A/N: The first part of this chapter draws heavily on 'Fever', Chapter 1 from Book Nine of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Twice each year, at the blossoming of spring and the falling of the first leaves of autumn, the gypsies made their camp outside the village and put on plays, sang songs and told fortunes. Those days he stayed shut away in his one-room cottage, hearing snatches of song and laughter, unable to rid his mind of a single dancing figure even when he shut his ears and closed his eyes.
Three Years Earlier
As he wandered blindly among the country roads outside Paris, there was one moment when he knew without question that she was dead. Her figure as he had first seen her, dancing, joyful, passed through his mind – merging horribly with his final image of her, pale and shivering in the white dress of the condemned. She was dead.
Everything that had come to pass in his life thus far, the ideals he had clung to – chastity, science, religion, virtue – all seemed to flee to the distant corners of his mind, draining away into nothingness, lost before he could remember what they were. He swayed where he stood, his head throbbing. Her death should have released him from his torment, from her spell. But instead of release, there was a rising tide of black despair.
Without knowing it he had been circling the city walls. With nowhere else to go, he passed through the city gates and began the journey back to Notre Dame, feeling as though he were being spun back on a thread of fate from which he could not free himself. The houses on either side seemed to grow taller and taller until they burst into flames and shot sparks into the sky. Faces leered everywhere he looked and he broke into a run, panting and gasping – but there was no escape. The vision was within him.
He remained shut inside his cell in the cloister of Notre Dame for thirty days, admitting no one, not Jehan, not even the bishop. Chapter conferences and services were shunned by him. He covered his window with a thin sheet to spare him the sight of the towers of Notre Dame – and the accompanying memories of how he had once watched Esmeralda dancing from those summits. His wound – self-inflicted in sympathy with her pain at the hands of the torturers in the Palais de Justice – was healing too smoothly, too swiftly. One night, in a spasm of self-hatred and despair he had reopened it, rejoicing in the feeling of blood – his own lifeblood – splashing over his hands; his penance, given too late. But that joy had rapidly faded into horror and he had bound the wound tightly.
Gradually he pulled himself free of that feverish madness which had consumed him throughout the days following her execution. But with the return of clear thought came fresh guilt and horror as he remembered all over again his part in those dreadful events. Day after day he fasted, speaking not a word, undergoing a crisis of faith and self such as he had never felt before.
There were moments when he was almost sure he had come to terms with la Esmeralda's death. After all – and he had meditated often on these matters – the human heart could only hold certain amounts of grief and despair. She was dead – he could now accept it as a truth. But he was at last beginning to realise that he could not go back to being the man he had been before he had seen her dancing, heard her singing. Too much had changed. The whole affair had revealed a man in him he did not know. It had exposed the dark side to his priesthood, the danger of the extremes he had embraced and clung to.
On the thirtieth day he emerged from his cell and went to the bishop. Kneeling on the cold stone, his head bowed, he begged to be removed from service to the Church.
The bishop looked down at the archdeacon with curiosity and surprise. The man's transformation since he had last been seen outside his cell a month ago was shocking. Gone was that imperious demeanour; gone were his harsh, curt words and the bitter smile which habitually twisted his lip. In his place was a man ravaged by illness and regret.
'Why do you ask such a thing, archdeacon?' asked the bishop at last, watching Frollo closely.
The man seemed to suppress a shudder. His head remained bowed as he spoke. 'I am unfit to serve.'
'What do you mean?'
Frollo shook. 'The lowliest beggar is more fit to serve the Holy Church than I am. I wish for nothing more than to leave Paris forever, and spend the rest of my life atoning for the sins I have committed.'
The bishop regarded him sternly. 'That explanation will not do. Tell me what it is which has –'
With a cry the archdeacon cut him off. 'For me to continue as archdeacon would be a mockery of the vocation!' He had raised his head at last, and the desperation in his face made the bishop start back. Frollo's eyes were those of a man who knew himself to be damned, now living only to atone, despite having given up all hope of redemption. 'How can I continue living as a man of the cloth when I deliberately stood by and let an innocent woman die for the crime I committed? Excommunicate me, bishop; and you will have done the Church a greater service than any I have ever given her.'
