The little shoe
La Esmeralda was sleeping at the moment when the outcasts assailed the church.
Soon the ever-increasing uproar around the edifice, and the uneasy bleating of her goat which had been awakened, had roused her from her slumbers. She had sat up, she had listened, she had looked; then, terrified by the light and noise, she had rushed from her cell to see. The aspect of the Place, the vision which was moving in it, the disorder of that nocturnal assault, that hideous crowd, leaping like a cloud of frogs, half seen in the gloom, the croaking of that hoarse multitude, those few red torches running and crossing each other in the darkness like the meteors which streak the misty surfaces of marshes, this whole scene produced upon her the effect of a mysterious battle between the phantoms of the witches’ sabbath and the stone monsters of the church. Imbued from her very infancy with the superstitions of the Bohemian tribe, her first thought was that she had caught the strange beings peculiar to the night, in their deeds of witchcraft. Then she ran in terror to cower in her cell, asking of her pallet some less terrible nightmare.
But little by little the first vapors of terror had been dissipated; from the constantly increasing noise, and from many other signs of reality, she felt herself besieged not by spectres, but by human beings. Then her fear, though it did not increase, changed its character. She had dreamed of the possibility of a popular mutiny to tear her from her asylum. The idea of once more recovering life, hope, Phoebus, who was ever present in her future, the extreme helplessness of her condition, flight cut off, no support, her abandonment, her isolation,— these thoughts and a thousand others overwhelmed her. She fell upon her knees, with her head on her bed, her hands clasped over her head, full of anxiety and tremors, and, although a gypsy, an idolater, and a pagan, she began to entreat with sobs, mercy from the good Christian God, and to pray to our Lady, her hostess. For even if one believes in nothing, there are moments in life when one is always of the religion of the temple which is nearest at hand.
She remained thus prostrate for a very long time, trembling in truth, more than praying, chilled by the ever-closer breath of that furious multitude, understanding nothing of this outburst, ignorant of what was being plotted, what was being done, what they wanted, but foreseeing a terrible issue.
In the midst of this anguish, she heard some one walking near her. She turned round. Two men, one of whom carried a lantern, had just entered her cell. She uttered a feeble cry.
“Fear nothing,” said a voice which was not unknown to her, “it is I.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
This name reassured her. She raised her eyes once more, and recognized the poet in very fact. But there stood beside him a black figure veiled from head to foot, which struck her by its silence.
“Oh!” continued Gringoire in a tone of reproach, “Djali recognized me before you!”
The little goat had not, in fact, waited for Gringoire to announce his name. No sooner had he entered than it rubbed itself gently against his knees, covering the poet with caresses and with white hairs, for it was shedding its hair. Gringoire returned the caresses.
“Who is this with you?” said the gypsy, in a low voice.
“Be at ease,” replied Gringoire. “’Tis one of my friends.” Then the philosopher setting his lantern on the ground, crouched upon the stones, and exclaimed enthusiastically, as he pressed Djali in his arms,—
“Oh! ’tis a graceful beast, more considerable no doubt, for it’s neatness than for its size, but ingenious, subtle, and lettered as a grammarian! Let us see, my Djali, hast thou forgotten any of thy pretty tricks? How does Master Jacques Charmolue?… ”
The man in black did not allow him to finish. He approached Gringoire and shook him roughly by the shoulder.
“’Tis true,” said he: “I forgot that we are in haste. But that is no reason master, for getting furious with people in this manner. My dear and lovely child, your life is in danger, and Djali’s also. They want to hang you again. We are your friends, and we have come to save you. Follow us.”
“Is it true?” she exclaimed in dismay.
“Yes, perfectly true. Come quickly!”
“I am willing,” she stammered. “But why does not your friend speak?”
“Ah!” said Gringoire, “’tis because his father and mother were fantastic people who made him of a taciturn temperament.”
She was obliged to content herself with this explanation. Gringoire took her by the hand; his companion picked up the lantern and walked on in front. Fear stunned the young girl. She allowed herself to be led away. The goat followed them, frisking, so joyous at seeing Gringoire again that it made him stumble every moment by thrusting its horns between his legs.
“Such is life,” said the philosopher, every time that he came near falling down; “’tis often our best friends who cause us to be overthrown.”
They rapidly descended the staircase of the towers, crossed the church, full of shadows and solitude, and all reverberating with uproar, which formed a frightful contrast, and emerged into the courtyard of the cloister by the red door. The cloister was deserted; the canons had fled to the bishop’s palace in order to pray together; the courtyard was empty, a few frightened lackeys were crouching in dark corners. They directed their steps towards the door which opened from this court upon the Terrain. The man in black opened it with a key which he had about him. Our readers are aware that the Terrain was a tongue of land enclosed by walls on the side of the City and belonging to the chapter of Notre-Dame, which terminated the island on the east, behind the church. They found this enclosure perfectly deserted. There was here less tumult in the air. The roar of the outcasts’ assault reached them more confusedly and less clamorously. The fresh breeze which follows the current of a stream, rustled the leaves of the only tree planted on the point of the Terrain, with a noise that was already perceptible. But they were still very close to danger. The nearest edifices to them were the bishop’s palace and the church. It was plainly evident that there was great internal commotion in the bishop’s palace. Its shadowy mass was all furrowed with lights which flitted from window to window; as, when one has just burned paper, there remains a sombre edifice of ashes in which bright sparks run a thousand eccentric courses. Beside them, the enormous towers of Notre-Dame, thus viewed from behind, with the long nave above which they rise cut out in black against the red and vast light which filled the Parvis, resembled two gigantic andirons of some cyclopean fire-grate.
What was to be seen of Paris on all sides wavered before the eye in a gloom mingled with light. Rembrandt has such backgrounds to his pictures.
The man with the lantern walked straight to the point of the Terrain. There, at the very brink of the water, stood the wormeaten remains of a fence of posts latticed with laths, whereon a low vine spread out a few thin branches like the fingers of an outspread hand. Behind, in the shadow cast by this trellis, a little boat lay concealed. The man made a sign to Gringoire and his companion to enter. The goat followed them. The man was the last to step in. Then he cut the boat’s moorings, pushed it from the shore with a long boat-hook, and, seizing two oars, seated himself in the bow, rowing with all his might towards midstream. The Seine is very rapid at this point, and he had a good deal of trouble in leaving the point of the island.
Gringoire’s first care on entering the boat was to place the goat on his knees. He took a position in the stern; and the young girl, whom the stranger inspired with an indefinable uneasiness, seated herself close to the poet.
When our philosopher felt the boat sway, he clapped his hands and kissed Djali between the horns.
“Oh!” said he, “now we are safe, all four of us.”
He added with the air of a profound thinker, “One is indebted sometimes to fortune, sometimes to ruse, for the happy issue of great enterprises.”
The boat made its way slowly towards the right shore. The young girl watched the unknown man with secret terror. He had carefully turned off the light of his dark lantern. A glimpse could be caught of him in the obscurity, in the bow of the boat, like a spectre. His cowl, which was still lowered, formed a sort of mask; and every time that he spread his arms, upon which hung large black sleeves, as he rowed, one would have said they were two huge bat’s wings. Moreover, he had not yet uttered a word or breathed a syllable. No other noise was heard in the boat than the splashing of the oars, mingled with the rippling of the water along her sides.
