Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
VII. A Wedding Night
A FEW minutes afterward our poet found himself in a warm and cosy little chamber with a vaulted roof, seated in front of a table which seemed impatient to share some of the contents of a small larder hanging on the wall close by, having a good bed in prospect, and a tête-à-tête with a pretty girl. The adventure smacked decidedly of witchcraft. He began to take himself seriously for the hero of a fairy-tale, and looked about him from time to time to see whether the fiery chariot drawn by winged gryphons, which alone could have transported him so rapidly from Tartarus to Paradise, were still there. At intervals, too, he steadily eyed the holes in his doublet, in order to keep a firm hold on realitynot to let the earth slip away from him altogether. His reason, tossing on delusive waves, had only this frail spar to cling to.
The girl paid apparently not the slightest heed to him, but came and went, shifting one thing and another, talking to her goat, making her little pouting grimace now and then just as if he had not been there.
You have been young, readermaybe, indeed, you are fortunate enough to be so still. It is impossible but that more than once (and for my part I have spent whole daysthe best employed of my lifein this pursuit) you have followed from bush to bush, beside some running brook, on a sunny day, some lovely dragon-fly, all iridescent, blue and green, darting hither and thither, kissing the tip of every spray. Can you forget the adoring curiosity with which your thoughts and your eyes were fixed upon this little darting, humming whirlwind of purple and azure wings, in the midst of which floated an intangible form, veiled, as it were, by the very rapidity of its motion? The aerial creature, dimly discerned through all this flutter of wings, seemed to you chimerical, illusory, intangible. But when at last the dragon-fly settled on the end of a reed, and you could examine, with bated breath, the gauzy wings, the long enamel robe, the two crystal globes of eyes, what amazement seized you, and what fear lest the exquisite creature should again vanish into shadow, the vision into air. Recall these impressions, and you will readily understand Gringoires feelings as he contemplated, in her visible and palpable form, that Esmeralda, of whom, up till then, he had only caught a glimpse through a whirl of dance and song and fluttering skirts.
Sinking deeper and deeper into his reverie: So this, he said to himself, as he followed her vaguely with his eyes, this is what they meant by Esmeraldaa divine creaturea dancer of the streets. So high, and yet so low. It was she who dealt the death-blow to my Mystery this morningshe it is who saves my life to-night. My evil geniusmy good angel! And a pretty woman, on my soul!who must have loved me to distraction to have taken me like this. Which reminds me, said he, suddenly rising from his seat, impelled by that sense of the practical which formed the basis of his character and his philosophyIm not very clear how it came about, but the fact remains that I am her husband.
What? rejoined Gringoire, growing warmer and warmer, and reflecting that after all it was only a virtue of the Court of Miracles he had to deal with, am I not thine, sweetheart; art thou not mine? and without more ado he clasped his arms about her.
The gipsy slipped through his hands like an eel; with one bound she was at the farther end of the little chamber, stooped, and rose with a little dagger in her hand before Gringoire had even time to see where she drew it from. There she stood, angry and erect, breathing fast with parted lips and fluttering nostrils, her cheeks red as peonies, her eyes darting lightning, while at the same moment the little white goat planted itself in front of her, ready to do battle with the offender, as it lowered its gilded but extremely sharp horns at him. In a twinkling the dragon-fly had turned wasp with every disposition to sting.
Mademoiselle Esmeralda, said the poet, let us come to terms. As I am not the recorder at the Châtelet I shall not make difficulties about your carrying a dagger thus in Paris, in the teeth of the ordinances and prohibitions of Monsieur the Provost, though you must be aware that Noël Lescrivain was condemned only last week to pay ten sols parisis for carrying a cutlass. However, that is no affair of mine, and I will come to the point. I swear to you by my hope of salvation that I will not approach you without your consent and permission; but, I implore you, give me some supper.
Truth to tell, Gringoire, like M. Depréaux, was but little inclined to sensuality. He had none of those swashbuckler and conquering ways that take girls by storm. In love, as in all other matters, he willingly resigned himself to temporizing and a middle course, and a good supper in charming tête-à-tête, especially when he was hungry, appeared to him an admirable interlude between the prologue and the dénouement of an amatory adventure.
The gipsy made no reply. She pouted her lips disdainfully, tossed her little head like a bird, then burst into a peal of laughter, and the dainty little weapon vanished as it had appeared, without Gringoire being able to observe where the wasp concealed its sting.
A minute afterward there appeared upon the table a loaf of bread, a slice of bacon, some wrinkled apples, and a mug of beer. Gringoire fell to ravenously. To hear the furious clatter of his fork on the earthenware platter you would have concluded that all his love had turned to hunger.
Seated opposite to him, the girl let him proceed in silence, being visibly preoccupied with some other thought, at which she smiled from time to time, while her gentle hand absently caressed the intelligent head of the goat pressed gently against her knee. A candle of yellow wax lit up this scene of voracity and musing. Presently, the first gnawings of his stomach being satisfied, Gringoire had a pang of remorse at seeing that nothing remained of the feast but one apple. You are not eating, Mademoiselle Esmeralda?
