-book sixth.chapter iii. history of a leavened cake of maize. at the epoch of this history, the cell inthe tour-roland was occupied. if the reader desires to know by whom, hehas only to lend an ear to the conversation of three worthy gossips, who, at the momentwhen we have directed his attention to the rat-hole, were directing their steps towards the same spot, coming up along thewater's edge from the chatelet, towards the greve.two of these women were dressed like good bourgeoises of paris.
their fine white ruffs; their petticoats oflinsey-woolsey, striped red and blue; their white knitted stockings, with clocksembroidered in colors, well drawn upon their legs; the square-toed shoes of tawny leather with black soles, and, above all,their headgear, that sort of tinsel horn, loaded down with ribbons and laces, whichthe women of champagne still wear, in company with the grenadiers of the imperial guard of russia, announced that theybelonged to that class wives which holds the middle ground between what the lackeyscall a woman and what they term a lady. they wore neither rings nor gold crosses,and it was easy to see that, in their ease,
this did not proceed from poverty, butsimply from fear of being fined. their companion was attired in very muchthe same manner; but there was that indescribable something about her dress andbearing which suggested the wife of a provincial notary. one could see, by the way in which hergirdle rose above her hips, that she had not been long in paris.--add to this aplaited tucker, knots of ribbon on her shoes--and that the stripes of her petticoat ran horizontally instead ofvertically, and a thousand other enormities which shocked good taste.
the two first walked with that steppeculiar to parisian ladies, showing paris to women from the country.the provincial held by the hand a big boy, who held in his a large, flat cake. we regret to be obliged to add, that, owingto the rigor of the season, he was using his tongue as a handkerchief. the child was making them drag him along,non passibus cequis, as virgil says, and stumbling at every moment, to the greatindignation of his mother. it is true that he was looking at his cakemore than at the pavement. some serious motive, no doubt, preventedhis biting it (the cake), for he contented
himself with gazing tenderly at it. but the mother should have rather takencharge of the cake. it was cruel to make a tantalus of thechubby-checked boy. meanwhile, the three demoiselles (for thename of dames was then reserved for noble women) were all talking at once. "let us make haste, demoiselle mahiette,"said the youngest of the three, who was also the largest, to the provincial, "igreatly fear that we shall arrive too late; they told us at the chatelet that they weregoing to take him directly to the pillory." "ah, bah! what are you saying, demoiselleoudarde musnier?" interposed the other
parisienne. "there are two hours yet to the pillory.we have time enough. have you ever seen any one pilloried, mydear mahiette?" "yes," said the provincial, "at reims." "ah, bah!what is your pillory at reims? a miserable cage into which only peasantsare turned. a great affair, truly!" "only peasants!" said mahiette, "at thecloth market in reims! we have seen very fine criminals there, whohave killed their father and mother!
peasants! for what do you take us, gervaise?"it is certain that the provincial was on the point of taking offence, for the honorof her pillory. fortunately, that discreet damoiselle,oudarde musnier, turned the conversation in time."by the way, damoiselle mahiette, what say you to our flemish ambassadors? have you as fine ones at reims?""i admit," replied mahiette, "that it is only in paris that such flemings can beseen." "did you see among the embassy, that bigambassador who is a hosier?" asked oudarde.
"yes," said mahiette."he has the eye of a saturn." "and the big fellow whose face resembles abare belly?" resumed gervaise. "and the little one, with small eyes framedin red eyelids, pared down and slashed up like a thistle head?" "'tis their horses that are worth seeing,"said oudarde, "caparisoned as they are after the fashion of their country!" "ah my dear," interrupted provincialmahiette, assuming in her turn an air of superiority, "what would you say then, ifyou had seen in '61, at the consecration at reims, eighteen years ago, the horses ofthe princes and of the king's company?
housings and caparisons of all sorts; someof damask cloth, of fine cloth of gold, furred with sables; others of velvet,furred with ermine; others all embellished with goldsmith's work and large bells ofgold and silver! and what money that had cost!and what handsome boy pages rode upon them!" "that," replied oudarde dryly, "does notprevent the flemings having very fine horses, and having had a superb supperyesterday with monsieur, the provost of the merchants, at the hotel-de-ville, where they were served with comfits andhippocras, and spices, and other
singularities.""what are you saying, neighbor!" exclaimed gervaise. "it was with monsieur the cardinal, at thepetit bourbon that they supped." "not at all.at the hotel-de-ville. "yes, indeed. at the petit bourbon!""it was at the hotel-de-ville," retorted oudarde sharply, "and dr. scourableaddressed them a harangue in latin, which pleased them greatly. my husband, who is sworn bookseller toldme."
