Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 43

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WHAT! this woman; this extravagant thing; this libidinous dreamer; this bold creature under a princess's coronet; this Diana through pride, not yet captured merely because chance had so willed it; this illegitimate daughter of a low-lived king who had not the intellect to keep his place; this duchess by a lucky hit, who being a fine lady played the goddess, but who had she been poor would have been a prostitute,—this appropriator of a proscribed man's goods, this overbearing strumpet, because one day, he, Barkilphedro, had not money enough to buy his dinner, and to get a lodging, had had the impudence to seat him at the corner of a table in her house, and to put him up in some hole in her intolerable palace. Where? Never mind where; perhaps in the barn, perhaps in the cellar, what does it matter?—a little better than her valets, a little worse than her horses. She had taken advantage of his distress (his, Barkilphedro's) in hastening to do him a pretended favour,—a thing which the rich do in order to humiliate the poor, and attach them to their pretended benefactors like curs led by a string. Besides, what had the service she rendered him cost her? A service is worth what it costs, and no more. She had too many rooms in her house, so she came to Barkilphedro's aid! A great boon, indeed! Had she eaten a spoonful the less of turtle soup for it? Had she deprived herself of any of her superfluous luxuries? No. She had only added another to them,—a good action like a ring on her finger,—the relief of a man of wit, the patronage of a clergyman. She could give herself airs; say, "I lavish kindness; I fill the mouths of men of letters; I am his benefactress. How lucky the wretch was to find me out! What a patroness of the arts I am!" All for having set up a truckle-bed in a wretched garret in the roof.

As for the place in the Admiralty which Barkilphedro owed to Josiana,—by Jove! a petty appointment that! Josiana had made Barkilphedro what he was! She had created him! Be it so. Created nothing,—less than nothing; for in his absurd situation he felt borne down, tongue-tied, disfigured. What did he owe Josiana? The thanks due from a hunchback to the mother who bore him deformed. Behold your privileged ones, your folks overwhelmed with fortune, your parvenus, your favourites of that horrid step-mother, Fortune! And here, Barkilphedro, a man of talent, was obliged to wait on staircases, to bow to footmen, to climb to the top of the house at night, to be courteous, assiduous, pleasant, respectful, and to have a respectful grimace ever on his face! Was it not enough to make him gnash his teeth with rage! And all the while she was putting pearls round her neck, and making amorous poses for that fool Lord David Dirry-Moir,—the hussy!

Never let any one do you a service; he is sure to abuse the advantage it gives him. Never allow yourself to be found in a state of starvation,—some one will relieve you. Because Barkilphedro was starving, this woman had thought it a sufficient pretext to give him bread; from that moment he was her servant! A craving of the stomach, and you are chained for life! To be under obligations is to be a slave. The happy, the powerful, make use of the moment you stretch out your hand to place a penny in it; and in your hour of need they make you a slave, and a slave of the worst kind,—the slave of an act of charity; a slave forced to love the enslaver. What infamy! what want of delicacy! what a blow to your self-respect! Then all is over. You are condemned for life to consider this man good, that woman beautiful; to approve, to applaud, to admire, to worship; to prostrate yourself; to blister your knees by long genuflections; to sugar your words when you are gnawing your lips with anger, when you are smothering your cries of fury, and when you have within you more savage turbulence and more bitter foam than the ocean! It is thus that the rich make slaves of the poor. The slime of this good action performed towards you bedaubs and bespatters you with mud for evermore.

The acceptance of alms is irremediable. Gratitude is paralyzing. A benefit has a sticky and repugnant adherence which deprives you of free movement. Those odious, opulent, and spoiled creatures whose pity has thus injured you are well aware of this. It is done,—you are their creature; they have bought you! How? By a bone taken from their dog and cast to you! they have flung the bone at your head; you have been stoned as well as fed. It is all one. Have you gnawed the bone, —yes or no? You have had your place in the dog-kennel just the same; then be thankful,—be eternally thankful. Adore your masters; kneel on indefinitely. A benefit implies an understood inferiority accepted by you. It means that you feel them to be gods and yourself a poor devil. Your humiliation increases their importance; your cringing form makes theirs seem more upright; there is an impertinent inflection in the very tones of their voices. Their family matters, their marriages, their baptisms, their child-bearings, their progeny, all concern you. A wolf-cub is born to them; well, you have to compose a sonnet; you are a poet because you are so low. Isn't it enough to make the stars fall? A little more, and they would make you wear their old shoes!

