Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
VI. The Broken Pitcher
AFTER running for some time as fast as his legs could carry him without knowing whither, rushing head foremost into many a street corner, leaping gutters, traversing numberless alleys, courts, and streets, seeking flight and passage among the endless meanderings of the old street round the Halles, exploring in his blind panic what the elegant Latin of the Charters describes as tota via, cheminum et viaria, our poet suddenly drew up short, first because he was out of breath, and secondly because an unexpected idea gripped his mind.
It appears to me, Maitre Pierre Grainier, he apostrophized himself, tapping his forehead, that you must be demented to run thus. Those little ragamuffins were just as frightened of you as you of them. If I mistake not, you heard the clatter of their sabots making off southward, while you were fleeing to the north. Now of two things one: either they ran away, and the mattress, forgotten in their flight, is precisely the hospitable bed you have been searching for since the morning, and which Our Lady conveys to you miraculously as a reward for having composed in her honour a Morality accompanied by triumphs and mummeries; or, on the other hand, the boys have not run away, and, in that case, they have set fire to the mattress, which will be exactly the fire you are in need of to cheer, warm, and dry you. In either casegood fire or good bedthe mattress is a gift from Heaven. The thrice-blessed Virgin Mary at the corner of the Rue Mauconseil has maybe caused Eustache Moubon to die for that identical purpose, and it is pure folly on your part to rush off headlong, like a Picard running from a Frenchman, leaving behind what you are seeking in frontdecidedly you are an idiot!
Accordingly, he began to retrace his steps, and with much seeking, ferreting about, nose on the scent, and ears pricked, he endeavoured to find his way back to that blessed mattressbut in vain. It was one maze of intersecting houses, blind alleys, and winding streets, among which he hesitated and wavered continually, more bewildered and entangled in this network of dark alleys than he would have been in the real labyrinth of the Hôtel des Tournelles. Finally he lost patience and swore aloud: A malediction upon these alleys! The devil himself must have made them after the pattern of his pitchfork!
Heaven be praised! said he, there it isthat must be the blaze of my mattress, and likening himself to a pilot in danger of foundering in the night, Salve, he added piously, Salve maris stella! but whether this fragment of litany was addressed to the Virgin or to the mattress, we really are unable to say.
He had advanced but a few steps down the narrow street, which was on an incline, unpaved, and more and more miry as it neared the bottom, when he became aware of a curious fact. The street was not deserted. Here and there he caught sight of vague and indeterminate shapes, all crawling in the direction of the light that flickered at the end of the street, like those lumbering insects which creep at night from one blade of grass to another towards a shepherds fire.
Nothing makes one more boldly venturesome than the consciousness of an empty pocket. Grainier, therefore, continued his way and soon came up with the last of these weird objects dragging itself clumsily after the rest. On closer inspection he perceived that it was nothing but a miserable fragment, a stump of a man hobbling along painfully on his two hands like a mutilated grasshopper with only its front legs left. As he passed this kind of human spider it addressed him in a lamentable whine: La buona mancia, signor! la buona mancia!1
He reached another of those ambulatory bundles and examined it. It was a cripple with only one leg and one arm, but so legless and so armless that the complicated system of crutches and wooden legs on which he was supported gave him all the appearance of a scaffolding in motion. Grainier, who dearly loved noble and classical similes, compared him in his own mind to the living tripod of Vulcan.
The living tripod greeted him as he passed by, lifting his hat to the height of Gringoires chin and holding it there like a barbers basin while he shouted in his ear: Senor caballero, para comprar un pedaso de pan!2
It appears, said Grainier, that this one talks also; but its a barbarous lingo, and he is luckier than I if he understands it. Then striking his forehead with a sudden change of thoughtThat reminds mewhat the devil did they mean this morning with their Esmeralda?
