-1Hayley Farr

WR224

"Le Tigre"

"What is it?"

"C'est le tigre," Francis replied casually, running his leather-gloved hand along a single bar of the cage.

"What is a tigre?" Benedick asked in a thick English accent, taking a furtive step back from the enormous cage and taking care to adjust his white wig.

"It is a cat, Benedick Chauncy, a very large, utterly strong cat," Francis huffed and pushed Benedick back towards the cage. "They are wild in the Orient."

"Oriental," Benedick mused, stepping away from Francis and the tiger.

The tiger was slumbering in one corner of the small cage, its long tail swishing back and forth among the flies that had come to land on the filth-caked straw bedding in the cage. Every few moments the tiger would open its mouth and yawn, showing rows of yellowed brittle teeth. Benedick did not know to feel sad for the feline, and so he only felt fear watching it. Behind them a throng of peasants was pushing to view the feline, a stink of body sweat, excrement and human filth overpowering the air from the poor mass.

"Benedick Chauncy! Est-ce que c'est vous?" an English accent almost as thick as Benedick's called from the crowd around the cage. "Benedick Chauncy Arlington?"

Benedick looked up away from Francis' furrowed brow and towards the peasant crowd behind himself. A young woman was pushing herself through, followed by an Indian servant carrying her parasol over her head. "Benedick Chauncy! I never imagined that I would find you in Paris of all places!"

"Marie Abigail Williams!" Benedick laughed and shook her hand fervently, "How many years has it been?"

"Oh, too many I fear! Who is this dashing fellow I find you with, Benedick Chauncy?"

"Oh, forgive me, Marie Abigail! This is--"

"--Je m'appelle Francis Oswald Pepperdale." Francis cut off Benedick and leaned down to kiss the palm of Marie's hand.

"Êtes-vous français?" Marie asked incredulously as she pulled her hand back from Francis slowly.

Francis smiled, a bit of lead powder falling onto the collar of his coat from his chin, "Oui--"

"--No, my dear, he only likes to pretend he is. Francis Oswald is as English as you, I, or the King." Benedick and Marie laughed together, gay voices trailing up over the murmur of the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the sleeping tiger that the trio had blocked from them.

Francis coughed loudly, turning on his heels to leave the square and move off towards a side street while Benedick watched disdainfully.

"Dearest Marie Abigail, love, do tell me I might bring you to a restorante for a spot of tea? Let us get away from this awful beast." Benedick bowed and smiled at Marie, who chuckled and allowed him to take her hand to lead her away.

-

"Oh, Benedick Chauncy! You never did divulge to me how you came across Francis Oswald, do tell, do tell!" Marie covered her mouth daintily with the back of her pale white hand as she laughed. She seemed so out of place in the dirty restorante, her pale pink dress framed by dusty browns. When she came in she had rested her lace parasol against the chair and crossed her legs in a most unladylike manner, the only habits that kept her from appearing to be a dame.

"Dear, we met in London of all places," Benedick laughed in a manner that suggested he did not mean for the comment to be humourous. "We were working in the same Opera Troupe and made the decision to abandon our debts and run away to Paris together."

"Oh, how positively beastly you two are! And so you came to Paris to live a life of foppery?"

"Hardly, love, we were just as much fops in London as we are here in Paris."

"I see, so it was after you left the Isle of Man that you changed?"

"I was destined for greater things than that sandy little beach could offer me."

"Ah, you became a fatalist in London?"

"Hardly my dear, I'm not about to let fate make my decisions."

Marie laughed and clapped Benedick on the back. "Good show! That is what I like to hear!"

"However some days I do wish I could think like Pangloss--"

Marie interrupted his sentence by laughing loudly, as though he has told a joke. "My dear," she hissed between laughs, "Marie Arouet de Voltaire may be alright in England, but you have got to hold your tongue on that matter in France!"

Benedick laughed nervously, but quickly covered it up. "My dear, I do not even know who you are talking about!"

