It was into this house that Jean Valjean had, as Fauchelevent expressed it, “fallen from the sky.”
He had scaled the wall of the garden which formed the angle of the Rue Polonceau. That hymn of the angels which he had heard in the middle of the night, was the nuns chanting matins; that hall, of which he had caught a glimpse in the gloom, was the chapel. That phantom which he had seen stretched on the ground was the sister who was making reparation; that bell, the sound of which had so strangely surprised him, was the gardener’s bell attached to the knee of Father Fauchelevent.
Cosette once put to bed, Jean Valjean and Fauchelevent had, as we have already seen, supped on a glass of wine and a bit of cheese before a good, crackling fire; then, the only bed in the hut being occupied by Cosette, each threw himself on a truss of straw.
Before he shut his eyes, Jean Valjean said: “I must remain here henceforth.” This remark trotted through Fauchelevent’s head all night long.
To tell the truth, neither of them slept.
Jean Valjean, feeling that he was discovered and that Javert was on his scent, understood that he and Cosette were lost if they returned to Paris. Then the new storm which had just burst upon him had stranded him in this cloister. Jean Valjean had, henceforth, but one thought — to remain there. Now, for an unfortunate man in his position, this convent was both the safest and the most dangerous of places; the most dangerous, because, as no men might enter there, if he were discovered, it was a flagrant offence, and Jean Valjean would find but one step intervening between the convent and prison; the safest, because, if he could manage to get himself accepted there and remain there, who would ever seek him in such a place? To dwell in an impossible place was safety.
On his side, Fauchelevent was cudgelling his brains. He began by declaring to himself that he understood nothing of the matter. How had M. Madeleine got there, when the walls were what they were? Cloister walls are not to be stepped over. How did he get there with a child? One cannot scale a perpendicular wall with a child in one’s arms. Who was that child? Where did they both come from? Since Fauchelevent had lived in the convent, he had heard nothing of M. sur M., and he knew nothing of what had taken place there. Father Madeleine had an air which discouraged questions; and besides, Fauchelevent said to himself: “One does not question a saint.” M. Madeleine had preserved all his prestige in Fauchelevent’s eyes. Only, from some words which Jean Valjean had let fall, the gardener thought he could draw the inference that M. Madeleine had probably become bankrupt through the hard times, and that he was pursued by his creditors; or that he had compromised himself in some political affair, and was in hiding; which last did not displease Fauchelevent, who, like many of our peasants of the North, had an old fund of Bonapartism about him. While in hiding, M. Madeleine had selected the convent as a refuge, and it was quite simple that he should wish to remain there. But the inexplicable point, to which Fauchelevent returned constantly and over which he wearied his brain, was that M. Madeleine should be there, and that he should have that little girl with him. Fauchelevent saw them, touched them, spoke to them, and still did not believe it possible. The incomprehensible had just made its entrance into Fauchelevent’s hut. Fauchelevent groped about amid conjectures, and could see nothing clearly but this: “M. Madeleine saved my life.” This certainty alone was sufficient and decided his course. He said to himself: “It is my turn now.” He added in his conscience: “M. Madeleine did not stop to deliberate when it was a question of thrusting himself under the cart for the purpose of dragging me out.” He made up his mind to save M. Madeleine.
Nevertheless, he put many questions to himself and made himself divers replies: “After what he did for me, would I save him if he were a thief? Just the same. If he were an assassin, would I save him? Just the same. Since he is a saint, shall I save him? Just the same.”
But what a problem it was to manage to have him remain in the convent! Fauchelevent did not recoil in the face of this almost chimerical undertaking; this poor peasant of Picardy without any other ladder than his self-devotion, his good will, and a little of that old rustic cunning, on this occasion enlisted in the service of a generous enterprise, undertook to scale the difficulties of the cloister, and the steep escarpments of the rule of Saint–Benoit. Father Fauchelevent was an old man who had been an egoist all his life, and who, towards the end of his days, halt, infirm, with no interest left to him in the world, found it sweet to be grateful, and perceiving a generous action to be performed, flung himself upon it like a man, who at the moment when he is dying, should find close to his hand a glass of good wine which he had never tasted, and should swallow it with avidity. We may add, that the air which he had breathed for many years in this convent had destroyed all personality in him, and had ended by rendering a good action of some kind absolutely necessary to him.
So he took his resolve: to devote himself to M. Madeleine.
We have just called him a poor peasant of Picardy. That description is just, but incomplete. At the point of this story which we have now reached, a little of Father Fauchelevent’s physiology becomes useful. He was a peasant, but he had been a notary, which added trickery to his cunning, and penetration to his ingenuousness. Having, through various causes, failed in his business, he had descended to the calling of a carter and a laborer. But, in spite of oaths and lashings, which horses seem to require, something of the notary had lingered in him. He had some natural wit; he talked good grammar; he conversed, which is a rare thing in a village; and the other peasants said of him: “He talks almost like a gentleman with a hat.” Fauchelevent belonged, in fact, to that species, which the impertinent and flippant vocabulary of the last century qualified as demi-bourgeois, demi-lout, and which the metaphors showered by the chateau upon the thatched cottage ticketed in the pigeon-hole of the plebeian: rather rustic, rather citified; pepper and salt. Fauchelevent, though sorely tried and harshly used by fate, worn out, a sort of poor, threadbare old soul, was, nevertheless, an impulsive man, and extremely spontaneous in his actions; a precious quality which prevents one from ever being wicked. His defects and his vices, for he had some, were all superficial; in short, his physiognomy was of the kind which succeeds with an observer. His aged face had none of those disagreeable wrinkles at the top of the forehead, which signify malice or stupidity.
At daybreak, Father Fauchelevent opened his eyes, after having done an enormous deal of thinking, and beheld M. Madeleine seated on his truss of straw, and watching Cosette’s slumbers. Fauchelevent sat up and said:—
“Now that you are here, how are you going to contrive to enter?”
This remark summed up the situation and aroused Jean Valjean from his revery.
The two men took counsel together.
“In the first place,” said Fauchelevent, “you will begin by not setting foot outside of this chamber, either you or the child. One step in the garden and we are done for.”
“That is true.”
“Monsieur Madeleine,” resumed Fauchelevent, “you have arrived at a very auspicious moment, I mean to say a very inauspicious moment; one of the ladies is very ill. This will prevent them from looking much in our direction. It seems that she is dying. The prayers of the forty hours are being said. The whole community is in confusion. That occupies them. The one who is on the point of departure is a saint. In fact, we are all saints here; all the difference between them and me is that they say ‘our cell,’ and that I say ‘my cabin.’ The prayers for the dying are to be said, and then the prayers for the dead. We shall be at peace here for today; but I will not answer for tomorrow.”
“Still,” observed Jean Valjean, “this cottage is in the niche of the wall, it is hidden by a sort of ruin, there are trees, it is not visible from the convent.”
“And I add that the nuns never come near it.”
“Well?” said Jean Valjean.
The interrogation mark which accentuated this “well” signified: “it seems to me that one may remain concealed here?” It was to this interrogation point that Fauchelevent responded:—
“There are the little girls.”
“What little girls?” asked Jean Valjean.
Just as Fauchelevent opened his mouth to explain the words which he had uttered, a bell emitted one stroke.
“The nun is dead,” said he. “There is the knell.”
And he made a sign to Jean Valjean to listen.
The bell struck a second time.
“It is the knell, Monsieur Madeleine. The bell will continue to strike once a minute for twenty-four hours, until the body is taken from the church. — You see, they play. At recreation hours it suffices to have a ball roll aside, to send them all hither, in spite of prohibitions, to hunt and rummage for it all about here. Those cherubs are devils.”
“Who?” asked Jean Valjean.
“The little girls. You would be very quickly discovered. They would shriek: ‘Oh! a man!’ There is no danger today. There will be no recreation hour. The day will be entirely devoted to prayers. You hear the bell. As I told you, a stroke each minute. It is the death knell.”
“I understand, Father Fauchelevent. There are pupils.”
And Jean Valjean thought to himself:—
“Here is Cosette’s education already provided.”
“Pardine! There are little girls indeed! And they would bawl around you! And they would rush off! To be a man here is to have the plague. You see how they fasten a bell to my paw as though I were a wild beast.”
Jean Valjean fell into more and more profound thought. —“This convent would be our salvation,” he murmured.
Then he raised his voice:—
“Yes, the difficulty is to remain here.”
“No,” said Fauchelevent, “the difficulty is to get out.”
Jean Valjean felt the blood rush back to his heart.
“To get out!”
“Yes, Monsieur Madeleine. In order to return here it is first necessary to get out.”
And after waiting until another stroke of the knell had sounded, Fauchelevent went on:—
“You must not be found here in this fashion. Whence come you? For me, you fall from heaven, because I know you; but the nuns require one to enter by the door.”
All at once they heard a rather complicated pealing from another bell.
“Ah!” said Fauchelevent, “they are ringing up the vocal mothers. They are going to the chapter. They always hold a chapter when any one dies. She died at daybreak. People generally do die at daybreak. But cannot you get out by the way in which you entered? Come, I do not ask for the sake of questioning you, but how did you get in?”
Jean Valjean turned pale; the very thought of descending again into that terrible street made him shudder. You make your way out of a forest filled with tigers, and once out of it, imagine a friendly counsel that shall advise you to return thither! Jean Valjean pictured to himself the whole police force still engaged in swarming in that quarter, agents on the watch, sentinels everywhere, frightful fists extended towards his collar, Javert at the corner of the intersection of the streets perhaps.
“Impossible!” said he. “Father Fauchelevent, say that I fell from the sky.”
“But I believe it, I believe it,” retorted Fauchelevent. “You have no need to tell me that. The good God must have taken you in his hand for the purpose of getting a good look at you close to, and then dropped you. Only, he meant to place you in a man’s convent; he made a mistake. Come, there goes another peal, that is to order the porter to go and inform the municipality that the dead-doctor is to come here and view a corpse. All that is the ceremony of dying. These good ladies are not at all fond of that visit. A doctor is a man who does not believe in anything. He lifts the veil. Sometimes he lifts something else too. How quickly they have had the doctor summoned this time! What is the matter? Your little one is still asleep. What is her name?”
“She is your daughter? You are her grandfather, that is?”
“It will be easy enough for her to get out of here. I have my service door which opens on the courtyard. I knock. The porter opens; I have my vintage basket on my back, the child is in it, I go out. Father Fauchelevent goes out with his basket — that is perfectly natural. You will tell the child to keep very quiet. She will be under the cover. I will leave her for whatever time is required with a good old friend, a fruit-seller whom I know in the Rue Chemin–Vert, who is deaf, and who has a little bed. I will shout in the fruit-seller’s ear, that she is a niece of mine, and that she is to keep her for me until tomorrow. Then the little one will re-enter with you; for I will contrive to have you re-enter. It must be done. But how will you manage to get out?”
