If he is discovered, arrested anew, he will find repose, the personal care of the prison, and his joyous and bold companions in crime and debauchery.
Is his corruption less great than that of the others? does he manifest, on the contrary, the slightest remorse that he is exposed to atrocious railings, infernal shouts, terrible threats?
In fine—a thing so rare that it has become an exception to the rule—should a condemned man come out of this frightful pandemonium with a firm resolution to reform by prodigies of labor, courage, patience, and honesty, and be able to conceal his past offenses, a meeting with one of his old prison companions would be sufficient to overturn his plan of reformation so carefully designed. In this way:
A hardened ticket-of-leave proposes a job to a repentant one; the latter, in spite of dangerous threats, refuses the criminal association; immediately an anonymous communication strips the veil from the past life of this unfortunate, who wishes, at any sacrifice, to conceal and expiate a first fault by honorable conduct.
Then, exposed to the contempt, or, at least, the suspicion of those whose interest he had obtained by force of industry and probity, reduced to distress, soured by injustice, carried away by want, yielding, in fine, to these fatal derelictions, this man, almost restored, falls back again, and forever, to the bottom of the abyss from whence he had with so much difficulty escaped.
In the following scenes we shall endeavor, then, to show the monstrous and inevitable consequences of promiscuous confinement.
After ages of barbarous proofs and pernicious doubts, it begins to be understood how unreasonable it is to plunge into an atmosphere abominably vitiated, people whom a pure and salubrious air might have saved.
How much time shall be required to find out that, to associate gangrened beings is to redouble the intensity of their corruption, which thus becomes incurable?
How long to find out that there is but one remedy to this growing leprosy, which threatens the body social, Solitary confinement?
We should esteem ourselves happy if our feeble voice could be, if not counted, at least heard, among all those which, more imposing, more eloquent than ours, demand, with so just and so impatient an importunity, the complete, absolute adoption of the solitary system.
Some day, also, perhaps, society will know that evil is an accidental, not organic malady; that criminals are almost always good in substance, but false and wicked through ignorance, selfishness, or negligence of those governing; and that the health of the soul, like that of the body, is invincibly subordinate to the laws of a "hygiene" at once salubrious and preservative.
God gives to all, along with healthy organs, energetic appetites, and the desire of comfort; it is for society to modify and satisfy these wants.
The man who only has as his share strength, good-will, and health, has the right, sovereign right to a labor justly remunerated, which will assure him, not the superfluities, but the necessaries of life, the means to be healthy and robust, active and industrious, therefore honest and virtuous, because his condition will be happy.
The dismal regions of misery and ignorance are peopled with beings of sorrowful hearts. Cleanse these sewers, spread there the inclination to labor, equitable salaries, just rewards, and soon these sickly faces, these broken hearts, will be brought back to virtue, which is the life and health of the soul.
We will conduct the reader to the visitors' room of the prison. It is an obscure apartment, separated down its whole length into two equal parts by a narrow, railed passage. One part communicates with the interior, destined for the prisoners.
The other communicates with the office, destined for strangers admitted to visit the prisoners.
These interviews and conversations take place through the double grating of iron, in presence of a warder, who remains inside, at the extremity of the passage. The appearance of the prisoners assembled in the visiting room on this day offered numerous contrasts: some were covered with wretched vestments; some seemed to belong to the working class; others, again, to the well-to-do class.
The same contrast of condition was observable among the persons who came to see the prisoners; they were almost all of them women. Generally the prisoners appear less sad than the visitors; for, strange as it may appear, it is proved by experience, there are few sorrows and little shame which resist three or four days of imprisonment passed in company.
Those who are most alarmed at this hideous communion are soon habituated; the contagion reaches them; surrounded by degraded beings, hearing only infamous words, a kind of ferocious emulation drags them on, and either to impose upon their companions by rivaling their obduracy or to stupefy themselves by this moral intoxication, almost always the newly-arrived show as much depravity and insolent gayety as the old hands. Let us return to the visitors' room.
Notwithstanding the humming noise of a great number of conversations carried on in a low tone, from one side of the passage to the other, prisoners and visitors succeeded, after some practice, in being able to converse among themselves—on the absolute condition not to allow themselves, for a moment, to be distracted or occupied with the conversation of their neighbors, which created a kind of secret in the midst of all this noisy exchange of words, each one being forced to hear, but not to listen, to a word of that which was spoken around him.
Among the prisoners summoned to the visitors' room, and the furthest from the place where the guardian was seated, was one whom we still particularize.
To the sad state of dejection he was in on his arrest had succeeded impudent assurance. Already the contagious and detestable influence of imprisonment in common bore its fruits. Without doubt, if he had been immediately transferred to a solitary cell, this wretch, still under the blow of his first detection, the thought of his crimes constantly before him, alarmed at the punishment which awaited him, might have experienced, if not repentance, at least a salutary alarm, from which nothing might have distracted him. And who knows what effect may be produced on a criminal by an incessant, forced meditation on the crimes which he had committed, and their punishment? Far from this, thrown into the midst of a ruffianly crowd in whose eyes the least sign of repentance is cowardice, or, rather, treachery, which they dearly expiate, for, in their savage obduracy and in senseless distrust, they look upon as a spy every man (if there should be such a one) who, sad and mournful, regretting his fault, does not partake of their audacious thoughtlessness, and shudders at their contact.
Thrown among the bandits, this man, knowing, for a long time and by tradition, the manners and ways of prisons, overcame his weakness, and wished to appear worthy of a name already celebrated in the annals of robbery and murder.
For it had been to him, Nicholas Martial, that Ferrand had applied when the idea struck him to be rid of his housekeeper and Fleur-de-Marie at a blow.
His family were what are called ravageurs, that is dredgers, living on what they could pick up out of the mud of the Seine. At least they were openly these, but, secretly, they were river pirates, "lumpers," "light horsemen," housebreakers, and bravoes. The father had perished on the scaffold. His widow, forty-five years old, was confirmed in crime, stern, hard, coldly cruel, and bent on training all her children up into the life which would most revenge on society the slaying of her husband. One son, Ambrose, had been sold by Bras-Rouge (Red-Arm), a tavern keeper and fence, and now languished in the Rochefort hulks. The eldest son, known as Martial, being head of the family, was a poacher, a fisherman at unlawful seasons, but not irreclaimably bad. The youngest children, Francois and Amandine, were not yet spoiled by evil surroundings.
To this family, who added to their evil income by keeping a thieves' resort in their house on Ravageur's Island, La Chouette had applied for the murdering of Fleur-de-Marie. Nicholas and his sister, known as Calabash (from her yellow complexion) had succeeded in drowning Ferrand's housekeeper only. But, believing they had fulfilled the twofold bargain, they had gone off rejoicing with their mother, to meet La Chouette, report their success, and join in a fresh atrocity. This new crime, the robbery and murder of a diamond-dealer in Red-Arm's public-house, was frustrated by the landlord's secret connection with the police. They had made their descent just as the jewel-broker was in the villains' hands, and arrested the whole gang. Bras-Rouge (taken to prevent his fellows suspecting his treachery), Nicholas Martial, and a scamp named Barbillon, were put in La Force, widow Martial and Calabash in Saint Lazare. Another capture, a ruffian called the Maitre d'Ecole (Schoolmaster), from his caligraphic abilities, who had killed La Chouette in a fit of madness, was put in the Conciergerie Prison, in a cell for the insane.
To return to Nicholas Martial in La Force. Some veteran gallows-birds had known his executed father, others, his brother, the galley-slave; he was received and immediately patronized by these revelers in crime with savage interest.
This paternal reception from murderer to murderer exhilarated the widow's son, these praises bestowed on the hereditary perversity of his family intoxicated him. Soon forgetting, in this hideous thoughtlessness, the future which menaced him, he only remembered his past misdeeds but to exaggerate them and glorify himself in the eyes of his companions. The expression, then, of his face, was as impudent as his visitor's was uneasy and concerned. This individual was one Micou, a receiver, dwelling in the Passage de la Brasserie, to whose house Madame de Fermont and her daughter, victims of the cupidity of Jacques Ferrand, had been obliged to retire. Micou knew to what punishment he was subject, for having several times acquired, at a miserable price, the fruits of Nicholas's robberies, and of several others.
He being arrested, the receiver found himself almost at the discretion of the bandit, who could point him out as his habitual fence. Although this accusation might not be sustained by flagrant proofs, it was not the less very dangerous for Micou: so he had immediately executed the orders which Nicholas had sent him by a prisoner whose time had expired.
"Well! how do you get on, Daddy Micou?" said the thief.
"To serve you, sir," answered the receiver, eagerly. "As soon as I saw the person you sent me, right away I—"
"Stop! why do you speak so loftily, Micou?" said Nicholas, interrupting him, with a sardonic air. "Do you not despise me because I am in quod?"
"No, I despise no one," said the receiver, who did not care to make public his past familiarity with this wretch.
"Well, then, speak as usual, or I shall believe you have no friendship for me, and that would break my heart."
"As you like," said Micou, sighing. "I have busied myself with all your little commissions."
"Well spoken, Micou. I knew well that you would not forget friends. The weed?"
"I have left two pounds at the office, my lad."
"Is it good?"
"And the ham?"
"Also left there, with a quartern loaf. I have added a little surprise you did not expect—half a dozen hard-boiled eggs, and a fine Dutch cheese."
"That's what I call acting like a pal! And wine?"
"There are six bottles, sealed; but, you know, they will only give you one bottle a day."
"What would you have? One ought to be content with that."
"I hope you are satisfied with me, my friend?"
"Certainly; and shall be still, and shall be again, Daddy Micou, for this ham, cheese, eggs, and wine will only last the time to swallow them; but, when there is no more, there will come some more, thanks to Daddy Micou, who will give me some more sugar-plums, if I am a good boy."
"How? you wish—"
"In two or three days you would renew my little provision, Micou."
"May the devil burn me if I do. It is all very well for once."
"Good for once! Come, come; ham and wine are good always, you know that well enough."
"It is possible; but I am not obliged to feed you with dainties."
