Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
II. La Creatura Bella Bianco VestitaDante
WHEN Quasimodo saw that the cell was empty, that the gipsy girl was gone, that while he was defending her she had been carried off, he clutched his hair with both hands, and stamped with surprise and grief; and then set off running, searching the Cathedral from top to bottom for his gipsy, uttering strange unearthly cries, strewing the pavement with his red hair. It was the very moment at which the Kings archers forced their victorious way into Notre Dame, likewise on the hunt for the gipsy. Poor deaf Quasimodo, never suspecting their sinister intentions (he took the truands to be the enemies of the gipsy girl), did his utmost to assist them. It was he who led Tristan lHermite into every possible nook and cranny, opened secret doors, double bottoms of altars, hidden sacristies. Had the unhappy girl still been there, it would have been Quasimodo himself who betrayed her into the hands of the soldiers.
When Tristan, who was not easily discouraged, gave up the search as hopeless, Quasimodo continued it alone. Twenty times, a hundred times over, did he go through the church, from end to end, from top to bottom; ascending, descending, running here, calling there, peering, searching, thrusting his head into every hole, holding up a torch under every vault, desperate, frenzied, moaning like a beast that has lost his mate.
At length, when he had made himself surequite, quite surethat she was gone, that it had come to the worst, that they had stolen her from him, he slowly reascended the lower stairsthose stairs which he had mounted so nimbly and triumphantly on the day he had saved her. He now went over the same ground with dejectedly drooping head, voiceless, tearless, with bated breath. The church was once more solitary and silent. The archers had quitted it to pursue their search for the sorceress in the city. Quasimodo, left alone now in the vast Cathedral, so thronged and tumultuous but a moment before, made his way to the cell where the gipsy girl had slept for so many weeks under his watchful protection.
As he drew near it he tried to delude himself that he might find her there after all. When, on reaching the bend of the gallery that looks down on the roof of the side aisle, he could see the narrow cell with its little window and its little door, lying close under one of the great buttresses, like a birds nest under a bough, the poor creatures heart failed him, and he had to lean against the pillar to save himself from falling. He pictured to himself that perchance she had returned; that some good genius had brought her back; that this little nest was too quiet, too safe, too cosy for her not to be there; and he dared not venture a step nearer for fear of dispelling his illusion. Yes, he said to himself, may-be she sleeps, or she is at her prayers. I will not disturb her.
At last he summoned up courage, advanced on tip-toe, looked in, entered. Empty! The cell was still empty. Slowly the unhappy man made the tour of the little place, lifted up her pallet and looked beneath it, as if she could be hiding between it and the stone floor, shook his head, and stood staring stupidly. Suddenly he furiously stamped out his torch, and without uttering a word or breathing a sigh, he hurled himself with all his strength head-foremost against the wall and fell senseless to the ground.
When he came to himself, he flung himself on the bed, rolling on it and pressing frenzied kisses on the pillow, which still bore the imprint of her head. Here he lay for some minutes, motionless as the dead, then rose, panting, crazed, and fell to beating his head against the wall with the appalling regularity of the stroke of a clock and the resolution of a man determined to break his skull. At length he dropped down exhausted, then crawled outside the cell, and remained crouching, motionless, opposite to the door for a full hour, his eyes fixed on the deserted cell, sunk in a gloomier, more mournful reverie than a mother seated between an empty cradle and a tenanted coffin. He spoke no word; only at intervals a deep sob convulsed his whole frame, but a sob that brought no tears, like the silent flashes of summer lightning.
It was then that, striving amid his despairing memories to divine who could possibly have been the unforeseen ravisher of the gipsy girl, the thought of the Archdeacon flashed into his mind. He remembered that Dom Claude alone possessed a key of the stair-case leading to the cell; he recalled his nocturnal attempts upon Esmeralda, the first of which he Quasimodo, had assisted, the second prevented. He called to mind a thousand various details, and soon was convinced that it was the Archdeacon who had taken the gipsy from him. Nevertheless, such was his reverence for the priest, so deeply were gratitude, devotion, and love for this man rooted in his heart, that they resisted, even at this supreme moment, the fangs of jealousy and despair. The moment that Claude Frollo was concerned, the bloodthirsty, deadly resentment he would have felt against any other individual was turned in the poor bell-ringers breast simply into an increase of his sorrow.
At the moment when his thoughts were thus fixed upon the priest, as the dawn was beginning to gleam upon the buttresses, he beheld on the upper storey of the Cathedral, at the angle of the balustrade that runs round the outside of the chancel, a figure advancing in his direction. He recognised itit was the Archdeacon.
Claude was moving with a slow and heavy step. He did not look before him as he walked, his face was turned aside towards the right bank of the Seine, and he held his head up as if endeavouring to obtain a view of something across the roofs. The owl has often that sidelong attitude, flying in one direction while it gazes in another. In this manner the priest passed along above Quasimodo without catching sight of him.