Jean Valjean shook his head.
“No one must see me, the whole point lies there, Father Fauchelevent. Find some means of getting me out in a basket, under cover, like Cosette.”
Fauchelevent scratched the lobe of his ear with the middle finger of his left hand, a sign of serious embarrassment.
A third peal created a diversion.
“That is the dead-doctor taking his departure,” said Fauchelevent. “He has taken a look and said: ‘She is dead, that is well.’ When the doctor has signed the passport for paradise, the undertaker’s company sends a coffin. If it is a mother, the mothers lay her out; if she is a sister, the sisters lay her out. After which, I nail her up. That forms a part of my gardener’s duty. A gardener is a bit of a grave-digger. She is placed in a lower hall of the church which communicates with the street, and into which no man may enter save the doctor of the dead. I don’t count the undertaker’s men and myself as men. It is in that hall that I nail up the coffin. The undertaker’s men come and get it, and whip up, coachman! that’s the way one goes to heaven. They fetch a box with nothing in it, they take it away again with something in it. That’s what a burial is like. De profundis.”
A horizontal ray of sunshine lightly touched the face of the sleeping Cosette, who lay with her mouth vaguely open, and had the air of an angel drinking in the light. Jean Valjean had fallen to gazing at her. He was no longer listening to Fauchelevent.
That one is not listened to is no reason for preserving silence. The good old gardener went on tranquilly with his babble:—
“The grave is dug in the Vaugirard cemetery. They declare that they are going to suppress that Vaugirard cemetery. It is an ancient cemetery which is outside the regulations, which has no uniform, and which is going to retire. It is a shame, for it is convenient. I have a friend there, Father Mestienne, the grave-digger. The nuns here possess one privilege, it is to be taken to that cemetery at nightfall. There is a special permission from the Prefecture on their behalf. But how many events have happened since yesterday! Mother Crucifixion is dead, and Father Madeleine —”
“Is buried,” said Jean Valjean, smiling sadly.
Fauchelevent caught the word.
“Goodness! if you were here for good, it would be a real burial.”
A fourth peal burst out. Fauchelevent hastily detached the belled knee-cap from its nail and buckled it on his knee again.
“This time it is for me. The Mother Prioress wants me. Good, now I am pricking myself on the tongue of my buckle. Monsieur Madeleine, don’t stir from here, and wait for me. Something new has come up. If you are hungry, there is wine, bread and cheese.”
And he hastened out of the hut, crying: “Coming! coming!”
Jean Valjean watched him hurrying across the garden as fast as his crooked leg would permit, casting a sidelong glance by the way on his melon patch.
Less than ten minutes later, Father Fauchelevent, whose bell put the nuns in his road to flight, tapped gently at a door, and a gentle voice replied: “Forever! Forever!” that is to say: “Enter.”
The door was the one leading to the parlor reserved for seeing the gardener on business. This parlor adjoined the chapter hall. The prioress, seated on the only chair in the parlor, was waiting for Fauchelevent.
It is the peculiarity of certain persons and certain professions, notably priests and nuns, to wear a grave and agitated air on critical occasions. At the moment when Fauchelevent entered, this double form of preoccupation was imprinted on the countenance of the prioress, who was that wise and charming Mademoiselle de Blemeur, Mother Innocente, who was ordinarily cheerful.
The gardener made a timid bow, and remained at the door of the cell. The prioress, who was telling her beads, raised her eyes and said:—
“Ah! it is you, Father Fauvent.”
This abbreviation had been adopted in the convent.
Fauchelevent bowed again.
“Father Fauvent, I have sent for you.”
“Here I am, reverend Mother.”
“I have something to say to you.”
“And so have I,” said Fauchelevent with a boldness which caused him inward terror, “I have something to say to the very reverend Mother.”
The prioress stared at him.
“Ah! you have a communication to make to me.”
“Very well, speak.”
Goodman Fauchelevent, the ex-notary, belonged to the category of peasants who have assurance. A certain clever ignorance constitutes a force; you do not distrust it, and you are caught by it. Fauchelevent had been a success during the something more than two years which he had passed in the convent. Always solitary and busied about his gardening, he had nothing else to do than to indulge his curiosity. As he was at a distance from all those veiled women passing to and fro, he saw before him only an agitation of shadows. By dint of attention and sharpness he had succeeded in clothing all those phantoms with flesh, and those corpses were alive for him. He was like a deaf man whose sight grows keener, and like a blind man whose hearing becomes more acute. He had applied himself to riddling out the significance of the different peals, and he had succeeded, so that this taciturn and enigmatical cloister possessed no secrets for him; the sphinx babbled all her secrets in his ear. Fauchelevent knew all and concealed all; that constituted his art. The whole convent thought him stupid. A great merit in religion. The vocal mothers made much of Fauchelevent. He was a curious mute. He inspired confidence. Moreover, he was regular, and never went out except for well-demonstrated requirements of the orchard and vegetable garden. This discretion of conduct had inured to his credit. None the less, he had set two men to chattering: the porter, in the convent, and he knew the singularities of their parlor, and the grave-digger, at the cemetery, and he was acquainted with the peculiarities of their sepulture; in this way, he possessed a double light on the subject of these nuns, one as to their life, the other as to their death. But he did not abuse his knowledge. The congregation thought a great deal of him. Old, lame, blind to everything, probably a little deaf into the bargain — what qualities! They would have found it difficult to replace him.
The goodman, with the assurance of a person who feels that he is appreciated, entered into a rather diffuse and very deep rustic harangue to the reverend prioress. He talked a long time about his age, his infirmities, the surcharge of years counting double for him henceforth, of the increasing demands of his work, of the great size of the garden, of nights which must be passed, like the last, for instance, when he had been obliged to put straw mats over the melon beds, because of the moon, and he wound up as follows: “That he had a brother”—(the prioress made a movement) — “a brother no longer young”—(a second movement on the part of the prioress, but one expressive of reassurance) — “that, if he might be permitted, this brother would come and live with him and help him, that he was an excellent gardener, that the community would receive from him good service, better than his own; that, otherwise, if his brother were not admitted, as he, the elder, felt that his health was broken and that he was insufficient for the work, he should be obliged, greatly to his regret, to go away; and that his brother had a little daughter whom he would bring with him, who might be reared for God in the house, and who might, who knows, become a nun some day.”
When he had finished speaking, the prioress stayed the slipping of her rosary between her fingers, and said to him:—
“Could you procure a stout iron bar between now and this evening?”
“For what purpose?”
“To serve as a lever.”
“Yes, reverend Mother,” replied Fauchelevent.
The prioress, without adding a word, rose and entered the adjoining room, which was the hall of the chapter, and where the vocal mothers were probably assembled. Fauchelevent was left alone.
About a quarter of an hour elapsed. The prioress returned and seated herself once more on her chair.
The two interlocutors seemed preoccupied. We will present a stenographic report of the dialogue which then ensued, to the best of our ability.
“Do you know the chapel?”
“I have a little cage there, where I hear the mass and the offices.”
“And you have been in the choir in pursuance of your duties?”
“Two or three times.”
“There is a stone to be raised.”
“The slab of the pavement which is at the side of the altar.”
“The slab which closes the vault?”
“It would be a good thing to have two men for it.”
“Mother Ascension, who is as strong as a man, will help you.”
“A woman is never a man.”
“We have only a woman here to help you. Each one does what he can. Because Dom Mabillon gives four hundred and seventeen epistles of Saint Bernard, while Merlonus Horstius only gives three hundred and sixty-seven, I do not despise Merlonus Horstius.”
“Neither do I.”
“Merit consists in working according to one’s strength. A cloister is not a dock-yard.”
“And a woman is not a man. But my brother is the strong one, though!”
“And can you get a lever?”
“That is the only sort of key that fits that sort of door.”
“There is a ring in the stone.”
“I will put the lever through it.”
“And the stone is so arranged that it swings on a pivot.”
“That is good, reverend Mother. I will open the vault.”
“And the four Mother Precentors will help you.”
“And when the vault is open?”
“It must be closed again.”
“Will that be all?”
“Give me your orders, very reverend Mother.”
“Fauvent, we have confidence in you.”
“I am here to do anything you wish.”
“And to hold your peace about everything!”
“Yes, reverend Mother.”
“When the vault is open —”
“I will close it again.”
“But before that —”
“What, reverend Mother?”
“Something must be lowered into it.”
A silence ensued. The prioress, after a pout of the under lip which resembled hesitation, broke it.
“You know that a mother died this morning?”
“Did you not hear the bell?”
“Nothing can be heard at the bottom of the garden.”
“I can hardly distinguish my own signal.”
“She died at daybreak.”
“And then, the wind is not blowing in my direction this morning.”
“It was Mother Crucifixion. A blessed woman.”
The prioress paused, moved her lips, as though in mental prayer, and resumed:—
“Three years ago, Madame de Bethune, a Jansenist, turned orthodox, merely from having seen Mother Crucifixion at prayer.”
“Ah! yes, now I hear the knell, reverend Mother.”
“The mothers have taken her to the dead-room, which opens on the church.”
“No other man than you can or must enter that chamber. See to that. A fine sight it would be, to see a man enter the dead-room!”
“What do you say?”
“I say more often.”
“More often than what?”
“Reverend Mother, I did not say more often than what, I said more often.”
“I don’t understand you. Why do you say more often?”
“In order to speak like you, reverend Mother.”
“But I did not say ‘more often.’”
At that moment, nine o’clock struck.
“At nine o’clock in the morning and at all hours, praised and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar,” said the prioress.
“Amen,” said Fauchelevent.
The clock struck opportunely. It cut “more often” short. It is probable, that had it not been for this, the prioress and Fauchelevent would never have unravelled that skein.
Fauchelevent mopped his forehead.
The prioress indulged in another little inward murmur, probably sacred, then raised her voice:—
“In her lifetime, Mother Crucifixion made converts; after her death, she will perform miracles.”
“She will!” replied Father Fauchelevent, falling into step, and striving not to flinch again.
“Father Fauvent, the community has been blessed in Mother Crucifixion. No doubt, it is not granted to every one to die, like Cardinal de Berulle, while saying the holy mass, and to breathe forth their souls to God, while pronouncing these words: Hanc igitur oblationem. But without attaining to such happiness, Mother Crucifixion’s death was very precious. She retained her consciousness to the very last moment. She spoke to us, then she spoke to the angels. She gave us her last commands. If you had a little more faith, and if you could have been in her cell, she would have cured your leg merely by touching it. She smiled. We felt that she was regaining her life in God. There was something of paradise in that death.”
Fauchelevent thought that it was an orison which she was finishing.
“Amen,” said he.
“Father Fauvent, what the dead wish must be done.”
The prioress took off several beads of her chaplet. Fauchelevent held his peace.
