Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
CLAUDE FROLLO was no longer in Notre Dame when his adopted son so abruptly cut the fatal noose in which the unhappy Archdeacon had caught the Egyptian and himself at the same time. On entering the sacristy, he had torn off alb, cope, and stole, had tossed them into the hands of the amazed verger, escaped by the private door of the cloister, ordered a wherryman of the Terrain to put him across to the left bank of the Seine, and had plunged into the steep streets of the University, knowing not whither he went, meeting at every step bands of men and women pressing excitedly towards the Pont Saint-Michel in the hope of still arriving in time to see the witch hangedpale, distraught, confused, more blinded and scared than any bird of night set free and flying before a troop of children in broad daylight. He was no longer conscious of where he was going, what were his thoughts, his imaginations. He went blindly on, walking, running, taking the streets at random, without any definite plan, save the one thought of getting away from the Grève, the horrible Grève, which he felt confusedly to be behind him.
In this manner he proceeded the whole length of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, and at last left the town by the Porte Saint-Victor. He continued his flight so long as he could see, on turning round, the bastioned walls of the University, and the sparse houses of the faubourg; but when at last a ridge of rising ground completely hid hateful Paris from his viewwhen he could imagine himself a hundred leagues away from it, in the country, in a deserthe stopped and dared to draw a free breath.
Frightful thoughts now crowded into his mind. He saw clearly into his soul and shuddered. He thought of the unfortunate girl he had ruined and who had ruined him. He let his haggard eye pursue the tortuous paths along which Fate had driven them to their separate destinies up to the point of junction where she had pitilessly shattered them one against the other. He thought of the folly of lifelong vows, of the futility of chastity, science, religion, and virtue, of the impotence of God. He pursued these arguments with wicked gusto, and the deeper he sank in the slough the louder laughed the Satan within him. And discovering, as he burrowed thus into his soul, how large a portion Nature had assigned in it to the passions, he smiled more sardonically than before. He shook up from the hidden depths of his heart all his hatred, all his wickedness; and he discovered with the calm eye of the physician examining a patient that this same hatred and wickedness were but the outcome of perverted lovethat love, the source of every human virtue, turned to things unspeakable in the heart of a priest, and that a man constituted as he was, by becoming a priest, made of himself a demonand he laughed horribly. But suddenly he grew pale again as he contemplated the worst side of his fatal passionof that corrosive, venomous, malignant, implacable love which had brought the one to the gallows and the other to hellher to death, him to damnation.
And then his laugh came again when he remembered that phbus was living; that, after all, the captain was alive and gay and happy, with a finer uniform than ever, and a new mistress whom he brought to see the old one hanged. And he jeered sardonically at himself to think that of all the human beings whose death he had desired, the Egyptian, the one creature he did not hate, was the only one he had succeeded in destroying.
From the captain, his thoughts wandered to the crowd of that morning, and he was seized with a fresh kind of jealousy. He reflected that the people, the whole population, had beheld the woman he loveddivested of all but a single garmentalmost nude. He wrung his hands in agony at the thought that the woman, a mere glimpse of whose form veiled in shadows and seen by his eye alone would have afforded him the supreme measure of bliss, had been given thus, in broad daylight, at high noon, to the gaze of a whole multitude, clad as for a bridal night. He wept with rage over all these mysteries of love profaned, sullied, stripped, withered forever. He wept with rage to think how many impure eyes that ill fastened garment had satisfied; that this fair creature, this virgin lily, this cup of purity and all delights to which he would only have set his lips in fear and trembling, had been converted into a public trough, as it were, at which the vilest of the populace of Paris, the thieves, the beggars, the lackeys, had come to drink in common of a pleasureshameless, obscene, depraved.
Again, when he sought to picture to himself the happiness that might have been his had she not been a gipsy and he a priest; had phbus not existed, and had she but loved him; when he told himself that a life of serenity and love would have been possible to him too; that at that very moment there were happy couples to be found here and there on earth, whiling away the hours in sweet communing, in orange groves, by the Brookside, under the setting sun or a starry night; and that had God so willed it, he might have made with her one of those thrice-blessed couples, his heart melted in tenderness and despair.
