quite abandoned. It was the front of that row of houses, therefore, that had to be kept in view. Marshalled by Roger, the men flattened their meagre bodies against the walls of the houses opposite, and after that there was nothing to do but wait.
To wait in the darkness of the night, with a thin, icy rain soaking through ragged shirts and tattered breeches, with bare feet frozen by the mud of the road—to wait in silence while turbulent hearts beat well-nigh to bursting—to wait for food whilst hunger gnaws the bowels— to wait for drink whilst the parched tongue cleaves to the roof of the mouth—to wait for revenge whilst the hours roll slowly by and the cries of the darkened city are stilled one by one!
Once—when a distant bell tolled the hour of ten—a loud prolonged laugh, almost impudent in its suggestion of merry insouciance, echoed through the weird silence of the night.
Roger felt that the man nearest to him shivered at that sound, and he heard a volley or two of muttered oaths.
“The fox seems somewhere near,” he whispered. “Come within. We’ll wait for him inside his hole.”
He led the way across the street, some of the men following him.
The door of the derelict house had been left on the latch. Roger pushed it open.
Silence and gloom here reigned supreme; utter darkness, too, save for a narrow streak of light which edged the framework of a door on the right. Not a sound stirred the quietude of this miserable hovel, only the creaking of boards beneath the men’s feet as they entered.
Roger crossed the passage and opened the door on the right. His friends pressed closely round to him and peeped over his shoulder into the room beyond.
A guttering piece of tallow candle, fixed to an old tin pot, stood in the middle of the floor, and its feeble, flickering light only served to accentuate the darkness that lay beyond its range. One or two rickety chairs and a rough deal table showed vaguely in the gloom, and in the far corner of the room there lay a bundle of what looked like heaped-up rags, but from which there now emerged the sound of heavy breathing and also a little cry of fear.
“Yvonne,” came in feeble, querulous accents from that same bundle of wretchedness, “are these the English milors come back at last?”
“No, no, father,” was the quick whispered reply.
Roger swore a loud oath, and two puny voices began to whimper piteously.
“It strikes me the wench has been fooling us,” muttered one of the men savagely.
The girl had struggled to her feet. She crouched in the darkness, and two little boys, half-naked and shivering, were clinging to her skirts. The rest of the human bundle seemed to consist of an oldish man, with long, gaunt legs and arms blue with the cold. He turned vague, wide-open eyes in the direction whence had come the harsh voices.