Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
IV. Lasciate Ogni Speranza
IN the Middle Ages, when an edifice was complete there was almost as much of it under the ground as over it. Except it were built on piles, like Notre Dame, a palace, a fortress, a church, had always a double foundation. In the cathedrals it formed in some sort a second cathedralsubterranean, low-pitched, dark, mysteriousblind and dumbunder the aisles of the building above, which were flooded with light and resonant day and night with the music of the organ or the bells. Sometimes it was a sepulchre. In the palaces and fortresses it was a prisonor a sepulchresometimes both together. These mighty masses of masonry, of which we have explained elsewhere the formation and growth, had not mere foundations but more properly speaking roots branching out underground into chambers, passages, and stairways, the counterpart of those above. Thus the churches, palaces, and bastilles might be said to be sunk in the ground up to their middle. The vaults of an edifice formed another edifice, in which you descended instead of ascending, the subterranean storeys of which extended downward beneath the pile of exterior storeys, like those inverted forests and mountains mirrored in the waters of a lake beneath the forests and mountains of its shores.
At the Bastille Saint-Antoine, at the Palais de Justice, and at the Louvre, these subterranean edifices were prisons. The storeys of these prisons as they sank into the ground became even narrower and darkerso many zones presenting, as by a graduated scale, deeper and deeper shades of horror. Dante could find nothing better for the construction of his Inferno. These dungeon funnels usually ended in a tub-shaped pit, in which Dante placed his Satan and society the criminal condemned to death. When once a miserable being was there interred, farewell to light, air, lifeogni speranzahe never issued forth again but to the gibbet or the stake unless, indeed, he were left to rot therewhich human justice called forgetting. Between mankind and the condemned, weighing upon his head, there was an accumulated mass of stone and jailers; and the whole prison, the massive fortress, was but one enormous complicated lock that barred him from the living world.
It was in one of these deep pits, in the oubliettes excavated by Saint-Louis, in the in pace of the Tournelledoubtless for fear of her escapingthat they had deposited Esmeralda, now condemned to the gibbet, with the colossal Palais de Justice over her headpoor fly, that could not have moved the smallest of its stones! Truly, Providence and social law alike had been too lavish; such a profusion of misery and torture was not necessary to crush so fragile a creature.
She lay there, swallowed up by the darkness, entombed, walled, lost to the world. Any one seeing her in that state, after beholding her laughing and dancing in the sunshine, would have shuddered. Cold as night, cold as death, no breath of air to stir her locks, no human sound to reach her ear, no ray of light within her eyebroken, weighed down by chains, crouching beside a pitcher and a loaf of bread, on a heap of straw, in the pool of water formed by the oozings of the dungeon wallsmotionless, almost breathless, she was even past suffering. Phbus, the sun, noonday, the free air, the streets of Paris, dancing and applause, her tender love passages with the officerthen the priest, the old hag, the dagger, blood, torture, the gibbetall this passed in turn before her mind, now as a golden vision of delight, now as a hideous nightmare; but her apprehension of it all was now merely that of a vaguely horrible struggle in the darkness, or of distant music still playing above ground but no longer audible at the depth to which the unhappy girl had fallen.
Since she had been here she neither waked nor slept. In that unspeakable misery, in that dungeon, she could no more distinguish waking from sleeping, dreams from reality, than day from night. All was mingled, broken, floating confusedly through her mind. She no longer felt, no longer knew, no longer thought anything definitelyat most she dreamed. Never has human creature been plunged deeper into annihilation.
Thus benumbed, frozen, petrified, scarcely had she remarked at two or three different times the sound of a trap-door opening somewhere above her head, without even admitting a ray of light, and through which a hand had thrown her down a crust of black bread. Yet this was her only surviving communication with mankindthe periodical visit of the jailer.
One thing alone still mechanically occupied her ear: over her head the moisture filtered through the mouldy stones of the vault, and at regular intervals a drop of water fell from it. She listened stupidly to the splash made by this dripping water as it fell into the pool beside her.