She went on:—
“I have consulted upon this point many ecclesiastics laboring in Our Lord, who occupy themselves in the exercises of the clerical life, and who bear wonderful fruit.”
“Reverend Mother, you can hear the knell much better here than in the garden.”
“Besides, she is more than a dead woman, she is a saint.”
“Like yourself, reverend Mother.”
“She slept in her coffin for twenty years, by express permission of our Holy Father, Pius VII. —”
“The one who crowned the Emp — Buonaparte.”
For a clever man like Fauchelevent, this allusion was an awkward one. Fortunately, the prioress, completely absorbed in her own thoughts, did not hear it. She continued:—
“Saint Didorus, Archbishop of Cappadocia, desired that this single word might be inscribed on his tomb: Acarus, which signifies, a worm of the earth; this was done. Is this true?”
“Yes, reverend Mother.”
“The blessed Mezzocane, Abbot of Aquila, wished to be buried beneath the gallows; this was done.”
“That is true.”
“Saint Terentius, Bishop of Port, where the mouth of the Tiber empties into the sea, requested that on his tomb might be engraved the sign which was placed on the graves of parricides, in the hope that passers-by would spit on his tomb. This was done. The dead must be obeyed.”
“So be it.”
“The body of Bernard Guidonis, born in France near Roche–Abeille, was, as he had ordered, and in spite of the king of Castile, borne to the church of the Dominicans in Limoges, although Bernard Guidonis was Bishop of Tuy in Spain. Can the contrary be affirmed?”
“For that matter, no, reverend Mother.”
“The fact is attested by Plantavit de la Fosse.”
Several beads of the chaplet were told off, still in silence. The prioress resumed:—
“Father Fauvent, Mother Crucifixion will be interred in the coffin in which she has slept for the last twenty years.”
“That is just.”
“It is a continuation of her slumber.”
“So I shall have to nail up that coffin?”
“And we are to reject the undertaker’s coffin?”
“I am at the orders of the very reverend community.”
“The four Mother Precentors will assist you.”
“In nailing up the coffin? I do not need them.”
“No. In lowering the coffin.”
“Into the vault.”
“Under the altar.”
“The vault under the altar?”
“Under the altar.”
“You will have an iron bar.”
“Yes, but —”
“You will raise the stone with the bar by means of the ring.”
“The dead must be obeyed. To be buried in the vault under the altar of the chapel, not to go to profane earth; to remain there in death where she prayed while living; such was the last wish of Mother Crucifixion. She asked it of us; that is to say, commanded us.”
“But it is forbidden.”
“Forbidden by men, enjoined by God.”
“What if it became known?”
“We have confidence in you.”
“Oh! I am a stone in your walls.”
“The chapter assembled. The vocal mothers, whom I have just consulted again, and who are now deliberating, have decided that Mother Crucifixion shall be buried, according to her wish, in her own coffin, under our altar. Think, Father Fauvent, if she were to work miracles here! What a glory of God for the community! And miracles issue from tombs.”
“But, reverend Mother, if the agent of the sanitary commission —”
“Saint Benoit II., in the matter of sepulture, resisted Constantine Pogonatus.”
“But the commissary of police —”
“Chonodemaire, one of the seven German kings who entered among the Gauls under the Empire of Constantius, expressly recognized the right of nuns to be buried in religion, that is to say, beneath the altar.”
“But the inspector from the Prefecture —”
“The world is nothing in the presence of the cross. Martin, the eleventh general of the Carthusians, gave to his order this device: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.”
“Amen,” said Fauchelevent, who imperturbably extricated himself in this manner from the dilemma, whenever he heard Latin.
Any audience suffices for a person who has held his peace too long. On the day when the rhetorician Gymnastoras left his prison, bearing in his body many dilemmas and numerous syllogisms which had struck in, he halted in front of the first tree which he came to, harangued it and made very great efforts to convince it. The prioress, who was usually subjected to the barrier of silence, and whose reservoir was overfull, rose and exclaimed with the loquacity of a dam which has broken away:—
“I have on my right Benoit and on my left Bernard. Who was Bernard? The first abbot of Clairvaux. Fontaines in Burgundy is a country that is blest because it gave him birth. His father was named Tecelin, and his mother Alethe. He began at Citeaux, to end in Clairvaux; he was ordained abbot by the bishop of Chalon-sur-Saone, Guillaume de Champeaux; he had seven hundred novices, and founded a hundred and sixty monasteries; he overthrew Abeilard at the council of Sens in 1140, and Pierre de Bruys and Henry his disciple, and another sort of erring spirits who were called the Apostolics; he confounded Arnauld de Brescia, darted lightning at the monk Raoul, the murderer of the Jews, dominated the council of Reims in 1148, caused the condemnation of Gilbert de Porea, Bishop of Poitiers, caused the condemnation of Eon de l’Etoile, arranged the disputes of princes, enlightened King Louis the Young, advised Pope Eugene III., regulated the Temple, preached the crusade, performed two hundred and fifty miracles during his lifetime, and as many as thirty-nine in one day. Who was Benoit? He was the patriarch of Mont–Cassin; he was the second founder of the Saintete Claustrale, he was the Basil of the West. His order has produced forty popes, two hundred cardinals, fifty patriarchs, sixteen hundred archbishops, four thousand six hundred bishops, four emperors, twelve empresses, forty-six kings, forty-one queens, three thousand six hundred canonized saints, and has been in existence for fourteen hundred years. On one side Saint Bernard, on the other the agent of the sanitary department! On one side Saint Benoit, on the other the inspector of public ways! The state, the road commissioners, the public undertaker, regulations, the administration, what do we know of all that? There is not a chance passer-by who would not be indignant to see how we are treated. We have not even the right to give our dust to Jesus Christ! Your sanitary department is a revolutionary invention. God subordinated to the commissary of police; such is the age. Silence, Fauvent!”
Fauchelevent was but ill at ease under this shower bath. The prioress continued:—
“No one doubts the right of the monastery to sepulture. Only fanatics and those in error deny it. We live in times of terrible confusion. We do not know that which it is necessary to know, and we know that which we should ignore. We are ignorant and impious. In this age there exist people who do not distinguish between the very great Saint Bernard and the Saint Bernard denominated of the poor Catholics, a certain good ecclesiastic who lived in the thirteenth century. Others are so blasphemous as to compare the scaffold of Louis XVI. to the cross of Jesus Christ. Louis XVI. was merely a king. Let us beware of God! There is no longer just nor unjust. The name of Voltaire is known, but not the name of Cesar de Bus. Nevertheless, Cesar de Bus is a man of blessed memory, and Voltaire one of unblessed memory. The last arch-bishop, the Cardinal de Perigord, did not even know that Charles de Gondren succeeded to Berulle, and Francois Bourgoin to Gondren, and Jean–Francois Senault to Bourgoin, and Father Sainte–Marthe to Jean–Francois Senault. The name of Father Coton is known, not because he was one of the three who urged the foundation of the Oratorie, but because he furnished Henri IV., the Huguenot king, with the material for an oath. That which pleases people of the world in Saint Francois de Sales, is that he cheated at play. And then, religion is attacked. Why? Because there have been bad priests, because Sagittaire, Bishop of Gap, was the brother of Salone, Bishop of Embrun, and because both of them followed Mommol. What has that to do with the question? Does that prevent Martin de Tours from being a saint, and giving half of his cloak to a beggar? They persecute the saints. They shut their eyes to the truth. Darkness is the rule. The most ferocious beasts are beasts which are blind. No one thinks of hell as a reality. Oh! how wicked people are! By order of the king signifies today, by order of the revolution. One no longer knows what is due to the living or to the dead. A holy death is prohibited. Burial is a civil matter. This is horrible. Saint Leo II. wrote two special letters, one to Pierre Notaire, the other to the king of the Visigoths, for the purpose of combating and rejecting, in questions touching the dead, the authority of the exarch and the supremacy of the Emperor. Gauthier, Bishop of Chalons, held his own in this matter against Otho, Duke of Burgundy. The ancient magistracy agreed with him. In former times we had voices in the chapter, even on matters of the day. The Abbot of Citeaux, the general of the order, was councillor by right of birth to the parliament of Burgundy. We do what we please with our dead. Is not the body of Saint Benoit himself in France, in the abbey of Fleury, called Saint Benoit-sur-Loire, although he died in Italy at Mont–Cassin, on Saturday, the 21st of the month of March, of the year 543? All this is incontestable. I abhor psalm-singers, I hate priors, I execrate heretics, but I should detest yet more any one who should maintain the contrary. One has only to read Arnoul Wion, Gabriel Bucelin, Trithemus, Maurolics, and Dom Luc d’Achery.”
The prioress took breath, then turned to Fauchelevent.
“Is it settled, Father Fauvent?”
“It is settled, reverend Mother.”
“We may depend on you?”
“I will obey.”
“That is well.”
“I am entirely devoted to the convent.”
“That is understood. You will close the coffin. The sisters will carry it to the chapel. The office for the dead will then be said. Then we shall return to the cloister. Between eleven o’clock and midnight, you will come with your iron bar. All will be done in the most profound secrecy. There will be in the chapel only the four Mother Precentors, Mother Ascension and yourself.”
“And the sister at the post?”
“She will not turn round.”
“But she will hear.”
“She will not listen. Besides, what the cloister knows the world learns not.”
A pause ensued. The prioress went on:—
“You will remove your bell. It is not necessary that the sister at the post should perceive your presence.”
“What, Father Fauvent?”
“Has the doctor for the dead paid his visit?”
“He will pay it at four o’clock today. The peal which orders the doctor for the dead to be summoned has already been rung. But you do not understand any of the peals?”
“I pay no attention to any but my own.”
“That is well, Father Fauvent.”
“Reverend Mother, a lever at least six feet long will be required.”
“Where will you obtain it?”
“Where gratings are not lacking, iron bars are not lacking. I have my heap of old iron at the bottom of the garden.”
“About three-quarters of an hour before midnight; do not forget.”
“If you were ever to have any other jobs of this sort, my brother is the strong man for you. A perfect Turk!”
“You will do it as speedily as possible.”
“I cannot work very fast. I am infirm; that is why I require an assistant. I limp.”
“To limp is no sin, and perhaps it is a blessing. The Emperor Henry II., who combated Antipope Gregory and re-established Benoit VIII., has two surnames, the Saint and the Lame.”
“Two surtouts are a good thing,” murmured Fauchelevent, who really was a little hard of hearing.
“Now that I think of it, Father Fauvent, let us give a whole hour to it. That is not too much. Be near the principal altar, with your iron bar, at eleven o’clock. The office begins at midnight. Everything must have been completed a good quarter of an hour before that.”
“I will do anything to prove my zeal towards the community. These are my orders. I am to nail up the coffin. At eleven o’clock exactly, I am to be in the chapel. The Mother Precentors will be there. Mother Ascension will be there. Two men would be better. However, never mind! I shall have my lever. We will open the vault, we will lower the coffin, and we will close the vault again. After which, there will be no trace of anything. The government will have no suspicion. Thus all has been arranged, reverend Mother?”