"Oh, Micou! it is wrong, it is unjust, to refuse ham to me, who have so often brought you fat tripe (sheet-lead)."
"Hush!" said the alarmed receiver.
"No; I'll make the beak decide; I will tell him. Imagine that, Daddy Micou—"
"Good, good!" cried the receiver, seeing, with as much fear as anger, Nicholas was disposed to abuse the position which their dealings gave him; "I consent—I will replenish your stock of provisions when they are exhausted."
"It is just—nothing but just. Neither must you forget to send some coffee to my mother and Calabash, who are at Saint Lazare; they used to take their cup every morning—they will feel the want of it."
"Still more? But do you mean to ruin me, lad?"
"As you please, old Micou; let us speak no more about it. I will ask the big-wig if—"
"Agreed, then, for the coffee," said the receiver, interrupting him. "But may the devil take you! cursed be the day I knew you!"
"My old man, as for me, it is just the contrary. At this moment, I am delighted to know you. I venerate you as my foster-father."
"I hope that you have nothing more to order?" answered Micou, with bitterness.
"Yes! tell my mother and sister that, though I trembled when I was arrested, I tremble no more, and that I am now as bold as both of them."
"I will tell them. Is that all?"
"Stop! I forgot to ask for two pair of warm woolen stockings—you do not wish me to take cold, do you?"
"I wish you were froze!"
"Thank you, Micou, that shall be later; at present, I prefer something else. I wish to pass life calmly—at least, if they do not make me a head shorter, like father, I shall have enjoyed life."
"Your life is very pleasant!"
"It is superb! Since I have been here, I have amused myself like a king. If there had been lamps and guns, there would have been an illumination and a salvo in my honor, when it was known that I was the son of the famous Martial!"
"It is touching. Beautiful relationship!"
"Hold! there are many dukes and marquises; why, then, should not we of the oldest family have our nobility?" said the thief with savage irony.
"Yes, Jack Ketch gives you your letters of nobility in Palace Square!"
"Very sure that it is not the parson! So much the more reason in prison one should be of high Toby nobility, otherwise you are looked upon as a nobody. You ought to see how they treat those mere fogle-hunters, and who do their—Hold! there is one here named Germain, a young man who plays the disgusted, and seems to despise us. Let him take care of his skin. He is a sneak; he is suspected of being a spy. If this is so, they will slit his nose, by way of warning!"
"Germain! A young man called Germain?"
"Yes. Do you know him? He is, then, in the family line, notwithstanding his innocent looks?"
"I do not know him. But if it is the Germain of whom I have heard speak, his lookout is good."
"He once escaped a snare which Velu and the Big Cripple laid for him."
"Why did they do it?"
"I don't know. They said that down among the yokels he had sold one of their band."
"I was sure of it. Germain is a spy. Well! I will tell this to my friends; that will give them an appetite. Does the Big Cripple still play tricks on your lodgers?"
"I am rid of the villain! you will see him here to-day or to-morrow."
"Bravo! we shall have a laugh! He's another who never looks glum!"
"Because he is going to meet Germain here, is why I said his account was good—if he is the same—"
"And why has the Cripple been nabbed?"
"For a robbery committed with a lagger (released convict) who wished to remain honest and labor. Oh, yes! the Big Cripple nicely fixed him; he is so wicked! I am sure it was he who forced the trunk of two women who occupy my fourth floor."
"What women? Oh! the two, the youngest of whom was so handsome, old brigand."
"Oh, yes; but it is all over with her; for, at this present moment, the mother must be dead, and the daughter not far from it. I shall be in for two weeks' lodgings; but may the devil burn me if I give a rag to bury them! I have had losses enough, without counting the presents which you beg me to give you and your family. This will nicely derange my business. I have luck this year."
"Bah, bah! you are always complaining, old Micou; you are as rich as Croesus. When you come to bring me some more provisions, you can give me news of my mother and Calabash!"
"Yes, it must be so."
"Oh! I forget, while you are out, buy me also a new cap, of plaid velvet, with a tassel; mine is no longer fit to be worn."
"Decidedly—you are joking!"
"No, Micou. I want a cap of plaid velvet; it is my notion."
"But you are determined, then, to make me sleep on straw?"
"Come, Daddy Micou, don't get vexed; it is yes or no; I do not force you. But enough."
The receiver, reflecting that he was at the mercy of Nicholas, arose, fearing to be assailed with new demands if he prolonged his visit.
"You shall have your cap," said he; "but take care, if you ask me for anything more, I shall give nothing; happen what may, you will lose as much as I."
"Be tranquil, Micou; I shall not blackmail you any more than is necessary, for this would be a pity; you pay much heavy postage as it is."
The receiver went out, shrugging his shoulders with rage, and the warder reconducted Nicholas into the prison. At the moment Micou left, Rigolette entered.
The warder, a man of forty years, an old soldier of energetic appearance, was dressed in a jacket, cap, and trousers of blue cloth; two silver stars were embroidered on the collar and skirts of his coat.
At sight of the grisette, his face brightened up, and assumed an expression of affectionate benevolence. He had always been struck with the grace, gentility, and touching goodness with which Rigolette consoled Germain when she came to converse with him. Germain, on his part, was no ordinary prisoner. His reserve, his mildness, his sadness, inspired interest in the prison officials; an interest they were careful not to show him, for fear of exposing him to the bad treatment of his vicious companions, who, as we have shown, regarded him with suspicious hatred.
It rained in torrents, but thanks to her overshoes and umbrella, Rigolette had courageously braved the wind and rain.
"What a horrible day, my poor girl!" said the guardian to her, kindly. "You must have had a good deal of courage to come out such a time as this, at least!"
"When one is thinking all along the way of the pleasure they are going to give a poor prisoner, one does not pay much attention to the weather, sir!"
"I have no need to ask you whom you come to see?"
"Surely not. And how is my poor Germain?"
"My dear, I have seen many prisoners; they were sad, one or two days, but by degrees they fell in with the rest, and the most sorrowful at first often became the most gay. Germain is not so; he appears to grow sadder every day."
"It is this that troubles me."
"When I am on service in the yards, I watch him out of the corner of my eye; he is always alone. I have already told you, you should advise him not to act thus, but to speak to his comrades, otherwise he will become their butt. The yards are watched, but—a blow is soon struck!"
"Oh, sir! is there still more danger for him?" cried Rigolette.
"Not precisely; but the knaves see he is not one of them, and they hate him because he appears honest and proud."
"Yet I have advised him to do what you have told me, sir; to endeavor to converse with the least wicked; but it is too much for him; he cannot overcome his repugnance."
"He is wrong—wrong; a quarrel is soon got up."
"Can he not be separated from the others?"
"Since I have noticed two or three days ago their evil intentions toward him, I have advised him to take a room by himself."
"I did not think of one thing. A whole range of cells are comprised in the repairs now going on in the prison, and the others are occupied."
"But these bad men are capable of killing him!" cried Rigolette, with her eyes filled with tears. "If by chance he had some persons interested in his fate, what could they do for him, sir?"
"Nothing more than to obtain what the prisoners can obtain themselves by paying money—a separate cell."
"Alas! then he is lost, if they hate him in the prison."
"Don't disturb yourself; he shall be watched closely. But I repeat, my dear, counsel him to be a little familiar with them; only the first step costs!"
"I will recommend him to do this with all my strength, sir; but for a good and honest heart it is hard to be familiar with such people."
"Of two evils, choose the least. I go to ask for Germain. But, stop," said the warder, reflecting; "there are only two visitors left; as soon as they are gone—no more will come to-day, for it is now two o'clock—I will send for Germain; you can talk more at ease. I can, even, when you are alone, let him enter into the passage, so that you will be separated by one grating instead of two; so much less."
"Oh, sir! how kind you are; how much I thank you!"
"Hush! let not any one hear you; it will cause jealousy. Seat yourself up there, at the end of the bench, and as soon as this man and woman are gone, I will send for Germain."
The warder returned to his post inside the passage. Rigolette went and seated herself sadly at the extremity of the visitor's bench.
Thus we have a fine chance to draw the grisette's portrait.
Rigolette was hardly eighteen, of a middling size, perhaps rather small, but so gracefully shaped, so finely modeled, so voluptuously developed, that her size responded well to her bearing, fearless and yet modest; one inch more in height would have caused her to lose much of her grace; the movement of her small feet, always irreproachably confined in gaiter-boots of black cloth, with rather thick soles, recalled to mind the coquettish, light and discreet run of a quail. She did not appear to walk, she merely touched the pavement; she slid rapidly on its surface. This walk, peculiar to grisettes, ought to be attributed, without doubt, to three causes: To their desire to be thought handsome; to their fear of an admiration expressed in pantomime too expressive; to the desire that they always have to lose as little time as possible in their peregrinations.
Rigolette's two broad thick bands of shining hair, black as jet, fell very low on her forehead; her fine eyebrows seemed traced with ink, and overshadowed large black eyes, sparkling and wicked; her full, plump cheeks were like velvet of the freshest carnation, fresh to the sight, fresh to the touch, like a rosy peach impregnated with the cold dew of the morning.
Her little turned-up nose, saucy and cunning, would have made the fortune of a stage chambermaid; her mouth, somewhat large, with lips of rose well moistened, and little, white, pearly teeth, was smiling and provoking; of three charming dimples, which gave enticing grace to her face, two buried themselves in her cheeks, the other in her chin, not far from a beauty spot, a little black patch most killingly placed near the corner of her mouth.
Up to the day of Germain's arrest, Rigolette had had no sorrows but those of others; she sympathized with all her flowers—devoted herself, body and soul, to those who suffered—but thought no more about it when her back was turned. Often she ceased from laughing to weep sincerely, and then she ceased from weeping to laugh again. A true child of Paris—she preferred noise to solitude, movement to repose the resounding harmony of the orchestra at the Chartreuse or Coliseum balls, to the soft murmur of the winds, the waters, and the foliage—the deafening noise of the streets of Paris to the solitude of the country—the glare of fireworks, the glitter of a ball, the noise of rockets, to the serenity of a fine night, with stars and darkness and silence. Alas! yes; the good girl frankly preferred the black mud of the streets of the capital to the verdure of the flowery meadows—its dirty or scorching pavements to fresh and velvet moss of wood-paths perfumed with violets—the suffocating dust of the barriers or the boulevards to the waving of golden corn, enameled with the scarlet flowers of the wild poppy and the azure of the bluebells. Rigolette only left her room on Sundays—and each morning, to lay in her provision of chickweed, bread, milk, and hempseed, for herself and her two birds, but she lived in Paris for Paris' sake. She would have been in despair to have lived elsewhere than in the capital.
