Summer passed, then the autumn; winter came. Neither M. Leblanc nor the young girl had again set foot in the Luxembourg garden. Thenceforth, Marius had but one thought — to gaze once more on that sweet and adorable face. He sought constantly, he sought everywhere; he found nothing. He was no longer Marius, the enthusiastic dreamer, the firm, resolute, ardent man, the bold defier of fate, the brain which erected future on future, the young spirit encumbered with plans, with projects, with pride, with ideas and wishes; he was a lost dog. He fell into a black melancholy. All was over. Work disgusted him, walking tired him. Vast nature, formerly so filled with forms, lights, voices, counsels, perspectives, horizons, teachings, now lay empty before him. It seemed to him that everything had disappeared.
He thought incessantly, for he could not do otherwise; but he no longer took pleasure in his thoughts. To everything that they proposed to him in a whisper, he replied in his darkness: “What is the use?”
He heaped a hundred reproaches on himself. “Why did I follow her? I was so happy at the mere sight of her! She looked at me; was not that immense? She had the air of loving me. Was not that everything? I wished to have, what? There was nothing after that. I have been absurd. It is my own fault,” etc., etc. Courfeyrac, to whom he confided nothing — it was his nature — but who made some little guess at everything — that was his nature — had begun by congratulating him on being in love, though he was amazed at it; then, seeing Marius fall into this melancholy state, he ended by saying to him: “I see that you have been simply an animal. Here, come to the Chaumiere.”
Once, having confidence in a fine September sun, Marius had allowed himself to be taken to the ball at Sceaux by Courfeyrac, Bossuet, and Grantaire, hoping, what a dream! that he might, perhaps, find her there. Of course he did not see the one he sought. —“But this is the place, all the same, where all lost women are found,” grumbled Grantaire in an aside. Marius left his friends at the ball and returned home on foot, alone, through the night, weary, feverish, with sad and troubled eyes, stunned by the noise and dust of the merry wagons filled with singing creatures on their way home from the feast, which passed close to him, as he, in his discouragement, breathed in the acrid scent of the walnut-trees, along the road, in order to refresh his head.
He took to living more and more alone, utterly overwhelmed, wholly given up to his inward anguish, going and coming in his pain like the wolf in the trap, seeking the absent one everywhere, stupefied by love.
On another occasion, he had an encounter which produced on him a singular effect. He met, in the narrow streets in the vicinity of the Boulevard des Invalides, a man dressed like a workingman and wearing a cap with a long visor, which allowed a glimpse of locks of very white hair. Marius was struck with the beauty of this white hair, and scrutinized the man, who was walking slowly and as though absorbed in painful meditation. Strange to say, he thought that he recognized M. Leblanc. The hair was the same, also the profile, so far as the cap permitted a view of it, the mien identical, only more depressed. But why these workingman’s clothes? What was the meaning of this? What signified that disguise? Marius was greatly astonished. When he recovered himself, his first impulse was to follow the man; who knows whether he did not hold at last the clue which he was seeking? In any case, he must see the man near at hand, and clear up the mystery. But the idea occurred to him too late, the man was no longer there. He had turned into some little side street, and Marius could not find him. This encounter occupied his mind for three days and then was effaced. “After all,” he said to himself, “it was probably only a resemblance.”
Marius had not left the Gorbeau house. He paid no attention to any one there.
At that epoch, to tell the truth, there were no other inhabitants in the house, except himself and those Jondrettes whose rent he had once paid, without, moreover, ever having spoken to either father, mother, or daughters. The other lodgers had moved away or had died, or had been turned out in default of payment.
One day during that winter, the sun had shown itself a little in the afternoon, but it was the 2d of February, that ancient Candlemas day whose treacherous sun, the precursor of a six weeks’ cold spell, inspired Mathieu Laensberg with these two lines, which have with justice remained classic:—
Qu’il luise ou qu’il luiserne,
L’ours rentre dans en sa caverne.26
26 Whether the sun shines brightly or dim, the bear returns to his cave.
Marius had just emerged from his: night was falling. It was the hour for his dinner; for he had been obliged to take to dining again, alas! oh, infirmities of ideal passions!
He had just crossed his threshold, where Ma’am Bougon was sweeping at the moment, as she uttered this memorable monologue:—
“What is there that is cheap now? Everything is dear. There is nothing in the world that is cheap except trouble; you can get that for nothing, the trouble of the world!”
Marius slowly ascended the boulevard towards the barrier, in order to reach the Rue Saint–Jacques. He was walking along with drooping head.
All at once, he felt some one elbow him in the dusk; he wheeled round, and saw two young girls clad in rags, the one tall and slim, the other a little shorter, who were passing rapidly, all out of breath, in terror, and with the appearance of fleeing; they had been coming to meet him, had not seen him, and had jostled him as they passed. Through the twilight, Marius could distinguish their livid faces, their wild heads, their dishevelled hair, their hideous bonnets, their ragged petticoats, and their bare feet. They were talking as they ran. The taller said in a very low voice:—
“The bobbies have come. They came near nabbing me at the half-circle.” The other answered: “I saw them. I bolted, bolted, bolted!”
Through this repulsive slang, Marius understood that gendarmes or the police had come near apprehending these two children, and that the latter had escaped.
They plunged among the trees of the boulevard behind him, and there created, for a few minutes, in the gloom, a sort of vague white spot, then disappeared.
Marius had halted for a moment.
He was about to pursue his way, when his eye lighted on a little grayish package lying on the ground at his feet. He stooped and picked it up. It was a sort of envelope which appeared to contain papers.
“Good,” he said to himself, “those unhappy girls dropped it.”
He retraced his steps, he called, he did not find them; he reflected that they must already be far away, put the package in his pocket, and went off to dine.
On the way, he saw in an alley of the Rue Mouffetard, a child’s coffin, covered with a black cloth resting on three chairs, and illuminated by a candle. The two girls of the twilight recurred to his mind.
“Poor mothers!” he thought. “There is one thing sadder than to see one’s children die; it is to see them leading an evil life.”
Then those shadows which had varied his melancholy vanished from his thoughts, and he fell back once more into his habitual preoccupations. He fell to thinking once more of his six months of love and happiness in the open air and the broad daylight, beneath the beautiful trees of Luxembourg.
“How gloomy my life has become!” he said to himself. “Young girls are always appearing to me, only formerly they were angels and now they are ghouls.”
That evening, as he was undressing preparatory to going to bed, his hand came in contact, in the pocket of his coat, with the packet which he had picked up on the boulevard. He had forgotten it. He thought that it would be well to open it, and that this package might possibly contain the address of the young girls, if it really belonged to them, and, in any case, the information necessary to a restitution to the person who had lost it.
He opened the envelope.
It was not sealed and contained four letters, also unsealed.
They bore addresses.
All four exhaled a horrible odor of tobacco.
The first was addressed: “To Madame, Madame la Marquise de Grucheray, the place opposite the Chamber of Deputies, No. —”
Marius said to himself, that he should probably find in it the information which he sought, and that, moreover, the letter being open, it was probable that it could be read without impropriety.
It was conceived as follows:—
Madame la Marquise: The virtue of clemency and piety is that which most closely unites sosiety. Turn your Christian spirit and cast a look of compassion on this unfortunate Spanish victim of loyalty and attachment to the sacred cause of legitimacy, who has given with his blood, consecrated his fortune, evverything, to defend that cause, and today finds himself in the greatest missery. He doubts not that your honorable person will grant succor to preserve an existence exteremely painful for a military man of education and honor full of wounds, counts in advance on the humanity which animates you and on the interest which Madame la Marquise bears to a nation so unfortunate. Their prayer will not be in vain, and their gratitude will preserve theirs charming souvenir.
My respectful sentiments, with which I have the honor to be
Don Alvares, Spanish Captain
of Cavalry, a royalist who
has take refuge in France,
who finds himself on travells
for his country, and the
resources are lacking him to
continue his travells.
No address was joined to the signature. Marius hoped to find the address in the second letter, whose superscription read: A Madame, Madame la Comtesse de Montvernet, Rue Cassette, No. 9. This is what Marius read in it:—
Madame la Comtesse: It is an unhappy mother of a family of six children the last of which is only eight months old. I sick since my last confinement, abandoned by my husband five months ago, haveing no resources in the world the most frightful indigance.