This drop of water falling into the pool was the only movement still perceptible around her, the only clock by which to measure time, the only sound that reached her of all the turmoil going on on earth; though, to be quite accurate, she was conscious from time to time in that sink of mire and darkness of something cold passing over her foot or her arm, and that made her shiver.
How long had she been there? She knew not. She remembered a sentence of death being pronounced somewhere against some one, and then that she herself had been carried away, and that she had awakened in silence and darkness, frozen to the bone. She had crawled along on her hands and knees, she had felt iron rings cutting her ankles, and chains had clanked. She had discovered that all around her were walls, that underneath her were wet flag-stones and a handful of strawbut there was neither lamp nor air-hole. Then she had seated herself upon the straw, and sometimes for a change of position on the lowest step of a stone flight she had come upon in the dungeon.
At length, one dayor one night (for mid-day and mid-night had the same hue in this sepulchre)she heard above her a louder noise than the turnkey generally made when bringing her loaf of bread and pitcher of water. She raised her head, and was aware of a red gleam of light through the crevices of the sort of door or trap in the roof of the vault.
At the same time the massive lock creaked, the trap-door grated on its hinges, fell back, and she saw a lantern, a hand, and the lower part of the bodies of two men, the door being too low for her to see their heads. The light stabbed her eyes so sharply that she closed them.
When she opened them again the door was closed, the lantern placed on one of the steps, and one of the two men alone was standing before her. A black monks robe fell to his feet, a cowl of the same hue concealed his face; nothing of his person was visible, neither his face nor his handsit was simply a tall black shroud under which you felt rather than saw that something moved. For some moments she regarded this kind of spectre fixedly, but neither she nor it spoke. They might have been two statues confronting one another. Two things only seemed alive in this tomb: the wick of the lantern that sputtered in the night air and the drop of water falling with its monotonous splash from the roof and making the reflection of the light tremble in concentric circles on the oily surface of the pool.
The priest raised his cowl. She lookedit was the sinister face that had so long pursued her, the devilish head that she had seen above the adored head of her Phbus, the eye that she had last seen glittering beside a dagger.
This apparition, always so fatal to her, which thus had thrust her on from misfortune to misfortune, even to an ignominious death, roused her from her stupor. The sort of veil that seemed to have woven itself over her memory was rent aside. All the details of her grewsome adventures, from the nocturnal scene at La Falourdels to her condemnation at La Tournelle, came back to her with a rushnot vague and confused as heretofore, but distinct, clear-cut, palpitating, terrible.
These recollections, well-nigh obliterated by excess of suffering, revived at sight of that sombre figure, as the heat of the fire brings out afresh upon the blank paper the invisible writing traced on it by sympathetic ink. She felt as if all the wounds of her heart were reopened and bleeding at once.
The priest gazed at her with the eye of the kite which after long hovering high in the air above a poor lark cowering in the corn, gradually and silently lessening the formidable circles of its flight, now suddenly makes a lightning dart upon its prey and holds it panting in its talons.
Her lips contracted as if she smiled. Go to, said she, the executioner taunts the condemned! For months he has pursued me, threatened me, terrified me! But for him, my God, how happy I was! It is he who has cast me into this pit! Oh, heavens! it is he who has killedit is he who has murdered himmy Phbus!
Listen, the priest began at last, and a strange calm had come over him; thou shalt know all. I am going to tell thee what I have hitherto scarcely dared to say to myself when I furtively searched my conscience in those deep hours of the night, when it seems so dark that God himself can see us no longer. Listen. Before I saw thee, girl, I was happy.
