Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
III. Immanis Pecoris Custos, Immanior Ipse
NOW,1 by 1482, Quasimodo had come to mans estate, and had been for several years bell-ringer at Notre Dame, by the grace of his adopted father, Claude Followwho had become archdeacon of Josas, by the grace of his liege lord, Louis de Beaumontwho, on the death of Guillaume Charier in 1472, had become Bishop of Paris, by the grace of his patron, Olivier le Daim, barber to Louis XI, King by the grace of God.
As time went on a certain indescribable bond of intimacy had formed between the bell-ringer and the church. Separated forever from the world by the double fatality of his unknown birth and his actual deformity, imprisoned since his childhood within those two impassable barriers, the unfortunate creature had grown accustomed to taking note of nothing outside the sacred walls which had afforded him a refuge within their shade. Notre Dame had been to him, as he grew up, successively the egg, the nest, his home, his country, the universe.
Certain it is that there was a sort of mysterious and pre-existent harmony between this being and this edifice. When, as a quite young child, he would drag himself about with many clumsy wrigglings and jerks in the gloom of its arches, he seemed, with his human face and beast-like limbs, the natural reptile of that dark and humid stone floor, on which the shadows of the Roman capitals fell in so many fantastic shapes.
And later, the first time he clutched mechanically at the bell-rope in the tower, clung to it and set the bell in motion, the effect to Claude, his adopted father, was that of a child whose tongue is loosened and begins to talk.
Thus, as his being unfolded itself gradually under the brooding spirit of the Cathedral; as he lived in it, slept in it, rarely went outside its walls, subject every moment to its mysterious influence, he came at last to resemble it, to blend with it and form an integral part of it. His salient angles fitted, so to speak, into the retreating angles of the edifice till he seemed not its inhabitant, but its natural tenant. He might almost be said to have taken on its shape, as the snail does that of its shell. It was his dwelling-place, his strong-hold, his husk. There existed between him and the ancient church so profound an instinctive sympathy, so many material affinities, that, in a way, he adhered to it as a tortoise to his shell. The hoary Cathedral was his carapace.
Needless to say, the reader must not accept literally the similes we are forced to employ in order to express this singular unionsymmetrical, direct, consubstantial almostbetween a human being and an edifice. Nor is it necessary to describe how minutely familiar he had become with every part of the Cathedral during so long and so absolute an intimacy. This was his own peculiar dwelling-placeno depths in it to which Quasimodo had not penetrated, no heights which he had not scaled. Many a time had he crawled up the sheer face of it with no aid but that afforded by the uneven surface of the sculpture. The towers, over whose surface he might often be seen creeping like a lizard up a perpendicular wallthose two giants, so lofty, so grim, so dangeroushad for him no terrors, no threats of vertigo or falls from giddy heights; to see them so gentle between his hands, so easy to scale, you would have said that he had tamed them. By dint of leaping and climbing, of sportively swinging himself across the abysses of the gigantic Cathedral, he had become in some sort both monkey and chamois, or like the Calabrian child that swims before it can run, whose first play-fellow is the sea.
Moreover, not only his body seemed to have fashioned itself after the Cathedral, but his mind also. In what condition was this soul of his? What impressions had it received, what form had it adopted behind that close-drawn veil, under the influence of that ungentle life, it would be hard to say. Quasimodo had been born halt, humpbacked, half-blind. With infinite trouble and unwearied patience Claude Follow had succeeded in teaching him to speak. But a fatality seemed to pursue the poor foundling. When, at the age of fourteen, he became a bell-ringer at Notre Dame, a fresh infirmity descended on him to complete his desolation: the bells had broken the drum of his ears and he became stone-deaf. The only door Nature had left for him wide open to the world was suddenly closed forever.
And in closing it cut off the sole ray of joy and sunshine which still penetrated to the soul of Quasimodo, and plunged that soul into deepest night. The melancholy of the unhappy creature became chronic and complete like his physical deformity. Besides, his deafness rendered him in some sort dumb; for, to escape being laughed at, from the moment he found he could not hear, he firmly imposed upon himself a silence which he rarely broke except when he was alone. Of his own free-will, he tied that tongue which Claude Follow had been at such pains to loosen. And hence it was that when necessity constrained him to speak, his tongue moved stiffly and awkwardly like a door on rusty hinges.