“What else remains?”
“The empty coffin remains.”
This produced a pause. Fauchelevent meditated. The prioress meditated.
“What is to be done with that coffin, Father Fauvent?”
“It will be given to the earth.”
Another silence. Fauchelevent made, with his left hand, that sort of a gesture which dismisses a troublesome subject.
“Reverend Mother, I am the one who is to nail up the coffin in the basement of the church, and no one can enter there but myself, and I will cover the coffin with the pall.”
“Yes, but the bearers, when they place it in the hearse and lower it into the grave, will be sure to feel that there is nothing in it.”
“Ah! the de-!” exclaimed Fauchelevent.
The prioress began to make the sign of the cross, and looked fixedly at the gardener. The vil stuck fast in his throat.
He made haste to improvise an expedient to make her forget the oath.
“I will put earth in the coffin, reverend Mother. That will produce the effect of a corpse.”
“You are right. Earth, that is the same thing as man. So you will manage the empty coffin?”
“I will make that my special business.”
The prioress’s face, up to that moment troubled and clouded, grew serene once more. She made the sign of a superior dismissing an inferior to him. Fauchelevent went towards the door. As he was on the point of passing out, the prioress raised her voice gently:—
“I am pleased with you, Father Fauvent; bring your brother to me tomorrow, after the burial, and tell him to fetch his daughter.”
The strides of a lame man are like the ogling glances of a one-eyed man; they do not reach their goal very promptly. Moreover, Fauchelevent was in a dilemma. He took nearly a quarter of an hour to return to his cottage in the garden. Cosette had waked up. Jean Valjean had placed her near the fire. At the moment when Fauchelevent entered, Jean Valjean was pointing out to her the vintner’s basket on the wall, and saying to her, “Listen attentively to me, my little Cosette. We must go away from this house, but we shall return to it, and we shall be very happy here. The good man who lives here is going to carry you off on his back in that. You will wait for me at a lady’s house. I shall come to fetch you. Obey, and say nothing, above all things, unless you want Madame Thenardier to get you again!”
Cosette nodded gravely.
Jean Valjean turned round at the noise made by Fauchelevent opening the door.
“Everything is arranged, and nothing is,” said Fauchelevent. “I have permission to bring you in; but before bringing you in you must be got out. That’s where the difficulty lies. It is easy enough with the child.”
“You will carry her out?”
“And she will hold her tongue?”
“I answer for that.”
“But you, Father Madeleine?”
And, after a silence, fraught with anxiety, Fauchelevent exclaimed:—
“Why, get out as you came in!”
Jean Valjean, as in the first instance, contented himself with saying, “Impossible.”
Fauchelevent grumbled, more to himself than to Jean Valjean:—
“There is another thing which bothers me. I have said that I would put earth in it. When I come to think it over, the earth instead of the corpse will not seem like the real thing, it won’t do, it will get displaced, it will move about. The men will bear it. You understand, Father Madeleine, the government will notice it.”
Jean Valjean stared him straight in the eye and thought that he was raving.
Fauchelevent went on:—
“How the de-uce are you going to get out? It must all be done by tomorrow morning. It is tomorrow that I am to bring you in. The prioress expects you.”
Then he explained to Jean Valjean that this was his recompense for a service which he, Fauchelevent, was to render to the community. That it fell among his duties to take part in their burials, that he nailed up the coffins and helped the grave-digger at the cemetery. That the nun who had died that morning had requested to be buried in the coffin which had served her for a bed, and interred in the vault under the altar of the chapel. That the police regulations forbade this, but that she was one of those dead to whom nothing is refused. That the prioress and the vocal mothers intended to fulfil the wish of the deceased. That it was so much the worse for the government. That he, Fauchelevent, was to nail up the coffin in the cell, raise the stone in the chapel, and lower the corpse into the vault. And that, by way of thanks, the prioress was to admit his brother to the house as a gardener, and his niece as a pupil. That his brother was M. Madeleine, and that his niece was Cosette. That the prioress had told him to bring his brother on the following evening, after the counterfeit interment in the cemetery. But that he could not bring M. Madeleine in from the outside if M. Madeleine was not outside. That that was the first problem. And then, that there was another: the empty coffin.
“What is that empty coffin?” asked Jean Valjean.
“The coffin of the administration.”
“What coffin? What administration?”
“A nun dies. The municipal doctor comes and says, ‘A nun has died.’ The government sends a coffin. The next day it sends a hearse and undertaker’s men to get the coffin and carry it to the cemetery. The undertaker’s men will come and lift the coffin; there will be nothing in it.”
“Put something in it.”
“A corpse? I have none.”
“A living person.”
“Me!” said Jean Valjean.
Fauchelevent, who was seated, sprang up as though a bomb had burst under his chair.
Jean Valjean gave way to one of those rare smiles which lighted up his face like a flash from heaven in the winter.
“You know, Fauchelevent, what you have said: ‘Mother Crucifixion is dead.’ and I add: ‘and Father Madeleine is buried.’”
“Ah! good, you can laugh, you are not speaking seriously.”
“Very seriously, I must get out of this place.”
“l have told you to find a basket, and a cover for me also,”
“The basket will be of pine, and the cover a black cloth.”
“In the first place, it will be a white cloth. Nuns are buried in white.”
“Let it be a white cloth, then.”
“You are not like other men, Father Madeleine.”
To behold such devices, which are nothing else than the savage and daring inventions of the galleys, spring forth from the peaceable things which surrounded him, and mingle with what he called the “petty course of life in the convent,” caused Fauchelevent as much amazement as a gull fishing in the gutter of the Rue Saint–Denis would inspire in a passer-by.
Jean Valjean went on:—
“The problem is to get out of here without being seen. This offers the means. But give me some information, in the first place. How is it managed? Where is this coffin?”
“The empty one?”
“Down stairs, in what is called the dead-room. It stands on two trestles, under the pall.”
“How long is the coffin?”
“What is this dead-room?”
“It is a chamber on the ground floor which has a grated window opening on the garden, which is closed on the outside by a shutter, and two doors; one leads into the convent, the other into the church.”
“The church in the street, the church which any one can enter.”
“Have you the keys to those two doors?”
“No; I have the key to the door which communicates with the convent; the porter has the key to the door which communicates with the church.”
“When does the porter open that door?”
“Only to allow the undertaker’s men to enter, when they come to get the coffin. When the coffin has been taken out, the door is closed again.”
“Who nails up the coffin?”
“Who spreads the pall over it?”
“Are you alone?”
“Not another man, except the police doctor, can enter the dead-room. That is even written on the wall.”
“Could you hide me in that room to-night when every one is asleep?”
“No. But I could hide you in a small, dark nook which opens on the dead-room, where I keep my tools to use for burials, and of which I have the key.”
“At what time will the hearse come for the coffin tomorrow?”
“About three o’clock in the afternoon. The burial will take place at the Vaugirard cemetery a little before nightfall. It is not very near.”
“I will remain concealed in your tool-closet all night and all the morning. And how about food? I shall be hungry.”
“I will bring you something.”
“You can come and nail me up in the coffin at two o’clock.”
Fauchelevent recoiled and cracked his finger-joints.
“But that is impossible!”
“Bah! Impossible to take a hammer and drive some nails in a plank?”
What seemed unprecedented to Fauchelevent was, we repeat, a simple matter to Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean had been in worse straits than this. Any man who has been a prisoner understands how to contract himself to fit the diameter of the escape. The prisoner is subject to flight as the sick man is subject to a crisis which saves or kills him. An escape is a cure. What does not a man undergo for the sake of a cure? To have himself nailed up in a case and carried off like a bale of goods, to live for a long time in a box, to find air where there is none, to economize his breath for hours, to know how to stifle without dying — this was one of Jean Valjean’s gloomy talents.
Moreover, a coffin containing a living being — that convict’s expedient — is also an imperial expedient. If we are to credit the monk Austin Castillejo, this was the means employed by Charles the Fifth, desirous of seeing the Plombes for the last time after his abdication.
He had her brought into and carried out of the monastery of Saint–Yuste in this manner.
Fauchelevent, who had recovered himself a little, exclaimed:—
“But how will you manage to breathe?”
“I will breathe.”
“In that box! The mere thought of it suffocates me.”
“You surely must have a gimlet, you will make a few holes here and there, around my mouth, and you will nail the top plank on loosely.”
“Good! And what if you should happen to cough or to sneeze?”
“A man who is making his escape does not cough or sneeze.”
And Jean Valjean added:—
“Father Fauchelevent, we must come to a decision: I must either be caught here, or accept this escape through the hearse.”
Every one has noticed the taste which cats have for pausing and lounging between the two leaves of a half-shut door. Who is there who has not said to a cat, “Do come in!” There are men who, when an incident stands half-open before them, have the same tendency to halt in indecision between two resolutions, at the risk of getting crushed through the abrupt closing of the adventure by fate. The over-prudent, cats as they are, and because they are cats, sometimes incur more danger than the audacious. Fauchelevent was of this hesitating nature. But Jean Valjean’s coolness prevailed over him in spite of himself. He grumbled:—
“Well, since there is no other means.”
Jean Valjean resumed:—
“The only thing which troubles me is what will take place at the cemetery.”
“That is the very point that is not troublesome,” exclaimed Fauchelevent. “If you are sure of coming out of the coffin all right, I am sure of getting you out of the grave. The grave-digger is a drunkard, and a friend of mine. He is Father Mestienne. An old fellow of the old school. The grave-digger puts the corpses in the grave, and I put the grave-digger in my pocket. I will tell you what will take place. They will arrive a little before dusk, three-quarters of an hour before the gates of the cemetery are closed. The hearse will drive directly up to the grave. I shall follow; that is my business. I shall have a hammer, a chisel, and some pincers in my pocket. The hearse halts, the undertaker’s men knot a rope around your coffin and lower you down. The priest says the prayers, makes the sign of the cross, sprinkles the holy water, and takes his departure. I am left alone with Father Mestienne. He is my friend, I tell you. One of two things will happen, he will either be sober, or he will not be sober. If he is not drunk, I shall say to him: ‘Come and drink a bout while the Bon Coing [the Good Quince] is open.’ I carry him off, I get him drunk — it does not take long to make Father Mestienne drunk, he always has the beginning of it about him — I lay him under the table, I take his card, so that I can get into the cemetery again, and I return without him. Then you have no longer any one but me to deal with. If he is drunk, I shall say to him: ‘Be off; I will do your work for you.’ Off he goes, and I drag you out of the hole.”
Jean Valjean held out his hand, and Fauchelevent precipitated himself upon it with the touching effusion of a peasant.
“That is settled, Father Fauchelevent. All will go well.”