The deaf spectator, petrified by this sudden apparition, saw the figure disappear through the door leading to the stair of the northern tower, which, as the reader is aware, commands a view of the Hôtel-de-Ville.
Quasimodo rose and followed the Archdeacon, mounting the stair after him to find out why the priest was going there. Not that the poor bell-ringer had any definite idea of what he himself was going to do or say, or even what he wanted. He was full of rage and full of dread. The Archdeacon and the Egyptian clashed together in his heart.
On reaching the top of the tower, and before issuing from the shade of the stair-case, he cautiously investigated the position of the priest. The Archdeacon had his back towards him. An openwork balustrade surrounds the platform of the steeple; the priest, whose eyes were fixed upon the town, was leaning forward against that side of the square balustrade which faces the Pont Notre Dame.
With noiseless tread Quasimodo stole up behind him, to see what he was so intently gazing at, and the priests attention was so entirely absorbed elsewhere that he did not hear the step of the hunchback near him.
It is a magnificent and enchanting spectacleand yet more so in those daysthat view of Paris from the summit of the towers of Notre Dame, in the sparkling light of a summers dawn. It must have been a day early in July. The sky was perfectly serene; a few lingering stars, here and there, were slowly fading, and eastward, in the clearest part of the sky, hung one of great brilliancy. The sun was on the point of rising. Paris was beginning to stir, the endless variety of outline presented by its buildings on the eastern side showing up vividly in the singularly pure white light, while the gigantic shadow of the steeples crept from roof to roof, traversing the great city from one end to the other. Already voices and sounds were arising in several quarters of the town; here the clang of a bell, there the stroke of a hammer, elsewhere the complicated clatter of a cart in motion. The smoke from chimneys curled up here and there out of the mass of roofs, as if through the fissures of some great solfatara. The river, swirling its waters under its many bridges, round the points of innumerable islands, was diapered in shimmering silver. Around the city, outside the ramparts, the view melted into a great circle of fleecy vapour, through which the indefinite line of the plain and the soft undulation of the hills were faintly visible. All sorts of indeterminate sounds floated over the half-awakened city. In the east, a few downy white flakes, plucked from the misty mantle of the hills, fled across the sky before the morning breeze.
Down in the Parvis, some housewives, milk-pot in hand, were pointing out to one another in astonishment the extraordinary condition of the great door of Notre Dame, and the two streams of lead congealed between the fissures of the stones. This was all that remained of the tumult of the night before. The pile kindled by Quasimodo between the towers was extinct. Tristan had already cleared the débris from the Place and thrown the bodies into the Seine. Kings like Louis XI are careful to clean the pavements with all expedition after a massacre.
Outside the balustrade of the tower, immediately underneath the spot where the priest had taken up his position, was one of those fantastically carved gargoyles which diversify the exterior of Gothic buildings, and in a crevice of it, two graceful sprigs of wall-flower in full bloom were tossing, and, as if inspired with life by the breath of the morning, made sportive salutation to each other, while from over the towers, far up in the sky, came the shrill twittering of birds.
But the priest neither saw nor heard anything of all this. He was one of those men for whom there are neither mornings, nor birds, nor flowers. In that immense horizon spread around him, in such infinite variety of aspect, his gaze was concentrated upon one single point.
Quasimodo burned to ask him what he had done with the gipsy girl; but the Archdeacon seemed at that moment altogether beyond this world. He was evidently in one of those crucial moments of life when the earth itself might fall in ruins without our perceiving it.
With his eyes unwaveringly fixed upon a certain spot, he stood motionless and silent; but in that silence and that immobility there was something so appalling that the dauntless bell-ringer shuddered at the sight, and dared not disturb him. All that he didand it was one way of interrogating the priestwas to follow the direction of his gaze, so that in this way the eye of the poor hunchback was guided to the Place de Grève.
Thus he suddenly discovered what the priest was looking at. A ladder was placed against the permanent gibbet; there were some people in the Place and a number of soldiers; a man was dragging along the ground something white, to which something black was clinging; the man halted at the foot of the gibbet.
Here something took place which Quasimodo could not very distinctly see; not that his eye had lost its singularly long vision, but that there was a body of soldiers in the way, which prevented him seeing everything. Moreover, at that instant the sun rose and sent such a flood of light over the horizon that it seemed as if every point of Parisspires, chimneys, gableswere taking fire at once.
Now the man began to mount the ladder, and Quasimodo saw him again distinctly. He was carrying a female figure over his shouldera girlish figure in white; there was a noose round the girls neck. Quasimodo recognised her. It was She!