“On my soul!” exclaimed Gringoire suddenly, “we are as cheerful and joyous as young owls! We preserve the silence of Pythagoreans or fishes! Pasque-Dieu! my friends, I should greatly like to have some one speak to me. The human voice is music to the human ear. ’Tis not I who say that, but Didymus of Alexandria, and they are illustrious words. Assuredly, Didymus of Alexandria is no mediocre philosopher.— One word, my lovely child! say but one word to me, I entreat you. By the way, you had a droll and peculiar little pout; do you still make it? Do you know, my dear, that parliament hath full jurisdiction over all places of asylum, and that you were running a great risk in your little chamber at Notre-Dame? Alas! the little bird trochylus maketh its nest in the jaws of the crocodile.— Master, here is the moon re-appearing. If only they do not perceive us. We are doing a laudable thing in saving mademoiselle, and yet we should be hung by order of the king if we were caught. Alas! human actions are taken by two handles. That is branded with disgrace in one which is crowned in another. He admires Cicero who blames Catiline. Is it not so, master? What say you to this philosophy? I possess philosophy by instinct, by nature, ut apes geometriam.— Come! no one answers me. What unpleasant moods you two are in! I must do all the talking alone. That is what we call a monologue in tragedy.—Pasque-Dieu! I must inform you that I have just seen the king, Louis XI., and that I have caught this oath from him,—Pasque-Dieu! They are still making a hearty howl in the city.— ’Tis a villanous, malicious old king. He is all swathed in furs. He still owes me the money for my epithalamium, and he came within a nick of hanging me this evening, which would have been very inconvenient to me.— He is niggardly towards men of merit. He ought to read the four books of Salvien of Cologne, Adversits Avaritiam. In truth! ’Tis a paltry king in his ways with men of letters, and one who commits very barbarous cruelties. He is a sponge, to soak money raised from the people. His saving is like the spleen which swelleth with the leanness of all the other members. Hence complaints against the hardness of the times become murmurs against the prince. Under this gentle and pious sire, the gallows crack with the hung, the blocks rot with blood, the prisons burst like over full bellies. This king hath one hand which grasps, and one which hangs. He is the procurator of Dame Tax and Monsieur Gibbet. The great are despoiled of their dignities, and the little incessantly overwhelmed with fresh oppressions. He is an exorbitant prince. I love not this monarch. And you, master?”
The man in black let the garrulous poet chatter on. He continued to struggle against the violent and narrow current, which separates the prow of the City and the stem of the island of Notre-Dame, which we call to-day the Isle St. Louis.
“By the way, master!” continued Gringoire suddenly. “At the moment when we arrived on the Parvis, through the enraged outcasts, did your reverence observe that poor little devil whose skull your deaf man was just cracking on the railing of the gallery of the kings? I am near sighted and I could not recognize him. Do you know who he could be?”
The stranger answered not a word. But he suddenly ceased rowing, his arms fell as though broken, his head sank on his breast, and la Esmeralda heard him sigh convulsively. She shuddered. She had heard such sighs before.
The boat, abandoned to itself, floated for several minutes with the stream. But the man in black finally recovered himself, seized the oars once more and began to row against the current. He doubled the point of the Isle of Notre Dame, and made for the landing-place of the Port an Foin.
“Ah!” said Gringoire, “yonder is the Barbeau mansion.— Stay, master, look: that group of black roofs which make such singular angles yonder, above that heap of black, fibrous grimy, dirty clouds, where the moon is completely crushed and spread out like the yolk of an egg whose shell is broken.— ’Tis a fine mansion. There is a chapel crowned with a small vault full of very well carved enrichments. Above, you can see the bell tower, very delicately pierced. There is also a pleasant garden, which consists of a pond, an aviary, an echo, a mall, a labyrinth, a house for wild beasts, and a quantity of leafy alleys very agreeable to Venus. There is also a rascal of a tree which is called ‘the lewd,’ because it favored the pleasures of a famous princess and a constable of France, who was a gallant and a wit.— Alas! we poor philosophers are to a constable as a plot of cabbages or a radish bed to the garden of the Louvre. What matters it, after all? human life, for the great as well as for us, is a mixture of good and evil. Pain is always by the side of joy, the spondee by the dactyl.— Master, I must relate to you the history of the Barbeau mansion. It ends in tragic fashion. It was in 1319, in the reign of Philippe V., the longest reign of the kings of France. The moral of the story is that the temptations of the flesh are pernicious and malignant. Let us not rest our glance too long on our neighbor’s wife, however gratified our senses may be by her beauty. Fornication is a very libertine thought. Adultery is a prying into the pleasures of others— Ohé! the noise yonder is redoubling!”
The tumult around Notre-Dame was, in fact, increasing. They listened. Cries of victory were heard with tolerable distinctness. All at once, a hundred torches, the light of which glittered upon the helmets of men at arms, spread over the church at all heights, on the towers, on the galleries, on the flying buttresses. These torches seemed to be in search of something; and soon distant clamors reached the fugitives distinctly :— “The gypsy! the sorceress! death to the gypsy!”
The unhappy girl dropped her head upon her hands, and the unknown began to row furiously towards the shore. Meanwhile our philosopher reflected. He clasped the goat in his arms, and gently drew away from the gypsy, who pressed closer and closer to him, as though to the only asylum which remained to her.
It is certain that Gringoire was enduring cruel perplexity. He was thinking that the goat also, “according to existing law,” would be hung if recaptured; which would be a great pity, poor Djali! that he had thus two condemned creatures attached to him; that his companion asked no better than to take charge of the gypsy. A violent combat began between his thoughts, in which, like the Jupiter of the Iliad, he weighed in turn the gypsy and the goat; and he looked at them alternately with eyes moist with tears, saying between his teeth:
“But I cannot save you both!”
A shock informed them that the boat had reached the land at last. The uproar still filled the city. The unknown rose, approached the gypsy, and endeavored to take her arm to assist her to alight. She repulsed him and clung to the sleeve of Gringoire, who, in his turn, absorbed in the goat, almost repulsed her. Then she sprang alone from the boat. She was so troubled that she did not know what she did or whither she was going. Thus she remained for a moment, stunned, watching the water flow past; when she gradually returned to her senses, she found herself alone on the wharf with the unknown. It appears that Gringoire had taken advantage of the moment of debarcation to slip away with the goat into the block of houses of the Rue Grenier-sur-l’Eau.
The poor gypsy shivered when she beheld herself alone with this man. She tried to speak, to cry out, to call Gringoire; her tongue was dumb in her mouth, and no sound left her lips. All at once she felt the stranger’s hand on hers. It was a strong, cold hand. Her teeth chattered, she turned paler than the ray of moonlight which illuminated her. The man spoke not a word. He began to ascend towards the Place de Grève, holding her by the hand.
At that moment, she had a vague feeling that destiny is an irresistible force. She had no more resistance left in her, she allowed herself to be dragged along, running while he walked. At this spot the quay ascended. But it seemed to her as though she were descending a slope.
She gazed about her on all sides. Not a single passer-by. The quay was absolutely deserted. She heard no sound, she felt no people moving save in the tumultuous and glowing city, from which she was separated only by an arm of the Seine, and whence her name reached her, mingled with cries of “Death!” The rest of Paris was spread around her in great blocks of shadows.
