Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
V. The Mother
I DOUBT if there be anything in the world more enchanting to a mothers heart than the thoughts awakened by the sight of her childs little shoemore especially when it is the holiday shoe, the Sunday, the christening shoethe shoe embroidered to the very sole, a shoe in which the child has not yet taken a step. The shoe is so tiny, has such a charm in it, it is so impossible for it to walk, that it is to the mother as if she saw her child. She smiles at it, kisses it, babbles to it; she asks herself if it can be that there is a foot so small, and should the child be absent, the little shoe suffices to bring back to her vision the sweet and fragile creature.
She imagines she sees itshe does see itliving, laughing, with its tender hands, its little round head, its dewy lips, its clear bright eyes. If it be winter, there it is creeping about the carpet, laboriously clambering over a stool, and the mother trembles lest it come too near the fire. If it be summer, it creeps about the garden, plucks up the grass between the stones, gazes with the artless courage of childhood at the great dogs, the great horses, plays with the shell borders, with the flowers, and makes the gardener scold when he finds sand in the flower-beds and earth on all the paths. The whole world smiles, and shines, and plays round it like itself, even to the breeze and the sunbeams that wanton in its curls. The shoe brings up all this before the mothers eye, and her heart melts thereat like wax before the fire.
But if the child be lost, these thousand images of joy, of delight, of tenderness crowded round the little shoe become so many pictures of horror. The pretty embroidered thing is then an instrument of torture eternally racking the mothers heart. It is still the same string that vibratesthe deepest, most sensitive of the human heartbut instead of the caressing touch of an angels hand, it is a demons horrid clutch upon it.
One morning, as the May sun rose into one of those deep blue skies against which Garofalo loves to set his Descents from the Cross, the recluse of the Tour-Roland heard a sound of wheels and horses and the clanking of iron in the Place de Grève. But little moved by it, she knotted her hair over her ears to deaden the sound, and resumed her contemplation of the object she had been adoring on her knees for fifteen years. That little shoe, as we have already said, was to her the universe. Her thoughts were wrapped up in it, never to leave it till death. What bitter imprecations she had sent up to heaven, what heart-rending plaints, what prayers and sobs over this charming rosy toy, the gloomy cell of the Tour-Roland alone knew. Never was greater despair lavished upon a thing so engaging and so pretty.
Oh, my child! she moaned, my child! my dear and hapless babe! shall I never see thee more? All hope is over! It seems to me always as if it had happened but yesterday. My God! my God! to have taken her from me so soon, it had been better never to have given her to me at all. Knowest thou not that our children are flesh of our flesh, and that a mother who has lost her child believes no longer in God? Ah, wretched that I am, to have gone out that day! Lord! Lord! to have taken her from me so! Thou canst never have looked upon us togetherwhen I warmed her, all sweet and rosy, at my firewhen I suckled herwhen I made her little feet creep up my bosom to my lips! Ah, hadst thou seen that, Lord, thou wouldst have had pity on my joyhadst not taken from me the only thing left for me to love! Was I so degraded a creature, Lord, that thou couldst not look at me before condemning me? Woe! woe is me!there is the shoebut the footwhere is it?where is the restwhere is the child? My babe, my babe! what have they done with thee? Lord, give her back to me! For fifteen years have I worn away my knees in prayer to thee, O Godis that not enough? Give her back to me for one day, one hour, one minuteonly one minute, Lord, and then cast me into hell for all eternity! Ah, did I but know where to find one corner of the hem of thy garment, I would cling to it with both hands and importune thee till thou wast forced to give me back my child! See its pretty little shoehast thou no pity on it, Lord? Canst thou condemn a poor mother to fifteen years of such torment? Holy Virgindear mother in heaven! my Infant Jesusthey have taken it from methey have stolen it, they have devoured it on the wild moorhave drunk its bloodhave gnawed its bones; Blessed Virgin, have pity on me! My babeI want my babe! What care I that she is in paradise? I will have none of your angelsI want my child! I am a lioness, give me my cub. Oh, I will writhe on the groundI will dash my forehead against the stoneswill damn myself, and curse thee, Lord, if thou keepest my child from me! Thou seest that my arms are gnawed all overhas the good God no pity? Oh, give me but a little black bread and salt, only let me have my child to warm me like the sun! Alas! O Lord my God, I am the vilest of sinners, but my child made me piousI was full of religion out of love for her, and I beheld thee through her smiles as through an opening in heaven. Oh, let me only once, once more only, once more draw this little shoe on to her sweet rosy little foot, and I will die, Holy Mother, blessing thee! Ah, fifteen yearsshe will be a woman grown now! Unhappy child! is it then indeed true that I shall never see her more?not even in heaven, for there I shall never go. Oh, woe is me! to have to say, There is her shoe, and that is all I shall ever have of her!
The unhappy creature threw herself upon the shoeher consolation and her despair for so many yearsand her very soul was rent with sobs as on the first day. For to a mother who has lost her child, it is always the first daythat grief never grows old. The mourning garments may wear out and lose their sombre hue, the heart remains black as on the first day.
At that moment the blithe, fresh voices of children passing the cell struck upon her ear. Whenever children met her eye or ear, the poor mother cast herself into the darkest corner of her living sepulchre, as if she sought to bury her head in the stone wall that she might not hear them. This time, contrary to her habit, she started up and listened eagerly for one of them had said: They are going to hang a gipsy woman to-day.
With the sudden bound of the spider which we have seen rush upon the fly at the shaking of his web, she ran to her loophole which looked out, as the reader knows, upon the Place de Grève. In effect, a ladder was placed against the gibbet, and the hangmans assistant was busy adjusting the chains rusted by the rain. A few people stood round.
The laughing group of children was already far off. The sachette looked about for a passer-by of whom she might make inquiries. Close to her cell she caught sight of a priest making believe to study the public breviary, but who was much less taken up with the lattice-guarded volume than with the gibbet, towards which, ever and anon, he cast a savage, scowling glance. She recognised him as the reverend Archdeacon of Josas, a saintly man.
There is one that I hate above the rest, she went on, and that I have curseda young oneabout the age my child would be if this ones mother had not devoured her. Each time that this young viper passes my cell my blood boils!
The recluse waved her arms with joy. I foretold it to her that she would swing up there! Priest, I thank thee! cried she, and she began pacing backward and forward in front of her loophole with dishevelled locks and flaming eyes, striking her shoulder against the wall with the savage air of a caged wolf that has long been hungry and feels that the hour of its repast draws near.