Suddenly the man kicked away the ladder with his heel, and Quasimodo, who for some minutes had not drawn a breath, saw the hapless girl, with the feet of the man pressing upon her shoulders, swinging from the end of the rope, some feet from the ground. The rope made several turns upon itself, and Quasimodo beheld horrible contortions jerking the body of the gipsy girl. The priest, meanwhile, with out-stretched neck and starting eyeballs, contemplated this frightful group of the man and the girlthe spider and the fly!
Quasimodo did not hear that laugh, but he saw it. Retreating a few paces behind the Archdeacon, the hunchback suddenly made a rush at him, and with his two great hands against Dom Claudes back, thrust him furiously into the abyss over which he had been leaning.
The stone gargoyle under the balustrade broke his fall. He clung to it with a frantic grip, and opened his mouth to utter a cry for help; but at the same moment the formidable and avenging face of Quasimodo rose over the edge of the balustrade above himand he was silent.
Beneath him was the abyss, a fall of full two hundred feet and the pavement. In this dreadful situation the Archdeacon said not a word, breathed not a groan. He writhed upon the gargoyle, making incredible efforts to climb up it; but his hand slipped on the smooth granite, his feet scraped the blackened wall without gaining a foothold. Those who have ascended the towers of Notre Dame know that the stone-work swells out immediately beneath the balustrade. It was on the retreating curve of this ridge that the wretched priest was exhausting his efforts. It was not even with a perpendicular wall that he was contending, but with one that sloped away under him.
The hunchback was leaning, with his elbows on the balustrade, in the very place where the Archdeacon had been a moment before; and there, keeping his eye fixed on the only object that existed for him at that moment, he stood mute and motionless as a statue, save for the long stream of tears that flowed from that eye which, until then, had never shed but one.
Meanwhile the Archdeacon panted and struggled, drops of agony pouring from his bald forehead, his nails torn and bleeding on the stones, his knees grazed against the wall. He heard his soutane, which had caught on a projection of the stone rain-pipe, tear away at each movement he made. To complete his misfortune, the gutter itself ended in a leaden pipe which he could feel slowly bending under the weight of his body, and the wretched man told himself that when his hands should be worn out with fatigue, when his cassock should be rent asunder, when that leaden pipe should be completely bent, he must of necessity fall, and terror gripped his vitals. Once or twice he had wildly looked down upon a sort of narrow ledge formed, some ten feet below him, by the projection of the sculpture, and he implored Heaven, from the bottom of his agonized soul, to be allowed to spend the remainder of his life on that space of two feet square, though it were to last a hundred years. Once he ventured to look down into the Place, but when he lifted his head again his eyes were closed and his hair stood erect.
The Archdeacon, finding that his struggles to raise himself only served to bend the one feeble point of support that remained to him, at length resolved to remain still. There he hung, clinging to the rain-pipe, scarcely drawing breath, with no other motion but the mechanical contractions of the body we feel in dreams when we imagine we are falling. His eyes were fixed and wide in a stare of pain and bewilderment. Little by little he felt himself going; his fingers slipped upon the stone; he was conscious more and more of the weakness of his arm and the weight of his body; the piece of lead strained ever farther downward.
Beneath himfrightful visionhe saw the sharp roof of Saint-Jean-le-Rond like a card bent double. One by one he looked at the impassive sculptured figures round the tower, suspended, like himself, over the abyss, but without terror for themselves or pity for him. All about him was stonethe grinning monsters before his eyes; below, in the Place, the pavement; over his head, Quasimodo.
Down in the Parvis a group of worthy citizens were staring curiously upward, and wondering what madman it could be amusing himself after so strange a fashion. The priest could hear them say, for their voices rose clear and shrill in the quiet air: He will certainly break his neck!
At length the priest, foaming with impotent rage and terror, felt that all was unavailing, but gathered what strength still remained to him for one final effort. He drew himself up by the gutter, thrust himself out from the wall by both knees, dug his hands in a cleft of the stone-work, and managed to scramble up about one foot higher; but the force he was obliged to use made the leaden beak that supported him bend suddenly downward, and the strain rent his cassock through. Then, finding everything giving way under him, having only his benumbed and powerless hands by which to cling to anything, the wretched man closed his eyes, loosened his hold, and dropped.
Quasimodo watched him falling. A fall from such a height is rarely straight. The priest launched into space, fell at first head downward and his arms outstretched, then turned over on himself several times. The wind drove him against the roof of a house, where the unhappy man got his first crashing shock. He was not dead, however, and the hunchback saw him grasp at the gable to save himself; but the slope was too sheer, his strength was exhausted: he slid rapidly down the roof, like a loosened tile, and rebounded on to the pavement. There he lay motionless at last.
Quasimodo returned his gaze to the gipsy girl, whose body, dangling in its white robe from the gibbet, he beheld from afar quivering in the last agonies of death; then he let it drop once more on the Archdeacon, lying in a shapeless heap at the foot of the tower, and with a sigh that heaved his deep chest, he murmured: Oh! all that I have ever loved!