Open main menu

Stories by Foreign Authors (French I)/The Juggler of Notre Dame

< Stories by Foreign Authors (French I)

THE JUGGLER OF NOTRE DAME

BY

ANATOLE FRANCE


From "Tales from a Mother-of-Pearl Casket,"
translated by Henri Pène du Bois
Published by George H. Richmond & Co.

Copyright, 1896, by George H Richmond & Co.


I.

THERE lived in France, in the time of King Louis, a poor juggler, native of Compiègne, named Barnabas, who went through the cities making tricks of strength and skill. On market days he extended on the public square an old carpet, all worn out, and, after having attracted the children and idlers by pleasing phrases, which he had learned from an old juggler and of which he never changed anything, he assumed attitudes which were not natural, and he placed a pewter plate on his nose and balanced it there. The crowd looked at him at first with indifference.

But when, with hands and head on the ground, he threw in the air and caught with his feet six copper balls which shone in the sun, or when, throwing himself backward till his neck touched his heels, he gave to his body the form of a perfect wheel, and juggled, in that posture, with twelve knives, a murmur of admiration rose from the spectators, and pieces of money rained on the carpet.

Nevertheless, like most of those who live off their talents. Barnabas of Compiègne had a great deal of trouble to live.

Earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, he carried more than his share of the miseries attached to the sin of Adam, our father.

Moreover, he could not work as much as he wished. To display his fine learning, as for the trees to give flowers and fruits, he needed the warmth of the sun and the light of day. In winter he was only a tree despoiled of its leaves and almost dead. The congealed earth was hard for the juggler. And, like the cicada whereof Marie of France writes, he suffered from cold and hunger in the bad season. But, as his heart was simple, he suffered his ills in patience.

He had never reflected on the origin of riches nor on the inequality of human conditions. He believed firmly that, if this world is bad, the other world cannot fail to be good, and this hope supported him. He did not imitate the miscreants who have sold their souls to the devil. He never took the name of God in vain; he lived honestly, and, although he had no wife, he did not covet his neighbor's, for woman is the enemy of strong men, as appears by the history of Samson which is related in the Scriptures.

In truth, his mind was not inclined toward material desires, and it would have cost him more to renounce mugs than women. For, although he never failed in sobriety, he liked to drink when it was warm. He was a good man, fearing God and very devout to the Holy Virgin.

He never failed, when he went into a church, to kneel before the image of the Mother of God and to address to her this prayer:

"Madame, take care of my life until it may please God that I shall die, and when I die let me have the joys of paradise."


II.

One night, after a day of rain, while he was walking, sad and bent, carrying under his arm his balls and his knives hidden in his old carpet, and seeking for a barn where he might go to bed, without supper, he saw on the road a monk who was going the same way, and bowed to him courteously. As they were walking together they exchanged ideas.

"Friend," said the monk, "how is it that you are dressed in green? Is it to play the personage of a clown in some mystery-play?"

"No, father," replied Barnabas, "such as I am, I am Barnabas, and my trade is that of a juggler. It would be the most beautiful trade in the world if one in it could eat every day."

"Friend Barnabas," said the monk, "be careful of what you are saying. There is no more beautiful trade than the monastic one. In it are celebrated the praise of God, of the Virgin, and the saints, and the life of the monk is a perpetual canticle to the Lord."

Barnabas replied:

"Father, I confess that I have talked like an ignorant man. Your trade may not be compared with mine, and, although there is some merit in dancing while holding a coin balanced on a stick on one's nose, this merit does not reach the height of yours. I would like to sing every day like you, father, the office of the Holy Virgin, to whom I have devoted a special piety, I would willingly abandon the art in which I am known from Soissons to Beauvais, in more than six hundred cities and villages, in order to embrace the monastic life."

The monk was moved by the juggler's simplicity, and, as the monk was not lacking in discernment, he recognized in Barnabas one of the men of good-will whereof out Lord has said: "Let peace be with them on earth." That is why he replied;

"Friend Barnabas, come with me, and I will make you enter the convent whereof I am the prior. The one who led Mary the Egyptian in the desert placed me on your path to lead you in the way of salvation."

It is thus that Barnabas became a monk. In the convent where he was received, the religious celebrated the cult of the Holy Virgin, and each one used in her service all the learning and all the skill that God had given to him.

The prior, for his part, composed books which treated, in accordance with the rules of scholasticism, of the virtues of the Mother of God.

