The House That Rigaud Built
By Laura Schiller
Based on: Little Dorrit
Copyright: Charles Dickens' estate/BBC
By the time the man sometimes known as Monsieur Rigaud reached the Marshalsea Gate at the appointed time and place, he was in a foul mood. When Mrs. Clennam had so miraculously left her wheelchair, at first he had assumed she was going to fetch the two thousand pounds he had demanded, but the more he waited in that creaking old house under Jeremiah Flintwinch's beady-eyed glare, the more that happy conviction had faded.
"Gone to tell Monsieur Arthur instead, has she?" he muttered. "Too late. When I get that packet back, I shall sell her story to every newspaper in London. I'll cry it from the rooftops! She will be sorry she ever crossed me, oh yes, and so will he … "
Flintwinch, following him one step behind, only grunted in return.
Little Dorrit made a sad picture as she stood by that gate in her lavender mourning dress, her bonneted head low, her hands clasped. Any other man would have felt moved.
"Good evening, dear mademoiselle," Rigaud purred. "A trifle early, are we not? The bells have not yet rung."
"Good evening, sir," she replied softly. "Good evening, Mr. Flintwinch."
"Three more minutes until the ringing of the bell."
"Still," Rigaud ran a black-gloved finger along her cheek. "We had … an agreement, did we not? Now … be a dear and give me back my papers, won't you?"
He could feel her trembling, see the flutter of her eyelashes. No doubt, she must be struggling with her conscience. He moved closer. He had always been able to bend a woman to his will; where charm did not work on them, intimidation did. A few more moments, and she would break …
"I cannot, sir," she said clearly, stepping out of his reach.
"And why not?" He let just a hint of a snarl into his voice as he stepped forward, backing her against the gate.
She raised her chin to look him in the eye.
"Because I've already read it," she said. "And so has Mr. Clennam."
"You – what?"
Thrown off his script, Rigaud floundered. Could he still use the threat of blackmail without proof?
"Mr. Clennam and his stepmother," Little Dorrit used the term pointedly, reminding him exactly what she knew, "Have told each other everything. He has forgiven her, Monsieur, and neither of them cares a penny for what the world will think. So you see, you have no power over them. They shall testify against you in court and you cannot, you shall not, hurt them any longer."
Her voice was as quiet and ladylike as ever, but underneath, he detected a note of steel that would have done honor to Mrs. Clennam herself. It made him frightened – and furious.
"You little bitch - " He lunged towards her, all his plans and caution forgotten in the frenzy of the moment. But before he could reach her, strong hands grabbed his arms and shoulders from both sides: a uniformed police officer, a small bald man in a brown coat, and none other than Rigaud's former cellmate, Giovanni Battista Cavalletto.
"Don't you lay a finger on Miss Dorrit, you rascal," said the small bald man, snorting like a steam engine. "You're in enough hot water as it is."
Flintwinch moved outside of the circle that was forming, his arms crosses, watching it all with grim satisfaction.
"Mr. Rigaud - " began the policeman.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Rigaud held up a hand to stop him, smiling widely. "I'm afraid you have the wrong man. My name is Blandois."
"Rigaud, Blandois, Lagnier, whatever your name is," The officer waved a dismissive hand, making Rigaud's smile drop from his face. "You are under arrest on the charge of blackmail and two murders: one Mr. Ephraim Flintwinch of London, and one Mrs. Jeanne Dupré of Marseilles, France."
"You can prove nothing!" Rigaud hissed.
"We do have witnesses," the officer replied, glancing at Cavalletto.
He was a tall, strong fellow who could have knocked the slightly built Frenchman to the ground with one hand, but his contemptuous attitude, as if he dealt with common criminals like Rigaud (which he did), was more maddening than any beating. According to habit, Rigaud took out his rage on his favorite target.
"You - you treacherous swine!" He spat in Cavalletto's face but missed, as the little Italian ducked out of reach. "Witness against me, will you? Have you forgotten who I am – what I am capable of?"
"Senz'altro, signore!" Cavalletto grinned in triumph. "But you can do nothing behind bars, eh? Or on the end of a rope! For killing that poor, beautiful innkeeper – I saw you! – for every time you beat me or frightened me, for tormenting this lovely signorina and her sweetheart," he bowed in the direction of Miss Dorrit, who was still observing the scene, "I will see you punished! Try and eat me now, eh?"
