Little Dorrit 002


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Some lock below gurgled in _its_ throat immediately afterwards, and then a door crashed. Slow steps began ascending the stairs; the prattle of a sweet little voice mingled with the noise they made; and the prison-keeper appeared carrying his daughter, three or four years old, and a basket.

‘How goes the world this forenoon, gentlemen? My little one, you see, going round with me to have a peep at her father’s birds. Fie, then! Look at the birds, my pretty, look at the birds.’

He looked sharply at the birds himself, as he held the child up at the grate, especially at the little bird, whose activity he seemed to mistrust. ‘I have brought your bread, Signor John Baptist,’ said he (they all spoke in French, but the little man was an Italian); ‘and if I might recommend you not to game–’

‘You don’t recommend the master!’ said John Baptist, showing his teeth as he smiled.

‘Oh! but the master wins,’ returned the jailer, with a passing look of no particular liking at the other man, ‘and you lose. It’s quite another thing. You get husky bread and sour drink by it; and he gets sausage of Lyons, veal in savoury jelly, white bread, strachino cheese, and good wine by it. Look at the birds, my pretty!’

‘Poor birds!’ said the child.

The fair little face, touched with divine compassion, as it peeped shrinkingly through the grate, was like an angel’s in the prison. John Baptist rose and moved towards it, as if it had a good attraction for him. The other bird remained as before, except for an impatient glance at the basket.

‘Stay!’ said the jailer, putting his little daughter on the outer ledge of the grate, ‘she shall feed the birds. This big loaf is for Signor John Baptist. We must break it to get it through into the cage. So, there’s a tame bird to kiss the little hand! This sausage in a vine leaf is for Monsieur Rigaud. Again–this veal in savoury jelly is for Monsieur Rigaud. Again–these three white little loaves are for Monsieur Rigaud. Again, this cheese–again, this wine–again, this tobacco–all for Monsieur Rigaud. Lucky bird!’

The child put all these things between the bars into the soft, Smooth, well-shaped hand, with evident dread–more than once drawing back her own and looking at the man with her fair brow roughened into an expression half of fright and half of anger. Whereas she had put the lump of coarse bread into the swart, scaled, knotted hands of John Baptist (who had scarcely as much nail on his eight fingers and two thumbs as would have made out one for Monsieur Rigaud), with ready confidence; and, when he kissed her hand, had herself passed it caressingly over his face. Monsieur Rigaud, indifferent to this distinction, propitiated the father by laughing and nodding at the daughter as often as she gave him anything; and, so soon as he had all his viands about him in convenient nooks of the ledge on which he rested, began to eat with an appetite.

When Monsieur Rigaud laughed, a change took place in his face, that was more remarkable than prepossessing. His moustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his moustache, in a very sinister and cruel manner.

‘There!’ said the jailer, turning his basket upside down to beat the crumbs out, ‘I have expended all the money I received; here is the note of it, and _that’s_ a thing accomplished. Monsieur Rigaud, as I expected yesterday, the President will look for the pleasure of your society at an hour after mid-day, to-day.’

‘To try me, eh?’ said Rigaud, pausing, knife in hand and morsel in mouth.

‘You have said it. To try you.’

‘There is no news for me?’ asked John Baptist, who had begun, contentedly, to munch his bread.

The jailer shrugged his shoulders.

‘Lady of mine! Am I to lie here all my life, my father?’

‘What do I know!’ cried the jailer, turning upon him with southern quickness, and gesticulating with both his hands and all his fingers, as if he were threatening to tear him to pieces. ‘My friend, how is it possible for me to tell how long you are to lie here? What do I know, John Baptist Cavalletto? Death of my life! There are prisoners here sometimes, who are not in such a devil of a hurry to be tried.’

He seemed to glance obliquely at Monsieur Rigaud in this remark; but Monsieur Rigaud had already resumed his meal, though not with quite so quick an appetite as before.

‘Adieu, my birds!’ said the keeper of the prison, taking his pretty child in his arms, and dictating the words with a kiss.

‘Adieu, my birds!’ the pretty child repeated.

Her innocent face looked back so brightly over his shoulder, as he walked away with her, singing her the song of the child’s game:

‘Who passes by this road so late? Compagnon de la Majolaine! Who passes by this road so late? Always gay!’

that John Baptist felt it a point of honour to reply at the grate, and in good time and tune, though a little hoarsely:

‘Of all the king’s knights ‘tis the flower, Compagnon de la Majolaine! Of all the king’s knights ‘tis the flower, Always gay!’

Which accompanied them so far down the few steep stairs, that the prison-keeper had to stop at last for his little daughter to hear the song out, and repeat the Refrain while they were yet in sight. Then the child’s head disappeared, and the prison-keeper’s head disappeared, but the little voice prolonged the strain until the door clashed.

Monsieur Rigaud, finding the listening John Baptist in his way before the echoes had ceased (even the echoes were the weaker for imprisonment, and seemed to lag), reminded him with a push of his foot that he had better resume his own darker place. The little man sat down again upon the pavement with the negligent ease of one who was thoroughly accustomed to pavements; and placing three hunks of coarse bread before himself, and falling to upon a fourth, began contentedly to work his way through them as if to clear them off were a sort of game.

Perhaps he glanced at the Lyons sausage, and perhaps he glanced at the veal in savoury jelly, but they were not there long, to make his mouth water; Monsieur Rigaud soon dispatched them, in spite of the president and tribunal, and proceeded to suck his fingers as clean as he could, and to wipe them on his vine leaves. Then, as he paused in his drink to contemplate his fellow-prisoner, his moustache went up, and his nose came down.

‘How do you find the bread?’

‘A little dry, but I have my old sauce here,’ returned John Baptist, holding up his knife.

‘How sauce?’


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