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I repeated the question to myself, “Who wants my life? And if anybody wants it, what are his claims ? What have I done to merit assassination ?" Being wholly unable to answer these queries, I resolved to make a confidant of my host, the hotel-keeper. I called him to my room, and told him of what had happened. He shrugged his shoulders, as he exclaimed,
“ Monsieur, like the rest of mankind, must pay the penalty of making love."
“But," said I, shocked at his sang-froid, “I have not made love. Since I have been here, I am not conscious of even having looked at a woman—much less spoken to one."
“ Then it is an enigma," he replied. “The only solution I can offer you,
have been mistaken for some one else.” “ Bon Dieu !" I exclaimed. “You have undoubtedly hit the mark. I have been mistaken-and I know for whom. Have you not seen a man in this town bearing a striking resemblance to me ? "
“No," was the answer.
“Well, my friend, I have. The moment I saw him I felt uncomfortable. I had a presentiment of evil. You will oblige me by letting me have your bill. I shall go to Paris to-night. If I stop here another day, my life, which I left England to fortify, will be snuffed out like a candle.”
The hotel-keeper, seeing matters come to a point that affected his interests, endeavoured to laugh down my doubts. He argued that the ball I had received in my hat might have been destined for a bird ; that it was the shot of some wretched marksman, who might have mistaken my hat for a crow.
“That may be all very well,” I answered ; “but suffer me to tell you that your excuse only makes me more resolute to leave the place : for of what value is a man's life in a district abounding with sportsmen who can mistake a hat for a crow? ”
A train left for Paris at 2.35. It was an express, and I found it to be due at eight o'clock. I despatched my portmanteau by a porter to the station, and having twenty minutes before me, sat down to a light repast of cold fowl and vin ordinaire. The position of my table enabled me to get a view of the street. As the porter strode away with my luggage, I observed a man cross the road and accost him. In reply to what was obviously a question, the porter, with the gesticulation of a Frenchman, pointed with his thumb to the hotel, and vigorously nodded his head. The man crossed over again to the pavement, came on until he was opposite the hotel, caught sight of me through the window, and abruptly turning on his heel, walked off in the direction taken by the porter.
I thought nothing of this. The man, I conjectured, probably wanted the job I had given to the porter. He was a common-looking fellow, dressed in leather gaiters, a blouse, a slouched cap, and a belt. There was nothing singular in his face. He was dark, with a black beard and moustache. He was a familiar type of the middleaged peasant of southern France.
Having discharged my bill, I walked to the railway-station. On one platform there was much tumult, a train from Paris having just arrived. But upon the platform against which stood the train that was to bear me to the North, I counted only five people, exclusive of porters.
But I had little time for observation. The train would leave in three minutes. I saw my portmanteau stowed away in the luggagevan, procured myself a first-class ticket, and took my seat.
The shrill whistle of the guard sounded. The engine gave a snort, and the line of carriages clanked to their chains as they tightened to the strain. Suddenly several voices cried "Stop ! stop! Now, then, quick! Which class-first? Let's see your ticket. Right Here you are-jump in!” The door of my carriage was opened, a form bounded in, the door was slammed, there was another shrill whistle, and off went the train.
I looked at my companion. He was the man whom I had noticed speak to the porter and stare into the window of my hotel.
A thrill passed over me. My recent escape had greatly shaken my nervous system, and the apparition of a man whom I felt I ought to suspect sent a chill through my blood. As a peasant, which he was—not expressed only in his dress, but in his hands, which were dirty, rough, and horny-what did he do in a first-class carriage? I would have given something to have changed carriages. But there was no communication with the guard. Moreover the train, as I have told you, was an express, and did not stop until a run of sixtysix miles had been accomplished. We were now bowling along with great rapidity.
The man sat, screwed into the corner away from me, immoveable. He appeared to be looking through the window at the country as it whirled by; but there was an abstracted expression in his gaze which indicated that he saw nothing. His arms were folded upon his breast. Though he must have been conscious of my scrutiny, he never turned his eyes upon me. His lips, I saw, were tightly compressed, and he breathed slowly but deeply through his nose, the nostrils of which dilated to the steady respiration.
I began after a time to regain my composure. I struggled to laugh down my fears. What, I thought, had I to fear from a man I had
never seen—who had never seen me? The thing was preposterous. I extracted a paper from my pocket and commenced to read. I might have spoken to him, only I imagined that a man in his situation might have been embarrassed by my French, which I did not speak with a good accent. Besides, there was something that repelled all approach in his immobility.
Half an hour passed away. All at once, over the edge of my newspaper, I saw him put his hand out of the window, as if to open the door. I had not time to conjecture his intention when, with a wild, screaming whistle, we were hurled into the night of a long tunnel.
The rapid disappearance of the daylight made the oil lamp suspended in the carriage emit but the dullest light for some minutes.
I laid the newspaper down, with all my old fears revived in me. I had scarcely done so when I saw the outline of the man rise in the carriage. He leapt over to where I was seated. I saw the gleam of a knife in the air.
Mad with passion and surprise, I grasped the descending arm. A furious determination to preserve my life inspired me with the strength of a giant. The ferocity with which I seized his wrist forced the hand open.
The knife fell; and then commenced a silent, furious struggle.
