Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
III. The Story of a Wheaten Cake
AT the time at which the events of this story occurred, the cell of the Tour-Roland was occupied, and if the reader desires to know by whom, he has only to listen to the conversation of three worthy gossips, who, at the moment when we attracted his attention to the Rat-Hole, were directing their steps to that very spot, going along the river-side from the Châtelet towards the Place de Grève.
Two of these women were dressed after the fashion of the good burgher wives of Paris; their fine white gorgets, striped red and blue woollen kirtles, white knitted hose with embroidered clocks, trimly pulled up over their legs, their square-toed shoes of tan-coloured leather with black soles, and above all, their head-dressa sort of tinsel-covered horn, loaded with ribbons and lace, still worn by the women of Champagne, and the Grenadiers of the Russian imperial guardproclaimed them to belong to that class of rich tradeswomen who hold the medium between what servants call a woman and what they call a lady. They wore neither rings nor gold crosses; but it was easy to perceive that this was owing not to poverty, but simply out of fear of the fine incurred by so doing. Their companions dress was very much the same; but there was in her appearance and manner an indefinable something which betrayed the wife of the country notary. Her way of wearing her girdle so high above her hips would alone have proved that it was long since she had been in Paris, without mentioning that her gorget was plaited, that she wore knots of ribbon on her shoes, that the stripes of her kirtle ran round instead of down and a dozen other crimes against the prevailing mode.
The first two walked with that air peculiar to Parisiennes showing the town to country cousins. The countrywoman held by the hand a chubby little boy, who in his hand held a big wheaten cakeand we regret to have to add that, owing to the inclemency of the weather, he was using his tongue as a pocket-handkerchief.
The boy let himself be dragged alongnon passibus aquis, as Virgil sayswith uneven steps, stumbling every minute, to the great annoyance of his mother. It is true that he looked oftener at the cake than on the ground. Some very serious reason must have prevented him from biting into the cake, for he contented himself with merely gazing at it affectionately. But the mother would have done better to take charge of the tempting morsel herself. It was cruel to make a Tantalus of poor chubby-cheeks.
We must hasten, Damoiselle Mahiette, said the youngest of the three, who was also the fattest, to their country friend. I fear me we shall be too late. They told us at the Châtelet that he was to be carried to the pillory immediately.
Ahbah! What are you talking about, Damoiselle Oudarde Musnier? returned the other Parisienne. He will be a good two hours on the pillory. We have plenty of time. Have you ever seen anybody pilloried, my dear Mahiette?
Nobody but clowns! cried Mahiette. In the Cloth-Market at Reims! Let me tell you, we have had some very fine criminals therewho had killed father and mother! Clowns indeed! What do you take me for, Gervaise?
And there is no doubt the country lady was on the point of flying into a rage for this disparagement of her pillory, but fortunately the discreet Damoiselle Oudarde Musnier turned the conversation in time.
Ah, my dear, interrupted country Mahiette, assuming in her turn an air of superiority, what would you have said then, if you had seen the horses of the Princess and the whole retinue of the King at the coronation at Reims in 61twenty-one years ago! Such housings and caparisons! Some of Damascus cloth, fine cloth of gold, and lined with sable fur; others of velvet and ermine; others heavy with goldsmiths work and great tassels of gold and silver! And the money that it must all have cost! And the beautiful pages riding them!
But for all that, replied Damoiselle Oudarde dryly, the Flemings have splendid horses; and yesterday a sumptuous supper was given them by Monsieur the Provost-Merchant at the Hôtel-de-Ville, at which sweetmeats, and hippocras, and spices, and the like delicacies, were set before them.
I know that it was at the Hôtel-de-Ville, retorted Oudarde sharply, for the very good reason that Doctor Scourable made them a speech in Latin, with which they were very well satisfied. My husband told me, and he is one of the sworn booksellers.
