Marseilles has a scorcher one day in August. There is no wind to bring relief. Ships and rocks without shelter are too hot to touch. People of different nationalities who came to trade their goods seek shelter. The intense glare of the scenery is hard on the eyes. The vegetation, animals, and anyone outside swelters in the heat. Any window covering was drawn, but the sunlight managed to peep in through keyholes. The heat increases the odors in the poorer districts.
There are two men in prison. They have a few belongings and the company of vermin. Light comes through a barred window, which is large enough for an arm to go through. The men and surroundings are in a declined state. The atmosphere is like a tomb, the inhabitants hardly appear to be living.
One of the prisoners, a Monsieur Rigaud, is cold and complains of how even the intense sun cannot manage to filter into the prison cell. His expression is like an animal. He is waiting to be fed. He yells at his companion not to fall asleep. The other man, John Baptist Cavalletto, replies there is no difference between sleeping and being awake in prison. However, submissively he obeys and gets up. John Baptist has the ability to keep track of time, though he has no watch.
The prisonkeeper comes with his little girl. He shows her his “little birds” (the prisoners). He gives them a sharp, warning glance. John Baptist only gets bread. Monsieur Rigaud receives better food. The child hands the food through the bars, feeling sorry for the “poor birds.” She gives John his bread in his hand and allows him to kiss hers. She is more frightened of Monsieur Rigaud.
The jailer tells Rigaud he will be tried later that day. He has no news for John Baptist, saying most prisoners are not in such a hurry to be tried. The jailer and his daughter leave. Rigaud forces John back to his portion of the cell, where he eats his bread contentedly.
Rigaud gives John a small remainder of his wine and a cigarette, both which are appreciated. He asks John how long he (Rigaud) has been there. John replies nine weeks, three days. He asks if he has done any work, and John answers no. When he asks John if he ever expected him to work, the other man replies in the negative. Rigaud is happy that this common smuggler recognized him as a gentleman. He asks the hour again and is glad that his trial is approaching.
Since he is not coming back to this cell, for better or worse, he decides to tell John his story. He is 35 years old. He has never lived in one country. He came to Marseilles when he became poor and sick. The owner of the house he lived in died. He married the man’s beautiful young widow.
He wanted to dominate the relationship but met with resistance from her relatives. The property was in her name. He also tried to alter her vulgar manners, which she resented. They quarreled often, and the relations and neighbors accused him of mistreating her. He admits he slapped her.
He resented having to ask for money. One night, they were walking. It started out as a romantic evening until they began to argue over the money situation. She attacked him. She fell off the cliff and died.
John Baptist thinks Rigaud's case will incur the prejudice of the tribunal and result in a harsh sentence. The jailer comes for Monsieur Rigaud, informing him that the people are already against him. John watches him be lead away, then settles down to nap—having the cell to himself.