Sixteen years previous to the epoch when this story takes place, one fine morning, on Quasimodo Sunday, a living creature had been deposited, after mass, in the church of Notre-Dame, on the wooden bed securely fixed in the vestibule on the left, opposite that great image of Saint Christopher, which the figure of Messire Antoine des Essarts, chevalier, carved in stone, had been gazing at on his knees since 1413, when they took it into their heads to overthrow the saint and the faithful follower. Upon this bed of wood it was customary to expose foundlings for public charity. Whoever cared to take them did so. In front of the wooden bed was a copper basin for alms.
The sort of living being which lay upon that plank on the morning of Quasimodo, in the year of the Lord, 1467, appeared to excite to a high degree, the curiosity of the numerous group which had congregated about the wooden bed. The group was formed for the most part of the fair sex. Hardly any one was there except old women.
In the first row, and among those who were most bent over the bed, four were noticeable, who, from their gray cagoule, a sort of cassock, were recognizable as attached to some devout sisterhood. I do not see why history has not transmitted to posterity the names of these four discreet and venerable damsels. They were Agnes la Herme, Jehanne de la Tarme, Henriette la Gaultière, Gauchère la Violette, all four widows, all four dames of the Chapel Etienne Haudry, who had quitted their house with the permission of their mistress, and in conformity with the statutes of Pierre d’Ailly, in order to come and hear the sermon.
However, if these good Haudriettes were, for the moment, complying with the statutes of Pierre d’Ailly, they certainly violated with joy those of Michel de Brache, and the Cardinal of Pisa, which so inhumanly enjoined silence upon them.
“What is this, sister?” said Agnes to Gauchère, gazing at the little creature exposed, which was screaming and writhing on the wooden bed, terrified by so many glances.
“What is to become of us,” said Jehanne, “if that is the way children are made now?”
“I’m not learned in the matter of children,” resumed Agnes, “but it must be a sin to look at this one.”
“’Tis not a child, Agnes.”
“’Tis an abortion of a monkey,” remarked Gauchère.
“’Tis a miracle,” interposed Henriette la Gaultière.
“Then,” remarked Agnes, “it is the third since the Sunday of the Loetare: for, in less than a week, we had the miracle of the mocker of pilgrims divinely punished by Notre-Dame d’Aubervilliers, and that was the second miracle within a month.”
“This pretended foundling is a real monster of abomination,” resumed Jehanne.
“He yells loud enough to deafen a chanter,” continued Gauchère. “Hold your tongue, you little howler!”
“To think that Monsieur of Reims sent this enormity to Monsieur of Paris,” added la Gaultière, clasping her hands.
“I imagine,” said Agnes la Herme, “that it is a beast, an animal,— the fruit of— a Jew and a sow; something not Christian, in short, which ought to be thrown into the fire or into the water.”
“I really hope,” resumed la Gaultière, “that nobody will apply for it.”
“Ah, good heavens!” exclaimed Agnes; “those poor nurses yonder in the foundling asylum, which forms the lower end of the lane as you go to the river, just beside Monseigneur the bishop! what if this little monster were to be carried to them to suckle? I’d rather give suck to a vampire.”
“How innocent that poor la Herme is!” resumed Jehanne; “don’t you see, sister, that this little monster is at least four years old, and that he would have less appetite for your breast than for a turnspit.”
The “little monster” we should find it difficult ourselves to describe him otherwise, was, in fact, not a new-born child. It was a very angular and very lively little mass, imprisoned in its linen sack, stamped with the cipher of Messire Guillaume Chartier, then bishop of Paris, with a head projecting. That head was deformed enough; one beheld only a forest of red hair, one eye, a mouth, and teeth. The eye wept, the mouth cried, and the teeth seemed to ask only to be allowed to bite. The whole struggled in the sack, to the great consternation of the crowd, which increased and was renewed incessantly around it.
Dame Aloise de Gondelaurier, a rich and noble woman, who held by the hand a pretty girl about five or six years of age, and dragged a long veil about, suspended to the golden horn of her headdress, halted as she passed the wooden bed, and gazed for a moment at the wretched creature, while her charming little daughter, Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier, spelled out with her tiny, pretty finger, the permanent inscription attached to the wooden bed: “Foundlings.”
“Really,” said the dame, turning away in disgust, “I thought that they only exposed children here.”
She turned her back, throwing into the basin a silver florin, which rang among the liards, and made the poor goodwives of the chapel of Etienne Haudry open their eyes.
A moment later, the grave and learned Robert Mistricolle, the king’s protonotary, passed, with an enormous missal under one arm and his wife on the other (Damoiselle Guillemette la Mairesse), having thus by his side his two regulators,— spiritual and temporal.
“Foundling!” he said, after examining the object; “found, apparently, on the banks of the river Phlegethon.”
“One can only see one eye,” observed Damoiselle Guillemette; “there is a wart on the other.”
“It’s not a wart,” returned Master Robert Mistricolle, “it is an egg which contains another demon exactly similar, who bears another little egg which contains another devil, and so on.”
“How do you know that?” asked Guillemette la Mairesse.
“I know it pertinently,” replied the protonotary.
“Monsieur lé protonotare,” asked Gauchère, “what do you prognosticate of this pretended foundling?”
“The greatest misfortunes,” replied Mistricolle.
“Ah! good heavens!” said an old woman among the spectators, “and that besides our having had a considerable pestilence last year, and that they say that the English are going to disembark in a company at Harfleur.”
“Perhaps that will prevent the queen from coming to Paris in the month of September,” interposed another; “trade is so bad already.”
“My opinion is,” exclaimed Jehanne de la Tarme, “that it would be better for the louts of Paris, if this little magician were put to bed on a fagot than on a plank.”
“A fine, flaming fagot,” added the old woman.
“It would be more prudent,” said Mistricolle.
For several minutes, a young priest had been listening to the reasoning of the Haudriettes and the sentences of the notary. He had a severe face, with a large brow, a profound glance. He thrust the crowd silently aside, scrutinized the “little magician,” and stretched out his hand upon him. It was high time, for all the devotees were already licking their chops over the “fine, flaming fagot.”
“I adopt this child,” said the priest.
He took it in his cassock and carried it off. The spectators followed him with frightened glances. A moment later, he had disappeared through the “Red Door,” which then led from the church to the cloister.
When the first surprise was over, Jehanne de la Tarme bent down to the ear of la Gaultière,—
“I told you so, sister,— that young clerk, Monsieur Claude Frollo, is a sorcerer.”