"Of your weakness?"
"Of my cowardice!"
"Of your cowardice? but what unjust ideas you have of yourself!"
"Ah! is it not to be cowardly and culpable to compound with one's duty and probity? And that I have done!"
"I! On entering here I did not extenuate the magnitude of my fault, all excusable as it was, perhaps. Well! now it appears to me less, from hearing these robbers and these murderers speak of their crimes with obscene jests or ferocious pride. I surprise myself sometimes envying them their audacious indifference, and upbraiding myself bitterly for the remorse with which I am tormented for so slight an offense compared to their misdeeds."
"But you are right; your deed, far from being blamable, is generous; you were sure of being able to return the money which you took only for a few hours, in order to save a whole family from ruin, from death, perhaps."
"No matter; in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of honest men, it is a robbery. Doubtless, it is less criminal to steal for such a purpose than for any other; but it is a fatal symptom, to be obliged, in order to excuse one's self in one's eyes, to look around for a reason. I am no longer the equal of men without a stain. Behold me already forced to compare myself with the degraded men with whom I live. Thus, in time, I well see, conscience is blunted, and becomes hardened. To-morrow, I shall commit a robbery, not with the certainty of being able to restore what I took for a laudable object, but I shall steal from cupidity, and I shall doubtless think myself innocent in comparison to those who murder to rob. And yet, at this present moment, there is as great a distance between me and an assassin, as there is between me and an irreproachable man. Thus, because there are beings a thousand times more degraded than I am, my degradation is to be excused in my eyes! Instead of being able to say, as formerly, I am as honest as the most honest men, I will console myself by saying I am the least degraded of the wretches among whom I am condemned to live!"
"Not always? Once out of this?"
"No matter; even if acquitted, these people know me; when they leave the prison, if they meet me, they will speak to me as their old jail companion. If any one is ignorant of the accusation which brought me to the assizes, these wretches will threaten to divulge it. Thus you well see, cursed and now indissoluble links unite me to them, while, shut alone in my cell until the day of my trial, unknown by them as they would have been unknown to me, I should not have been assailed by these fears, which may paralyze the best resolutions. And then, alone, in thinking of my fault, it would have been magnified instead of being diminished; the graver it appeared to me, the greater would have been my future expiation. Thus, the more I should have felt the need of my own pardon, the more in my poor sphere I should have tried to do good. For it needs a hundred good actions to atone for a single bad one. But shall I ever dream of expiating that which at this moment scarcely causes me any remorse? Hold! I feel it, I obey an irresistible influence, against which I have struggled for a long time with all my strength. I was educated for crime, I yield to my destiny; after all, isolated, without family, what matters it that my destiny should be accomplished, be it honest or criminal? And yet, my intentions were good and pure. When they wished to make me guilty, I experienced a profound satisfaction in saying to myself: I have never been wanting in honor, and that, perhaps, was more difficult for me than all the rest. And now—oh! it is frightful—frightful!" cried the prisoner, sobbing in so heartrending a manner that Rigolette, deeply affected, could not restrain her tears.
Let us say, however, that Germain, thanks to his sterling probity, had struggled for a long time victoriously, and that he felt the approaches of the malady more than he experienced in reality. His fear of seeing his fault become of less gravity in his own eyes, proved that he still felt all its enormity; but the trouble, apprehension, and doubts which cruelly agitated his virtuous and generous mind were not the less alarming symptoms. Guided by the rectitude of her understanding, by her woman's sagacity, and by the impulses of her love, Rigolette divined that which we have just said. Although well convinced that her friend had not yet lost any of his probity, she feared that, notwithstanding the excellence of his nature, Germain might at some future period become indifferent to that which then tormented him so cruelly.
Rigolette, wiping her eyes, and addressing Germain, who was leaning against the grating, said to him with a touching, serious, almost solemn accent, and in a manner he had never seen her assume, "Listen to me, Germain; I shall express myself perhaps badly; I do not speak so well as you; but what I shall tell you will be as truly sincere. In the first place, you were wrong to complain of being isolated, abandoned."
"Oh! do not think that I ever forget that which your pity for me inspires you to do!"
"Just now, I did not interrupt you when you spoke of pity; but since you repeat this word, I must say that it is not pity at all which I feel for you. I am going to explain this as well as I can. When we were neighbors, I loved you as a brother, as a good companion; you rendered me some little services, I rendered you others; you made me partake of your Sunday amusements, I tried to be very lively, very agreeable, in order to thank you; we were quits."
"Quits? oh! no—I——"
"Let me speak in my turn. When you were forced to leave the house where we dwelt, your departure caused me more regret than that of my other neighbors."
"Can it be true?"
"Yes, because they were men without care, whom certainly I ought to miss less than you; and, besides, they did not yield themselves to be my acquaintances until I had told them a hundred times that they could be nothing else; while you——you have at once imagined what we ought to be to each other. Notwithstanding this you have passed with me all the time you had to spare: you taught me to write; you gave me good advice, a little serious, because it was good: in fine, you have been the most attentive of my neighbors, and the only one who asked nothing of me for the trouble. This is not all; on leaving the house you gave me a great proof of confidence. To see you confide a secret so important to a little girl like me, bless me! that made me proud. Thus, when I was separated from you, my thoughts were oftener of you than of my other neighbors. What I tell you now is true; you know I never tell a falsehood."
"Can it be possible you should have made this distinction between me and the others?"
"Certainly, I have made it, otherwise I should have a bad heart. Yes, I said to myself, 'No one can be better than M. Germain; only he is a little too serious; but never mind, if I had a friend who wished to marry to be very, very happy, certainly I should advise her to marry M. Germain; for he would be the idol of a nice little housekeeper.'"
"You thought of me for another!" Germain could not prevent himself from saying mournfully.
"It is true; I should have been delighted to see you make a happy marriage, since I loved you as a valued friend. You see I am frank; I tell you everything."
"I thank you from the bottom of my heart; it is a consolation for me to learn that among your friends I was he whom you preferred."
"This was the situation of things when your troubles came. It was then that I received the good and kind letter in which you informed me of what you called your fault; fault! which I think—who am not a scholar—is a good and praiseworthy action; it was then that you asked me to go for those papers which informed me that you had always loved me, without daring to tell me so. Those papers, in which I read"—and Rigolette could not restrain her tears—"that, thinking of my future, which sickness, or the want of work might render so painful, you left me, if you should die a violent death, as you feared—you left me the little which you had acquired: by force of industry and economy—"
"Yes; for if I were alive and you found yourself without work or sick, it is to me, rather than any one else, that you would address yourself—is it not so? I count on it! speak! speak! I am not mistaken, am I?"
"It is very plain; to whom would you have me apply?"
"Oh! hold; these are words which do good, which are a balm for many sorrows!"
"I cannot express to you what I felt on reading—what a sad word—this will, of which each line contained a 'souvenir' of me, or a thought for my welfare; and yet I was not to know these proofs of your attachment until you were no longer in existence. Bless me! what would you? after such generous conduct one is astonished that love should come all at once! yet it is very natural, is it not, M. Germain?"
The girl said these last words with such touching frankness, fixing her large black eyes on those of Germain, that he did not understand her at first, so far was he from thinking himself beloved by Rigolette. Yet these words were so pointed, that their echo resounded from the bottom of the prisoner's heart; he blushed, then became pale, and cried,
"What do you say! I fear—oh! I am mistaken—I——"
"I say that from the moment in which I found you were so kind to me and in which I saw you so unhappy, I have loved you otherwise than as a brother, and that if now one of my friends wished to marry," said Rigolette, smiling and blushing, "it is no longer you I should recommend to her, M. Germain."
"You love me! you love me!"
"I must then tell you myself, since you ask me."
"Can it be possible?"
"It is not, however, my fault, for having twice put you in the way to make you comprehend it. But no, my gentleman does not wish to understand a hint; he forces me to confess these things to him. It is wrong, perhaps; but as there is no one here but you to scold me for my effrontery, I have less fear; and, besides," added Rigolette, in a more serious tone, and with deep emotion, "just now you appeared to me so much afflicted, so despairing, that I did not mind it; I have had the self-love to believe that this avowal, made frankly and from the bottom of the heart, would prevent you from being so unhappy for the future. I thought, 'Until now I have had no luck in my efforts to amuse or console him; my dainties take away his appetite, my gayety makes him weep; this time at least'—oh dear me! what is the matter?" cried Rigolette, on seeing Germain conceal his face in his hands. "There, tell me now if this is not cruel!" cried she; "no matter what I say or what I do, you remain still unhappy; it is to be too wicked, and by far too egotistical also. One would say there was no one but you who suffered."
"Alas, what misery is mine!" cried Germain, with, despair. "You love me, when I am no longer worthy of you!"
"No longer worthy of me? There is no good sense in what you say now. It is as if I had said formerly, that I was not worthy of your friendship, because I had been in prison; for, after all, I have also been a prisoner; am I any less an honest girl?"
"But you were sent to prison because you were a poor abandoned child, while I—what a difference!"
"In fine, as to the prison, we have nothing to reproach ourselves for. It is rather I who am presumptuous; for in my situation I ought only to think of marrying some workman. I am a foundling: I possess nothing but my little chamber and my good courage; yet I come boldly and propose to you to take me for a wife."