Friar Maurice copied with a learned hand these treatises on leaves of vellum.

Friar Alexander painted fine miniatures. One could see in them the Queen of Heaven, seated on the throne of Solomon, at the foot of which four lions watch. Around her head, which has a halo, are seven doves, which are the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost: gifts of fear, of piety, of science, of force, of advice, of intelligence, and of wisdom. She had as companions six virgins with golden hair: Humility, Prudence, Retirement, Respect, Virginity, and Obedience.

At her feet two small nude and white figures stood in respectful attitude. They were souls that implored for their salvation, and certainly not in vain, her all-powerful intercession.

Friar Alexander represented on another page Eve with eyes toward Mary, so that one might see at the same time the sin and the redemption, the humiliated woman and the exalted Virgin, One could admire, moreover, in this book the Well of Living Waters, the Fountain, the Lily, the Moon, the Sun, and the Garden sung in the canticle, the Door of Heaven and the City of God, and these were images of the Virgin.

Friar Marbode was, similarly, one of the most tender children of Mary.

He carved stone images incessantly, so that his beard, his eyebrows, and his hair were white with dust, and his eyes were perpetually swollen and tearful; but he was full of strength and of joy in his old age, and, visibly, the Queen of Paradise protected the declining years of her child. Marbode represented her seated in a pulpit, with a nimbus around her forehead, the orb of which was in pearls. And he was careful that the folds of her gown should cover the feet of the one whereof the prophet has said, "My beloved is like a closed garden."

At times, also, he represented her with the features of a child full of grace, and she seemed to say, "Lord, you are my Lord!"

There were also in the convent poets who composed Latin hymns in honor of the Virgin Mary, and there was even a Picardian who related the miracles of Notre Dame in ordinary terms and in rhyming verses.


III.

Seeing such a competition in praises and such a beautiful harvest of work, Barnabas lamented his ignorance and his simplicity.

"Alas!" he sighed, while he walked alone in the small garden of the convent, "I am very unfortunate not to be able, like my brothers, to praise worthily the Holy Mother of God, to whom I have devoted the tenderness of my heart. Alas! alas! I am a rough and artless man, and I have at my service, Madame the Virgin, neither edifying sermons nor treatises well divided according to the rules, nor fine paintings, nor statues correctly sculptured, nor verses walking In measure. I have nothing, alas!"

He moaned in this manner and yielded to sadness. One night that the monks were conversing, he heard one of them relate the history of a religious who knew how to recite only the Ave Maria. This monk was disdained for his ignorance: but when he died five roses came out of his mouth in honor of the five letters of the name of Maria, and thus his sanctity was manifested.

While he listened to this tale, Barnabas admired once more the kindness of the Virgin; but he was not consoled by the example of that death, for his heart was full of zeal, and he wished to serve the glory of his lady who is in heaven.

He sought for the means of doing this without being able to find them, and his affliction increased day by day; but one morning he awoke joyfully, ran to the chapel, and stayed there alone for more than an hour. He returned after dinner.

And from this moment he went every day to that chapel, at the hour when it was deserted, and passed there a great part of the time that the other monks consecrated to the liberal and mechanical arts. He was no longer sad and he no longer complained.

A behavior so singular excited the curiosity of the monks.

They asked themselves in the community why Friar Barnabas made retreats so frequently.

The prior, whose duty it is to ignore nothing of the behavior of the religious, decided to watch Barnabas in his solitude. One day that he was closeted in the chapel, Dom Prior came, accompanied by two elders of the convent; and observed through cracks in the door the things that were happening in the interior.

They saw Barnabas, who, before the altar of the Holy Virgin, head downward, his feet in the air, was juggling with six copper balls and twelve knives. He was doing, in honor of the Holy Mother of God, the feats of his trade which had provoked the most applause. Not comprehending that this simple man, thus placed his talent and his learning at the service of the Holy Virgin, the two elders cried that it was a sacrilege.

The prior knew that Barnabas's mind was innocent, but thought that he had fallen into insanity. They were preparing to drag him out of the chapel as quickly as they could, when they saw the Holy Virgin descend the stairs of the altar in order to wipe with a fold of her blue mantle the perspiration which fell from the juggler's forehead.

Then the prior, kneeling with his face against the marble slabs, recited these words:

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

"Amen," replied the elders, kissing the earth.