And I know that it was at the Petit-Bourbon, responded Gervaise no less warmly, for I can tell you exactly what my Lord Cardinals purveyor set before them: twelve double quarts of hippocras, white, pale, and red; twenty-four boxes of gilded double marchpanes of Lyons; four-and-twenty wax torches of two pounds apiece; and six demi-hogsheads of Beaune wine, both white and yellow, the best that could be procured. I hope thats proof enough! I have it from my husband, whos Captain of the fifty guards at the Châtelet, who only this morning was making a comparison between the Flemish Ambassadors and those of Prester John and the Emperor of Trebizonde, who came to Paris from Mesopotamia and wore rings in their ears.
True, said Gervaise. I hear a tambourine. I think it must be little Esmeralda doing tricks with her goat. Quick, Mahiette, mend your pace and bring your boy! You came to see the sights of Paris. Yesterday you saw the Flemings; to-day you must see the gipsy.
And she set off running along the quay towards the Grève till she had left the bridge far behind her. Presently the boy, whom she dragged rapidly after her, stumbled and fell on his knees. She drew up breathless, and Oudarde and Gervaise were able to join her.
Oudarde nodded. Yes, the very one. You will see her directly at her window looking on the Grève. She thinks the same as you about these vagabonds of Egypt that go about with their tambourines and fortune-telling. Nobody knows why she has this abhorrence of Zingari and Egyptians. But you, Mahiette, why should you run away at the mere sight of them?
Willingly, returned Mahiette, but it is very evident that you have lived in Paris not to know it! Well, you must knowbut there is no need for us to stand still while I tell you the storythat Paquette la Chantefleurie was a pretty girl of eighteen when I too was onethat is to say, eighteen years agoand has had only herself to blame if shes not, like me, a buxom, hearty woman of six-and-thirty, with a husband and a fine boy. But there!from the time she was fourteen it was too late! I must tell you, then, that she was the daughter of Guybertaut, a boat-minstrel at Reims, the same that played before King Charles VII at his coronation, when he went down our river Vesle from Sillery to Muison, and had Mme. la Pucellethe Maid of Orleansin the same boat with him. The old father died when Paquette was quite little, so she had only her mother, who was sister to M. Pradon, a master-brasier and tinsmith in Paris, Rue Parin-Garlin, and who died last yearso you see, she was of good family. The mother was a simple, easy-going creature, unfortunately, and never taught her anything really usefuljust a little needlework and toy-making, which did not prevent her growing tall and strong, and remaining very poor. They lived together at Reims, by the river-side, in the Rue de Folle-Peinemark that!for I believe that is what brought trouble to Paquette. Well, in 61the year of the Coronation of our King Louis XI, whom God preserve!Paquette was so gay and so fair that she was known far and wide as La Chantefleuriepoor girl! She had pretty teeth, and she was fond of laughing, to show them. Now, a girl who is overfond of laughing is well on the way to tears; pretty teeth are the ruin of pretty eyesand thus it befell Chantefleurie. She and her mother had a hard struggle to gain a living; they had sunk very low since the fathers deaththeir needlework brought them in barely six deniers a week, which is not quite two liards. Time was when Guybertaut had got twelve sols parisis at a coronation for a single song! One winterit was that same year of 61the two women had not a log or a fagot, and it was very cold, and this gave Chantefleurie such a beautiful colour in her cheeks that the men all looked after her and she was ruined.Eustache! just led me see you take a bite out of that cake!We saw in a moment that she was ruined when one Sunday she came to church with a gold cross on her neck. At fourteenwhat do you say to that? The first was the young Vicomte de Cormontreuil, whose castle is about three-quarters of a mile from Reims; then it was Messire Henri de Triancourt, the Kings outrider; then, coming down the scale, Chiart de Beaulion, a man-at-arms! then, still lower, Guery Aubergeon, kings carver; then Macè de Frèpus, barber to Monsieur the Dauphin; then Thèvenin le Moine, one of the royal cooks; then, still going down, from the young to the old, from high to low birth, she fell to Guillaume Racine, viol player, and to Thierry de Mer, lamp-maker. After that, poor Chantefleurie, she became all things to all men and had come to her last sou. What think you, damoiselle, at the coronation, in that same year 61, it was she who made the bed for the chief of the bawdies!in that same year! Mahiette sighed and wiped away a tear.
