Part 8. Chapter II. Continuation of the crown which was changed into a dry leaf
After ascending and descending several steps in the corridors, which were so dark that they were lighted by lamps at midday, La Esmeralda, still surrounded by her lugubrious escort, was thrust by the police into a gloomy chamber. This chamber, circular in form, occupied the ground floor of one of those great towers, which, even in our own century, still pierce through the layer of modern edifices with which modern Paris has covered ancient Paris. There were no windows to this cellar; no other opening than the entrance, which was low, and closed by an enormous iron door. Nevertheless, light was not lacking; a furnace had been constructed in the thickness of the wall; a large fire was lighted there, which filled the vault with its crimson reflections and deprived a miserable candle, which stood in one corner, of all radiance. The iron grating which served to close the oven, being raised at that moment, allowed only a view at the mouth of the flaming vent-hole in the dark wall, the lower extremity of its bars, like a row of black and pointed teeth, set flat apart; which made the furnace resemble one of those mouths of dragons which spout forth flames in ancient legends. By the light which escaped from it, the prisoner beheld, all about the room, frightful instruments whose use she did not understand. In the centre lay a leather mattress, placed almost flat upon the ground, over which hung a strap provided with a buckle, attached to a brass ring in the mouth of a flat-nosed monster carved in the keystone of the vault. Tongs, pincers, large ploughshares, filled the interior of the furnace, and glowed in a confused heap on the coals. The sanguine light of the furnace illuminated in the chamber only a confused mass of horrible things.
This Tartarus was called simply, The Question Chamber.
On the bed, in a negligent attitude, sat Pierrat Torterue, the official torturer. His underlings, two gnomes with square faces, leather aprons, and linen breeches, were moving the iron instruments on the coals.
In vain did the poor girl summon up her courage; on entering this chamber she was stricken with horror.
The sergeants of the bailiff of the courts drew up in line on one side, the priests of the officiality on the other. A clerk, inkhorn, and a table were in one corner.
Master Jacques Charmolue approached the gypsy with a very sweet smile.
“My dear child,” said he, “do you still persist in your denial?”
“Yes,” she replied, in a dying voice.
“In that case,” replied Charmolue, “it will be very painful for us to have to question you more urgently than we should like. Pray take the trouble to seat yourself on this bed. Master Pierrat, make room for mademoiselle, and close the door.”
Pierrat rose with a growl.
“If I shut the door,” he muttered, “my fire will go out.”
“Well, my dear fellow,” replied Charmolue, “leave it open then.”
Meanwhile, la Esmeralda had remained standing. That leather bed on which so many unhappy wretches had writhed, frightened her. Terror chilled the very marrow of her bones; she stood there bewildered and stupefied. At a sign from Charmolue, the two assistants took her and placed her in a sitting posture on the bed. They did her no harm; but when these men touched her, when that leather touched her, she felt all her blood retreat to her heart. She cast a frightened look around the chamber. It seemed to her as though she beheld advancing from all quarters towards her, with the intention of crawling up her body and biting and pinching her, all those hideous implements of torture, which as compared to the instruments of all sorts she had hitherto seen, were like what bats, centipedes, and spiders are among insects and birds.
“Where is the physician?” asked Charmolue.
“Here,” replied a black gown whom she had not before noticed.
“Mademoiselle,” resumed the caressing voice of the procucrator of the Ecclesiastical court, “for the third time, do you persist in denying the deeds of which you are accused?”
This time she could only make a sign with her head.
“You persist?” said Jacques Charmolue. “Then it grieves me deeply, but I must fulfil my office.”
“Monsieur le Procureur du Roi,” said Pierrat abruptly, “How shall we begin?”
Charmolue hesitated for a moment with the ambiguous grimace of a poet in search of a rhyme.
“With the boot,” he said at last.
The unfortunate girl felt herself so utterly abandoned by God and men, that her head fell upon her breast like an inert thing which has no power in itself.
The tormentor and the physician approached her simultaneously. At the same time, the two assistants began to fumble among their hideous arsenal.