Oh, it was she! still and forever she!that fixed idea that haunted him incessantly, that tortured him, gnawed his brain, wrung his very vitals! He regretted nothing, he repented of nothing; all that he had done he was ready to do again; better a thousand times see her in the hands of the hangman than the arms of the soldier; but he suffered, he suffered so madly that there were moments when he tore his hair in handfuls from his head to see if it had not turned white.
At one moment it occurred to him that this, perhaps, was the very minute at which the hideous chain he had seen in the morning was tightening its noose of iron round that fragile and slender neck. Great drops of agony burst from every pore at the thought.
At another moment he took a diabolical pleasure in torturing himself by bringing before his minds eye a simultaneous picture of Emeralds as he had seen her for the first timefilled with life and careless joy, gaily attired, dancing, airy, melodiousand Emeralds at her last hour, in her shift, a rope about her neck, slowly ascending with her naked feet the painful steps of the gibbet. He brought this double picture so vividly before him that a terrible cry burst from him.
While this hurricane of despair was upheaving, shattering, tearing, bending, uprooting everything within his soul, he gazed absently at the prospect around him. Some fowls were busily pecking and scratching at his feet; bright-coloured beetles ran to and for in the sunshine; overhead, groups of dappled cloud sailed in a deep-blue sky; on the horizon the spire of the Abbey of Saint victor reared its slate obelisk above the rising ground; and the miller of the Butte-Copeaux whistled as he watched the busily turning sails of his mill. All this industrious, orderly, tranquil activity, recurring around him under a thousand different aspects, hurt him. He turned to flee once more.
He wandered thus about the country till the evening. This fleeing from Nature, from life, from himself, from mankind, from God, went on through the whole day. Now he would throw himself face downward on the ground, digging up the young blades of corn with his nails; or he would stand still in the middle of some deserted village street, his thoughts so insupportable that he would seize his head in both hands as if to tear it from his shoulders and dash it on the stones.
Towards the hour of sunset, he took counsel with himself and found that he was well-nigh mad. The storm that had raged in him since the moment that he lost both the hope and the desire to save the gipsy, had left him without one sane idea, one rational thought. His reason lay prostrate on the verge of utter destruction. But two distinct images remained in his mind: Emeralds and the gibbet. The rest was darkness. These two images in conjunction formed to his mind a ghastly group, and the more strenuously he fixed upon them such power of attention and thought as remained to him, the more he saw them increase according to a fantastic progressionthe one in grace, in charm, in beauty, in luster; the other in horror; till, at last, Emeralds appeared to him as a star, and the gibbet as a huge fleshliness arm. Strange to say, during all this torture he never seriously thought of death. Thus was the wretched man constituted; he clung to lifemaybe, indeed, he saw hell in the background.
Meanwhile night was coming on apace. The living creature still existing within him began confusedly to think of return. He imagined himself far from Paris, but on looking about him he discovered that he had but been travelling in a circle round the University. The spire of Saint-Sulpice and the three lofty pinnacles of Saint-Germaindes-Prés broke the sky-line on his right. He bent his steps in that direction. When he heard the Qui vive? of the Abbots guard round the battlemented walls of Saint-Germain, he turned aside, took a path lying before him between the abbey mill and the lazaretto, and found himself in a few minutes on the edge of the Pré aux-Clercsthe Students Meadow. This ground was notorious for the brawls and tumults which went on in it day and night; it was a hydra to the poor monks of Saint-GermainQuod monachis Sancti Germani pratensis hydra fuit, clericis nova semper dissidionum capita suscitantibus.1
The Archdeacon feared meeting some one there, he dreaded the sight of a human face; he would not enter the streets till the latest moment possible. He therefore skirted the Pré-aux-Clercs, took the solitary path that lay between it and the Dieu-Neuf, and at length reached the water-side. There Dom Claude found a boatman, who for a few deniers took him up the river as far as the extreme point of the island of the City, and landed him on that deserted tongue of land on which the reader has already seen Gringoire immersed in reverie, and which extended beyond the royal gardens parallel to the island of the cattleferry.