Another anomaly: notwithstanding this taste for Parisian pleasures; notwithstanding the liberty, or, rather, the state of abandonment in which she found herself, being alone in the world; notwithstanding the rigid economy which she was obliged to use in her smallest expenses in order to live on thirty sous a day; notwithstanding the most mischievous and adorable little face in the world, never had Rigolette been a man's prey.
Early in life, she had lost her parents by the cholera, and, at ten years of age, strangers had taken care of her, until she left them to find her own living. At this period she had made Fleur-de-Marie's passing acquaintance, and later, as she dwelt in Rudolph's lodging-house—that of the prince whom she only thought to be a workman—she had been in the habit of going out on Sundays and other holidays with young men of her house, but they had given up the companionship when they found how virtuous she was, without knowing it. Germain, also her neighbor in the house, had, however, fallen desperately in love with Rigolette, without daring to breathe one word respecting it. Far from imitating his predecessors, who resorted to other sources of solace, without losing their regard for her, Germain had delightfully enjoyed his intimacy with the girl, and the pleasure afforded by her society on Sundays and every other evening that he was disengaged. During these long hours, Rigolette was always gay and merry, and Germain affectionate, serious, and attentive, and often slightly melancholy. This sadness was his only disadvantage, for his manners, being naturally refined, did not suffer by comparison with the ridiculous pretensions of M. Girandeau, a traveling clerk, or with the boisterous eccentricities of Cabrion, an artist, though Girandeau, by his excessive loquacity, and the painter, by his no less excessive hilarity, had the advantage of Germain, whose gentlemanly gravity rather awed his lively neighbor.
Rigolette had never evinced any partiality for either of her three lovers; but, with excellent judgment, she soon discovered that Germain combined all the qualities which would render any reasonable woman happy.
When the latter was imprisoned, her feeling manifested itself as love.
The prisoner who was placed alongside of Barbillon in the visitor's room, was a man about forty years of age, and of slender make, and with a cunning, intelligent, jovial, and jeering face; he had an enormous mouth, almost entirely without teeth; when he spoke he twisted it from side to side, according to the pretty general custom of those who address the populace of market places; his nose was flat, his head immensely large, and almost entirely bald; he wore an old gray waistcoat, trousers of an indescribable color, pieced in a thousand different places; his naked feet, red from the cold, half wrapped up in old linen, were thrust into wooden shoes.
This man, named Fortune Gobert, nick-named Pique-Vinaigre (Sharp Vinegar, to prevent mistakes), formerly a juggler, and a prisoner for the crime of passing counterfeit money, was accused of breaking the terms of his ticket-of-leave, and of burglary.
Confined but for a few days at La Force, already Pique-Vinaigre filled, to the general satisfaction of his prison companions, the post of story-teller. At the present day these are rare, but formerly each ward generally had, at the expense of a light, individual contribution, its tale-teller, who, by his improvisations, made the interminable winter evenings appear less long, the prisoners retiring to rest at nightfall.
Pique-Vinaigre excelled in that kind of heroic recital where weakness, after a thousand crosses, finishes by triumphing over its persecutors. Pique-Vinaigre possessed, besides, an immense fund of irony, which had given him his nickname. He had just entered the room.
Opposite him, on the other side of the railing, was a woman of about thirty-five, with a pale, sweet, and interesting face, poorly but neatly clad; she wept bitterly, and kept her handkerchief to her eyes. Pique-Vinaigre looked at her with a mixture of impatience and affection.
"Come now, Jeanne," said he, "do not be a child; it is sixteen years since we have met; if you keep your handkerchief over your eyes, we won't know each other."
"My brother, my poor Fortune—I suffocate—I cannot speak."
"Ain't you droll! what ever is the matter with you?"
This sister—for this woman was his sister—restrained her sobs, dried her eyes, and regarding him with stupor, answered, "What is the matter? I find you again in prison, who had already been in fifteen years!"
"It is true; to-day six months I came out of Melun prison, without going to see you at Paris, because the capital was forbidden to me."
"Already retaken! What have you then done? Why did you leave Beaugency, where you were sent, with orders to report yourself now and then?"
"Why? You ought to ask me why I went there?"
"You are right."
"In the first place, my poor Jeanne, since these gratings are between us both, imagine that I have embraced you, folded you in my arms, as one ought to do when he sees a sister after an age. Now, let us chat. A prisoner of Melun, called the Big Cripple, told me that there was at Beaugency an old galley-slave of his acquaintance, who employed liberated convicts in a manufactory of white-lead. Do you know what that is?"
"It is a very fine trade; those who are employed in it, at the end of a month or two, have the painter's colic; of three attacked, about one dies. To be just, the two others die also, but at their ease; they take their time; take good care of themselves, and they may last a year, eighteen months at the most. After all, the trade is not so badly paid as some others, and there are some folks born already dressed, who hold out two or three years; but these are the old folks, the centenaries of the white-leaders. They die, it is true, but that's not fatiguing."
"And why did you choose a trade so dangerous, my poor Fortune?"
"And what would you have me do? When I entered Melun for this affair of false money, I was a juggler. As in the prison there was no work-shop for my trade, and as I was no stronger than a fly, they put me at making toys for children. It was a manufacturer of Paris who found it advantageous to have made by the prisoners his harlequins, his trumpets of wood, and his swords of ditto. Thus, I tell you, haven't I sharpened, and cut, and carved for fifteen years, these toys! I am sure that I supplied the pets of an entire quarter of Paris—it was, above all, on the trumpet I excelled; and rattles too! With these two instruments one could have put on edge the teeth of a whole battalion! I pride myself, on it. My time out, behold me with the degree of penny-trumpet manufacturer. They allowed me to choose for my residence three or four places, at forty leagues from Paris; I had for sole resource my knowledge of trumpet-making. Now, admitting that, from old men to babies, all the inhabitants of the town should have had a passion to play toot-too on my trumpets. I should have had, even then, trouble enough to pay my expenses; but I could not seduce a whole village into blowing trumpets from morning to night. They would have taken me for a conspirator!"
"You always laugh."
"That is better than to cry. Finally, seeing that at forty leagues from Paris my trade as a juggler would be of no more resource to me than my trumpets, I demanded an exchange to Beaugency, wishing to engage myself in the white-lead factory. It is a pastry which gives you an indigestion of misery; but, until one dies from it, one has a living; it is always something gained, and I like that trade as well as that of a robber; to steal I am not brave or strong enough, and it was by pure chance I have committed the act of which I shall speak directly."
"You would have been brave and strong if you had only had the idea not to steal any more."
"Ah! you believe that, do you?"
"Yes, at the bottom you are not wicked; for, in this dangerous affair of false money, you had been dragged into it in spite of yourself, almost forced—you know it well."
"Yes, my girl—but, do you see, fifteen years in a prison, that spoils a man like my old pipe which you see, whenever it comes in the jail white as a new pipe; on coming out of Melun, then, I felt myself too cowardly to steal."
"And you had the courage to follow a deadly calling. Hold, Fortune! I tell you that you wish to make yourself worse than you are."
"Stop a moment, then; all greenhorn that I was, I had an idea, may the devil burn me if I know why! that I would not care for the colic, that the malady would find too little in me to feed on, and that it would go elsewhere; in fine, that I would become one of the old white-leaders. On leaving the prison I began by squandering my savings, augmented, understand, by what I had gained by relating stories at night in our ward."
"As you used to tell us in old times, my brother? It used to amuse our mother so much, do you remember?"
"Pardieu! good woman! And she never suspected before she died that I was at Melun?"
"Never: to her last moments she thought you had gone to the islands."
"What could I do, my girl? My escapades were the fault of my father, who brought me up to play the clown, to assist him in his juggling, to eat flax and spit fire; that was the cause that I had not the time to associate with the sons of peers of France, and that I made bad acquaintances. But, to return to Beaugency: once out of Melun, I spent my money as I had a right. After fifteen years in a cage one must have a little air, and amuse one's self so much the more, as, without being too greedy, the white lead might give me a last indigestion; then, what good would my pension money be to me? I ask you. Finally, I arrived at Beaugency almost without a sou: I asked for Velu, the friend of Big Cripple, the chief of the factory. Serviteur! no more manufactory of white-lead than you could put under your hand; eleven persons had died there in one year; the old galley-slave had shut up shop. Here I was in this village, with my talents for making wooden trumpets for my dinner, and my convict's passport for my sole recommendation. I asked for employment suited to my strength, and, as I had no strength, you can comprehend how I was received; robber here, gueux there, jail bird! in fine, as soon as I made my appearance anywhere, every one clapped their hands on their pockets; I could not, then, prevent myself from starving with hunger in a hole which I was not to leave for five years. Seeing this, I broke my 'parole' to come to Paris to use my talents. As I had not the means to come in a carriage and four, I came begging all along the road; avoiding the constables as a dog does a kick. I was lucky—I arrived without difficulty at Auteuil. I was worried, I was as hungry as the devil, I was dressed, as you see, without profuseness." And Pique-Vinaigre cast a merry glance at his rags. "I had not a sou; I could at any moment be arrested as a vagabond. Faith, an opportunity offered, the devil tempted me, and, in spite of my cowardice—"
"Enough, my brother, enough," said his sister, fearing that the warder, although at this moment some distance off, might hear the dangerous confession.
"You are afraid that some one will listen?" answered he: "be tranquil, I do not conceal it; I was taken in the act; there are no means to deny it; I have confessed all; I know what I have to expect; my account is good."
"Alas!" answered the poor woman, weeping, "with what ease you speak of this."