Meanwhile, the stranger continued to drag her along with the same silence and the same rapidity. She had no recollection of any of the places where she was walking. As she passed before a lighted window, she made an effort, drew up suddenly, and cried out, “Help!”
The bourgeois who was standing at the window opened it, appeared there in his shirt with his lamp, stared at the quay with a stupid air, uttered some words which she did not understand, and closed his shutter again. It was her last gleam of hope extinguished.
The man in black did not utter a syllable; he held her firmly, and set out again at a quicker pace. She no longer resisted, but followed him, completely broken.
From time to time she called together a little strength, and said, in a voice broken by the unevenness of the pavement and the breathlessness of their flight, “Who are you? Who are you?” He made no reply.
They arrived thus, still keeping along the quay, at a tolerably spacious square. It was the Grève. In the middle, a sort of black, erect cross was visible; it was the gallows. She recognized all this, and saw where she was.
The man halted, turned towards her and raised his cowl.
“Oh!” she stammered, almost petrified, “I knew well that it was he again!”
It was the priest. He looked like the ghost of himself; that is an effect of the moonlight, it seems as though one beheld only the spectres of things in that light.
“Listen!” he said to her; and she shuddered at the sound of that fatal voice which she had not heard for a long time. He continued speaking with those brief and panting jerks, which betoken deep internal convulsions. “Listen! we are here. I am going to speak to you. This is the Grève. This is an extreme point. Destiny gives us to one another. I am going to decide as to your life; you will decide as to my soul. Here is a place, here is a night beyond which one sees nothing. Then listen to me. I am going to tell you… In the first place, speak not to me of your Phoebus. (As he spoke thus he paced to and fro, like a man who cannot remain in one place, and dragged her after him.) Do not speak to me of him. Do you see? If you utter that name, I know not what I shall do, but it will be terrible.”
Then, like a body which recovers its centre of gravity, he became motionless once more, but his words betrayed no less agitation. His voice grew lower and lower.
“Do not turn your head aside thus. Listen to me. It is a serious matter. In the first place, here is what has happened.— All this will not be laughed at. I swear it to you.— What was I saying? Remind me! Oh!— There is a decree of Parliament which gives you back to the scaffold. I have just rescued you from their hands. But they are pursuing you. Look!”
He extended his arm toward the City. The search seemed, in fact, to be still in progress there. The uproar drew nearer; the tower of the lieutenant’s house, situated opposite the Grève, was full of clamors and light, and soldiers could be seen running on the opposite quay with torches and these cries, “The gypsy! Where is the gypsy! Death! Death!”
“You see that they are in pursuit of you, and that I am not lying to you. I love you.— Do not open your mouth; refrain from speaking to me rather, if it be only to tell me that you hate me. I have made up my mind not to hear that again.— I have just saved you.— Let me finish first. I can save you wholly. I have prepared everything. It is yours at will. If you wish, I can do it.”
He broke off violently. “No, that is not what I should say!”
As he went with hurried step and made her hurry also, for he did not release her, he walked straight to the gallows, and pointed to it with his finger,—
“Choose between us two,” he said, coldly.
She tore herself from his hands and fell at the foot of the gibbet, embracing that funereal support, then she half turned her beautiful head, and looked at the priest over her shoulder. One would have said that she was a Holy Virgin at the foot of the cross. The priest remained motionless, his finger still raised toward the gibbet, preserving his attitude like a statue. At length the gypsy said to him,—
“It causes me less horror than you do.”
Then he allowed his arm to sink slowly, and gazed at the pavement in profound dejection.
“If these stones could speak,” he murmured, “yes, they would say that a very unhappy man stands here.
He went on. The young girl, kneeling before the gallows, enveloped in her long flowing hair, let him speak on without interruption. He now had a gentle and plaintive accent which contrasted sadly with the haughty harshness of his features.
“I love you. Oh! how true that is! So nothing comes of that fire which burns my heart! Alas! young girl, night and day— yes, night and day I tell you,— it is torture. Oh! I suffer too much, my poor child. ’Tis a thing deserving of compassion, I assure you. You see that I speak gently to you. I really wish that you should no longer cherish this horror of me.— After all, if a man loves a woman, ’tis not his fault!— Oh, my God!— What! So you will never pardon me? You will always hate me? All is over then. It is that which renders me evil, do you see? and horrible to myself.— You will not even look at me! You are thinking of something else, perchance, while I stand here and talk to you, shuddering on the brink of eternity for both of us! Above all things, do not speak to me of the officer!— I would cast myself at your knees, I would kiss not your feet, but the earth which is under your feet; I would sob like a child, I would tear from my breast not words, but my very heart and vitals, to tell you that I love you;— all would be useless, all!— And yet you have nothing in your heart but what is tender and merciful. You are radiant with the most beautiful mildness; you are wholly sweet, good, pitiful, and charming. Alas! You cherish no ill will for any one but me alone! Oh! what a fatality!”
He hid his face in his hands. The young girl heard him weeping. It was for the first time. Thus erect and shaken by sobs, he was more miserable and more suppliant than when on his knees. He wept thus for a considerable time.
“Come!” he said, these first tears passed, “I have no more words. I had, however, thought well as to what you would say. Now I tremble and shiver and break down at the decisive moment, I feel conscious of something supreme enveloping us, and I stammer. Oh! I shall fall upon the pavement if you do not take pity on me, pity on yourself. Do not condemn us both. If you only knew how much I love you! What a heart is mine! Oh! what desertion of all virtue! What desperate abandonment of myself! A doctor, I mock at science; a gentleman, I tarnish my own name; a priest, I make of the missal a pillow of sensuality, I spit in the face of my God! all this for thee, enchantress! to be more worthy of thy hell! And you will not have the apostate! Oh! let me tell you all! more still, something more horrible, oh! Yet more horrible!… .”
As he uttered these last words, his air became utterly distracted. He was silent for a moment, and resumed, as though speaking to himself, and in a strong voice,—
“Cain, what hast thou done with thy brother?”
There was another silence, and he went on—
“What have I done with him, Lord? I received him, I reared him, I nourished him, I loved him, I idolized him, and I have slain him! Yes, Lord, they have just dashed his head before my eyes on the stone of thine house, and it is because of me, because of this woman, because of her.”
His eye was wild. His voice grew ever weaker; he repeated many times, yet, mechanically, at tolerably long intervals, like a bell prolonging its last vibration: “Because of her.— Because of her.”
Then his tongue no longer articulated any perceptible sound; but his lips still moved. All at once he sank together, like something crumbling, and lay motionless on the earth, with his head on his knees.
A touch from the young girl, as she drew her foot from under him, brought him to himself. He passed his hand slowly over his hollow cheeks, and gazed for several moments at his fingers, which were wet, “What!” he murmured, “I have wept!”
