Chapter 26. The Pont du Gard Inn
Such of my readers as have made a pedestrian excursion to the south of France may perchance have noticed, about midway between the town of Beaucaire and the village of Bellegarde,—a little nearer to the former than to the latter,—a small roadside inn, from the front of which hung, creaking and flapping in the wind, a sheet of tin covered with a grotesque representation of the Pont du Gard. This modern place of entertainment stood on the left-hand side of the post road and backed up on the Rhône. It also boasted of what in Languedoc has styled a garden, consisting of a small plot of ground, on the side opposite to the main entrance reserved for the reception of guests. A few dingy olives and stunted fig trees struggled hard for existence, but their withered dusty foliage abundantly proved how unequal was the conflict. Between these sickly shrubs grew a scanty supply of garlic, tomatoes, and eschalots; while, lone and solitary, like a forgotten sentinel, a tall pine raised its melancholy head in one of the corners of this unattractive spot, and displayed its flexible stem and fan-shaped summit dried and cracked by the fierce heat of the sub-tropical sun.
All these trees, great or small, were turned in the direction to which the Mistral blows, one of the three curses of Provence, the others being the Durance and the Parliament.
In the surrounding plain, which more resembled a dusty lake than solid ground, were scattered a few miserable stalks of wheat, the effect, no doubt, of a curious desire on the part of the agriculturists of the country to see whether such a thing as the raising of grain in those parched regions was practicable. Each stalk served as a perch for a grasshopper, which regaled the passers-by through this Egyptian scene with its strident, monotonous note.
For about seven or eight years the little tavern had been kept by a man and his wife, with two servants,—a chambermaid named Trinette, and a hostler called Peychaud. This small staff was quite equal to all the requirements, for a canal between Beaucaire and Aiguemortes had revolutionized transportation by substituting boats for the cart and the stagecoach. And, as though to add to the daily misery which this prosperous canal inflicted on the unfortunate innkeeper, whose utter ruin it was fast accomplishing, it was situated between the Rhône from which it had its source and the post-road it had depleted, not a hundred steps from the inn, of which we have given a brief but faithful description.
The innkeeper himself was a man of from forty to fifty-five years of age, tall, strong, and bony, a perfect specimen of the natives of those southern latitudes; he had dark, sparkling, and deep-set eyes, hooked nose, and teeth white as those of a carnivorous animal; his hair, like his beard, which he wore under his chin, was thick and curly, and in spite of his age but slightly interspersed with a few silvery threads. His naturally dark complexion had assumed a still further shade of brown from the habit the unfortunate man had acquired of stationing himself from morning till eve at the threshold of his door, on the lookout for guests who seldom came, yet there he stood, day after day, exposed to the meridional rays of a burning sun, with no other protection for his head than a red handkerchief twisted around it, after the manner of the Spanish muleteers. This man was our old acquaintance, Gaspard Caderousse.
His wife, on the contrary, whose maiden name had been Madeleine Radelle, was pale, meagre, and sickly-looking. Born in the neighbourhood of Arles, she had shared in the beauty for which its women are proverbial; but that beauty had gradually withered beneath the devastating influence of the slow fever so prevalent among dwellers by the ponds of Aiguemortes and the marshes of Camargue. She remained nearly always in her second-floor chamber, shivering in her chair, or stretched languid and feeble on her bed, while her husband kept his daily watch at the door—a duty he performed with so much the greater willingness, as it saved him the necessity of listening to the endless plains and murmurs of his helpmate, who never saw him without breaking out into bitter invectives against fate; to all of which her husband would calmly return an unvarying reply, in these philosophic words:
“Hush, La Carte. It is God’s pleasure that things should be so.”
The sobriquet of La Carconte had been bestowed on Madeleine Radelle from the fact that she had been born in a village, so-called, situated between Salon and Lambesc; and as a custom existed among the inhabitants of that part of France where Caderousse lived of styling every person by some particular and distinctive appellation, her husband had bestowed on her the name of La Carconte in place of her sweet and euphonious name of Madeleine, which, in all probability, his rude guttural language would not have enabled him to pronounce.
Still, let it not be supposed that amid this affected resignation to the will of Providence, the unfortunate innkeeper did not writhe under the double misery of seeing the hateful canal carry off his customers and his profits, and the daily infliction of his peevish partner’s murmurs and lamentations.
