An Early Transgression
"Pierre Gringoire," said the youth to himself, "you are going to be late again."
Despite the warning, however, he did not increase his pace, which he deemed already faster than befitted a poet. Even now he could scarcely discern the chinks and patterns of the pavement, and he felt that any greater speed would have rendered them a perfect blur, like the dirty smears of a poor painter, formless, and utterly unfit for sentimental rumination. If he was not learning the verses of Homer, he was at least learning to gaze with leisurely awe on the beauty of the world, which was something to the purpose. Moreover, unless Dom Claude was in one of his worse moods, Gringoire expected that this tardiness would pass as most did, without reprimand, for what the young poet lacked in punctuality he made up for on a grand scale in quickness and alacrity, and so easily maintained the favor of the Archdeacon. In fact, he hesitated not the least to believe himself Claude Frollo's very most beloved student -- although as to whether or not Claude actually had any other students, Pierre Gringoire was somewhat in doubt.
In a moment, the cathedral was before him, and Gringoire entered and ascended the multitude of stairs, pausing so often to examine the stonework that he was hardly flushed when he attained the Archdeacon's cell. He went in without knocking, for the door stood open. Almost instantly he perceived that the room was in somewhat greater disarray than usual, and poorly lighted at that: the lantern, perched alone upon its shelf, was not burning at all, and the only illumination issued from the single narrow lancet window set in the far wall. A few shards of broken glass in one corner glinted faintly, and Gringoire found himself treading upon the two halves of a broken quill on the floor. In the center of the room, at the broad, cluttered table, sat the young Archdeacon, somber and austere in his dark buttoned cassock, bent pensively over a sheet of aged parchment. He did not raise his eyes.
"I see you made up your mind to keep your appointment, Master Pierre," he said, in tones of mild reproach.
"Aye," said Gringoire, "and what a labor! I had to refute all four of Zeno's paradoxes before I could so much as leave my room, much less climb that infinite flight of stairs in a finite period of time. Achilles cannot outrun the tortoise, but I have made it to Notre-Dame. You ought to congratulate me."
Dom Claude looked up with the last trace of a frown still on his lips, but seeing Gringoire's triumphant expression, he summoned a pale smile, and shook his head. "Very well, Gringoire," he said, putting aside the parchment. "Nevertheless, you know that I have duties to attend to, and whatever Zeno's opinion may be, I have not infinite hours to await your appearance. Am I clear?"
"Of course, Monsieur le Archdeacon. Upon my life, I shall confute Pythagorean division before I shall come late to your study again. I shall step twice into the river of Heraclitus, and measure Protagoras by something other than man."
Finishing his promise with a low bow and a smile, Gringoire turned around to shut the door behind him, and Claude Frollo shook his head again as he rose. "Perhaps it would be well to let philosophy alone for a while, hmm? You have been keeping up your Latin?"
"In sooth, I think I am beginning to know it better than my French," answered Gringoire, taking the chair next to Claude's. Within a moment the priest returned and placed a large leather-bound book before him on the table.
"Show me, then. You will remember where we left off better than I, I think; I have read it all a great many times."
Pierre Gringoire bent a skeptical look upon the Latin Vulgate, pursed his lips, then turned his eyes up to Dom Claude. This only redoubled his hesitation, for Claude's look was very strange, distant and full of distracted intensity. Gringoire cleared his throat.
"If one may ask, master... how comes it that you are sitting in the dark like this? We might set out the lantern, might we not?"
Claude Frollo seemed to shiver a little, and he cast a wary look toward the shelf on which the innocuous lantern sat, as if he feared a flame might burst to life there at the mere words of Gringoire's suggestion. Collecting himself, he resumed his seat and turned away from the window, merging his silhouette with that of his chair. To Gringoire's inquiry about the lantern, he replied, "See if you can't do without it, Gringoire; I believe there is enough light to read by. My head aches."
Gringoire was obliged to accept this excuse, for he saw no reasonable means to dispute it, although he felt that Claude Frollo's inflection had betrayed something of an untruth. He reached for the book, wet his lips, and ran his fingers over the worn cover, taking in the dry, rough feel of the old leather; the crosshatch of shallow fissures; and the stiff, cracking edges. He heard the priest swallow in the dark beside him. Interpreting this as an sign of impatience, he opened the text and began turning through the pages.
"Ah, I remember," he said at last. "We had just arrived at the Song of Solomon. 'Oh that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth,' and suchlike amorousness. Shall I start again there?"
The Archdeacon started, or so Gringoire guessed by the sudden creaking of the chair. "The Song of Solomon?" he muttered in surprise. "That dreadful love-poem? Had we left off there?"
"I rather think we had," said the poet, with some discomfort. "But I can very easily read something else, if you please."