And turning suddenly to the gypsy with unspeakable anguish,—
“Alas! you have looked coldly on at my tears! Child, do you know that those tears are of lava? Is it indeed true? Nothing touches when it comes from the man whom one does not love. If you were to see me die, you would laugh. Oh! I do not wish to see you die! One word! A single word of pardon! Say not that you love me, say only that you will do it; that will suffice; I will save you. If not— oh! the hour is passing. I entreat you by all that is sacred, do not wait until I shall have turned to stone again, like that gibbet which also claims you! Reflect that I hold the destinies of both of us in my hand, that I am mad,— it is terrible,— that I may let all go to destruction, and that there is beneath us a bottomless abyss, unhappy girl, whither my fall will follow yours to all eternity! One word of kindness! Say one word! only one word!”
She opened her mouth to answer him. He flung himself on his knees to receive with adoration the word, possibly a tender one, which was on the point of issuing from her lips. She said to him, “You are an assassin!”
The priest clasped her in his arms with fury, and began to laugh with an abominable laugh.
“Well, yes, an assassin!” he said, “and I will have you. You will not have me for your slave, you shall have me for your master. I will have you! I have a den, whither I will drag you. You will follow me, you will be obliged to follow me, or I will deliver you up! You must die, my beauty, or be mine! belong to the priest! belong to the apostate! belong to the assassin! this very night, do you hear? Come! joy; kiss me, mad girl! The tomb or my bed!”
His eyes sparkled with impurity and rage. His lewd lips reddened the young girl’s neck. She struggled in his arms. He covered her with furious kisses.
“Do not bite me, monster!” she cried. “Oh! the foul, odious monk! leave me! I will tear out thy ugly gray hair and fling it in thy face by the handful!”
He reddened, turned pale, then released her and gazed at her with a gloomy air. She thought herself victorious, and continued,—
“I tell you that I belong to my Phoebus, that ’tis Phoebus
whom I love, that ’tis Phoebus who is handsome! you are old, priest! you are ugly! Begone!”
He gave vent to a horrible cry, like the wretch to whom a hot iron is applied. “Die, then!” he said, gnashing his teeth. She saw his terrible look and tried to fly. He caught her once more, he shook her, he flung her on the ground, and walked with rapid strides towards the corner of the Tour-Roland, dragging her after him along the pavement by her beautiful hands.
On arriving there, he turned to her,—
“For the last time, will you be mine?”
She replied with emphasis,—
Then he cried in a loud voice,—
“Gudule! Gudule! here is the gypsy! take your vengeance!”
The young girl felt herself seized suddenly by the elbow. She looked. A fleshless arm was stretched from an opening in the wall, and held her like a hand of iron.
“Hold her well,” said the priest; “’tis the gypsy escaped. Release her not. I will go in search of the sergeants. You shall see her hanged.”
A guttural laugh replied from the interior of the wall to these bloody words— “Hah! hah! hah!”— The gypsy watched the priest retire in the direction of the Pont Notre-Dame. A cavalcade was heard in that direction.
The young girl had recognized the spiteful recluse. Panting with terror, she tried to disengage herself. She writhed, she made many starts of agony and despair, but the other held her with incredible strength. The lean and bony fingers which bruised her, clenched on her flesh and met around it. One would have said that this hand was riveted to her arm. It was more than a chain, more than a fetter, more than a ring of iron, it was a living pair of pincers endowed with intelligence, which emerged from the wall.
She fell back against the wall exhausted, and then the fear of death took possession of her. She thought of the beauty of life, of youth, of the view of heaven, the aspects of nature, of her love for Phoebus, of all that was vanishing and all that was approaching, of the priest who was denouncing her, of the headsman who was to come, of the gallows which was there. Then she felt terror mount to the very roots of her hair and she heard the mocking laugh of the recluse, saying to her in a very low tone: “Hah! hah! hah! you are going to be hanged!”
She turned a dying look towards the window, and she beheld the fierce face of the sacked nun through the bars.
“What have I done to you?” she said, almost lifeless.
The recluse did not reply, but began to mumble with a singsong irritated, mocking intonation: “Daughter of Egypt! daughter of Egypt! daughter of Egypt!”
The unhappy Esmeralda dropped her head beneath her flowing hair, comprehending that it was no human being she had to deal with.
All at once the recluse exclaimed, as though the gypsy’s question had taken all this time to reach her brain,— “’What have you done to me?’ you say! Ah! what have you done to me, gypsy! Well! listen.— I had a child! you see! I had a child! a child, I tell you!— a pretty little girl!— my Agnes!” she went on wildly, kissing something in the dark.— “Well! do you see, daughter of Egypt? they took my child from me; they stole my child; they ate my child. That is what you have done to me.”
The young girl replied like a lamb,—
“Alas! perchance I was not born then!”
“Oh! yes!” returned the recluse, “you must have been born. You were among them. She would be the same age as you! so!— I have been here fifteen years; fifteen years have I suffered; fifteen years have I prayed; fifteen years have I beat my head against these four walls— I tell you that ’twas the gypsies who stole her from me, do you hear that? and who ate her with their teeth.— Have you a heart? imagine a child playing, a child sucking; a child sleeping. It is so innocent a thing!— Well! that, that is what they took from me, what they killed. The good God knows it well! To-day, it is my turn; I am going to eat the gypsy.— Oh! I would bite you well, if the bars did not prevent me! My head is too large!— Poor little one! while she was asleep! And if they woke her up when they took her, in vain she might cry; I was not there!— Ah! gypsy mothers, you devoured my child! come see your own.”
Then she began to laugh or to gnash her teeth, for the two things resembled each other in that furious face. The day was beginning to dawn. An ashy gleam dimly lighted this scene, and the gallows grew more and more distinct in the square. On the other side, in the direction of the bridge of Notre-Dame, the poor condemned girl fancied that she heard the sound of cavalry approaching.
“Madam,” she cried, clasping her hands and falling on her knees, dishevelled, distracted, mad with fright; “madam! have pity! They are coming. I have done nothing to you. Would you wish to see me die in this horrible fashion before your very eyes? You are pitiful, I am sure. It is too frightful. Let me make my escape. Release me! Mercy. I do not wish to die like that!”
“Give me back my child!” said the recluse.
“Give me back my child!”
“Release me, in the name of heaven!”
“Give me back my child!”
Again the young girl fell; exhausted, broken, and having already the glassy eye of a person in the grave.
“Alas!” she faltered, “you seek your child, I seek my parents.”
“Give me back my little Agnes!” pursued Gudule. “You do not know where she is? Then die!— I will tell you. I was a woman of the town, I had a child, they took my child. It was the gypsies. You see plainly that you must die. When your mother, the gypsy, comes to reclaim you, I shall say to her: ’Mother, look at that gibbet!— Or, give me back my child. Do you know where she is, my little daughter? Stay! I will show you. Here is her shoe, all that is left me of her. Do you know where its mate is? If you know, tell me, and if it is only at the other end of the world, I will crawl to it on my knees.”
As she spoke thus, with her other arm extended through the window, she showed the gypsy the little embroidered shoe. It was already light enough to distinguish its shape and its colors.
“Let me see that shoe,” said the gypsy, quivering. “God! God!”
And at the same time, with her hand which was at liberty, she quickly opened the little bag ornamented with green glass, which she wore about her neck.
“Go on, go on!” grumbled Gudule, “search your demon’s amulet!”
All at once, she stopped short, trembled in every limb, and cried in a voice which proceeded from the very depths of her being: “My daughter!”
