Little Dorrit 039


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The little Italian, previously influenced in his sleep, perhaps, by the stealthy presence at his bedside, stopped in his regular breathing, and with a long deep respiration opened his eyes. At first they were not awake, though open. He lay for some seconds looking placidly at his old prison companion, and then, all at once, with a cry of surprise and alarm, sprang out of bed.

‘Hush! What’s the matter? Keep quiet! It’s I. You know me?’ cried the other, in a suppressed voice.

But John Baptist, widely staring, muttering a number of invocations and ejaculations, tremblingly backing into a corner, slipping on his trousers, and tying his coat by the two sleeves round his neck, manifested an unmistakable desire to escape by the door rather than renew the acquaintance. Seeing this, his old prison comrade fell back upon the door, and set his shoulders against it.

‘Cavalletto! Wake, boy! Rub your eyes and look at me. Not the name you used to call me–don’t use that–Lagnier, say Lagnier!’

John Baptist, staring at him with eyes opened to their utmost width, made a number of those national, backhanded shakes of the right forefinger in the air, as if he were resolved on negativing beforehand everything that the other could possibly advance during the whole term of his life.

‘Cavalletto! Give me your hand. You know Lagnier, the gentleman. Touch the hand of a gentleman!’

Submitting himself to the old tone of condescending authority, John Baptist, not at all steady on his legs as yet, advanced and put his hand in his patron’s. Monsieur Lagnier laughed; and having given it a squeeze, tossed it up and let it go.

‘Then you were–’ faltered John Baptist.

‘Not shaved? No. See here!’ cried Lagnier, giving his head a twirl; ‘as tight on as your own.’

John Baptist, with a slight shiver, looked all round the room as if to recall where he was. His patron took that opportunity of turning the key in the door, and then sat down upon his bed.

‘Look!’ he said, holding up his shoes and gaiters. ‘That’s a poor trim for a gentleman, you’ll say. No matter, you shall see how soon I’ll mend it. Come and sit down. Take your old place!’

John Baptist, looking anything but reassured, sat down on the floor at the bedside, keeping his eyes upon his patron all the time.

‘That’s well!’ cried Lagnier. ‘Now we might be in the old infernal hole again, hey? How long have you been out?’

‘Two days after you, my master.’

‘How do you come here?’

‘I was cautioned not to stay there, and so I left the town at once, and since then I have changed about. I have been doing odds and ends at Avignon, at Pont Esprit, at Lyons; upon the Rhone, upon the Saone.’ As he spoke, he rapidly mapped the places out with his sunburnt hand upon the floor.

‘And where are you going?’

‘Going, my master?’

‘Ay!’

John Baptist seemed to desire to evade the question without knowing how. ‘By Bacchus!’ he said at last, as if he were forced to the admission, ‘I have sometimes had a thought of going to Paris, and perhaps to England.’

‘Cavalletto. This is in confidence. I also am going to Paris and perhaps to England. We’ll go together.’

The little man nodded his head, and showed his teeth; and yet seemed not quite convinced that it was a surpassingly desirable arrangement.

‘We’ll go together,’ repeated Lagnier. ‘You shall see how soon I will force myself to be recognised as a gentleman, and you shall profit by it. It is agreed? Are we one?’

‘Oh, surely, surely!’ said the little man.

‘Then you shall hear before I sleep–and in six words, for I want sleep–how I appear before you, I, Lagnier. Remember that. Not the other.’

‘Altro, altro! Not Ri—-’ Before John Baptist could finish the name, his comrade had got his hand under his chin and fiercely shut up his mouth.

‘Death! what are you doing? Do you want me to be trampled upon and stoned? Do _you_ want to be trampled upon and stoned? You would be. You don’t imagine that they would set upon me, and let my prison chum go? Don’t think it!’

There was an expression in his face as he released his grip of his friend’s jaw, from which his friend inferred that if the course of events really came to any stoning and trampling, Monsieur Lagnier would so distinguish him with his notice as to ensure his having his full share of it. He remembered what a cosmopolitan gentleman Monsieur Lagnier was, and how few weak distinctions he made.

‘I am a man,’ said Monsieur Lagnier, ‘whom society has deeply wronged since you last saw me. You know that I am sensitive and brave, and that it is my character to govern. How has society respected those qualities in me? I have been shrieked at through the streets. I have been guarded through the streets against men, and especially women, running at me armed with any weapons they could lay their hands on. I have lain in prison for security, with the place of my confinement kept a secret, lest I should be torn out of it and felled by a hundred blows. I have been carted out of Marseilles in the dead of night, and carried leagues away from it packed in straw. It has not been safe for me to go near my house; and, with a beggar’s pittance in my pocket, I have walked through vile mud and weather ever since, until my feet are crippled–look at them! Such are the humiliations that society has inflicted upon me, possessing the qualities I have mentioned, and which you know me to possess. But society shall pay for it.’

All this he said in his companion’s ear, and with his hand before his lips.


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