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A LODGING FOR THE NIGHT

A LODGING FOR THE NIGHT

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 01:30

He (Villon) [Footnote: Francois Villon: born 1431, died 1484. Stevenson
characterizes him as "poet, student, and housebreaker."] 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 [Footnote:
Phantasmal: ghostly.] 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of bolts were withdrawn, and one wing was opened broadly, as though no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," [Footnote: Seigneur: lord.] thought Villon, as
his host, setting down the lamp on the flagged pavement of the entry,
shot the bolts once more into their places.

"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;
[Footnote: Folios: large books.] and a stand of armor 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 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. [Footnote: With the stealth and passion of
a cat. Does this give you any clue to Villon's character?] 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
[Footnote: Martial: warlike.] 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 line old master, so help me all the
saints!"

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 he
filled.

"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 [Footnote: Viands: food.] with a ravenous
gusto, while the old man, leaning backward, watched him with steady,
curious eyes.

"Have you any money?" asked the old man.

"I have one white," [Footnote: White: a small coin.] 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 world in winter for wolves and
wenches and poor rogues like me."

"I," said the old man, "am Enguerrand de la Feuillee, seigneur de
Brisetout, bailly du Patatrac. [Footnote: Bailly: bailiff.] 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, [Footnote: Lais: ... virilais. Chansons ... roundels: different
types of versification.] 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 command."

"No servant of mine," said the knight, "my guest for this evening, and
no more."

"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; [Footnote: Clerk: the term formerly
applied to a man of letters.] 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 practiced in the wars, my lord."

"The wars are the field of honor," 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
angels."

"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 honor."

"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 [Footnote: Requisitions: demands, generally of
money and supplies, made by invaders upon the people of the invaded
country.] 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 someone 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 lowborn 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
[Footnote: Circumspect: wary.] 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 honored. If I
were turned from my house tomorrow, 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
honor. 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
thief?"

--ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON (adapted).

[Footnote: What hints does the sketch give you of the period in which
the story is laid? What characteristics of Villon are brought out? Is
there any suggestion of the poet in his remarks? What is the real
difference between the two men? Does Villon make out a good case? Is his
description of war a fair one? Why did Villon not steal the goblets?]
 
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