The gypsy had just drawn from the bag a little shoe absolutely similar to the other. To this little shoe was attached a parchment on which was inscribed this charm,—
Quand lé parell retrouveras Ta mere te tendras les bras.
Quicker than a flash of lightning, the recluse had laid the two shoes together, had read the parchment and had put close to the bars of the window her face beaming with celestial joy as she cried,—
“My daughter! my daughter!”
“My mother!” said the gypsy.
Here we are unequal to the task of depicting the scene. The wall and the iron bars were between them. “Oh! the wall!” cried the recluse. “Oh! to see her and not to embrace her! Your hand! your hand!”
The young girl passed her arm through the opening; the recluse threw herself on that hand, pressed her lips to it and there remained, buried in that kiss, giving no other sign of life than a sob which heaved her breast from time to time. In the meanwhile, she wept in torrents, in silence, in the dark, like a rain at night. The poor mother poured out in floods upon that adored hand the dark and deep well of tears, which lay within her, and into which her grief had filtered, drop by drop, for fifteen years.
All at once she rose, flung aside her long gray hair from her brow, and without uttering a word, began to shake the bars of her cage cell, with both hands, more furiously than a lioness. The bars held firm. Then she went to seek in the corner of her cell a huge paving stone, which served her as a pillow, and launched it against them with such violence that one of the bars broke, emitting thousands of sparks. A second blow completely shattered the old iron cross which barricaded the window. Then with her two hands, she finished breaking and removing the rusted stumps of the bars. There are moments when woman’s hands possess superhuman strength.
A passage broken, less than a minute was required for her to seize her daughter by the middle of her body, and draw her into her cell. “Come let me draw you out of the abyss,” she murmured.
When her daughter was inside the cell, she laid her gently on the ground, then raised her up again, and bearing her in her arms as though she were still only her little Agnes, she walked to and fro in her little room, intoxicated, frantic, joyous, crying out, singing, kissing her daughter, talking to her, bursting into laughter, melting into tears, all at once and with vehemence.
“My daughter! my daughter!” she said. “I have my daughter! here she is! The good God has given her back to me! Ha you! come all of you! Is there any one there to see that I have my daughter? Lord Jesus, how beautiful she is! You have made me wait fifteen years, my good God, but it was in order to give her back to me beautiful.— Then the gypsies did not eat her! Who said so? My little daughter! my little daughter! Kiss me. Those good gypsies! I love the gypsies!— It is really you! That was what made my heart leap every time that you passed by. And I took that for hatred! Forgive me, my Agnes, forgive me. You thought me very malicious, did you not? I love you. Have you still the little mark on your neck? Let us see. She still has it. Oh! you are beautiful! It was I who gave you those big eyes, mademoiselle. Kiss me. I love you. It is nothing to me that other mothers have children; I scorn them now. They have only to come and see. Here is mine. See her neck, her eyes, her hair, her hands. Find me anything as beautiful as that! Oh! I promise you she will have lovers, that she will! I have wept for fifteen years. All my beauty has departed and has fallen to her. Kiss me.”
She addressed to her a thousand other extravagant remarks, whose accent constituted their sole beauty, disarranged the poor girl’s garments even to the point of making her blush, smoothed her silky hair with her hand, kissed her foot, her knee, her brow, her eyes, was in raptures over everything. The young girl let her have her way, repeating at intervals and very low and with infinite tenderness, “My mother!”
“Do you see, my little girl,” resumed the recluse, interspersing her words with kisses, “I shall love you dearly? We will go away from here. We are going to be very happy. I have inherited something in Reims, in our country. You know Reims? Ah! no, you do not know it; you were too small! If you only knew how pretty you were at the age of four months! Tiny feet that people came even from Epernay, which is seven leagues away, to see! We shall have a field, a house. I will put you to sleep in my bed. My God! my God! who would believe this? I have my daughter!”
“Oh, my mother!” said the young girl, at length finding strength to speak in her emotion, “the gypsy woman told me so. There was a good gypsy of our band who died last year, and who always cared for me like a nurse. It was she who placed this little bag about my neck. She always said to me: ’Little one, guard this jewel well! ’Tis a treasure. It will cause thee to find thy mother once again. Thou wearest thy mother about thy neck.’— The gypsy predicted it!”
The sacked nun again pressed her daughter in her arms.
“Come, let me kiss you! You say that prettily. When we are in the country, we will place these little shoes on an infant Jesus in the church. We certainly owe that to the good, holy Virgin. What a pretty voice you have! When you spoke to me just now, it was music! Ah! my Lord God! I have found my child again! But is this story credible? Nothing will kill one— or I should have died of joy.”
And then she began to clap her hands again and to laugh and to cry out: “We are going to be so happy!”
At that moment, the cell resounded with the clang of arms and a galloping of horses which seemed to be coming from the Pont Notre-Dame, amid advancing farther and farther along the quay. The gypsy threw herself with anguish into the arms of the sacked nun.
“Save me! save me! mother! they are coming!”
“Oh, heaven! what are you saying? I had forgotten! They are in pursuit of you! What have you done?”
“I know not,” replied the unhappy child; “but I am condemned to die.”
“To die!” said Gudule, staggering as though struck by lightning; “to die!” she repeated slowly, gazing at her daughter with staring eyes.
“Yes, mother,” replied the frightened young girl, “they want to kill me. They are coming to seize me. That gallows is for me! Save me! save me! They are coming! Save me!”
The recluse remained for several moments motionless and petrified, then she moved her head in sign of doubt, and suddenly giving vent to a burst of laughter, but with that terrible laugh which had come back to her,—
“Ho! ho! no! ’tis a dream of which you are telling me. Ah, yes! I lost her, that lasted fifteen years, and then I found her again, and that lasted a minute! And they would take her from me again! And now, when she is beautiful, when she is grown up, when she speaks to me, when she loves me; it is now that they would come to devour her, before my very eyes, and I her mother! Oh! no! these things are not possible. The good God does not permit such things as that.”
Here the cavalcade appeared to halt, and a voice was heard to say in the distance,—
“This way, Messire Tristan! The priest says that we shall find her at the Rat-Hole.” The noise of the horses began again.
The recluse sprang to her feet with a shriek of despair. “Fly! fly! my child! All comes back to me. You are right. It is your death! Horror! Maledictions! Fly!”
She thrust her head through the window, and withdrew it again hastily.
“Remain,” she said, in a low, curt, and lugubrious tone, as she pressed the hand of the gypsy, who was more dead than alive. “Remain! Do not breathe! There are soldiers everywhere. You cannot get out. It is too light.”
Her eyes were dry and burning. She remained silent for a moment; but she paced the cell hurriedly, and halted now and then to pluck out handfuls of her gray hairs, which she afterwards tore with her teeth.
Suddenly she said: “They draw near. I will speak with them. Hide yourself in this corner. They will not see you. I will tell them that you have made your escape. That I released you, i’ faith!”
She set her daughter (down for she was still carrying her), in one corner of the cell which was not visible from without. She made her crouch down, arranged her carefully so that neither foot nor hand projected from the shadow, untied her black hair which she spread over her white robe to conceal it, placed in front of her her jug and her paving stone, the only articles of furniture which she possessed, imagining that this jug and stone would hide her. And when this was finished she became more tranquil, and knelt down to pray. The day, which was only dawning, still left many shadows in the Rat-Hole.