"If I were to speak of it with uneasiness, what should I gain? Come, be reasonable, Jeanne; must I console you?" Jeanne wiped away her tears, and sighed.
"But to return to my affair," said Pique-Vinaigre; "I arrived near Auteuil in the dusk of the evening. I could go no further; I did not wish to enter Paris but at night; I seated myself behind a hedge to repose and reflect upon my plans. From the intensity of my thoughts I fell asleep; a noise of voices awoke me; it was quite dark; I listened, it was a man and a woman talking on the road, on the other side of my hedge; the man said to the woman, 'Who do you think would rob us? have we not left the house alone a hundred times?' 'Yes,' answered the woman, 'but then we did not leave a hundred francs in our chest.' 'Who knows it, fool?' said the husband. 'You are right,' replied the woman, and they passed on. The chance appeared too favorable for me to lose—there was no danger.
"I waited until they had got a little distance to come out from behind my hedge; I looked around: at twenty steps off I saw a small cottage; that must be the house with the hundred francs; there was no other hovel on the road but this one; Auteuil was five hundred yards off. I said to myself, 'Courage, my old boy, there is no one there, it is night, if there is no dog (you know I always was afraid of dogs), the affair is done.' Luckily there was no dog. To be still more sure, I knocked against the door—nothing; that encouraged me. The shutters of the ground floor were closed: I passed my stick between the two, I forced them, I entered through the window into a chamber; there was some fire in the fireplace; this served as a light; I saw a chest from whence the key had been taken; I took the tongs, I forced the drawers, and under a heap of linen I found the treasure, wrapped up in an old woolen stocking; I did not amuse myself by taking anything else; I jumped out of the window and I fell—guess where? There's luck!"
"On the back of the watchman who was going to the village."
"What a misfortune!"
"The moon had risen, he saw me coming out of the window; he seized me. He was a giant who could have eaten ten such as me. Too cowardly to resist, I resigned myself to my fate. I still held the stocking in my hand; he heard the money jingle, he took it all, put it in his bag, and compelled me to follow him to Auteuil. He went to the mayor's with the usual accompaniment of boys and constables; they waited for the proprietors to return; they made their declaration. I could not deny it; I confessed all, they put on the handcuffs, and off we went!"
"And here you are in prison again, perhaps for a long time!"
"Listen, Jeanne, I do not wish to deceive you, my girl, so I will tell you at once."
"What more now?"
"Come, take courage!"
"But speak, then!"
"Well! there is no more prison for me."
"How is that?"
"On account of the burglary in an inhabited house, the lawyer told me, 'It's a safe thing.' I shall have fifteen or twenty years at the galleys and a berth in the pillory to boot."
"The galleys! but you are so weak you will die there!" cried the unhappy woman, bursting into tears.
"How if I had enrolled myself among the white-leaders?"
"But the galleys, oh! the galleys!"
"It is a prison in the open air, with a red cap instead of a brown one, and, besides, I have always been curious to see the ocean. What a starer I am!"
"But the pillory! To be exposed there to the contempt of all the world, oh! my brother." And the unfortunate woman began again to weep.
"Come, come, Jeanne, be reasonable. It is a bad quarter of an hour to pass, but I believe one is seated. And, besides, am I not accustomed to a crowd? When I played juggler I always had people around me; I will imagine that I am at my old trade, and if it has too much effect upon me I will close my eyes; it will absolutely be the same as if they did not see me."
Speaking with so much stoicism, this unfortunate man wished less to appear insensible of his criminal actions than to console and satisfy his sister by this apparent indifference. For a man accustomed to prison manners, and with whom all shame is necessarily dead—even the galleys were only a change of condition, a "change of caps," as Pique-Vinaigre said, with frightful truth.
Many of the prisoners of the central prisons even prefer the galleys on account of the lively, animated life which is led there, committing often attempts at murder to be sent to Brest or Toulon. This can be imagined before they enter the galleys they have almost as much work, according to their declaration. The condition of the most honest workman of the forts is not less rude than that of the convicts. They enter the workshop, and leave it, at the same hour, and the beds on which they repose their limbs, exhausted by fatigue, are often no better than those of the galleys.
They are free, some one will say. Yes, free one day, Sunday, and this is also a day of repose for the convict. But feel they no shame and contempt? What is shame for these poor wretches, who, each day, bronze the soul in this infamy, in this mutual school of perdition, where the most criminal are the most distinguished? Such are the consequences of the present system of punishment. Incarceration is very much sought after. The galleys—often demanded.
"Twenty years in the galleys!" repeated the poor sister of Pique-Vinaigre.
"But be comforted, Jeanne; they will only pay me in my own coin; I am too feeble to be placed at hard labor. If there is not a manufactory of trumpets and wooden swords, as at Melun, they will give me easy work, and employ me in the infirmary. I am not refractory; I am good-natured. I will tell stories as I do here, I will make myself adored by the keepers, esteemed by my comrades, and I will send you some cocoanuts nicely carved, and some straw boxes for my nephews and nieces; in short. as we make our bed, so must we lie on it!"
"If you had only written that you were coming to Paris, I would have tried to conceal and lodge you while you were waiting for work."
"I reckoned to go to your house, but I prepared to come with my hands full; for, besides, from your appearance I see that you do not ride in your carriage. How about your children and husband?"
"Do not speak to me about him."
"Always a rattler, it is a pity, for he is a good workman."
"He does me much harm—I have had troubles enough of my own, without having yours added to them."
"How? your husband—"
"Left me three years ago, after having sold all our furniture, leaving me with the children, without any thing, my straw bed excepted."
"You did not tell me this!"
"For what good? It would have grieved you."
"Poor Jeanne! How have you managed, all alone with your three children?"
"Holy Virgin! I had much trouble; I worked by the job as a fringe-maker, as well as I could, my neighbors helped me a little, taking care of my children when I went out; and then I, who do not always have luck, had it for once in my life, but it did not profit me, on account of my husband."
"How is that?"
"The lace-maker had spoken of my troubles to one of his customers, informing him how my husband had left me without anything, after having sold all my furniture, and that in spite of it I worked with all my strength to bring up my children; one day, on returning home, what do I find? my room newly furnished, a good bed, linen, and so on; it was the charity of my lace-maker's customer."
"Good customer! Poor sister! Why the devil did you not write me about your poverty? Instead of spending my earnings, I would have sent you some money."
"I, free, to ask from you, a prisoner!"
"Exactly; I was fed, warmed, lodged at the expense of the government; what I earned was so much gained; knowing that my brother-in-law was a good workman, and you a good manager, I was easy, and I fiddled away my money with my eyes shut and my mouth open."
"My husband was a good workman, it is true, but he became dissipated; in fine, thanks to this unexpected succor, I took fresh courage; my eldest daughter began to earn something; we were happy, except for the sorrow of knowing that you were at Melun. Work was plenty, my children were properly dressed, they wanted scarcely anything; that made me take heart. At length I had even saved thirty-five francs, when, suddenly, my husband returned. I had not seen him for a year. Finding me comfortably fixed and well clad, he made no bones about it; he took the money, settled himself at home, got drunk every day, and beat me when I complained."
"This is not all: he had lodged in a room of our apartments a bad woman with whom he lived; I had to submit to that. For the second time he began to sell little by little the furniture I had. Foreseeing what would happen, I went to a lawyer who lived in the house, and asked him what I should do to prevent my husband from placing me and my children on straw again."
"It was very plain, you ought to have thrust him out of doors."
"Yes, but I had not the right. The lawyer told me that my husband could dispose of everything, and remain in the house without doing anything; that it was a shame, but that I must submit; that the circumstance of his mistress, who lived under one roof, gave me the right to demand the separation of bed and board, as it is called; so much the more as I had proofs my husband beat me; that I could plead against him, but that it would cost me at least four or five hundred francs to obtain my divorce, you may judge; it is almost all that I could earn in a year! Where could I borrow such a sum? And, besides, it is not only to borrow—but to return. And five hundred francs—all at once—it is a fortune."
"There is, however, a very simple way to amass five hundred francs," said Pique-Vinaigre, with bitterness; "it is to hang up one's appetite for a year—to live on air, but work just the same. It is astonishing that the lawyer did not give you this advice."
"You are always joking."
"Oh! this time, no!" cried Pique-Vinaigre, with indignation; "for it is infamous that the law should be too dear for poor folks. For look at you, good and worthy mother of a family, working with all your might to bring up your children honestly. Your husband is an arrant scoundrel; he beats you, abuses you, robs you, and spends at the tavern the money you earn; you apply to justice, that it may protect you, and keep from the clutches of this rascal your bread and your children's. The people of the law tell you, 'Yes, you are right, your husband is a bad fellow, justice shall be done you; but this justice will cost you five hundred francs.' Five hundred francs! that would support you and your family for a whole year! Now, do you see, Jeanne? all this proves what the proverb says, that there are only two kinds of people: those who are hung and those who deserve to be."
Rigolett, alone and pensive, having no one else to listen to, had not lost a word of this conversation, and sympathized deeply in the misfortunes of this poor woman. She promised herself to mention this to Rudolph as soon as she should see him, not doubting that he would assist her.
Rigolette, feeling a lively interest in the sad fate of the sister of Pique-Vinaigre, did not take her eyes from her, and was endeavoring to approach a little nearer, when, unfortunately, a new visitor entering asked for a prisoner, and seated himself on the bench between Jeanne and the grisette. She, at the sight of this man, could not restrain a movement of surprise, almost fear. She recognized one of the two bailiffs who had come to arrest Morel, putting in execution the judgment obtained against the jeweler by Jacques Ferrand.
This circumstance, recalling to Rigolette's mind the untiring persecutor of Germain, redoubled her sadness, from which her attention had been slightly withdrawn by the touching and painful communications of the sister of Pique-Vinaigre. Retreating as far as she could from her new neighbors, the grisette leaned against the wall, and abandoned herself to her sad thoughts.