Now, what in the world is she absorbed in? thought Gringoire as he followed her gaze: it cant possibly be that grinning dwarfs face carved in the keystone of the vaulting. Que diable! I can well stand the comparison!
Her chaste and rosy lips were parted in a half smile, her pure and open brow was ruffled for a moment by her thoughts, as a mirror is dimmed by a passing breath, and from under her long, dark, drooping lashes there beamed a sort of ineffable light, imparting to her face that ideal suavity which later on Raphael found at the mystic point of intersection of the virginal, the human, and the divine.
Gringoire reddened and accepted the rebuke. The girl evidently alluded to the feeble assistance he had rendered her in the critical situation of a couple of hours before. This recollection, effaced by the subsequent adventures of the evening, now returned to him. He smote his forehead.
There was a pause. Gringoire was scratching the table with his knife; the girl smiled to herself and seemed to be looking at something through the wall. Suddenly she began to sing, hardly above her breath:
She drew from her bosom a little oblong bag hanging round her neck by a chain of berries. The bag, which exhaled a strong smell of camphor, was made of green silk, and had in the middle a large green glass bead like an emerald. It is perhaps because of that, said she.
Ah, cruel one! responded the poet. Never mind, you cannot provoke me. See, perhaps you will like me when you know me better; besides, you have told me your story with so much confidence that it is only fair that I should tell you something of mine. You must know, then, that my name is Pierre Gringoire, and that my father farmed the office of notary in Gonesse. He was hanged by the Burgundians, and my mother was murdered by the Picards at the time of the siege of Paris, twenty years ago. So, at six years of age I was an orphan, with no sole to my foot but the pavement of Paris. How I got through the interval from six to sixteen I should be at a loss to tell. A fruit-seller would throw me a plum here, a baker a crust of bread there. At night I would get picked up by the watch, who put me in prison, where at least I found a truss of straw to lie upon. All this did not prevent me from growing tall and thin, as you perceive. In winter I warmed myself in the sun in the porch of the Hôtel de Sens, and I thought it very absurd that the bonfires for the Feast of Saint-John should be reserved for the dog-days. At sixteen I wished to adopt a trade. I tried everything in turn. I became a soldier, but I was lacking in courage; friar, but I was not sufficiently piousbesides, I am a poor hand at drinking. In desperation I apprenticed myself to a Guild of Carpenters, but I was not strong enough. I had more inclination towards being a schoolmaster: to be sure, I could not read, but that need not have prevented me. At last I was obliged to acknowledge that something was lacking in me for every profession; so, finding that I was good for nothing, I, of my own free will, turned poet and composer of rhythms. That is a calling a man can adopt when he is a vagabond, and is always better than robbing, as some young friends of mine, who are themselves footpads, urged me to do. One fine day I was fortunate enough to encounter Dom Claude Frollo, the reverend Archdeacon of Notre Dame. He interested himself in me, and I owe it to him that I am to-day a finished man of letters, being well versed in Latin, from Ciceros Offices to the Mortuology of the Celestine Fathers, nor ignorant of scholastics, of poetics, of music, nor even of hermetics nor alchemythat subtlety of subtleties. Then, I am the author of the Mystery represented with great triumph and concourse of the people, filling the great Hall of the Palais de Justice. Moreover, I have written a book running to six hundred pages on the prodigious comet of 1465, over which a man lost his reason. Other successes, too, I have had. Being somewhat of an artillery carpenter, I helped in the construction of that great bombard of Jean Maugue, which, as you know, burst on the Charenton bridge the first time it was tried and killed four-and-twenty of the spectators. So, you see, I am not such a bad match. I know many very pleasing tricks which I would teach your goat; for instance, to imitate the Bishop of Paris, that accursed Pharisee whose mill-wheels splash the passengers the whole length of the Pont-aux-Meuniers. And then my Mystery play will bring me in a great deal of money, if only they pay me. In short, I am wholly at your servicemyself, my wit, my science, and my learning; ready, damoselle, to live with you as it shall please youin chastity or pleasureas man and wife, if so you think goodas brother and sister, if it please you better.
Gringoire, though not exactly seeing the connection between his harangue and this question, was nothing loath to exhibit his erudition. Bridling with conscious pride, he answered: It is a Latin word meaning the sun.
At that moment one of her bracelets became unfastened and slipped to the ground. Gringoire bent quickly to pick it up; when he rose the girl and her goat had disappeared. He only heard the sound of a bolt being shot which came from a little door leading, doubtless, into an inner room.
He made the tour of the chamber. He found no piece of furniture suitable for slumber but a long wooden chest, and its lid was profusely carved, so that when Gringoire lay down upon it he felt very much as Micromegas must have done when he stretched himself at full length to slumber on the Alps.
Well, he said, accommodating himself as best he might to the inequalities of his couch, one must make the best of it. But this is indeed a strange wedding-night. Tis a pity, too; there was something guileless and antediluvian about that marriage by broken pitcher that took my fancy.