At that moment, the voice of the priest, that infernal voice, passed very close to the cell, crying,—
“This way, Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers.”
At that name, at that voice, la Esmeralda, crouching in her corner, made a movement.
“Do not stir!” said Gudule.
She had barely finished when a tumult of men, swords, and horses halted around the cell. The mother rose quickly and went to post herself before her window, in order to stop it up. She beheld a large troop of armed men, both horse and foot, drawn up on the Grève.
The commander dismounted, and came toward her.
“Old woman!” said this man, who had an atrocious face, “we are in search of a witch to hang her; we were told that you had her.”
The poor mother assumed as indifferent an air as she could, and replied,—
“I know not what you mean.”
The other resumed, “Tête Dieu! What was it that frightened archdeacon said? Where is he?”
“Monseigneur,” said a soldier, “he has disappeared.”
“Come, now, old madwoman,” began the commander again, “do not lie. A sorceress was given in charge to you. What have you done with her?”
The recluse did not wish to deny all, for fear of awakening suspicion, and replied in a sincere and surly tone,—
“If you are speaking of a big young girl who was put into my hands a while ago, I will tell you that she bit me, and that I released her. There! Leave me in peace.”
The commander made a grimace of disappointment. “Don’t lie to me, old spectre!” said he. “My name is Tristan l’Hermite, and I am the king’s gossip. Tristan the Hermit, do you hear?” He added, as he glanced at the Place de Grève around him, “’Tis a name which has an echo here.”
“You might be Satan the Hermit,” replied Gudule, who was regaining hope, “but I should have nothing else to say to you, and I should never be afraid of you.”
“Tête-Dieu,” said Tristan, “here is a crone! Ah! So the witch girl hath fled! And in which direction did she go?” Gudule replied in a careless tone,—
“Through the Rue du Mouton, I believe.”
Tristan turned his head and made a sign to his troop to prepare to set out on the march again. The recluse breathed freely once more.
“Monseigneur,” suddenly said an archer, “ask the old elf why the bars of her window are broken in this manner.”
This question brought anguish again to the heart of the miserable mother. Nevertheless, she did not lose all presence of mind.
They have always been thus,” she stammered.
“Bah!” retorted the archer, “only yesterday they still formed a fine black cross, which inspired devotion.”
Tristan east a sidelong glance at the recluse.
“I think the old dame is getting confused!”
The unfortunate woman felt that all depended on her self-possession, and, although with death in her soul, she began to grin. Mothers possess such strength.
“Bah!” said she, “the man is drunk. ’Tis more than a year since the tail of a stone cart dashed against my window and broke in the grating. And how I cursed the carter, too.”
“’Tis true,” said another archer, “I was there.”
Always and everywhere people are to be found who have seen everything. This unexpected testimony from the archer re-encouraged the recluse, whom this interrogatory was forcing to cross an abyss on the edge of a knife. But she was condemned to a perpetual alternative of hope and alarm.
“If it was a cart which did it,” retorted the first soldier, “the stumps of the bars should be thrust inwards, while they actually are pushed outwards.”
“Ho! ho!” said Tristan to the soldier, “you have the nose of an inquisitor of the Châtelet. Reply to what he says, old woman.”
“Good heavens!” she exclaimed, driven to bay, and in a voice that was full of tears in despite of her efforts, “I swear to you, monseigneur, that ’twas a cart which broke those bars. You hear the man who saw it. And then, what has that to do with your gypsy?”
“Hum!” growled Tristan.
“The devil!” went on the soldier, flattered by the provost’s praise, “these fractures of the iron are perfectly fresh.”
Tristan tossed his head. She turned pale.
“How long ago, say you, did the cart do it?”
“A month, a fortnight, perhaps, monseigheur, I know not.”
“She first said more than a year,” observed the soldier.
“That is suspicious,” said the provost.
“Monseigneur!” she cried, still pressed against the opening, and trembling lest suspicion should lead them to thrust their heads through and look into her cell; “monseigneur, I swear to you that ’twas a cart which broke this grating. I swear it to you by the angels of paradise. If it was not a cart, may I be eternally damned, and I reject God!”
“You put a great deal of heat into that oath;” said Tristan, with his inquisitorial glance.
The poor woman felt her assurance vanishing more and more. She had reached the point of blundering, and she comprehended with terror that she was saying what she ought not to have said.
Here another soldier came up, crying,—
“Monsieur, the old hag lies. The sorceress did not flee through the Rue de Mouton. The street chain has remained stretched all night, and the chain guard has seen no one pass.”
Tristan, whose face became more sinister with every moment, addressed the recluse,—
“What have you to say to that?”
She tried to make head against this new incident,
“That I do not know, monseigneur; that I may have been mistaken. I believe, in fact, that she crossed the water.”
“That is in the opposite direction,” said the provost, “and it is not very likely that she would wish to re-enter the city, where she was being pursued. You are lying, old woman.”
“And then,” added the first soldier, “there is no boat either on this side of the stream or on the other.”
“She swam across,” replied the recluse, defending her ground foot by foot.
“Do women swim?” said the soldier.
“Tête Dieu! old woman! You are lying!” repeated Tristan angrily. “I have a good mind to abandon that sorceress and take you. A quarter of an hour of torture will, perchance, draw the truth from your throat. Come! You are to follow us.”
She seized on these words with avidity.
“As you please, monseigneur. Do it. Do it. Torture. I am willing. Take me away. Quick, quick! let us set out at once!— During that time,” she said to herself, “my daughter will make her escape.”
“’S death!” said the provost, “what an appetite for the rack! I understand not this madwoman at all.”
An old, gray-haired sergeant of the guard stepped out of the ranks, and addressing the provost,—
“Mad in sooth, monseigneur. If she released the gypsy, it was not her fault, for she loves not the gypsies. I have been of the watch these fifteen years, and I hear her every evening cursing the Bohemian women with endless imprecations. If the one of whom we are in pursuit is, as I suppose, the little dancer with the goat, she detests that one above all the rest.”
Gudule made an effort and said,—
“That one above all.”
The unanimous testimony of the men of the watch confirmed the old sergeant’s words to the provost. Tristan l’Hermite, in despair at extracting anything from the recluse, turned his back on her, and with unspeakable anxiety she beheld him direct his course slowly towards his horse.
“Come!” he said, between his teeth, “March on! let us set out again on the quest. I shall not sleep until that gypsy is hanged.”
But he still hesitated for some time before mounting his horse. Gudule palpitated between life and death, as she beheld him cast about the Place that uneasy look of a hunting dog which instinctively feels that the lair of the beast is close to him, and is loath to go away. At length he shook his head and leaped into his saddle. Gudule’s horribly compressed heart now dilated, and she said in a low voice, as she cast a glance at her daughter, whom she had not ventured to look at while they were there, “Saved!”
The poor child had remained all this time in her corner, without breathing, without moving, with the idea of death before her. She had lost nothing of the scene between Gudule and Tristan, and the anguish of her mother had found its echo in her heart. She had heard all the successive snappings of the thread by which she hung suspended over the gulf; twenty times she had fancied that she saw it break, and at last she began to breathe again and to feel her foot on firm ground. At that moment she heard a voice saying to the provost: “Corboeuf! Monsieur lé Prevôt, ’tis no affair of mine, a man of arms, to hang witches. The rabble of the populace is suppressed. I leave you to attend to the matter alone. You will allow me to rejoin my company, who are waiting for their captain.”