He started to quicken his pace, but for the third time something barred the way. This something, or rather some one, was blind, a little blind man with a bearded, Jewish face, who, lunging in the space round him with a stick, and towed along by a great dog, snuffled out to him in a strong, Hungarian accent: Facitote caritatem!3
Thank goodness! exclaimed Pierre Grainier, at last heres one who can speak a Christian language. I must indeed have a benevolent air for them to ask alms of me, considering the present exhausted condition of my purse. My friend, and he turned to the blind man, last week I sold my last shirt, or rather, as you are acquainted only with the language of Cicero, Vendid hebdomade super transita meum ultimuman chemisam.
So saying, he turned his back on the blind man and pursued his way. But the blind man proceeded to quicken his pace at the same time, and behold the cripple and the stump also came hurrying forward with great clatter and rattle of crutches and supports, and all three tumbling over one another at poor Gringoires heels, favoured him with their several songs. Caritatem! whined the blind man. La buona mancia! piped the stump, and the cripple took up the strain of Un pedaso de pan!
And as he penetrated farther down the street, the maimed, the halt, and the blind began to swarm round him, while one-armed or one-eyed men, and lepers covered with sores, issued from the houses, some from little streets adjacent, some from the bowels of the earth, howling, bellowing, yelping, hobbling, and clattering along, all pressing forward towards the glow and wallowing in the mud like slugs after the rain.
Gringoire, still followed by his three persecutors, and not at all sure of what would come of all this, walked on bewildered in the midst of this swarm, upsetting the halt, striding over the stumps, his feet entangled in that ant-hill of cripples, like the English captain who was beset by a legion of crabs.
It occurred to him to attempt to retrace his steps, but it was too late. The herd had closed up behind him and his three beggars held him fast. He went on, therefore, compelled at once by that irresistible flood, by fear, and by a sensation of giddiness which made the whole thing seem like some horrible nightmare.
At last he reached the end of the street. It opened into an immense square in which a multitude of scattered lights were flickering through the misty gloom. Gringoire precipitated himself into it, hoping by the speed of his legs to escape the three maimed spectres who had fastened themselves on to him.
Onde vas hombre?4 cried the cripple, tossing aside his complicated supports and running after him with as good a pair of legs as ever measured a geometrical pace upon the pavements of Paris; while the stump, standing erect upon his feet, bonneted Gringoire with the heavy iron-rimmed platter which served him as a support, and the blind man stared him in the face with great flaming eyes.
The poor poet looked about him. He was, in fact, in that Cour des Miracles where never honest man penetrated at such an houra magic circle wherein any officer of the Châtelet or sergeant of the Provostry intrepid enough to risk entering vanished in morselsa city of thieves, a hideous sore on the face of Paris; a drain whence flowed forth each morning, to return at night, that stream of iniquity, of mendacity, and vagabondage which flows forever through the streets of a capital; a monstrous hive to which all the hornets that prey on the social order return at night, laden with their booty; a fraudulent hospital where the Bohemian, the unfrocked monk, the ruined scholar, the good-for-nothing of every nationSpaniards, Italians, Germansand of every creedJews, Turks, and infidelsbeggars covered with painted sores during the day were transformed at night into robbers; in a word, a vast green-room, serving at that period for all the actors in that eternal drama of robbery, prostitution, and murder enacted on the streets of Paris.
It was a vast open space, irregular and ill-paved, as were all the squares of Paris at that time. Fires, around which swarmed strange groups, gleamed here and there. It was one ceaseless movement and clamour, shrieks of laughter, the wailing of babies, the voices of women. The hands and heads of this crowd threw a thousand grotesque outlines on the luminous background. The light of the fires flickered over the ground mingled with huge indefinite shadows, and across it from time to time passed some animal-like man or man-like animal. The boundary lines between race and species seemed here effaced as in a pandemonium. Men, women, beasts, age, sex, health and sickness, all seemed to be in common with this people; all was shared, mingled, confounded, superimposed, each one participated in all.
The faint and unsteady gleam of the fires enabled Gringoire through all his perturbation to distinguish that the great square was enclosed in a hideous framework of ancient houses, which, with their mouldering, shrunken, stooping fronts, each pierced by one or two round lighted windows, looked to him in the dark like so many old womens heads, monstrous and cross-grained, ranged in a circle, and blinking down upon these witches revels.