"Hold, Jeanne," resumed Pique-Vinaigre, whose jovial face had become suddenly clouded; "I am neither strong nor brave; but if I had been there while your husband was causing you so much misery, very playful things would not have passed between us. But you did not act rightly—you—"
"What could I do? I have been obliged to suffer what I could not prevent! As long as there was anything to be sold, my husband sold it, so that he might go to the tavern with his mistress—everything, even to my little girl's Sunday frock."
"But your daily earnings, why did you give them to him? Why did you not hide them?"
"I did hide them; but he beat me so much that I was obliged to give them up. It was not on account of the blows that I yielded, but because I said to myself, in the end he will wound me so seriously that I shall not be able to work for some time. Suppose he breaks my arm, then what will become of me—who will take care of and feed my children? If I am forced to go the hospital, they will die of hunger then. Thus you can imagine, my brother, I preferred to give my money to my husband, not on account of the beating, but that I might not be wounded, and remain able to work."
"Poor woman. Bah! they talk of martyrdom—it is you who are a martyr!"
"And yet I have never harmed any one; I only ask to work to take care of my children; but what would you? There are the happy and unhappy, as there are the good and the wicked."
"Yes, and it is astonishing how happy the good are! But you have finally got rid of that scoundrel of a husband?"
"I hope so, for he did not leave me until he had sold my bedstead, and the cradle of my two little children. But I think he wished to do something worse."
"What do you mean?"
"I say him, but it was rather this bad woman who urged him; it is on that account I speak of it. 'I say,' one day he said to me, 'when in a family there is a pretty girl of fifteen like ours, it is very stupid not to make use of her beauty.'"
"Oh! good! I understand. After having sold the clothes, he wished to sell the body."
"When he said that, Fortune, my blood boiled; and, to be just, I made him blush with shame at my reproaches: and as this bad woman wished to meddle in our quarrel by asserting that my husband could do with his daughter as he pleased, I treated her so badly, the wretch, that my husband beat me, and since that time I have not seen them."
"Look here, Jeanne, there are folks condemned to ten years' imprisonment, who would not have done like your husband; at least, they only despoil strangers."
"At bottom he is not wicked, look you; it is bad company at the taverns which has ruined him."
"Yes, he would not harm a child; but to a grown person it is different."
"What would you have? One must take life as it comes. At least, my husband gone, I had no longer any fear of being lamed by any blow. I took fresh courage. Not having anything to purchase a mattress with, for before all one must eat and pay rent, and my poor daughter Catherine and myself could hardly earn together forty sous a day, my two other children being too young to work—for want of a mattress we slept upon a straw bed, made with straw that we picked up at the door of a packer in our street."
"And I have squandered my earnings!"
"How could you know my trouble, since I did not tell you? Well, we doubled our work, Catherine and I. Poor child, if you knew how virtuous, and industrious, and good she is! always with her eyes on mine to know what I wish her to do; never a complaint, and yet—she has already seen so much misery, although only fifteen! Ah, it is a great consolation, Fortune to have such a child," said Jeanne, wiping her eyes.
"It is just your own picture, I see; you should have this consolation, at least."
"I assure you that it is more on her account that I complain than on my own; for, do you see, the last two months she has not stopped working for a moment; once every week she goes out to wash at the boats near the Pont-au Change, at three sous the hour, the few clothes my husband left us: all the rest of the time at the stake like a poor dog. True, misfortune came to her too soon; I knew well enough that it must come; but at least their are some who have one or two years of tranquillity. That which has also caused me much sorrow in all this, Fortune, is, that I could give you no assistance in anything; yet I will try."
"Do you think I would accept? On the contrary, I'll ask a sou for each pair of ears that listens to my stories; I will ask two, or they will have to do without Pique-Vinaigre's romances, and that will help you a little in your housekeeping. But why don't you go into lodgings? Then your husband can't sell anything."
"In lodgings? Why, only reflect, we are four; they would ask us at least twenty sous a days; how much would remain for our living! while our room only costs us fifty francs a year."
"That is true, my girl," said Pique-Vinaigre, with bitter irony; "work, break your back to fix up your room a little; as soon as you get something, your husband will rob you again, and some fine day he will sell your daughter as he has sold your clothes."
"Oh! before that he must kill me!—my poor Catherine!"
"He will not kill you, and he will sell your poor Catherine. He is your husband, is he not? He is the head of the family, as your lawyer told you, as long as you are not separated by law, and as you have not five hundred francs to give for that, you must be resigned; your husband has the right to take his daughter from you, and where he pleases. Once he and his mistress have a hankering after this poor little child, they will have her."
"But, if this infamy was possible, would there be any justice?"
"Justice," said Pique-Vinaigre, with a burst of sardonic laughter, "is like meat; it is too dear for the poor to eat. Only, understand me, if it is in question to send them to Melun, to put them in the pillory, or throw them into the galleys, it is another affair; they give them this justice gratis. If they cut their throats, it is again gratis—always gratis. Ta-a-a-ake your tickets!" added Pique-Vinaigre, imitating a mountebank; "it is not ten sous, two sous, one you, a centime that it will cost you. No, ladies and gentlemen, it will cost you the trifle of nothing at all; it suits every one's pockets; you have only to furnish the head—the cutting and curling are at the expense of the government. Here is justice gratis. But the justice which would prevent an honest mother of a family from being beaten and despoiled by a vagabond of a husband, who wishes to make money out of his daughter, this kind of justice costs five hundred francs; you must give it up, my poor Jeanne."
"Fortune," said the unhappy mother, bursting into tears, "you kill me!"
"And does it not kill me to think of your lot, and that of your family, and seeing that I can do nothing? I seem always gay; but do not be deceived; I have two kinds of gayety, Jeanne; my gayety gay, and my gayety sad. I have neither the strength nor the courage to be bad, angry, nor malicious, as others are, that always passes over with me in words more or less farcical. My cowardice and my weakness of body have prevented me from becoming worse than I am. It needed the chance of this lonely hut, where there was neither cat, nor, above all, a dog, to have urged me to steal. And then, again, it chanced to be a fine moonlight night; for alone, and in the dark, I am as cowardly as the devil!"
"That is what I have always said, my poor Fortune, that you are better than you think. Thus I hope the judges will have pity on you."
"Pity on me? a returned criminal? reckon on it! After that, I don't wish it; to be here, there, or elsewhere, all the same to me; and then, you are right, I am not wicked; and those who are, I hate them, after my fashion, by making fun of them; you must think that, from relating stories where, to please my audience, I make it come out that those who torment others from pure cruelty receive, in the end, their pay, I become accustomed to feel as I relate."
"Do these people like stories, my brother? I should not have thought it."
"A moment! If I tell them a story where a fellow who robs, or who kills to rob, is strung up at the end, they will not let me finish; but if it is concerning a woman or child, or, for example, a poor devil like me, who would be thrown to the ground if he was only blown upon, and let him be ill-treated by a Bluebeard, who persecutes him solely for the pleasure of persecuting him, for honor, as they say; oh! then they shout with joy when, at the end, the Bluebeard receives his pay. I have, above all, a history called Gringalet and Cut-in-half, which created the greatest sensation at the Centrale de Melun, and which I have not yet related here. I have promised it for tonight; but they must subscribe largely to my money-box, and you shall profit by it. Without extra charge, I will write it out for your children. My yarn will amuse them; very religious people would read this story; so be easy."
"In fine, poor Fortune, what consoles me a little is, to see that you are not as unhappy as others, thanks to your character."
"I am very sure that if I were like a prisoner of our ward, I should be hateful to myself. Poor fellow! I am much afraid that before the end of the day he will bleed; it grows red-hot for him; there is a bad plot formed against him for to-night."
"Oh! they wish to do him harm? you will have nothing to do with it, at least, Fortune?"
"Not such a fool! I might be spattered. As I went backward and forward among them, I heard them muttering. They spoke of a gag, to prevent him from crying out; and then, to hinder any one from seeing the execution, they mean to make a circle around him, pretending to listen to one of them who should be reading a paper or something else."
"But why do they wish to injure him thus?"
"As he is always alone, and speaks to no one, because he seems disgusted with them, they imagine he is a spy, which is very stupid; for, on the contrary, he would keep company with every one, if he wished to spy. Besides, he has the air of a gentleman, and that eclipses them. It is the captain of the ward, called the Living Skeleton, who is at the head of this plot. He is like a real bloody bones after this poor Germain—their intended victim is so named. Let them make their own arrangements—it is their business; I can do nothing. But you see, Jeanne, what good comes from being sad in prison; right away you are suspected. I have never been suspected, not I. But, my girl—enough talk; go and see if I am at your house; you lose too much precious time by coming here. I can only talk; with you it is different; therefore goodnight. Come here from time to time; you know I shall be glad to see you."
"My brother, still a few moments, I beg you."
"No, no; your children are expecting you. Ah, you do not tell them, I hope, that their uncle is a boarder here?"
"They think you are at the islands, as my mother did formerly. In this way, I hope, I can talk to them of you."
"Very good. Go! quickly!"
"Yes, but listen, my poor brother. I have not much, yet I will not leave you thus. You must be cold—no stockings, and this wretched waistcoat! I will fix something for you, with Catherine's aid. Fortune, you know that it is not the will to do something for you that is wanting."
"What? clothes? why, I have my trunks full. As soon as they arrive, I shall have wherewithal to dress myself like a prince. Come, laugh, then, a little. No? Well! seriously, my girl, I do not refuse, while waiting for Gringalet and Cut-in-half to fill my money-box. Then I will return it. Adieu, my good Jeanne; the next time you come, may I love my name of Pique Vinaigre, if I do not make you laugh. Go away; I have already kept you too long."
"But, brother, listen!"
"My good man! my good man!" cried Pique-Vinaigre to the warder seated at the other end, "I have finished my conversation; I wish to go in; talked enough."
"Oh! Fortune, it is not kind to send me away thus," said Jeanne.
"On the contrary, it is very right. Come, adieu; keep up your courage, and to-morrow morning say to the children that you have dreamed of their uncle, who is in the West Indies, and that he begged you to embrace them. Adieu."
"Adieu, Fortune," said the poor woman, all in tears at seeing her brother enter the prison.