“Provided nothing goes wrong,” thought Fauchelevent. “In that case, it would be terrible.”
On the following day, as the sun was declining, the very rare passers-by on the Boulevard du Maine pulled off their hats to an old-fashioned hearse, ornamented with skulls, cross-bones, and tears. This hearse contained a coffin covered with a white cloth over which spread a large black cross, like a huge corpse with drooping arms. A mourning-coach, in which could be seen a priest in his surplice, and a choir boy in his red cap, followed. Two undertaker’s men in gray uniforms trimmed with black walked on the right and the left of the hearse. Behind it came an old man in the garments of a laborer, who limped along. The procession was going in the direction of the Vaugirard cemetery.
The handle of a hammer, the blade of a cold chisel, and the antennae of a pair of pincers were visible, protruding from the man’s pocket.
The Vaugirard cemetery formed an exception among the cemeteries of Paris. It had its peculiar usages, just as it had its carriage entrance and its house door, which old people in the quarter, who clung tenaciously to ancient words, still called the porte cavaliere and the porte pietonne.16 The Bernardines–Benedictines of the Rue Petit–Picpus had obtained permission, as we have already stated, to be buried there in a corner apart, and at night, the plot of land having formerly belonged to their community. The grave-diggers being thus bound to service in the evening in summer and at night in winter, in this cemetery, they were subjected to a special discipline. The gates of the Paris cemeteries closed, at that epoch, at sundown, and this being a municipal regulation, the Vaugirard cemetery was bound by it like the rest. The carriage gate and the house door were two contiguous grated gates, adjoining a pavilion built by the architect Perronet, and inhabited by the door-keeper of the cemetery. These gates, therefore, swung inexorably on their hinges at the instant when the sun disappeared behind the dome of the Invalides. If any grave-digger were delayed after that moment in the cemetery, there was but one way for him to get out — his grave-digger’s card furnished by the department of public funerals. A sort of letter-box was constructed in the porter’s window. The grave-digger dropped his card into this box, the porter heard it fall, pulled the rope, and the small door opened. If the man had not his card, he mentioned his name, the porter, who was sometimes in bed and asleep, rose, came out and identified the man, and opened the gate with his key; the grave-digger stepped out, but had to pay a fine of fifteen francs.
16 Instead of porte cochere and porte batarde.
This cemetery, with its peculiarities outside the regulations, embarrassed the symmetry of the administration. It was suppressed a little later than 1830. The cemetery of Mont–Parnasse, called the Eastern cemetery, succeeded to it, and inherited that famous dram-shop next to the Vaugirard cemetery, which was surmounted by a quince painted on a board, and which formed an angle, one side on the drinkers’ tables, and the other on the tombs, with this sign: Au Bon Coing.
The Vaugirard cemetery was what may be called a faded cemetery. It was falling into disuse. Dampness was invading it, the flowers were deserting it. The bourgeois did not care much about being buried in the Vaugirard; it hinted at poverty. Pere–Lachaise if you please! to be buried in Pere–Lachaise is equivalent to having furniture of mahogany. It is recognized as elegant. The Vaugirard cemetery was a venerable enclosure, planted like an old-fashioned French garden. Straight alleys, box, thuya-trees, holly, ancient tombs beneath aged cypress-trees, and very tall grass. In the evening it was tragic there. There were very lugubrious lines about it.
The sun had not yet set when the hearse with the white pall and the black cross entered the avenue of the Vaugirard cemetery. The lame man who followed it was no other than Fauchelevent.
The interment of Mother Crucifixion in the vault under the altar, the exit of Cosette, the introduction of Jean Valjean to the dead-room — all had been executed without difficulty, and there had been no hitch.
Let us remark in passing, that the burial of Mother Crucifixion under the altar of the convent is a perfectly venial offence in our sight. It is one of the faults which resemble a duty. The nuns had committed it, not only without difficulty, but even with the applause of their own consciences. In the cloister, what is called the “government” is only an intermeddling with authority, an interference which is always questionable. In the first place, the rule; as for the code, we shall see. Make as many laws as you please, men; but keep them for yourselves. The tribute to Caesar is never anything but the remnants of the tribute to God. A prince is nothing in the presence of a principle.
Fauchelevent limped along behind the hearse in a very contented frame of mind. His twin plots, the one with the nuns, the one for the convent, the other against it, the other with M. Madeleine, had succeeded, to all appearance. Jean Valjean’s composure was one of those powerful tranquillities which are contagious. Fauchelevent no longer felt doubtful as to his success.
What remained to be done was a mere nothing. Within the last two years, he had made good Father Mestienne, a chubby-cheeked person, drunk at least ten times. He played with Father Mestienne. He did what he liked with him. He made him dance according to his whim. Mestienne’s head adjusted itself to the cap of Fauchelevent’s will. Fauchelevent’s confidence was perfect.
At the moment when the convoy entered the avenue leading to the cemetery, Fauchelevent glanced cheerfully at the hearse, and said half aloud, as he rubbed his big hands:—
“Here’s a fine farce!”
All at once the hearse halted; it had reached the gate. The permission for interment must be exhibited. The undertaker’s man addressed himself to the porter of the cemetery. During this colloquy, which always is productive of a delay of from one to two minutes, some one, a stranger, came and placed himself behind the hearse, beside Fauchelevent. He was a sort of laboring man, who wore a waistcoat with large pockets and carried a mattock under his arm.
Fauchelevent surveyed this stranger.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“The man replied:—
If a man could survive the blow of a cannon-ball full in the breast, he would make the same face that Fauchelevent made.
“Father Mestienne is the grave-digger.”
“What! He was?”
“He is dead.”
Fauchelevent had expected anything but this, that a grave-digger could die. It is true, nevertheless, that grave-diggers do die themselves. By dint of excavating graves for other people, one hollows out one’s own.
Fauchelevent stood there with his mouth wide open. He had hardly the strength to stammer:—
“But it is not possible!”
“It is so.”
“But,” he persisted feebly, “Father Mestienne is the grave-digger.”
“After Napoleon, Louis XVIII. After Mestienne, Gribier. Peasant, my name is Gribier.”
Fauchelevent, who was deadly pale, stared at this Gribier.
He was a tall, thin, livid, utterly funereal man. He had the air of an unsuccessful doctor who had turned grave-digger.
Fauchelevent burst out laughing.
“Ah!” said he, “what queer things do happen! Father Mestienne is dead, but long live little Father Lenoir! Do you know who little Father Lenoir is? He is a jug of red wine. It is a jug of Surene, morbigou! of real Paris Surene? Ah! So old Mestienne is dead! I am sorry for it; he was a jolly fellow. But you are a jolly fellow, too. Are you not, comrade? We’ll go and have a drink together presently.”
The man replied:—
“I have been a student. I passed my fourth examination. I never drink.”
The hearse had set out again, and was rolling up the grand alley of the cemetery.
Fauchelevent had slackened his pace. He limped more out of anxiety than from infirmity.
The grave-digger walked on in front of him.
Fauchelevent passed the unexpected Gribier once more in review.
He was one of those men who, though very young, have the air of age, and who, though slender, are extremely strong.
“Comrade!” cried Fauchelevent.
The man turned round.
“I am the convent grave-digger.”
“My colleague,” said the man.
Fauchelevent, who was illiterate but very sharp, understood that he had to deal with a formidable species of man, with a fine talker. He muttered:
“So Father Mestienne is dead.”
The man replied:—
“Completely. The good God consulted his note-book which shows when the time is up. It was Father Mestienne’s turn. Father Mestienne died.”
Fauchelevent repeated mechanically: “The good God —”
“The good God,” said the man authoritatively. “According to the philosophers, the Eternal Father; according to the Jacobins, the Supreme Being.”
“Shall we not make each other’s acquaintance?” stammered Fauchelevent.
“It is made. You are a peasant, I am a Parisian.”
“People do not know each other until they have drunk together. He who empties his glass empties his heart. You must come and have a drink with me. Such a thing cannot be refused.”
Fauchelevent thought: “I am lost.”
They were only a few turns of the wheel distant from the small alley leading to the nuns’ corner.
The grave-digger resumed:—
“Peasant, I have seven small children who must be fed. As they must eat, I cannot drink.”
And he added, with the satisfaction of a serious man who is turning a phrase well:—
“Their hunger is the enemy of my thirst.”
The hearse skirted a clump of cypress-trees, quitted the grand alley, turned into a narrow one, entered the waste land, and plunged into a thicket. This indicated the immediate proximity of the place of sepulture. Fauchelevent slackened his pace, but he could not detain the hearse. Fortunately, the soil, which was light and wet with the winter rains, clogged the wheels and retarded its speed.
He approached the grave-digger.
“They have such a nice little Argenteuil wine,” murmured Fauchelevent.
“Villager,” retorted the man, “I ought not be a grave-digger. My father was a porter at the Prytaneum [Town–Hall]. He destined me for literature. But he had reverses. He had losses on ‘change. I was obliged to renounce the profession of author. But I am still a public writer.”
“So you are not a grave-digger, then?” returned Fauchelevent, clutching at this branch, feeble as it was.
“The one does not hinder the other. I cumulate.”
Fauchelevent did not understand this last word.
“Come have a drink,” said he.
Here a remark becomes necessary. Fauchelevent, whatever his anguish, offered a drink, but he did not explain himself on one point; who was to pay? Generally, Fauchelevent offered and Father Mestienne paid. An offer of a drink was the evident result of the novel situation created by the new grave-digger, and it was necessary to make this offer, but the old gardener left the proverbial quarter of an hour named after Rabelais in the dark, and that not unintentionally. As for himself, Fauchelevent did not wish to pay, troubled as he was.
The grave-digger went on with a superior smile:—
“One must eat. I have accepted Father Mestienne’s reversion. One gets to be a philosopher when one has nearly completed his classes. To the labor of the hand I join the labor of the arm. I have my scrivener’s stall in the market of the Rue de Sevres. You know? the Umbrella Market. All the cooks of the Red Cross apply to me. I scribble their declarations of love to the raw soldiers. In the morning I write love letters; in the evening I dig graves. Such is life, rustic.”
The hearse was still advancing. Fauchelevent, uneasy to the last degree, was gazing about him on all sides. Great drops of perspiration trickled down from his brow.
“But,” continued the grave-digger, “a man cannot serve two mistresses. I must choose between the pen and the mattock. The mattock is ruining my hand.”
The hearse halted.
The choir boy alighted from the mourning-coach, then the priest.
One of the small front wheels of the hearse had run up a little on a pile of earth, beyond which an open grave was visible.
“What a farce this is!” repeated Fauchelevent in consternation.
Who was in the coffin? The reader knows. Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean had arranged things so that he could exist there, and he could almost breathe.
