Robert Louis Stevenson
It was late in November, 1456. The snow fell over Paris with rigorous, relentless persistence; sometimes the wind made a sally and scattered
it in flying vortices; sometimes there was a lull, and flake after flake
descended out of the black night air, silent, circuitous, interminable.
To poor people, looking up under moist eyebrows, it seemed a wonder
where it all came from. Master Francis Villon had propounded an
alternative that afternoon, at a tavern window: was it only pagan
Jupiter plucking geese upon Olympus? or were the holy angels moulting?
He was only a poor Master of Arts, he went on; and as the question
somewhat touched upon divinity, he durst not venture to conclude. A
silly old priest from Montargis, who was among the company, treated the
young rascal to a bottle of wine in honour of the jest and grimaces with
which it was accompanied, and swore on his own white beard that he had
been just such another irreverent dog when he was Villon’s age.
The air was raw and pointed, but not far below freezing; and the flakes
were large, damp, and adhesive. The whole city was sheeted up. An army
might have marched from end to end and not a footfall given the alarm.
If there were any belated birds in heaven, they saw the island like a
large white patch, and the bridges like slim white spars on the black
ground of the river. High up overhead the snow settled among the tracery
of the cathedral towers. Many a niche was drifted full; many a statue
wore a long white bonnet on its grotesque or sainted head. The gargoyles
had been transformed into great false noses, drooping toward the point.
The crockets were like upright pillows swollen on one side. In the
intervals of the wind there was a dull sound dripping about the
precincts of the church.
The cemetery of St. John had taken its own share of the snow. All the
graves were decently covered; tall white housetops stood around in grave
array; worthy burghers were long ago in bed, be-nightcapped like their
domiciles; there was no light in all the neighbourhood but a little
peep from a lamp that hung swinging in the church choir, and tossed the
shadows to and fro in time to its oscillations. The clock was hard on
ten when the patrol went by with halberds and a lantern, beating their
hands; and they saw nothing suspicious about the cemetery of St. John.
Yet there was a small house, backed up against the cemetery wall, which
was still awake, and awake to evil purpose, in that snoring district.
There was not much to betray it from without; only a stream of warm
vapour from the chimney-top, a patch where the snow melted on the roof,
and a few half-obliterated footprints at the door. But within, behind
the shuttered windows, Master Francis Villon, the poet, and some of the
thievish crew with whom he consorted, were keeping the night alive and
passing round the bottle.
A great pile of living embers diffused a strong and ruddy glow from the
arched chimney. Before this straddled Dom Nicolas, the Picardy monk,
with his skirts picked up and his fat legs bared to the comfortable
warmth. His dilated shadow cut the room in half; and the firelight only
escaped on either side of his broad person, and in a little pool between
his outspread feet. His face had the beery, bruised appearance of the
continual drinker’s; it was covered with a network of congested veins,
purple in ordinary circumstances, but now pale violet, for even with his
back to the fire the cold pinched him on the other side. His cowl had
half fallen back, and made a strange excrescence on either side of his
bull-neck. So he straddled, grumbling, and cut the room in half with the
shadow of his portly frame.
On the right, Villon and Guy Tabary were huddled together over a scrap
of parchment; Villon making a ballade which he was to call the “Ballade
of Roast Fish,” and Tabary sputtering admiration at his shoulder. The
poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and
thin black locks. He carried his four and twenty years with feverish
animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered
his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an
eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and
prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord; and they were continually
flickering in front of him in violent and expressive pantomime. As
for Tabary, a broad, complacent, admiring imbecility breathed from his
squash nose and slobbering lips; he had become a thief, just as he might
have become the most decent of burgesses, by the imperious chance that
rules the lives of human geese and human donkeys.
At the monk’s other hand, Montigny and Thevenin Pensete played a game
of chance. About the first there clung some flavour of good birth and
training, as about a fallen angel; something long, lithe, and courtly in
the person; something aquiline and darkling in the face. Thevenin, poor
soul, was in great feather; he had done a good stroke of knavery that
afternoon in the Faubourg St. Jacques, and all night he had been gaining
from Montigny. A flat smile illuminated his face; his bald head shone
rosily in a garland of red curls; his little protuberant stomach shook
with silent chucklings as he swept in his gains.
“Doubles or quits?” said Thevenin.
Montigny nodded grimly.
“Some may prefer to dine in state,” wrote Villon, “on bread and cheese
on silver plate. Or, or–help me out, Guido!”
“Or parsley on a golden dish,” scribbled the poet.
