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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/12

CHAPTER 11. Let Loose

A late, dull autumn night was closing in upon the river Saone. Thestream, like a sullied looking-glass in a gloomy place, reflected theclouds heavily; and the low banks leaned over here and there, as if theywere half curious, and half afraid, to see their darkening pictures inthe water. The flat expanse of country about Chalons lay a long heavystreak, occasionally made a little ragged by a row of poplar treesagainst the wrathful sunset. On the banks of the river Saone it was wet,depressing, solitary; and the night deepened fast.

One man slowly moving on towards Chalons was the only visible figure inthe landscape. Cain might have looked as lonely and avoided. With an oldsheepskin knapsack at his back, and a rough, unbarked stick cut out ofsome wood in his hand; miry, footsore, his shoes and gaiters troddenout, his hair and beard untrimmed; the cloak he carried over hisshoulder, and the clothes he wore, sodden with wet; limping along inpain and difficulty; he looked as if the clouds were hurrying from him,as if the wail of the wind and the shuddering of the grass were directedagainst him, as if the low mysterious plashing of the water murmured athim, as if the fitful autumn night were disturbed by him.

He glanced here, and he glanced there, sullenly but shrinkingly; andsometimes stopped and turned about, and looked all round him. Then helimped on again, toiling and muttering.

'To the devil with this plain that has no end! To the devil with thesestones that cut like knives! To the devil with this dismal darkness,wrapping itself about one with a chill! I hate you!'

And he would have visited his hatred upon it all with the scowl he threwabout him, if he could. He trudged a little further; and looking intothe distance before him, stopped again.

'I, hungry, thirsty, weary. You, imbeciles, where the lights are yonder,eating and drinking, and warming yourselves at fires! I wish I had thesacking of your town; I would repay you, my children!'

But the teeth he set at the town, and the hand he shook at the town,brought the town no nearer; and the man was yet hungrier, and thirstier,and wearier, when his feet were on its jagged pavement, and he stoodlooking about him.

There was the hotel with its gateway, and its savoury smell of cooking;there was the cafe with its bright windows, and its rattling ofdominoes; there was the dyer's with its strips of red cloth on thedoorposts; there was the silversmith's with its earrings, and itsofferings for altars; there was the tobacco dealer's with its livelygroup of soldier customers coming out pipe in mouth; there were the badodours of the town, and the rain and the refuse in the kennels, andthe faint lamps slung across the road, and the huge Diligence, and itsmountain of luggage, and its six grey horses with their tails tied up,getting under weigh at the coach office. But no small cabaret for astraitened traveller being within sight, he had to seek one round thedark corner, where the cabbage leaves lay thickest, trodden about thepublic cistern at which women had not yet left off drawing water. There,in the back street he found one, the Break of Day. The curtained windowsclouded the Break of Day, but it seemed light and warm, and it announcedin legible inscriptions with appropriate pictorial embellishmentof billiard cue and ball, that at the Break of Day one could playbilliards; that there one could find meat, drink, and lodgings, whetherone came on horseback, or came on foot; and that it kept good wines,liqueurs, and brandy. The man turned the handle of the Break of Daydoor, and limped in.

He touched his discoloured slouched hat, as he came in at the door, toa few men who occupied the room. Two were playing dominoes at one of thelittle tables; three or four were seated round the stove, conversingas they smoked; the billiard-table in the centre was left alone for thetime; the landlady of the Daybreak sat behind her little counter amongher cloudy bottles of syrups, baskets of cakes, and leaden drainage forglasses, working at her needle.

Making his way to an empty little table in a corner of the room behindthe stove, he put down his knapsack and his cloak upon the ground. Ashe raised his head from stooping to do so, he found the landlady besidehim.

'One can lodge here to-night, madame?'

'Perfectly!' said the landlady in a high, sing-song, cheery voice.

'Good. One can dine--sup--what you please to call it?'

'Ah, perfectly!' cried the landlady as before.

'Dispatch then, madame, if you please. Something to eat, as quickly asyou can; and some wine at once. I am exhausted.'

'It is very bad weather, monsieur,' said the landlady.

'Cursed weather.'

'And a very long road.'

'A cursed road.'

His hoarse voice failed him, and he rested his head upon his hands untila bottle of wine was brought from the counter. Having filled and emptiedhis little tumbler twice, and having broken off an end from the greatloaf that was set before him with his cloth and napkin, soup-plate,salt, pepper, and oil, he rested his back against the corner of thewall, made a couch of the bench on which he sat, and began to chewcrust, until such time as his repast should be ready.