The voice was that of Phoebus de Châteaupers; that which took place within her was ineffable. He was there, her friend, her protector, her support, her refuge, her Phoebus. She rose, and before her mother could prevent her, she had rushed to the window, crying,—
“Phoebus! aid me, my Phoebus!”
Phoebus was no longer there. He had just turned the corner of the Rue de la Coutellerie at a gallop. But Tristan had not yet taken his departure.
The recluse rushed upon her daughter with a roar of agony. She dragged her violently back, digging her nails into her neck. A tigress mother does not stand on trifles. But it was too late. Tristan had seen.
“Hé! hé!” he exclaimed with a laugh which laid bare all his teeth and made his face resemble the muzzle of a wolf, “two mice in the trap!”
“I suspected as much,” said the soldier.
Tristan clapped him on the shoulder,—
“You are a good cat! Come!” he added, “where is Henriet Cousin?”
A man who had neither the garments nor the air of a soldier, stepped from the ranks. He wore a costume half gray, half brown, flat hair, leather sleeves, and carried a bundle of ropes in his huge hand. This man always attended Tristan, who always attended Louis XI.
“Friend,” said Tristan l’Hermite, “I presume that this is the sorceress of whom we are in search. You will hang me this one. Have you your ladder?”
“There is one yonder, under the shed of the Pillar-House,” replied the man. “Is it on this justice that the thing is to be done?” he added, pointing to the stone gibbet.
“Ho, hé!” continued the man with a huge laugh, which was still more brutal than that of the provost, “we shall not have far to go.”
“Make haste!” said Tristan, “you shall laugh afterwards.”
In the meantime, the recluse had not uttered another word since Tristan had seen her daughter and all hope was lost. She had flung the poor gypsy, half dead, into the corner of the cellar, and had placed herself once more at the window with both hands resting on the angle of the sill like two claws. In this attitude she was seen to cast upon all those soldiers her glance which had become wild and frantic once more. At the moment when Rennet Cousin approached her cell, she showed him so savage a face that he shrank back.
“Monseigneur,” he said, returning to the provost, “which am I to take?”
“The young one.”
“So much the better, for the old one seemeth difficult.”
“Poor little dancer with the goat!” said the old sergeant of the watch.
Rennet Cousin approached the window again. The mother’s eyes made his own droop. He said with a good deal of timidity,—
She interrupted him in a very low but furious voice,—
“What do you ask?”
“It is not you,” he said, “it is the other.”
“The young one.”
She began to shake her head, crying,—
“There is no one! there is no one! there is no one!”
“Yes, there is!” retorted the hangman, “and you know it well. Let me take the young one. I have no wish to harm you.”
She said, with a strange sneer,—
“Ah! so you have no wish to harm me!”
“Let me have the other, madam; ’tis monsieur the provost who wills it.”
She repeated with a look of madness,—
“There is no one here.”
“I tell you that there is!” replied the executioner. “We have all seen that there are two of you.”
“Look then!” said the recluse, with a sneer. “Thrust your head through the window.”
The executioner observed the mother’s finger-nails and dared not.
“Make haste!” shouted Tristan, who had just ranged his troops in a circle round the Rat-Hole, and who sat on his horse beside the gallows.
Rennet returned once more to the provost in great embarrassment. He had flung his rope on the ground, and was twisting his hat between his hands with an awkward air.
“Monseigneur,” he asked, “where am I to enter?”
“By the door.”
“There is none.”
“By the window.”
“’Tis too small.”
“Make it larger,” said Tristan angrily. “Have you not pickaxes?”
The mother still looked on steadfastly from the depths of her cavern. She no longer hoped for anything, she no longer knew what she wished, except that she did not wish them to take her daughter.
Rennet Cousin went in search of the chest of tools for the night man, under the shed of the Pillar-House. He drew from it also the double ladder, which he immediately set up against the gallows. Five or six of the provost’s men armed themselves with picks and crowbars, and Tristan betook himself, in company with them, towards the window.
“Old woman,” said the provost, in a severe tone, “deliver up to us that girl quietly.”
She looked at him like one who does not understand.
“Tête Dieu!” continued Tristan, “why do you try to prevent this sorceress being hung as it pleases the king?”
The wretched woman began to laugh in her wild way.
“Why? She is my daughter.”
The tone in which she pronounced these words made even Henriet Cousin shudder.
“I am sorry for that,” said the provost, “but it is the king’s good pleasure.”
She cried, redoubling her terrible laugh,—
“What is your king to me? I tell you that she is my daughter!”
“Pierce the wall,” said Tristan.
In order to make a sufficiently wide opening, it sufficed to dislodge one course of stone below the window. When the mother heard the picks and crowbars mining her fortress, she uttered a terrible cry; then she began to stride about her cell with frightful swiftness, a wild beasts’ habit which her cage had imparted to her. She no longer said anything, but her eyes flamed. The soldiers were chilled to the very soul.
All at once she seized her paving stone, laughed, and hurled it with both fists upon the workmen. The stone, badly flung (for her hands trembled), touched no one, and fell short under the feet of Tristan’s horse. She gnashed her teeth.
In the meantime, although the sun had not yet risen, it was broad daylight; a beautiful rose color enlivened the ancient, decayed chimneys of the Pillar-House. It was the hour when the earliest windows of the great city open joyously on the roofs. Some workmen, a few fruit-sellers on their way to the markets on their asses, began to traverse the Grève; they halted for a moment before this group of soldiers clustered round the Rat-Hole, stared at it with an air of astonishment and passed on.
The recluse had gone and seated herself by her daughter, covering her with her body, in front of her, with staring eyes, listening to the poor child, who did not stir, but who kept murmuring in a low voice, these words only, “Phoebus! Phoebus!” In proportion as the work of the demolishers seemed to advance, the mother mechanically retreated, and pressed the young girl closer and closer to the wall. All at once, the recluse beheld the stone (for she was standing guard and never took her eyes from it), move, and she heard Tristan’s voice encouraging the workers. Then she aroused from the depression into which she had fallen during the last few moments, cried out, and as she spoke, her voice now rent the ear like a saw, then stammered as though all kind of malédictions were pressing to her lips to burst forth at once.
“Ho! ho! ho! Why this is terrible! You are ruffians! Are you really going to take my daughter? Oh! the cowards! Oh! the hangman lackeys! the wretched, blackguard assassins! Help! help! fire! Will they take my child from me like this? Who is it then who is called the good God?”
Then, addressing Tristan, foaming at the mouth, with wild eyes, all bristling and on all fours like a female panther,—
“Draw near and take my daughter! Do not you understand that this woman tells you that she is my daughter? Do you know what it is to have a child? Eh! lynx, have you never lain with your female? have you never had a cub? and if you have little ones, when they howl have you nothing in your vitals that moves?”
“Throw down the stone,” said Tristan; “it no longer holds.”
The crowbars raised the heavy course. It was, as we have said, the mother’s last bulwark.
She threw herself upon it, she tried to hold it back; she scratched the stone with her nails, but the massive block, set in movement by six men, escaped her and glided gently to the ground along the iron levers.