The wind was freshening without; it drove the snow before it, and
sometimes raised its voice in a victorious whoop, and made sepulchral
grumblings in the chimney. The cold was growing sharper as the night
went on. Villon, protruding his lips, imitated the gust with something
between a whistle and a groan. It was an eerie, uncomfortable talent of
the poet’s, much detested by the Picardy monk.
“Can’t you hear it rattle in the gibbet?” said Villon. “They are
all dancing the devil’s jig on nothing, up there. You may dance, my
gallants; you’ll be none the warmer. Whew, what a gust! Down went
somebody just now! A medlar the fewer on the three-legged medlar-tree!
I say, Dom Nicolas, it’ll be cold to-night on the St. Denis Road?” he
Dom Nicholas winked both his big eyes, and seemed to choke upon his
Adam’s apple. Montfaucon, the great, grisly Paris gibbet, stood hard by
the St. Denis Road, and the pleasantry touched him on the raw. As for
Tabary, he laughed immoderately over the medlars; he had never heard
anything more light-hearted; and he held his sides and crowed. Villon
fetched him a fillip on the nose, which turned his mirth into an attack
“Oh, stop that row,” said Villon, “and think of rhymes to ‘fish’!”
“Doubles or quits? Said Montigny, doggedly.
“With all my heart,” quoth Thevenin.
“Is there any more in that bottle?” asked the monk.
“Open another,” said Villon. “How do you ever hope to fill that big
hogshead, your body, with little things like bottles? And how do you
expect to get to heaven? How many angels, do you fancy, can be spared
to carry up a single monk from Picardy? Or do you think yourself another
Elias–and they’ll send the coach for you?”
“_Hominibus_ impossible,” replied the monk, as he filled his glass.
Tabary was in ecstasies.
Villon filliped his nose again.
“Laugh at my jokes, if you like,” he said.
Villon made a face at him. “Think of rhymes to ‘fish,’ ” he said. “What
have you to do with Latin? You’ll wish you knew none of it at the great
assizes, when the devil calls for Guido Tabary, _clericus_–the devil
with the humpback and red-hot fingernails. Talking of the devil,” he
added, in a whisper, “look at Montigny!”
All three peered covertly at the gamester. He did not seem to be
enjoying his luck. His mouth was a little to a side; one nostril nearly
shut, and the other much inflated. The black dog was on his back, as
people say, in terrifying nursery metaphor; and he breathed hard under
the gruesome burden.
“He looks as if he could knife him,” whispered Tabary, with round eyes.
The monk shuddered, and turned his face and spread his open hands to the
red embers. It was the cold that thus affected Dom Nicolas, and not any
excess of moral sensibility.
“Come now,” said Villon–“about this ballade. How does it run so far?”
And beating time with his hand, he read it aloud to Tabary.
They were interrupted at the fourth rhyme by a brief and fatal movement
among the gamesters. The round was completed, and Thevenin was just
opening his mouth to claim another victory, when Montigny leaped up,
swift as an adder, and stabbed him to the heart. The blow took effect
before he had time to utter a cry, before he had time to move. A tremor
or two convulsed his frame; his hands opened and shut, his heels rattled
on the floor; then his head rolled backward over one shoulder, with eyes
wide open; and Thevenin Pensete’s spirit had returned to Him who made
Every one sprang to his feet; but the business was over in two twos. The
four living fellows looked at each other in rather a ghastly fashion,
the dead man contemplating a corner of the roof with a singular and ugly
“My God!” said Tabary, and he began to pray in Latin.
Villon broke out into hysterical laughter. He came a step forward and
ducked a ridiculous bow at Thevenin, and laughed still louder. Then he
sat down suddenly, all of a heap, upon a stool, and continued laughing
bitterly, as though he would shake himself to pieces.
Montigny recovered his composure first.
“Let’s see what he has about him,” he remarked; and he picked the dead
man’s pockets with a practised hand, and divided the money into four
equal portions on the table. “There’s for you,” he said.
The monk received his share with a deep sigh, and a single stealthy
glance at the dead Thevenin, who was beginning to sink into himself and
topple sideways off the chair.
“We’re all in for it,” cried Villon, swallowing his mirth. “It’s a
hanging job for every man Jack of us that’s here–not to speak of those
who aren’t.” He made a shocking gesture in the air with his raised right
hand, and put out his tongue and threw his head on one side, so as to
counterfeit the appearance of one who has been hanged. Then he pocketed
his share of the spoil, and executed a shuffle with his feet as if to
restore the circulation.
Tabary was the last to help himself; he made a dash at the money, and
retired to the other end of the apartment.