"it was at the petit bourbon," repliedgervaise, with no less spirit, "and this is what monsieur the cardinal's procuratorpresented to them: twelve double quarts of hippocras, white, claret, and red; twenty- four boxes of double lyons marchpane,gilded; as many torches, worth two livres a piece; and six demi-queues of beaune wine,white and claret, the best that could be found. i have it from my husband, who is acinquantenier, at the parloir-aux bourgeois, and who was this morningcomparing the flemish ambassadors with those of prester john and the emperor of
trebizond, who came from mesopotamia toparis, under the last king, and who wore rings in their ears." "so true is it that they supped at thehotel-de-ville," replied oudarde but little affected by this catalogue, "that such atriumph of viands and comfits has never been seen." "i tell you that they were served by lesec, sergeant of the city, at the hotel du petit-bourbon, and that that is where youare mistaken." "at the hotel-de-ville, i tell you!" "at the petit-bourbon, my dear! and theyhad illuminated with magic glasses the word
hope, which is written on the grandportal." "at the hotel-de-ville! at the hotel-de-ville!and husson-le-voir played the flute!" "i tell you, no!""i tell you, yes!" "i say, no!" plump and worthy oudarde was preparing toretort, and the quarrel might, perhaps, have proceeded to a pulling of caps, hadnot mahiette suddenly exclaimed,--"look at those people assembled yonder at the end ofthe bridge! there is something in their midst that theyare looking at!"
"in sooth," said gervaise, "i hear thesounds of a tambourine. i believe 'tis the little esmeralda, whoplays her mummeries with her goat. eh, be quick, mahiette! redouble your paceand drag along your boy. you are come hither to visit thecuriosities of paris. you saw the flemings yesterday; you mustsee the gypsy to-day." "the gypsy!" said mahiette, suddenlyretracing her steps, and clasping her son's arm forcibly. "god preserve me from it!she would steal my child from me! come, eustache!"
and she set out on a run along the quaytowards the greve, until she had left the bridge far behind her. in the meanwhile, the child whom she wasdragging after her fell upon his knees; she halted breathless.oudarde and gervaise rejoined her. "that gypsy steal your child from you!"said gervaise. "that's a singular freak of yours!"mahiette shook her head with a pensive air. "the singular point is," observed oudarde,"that la sachette has the same idea about the egyptian woman.""what is la sachette?" asked mahiette. "he!" said oudarde, "sister gudule."
"and who is sister gudule?" persistedmahiette. "you are certainly ignorant of all but yourreims, not to know that!" replied oudarde. "'tis the recluse of the rat-hole." "what!" demanded mahiette, "that poor womanto whom we are carrying this cake?" oudarde nodded affirmatively."precisely. you will see her presently at her window onthe greve. she has the same opinion as yourself ofthese vagabonds of egypt, who play the tambourine and tell fortunes to the public. no one knows whence comes her horror of thegypsies and egyptians.
but you, mahiette--why do you run so at themere sight of them?" "oh!" said mahiette, seizing her child'sround head in both hands, "i don't want that to happen to me which happened topaquette la chantefleurie." "oh! you must tell us that story, my goodmahiette," said gervaise, taking her arm. "gladly," replied mahiette, "but you mustbe ignorant of all but your paris not to know that! i will tell you then (but 'tis notnecessary for us to halt that i may tell you the tale), that paquette lachantefleurie was a pretty maid of eighteen when i was one myself, that is to say,
eighteen years ago, and 'tis her own faultif she is not to-day, like me, a good, plump, fresh mother of six and thirty, witha husband and a son. however, after the age of fourteen, it wastoo late! well, she was the daughter of guybertant,minstrel of the barges at reims, the same who had played before king charles vii., athis coronation, when he descended our river vesle from sillery to muison, when madame the maid of orleans was also in the boat. the old father died when paquette was stilla mere child; she had then no one but her mother, the sister of m. pradon, master-brazier and coppersmith in paris, rue farm-
garlin, who died last year. you see she was of good family. the mother was a good simple woman,unfortunately, and she taught paquette nothing but a bit of embroidery and toy-making which did not prevent the little one from growing very large and remaining verypoor. they both dwelt at reims, on the riverfront, rue de folle-peine. mark this: for i believe it was this whichbrought misfortune to paquette. in '61, the year of the coronation of ourking louis xi. whom god preserve! paquette was so gay and so pretty that shewas called everywhere by no other name than
"la chantefleurie"--blossoming song.poor girl! she had handsome teeth, she was fond oflaughing and displaying them. now, a maid who loves to laugh is on theroad to weeping; handsome teeth ruin handsome eyes. so she was la chantefleurie. she and her mother earned a precariousliving; they had been very destitute since the death of the minstrel; their embroiderydid not bring them in more than six farthings a week, which does not amount toquite two eagle liards. where were the days when father guybertanthad earned twelve sous parisian, in a
single coronation, with a song? one winter (it was in that same year of'61), when the two women had neither fagots nor firewood, it was very cold, which gavela chantefleurie such a fine color that the men called her paquette! and many called her paquerette! and she was ruined.--eustache, just let me see you bite that cake if you dare!--we immediately perceivedthat she was ruined, one sunday when she came to church with a gold cross about herneck. at fourteen years of age! do you see? first it was the young vicomte decormontreuil, who has his bell tower three
leagues distant from reims; then messirehenri de triancourt, equerry to the king; then less than that, chiart de beaulion, sergeant-at-arms; then, still descending,guery aubergeon, carver to the king; then, mace de frepus, barber to monsieur thedauphin; then, thevenin le moine, king's cook; then, the men growing continually younger and less noble, she fell toguillaume racine, minstrel of the hurdy gurdy and to thierry de mer, lamplighter. then, poor chantefleurie, she belonged toevery one: she had reached the last sou of her gold piece.what shall i say to you, my damoiselles?