"Alas! formerly this had been the dream, the happiness of my life! but now—I, under the weight of an infamous accusation, I should abuse your admirable generosity—your pity, which carries you away, perhaps! no—no!"
"But," cried Rigolette, with impatience, "I tell you, it is not pity, it is love. I only think of you! I sleep no more—I eat no more. Your sad and melancholy looks follow me everywhere. Is that pity? Now, when you speak to me, your voice, your look, go to my heart. There are a thousand things in you which now please me, and which I had not remarked. I love your face, I love your eyes, I love you, I love your mind, I love your good heart; is this still pity? Why, after having loved you as a friend, do I love you as a lover? I do not know! Why was I lively and gay when I loved you as a friend? Why am I all changed since I love you as a lover? I do not know. Why have I waited so long to find you both handsome and good? to love you at once with my eyes and my heart? I do not know; or, rather, yes, I do know: it is because I have discovered how much you loved me without ever telling it; how much you were generous and devoted. Then love mounted from my heart to my eyes, like as a soft tear mounts there when one is affected."
"Really, I think I am in a dream on hearing you talk thus."
"And I, then! I never should have thought it possible that I could dare to tell you all this; but your despair compelled me! Ah, well! now that you know that I love you as my friend, as my lover, as my husband, will you still say it is pity?"
The generous scruples of Germain were dispelled in a moment before this avowal, so artless and courageous. A joy unlooked—for tore him from his sorrowful meditations.
"You love me!" cried he. "I believe you; your voice, your look, all tell me! I do not wish to ask myself how I have deserved such happiness, I abandon myself to it blindly. My life, my whole life, will not suffice to pay my debt to you! Ah! I have already suffered much, but this moment compensates all!"
"At length you are consoled. Oh! I was very sure, very sure I should succeed!" cried Rigolette, with a burst of charming joy.
"And is it in the midst of the horrors of a prison, and is it when everything oppresses me, that such a felicity—" Germain could not finish. This thought recalling the reality of his position, his scruples, for a moment forgotten, returned more cruel than ever, and he resumed, with despair, "But I am a prisoner; I am accused of robbery; I shall be condemned perhaps; and I would accept your valorous sacrifice! I would profit by your generous exaltation! Oh, no! no! I am not infamous enough for this!"
"What do you say?"
"I may be condemned to years of imprisonment."
"Well!" answered Rigolette, with calmness and firmness, "they will see that I am a virtuous girl; they will not refuse to marry us in the prison chapel."
"But I may be confined far from Paris."
"Once your wife, I will follow you; I will live in the place where you may be; I will work there, and will come to see you every day!"
"But I shall be disgraced in the eyes of all."
"You love me more than all, don't you?"
"Can you ask me?"
"Then what matters it to you? Far from being disgraced in my eyes, I shall regard you as the martyr of your good heart."
"But the world will condemn, calumniate your choice."
"The world! we will be the world to each other, and then let them talk."
"Finally, on coming out of the prison, my living will be precarious, miserable. Repulsed on all sides, perhaps I shall find no employment; and then, it is horrible to think of: but if this corruption which I dread should, in spite of myself, gain on me, what a future for you!"
"You will not be corrupted; no, for now you know I love you, and this thought will give you strength to resist bad examples. You will think that even if every one should repulse you on your leaving the prison, your wife will receive you with love and gratitude, very certain that you are still an honest man. This language astonishes you, does it not? It astonishes me. I do not know where I find what I say to you. It is from the bottom of my heart, assuredly, and that ought to convince you; otherwise, if you disdain an offer which is made from the heart, if you do not wish the attachment of a poor girl who—"
Germain interrupted Rigolette with warmth:
"Well! I accept—I accept; yes, I feel that it is sometimes cowardly to refuse certain sacrifices; it is to acknowledge that one is unworthy of them. I accept, noble and courageous girl."
"True! very true this time!"
"I swear it to you; and, beside, you have spoken words which have struck me—which have given me the courage I wanted."
"What happiness! and what have I said?"
"That for you I ought to remain an honest man. Yes, in this thought I will find the strength to resist the detestable influences which surround me. I will brave the contagion, and will know how to preserve worthy of your love this heart, which belongs to you!"
"Oh! Germain, how happy I am! if I have done anything for you, how you recompense me!"
"And then, do you see, although you excuse my fault, I will not forget its gravity. My task, for the future, shall be doubled—to atone for the past, and deserve the happiness I owe to you. For that I will do good; for, however poor one may be, the occasion is never wanting."
"Alas! that is true; those who are more unfortunate than one's self can always be found."
"In default of money—"
"One gives tears, that which I did for the poor Morels. And it is holy alms: the charity of the heart is worth more than that which gives bread."
"In fine, you accept; you will not retract?"
"Oh! never, never, my friend, my wife; yes, my courage returns; I seem to emerge from a dream; I doubt myself no longer! I wronged myself—happily, I wronged myself. My heart would not beat as it does beat if it had lost its noble energy."
"Oh! Germain, how handsome you look while thus speaking! How you reanimate me, not for myself, but for you! Now, you promise, do you not, that, now you have my love to shield you, you will no longer fear to speak to these wicked men, in order not to excite their anger against you?"
"Be comforted. On seeing me sad and dejected, they, doubtless, accused me of being a prey to my remorse; and in seeing me joyous and gay, they will think that I have acquired their recklessness."
"It is true; they will suspect you no more, and I shall be happy. So, no imprudence; now you belong to me. I am your little wife!"
At this moment the warder stirred: he awoke. "Quick!" whispered Rigolette, with a smile full of grace and maiden tenderness; "quick, my husband, give me a sweet kiss on my forehead, through the grating; it will be our betrothal!"
And the girl leaned her face against the iron bars. Germain, profoundly affected, touched with his lips, through the grating, the pure and white forehead. A tear from the prisoner fell like a humid pearl. Oh! touching baptism, of this chaste, melancholy, and charming love!
"Ho! ho! already three o'clock!" said the warder, rising from his seat; "and visitors ought to leave at two. Come, my dear," added he, addressing the grisette; "it is a pity, but you must part."
"Oh! thank you, thank you, sir, for allowing us to talk alone. I have given Germain good courage; he will no longer look so sorrowful, and thus he will have nothing more to fear from his wicked companions. Is it not so, my friend?"
"Be tranquil," said Germain, smiling; "I shall be for the future the gayest in the prison."
"Very good; then they will pay no more attention to you," said the warder.
"Here is a cravat which I have brought for Germain," said Rigolette; "must I leave it at the office?"
"It is the rule; but, after all, while I have already transgressed orders, in for a lamb, in for a sheep—come, make the day complete; give him quickly the present yourself." And the warder opened the door.
"The good man is right; the happiness of the day will be complete," said Francois Germain, on receiving the cravat from the hands of Rigolette, which he tenderly pressed. "Adieu! Now I have no longer any fear to ask you to come and see me as soon as possible."
"Nor I to promise it. Adieu, good Germain!"
"Farewell, my own darling!"
"And be sure to make use of my cravat; take care you do not catch cold; it is so damp."
"What a handsome cravat! When I think that you made it for me! Oh! I will always keep it," said Germain, carrying it to his lips.
"Now you will have some appetite, I hope. Do you wish that I should make my little dish for you?"
"Certainly, and this time I will do it honor."
"Do not be uneasy, then, Mister Glutton; you shall give me your opinion. Come, once more, adieu. Thank you, Mister Warder; today I go away very happy and gratified. Adieu, Germain."
"Adieu, my little wife: soon again!"
Some moments after, Rigolette, having put on her pattens, left the prison with a lighter heart than when she entered it. During the conversation of Germain and the grisette, other scenes were passing in one of the courts of the prison, where we shall now conduct the reader.
THE LION'S DEN
If the material aspect of a vast house of detention, constructed with every reference to comfort and salubrity claimed by humanity, presents, as we have said, nothing gloomy or sinister, the sight of the prisoners causes a contrary impression. A person is commonly touched with sadness and pity when he finds himself in the midst of a crowd of female prisoners, in thinking that these unfortunates are almost always forced to crime less from their own will than by the pernicious influence of the first who betrayed them. And then, again, women, the most criminal, preserve at the bottom of the heart two holy ties, which the violent action of passions the most detestable, the most impetuous, never breaks entirely—Love and Maternity! To speak of love and maternity, is to say that with these poor creatures a soft and pure emotion can still light up here and there the profound gloom of a wretched corruption. But with men, such as the prison makes them and casts into the world, there is nothing similar. It is crime of one cast; it is a lump of brass, which only becomes red in the fire of infernal passions. Thus, at the sight of the criminals who encumber the prisons, one is at first seized with a shudder of alarm and horror. Reflection alone leads you to thoughts more compassionate, but of great bitterness. Yes, of great bitterness; for one reflects that the vicious population of jails and hulks, the bloody harvest of the executioner, springs up from that mire of ignorance, of misery, and of stupidity. To comprehend this alarming and horrible proposition, let the reader follow us into the Lions' Den. One of the courts of La Force is thus called. There are ordinarily placed the prisoners most dangerous, for their previous ferocity, or for the gravity of the accusations which rest upon them. Nevertheless, it had been found necessary to add to their number temporarily, in consequence of the repairs now going on in the prison, several other prisoners. These, although equally under the jurisdiction of the Court of Assizes, were almost honest people compared to the habitual inmates of the Lions' Den. The gloomy, dark, and rainy sky cast a mournful light on the scene we are going to describe. It took place in the middle of the court, which was a vast quadrangle, formed by high white walls, pierced here and there by some grated windows.
