his was an interesting tale, a little lunchtime shortie I found on my old favorite site, Project Gutenberg, from an old favorite author, Robert Louis Stevenson. The drama opens on a snowy Paris night in 1456, with drifts mounting and patrols snow-crunching and all the world asleep, save for one hovel with its wisp of smoke, its glow-through-the-shutters occupancy, its mutter of low deeds. For yes, inside is a collection of dark men, a handful of pickpockets, highwaymen and gallows-bait. The descriptive eye of the author travels through each, giving us a detailed description of every blackheart without identifying who the main character is, bouncing like a merry roulette ball unable to find a final pocket.
That is until, over cards, one of the blackguards drives his knife through another’s heart. So I guess it wasn’t that guy. But they scatter to the frigid winds, including Villon (love that suggestive name), a poet by nature and thief by circumstance. And it’s these circumstances (and their reasonings) the story comes to examine.
Villon, for his own efforts, is worried that the body left cooling in that shack will be the centerpoint of their footprints radiating in panicked flight. But, screw the others, it is his neck he is primarily worried about. But his neck is the least of his worries. With temperatures dipping, with the winds rising, he realizes that if he doesn’t get inside he will die in these ice-muck streets. He pounds on the door of one dubious acquaintance, only to get a chamberpot second-floored over him, wetting his legs and further exacerbating his plight. He thinks of the woman and child who were mauled by wolves on a street not far from here (for occasionally hungry wolves would range the streets of fifteenth century Paris). In a ruined hotel, he finds a dead prostitute, whom he pities while looting for spare coins (which he throws into the snow in disgust and then attempts to recover in frugality). And finally, with death’s icy fingers stroking his shivering shoulders, he knocks and is admitted to the house of Enguerrand de la Feuillee, a gentleman of war and honor and wealth.
And this is where the story finds its cornerstone. Yes, we’re all familiar with the balance of crime (and expedience) against honor. Does one turn one’s back on honor when one is poor? Hungry? Starving? Or does honor hold its own, even when obtained on a battlefield amid the horrors of war? There have been many tales along this line (and, from a society distant from chivalry and well-versed in social reexamination), so it’s nothing new… to us. But I expect that when this little story came out, it caused quite the stir.
Anyway, worth the read, and you can do it for free, HERE.