The monotonous rocking of the boat and the ripple of the water in some degree soothed the unhappy man. When the boatman had taken his departure, Claude remained on the bank in a kind of stupor, looking straight before him and seeing the surrounding objects only through a distorting mist which converted the whole scene into a kind of phantasmagoria. The exhaustion of a violent grief will often produce this effect upon the mind.
The sun had set behind the lofty Tour-de-Nesle. It was the hour of twilight. The sky was pallid, the river was white. Between these two pale surfaces, the left bank of the Seine, on which his eyes were fixed, reared its dark mass, and, dwindling to a point in the perspective, pierced the mists of the horizon like a black arrow. It was covered with houses, their dim silhouettes standing out sharply against the pale background of sky and river. Here and there windows began to twinkle like holes in a brasier. The huge black obelisk thus isolated between the two white expanses of sky and riverparticularly wide at this pointmade a singular impression on Dom Claude, such as a man would experience lying on his back at the foot of Strassburg Cathedral and gazing up at the immense spire piercing the dim twilight of the sky above his head. Only here it was Claude who stood erect and the spire that lay at his feet; but as the river, by reflecting the sky, deepened infinitely the abyss beneath him, the vast promontory seemed springing as boldly into the void as any cathedral spire. The impression on him was therefore the same, and moreover, in this respect, stronger and more profound, in that not only was it the spire of Strassburg Cathedral, but a spire two leagues highsomething unexampled, gigantic, immeasurablean edifice such as mortal eye had never yet behelda Tower of Babel. The chimneys of the houses, the battlemented walls, the carved roofs and gables, the spire of the Augustines, the Tour-de-Nesle, all the projections that broke the line of the colossal obelisk heightened the illusion by their bizarre effect, presenting to the eye all the effect of a florid and fantastic sculpture.
In this condition of hallucination Claude was persuaded that with living eye he beheld the veritable steeple of hell. The myriad lights scattered over the entire height of the fearsome tower were to him so many openings into the infernal firesthe voices and sounds which rose from it the shrieks and groans of the damned. Fear fell upon him, he clapped his hands to his ears that he might hear no more, turned his back that he might not see, and with long strides fled away from the frightful vision.
When he came into the streets again, the people passing to and for in the light of the shop-fronts appeared to him like a moving company of spectres round about him. There were strange roarings in his earswild imaginings disturbed his brain. He saw not the houses, nor road, nor vehicles, neither men nor women, but a chaos of indeterminate objects merging into one another at their point of contact. At the corner of the Rue de la Barillerie he passed a chandlers shop, over the front of which hung, according to immemorial custom, a row of tin hoops garnished with wooden candles, which swayed in the wind and clashed together like castanets. He seemed to hear the skeletons on the gibbets of Montfaucon rattling their bones together.
Confused and bewildered, he knew not where he went. A few steps farther on he found himself on the Pont Saint-Michel. There was a light in a low window close by: he approached it. Through the cracked panes he saw into a dirty room which awakened some dim recollection in his mind. By the feeble rays of a squalid lamp he discerned a young man, with a fair and joyous face, who with much boisterous laughter was embracing a tawdry, shamelessly dressed girl. Beside the lamp sat an old woman spinning and singing in a quavering voice. In the pauses of the young mans laughter the priest caught fragments of the old womans song. It was weird and horrible:
Jehan returned to his light o love, and smashing a bottle that stood on a table, he exclaimed: Empty, cor-buf!and Ive no money! Isabeau, my chuck, I shall never be satisfied with Jupiter till he has turned your two white breasts into two black bottles, that I may suck Beaune wine from them day and night!
Dom Claude had barely time to throw himself on the ground to escape meeting his brother face to face and being recognised. Happily the street was dark and the scholar drunk. Nevertheless he did notice the figure lying prone in the mud.
He presently ventured a glance at the church. Its front was dark. The sky behind glittered with stars; the crescent moon, in her flight upward from the horizon, that moment touched the summit of the right-hand tower, and seemed to perch, like a luminons bird, on the black edge of the sculptured balustrade.