Gringoire, growing momentarily more affrighted, held by the three beggars as by so many vices, bewildered by a crowd of other faces that bleated and barked round himthe luckless Gringoire strove to collect his mind sufficiently to remember whether this was really Saturdaythe witches Sabbath. But all his efforts were uselessthe link between his memory and his brain was broken; and doubtful of everything, vacillating between what he saw and what he felt, he asked himself this insoluble question: If I am I, then what is this? If this is real, then what am I?
In traversing the horrible place his giddiness passed off, and after proceeding a few paces he had entirely recovered his sense of reality. He began to adapt himself to the atmosphere of the place. In the first moments there had arisen from his poets head, or perhaps quite simply and prosaically from his empty stomach, a fume, a vapour, so to speak, which, spreading itself between him and the surrounding objects, had permitted him to view them only through the incoherent mist of a nightmare, that distorting twilight of our dreams which exaggerates and misplaces every outline, crowding objects together in disproportionate groups, transforming ordinary things into chimeras and men into monstrous phantoms. By degrees, this hallucination gave place to a less bewildered, less exaggerated state of mind. The real forced itself upon himstruck upon his eyesstruck against his feetand demolished, piece by piece, the terrifying vision by which at first he had imagined himself surrounded. He now perforce was aware that he was walking not through the Styx, but through the mud; that he was being hustled not by demons, but by thieves; that not his soul, but in simple sooth his life, was in danger (since he was without that invaluable conciliator which interposes so efficaciously between the robber and the honest manthe purse); in short, on examining the orgy more closely and in colder blood, he was obliged to climb down from the witches Sabbath to the pot-house.
The spectacle which presented itself to him when his ragged escort at last brought him to the goal of his march, was not calculated to incline his mind to poetry, even though it were the poetry of hell. It was more than ever the prosaic and brutal reality of the pot-house. Were we not writing of the fifteenth century, we would say that Gringoire had come down from Michael Angelo to Callot.
Round a great fire which burned on a large round flagstone, and glowed on the red-hot legs of a trivet, unoccupied for the moment, some worm-eaten tables were ranged haphazard, without the smallest regard to symmetry or order. On these tables stood a few overflowing tankards of wine or beer, and grouped round them many bacchanalian faces reddened both by the fire and wine. Here was a man, round of belly and jovial of face, noisily embracing a thick-set, brawny trollop of the streets. Here a sham soldier, whistling cheerfully while he unwound the bandages of his false wound, and unstiffened his sound and vigorous knee, strapped up since the morning in yards of ligature. Anon it was a malingreuxa malingererpreparing with celandine and oxblood his jambe de Dieu or sore leg for the morrow. Two tables farther on a coquillart with his complete pilgrims suit, cockle-shell on hat, was spelling out and practising the Plaint of Sainte-Reine in its proper sing-song tone and nasal whine. Elsewhere a young hubin was taking a lesson in epilepsy from an old sabouleux, who was teaching him how to foam at the mouth by chewing a piece of soap. Close by, a dropsical man was removing his swelling, while four or five hags at the same table were quarrelling over a child they had stolen that evening. All of which circumstances two centuries later appeared so diverting to the Court, says Sauval, that they furnished pastime to the King, and the opening scene of the royal ballet, entitled Night, which was divided into four parts and was danced on the stage of the Petit-Bourbon. And never, adds an eye-witness in 1653, were the sudden metamorphoses of the Cour des Miracles more happily represented. Benserade prepared us for it with some very pleasing verses.
Loud guffaws of laughter resounded everywhere, and obscene songs. Each one said his say, passed his criticisms, and swore freely without listening to his neighbours. Wine cups clinked and quarrels arose as the cups met, the smash of broken crockery leading further to the tearing of rags.