"Whom have you got there, my dear? How ugly he is! Who is that man?"—"I do not know. A sort of scholar, whom I feed." Thus converse these idiots, without even lowering their voices. You hear, and remain mechanically amiable. If you are ill, your masters will send for the doctor,—not their own; occasionally they may even inquire after you. Being of entirely different clay from you, and so immeasurably far above you, they are affable; their superiority makes them condescending; they know that equality is impossible. At table they give you a little nod; sometimes they absolutely know how your name is spelt! They only show that they are your protectors by walking unconsciously over all the delicacy and susceptibility you possess. They treat you with good-nature. Is all this to be borne? No doubt Barkilphedro was eager to punish Josiana. He must teach her with whom she had to deal! Oh, my rich lords and ladies! merely because you cannot eat up everything; because opulence causes indigestion, seeing that your stomachs are no bigger than ours; because it is, after all, better to distribute the remainder than to throw it away,—you exalt a morsel flung to the poor into an act of munificence. You give us bread, you give us shelter, you give us clothes, you give us employment; and you carry audacity, folly, cruelty, stupidity, and absurdity to the pitch of believing that we are grateful. The bread is the bread of servitude; the shelter is a footman's bedroom; the clothes are a livery; the employment is ridiculous, paid for, it is true, but brutalizing. Oh, you think you have a right to humiliate us with lodging and nourishment, and you imagine that we are your debtors, and count on our gratitude? Very well! we will eat up your substance; we will devour you alive, and tear your heart-strings with our teeth.

This Josiana! was it not absurd? What merit did she possess? She had accomplished the wonderful feat of coming into the world as a testimony to the folly of her father and the shame of her mother. She had done us the favour to exist; and for her kindness in becoming a public scandal, they paid her millions. She had estates and castles, warrens, parks, lakes, forests, and I know not what besides; and with all that she was making a fool of herself, and verses were addressed to her! And Barkilphedro, who had studied and laboured and taken pains, and stuffed his eyes and his brain with great books; who had grown mouldy in old works and in science; who was full of wit; who could command armies; who could, if he would, write tragedies like Otway and Dryden; who was made to be an emperor,—Barkilphedro had been reduced to allowing this nobody to prevent him from dying of hunger! Could the usurpation of the rich, the hateful, spoiled darlings of fortune go further? They put on a semblance of being generous to us, of protecting us, and we smile,—we who would gladly drink their blood and lick our lips afterwards! That this low woman of the court should have the presumption to patronize him, and that such a superior man as himself should be obliged to accept such gifts from such a hand,—what a frightful iniquity! What kind of a social system is this which is founded on such gross injustice? Would it not be best to take it by the four corners, and to throw pell-mell to the ceiling the damask table-cloth, and the festival and the orgies, and the tippling and drunkenness, and the guests, and those with their elbows on the table, and those with their paws under it, and the insolent who give and the idiots who accept, and fling it all back in the face of Providence! In the mean time let us vent our wrath on Josiana.

Thus mused Barkilphedro; such were the ravings of his soul. It is the habit of the envious man to absolve himself of public wrongs with his own personal grievances. All the wilder forms of hateful passions racked the mind of this ferocious being. In the corners of old maps of the world published in the fifteenth century are big vacant spaces, without shape or name, on which are written these three words: "Hic sunt leones." There is a similar corner in the human soul. Passions rage and growl somewhere within us, and we truly may say of the dark side of our souls that "there are lions here."

Is this chain of reasoning absolutely absurd? Does it lack a certain amount of justice? We must confess it does not. It is fearful to think that the judgment within us is not justice. Judgment is relative; justice is absolute. Think of the difference between a judge and a just man. Wicked men lead conscience astray with authority. There are gymnastics of untruth. A sophist is a forger, and this forger sometimes brutalizes good sense. A certain very supple, very implacable, and very agile logic is at the service of evil, and excels in stabbing truth in the dark. These are blows aimed by the devil at Providence.