He found it dark and silent as a cavern. By the thick shadows that fell from all sides in broad patches, he knew that the hangings of the mornings ceremony had not yet been removed. The great silver cross glittered far off through the gloom, sprinkled here and there with shining points, like the Milky Way of that sepulchral night. The windows of the choir showed, above the black drapery, the upper extremity of their pointed arches, the stained glass of which, shot through by a ray of moonlight, had only the uncertain colours of the nightan indefinable violet, white, and blue, of a tint to be found only in the faces of the dead. To the Archdeacon this half circle of pallid Gothic window-tops surrounding the choir seemed like the mitres of bishops gone to perdition. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he thought they were a circle of ghastly faces looking down upon him.
He fled on through the church. Then it seemed to him that the church took to itself life and motionswayed and heaved; that each massive column had turned to an enormous limb beating the ground with its broad stone paw; and that the gigantic Cathedral was nothing but a prodigious elephant, snorting and stamping, with its pillars for legs, its two towers for tusks, and the immense black drapery for caparison.
He found one minutes respite. Plunging into the side aisle, he caught sight, behind a group of pillars, of a dim red light. He ran to it as to a star of safety. It was the modest lamp which illumined day and night the public breviary of Notre Dame under its iron trellis. He cast his eye eagerly over the sacred book, in the hope of finding there some word of consolation or encouragement. The volume lay open at this passage of Job, over which he ran his bloodshot eye: Then a spirit passed before my face, and I felt a little breath, and the hair of my flesh stood up.
On reading these dismal words, he felt like a blind man who finds himself wounded by the stick he had picked up for his guidance. His knees bent under him, and he sank upon the pavement thinking of her who had died that day. So many hideous fumes passed through and out of his brain that he felt as if his head had become one of the chimneys of hell.
He must have remained long in that positionpast thought, crushed and passive in the clutch of the Fiend. At last some remnant of strength returned to him, and he bethought him of taking refuge in the tower, beside his faithful Quasimodo. He rose to his feet, and fear being still upon him, he took the lamp of the breviary to light him. It was sacrilegebut he was beyond regarding such trifles.
Slowly he mounted the stairway of the tower, filled with a secret dread which was likely to be shared by the few persons traversing the Parvis at that hour and saw the mysterious light ascending so late from loophole to loophole up to the top of the steeple.
Suddenly he felt a breath of cold air on his face, and found himself under the doorway of the upper gallery. The air was sharp, the sky streaked with clouds in broad white streamers, which drifted into and crushed one another like river ice breaking up after a thaw. The crescent moon floating in their midst looked like some celestial bark set fast among these icebergs of the air.
He glanced downward through the row of slender columns which joins the two towers and let his eye rest for a moment on the silent multitude of the roofs of Paris, shrouded in a veil of mist and smokejagged, innumerable, crowded, and small, like the waves of a tranquil sea in a summers night.
Oh, he whispered to himself, she must be cold by now! A sudden puff of wind extinguished his lamp, and almost at the same instant, at the opposite corner of the tower, he saw a shadea something whitea shape, a female form appear. He trembled. Beside this woman stood a little goat that mingled its bleating with the last quaverings of the clock.
She moved towards him slowly looking up to heaven, followed by the unearthly goat. He felt turned to stonetoo petrified to fly. At each step that she advanced, he fell backthat was all. In this manner he re-entered the dark vault of the stairs. He froze at the thought that she might do the same; had she done so, he would have died of horror.
She came indeed as far as the door, halted there for some moments, gazing fixedly into the darkness, but apparently without perceiving the priest, and passed on. She appeared to him taller than he remembered her in lifehe saw the moon through her white robehe heard her breath.
When she had passed by, he began to descend the stairs with the same slow step he had observed in the specterthinking himself a specter toohaggard, his hair erect, the extinguished lamp still in his hand. And as he descended the spiral stairs he distinctly heard a voice laughing and repeating in his ears: Then a spirit passed before my face, and I felt a little breath, and the hair of my flesh stood up.