A great dog sat on his tail and stared into the fire. A few children mingled in this orgy. The stolen child wept and wailed; another, a bouncing boy of four, was seated with dangling legs on too high a bench, the table reaching just to his chin, and said not a word; a third was engaged in spreading over the table with his fingers the tallow from a guttering candle. Lastly, a very little one was squatting in the mud, and almost lost in a great iron pot, which he scraped out with a tile, drawing sounds from it which would have made Stradivarius swoon.
Hombre, quita tu sombrero,5 said one of the three rogues in possession of him; and before he could understand what this meant, another had snatched off his hata poor thing, it is true, but available still on a day of sunshine or of rain.
Gringoire started. This voice, though speaking in menacing tones, reminded him of the one which that very morning had struck the first blow at his Mystery, as it whined in the middle of the audience, Charity, I pray! He looked upit was indeed Clopin Trouillefou.
Clopin Trouillefou, invested with the regal insignia, had not one rag the more or the less upon him. The sore on his arm had disappeared certainly, while in his hand he held one of those leather-thonged whips called boullayes, and used in those days by the sergeants of the guard to keep back the crowd. On his head he had a sort of bonnet twisted into a circle and closed at the top; but whether it was a childs cap or a kings crown it would be hard to say, so much did the two resemble one another.
By the claws of the devil, broke in Clopin, thy name, rascal, and nothing more! Hark ye! thou standest before three puissant sovereignsmyself, Clopin Trouillefou, King of Tunis, successor of the Grand Coësre, Supreme Ruler of the Kingdom of Argot; Mathias Hungadi Spicali, Duke of Egypt and Bohemia, the yellow-vised old fellow over there with a clout round his head; Guillaume Rousseau, Emperor of Galilee, that fat fellow whos hugging a wench instead of attending to us. We are thy judges. Thou hast entered into the Kingdom of Argot without being an Argotier, and so violated the privileges of our city. Thou must pay the penalty unless thou art either a capon,a franc mitou, or a rifodéthat is to say, in the argot of honest men, either a thief, a beggar, or a vagabond. Art thou any one of these? Come, justify thyselfdescribe thy qualifications.
Thats enough, resumed Trouillefou without letting him finish; thou shalt go hang. A very simple matter, messieurs the honest burghers. We do unto you as we are done by. The same law that you mete out to the Truands, the Truands mete out to you again. You are to blame if that law is a bad one. No harm if now and then an honest man grin through the hempen collarthat makes the thing honourable. Come, my friend, divide thy rags cheerfully among these ladies. I am going to string thee up for the diversion of the Vagabonds, and thou shalt give them thy purse for a pour-boire. If thou hast any last mummeries to go through, thou wilt find down in that wooden mortar a very passable stone God the Father that we stole from Saint-Pierre-aux-Bufs. Thou hast four minutes to throw thy soul at his head.
Messeigneurs the Emperors and the Kings, said Gringoire coolly (for somehow or other his courage had returned to him and he spoke resolutely), you fail to understand. My name is Pierre Gringoire. I am a poet, the author of a Morality which was performed this morning in the great Hall of the Palais.
Ah, tis thou, Maître, is it? answered Clopin. I was there myself, par la tête de Dieu! Well, comrade, is it any reason because thou weariedst us to death this morning that thou shouldst not be hanged to-night?
I shall not get out of this so easily, thought Gringoire. However, he had a try for it. I see no reason why the poets should not come under the head of vagabonds, he said. As to thieves, Mercurius was one
In truth, his luckless voice was drowned by the hubbub around him. The child was scraping his kettle with greater vigour than ever, and as a climax, an old woman had just placed on the hot trivet a pan of fat, which made as much noise, spitting and fizzling over the fire, as a yelling troop of children running after a mask at Carnival time.
Meanwhile, Clopin Trouillefou, after conferring a moment with his brothers of Egypt and of Galilee, the latter of whom was quite drunk, cried sharply, Silence! As neither the frying-pan nor the kettle paid any attention, but continued their duet, he jumped down from his barrel, gave one kick to the kettle, which set it rolling ten paces from the child, and another to the frying-pan, upsetting all the fat into the fire; then he solemnly remounted his throne, heedless of the smothered cries of the child or the grumbling of the old woman, whose supper was vanishing in beautiful white flames.
