Sequel to the Crown Piece changed into A Withered Leaf
After ascending and descending several flights of steps leading to passages so dark that they were lighted by lamps at mid-day, Esmeralda, still surrounded by her lugubrious attendants, was thrust by the sergeants of the guard into a chamber of sinister aspect. This chamber, circular in form, occupied the ground floor in one of those great towers which, even in our day, pierces the layer of modern edifices with which the present Paris has covered the old. There were no windows to this vault; no other opening than the lowbrowed entrance, closed by an enormous iron door. Yet it did not want for light. A furnace was built into the thickness of the wall, and in it a great fire, which filled the vault with its crimson glow and entirely outshone a miserable candle flickering in a corner. The iron grating which closed the furnace being raised at that moment only showed, against the flaming orifice whose licking flames danced on the grim walls, the lower extremity of its bars like a row of sharp black teeth, giving the fire the appearance of a fire-breathing dragon of the ancient myths. By the light that streamed from it the prisoner beheld, ranged round the chamber, frightful instruments the use of which she did not understand. In the middle a leather mattress was stretched almost touching the ground, and over that hung a leather strap with a buckle, attached to a copper ring held in the mouth of a flat-nosed monster carved in the keystone of the vaulted roof. Iron pincers, tongs, great ploughshares were heaped inside the furnace and glowed red-hot upon the fire. The blood-red gleam of the fire only served to bring into view a confused mass of horrible objects.
This Tartarus was known simply as the Question Chamber.
Upon the bed sat with the utmost unconcern Pierrat Torterue, the official torturer. His assistants, two squarefaced gnomes in leathern aprons and linen breeches, were turning the irons in the fire.
The poor girl might call up all her courage as she would; on entering that chamber she was seized with horror.
The myrmidons of the law ranged themselves on one side, the priests of the Office on the other. A clerk, a table and writing materials were in a corner.
Maître Jacques Charmolue approached the Egyptian with his blandest smile.
My dear child, said he, do you persist in your denial?
Yes, she answered in an expiring voice.
In that case, Charmolue went on, it will be our painful duty to question you more urgently than we would otherwise desire. Have the goodness to seat yourself on this bed. Maître Pierrat, kindly 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, then, my good fellow, replied Charmolue, leave it open.
Meanwhile, Esmeralda had remained standing. This bed of leather, on which so many poor wretches had writhed in agony, filled her with affright. Terror froze her to the marrow: she stood bewildered, stupefied. At a sign from Charmolue, the two assistants laid hold on her and placed her on the bed. They did not hurt her; but at the mere touch of these men, at the touch of the bed, she felt all her blood rush to her heart. She cast a distraught look round the chamber. She imagined she saw all these monstrous instruments of torture which were, to the instruments of any kind she had hitherto seen, what bats, centipeds, and spiders are among birds and insects come moving towards her from all sides to crawl over her body and pinch and bite her.
Where is the physician? asked Charmolue.
Here, answered a black gown she had not observed before.
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