Montigny stuck Thevenin upright in the chair, and drew out the dagger,
which was followed by a jet of blood.
“You fellows had better be moving,” he said, as he wiped the blade on
his victim’s doublet.
“I think we had,” returned Villon, with a gulp. “Damn his fat head!” he
broke out. “It sticks in my throat like phlegm. What right has a man to
have red hair when he is dead?” And he fell all of a heap again upon the
stool, and fairly covered his face with his hands.
Montigny and Dom Nicolas laughed aloud, even Tabary feebly chiming in.
“Cry-baby!” said the monk.
“I always said he was a woman,” added Montigny, with a sneer. “Sit
up, can’t you?” he went on, giving another shake to the murdered body.
“Tread out that fire, Nick!”
But Nick was better employed; he was quietly taking Villon’s purse, as
the poet sat, limp and trembling, on the stool where he had been making
a ballade not three minutes before. Montigny and Tabary dumbly demanded
a share of the booty, which the monk silently promised as he passed the
little bag into the bosom of his gown. In many ways an artistic nature
unfits a man for practical existence.
No sooner had the theft been accomplished than Villon shook himself,
jumped to his feet, and began helping to scatter and extinguish the
embers. Meanwhile Montigny opened the door and cautiously peered into
the street. The coast was clear; there was no meddlesome patrol in
sight. Still it was judged wiser to slip out severally; and as Villon
was himself in a hurry to escape from the neighbourhood of the dead
Thevenin, and the rest were in a still greater hurry to get rid of him
before he should discover the loss of his money, he was the first by
general consent to issue forth into the street.
The wind had triumphed and swept all the clouds from heaven. Only a few
vapours, as thin as moonlight, fleeted rapidly across the stars. It was
bitter cold; and, by a common optical effect, things seemed almost more
definite than in the broadest daylight. The sleeping city was absolutely
still; a company of white hoods, a field full of little alps, below the
twinkling stars. Villon cursed his fortune. Would it were still snowing!
Now, wherever he went, he left an indelible trail behind him on the
glittering streets; wherever he went, he was still tethered to the house
by the cemetery of St. John; wherever he went, he must weave, with his
own plodding feet, the rope that bound him to the crime and would bind
him to the gallows. The leer of the dead man came back to him with new
significance. He snapped his fingers as if to pluck up his own spirits,
and, choosing a street at random, stepped boldly forward in the snow.
Two things preoccupied him as he went: the aspect of the gallows at
Montfaucon in this bright, windy phase of the night’s existence, for
one; and for another, the look of the dead man with his bald head and
garland of red curls. Both struck cold upon his heart, and he kept
quickening his pace as if he could escape from unpleasant thoughts by
mere fleetness of foot. Sometimes he looked back over his shoulder with
a sudden nervous jerk; but he was the only moving thing in the white
streets, except when the wind swooped round a corner and threw up the
snow, which was beginning to freeze, in spouts of glittering dust.
Suddenly he saw, a long way before him, a black clump and a couple of
lanterns. The clump was in motion, and the lanterns swung as though
carried by men walking. It was a patrol. And though it was merely
crossing his line of march he judged it wiser to get out of eyeshot as
speedily as he could. He was not in the humour to be challenged, and he
was conscious of making a very conspicuous mark upon the snow. Just on
his left hand there stood a great hotel, with some turrets and a large
porch before the door; it was half ruinous, he remembered, and had
long stood empty; and so he made three steps of it, and jumped into the
shelter of the porch. It was pretty dark inside, after the glimmer of
the snowy streets, and he was groping forward with outspread hands, when
he stumbled over some substance which offered an indescribable mixture
of resistances, hard and soft, firm and loose. His heart gave a leap,
and he sprang two steps back and stared dreadfully at the obstacle. Then
he gave a little laugh of relief. It was only a woman, and she dead. He
knelt beside her to make sure upon this latter point. She was freezing
cold, and rigid like a stick. A little ragged finery fluttered in the
wind about her hair, and her cheeks had been heavily rouged that same
afternoon. Her pockets were quite empty; but in her stocking, underneath
the garter, Villon found two of the small coins that went by the name of
whites. It was little enough, but it was always something; and the poet
was moved with a deep sense of pathos that she should have died before
she had spent her money. That seemed to him a dark and pitiable mystery;
and he looked from the coins in his hand to the dead woman, and back
again to the coins, shaking his head over the riddle of man’s life.