At a sign from Trouillefou, the duke, the emperor, the archisuppôts, and the cagoux came and ranged themselves round him in a horse-shoe, of which Gringoire, upon whom they still kept a tight hold, occupied the centre. It was a semicircle of rags and tatters, of pitchforks and hatchets, of reeling legs and great bare arms, of sordid, haggard, and sottish faces. In the midst of this Round Table of the riffraff, Clopin Trouillefou, as Doge of this Senate, as head of this peerage, as Pope of this Conclave, dominated the heterogeneous mass; in the first place by the whole height of his barrel, and then by virtue of a lofty, fierce, and formidable air which made his eye flash and rectified in his savage countenance the bestial type of the vagabond race. He was like a wild boar among swine.
Look you, said he to Gringoire, stroking his unsightly chin with his horny hand. I see no reason why you should not be hanged. To be sure, the prospect does not seem to please you; but that is simply because you townsfolk are not used to ityou make such a tremendous business of it. After all, we mean you no harm. But heres one way of getting out of it for the moment. Will you be one of us?
Only, continued Clopin imperturbably, it will take place somewhat later, with more ceremony, and at the expense of the city of Paris, on a fine stone gibbet, and by honest men. Thats some consolation.
So be it, said the poet. I agree. I am a Vagabond, an Argotier, a Little Daggerwhatever you please. And, indeed, I was all that already, Monsieur the King of Tunis, for I am a philosopher and Omnia in philosophia, omnes in philosopho continenturas you are aware.
The King of Tunis knit his brows. What do you take me for, my friend? What Jew of Hungarys patter are you treating us to now? I know no Hebrew. Its not to say that because a mans a robber he must be a Jew. Nay, indeed. I do not even thieve nowI am above thatI kill. Cutthroat, yes; cutpurse, no!
I tell thee, retorted the enraged Clopin, that Im not a Jew, and Ill have thee hanged, ventre de synagogue! as well as that little usurer of Judea standing beside thee, and whom I hope to see some day nailed to a counter like the bad penny that he is.
As he spoke, he pointed to the little bearded Hungarian Jew who had accosted Gringoire with Facitote caritatem, and who, understanding no other language, was much astonished that the King of Tunis should thus vent his wrath on him.
Willing is not all, said Clopin gruffly. Good-will never put an extra onion into the soup, and is of no value but for getting you into Paradise. Now, Paradise and Argot are two very different places. To be received into Argot you must first prove that you are good for something, and to that end you must search the manikin.
At a sign from Clopin, several Argotiers detached themselves from the group and returned a moment afterward, bearing two posts ending in two broad wooden feet, which insured them standing firmly on the ground. To the upper end of these posts they attached a cross-beam, the whole constituting a very pretty portable gallows, which Gringoire had the satisfaction of seeing erected before him in the twinkling of an eye. It was quite complete, even to the rope swinging gracefully from the transverse beam.
What are they after now? Gringoire asked himself with some uneasiness. The jingling of little bells, which at that moment sounded on his ear, banished his anxiety, for it proceeded from a stuffed figure which the Vagabonds were hanging by the neck to the rope, a sort of scarecrow, dressed in red and covered with little tinkling bells sufficient to equip thirty Castilian mules. The jingling of these thousand bells continued for some time under the vibration of the rope, then died slowly away and sank into complete silence as the figure hung motionless.
Clopin shook his head. Hark ye, friendyou talk too much. In two words, this is what you are to do: stand on tip-toe, as I told you; you will then be able to reach the manikins pocket; you will put your hand into it and pull out a purse that is there. If you do all this without a sound from one of the bells, well and good; you shall be a Vagabond. We shall then have nothing further to do but belabour you well for a week.
Come, make haste! said the King with a resounding kick against his barrel. Pick the manikins pocket and be done with it. I warn you for the last time that if I hear the faintest tinkle you shall take the manikins place.