There had been that momentary interruption of the talk about the stove,and that temporary inattention to and distraction from one another,which is usually inseparable in such a company from the arrival of astranger. It had passed over by this time; and the men had done glancingat him, and were talking again.

'That's the true reason,' said one of them, bringing a story he hadbeen telling, to a close, 'that's the true reason why they said that thedevil was let loose.' The speaker was the tall Swiss belonging to thechurch, and he brought something of the authority of the church into thediscussion--especially as the devil was in question.

The landlady having given her directions for the new guest'sentertainment to her husband, who acted as cook to the Break of Day, hadresumed her needlework behind her counter. She was a smart, neat, brightlittle woman, with a good deal of cap and a good deal of stocking, andshe struck into the conversation with several laughing nods of her head,but without looking up from her work.

'Ah Heaven, then,' said she. 'When the boat came up from Lyons, andbrought the news that the devil was actually let loose at Marseilles,some fly-catchers swallowed it. But I? No, not I.'

'Madame, you are always right,' returned the tall Swiss. 'Doubtless youwere enraged against that man, madame?'

'Ay, yes, then!' cried the landlady, raising her eyes from her work,opening them very wide, and tossing her head on one side. 'Naturally,yes.'

'He was a bad subject.'

'He was a wicked wretch,' said the landlady, 'and well merited what hehad the good fortune to escape. So much the worse.'

'Stay, madame! Let us see,' returned the Swiss, argumentatively turninghis cigar between his lips. 'It may have been his unfortunate destiny.He may have been the child of circumstances. It is always possible thathe had, and has, good in him if one did but know how to find it out.Philosophical philanthropy teaches--'

The rest of the little knot about the stove murmured an objection tothe introduction of that threatening expression. Even the two playersat dominoes glanced up from their game, as if to protest againstphilosophical philanthropy being brought by name into the Break of Day.

'Hold there, you and your philanthropy,' cried the smiling landlady,nodding her head more than ever. 'Listen then. I am a woman, I. I knownothing of philosophical philanthropy. But I know what I have seen, andwhat I have looked in the face in this world here, where I find myself.And I tell you this, my friend, that there are people (men and womenboth, unfortunately) who have no good in them--none. That there arepeople whom it is necessary to detest without compromise. That there arepeople who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race. That thereare people who have no human heart, and who must be crushed like savagebeasts and cleared out of the way. They are but few, I hope; but I haveseen (in this world here where I find myself, and even at the littleBreak of Day) that there are such people. And I do not doubt that thisman--whatever they call him, I forget his name--is one of them.'

The landlady's lively speech was received with greater favour atthe Break of Day, than it would have elicited from certain amiablewhitewashers of the class she so unreasonably objected to, nearer GreatBritain.

'My faith! If your philosophical philanthropy,' said the landlady,putting down her work, and rising to take the stranger's soup from herhusband, who appeared with it at a side door, 'puts anybody at the mercyof such people by holding terms with them at all, in words or deeds, orboth, take it away from the Break of Day, for it isn't worth a sou.'

As she placed the soup before the guest, who changed his attitude to asitting one, he looked her full in the face, and his moustache went upunder his nose, and his nose came down over his moustache.

'Well!' said the previous speaker, 'let us come back to our subject.Leaving all that aside, gentlemen, it was because the man was acquittedon his trial that people said at Marseilles that the devil was letloose. That was how the phrase began to circulate, and what it meant;nothing more.'

'How do they call him?' said the landlady. 'Biraud, is it not?'

'Rigaud, madame,' returned the tall Swiss.

'Rigaud! To be sure.'

The traveller's soup was succeeded by a dish of meat, and that by a dishof vegetables. He ate all that was placed before him, emptied his bottleof wine, called for a glass of rum, and smoked his cigarette withhis cup of coffee. As he became refreshed, he became overbearing; andpatronised the company at the Daybreak in certain small talk at which heassisted, as if his condition were far above his appearance.

The company might have had other engagements, or they might have felttheir inferiority, but in any case they dispersed by degrees, and notbeing replaced by other company, left their new patron in possession ofthe Break of Day. The landlord was clinking about in his kitchen; thelandlady was quiet at her work; and the refreshed traveller sat smokingby the stove, warming his ragged feet.

'Pardon me, madame--that Biraud.'

'Rigaud, monsieur.'

'Rigaud. Pardon me again--has contracted your displeasure, how?'

The landlady, who had been at one moment thinking within herself thatthis was a handsome man, at another moment that this was an ill-lookingman, observed the nose coming down and the moustache going up, andstrongly inclined to the latter decision. Rigaud was a criminal, shesaid, who had killed his wife.