It is a strange thing to what a degree security of conscience confers security of the rest. Every combination thought out by Jean Valjean had been progressing, and progressing favorably, since the preceding day. He, like Fauchelevent, counted on Father Mestienne. He had no doubt as to the end. Never was there a more critical situation, never more complete composure.
The four planks of the coffin breathe out a kind of terrible peace. It seemed as though something of the repose of the dead entered into Jean Valjean’s tranquillity.
From the depths of that coffin he had been able to follow, and he had followed, all the phases of the terrible drama which he was playing with death.
Shortly after Fauchelevent had finished nailing on the upper plank, Jean Valjean had felt himself carried out, then driven off. He knew, from the diminution in the jolting, when they left the pavements and reached the earth road. He had divined, from a dull noise, that they were crossing the bridge of Austerlitz. At the first halt, he had understood that they were entering the cemetery; at the second halt, he said to himself:—
“Here is the grave.”
Suddenly, he felt hands seize the coffin, then a harsh grating against the planks; he explained it to himself as the rope which was being fastened round the casket in order to lower it into the cavity.
Then he experienced a giddiness.
The undertaker’s man and the grave-digger had probably allowed the coffin to lose its balance, and had lowered the head before the foot. He recovered himself fully when he felt himself horizontal and motionless. He had just touched the bottom.
He had a certain sensation of cold.
A voice rose above him, glacial and solemn. He heard Latin words, which he did not understand, pass over him, so slowly that he was able to catch them one by one:—
“Qui dormiunt in terrae pulvere, evigilabunt; alii in vitam aeternam, et alii in approbrium, ut videant semper.”
A child’s voice said:—
The grave voice began again:—
“Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine.”
The child’s voice responded:—
“Et lux perpetua luceat ei.”
He heard something like the gentle patter of several drops of rain on the plank which covered him. It was probably the holy water.
He thought: “This will be over soon now. Patience for a little while longer. The priest will take his departure. Fauchelevent will take Mestienne off to drink. I shall be left. Then Fauchelevent will return alone, and I shall get out. That will be the work of a good hour.”
The grave voice resumed
“Requiescat in pace.”
And the child’s voice said:—
Jean Valjean strained his ears, and heard something like retreating footsteps.
“There, they are going now,” thought he. “I am alone.”
All at once, he heard over his head a sound which seemed to him to be a clap of thunder.
It was a shovelful of earth falling on the coffin.
A second shovelful fell.
One of the holes through which he breathed had just been stopped up.
A third shovelful of earth fell.
Then a fourth.
There are things which are too strong for the strongest man. Jean Valjean lost consciousness.
This is what had taken place above the coffin in which lay Jean Valjean.
When the hearse had driven off, when the priest and the choir boy had entered the carriage again and taken their departure, Fauchelevent, who had not taken his eyes from the grave-digger, saw the latter bend over and grasp his shovel, which was sticking upright in the heap of dirt.
Then Fauchelevent took a supreme resolve.
He placed himself between the grave and the grave-digger, crossed his arms and said:—
“I am the one to pay!”
The grave-digger stared at him in amazement, and replied:—
“What’s that, peasant?”
“I am the one who pays!”
“For the wine.”
“That Argenteuil wine.”
“Where is the Argenteuil?”
“At the Bon Coing.”
“Go to the devil!” said the grave-digger.
And he flung a shovelful of earth on the coffin.
The coffin gave back a hollow sound. Fauchelevent felt himself stagger and on the point of falling headlong into the grave himself. He shouted in a voice in which the strangling sound of the death rattle began to mingle:—
“Comrade! Before the Bon Coing is shut!”
The grave-digger took some more earth on his shovel. Fauchelevent continued.
“I will pay.”
And he seized the man’s arm.
“Listen to me, comrade. I am the convent grave-digger, I have come to help you. It is a business which can be performed at night. Let us begin, then, by going for a drink.”
And as he spoke, and clung to this desperate insistence, this melancholy reflection occurred to him: “And if he drinks, will he get drunk?”
“Provincial,” said the man, “if you positively insist upon it, I consent. We will drink. After work, never before.”
And he flourished his shovel briskly. Fauchelevent held him back.
“It is Argenteuil wine, at six.”
“Oh, come,” said the grave-digger, “you are a bell-ringer. Ding dong, ding dong, that’s all you know how to say. Go hang yourself.”
And he threw in a second shovelful.
Fauchelevent had reached a point where he no longer knew what he was saying.
“Come along and drink,” he cried, “since it is I who pays the bill.”
“When we have put the child to bed,” said the grave-digger.
He flung in a third shovelful.
Then he thrust his shovel into the earth and added:—
“It’s cold to-night, you see, and the corpse would shriek out after us if we were to plant her there without a coverlet.”
At that moment, as he loaded his shovel, the grave-digger bent over, and the pocket of his waistcoat gaped. Fauchelevent’s wild gaze fell mechanically into that pocket, and there it stopped.
The sun was not yet hidden behind the horizon; there was still light enough to enable him to distinguish something white at the bottom of that yawning pocket.
The sum total of lightning that the eye of a Picard peasant can contain, traversed Fauchelevent’s pupils. An idea had just occurred to him.
He thrust his hand into the pocket from behind, without the grave-digger, who was wholly absorbed in his shovelful of earth, observing it, and pulled out the white object which lay at the bottom of it.
The man sent a fourth shovelful tumbling into the grave.
Just as he turned round to get the fifth, Fauchelevent looked calmly at him and said:—
“By the way, you new man, have you your card?”
The grave-digger paused.
“The sun is on the point of setting.”
“That’s good, it is going to put on its nightcap.”
“The gate of the cemetery will close immediately.”
“Well, what then?”
“Have you your card?”
“Ah! my card?” said the grave-digger.
And he fumbled in his pocket.
Having searched one pocket, he proceeded to search the other. He passed on to his fobs, explored the first, returned to the second.
“Why, no,” said he, “I have not my card. I must have forgotten it.”
“Fifteen francs fine,” said Fauchelevent.
The grave-digger turned green. Green is the pallor of livid people.
“Ah! Jesus-mon-Dieu-bancroche-a-bas-la-lune!”17 he exclaimed. “Fifteen francs fine!”
17 Jesus-my-God-bandy-leg — down with the moon!
“Three pieces of a hundred sous,” said Fauchelevent.
The grave-digger dropped his shovel.
Fauchelevent’s turn had come.
“Ah, come now, conscript,” said Fauchelevent, “none of this despair. There is no question of committing suicide and benefiting the grave. Fifteen francs is fifteen francs, and besides, you may not be able to pay it. I am an old hand, you are a new one. I know all the ropes and the devices. I will give you some friendly advice. One thing is clear, the sun is on the point of setting, it is touching the dome now, the cemetery will be closed in five minutes more.”
“That is true,” replied the man.
“Five minutes more and you will not have time to fill the grave, it is as hollow as the devil, this grave, and to reach the gate in season to pass it before it is shut.”
“That is true.”
“In that case, a fine of fifteen francs.”
“But you have time. Where do you live?”
“A couple of steps from the barrier, a quarter of an hour from here. No. 87 Rue de Vaugirard.”
“You have just time to get out by taking to your heels at your best speed.”
“That is exactly so.”
“Once outside the gate, you gallop home, you get your card, you return, the cemetery porter admits you. As you have your card, there will be nothing to pay. And you will bury your corpse. I’ll watch it for you in the meantime, so that it shall not run away.”
“I am indebted to you for my life, peasant.”
“Decamp!” said Fauchelevent.
The grave-digger, overwhelmed with gratitude, shook his hand and set off on a run.
When the man had disappeared in the thicket, Fauchelevent listened until he heard his footsteps die away in the distance, then he leaned over the grave, and said in a low tone:—
There was no reply.
Fauchelevent was seized with a shudder. He tumbled rather than climbed into the grave, flung himself on the head of the coffin and cried:—
“Are you there?”
Silence in the coffin.
Fauchelevent, hardly able to draw his breath for trembling, seized his cold chisel and his hammer, and pried up the coffin lid.
Jean Valjean’s face appeared in the twilight; it was pale and his eyes were closed.
Fauchelevent’s hair rose upright on his head, he sprang to his feet, then fell back against the side of the grave, ready to swoon on the coffin. He stared at Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean lay there pallid and motionless.
Fauchelevent murmured in a voice as faint as a sigh:—
“He is dead!”
And, drawing himself up, and folding his arms with such violence that his clenched fists came in contact with his shoulders, he cried:—
“And this is the way I save his life!”
Then the poor man fell to sobbing. He soliloquized the while, for it is an error to suppose that the soliloquy is unnatural. Powerful emotion often talks aloud.
“It is Father Mestienne’s fault. Why did that fool die? What need was there for him to give up the ghost at the very moment when no one was expecting it? It is he who has killed M. Madeleine. Father Madeleine! He is in the coffin. It is quite handy. All is over. Now, is there any sense in these things? Ah! my God! he is dead! Well! and his little girl, what am I to do with her? What will the fruit-seller say? The idea of its being possible for a man like that to die like this! When I think how he put himself under that cart! Father Madeleine! Father Madeleine! Pardine! He was suffocated, I said so. He wouldn’t believe me. Well! Here’s a pretty trick to play! He is dead, that good man, the very best man out of all the good God’s good folks! And his little girl! Ah! In the first place, I won’t go back there myself. I shall stay here. After having done such a thing as that! What’s the use of being two old men, if we are two old fools! But, in the first place, how did he manage to enter the convent? That was the beginning of it all. One should not do such things. Father Madeleine! Father Madeleine! Father Madeleine! Madeleine! Monsieur Madeleine! Monsieur le Maire! He does not hear me. Now get out of this scrape if you can!”
And he tore his hair.
A grating sound became audible through the trees in the distance. It was the cemetery gate closing.
Fauchelevent bent over Jean Valjean, and all at once he bounded back and recoiled so far as the limits of a grave permit.
Jean Valjean’s eyes were open and gazing at him.
To see a corpse is alarming, to behold a resurrection is almost as much so. Fauchelevent became like stone, pale, haggard, overwhelmed by all these excesses of emotion, not knowing whether he had to do with a living man or a dead one, and staring at Jean Valjean, who was gazing at him.
“I fell asleep,” said Jean Valjean.
And he raised himself to a sitting posture.
Fauchelevent fell on his knees.
“Just, good Virgin! How you frightened me!”
Then he sprang to his feet and cried:—
“Thanks, Father Madeleine!”
Jean Valjean had merely fainted. The fresh air had revived him.
Joy is the ebb of terror. Fauchelevent found almost as much difficulty in recovering himself as Jean Valjean had.
“So you are not dead! Oh! How wise you are! I called you so much that you came back. When I saw your eyes shut, I said: ‘Good! there he is, stifled,’ I should have gone raving mad, mad enough for a strait jacket. They would have put me in Bicetre. What do you suppose I should have done if you had been dead? And your little girl? There’s that fruit-seller — she would never have understood it! The child is thrust into your arms, and then — the grandfather is dead! What a story! good saints of paradise, what a tale! Ah! you are alive, that’s the best of it!”