Henry V. of England, dying at Vincennes just after he had conquered
France, and this poor jade cut off by a cold draught in a great man’s
doorway before she had time to spend her couple of whites–it seemed
a cruel way to carry on the world. Two whites would have taken such a
little while to squander; and yet it would have been one more good taste
in the mouth, one more smack of the lips, before the devil got the soul,
and the body was left to birds and vermin. He would like to use all his
tallow before the light was blown out and the lantern broken.
While these thoughts were passing through his mind, he was feeling,
half mechanically, for his purse. Suddenly his heart stopped beating; a
feeling of cold scales passed up the back of his legs, and a cold blow
seemed to fall upon his scalp. He stood petrified for a moment; then he
felt again with one feverish movement; then his loss burst upon him, and
he was covered at once with perspiration. To spendthrifts money is
so living and actual–it is such a thin veil between them and their
pleasures! There is only one limit to their fortune–that of time; and a
spendthrift with only a few crowns is the Emperor of Rome until they
are spent. For such a person to lose his money is to suffer the most
shocking reverse, and fall from heaven to hell, from all to nothing, in
a breath. And all the more if he has put his head in the halter for it;
if he may be hanged to-morrow for that same purse, so dearly earned,
so foolishly departed! Villon stood and cursed; he threw the two whites
into the street; he shook his fist at heaven; he stamped, and was not
horrified to find himself trampling the poor corpse. Then he began
rapidly to retrace his steps toward the house beside the cemetery. He
had forgotten all fear of the patrol, which was long gone by at any
rate, and had no idea but that of his lost purse. It was in vain that he
looked right and left upon the snow; nothing was to be seen. He had not
dropped it in the streets. Had it fallen in the house? He would have
liked dearly to go in and see; but the idea of the grisly occupant
unmanned him. And he saw besides, as he drew near, that their efforts to
put out the fire had been unsuccessful; on the contrary, it had broken
into a blaze, and a changeful light played in the chinks of door and
window, and revived his terror for the authorities and Paris gibbet.
He returned to the hotel with the porch, and groped about upon the snow
for the money he had thrown away in his childish passion. But he could
only find one white; the other had probably struck sideways and sunk
deeply in. With a single white in his pocket, all his projects for a
rousing night in some wild tavern vanished utterly away. And it was not
only pleasure that fled laughing from his grasp; positive discomfort,
positive pain, attacked him as he stood ruefully before the porch. His
perspiration had dried upon him; and although the wind had now fallen,
a binding frost was setting in stronger with every hour, and he felt
benumbed and sick at heart. What was to be done? Late as was the hour,
improbable as was his success, he would try the house of his adopted
father, the chaplain of St. Benoit.
He ran all the way, and knocked timidly. There was no answer. He knocked
again and again, taking heart with every stroke; and at last steps
were heard approaching from within. A barred wicket fell open in the
iron-studded door, and emitted a gush of yellow light.
“Hold up your face to the wicket,” said the chaplain from within.
“It’s only me,” whimpered Villon.
“Oh, it’s only you, is it?” returned the chaplain; and he cursed him
with foul, unpriestly oaths for disturbing him at such an hour, and bade
him be off to hell, where he came from.
“My hands are blue to the wrist,” pleaded Villon; “my feet are dead and
full of twinges; my nose aches with the sharp air; the cold lies at my
heart. I may be dead before morning. Only this once, father, and, before
God, I will never ask again!”
“You should have come earlier,” said the ecclesiastic, coolly. “Young
men require a lesson now and then.” He shut the wicket and retired
deliberately into the interior of the house.
Villon was beside himself; he beat upon the door with his hands and
feet, and shouted hoarsely after the chaplain.
“Wormy old fox!” he cried. “If I had my hand under your twist, I would
send you flying headlong into the bottomless pit.”
A door shut in the interior, faintly audible to the poet down long
passages. He passed his hand over his mouth with an oath. And then the
humour of the situation struck him, and he laughed and looked lightly up
to heaven, where the stars seemed to be winking over his discomfiture.
What was to be done? It looked very like a night in the frosty streets.
The idea of the dead woman popped into his imagination, and gave him a
hearty fright; what had happened to her in the early night might very
well happen to him before morning. And he so young! And with such
immense possibilities of disorderly amusement before him! He felt quite
pathetic over the notion of his own fate, as if it had been some one
else’s, and made a little imaginative vignette of the scene in the
morning when they should find his body.
He passed all his chances under review, turning the white between his
thumb and forefinger. Unfortunately he was on bad terms with some old
friends who would once have taken pity on him in such a plight. He had
lampooned them in verses; he had beaten and cheated them; and yet now,
when he was in so close a pinch, he thought there was at least one who
might perhaps relent. It was a chance. It was worth trying at least, and
he would go and see.
