The slave of the lamp, p.4
The Slave of the Lamp,
The first man to enter the room was clad in a blouse of coarse greycloth which reached down to his knees. On his head he wore a black silkcap, very much pressed down and exceedingly greasy on the right side.This was to be accounted for by the fact that he used his right shouldermore than the left in that state of life in which he had been placed. Itwas not what we, who do not kill, would consider a pleasant state. Hewas, in fact, a slayer of beasts--a foreman at the slaughter-house.
It is, perhaps, fortunate that Antoine Lerac is of no great prominencein this record, and of none in his official capacity at theslaughter-house. But the man is worthy of some small attention, becausehe was so essentially of the nineteenth century--so distinctly a productof the latter end of what is, for us at least, the most important cycleof years the world has passed through. He was a man wearing the blousewith ostentation, and glorying in the greasy cap: professing hisunwillingness to exchange the one for an ermine robe or the other for acrown. As a matter of fact, he invariably purchased the largest androughest blouse to be found, and his cap was unnecessarily soaked withsuet. He was a knight of industry of the very worst description--abraggart, a talker, a windbag. He preached, or rather he shrieked, thedoctrine of equality, but the equality he sought was that which wouldplace him on a par with his superiors, while in no way benefiting thosebeneath him.
At one time, when he had first come into contact with the dark-eyed manwho now sat at the table watching him curiously, there had been astruggle for mastery.
"I am," he had said with considerable heat, "as good as you. That is allI wish to demonstrate."
"No," replied the other with that calm and assured air of superioritywhich the people once tried in vain to stamp out with the guillotine."No, it is not. You want to demonstrate that you are superior, and youcannot do it. You say that you have as much right to walk on thepavement as I. I admit it. In your heart you want to prove that you have_more_, and you cannot do it. I could wear your blouse withcomfort, but you could not put on my hat or my gloves without makingyourself ridiculous. But--that is not the question. Let us get tobusiness."
And in time the butcher succumbed, as he was bound to do, to the manwhom he shrewdly suspected of being an aristocrat.
He who entered the room immediately afterwards was of a very differenttype. His mode of entry was of another description. Whereas the man ofblood swaggered in with an air of nervous truculence, as if he wereafraid that some one was desirous of disputing his equality, the nextcomer crept in softly, and closed the door with accuracy. He was theincarnation of benevolence--in the best sense of the word, a sweet oldman--looking out upon the world through large tinted spectacles with abeam which could not be otherwise than blind to all motes. In earlieryears his face might, perhaps, have been a trifle hard in its contour;but Time, the lubricator, had eased some of the corners, and it was nowthe seat of kindness and love. He bowed ceremoniously to the firstcomer, and his manner seemed rather to breathe of fraternity thanequality. As he bowed he mentioned the gentleman's name in such lovingtones that no greeting could have been heartier.
"Citizen Morot," he said.
The butcher, with more haste than dignity, assumed the chair which stoodat the opposite end of the table to that occupied by the Citizen Morot.He had evidently hurried in first in order to secure that seat. From hispocket he produced a somewhat soiled paper, which he threw withexaggerated carelessness across the table. His manner was not entirelyfree from a suggestion of patronage.
"What have we here?" inquired the first comer, who had not hithertoopened his lips, with a deep interest which might possibly have beenironical. He was just the sort of man to indulge in irony for his ownsatisfaction. He unfolded the paper, raised his eyebrows, and read.
"Ah!" he said, "a receipt for five hundred rifles with bayonets andshoulder-straps complete. 'Received of the Citizen Morot five hundredrifles with bayonets and shoulder-straps complete.--Antoine Lerac.'"
He folded the paper again and carefully tore it into very small pieces.
"Thank you," he said gravely.
Then he turned in his chair and threw the papers into the ash-tray ofthe little iron stove behind him.
"I judged it best to be strictly business-like," said the butcher, withmoderately well-simulated carelessness.
"But yes, Monsieur Lerac," with a shrug. "We of the Republic distrusteach other so completely."
The old gentleman looked from one to the other with a soothing smile.
"The brave Lerac," he said, "is a man of business."
Citizen Morot ignored this observation.
"And," he said, turning to Lerac, "you have them stored in a safe place?There is absolutely no doubt of that?"
"They are under my own eye."
"Very good. It is not for a short time only, but for some months. Onecannot hurry the people. Besides, we are not ready. The rifles webought, the ammunition we must steal."
"They are good rifles--they are English," said the butcher.
"Yes; the English Government is full of chivalry. They are always readyto place it within the power of their enemies to be as well armed asthemselves."
The old gentleman laughed--a pleasant, cooing laugh. He invariablyencouraged humour, this genial philanthropist.
"At last Friday's meeting," Lerac said shortly, "we enrolled forty newmembers. We now number four hundred and two in our _arrondissement_alone."
"Good," muttered the Citizen Morot, without enthusiasm.
"And four hundred hardy companions they are."
"So I should imagine" (very gravely).
"Four hundred strong men," broke in the old gentleman rather hastily."Ah, but that is already a power."
"It is," opined Lerac sententiously, "the strong man who is the power.Riches are nothing; birth is nothing. This is the day of force. Force iseverything."
