A/N: In this chapter and others I use the word 'caravan' in its less common sense: a large group of people, typically with vehicles (in this case carts and wagons), travelling together in single file.
Thank you to LadyIngenue for her brilliant notes and her expertise in medieval medicine.
A dark shape was moving slowly down the road. The priest. Cold dread drew an icy covering over her skin but he did not stop, did not even look up as he passed the camp. For a brief moment she saw his face. His expression was of one deep in thought. He walked past the camp, heading directly for the church. She scoffed. Of course.
Her eyes followed him, though she could not say why. She had sworn to herself that she would never return here. Not while knowing the man she hated had made this place his home. Yet when the leader of her caravan had suggested the group make this slumbering, orange-groved village their next stop, she had voiced no protest. Not even when her confidante, Dorenia, had given her a sharp look.
In truth, Esmeralda had felt there was not much use resisting. She had little say in where the caravan went. And besides, some superstitious part of her, hushed and tentative, had whispered that her return was fated. Though she hated it, she could not deny that something still tied her to the priest. Let this be my chance to sever that tie once and for all, she willed.
Last night as she'd danced she'd felt a prickle on her skin that told her he was there, watching her. How abashed he'd looked when she'd caught his eye – how disappointed. He'd been so sure she would stop the dance mid-beat and run. She shook her head, a look of proud defiance flashing across her face. She would never run from him.
A woman stepped around from behind the houses and called to Frollo. He stopped at once and turned. She spoke to him in a low, earnest voice. Frollo listened in silence, his head bowed.
Without conscious thought, Esmeralda laid down her basket and made her way down the tree-lined road, weaving in and out of the long shadows, taking care to remain hidden from sight.
'Monsieur; we can never thank you enough. I was so sure she wouldn't last the night. If not for your help we would have lost her. Please, monsieur; you must take this gift as a token of our thanks.' Frollo shook his head, protesting softly, but the woman would brook no argument and thrust a basket of golden pears into his arms. She kissed his cheek briefly, the gesture fond and maternal, before hurrying away with a wave.
When she was gone, Frollo sighed, and looked down into the basket, a half smile on his lips. Shaking his head again, he let the basket swing at his side and continued on to the church.
Esmeralda stood stock-still, her lips pressed together, her keen eyes narrowed, fixed on his retreating back. She watched as he laid the basket in the shade of the church porch before vanishing into the cool twilight of the church.
Frollo sat in the empty church, his head bowed over his clasped hands. He was not praying exactly, only seeking a moment of quiet and silence before going about his daily work in the village.
All night he had lain awake, unable to rid his mind of Esmeralda's dance. Again and again his thoughts had returned to that moment when she had turned her head – and her eyes had gazed directly into his. Remembering it again, he shivered, then cursed himself for his weakness. These thoughts led only to madness. He dreaded a return to those extremes. His fear was for himself – and, more pressingly, for her.
Yet was he still capable of returning to that same fever pitch? Some submerged, honest part of him told him he was not. He had changed too much, grown too tempered – he never wished to experience that insanity again.
Soft footsteps sounded behind him. He felt his breath go short, his chest tighten. There was a swish of skirts as she sat in the pew behind his.
'You say you are no longer a priest, yet still you frequent the house of your God.'
He gave no reply, his gaze fixed on his folded hands.
An uncomfortable quiet drew out. Her voice was heavy, as though she spoke against her own wishes. 'Why did you leave Paris?' He hesitated and she went on, 'I never understood it.'
'The bishop said nothing to you?' he asked.
'No, he did not,' she confirmed, surprised.
He paused, wondering how much to tell her; would she believe him? 'I asked him to discharge me,' he said quietly. 'I … I confessed that you had been innocent; that it was my crime you had been killed – punished for. He took away my priesthood and forbade me ever to return to Paris.'
'I don't believe you,' she said slowly. 'You were so sure I was a witch – there should have been nothing for you to confess!' Her voice had grown mocking, bitter.