At one of the ends of this court was seen a narrow wicket door; at the other, the entrance to the sitting-room; a large paved hall, in the middle of which was a cast-iron stove, surrounded by wooden seats, on which were stretched several prisoners, talking among themselves. Others, preferring exercise to repose, were walking in the courts, in close ranks, four and five together, With locked arms.
One should possess the energetic and somber pencil of Salvator or of Goya to sketch these diverse specimens of physical and moral ugliness; to describe their hideous habiliments, the variety of costume of these wretches, covered for the most part with miserable clothing; for, only being attainted, that is to say, supposed innocents, they were not dressed in the uniform of the penitentiaries; some of them, however, wore it; for, on their entrance into prison, their rags had appeared so dirty, so infectious, that, after the customary bath, they had given to them the cap and coarse gray trowsers of the convict. A phrenologist would have attentively studied these ghastly and bronzed faces, with their flat foreheads, their cruel and insidious glances, wicked mouths, and brawny necks; almost all offered a frightful resemblance to the brute. On the cunning features of this, one would find the subtle perfidy of the fox; on another, the sanguinary rapacity of the bird of prey; on a third, the ferocity of the tiger; and on another, again, the animal stupidity of the brute. The circular walk of this band of silent beings, with bold and contemptuous looks, an insolent and cynical laugh, pressing one against the other, at the bottom of this court, offered something strangely suspicious. It caused a shudder to think that this ferocious horde would be, in a given time, again let loose among mankind, against whom they had declared an implacable warfare. How much sanguinary revenge, how many murderous projects, lurk under this appearance of brazen and jeering perversity!
Let us sketch some few of the prominent physiognomies of the Lions' Den, let us leave the others in the background. While one of the warders watched those who were walking, a kind of meeting was held in the hall, Among those who were present, we will find Barbillon and Nicholas Martial, of whom we shall speak only to remind the reader of their presence. He who appeared to preside and conduct the discussion was a prisoner nicknamed Skeleton. He was provost-marshal or captain of the hall. This man, of a good height, and about forty years of age, justified his appropriate nickname by a leanness impossible to be described, which we should call almost osteological. If the physiognomies of his companions offered more or less analogy to that of the tiger, the vulture, or the fox, the form of his retreating forehead, and his bony, lank, and protruding jaws, supported by a neck of immense length, resembled entirely the conformation of a serpent's head. Total baldness increased this resemblance still more, for, under the rough skin of this reptile-shaped forehead, could be distinguished the slightest protuberances, the smallest sutures of his skull; as to his visage, let one imagine some old parchment drawn over the face, and only slightly tightened from the cheek-bone to the angle of the lower jaw, the ligament of which was plainly visible. The eyes, small and squinting, were so deeply sunken, the eyebrows and cheek-bones so prominent, that under the yellowish forehead could be seen two sockets, literally filled with darkness, and, at a small distance, the eyes seemed to disappear in the bottom of these cavities, two black holes, which give such a horrible appearance to a skull. His long projecting teeth were almost constantly displayed by an habitual grin. Although the emaciated muscles of this man were almost reduced to the condition of tendons, he was of extraordinary strength. The most robust resisted with difficulty the grasp of his long arms and long, bony fingers. It could be called the grasp of an iron skeleton. He wore a blue smock-frock, much too short, which disclosed, and he was proud of them, his sinewy hands, and the lower part of his arms, or rather bones (the radius and the cubitus the reader will pardon the anatomical designations), wrapped in a rough, blackened skin, and separated by some hard and cord-like veins. When he placed his hands on a table, he seemed to use a just metaphor of Pique-Vinaigre to play a game of cockles.
After having passed fifteen years of his life at the galleys for robbery and attempt at murder, he had broken his ticket-of leave, and had been taken in the act of murder and robbery. This last assassination had been committed under circumstances of such ferocity, that, taking into account he was a robber, this bandit looked upon himself, with good reason, as already condemned to death. The influence which the living Skeleton exercised over the other prisoners by his strength and his perversity, had caused him to be chosen by the director of the prison provost of the dormitory; that is to say, he was charged with the government of his ward, as far as regarded the order, arrangements, and neatness of the room and beds. He acquitted himself perfectly of these functions; and never had the prisoners dared to fail in the duties of which he had the superintendence. Strange and significant. The most intelligent directors of prisons, after having tried to invest with the functions of which we speak the prisoners who most recommended themselves by their good conduct, or whose crimes were less grave, had found themselves obliged to deviate in their choice, however logical and moral, and seek for provosts among prisoners the most corrupted, the most feared: these alone could exercise any influence over their companions.
Thus, let us repeat it again, the more a culprit shows audacity and impudence, the more he will be regarded, and, thus to speak, respected. This fact, proved by experience, sanctioned by the forced choice of which we have spoken, is an irrefragable argument against the evil of an imprisonment in common, I say.
Does it not show, even to an absolute evidence, the intensity of the contagion which mortally attacks prisoners in whom there is some hope of restoration? Yes, for what use of thinking of repentance, amendment, when, in this pandemonium, where one must pass many years—his life, perhaps—it is seen that influence is measured by the number and gravity of misdeeds? The provost of the hall was talking with several prisoners, among whom were Barbillon and Nicholas Martial, we repeat.
"Are you very sure of what you say?" asked he of Martial.
"Yes, yes, a hundred times, yes; Micou had it from Big Cripple, who already wanted to kill the muff, because he betrayed some one."
"Then let some one eat his nose, and put a stop to this!" added Barbillon. "Just now, Skeleton was for giving a stab to this spy Germain."
The provost took his pipe for a moment from his mouth, and said, in a voice so low, so crapulously hoarse, that he could scarcely be heard, "Germain holds up his head; he is a spy; he troubles us: for the less one talks, the more one listens. We must make him clear out of the Lions' Den. Once we make him bleed, they will take him from here."
"Well, then," said Nicholas, "what change is that?"
"There is this change," replied Skeleton, "that if he has sold us, as Big Cripple says, he shall not escape with a small bleeding."
"Very good," said Barbillon.
"There must be an example," said Skeleton, becoming more animated. "Now it is no longer the grabs who find us out: it is the spies. Jacques and Gauthier guillotined the other day. Roussillon, sent to the galleys for life, sold!"
"And me, and my mother, and Calabash, and my brother at Toulon!" cried Nicholas, "have we not been sold by Bras-Rouge? That is certain now, since, instead of putting him here, they have sent him to La Roquette! They did not dare leave him with us; he knew his treachery, the sneak!"
"And," said Barbillon, "has not Bras-Rouge also sold me?"
"And me," said a young prisoner, in a shrill and reedy voice, lisping in an affected manner, "I was betrayed by Jobert, a man who proposed an affair in the Rue Saint Martin."
This last personage, with the reedy voice, a pale, fat, and effeminate face, and an insidious and cowardly expression, was dressed in a singular manner. He had on his head a red handkerchief, which allowed two locks of white hair to be seen plastered on his temples; the ends of the handkerchief formed a bow over his forehead; he wore, for a cravat, a shawl, of white merino with green palms in the corners on his bosom; his jacket, of maroon colored cloth, disappeared under the tight waistband of his ample trousers, made of gay Scotch plaid.
"If this is not an indignity! Must a man be a scoundrel?" resumed this gentleman with the pretty voice. "Nothing in the world would have made me suspect Jobert."
"I know that he informed against you," answered the Skeleton, who seemed to patronize this prisoner particularly. "The proof is, that they have done with him as they did with Bras-Rouge; they did not dare leave Jobert here; they locked him up at the Conciergerie. Well, this must be put a stop to: we must have an example. Our traitor brothers carve out work for the police. They think they are sure of their necks because they are put in a different prison from those they have betrayed."
"It is the truth."
"To prevent this, every prisoner must look upon all turncoats as deadly enemies: if they have blown on Tony, Dick, or Harry, it matters not which pounce on them. When we have done the job for four or five in the court, the others will wag their tongues twice before they blow the gaff!"
"You are right," said Nicholas; "Germain must die!"
"He shall die," answered the provost; "but let us wait until Big Cripple comes. When he shall have proved to everybody that" Germain is a spy, enough said: the sheep will bleat no more; his breath shall be stopped."
"And what shall we do with the warders, who watch us!" asked the prisoner whom the Skeleton called Ja-votte.
"I have my own idea. Pique-Vinaigre shall serve us."
"He? He is too cowardly."
"And not stronger than a mouse."
"Enough. I understand. Where is he?"
"He returned from the grate, some one came for him to go and patter with his Newgate lawyer."
"And Germain. Is he still at the grate?"
"Yes; with the little mot who comes to see him."
"As soon as he descends, attention. But we must wait for Pique-Vinaigre; we can do nothing without him."