at the coronation, in the same year, '61,'twas she who made the bed of the king of the debauchees!in the same year!" mahiette sighed, and wiped away a tearwhich trickled from her eyes. "this is no very extraordinary history,"said gervaise, "and in the whole of it i see nothing of any egyptian women orchildren." "patience!" resumed mahiette, "you will seeone child.--in '66, 'twill be sixteen years ago this month, at sainte-paule's day,paquette was brought to bed of a little girl. the unhappy creature! it was a great joy toher; she had long wished for a child.
her mother, good woman, who had never knownwhat to do except to shut her eyes, her mother was dead. paquette had no longer any one to love inthe world or any one to love her. la chantefleurie had been a poor creatureduring the five years since her fall. she was alone, alone in this life, fingerswere pointed at her, she was hooted at in the streets, beaten by the sergeants,jeered at by the little boys in rags. and then, twenty had arrived: and twenty isan old age for amorous women. folly began to bring her in no more thanher trade of embroidery in former days; for every wrinkle that came, a crown fled;winter became hard to her once more, wood
became rare again in her brazier, and breadin her cupboard. she could no longer work because, inbecoming voluptuous, she had grown lazy; and she suffered much more because, ingrowing lazy, she had become voluptuous. at least, that is the way in which monsieurthe cure of saint-remy explains why these women are colder and hungrier than otherpoor women, when they are old." "yes," remarked gervaise, "but thegypsies?" "one moment, gervaise!" said oudarde, whoseattention was less impatient. "what would be left for the end if all werein the beginning? continue, mahiette, i entreat you.that poor chantefleurie!"
mahiette went on. "so she was very sad, very miserable, andfurrowed her cheeks with tears. but in the midst of her shame, her folly,her debauchery, it seemed to her that she should be less wild, less shameful, lessdissipated, if there were something or some one in the world whom she could love, andwho could love her. it was necessary that it should be a child,because only a child could be sufficiently innocent for that. she had recognized this fact after havingtried to love a thief, the only man who wanted her; but after a short time, sheperceived that the thief despised her.
those women of love require either a loveror a child to fill their hearts. otherwise, they are very unhappy. as she could not have a lover, she turnedwholly towards a desire for a child, and as she had not ceased to be pious, she madeher constant prayer to the good god for it. so the good god took pity on her, and gaveher a little daughter. i will not speak to you of her joy; it wasa fury of tears, and caresses, and kisses. she nursed her child herself, madeswaddling-bands for it out of her coverlet, the only one which she had on her bed, andno longer felt either cold or hunger. she became beautiful once more, inconsequence of it.
an old maid makes a young mother. gallantry claimed her once more; men cameto see la chantefleurie; she found customers again for her merchandise, andout of all these horrors she made baby clothes, caps and bibs, bodices with shoulder-straps of lace, and tiny bonnetsof satin, without even thinking of buying herself another coverlet.--master eustache,i have already told you not to eat that cake.--it is certain that little agnes, that was the child's name, a baptismalname, for it was a long time since la chantefleurie had had any surname--it iscertain that that little one was more
swathed in ribbons and embroideries than adauphiness of dauphiny! among other things, she had a pair oflittle shoes, the like of which king louis xi. certainly never had! her mother had stitched and embroideredthem herself; she had lavished on them all the delicacies of her art of embroideress,and all the embellishments of a robe for the good virgin. they certainly were the two prettiestlittle pink shoes that could be seen. they were no longer than my thumb, and onehad to see the child's little feet come out of them, in order to believe that they hadbeen able to get into them.