Patience, returned Mahiette; as for the child, I am just coming to that. In 66, sixteen years ago this month, on Saint-Pauls day, Paquette was brought to bed of a little girl. Poor creature, she was overjoyedshe had long craved to have a child. Her mother, foolish woman, who had never done anything but close her eyes to what was going on, her mother was dead. Paquette had no one in the world to love or to love her. For the five years since she had fallen, poor Paquette had been a miserable creature. She was alone, all alone in the world, pointed at, shouted at through the streets, beaten by the sergeants, and jeered at by little ragged boys. Besides, she was already twenty, and twenty means old age for a courtesan. Her frailty now began to bring her in no more than did her needlework formerly; for every line in her face she lost a crown in her pocket. Winter came hard to her again, wood was growing scarce in her fire-place and bread in her cupboard. She could not work, because, by giving way to pleasure she had given way to idleness, and she felt hardships the more because by giving way to idleness she had given way to pleasure. At least, that is how Monsieur the Curé of Saint-Rémy explains why those sort of women feel cold and hunger more than other poor females do when they get old.
Wait a moment, Gervaise, said Oudarde, who was of a less impatient temperament; what should we have at the end if everything was at the beginning? Go on, Mahiette, I pray you. Alas, poor Chantefleurie!
Well, Mahiette continued, so she was very sad and very wretched, and her cheeks grew hollow with her perpetual tears. But in all her shame, her infamy, her loneliness, she felt she would be less ashamed, less infamous, less deserted, if only there was something or somebody in the world she could love, or that would love her. She knew it would have to be a child, for only a child could be ignorant enough for that. This she had come to see after trying to love a robberthe only man who would have anything to do with herbut in a little while she found that even the robber despised her. These light-o-loves must needs always have a lover or a child to fill their hearts, or they are most unhappy. As she could not get a lover, all her desire turned towards having a child; and, as she had all along been pious, she prayed unceasingly to God to send her one. So God took compassion on her and sent her a little girl. I will not try to describe to you her joyit was a passion of tears and kisses and caresses. She suckled it herself, and made swaddling-bands for it out of her coverletthe only one she had upon her bed, but now she felt neither cold nor hunger. Her beauty came back to heran old maid makes a young motherand poor Chantefleurie went back to her old trade and found customers for her wares, and laid out the wages of her sin in swaddling-clothes and bibs and tuckers, lace robes, and little satin capswithout so much as a thought for a new coverlet for herself.
Master Eustache, did I not tell you not to eat that cake?In truth, the little Agnès, that was the childs nameits baptismal name, for, as to a surname, it was long since Chantefleurie had lost hersin very truth, the little one was more of a mass of ribbons and broideries than ever a dauphiness of Dauphiny! Among other things, she had a pair of little shoes such as King Louis himself never had the like. Her mother had stitched them and embroidered them herself, bestowing upon them all her art and the ornament that ought more properly to belong to a robe for Our Lady. In good sooth, they were the prettiest little rose-coloured shoes that ever were seen; no longer at most than my thumb, and unless you saw the babes little feet come out of them, you never would have believed that they could get in. To be sure the little feet were so small, so pretty, so rosy!rosier than the satin of the shoes! When you have children of your own, Oudarde, you will know that there is nothing in the world so pretty as those little hands and feet.
However, resumed Mahiette, pretty feet were not the only beauty that Paquettes child possessed. I saw her when she was four months olda chuck!with eyes bigger than her mouth, and beautiful soft, black hair that curled already. She would have made a fine brunette at sixteen! Her mother loved her more day by day. She hugged and kissed and fondled her, washed her, tricked her out in all her finery, devoured herone moment half-crazed, the next thanking God for the gift of this babe. But its pretty rosy feet were her chief delight and wondera very delirium of joy! She was forever pressing her lips to them, forever marvelling at their smallness. She would put them into the little shoes, take them out again, wonder at them, hold them up to the light; she was sorry even to teach them to take a step or two on her bed, and would gladly have passed the rest of her life on her knees, covering and uncovering those little feet, like those of an Infant Jesus.