"Oh you are a fiend, you know that, Benedick Chauncy?" Marie laughed and clapped her hands, gesturing for her servant to come over. "Bring us some tea, Gajanan," and the man disappeared towards the kitchen.

With Gajanan gone a slow thread of awkward silence wove its way in between the two. Marie stared deeply into a dirty plate that had been left in the middle of the table, counting the crumbs in her head. Benedick looked out the window into the street, still crowded with peasants trying to catch a sight of the tiger in its cage. "Oh Marie Abigail, what can I possibly do with myself?"

"Whatever do you mean, Benedick Chauncy?" Marie looked up and nodded to Gajanan as he left two tea cups on the dusty table.

Benedick took the cup offered to him and sipped it slowly before setting it back on its saucer. "I have no livelihood, Marie Abigail. Here I am in Paris and I have no employment, nothing."

Marie set her cup down sharply. "Benedick Chauncy! How long has it been like this?"

"We came because I had been offered employment at an Opera House in the city centre. I brought Francis Oswald thinking perhaps we could find him work in a chorus, however as soon as they laid eyes on him the position was his! And I, Benedick Chauncy, am left penniless in the middle of this godforsaken city!"

"You mean to tell me that Francis Oswald is unwilling to help you while you search for other employment?"

"Completely. He tells me that it is my fault that I find myself in this position."

Marie looked aghast at this. "Benedick Chauncy, you cannot let Francis Oswald get away with this foul behaviour, your honour is at stake!"

"Whatever could I do, love?"

Marie leaned across the table to Benedick and in a low voice said, "I think Gajanan could find us someone to do the deed."

"Oh, Marie Abigail!" Benedick waved his gloved hand in front of his face theatrically. "I could not dream of stooping so low!"

"Benedick Chauncy, even kings must stoop so low every so now and then."

Benedick frowned and took another sip of tea, leaving a small red smudge where his lips had been. He opened his mouth and looked up at Marie, but closed it again before he could say anything else.

Marie suddenly laughed loudly. "You two aren't fops at all, are you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"You two are dandies, it's true, isn't it? All of those rumours about you at St. Michael's Boarding School are true, then?" Marie chuckled, carefully covering her mouth with a delicately embroidered handkerchief.

"Marie Abigail, I never!"

"Oh, dear Benedick Chauncy, I do not judge you, I just needed to better understand our situation." Marie composed herself and folded her handkerchief into her lap. "Now you cannot let these emotions get in the way of your honour, dear Benedick Chauncy. We have a task to do!"

"Oh Marie," Benedick huffed, "I don't know what to do with myself at all."

Gajanan offered no struggle and procured a phial of arsenic in an evening's time. However, when faced with the accoutrements for murder, Benedick outright refused and trudged home to the small domicile he shared with Francis. As they parted, Marie offered time for Benedick to consider her proposal, but he did not respond.

"Oh Benedick," Francis said daintily as they sat across from each other for tea, "I received post today!"

"Truly? Who has written to you?" Benedick looked up from the edge of the tablecloth that he had been studying.

"Lets see, her name is--" Francis retrieved the letter from his vest pocket, "Marie Abigail Williams. I seem to recognize her name, but cannot possibly recall where I could have met her!"

Benedick swallowed, the tea sticking in his throat like a bit of hard egg yolk. "Whatever could she want of you?"

"She's invited me for Sunday tea in Le Havre out on the quay."

It had been over a month since he and Marie had parted ways, and Benedick took in a sharp breath and inwardly cursed Marie's forthrightness. "I wonder why she wants tea so far away? Will you be going?"

Francis mulled for a moment, picking at small lumps of lead powder that had gathered in the saliva around his lips. "I fear I must, as it might be of an urgent matter."

"I understand," Benedick said softly, ignoring his instinct to stop Francis from going. Your honour is at stake.

That evening, while Francis was away for rehearsal at the Opera House, Benedick received a post from Marie outlining his role in the murder of Francis Oswald Pepperdale. He was to order a coach, funded by livres enclosed in the letter, to arrive shortly after Francis in Le Havre. It would take a full day by coach, and he was to help her cover up the disappearance. According to her letter, Marie would perform all of the unsavory tasks.