Rigolette, since the bailiff had seated himself alongside of her, had not been able to hear the conversation of Pique-Vinaigre and Jeanne; but she had not taken off her eyes from them, thinking how to find out the address of this poor woman, so as to be able, according to her first idea, to recommend her to Rudolph. When Jeanne rose from the bench to leave, the grisette approached her, saying, timidly, "Madame, just now, without wishing to listen to you, I heard that you were a lace fringe-maker."
"Yes, my friend," answered Jeanne, a little surprised but prepossessed in favor of Rigolette by her pleasing manners and charming face.
"I am a dressmaker," answered the grisette. "Now that fringes and lace are in fashion, I have sometimes some customers who ask me for trimmings after their own taste; I have thought perhaps it would be cheaper to apply to the makers; and, besides, I could give you more than your employer does,"
"It is true; by buying the silk on my own account I should gain something. You are very kind to think of me. I am quite surprised."
"I will speak to you frankly. I await a person I came to see; having no one to talk with, just now, before this gentleman placed himself between us, without wishing it, I assure you, I have heard you talk to your brother of your sorrows, of your children; I said to myself, poor folks ought to assist each other. The idea struck me at the time that I might be of some use to you, since you are a fringe-maker. If, indeed, what I have proposed suits you, here is my address; give me yours, so that when I shall have a little order to give you I shall know where to find you."
And Rigolette gave one of her cards to the sister of Pique-Vinaigre. She, quite touched at the proceedings, said gratefully:
"Your face has not deceived me; and, besides, do not take it for pride, but you have a resemblance to my eldest daughter, which made me look at you twice on entering. I thank you much; if you employ me, you shall be satisfied with my work; it shall be done conscientiously. I am called Jeanne Duport. I live at No. 1, Rue de la Barillerie."
"No. 1, it is not difficult to remember. Thank you, madame."
"It is for me to thank you, my dear, it is so kind in you to have thought at once of serving me! Once more I express my surprise."
"Why, that is very plain, Madame Duport," said Rigolette, with a charming smile. "Since I look like your daughter Catherine, that which you call my kindness ought not to surprise you."
"How kind! Thanks to you, I go away from here less sad than I thought; and then, perhaps, we may meet here again, for you come, like me, to see a prisoner?"
"Yes, madame," answered Rigolette, sighing.
"Then, adieu. I shall see you again; at least, I hope so, Miss Rigolette," said Jeanne Duport, after having cast her eyes on the address of the grisette.
"At least," thought Rigolette, resuming her seat, "I know now the address of this poor woman; and certainly M. Rudolph will interest himself for her when he knows how unfortunate she is, for he has always told me, 'If you know any one much to be pitied, address yourself to me.'"
And Rigolette taking her place, awaited with impatience the end of the conversation of her neighbor, in order to be able to ask for Germain.
Now a few words on the preceding scene. Unfortunately, it must be confessed, the indignation of the brother of Jeanne Duport was legitimate. Yes: in saying the law was too dear for the poor, he said the truth. To plead before the civil tribunals is to incur enormous expenses, quite out of the reach of artisans, who barely exist on their scanty wages.
Let a mother or father of a family belonging to this ever-sacrificed class wish to obtain an obliteration of the conjugal tie; let them have all right to obtain it: will they obtain it? No; for there is no workman in a condition to spend four or five hundred francs for the onerous formalities of such a judgment.
Yet the poor have no other life than a domestic one; the good or bad conduct of the head of an artisan's family is not only a question of morality; but of bread. The fate of a woman of the people, such as we have endeavored to paint, does it deserve less interest, less protection, than that of a rich woman, who suffers from the bad conduct or infidelities of her husband, think you?
Nothing is more worthy of pity, doubtless, than the griefs of the heart. But when to these griefs is added, for an unfortunate mother, the misery of her children, is it not monstrous that the poverty of this woman places her without the law, and leaves her and her family without defense against the odious treatment of a drunken and worthless husband?
Yet this monstrosity exists. [Footnote: Translator's Note.—How singular that, as this new edition of the sensational romancist's work is issued, the Imperial Parliament should have a bill to redress this very oversight before it.]
And a liberated criminal can, in this circumstance as in others, deny, with right and reason, the impartiality of the institutions in the name of which he is condemned. Is it necessary to say what there is in this dangerous to society, to justify such attacks?
What will be the influence, the moral authority, of those laws whose application is absolutely subordinate to a question of money? Ought not civil justice, like criminal justice, to be accessible to all?
When people are too poor to be able to invoke the benefits of a law eminently preservative and tutelary, ought not society to assure the application, through respect for the honor and repose of families?
But let us leave this woman, who will remain all her life the victim of a brutal and perverted husband, because she is too poor to obtain a matrimonial separation by law. Let us speak of Jeanne Duport's brother. This man left a den of corruption to enter the world again; he has paid the penalty of his crime by expiation. What precautions has society taken to prevent his falling back into crime? None.
Has any one, with charitable foresight, rendered possible his return to well-doing, in order to be able to punish, as one should punish, in a becoming manner, if he shows himself incorrigible? No.
The contagious influence of your jails is so well known, and so justly dreaded, that he who comes out from them is everywhere an object of scorn, aversion, and alarm. Were he twenty times an honest man, he would scarcely find occupation anywhere. And what is more: the penalty of a ticket-of-leave banishes him to small localities, where his past life must be well known; and here he will have no means of exercising the exceptionable employment often imposed on the prisoners by the contractors of the maisons centrales. If the liberated convict has the courage to resist temptation, he abandons himself to some of those murderous occupations of which we have spoken, to the preparation of certain chemical productions, by which one in ten perishes; or, if he has the strength, he goes to get out stone in the forest of Fontainebleau, an employment which he survives, average time, six years! The condition of a liberated convict is, then, much worse, more painful, more difficult, than it was before his first criminal action: he lives surrounded by shackles and dangers; he is obliged to brave repulses and disdain—often the deepest misery. And if he succumbs to all these frightful temptations to criminality, and commits a second crime, you show yourself ten times more severe toward him than for his first fault. That is unjust; for it is almost always the necessity you impose on him which conducts him to a second crime. Yes; for it is shown that, instead of correcting him, your penitentiary system depraves. Instead of ameliorating, it makes worse; instead of curing slight moral affections, it renders them incurable. Your aggravation of punishment, applied without pity to the backslider, is, then, iniquitous, barbarous, since this backsliding is, thus to express it, a forced consequence of your penal institutions. The terrible punishment which awaits this double guilt would be just and excusable if your prisons improved the morals, purified the prisoners, and if, at the expiration of the sentence, good conduct was, if not easy, at least generally possible. If any one is surprised at these contradictions of the law, what would he be when he compares certain penalties to certain crimes—either on account of their inevitable consequences, or on account of the disproportion which exists in their punishment? The conversation of the prisoner whom the bailiff came to see will offer to us one of these afflicting contrasts.
The prisoner who entered at the moment that Pique-Vinaigre left it was a man of about thirty years of age, with red hair, and a jovial, fat, and rubicund face; his middling stature rendered still more remarkable by his enormous corpulency. This prisoner, so rosy and stout, was wrapped up in a long, warm coat of gray swan's-down, with gaiter trousers of the same material. A kind of hooded cap of red velvet completed the costume of this personage, who wore excellent furred slippers. Although the fashion of wearing trinkets was over, the golden watch-chain sustained a goodly number of fine gold seals and rings. Finally, several rings, enriched with precious stones, sparkled on the fat red fingers of this prisoner, known as Boulard the Bailiff, accused of breach of trust.
His visitor was Pierre Bourdin, one of the officers charged with the arrest of Morel the jeweler. Bourdin was rather shorter, but quite as fat, and attired after his patron, whose magnificence he admired. Having, like him, a partiality for jewels, he wore on this day a huge topaz pin, and a long gold chain, suspended from his neck, was entwined among the buttonholes of his waist-coat.
"Good-day! faithful Bourdin; I was quite sure you would not be missing at the roll-call," said Boulard, joyously, in a faint, cracked voice, which singularly contrasted with his fat body and blooming face.
"Missing at the roll-call!" answered the bailiff; "I am incapable of such an act, general!" It was thus that Bourdin, with a pleasantry at once familiar and respectful, called the bailiff, under whose orders he acted; this military form of speech being often used among certain classes of civil practitioners.
"I see with pleasure that friendship remains faithful to the unfortunate," said Boulard, with cordial gayety; "yet I began to be uneasy. Three days since I wrote to you, and no Bourdin till now."
"Imagine, general, quite a history. You recollect well the handsome viscount in the Rue de Chaillot?"
"Exactly! you know how he laughed at our writs?"
"It was quite indecent."
"To be sure it was. Malicorne and I were quite stupefied at it, if that were possible."
"It is impossible, brave Bourdin."
"Happily, general, but here is the fact; this handsome viscount has got new titles."
"Has he become a count?"
"No! from a cheat he has become a robber."
"They are at his heels for some diamonds he has stolen; and, by way of parenthesis, they belong to that jeweler who employed this sneak of a Morel, the lapidary whom we went to nab in the Rue du Temple, when a tall slim jockey, with black mustaches, paid for the starved rat, and came near pitching headforemost down the stairs Malicorne and me."
"Oh! yes, yes; I recollect. You told me that, my poor Bourdin; it was very funny. The best of the farce was that the portress of the house emptied on your backs a saucepan of boiling soup."
"Saucepan included, general, which burst like a bomb at our feet. The old sorceress!"
"That will be taken into your charge. But this handsome viscount?"
"I tell you, then, that Saint Remy was prosecuted for a robbery, after having made his ninny of a father believe that he had blown his brains out. An agent of the police, one of my friends, knowing that I had for a long time tracked this lord, asked me if I could not put him on the scent. I learned too late, at the time of our last writ, which he had escaped, that he was burrowed in a farm at Arnouville, at five leagues from Paris. But when we arrived there it was too late; the bird had flown!
"Besides, he had the following day paid this bill of exchange, thanks to a certain great lady, they say. Yes, general; but no matter, I knew the rest. He had once been concealed there; he might well enough be concealed there a second time. That is what I said to my friend in the police. He proposed for me to lend a hand, as an amateur, and conduct him to the farm. I had nothing to do—it was a nice party to the country—I accepted."