Here, replied Mahiette. One day there came to Reims some very outlandish sort of gentrybeggars and vagabondswandering about the country, led by their dukes and counts. Their faces were sun-burnt, their hair all curling, and they had silver rings in their ears. The women were even more ill-favoured than the men. Their faces were blacker and always uncovered, their only clothing an old woolen cloth tied over their shoulders, and a sorry rocket under that, and the hair hanging loose like a horses tail. The children that scrambled about between their feet would have frightened the monkeys. An excommunicated band! They had come direct from Lower Egypt to Reims by way of Poland. The Pope had confessed them, so they said, and had laid on them the penance of wandering for seven years through the world without ever sleeping in a bed. So they called themselves penitents and stank most horribly. It would seem they had formerly been Saracens, and that is why they believed in Jupiter, and demanded ten lives tournois from all Archbishops, Bishops, and Abbots endowed with crosier and mitre. It was a bull of the Pope that got them that. They came to Reims to tell fortunes in the name of the King of Algiers, and the Emperor of Germany. As you may suppose, that was quite enough for them to be forbidden to enter the town. Then the whole band encamped without demur near the Braine gate, upon that mound where theres a wind-mill, close by the old chalk-pits. And of course all Reims was agog to see them. They looked in your hand, and prophesied most wonderful thingsthey were quite bold enough to have foretold to Judas that he would be Pope. At the same time, there were ugly stories about themof stolen children, and cutpurses, and the eating of human flesh. The prudent warned the foolish, and said, Go not near them! and then went themselves by stealth. Everybody was carried away by it. In sober truth, they told you things to have amazed a Cardinal! The mothers made much of their children after the gipsy women had read in their hands all manner of miracles written in Pagan and in Turkish. One had an Emperor, another a Pope, a third a Captain. Poor Chantefleurie caught the fever of curiosity. She wanted to know what she had got, and whether her pretty little Agnès would not one day be Empress of Armenia or the like. So she carried her to the Egyptians, and the Egyptian women admired the child, fondled it, kissed it with their black mouths, and were lost in wonder over its little handsalas! to the great joy of its mother. Above all, they were delighted with its pretty feet and pretty shoes. The child was not yet a year old, and was just beginning to prattle a word or twolaughed and crowed at her motherwas fat and round, and had a thousand little gestures of the angels in Paradise. The child was frightened at the black gipsy woman, and cried; but the mother only kissed her the more, and carried her away, overjoyed at the good fortune the prophetess had foretold to her Agnès. She would become a famous beautya wondera queen. So she returned to her garret in the Rue Folle-Peine, proud to bring back with her a queen. The next day she seized a moment when the child was asleep on her bedfor it always slept with herleft the door ajar, and ran to tell a neighbour in the Rue de la Séchesserie that the day would come when her daughter Agnès would be served at her table by the King of England and the Duke of Ethiopia, and a hundred other surprises. On her return, hearing no sound as she mounted her stair, she said, Good, the child is still asleep. She found the door more open than she had left it; she entered, and ran to the bedpoor mother!the child was gone, the place empty. There was no trace left of the child, excepting one of its little shoes. She fled out of the room and down the stairs and began beating her head against the wall, crying: My child! Who has my child? Who has taken my child from me? The street was empty, the house stood by itself, no one could tell her anything. She hastened through the city, searching every street, running hither and thither the whole day, mad, distraught, terrible to behold, looking in at every door and every window like a wild beast robbed of its young. She was breathless, dishevelled, terrifying, with a flame in her eyes that dried her tears. She stopped the passers-by and cried, My child! my child! my pretty little girl! To him who will restore my child to me I will be a servant, the servant of his dogand he may eat my heart if he will! She met Monsieur the Curé of Saint-Rémy, and to him she said: Monsieur the Curé, I will dig the earth with my nails, but give me back my child! Oudarde, it was heart-rending, and I saw a very hard man, Maître Ponce Lacabre the attorney, shedding tears. Ah, the poor mother! At night she returned to her home. During her absence, a neighbour had seen two Egyptian women steal up her stair with a bundle in their arms, then come down again after closing the door, and hasten away. Afterward she had heard something that sounded like a childs cry from Paquettes room. The mother broke into mad laughter, sprang up the stair as if she had wings, burst open the door like an explosion of artillery, and entered the room. Horrible to relate, Oudarde, instead of her sweet little Agnès, so rosy and fresh, a gift from Heaven, a sort of hideous little monster, crippled, one-eyed, all awry, was crawling and whimpering on the floor. She covered her eyes in horror.