It was the next day Francis was to set off, and Benedick's coach left not thirty minutes after Francis had, which gave them enough leeway to stay clear of Francis' party, but still enough time to arrive in Le Havre. It was raining that day, and Benedick's coach passed by the open-topped tiger cage on its way through the city centre. Benedick watched the tiger through an open curtain as they rode. There was not a crowd around it this time, and the tiger stared out at him sadly and moved its feet slowly in the filthy rainwater that was building up in its rank cage. Even from the distance of a few yards Benedick could see that the tiger was losing its fur in many places, and when it yawned feebly he saw that it had already lost most of its teeth. It was a broken, fragile animal.

The ride was slow, and Benedick passed time by reading Moliére from a crumbling tome out of Francis' collection. He found the play boring and tasteless, and wished that Voltaire was still available in France. Tartuffe was a bland and typical parody, nothing at all like Candide or Zadig. Outside the rain was beginning to fall lighter, and he could hear the wheels turning sloppily in the mud along the road. Occasionally a bit of debris would splash up onto the sheer curtain covering the window beside Benedick's head, and he could see a collection of dark smatterings where these bits had landed.

Benedick drifted away for a few hours, dreaming of London and of the sandy shores of the Isle of Man. When he awoke he saw the glimmering lights of Le Havre in the early dawn, gas lamps shining out through the faint orange glow of the sun rising over the Western hills. Francis would be having tea with Marie Abigail in a few hours. How was it that she connived him into coming out to the sea? Benedick mused.

The coachman stopped in front of a shabby-looking inn and came around to usher Benedick out of the coach and towards the front door. Marie had booked the room for him already. The façade of the inn had once been painted a sea foam green colour, but it had long since cracked and peeled and turned to grey, only adding to the dreariness of the inn and the surrounding village.

Benedick was led to his room by a portly maid who was Le Havre-born. The room itself was much more drab that he expected, the only décor consisting of a creaky wooden four poster bed and an equally creaky bedside table with a bowl and pitcher of water atop it. As the maid left he sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. Over the rooftops he could see the sea, and knew that just beyond it England lay waiting for his return, for the time harboring the refugee Voltaire.

It was another two hours before the chubby maid returned with a message for Benedick to meet Marie on the quay down the road. One clear message came to Benedick from this: Francis Oswald Pepperdale was dead.

When Benedick arrived Marie was sitting on a crate with her legs crossed sipping tea from a china cup. She looked up and smiled at him, the sea breeze ruffling the curls that hung down from her wig around her neck. "Benedick Chauncy!" she called nonchalantly. "Come quickly or I fear we'll run short of time!"

As Benedick drew closer he could see a pile of canvas lying next to Marie in the distinct shape of a man. "I was thinking of a drowning, you know, it happens so often in seaside cities that the police would not even question the matter."

Benedick nodded slowly, swallowing hard egg yolk again and feeling it stick to the sides of his throat. "Marie Abi--You--"

"Benedick Chauncy, come here and help me dispose of this pile of garbage into the sea. It's too much for one little lady to handle, come on love!" Marie smiled daintily and gestured Benedick over casually.

The body was easy enough to move as it was already very stiff and mostly just rolled off the dock into the murky water. Ships dumped garbage everywhere along this port, and the water had taken on a permanent curdled grey colour. Francis slunk into the mass quickly and began drifting out towards sea, the canvas bags slowly peeling away to reveal trails of white powder and rouge snaking through the water around his face. Benedick turned away and spat out a bit of phlegm that had built up in his throat. Two days ago he had been sitting sipping tea and listening to Francis read the afternoon post to him, and now he was standing by the sea, miles from their home in Paris and feeling painfully ungentlemanly.

"Benedick Chauncy, love. Darling." Marie smiled and hoisted her parasol over her head. Benedick ignored her and focused in on a bloated fish body that was bobbing in the water against one of the rotted posts of the dock. "Darling, shall we go for supper?"