Do not interrupt me Yes, I was happy, or at least judged myself to be so. I was puremy soul was filled with limpid light. No head was lifted so high, so radiantly as mine. Priests consulted me upon chastity, ecclesiastics upon doctrine. Yes, learning was all in all to meit was a sister, and a sister sufficed me. Not but what, in time, other thoughts came to me. More than once my flesh stirred at the passing of some female form. The power of sex and of a mans blood that, foolish adolescent, I had thought stifled forever, had more than once shaken convulsively the iron chain of the vows that rivet me, hapless wretch, to the cold stones of the altar. But fasting, prayer, study, the mortifications of the cloister again restored the empire of the soul over the body. Also I strenuously avoided women. Besides, I had but to open a book, and all the impure vapours of my brain were dissipated by the splendid beams of learning; the gross things of this earth fled from before me, and I found myself once more calm, serene, and joyous in the presence of the steady radiance of eternal truth. So long as the foul fiend only sent against me indefinite shadows of women passing here and there before my eyes, in the church, in the streets, in the fields, and which scarce returned to me in my dreams, I vanquished him easily. Alas! if it stayed not with me, the fault lies with God, who made not man and the demon of equal strength. Listen. One day
He resumed. One day I was leaning at the window of my cell. What book was I reading? Oh, all is confusion in my mindI was reading. The window overlooked an open square. I heard a sound of a tambourine and of music. Vexed at being thus disturbed in my meditation, I looked into the square. What I saw, there were others who saw it too, and yet it was no spectacle meet for mortal eyes. There, in the middle of the open spaceit was noona burning suna girl was dancingbut a creature so beautiful that God would have preferred her before the Virginwould have chosen her to be His motherif she had existed when He became man. Her eyes were dark and radiant; amid her raven tresses where the sun shone through were strands that glistened like threads of gold. Her feet were invisible in the rapidity of their movement, as are the spokes of a wheel when it turns at high speed. Round her head, among her ebon tresses, were discs of metal that glittered in the sun and formed about her brows a diadem of stars. Her kirtle, thick-set in spangles, twinkled all blue and studded with sparks like a summers night. Her brown and supple arms twined and untwined themselves about her waist like two scarfs. Her form was of bewildering beauty. Oh, the dazzling figure that stood out luminous against the very sunlight itself! Alas, girl, it was thou! Astounded, intoxicated, enchanted, I suffered myself to gaze upon thee. I watched thee long till suddenly I trembled with horrorI felt that Fate was laying hold on me.
Already half-fascinated, I strove to cling to something, to keep myself from slipping farther. I recalled the snares which Satan had already laid for me. The creature before me had such supernatural beauty as could only be of heaven or hell. That was no mere human girl fashioned out of particles of common clay and feebly illumined from within by the flickering ray of a womans soul. It was an angel!but of darknessof flame, not of light. At the same moment of thinking thus, I saw near thee a goata beast of the witches Sabbath, that looked at me and grinned. The midday sun gilded its horns with fire. Twas then I caught sight of the devils snare, and I no longer doubted that thou camest from hell, and that thou wast sent from thence for my perdition. I believed it.
And I believe so still. However, the charm acted by degrees; thy dancing set my brain in a maze; I felt the mysterious spell working within me. All that should have kept awake fell asleep in my soul, and like those who perish in the snow, I found pleasure in yielding to that slumber.
All at once thou didst begin to sing. What could I do, unhappy wretch that I was? Thy song was more enchanting still than thy dance. I tried to flee. Impossible. I was nailed, I was rooted to the spot. I felt as if the stone floor had risen and engulfed me to the knees. I was forced to remain to the end. My feet were ice, my head was on fire. At length thou didst, mayhap, take pity on methou didst cease to singdidst disappear. The reflection of the dazzling vision, the echo of the enchanting music, died away by degrees from my eyes and ears. Then I fell into the embrasure of the window, more stark and helpless than a statue loosened from the pedestal. The vesper bell awoke me. I roseI fled; but alas! there was something within me fallen to arise no moresomething had come upon me from which I could not flee.