"And Germain shall be—"
"I will take charge of it."
"But with what? They have taken away our knives."
"And these hooks—will you put your neck between them?" asked Skeleton, opening his long fingers, hard as iron.
"But if they know it is you?"
"What's the odds? Am I a calf with two heads, such as is shown in the fair?"
"That is true. One can only be made a head shorter once; and since you are sure of being—"
"Doubly sure; the lawyer told me so yesterday. I have been taken with my hand in the pocket, and my knife in the throat, of the stiff 'un; I am a second comer; it is all over with me. I will send my head to see, in the basket, if it is true that they cheat the condemned, and put sawdust in, instead of bran, which the government allows us."
"It is true; the guillotined has a right to his bran. My father was cheated, I recollect," said Nicholas Martial, with a ferocious chuckle.
This abominable pleasantry made all the prisoners laugh loudly.
"A thousand thunders!" cried Skeleton. "I wish all the nobs could hear us talk, who think to make us quake before the guillotine. They have only to come to the Barriere Saint Jacques the day of my benefit; they will hear me crack jokes with the crowd, and say to Jack, in a bold voice, 'Open the door till I go down into the cellar!' Renewed laughter followed this sally.
"The fact is, that the affair lasts as long as it takes to swallow a mouthful. Draw the bolt; and he opens the devil's door for you!" said Skeleton continuing to smoke his pipe.
"Ah, bah! is there a devil?"
"Fool! I said that for a joke. There is a knife; a head is placed under, and that is all."
"Besides, is that our business?"
"As for me, now that I know my road, and that I must stop at the tree, I would as soon go today as tomorrow," said Skeleton, with savage energy. "I wish I was there now. I feel my blood in my mouth when I think of the crowd who will be there to see me. There will be four or five thousand who will fight or quarrel for places. They will hire out windows and chairs as for a procession. I hear them already cry, 'Window to let! Place to let!' And then there will be the troops, cavalry and infantry. And all this for me—for old Boulard. It is not for an honest man that they take all this trouble, hey, Sals! Here is something to make a man proud. Even he should be as cowardly as Pique-Vinaigre, it would make him resolute. All these eyes which are looking at you give you courage, and it is but a moment to pass, you die boldly; that vexes the judges and the duffers, and encourages a flash cove to die game."
"That is true," replied Barbillon, endeavoring to imitate the frightful boasting. "They think to make us afraid, and confess all, when they send Ketch to open shop on our account."
"Bah!" said Nicholas, in his turn. "One is not wrong to laugh at the scaffold; it is like the prison and the galleys; we laugh at them also; so long as we are all friends together, 'A short life and a merry one!'"
"For instance," said the prisoner with the lisping voice, "what would be tough would be to keep us in cells day and night."
"In cells!" cried Skeleton, with a kind of savage alarm. "Do not speak of it. In cells! All alone! I would rather they would cut off my arms and legs. All alone! Between four walls! All alone! No old mates to laugh with! That cannot be! I prefer a hundred times the galleys to the prisons, because at the galleys, instead of being shut up, one is out of doors, sees company, moves about. Well! I would rather a hundred times be a head shorter than be put into a cell only for one year. See here, at this moment, I am sure of being cut down, am I not? Well, let them say to me, 'Would you prefer a year in a cell?' I would stretch out my neck. A year all alone! Can this be possible? What would they have one think of when one is all alone?"
"If they were to put you there by force?"
"I would not remain. I would make such use of my feet and hands that I would escape," said Skeleton.
"But if you could not—if you were sure that you could not escape?"
"Then I would kill the first one I could, in order to be guillotined."
"But if, instead of condemning the red-handed to death, they condemned them to a solitary cell for life?"
Skeleton seemed to be staggered by this reflection. After amoment's pause he replied:
"Then I do not know what I should do. I would break my head against the walls. I would allow myself to die with hunger rather than be in a cell. How? All alone—all my life alone with myself? without the hope of escape? I tell you it is not possible. You know there is no one bolder than I am. I would bleed a man for a crown, and even for nothing, for honor. They think that I have only assassinated two persons; but if the dead could speak, there are five who could tell how I work." The brigand boasted of his crimes. These sanguinary egotisms are among the most characteristic traits of hardened criminals. A prison governor told us,"If the pretended murders of which these wretches boast were real, population would be decimated."
"So I say," replied Barbillon, boasting in his turn; "they think that I only laid out the milkwoman's husband in the city; but I have served many others out, with Big Robert, who was shortened last year."
"It was only to tell you," said Skeleton, "that I neither fear fire nor the devil. But, if I were in a cell, and very sure of not being able to escape—thunder! I believe I should be afraid."
"Of what?" asked Nicholas.
"Of being all alone," answered the cock of the walk.
"So, if you had to recommence your robberies and murders, and, instead of prisons and galleys and guillotine, there were only cells, you would hesitate?"
"Yes—perhaps" (a fact), answered the Skeleton.
And he spoke the truth. A noisy burst of laughter, and exclamations of joy proceeding from the prisoners who were walking in the court, interrupted the meeting. Nicholas rose precipitately, and advanced toward the door to ascertain the cause of this unaccustomed noise.
"It is the Big Cripple!" cried Nicholas, returning.
"The Big Cripple?" said the provost; "and Germain, has he descended from the talking-room?"
"Not yet," said Barbillon.
"Let him hurry, then," said Skeleton, "that I may give him an order for a new coffin."
Big Cripple, whose arrival had been hailed by the prisoners in the Lions' Den with such noisy joy, and whose denunciation was to be so fatal to Germain, was a man of middle stature; notwithstanding his obesity and his infirmity, he seemed active and vigorous. His bestial physiognomy, as was the case with most of his companions, much resembled a bull-dog's; his low forehead, his little yellow eyes, his falling cheeks, his heavy jawbones, of which the lower projecting beyond the other was armed with long teeth, or rather, broken tusks, which protruded over the lips, rendered this animal resemblance still more striking; he had on his head an otter-skin cap, and wore over his coat a blue cloak with a fur collar. He entered the hall, accompanied by a man of about thirty years of age, whose brown and sunburnt face seemed less degraded than those of the other prisoners, although he affected to appear as resolute as his companion; sometimes his face became clouded, and he smiled bitterly. The Cripple found himself, to use a vulgar expression, quite at home. He could hardly reply to the felicitations and welcomes which were addressed to him from all sides.
"Here you are at last, my jolly bloke! So much the better; we shall have a laugh."
"We wanted you, old son!"
"You have stayed away a long time."
"Yet I have done all I could to return to my friends. It is not my fault if they would not have me sooner."
"Just so, my crummy mate; no one will come of his own accord to be caged; but once there, one must enjoy himself."
"You are in luck, for Pique-Vinaigre is here."
"He also? an old Melun chum! famous, famous, he will help us pass the time with his stories, and customers will not be wanting, for I announce some recruits."
"Just now, at the office, while they were enrolling me, they brought in two young coves. One I do not know; but the other, who wore a blue cotton cap and a gray blouse, struck my eye. I have seen the fellow somewhere. I think it was in the White Rabbit: a very fine-looking prig."
"Say now, Big Cripple, do you recollect at Melun, I bet you, before a year you would be nabbed?"
"That is true; you have won; but I had more chances to be a second comer than to be medaled; but what have you done?"
"On the American lay."
"Ah! good, always the same fashion!"
"Always; I go my own nice little road. This trick is common; but yokels are also common; and if it had not been for the ignorance of my bonnet, I should not be here."
"Never mind, the lesson will be of service."
"When I begin again, I will take my precautions; I have my plan."
"Ah, here is Cardillac," said the Cripple, seeing a man approach, miserably dressed, with a low, cunning, and wicked expression, which partook of the fox and the wolf "Good-day, old man."
"Come, come, limpy," answered Cardillac, gayly; "they said every day, 'He will come.' You do like the pretty women one must wish for."
"Oh!" continued Cardillac, "is it for something a little uppish that you are here?"
"My dear, I went in for burglary. Before, I had done some good business; but the last failed, a superb affair; which, however, still remains to be done. Unfortunately, me and Frank, whom you see, missed our mark!" He pointed to his companion, on whom all eyes were turned.
"So it is true, here is Frank!" said Cardillac. "I would not have known him on account of his beard. Is it you? I thought that at this present moment you were at least the mayor of your district. You wished to play honest?"
"I was a fool, and I have been punished," said Frank, roughly; "but pardon for all sinners; it was good for once; now I belong to the forty until I die; look out when I am released; hang 'em!"
"Very good, that is the style!"
"But what has happened to you, Frank?"
"What happens to all liberated prisoners who are fools enough, as you say, to play honest. Their fate is so just! On coming out of Melun, I had saved nine hundred and odd francs."
"It is true," said the Cripple, "all his misfortunes come from his haying saved this money instead of spending it. You will see what repentance leads to, and whether one pays his expenses by it."
"They sent me to Etampes," resumed Frank; "locksmith by trade, I went to seek employment. I said, 'I am a released convict; I know no one likes to employ them, but here are 900 francs of my savings; give me work, my money shall be your guarantee; I wish to labor and be honest.'"
"On my word, there is no one but Frank could have such ideas."