'tis true that those little feet were sosmall, so pretty, so rosy! rosier than the satin of the shoes! when you have children, oudarde, you willfind that there is nothing prettier than those little hands and feet." "i ask no better," said oudarde with asigh, "but i am waiting until it shall suit the good pleasure of m. andry musnier.""however, paquette's child had more that was pretty about it besides its feet. i saw her when she was only four monthsold; she was a love! she had eyes larger than her mouth, and themost charming black hair, which already
curled. she would have been a magnificent brunetteat the age of sixteen! her mother became more crazy over her everyday. she kissed her, caressed her, tickled her,washed her, decked her out, devoured her! she lost her head over her, she thanked godfor her. her pretty, little rosy feet above all werean endless source of wonderment, they were a delirium of joy! she was always pressing her lips to them,and she could never recover from her amazement at their smallness.
she put them into the tiny shoes, took themout, admired them, marvelled at them, looked at the light through them, wascurious to see them try to walk on her bed, and would gladly have passed her life on her knees, putting on and taking off theshoes from those feet, as though they had been those of an infant jesus." "the tale is fair and good," said gervaisein a low tone; "but where do gypsies come into all that?""here," replied mahiette. "one day there arrived in reims a veryqueer sort of people. they were beggars and vagabonds who wereroaming over the country, led by their duke
and their counts. they were browned by exposure to the sun,they had closely curling hair, and silver rings in their ears.the women were still uglier than the men. they had blacker faces, which were alwaysuncovered, a miserable frock on their bodies, an old cloth woven of cords boundupon their shoulder, and their hair hanging like the tail of a horse. the children who scrambled between theirlegs would have frightened as many monkeys. a band of excommunicates.all these persons came direct from lower egypt to reims through poland.
the pope had confessed them, it was said,and had prescribed to them as penance to roam through the world for seven years,without sleeping in a bed; and so they were called penancers, and smelt horribly. it appears that they had formerly beensaracens, which was why they believed in jupiter, and claimed ten livres of tournayfrom all archbishops, bishops, and mitred abbots with croziers. a bull from the pope empowered them to dothat. they came to reims to tell fortunes in thename of the king of algiers, and the emperor of germany.
you can readily imagine that no more wasneeded to cause the entrance to the town to be forbidden them. then the whole band camped with good graceoutside the gate of braine, on that hill where stands a mill, beside the cavities ofthe ancient chalk pits. and everybody in reims vied with hisneighbor in going to see them. they looked at your hand, and told youmarvellous prophecies; they were equal to predicting to judas that he would becomepope. nevertheless, ugly rumors were incirculation in regard to them; about children stolen, purses cut, and humanflesh devoured.
the wise people said to the foolish: "don'tgo there!" and then went themselves on the sly.it was an infatuation. the fact is, that they said things fit toastonish a cardinal. mothers triumphed greatly over their littleones after the egyptians had read in their hands all sorts of marvels written in paganand in turkish. one had an emperor; another, a pope;another, a captain. poor chantefleurie was seized withcuriosity; she wished to know about herself, and whether her pretty littleagnes would not become some day empress of armenia, or something else.
so she carried her to the egyptians; andthe egyptian women fell to admiring the child, and to caressing it, and to kissingit with their black mouths, and to marvelling over its little band, alas! tothe great joy of the mother. they were especially enthusiastic over herpretty feet and shoes. the child was not yet a year old. she already lisped a little, laughed at hermother like a little mad thing, was plump and quite round, and possessed a thousandcharming little gestures of the angels of paradise. "she was very much frightened by theegyptians, and wept.
but her mother kissed her more warmly andwent away enchanted with the good fortune which the soothsayers had foretold for heragnes. she was to be a beauty, virtuous, a queen. so she returned to her attic in the ruefolle-peine, very proud of bearing with her a queen. the next day she took advantage of a momentwhen the child was asleep on her bed, (for they always slept together), gently leftthe door a little way open, and ran to tell a neighbor in the rue de la sechesserie, that the day would come when her daughteragnes would be served at table by the king
of england and the archduke of ethiopia,and a hundred other marvels. on her return, hearing no cries on thestaircase, she said to herself: 'good! the child is still asleep!' she found her door wider open than she hadleft it, but she entered, poor mother, and ran to the bed.---the child was no longerthere, the place was empty. nothing remained of the child, but one ofher pretty little shoes. she flew out of the room, dashed down thestairs, and began to beat her head against the wall, crying: 'my child! who has mychild? who has taken my child?'