Ah! she cried, can these sorceresses have changed my little girl into this frightful beast? They removed the misshapen lump as quickly as possible out of her sight; it would have driven her mad. It was a boy, the monstrous offspring of some Egyptian woman and the Foul Fiend, about four years old, and speaking a language like no human tongue, impossible to understand. La Chantefleurie had thrown herself upon the little shoe, all that remained to her of her hearts delight, and lay so long motionless, without a word or a breath, that we thought she was dead. But suddenly her whole body began to tremble, and she fell to covering her relic with frantic kisses, sobbing the while as if her heart would break. I do assure you, we were all weeping with her as she cried: Oh, my little girl! my pretty little girl! where art thou? It rent the very soul to hear her; I weep now when I think of it. Our children, look you, are the very marrow of our bones.My poor little Eustache, thou too art so beautiful!Could you but know how clever he is! It was but yesterday he said to me, Mother, I want to be a soldier.Oh, my Eustache, what if I were to lose thee!Well, of a sudden, La Chantefleurie sprang to her feet and ran through the streets of the town crying: To the camp of the Egyptians! to the camp of the Egyptians! Sergeants, to burn the witches! The Egyptians were gonedeep night had fallen, and they could not be pursued. Next day, two leagues from Reims, on a heath between Gueux and Tilloy, were found the remains of a great fire, some ribbons that had belonged to Paquettes child, some drops of blood, and goats dung. The night just past had been that of Saturday. Impossible to doubt that the gipsies had kept their Sabbath on this heath, and had devoured the infant in company with Beelzebub, as is the custom among the Mahometans. When La Chantefleurie heard of these horrible things she shed no tear, her lips moved as if to speak, but no words came. On the morrow her hair was gray, and the day after that she had disappeared.
And as sure, added Gervaise, that theyve teeth long enough to eat little children. And I would not be surprised if La Esmeralda did a little of that eating, for all she purses up her mouth so small. That white goat of hers knows too many cunning tricks that there should not be some devilry behind it.
Mahiette pursued her way in silence, sunk in that kind of reverie which is in some sort a prolongation of any pitiful tale, and does not cease till it has spread its emotion, wave upon wave, to the innermost recesses of the heart.
And was it never known what became of La Chantefleurie? asked Gervaise. But Mahiette made no reply till Gervaise, repeating her question, and shaking her by the arm, seemed to awaken her from her musings.
What became of Chantefleurie? said she, mechanically repeating the words just fresh in her ear; then, with an effort, to recall her attention to their sense: Ah, she added quickly, that was never known.
After a pause she went on: Some said they had seen her leave the town in the dusk by the Fléchembault gate; others, at the break of day by the old Basée gate. A poor man found her gold cross hung upon the stone cross in the field where the fair is held. It was that trinket that had ruined her in 6Ia gift from the handsome Vicomte de Cormontreuil, her first lover. Paquette would never part with it, even in her greatest povertyshe clung to it as to her life. So, seeing this cross abandoned, we all thought she must be dead. Nevertheless, some people at the Cabaret des Vautes came forward and protested they had seen her pass by on the road to Paris, walking barefoot over the rough stones. But then she must have gone out by the Vesle gate, and that does not agree with the rest. Or rather, I incline to the belief that she did leave by the Vesle gate, but to go out of the world.
Drowned! said Mahiette. And who could have fore-told to the good father Guybertaut, when he was passing down the stream under the Tinqueux bridge, singing in his boat, that one day his dear little Paquette should pass under that same bridge, but without either boat or song!