"I proposed, then, my savings as a guarantee to the master locksmith, so that he might give me work. 'I am not a banker, to take money on interest,' said he. 'I do not wish convicts in my shop; I work in houses, open the doors the keys of which are lost; my trade is a confidential one, and if it were known that I had a convict among my workmen, I should lose my customers. Goodnight, neighbor.' Did he not, Cardillac, get what he deserved?"
"Childish!" added the Cripple, addressing Frank in a paternal manner, "instead of tearing your ticket at once, and coming to Paris to fritter away your savings, so as to be without a sou in your pocket, and compelled to rob. Then one finds superb ideas."
"You tell me always the old story," said Frank, with impatience; "it is true, I was wrong not to spend my money, since I have not enjoyed it. As there were only four locksmiths at Etampes, he to whom I had first spoken had blabbed; when I addressed myself to the others, they told me the same as their fellow. Thank you; everywhere the same song. So you see, friends, where is the use? We are marked for life! Behold me on a strike in the streets of Etampes! I lived on my money for two months," said Frank; "the money went, and no work came. I broke my leave. I left Etampes."
"That's what you should have done before."
"I came to Paris; then I found some work; my master did not know who I was. I told him I came from the country. There was no better workman than myself. I placed 700 francs, which remained of my savings, with a broker, who gave me a note; when it fell due, he did not pay; I placed my note in the hands of an attorney, who sued and recovered; I left my money with him, and I said to myself, 'It is for a rainy day.' Then I met the Big Cripple."
"Yes, pals, and I was his rainy day, as you will see. Frank was a locksmith; he manufactured keys; I had an affair in which he could serve me; I proposed it to him; I had impressions; he had only to copy them. The lad refused; he wished to become honest; I said to myself, 'I must do him good in spite of himself.' I wrote a letter, without a signature, to his master, another to his companions, to inform them that Frank was a released convict. The master turned him out of doors, and his companions turned their backs upon him. He went to another master; worked there a week; same game. If he had gone to ten more I would have served him the same."
"I did not then suspect that it was you who denounced me," said Frank, "otherwise you might have had it hot!"
"Yes; but I was no fool; I told you I was going to Longjumeau to see my uncle; but I remained at Paris; and I knew all you did through little Ledru."
"In short, they drove me away from my last master like a beggar, fit only to hang. Work then! be peaceable! so that one may say to you, not, What are you doing? but, What have you done? Once in the street, I said to myself, 'Happily I have my money left.' I went to the attorney; he had cleared out-my money was gone—I was without a you. I had not enough to pay my week's rent. You ought to have seen my rage! Thereupon Big Cripple pretended to arrive from Longjumeau; he profited by my anger. I did not know on what peg to hang myself. I saw there was no means to be honest; that, once a robber, one was in for it for life! the Cripple kept so close at my heels."
"Let Frank scold no more," said the Cripple, "he took his part boldly; he entered into the put-up thing; it promised great things. Unfortunately, the moment we opened our mouths to swallow the morsel—nabbed by the police! What would you, it is a misfortune. The trade would be too fine without this."
"I don't care. If that confounded lawyer had not robbed me, I should not be here," said Frank, with rage.
"The Skeleton is here!" said Cardillac, pointing out the provost, who had just appeared at the door, to his companion.
"Cadet, advance at the call!" said Skeleton to the Cripple.
"Here!" he answered, advancing into the hall, accompanied by Frank, whom he took by the arm. During the conversation of Cripple, Frank and Cardillac, Barbillon had gone, by orders of the provost, to recruit twelve or fifteen prisoners, picked men. These, not to excite the suspicions of the keeper, had gone separately to the hall. The other prisoners remained in the yard; some of them, following the instructions of Barbillon, spoke in a loud, quarrelsome tone, to attract the notice of the keeper, and thus call his attention away from the hall, where were soon assembled Barbillon, Nicholas, Frank, Cardillac, Big Cripple, the Skeleton, and some fifteen other prisoners, all waiting with impatient curiosity until the provost should take the chair. Barbillon, charged as spy to announce the approach of the superintendent, placed himself near the door. The Skeleton, taking his pipe from his mouth, said to the Big Cripple:
"Do you know a young man named Germain, with blue eyes, brown hair, and the air of a swell cove?"
"Germain here!" cried Cripple, whose features expressed at once surprise, hatred, anger.
"You do know him, then?"
"Don't I know him? My friend, I denounce him, he is a betrayer! he must be rolled up!"
"Yes, yes!" said the prisoners together.
"Is it very sure that he has denounced?" asked Frank. "Suppose you should be mistaken, and injure a man who does not deserve it?"
This observation displeased the Skeleton, who leaned toward the Cripple, and whispered:
"Who is this?"
"A man with whom I have worked."
"Are you sure of him?"
"Yes; only he is not made of gall—but treacle!"
"Enough; I'll keep my eye upon him."
"Let us hear how Germain is a spy," said a prisoner.
"Explain yourself, Cripple," resumed the Skeleton, who watched Frank closely.
"Here you are," said the Cripple. "A Nantes man, named Velu, an old convict, brought up this young fellow, whose parents are unknown. When he was old enough, he placed him in a banking-house at Nantes, intending to make use of him for an affair he had in view. He had two strings to his bow—a forgery, and robbery of the banker's strong box! perhaps a hundred thousand francs to gain by the two. All is ready; Velu counted on the young man as on himself; this blackguard slept in the room where the strong box was kept; Velu told him his plan; Germain neither said yes nor no, but told his master all about it, and left the same evening for Paris."
The prisoners uttered violent threats and murmurs of indignation.
"If he is a betrayer, we must settle him."
"If any one wishes it, I'll pick a quarrel, and I'll brain him."
"We must write on his face an order for the hospital."
"Silence in the gang!" cried Skeleton, in an imperious tone. "Continue!" he said to the Cripple; and he recommenced smoking.
"Believing that Germain had said yes, counting on his aid, Velu and two of his mates attempted the affair the same night; the banker was on his guard, one of Velu's pals was nabbed in climbing in at a window, and he himself had the luck to escape. He arrived in Paris, furious at having been betrayed by Germain, and foiled in a tip-top job. One fine day he met the nice young man; it was broad day; he did not dare to touch him; but he followed him, he saw where he lived, and one night me, Velu, and little Ledru pounced upon Germain. Unfortunately he escaped us; he left his nest in the Rue du Temple, and since that time we have not been able to find him; but if he is here, I demand——"
"You have nothing to demand," said the Skeleton, with authority. The Cripple was silent. "I take your bargain; or make over to me the skin of Germain, I'll take it off. I am not called Skeleton for nothing. I am dead in advance; my grave is already dug at Clamart; I risk nothing in working for the leary coves: the spies devour us more than the police; they place the turncoats of La Force at La Roquette, and those of La Roquette at the Conciergerie, where they think themselves safe. Stop a bit, when each prison shall have killed its pet, no matter where he has denounced, that will take away the appetite from the others. I set the example—they will follow."
All the prisoners, admiring the resolution announced, crowded around him. Barbillon himself, instead of remaining at the door, joined the group, and did not perceive that a new prisoner had entered the hall. This newcomer, clothed in a gray blouse, and wearing a cap of blue cotton embroidered with red wool, pulled well over his eyes, started on hearing the name of Germain; then he went in among the Skeleton's admirers and loudly approved both with voice and gesture the determination of the provost.
"Isn't Bones a mad-cap?" said one.
"What a learned man!"
"The devil himself could not scare him."
"There's a man!"
"If all the family had his cheek, it would be they who would judge and guillotine the honest fools."
"That would be just: every one in his turn."
"Yes; but they won't agree upon that subject."
"All the same; he renders a famous service to the family by killing them; betrayers will denounce no more."
"That is certain."
"And since Skeleton is so sure of being cut down, it costs him nothing to kill beggars."
"I think it cruel to kill this young man!" said Frank.
"What: what!" cried Skeleton, in an angry tone; "one has no right to pay off a traitor?"
"Yes, true, he is a traitor; so much the worse for him," said Frank, after a moment's reflection.
These last words, and the assurances of Cripple, calmed the suspicions which Frank for a moment had raised among the prisoners. Skeleton alone remained doubtful.
"What shall we do with the keeper?"
"Tell us, Doomed-to-Death," said Nicholas, laughing.
"Well! some will engage his attention on one side."
"No: we will hold him by force."
"Silence in the gang!" cried Skeleton. The most profound quiet ensued.
"Listen to me well," resumed the provost, in a hoarse voice, "there are no means to do the job while the keeper is in the ward, or the court. I have no knife; there will be some stifled cries—the sneak will struggle."
"Then what is to be done?"
"This is my plan: Pique-Vinaigre has promised to relate to us to-day, after dinner, his story of Gringalet and Cut-in-half. It rains, we will all retire here, and the beggar will come and take his seat in the corner, in his usual place. We will give some sous to Pique-Vinaigre to make him commence his story. It will be the dinner hour. The keeper, seeing us quietly occupied in listening to the nonsense, will have no suspicions; he will go and take a pull at the canteen. As soon as he has left the court, we have a quarter of an hour to ourselves—the turncoat will be done up before the warder returns. I take it upon myself. I have done the trick for stouter fellows than he. I wish no help."