In the hope of Madame la Comtesse, she has the honor to be, Madame, with profound respect,
Marius turned to the third letter, which was a petition like the preceding; he read:—
Monsieur Pabourgeot, Elector, wholesale stocking merchant,
Rue Saint–Denis on the corner of the Rue aux Fers.
I permit myself to address you this letter to beg you to grant me the pretious favor of your simpaties and to interest yourself in a man of letters who has just sent a drama to the Theatre–Francais. The subject is historical, and the action takes place in Auvergne in the time of the Empire; the style, I think, is natural, laconic, and may have some merit. There are couplets to be sung in four places. The comic, the serious, the unexpected, are mingled in a variety of characters, and a tinge of romanticism lightly spread through all the intrigue which proceeds misteriously, and ends, after striking altarations, in the midst of many beautiful strokes of brilliant scenes.
My principal object is to satisfi the desire which progressively animates the man of our century, that is to say, the fashion, that capritious and bizarre weathervane which changes at almost every new wind.
In spite of these qualities I have reason to fear that jealousy, the egotism of priviliged authors, may obtaine my exclusion from the theatre, for I am not ignorant of the mortifications with which new-comers are treated.
Monsiuer Pabourgeot, your just reputation as an enlightened protector of men of litters emboldens me to send you my daughter who will explain our indigant situation to you, lacking bread and fire in this wynter season. When I say to you that I beg you to accept the dedication of my drama which I desire to make to you and of all those that I shall make, is to prove to you how great is my ambition to have the honor of sheltering myself under your protection, and of adorning my writings with your name. If you deign to honor me with the most modest offering, I shall immediately occupy myself in making a piesse of verse to pay you my tribute of gratitude. Which I shall endeavor to render this piesse as perfect as possible, will be sent to you before it is inserted at the beginning of the drama and delivered on the stage.
and Madame Pabourgeot,
My most respectful complements,
Genflot, man of letters.
P. S. Even if it is only forty sous.
Excuse me for sending my daughter and not presenting myself, but sad motives connected with the toilet do not permit me, alas! to go out.
Finally, Marius opened the fourth letter. The address ran: To the benevolent Gentleman of the church of Saint–Jacquesdu-haut-Pas. It contained the following lines:—
Benevolent Man: If you deign to accompany my daughter, you will behold a misserable calamity, and I will show you my certificates.
At the aspect of these writings your generous soul will be moved with a sentiment of obvious benevolence, for true philosophers always feel lively emotions.
Admit, compassionate man, that it is necessary to suffer the most cruel need, and that it is very painful, for the sake of obtaining a little relief, to get oneself attested by the authorities as though one were not free to suffer and to die of inanition while waiting to have our misery relieved. Destinies are very fatal for several and too prodigal or too protecting for others.
I await your presence or your offering, if you deign to make one, and I beseech you to accept the respectful sentiments with which I have the honor to be,
truly magnanimous man,
your very humble
and very obedient servant,
P. Fabantou, dramatic artist.
After perusing these four letters, Marius did not find himself much further advanced than before.
In the first place, not one of the signers gave his address.
Then, they seemed to come from four different individuals, Don Alveras, Mistress Balizard, the poet Genflot, and dramatic artist Fabantou; but the singular thing about these letters was, that all four were written by the same hand.
What conclusion was to be drawn from this, except that they all come from the same person?
Moreover, and this rendered the conjecture all the more probable, the coarse and yellow paper was the same in all four, the odor of tobacco was the same, and, although an attempt had been made to vary the style, the same orthographical faults were reproduced with the greatest tranquillity, and the man of letters Genflot was no more exempt from them than the Spanish captain.
It was waste of trouble to try to solve this petty mystery. Had it not been a chance find, it would have borne the air of a mystification. Marius was too melancholy to take even a chance pleasantry well, and to lend himself to a game which the pavement of the street seemed desirous of playing with him. It seemed to him that he was playing the part of the blind man in blind man’s buff between the four letters, and that they were making sport of him.
Nothing, however, indicated that these letters belonged to the two young girls whom Marius had met on the boulevard. After all, they were evidently papers of no value. Marius replaced them in their envelope, flung the whole into a corner and went to bed. About seven o’clock in the morning, he had just risen and breakfasted, and was trying to settle down to work, when there came a soft knock at his door.
As he owned nothing, he never locked his door, unless occasionally, though very rarely, when he was engaged in some pressing work. Even when absent he left his key in the lock. “You will be robbed,” said Ma’am Bougon. “Of what?” said Marius. The truth is, however, that he had, one day, been robbed of an old pair of boots, to the great triumph of Ma’am Bougon.
There came a second knock, as gentle as the first.
“Come in,” said Marius.
The door opened.
“What do you want, Ma’am Bougon?” asked Marius, without raising his eyes from the books and manuscripts on his table.
A voice which did not belong to Ma’am Bougon replied:—
“Excuse me, sir —”
It was a dull, broken, hoarse, strangled voice, the voice of an old man, roughened with brandy and liquor.
Marius turned round hastily, and beheld a young girl.
A very young girl was standing in the half-open door. The dormer window of the garret, through which the light fell, was precisely opposite the door, and illuminated the figure with a wan light. She was a frail, emaciated, slender creature; there was nothing but a chemise and a petticoat upon that chilled and shivering nakedness. Her girdle was a string, her head ribbon a string, her pointed shoulders emerged from her chemise, a blond and lymphatic pallor, earth-colored collar-bones, red hands, a half-open and degraded mouth, missing teeth, dull, bold, base eyes; she had the form of a young girl who has missed her youth, and the look of a corrupt old woman; fifty years mingled with fifteen; one of those beings which are both feeble and horrible, and which cause those to shudder whom they do not cause to weep.
Marius had risen, and was staring in a sort of stupor at this being, who was almost like the forms of the shadows which traverse dreams.
The most heart-breaking thing of all was, that this young girl had not come into the world to be homely. In her early childhood she must even have been pretty. The grace of her age was still struggling against the hideous, premature decrepitude of debauchery and poverty. The remains of beauty were dying away in that face of sixteen, like the pale sunlight which is extinguished under hideous clouds at dawn on a winter’s day.
That face was not wholly unknown to Marius. He thought he remembered having seen it somewhere.
“What do you wish, Mademoiselle?” he asked.
The young girl replied in her voice of a drunken convict:—
“Here is a letter for you, Monsieur Marius.”
She called Marius by his name; he could not doubt that he was the person whom she wanted; but who was this girl? How did she know his name?
Without waiting for him to tell her to advance, she entered. She entered resolutely, staring, with a sort of assurance that made the heart bleed, at the whole room and the unmade bed. Her feet were bare. Large holes in her petticoat permitted glimpses of her long legs and her thin knees. She was shivering.
She held a letter in her hand, which she presented to Marius.
Marius, as he opened the letter, noticed that the enormous wafer which sealed it was still moist. The message could not have come from a distance. He read:—
My amiable neighbor, young man: I have learned of your goodness to me, that you paid my rent six months ago. I bless you, young man. My eldest daughter will tell you that we have been without a morsel of bread for two days, four persons and my spouse ill. If I am not deseaved in my opinion, I think I may hope that your generous heart will melt at this statement and the desire will subjugate you to be propitious to me by daigning to lavish on me a slight favor.
I am with the distinguished consideration which is due to the benefactors of humanity —
P.S. My eldest daughter will await your orders, dear Monsieur Marius.
This letter, coming in the very midst of the mysterious adventure which had occupied Marius’ thoughts ever since the preceding evening, was like a candle in a cellar. All was suddenly illuminated.
This letter came from the same place as the other four. There was the same writing, the same style, the same orthography, the same paper, the same odor of tobacco.
There were five missives, five histories, five signatures, and a single signer. The Spanish Captain Don Alvares, the unhappy Mistress Balizard, the dramatic poet Genflot, the old comedian Fabantou, were all four named Jondrette, if, indeed, Jondrette himself were named Jondrette.
Marius had lived in the house for a tolerably long time, and he had had, as we have said, but very rare occasion to see, to even catch a glimpse of, his extremely mean neighbors. His mind was elsewhere, and where the mind is, there the eyes are also. He had been obliged more than once to pass the Jondrettes in the corridor or on the stairs; but they were mere forms to him; he had paid so little heed to them, that, on the preceding evening, he had jostled the Jondrette girls on the boulevard, without recognizing them, for it had evidently been they, and it was with great difficulty that the one who had just entered his room had awakened in him, in spite of disgust and pity, a vague recollection of having met her elsewhere.