the street was deserted, the houseisolated; no one could tell her anything about it. she went about the town, searched all thestreets, ran hither and thither the whole day long, wild, beside herself, terrible,snuffing at doors and windows like a wild beast which has lost its young. she was breathless, dishevelled, frightfulto see, and there was a fire in her eyes which dried her tears. she stopped the passers-by and cried: 'mydaughter! my daughter! my pretty little daughter!
if any one will give me back my daughter,i will be his servant, the servant of his dog, and he shall eat my heart if he will.' she met m. le cure of saint-remy, and saidto him: 'monsieur, i will till the earth with my finger-nails, but give me back mychild!' it was heartrending, oudarde; and il saw avery hard man, master ponce lacabre, the procurator, weep.ah! poor mother! in the evening she returned home. during her absence, a neighbor had seen twogypsies ascend up to it with a bundle in their arms, then descend again, afterclosing the door.
after their departure, something like thecries of a child were heard in paquette's room. the mother, burst into shrieks of laughter,ascended the stairs as though on wings, and entered.--a frightful thing to tell,oudarde! instead of her pretty little agnes, so rosyand so fresh, who was a gift of the good god, a sort of hideous little monster,lame, one-eyed, deformed, was crawling and squalling over the floor. she hid her eyes in horror.'oh!' said she, 'have the witches transformed my daughter into this horribleanimal?'
they hastened to carry away the littleclub-foot; he would have driven her mad. it was the monstrous child of some gypsywoman, who had given herself to the devil. he appeared to be about four years old, andtalked a language which was no human tongue; there were words in it which wereimpossible. la chantefleurie flung herself upon thelittle shoe, all that remained to her of all that she loved. she remained so long motionless over it,mute, and without breath, that they thought she was dead. suddenly she trembled all over, covered herrelic with furious kisses, and burst out
sobbing as though her heart were broken.i assure you that we were all weeping also. she said: 'oh, my little daughter! mypretty little daughter! where art thou?'-- and it wrung your very heart.i weep still when i think of it. our children are the marrow of our bones,you see.---my poor eustache! thou art so fair!--if you only knew how nice he is!yesterday he said to me: 'i want to be a gendarme, that i do.' oh! my eustache! if i were to lose thee!--all at once la chantefleurie rose, and set out to run through reims, screaming: 'tothe gypsies' camp! to the gypsies' camp! police, to burn the witches!'
the gypsies were gone.it was pitch dark. they could not be followed. on the morrow, two leagues from reims, on aheath between gueux and tilloy, the remains of a large fire were found, some ribbonswhich had belonged to paquette's child, drops of blood, and the dung of a ram. the night just past had been a saturday. there was no longer any doubt that theegyptians had held their sabbath on that heath, and that they had devoured the childin company with beelzebub, as the practice is among the mahometans.
when la chantefleurie learned thesehorrible things, she did not weep, she moved her lips as though to speak, butcould not. on the morrow, her hair was gray. on the second day, she had disappeared."'tis in truth, a frightful tale," said oudarde, "and one which would make even aburgundian weep." "i am no longer surprised," added gervaise,"that fear of the gypsies should spur you on so sharply." "and you did all the better," resumedoudarde, "to flee with your eustache just now, since these also are gypsies frompoland."
"no," said gervais, "'tis said that theycome from spain and catalonia." "catalonia?'tis possible," replied oudarde. "pologne, catalogue, valogne, i alwaysconfound those three provinces, one thing is certain, that they are gypsies.""who certainly," added gervaise, "have teeth long enough to eat little children. i should not be surprised if la smeraldaate a little of them also, though she pretends to be dainty. her white goat knows tricks that are toomalicious for there not to be some impiety underneath it all."mahiette walked on in silence.
she was absorbed in that revery which is,in some sort, the continuation of a mournful tale, and which ends only afterhaving communicated the emotion, from vibration to vibration, even to the verylast fibres of the heart. nevertheless, gervaise addressed her, "anddid they ever learn what became of la chantefleurie?" mahiette made no reply.gervaise repeated her question, and shook her arm, calling her by name.mahiette appeared to awaken from her thoughts. "what became of la chantefleurie?" shesaid, repeating mechanically the words
whose impression was still fresh in herear; then, ma king an effort to recall her attention to the meaning of her words, "ah!" she continued briskly, "no one everfound out." she added, after a pause,-- "some said that she had been seen to quitreims at nightfall by the flechembault gate; others, at daybreak, by the old baseegate. a poor man found her gold cross hanging onthe stone cross in the field where the fair is held.it was that ornament which had wrought her ruin, in '61.
it was a gift from the handsome vicomte decormontreuil, her first lover. paquette had never been willing to partwith it, wretched as she had been. she had clung to it as to life itself. so, when we saw that cross abandoned, weall thought that she was dead. nevertheless, there were people of thecabaret les vantes, who said that they had seen her pass along the road to paris,walking on the pebbles with her bare feet. but, in that case, she must have gone outthrough the porte de vesle, and all this does not agree. or, to speak more truly, i believe that sheactually did depart by the porte de vesle,
but departed from this world.""i do not understand you," said gervaise. "la vesle," replied mahiette, with amelancholy smile, "is the river." "poor chantefleurie!" said oudarde, with ashiver,--"drowned!" "drowned!" resumed mahiette, "who couldhave told good father guybertant, when he passed under the bridge of tingueux withthe current, singing in his barge, that one day his dear little paquette would also pass beneath that bridge, but without songor boat. "and the little shoe?" asked gervaise."disappeared with the mother," replied mahiette.
"poor little shoe!" said oudarde.oudarde, a big and tender woman, would have been well pleased to sigh in company withmahiette. but gervaise, more curious, had notfinished her questions. "and the monster?" she said suddenly, tomahiette. "what monster?" inquired the latter. "the little gypsy monster left by thesorceresses in chantefleurie's chamber, in exchange for her daughter.what did you do with it? i hope you drowned it also." "no." replied mahiette."what?
you burned it then?in sooth, that is more just. a witch child!" "neither the one nor the other, gervaise. monseigneur the archbishop interestedhimself in the child of egypt, exorcised it, blessed it, removed the devil carefullyfrom its body, and sent it to paris, to be exposed on the wooden bed at notre-dame, asa foundling." "those bishops!" grumbled gervaise,"because they are learned, they do nothing like anybody else. i just put it to you, oudarde, the idea ofplacing the devil among the foundlings!
for that little monster was assuredly thedevil. well, mahiette, what did they do with it inparis? i am quite sure that no charitable personwanted it." "i do not know," replied the remoise,"'twas just at that time that my husband bought the office of notary, at bern, twoleagues from the town, and we were no longer occupied with that story; besides, in front of bern, stand the two hills ofcernay, which hide the towers of the cathedral in reims from view." while chatting thus, the three worthybourgeoises had arrived at the place de
greve. in their absorption, they had passed thepublic breviary of the tour-roland without stopping, and took their way mechanicallytowards the pillory around which the throng was growing more dense with every moment. it is probable that the spectacle which atthat moment attracted all looks in that direction, would have made them forgetcompletely the rat-hole, and the halt which they intended to make there, if big eustache, six years of age, whom mahiettewas dragging along by the hand, had not abruptly recalled the object to them:"mother," said he, as though some instinct
warned him that the rat-hole was behindhim, "can i eat the cake now?" if eustache had been more adroit, that isto say, less greedy, he would have continued to wait, and would only havehazarded that simple question, "mother, can i eat the cake, now?" on their return to the university, to master andry musnier's,rue madame la valence, when he had the two arms of the seine and the five bridges ofthe city between the rat-hole and the cake. this question, highly imprudent at themoment when eustache put it, aroused mahiette's attention."by the way," she exclaimed, "we are forgetting the recluse!
show me the rat-hole, that i may carry herher cake." "immediately," said oudarde, "'tis acharity." but this did not suit eustache. "stop! my cake!" said he, rubbing both earsalternatively with his shoulders, which, in such cases, is the supreme sign ofdiscontent. the three women retraced their steps, and,on arriving in the vicinity of the tour- roland, oudarde said to the other two,--"we must not all three gaze into the hole at once, for fear of alarming the recluse. do you two pretend to read the dominus inthe breviary, while i thrust my nose into
the aperture; the recluse knows me alittle. i will give you warning when you canapproach." she proceeded alone to the window. at the moment when she looked in, aprofound pity was depicted on all her features, and her frank, gay visage alteredits expression and color as abruptly as though it had passed from a ray of sunlight to a ray of moonlight; her eye becamehumid; her mouth contracted, like that of a person on the point of weeping. a moment later, she laid her finger on herlips, and made a sign to mahiette to draw
near and look. mahiette, much touched, stepped up insilence, on tiptoe, as though approaching the bedside of a dying person. it was, in fact, a melancholy spectaclewhich presented itself to the eyes of the two women, as they gazed through thegrating of the rat-hole, neither stirring nor breathing. the cell was small, broader than it waslong, with an arched ceiling, and viewed from within, it bore a considerableresemblance to the interior of a huge bishop's mitre.
on the bare flagstones which formed thefloor, in one corner, a woman was sitting, or rather, crouching. her chin rested on her knees, which hercrossed arms pressed forcibly to her breast. thus doubled up, clad in a brown sack,which enveloped her entirely in large folds, her long, gray hair pulled over infront, falling over her face and along her legs nearly to her feet, she presented, at the first glance, only a strange formoutlined against the dark background of the cell, a sort of dusky triangle, which theray of daylight falling through the
opening, cut roughly into two shades, theone sombre, the other illuminated. it was one of those spectres, half light,half shadow, such as one beholds in dreams and in the extraordinary work of goya,pale, motionless, sinister, crouching over a tomb, or leaning against the grating of aprison cell. it was neither a woman, nor a man, nor aliving being, nor a definite form; it was a figure, a sort of vision, in which the realand the fantastic intersected each other, like darkness and day. it was with difficulty that onedistinguished, beneath her hair which spread to the ground, a gaunt and severeprofile; her dress barely allowed the
extremity of a bare foot to escape, whichcontracted on the hard, cold pavement. the little of human form of which onecaught a sight beneath this envelope of mourning, caused a shudder. that figure, which one might have supposedto be riveted to the flagstones, appeared to possess neither movement, nor thought,nor breath. lying, in january, in that thin, linensack, lying on a granite floor, without fire, in the gloom of a cell whose obliqueair-hole allowed only the cold breeze, but never the sun, to enter from without, shedid not appear to suffer or even to think. one would have said that she had turned tostone with the cell, ice with the season.
her hands were clasped, her eyes fixed. at first sight one took her for a spectre;at the second, for a statue. nevertheless, at intervals, her blue lipshalf opened to admit a breath, and trembled, but as dead and as mechanical asthe leaves which the wind sweeps aside. nevertheless, from her dull eyes thereescaped a look, an ineffable look, a profound, lugubrious, imperturbable look,incessantly fixed upon a corner of the cell which could not be seen from without; a gaze which seemed to fix all the sombrethoughts of that soul in distress upon some mysterious object.
such was the creature who had received,from her habitation, the name of the "recluse"; and, from her garment, the nameof "the sacked nun." the three women, for gervaise had rejoinedmahiette and oudarde, gazed through the window. their heads intercepted the feeble light inthe cell, without the wretched being whom they thus deprived of it seeming to pay anyattention to them. "do not let us trouble her," said oudarde,in a low voice, "she is in her ecstasy; she is praying." meanwhile, mahiette was gazing with ever-increasing anxiety at that wan, withered,
dishevelled head, and her eyes filled withtears. "this is very singular," she murmured. she thrust her head through the bars, andsucceeded in casting a glance at the corner where the gaze of the unhappy woman wasimmovably riveted. when she withdrew her head from the window,her countenance was inundated with tears. "what do you call that woman?" she askedoudarde. oudarde replied,-- "we call her sister gudule.""and i," returned mahiette, "call her paquette la chantefleurie."
then, laying her finger on her lips, shemotioned to the astounded oudarde to thrust her head through the window and look. oudarde looked and beheld, in the cornerwhere the eyes of the recluse were fixed in that sombre ecstasy, a tiny shoe of pinksatin, embroidered with a thousand fanciful designs in gold and silver. gervaise looked after oudarde, and then thethree women, gazing upon the unhappy mother, began to weep.but neither their looks nor their tears disturbed the recluse. her hands remained clasped; her lips mute;her eyes fixed; and that little shoe, thus
gazed at, broke the heart of any one whoknew her history. the three women had not yet uttered asingle word; they dared not speak, even in a low voice. this deep silence, this deep grief, thisprofound oblivion in which everything had disappeared except one thing, produced uponthem the effect of the grand altar at christmas or easter. they remained silent, they meditated, theywere ready to kneel. it seemed to them that they were ready toenter a church on the day of tenebrae. at length gervaise, the most curious of thethree, and consequently the least
sensitive, tried to make the recluse speak:"sister! sister gudule!" she repeated this call three times, raisingher voice each time. the recluse did not move; not a word, not aglance, not a sigh, not a sign of life. oudarde, in her turn, in a sweeter, morecaressing voice,--"sister!" said she, "sister sainte-gudule!"the same silence; the same immobility. "a singular woman!" exclaimed gervaise,"and one not to be moved by a catapult!" "perchance she is deaf," said oudarde."perhaps she is blind," added gervaise. "dead, perchance," returned mahiette.
it is certain that if the soul had notalready quitted this inert, sluggish, lethargic body, it had at least retreatedand concealed itself in depths whither the perceptions of the exterior organs nolonger penetrated. "then we must leave the cake on thewindow," said oudarde; "some scamp will take it. what shall we do to rouse her?" eustache, who, up to that moment had beendiverted by a little carriage drawn by a large dog, which had just passed, suddenlyperceived that his three conductresses were gazing at something through the window,
and, curiosity taking possession of him inhis turn, he climbed upon a stone post, elevated himself on tiptoe, and applied hisfat, red face to the opening, shouting, "mother, let me see too!" at the sound of this clear, fresh, ringingchild's voice, the recluse trembled; she turned her head with the sharp, abruptmovement of a steel spring, her long, fleshless hands cast aside the hair from her brow, and she fixed upon the child,bitter, astonished, desperate eyes. this glance was but a lightning flash. "oh my god!" she suddenly exclaimed, hidingher head on her knees, and it seemed as
though her hoarse voice tore her chest asit passed from it, "do not show me those of others!" "good day, madam," said the child, gravely.nevertheless, this shock had, so to speak, awakened the recluse. a long shiver traversed her frame from headto foot; her teeth chattered; she half raised her head and said, pressing herelbows against her hips, and clasping her feet in her hands as though to warm them,-- "oh, how cold it is!""poor woman!" said oudarde, with great compassion, "would you like a little fire?"she shook her head in token of refusal.
"well," resumed oudarde, presenting herwith a flagon; "here is some hippocras which will warm you; drink it."again she shook her head, looked at oudarde fixedly and replied, "water." oudarde persisted,--"no, sister, that is nobeverage for january. you must drink a little hippocras and eatthis leavened cake of maize, which we have baked for you." she refused the cake which mahiette offeredto her, and said, "black bread." "come," said gervaise, seized in her turnwith an impulse of charity, and unfastening her woolen cloak, "here is a cloak which isa little warmer than yours."
she refused the cloak as she had refusedthe flagon and the cake, and replied, "a sack." "but," resumed the good oudarde, "you musthave perceived to some extent, that yesterday was a festival." "i do perceive it," said the recluse; "'tistwo days now since i have had any water in my crock."she added, after a silence, "'tis a festival, i am forgotten. people do well.why should the world think of me, when i do not think of it?cold charcoal makes cold ashes."
and as though fatigued with having said somuch, she dropped her head on her knees again. the simple and charitable oudarde, whofancied that she understood from her last words that she was complaining of the cold,replied innocently, "then you would like a little fire?" "fire!" said the sacked nun, with a strangeaccent; "and will you also make a little for the poor little one who has beenbeneath the sod for these fifteen years?" every limb was trembling, her voicequivered, her eyes flashed, she had raised herself upon her knees; suddenly sheextended her thin, white hand towards the
child, who was regarding her with a look ofastonishment. "take away that child!" she cried."the egyptian woman is about to pass by." then she fell face downward on the earth,and her forehead struck the stone, with the sound of one stone against another stone.the three women thought her dead. a moment later, however, she moved, andthey beheld her drag herself, on her knees and elbows, to the corner where the littleshoe was. then they dared not look; they no longersaw her; but they heard a thousand kisses and a thousand sighs, mingled withheartrending cries, and dull blows like those of a head in contact with a wall.
then, after one of these blows, so violentthat all three of them staggered, they heard no more. "can she have killed herself?" saidgervaise, venturing to pass her head through the air-hole."sister! "sister gudule!" repeated oudarde."ah! good heavens! she no longer moves!" resumed gervaise; "is she dead?gudule! gudule!" mahiette, choked to such a point that shecould not speak, made an effort. "wait," said she.
then bending towards the window,"paquette!" she said, "paquette le chantefleurie!" a child who innocently blows upon the badlyignited fuse of a bomb, and makes it explode in his face, is no more terrifiedthan was mahiette at the effect of that name, abruptly launched into the cell ofsister gudule. the recluse trembled all over, rose erecton her bare feet, and leaped at the window with eyes so glaring that mahiette andoudarde, and the other woman and the child recoiled even to the parapet of the quay. meanwhile, the sinister face of the recluseappeared pressed to the grating of the air-
hole. "oh! oh!" she cried, with an appallinglaugh; "'tis the egyptian who is calling me!"at that moment, a scene which was passing at the pillory caught her wild eye. her brow contracted with horror, shestretched her two skeleton arms from her cell, and shrieked in a voice whichresembled a death-rattle, "so 'tis thou once more, daughter of egypt! 'tis thou who callest me, stealer ofchildren! well!be thou accursed! accursed! accursed!