“I am cold,” said Jean Valjean.
This remark recalled Fauchelevent thoroughly to reality, and there was pressing need of it. The souls of these two men were troubled even when they had recovered themselves, although they did not realize it, and there was about them something uncanny, which was the sinister bewilderment inspired by the place.
“Let us get out of here quickly,” exclaimed Fauchelevent.
He fumbled in his pocket, and pulled out a gourd with which he had provided himself.
“But first, take a drop,” said he.
The flask finished what the fresh air had begun, Jean Valjean swallowed a mouthful of brandy, and regained full possession of his faculties.
He got out of the coffin, and helped Fauchelevent to nail on the lid again.
Three minutes later they were out of the grave.
Moreover, Fauchelevent was perfectly composed. He took his time. The cemetery was closed. The arrival of the grave-digger Gribier was not to be apprehended. That “conscript” was at home busily engaged in looking for his card, and at some difficulty in finding it in his lodgings, since it was in Fauchelevent’s pocket. Without a card, he could not get back into the cemetery.
Fauchelevent took the shovel, and Jean Valjean the pick-axe, and together they buried the empty coffin.
When the grave was full, Fauchelevent said to Jean Valjean:—
“Let us go. I will keep the shovel; do you carry off the mattock.”
Night was falling.
Jean Valjean experienced rome difficulty in moving and in walking. He had stiffened himself in that coffin, and had become a little like a corpse. The rigidity of death had seized upon him between those four planks. He had, in a manner, to thaw out, from the tomb.
“You are benumbed,” said Fauchelevent. “It is a pity that I have a game leg, for otherwise we might step out briskly.”
“Bah!” replied Jean Valjean, “four paces will put life into my legs once more.”
They set off by the alleys through which the hearse had passed. On arriving before the closed gate and the porter’s pavilion Fauchelevent, who held the grave-digger’s card in his hand, dropped it into the box, the porter pulled the rope, the gate opened, and they went out.
“How well everything is going!” said Fauchelevent; “what a capital idea that was of yours, Father Madeleine!”
They passed the Vaugirard barrier in the simplest manner in the world. In the neighborhood of the cemetery, a shovel and pick are equal to two passports.
The Rue Vaugirard was deserted.
“Father Madeleine,” said Fauchelevent as they went along, and raising his eyes to the houses, “Your eyes are better than mine. Show me No. 87.”
“Here it is,” said Jean Valjean.
“There is no one in the street,” said Fauchelevent. “Give me your mattock and wait a couple of minutes for me.”
Fauchelevent entered No. 87, ascended to the very top, guided by the instinct which always leads the poor man to the garret, and knocked in the dark, at the door of an attic.
A voice replied: “Come in.”
It was Gribier’s voice.
Fauchelevent opened the door. The grave-digger’s dwelling was, like all such wretched habitations, an unfurnished and encumbered garret. A packing-case — a coffin, perhaps — took the place of a commode, a butter-pot served for a drinking-fountain, a straw mattress served for a bed, the floor served instead of tables and chairs. In a corner, on a tattered fragment which had been a piece of an old carpet, a thin woman and a number of children were piled in a heap. The whole of this poverty-stricken interior bore traces of having been overturned. One would have said that there had been an earthquake “for one.” The covers were displaced, the rags scattered about, the jug broken, the mother had been crying, the children had probably been beaten; traces of a vigorous and ill-tempered search. It was plain that the grave-digger had made a desperate search for his card, and had made everybody in the garret, from the jug to his wife, responsible for its loss. He wore an air of desperation.
But Fauchelevent was in too great a hurry to terminate this adventure to take any notice of this sad side of his success.
He entered and said:—
“I have brought you back your shovel and pick.”
Gribier gazed at him in stupefaction.
“Is it you, peasant?”
“And tomorrow morning you will find your card with the porter of the cemetery.”
And he laid the shovel and mattock on the floor.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Gribier.
“The meaning of it is, that you dropped your card out of your pocket, that I found it on the ground after you were gone, that I have buried the corpse, that I have filled the grave, that I have done your work, that the porter will return your card to you, and that you will not have to pay fifteen francs. There you have it, conscript.”
“Thanks, villager!” exclaimed Gribier, radiant. “The next time I will pay for the drinks.”
An hour later, in the darkness of night, two men and a child presented themselves at No. 62 Rue Petit–Picpus. The elder of the men lifted the knocker and rapped.
They were Fauchelevent, Jean Valjean, and Cosette.
The two old men had gone to fetch Cosette from the fruiterer’s in the Rue du Chemin–Vert, where Fauchelevent had deposited her on the preceding day. Cosette had passed these twenty-four hours trembling silently and understanding nothing. She trembled to such a degree that she wept. She had neither eaten nor slept. The worthy fruit-seller had plied her with a hundred questions, without obtaining any other reply than a melancholy and unvarying gaze. Cosette had betrayed nothing of what she had seen and heard during the last two days. She divined that they were passing through a crisis. She was deeply conscious that it was necessary to “be good.” Who has not experienced the sovereign power of those two words, pronounced with a certain accent in the ear of a terrified little being: Say nothing! Fear is mute. Moreover, no one guards a secret like a child.
But when, at the expiration of these lugubrious twenty-four hours, she beheld Jean Valjean again, she gave vent to such a cry of joy, that any thoughtful person who had chanced to hear that cry, would have guessed that it issued from an abyss.
Fauchelevent belonged to the convent and knew the pass-words. All the doors opened.
Thus was solved the double and alarming problem of how to get out and how to get in.
The porter, who had received his instructions, opened the little servant’s door which connected the courtyard with the garden, and which could still be seen from the street twenty years ago, in the wall at the bottom of the court, which faced the carriage entrance.
The porter admitted all three of them through this door, and from that point they reached the inner, reserved parlor where Fauchelevent, on the preceding day, had received his orders from the prioress.
The prioress, rosary in hand, was waiting for them. A vocal mother, with her veil lowered, stood beside her.
A discreet candle lighted, one might almost say, made a show of lighting the parlor.
The prioress passed Jean Valjean in review. There is nothing which examines like a downcast eye.
Then she questioned him:—
“You are the brother?”
“Yes, reverend Mother,” replied Fauchelevent.
“What is your name?”
He really had had a brother named Ultime, who was dead.
“Where do you come from?”
“From Picquigny, near Amiens.”
“What is your age?”
“What is your profession?”
“Are you a good Christian?”
“Every one is in the family.”
“Is this your little girl?”
“Yes, reverend Mother.”
“You are her father?”
The vocal mother said to the prioress in a low voice
“He answers well.”
Jean Valjean had not uttered a single word.
The prioress looked attentively at Cosette, and said half aloud to the vocal mother:—
“She will grow up ugly.”
The two mothers consulted for a few moments in very low tones in the corner of the parlor, then the prioress turned round and said:—
“Father Fauvent, you will get another knee-cap with a bell. Two will be required now.”
On the following day, therefore, two bells were audible in the garden, and the nuns could not resist the temptation to raise the corner of their veils. At the extreme end of the garden, under the trees, two men, Fauvent and another man, were visible as they dug side by side. An enormous event. Their silence was broken to the extent of saying to each other: “He is an assistant gardener.”
The vocal mothers added: “He is a brother of Father Fauvent.”
Jean Valjean was, in fact, regularly installed; he had his belled knee-cap; henceforth he was official. His name was Ultime Fauchelevent.
The most powerful determining cause of his admission had been the prioress’s observation upon Cosette: “She will grow up ugly.”
The prioress, that pronounced prognosticator, immediately took a fancy to Cosette and gave her a place in the school as a charity pupil.
There is nothing that is not strictly logical about this.
It is in vain that mirrors are banished from the convent, women are conscious of their faces; now, girls who are conscious of their beauty do not easily become nuns; the vocation being voluntary in inverse proportion to their good looks, more is to be hoped from the ugly than from the pretty. Hence a lively taste for plain girls.
The whole of this adventure increased the importance of good, old Fauchelevent; he won a triple success; in the eyes of Jean Valjean, whom he had saved and sheltered; in those of grave-digger Gribier, who said to himself: “He spared me that fine”; with the convent, which, being enabled, thanks to him, to retain the coffin of Mother Crucifixion under the altar, eluded Caesar and satisfied God. There was a coffin containing a body in the Petit–Picpus, and a coffin without a body in the Vaugirard cemetery, public order had no doubt been deeply disturbed thereby, but no one was aware of it.
As for the convent, its gratitude to Fauchelevent was very great. Fauchelevent became the best of servitors and the most precious of gardeners. Upon the occasion of the archbishop’s next visit, the prioress recounted the affair to his Grace, making something of a confession at the same time, and yet boasting of her deed. On leaving the convent, the archbishop mentioned it with approval, and in a whisper to M. de Latil, Monsieur’s confessor, afterwards Archbishop of Reims and Cardinal. This admiration for Fauchelevent became widespread, for it made its way to Rome. We have seen a note addressed by the then reigning Pope, Leo XII., to one of his relatives, a Monsignor in the Nuncio’s establishment in Paris, and bearing, like himself, the name of Della Genga; it contained these lines: “It appears that there is in a convent in Paris an excellent gardener, who is also a holy man, named Fauvent.” Nothing of this triumph reached Fauchelevent in his hut; he went on grafting, weeding, and covering up his melon beds, without in the least suspecting his excellences and his sanctity. Neither did he suspect his glory, any more than a Durham or Surrey bull whose portrait is published in the London Illustrated News, with this inscription: “Bull which carried off the prize at the Cattle Show.”
Cosette continued to hold her tongue in the convent.
It was quite natural that Cosette should think herself Jean Valjean’s daughter. Moreover, as she knew nothing, she could say nothing, and then, she would not have said anything in any case. As we have just observed, nothing trains children to silence like unhappiness. Cosette had suffered so much, that she feared everything, even to speak or to breathe. A single word had so often brought down an avalanche upon her. She had hardly begun to regain her confidence since she had been with Jean Valjean. She speedily became accustomed to the convent. Only she regretted Catherine, but she dared not say so. Once, however, she did say to Jean Valjean: “Father, if I had known, I would have brought her away with me.”
Cosette had been obliged, on becoming a scholar in the convent, to don the garb of the pupils of the house. Jean Valjean succeeded in getting them to restore to him the garments which she laid aside. This was the same mourning suit which he had made her put on when she had quitted the Thenardiers’ inn. It was not very threadbare even now. Jean Valjean locked up these garments, plus the stockings and the shoes, with a quantity of camphor and all the aromatics in which convents abound, in a little valise which he found means of procuring. He set this valise on a chair near his bed, and he always carried the key about his person. “Father,” Cosette asked him one day, “what is there in that box which smells so good?”