Now he saw everything clearly. He understood that his neighbor Jondrette, in his distress, exercised the industry of speculating on the charity of benevolent persons, that he procured addresses, and that he wrote under feigned names to people whom he judged to be wealthy and compassionate, letters which his daughters delivered at their risk and peril, for this father had come to such a pass, that he risked his daughters; he was playing a game with fate, and he used them as the stake. Marius understood that probably, judging from their flight on the evening before, from their breathless condition, from their terror and from the words of slang which he had overheard, these unfortunate creatures were plying some inexplicably sad profession, and that the result of the whole was, in the midst of human society, as it is now constituted, two miserable beings who were neither girls nor women, a species of impure and innocent monsters produced by misery.
Sad creatures, without name, or sex, or age, to whom neither good nor evil were any longer possible, and who, on emerging from childhood, have already nothing in this world, neither liberty, nor virtue, nor responsibility. Souls which blossomed out yesterday, and are faded today, like those flowers let fall in the streets, which are soiled with every sort of mire, while waiting for some wheel to crush them. Nevertheless, while Marius bent a pained and astonished gaze on her, the young girl was wandering back and forth in the garret with the audacity of a spectre. She kicked about, without troubling herself as to her nakedness. Occasionally her chemise, which was untied and torn, fell almost to her waist. She moved the chairs about, she disarranged the toilet articles which stood on the commode, she handled Marius’ clothes, she rummaged about to see what there was in the corners.
“Hullo!” said she, “you have a mirror!”
And she hummed scraps of vaudevilles, as though she had been alone, frolicsome refrains which her hoarse and guttural voice rendered lugubrious.
An indescribable constraint, weariness, and humiliation were perceptible beneath this hardihood. Effrontery is a disgrace.
Nothing could be more melancholy than to see her sport about the room, and, so to speak, flit with the movements of a bird which is frightened by the daylight, or which has broken its wing. One felt that under other conditions of education and destiny, the gay and over-free mien of this young girl might have turned out sweet and charming. Never, even among animals, does the creature born to be a dove change into an osprey. That is only to be seen among men.
Marius reflected, and allowed her to have her way.
She approached the table.
“Ah!” said she, “books!”
A flash pierced her glassy eye. She resumed, and her accent expressed the happiness which she felt in boasting of something, to which no human creature is insensible:—
“I know how to read, I do!”
She eagerly seized a book which lay open on the table, and read with tolerable fluency:—
“— General Bauduin received orders to take the chateau of Hougomont which stands in the middle of the plain of Waterloo, with five battalions of his brigade.”
“Ah! Waterloo! I know about that. It was a battle long ago. My father was there. My father has served in the armies. We are fine Bonapartists in our house, that we are! Waterloo was against the English.”
She laid down the book, caught up a pen, and exclaimed:—
“And I know how to write, too!”
She dipped her pen in the ink, and turning to Marius:—
“Do you want to see? Look here, I’m going to write a word to show you.”
And before he had time to answer, she wrote on a sheet of white paper, which lay in the middle of the table: “The bobbies are here.”
Then throwing down the pen:—
“There are no faults of orthography. You can look. We have received an education, my sister and I. We have not always been as we are now. We were not made —”
Here she paused, fixed her dull eyes on Marius, and burst out laughing, saying, with an intonation which contained every form of anguish, stifled by every form of cynicism:—
And she began to hum these words to a gay air:—
“J’ai faim, mon pere.” I am hungry, father.
Pas de fricot. I have no food.
J’ai froid, ma mere. I am cold, mother.
Pas de tricot. I have no clothes.
She had hardly finished this couplet, when she exexclaimed:—
“Do you ever go to the play, Monsieur Marius? I do. I have a little brother who is a friend of the artists, and who gives me tickets sometimes. But I don’t like the benches in the galleries. One is cramped and uncomfortable there. There are rough people there sometimes; and people who smell bad.”
Then she scrutinized Marius, assumed a singular air and said:—
“Do you know, Mr. Marius, that you are a very handsome fellow?”
And at the same moment the same idea occurred to them both, and made her smile and him blush. She stepped up to him, and laid her hand on his shoulder: “You pay no heed to me, but I know you, Mr. Marius. I meet you here on the staircase, and then I often see you going to a person named Father Mabeuf who lives in the direction of Austerlitz, sometimes when I have been strolling in that quarter. It is very becoming to you to have your hair tumbled thus.”
She tried to render her voice soft, but only succeeded in making it very deep. A portion of her words was lost in the transit from her larynx to her lips, as though on a piano where some notes are missing.
Marius had retreated gently.
“Mademoiselle,” said he, with his cool gravity, “I have here a package which belongs to you, I think. Permit me to return it to you.”
And he held out the envelope containing the four letters.
She clapped her hands and exclaimed:—
“We have been looking everywhere for that!”
Then she eagerly seized the package and opened the envelope, saying as she did so:—
“Dieu de Dieu! how my sister and I have hunted! And it was you who found it! On the boulevard, was it not? It must have been on the boulevard? You see, we let it fall when we were running. It was that brat of a sister of mine who was so stupid. When we got home, we could not find it anywhere. As we did not wish to be beaten, as that is useless, as that is entirely useless, as that is absolutely useless, we said that we had carried the letters to the proper persons, and that they had said to us: ‘Nix.’ So here they are, those poor letters! And how did you find out that they belonged to me? Ah! yes, the writing. So it was you that we jostled as we passed last night. We couldn’t see. I said to my sister: ‘Is it a gentleman?’ My sister said to me: ‘I think it is a gentleman.’”
In the meanwhile she had unfolded the petition addressed to “the benevolent gentleman of the church of Saint–Jacquesdu-Haut–Pas.”
“Here!” said she, “this is for that old fellow who goes to mass. By the way, this is his hour. I’ll go and carry it to him. Perhaps he will give us something to breakfast on.”
Then she began to laugh again, and added:—
“Do you know what it will mean if we get a breakfast today? It will mean that we shall have had our breakfast of the day before yesterday, our breakfast of yesterday, our dinner of today, and all that at once, and this morning. Come! Parbleu! if you are not satisfied, dogs, burst!”
This reminded Marius of the wretched girl’s errand to himself. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, and found nothing there.
The young girl went on, and seemed to have no consciousness of Marius’ presence.
“I often go off in the evening. Sometimes I don’t come home again. Last winter, before we came here, we lived under the arches of the bridges. We huddled together to keep from freezing. My little sister cried. How melancholy the water is! When I thought of drowning myself, I said to myself: ‘No, it’s too cold.’ I go out alone, whenever I choose, I sometimes sleep in the ditches. Do you know, at night, when I walk along the boulevard, I see the trees like forks, I see houses, all black and as big as Notre Dame, I fancy that the white walls are the river, I say to myself: ‘Why, there’s water there!’ The stars are like the lamps in illuminations, one would say that they smoked and that the wind blew them out, I am bewildered, as though horses were breathing in my ears; although it is night, I hear hand-organs and spinning-machines, and I don’t know what all. I think people are flinging stones at me, I flee without knowing whither, everything whirls and whirls. You feel very queer when you have had no food.”
And then she stared at him with a bewildered air.
By dint of searching and ransacking his pockets, Marius had finally collected five francs sixteen sous. This was all he owned in the world for the moment. “At all events,” he thought, “there is my dinner for today, and tomorrow we will see.” He kept the sixteen sous, and handed the five francs to the young girl.
She seized the coin.
“Good!” said she, “the sun is shining!”
And, as though the sun had possessed the property of melting the avalanches of slang in her brain, she went on:—
“Five francs! the shiner! a monarch! in this hole! Ain’t this fine! You’re a jolly thief! I’m your humble servant! Bravo for the good fellows! Two days’ wine! and meat! and stew! we’ll have a royal feast! and a good fill!”
She pulled her chemise up on her shoulders, made a low bow to Marius, then a familiar sign with her hand, and went towards the door, saying:—
“Good morning, sir. It’s all right. I’ll go and find my old man.”
As she passed, she caught sight of a dry crust of bread on the commode, which was moulding there amid the dust; she flung herself upon it and bit into it, muttering:—
“That’s good! it’s hard! it breaks my teeth!”
Then she departed.
Marius had lived for five years in poverty, in destitution, even in distress, but he now perceived that he had not known real misery. True misery he had but just had a view of. It was its spectre which had just passed before his eyes. In fact, he who has only beheld the misery of man has seen nothing; the misery of woman is what he must see; he who has seen only the misery of woman has seen nothing; he must see the misery of the child.
