Bibi - His Mark/Chapter 1
IT will always remain a moot point if the inner, driving power which gave the final impetus to the man's deed was his animal instinct, his congenital desire to take life, or a result, brutal and crafty, yet eminently great, of that complicated emotion called patriotism.
Certain pompous, pursy, bearded French gentlemen who, robed in the gorgeous crimson silk of the highest judiciary, met one drowsy, zummy spring afternoon in the Palais de Justice, and went there over the man's record—it was entirely black, except where it was tainted with the viscous, fetid red of human blood—decided to credit the score to patriotism; decided, furthermore, to forget the record which had been taken from the files of the secret archives of the Paris police, to blue-pencil it clear across its regrettable length, and, by the same token, to give the man a fresh chance.
He himself, on the other hand, shrugged his feline shoulders in a ribald and very Latin manner, threw his flat palms with the broad, stumpy fingers outward so that the tips curled like ironic question-marks, and said something in metallic Paris slang which, translated into a semblance of civilized speech, meant that he had been bored for a long time with killing citizens and policemen—"d'saigner les pant' et les sergots," to give the exquisite original; that it had always been his ambition to croak one of these here (deleted) aristocrats, for after all, dis donc, mon p'tit boug,' one is a Frenchman, a republican, hein? and—the rest entirely suppressed for reasons of decency, purity, and editorial policy.
Bibi I'Tueur was his name—Bibi the Killer.
As far back as he could remember—and his memory started with a day thirty years earlier when, at the advanced age of seven, a capped, velvet-trousered gentleman called Toto Laripette, who in moments of maudlin drunkenness acknowledged himself as his father, to disclaim the imputation with ferocious oaths in moments of retrospective, alcoholic jealousy, kicked him out into the street and told him to sink or swim on his own hook, he personally didn't give a damn which—as far back as he could remember he had had no other name: Bibi—though the latter half of his name, the Killer, pronounced as the case may be with love, fear, envy, respect, admiration, or hatred, came later on—deservedly.
Bibi the Killer he was, at the heyday of his career, to his girl, his pals, his gang, his enemies, the police, certain inquisitive and fearless newspaper reporters, the wine merchants and restaurant keepers of the neighborhood, and the white-haired, absinth-sodden, bleary-eyed, old harridan who sold fried potatoes in a postern of the Rue de Turbigo, and who every night gave him a generous twisted paper full of her deliciously crisp, golden-brown, salty wares, free of charge, because he reminded her of a lover guillotined forty years earlier.
Given his sobriquet, given the fact that he lived up to it less ostentatiously than conscientiously, given furthermore his physical characteristics—the closely cropped, bullet-shaped head crowned by a peaked, jeering cap that was worn at a rakish angle; the arrogant, beady black eyes on either side of a prying, angular beak with nervous, flaring nostrils; the mouth, cruelly thin yet scarlet with sensuousness; the loose, floppy ears with the lobes extending down the sides of his neck; and the receding chin—it was fitting that, in the cramped old streets in back of the Central Market Halls of Paris, he should be an unchallenged leader among men.
For, more than all the rest of Paris, not excepting even the Bastile, are these alleys and culs-de-sac redolent of blood-stained reminiscences. It was there, in the tortuous, tragic Rue de la Ferronnerie that the bigot madman Ravaillac's dagger found the heart of Henry IV, best and wisest of the kings of France, and just around the corner, in the Rue de la Lingerie, that Paris for centuries dumped the unshriven bodies of the poor into underground vaults. It was there that, before the Revolution, the "bell-man of the dead," in his flapping, black hat, and long, red gown, painted with skulls and cross-bones, paraded the midnight streets, dangling an enormous bell and chanting:
Réveillez-vous, gens qui dorment!
Priez Dieu pour les trépassés!
and that, later on—though, as in the case of Bibi I'Tueur, it is a debatable question if the motive was lust of blood or love of country—the French Revolution gathered enormous headway.
It is extremely doubtful if, for generations back, the ancestors of Bibi the Killer kept an exact record as to their children's paternity and maternity.
But what difference did that make?
If he was not sure of his direct progenitors, his parents and grandparents, there was no uncertainty about his being a real son of the quartier. His people had always lived there since before the days of Frangois Villon. Had always bred there. Always killed there. Always died there—except in a few cases when they had died at the Roquette, under the thudding blade of the Red Widow, the guillotine.
For Bibi was an Apache.
Comparatively undisturbed by the police, he had followed his chosen career until, about a year before the outbreak of the great war, a new and ambitious president of the police decided on a general municipal housecleaning. Unfortunately for Bibi the Killer, it coincided with the discovery of a well-dressed Paris stock-broker, robbed, murdered in a dark alley of the quartier, not far from the Rue Verderet.
To his dying day Bibi protested that, at least in this instance, he had been as innocent as the whitest, fleeciest lamb. Only it so happened that the knife which had been stuck neatly between the bourgeois's third and fourth ribs was marked with Bibi's initials, and it was more than doubtful that the police would accept his alibi; namely, that he had loaned his dagger to a casual acquaintance whose name he had forgotten and who had needed it to cut off the rind of a particularly tough wedge of Port du Salut cheese.
Anyway, sipping his peaceful breakfast beverage of black coffee flavored with cognac in a little cafe of the Rue de Turbigo, he read about the corpse and the knife in the morning issue of the Petit Parisien, and arrived at Dieppe just two jumps ahead of the police, increasing the distance to three jumps by the time he reached London, where, head first, like a rat, he bored into the dank purlieus of Soho.
He felt not at home there; neither in Soho nor in Pimlico, nor in the scraggly, smoky, jerry-built whole of the East End, including the maze of the docks whence men go down to the sea in ships. Later on he always referred to London as a singularly tough, stringy, and discouraging leg of mutton, and he heartily condemned the methods of his EngHsh confrères.
"Tiens," he would say, "one takes pride in one's business, be it—well—tailoring or bleeding a citizen. And there, in London? Pooh! A brick bounced off somebody's dome! A loaded rubber bludgeon flattening a silk tile! And they call that turning the trick! These English have no imagination, and I, mon vieux, I was not happy there!"
So he left London.
But here, too, the full tale of it is clouded, nebulous, overcast with a haze of sordid romance.
For, strangely, a six days' sensation, consisting in garroting, frisking, and painful injuries suffered by a Member of Parliament on a clear evening in full view of Whitehall Street, and resulting in the heckling of the Cabinet by the purple-faced Tory Member for East Gravesend, who started with demanding a thorough reorganization of Scotland Yard, and ended by clamoring for the immediate resignation of Asquith and the little Welsh attorney—this six days' sensation happened to coincide with Bibi the Killer's shipping out of green Southampton to the New World.
As a stoker! And since never before in all his life had he done a stroke of what the world, rightly or wrongly, calls honest labor, since the animal instinct of self-preservation taught him that here, on board this tight, workaday ship, Bibi the Killer had to be Bibi the Stoker, or—by Gawd! yer shirkin', sneakin', bloody swab of a frog-eater!—the third engineer wanted to know the reason why he felt like a caged, helpless beast.
Thus, when land came in sight, his old spirit asserted itself. Like the flash of the free iron, swung away from the clogging, rusting scabbard, it jerked out. And he sniffed greedily when the shore wind brought the warm reek of New York out to the low-flung drab of Sandy Hook, where the ship was riding to both sea-anchors waiting for the impertinent chug-chug-chugging of the customs launch, and remarked to a fellow stoker, a Frenchman like himself, that he expected to gut this transatlantic town of gold and diamonds and pearls as a fish-woman in the Halles Centrales guts a mackerel.