The Story of a Wheaten Cake

At the time at which the events of this story occurred, the cell of the Tour-Roland was occupied, and if the reader desires to know by whom, he has only to listen to the conversation of three worthy gossips, who, at the moment when we attracted his attention to the Rat-Hole, were directing their steps to that very spot, going along the river-side from the Châtelet towards the Place de Grève.

Two of these women were dressed after the fashion of the good burgher wives of Paris; their fine white gorgets, striped red and blue woollen kirtles, white knitted hose with embroidered clocks, trimly pulled up over their legs, their square-toed shoes of tan-coloured leather with black soles, and above all, their head-dress—a sort of tinsel-covered horn, loaded with ribbons and lace, still worn by the women of Champagne, and the Grenadiers of the Russian imperial guard—proclaimed them to belong to that class of rich tradeswomen who hold the medium between what servants call “a woman” and what they call “a lady.” They wore neither rings nor gold crosses; but it was easy to perceive that this was owing not to poverty, but simply out of fear of the fine incurred by so doing. Their companion’s dress was very much the same; but there was in her appearance and manner an indefinable something which betrayed the wife of the country notary. Her way of wearing her girdle so high above her hips would alone have proved that it was long since she had been in Paris, without mentioning that her gorget was plaited, that she wore knots of ribbon on her shoes, that the stripes of her kirtle ran round instead of down, and a dozen other crimes against the prevailing mode.

The first two walked with that air peculiar to Parisiennes showing the town to country cousins. The countrywoman held by the hand a chubby little boy, who in his hand held a big wheaten cake—and we regret to have to add that, owing to the inclemency of the weather, he was using his tongue as a pocket-handkerchief.

The boy let himself be dragged along—non passibus œquis, as Virgil says—with uneven steps, stumbling every minute, to the great annoyance of his mother. It is true that he looked oftener at the cake than on the ground. Some very serious reason must have prevented him from biting into the cake, for he contented himself with merely gazing at it affectionately. But the mother would have done better to take charge of the tempting morsel herself. It was cruel to make a Tantalus of poor chubby-cheeks.

Meanwhile, the three “damoiselles” (for the title of “dame” was reserved then for the women of noble birth) were all talking at once.

“We must hasten, Damoiselle Mahiette,” said the youngest of the three, who was also the fattest, to their country friend. “I fear me we shall be too late. They told us at the Châtelet that he was to be carried to the pillory immediately.”

“Ah—bah! What are you talking about, Damoiselle Oudarde Musnier?” returned the other Parisienne. “He will be a good two hours on the pillory. We have plenty of time. Have you ever seen anybody pilloried, my dear Mahiette?”

“Yes,” said Mahiette, “at Reims.”

“Pooh! what’s your pillory at Reims? A paltry cage where they put nobody but clowns! That’s not worth calling a pillory!”

“Nobody but clowns!” cried Mahiette. “In the Cloth-Market at Reims! Let me tell you, we have had some very fine criminals there—who had killed father and mother! Clowns indeed! What do you take me for, Gervaise?”

And there is no doubt the country lady was on the point of flying into a rage for this disparagement of her pillory, but fortunately the discreet Damoiselle Oudarde Musnier turned the conversation in time.

“By-the-bye, Damoiselle Mahiette, what think you of our Flemish Ambassadors? Have you any as grand at Reims?”

  By PanEris using Melati.

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