"Well! the viscount?"
"Not to be found. After having at first wandered around the farm, and having afterward introduced ourselves there, we returned as wise as we went; and this is the reason I have not been able to render myself sooner to your orders, general."
"I was very sure there was an impossibility on your part, my good fellow."
"But, if it is not improper, tell me, how the devil did you get here?"
"Vulgar people, my dear—a herd of riff-raff, who, for the miserable sum of sixty thousand francs, of which they pretend I have despoiled them, have carried a complaint against me for an abuse of confidence, and forced me to give up my commission."
"Really! general? Ah, well! this is a misfortune! How—shall we work no more for you?"
"I am on half-pay, my good Bourdin; here I am on an allowance."
"But who is, then, so savage?"
"Just imagine that one of the most severe against me is a liberated robber, who gave me to collect a bill of seven hundred miserable francs, for which it was necessary to prosecute. I did prosecute; I was paid, and I pocketed the money; and because, in consequence of speculations which did not succeed, I have spent this money, as well as that of many others, all the rubbishing lot have made such a brawling, that a writ was issued to arrest me, and thus you see me here, my good fellow; neither more nor less than a malefactor."
"Take care that don't hurt you, general."
"Yes; but what is most curious is, this convict has written to me, some days since, that this money, being his sole resource for rainy days, and that these days had now arrived (I do not know what lie means by that), I was responsible for the crimes he might commit to escape starvation."
"It is charming, on my word!"
"Is it not? Nothing more convenient. The droll fellow is capable of giving that as an excuse. Happily, the law knows no such accomplices."
"After all, you are only accused of an abuse of confidence, is it not, my general?"
"Certainly! Do you take me for a thief, Master Bourdin?"
"Oh! general. I meant to say there was nothing serious in all this; after all, there is not enough to whip a cat."
"Have I a despairing look, my good fellow?"
"Not at all; I never saw you look more cheerful. Indeed, if you are condemned, you will only have two or three months' imprisonment, and twenty-five francs fine. I know my code."
"And these two or three months I shall be allowed, I am sure, to pass at my ease in a lunatic asylum. I have one deputy under my thumb."
"Oh! then your affair is sure."
"Hold, Bourdin, I can hardly keep from laughing; these fools who have sent me here will gain much by it! They shall never see a sou of the money they claim. They force me to sell my commission—all the same. I am aware of the duty I owe my predecessor. You see it is these muffs who will be the geese of the farce, as Robert Macaire says."
"That produces the same effect on me, general; so much the worse for them."
"My good fellow, let us come to the subject which made me beg you to come here; it is touching a delicate mission concerning a female," said Boulard, with a mysterious air.
"Ah! rogue of a general, I recognize you there! What is it? Count on me."
"I interest myself particularly in a young actress of the Folies-Dramatiques; I pay her board, and, in exchange, she pays me in return—at least, I think so; for, my good fellow, you know, the absent are often in the wrong. Now, I am the more tenacious to know if I am wrong, as Alexandrine—she is called Alexandrine—has sent for some money. I have never been stingy with the fair sex; but I do not wish to be made a fool of. Thus, before playing the generous with this dear friend, I wish to know if she deserves it by her fidelity. I know there is nothing more absurd than fidelity; but it is a weakness I have. You will render me, then, a friendly service, my dear comrade, if you can for a few days have a supervision over my love, and let me know how to act either by talking with the landlady of Alexandrine, or—"
"Sufficient, general," interrupting. "This is nothing worse than watching, spying, and following a creditor. Have confidence in me; I shall find out if Lady Alexandrine sticks a penknife in the contract, which appears to me quite improbable; for, without flattery, general, you are too handsome a man, and too generous not to be valued."
"I ought to be a handsome man; yet I am absent, my dear comrade, and it is a great wrong; in fine, I count on you to know the truth."
"You shall know it, I will answer for it."
"Ah! my dear comrade, how can I express my gratitude?"
"Come, come, now, general."
"It is understood, my good Bourdin, that in this affair your fees shall be the same as for an arrest."
"General, I will not allow it; so long as I acted under your orders, have you not always allowed me to grind the debtors to the quick, treble the fees of arrest, costs, which you have afterward prosecuted to payment with as much activity as if they had been due to yourself?"
"But, my dear comrade, that is different; in my turn I will not allow—"
"General, you will humiliate me, if you do not allow me to offer you this as a feeble proof of my gratitude."
"Very well; I shall struggle no longer with your generosity. Besides, your devotion will be a sweet recompense for the freedom that I have always maintained in our business affairs."
"That is what I expect, my general; but can I not serve you in any other way? you must be horribly situated here, you, who like to be so much at your ease! You are in a cell by yourself, I hope?"
"Certainly, and I arrived just in time, for I have the last vacant room. I have arranged myself as well as I can in my cell; I am not very badly off; I have a stove; I sent for a good arm-chair; I make three long repasts; I digest, I walk and sleep. Saving the inquietude which Alexandrine causes me, you see I am not much to be pitied."
"But you are so much of a gourmand, general! the resources of the prison are so meager!"
"But the provision merchant who lives in this street has been created, as it were, for my service. I have an open account with him, and every day he sends me a nice little basket; and while on this subject, and you are ready to do me a favor, beg good Mrs. Michonneau, who, by the way, is not so bad—"
"Ah! rogue—rogue of a general!"
"Come, my dear comrade, no evil thoughts," said the bailiff, "I am only a good customer and neighbor. Pray dear Mrs. Michonneau to put into my basket to-morrow some pickled funny fish; it is now in season; it will be good for my digestion, and make me thirsty."
"And then, let her send a hamper of Burgundy, Champagne, and Bordeaux, just like the last—she knows what that means! and let her add two bottles of her old 1817 Cognac, and a pound of pure Mocha, fresh ground and burned."
"I will just note down the date of the brandy, so as not to forget it," said Bourdin, taking his notebook from his pocket.
"Since you are writing, my dear comrade, have the goodness to note down to ask at my house for my eiderdown coverlet."
"All this shall be executed to the letter, general. Be easy; I feel now a little more assured as to your good living. But do you take your walks pell-mell among the low prisoners?"
"Yes, and it is very gay, very animated; I come out of my room after breakfast. I go sometimes into one court, sometimes into another; and, as you say, I mix with the dregs. I assure you that, at the bottom, they appear to be very good fellows; some of them are very amusing. The most abandoned assemble in what they call the Lions' Den. Ah! my dear comrade, what hangdog faces! There is one among them named Skeleton! I have never seen his fellow."
"What a singular name!"
"He is so thin, or, rather, so fleshless, that it is no nickname; I tell you, he is frightful; and with all this, he is provost-marshal of his ward; he is by far the greatest villain of them all. He comes from the galleys, and he has again robbed and murdered; but his last murder is so horrible, that he knows very well he will be condemned to death to a certainty, but he laughs at it like fun."
"What a ruffian!"
"All the prisoners admire, and tremble before him. I put myself at once in his good graces, by giving him some cigars; he has taken me into his friendship, and teaches me slang. I make progress."
"Oh! oh! what a good lark! my general learning flash!"
"I tell you I amuse myself like anything. These jockeys adore me; some of them are even familiar as relations. I am not proud, like a little gentleman, Germain, a barefoot, who has not the means to be separate, and yet pretends to play the disdainful with them."
"But he must have been delighted to find a man so much at home as you are, to talk with, if he is so highly disgusted with the others?"
"Bah! he did not seem to remark who I was; but had he remarked it, I should have been very guarded to respond to his advances. He is the butt of the prison. They will play him, sooner or later, a bad turn, and I have not, of course, any desire to partake of the aversion of which he is the object."
"You are very right."
"That would spoil my recreation; for my promenade with the prisoners is a real promenade. Only these robbers have not a great opinion of me, mentally. You comprehend—my accusation of a simple abuse of confidence—it is a sad thing for such fellows. Thus they look upon me as no great shakes, as Arnal says."
"In fact, alongside of these matadores of crime, you are—"
"A lamb, my dear comrade. Since you are so obliging, do not forget my commissions."
"Do not be uneasy, my general."
"1st Alexandrine; 2d the fish, and the hamper of wine; 3d the old 1817 Cognac, the ground coffee, and the eiderdown coverlet."
"You shall have all. Anything more?"
"Yes, I forgot. Do you know where M. Badinot lives?"
"The broker? yes."
"Will you tell him that I reckon on his obliging disposition to find me a lawyer who is prepared for my cause—that I shall not regard a cool thousand?"
"I will see M. Badinot, be assured, general; this evening all your commissions shall be executed, and to-morrow you will receive what you have demanded. Adieu, and a good heart, general."
And the prisoner left on one side, and the visitor on the other.
Now compare the crime of Pique-Vinaigre, a robber, to the offense of Boulard, the bailliff. Compare the point of departure from virtue of the two, and the reasons, necessities, which have pushed them on to crime. Compare, finally, the punishment that awaits them. Coming out of prison, inspiring everywhere fear and indifference, the liberated convict could not follow, in the residence appointed him, the trade he knew; he hoped to be able to work at an occupation dangerous to his life, but suitable for his strength; this resource failed him.
Then he breaks his terms of release, returns to Paris, contriving to conceal his former life and find some work. He arrives, exhausted with fatigue, dying with hunger; by chance he discovers that a sum of money is deposited in a neighboring house; he yields to temptation, he forces a window, opens a desk, steals one hundred francs, and flies. He is arrested, is a prisoner. He will be tried, condemned. For a second crime, fifteen or twenty years of hard labor and the pillory is what awaits him. He knows it. This formidable punishment he deserves. Property is sacred. He who, at night, breaks open your doors to take your goods ought to undergo a severe penalty. In vain shall the culpable plead the want of work, poverty, his position so difficult and intolerable, the wants which this position, this condition of a liberated convict, imposes on him. So much the worse; there is but one law. Society, for its peace and safety, will and ought to be armed with boundless power, and without pity repress these audacious attacks upon others.
