Part 9. Chapter VI. Continuation of the key to the red door.
That night, la Esmeralda had fallen asleep in her cell, full of oblivion, of hope, and of sweet thoughts. She had already been asleep for some time, dreaming as always, of Phœbus, when it seemed to her that she heard a noise near her. She slept lightly and uneasily, the sleep of a bird; a mere nothing waked her. She opened her eyes. The night was very dark. Nevertheless, she saw a figure gazing at her through the window; a lamp lighted up this apparition. The moment that the figure saw that la Esmeralda had perceived it, it blew out the lamp. But the young girl had had time to catch a glimpse of it; her eyes closed again with terror.
“Oh!” she said in a faint voice, “the priest!”
All her past unhappiness came back to her like a flash of lightning. She fell back on her bed, chilled.
A moment later she felt a touch along her body which made her shudder so that she straightened herself up in a sitting posture, wide awake and furious.
The priest had just slipped in beside her. He encircled her with both arms.
She tried to scream and could not.
“Begone, monster! begone assassin!” she said, in a voice which was low and trembling with wrath and terror.
“Mercy! mercy!” murmured the priest, pressing his lips to her shoulder.
She seized his bald head by its remnant of hair and tried to thrust aside his kisses as though they had been bites.
“Mercy!” repeated the unfortunate man. “If you but knew what my love for you is! ’Tis fire, melted lead, a thousand daggers in my heart.”
She stopped his two arms with superhuman force.
“Let me go,” she said, “or I will spit in your face!”
He released her. “Vilify me, strike me, be malicious! Do what you will! But have mercy! love me!”
Then she struck him with the fury of a child. She made her beautiful hands stiff to bruise his face. “Begone, demon!”
“Love me! love me! pity!” cried the poor priest returning her blows with caresses.
All at once she felt him stronger than herself.
“There must be an end to this!” he said, gnashing his teeth.
She was conquered, palpitating in his arms, and in his power. She felt a wanton hand straying over her. She made a last effort, and began to cry: “Help! Help! A vampire! a vampire!”
Nothing came. Djali alone was awake and bleating with anguish.
“Hush!” said the panting priest.
All at once, as she struggled and crawled on the floor, the gypsy’s hand came in contact with something cold and metallic—it was Quasimodo’s whistle. She seized it with a convulsive hope, raised it to her lips and blew with all the strength that she had left. The whistle gave a clear, piercing sound.
“What is that?” said the priest.
Almost at the same instant he felt himself raised by a vigorous arm. The cell was dark; he could not distinguish clearly who it was that held him thus; but he heard teeth chattering with rage, and there was just sufficient light scattered among the gloom to allow him to see above his head the blade of a large knife.
The priest fancied that he perceived the form of Quasimodo. He assumed that it could be no one but he. He remembered to have stumbled, as he entered, over a bundle which was stretched across the door on the outside. But, as the newcomer did not utter a word, he knew not what to think. He flung himself on the arm which held the knife, crying: “Quasimodo!” He forgot, at that moment of distress, that Quasimodo was deaf.
In a twinkling, the priest was overthrown and a leaden knee rested on his breast.
From the angular imprint of that knee he recognized Quasimodo; but what was to be done? how could he make the other recognize him? the darkness rendered the deaf man blind.
He was lost. The young girl, pitiless as an enraged tigress, did not intervene to save him. The knife was approaching his head; the moment was critical. All at once, his adversary seemed stricken with hesitation.
“No blood on her!” he said in a dull voice.
It was, in fact, Quasimodo’s voice.
Then the priest felt a large hand dragging him feet first out of the cell; it was there that he was to die. Fortunately for him, the moon had risen a few moments before.
When they had passed through the door of the cell, its pale rays fell upon the priest’s countenance. Quasimodo looked him full in the face, a trembling seized him, and he released the priest and shrank back.
The gypsy, who had advanced to the threshold of her cell, beheld with surprise their roles abruptly changed. It was now the priest who menaced, Quasimodo who was the suppliant.
The priest, who was overwhelming the deaf man with gestures of wrath and reproach, made the latter a violent sign to retire.
The deaf man dropped his head, then he came and knelt at the gypsy’s door,—“Monseigneur,” he said, in a grave and resigned voice, “you shall do all that you please afterwards, but kill me first.”
So saying, he presented his knife to the priest. The priest, beside himself, was about to seize it. But the young girl was quicker than he; she wrenched the knife from Quasimodo’s hands and burst into a frantic laugh,—“Approach,” she said to the priest.
She held the blade high. The priest remained undecided.
She would certainly have struck him.
Then she added with a pitiless expression, well aware that she was about to pierce the priest’s heart with thousands of red-hot irons,—
“Ah! I know that Phœbus is not dead!”
The priest overturned Quasimodo on the floor with a kick, and, quivering with rage, darted back under the vault of the staircase.
When he was gone, Quasimodo picked up the whistle which had just saved the gypsy.
“It was getting rusty,” he said, as he handed it back to her; then he left her alone.
The young girl, deeply agitated by this violent scene, fell back exhausted on her bed, and began to sob and weep. Her horizon was becoming gloomy once more.
The priest had groped his way back to his cell.
It was settled. Dom Claude was jealous of Quasimodo!
He repeated with a thoughtful air his fatal words: “No one shall have her.”