There was a short silence before Claude Frollo was heard to lean back again. "No," he said softly, and with unaccountably bleak resolution. He seemed to be asking Gringoire to pronounce a curse on him. "If that is where we have ended, that is where we shall begin. Que sera, sera. Read the Song."
"As you like."
It was with perceptible uneasiness that Pierre Gringoire began to recite the Latin words, and he faltered several times at the beginning, and cursed himself under his breath. In a short time, however, he regained his confidence, and his voice welled up with the spirit of the verse. For a boy of eighteen years, his delivery was surprisingly strong; he had nothing of that adolescent tremulousness with which he had come to the Archdeacon two years ago, but pronounced the winding foreign phrases as though he had verily composed them himself. His intonation rose and broke like the crests of waves in rhythm with the lines, and his pale face glowed with all the lofty passion of a poet in the ecstasies of language. The Archdeacon listened with closed eyes, clamping his lower lip between his teeth. He did not interrupt until the middle of the seventh chapter, when Gringoire paused, panting for breath; he had shouted the last few impassioned verses to the indifferent walls with one hand outstretched, and his arm was still suspended in the air.
"Stop there," Dom Claude said sharply. His voice was rigid, his hands white with gripping the arms of the chair. "Tell me what you have just said."
"Ah!" cried Gringoire. "Didn't you hear? And I had said it so well! Statura tua adsimilata est palmae, et ubera tua botris. Dixi ascendam -- "
"No, no," said Dom Claude, grimacing impatiently. Gringoire's eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he could make out the Archdeacon's expressions now. "Not the Latin, Gringoire. Tell me what you have said in French."
"Oh! Indeed, I had not thought of that. 'Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts are its clusters. I say, I will ascend the palm tree, and I will grasp its boughs; your breasts shall be like the clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the finest wine, that flows smoothly over the lips and teeth of my beloved.' A fine image, if I may say so, reverend master."
The priest drew in a long, slow breath, but said nothing, nor moved a muscle. Gringoire, still enraptured with the finely scripted pages before him, resumed in Latin where he had left off. He was scarcely aware of the burning eyes fixed upon him as he read out the ancient promises of love and spiced wine, entreated the stale air in warm words of longing, and proclaimed with magnificent conviction that love was as strong as death, its flashes like flashes of fire. From time to time the pale clenched fingers of the priest seemed to tremble and restrain themselves, but Gringoire did not see them.
He had scarcely concluded the Song of Songs when he suddenly felt the cool hand of the Archdeacon rested on his shoulder, and heard the words, spoken almost inaudibly, "Say it again."
"What! All of it?" asked Pierre Gringoire.
"The last verse."
Claude Frollo pressed his shoulder, and with a slight shiver, Gringoire turned his gaze back down to the book.
"Fuge dilecte mi et adsimilare capreae hinuloque cervorum super montes aromatum."
He did not look up as he felt the Archdeacon move to close long fingers around his jaw, but he suppressed another shudder, for the touch was very cold.
"The wisdom of Solomon," muttered Dom Claude bitterly to himself. "Malediction! 'Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle, or a young stag on the mountains of spices.'"
Gringoire, suddenly very uncomfortable, dared not to utter a word. He could feel the intensity of the Archdeacon's gaze, and supposed he could guess what his master beheld in him: a slender, androgynous youth, bright-eyed and slight of figure, and rather handsome, if he did say so himself, with pale skin and dark curls, and features, alas, not expressly masculine, and perhaps almost feminine by the dim light of the single window. "The devil," thought Gringoire; "didn't I tell myself that I ought to grow a beard? But vanity has gotten the better of me. By Our Lady, I shall have harsh words for Solomon when I find him in Elysium."
A long moment passed before the priest turned Gringoire to face him, stroking his thumb back and forth over the poet's temple, and Gringoire looked up, scarcely breathing. He lowered his eyes again immediately, for he could not meet Claude Frollo's gaze. Somehow, he had expected to find something monstrous there -- some horrible malice, some heartless animal greed. He did not. What he found, rather, was the familiar face of the young Archdeacon, his friend and teacher, tensed as if with pain; his hollow cheeks were ashen; his lips were pale and trembling, with blood beading up in one corner which he had pierced with his teeth; his eyes were fever-bright and aching with desire, yet full of hesitation, apology, and self-reproach. His hand against Gringoire's jaw was shaking horribly. Despite his own predicament, Gringoire found himself stirred with pity for Claude Frollo, although this pity made it no easier for him to refrain from pulling away. He sat stiffly in his chair, considering his unpleasant circumstances.