Were we to endeavour to pierce through that thick, hard rind and penetrate to Quasimodos soul; could we sound the depths of that misshapen organization; were it given to us to flash a torch into that rayless gloom, to explore the dark-some interior of that opaque structure, illumine its dim windings, its fantastic culs-de-sac, and suddenly throw a bright light on the Psyche chained in the innermost recesses of that cavern, we should doubtless find the hapless creature withered, stunted like those prisoners who grew old in the dungeons of Venice, bent double within the narrow limits of a stone chest too low and too short to permit of their stretching themselves.
It is certain that the spirit wastes in a misshapen body. Quasimodo scarcely felt within him the feeble stirrings of a soul made after his own image. His impression of objects suffered a considerable refraction before they reached his inner consciousness. His mind was a peculiar medium; the ideas that passed through it issued forth distorted. The reflection born of that refraction was necessarily divergent and crooked.
The first effect of this fatal organization was to blur his view of things. He scarcely ever received a direct impression of them; the external world seemed to him much farther off than it does from us.
The second effect of his misfortune was to render him malevolent. He was malevolent really because he was uncivilized, and he was uncivilized because he was ill-favoured. There was method in his nature as well as in ours.
However, to do him justice, this malevolence was probably not inborn in him. From his very first experience among men, he had felt, and later he had seen, himself reviled, scorned, spat upon. For him human speech had ever been either a jibe or a curse. As he grew up, he had met nothing but disgust and ill-will on every side. What wonder that he should have caught the disease, have contracted the prevailing malice. He armed himself with the weapons that had wounded him.
But, after all, he turned his face unwillingly towards mankind. His Cathedral was sufficient for him. Was it not peopled with kings, saints, and bishops of marble who never mocked at him, but ever gazed at him with calm and benevolent eyes? And the other stone figuresthe demons and monstersthey showed no hatred of Quasimodohe looked too much akin to them for that. Rather they scoffed at other men. The saints were his friends and blessed him, the monsters were his friends and protected him. So he would commune long and earnestly with them, passing whole hours crouched in front of a statue, holding solitary converse with it. If any one happened upon him, he would fly like a lover surprised in a serenade.
And the Cathedral not only represented society; it was his world, it was all Nature to him. He dreamed of no other gardens but the stained windows ever in flower, no shade but that cast by the stone foliage spreading full of birds from the tufted capitals of the Roman pillars, no mountains but the colossal towers of the Cathedral, no ocean but Paris roaring round their base.
But what he loved best of all in that material edifice, that which awakened his soul and set the poor wings fluttering that lay so sadly folded when in that dreary dungeon, what brought him nearest to happiness, was the bells. He loved them, fondled them, talked to them, understood them. From the carillon in the transept steeple to the great bell over the central doorway, they all shared in his affection. The transept belfry and the two towers were to him three great cages, the birds in which, taught by him, would sing for him alone. Yet it was these same bells which had made him deaf; but mothers are often fondest of the child who has made them suffer most.
True, theirs were the only voices he could still hear. For this reason the great bell was his best beloved. She was his chosen one among that family of boisterous sisters who gambolled round him in high-days and holidays. This great bell was called Marie. She was alone in the southern tower with her sister Jacqueline, a bell of smaller calibre, hanging in a cage beside hers. This Jacqueline had been christened after the wife of Jean Montagu, who had given it to the churcha donation which had not prevented him from figuring at Montfaucon without his head. In the northern tower were six other bells, and six smaller ones shared the transept belfry with the wooden bell, which was only rung from the afternoon of Maundy Thursday till the morning of Easter eve. Quasimodo had thus fifteen bells in his seraglio, but big Marie was the favourite. What words shall describe his delight on the days when the full peal was rung? The moment the Archdeacon gave the word, he was up the spiral stair-case of the steeple quicker than any one else would have come down. He entered breathless into the aerial chamber of the great bell, gazed at her for a moment with doting fondness, then spoke softly to her and patted her as you would a good steed before starting on a long journey; sympathizing with her in the heavy task that lay before her. These preliminary caresses over, he called out to his assistants, waiting ready in the lower floor of the tower, to begin. These hung themselves to the ropes, the windlass creaked, and the huge metal dome set itself slowly in motion. Quasimodo, quivering with excitement, followed it with his eye. The first stroke of the clapper against its brazen wall shook the wood-work on which he was standing. Quasimodo vibrated with the bell. Vah! he shouted with a burst of insane laughter. Meanwhile the motion of the bell quickened, and in the same measure as it took a wider sweep, so the eye of Quasimodo opened more and more and blazed with a phosphorescent light.