"Marie Abigail, whatever will I do with myself?"

"Give yourself a few month's time and reclaim your rightful position at your little Opera House."

"Marie Abigail, you do not catch my meaning."

"Benedick Chauncy, for now live one day at a time, love. Come, we will share supper and then we may travel back to Paris together. We will be there no later than tomorrow morning." Marie twirled her parasol childishly, little trails of dust floating out into the cold afternoon air.

The next evening Benedick took to wandering through the streets of Paris. It was a cloudless evening, but there was a distinct chill in the air that work its way through his frock coat and knickers, raising goose welts along his arms. He wasn't exactly sure where he was going, but the apartment seemed so decidedly fragile without Francis to fill the walls with his ego. It felt as if the very foundation of the tiny building they shared with a shoemaker would crumble away very soon.

It was a long walk, and before Benedick knew it, he was standing outside of the tiger's cage. The animal was sleeping in one corner, surrounded by faeces-soaked straw and clumps of orange and black fur. "Le tigre," Benedick whispered softly. "Le tigre," he said a bit louder as the animal's right ear twitched towards him and it lethargically opened its eyes to meet his. He had never noticed how yellow the animal's irises were, like the colour of Francis' teeth. The animal yawned and stood up unhurriedly, making its way towards Benedick.

"I have no food for you," Benedick began as the tiger sat expectedly in front of him. It blinked and shook its hind portion, a spray of stray hairs flying about the cage and onto Benedick's clothes.

"Are you sick?" he asked quietly and waited for a response. "You don't want to live in there, do you?" he hesitated, and then presumed the tiger didn't respond because it clearly did not speak English. "Êtes-vous malade?"

The tiger yawned again and reached one paw to rest it weakly on the bar by Benedick's hand. Benedick looked around for a moment, looking for a place where the tiger's owner might be, but he determined that it had been left there in the city centre to rot. "Attendez un moment." Benedick moved away from the tiger and began circling the cage until he found a gate just big enough for the tiger to get through. It was unlocked. He opened it and whistled slowly and softly.

"Le tigre, le tigre, venez à Benedick Chauncy, le tigre." The animal turned towards the open gate and languidly rose up, making its way towards Benedick. When the tiger had left its cage it sat down and stared patiently back at Benedick, awaiting another order.

"Le tigre, vous êtes libre main tenant." Benedick reached out gingerly and pet its head between the ears, scratching gently so as to not pull out any more fur. The tiger closed its eyes and didn't move. "Allez," Benedick pushed it lightly and the tiger opened its eyes to watch him. "Allez! Vous êtes libre maintenant!"

The tiger stood up once more and laggardly leaned its head down low to the ground, as a horse waiting for a mount might do. "What do you want from me!" Benedick gasped, staring up. "I let you go!"

The tiger lifted its head just enough to meet Benedick's eyes and then promptly lowered it back to the ground. Benedick moved towards it and rubbed its back, moving with the nap of its raggedy fur. "Est-ce que voulez-vous que je vous monte?" The tiger stayed still.

Benedick hovered confused for a moment, before gradually lifting one leg over the tiger and straddling it near its front legs. The tiger rose up instantly and began trotting away from the centre and towards a dark side street. In the quiet confusion of freeing the tiger Benedick had forgotten about Francis and was now only caught up in the feeling of the feeble muscles undulating between his legs as the pair moved quickly through the city towards the outskirts.

"Vous êtes libre maintenant! Nous sommes libres maintenant!" Benedick called out loudly, waving his arm through the cold air. "Liberté!"

The tiger began to slow down as they entered the country that surrounded Paris and within the minute had collapsed in the center of the dirt road, its chest moving up and down harshly with each breath. "Le tigre! Are you hurt?"

The tiger looked up at Benedick with one eye, its chest rising and falling without a clear pattern but gradually slowing down. "Le tigre?" It laid its head down on a clump of grass and closed its eyes, its chest slowing until even the damp fog oozing out of its mouth stopped entirely.