Again he paused and then resumed: Yes, from that day onward there was within me a man I did not know. I had recourse to all my remediesthe cloister, the altar, labour, books. Useless folly! Oh, how hollow does science sound when a head full of passion strikes against it in despair! Knowest thou, girl, what it was that now came between me and my books? It was thou, thy shadow, the image of the radiant apparition which had one day crossed my path. But that image no longer wore the same bright hueit was sombre, funereal, black as the dark circle which haunts the vision of the imprudent eye that has gazed too fixedly at the sun.
Unable to rid myself of it; with thy song forever throbbing in my ear, thy feet dancing on my breviary, forever in the night-watches and in my dreams feeling the pressure of thy form against my sideI desired to see thee closer, to touch thee, to know who thou wert, to see if I should find thee equal to the ideal image that I had retained of thee. In any case, I hoped that a new impression would efface the former one, for it had become insupportable. I sought thee out, I saw thee again. Woe is me! When I had seen thee twice, I longed to see thee a thousand times, to gaze at thee forever.
After thathow stop short on that hellish incline?after that my soul was no longer my own. The other end of the thread which the demon had woven about my wings was fastened to his cloven foot. I became vagrant and wandering like thyselfI waited for thee under porchesI spied thee out at the corners of streetsI watched thee from the top of my tower. Each evening I returned more charmed, more despairing, more bewitched, more lost than before.
I had learned who thou wasta gipsya Bohemiana gitanaa zingara. How could I doubt of the witchcraft? Listen. I hoped that a prosecution would rid me of the spell. A sorceress had bewitched Bruno of Ast; he had her burned, and was cured. I knew this. I would try this remedy. First, I had thee forbidden the Parvis of Notre Dame, hoping to forget thee if thou camest no more. Thou didst not heed it. Thou camest again. Then I had the idea of carrying thee off. One night I attempted it. We were two of us. Already we had thee fast, when that miserable officer came upon the scene. He delivered thee, and so began thy misfortunesand mineand his own as well. At length, not knowing what to do or what was to become of me, I denounced thee to the Holy Office.
I thought that I should thus be cured like Bruno of Ast. I thought too, confusedly, that a prosecution would deliver thee into my hands, that once in prison I should hold thee, that thou couldst not then escape methat thou hadst possessed me long enough for me to possess thee in my turn. When one sets out upon an evil path, one should go the whole waytis madness to stop midway in the monstrous! The extremity of crime has its delirium of joy. A priest and a witch may taste of all delights in one anothers arms on the straw pallet of a dungeon.
So I denounced thee. Twas then I began to terrify thee whenever I met thee. The plot which I was weaving against thee, the storm which I was brewing over thy head, burst from me in muttered threats and lightning glances. And yet I hesitated. My project had appalling aspects from which I shrank.
It may be that I would have renounced itthat my hideous thought would have withered in my brain without bearing fruit. I thought it would always depend on myself either to follow up or set aside this prosecution. But every evil thought is inexorable and will become an act; and there, where I thought myself all-powerful, Fate was more powerful than I. Alas! alas! tis Fate has laid hold on thee and cast thee in among the dread wheels of the machinery I had constructed in secret! Listen. I have almost done.
Not that name! exclaimed the priest, grasping her arm with violence. Utter not that name! Oh, wretched that we are, tis that name has undone us! Nay, rather we have all undone one another through the inexplicable play of Fate! Thou art suffering, art thou not? Thou art cold; the darkness blinds thee, the dungeon wraps thee round; but mayhap thou hast still more light shining within theewere it only thy childish love for the fatuous being who was trifling with thy heart! while II bear the dungeon within me; within, my heart is winter, ice, despairblack night reigns in my soul! Knowest thou all that I have suffered? I was present at the trial. I was seated among the members of the Office. Yes, one of those priestly cowls hid the contortions of the damned. When they led thee in, I was there; while they questioned thee, I was there. Oh, den of wolves! It was my own crimemy own gibbet that I saw slowly rising above thy head. At each deposition, each proof, each pleading, I was presentI could count thy every step along that dolorous path. was there, too, when that wild beastoh, I had not foreseen the torture! Listen. I followed thee in the chamber of anguish; I saw thee disrobed and half-naked under the vile hands of the torturer; saw thy footthat foot I would have given an empire to press one kiss upon and die; that foot which I would have rejoiced to feel crushing my headthat foot I saw put into the horrible boot that turns the limbs of a human being into gory pulp. Oh, miserable that I am! while I lacerated my at this, I had a poniard under my gown with which I lacerated my breast. At thy cry I plunged it into my flesha second cry from thee and it should have pierced my heart. LookI believe it still bleeds.