'Ay, ay? Death of my life, that's a criminal indeed. But how do you knowit?'

'All the world knows it.'

'Hah! And yet he escaped justice?'

'Monsieur, the law could not prove it against him to its satisfaction.So the law says. Nevertheless, all the world knows he did it. The peopleknew it so well, that they tried to tear him to pieces.'

'Being all in perfect accord with their own wives?' said the guest. 'Haha!'

The landlady of the Break of Day looked at him again, and felt almostconfirmed in her last decision. He had a fine hand, though, and heturned it with a great show. She began once more to think that he wasnot ill-looking after all.

'Did you mention, madame--or was it mentioned among the gentlemen--whatbecame of him?'

The landlady shook her head; it being the first conversational stage atwhich her vivacious earnestness had ceased to nod it, keeping time to whatshe said. It had been mentioned at the Daybreak, she remarked, on theauthority of the journals, that he had been kept in prison for his ownsafety. However that might be, he had escaped his deserts; so much theworse.

The guest sat looking at her as he smoked out his final cigarette, andas she sat with her head bent over her work, with an expression thatmight have resolved her doubts, and brought her to a lasting conclusionon the subject of his good or bad looks if she had seen it. When she didlook up, the expression was not there. The hand was smoothing his shaggymoustache.

'May one ask to be shown to bed, madame?'

Very willingly, monsieur. Hola, my husband! My husband would conduct himup-stairs. There was one traveller there, asleep, who had gone to bedvery early indeed, being overpowered by fatigue; but it was a largechamber with two beds in it, and space enough for twenty. This thelandlady of the Break of Day chirpingly explained, calling betweenwhiles, 'Hola, my husband!' out at the side door.

My husband answered at length, 'It is I, my wife!' and presentinghimself in his cook's cap, lighted the traveller up a steep and narrowstaircase; the traveller carrying his own cloak and knapsack, andbidding the landlady good night with a complimentary reference to thepleasure of seeing her again to-morrow. It was a large room, with arough splintery floor, unplastered rafters overhead, and two bedsteadson opposite sides. Here 'my husband' put down the candle he carried, andwith a sidelong look at his guest stooping over his knapsack, grufflygave him the instruction, 'The bed to the right!' and left him to hisrepose. The landlord, whether he was a good or a bad physiognomist, hadfully made up his mind that the guest was an ill-looking fellow.

The guest looked contemptuously at the clean coarse bedding prepared forhim, and, sitting down on the rush chair at the bedside, drew his moneyout of his pocket, and told it over in his hand. 'One must eat,' hemuttered to himself, 'but by Heaven I must eat at the cost of some otherman to-morrow!'

As he sat pondering, and mechanically weighing his money in his palm,the deep breathing of the traveller in the other bed fell so regularlyupon his hearing that it attracted his eyes in that direction. The manwas covered up warm, and had drawn the white curtain at his head, sothat he could be only heard, not seen. But the deep regular breathing,still going on while the other was taking off his worn shoes andgaiters, and still continuing when he had laid aside his coat andcravat, became at length a strong provocative to curiosity, andincentive to get a glimpse of the sleeper's face.

The waking traveller, therefore, stole a little nearer, and yet a littlenearer, and a little nearer to the sleeping traveller's bed, until hestood close beside it. Even then he could not see his face, for he haddrawn the sheet over it. The regular breathing still continuing, he puthis smooth white hand (such a treacherous hand it looked, as it wentcreeping from him!) to the sheet, and gently lifted it away.

'Death of my soul!' he whispered, falling back, 'here's Cavalletto!'

The little Italian, previously influenced in his sleep, perhaps, by thestealthy presence at his bedside, stopped in his regular breathing, andwith a long deep respiration opened his eyes. At first they were notawake, though open. He lay for some seconds looking placidly at hisold prison companion, and then, all at once, with a cry of surprise andalarm, sprang out of bed.

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

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

'Cavalletto! Wake, boy! Rub your eyes and look at me. Not the name youused 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 rightforefinger in the air, as if he were resolved on negativing beforehandeverything that the other could possibly advance during the whole termof his life.

'Cavalletto! Give me your hand. You know Lagnier, the gentleman. Touchthe hand of a gentleman!'

Submitting himself to the old tone of condescending authority, JohnBaptist, not at all steady on his legs as yet, advanced and put hishand in his patron's. Monsieur Lagnier laughed; and having given it asqueeze, 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; 'astight on as your own.'