On the way, two little accidents happened to him which coloured his
musings in a very different manner. For, first, he fell in with the
track of a patrol, and walked in it for some hundred yards, although
it lay out of his direction. And this spirited him up; at least he had
confused his trail; for he was still possessed with the idea of people
tracking him all about Paris over the snow, and collaring him next
morning before he was awake. The other matter affected him quite
differently. He passed a street-corner where, not so long before, a
woman and her child had been devoured by wolves. This was just the kind
of weather, he reflected, when wolves might take it into their heads to
enter Paris again; and a lone man in these deserted streets would run
the chance of something worse than a mere scare. He stopped and looked
upon the place with an unpleasant interest–it was a centre where
several lanes intersected each other; and he looked down them all, one
after another, and held his breath to listen, lest he should detect some
galloping black things on the snow or hear the sound of howling between
him and the river. He remembered his mother telling him the story and
pointing out the spot, while he was yet a child. His mother! If he
only knew where she lived, he might make sure at least of shelter. He
determined he would inquire upon the morrow; nay, he would go and see
her, too, poor old girl! So thinking, he arrived at his destination–his
last hope for the night.
The house was quite dark, like its neighbours; and yet after a few
taps he heard a movement overhead, a door opening, and a cautious voice
asking who was there. The poet named himself in a loud whisper, and
waited, not without some trepidation, the result. Nor had he to wait
long. A window was suddenly opened, and a pailful of slops splashed down
upon the door-step. Villon had not been unprepared for something of the
sort, and had put himself as much in shelter as the nature of the porch
admitted; but for all that he was deplorably drenched below the waist.
His hose began to freeze almost at once. Death from cold and exposure
stared him in the face; he remembered he was of phthisical tendency, and
began coughing tentatively. But the gravity of the danger steadied his
nerves. He stopped a few hundred yards from the door where he had been
so rudely used, and reflected with his finger to his nose. He could
only see one way of getting a lodging, and that was to take it. He had
noticed a house not far away, which looked as if it might be easily
broken into; and thither he betook himself promptly, entertaining
himself on the way with the idea of a room still hot, with a table still
loaded with the remains of supper, where he might pass the rest of the
black hours, and whence he should issue, on the morrow, with an armful
of valuable plate. He even considered on what viands and what wines he
should prefer; and as he was calling the roll of his favourite dainties,
roast fish presented itself to his mind with an odd mixture of amusement
“I shall never finish that ballade,” he thought to himself; and then,
with another shudder at the recollection, “Oh, damn his fat head!” he
repeated, fervently, and spat upon the snow.
The house in question looked dark at first sight; but as Villon made
a preliminary inspection in search of the handiest point of attack, a
little twinkle of light caught his eye from behind a curtained window.
“The devil!” he thought. “People awake! Some student or some saint,
confound the crew! Can’t they get drunk and lie in bed snoring like
their neighbours? What’s the good of curfew, and poor devils of
bell-ringers jumping at a rope’s end in bell-towers? What’s the use of
day, if people sit up all night? The gripes to them!” He grinned as he
saw where his logic was leading him. “Every man to his business, after
all,” added he, “and if they’re awake, by the Lord, I may come by a
supper honestly for once, and cheat the devil.”
He went boldly to the door and knocked with an assured hand. On both
previous occasions he had knocked timidly and with some dread of
attracting notice; but now when he had just discarded the thought of
a burglarious entry, knocking at a door seemed a mighty simple and
innocent proceeding. The sound of his blows echoed through the house
with thin, phantasmal reverberations, as though it were quite empty; but
these had scarcely died away before a measured tread drew near, a couple
of bolts were withdrawn, and one wing was opened broadly, as though no
guile or fear of guile were known to those within. A tall figure of a
man, muscular and spare, but a little bent, confronted Villon. The
head was massive in bulk, but finely sculptured; the nose blunt at the
bottom, but refining upward to where it joined a pair of strong and
honest eyebrows; the mouth and eyes surrounded with delicate markings;
and the whole face based upon a thick white beard, boldly and squarely
trimmed. Seen as it was by the light of a flickering hand-lamp, it
looked perhaps nobler than it had a right to do; but it was a fine face,
honourable rather than intelligent, strong, simple, and righteous.
“You knock late, sir,” said the old man, in resonant, courteous tones.
Villon cringed, and brought up many servile words of apology; at a
crisis of this sort, the beggar was uppermost in him, and the man of
genius hid his head with confusion.
“You are cold,” repeated the old man, “and hungry? Well, step in.” And
he ordered him into the house with a noble enough gesture.
“Some great seigneur,” thought Villon, as his host, setting down the
lamp on the flagged pavement of the entry, shot the bolts once more into
“You will pardon me if I go in front,” he said, when this was done; and
he preceded the poet upstairs into a large apartment, warmed with a pan
of charcoal and lit by a great lamp hanging from the roof. It was very
bare of furniture; only some gold plate on a sideboard, some folios, and
a stand of armour between the windows. Some smart tapestry hung upon
the walls, representing the crucifixion of our Lord in one piece, and in
another a scene of shepherds and shepherdesses by a running stream. Over
the chimney was a shield of arms.
“Will you seat yourself,” said the old man, “and forgive me if I leave
you? I am alone in my house to-night, and if you are to eat I must
forage for you myself.”
No sooner was his host gone than Villon leaped from the chair on which
he had just seated himself, and began examining the room with the
stealth and passion of a cat. He weighed the gold flagons in his hand,
opened all the folios, and investigated the arms upon the shield,
and the stuff with which the seats were lined. He raised the window
curtains, and saw that the windows were set with rich stained glass in
figures, so far as he could see, of martial import. Then he stood in
the middle of the room, drew a long breath, and retaining it with puffed
cheeks, looked round and round him, turning on his heels, as if to
impress every feature of the apartment on his memory.
“Seven pieces of plate,” he said. “If there had been ten, I would have
risked it. A fine house, and a fine old master, so help me all the
And just then, hearing the old man’s tread returning along the corridor,
he stole back to his chair, and began humbly toasting his wet legs
before the charcoal pan.
His entertainer had a plate of meat in one hand and a jug of wine in the
other. He set down the plate upon the table, motioning Villon to draw in
his chair, and going to the sideboard, brought back two goblets, which
“I drink your better fortune,” he said gravely, touching Villon’s cup
with his own.
“To our better acquaintance,” said the poet, growing bold. A mere man of
the people would have been awed by the courtesy of the old seigneur, but
Villon was hardened in that matter; he had made mirth for great lords
before now, and found them as black rascals as himself. And so he
devoted himself to the viands with a ravenous gusto, while the old man,
leaning backward, watched him with steady, curious eyes.
“You have blood on your shoulder, my man,” he said.
Montigny must have laid his wet right hand upon him as he left the
house. He cursed Montigny in his heart.
“It was none of my shedding,” he stammered.
“I had not supposed so,” returned his host, quietly. “A brawl?”
“Well, something of that sort,” Villon admitted, with a quaver.
“Perhaps a fellow murdered?”
“Oh no, not murdered,” said the poet, more and more confused. “It was
all fair play–murdered by accident. I had no hand in it, God strike me
dead!” he added, fervently.
“One rogue the fewer, I dare say,” observed the master of the house.
“You may dare to say that,” agreed Villon, infinitely relieved. “As big
a rogue as there is between here and Jerusalem. He turned up his toes
like a lamb. But it was a nasty thing to look at. I dare say you’ve seen
dead men in your time, my lord?” he added, glancing at the armour.
“Many,” said the old man. “I have followed the wars, as you imagine.”
Villon laid down his knife and fork, which he had just taken up again.
“Were any of them bald?” he asked.
“Oh yes, and with hair as white as mine.”
“I don’t think I should mind the white so much,” said Villon. “His was
red.” And he had a return of his shuddering and tendency to laughter,
which he drowned with a great draught of wine. “I’m a little put out
when I think of it,” he went on. “I knew him–damn him! And then the
cold gives a man fancies–or the fancies give a man cold, I don’t know
“Have you any money?” asked the old man.
“I have one white,” returned the poet, laughing. “I got it out of a dead
jade’s stocking in a porch. She was as dead as Caesar, poor wench, and
as cold as a church, with bits of ribbon sticking in her hair. This is a
hard winter for wolves and wenches and poor rogues like me.”
“I,” said the old man, “am Enguerrand de la Feuillee, seigneur de
Brisetout, bailie du Patatrac. Who and what may you be?”
Villon rose and made a suitable reverence. “I am called Francis Villon,”
he said, “a poor Master of Arts of this university. I know some Latin,
and a deal of vice. I can make Chansons, ballades, lais, virelais, and
roundels, and I am very fond of wine. I was born in a garret, and I
shall not improbably die upon the gallows. I may add, my lord, that
from this night forward I am your lordship’s very obsequious servant to
“No servant of mine,” said the knight. “My guest for this evening, and
“A very grateful guest,” said Villon, politely, and he drank in dumb
show to his entertainer.
