Lasciate Ogni Speranza

In the Middle Ages, when an edifice was complete there was almost as much of it under the ground as over it. Except it were built on piles, like Notre-Dame, a palace, a fortress, a church, had always a double foundation. In the cathedrals it formed in some sort a second cathedral— subterranean, low- pitched, dark, mysterious— blind and dumb—under the aisles of the building above, which were flooded with light and resonant day and night with the music of the organ or the bells. Sometimes it was a sepulchre. In the palaces and fortresses it was a prison— or a sepulchre— sometimes both together. These mighty masses of masonry, of which we have explained elsewhere the formation and growth, had not mere foundations, but more properly speaking roots branching out underground into chambers, passages, and stairways, the counterpart of those above. Thus the churches, palaces, and bastilles might be said to be sunk in the ground up to their middle. The vaults of an edifice formed another edifice, in which you descended instead of ascending, the subterranean storeys of which extended downward beneath the pile of exterior storeys, like those inverted forests and mountains mirrored in the waters of a lake beneath the forests and mountains of its shores.

At the Bastille Saint-Antoine, at the Palais de Justice, and at the Louvre, these subterranean edifices were prisons. The storeys of these prisons as they sank into the ground became even narrower and darker— so many zones presenting, as by a graduated scale, deeper and deeper shades of horror. Dante could find nothing better for the construction of his Inferno. These dungeon funnels usually ended in a tub-shaped pit, in which Dante placed his Satan and society the criminal condemned to death. When once a miserable being was there interred, farewell to light, air, life— ogni speranza— he never issued forth again but to the gibbet or the stake unless, indeed, he were left to rot there— which human justice called forgetting. Between mankind and the condemned, weighing upon his head, there was an accumulated mass of stone and jailers; and the whole prison, the massive fortress, was but one enormous complicated lock that barred him from the living world.

It was in one of these deep pits, in the oubliettes excavated by Saint-Louis, in the “in pace” of the Tournelle— doubtless for fear of her escaping— that they had deposited Esmeralda, now condemned to the gibbet, with the colossal Palais de Justice over her head— poor fly, that could not have moved the smallest of its stones! Truly, Providence and social law alike had been too lavish; such a profusion of misery and torture was not necessary to crush so fragile a creature.

She lay there, swallowed up by the darkness, entombed, walled, lost to the world. Any one seeing her in that state, after beholding her laughing and dancing in the sunshine, would have shuddered. Cold as night, cold as death, no breath of air to stir her locks, no human sound to reach her ear, no ray of light within her eye— broken, weighed down by chains, crouching beside a pitcher and a loaf of bread, on a heap of straw, in the pool of water formed by the oozings of the dungeon walls— motionless, almost breathless, she was even past suffering. Phœbus, the sun, noonday, the free air, the streets of Paris, dancing and applause, her tender love passages with the officer— then the priest, the old hag, the dagger, blood, torture, the gibbet— all this passed in turn before her mind, now as a golden vision of delight, now as a hideous nightmare; but her apprehension of it all was now merely that of a vaguely horrible struggle in the darkness, or of distant music still playing above ground but no longer audible at the depth to which the unhappy girl had fallen.

Since she had been here she neither waked nor slept. In that unspeakable misery, in that dungeon, she could no more distinguish waking from sleeping, dreams from reality, than day from night. All was mingled, broken, floating confusedly through her mind. She no longer felt, no longer knew, no longer thought anything definitely— at most she dreamed. Never has human creature been plunged deeper into annihilation.

Thus benumbed, frozen, petrified, scarcely had she remarked at two or three different times the sound of a trap-door opening somewhere above her head, without even admitting a ray of light, and through which a hand had thrown her down a crust of black bread. Yet this was her only surviving communication with mankind— the periodical visit of the jailer.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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