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

'Look!' he said, holding up his shoes and gaiters. 'That's a poor trimfor a gentleman, you'll say. No matter, you shall see how soon I'll mendit. Come and sit down. Take your old place!'

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

'That's well!' cried Lagnier. 'Now we might be in the old infernal holeagain, 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 atAvignon, at Pont Esprit, at Lyons; upon the Rhone, upon the Saone.' Ashe spoke, he rapidly mapped the places out with his sunburnt hand uponthe 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, 'Ihave sometimes had a thought of going to Paris, and perhaps to England.'

'Cavalletto. This is in confidence. I also am going to Paris and perhapsto England. We'll go together.'

The little man nodded his head, and showed his teeth; and yet seemed notquite convinced that it was a surpassingly desirable arrangement.

'We'll go together,' repeated Lagnier. 'You shall see how soon I willforce myself to be recognised as a gentleman, and you shall profit byit. 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 wantsleep--how I appear before you, I, Lagnier. Remember that. Not theother.'

'Altro, altro! Not Ri----' Before John Baptist could finish the name, hiscomrade 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 andstoned? Do _you_ want to be trampled upon and stoned? You would be. Youdon'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 hisfriend's jaw, from which his friend inferred that if the course ofevents really came to any stoning and trampling, Monsieur Lagnier wouldso distinguish him with his notice as to ensure his having his fullshare of it. He remembered what a cosmopolitan gentleman MonsieurLagnier was, and how few weak distinctions he made.

'I am a man,' said Monsieur Lagnier, 'whom society has deeply wrongedsince you last saw me. You know that I am sensitive and brave, and thatit is my character to govern. How has society respected those qualitiesin me? I have been shrieked at through the streets. I have been guardedthrough the streets against men, and especially women, running at mearmed with any weapons they could lay their hands on. I have lain inprison 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 havebeen carted out of Marseilles in the dead of night, and carried leaguesaway from it packed in straw. It has not been safe for me to go near myhouse; and, with a beggar's pittance in my pocket, I have walked throughvile mud and weather ever since, until my feet are crippled--look atthem! Such are the humiliations that society has inflicted upon me,possessing the qualities I have mentioned, and which you know me topossess. But society shall pay for it.'

All this he said in his companion's ear, and with his hand before hislips.

'Even here,' he went on in the same way, 'even in this meandrinking-shop, society pursues me. Madame defames me, and her guestsdefame me. I, too, a gentleman with manners and accomplishmentsto strike them dead! But the wrongs society has heaped upon me aretreasured in this breast.'

To all of which John Baptist, listening attentively to the suppressedhoarse voice, said from time to time, 'Surely, surely!' tossing hishead and shutting his eyes, as if there were the clearest case againstsociety that perfect candour could make out.

'Put my shoes there,' continued Lagnier. 'Hang my cloak to dry thereby the door. Take my hat.' He obeyed each instruction, as it was given.'And this is the bed to which society consigns me, is it? Hah. _Very_well!'

As he stretched out his length upon it, with a ragged handkerchiefbound round his wicked head, and only his wicked head showing above thebedclothes, John Baptist was rather strongly reminded of what had sovery nearly happened to prevent the moustache from any more going up asit did, and the nose from any more coming down as it did.

'Shaken out of destiny's dice-box again into your company, eh? ByHeaven! So much the better for you. You'll profit by it. I shall need along rest. Let me sleep in the morning.'

John Baptist replied that he should sleep as long as he would, andwishing him a happy night, put out the candle. One might have supposedthat the next proceeding of the Italian would have been to undress;but he did exactly the reverse, and dressed himself from head to foot,saving his shoes. When he had so done, he lay down upon his bed withsome of its coverings over him, and his coat still tied round his neck,to get through the night.

When he started up, the Godfather Break of Day was peeping at itsnamesake. He rose, took his shoes in his hand, turned the key in thedoor with great caution, and crept downstairs. Nothing was astir therebut the smell of coffee, wine, tobacco, and syrups; and madame's littlecounter looked ghastly enough. But he had paid madame his little noteat it over night, and wanted to see nobody--wanted nothing but to get onhis shoes and his knapsack, open the door, and run away.

He prospered in his object. No movement or voice was heard when heopened the door; no wicked head tied up in a ragged handkerchief lookedout of the upper window. When the sun had raised his full disc above theflat line of the horizon, and was striking fire out of the long muddyvista of paved road with its weary avenue of little trees, a black speckmoved along the road and splashed among the flaming pools of rain-water,which black speck was John Baptist Cavalletto running away from hispatron.