"A moment," said Cardillac; "the bailiff always comes lounging here at dinner-time. If he should enter the hall to listen to Pique-Vinaigre, and should see us fixing Germain, he is likely to sing out for help; he is not fly; look out."
"That is true," said the Skeleton.
"A bailiff here!" cried Frank, the victim of Boulard, with astonishment. "And what is his name?"
"Boulard," said Cardillac.
"It is my man," cried Frank, doubling his fists; "it is he who stole my savings."
"The bailiff?" asked the provost.
"Yes; seven hundred and twenty francs which he collected for me."
"You know him? he has seen you?" asked the Skeleton.
"I should think I had seen him, to my sorrow. But for him I should not be here."
These regrets sounded badly in the ears of Skeleton; he fixed his squinting eyes on Frank, who answered some questions of his comrades; then leaning over toward Cripple, whispered in a low tone, "Here is a kid who is capable of informing the keepers of our plant."
"No: I answer for him: he will denounce no one, but he is still a little timid about crime, and he might be capable of defending Germain. Better get him out of the way."
"Enough," said Skeleton, and he said in a loud tone, "I say, Frank, won't you have a settlement with this rascally bailiff?"
"Let me alone; let him come, his account is made out."
"He is coming, get ready."
"I am all ready; he will bear my mark."
"That will make a scuffle; they will send the bailiff to his ell, and Frank to the dungeon," whispered Skeleton to the Cripple, "we shall get rid of both."
"What a head! Is he not a trump?" said the robber, with admiration; then he resumed aloud, "Shall Pique-Vinaigre be informed that by the assistance of his story we mean to stuff the keeper and finish the traitor?"
"No; Pique-Vinaigre has too much milk in his composition, and is too great a coward; if he knew it he would not tell his story; the blow struck, he will bear his part." The dinner-bell rang.
"To your grub, mates!" said Skeleton; "Pique-Vinaigre and Germain are going to enter the court. Attention, friends! you call me Doomed-to-Death! all right, the denouncer is in the same boat!"
The new prisoner of whom we have spoken, who wore a blue cotton cap and gray blouse, had attentively listened to, and energetically approved, the plot which threatened the life of Germain. This man, of athletic form, left the sitting-room with the other prisoners, without having been remarked, and soon mingled with the different groups that pressed into the court around the persons who distributed the beef, which they brought in brass kettles, and the bread in huge baskets. Each prisoner received a piece of boiled beef, which had served to make the soup for the morning meal, with half a loaf of bread, superior in quality to that given to soldiers. The prisoners who had money could buy wine at the canteen, and go there to drink. Those who, like Nicholas, had received victuals from out of doors, got up a feast to which they invited the other prisoners. The guests of the widow's son were Barbillon, Skeleton, and, upon the latter's recommendation, Pique-Vinaigre, in order to get him in a good humor for telling stories. The ham, hard eggs, cheese, and white bread, due to the forced liberality of Micou the receiver, were spread out on one of the benches, and Skeleton prepared to do honor to this repast, without feeling any inquietude concerning the murder he was about to commit.
"Go and see if Pique-Vinaigre is never coming. While I am waiting to choke Germain, I choke with hunger and thirst; do not forget to say to the Big Cripple that Frank must pull the bailiff's hair, so that we may be rid of them both."
"Be easy, if Frank does not pitch into the tipstaff, it will not be our fault."
And Nicholas left the sitting-room. At this moment, Boulard entered the yard smoking a cigar, his hands plunged into his long surtout of gray moleskin, his cap drawn over his ears, his face smiling and gay; he spied Nicholas, who on his side looked at Frank. The latter and the Cripple were dining, seated on one of the benches in the court; they had not perceived the bailiff, on whom their backs were turned. Faithful to the Skeleton's recommendations, Nicholas, seeing with the corner of his eye Boulard coming toward him, appeared not to remark him, and drew nearer to Frank and the Cripple.
"Good-day!" said the bailiff to Nicholas.
"Ah! good-day, master, I did not see you; you come, as usual, to take a little walk?"
"Yes, my boy, and to-day I have two reasons for doing it. I am going to tell you why; but first take these cigars. Come, now, among comrades—the devil! one must not stand on ceremony."
"Thank you, my gentleman. Why have you two reasons for walking?"
"You will understand it, my boy; I do not feel any appetite to-day. I said to myself, 'Looking at these gay boys at their dinner, and seeing them make use of their jaws, perhaps hunger will come.'"
"Not so bad. But look this way if you wish to see two babies who eat lustily," said Nicholas, leading the bailiff by degrees near the bench of Frank, whose back was turned; "just look at these two; your hunger will come as if you were eating a whole bottle of pickles."
"Oh! let us see this phenomenon!" said Boulard.
"I say, Big Cripple!" cried Nicholas.
The Big Cripple and Frank quickly turned their heads. The bailiff was stupefied, and stood with his mouth open on recognizing him whom he had swindled.
Frank, throwing his bread and meat on the bench, with one bound jumped at Boulard, whom he caught by the throat, crying:
"How? What? You strangle me. I—"
"My friend, listen to me!"
"My money! And yet is is too late, for it is your fault that I am here."
"If I go to the hulks, mark me, it is your fault; for if I had that of which you robbed me, I should not have been under the necessity of stealing. I should have remained honest, as I wished to be. And you will be acquitted perhaps—they will do nothing to you. But I will do something to you. You shall bear my marks. Ah! you wear jewels, gold chains, and you rob. There—there—have you enough? No—here, take some more!"
"Help, help!" cried the bailiff, rolling under the feet of Frank, who struck him furiously.
The other prisoners, very indifferent to this squabble, made a ring round the combatants, or, rather, round the beating and the beaten, for Boulard, panting and much alarmed, made no resistance, but endeavored to parry, as well as he could, the blows of his adversary. Happily, the overseer ran up, on hearing the cries, and released the bailiff from his peril. Boulard arose, pale and trembling, with one of his large eyes bruised, and, without giving himself time to pick up his cap, cried, as he ran toward the wicket:
"Keeper—open for me; I do not wish to remain a moment longer—help!"
"And you, for having struck the gentleman, follow me to the governor," said the keeper, taking Frank by the collar; "you will go to the blackhole two days for this."
"I don't care; he has got his gruel."
"Mum!" whispered the Cripple to Frank, pretending to adjust his clothes, "not a word of what they are going to do to the spy."
"Be easy; perhaps if I had been there, I should have defended him; for to kill a man for that is hard; but blab! never."
"Will you come?" said the keeper.
"There we are rid of the bailiff and Frank now; hot work for the spy!" said Nicholas.
As Frank left the court, Germain and Pique-Vinaigre entered. Germain was no longer recognizable; his physiognomy, formerly so sad and cast down, was radiant with joy; he carried his head erect, and cast around him a cheerful and assured glance; he was beloved!—the horrors of the prison disappeared from before his eyes. Pique-Yinaigre followed him with an embarrassed air; at length, after having hesitated two or three times to accost him, he made a great effort, and slightly touched the arm of Germain before he had approached the group of prisoners, who, at a distance, were examining him with sullen hatred. Their victim could not escape. In spite of himself, Germain shuddered at the touch of Pique-Vinaigre; for the face and rags of the ex-juggler did not speak much in his favor. But, recollecting the advice of Rigolette, and, besides, too happy not to be friendly, Germain stopped, and said kindly to Pique-Vinaigre,
"What do you wish?"
"To thank you."
"For what your pretty little visitor wishes to do for my sister."
"I do not understand you," said Germain, surprised.
"I am going to explain. Just now, in the office, I met the overseer, who was on guard in the visitors' room."
"Ah, yes; a very good man."
"Ordinarily, the jailers do not agree with that description. But Roussel is another bird; he deserves it. Just now he whispered in my ear, 'Pique-Vinaigre, my boy, do you know Germain well?' 'Yes; the butt of the yard,' I answered." Then, interrupting himself, Pique-Vinaigre said to Germain, "Pardon, excuse me, if I have called you a butt. Do not think of it; wait for the end. 'Yes, then,' I answered, 'I know Germain, the butt of the prison.' 'And yours also, perhaps, Pique-Vinaigre?' asked the keeper, in a severe tone. 'I am too cowardly and too good-natured to allow myself any kind of a butt black, white, or gray, and Germain still less than any other for he does not appear wicked, and they are unjust toward him.' 'Well, Pique-Vinaigre, you have reason to be on Germain's side, for he has been good to you.' 'To me? How so?' 'That is to say, not to you; but, saving that, you owe him great gratitude,' answered old Roussel."
"Let us see; explain yourself a little more clearly," said Germain, smiling.
"That is exactly what I said to the keeper: 'Do speak more clearly.' Then he answered, 'It is not Germain, but his pretty little visitor, who has been full of kindness for your sister. She overheard her relate to you her misfortunes, and, as she was about leaving, the girl offered her any assistance she could render.'"
"Good Rigolette!" cried Germain, affected. "She took good care not to mention it."
"'Oh, then,' I answered the keeper, 'I am only a gander. You are right; Germain has been good to me; for his visitor is, as may be said, himself, and my sister Jeanne is myself and much more.'"