He seized me by the collar, and clung with the tenacity of a tiger. I heard his snapping teeth, as if he were endeavouring to bite. We swayed from one end of the carriage to the other. I felt how weak ill health had left me, and prayed to pass out into the light, that I might the better see how to encounter the ruffian.
Suddenly I felt myself swung round with tremendous energy. I bounded against a door which opened, and we both fell out on to the lines in the very centre of the tunnel.
The fall seemed to have stunned him, for he fell under me, and remained for a time motionless. For myself, I received an indescribable shock, such as is experieneed in a collision ; but I retained my senses. I heard the roar of the train dying away in the distance. I saw the red gleam fading like the eye of a dying demon.
I still clutched him by the throat, nor did I dare relinquish it. My situation was frightful. I suspected that a down-train would soon be passing, and in the intense blackness of the tunnel I could not see on which line we had fallen. I would have stretched forth
hand to grope for the rails; I might have found a place of safety by judging of the distance between them ; but I felt the form of my assailant commencing to writhe beneath me. His struggles grew fiercer. He endeavoured to rise, but with the fury of despair I
kept him pressed down, one hand on his throat, the other on his breast. What I desired was to render him insensible. I would then leave him in the darkness, and grope my way as I could.
It never occurred to me at the time that there was no need to make him insensible in order to elude him. The darkness would have rendered my presence invisible to him. But my mind was hopelessly confused.
was breathing a sulphureous air made thick and difficult by its blackness. My only thought was to keep the ruffian down. I was only capable, indeed, of this thought.
A few minutes had elapsed when I heard a distant rumbling like approaching thunder. It increased. I seemed to feel a wind blowing against my face. I tasted, too, a continual draught of smoke and steam. I knew that a train was approaching, and my hair lifted on my head. What rails were we on? The suspense was frightful.
My assailant increased his struggles. He became furious. He was evidently fighting to throw me down, and over in the direction of that side of the tunnel along which came the roar of the train. I saw his object, and madly pressed upon him. His body frantically writhed. He twisted under me as if he revolved upon a pivot. He endeavoured to shriek some words to me, but my throttling grasp made his voice no more than a horrible hoarseness.
I saw the red and green lights of the engine approaching. They grew in size and lustre, with a hideous rapidity. There was a roar, a shower of dust, a wind that struck me down like a blow from a strong man's fist; then followed the dying rattle, ending in a dull and sullen moan.
I rose to my feet. I crossed over to the wall, and, feeling along it, took to walking with all the speed my sinking frame would suffer me to put forth. How long I walked I know not. My passage seemed interminable. The damp of the wall, against which my left hand constantly pressed, froze my blood. Now and then I stumbled over piles of rubbish lying grouped against the side; and sometimes my groping was bewildered by my coming across recesses into which my hands guided me.
At length I saw a star, tremulous, glorious, in the distance. It was daylight: the aperture of the tunnel, and I pushed forward with invigorated spirits. I neared it slowly; for this star seemed to maintain an inexorable distance, and would not enlarge. How shall I describe my joy as I gained the twilight of its reflection—as I advanced and felt the pure air of heaven upon my dry cheeks and burning lips, -as I saw the blue sky, and the dim vista of pale green banks!
As I got into the light a cry escaped my lips. My trousers were splashed with blood. There was one ensanguined line, as if a fountain of blood had played upon me.
I seated myself to recover my strength. I could see that I presented a dismal and terrible spectacle. My coat was torn, my hands were black—50, too, I judged was my face—my collar had been torn from me, and the skin at the ends of my fingers was lacerated. After reposing myself I climbed the bank, and perceived at about the distance of a mile a small station. I made towards it, and gained it. A railway official, who was standing looking at two children playing in a back garden, uttered a loud cry of alarm as he spied me. I narrated my story to him as coherently as I could, and then sunk upon the ground in a fainting condition.
Of what happened after this I have no remembrance. When I came to my senses I discovered that I had been taken to the house of the station-master, and carefully tended by his wife. From him I learnt the conclusion of this singular incident in my
It seems that after my story had been told, two men were dispatched into the tunnel in search of my assailant. They discovered him lying dead, with both his legs cut clean off a little above the knees. They bore the corpse to an adjacent dead-house; and an inquiry into his death brought out such particulars which are very easily anticipated. The man who so very closely resembled me at V—had seduced the betrothed of a labourer, one Theodore Vertôt. This Theodore, reckless now of life, and resolutely bent on vengeance, swore to kill the seducer. Mistaking me for his enemy, he attempted to shoot me. This failing, he hung about the hotel armed with a stiletto, determining to stab me whenever I should appear in the street. Hearing, however, that I was about leaving for Paris, he perceived a better and safer means of prosecuting his design, by stabbing me in the tunnel through which he knew we would pass, and then escaping in the darkness. Reflection had obviously taught him that revenge would be none the less sweet because it did not entail his destruction by the law.
Such is this simple but tragical story. My prototype, who had been the means of twice imperilling my life, I have never seen since. I confess to no wish to see him. It is bad enough to have to bear the brunt of one's own follies; it is altogether miserable to suffer from the follies of others. Ever since the occurrence of this small episode I have always thought that there is a much wiser providence manifested in the dissimilarity between man and man than our philosophy suffers us to dream of.