I do not believe that there is anything sweeter in the world than the ideas which awake in a mother’s heart at the sight of her child’s tiny shoe; especially if it is a shoe for festivals, for Sunday, for baptism, the shoe embroidered to the very sole, a shoe in which the infant has not yet taken a step. That shoe has so much grace and daintiness, it is so impossible for it to walk, that it seems to the mother as though she saw her child. She smiles upon it, she kisses it, she talks to it; she asks herself whether there can actually be a foot so tiny; and if the child be absent, the pretty shoe suffices to place the sweet and fragile creature before her eyes. She thinks she sees it, she does see it, complete, living, joyous, with its delicate hands, its round head, its pure lips, its serene eyes whose white is blue. If it is in winter, it is yonder, crawling on the carpet, it is laboriously climbing upon an ottoman, and the mother trembles lest it should approach the fire. If it is summer time, it crawls about the yard, in the garden, plucks up the grass between the paving-stones, gazes innocently at the big dogs, the big horses, without fear, plays with the shells, with the flowers, and makes the gardener grumble because he finds sand in the flower-beds and earth in the paths. Everything laughs, and shines and plays around it, like it, even the breath of air and the ray of sun which vie with each other in disporting among the silky ringlets of its hair. The shoe shows all this to the mother, and makes her heart melt as fire melts wax.
But when the child is lost, these thousand images of joy, of charms, of tenderness, which throng around the little shoe, become so many horrible things. The pretty broidered shoe is no longer anything but an instrument of torture which eternally crushes the heart of the mother. It is always the same fibre which vibrates, the tenderest and most sensitive; but instead of an angel caressing it, it is a demon who is wrenching at it.
One May morning, when the sun was rising on one of those dark blue skies against which Garofolo loves to place his Descents from the Cross, the recluse of the Tour-Roland heard a sound of wheels, of horses and irons in the Place de Grève. She was somewhat aroused by it, knotted her hair upon her ears in order to deafen herself, and resumed her contemplation, on her knees, of the inanimate object which she had adored for fifteen years. This little shoe was the universe to her, as we have already said. Her thought was shut up in it, and was destined never more to quit it except at death. The sombre cave of the Tour-Roland alone knew how many bitter imprecations, touching complaints, prayers and sobs she had wafted to heaven in connection with that charming bauble of rose-colored satin. Never was more despair bestowed upon a prettier and more graceful thing.
It seemed as though her grief were breaking forth more violently than usual; and she could be heard outside lamenting in a loud and monotonous voice which rent the heart.
“Oh my daughter!” she said, “my daughter, my poor, dear little child, so I shall never see thee more! It is over! It always seems to me that it happened yesterday! My God! my God! it would have been better not to give her to me than to take her away so soon. Did you not know that our children are part of ourselves, and that a mother who has lost her child no longer believes in God? Ah! wretch that I am to have gone out that day! Lord! Lord! to have taken her from me thus; you could never have looked at me with her, when I was joyously warming her at my fire, when she laughed as she suckled, when I made her tiny feet creep up my breast to my lips? Oh! if you had looked at that, my God, you would have taken pity on my joy; you would not have taken from me the only love which lingered, in my heart! Was I then, Lord, so miserable a creature, that you could not look at me before condemning me?— Alas! Alas! here is the shoe; where is the foot? where is the rest? Where is the child? My daughter! my daughter! what did they do with thee? Lord, give her back to me. My knees have been worn for fifteen years in praying to thee, my God! Is not that enough? Give her back to me one day, one hour, one minute; one minute, Lord! and then cast me to the demon for all eternity! Oh! if I only knew where the skirt of your garment trails, I would cling to it with both hands, and you would be obliged to give me back my child! Have you no pity on her pretty little shoe? Could you condemn a poor mother to this torture for fifteen years? Good Virgin! good Virgin of heaven! my infant Jesus has been taken from me, has been stolen from me; they devoured her on a heath, they drank her blood, they cracked her bones! Good Virgin, have pity upon me. My daughter, I want my daughter! What is it to me that she is in paradise? I do not want your angel, I want my child! I am a lioness, I want my whelp. Oh! I will writhe on the earth, I will break the stones with my forehead, and I will damn myself, and I will curse you, Lord, if you keep my child from me! you see plainly that my arms are all bitten, Lord! Has the good God no mercy?— Oh! give me only salt and black bread, only let me have my daughter to warm me like a sun! Alas! Lord my God. Alas! Lord my God, I am only a vile sinner; but my daughter made me pious. I was full of religion for the love of her, and I beheld you through her smile as through an opening into heaven. Oh! if I could only once, just once more, a single time, put this shoe on her pretty little pink foot, I would die blessing you, good Virgin. Ah! fifteen years! she will be grown up now! — Unhappy child! what! it is really true then I shall never see her more, not even in heaven, for I shall not go there myself. Oh! what misery to think that here is her shoe, and that that is all!”
The unhappy woman flung herself upon that shoe; her consolation and her despair for so many years, and her vitals were rent with sobs as on the first day; because, for a mother who has lost her child, it is always the first day. That grief never grows old. The mourning garments may grow white and threadbare, the heart remains dark.
At that moment, the fresh and joyous cries of children passed in front of the cell. Every time that children crossed her vision or struck her ear, the poor mother flung herself into the darkest corner of her sepulchre, and one would have said, that she sought to plunge her head into the stone in order not to hear them. This time, on the contrary, she drew herself upright with a start, and listened eagerly. One of the little boys had just said,—
“They are going to hang a gypsy to-day.”
With the abrupt leap of that spider which we have seen fling itself upon a fly at the trembling of its web, she rushed to her air-hole, which opened as the reader knows, on the Place de Grève. A ladder had, in fact, been raised up against the permanent gibbet, and the hangman’s assistant was busying himself with adjusting the chains which had been rusted by the rain. There were some people standing about.
The laughing group of children was already far away. The sacked nun sought with her eyes some passer-by whom she might question. All at once, beside her cell, she perceived a priest making a pretext of reading the public breviary, but who was much less occupied with the “lectern of latticed iron,” than with the gallows, toward which he cast a fierce and gloomy glance from time to time. She recognized monsieur the archdeacon of Josas, a holy man.
“Father,” she inquired, “whom are they about to hang yonder?”
The priest looked at her and made no reply; she repeated her question. Then he said,—
“I know not.”
“Some children said that it was a gypsy,” went on the recluse.
“I believe so,” said the priest.
Then Paquette la Chantefleurie burst into hyena-like laughter.
“Sister,” said the archdeacon, “do you then hate the gypsies heartily?”
“Do I hate them!” exclaimed the recluse, " they are vampires, stealers of children! They devoured my little daughter, my child, my only child! I have no longer any heart, they devoured it!”
She was frightful. The priest looked at her coldly.
“There is one in particular whom I hate, and whom I have cursed,” she resumed; “it is a young one, of the age which my daughter would be if her mother had not eaten my daughter. Every time that that young viper passes in front of my cell, she sets my blood in a ferment.”
“Well, sister, rejoice,” said the priest, icy as a sepulchral statue; “that is the one whom you are about to see die.”
His head fell upon his bosom and he moved slowly away.
The recluse writhed her arms with joy.
“I predicted it for her, that she would ascend thither! Thanks, priest!” she cried.
And she began to pace up and down with long strides before the grating of her window, her hair dishevelled, her eyes flashing, with her shoulder striking against the wall, with the wild air of a female wolf in a cage, who has long been famished, and who feels the hour for her repast drawing near.