At length the full peal began; the whole lower wood-work and blocks of stone trembled and groaned together from the piles of the foundation to the trefoils on its summit. Quasimodo, foaming at the mouth, ran to and fro, quivering with the tower from head to foot. The bell, now in full and furious swing, presented alternately to each wall of the tower its brazen maw, from which poured forth that tempestuous breath which could be heard four leagues distant. Quasimodo placed himself in front of this gaping throat, crouched down and rose again at each return of the bell, inhaled its furious breath, gazed in turn at the teeming square two hundred feet below and at the enormous brazen tongue which came at measured intervals to bellow in his ear. It was the only speech he understood, the only sound that broke for him the universal silence. He revelled in it like a bird in the sunshine.
Then, at a certain point, the frenzy of the bell would catch him; his expression grew strange and weird; waiting for the bell on its passage as a spider watches for the fly, he would fling himself headlong upon it. Then, suspended over the abyss, borne to and fro by the tremendous rush of the bell, he seized the brazen monster by its ears, pressed it between his two knees, dug his heels into it, and increased by the shock and the whole weight of his body the fury of the peal, till the tower rocked again. Meanwhile Quasimodo, shouting and gnashing his teeth, his red hair bristling, his chest heaving like a blacksmiths bellows, his eye darting flames, his monstrous steed neighing and panting under himit was no longer the great bell of Notre Dame or Quasimodo, it was a nightmare, a whirlwind, a tempest; Vertigo astride of Clamour; a spirit clinging to a flying saddle; a strange centaur, half man, half bell; a sort of horrible Astolpho carried off by a prodigious living hippogriff of bronze.
The presence of this extraordinary being sent, as it were, a breath of life pulsing through the whole Cathedral. There seemed to emanate from himat least so said the exaggerating populacea mysterious influence which animated the stones of Notre Dame and made the ancient church thrill to her deepest depths. To know that he was there was enough to make them believe they saw life and animation in the thousand statues of the galleries and portals. The old Cathedral did indeed seem docile and obedient to his hand; she awaited his command to lift up her sonorous voice; she was possessed and filled with Quasimodo as with a familiar spirit. You would have said that he made the immense building breathe. He was everywhere in it; he multiplied himself at every point of the structure. Now the terrified beholder would descry, on the topmost pinnacle of a tower, a fantastic, dwarfish figure climbing, twisting, crawling on all-fours, hanging over the abyss, leaping from projection to projection to thrust his arm down the throat of some sculptured gorgon; it was Quasimodo crows-nesting. Again, in some dim corner of the church one would stumble against a sort of living chimera crouching low, with sullen, furrowed brow: it was Quasimodo musing. Or again, in a steeple you caught sight of an enormous head and a bundle of confused limbs swinging furiously at the end of a rope: it was Quasimodo ringing for vespers or angelus. Often at night a hideous form might be seen wandering along the delicate and lace-like parapet that crowns the towers and borders the roof of the chancel: again the hunchback of Notre Dame. At such times, said the gossips, the whole church assumed a horrible, weird, and supernatural air; eyes and mouths opened here and there; the stone dogs, the dragons, all the monsters that keep watch and ward, day and night, with necks distended and open mouths, round the huge Cathedral, were heard barking and hissing. And if it happened to be a Christmas-night when the great bell seemed to rattle in its throat as it called the faithful to the midnight mass, there was such an indescribable air of life spread over the sombre façade that the great door-way looked as if it were swallowing the entire crowd, and the rose-window staring at them. And all this proceeded from Quasimodo. Egypt would have declared him the god of this temple; the Middle Ages took him for its demon: he was its soul.
So much so, that to any one who knows that Quasimodo really lived, Notre Dame now appears deserted, inanimate, dead. One feels that something has gone out of it. This immense body is emptya skeleton; the spirit has quitted it; one sees the place of its habitation, but that is all. It is like a skullthe holes are there for the eyes, but they are sightless.