When a man has reached his last extremity, he has reached his last resources at the same time. Woe to the defenceless beings who surround him! Work, wages, bread, fire, courage, good will, all fail him simultaneously. The light of day seems extinguished without, the moral light within; in these shadows man encounters the feebleness of the woman and the child, and bends them violently to ignominy.
Then all horrors become possible. Despair is surrounded with fragile partitions which all open on either vice or crime.
Health, youth, honor, all the shy delicacies of the young body, the heart, virginity, modesty, that epidermis of the soul, are manipulated in sinister wise by that fumbling which seeks resources, which encounters opprobrium, and which accomodates itself to it. Fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, men, women, daughters, adhere and become incorporated, almost like a mineral formation, in that dusky promiscuousness of sexes, relationships, ages, infamies, and innocences. They crouch, back to back, in a sort of hut of fate. They exchange woe-begone glances. Oh, the unfortunate wretches! How pale they are! How cold they are! It seems as though they dwelt in a planet much further from the sun than ours.
This young girl was to Marius a sort of messenger from the realm of sad shadows. She revealed to him a hideous side of the night.
Marius almost reproached himself for the preoccupations of revery and passion which had prevented his bestowing a glance on his neighbors up to that day. The payment of their rent had been a mechanical movement, which any one would have yielded to; but he, Marius, should have done better than that. What! only a wall separated him from those abandoned beings who lived gropingly in the dark outside the pale of the rest of the world, he was elbow to elbow with them, he was, in some sort, the last link of the human race which they touched, he heard them live, or rather, rattle in the death agony beside him, and he paid no heed to them! Every day, every instant, he heard them walking on the other side of the wall, he heard them go, and come, and speak, and he did not even lend an ear! And groans lay in those words, and he did not even listen to them, his thoughts were elsewhere, given up to dreams, to impossible radiances, to loves in the air, to follies; and all the while, human creatures, his brothers in Jesus Christ, his brothers in the people, were agonizing in vain beside him! He even formed a part of their misfortune, and he aggravated it. For if they had had another neighbor who was less chimerical and more attentive, any ordinary and charitable man, evidently their indigence would have been noticed, their signals of distress would have been perceived, and they would have been taken hold of and rescued! They appeared very corrupt and very depraved, no doubt, very vile, very odious even; but those who fall without becoming degraded are rare; besides, there is a point where the unfortunate and the infamous unite and are confounded in a single word, a fatal word, the miserable; whose fault is this? And then should not the charity be all the more profound, in proportion as the fall is great?
While reading himself this moral lesson, for there were occasions on which Marius, like all truly honest hearts, was his own pedagogue and scolded himself more than he deserved, he stared at the wall which separated him from the Jondrettes, as though he were able to make his gaze, full of pity, penetrate that partition and warm these wretched people. The wall was a thin layer of plaster upheld by lathes and beams, and, as the reader had just learned, it allowed the sound of voices and words to be clearly distinguished. Only a man as dreamy as Marius could have failed to perceive this long before. There was no paper pasted on the wall, either on the side of the Jondrettes or on that of Marius; the coarse construction was visible in its nakedness. Marius examined the partition, almost unconsciously; sometimes revery examines, observes, and scrutinizes as thought would. All at once he sprang up; he had just perceived, near the top, close to the ceiling, a triangular hole, which resulted from the space between three lathes. The plaster which should have filled this cavity was missing, and by mounting on the commode, a view could be had through this aperture into the Jondrettes’ attic. Commiseration has, and should have, its curiosity. This aperture formed a sort of peep-hole. It is permissible to gaze at misfortune like a traitor in order to succor it.27
27 The peep-hole is a Judas in French. Hence the half-punning allusion.
“Let us get some little idea of what these people are like,” thought Marius, “and in what condition they are.”
He climbed upon the commode, put his eye to the crevice, and looked.
Cities, like forests, have their caverns in which all the most wicked and formidable creatures which they contain conceal themselves. Only, in cities, that which thus conceals itself is ferocious, unclean, and petty, that is to say, ugly; in forests, that which conceals itself is ferocious, savage, and grand, that is to say, beautiful. Taking one lair with another, the beast’s is preferable to the man’s. Caverns are better than hovels.
What Marius now beheld was a hovel.
Marius was poor, and his chamber was poverty-stricken, but as his poverty was noble, his garret was neat. The den upon which his eye now rested was abject, dirty, fetid, pestiferous, mean, sordid. The only furniture consisted of a straw chair, an infirm table, some old bits of crockery, and in two of the corners, two indescribable pallets; all the light was furnishd by a dormer window of four panes, draped with spiders’ webs. Through this aperture there penetrated just enough light to make the face of a man appear like the face of a phantom. The walls had a leprous aspect, and were covered with seams and scars, like a visage disfigured by some horrible malady; a repulsive moisture exuded from them. Obscene sketches roughly sketched with charcoal could be distinguished upon them.
The chamber which Marius occupied had a dilapidated brick pavement; this one was neither tiled nor planked; its inhabitants stepped directly on the antique plaster of the hovel, which had grown black under the long-continued pressure of feet. Upon this uneven floor, where the dirt seemed to be fairly incrusted, and which possessed but one virginity, that of the broom, were capriciously grouped constellations of old shoes, socks, and repulsive rags; however, this room had a fireplace, so it was let for forty francs a year. There was every sort of thing in that fireplace, a brazier, a pot, broken boards, rags suspended from nails, a bird-cage, ashes, and even a little fire. Two brands were smouldering there in a melancholy way.
One thing which added still more to the horrors of this garret was, that it was large. It had projections and angles and black holes, the lower sides of roofs, bays, and promontories. Hence horrible, unfathomable nooks where it seemed as though spiders as big as one’s fist, wood-lice as large as one’s foot, and perhaps even — who knows? — some monstrous human beings, must be hiding.
One of the pallets was near the door, the other near the window. One end of each touched the fireplace and faced Marius. In a corner near the aperture through which Marius was gazing, a colored engraving in a black frame was suspended to a nail on the wall, and at its bottom, in large letters, was the inscription: THE DREAM. This represented a sleeping woman, and a child, also asleep, the child on the woman’s lap, an eagle in a cloud, with a crown in his beak, and the woman thrusting the crown away from the child’s head, without awaking the latter; in the background, Napoleon in a glory, leaning on a very blue column with a yellow capital ornamented with this inscription:
Beneath this frame, a sort of wooden panel, which was no longer than it was broad, stood on the ground and rested in a sloping attitude against the wall. It had the appearance of a picture with its face turned to the wall, of a frame probably showing a daub on the other side, of some pier-glass detached from a wall and lying forgotten there while waiting to be rehung.
Near the table, upon which Marius descried a pen, ink, and paper, sat a man about sixty years of age, small, thin, livid, haggard, with a cunning, cruel, and uneasy air; a hideous scoundrel.
If Lavater had studied this visage, he would have found the vulture mingled with the attorney there, the bird of prey and the pettifogger rendering each other mutually hideous and complementing each other; the pettifogger making the bird of prey ignoble, the bird of prey making the pettifogger horrible.
This man had a long gray beard. He was clad in a woman’s chemise, which allowed his hairy breast and his bare arms, bristling with gray hair, to be seen. Beneath this chemise, muddy trousers and boots through which his toes projected were visible.
He had a pipe in his mouth and was smoking. There was no bread in the hovel, but there was still tobacco.
He was writing probably some more letters like those which Marius had read.
On the corner of the table lay an ancient, dilapidated, reddish volume, and the size, which was the antique 12mo of reading-rooms, betrayed a romance. On the cover sprawled the following title, printed in large capitals: GOD; THE KING; HONOR AND THE LADIES; BY DUCRAY DUMINIL, 1814.
As the man wrote, he talked aloud, and Marius heard his words:—
“The idea that there is no equality, even when you are dead! Just look at Pere Lachaise! The great, those who are rich, are up above, in the acacia alley, which is paved. They can reach it in a carriage. The little people, the poor, the unhappy, well, what of them? they are put down below, where the mud is up to your knees, in the damp places. They are put there so that they will decay the sooner! You cannot go to see them without sinking into the earth.”
He paused, smote the table with his fist, and added, as he ground his teeth:—
“Oh! I could eat the whole world!”
A big woman, who might be forty years of age, or a hundred, was crouching near the fireplace on her bare heels.
She, too, was clad only in a chemise and a knitted petticoat patched with bits of old cloth. A coarse linen apron concealed the half of her petticoat. Although this woman was doubled up and bent together, it could be seen that she was of very lofty stature. She was a sort of giant, beside her husband. She had hideous hair, of a reddish blond which was turning gray, and which she thrust back from time to time, with her enormous shining hands, with their flat nails.
Beside her, on the floor, wide open, lay a book of the same form as the other, and probably a volume of the same romance.
On one of the pallets, Marius caught a glimpse of a sort of tall pale young girl, who sat there half naked and with pendant feet, and who did not seem to be listening or seeing or living.
No doubt the younger sister of the one who had come to his room.
She seemed to be eleven or twelve years of age. On closer scrutiny it was evident that she really was fourteen. She was the child who had said, on the boulevard the evening before: “I bolted, bolted, bolted!”
She was of that puny sort which remains backward for a long time, then suddenly starts up rapidly. It is indigence which produces these melancholy human plants. These creatures have neither childhood nor youth. At fifteen years of age they appear to be twelve, at sixteen they seem twenty. To-day a little girl, tomorrow a woman. One might say that they stride through life, in order to get through with it the more speedily.
At this moment, this being had the air of a child.
Moreover, no trace of work was revealed in that dwelling; no handicraft, no spinning-wheel, not a tool. In one corner lay some ironmongery of dubious aspect. It was the dull listlessness which follows despair and precedes the death agony.
Marius gazed for a while at this gloomy interior, more terrifying than the interior of a tomb, for the human soul could be felt fluttering there, and life was palpitating there. The garret, the cellar, the lowly ditch where certain indigent wretches crawl at the very bottom of the social edifice, is not exactly the sepulchre, but only its antechamber; but, as the wealthy display their greatest magnificence at the entrance of their palaces, it seems that death, which stands directly side by side with them, places its greatest miseries in that vestibule.
The man held his peace, the woman spoke no word, the young girl did not even seem to breathe. The scratching of the pen on the paper was audible.
The man grumbled, without pausing in his writing. “Canaille! canaille! everybody is canaille!”
This variation to Solomon’s exclamation elicited a sigh from the woman.
“Calm yourself, my little friend,” she said. “Don’t hurt yourself, my dear. You are too good to write to all those people, husband.”
Bodies press close to each other in misery, as in cold, but hearts draw apart. This woman must have loved this man, to all appearance, judging from the amount of love within her; but probably, in the daily and reciprocal reproaches of the horrible distress which weighed on the whole group, this had become extinct. There no longer existed in her anything more than the ashes of affection for her husband. Nevertheless, caressing appellations had survived, as is often the case. She called him: My dear, my little friend, my good man, etc., with her mouth while her heart was silent.
The man resumed his writing.
Marius, with a load upon his breast, was on the point of descending from the species of observatory which he had improvised, when a sound attracted his attention and caused him to remain at his post.
The door of the attic had just burst open abruptly. The eldest girl made her appearance on the threshold. On her feet, she had large, coarse, men’s shoes, bespattered with mud, which had splashed even to her red ankles, and she was wrapped in an old mantle which hung in tatters. Marius had not seen it on her an hour previously, but she had probably deposited it at his door, in order that she might inspire the more pity, and had picked it up again on emerging. She entered, pushed the door to behind her, paused to take breath, for she was completely breathless, then exclaimed with an expression of triumph and joy:—
“He is coming!”
The father turned his eyes towards her, the woman turned her head, the little sister did not stir.
“Who?” demanded her father.
“From the church of Saint–Jacques?”
“That old fellow?”
“And he is coming?”
“He is following me.”
“You are sure?”
“I am sure.”
“There, truly, he is coming?”
“He is coming in a fiacre.”
“In a fiacre. He is Rothschild.”
The father rose.
“How are you sure? If he is coming in a fiacre, how is it that you arrive before him? You gave him our address at least? Did you tell him that it was the last door at the end of the corridor, on the right? If he only does not make a mistake! So you found him at the church? Did he read my letter? What did he say to you?”
“Ta, ta, ta,” said the girl, “how you do gallop on, my good man! See here: I entered the church, he was in his usual place, I made him a reverence, and I handed him the letter; he read it and said to me: ‘Where do you live, my child?’ I said: ‘Monsieur, I will show you.’ He said to me: ‘No, give me your address, my daughter has some purchases to make, I will take a carriage and reach your house at the same time that you do.’ I gave him the address. When I mentioned the house, he seemed surprised and hesitated for an instant, then he said: ‘Never mind, I will come.’ When the mass was finished, I watched him leave the church with his daughter, and I saw them enter a carriage. I certainly did tell him the last door in the corridor, on the right.”
“And what makes you think that he will come?”
“I have just seen the fiacre turn into the Rue Petit–Banquier. That is what made me run so.”
“How do you know that it was the same fiacre?”
“Because I took notice of the number, so there!”
“What was the number?”
“Good, you are a clever girl.”
The girl stared boldly at her father, and showing the shoes which she had on her feet:—
“A clever girl, possibly; but I tell you I won’t put these shoes on again, and that I won’t, for the sake of my health, in the first place, and for the sake of cleanliness, in the next. I don’t know anything more irritating than shoes that squelch, and go ghi, ghi, ghi, the whole time. I prefer to go barefoot.”
“You are right,” said her father, in a sweet tone which contrasted with the young girl’s rudeness, “but then, you will not be allowed to enter churches, for poor people must have shoes to do that. One cannot go barefoot to the good God,” he added bitterly.
Then, returning to the subject which absorbed him:—
“So you are sure that he will come?”
“He is following on my heels,” said she.
The man started up. A sort of illumination appeared on his countenance.
“Wife!” he exclaimed, “you hear. Here is the philanthropist. Extinguish the fire.”
The stupefied mother did not stir.
The father, with the agility of an acrobat, seized a broken-nosed jug which stood on the chimney, and flung the water on the brands.
Then, addressing his eldest daughter:—
“Here you! Pull the straw off that chair!”
His daughter did not understand.
He seized the chair, and with one kick he rendered it seatless. His leg passed through it.
As he withdrew his leg, he asked his daughter:—
“Is it cold?”
“Very cold. It is snowing.”
The father turned towards the younger girl who sat on the bed near the window, and shouted to her in a thundering voice:—
“Quick! get off that bed, you lazy thing! will you never do anything? Break a pane of glass!”
The little girl jumped off the bed with a shiver.
“Break a pane!” he repeated.
The child stood still in bewilderment.
“Do you hear me?” repeated her father, “I tell you to break a pane!”
The child, with a sort of terrified obedience, rose on tiptoe, and struck a pane with her fist. The glass broke and fell with a loud clatter.
“Good,” said the father.
He was grave and abrupt. His glance swept rapidly over all the crannies of the garret. One would have said that he was a general making the final preparation at the moment when the battle is on the point of beginning.
The mother, who had not said a word so far, now rose and demanded in a dull, slow, languid voice, whence her words seemed to emerge in a congealed state:—
“What do you mean to do, my dear?”
“Get into bed,” replied the man.
His intonation admitted of no deliberation. The mother obeyed, and threw herself heavily on one of the pallets.
In the meantime, a sob became audible in one corner.
“What’s that?” cried the father.
The younger daughter exhibited her bleeding fist, without quitting the corner in which she was cowering. She had wounded herself while breaking the window; she went off, near her mother’s pallet and wept silently.
It was now the mother’s turn to start up and exclaim:—
“Just see there! What follies you commit! She has cut herself breaking that pane for you!”
“So much the better!” said the man. “I foresaw that.”
“What? So much the better?” retorted his wife.
“Peace!” replied the father, “I suppress the liberty of the press.”
Then tearing the woman’s chemise which he was wearing, he made a strip of cloth with which he hastily swathed the little girl’s bleeding wrist.
That done, his eye fell with a satisfied expression on his torn chemise.
“And the chemise too,” said he, “this has a good appearance.”
An icy breeze whistled through the window and entered the room. The outer mist penetrated thither and diffused itself like a whitish sheet of wadding vaguely spread by invisible fingers. Through the broken pane the snow could be seen falling. The snow promised by the Candlemas sun of the preceding day had actually come.
The father cast a glance about him as though to make sure that he had forgotten nothing. He seized an old shovel and spread ashes over the wet brands in such a manner as to entirely conceal them.
Then drawing himself up and leaning against the chimney-piece:—
“Now,” said he, “we can receive the philanthropist.”