Oh, girl! cried the priest, have pity on me! Thou deemest thyself miserablealas! alas! thou knowest not what misery is. Oh, to love a womanto be a priestto be hatedto love her with all the fury of ones soul, to feel that for the least of her smiles one would give ones blood, ones vitals, fame, salvation, immortality, and eternitythis life and the life to come; to regret not being a king, a genius, an emperor, an archangelGodthat one might place a greater slave beneath her feet; to clasp her day and night in ones dreams, ones thoughtsand then to see her in love with the trappings of a soldier, and have naught to offer her but the unsightly cassock of a priest, which she will only regard with fear and disgust! To be present with ones jealousy and rage while she lavishes on a miserable, brainless swashbuckler her whole treasure of love and beauty! To see that form that enflames you, that soft bosom, that flesh panting and glowing under the kisses of another! Dear heavento adore her foot, her arm, her shoulder, to dream of her blue veins, her sun-browned skin till one writhes whole nights upon the stones of ones cell, and to see all those caresses, which one has dreamed of lavishing on her, end in her torture! To have succeeded only in laying her on the bed of leather! Oh, these are the irons heated in the fires of hell! Oh, blest is he who is sawn asunder, torn by four horses! Knowest thou what that torture is, endured through long nights from your seething arteries, a breaking heart, a bursting headburying your teeth in your own handsfell tormentors that unceasingly turn you as on a burning gridiron over a thought of love, of jealousy, and of despair! Have mercy, girl! One moments respite from my tormenta handful of ashes on this white heat! Wipe away, I conjure thee, the drops of agony that trickle from my brow! Child, torture me with one hand, but caress me with the other! Have pity, girlhave pity on me!
I beseech thee, he cried, if thou hast any bowels of compassion, repulse me not! Oh, I love thee! I am a wretch! When thou utterest that name, unhappy girl, tis as if thou wert grinding every fibre of my heart between thy teeth! Have pity! if thou comest from hell, I go thither with thee. I have done amply to deserve that. The hell where thou art shall be my paradisethe sight of thee is more to be desired than that of God! Oh, tell me, wilt thou have none of me? I would have thought the very mountains had moved ere a woman would have rejected such a love! Oh, if thou wouldsthow happy we could be! We would fleeI could contrive thy escapewe would go some-wherewe would seek that spot on earth where the sun shines brightest, the trees are most luxuriant, the sky the bluest. We would lovewould mingle our two souls togetherwould each have an inextinguishable thirst for the other, which we would quench at the inexhaustible fountain of our love!
Well, be it so, he continued at last, with strange calm; insult me, taunt me, overwhelm me with scorn, but comecome away. Let us hasten. Tis for to-morrow, I tell thee. The gibbet of La Grèvethou knowestit is always in readiness. Tis horrible!to see thee carried in that tumbrel! Oh, have pity! I never felt till now how much I loved thee. Oh, follow me! Thou shalt take time to love me after I have saved thee. Thou shalt hate me as long as thou wiltbut come. To-morrowto-morrowthe gibbet!thy execution! Oh, save thyself! spare me! He seized her by the arm distractedly and sought to drag her away.
Begone, monster! Begone, assassin! Leave me to die! May the blood of both of us be an everlasting stain upon thy brow! Be thine, priest? Never! never! no power shall unite usnot hell itself! Begone, accursednever!
The priest stumbled against the steps. He silently disengaged his feet from the folds of his robe, took up his lantern, and began slowly to ascend the steps leading to the door. He opened the door and went out.