It was then that Byrne had his first glimpse of the little cloaked man in a yellow hat. Faded and dingy as it was, this covering for his head made him noticeable.

The entrance to the wine-shop was like a rough hole in a wall of flints. The owner was the only person who was not in the street, for he came out from the darkness at the back, where the inflated forms of wine-skins hung on nails could be vaguely distinguished. He was a tall, one-eyed Asturian* with scrubby, hollow cheeks; a grave expression of countenance contrasted enigmatically with the roaming restlessness of his solitary eye. On learning that the matter in hand was the sending on his way of that English mariner toward a certain Gonzales in the mountains, he closed his good eye for a moment as if in meditation. Then opened it, very lively again.

‘Possibly, possibly. It could be done.’

A friendly murmur arose in the group in the doorway at the name of Gonzales, the local leader against the French. Inquiring as to the safety of the road, Byrne was glad to learn that no troops of that nation had been seen in the neighbourhood for months. Not the smallest little detachment of these impious polizones.* While giving these answers the owner of the wine-shop busied himself in drawing into an earthenware jug some wine which he set before the heretic English, pocketing with grave abstraction the small piece of money the officer threw upon the table in recognition of the unwritten law that none may enter a wine-shop without buying drink. His eye was in constant motion, as if it were trying to do the work of the two; but when Byrne made inquiries as to the possibility of hiring a mule it became immovably fixed in the direction of the door, which was closely besieged by the curious. In front of them, just within the threshold, the little man in the large cloak and yellow hat had taken his stand. He was a diminutive person, a mere homunculus, Byrne describes him, in a ridiculously mysterious yet assertive attitude, a corner of his cloak thrown cavalierly over his left shoulder, muffling his chin and mouth; while the broad- brimmed yellow hat hung sideways on a corner of his square little head. He stood there taking snuff repeatedly.

‘A mule,’ repeated the wine-seller, his eye fixed on that quaint and snuffy figure.… ‘No, señor officer! Decidedly no mule is to be got in this poor place.’

The coxswain, who stood by with the true sailor’s air of unconcern in strange surroundings, struck in quietly: ‘If your honour will believe me, Shank’s pony’s* the best for this job. I would have to leave the beast somewhere, anyhow, since the captain has told me that half my way will be along paths fit only for goats.’

The diminutive man made a step forward, and spoke through the folds of the cloak, which seemed to muffle a sarcastic intention: ‘Si, señor. They are too honest in this village to have a single mule amongst them for your worship’s service. To that I can bear testimony. In these times it’s only rogues or very clever men who can manage to have mules or any other four-footed beasts and the wherewithal to keep them. But what this valiant mariner wants is a guide; and here, señor, behold my brother-in-law Bernardino, wineseller and Alcade* of this most Christian and hospitable village, who will find you one.’

This, Mr Byrne says in his relation, was the only thing to do. A youth in a ragged coat and goatskin breeches was produced after some more talk. The English officer stood treat to the whole village, and as the peasants crowded in to drink he and Cuba Tom took their departure accompanied by the guide. The diminutive man in the cloak had disappeared.

Byrne went along with the coxswain out of the village. He wanted to see him fairly on his way; and he would have gone a greater distance even, if the seaman had not suggested respectfully the advisability of return so as not to keep the ship a moment longer than necessary so close in with the shore on such an unpromising-looking morning. A wild, gloomy sky hung over their heads when they took leave of each other, and their surroundings of rank bushes and stony fields were dreary.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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