The big girl approached and laid her hand in her father’s.
“Feel how cold I am,” said she.
“Bah!” replied the father, “I am much colder than that.”
The mother exclaimed impetuously:—
“You always have something better than any one else, so you do! even bad things.”
“Down with you!” said the man.
The mother, being eyed after a certain fashion, held her tongue.
Silence reigned for a moment in the hovel. The elder girl was removing the mud from the bottom of her mantle, with a careless air; her younger sister continued to sob; the mother had taken the latter’s head between her hands, and was covering it with kisses, whispering to her the while:—
“My treasure, I entreat you, it is nothing of consequence, don’t cry, you will anger your father.”
“No!” exclaimed the father, “quite the contrary! sob! sob! that’s right.”
Then turning to the elder:—
“There now! He is not coming! What if he were not to come! I shall have extinguished my fire, wrecked my chair, torn my shirt, and broken my pane all for nothing.”
“And wounded the child!” murmured the mother.
“Do you know,” went on the father, “that it’s beastly cold in this devil’s garret! What if that man should not come! Oh! See there, you! He makes us wait! He says to himself: ‘Well! they will wait for me! That’s what they’re there for.’ Oh! how I hate them, and with what joy, jubilation, enthusiasm, and satisfaction I could strangle all those rich folks! all those rich folks! These men who pretend to be charitable, who put on airs, who go to mass, who make presents to the priesthood, preachy, preachy, in their skullcaps, and who think themselves above us, and who come for the purpose of humiliating us, and to bring us ‘clothes,’ as they say! old duds that are not worth four sous! And bread! That’s not what I want, pack of rascals that they are, it’s money! Ah! money! Never! Because they say that we would go off and drink it up, and that we are drunkards and idlers! And they! What are they, then, and what have they been in their time! Thieves! They never could have become rich otherwise! Oh! Society ought to be grasped by the four corners of the cloth and tossed into the air, all of it! It would all be smashed, very likely, but at least, no one would have anything, and there would be that much gained! But what is that blockhead of a benevolent gentleman doing? Will he come? Perhaps the animal has forgotten the address! I’ll bet that that old beast —”
At that moment there came a light tap at the door, the man rushed to it and opened it, exclaiming, amid profound bows and smiles of adoration:—
“Enter, sir! Deign to enter, most respected benefactor, and your charming young lady, also.”
A man of ripe age and a young girl made their appearance on the threshold of the attic.
Marius had not quitted his post. His feelings for the moment surpassed the powers of the human tongue.
It was She!
Whoever has loved knows all the radiant meanings contained in those three letters of that word: She.
It was certainly she. Marius could hardly distinguish her through the luminous vapor which had suddenly spread before his eyes. It was that sweet, absent being, that star which had beamed upon him for six months; it was those eyes, that brow, that mouth, that lovely vanished face which had created night by its departure. The vision had been eclipsed, now it reappeared.
It reappeared in that gloom, in that garret, in that misshapen attic, in all that horror.
Marius shuddered in dismay. What! It was she! The palpitations of his heart troubled his sight. He felt that he was on the brink of bursting into tears! What! He beheld her again at last, after having sought her so long! It seemed to him that he had lost his soul, and that he had just found it again.
She was the same as ever, only a little pale; her delicate face was framed in a bonnet of violet velvet, her figure was concealed beneath a pelisse of black satin. Beneath her long dress, a glimpse could be caught of her tiny foot shod in a silken boot.
She was still accompanied by M. Leblanc.
She had taken a few steps into the room, and had deposited a tolerably bulky parcel on the table.
The eldest Jondrette girl had retired behind the door, and was staring with sombre eyes at that velvet bonnet, that silk mantle, and that charming, happy face.
The hovel was so dark, that people coming from without felt on entering it the effect produced on entering a cellar. The two new-comers advanced, therefore, with a certain hesitation, being hardly able to distinguish the vague forms surrounding them, while they could be clearly seen and scrutinized by the eyes of the inhabitants of the garret, who were accustomed to this twilight.
M. Leblanc approached, with his sad but kindly look, and said to Jondrette the father:—
“Monsieur, in this package you will find some new clothes and some woollen stockings and blankets.”
“Our angelic benefactor overwhelms us,” said Jondrette, bowing to the very earth.
Then, bending down to the ear of his eldest daughter, while the two visitors were engaged in examining this lamentable interior, he added in a low and rapid voice:—
“Hey? What did I say? Duds! No money! They are all alike! By the way, how was the letter to that old blockhead signed?”
“Fabantou,” replied the girl.
“The dramatic artist, good!”
It was lucky for Jondrette, that this had occurred to him, for at the very moment, M. Leblanc turned to him, and said to him with the air of a person who is seeking to recall a name:—
“I see that you are greatly to be pitied, Monsieur —”
“Fabantou,” replied Jondrette quickly.
“Monsieur Fabantou, yes, that is it. I remember.”
“Dramatic artist, sir, and one who has had some success.”
Here Jondrette evidently judged the moment propitious for capturing the “philanthropist.” He exclaimed with an accent which smacked at the same time of the vainglory of the mountebank at fairs, and the humility of the mendicant on the highway:—
“A pupil of Talma! Sir! I am a pupil of Talma! Fortune formerly smiled on me — Alas! Now it is misfortune’s turn. You see, my benefactor, no bread, no fire. My poor babes have no fire! My only chair has no seat! A broken pane! And in such weather! My spouse in bed! Ill!”
“Poor woman!” said M. Leblanc.
“My child wounded!” added Jondrette.
The child, diverted by the arrival of the strangers, had fallen to contemplating “the young lady,” and had ceased to sob.
“Cry! bawl!” said Jondrette to her in a low voice.
At the same time he pinched her sore hand. All this was done with the talent of a juggler.
The little girl gave vent to loud shrieks.
The adorable young girl, whom Marius, in his heart, called “his Ursule,” approached her hastily.
“Poor, dear child!” said she.
“You see, my beautiful young lady,” pursued Jondrette “her bleeding wrist! It came through an accident while working at a machine to earn six sous a day. It may be necessary to cut off her arm.”
“Really?” said the old gentleman, in alarm.
The little girl, taking this seriously, fell to sobbing more violently than ever.
“Alas! yes, my benefactor!” replied the father.
For several minutes, Jondrette had been scrutinizing “the benefactor” in a singular fashion. As he spoke, he seemed to be examining the other attentively, as though seeking to summon up his recollections. All at once, profiting by a moment when the new-comers were questioning the child with interest as to her injured hand, he passed near his wife, who lay in her bed with a stupid and dejected air, and said to her in a rapid but very low tone:—
“Take a look at that man!”
Then, turning to M. Leblanc, and continuing his lamentations:—
“You see, sir! All the clothing that I have is my wife’s chemise! And all torn at that! In the depths of winter! I can’t go out for lack of a coat. If I had a coat of any sort, I would go and see Mademoiselle Mars, who knows me and is very fond of me. Does she not still reside in the Rue de la Tour-des-Dames? Do you know, sir? We played together in the provinces. I shared her laurels. Celimene would come to my succor, sir! Elmire would bestow alms on Belisaire! But no, nothing! And not a sou in the house! My wife ill, and not a sou! My daughter dangerously injured, not a sou! My wife suffers from fits of suffocation. It comes from her age, and besides, her nervous system is affected. She ought to have assistance, and my daughter also! But the doctor! But the apothecary! How am I to pay them? I would kneel to a penny, sir! Such is the condition to which the arts are reduced. And do you know, my charming young lady, and you, my generous protector, do you know, you who breathe forth virtue and goodness, and who perfume that church where my daughter sees you every day when she says her prayers? — For I have brought up my children religiously, sir. I did not want them to take to the theatre. Ah! the hussies! If I catch them tripping! I do not jest, that I don’t! I read them lessons on honor, on morality, on virtue! Ask them! They have got to walk straight. They are none of your unhappy wretches who begin by having no family, and end by espousing the public. One is Mamselle Nobody, and one becomes Madame Everybody. Deuce take it! None of that in the Fabantou family! I mean to bring them up virtuously, and they shall be honest, and nice, and believe in God, by the sacred name! Well, sir, my worthy sir, do you know what is going to happen tomorrow? To-morrow is the fourth day of February, the fatal day, the last day of grace allowed me by my landlord; if by this evening I have not paid my rent, tomorrow my oldest daughter, my spouse with her fever, my child with her wound — we shall all four be turned out of here and thrown into the street, on the boulevard, without shelter, in the rain, in the snow. There, sir. I owe for four quarters — a whole year! that is to say, sixty francs.”