The worst of it was that Barkilphedro had a presentiment of failure. He was undertaking a difficult task, and he was afraid that, after all, the evil achieved might not be proportionate to the work. To be as full of corrosion as he was; to possess a will of steel; to be imbued with such an intense hatred and wild longing for the catastrophe,—and yet to burn nothing, to decapitate nothing, to exterminate nothing! To possess such powers of devastation, such voracious animosity; to have been created (for there is a creator, whether God or devil), Barkilphedro,—and to inflict perhaps after all only a tap of the finger! Could this be possible? Could it be that Barkilphedro would miss his aim? To be a lever powerful enough to heave great masses of rock, and when sprung to the utmost power, to succeed only in giving an affected woman a bump in the forehead; to accomplish the task of Sisyphus, and crush only an ant; to sweat all over with hate, and for nothing,—would not this be humiliating, when he felt himself a murderous engine capable of reducing the world to powder! To put into movement all the wheels within wheels, to work in the darkness all the mechanism of a Marly machine, and perhaps only succeed in pinching the tip of a little rosy finger! He must turn huge blocks of marble over and over, perchance with no other result than ruffling the smooth surface of the court a little! Providence has a way of expending its forces grandly. The movement of a mountain often only displaces a mole-hill!

Besides, when the court is the arena, nothing is more dangerous than to aim at your enemy and miss him. In the first place, it unmasks you and irritates him; but besides and above all, it displeases the master. Kings do not like the unskilful. Let us have no contusions, no ugly gashes; kill anybody, but give no one a bloody nose. He who kills is clever; he who wounds is awkward. Kings do not like to see their servants lamed; they are displeased if you chip a porcelain jar on their chimney-piece, or a courtier in their cortége. The court must be kept neat; break and replace,—that does not matter. Besides, all this agrees perfectly with the taste of princes for scandal. Speak evil, do none; or if you do, let it be in grand style. Stab, do not scratch, unless the pin be poisoned. This would be an extenuating circumstance, and was, we may remember, the case with Barkilphedro.

Every malicious pygmy is a phial in which is enclosed Solomon's dragon. The phial is microscopic in size; the dragon is immense,—a formidable condensation, awaiting the gigantic hour of dilation; ennui consoled by the premeditation of explosion! The prisoner is larger than the prison. A latent giant,—how wonderful! a minnow which contains a hydra! To be this fearful magical box, to contain within himself a Leviathan, is to the dwarf both a torture and a delight.

Nor would anything have caused Barkilphedro to let go his hold. He was biding his time. Would it ever come? Who knows? He was certainly watching for it. Self-love is mixed up in the malice of the very wicked man. To make holes and gaps in a fortune higher than your own; to undermine it at all risks and perils, carefully concealed, yourself, the while,—is, we repeat, extremely exciting. The player at such a game becomes eager, even to passion; he throws himself into the work as if he were composing an epic. To be very mean and to attack that which is great, is in itself a brilliant action. It is a fine thing to be a flea on a lion. The noble beast feels the bite, and tries to vent his rage upon the atom; an encounter with a tiger would weary him less. See how the actors exchange their parts: the lion, humiliated, feels the sting of the insect, and the flea can say, "I have in my veins the blood of a lion!"

These reflections, however, only half appeased the cravings of Barkilphedro's pride; they were poor consolation. To annoy is one thing; to torment would be infinitely better. One thought haunted Barkilphedro incessantly: he might not succeed in doing more than slightly irritate Josiana's epidermis. What more could he hope for,—he being so obscure, and she so far above him! A mere scratch is but little satisfaction to him who longs to see the crimson blood of his flayed victim, and to hear her cries as she lies before him worse than naked, without even the natural covering of her skin! With such a craving, how sad to be powerless! Alas, there is nothing perfect! However, he resigned himself. Not being able to do better, he only dreamed half his dream. To play a treacherous trick is something after all.

What a man is he who revenges himself for a benefit received! Barkilphedro was a giant among such men. Usually, ingratitude is forgetfulness; with this man, steeped in wickedness, it was fury. The ordinary ingrate is full of ashes: what was in Barkilphedro? A furnace,—a furnace walled around with hate, silence, and rancour, awaiting Josiana for fuel! Never had a man abhorred a woman to such an extent without cause. How terrible! He thought of her all day and dreamed of her all night. Perhaps he was a little in love with her.