The Rat-hole

With the reader’s permission we will now return to the Place de Grève, which was quitted yesterday with Gringoire, to follow Esmeralda.

It is ten in the morning, and everywhere are the unmistakable signs of the day after a public holiday. The ground is strewn with débris of every description, ribbons, rags, plumes, drops of wax from the torches, scraps from the public feast. A good many of the townsfolk are “loafing about”—as we would say to- day—turning over the extinguished brands of the bonfire, standing in front of the Maison aux Piliers rapturously recalling the fine hangings of the day before, and gazing now at the nails which fastened them—last taste of vanished joy—while the venders of beer and cider roll their casks among the idle groups. A few pass to and fro, intent on business; the tradespeople gossip and call to one another from their shop doors. The Festival, the Ambassadors, Coppenole, the Pope of Fools, are in every mouth, each vying with the other as to who shall make the wittiest comments and laugh the loudest; while four mounted officers of the peace, who have just posted themselves at the four corners of the pillory, have already drawn away a considerable portion of the idlers scattered about the square, who cheerfully submit to any amount of tediousness and waiting, in expectation of a little exhibition of Justice.

If now, after contemplating this stirring and clamorous scene which is being enacted at every corner of the Place, the reader will turn his attention towards the ancient building—half Gothic, half Romanesque—called the Tour-Roland, forming the western angle of the quay, he will notice, at one of its corners, a large, richly illuminated breviary for the use of the public, protected from the rain by a small pent-house and from thieves by a grating, which, however, allows of the passer-by turning over the leaves. Close beside this breviary is a narrow, pointed window looking on to the square and closed by an iron cross- bar, the only aperture by which a little air and light can penetrate to a small, doorless cell constructed on the level of the ground within the thickness of the wall of the old mansion and filled with a quiet the more profound, a silence the more oppressive, that a public square, the noisiest and most populous in Paris, is swarming and clamouring round it.

This cell has been famous in Paris for three centuries, ever since Mme. Rolande of the Tour-Roland, mourning for her father who died in the Crusades, had caused it to be hollowed out of the wall of her house and shut herself up in it forever; retaining of all her great mansion but this one poor chamber, the door of which was walled up and the window open to the elements winter and summer, and giving the rest of her possessions to the poor and to God. The inconsolable lady had lingered on for twenty years awaiting death in this premature tomb, praying night and day for the soul of her father, making her bed on the cold ground without even a stone for a pillow, clothed in sackcloth, and living only upon such bread and water as the compassionate might deposit on the ledge of her window—thus receiving charity after bestowing it. At her death, at the moment of her passing to another sepulchre, she had bequeathed this one in perpetuity to women in affliction—mothers, windows, or maidens—who should have many prayers to offer up on behalf of others or of themselves, and should choose to bury themselves alive for some great grief or some great penitence. The poor of her time had honoured her funeral with tears and benedictions; but, to their great regret, the pious lady had been unable to receive canonization for lack of interest in the right quarter. Nevertheless, those among them who were not quite so pious as they should have been, trusting that the matter might be more easily arranged in heaven than in Rome, had frankly offered up their prayers for the deceased to God himself, in default of the Pope. The majority, however, had contented themselves with holding Rolande’s memory sacred, and converting her rags into relics. The town, for its part, had founded, in pursuance of the lady’s intention, a public breviary, which had been permanently fixed beside the window of the cell, that the passer-by might halt there for a moment, if only to pray; that prayer might suggest almsgiving, and thus the poor recluses, inheriting the stone cell of Mme. Rolande, be saved from perishing outright of hunger and neglect.

These living tombs were by no means rare in the cities of the Middle Ages. Not infrequently, in the very midst of the busiest street, the most crowded, noisy market-place, under the very hoofs of the horses and wheels of the wagons, you might come upon a vault, a pit, a walled and grated cell, out of the depths of which a human being, voluntarily dedicated to some everlasting lamentation, or some great expiation, offered up prayer unceasingly day and night. But all the reflections that such a strange spectacle would

  By PanEris using Melati.

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