The mother, perceiving an entrance effected, fell down in front of the opening, barricading the breach with her body, beating the pavement with her head, and shrieking with a voice rendered so hoarse by fatigue that it was hardly audible,—
“Help! fire! fire!”
“Now take the wench,” said Tristan, still impassive.
The mother gazed at the soldiers in such formidable fashion that they were more inclined to retreat than to advance.
“Come, now,” repeated the provost. “Here you, Rennet Cousin!”
No one took a step.
The provost swore,—
“Tête de Christ! my men of war! afraid of a woman!”
“Monseigneur,” said Rennet, “do you call that a woman?”
“She has the mane of a lion,” said another.
“Come!” repeated the provost, “the gap is wide enough. Enter three abreast, as at the breach of Pontoise. Let us make an end of it, death of Mahom! I will make two pieces of the first man who draws back!”
Placed between the provost and the mother, both threatening, the soldiers hesitated for a moment, then took their resolution, and advanced towards the Rat-Hole.
When the recluse saw this, she rose abruptly on her knees, flung aside her hair from her face, then let her thin flayed hands fall by her side. Then great tears fell, one by one, from her eyes; they flowed down her cheeks through a furrow, like a torrent through a bed which it has hollowed for itself.
At the same time she began to speak, but in a voice so supplicating, so gentle, so submissive, so heartrending, that more than one old convict-warder around Tristan who must have devoured human flesh wiped his eyes.
“Messeigneurs! messieurs the sergeants, one word. There is one thing which I must say to you. She is my daughter, do you see? my dear little daughter whom I had lost! Listen. It is quite a history. Consider that I knew the sergeants very well. They were always good to me in the days when the little boys threw stones at me, because I led a life of pleasure. Do you see? You will leave me my child when you know! I was a poor woman of the town. It was the Bohemians who stole her from me. And I kept her shoe for fifteen years. Stay, here it is. That was the kind of foot which she had. At Reims! La Chantefleurie! Rue Folle-Peine! Perchance, you knew about that. It was I. In your youth, then, there was a merry time, when one passed good hours. You will take pity on me, will you not, gentlemen? The gypsies stole her from me; they hid her from me for fifteen years. I thought her dead. Fancy, my good friends, believed her to be dead. I have passed fifteen years here in this cellar, without a fire in winter. It is hard. The poor, dear little shoe! I have cried so much that the good God has heard me. This night he has given my daughter back to me. It is a miracle of the good God. She was not dead. You will not take her from me, I am sure. If it were myself, I would say nothing; but she, a child of sixteen! Leave her time to see the sun! What has she done to you? nothing at all. Nor have I. If you did but know that she is all I have, that I am old, that she is a blessing which the Holy Virgin has sent to me! And then, you are all so good! You did not know that she was my daughter; but now you do know it. Oh! I love her! Monsieur, the grand provost. I would prefer a stab in my own vitals to a scratch on her finger! You have the air of such a good lord! What I have told you explains the matter, does it not? Oh! if you have had a mother, monsiegneur! you are the captain, leave me my child! Consider that I pray you on my knees, as one prays to Jesus Christ! I ask nothing of any one; I am from Reims, gentlemen; I own a little field inherited from my uncle, Mahiet Pradon. I am no beggar. I wish nothing, but I do want my child! oh! I want to keep my child! The good God, who is the master, has not given her back to me for nothing! The king! you say the king! It would not cause him much pleasure to have my little daughter killed! And then, the king is good! she is my daughter! she is my own daughter! She belongs not to the king! she is not yours! I want to go away! we want to go away! and when two women pass, one a mother and the other a daughter, one lets them go! Let us pass! we belong in Reims. Oh! you are very good, messieurs the sergeants, I love you all. You will not take my dear little one, it is impossible! It is utterly impossible, is it not? My child, my child!”
We will not try to give an idea of her gestures, her tone, of the tears which she swallowed as she spoke, of the hands which she clasped and then wrung, of the heart-breaking smiles, of the swimming glances, of the groans, the sighs, the miserable and affecting cries which she mingled with her disordered, wild, and incoherent words. When she became silent Tristan l’Hermite frowned, but it was to conceal a tear which welled up in his tiger’s eye. He conquered this weakness, however, and said in a curt tone,—
“The king wills it.”
Then he bent down to the ear of Rennet Cousin, and said to him in a very low tone,—
“Make an end of it quickly!” Possibly, the redoubtable provost felt his heart also failing him.
The executioner and the sergeants entered the cell. The mother offered no resistance, only she dragged herself towards her daughter and threw herself bodily upon her. The gypsy beheld the soldiers approach. The horror of death reanimated her,—
“Mother!” she shrieked, in a tone of indescribable distress, “Mother! they are coming! defend me!”
“Yes, my love, I am defending you!” replied the mother, in a dying voice; and clasping her closely in her arms, she covered her with kisses. The two lying thus on the earth, the mother upon the daughter, presented a spectacle worthy of pity.
Rennet Cousin grasped the young girl by the middle of her body, beneath her beautiful shoulders. When she felt that hand, she cried, “Heuh!” and fainted. The executioner who was shedding large tears upon her, drop by drop, was about to bear her away in his arms. He tried to detach the mother, who had, so to speak, knotted her hands around her daughter’s waist; but she clung so strongly to her child, that it was impossible to separate them. Then Rennet Cousin dragged the young girl outside the cell, and the mother after her. The mother’s eyes were also closed.
At that moment, the sun rose, and there was already on the Place a fairly numerous assembly of people who looked on from a distance at what was being thus dragged along the pavement to the gibbet. For that was Provost Tristan’s way at executions. He had a passion for preventing the approach of the curious.
There was no one at the windows. Only at a distance, at the summit of that one of the towers of Notre-Dame which commands the Grève, two men outlined in black against the light morning sky, and who seemed to be looking on, were visible.
Rennet Cousin paused at the foot of the fatal ladder, with that which he was dragging, and, barely breathing, with so much pity did the thing inspire him, he passed the rope around the lovely neck of the young girl. The unfortunate child felt the horrible touch of the hemp. She raised her eyelids, and saw the fleshless arm of the stone gallows extended above her head. Then she shook herself and shrieked in a loud and heartrending voice: “No! no! I will not!” Her mother, whose head was buried and concealed in her daughter’s garments, said not a word; only her whole body could be seen to quiver, and she was heard to redouble her kisses on her child. The executioner took advantage of this moment to hastily loose the arms with which she clasped the condemned girl. Either through exhaustion or despair, she let him have his way. Then he took the young girl on his shoulder, from which the charming creature hung, gracefully bent over his large head. Then he set his foot on the ladder in order to ascend.
At that moment, the mother who was crouching on the pavement, opened her eyes wide. Without uttering a cry, she raised herself erect with a terrible expression; then she flung herself upon the hand of the executioner, like a beast on its prey, and bit it. It was done like a flash of lightning. The headsman howled with pain. Those near by rushed up. With difficulty they withdrew his bleeding hand from the mother’s teeth. She preserved a profound silence. They thrust her back with much brutality, and noticed that her head fell heavily on the pavement. They raised her, she fell back again. She was dead.
The executioner, who had not loosed his hold on the young girl, began to ascend the ladder once more.