"Poor little Rigolette!" said Germain. "This does not surprise me; she has a heart so generous and susceptible!"
"The keeper went on; 'I heard all this without pretending to listen. Now you know, if you do not try to render a service to Germain; if you do not warn him in case of any plot against him, you will be a finished scoundrel, Pique-Vinaigre.' 'Keeper, I am a scoundrel,' commenced I, 'it is true; but not a finished scoundrel. In fine, since Germain's visitor wished to do some good to my poor Jeanne, who is a good and honest girl, I will do for Germain what I can; unfortunately, that will be no great things.'"
"'Never mind, do what you can; I am also going to give you some good news for Germain; I have just heard it.'"
"What is it, then?" asked Germain.
"'To-morrow there will be a separate cell vacant,' the keeper told me to inform you."
"Can it be true? Oh, what happiness!" cried Germain. "The good man was right; it is good news you tell me."
"I think so; for your place is not with rough-scuff like us, Germain." Then he added hastily, and in a low tone, as he pretended to stoop for something, "Germain, look at the prisoners, how they stare at us; they are astonished to see us talking together. I leave you; be on your guard. If they pick a quarrel, do not answer; they only want a pretext to engage you in a dispute, and beat you. Barbillon is to begin the dispute—look out for him; I will try to turn them from this notion." And Pique-Vinaigre lifted up his head as if he had found what he pretended to look for. Only informed of the conspiracy of the morning, which was to provoke a quarrel in which Germain would be roughly handled, in order to force the governor to change his ward, not only was Pique-Vinaigre ignorant of the murderous project, but he was also ignorant that they counted on his story of Gringalet to deceive and distract the attention of the keeper.
"Come along, lazybones!" said Nicholas to Pique-Vinaigre, going to meet him; "leave your ration of flesh there; we have a merry-making and feasting. I invite you."
"Whereabouts? To the Panier-Fleuri? to the Petit Ramponneau?"
"No, in the hall; the table is set on a bench. We have some ham, eggs, and cheese—my treat."
"That suits me; but it is a pity to lose my ration, and still more that my sister cannot profit by it. Neither she nor her children often see meat, except at the butcher's door."
"Come, come quick, Skeleton is making a beast of himself; he is capable of devouring the whole with Barbillon."
Nicholas and Pique-Vinaigre entered the hall; seated astride on the end of the bench where the feast was spread, Skeleton swore and cursed while waiting for the giver of the banquet.
"Here you are at last, snail, laggard!" cried the bandit, at the sight of Pique-Vinaigre; "what have you been doing then?"
"He was chatting with Germain," said Nicholas, carving the ham.
"Oh! talking with Germain?" said Skeleton, looking attentively at Pique-Vinaigre, without pausing in his mastication.
"Yes!" answered the patterer. "Oh! here is another who never invented bootjacks and hard eggs (I say eggs, because I adore them). Isn't he a fool! this Germain! I used to think that he was a spy, but he is too much of a flat for that!"
"Oh! you think so?" said Skeleton, exchanging a rapid and significant glance with Nicholas and Barbillon.
"I am as sure of it as that I see ham! And, then, how the devil would you have him spy?—he is always alone; he speaks to no one, and no one speaks to him; he runs away from us as if we had the cholera. Besides, he will not spy for a long time; he is going to be boxed up alone."
"He!" cried Skeleton; "when?"
"To-morrow morning there will be a cell vacant."
"You see we must kill him at once. He does not sleep in my ward; to-morrow will be too late. To-day we have only until four o'clock, and now it is almost three," whispered Skeleton to Nicholas, while Pique-Vinaigre talked with Barbillon.
"All the same," answered Nicholas aloud, pretending to answer an observation of Skeleton, "Germain looks as if he despises us."
"On the contrary, my children," answered Pique-Vinaigre, "you intimidate this young man. He looks upon himself, in comparison with you, as the least of the least. Just now, what do you think he said?"
"How should I know?"
"He said to me, 'You are very happy, Pique-Vinaigre, to dare to speak with the famous Skeleton (he used the word famous) as an equal and a companion.' I am dying to speak to him; but he produces an effect upon me so respectful—so respectful—that, should I see the chief of police in flesh, and bones, and uniform, I could not be more overcome."
"He told you that?" replied Skeleton, feigning to believe him, and to be flattered at the admiration he excited in Germain.
"As true as that you are the greatest magsman on the earth, he told me so."
"Then it is different," answered Skeleton; "I must make it up with him. Barbillon had a mind to pick a quarrel, but he, too, will do well to let him alone."
"He will do better," cried Pique-Vinaigre, persuaded that he had turned away the danger with which Germain was threatened. "He will do better, for this poor fellow won't dispute; he is one of my kind, bold as a hare."
"Yes, it is a pity," said Skeleton; "we reckoned on this quarrel to amuse us after dinner, the time appears so long."
"Yes. What shall we do then?" asked Nicholas.
"Since it is so, let Pique-Vinaigre tell us a story. I will not seek a quarrel with Germain," said Barbillon.
"Agreed, agreed!" cried the story-teller. "That is one condition; but there is another, and without both I tell no stories."
"Come, what is your other condition?"
"It is, that the honorable society which is poisoned with capitalists," said Pique-Vinaigre, assuming his mountebank twang, "will make for me the trifle of a contribution of twenty sous. Twenty sous, ladies and gents, to hear the famous Pique-Vinaigre, who has had the honor to perform before the most renowned robbers, before the most famous rogues, of France and Navarre, and who is immediately expected at Brest and at Toulon, where he goes by order of the government. Twenty sous! A mere nothing, gents."
"Come, you shall have twenty sous when you have told your story."
"After? No; before!" cried Pique-Vinaigre.
"I say, do you think us capable of cheating you out of twenty sous?" said Skeleton, with a displeased air.
"Not at all," answered Pique-Vinaigre; "I honor the family with my confidence, and it is to spare its purse that I ask twenty sous in advance."
"On your word of honor?"
"Yes, gents; for after my tale is finished, you will be so satisfied that it is no longer twenty sous, but twenty francs—a hundred francs that you will force me to take! I know, myself, I should have the meanness to accept the offering; so, you see, that for economy's sake, you will do better to give me twenty sous in advance."
"Oh! you are not wanting in soft-sawder."
"I have nothing but my tongue; I must use it; and, then, the point of the matter is that my sister and her children are in Queer Street, and twenty sous is an out-and-out friendly call."
"Why does she not toddle out on the prigging lay; and her kids also, if they are old enough?" said Nicholas.
"Do not speak of it; it wounds me, it dishonors me. I am too good."
"You had better say too stupid, since you encourage her."
"It is true, I encourage her in the vice of honesty. But she is only good for that trade—she makes me pity her. Come, is it agreed? I will relate to you my famous history of 'Gringalet', but I must have my twenty sous; and Barbillon will not seek a quarrel with that softy, Germain."
"You shall have your twenty sous, and Barbillon will not pick a quarrel with Germain," said Skeleton.
"Then open your ears, for you are going to hear something choice. But here is the rain, which sends in the audience; there will be no need to go after them."
In fact, the rain began to fall, the prisoners left the court, and came to take refuge in the hall, accompanied by a keeper. We have already said this hall was a long paved room, lighted by windows looking out on the court; in the center was placed the stove, near which were Skeleton, Barbillon, Nicholas, and Pique-Vinaigre. At a nod from the provost, Big Cripple joined the group. Germain entered among the last, absorbed in delightful thoughts. He went mechanically to seat himself on the ledge of the farthest window in the room, a place he habitually occupied, which no one disputed; for it was far from the stove, around which the prisoners clustered. We have said that only a dozen of the prisoners had been informed at first of the intended murder of Germain. But, once divulged, this project counted as many adherents as there were prisoners; these wretches, in their blind cruelty, regarded this frightful plot as a legitimate vengeance, and saw in it a certain guarantee against future denunciations.
Germain, Pique-Vinaigre, and the keeper were alone ignorant of what was about to take place. The general attention was divided between the executioner, the victim, and the patterer, who was about innocently to deprive Germain of the only succor which he had to depend upon; for it was almost certain that the keeper, seeing the prisoners attentive to the story of Pique-Vinaigre, would believe his presence useless, and profit by this moment of calm to go and take his repast. When all the prisoners had entered, Skeleton said to the keeper:
"I say, old man, Pique-Vinaigre has a good idea; he is going to tell us his story of 'Gringalet.' The weather is so bad it is not fit to turn a constable out of doors; we are going to wait here quietly for the time to turn in."
"True enough, when he talks, you keep yourselves quiet. At least, there is no need of being behind your backs."
"Yes," replied Skeleton; "but Pique-Vinaigre charges high for telling a story; he wants twenty sous."
"Yes, the trifle of twenty sous; and then it is for nothing," cried Pique-Vinaigre. "Yes, nothing; for one should not keep a red in his pocket, and thus deprive himself of the pleasure of hearing the adventures of poor little Gringalet, of the terrible Cut-in-half, and the wicked Gargousse; it is enough to break one's heart, to make your hair stand on end. Now, gents, who is it that cannot spare the bagatelle of four coppers, to have his heart broken and his hair stand on end?"