Like other dwellers in the south, he was a man of sober habits and moderate desires, but fond of external show, vain, and addicted to display. During the days of his prosperity, not a festivity took place without himself and his wife being among the spectators. He dressed in the picturesque costume worn upon grand occasions by the inhabitants of the south of France, bearing equal resemblance to the style adopted both by the Catalans and Andalusians; while La Carconte displayed the charming fashion prevalent among the women of Arles, a mode of attire borrowed equally from Greece and Arabia. But, by degrees, watch-chains, necklaces, particoloured scarves, embroidered bodices, velvet vests, elegantly worked stockings, striped gaiters, and silver buckles for the shoes, all disappeared; and Gaspard Caderousse, unable to appear abroad in his pristine splendour, had given up any further participation in the pomps and vanities, both for himself and wife, although a bitter feeling of envious discontent filled his mind as the sound of mirth and merry music from the joyous revellers reached even the miserable hostelry to which he still clung, more for the shelter than the profit it afforded.
Caderousse, then, was, as usual, at his place of observation before the door, his eyes glancing listlessly from a piece of closely shaven grass—on which some fowls were industrious, though fruitlessly, endeavouring to turn up some grain or insect suited to their palate—to the deserted road, which led away to the north and south, when he was aroused by the shrill voice of his wife, and grumbling to himself as he went, he mounted to her chamber, first taking care, however, to set the entrance door wide open, as an invitation to any chance traveller who might be passing.
At the moment Caderousse quitted his sentry-like watch before the door, the road on which he so eagerly strained his sight was void and lonely as a desert at midday. There it lay stretching out into one interminable line of dust and sand, with its sides bordered by tall, meagre trees, altogether presenting so uninviting an appearance, that no one in his senses could have imagined that any traveller, at liberty to regulate his hours for journeying, would choose to expose himself in such a formidable Sahara.
Nevertheless, had Caderousse but retained his post a few minutes longer, he might have caught a dim outline of something approaching from the direction of Bellegarde; as the moving object drew nearer, he would easily have perceived that it consisted of a man and horse, between whom the kindest and most amiable understanding appeared to exist. The horse was of Hungarian breed and ambled along at an easy pace. His rider was a priest, dressed in black, and wearing a three-cornered hat; and, in spite of the ardent rays of a noonday sun, the pair came on with a fair degree of rapidity.
Having arrived before the Pont du Gard, the horse stopped, but whether for his own pleasure or that of his rider would have been difficult to say. However that might have been, the priest, dismounting, led his steed by the bridle in search of someplace to which he could secure him. Availing himself of a handle that projected from a half-fallen door, he tied the animal safely and having drawn a red cotton handkerchief, from his pocket, wiped away the perspiration that streamed from his brow, then, advancing to the door, struck thrice with the end of his iron-shod stick.
At this unusual sound, a huge black dog came rushing to meet the daring assailant of his ordinarily tranquil abode, snarling and displaying his sharp white teeth with a determined hostility that abundantly proved how little he was accustomed to society. At that moment a heavy footstep was heard descending the wooden staircase that led from the upper floor, and, with many bows and courteous smiles, the host of the Pont du Gard be sought his guest to enter.
“You are welcome, sir, most welcome!” repeated the astonished Caderousse. “Now, then, Margotin,” cried he, speaking to the dog, “will you be quiet? Pray don’t heed him, sir!—he only barks, he never bites. I make no doubt a glass of good wine would be acceptable this dreadfully hot day.” Then perceiving for the first time the garb of the traveller he had to entertain, Caderousse hastily exclaimed: “A thousand pardons! I really did not observe whom I had the honour to receive under my poor roof. What would the abbé please to have? What refreshment can I offer? All I have is at his service.”
The priest gazed on the person addressing him with a long and searching gaze—there even seemed a disposition on his part to court similar scrutiny on the part of the innkeeper; then, observing in the countenance of the latter no other expression than extreme surprise at his own want of attention to an inquiry so courteously worded, he deemed it as well to terminate this dumb show, and therefore said, speaking with a strong Italian accent, “You are, I presume, M. Caderousse?”
“Yes, sir,” answered the host, even more, surprised at the question than he had been by the silence which had preceded it; “I am Gaspard Caderousse, at your service.”
“Gaspard Caderousse,” rejoined the priest. “Yes,—Christian and surname are the same. You formerly lived, I believe in the Allées de Meilhan, on the fourth floor?”
“And you followed the business of a tailor?”
“True, I was a tailor, till the trade fell off. It is so hot at Marseilles, that really I believe that the respectable inhabitants will in time go without any clothing whatever. But talking of heat, is there nothing I can offer you by way of refreshment?”