At the clanking of their frightful irons, the unhappy child quivered like a dead frog which is being galvanized. “Oh!” she murmured, so low that no one heard her; “Oh, my Phœbus!” Then she fell back once more into her immobility and her marble silence. This spectacle would have rent any other heart than those of her judges. One would have pronounced her a poor sinful soul, being tortured by Satan beneath the scarlet wicket of hell. The miserable body which that frightful swarm of saws, wheels, and racks were about to clasp in their clutches, the being who was about to be manipulated by the harsh hands of executioners and pincers, was that gentle, white, fragile creature, a poor grain of millet which human justice was handing over to the terrible mills of torture to grind. Meanwhile, the callous hands of Pierrat Torterue’s assistants had bared that charming leg, that tiny foot, which had so often amazed the passers-by with their delicacy and beauty, in the squares of Paris.
“’Tis a shame!” muttered the tormentor, glancing at these graceful and delicate forms.
Had the archdeacon been present, he certainly would have recalled at that moment his symbol of the spider and the fly. Soon the unfortunate girl, through a mist which spread before her eyes, beheld the boot approach; she soon beheld her foot encased between iron plates disappear in the frightful apparatus. Then terror restored her strength.
“Take that off!” she cried angrily; and drawing herself up, with her hair all dishevelled: “Mercy!”
She darted from the bed to fling herself at the feet of the king’s procurator, but her leg was fast in the heavy block of oak and iron, and she sank down upon the boot, more crushed than a bee with a lump of lead on its wing.
At a sign from Charmolue, she was replaced on the bed, and two coarse hands adjusted to her delicate waist the strap which hung from the ceiling.
“For the last time, do you confess the facts in the case?” demanded Charmolue, with his imperturbable benignity.
“I am innocent.”
“Then, mademoiselle, how do you explain the circumstance laid to your charge?”
“Alas, monseigneur, I do not know.”
“So you deny them?”
“Proceed,” said Charmolue to Pierrat.
Pierrat turned the handle of the screw-jack, the boot was contracted, and the unhappy girl uttered one of those horrible cries which have no orthography in any human language.
“Stop!” said Charmolue to Pierrat. “Do you confess?” he said to the gypsy.
“All!” cried the wretched girl. “I confess! I confess! Mercy!”
She had not calculated her strength when she faced the torture. Poor child, whose life up to that time had been so joyous, so pleasant, so sweet, the first pain had conquered her!
“Humanity forces me to tell you,” remarked the king’s procurator, “that in confessing, it is death that you must expect.”
“I certainly hope so!” said she. And she fell back upon the leather bed, dying, doubled up, allowing herself to hang suspended from the strap buckled round her waist.
“Come, fair one, hold up a little,” said Master Pierrat, raising her. “You have the air of the lamb of the Golden Fleece which hangs from Monsieur de Bourgogne’s neck.”
Jacques Charmolue raised his voice,
“Clerk, write. Young Bohemian maid, you confess your participation in the feasts, witches’ sabbaths, and witchcrafts of hell, with ghosts, hags, and vampires? Answer.”
“Yes,” she said, so low that her words were lost in her breathing.
“You confess to having seen the ram which Beelzebub causes to appear in the clouds to call together the witches’ sabbath, and which is beheld by socerers alone?”
“You confess to having adored the heads of Bophomet, those abominable idols of the Templars?”
“To having had habitual dealings with the devil under the form of a goat familiar, joined with you in the suit?”
“Lastly, you avow and confess to having, with the aid of the demon, and of the phantom vulgarly known as the surly monk, on the night of the twenty-ninth of March last, murdered and assassinated a captain named Phœbus de Châteaupers?”
She raised her large, staring eyes to the magistrate, and replied, as though mechanically, without convulsion or agitation,—
It was evident that everything within her was broken.
“Write, clerk,” said Charmolue. And, addressing the torturers, “Release the prisoner, and take her back to the court.”
When the prisoner had been “unbooted,” the procurator of the ecclesiastical court examined her foot, which was still swollen with pain. “Come,” said he, “there’s no great harm done. You shrieked in good season. You could still dance, my beauty!”
Then he turned to his acolytes of the officiality,—
“Behold justice enlightened at last! This is a solace, gentlemen! Madamoiselle will bear us witness that we have acted with all possible gentleness.”