'Perhaps for a while I convinced myself you were a witch,' he admitted, his body going hot with guilt and shame. 'But after your death I knew that idea to be false.' He paused, resisting his urge to turn to her. 'You must believe me,' he intoned.
She considered his words in silence. How he longed to look at her and try to learn from her features what she was thinking. But he did not quite dare.
Without warning she burst out, 'When will you confess it?'
He started. 'Confess what?'
'You knew Phoebus was alive, yet you told me he was dead – over and over each time I asked you. You lied to me, when you knew I was about to die.'
This accusation was so unexpected that he could not speak.
'Answer me,' she commanded.
'It was the truth. Or rather – I was certain it was the truth.' He shook his head. 'I wanted him to be dead – and was certain he was. Surely no one could have survived that wound. I never lied to you on that account – not in words at least. But there was one moment at the gallows – after telling you twice that he was dead and believing it – when I looked over your shoulder and saw him alive. I – I could not bear it.' A shudder went through him, but his voice did not waver again. 'Like a coward I fled, abandoning you to your fate.' At last he said, 'There is nothing I regret more.'
She made a low, angry noise, rejecting his words. 'I saw Phoebus that day too – only a minute after you had gone.' When she was able to speak again her voice was low and bitter. 'He saw me, too, but fled when he recognised me.' Now her voice throbbed with anger, directed at him. '"No one shall have you," you said. You got your wish. You did not get me, but neither did Phoebus, nor any other man.' She laughed bitterly. 'Even Gringoire no longer has me. Our marriage contract ended last winter. He chose my goat over me.' Her voice dared him to mock her.
But he felt only pain at her words. 'I am sorry for you,' he said sincerely.
She was speechless for a moment. Then she laughed, harsh and scornful. 'Now I can well understand how you reached the rank of archdeacon. Each word you speak sounds honest, beguilingly sincere, like the serpent's, but look any closer and they are rank and rotting.'
'You do not think, then, much of the Church. Or of me.' He could feel her anger simmering, pressing against him in waves.
'Tell me,' she said. 'If I had been a noblewoman, or at least, not a gypsy, would you have dared to give me the choice you did? Death or ruin?'
It took him a moment to find his voice. 'It was not your low class that marked you out.' He faltered. She waited, in a tense, expectant silence that seemed to stretch to fill the wide empty space around them. A strange feeling took hold of him. He wanted nothing more than to tell her the truth, a truth he had barely begun to grasp himself in the last long years of regret and penance. He wanted her to understand, even if she could not forgive.
'I saw something in you – innocence, abandonment, beauty and delight. But above all I saw freedom. Freedom from any care for what others approved or sanctified.' He drew in a breath. 'You were far beyond anything I had ever – could ever fully imagine, hemmed in as I was on every side by the commands and systems of my office - and still more by the laws and demands of my own rigid conscience.'
Her voice was hostile. 'And so you tried to curb that freedom, to bind it and stifle it just like your precious Church did to you.'
He realised he was shaking. 'Perhaps I did!' The words rushed out of him before he could take them back: 'There is nothing I can do to change what happened. I regret it every day. But I am certain of one thing: it was a different man who did those things.'
'A different man,' she mocked.
'Yes! A man stifled and twisted by too rigid restraint and mortification of the self. I can never go back to what I was then. Believe that, if you believe nothing else.'
To his relief she did not mock his words this time, but seemed to ponder them, striving to meet them without the prejudice he expected – and deserved. Breathless from his confession, he longed to turn and look at her, but did not. When she spoke it was of something else entirely, almost a concession.
'Last year when you said nothing of Phoebus I was certain you were keeping silent in order to bait and humiliate me further.' She let those words linger for a while, giving no hint of whether she still felt the same way. Then she went on in a neutral voice, 'I've seen you as you walk by my people. You still avert your eyes - yet in remorse it seems, not in hatred, as before.'
He sat in silence, not daring to speak. High above them the church bells rang – the sound was closer and less majestic than the bells of his – their – Notre Dame.