Somehow along his sojourn in London, the man had acquired an almost flawless, if accented English. He was not half as foolish as Rigaud had assumed him to be. Even this small mistake felt like a further humiliation to him.
"And I'll see ya punished," Flintwinch growled, "On account of my brother. I told him to guard those papers with his life. Same night he disappears, you come crawlin' with Mrs. Clennam's secret. Few days later, they find his corpse in the river. Coincidence?" He leaned in to grab Rigaud by the collar, close enough to smell each other's breath. "I think not."
Rigaud slumped in the hold of the policeman and the bald man, seeing no way out of his dilemna, caught as securely in his own net as any of his victims.
"That's it, Mr. What's-your-name," said the bald man. "You might as well go quietly, without making' any trouble. I swore to do this young lady here a good turn one day, didn't I, Miss Dorrit?"
The young lady smiled at him, causing him to let out a particularly loud snort of gratification.
"My first attempt was a smashing failure, I admit – first two attempts, if you count my advice to Mr. Clennam about the investment – but I've done it now, ain't I?"
"You've never been a failure, Mr. Pancks," replied Miss Dorrit, still smiling. "Your kind assistance has always been a comfort to my family and me. We are ever so much obliged to you."
"Eh bien, this is all very charming," Rigaud interrupted, just to recapture everyone's attention. "But are you going to arrest me tonight, or are you not?"
"Thank you for reminding us of our duty," said the policeman. "Mr. Pancks, if you would?"
Together they locked him into a pair of handcuffs and led him away between them, with Cavaletto following behind.
"I shall return!" he bellowed over his shoulder at Miss Dorrit.
"Wouldn't be too sure if I was you," said Mr. Pancks. "As my friend Cavalletto says, you can't do nothing on the end of a rope."
As the four men marched their captive away, the Marshalsea curfew bell began to chime at last, ringing doom to Rigaud as certainly as funeral bells.
Amy Dorrit watched the little procession down the street with a sigh, leaning against the familiar wood of the Marshalsea Gate. Now that the danger was over, her hands were shaking, her head was spinning, and her knees felt weak with all the fear and anxiety she had not let her enemy see. This might have become a disaster in so many ways. Cavalletto might have been too frightened to testify against his former tormentor. Mrs. Clennam might have given Rigaud the money after all. Mr. Pancks and his friend the constable might not have arrived in time to fulfill Amy's request for help; Rigaud might have gotten to her first …
Almost a year ago, Amy had hurried to a certain room in the Marshalsea, tears of joy shining in her eyes, to tell her father he would be free. William Dorrit's freedom had killed him in the end, but today, as Amy retraced her steps to the same room with the same joyful message, she knew with every beat of her heart that this time, their story really would have a happy ending.
She opened the door slowly, pausing at the threshold to watch her chosen family. Mrs. Clennam was asleep on the bed, exhausted by her first walk across town in over ten years. Arthur had moved a chair to sit next to her. Knowing them – Amy smiled to herself – he must have argued quite stubbornly to persuade his self-denying stepmother to take that bed. It spoke volumes that she had accepted it.
Even Harriet was still there, curled up in a corner, staring into the distance with bright black eyes. She had been brave to escape her mistress, Rigaud's accomplice, with the rest of the Clennam documents, including the letter from Arthur's birth mother. Amy would be glad to have her as a friend.
As Amy entered the room, Harriet and Arthur both looked up.
"Mr. Clennam ," she whispered, "Think of the best surprise that could possibly happen, to you and to Mrs. Clennam. What would it be?"
His smile faded into a puzzled frown.
"Why … to be free," he said.
"Free of this place, you mean?"
"No, Amy." Arthur's blue eyes were very soft as he looked at her. "I am always free in the company of those I love. If the Marshalsea has taught me anything, it is that. No, what I would wish for more than anything is to be rid of the threat of blackmail. Not for my own sake, but for Mother's and for yours."
She smiled up at him and reached out to take both his hands.
"Then you shall be."
- Jeanne Dupré is the name I invented for the French barmaid whom Rigaud seduces and murders in episode 1.
- Please excuse any errors in my depiction of the 19th-century legal system, or any OOCness on Amy's part. I wrote this purely for my enjoyment, and because, instead of the deus-ex-machina of being crushed by the house, I would have loved to see Rigaud's victims actively defeat him. Amy - and Mr. Pancks - can never get too much glory, in my opinion!)