Poor little shoe! sighed Oudarde; fat, tender-hearted creature, she would have been very well pleased to go on sighing in company with Mahiette; but Gervaise, of a more inquiring disposition, was not at an end of her questions.
Neither drowned nor burned, Gervaise. His Lordship the archbishop took pity on the child of Egypt, exorcised it, blessed it, carefully cast the devil out of its body, and then sent it to Paris to be exposed as a foundling on the wooden bed in front of Notre Dame.
Ah, these bishops, grumbled Gervaise; because they are learned, forsooth, they can never do anything like other folks! Think of it, Oudardeto put the devil among the foundlings! for of course the little monster was the devil. Well, Mahiette, and what did they do with him in Paris? Ill answer for it that no charitable person would have it.
I know not, answered the lady of Reims. It was just at the time when my husband purchased the office of clerk to the Court of Justice at Beru, two leagues distant from the city, and we thought no further of the story, particularly that just in front of Beru are the two little hills of Cernay, which hide the towers of the Cathedral from view.
Meanwhile, the three worthy burgher wives had reached the Place de Grève. Absorbed in conversation, however, they had passed the public breviary of the Tour-Roland without noticing it, and were directing their steps mechanically towards the pillory round which the crowd increased from moment to moment. It is possible that the sight which at that instant drew all eyes towards it would have completely driven the Rat-Hole and the pious halt they intended making there from their minds, had not fat, six-year-old Eustache, dragging at Mahiettes side, recalled it to them suddenly.
Had Eustache been more astute, that is to say, less greedy, he would have waited, and not till they had returned to the University, to Maître Andry Musniers house in the Rue Madame-la-Valence, and he had put the two arms of the Seine and the five bridges of the city between the Rat-Hole and the cake, would he have hazarded this question.
Said Oudarde to the other two: We must not all look into the cell at once, lest we frighten the recluse. Do you two make as if you were reading Dominus in the breviary, while I peep in at the window. The sachette knows me somewhat. I will give you a sign when you may come.
Accordingly, she went alone to the window. As her gaze penetrated the dim interior, profound pity overspread her countenance, and her frank and wholesome face changed as suddenly in expression and hue as if it had passed out of the sunshine into moonlight. Her eyes moistened and her lips contracted as before an outbreak of tears. The next moment she laid her finger on her lips and signed to Mahiette to come and look.
The cell was small, wider than it was deep, with a vaulted, Gothic ceiling, giving it much the aspect of the inside of a bishops mitre. Upon the bare flag-stones which formed its floor, in a corner a woman was seated, or rather crouching, her chin resting on her knees, which her tightly clasped arms pressed close against her breast. Cowering together thus, clothed in a brown sack which enveloped her entirely in its large folds, her long, gray hair thrown forward and falling over her face along her sides and down to her feet, she seemed, at the first glance, but a shapeless heap against the gloomy background of the cell, a dark triangle which the daylight struggling through the window divided sharply into two halves, one light, the other darkone of those spectres, half light, half shade, such as one sees in dreams, or in one of Goyas extraordinary workspale, motionless, sinister, crouching on a tomb or leaning against the bars of a prison. You could not say definitely that it was a woman, a man, a living being of any sort; it was a figure, a vision in which the real and the imaginary were interwoven like light and shadow. Beneath the hair that fell all about it to the ground, you could just distinguish the severe outline of an emaciated face, just catch a glimpse under the edge of the garment of the extremity of a bare foot, clinging cramped and rigid to the frozen stones. The little of human form discernible under that penitential covering sent a shudder through the beholder.
This figure, which might have been permanently fixed to the stone floor, seemed wholly without motion, thought, or breath. In that thin covering of sackcloth, in January, lying on the bare stones, without a fire, in the shadow of a cell whose oblique loophole admitted only the northeast wind, but never the sunshine, she seemed not to suffer, not even to feel. You would have thought she had turned to stone with the dungeon, to ice with the season. Her hands were clasped, her eyes fixed; at the first glance you took her for a spectre; at the second, for a statue.