“Yes; let me have a bottle of your best wine, and then, with your permission, we will resume our conversation from where we left off.”
“As you please, sir,” said Caderousse, who, anxious not to lose the present opportunity of finding a customer for one of the few bottles of Cahors still remaining in his possession, hastily raised a trap-door in the floor of the apartment they were in, which served both as parlour and kitchen.
Upon issuing forth from his subterranean retreat at the expiration of five minutes, he found the abbé seated upon a wooden stool, leaning his elbow on a table, while Margotin, whose animosity seemed appeased by the unusual command of the traveller for refreshments, had crept up to him, and had established himself very comfortably between his knees, his long, skinny neck resting on his lap, while his dim eye was fixed earnestly on the traveller’s face.
“Are you quite alone?” inquired the guest, as Caderousse placed before him the bottle of wine and a glass.
“Quite, quite alone,” replied the man—“or, at least, practically so, for my poor wife, who is the only person in the house besides myself, is laid up with illness, and unable to render me the least assistance, poor thing!”
“You are married, then?” said the priest, with a show of interest, glancing round as he spoke at the scanty furnishings of the apartment.
“Ah, sir,” said Caderousse with a sigh, “it is easy to perceive I am not a rich man, but in this world, a man does not thrive the better for being honest.” The abbé fixed on him a searching, penetrating glance.
“Yes, honest—I can certainly say that much for myself,” continued the innkeeper, fairly sustaining the scrutiny of the abbé’s gaze; “I can boast with the truth of being an honest man; and,” continued he significantly, with a hand on his breast and shaking his head, “that is more than everyone can say nowadays.”
“So much the better for you, if what you assert to be true,” said the abbé; “for I am firmly persuaded that, sooner or later, the goodwill be rewarded, and the wicked punished.”
“Such words as those belong to your profession,” answered Caderousse, “and you do well to repeat them; but,” added he, with a bitter expression of countenance, “one is free to believe them or not, as one pleases.”
“You are wrong to speak thus,” said the abbé; “and perhaps I may, in my own person, be able to prove to you how completely you are in error.”
“What mean you?” inquired Caderousse with a look of surprise.
“In the first place, I must be satisfied that you are the person I am in search of.”
“What proofs do you require?”
“Did you, in the year 1814 or 1815, know anything of a young sailor named Dantès?”
“Dantès? Did I know poor dear Edmond? Why Edmond Dantès and I were intimate friends!” exclaimed Caderousse, whose countenance flushed darkly as he caught the penetrating gaze of the abbé fixed on him, while the clear, calm eye of the questioner seemed to dilate with feverish scrutiny.
“You remind me,” said the priest, “that the young man concerning whom I asked you was said to bear the name of Edmond.”
“Said to bear the name!” repeated Caderousse, becoming excited and eager. “Why he was so called as truly as I myself bore the appellation of Gaspard Caderousse; but tell me, I pray, what has become of poor Edmond? Did you know him? Is he alive and at liberty? Is he prosperous and happy?”
“He died a more wretched, hopeless, heart-broken prisoner than the felons who pay the penalty of their crimes at the galleys of Toulon.”
A deadly pallor followed the flush on the countenance of Caderousse, who turned away, and the priest saw him wiping the tears from his eyes with the corner of the red handkerchief twisted round his head.
“Poor fellow, poor fellow!” murmured Caderousse. “Well, there, sir, is another proof that good people are never rewarded on this earth, and that none but the wicked prosper. Ah,” continued Caderousse, speaking in the highly coloured language of the South, “the world grows worse and worse. Why does not God, if he really hates the wicked, as he is said to do, send down brimstone and fire, and consume them altogether?”
“You speak as though you had loved this young Dantès,” observed the abbé, without taking any notice of his companion’s vehemence.
“And so I did,” replied Caderousse; “though once, I confess, I envied him his good fortune. But I swear to you, sir, I swear to you, by everything a man holds dear, I have, since then, deeply and sincerely lamented his unhappy fate.”
There was a brief silence, during which the fixed, searching eye of the abbé was employed in scrutinizing the agitated features of the innkeeper.
“You knew the poor lad, then?” continued Caderousse.
“I was called to see him on his dying bed, that I might administer to him the consolations of religion.”
“And of what did he die?” asked Caderousse in a choking voice.
“Of what, think you, do young and strong men die in prison when they have scarcely numbered their thirtieth year unless it is of imprisonment?” Caderousse wiped away the large beads of perspiration that gathered on his brow.