“You are shrewd,” began the old man, tapping his forehead, “very shrewd;
you have learning; you are a clerk; and yet you take a small piece of
money off a dead woman in the street. Is it not a kind of theft?”
“It is a kind of theft much practised in the wars, my lord.”
“The wars are the field of honour,” returned the old man, proudly.
“There a man plays his life upon the cast; he fights in the name of his
lord the king, his Lord God, and all their lordships the holy saints and
“Put it,” said Villon, “that I were really a thief, should I not play my
life also, and against heavier odds?”
“For gain, but not for honour.”
“Gain?” repeated Villon, with a shrug. “Gain! The poor fellow wants
supper, and takes it. So does the soldier in a campaign. Why, what are
all these requisitions we hear so much about? If they are not gain to
those who take them, they are loss enough to the others. The men-at-arms
drink by a good fire, while the burgher bites his nails to buy them wine
and wood. I have seen a good many ploughmen swinging on trees about the
country; ay, I have seen thirty on one elm, and a very poor figure they
made; and when I asked some one how all these came to be hanged, I was
told it was because they could not scrape together enough crowns to
satisfy the men-at-arms.”
“These things are a necessity of war, which the low-born must endure
with constancy. It is true that some captains drive overhard; there are
spirits in every rank not easily moved by pity; and indeed many follow
arms who are no better than brigands.”
“You see,” said the poet, “you cannot separate the soldier from the
brigand; and what is a thief but an isolated brigand with circumspect
manners? I steal a couple of mutton-chops, without so much as disturbing
people’s sleep; the farmer grumbles a bit, but sups none the less
wholesomely on what remains. You come up blowing gloriously on a
trumpet, take away the whole sheep, and beat the farmer pitifully into
the bargain. I have no trumpet; I am only Tom, Dick, or Harry; I am a
rogue and a dog, and hanging’s too good for me–with all my heart; but
just ask the farmer which of us he prefers, just find out which of us he
lies awake to curse on cold nights.”
“Look at us two,” said his lordship. “I am old, strong, and honoured.
If I were turned from my house to-morrow, hundreds would be proud to
shelter me. Poor people would go out and pass the night in the streets
with their children, if I merely hinted that I wished to be alone. And I
find you up, wandering homeless, and picking farthings off dead women by
the wayside! I fear no man and nothing; I have seen you tremble and lose
countenance at a word. I wait God’s summons contentedly in my own
house, or, if it please the king to call me out again, upon the field of
battle. You look for the gallows; a rough, swift death, without hope or
honour. Is there no difference between these two?”
“As far as to the moon,” Villon acquiesced. “But if I had been born
lord of Brisetout, and you had been the poor scholar Francis, would the
difference have been any the less? Should not I have been warming my
knees at this charcoal pan, and would not you have been groping for
farthings in the snow? Should not I have been the soldier, and you the
“A thief?” cried the old man. “I a thief! If you understood your words,
you would repent them.”
Villon turned out his hands with a gesture of inimitable impudence. “If
your lordship had done me the honour to follow my argument!” he said.
“I do you too much honour in submitting to your presence,” said
the knight. “Learn to curb your tongue when you speak with old and
honourable men, or some one hastier than I may reprove you in a
sharper fashion.” And he rose and paced the lower end of the apartment,
struggling with anger and antipathy. Villon surreptitiously refilled
his cup, and settled himself more comfortably in the chair, crossing his
knees and leaning his head upon one hand and the elbow against the
back of the chair. He was now replete and warm; and he was in no wise
frightened for his host, having gauged him as justly as was possible
between two such different characters. The night was far spent, and in
a very comfortable fashion after all; and he felt morally certain of a
safe departure on the morrow.
“Tell me one thing,” said the old man, pausing in his walk. “Are you
really a thief?”
“I claim the sacred rights of hospitality,” returned the poet. “My lord,
“You are very young,” the knight continued.
“I should never have been so old,” replied Villon, showing his fingers,
“if I had not helped myself with these ten talents. They have been my
nursing mothers and my nursing fathers.”
“You may still repent and change.”
“I repent daily,” said the poet. “There are few people more given to
repentance than poor Francis. As for change, let somebody change my
circumstances. A man must continue to eat, if it were only that he may
continue to repent.”
“The change must begin in the heart,” returned the old man, solemnly.