"Everything," acquiesced Morot fervently. He was consulting a smallnote-book, wherein he jotted down some figures.
"Four hundred and two," he muttered as he wrote, "up to Friday night, inthe _arrondissement_ of the citizen--the good citizen--AntoineLerac."
The butcher looked up with a doubtful expression upon his coarse face.His great brutal lips twitched, and he was on the point of speaking whenthe Citizen Morot's velvety eyes met his gaze with a quiet smile inwhich arrogance and innocence were mingled.
"And now," said the last-mentioned, turning affably to the oldgentleman, "let us have the report of the reverend Father."
"Ah," laughed Lerac, without attempting to conceal the contempt that wasin his soul, "the Church."
The old gentleman spread out his hands in mild deprecation.
"Yes," he admitted, "we are under a shadow. I do not even dare to wearmy cassock."
"You are in a valley of shadow, my reverend friend," said the butcher,with visible exultation, "to which the sun will never penetrate now."
The Citizen Morot laughed at this pleasantry, while the old man againstwhom it was directed bowed his head patiently.
"And yet," said the laugher, with a certain air of patronage, "theChurch is of some use still. She paid for those rifles, and she will payfor the ammunition--is it not so, my father?"
"Without doubt--without doubt."
"Not to mention," continued the other, "many contributions towards ourgeneral fund. The force that is supplied by the strong right arm of thepeople is, one finds, a force constantly in need of substantialreplenishment."
"But," exclaimed the butcher, emphatically banging his fist down uponthe table, "why does she do it? That is what I want to know!"
The old priest glanced furtively towards Morot, and then his faceassumed an air of childish bewilderment.
"Ah!" he said guilelessly, "who can tell?"
"Who, indeed!" chimed in Morot.
The butcher was pleased with himself. He sat upright, and, banging thetable a second time, he looked round defiantly.
"But," said Morot, in an indifferent way which was frequentlycharacteristic, "I do not see that it matters much. The money is good.It buys rifles, and it places them in the hands of the Citizen Lerac andhis hardy companions. And when all is said and done, when the cartridgesare burnt and a New Commune is raised, what does it matter whose moneybought the rifles, and with what object the money was supplied?"
The old gentleman looked relieved. He was evidently of a timid andconciliatory nature, and would, with slight encouragement, have turnedupon that Church of which he was the humble representative, merely forthe sake of peace.
The butcher cleared his throat after the manner of the streets--causingMorot to wince visibly--and acquiesced.
"But," he added cunningly, "the Church, see you--Ach! it is deep--it istreacherous. Never trust the Church!"
The Citizen Morot, to whom these remarks were addressed, smiled in asingular way and made no reply. Then he turned gravely to the old manand said--
"Have you nothing to report to us--my father?"
"Nothing of great importance," replied he humbly. "All is going on well.We are in treaty for two hundred rifles with the Montenegrin Government,and shall no doubt carry the contract through. I go to England next weekin order to carry out the--the--what shall I say?--the loan of theammunition."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the butcher.
Morot smiled also, as he made an entry in the little note-book.
"Next week?" he said interrogatively.
The butcher here rose and ostentatiously dragged out a watch from thedepths of his blouse.
"I must go," he said. "I have committee at seven o'clock. And I shalldine first."
"Yes," said Morot gravely. "Dine first. Take good care of yourself,citizen."
"I do," was the reply, delivered with a little nod in answer to Lerac'scurt farewell bow.
The butcher walked noisily through the shop--heavy withresponsibility--weighted with the sense of his own importance to theworld in general and to France in particular. Had he walked less noisilyhe might have overheard the soft laugh of the old priest.
Citizen Morot did not laugh. He was not a laughing man. But a fine,disdainful smile passed over his face, scarce lighting it up at all.
"What an utter fool the man is!" he said impatiently.
"Yes--sir," replied the old man, "but if he were less so it would bedifficult to manage him."
"I am not sure. I always prefer to deal with knaves than with fools."
"That is because your Highness knows how to outwit them."
"No titles--my father," said the Citizen Morot quietly. "No titles here,if you please. Tell me, are you quite sure of this scum--this Lerac?"
"As sure as one can be of anything that comes from the streets. He is anexcitable, bumptious, quarrelsome man; but he has a certain influencewith those beneath him, although it seems hard to realise that there aresuch."
"Ha! you are right! But a republic is a social manure-heap--that whichis on the top is not pleasant, and the stuff below--ugh!"
The manner of the two men had quite changed. He who was called Morotleant back in his seat and stretched his arms out wearily. There is nodisguise like animation; when that is laid aside we see the real man orthe real woman. In repose this Frenchman was not cheerful to look upon.He was not sanguine, and a French pessimist is the worst thing of thekind that is to be found.
When the door had closed behind the departing Lerac, the old priestseemed to throw off suddenly quite a number of years. His voice, whennext he spoke, was less senile, his movements were brisker. He was, in aword, less harmless.
Mr. Jacquetot had finished his dinner, brought in from a neighbouringrestaurant all hot, and was slumberously enjoying a very strong-smellingcigar, when the door of the little room opened at length, and the twomen went out together into the dimly-lighted street.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes