Every city during the Middle Ages, and every city in France down to the time of Louis XII. had its places of asylum. These sanctuaries, in the midst of the deluge of penal and barbarous jurisdictions which inundated the city, were a species of islands which rose above the level of human justice. Every criminal who landed there was safe. There were in every suburb almost as many places of asylum as gallows. It was the abuse of impunity by the side of the abuse of punishment; two bad things which strove to correct each other. The palaces of the king, the hotels of the princes, and especially churches, possessed the right of asylum. Sometimes a whole city which stood in need of being repeopled was temporarily created a place of refuge. Louis XI. made all Paris a refuge in 1467.
His foot once within the asylum, the criminal was sacred; but he must beware of leaving it; one step outside the sanctuary, and he fell back into the flood. The wheel, the gibbet, the strappado, kept good guard around the place of refuge, and lay in watch incessantly for their prey, like sharks around a vessel. Hence, condemned men were to be seen whose hair had grown white in a cloister, on the steps of a palace, in the enclosure of an abbey, beneath the porch of a church; in this manner the asylum was a prison as much as any other. It sometimes happened that a solemn decree of parliament violated the asylum and restored the condemned man to the executioner; but this was of rare occurrence. Parliaments were afraid of the bishops, and when there was friction between these two robes, the gown had but a poor chance against the cassock. Sometimes, however, as in the affair of the assassins of Petit-Jean, the headsman of Paris, and in that of Emery Rousseau, the murderer of Jean Valleret, justice overleaped the church and passed on to the execution of its sentences; but unless by virtue of a decree of Parliament, woe to him who violated a place of asylum with armed force! The reader knows the manner of death of Robert de Clermont, Marshal of France, and of Jean de Châlons, Marshal of Champagne; and yet the question was only of a certain Perrin Marc, the clerk of a money-changer, a miserable assassin; but the two marshals had broken the doors of St. Méry. Therein lay the enormity.
Such respect was cherished for places of refuge that, according to tradition, animals even felt it at times. Aymoire relates that a stag, being chased by Dagobert, having taken refuge near the tomb of Saint-Denis, the pack of hounds stopped short and barked.
Churches generally had a small apartment prepared for the reception of supplicants. In 1407, Nicolas Flamel caused to be built on the vaults of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie, a chamber which cost him four livres six sous, sixteen farthings, parisis.
At Notre-Dame it was a tiny cell situated on the roof of the side aisle, beneath the flying buttresses, precisely at the spot where the wife of the present janitor of the towers has made for herself a garden, which is to the hanging gardens of Babylon what a lettuce is to a palm-tree, what a porter's wife is to a Semiramis.
It was here that Quasimodo had deposited la Esmeralda, after his wild and triumphant course. As long as that course lasted, the young girl had been unable to recover her senses, half unconscious, half awake, no longer feeling anything, except that she was mounting through the air, floating in it, flying in it, that something was raising her above the earth. From time to time she heard the loud laughter, the noisy voice of Quasimodo in her ear; she half opened her eyes; then below her she confusedly beheld Paris checkered with its thousand roofs of slate and tiles, like a red and blue mosaic, above her head the frightful and joyous face of Quasimodo. Then her eyelids drooped again; she thought that all was over, that they had executed her during her swoon, and that the misshapen spirit which had presided over her destiny, had laid hold of her and was bearing her away. She dared not look at him, and she surrendered herself to her fate. But when the bellringer, dishevelled and panting, had deposited her in the cell of refuge, when she felt his huge hands gently detaching the cord which bruised her arms, she felt that sort of shock which awakens with a start the passengers of a vessel which runs aground in the middle of a dark night. Her thoughts awoke also, and returned to her one by one. She saw that she was in Notre-Dame; she remembered having been torn from the hands of the executioner; that Phoebus was alive, that Phoebus loved her no longer; and as these two ideas, one of which shed so much bitterness over the other, presented themselves simultaneously to the poor condemned girl; she turned to Quasimodo, who was standing in front of her, and who terrified her; she said to him,--"Why have you saved me?"
He gazed at her with anxiety, as though seeking to divine what she was saying to him. She repeated her question. Then he gave her a profoundly sorrowful glance and fled. She was astonished.
A few moments later he returned, bearing a package which he cast at her feet. It was clothing which some charitable women had left on the threshold of the church for her.
Then she dropped her eyes upon herself and saw that she was almost naked, and blushed. Life had returned.
Quasimodo appeared to experience something of this modesty. He covered his eyes with his large hand and retired once more, but slowly.
She made haste to dress herself. The robe was a white one with a white veil,--the garb of a novice of the Hôtel-Dien.
She had barely finished when she beheld Quasimodo returning. He carried a basket under one arm and a mattress under the other. In the basket there was a bottle, bread, and some provisions. He set the basket on the floor and said, "Eat!" He spread the mattress on the flagging and said, "Sleep."
It was his own repast, it was his own bed, which the bellringer had gone in search of.
The gypsy raised her eyes to thank him, but she could not articulate a word. She dropped her head with a quiver of terror.
Then he said to her. -
"I frighten you. I am very ugly, am I not? Do not look at me; only listen to me. During the day you will remain here; at night you can walk all over the church. But do not leave the church either by day or by night. You would be lost. They would kill you, and I should die."
She was touched and raised her head to answer him. He had disappeared. She found herself alone once more, meditating upon the singular words of this almost monstrous being, and struck by the sound of his voice, which was so hoarse yet so gentle.
Then she examined her cell. It was a chamber about six feet square, with a small window and a door on the slightly sloping plane of the roof formed of flat stones. Many gutters with the figures of animals seemed to be bending down around her, and stretching their necks in order to stare at her through the window. Over the edge of her roof she perceived the tops of thousands of chimneys which caused the smoke of all the fires in Paris to rise beneath her eyes. A sad sight for the poor gypsy, a foundling, condemned to death, an unhappy creature, without country, without family, without a hearthstone.
At the moment when the thought of her isolation thus appeared to her more poignant than ever, she felt a bearded and hairy head glide between her hands, upon her knees. She started (everything alarmed her now) and looked. It was the poor goat, the agile Djali, which had made its escape after her, at the moment when Quasimodo had put to flight Charmolue's brigade, and which had been lavishing caresses on her feet for nearly an hour past, without being able to win a glance. The gypsy covered him with kisses.
"Oh! Djali!" she said, "how I have forgotten thee! And so thou still thinkest of me! Oh! thou art not an ingrate!"
At the same time, as though an invisible hand had lifted the weight which had repressed her tears in her heart for so long, she began to weep, and, in proportion as her tears flowed, she felt all that was most acrid and bitter in her grief depart with them.
Evening came, she thought the night so beautiful that she made the circuit of the elevated gallery which surrounds the church. It afforded her some relief, so calm did the earth appear when viewed from that height.
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