However, at intervals, her livid lips parted with a breath and quivered, but the movement was as dead and mechanical as leaves separated by the breeze; while from those dull eyes came a look, ineffable, deep, grief-stricken, unwavering, immutably fixed on a corner of the cell which was not visible from without; a gaze which seemed to concentrate all the gloomy thoughts of that agonized soul upon some mysterious object.
The three womenfor Gervaise had joined Mahiette and Oudardelooked through the window, and though their heads intercepted the feeble light of the cell, its miserable tenant seemed unaware of their scrutiny.
She pushed her head through the cross-bars of the window, and succeeded in obtaining a glimpse into that corner of the cell upon which the unfortunate womans eyes were immovably fixed. When she withdrew her head, her face was bathed in tears.
Then, with her finger on her lips, she signed to the amazed Oudarde to look through the bars of the window in her turn. Oudarde did so, and saw in that corner, upon which the eye of the recluse was fixed in gloomy trance, a little shoe of rose-coloured satin covered with gold and silver spangles. Gervaise took her turn after Oudarde, after which the three women gazing upon the unhappy mother mingled their tears of distress and compassion.
But neither their scrutiny nor their weeping had stirred the recluse. Her hands remained tightly locked, her lips silent, her eyes fixed, and to any one who knew her story that little shoe thus gazed at was a heart-breaking sight.
None of the three women had uttered a word; they dared not speak, not even in a whisper. This deep silence, this profound grief, this abstraction, in which all things were forgotten save that one, affected them like the sight of the High Altar at Easter or at Christmastide. A sense of being in some holy place came upon them; they were ready to fall on their knees.
At length Gervaise, the most inquiring of the three, and therefore the least sensitive, endeavoured to get speech of the recluse. Sister Gudule! Sister! she called repeatedly, raising her voice louder each time.
Perhaps she is dead, said Mahiette. In truth, if the soul had not actually quitted that inert, motionless, lethargic body, at least it had withdrawn itself to such inaccessible depths that the perceptions of the external organs were powerless to reach it.
Eustache, whose attention up till now had been distracted by the passing of a little cart drawn by a great dog, now noticed that his three companions were looking at something through the window above him, and, seized in his turn with curiosity, he mounted upon a stone, stood on tip-toe, and stretched up his round, rosy face to the hole, crying, Mother, let me see too!
At the sound of the childs clear, fresh, ringing voice the recluse started violently. She turned her head with the sharp and sudden motion of a steel spring, the two long, fleshless hands drew aside the veil of hair from her brow, and she fixed upon the child a pair of bewildered and despairing eyes.
The shock had awakened the recluse from her trance. A long shiver ran through her from head to foot, her teeth chattered, she half raised her head, and pressing her arms to her sides, she took her feet in her hands as if to warm them.
And as if exhausted by having said thus much, she let her head fall again upon her knees. The simple-minded, compassionate Oudarde gathering from these last words that the poor woman was still lamenting at the cold, said once more:
She trembled in every limb, her voice shook, her eyes gleamed, she had risen to her knees. Suddenly she stretched out a thin and bloodless hand and pointed to the child, who gazed at her round-eyed and wondering. Take away that child, she cried, the Egyptian is coming by!
Then she fell on her face on the ground, her forehead striking the floor with the sound of stone upon stone. The three women thought her dead; but a moment afterward she stirred, and they saw her drag herself on her hands and knees to the corner where the little shoe lay. At this they dared look no longer; they saw her not, but they heard the sound of a tempest of sighs and kisses, mingled with heartrending cries and dull blows as of a head being struck against a wall; then, after one of these blows, so violent that they all three recoiled in horror, deep silence.
A child blowing unsuspiciously on the half-lighted match of a petard, causing it suddenly to explode in his face, would not be more appalled than Mahiette at the effect of this name, thus unexpectedly launched into Sister Gudules cell.
At that moment a scene which was taking place on the pillory caught her haggard eye. Her brow contracted with horror, she stretched her two skeleton arms through the cross-bars, and cried in a voice like the rattle in a dying throat, Tis thou again, daughter of Egypt! Tis thou calling me, stealer of children! Accursed be thou foreveraccursed! accursed! accursed!