The whole crew of Argotiers applauded Clopins words, and ranged themselves in a circle round the gallows with such pitiless laughter, that Gringoire saw plainly that he was affording them too much amusement not to have cause to fear the worst. He had therefore no hope left, save perhaps in the faint chance of succeeding in the desperate task imposed upon him. He resolved to risk it, but he first addressed a fervent prayer to the man of straw whom he was preparing to rob, and whose heart he was more likely to soften than those of the rogues. These myriad bells with their little brazen tongues seemed to him like so many asps with mouths open ready to hiss and bite.
Oh, he breathed, can it be that my life depends on the faintest vibration of the smallest of these bells? Oh, he added, clasping his hands, oh, clashing, jingling, tinkling bells, be silent, I implore!
Realizing that there was no respite, no delay or subterfuge possible, he bravely set about his task. He twisted his right foot round his left ankle, rose on his left foot, and stretched out his hand; but as he touched the manikin, his body, being now supported but on one foot, swayed on the stool which had but three; he clutched mechanically at the figure, lost his balance, and fell heavily to the ground, deafened by the fatal clashing of the manikins thousand bells, while the figure, yielding to the thrust of his hand, first revolved on its own axis, and then swung majestically between the two posts.
The Argotiers forced him to mount the stool. Clopin then came up, passed the rope round his neck, and clapping him on the shoulders, Adieu, lami, he said. You dont escape this time, not even if you were as cunning as the Pope himself.
Now, resumed Clopin Trouillefou, when I clap my hands, do you, Andry le Rouge, knock over the stool with your knee; François Chante-Prune will hang on to the rascals legs, and you, Bellevigne, jump on to his shouldersbut all three at the same time, do you hear?
Ready? cried Clopin Trouillefou to the three Argotiers waiting to fall on Gringoire like spiders on a fly. The poor victim had a moment of horrible suspense, during which Clopin calmly pushed into the fire with the point of his shoe some twigs of vine which the flame had not yet reached.
But he stopped short, struck by a sudden idea. One moment, he said; I had forgotten. It is the custom with us not to hang a man without first asking if theres any woman who will have him. Comrade, thats your last chance. You must marry either an Argotière or the rope.
Holà! shouted Clopin, who had reascended his throne. Holà there! womenwenchesis there any one of you, from the witch to her cat, any jade among you wholl have this rogue? Holà Colette la Charonne! Elizabeth Trouvain! Simone Jodouyne! Marie Piédebou! Thonne-la-Longue! Bérarde Fanouel! Michelle Genaille! Claude Rongeoreille! Mathurine Girorou! Hullah! Isabeau la Thierrye! Come and look! A husband for nothing! Wholl have him?
Gringoire, in this miserable plight, was doubtless not exactly tempting. The ladies seemed but little moved at the proposal, for the unfortunate man heard them answer: No, nohang him! Then we shall all get some enjoyment out of him!
Three of them, however, did come forward and inspect him. The first a big, square-faced young woman, carefully examined the philosophers deplorable doublet. His coat was threadbare and with more holes in it than a chestnut roaster. The woman made a wry face. An old rag, she muttered, and turning to Gringoire, Lets see thy cloak.
The second, a hideous old beldame, black and wrinkled, and so ugly as to be conspicuous even in the Court of Miracles, came and viewed him from all sides. He almost trembled lest she should take a fancy to him. But she muttered between her teeth, Hes too lean, and went away.
The third was a young girl, rosy-cheeked and not too ill-favoured. Save me! whispered the poor devil. She considered him for a moment with an air of pity, then cast down her eyes, played with a fold in her petticoat, and stood irresolute. Gringoire followed her every movement with his eyesit was the last gleam of hope.
Then standing up on his barrel: Nobody bids? he cried, mimicking the voice of an auctioneer to the huge delight of the crowd. Nobody bids? Goinggoing and, with a sign of the head to the gallowsgone!
This engaging creature seemed to hold sway even over the Court of Miracles by the power of her exceeding charm and beauty. The Argotiers, male and female, drew aside gently to let her pass, and their brutal faces softened at her look.