Jondrette lied. Four quarters would have amounted to only forty francs, and he could not owe four, because six months had not elapsed since Marius had paid for two.
M. Leblanc drew five francs from his pocket and threw them on the table.
Jondrette found time to mutter in the ear of his eldest daughter:—
“The scoundrel! What does he think I can do with his five francs? That won’t pay me for my chair and pane of glass! That’s what comes of incurring expenses!”
In the meanwhile, M. Leblanc had removed the large brown great-coat which he wore over his blue coat, and had thrown it over the back of the chair.
“Monsieur Fabantou,” he said, “these five francs are all that I have about me, but I shall now take my daughter home, and I will return this evening — it is this evening that you must pay, is it not?”
Jondrette’s face lighted up with a strange expression. He replied vivaciously:—
“Yes, respected sir. At eight o’clock, I must be at my landlord’s.”
“I will be here at six, and I will fetch you the sixty francs.”
“My benefactor!” exclaimed Jondrette, overwhelmed. And he added, in a low tone: “Take a good look at him, wife!”
M. Leblanc had taken the arm of the young girl, once more, and had turned towards the door.
“Farewell until this evening, my friends!” said he.
“Six o’clock?” said Jondrette.
“Six o’clock precisely.”
At that moment, the overcoat lying on the chair caught the eye of the elder Jondrette girl.
“You are forgetting your coat, sir,” said she.
Jondrette darted an annihilating look at his daughter, accompanied by a formidable shrug of the shoulders.
M. Leblanc turned back and said, with a smile:—
“I have not forgotten it, I am leaving it.”
“O my protector!” said Jondrette, “my august benefactor, I melt into tears! Permit me to accompany you to your carriage.”
“If you come out,” answered M. Leblanc, “put on this coat. It really is very cold.”
Jondrette did not need to be told twice. He hastily donned the brown great-coat. And all three went out, Jondrette preceding the two strangers.
Marius had lost nothing of this entire scene, and yet, in reality, had seen nothing. His eyes had remained fixed on the young girl, his heart had, so to speak, seized her and wholly enveloped her from the moment of her very first step in that garret. During her entire stay there, he had lived that life of ecstasy which suspends material perceptions and precipitates the whole soul on a single point. He contemplated, not that girl, but that light which wore a satin pelisse and a velvet bonnet. The star Sirius might have entered the room, and he would not have been any more dazzled.
While the young girl was engaged in opening the package, unfolding the clothing and the blankets, questioning the sick mother kindly, and the little injured girl tenderly, he watched her every movement, he sought to catch her words. He knew her eyes, her brow, her beauty, her form, her walk, he did not know the sound of her voice. He had once fancied that he had caught a few words at the Luxembourg, but he was not absolutely sure of the fact. He would have given ten years of his life to hear it, in order that he might bear away in his soul a little of that music. But everything was drowned in the lamentable exclamations and trumpet bursts of Jondrette. This added a touch of genuine wrath to Marius’ ecstasy. He devoured her with his eyes. He could not believe that it really was that divine creature whom he saw in the midst of those vile creatures in that monstrous lair. It seemed to him that he beheld a humming-bird in the midst of toads.
When she took her departure, he had but one thought, to follow her, to cling to her trace, not to quit her until he learned where she lived, not to lose her again, at least, after having so miraculously re-discovered her. He leaped down from the commode and seized his hat. As he laid his hand on the lock of the door, and was on the point of opening it, a sudden reflection caused him to pause. The corridor was long, the staircase steep, Jondrette was talkative, M. Leblanc had, no doubt, not yet regained his carriage; if, on turning round in the corridor, or on the staircase, he were to catch sight of him, Marius, in that house, he would, evidently, take the alarm, and find means to escape from him again, and this time it would be final. What was he to do? Should he wait a little? But while he was waiting, the carriage might drive off. Marius was perplexed. At last he accepted the risk and quitted his room.
There was no one in the corridor. He hastened to the stairs. There was no one on the staircase. He descended in all haste, and reached the boulevard in time to see a fiacre turning the corner of the Rue du Petit–Banquier, on its way back to Paris.
Marius rushed headlong in that direction. On arriving at the angle of the boulevard, he caught sight of the fiacre again, rapidly descending the Rue Mouffetard; the carriage was already a long way off, and there was no means of overtaking it; what! run after it? Impossible; and besides, the people in the carriage would assuredly notice an individual running at full speed in pursuit of a fiacre, and the father would recognize him. At that moment, wonderful and unprecedented good luck, Marius perceived an empty cab passing along the boulevard. There was but one thing to be done, to jump into this cab and follow the fiacre. That was sure, efficacious, and free from danger.
Marius made the driver a sign to halt, and called to him:—
“By the hour?”
Marius wore no cravat, he had on his working-coat, which was destitute of buttons, his shirt was torn along one of the plaits on the bosom.
The driver halted, winked, and held out his left hand to Marius, rubbing his forefinger gently with his thumb.
“What is it?” said Marius.
“Pay in advance,” said the coachman.
Marius recollected that he had but sixteen sous about him.
“How much?” he demanded.
“I will pay on my return.”
The driver’s only reply was to whistle the air of La Palisse and to whip up his horse.
Marius stared at the retreating cabriolet with a bewildered air. For the lack of four and twenty sous, he was losing his joy, his happiness, his love! He had seen, and he was becoming blind again. He reflected bitterly, and it must be confessed, with profound regret, on the five francs which he had bestowed, that very morning, on that miserable girl. If he had had those five francs, he would have been saved, he would have been born again, he would have emerged from the limbo and darkness, he would have made his escape from isolation and spleen, from his widowed state; he might have re-knotted the black thread of his destiny to that beautiful golden thread, which had just floated before his eyes and had broken at the same instant, once more! He returned to his hovel in despair.
He might have told himself that M. Leblanc had promised to return in the evening, and that all he had to do was to set about the matter more skilfully, so that he might follow him on that occasion; but, in his contemplation, it is doubtful whether he had heard this.
As he was on the point of mounting the staircase, he perceived, on the other side of the boulevard, near the deserted wall skirting the Rue De la Barriere-des-Gobelins, Jondrette, wrapped in the “philanthropist’s” great-coat, engaged in conversation with one of those men of disquieting aspect who have been dubbed by common consent, prowlers of the barriers; people of equivocal face, of suspicious monologues, who present the air of having evil minds, and who generally sleep in the daytime, which suggests the supposition that they work by night.
These two men, standing there motionless and in conversation, in the snow which was falling in whirlwinds, formed a group that a policeman would surely have observed, but which Marius hardly noticed.
Still, in spite of his mournful preoccupation, he could not refrain from saying to himself that this prowler of the barriers with whom Jondrette was talking resembled a certain Panchaud, alias Printanier, alias Bigrenaille, whom Courfeyrac had once pointed out to him as a very dangerous nocturnal roamer. This man’s name the reader has learned in the preceding book. This Panchaud, alias Printanier, alias Bigrenaille, figured later on in many criminal trials, and became a notorious rascal. He was at that time only a famous rascal. To-day he exists in the state of tradition among ruffians and assassins. He was at the head of a school towards the end of the last reign. And in the evening, at nightfall, at the hour when groups form and talk in whispers, he was discussed at La Force in the Fosse-aux-Lions. One might even, in that prison, precisely at the spot where the sewer which served the unprecedented escape, in broad daylight, of thirty prisoners, in 1843, passes under the culvert, read his name, PANCHAUD, audaciously carved by his own hand on the wall of the sewer, during one of his attempts at flight. In 1832, the police already had their eye on him, but he had not as yet made a serious beginning.
Marius ascended the stairs of the hovel with slow steps; at the moment when he was about to re-enter his cell, he caught sight of the elder Jondrette girl following him through the corridor. The very sight of this girl was odious to him; it was she who had his five francs, it was too late to demand them back, the cab was no longer there, the fiacre was far away. Moreover, she would not have given them back. As for questioning her about the residence of the persons who had just been there, that was useless; it was evident that she did not know, since the letter signed Fabantou had been addressed “to the benevolent gentleman of the church of Saint–Jacquesdu-Haut–Pas.”
Marius entered his room and pushed the door to after him.
It did not close; he turned round and beheld a hand which held the door half open.
“What is it?” he asked, “who is there?”