“My dear lord,” answered Villon, “do you really fancy that I steal for
pleasure? I hate stealing, like any other piece of work or of danger. My
teeth chatter when I see a gallows. But I must eat, I must drink; I
must mix in society of some sort. What the devil! Man is not a solitary
animal–_cui Deus foeminam tradit_. Make me king’s pantler, make me
Abbot of St. Denis, make me bailie of the Patatrac, and then I shall
be changed indeed. But as long as you leave me the poor scholar Francis
Villon, without a farthing, why, of course, I remain the same.”
“The grace of God is all powerful.”
“I should be a heretic to question it,” said Francis. “It has made you
lord of Brisetout and bailie of the Patatrac; it has given me nothing
but the quick wits under my hat and these ten toes upon my hands. May I
help myself to wine? I thank you respectfully. By God’s grace, you have
a very superior vintage.”
The lord of Brisetout walked to and fro with his hands behind his back.
Perhaps he was not yet quite settled in his mind about the parallel
between thieves and soldiers; perhaps Villon had interested him by some
cross-thread of sympathy; perhaps his wits were simply muddled by so
much unfamiliar reasoning; but whatever the cause, he somehow yearned to
convert the young man to a better way of thinking, and could not make up
his mind to drive him forth again into the street.
“There is something more than I can understand in this,” he said at
length. “Your mouth is full of subtleties, and the devil has led you
very far astray; but the devil is only a very weak spirit before God’s
truth, and all his subtleties vanish at a word of true honour, like
darkness at morning. Listen to me once more. I learned long ago that a
gentleman should live chivalrously and lovingly to God and the king and
his lady; and though I have seen many strange things done, I have still
striven to command my ways upon that rule. It is not only written in all
noble histories, but in every man’s heart, if he will take care to
read. You speak of food and wine, and I know very well that hunger is a
difficult trial to endure; but you do not speak of other wants; you say
nothing of honour, of faith to God and other men, of courtesy, of love
without reproach. It may be that I am not very wise,–and yet I think I
am,–but you seem to me like one who has lost his way and made a great
error in life. You are attending to the little wants, and you have
totally forgotten the great and only real ones, like a man who should be
doctoring toothache on the judgment day. For such things as honour and
love and faith are not only nobler than food and drink, but indeed I
think we desire them more, and suffer more sharply for their absence. I
speak to you as I think you will most easily understand me. Are you not,
while careful to fill your belly, disregarding another appetite in your
heart, which spoils the pleasure of your life and keeps you continually
Villon was sensibly nettled under all this sermonising. “You think I
have no sense of honour!” he cried. “I’m poor enough, God knows! It’s
hard to see rich people with their gloves, and you blowing in your
hands. An empty belly is a bitter thing, although you speak so lightly
of it. If you had had as many as I, perhaps you would change your tune.
Anyway, I’m a thief,–make the most of that,–but I’m not a devil from
hell, God strike me dead! I would have you to know I’ve an honour of my
own, as good as yours, though I don’t prate about it all day long, as if
it was a God’s miracle to have any. It seems quite natural to me; I keep
it in its box till it’s wanted. Why, now, look you here, how long have
I been in this room with you? Did you not tell me you were alone in the
house? Look at your gold plate! You’re strong, if you like, but you’re
old and unarmed, and I have my knife. What did I want but a jerk of the
elbow and here would have been you with the cold steel in your bowels,
and there would have been me, linking in the streets, with an armful
of golden cups! Did you suppose I hadn’t wit enough to see that? and
I scorned the action. There are your damned goblets, as safe as in a
church; there are you, with your heart ticking as good as new; and here
am I, ready to go out again as poor as I came in, with my one white
that you threw in my teeth! And you think I have no sense of honour–God
strike me dead!”
The old man stretched out his right arm. “I will tell you what you are,”
he said. “You are a rogue, my man, an impudent and black-hearted rogue
and vagabond. I have passed an hour with you. Oh, believe me, I feel
myself disgraced! And you have eaten and drunk at my table. But now I
am sick at your presence; the day has come, and the night-bird should be
off to his roost. Will you go before, or after?”
“Which you please,” returned the poet, rising. “I believe you to be
strictly honourable.” He thoughtfully emptied his cup. “I wish I could
add you were intelligent,” he went on, knocking on his head with his
knuckles. “Age! age! the brains stiff and rheumatic.”
The old man preceded him from a point of self-respect; Villon followed,
whistling, with his thumbs in his girdle.
“God pity you,” said the lord of Brisetout at the door.
“Good-bye, papa,” returned Villon, with a yawn. “Many thanks for the
The door closed behind him. The dawn was breaking over the white roofs.
A chill, uncomfortable morning ushered in the day. Villon stood and
heartily stretched himself in the middle of the road.
“A very dull old gentleman,” he thought. “I wonder what his goblets may