‘Call me five-and-thirty years of age. I have seen the world. I have lived here, and lived there, and lived like a gentleman everywhere. I have been treated and respected as a gentleman universally. If you try to prejudice me by making out that I have lived by my wits–how do your lawyers live–your politicians–your intriguers–your men of the Exchange?’
He kept his small smooth hand in constant requisition, as if it were a witness to his gentility that had often done him good service before.
‘Two years ago I came to Marseilles. I admit that I was poor; I had been ill. When your lawyers, your politicians, your intriguers, your men of the Exchange fall ill, and have not scraped money together, _they_ become poor. I put up at the Cross of Gold,–kept then by Monsieur Henri Barronneau–sixty-five at least, and in a failing state of health. I had lived in the house some four months when Monsieur Henri Barronneau had the misfortune to die;–at any rate, not a rare misfortune, that. It happens without any aid of mine, pretty often.’
John Baptist having smoked his cigarette down to his fingers’ ends, Monsieur Rigaud had the magnanimity to throw him another. He lighted the second at the ashes of the first, and smoked on, looking sideways at his companion, who, preoccupied with his own case, hardly looked at him.
‘Monsieur Barronneau left a widow. She was two-and-twenty. She had gained a reputation for beauty, and (which is often another thing) was beautiful. I continued to live at the Cross of Gold. I married Madame Barronneau. It is not for me to say whether there was any great disparity in such a match. Here I stand, with the contamination of a jail upon me; but it is possible that you may think me better suited to her than her former husband was.’
He had a certain air of being a handsome man–which he was not; and a certain air of being a well-bred man–which he was not. It was mere swagger and challenge; but in this particular, as in many others, blustering assertion goes for proof, half over the world.
‘Be it as it may, Madame Barronneau approved of me. _That_ is not to prejudice me, I hope?’
His eye happening to light upon John Baptist with this inquiry, that little man briskly shook his head in the negative, and repeated in an argumentative tone under his breath, altro, altro, altro, altro–an infinite number of times.
‘Now came the difficulties of our position. I am proud. I say nothing in defence of pride, but I am proud. It is also my character to govern. I can’t submit; I must govern. Unfortunately, the property of Madame Rigaud was settled upon herself. Such was the insane act of her late husband. More unfortunately still, she had relations. When a wife’s relations interpose against a husband who is a gentleman, who is proud, and who must govern, the consequences are inimical to peace. There was yet another source of difference between us. Madame Rigaud was unfortunately a little vulgar. I sought to improve her manners and ameliorate her general tone; she (supported in this likewise by her relations) resented my endeavours. Quarrels began to arise between us; and, propagated and exaggerated by the slanders of the relations of Madame Rigaud, to become notorious to the neighbours. It has been said that I treated Madame Rigaud with cruelty. I may have been seen to slap her face–nothing more. I have a light hand; and if I have been seen apparently to correct Madame Rigaud in that manner, I have done it almost playfully.’
If the playfulness of Monsieur Rigaud were at all expressed by his smile at this point, the relations of Madame Rigaud might have said that they would have much preferred his correcting that unfortunate woman seriously.
‘I am sensitive and brave. I do not advance it as a merit to be sensitive and brave, but it is my character. If the male relations of Madame Rigaud had put themselves forward openly, I should have known how to deal with them. They knew that, and their machinations were conducted in secret; consequently, Madame Rigaud and I were brought into frequent and unfortunate collision. Even when I wanted any little sum of money for my personal expenses, I could not obtain it without collision–and I, too, a man whose character it is to govern! One night, Madame Rigaud and myself were walking amicably–I may say like lovers–on a height overhanging the sea. An evil star occasioned Madame Rigaud to advert to her relations; I reasoned with her on that subject, and remonstrated on the want of duty and devotion manifested in her allowing herself to be influenced by their jealous animosity towards her husband. Madame Rigaud retorted; I retorted; Madame Rigaud grew warm; I grew warm, and provoked her. I admit it. Frankness is a part of my character. At length, Madame Rigaud, in an access of fury that I must ever deplore, threw herself upon me with screams of passion (no doubt those that were overheard at some distance), tore my clothes, tore my hair, lacerated my hands, trampled and trod the dust, and finally leaped over, dashing herself to death upon the rocks below. Such is the train of incidents which malice has perverted into my endeavouring to force from Madame Rigaud a relinquishment of her rights; and, on her persistence in a refusal to make the concession I required, struggling with her–assassinating her!’
He stepped aside to the ledge where the vine leaves yet lay strewn about, collected two or three, and stood wiping his hands upon them, with his back to the light.
‘Well,’ he demanded after a silence, ‘have you nothing to say to all that?’
‘It’s ugly,’ returned the little man, who had risen, and was brightening his knife upon his shoe, as he leaned an arm against the wall.
‘What do you mean?’
John Baptist polished his knife in silence.
‘Do you mean that I have not represented the case correctly?’
‘Al-tro!’ returned John Baptist. The word was an apology now, and stood for ‘Oh, by no means!’
‘Presidents and tribunals are so prejudiced.’
‘Well,’ cried the other, uneasily flinging the end of his cloak over his shoulder with an oath, ‘let them do their worst!’
‘Truly I think they will,’ murmured John Baptist to himself, as he bent his head to put his knife in his sash.
Nothing more was said on either side, though they both began walking to and fro, and necessarily crossed at every turn. Monsieur Rigaud sometimes stopped, as if he were going to put his case in a new light, or make some irate remonstrance; but Signor Cavalletto continuing to go slowly to and fro at a grotesque kind of jog-trot pace with his eyes turned downward, nothing came of these inclinings.
By-and-by the noise of the key in the lock arrested them both. The sound of voices succeeded, and the tread of feet. The door clashed, the voices and the feet came on, and the prison-keeper slowly ascended the stairs, followed by a guard of soldiers.
‘Now, Monsieur Rigaud,’ said he, pausing for a moment at the grate, with his keys in his hands, ‘have the goodness to come out.’
‘I am to depart in state, I see?’
‘Why, unless you did,’ returned the jailer, ‘you might depart in so many pieces that it would be difficult to get you together again. There’s a crowd, Monsieur Rigaud, and it doesn’t love you.’
He passed on out of sight, and unlocked and unbarred a low door in the corner of the chamber. ‘Now,’ said he, as he opened it and appeared within, ‘come out.’
There is no sort of whiteness in all the hues under the sun at all like the whiteness of Monsieur Rigaud’s face as it was then. Neither is there any expression of the human countenance at all like that expression in every little line of which the frightened heart is seen to beat. Both are conventionally compared with death; but the difference is the whole deep gulf between the struggle done, and the fight at its most desperate extremity.
He lighted another of his paper cigars at his companion’s; put it tightly between his teeth; covered his head with a soft slouched hat; threw the end of his cloak over his shoulder again; and walked out into the side gallery on which the door opened, without taking any further notice of Signor Cavalletto. As to that little man himself, his whole attention had become absorbed in getting near the door and looking out at it. Precisely as a beast might approach the opened gate of his den and eye the freedom beyond, he passed those few moments in watching and peering, until the door was closed upon him.