"After all," he thought, "it is well enough to be sympathetic; but the poet's place in compassion is to lament his helplessness in metered rhyme, and the devil take me if I mean to confuse myself with a maiden out of sympathy. A dame may do as she likes with a swan or a bull, as the gods may please, but pardieu! A priest has not his way with a philosopher."
Yet he hesitated to repulse the shivering Archdeacon, whose wide eyes seemed at once to burn with shame, and to beg wordless permission for things the poet did not like to imagine. The icy fingers continued their gentle motion against Gringoire's face, sending chills up his spine. He could feel the moment approaching when Dom Claude would move forward and press those pallid lips to his, and he suppressed a violent shudder at the thought of the priest's cold hands under his tunic. It was not that he felt himself trapped; on the contrary, he was sure that the merest word of reproof would have served to break the spell; but he knew also that such a reproof would strike Dom Claude like the thrust of a dagger into an open wound, and that indeed he might scarcely recover -- for already the poor mad fellow seemed oppressed by the monstrous weight of guilt, and the terror of rejection. Gringoire was a gentle-hearted poet, and he was resolved to be clement: he did not need his master's suicide on his conscience this evening.
He reached up calmly to still the priest's quivering hand with his own, then quietly rose, and bowing forward with all the dramatic grace of a man of the stage, imprinted a chaste and deferential kiss upon Claude Frollo's balding brow. The gesture was performed with exquisite reverence, like to that of a servant, a disciple, or a son: it was perfectly platonic, but nevertheless full of love. Dom Claude at once cringed and buckled under the kiss, and was heard to whisper, "Damnation," to himself. He clutched at the chair, then stood convulsively, his pale face contorted, and clasped Pierre Gringoire in his arms.
It was not an amorous embrace, but something rather like an apology, or a plea for forgiveness -- the rigid grip in which one imagines David would have pressed Absalom one final time, if he had had the chance. Gringoire, relieved, congratulated himself on being an absolute genius, and set inwardly to proposing various ways in which he might later reward himself. He returned Claude Frollo's desperate embrace as warmly as he could, and cuffed him fondly on the shoulder, while the priest nearly choked him with the fierceness of his grasp. "Egad," thought Gringoire, coughing slightly at the pressure. "And yet I suppose I am bound to forgive him; upon my life, I believe the poor wretch is more miserable than he would have made me. Imagine, to be a satyr and wear a cassock! 'Tis an unhealthy business."
At length, the priest loosed his hold and stepped back unsteadily, then sank down into his chair, wan and trembling. He kept his eyes to the floor. After a moment, he turned and bent over the table with his head in his hands, and muttered brokenly, "We will finish with the Latin tomorrow."
The poet pursed his lips, pressed the shoulder of the Archdeacon with his hand, and moved to leave. He had half opened the door before Claude Frollo spoke again.
"You will... You will return tomorrow, Master Pierre?"
"Certainly, Monsieur le Archdeacon. An untrained poet is a laughable creature, is he not?"
The priest stared at him, then moved his eyes slowly to the corner of the dark room. "Do you see the shattered glass there?" he asked.
"I see it, master."
Dom Claude drew back the long sleeve of his cassock to expose his forearm, stark white against the shadowed walls, and carved with deep bloody gashes that were just beginning to heal.
"That glass is from the lantern," he said, beginning to shiver again. "I believe I have nearly bled to death with exacting penance for the sins of my imagination, Master Pierre Gringoire. I have been on my knees before the icon for six hours this morning, but to no avail; I have entreated God with all the prayers of my soul. I am on fire. You see that I fight it." He drew the sleeve back over his arm. "But I cannot swear to you that this incident shall never be repeated. I repent," -- he turned his eyes up to the ceiling -- "believe me, Lord, that I repent -- but I cannot swear that Satan shall never take hold of me again."
Gringoire, leaning upon the doorjamb, exhibited not the least alarm, but looked steadily at Claude Frollo with a philosophical expression. "I believe you will find yourself mistaken, master," he replied. "As surely as I am a man of trust, you are a man of restraint: I hold to that with certitude. I stand in need of a good teacher, and you are an excellent one; and while a lion is a ravenous beast, she will sooner starve than make prey of her own cubs. I think you will confess yourself more cerebral than a lion. After all, the devil knows his place. You have my confidence."
The poet bowed gracefully in the doorway, and left the young Archdeacon with his hands clenched in his thinning hair, staring down at the table. Gringoire closed the door softly behind him as he went out. Descending the long staircase, he pondered deeply upon the important subjects of Zeno, fine stonework, a goodly beard, and a new pair of buskins which he intended to buy for himself, to commemorate his triumph over the mischief of Eros. Bold, naïve youth that he was, he had put himself entirely at ease.
It is strange to say, however, that he was right: the priest did not touch him again.