They roused words from her, quiet and wistful. 'They sound so small, almost pitiful.' From the sound of her voice he could imagine she was gazing upwards, her head tipping back, stirring her hair into dark, rippling cascades. 'When I first heard the bells of Notre Dame,' she went on softly, 'they shook me to my soul.'
Over the next two days he went about his doctor's work diligently, lowering his gaze whenever he went by the gypsy camp. His conversation with her played over and over in his mind. Never before had he experienced such a twisting, unpredictable dialogue. Their exchange had been one of barbed hostility and distrust on her side, and defence and regret on his – and yet she had ended by speaking in almost conciliatory tones, her voice startlingly tender as she spoke of the bells of Notre Dame. He could not understand what could have wrought such a change in her, allowing her to speak like that while they were alone together.
Somehow the memory of that tenderness caused him more pain than his remembrance of her hostility. It brought back that bittersweet moment, just after he had abandoned her at the gallows, when he had allowed himself to imagine the life they might have lived together had he not been a priest, and were she not a gypsy. What irony now one of those conditions was true: and yet that life was more unattainable than ever. Whenever these thoughts occurred to him he forced them away, but it always took him several long minutes before he was quite himself again.
He went home one night and sat at his desk, poring over a doctor's book he had purchased on a rare trip to Marseilles. A banging at the door roused him from his reading. He opened the door to find Esmeralda.
She was breathless and flushed – yet there was painful reserve in her face and voice when she spoke.
'There is a sick child. Nothing his mother has tried will help him; she sent me to fetch you. There is no one else.'
He seized his doctor's bag and followed her swiftly to the camp. He had never been among gypsies in this way before. He felt curious glances assuage him from all sides and did his best to hide his own unease and trepidation. Esmeralda took no notice but opened the door to one of the caravans and ushered him inside. A desperate woman crouched over a young boy; her son. He lay on a pallet, his skin pale, beads of sweat glistening on his face. After a brief, careful examination, Frollo diagnosed him with sweating sickness.
'Tell me what I can do,' Esmeralda pleaded.
He gave her quick, clear instructions and together they set to work cooling the boy's limbs, spreading camphor onto his chest to help ease his breathing. While Frollo brewed a medicine made from bark and yarrow, Esmeralda comforted the boy's tearful mother before sending her away. When the brew was ready, Esmeralda fed it to the boy one spoonful at a time, cradling his head in gentle hands. After hours of watchfulness, the boy's temperature at last began to cool.
'He is safe,' Frollo said in a low voice, exhausted and pleased.
Esmeralda said nothing, only smiling down at the child, a wide, open smile that lit up her eyes. Her fatigue from the night's vigil seemed to flee her face as she looked at the boy – and Claude realised with a shock that he loved her.
A/N: Here is the beautiful passage from Hugo's novel which I referred to, in which Claude imagines a future for himself and Esmeralda:
'And when he strove to picture to himself the happiness that he might have found on earth if she had not been a gypsy, and if he had not been a priest, if Phoebus had not existed, and if she had loved him; when he considered that a life of serenity and affection might have been possible for him, too, even for him; that, at that very moment, there were here and there on the earth happy couples lost in long conversations under orange groves, on the banks of murmuring streams, in the presence of the setting sun, and if God had willed it, he might have formed with her one of those blessed couples, his heart dissolved in tenderness and despair.' - Notre-Dame de Paris - Victor Hugo
It is the above passage which led me to include orange trees in this story, and to choose a picture of an orange tree for my cover image. And in line with this orange theme, I would like to include this gorgeous poem by Rilke, a poet I have previously turned to when choosing titles for my other fanfiction stories.
Make of the orange a dance. Who can be oblivious
Of how it drowns in itself, of how it restrains
Its very essence of sweetness, holds it back? It
Has possessed you. You have deliciously converted it into you.
Dance the orange. The warmth of the landscape,
It draws you forth, so that your ripeness streams forth
Resplendent on the local breezes! A glow arising, revealed
Aroma after aroma! Evoke its affinity
With the pure, self-denying peel,
With the juice which joyously fills it!
- Number 15, The Sonnets to Orpheus - Rainer Maria Rilke