"I give two sous!" said Skeleton; and he threw his penny toward Pique-Vinaigre. "Shall the gang be stingy for such an entertainment?" he added, looking at his accomplices with a significant air. Several sous were thrown, from one side and the other, to the great joy of Pique-Vinaigre, who thought of his sister as he made his collection. "Eight, nine, eleven, twelve, thirteen!" he cried, picking up his money. "Come, rich folks, capitalists and other bankers, one more little effort; you cannot remain at thirteen, it is an unlucky number. Only seven sous wanting—a paltry seven sous. How! shall it be said the Lions' Den cannot raise seven sous more— seven miserable sous! O! you will lead me to think that you have been placed here unjustly, or that you have been very unlucky."
The piercing voice and the witticisms of Pique-Vinaigre had roused Germain from his reverie; as much to follow the advice of Rigolette, to make himself popular, as to make a slight donation to this poor fellow, who had shown some desire to be useful to him, he arose and threw a piece of ten sous at the speaker's feet, who cried, showing to the crowd the generous donor: "Ten sous, gents! you see I spoke of capitalists; honor to the banker, who tries to be agreeable to the society. Yes, gents! for it is to him you will owe the greater part of Gringalet, and you will thank him for it. As to the three sous surplus caused by his donation, I will deserve them by imitating the voices of my personages, instead of speaking in my ordinary manner! This shall be another delight that you will owe to this rich capitalist whom you must adore."
"Come, don't gammon so much, but begin," said Skeleton.
"A moment," said Pique-Vinaigre; "it is but just that this capitalist, who has given me ten sous, should have the best place, except our provost, who must choose first." This proposition answered the purpose of Skeleton so well that he cried:
"It is true, after me he should be the best seated." And the bandit again cast a look of intelligence at the prisoners.
"Yes, yes, let him approach," they cried.
"Let him take the front seat."
"You see, young man, your liberality is recompensed; the honorable society recognizes that you have the right to the first seat," said Pique-Vinaigre to Germain.
Believing that his liberality had really disposed his odious companions in his favor, enchanted thus to follow the advice of Rigolette, Germain, in spite of his repugnance, left his seat, and approached.
Pique-Vinaigre, aided by Nicholas and Barbillon, having arranged around the stove the four or five benches, said with emphasis,
"Here are orchestra stalls! honor to whom honor is due; in the first place the capitalist. Now let those who have paid seat themselves on the benches," added Pique-Vinaigre, gayly, firmly believing that Germain had, thanks to him, no more danger to apprehend. "And those who have not cashed up," he added, "will sit on the ground or stand up, as they choose."
Let us glance at the arrangements as now completed.
Pique-Vinaigre, standing near the stove, was getting ready to commence his story. Near him, Skeleton is also standing, ready to spring on Germain the moment the keeper should leave the hall. Some distance from Germain, Nicholas, Barbillon, Cardillac, and some other prisoners, among whom was seen the man in the blue cotton cap and gray blouse, occupied the back benches. The larger number of the prisoners grouped here and there, some seated on the ground, others standing, and leaning against the walls, composed the background of this picture, lighted, after the manner of Rembrandt, by the three lateral windows, which cast a vivid light and deep shade on these figures, so differently characterized and so strongly marked.
The keeper who, without knowing it, was, by his departure, to give the signal for the murder of Germain, stood near the half-opened door.
"All ready!" said Pique-Vinaigre to Skeleton.
"Silence in the band" answered the latter, half-turning round; then, addressing Pique-Vinaigre, "Now fire away! we listen." A profound silence reigned in the sitting-room.
GRINGALET AND CUT-IN-HALF.
Before we commence the recital of Pique-Vinaigre, we will recall to our readers that, by a strange contrast, the majority of the prisoners, notwithstanding their cynical perversity, almost always preferred artless stories (we will not say puerile), in which the oppressed, by the laws of an inexorable fatality, is revenged on his tyrant, after trials and difficulties without number. The thought is far from us, to establish the slightest parallel between corrupted beings and the honest and poor masses; but is it not known with what frenzied applause the audience of minor theaters behold the deliverance of the victim, and with what curses they pursue the traitorous and the wicked? One ordinarily laughs at these rough evidences of sympathy for that which is good, weak, and persecuted; of aversion for that which is powerful, unjust, and cruel. It seems to us that to laugh at this is wrong. Nothing is more consoling than these feelings innately of the multitude. Is it not evident that these salutary instincts may become fixed principles in those unfortunate beings whom ignorance and poverty expose to the subversive attacks of evil? Why not have every hope of a people whose good moral sense is so invariably manifested? of a people who, in spite of the fascinations of art, will never permit a dramatic work to arrive at its denouement by the triumph of the wicked and the punishment of the just? This fact, scorned and laughed at though it be, appears to us of considerable importance on account of the tendencies which it proves, and which are even often found (we repeat it) among beings the most corrupt, when they are, so to speak, in repose, and sheltered from criminal temptations or necessities. In a word, since men hardened in crime still sometimes sympathize with the recital and expression of elevated sentiments, ought we not to believe that all men have more or less in them of the good, the well doing, the just, but that poverty and ignorance, in falsifying, in stifling these Divine instincts, are the first causes of human depravity?
Is it not evident that generally ones does not become wicked except through misfortune, and that to snatch man from the terrible temptations of warn by the equitable melioration of his material condition, is to make him capable of the virtues of which he is conscious? The impression caused by the story of Pique-Vinaigre will demonstrate, or rather display, we hope, some of the ideas we have just set forth. Pique-Yinaigre then commenced his story in these terms, in the midst of the profound silence of his audience. "It is not very long since the events occurred which I am going to relate to this honorable society. Little Poland was not then destroyed. Does the honorable society know what was called Little Poland?"
"I remember," said the prisoner in the blue cap and gray blouse, "it was some small houses near the Rue du Rocher, and the Rue de la Pepiniere."
"Exactly, pal," replied Vinaigre; "the city streets, which, however, are not full of palaces, would be lovely alongside of Little Poland, but, otherwise, a famous resort for our lot; there were no streets, but lanes; no houses, but hovels; no pavement, but a carpet of mud, so that the noise of carriages would not have incommoded you if any passed; but none passed. From morning to night, and, above all, from night till morning, what one did not cease to hear, were cries, of 'watch!' 'help!' 'murder!' but the watch did not disturb himself. The more with their brains dashed out in Little Poland—so many the less to be arrested!
"The swarming population, therein, you should have seen; very few jewelers, goldsmiths, or bankers lodged there! but to make amends, there were heaps of organ-players, rope-dancers, Punch-and-Judy-men, or keepers of curious beasts. Among the latter was one named Cut-'em-in-half, so cruel was he; above all, cruel toward children. They called him so, because, with a hatchet, he had cut in two a little Savoyard!"
At this part of the story the prison clock struck a quarter past three. The prisoners entering their sleeping apartments at four o'clock, the crime was to be consummated before that hour.
"Thousand thunders! the keeper does not go," whispered the Skeleton to the Big Cripple.
"Be quiet; once the story started, he will leave." Pique-Vinaigre continued his recital.
"No one knew whence Cut-in-half came; some said he was an Italian, others a gipsy, others a Turk, others an African; the old women called him a magician, although a magician in these days may appear fishy; as for me, I should be quite tempted to say the same as the old women. What makes this likely is, that he always had with him a great red ape called Gargousse, which was so cunning, and wicked, that one would have said he had Old Nick in him. By and by I shall speak again of Gargousse. As to Cut-'em-in-half, I am going to show him up; he had skin the color of a bootlining, hair as red as the hide of his ape, green eyes, and what makes me think with the old women that he was a magician, is, that he had a black tongue."
"Black tongue?" said Barbillon.
"Black as ink!" answered Pique-Vinaigre.
"And how is that?"
"Because, before he was born, his mother had probably spoken of a negro," answered Pique-Vinaigre, with modest assurance. "To this ornament, Cut-in-half joined the trade of having I do not know how many tortoises, apes, guinea-pigs, white mice, foxes and marmots, with an equal number of little Savoyards.
"Every morning, the padrone distributed to each one his beast and a piece of black bread, and started them off, to beg for a sou or dance a Catalina. Those who, at night, brought back less than fifteen sous were beaten, oh! how they were beaten! so that they were heard to cry from one end of Little Poland to the other.
"I must tell you also that there was in Little Poland a man who was called the Alderman, because he was the longest resident of this quarter, and also the mayor, justice of the peace, or rather, of war, for it was in his court (he was a wine dealer) that they went to comb one another's heads when there was no other way to settle their disputes. Although quite old, the Alderman was strong as a Hercules, and very much feared; they swore only by him in Little Poland; when he said, 'It is good,' every one said, 'It is very good;' when he said, 'It is bad,' every one said, 'It is awful bad,' he was a good man at the bottom, but terrible; when, for example, strong people caused misery to the weaker, then, stand from under! As the Alderman was the neighbor of Cut-in-half, he had in the commencement heard the children cry, on account of the blows which the owner of the beasts gave them; so he said to him, 'If I hear the kids squeal again, I'll make you cry in your turn, and, as you have a stronger voice, I'll strike harder.'"