Yes, this wretch, ignorant and stupid, this corrupted and despised convict, has merited his fate. But what shall he then deserve who, intelligent, rich, educated, surrounded by the esteem of all, clothed with an official character, will steal—not to eat, but to satisfy some fanciful caprice, or to try the chance of stock-jobbing? Will steal, not a hundred francs, but a hundred thousand francs—a million? Will steal, not at night, at the peril of his life, but tranquilly, quite at his ease, in the sight of all? Will steal, not from an unknown who has placed his money under the safeguard of a lock, but from a client, who has placed from necessity his money under the safeguard of the public officer, whom the law points out—imposes on his confidence? What terrible punishment will be deserve, then, who, instead of stealing a small sum almost from necessity, will steal wholesale a considerable amount? Would it not be a crying injustice not to apply to him a similar punishment to that bestowed on the poor villain pushed to extremities by misery, to theft by want? Get along! says the law. How! apply to a man well brought up the same punishment as to a vagabond? For shame! To compare an offense of good society with a vulgar burglary? Fie!
Thus, for the public defaulting officer: two months imprisonment. For the liberated prisoner: twenty years hard labor, and the pillory. What can be added to these facts? They speak for themselves.
What sad and serious reflections they give birth to. Faithful to his promise, the old warder had called for Germain. When Boulard re-entered the prison, the door opened, Germain entered, and Rigolette was no longer separated from her poor lover but by a slight wire railing.
Germain's features were wanting in regularity, but a more interesting face could scarcely be seen; his bearing was exalted; his figure graceful; his dress plain, but neat (gray trousers and a black frock-coat closely buttoned), showed none of that slovenly carelessness so peculiar to prisoners; his white hands bore witness of a care for his person which had still more increased the aversion of the other prisoners; for moral perversity is almost always joined to personal filthiness. His brown hair, naturally curled, which he wore long and parted on the side, according to the fashion of the times, hung around his pale and dejected face; his eyes, of a beautiful blue, announced frankness and kindness; his smiles, at once sad and sweet, expressed benevolence and habitual melancholy; for, although very young, this unfortunate youth had experienced many trials.
In a word, nothing could be more touching than his appearance, suffering, affecting, resigned; as also nothing more honest, more loyal, than the heart of this young man. The cause even of his arrest (despoiling it of the calumnious aggravations due to the hatred of Jacques Ferrand) proved the kind-heartedness of Germain, and accused him only of a moment's thoughtlessness or imprudence; culpable, doubtless, but pardonable, when one reflects that he was able to replace in the desk of the notary the sum taken to save Morel the lapidary. Germain blushed slightly when, through the grating, he perceived the fresh and charming face of Rigolette. She, according to her custom, wished to appear gay, to encourage and cheer his spirits; but she ill-concealed the sorrow and emotion that she had always felt since he had been imprisoned. Seated on a bench on the other side of the railing, she held on her lap her basket.
The old warder, instead of remaining in the passage, went and seated himself near a stove at the extremity of the room. In a few moments he fell asleep. Germain and Rigolette could talk at their ease.
"Come, M. Germain," said the grisette, approaching her face as close as she could to the grating, the better to examine the features of her friend, "let me see if I am satisfied with your face. Is it less sorrowful? Hum! hum! so, so; take care; you will make me angry."
"How kind you are to come again to-day!"
"Again! what! that is a reproach."
"Ought I not, in truth, reproach you for doing so much for me—for me, who can do nothing but thank you?"
"An error, sir; for I am also as happy from my visits as you are. So I must, in my turn, thank you. Ah! ah! there is where I have caught you, Master Unjust. I have half a mind to punish you for your wicked ideas, by not giving you what I have brought."
"Another kindness! how you spoil me!—oh! thank you. Pardon me if I repeat so often this word, which you dislike!—but you leave me nothing else to say."
"In the first place, you do not know what I have brought."
"What is that to me?"
"Well, you are polite!"
"Whatever it may be, does it not come from you? Your touching kindness, does it not fill me with gratitude, and——"
Germain could not finish, but cast down his eyes.
"And with what?" asked Rigolette, blushing.
"And with—and with devotion," stammered Germain.
"Why not add respect at once, like at the end of a letter," said Rigolette impatiently. "You deceive me; it was not that which you intended to say. You stopped short."
"I assure you——"
"You assure me!—you assure me! I see you blush through the grating. Am I not your little friend, your neighbor? Why do you conceal anything? Be frank, then, with me; tell me all," added the grisette, timidly; for she only waited for an avowal from Germain to tell him openly that she loved him. An honest and generous love, which the misfortunes of Germain had called into existence.
"I assure you," answered the prisoner, with a sigh, "that I conceal nothing from you!"
"Fie, the false man!" cried Rigolette, stamping her foot. "Well, you see this large cravat of white wool that I brought for you?" and she took it from her basket. "To punish you for your dissimulation, you shall not have it. I knit it for you. I said to myself, it must be so cold, so damp, in those large prison yards, that at least he will be protected nicely with this; he is so chilly."
"Yes, you are liable to cold," said Rigolette, interrupting him. "Perhaps I recollect it well! that did not, however, prevent you hindering me (out of delicacy) from putting any more wood in my stove when you passed the evening with me. Oh, I have a good memory!"
"And I also-only too good!" said Germain, in an agitated voice, passing his hand over his eyes.
"Come, now, there you are becoming sad again, although I forbid it."
"How; do you wish me not to be touched, even to tears, when I think of all that you have done for me since my detention here? And this new attention, is it not charming? Do I not know that you encroach upon your nights to make time to come and see me? On my account you impose upon yourself extra labor."
"That is it! Pity me then, quickly, because every two or three days I take a fine walk to come and visit my friends, I, who adore a walk. It is so amusing to look at the shops along the streets!"
"And to come out on such a day; such a wind!"
"A reason the more; you have no idea what funny figures you meet! Some holding on their hats with both hands, so that the wind shall not carry them off; others, with their umbrellas turned wrong side out like a tulip, are making incredible grimaces, shutting their eyes, while the rain beats in their faces. Ah! this morning, during my whole walk, it was a real comedy! I promised myself to make you laugh by telling it you. But you will not even force a smile."
"It is not my fault; pardon me, but the kind interest you have manifested for me touches my very heart. You know it; my emotions are never gay; they are stronger than—"
Rigolette, not wishing to let him observe that, notwithstanding her prattle, she was very near partaking his agitation, hastened to change the conversation, and replied:
"You say that your feelings are stronger than you; but there is another thing that you will not master, although I have begged and supplicated you," added Rigolette.
"Of what do you speak?"
"Of your obstinacy in always keeping yourself apart from the other prisoners; in never speaking to them. The warder has just told me again that, for your own interest, you should associate with them. I am sure you will not do it. You are silent. You see well it is always the same thing! You will not be contented until these frightful men have done you some harm!"
"You do not know the horror with which they inspire me. You do not know all the personal reasons that I have to fly and execrate them and their fellows!"
"Alas! yes; I think I know them—these reasons. I have read the papers which you wrote for me, and which I went to your lodgings to get after your imprisonment. There I have learned the dangers you have incurred since your arrival in Paris, because you would not associate yourself in crime with the scoundrel who brought you up. It was on account of the trap set for you that you left the Rue du Temple, only telling me where you were going to reside. In those papers I have also read something else," added Rigolette, blushing anew, and casting down her eyes; "I have read some things—that—"
"Oh! that you should have been always ignorant of, I swear it," cried Germain, quickly, "but for the misfortune which has fallen upon me—Ah! I interest you; be generous; pardon me these follies; forget them. In happier times I allowed myself these dreams, as wild as they were."
Rigolette had a second time endeavored to extract an avowal from the lips of Germain, by making allusion to passages filled with tenderness and passion, which he had formerly written and dedicated to the recollections of the grisette; for, as we have said, he had always felt for her a lively and sincere affection; but to enjoy the cordial intimacy of his sweet neighbor, he had concealed this love under the mask of friendship. Rendered by misfortune still more suspicious and timid, he could not imagine that Rigolette loved him with love: he, a prisoner, he, withering under a terrible accusation, while before these misfortunes she had never evinced any attachment stronger than that of a sister. The grisette, seeing herself so little understood, suppressed a sigh, waiting—hoping for a better occasion to unfold to Germain the wishes of her heart. She answered, then, with embarrassment: "I can easily comprehend that the society of these bad people causes you horror, but that is no reason for you to brave useless dangers."
"I assure you that in order to follow your advice, I have several times tried to address some of them who seemed the least criminal; but if you knew what language! what men!"
"Alas! it is true, it must be terrible."
"What is still more terrible is, to find I become more and more accustomed, habituated to the frightful conversations which, in spite of myself, I hear all the day; yes, now I listen with a sad apathy to the horrors which, during my first days here, aroused my indignation; thus, I begin to doubt myself," cried he, with bitterness.
"Oh! M. Germain, what do you say?"
"By constantly living in these horrid places, our minds become accustomed to criminal thoughts, as our hearing becomes habituated to the gross words which resound continually around us. I comprehend now that one can enter here innocent, although accused, and leave it perverted."
"Yes, but not you—not you?"
"Yes, I; and others a thousand times better than I. Alas! those who, before conviction, condemn us to this odious association, are ignorant of its mournful and fatal effects. They are ignorant that almost in all cases the air which is breathed here becomes contagious—fatal to honor!"
"I pray you do not talk thus; you cause me too much sorrow."
"You ask me the cause of my growing sadness, there you have it. I did not wish to tell you; but I have only one way of acknowledging your pity for me."
"My pity—my pity!"
"Yes, it is to conceal nothing from you. Ah, well! I acknowledge it with affright. I no longer recognize myself. I have good reason to despise, to fly these wretches. Their presence, their contact affects me, in spite of myself. One would say that they have the fatal power to vitiate the atmosphere they breathe. It seems to me that I feel the corruption entering through every pore. If they absolve me from the fault I have committed, the sight, the acquaintance of honest men will fill me with confusion and shame. I have not yet had the enjoyment of pleasant companions; but I dread the day when I shall find myself among honorable people, because I have the consciousness of my weakness."