The bishop had been aware of the archdeacon's recent vehemence against gypsies; slowly it dawned on him that this hatred might have found its origin in a personal vendetta against the dancer, la Esmeralda, who had stood trial for witchcraft and murder only a month ago. Suddenly he found himself recalling Frollo's distractedness in the days leading up to the trial, his eagerness to uncover details about previous trials for witchcraft, the look of dawning horror when he found them.
Unlike Frollo, the bishop knew well that the execution had not gone ahead as planned, and for that reason his words to the archdeacon were less harsh than they might have been.
'Your service until this last month has been faultless. Therefore I will not excommunicate you but instead suspend you of your office, and tell you that, once three days have passed, you may never set foot in Paris again under pain of death.'
Frollo bowed his head in acceptance. It was less than he had expected. In silence he rose and walked out of the cathedral that had been his home all the adult years of his life, making his way through the winding city streets until he came to the gate set in the southern wall. He had no possessions to take with him. He passed through the gate and walked on until Paris was nothing more than a dark blur on the horizon behind him.
After weeks of walking, he came to a small village in Provence and decided he would stay there, earning his living as a doctor and an apothecary, making use of his forays into medicine as a young man.
The days blurred together. Slowly the memories of his long years in Paris came to seem far away and remote; only the events involving Esmeralda remained fresh in his mind, a regret and sorrow he could never escape from. The work of a doctor came naturally to him. It was not so unlike that of a priest, tending to the health of the body rather than that of the immortal soul. Only a year ago, gazing at the remote stars, delving into the secrets of medicine and the human body, he had found nothing but darkness. All that was forgotten; such extremes were now abhorrent to him. He was still capable of great feeling, but it was feeling tempered by regret, loss and experience.
His doctor's work brought him purpose. It pleased him to observe the effects of his care, to see the sick grow well again. Yet he never laughed, and rarely smiled, and kept himself to himself but for when attending patients. His desire for solitude extended to his Church attendance. Not attending on Sunday mornings like the rest of the village, he instead went at odd moments during the week when the church was sure to be empty.
Three years passed. The village grew used to their austere, silent apothecary, and came to trust him with not only their ailments and illnesses but also their inner hurts and fears. He rarely spoke or offered advice, and yet after speaking to him they came away feeling soothed, emerging from the presence of a man who had surely seen all sins, had perhaps committed several himself, and looked on people with an empathy born of complete lack of judgement. His bedside manner was attentive but remote, and an expression of pain often lingered around his eyes and mouth. Despite the comfort he brought his patients, it seemed that nothing could soothe his cares.
The first of the autumn leaves began to fall, and the clatter of hooves and the ringing of bells could be heard from a distance, mingling with the slow advance of evening. Frollo had spent the night and the following day at the sickbed of a young girl, not able to leave until he was sure she would recover. Now as he hurried along the path leading to his home, set far outside the village, he thought only of reaching shelter before the gypsies arrived. But he was too late. The long line of carts came rattling up the road and he moved to stand in the shade of a line of orange trees, his head bowed. He had meant to keep his eyes lowered until the entire procession had gone by, but some indefinable feeling, almost like a pressure on the back of his neck, made him raise his head – only to look straight into the face of Esmeralda.
He couldn't move, couldn't breathe as his eyes locked with hers. That area on his chest where he had once wounded himself – now healed, marked only by a fading scar – throbbed vividly. This could not be real – she was nothing but a phantom, a last yearning projection of his regrets, his one, desperate wish that she could have escaped death and danced on forever, free of men's dark desires and the passions which had ensnared her in their mesh. It could not be her – yet it could be no other. Even as he watched her face paled and she thrust the reins into the hands of the gypsy at her side before vanishing into the darkness of the covered wagon.