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Set against the background of a town in Northern France, this novel tells the story of a love idyll between a poor embroideress and the son of a wealthy aristocratic family.
353 pages, with a reading time of ~5.5 hours (88,301 words), and first published in 1888. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2016.
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During the severe winter of 1860 the river Oise was frozen over and the plains of Lower Picardy were covered with deep snow. On Christmas Day, especially, a heavy squall from the north-east had almost buried the little city of Beaumont. The snow, which began to fall early in the morning, increased towards evening and accumulated during the night; in the upper town, in the Rue des Orfevres, at the end of which, as if enclosed therein, is the northern front of the cathedral transept, this was blown with great force by the wind against the portal of Saint Agnes, the old Romanesque portal, where traces of Early Gothic could be seen, contrasting its florid ornamentation with the bare simplicity of the transept gable.
The inhabitants still slept, wearied by the festive rejoicings of the previous day. The town-clock struck six. In the darkness, which was slightly lightened by the slow, persistent fall of flakes, a vague living form alone was visible: that of a little girl, nine years of age, who, having taken refuge under the archway of the portal, had passed the night there, shivering, and sheltering herself as well as possible. She wore a thin woollen dress, ragged from long use, her head was covered with a torn silk handkerchief, and on her bare feet were heavy shoes much too large for her. Without doubt she had only gone there after having well wandered through the town, for she had fallen down from sheer exhaustion. For her it was the end of the world; there was no longer anything to interest her. It was the last surrender; the hunger that gnaws, the cold which kills; and in her weakness, stifled by the heavy weight at her heart, she ceased to struggle, and nothing was left to her but the instinctive movement of preservation, the desire of changing place, of sinking still deeper into these old stones, whenever a sudden gust made the snow whirl about her.
Hour after hour passed. For a long time, between the divisions of this double door, she leaned her back against the abutting pier, on whose column was a statue of Saint Agnes, the martyr of but thirteen years of age, a little girl like herself, who carried a branch of palm, and at whose feet was a lamb. And in the tympanum, above the lintel, the whole legend of the Virgin Child betrothed to Jesus could be seen in high relief, set forth with a charming simplicity of faith. Her hair, which grew long and covered her like a garment when the Governor, whose son she had refused to marry, gave her up to the soldiers; the flames of the funeral pile, destined to destroy her, turning aside and burning her executioners as soon as they lighted the wood; the miracles performed by her relics; Constance, daughter of the Emperor, cured of leprosy; and the quaint story of one of her painted images, which, when the priest Paulinus offered it a very valuable emerald ring, held out its finger, then withdrew it, keeping the ring, which can be seen at this present day. At the top of the tympanum, in a halo of glory, Agnes is at last received into heaven, where her betrothed, Jesus, marries her, so young and so little, giving her the kiss of eternal happiness.
But when the wind rushed through the street, the snow was blown in the child’s face, and the threshold was almost barred by the white masses; then she moved away to the side, against the virgins placed above the base of the arch. These are the companions of Agnes, the saints who served as her escort: three at her right–Dorothea, who was fed in prison by miraculous bread; Barbe, who lived in a tower; and Genevieve, whose heroism saved Paris: and three at her left–Agatha, whose breast was torn; Christina, who was put to torture by her father; and Cecilia, beloved by the angels. Above these were statues and statues; three close ranks mounting with the curves of the arches, decorating them with chaste triumphant figures, who, after the suffering and martyrdom of their earthly life, were welcomed by a host of winged cherubim, transported with ecstasy into the Celestial Kingdom.