Father Fauchelevent received other recompense for his good action, in addition to the glory which we just mentioned, and of which he knew nothing; in the first place it made him happy; next, he had much less work, since it was shared. Lastly, as he was very fond of snuff, he found the presence of M. Madeleine an advantage, in that he used three times as much as he had done previously, and that in an infinitely more luxurious manner, seeing that M. Madeleine paid for it.
The nuns did not adopt the name of Ultime; they called Jean Valjean the other Fauvent.
If these holy women had possessed anything of Javert’s glance, they would eventually have noticed that when there was any errand to be done outside in the behalf of the garden, it was always the elder Fauchelevent, the old, the infirm, the lame man, who went, and never the other; but whether it is that eyes constantly fixed on God know not how to spy, or whether they were, by preference, occupied in keeping watch on each other, they paid no heed to this.
Moreover, it was well for Jean Valjean that he kept close and did not stir out. Javert watched the quarter for more than a month.
This convent was for Jean Valjean like an island surrounded by gulfs. Henceforth, those four walls constituted his world. He saw enough of the sky there to enable him to preserve his serenity, and Cosette enough to remain happy.
A very sweet life began for him.
He inhabited the old hut at the end of the garden, in company with Fauchelevent. This hovel, built of old rubbish, which was still in existence in 1845, was composed, as the reader already knows, of three chambers, all of which were utterly bare and had nothing beyond the walls. The principal one had been given up, by force, for Jean Valjean had opposed it in vain, to M. Madeleine, by Father Fauchelevent. The walls of this chamber had for ornament, in addition to the two nails whereon to hang the knee-cap and the basket, a Royalist bank-note of ‘93, applied to the wall over the chimney-piece, and of which the following is an exact facsimile:—
This specimen of Vendean paper money had been nailed to the wall by the preceding gardener, an old Chouan, who had died in the convent, and whose place Fauchelevent had taken.
Jean Valjean worked in the garden every day and made himself very useful. He had formerly been a pruner of trees, and he gladly found himself a gardener once more. It will be remembered that he knew all sorts of secrets and receipts for agriculture. He turned these to advantage. Almost all the trees in the orchard were ungrafted, and wild. He budded them and made them produce excellent fruit.
Cosette had permission to pass an hour with him every day. As the sisters were melancholy and he was kind, the child made comparisons and adored him. At the appointed hour she flew to the hut. When she entered the lowly cabin, she filled it with paradise. Jean Valjean blossomed out and felt his happiness increase with the happiness which he afforded Cosette. The joy which we inspire has this charming property, that, far from growing meagre, like all reflections, it returns to us more radiant than ever. At recreation hours, Jean Valjean watched her running and playing in the distance, and he distinguished her laugh from that of the rest.
For Cosette laughed now.
Cosette’s face had even undergone a change, to a certain extent. The gloom had disappeared from it. A smile is the same as sunshine; it banishes winter from the human countenance.
Recreation over, when Cosette went into the house again, Jean Valjean gazed at the windows of her class-room, and at night he rose to look at the windows of her dormitory.
God has his own ways, moreover; the convent contributed, like Cosette, to uphold and complete the Bishop’s work in Jean Valjean. It is certain that virtue adjoins pride on one side. A bridge built by the devil exists there. Jean Valjean had been, unconsciously, perhaps, tolerably near that side and that bridge, when Providence cast his lot in the convent of the Petit–Picpus; so long as he had compared himself only to the Bishop, he had regarded himself as unworthy and had remained humble; but for some time past he had been comparing himself to men in general, and pride was beginning to spring up. Who knows? He might have ended by returning very gradually to hatred.
The convent stopped him on that downward path.
This was the second place of captivity which he had seen. In his youth, in what had been for him the beginning of his life, and later on, quite recently again, he had beheld another — a frightful place, a terrible place, whose severities had always appeared to him the iniquity of justice, and the crime of the law. Now, after the galleys, he saw the cloister; and when he meditated how he had formed a part of the galleys, and that he now, so to speak, was a spectator of the cloister, he confronted the two in his own mind with anxiety.
Sometimes he crossed his arms and leaned on his hoe, and slowly descended the endless spirals of revery.
He recalled his former companions: how wretched they were; they rose at dawn, and toiled until night; hardly were they permitted to sleep; they lay on camp beds, where nothing was tolerated but mattresses two inches thick, in rooms which were heated only in the very harshest months of the year; they were clothed in frightful red blouses; they were allowed, as a great favor, linen trousers in the hottest weather, and a woollen carter’s blouse on their backs when it was very cold; they drank no wine, and ate no meat, except when they went on “fatigue duty.” They lived nameless, designated only by numbers, and converted, after a manner, into ciphers themselves, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, with shorn heads, beneath the cudgel and in disgrace.
Then his mind reverted to the beings whom he had under his eyes.
These beings also lived with shorn heads, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, not in disgrace, but amid the scoffs of the world, not with their backs bruised with the cudgel, but with their shoulders lacerated with their discipline. Their names, also, had vanished from among men; they no longer existed except under austere appellations. They never ate meat and they never drank wine; they often remained until evening without food; they were attired, not in a red blouse, but in a black shroud, of woollen, which was heavy in summer and thin in winter, without the power to add or subtract anything from it; without having even, according to the season, the resource of the linen garment or the woollen cloak; and for six months in the year they wore serge chemises which gave them fever. They dwelt, not in rooms warmed only during rigorous cold, but in cells where no fire was ever lighted; they slept, not on mattresses two inches thick, but on straw. And finally, they were not even allowed their sleep; every night, after a day of toil, they were obliged, in the weariness of their first slumber, at the moment when they were falling sound asleep and beginning to get warm, to rouse themselves, to rise and to go and pray in an ice-cold and gloomy chapel, with their knees on the stones.
On certain days each of these beings in turn had to remain for twelve successive hours in a kneeling posture, or prostrate, with face upon the pavement, and arms outstretched in the form of a cross.
The others were men; these were women.
What had those men done? They had stolen, violated, pillaged, murdered, assassinated. They were bandits, counterfeiters, poisoners, incendiaries, murderers, parricides. What had these women done? They had done nothing whatever.
On the one hand, highway robbery, fraud, deceit, violence, sensuality, homicide, all sorts of sacrilege, every variety of crime; on the other, one thing only, innocence.
Perfect innocence, almost caught up into heaven in a mysterious assumption, attached to the earth by virtue, already possessing something of heaven through holiness.
On the one hand, confidences over crimes, which are exchanged in whispers; on the other, the confession of faults made aloud. And what crimes! And what faults!
On the one hand, miasms; on the other, an ineffable perfume. On the one hand, a moral pest, guarded from sight, penned up under the range of cannon, and literally devouring its plague-stricken victims; on the other, the chaste flame of all souls on the same hearth. There, darkness; here, the shadow; but a shadow filled with gleams of light, and of gleams full of radiance.
Two strongholds of slavery; but in the first, deliverance possible, a legal limit always in sight, and then, escape. In the second, perpetuity; the sole hope, at the distant extremity of the future, that faint light of liberty which men call death.
In the first, men are bound only with chains; in the other, chained by faith.
What flowed from the first? An immense curse, the gnashing of teeth, hatred, desperate viciousness, a cry of rage against human society, a sarcasm against heaven.
What results flowed from the second? Blessings and love.
And in these two places, so similar yet so unlike, these two species of beings who were so very unlike, were undergoing the same work, expiation.
Jean Valjean understood thoroughly the expiation of the former; that personal expiation, the expiation for one’s self. But he did not understand that of these last, that of creatures without reproach and without stain, and he trembled as he asked himself: The expiation of what? What expiation?
A voice within his conscience replied: “The most divine of human generosities, the expiation for others.”
Here all personal theory is withheld; we are only the narrator; we place ourselves at Jean Valjean’s point of view, and we translate his impressions.
Before his eyes he had the sublime summit of abnegation, the highest possible pitch of virtue; the innocence which pardons men their faults, and which expiates in their stead; servitude submitted to, torture accepted, punishment claimed by souls which have not sinned, for the sake of sparing it to souls which have fallen; the love of humanity swallowed up in the love of God, but even there preserving its distinct and mediatorial character; sweet and feeble beings possessing the misery of those who are punished and the smile of those who are recompensed.
And he remembered that he had dared to murmur!
Often, in the middle of the night, he rose to listen to the grateful song of those innocent creatures weighed down with severities, and the blood ran cold in his veins at the thought that those who were justly chastised raised their voices heavenward only in blasphemy, and that he, wretch that he was, had shaken his fist at God.
There was one striking thing which caused him to meditate deeply, like a warning whisper from Providence itself: the scaling of that wall, the passing of those barriers, the adventure accepted even at the risk of death, the painful and difficult ascent, all those efforts even, which he had made to escape from that other place of expiation, he had made in order to gain entrance into this one. Was this a symbol of his destiny? This house was a prison likewise and bore a melancholy resemblance to that other one whence he had fled, and yet he had never conceived an idea of anything similar.
Again he beheld gratings, bolts, iron bars — to guard whom? Angels.
These lofty walls which he had seen around tigers, he now beheld once more around lambs.
This was a place of expiation, and not of punishment; and yet, it was still more austere, more gloomy, and more pitiless than the other.
These virgins were even more heavily burdened than the convicts. A cold, harsh wind, that wind which had chilled his youth, traversed the barred and padlocked grating of the vultures; a still harsher and more biting breeze blew in the cage of these doves.
When he thought on these things, all that was within him was lost in amazement before this mystery of sublimity.
In these meditations, his pride vanished. He scrutinized his own heart in all manner of ways; he felt his pettiness, and many a time he wept. All that had entered into his life for the last six months had led him back towards the Bishop’s holy injunctions; Cosette through love, the convent through humility.
Sometimes at eventide, in the twilight, at an hour when the garden was deserted, he could be seen on his knees in the middle of the walk which skirted the chapel, in front of the window through which he had gazed on the night of his arrival, and turned towards the spot where, as he knew, the sister was making reparation, prostrated in prayer. Thus he prayed as he knelt before the sister.
It seemed as though he dared not kneel directly before God.
Everything that surrounded him, that peaceful garden, those fragrant flowers, those children who uttered joyous cries, those grave and simple women, that silent cloister, slowly permeated him, and little by little, his soul became compounded of silence like the cloister, of perfume like the flowers, of simplicity like the women, of joy like the children. And then he reflected that these had been two houses of God which had received him in succession at two critical moments in his life: the first, when all doors were closed and when human society rejected him; the second, at a moment when human society had again set out in pursuit of him, and when the galleys were again yawning; and that, had it not been for the first, he should have relapsed into crime, and had it not been for the second, into torment.
His whole heart melted in gratitude, and he loved more and more.
Many years passed in this manner; Cosette was growing up.
[The end of Volume II. “Cosette”]
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51