It was the Jondrette girl.
“Is it you?” resumed Marius almost harshly, “still you! What do you want with me?”
She appeared to be thoughtful and did not look at him. She no longer had the air of assurance which had characterized her that morning. She did not enter, but held back in the darkness of the corridor, where Marius could see her through the half-open door.
“Come now, will you answer?” cried Marius. “What do you want with me?”
She raised her dull eyes, in which a sort of gleam seemed to flicker vaguely, and said:—
“Monsieur Marius, you look sad. What is the matter with you?”
“With me!” said Marius.
“There is nothing the matter with me.”
“Yes, there is!”
“I tell you there is!”
“Let me alone!”
Marius gave the door another push, but she retained her hold on it.
“Stop,” said she, “you are in the wrong. Although you are not rich, you were kind this morning. Be so again now. You gave me something to eat, now tell me what ails you. You are grieved, that is plain. I do not want you to be grieved. What can be done for it? Can I be of any service? Employ me. I do not ask for your secrets, you need not tell them to me, but I may be of use, nevertheless. I may be able to help you, since I help my father. When it is necessary to carry letters, to go to houses, to inquire from door to door, to find out an address, to follow any one, I am of service. Well, you may assuredly tell me what is the matter with you, and I will go and speak to the persons; sometimes it is enough if some one speaks to the persons, that suffices to let them understand matters, and everything comes right. Make use of me.”
An idea flashed across Marius’ mind. What branch does one disdain when one feels that one is falling?
He drew near to the Jondrette girl.
“Listen —” he said to her.
She interrupted him with a gleam of joy in her eyes.
“Oh yes, do call me thou! I like that better.”
“Well,” he resumed, “thou hast brought hither that old gentleman and his daughter!”
“Dost thou know their address?”
“Find it for me.”
The Jondrette’s dull eyes had grown joyous, and they now became gloomy.
“Is that what you want?” she demanded.
“Do you know them?”
“That is to say,” she resumed quickly, “you do not know her, but you wish to know her.”
This them which had turned into her had something indescribably significant and bitter about it.
“Well, can you do it?” said Marius.
“You shall have the beautiful lady’s address.”
There was still a shade in the words “the beautiful lady” which troubled Marius. He resumed:—
“Never mind, after all, the address of the father and daughter. Their address, indeed!”
She gazed fixedly at him.
“What will you give me?”
“Anything you like.”
“Anything I like?”
“You shall have the address.”
She dropped her head; then, with a brusque movement, she pulled to the door, which closed behind her.
Marius found himself alone.
He dropped into a chair, with his head and both elbows on his bed, absorbed in thoughts which he could not grasp, and as though a prey to vertigo. All that had taken place since the morning, the appearance of the angel, her disappearance, what that creature had just said to him, a gleam of hope floating in an immense despair — this was what filled his brain confusedly.
All at once he was violently aroused from his revery.
He heard the shrill, hard voice of Jondrette utter these words, which were fraught with a strange interest for him:—
“I tell you that I am sure of it, and that I recognized him.”
Of whom was Jondrette speaking? Whom had he recognized? M. Leblanc? The father of “his Ursule”? What! Did Jondrette know him? Was Marius about to obtain in this abrupt and unexpected fashion all the information without which his life was so dark to him? Was he about to learn at last who it was that he loved, who that young girl was? Who her father was? Was the dense shadow which enwrapped them on the point of being dispelled? Was the veil about to be rent? Ah! Heavens!
He bounded rather than climbed upon his commode, and resumed his post near the little peep-hole in the partition wall.
Again he beheld the interior of Jondrette’s hovel.
Nothing in the aspect of the family was altered, except that the wife and daughters had levied on the package and put on woollen stockings and jackets. Two new blankets were thrown across the two beds.
Jondrette had evidently just returned. He still had the breathlessness of out of doors. His daughters were seated on the floor near the fireplace, the elder engaged in dressing the younger’s wounded hand. His wife had sunk back on the bed near the fireplace, with a face indicative of astonishment. Jondrette was pacing up and down the garret with long strides. His eyes were extraordinary.
The woman, who seemed timid and overwhelmed with stupor in the presence of her husband, turned to say:—
“What, really? You are sure?”
“Sure! Eight years have passed! But I recognize him! Ah! I recognize him. I knew him at once! What! Didn’t it force itself on you?”
“But I told you: ‘Pay attention!’ Why, it is his figure, it is his face, only older — there are people who do not grow old, I don’t know how they manage it — it is the very sound of his voice. He is better dressed, that is all! Ah! you mysterious old devil, I’ve got you, that I have!”
He paused, and said to his daughters:—
“Get out of here, you! — It’s queer that it didn’t strike you!”
They arose to obey.
The mother stammered:—
“With her injured hand.”
“The air will do it good,” said Jondrette. “Be off.”
It was plain that this man was of the sort to whom no one offers to reply. The two girls departed.
At the moment when they were about to pass through the door, the father detained the elder by the arm, and said to her with a peculiar accent:—
“You will be here at five o’clock precisely. Both of you. I shall need you.”
Marius redoubled his attention.
On being left alone with his wife, Jondrette began to pace the room again, and made the tour of it two or three times in silence. Then he spent several minutes in tucking the lower part of the woman’s chemise which he wore into his trousers.
All at once, he turned to the female Jondrette, folded his arms and exclaimed:—
“And would you like to have me tell you something? The young lady —”
“Well, what?” retorted his wife, “the young lady?”
Marius could not doubt that it was really she of whom they were speaking. He listened with ardent anxiety. His whole life was in his ears.
But Jondrette had bent over and spoke to his wife in a whisper. Then he straightened himself up and concluded aloud:—
“It is she!”
“That one?” said his wife.
“That very one,” said the husband.
No expression can reproduce the significance of the mother’s words. Surprise, rage, hate, wrath, were mingled and combined in one monstrous intonation. The pronunciation of a few words, the name, no doubt, which her husband had whispered in her ear, had sufficed to rouse this huge, somnolent woman, and from being repulsive she became terrible.
“It is not possible!” she cried. “When I think that my daughters are going barefoot, and have not a gown to their backs! What! A satin pelisse, a velvet bonnet, boots, and everything; more than two hundred francs’ worth of clothes! so that one would think she was a lady! No, you are mistaken! Why, in the first place, the other was hideous, and this one is not so bad-looking! She really is not bad-looking! It can’t be she!”
“I tell you that it is she. You will see.”
At this absolute assertion, the Jondrette woman raised her large, red, blonde face and stared at the ceiling with a horrible expression. At that moment, she seemed to Marius even more to be feared than her husband. She was a sow with the look of a tigress.
“What!” she resumed, “that horrible, beautiful young lady, who gazed at my daughters with an air of pity — she is that beggar brat! Oh! I should like to kick her stomach in for her!”
She sprang off of the bed, and remained standing for a moment, her hair in disorder, her nostrils dilating, her mouth half open, her fists clenched and drawn back. Then she fell back on the bed once more. The man paced to and fro and paid no attention to his female.
After a silence lasting several minutes, he approached the female Jondrette, and halted in front of her, with folded arms, as he had done a moment before:—
“And shall I tell you another thing?”
“What is it?” she asked.
He answered in a low, curt voice:—
“My fortune is made.”
The woman stared at him with the look that signifies: “Is the person who is addressing me on the point of going mad?”
He went on:—
“Thunder! It was not so very long ago that I was a parishioner of the parish of die-of-hunger-if-you-have-a-fire,-die-of-cold-if-you-have-bread! I have had enough of misery! my share and other people’s share! I am not joking any longer, I don’t find it comic any more, I’ve had enough of puns, good God! no more farces, Eternal Father! I want to eat till I am full, I want to drink my fill! to gormandize! to sleep! to do nothing! I want to have my turn, so I do, come now! before I die! I want to be a bit of a millionnaire!”
He took a turn round the hovel, and added:—
“Like other people.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked the woman.
He shook his head, winked, screwed up one eye, and raised his voice like a medical professor who is about to make a demonstration:—
“What do I mean by that? Listen!”
“Hush!” muttered the woman, “not so loud! These are matters which must not be overheard.”
“Bah! Who’s here? Our neighbor? I saw him go out a little while ago. Besides, he doesn’t listen, the big booby. And I tell you that I saw him go out.”
Nevertheless, by a sort of instinct, Jondrette lowered his voice, although not sufficiently to prevent Marius hearing his words. One favorable circumstance, which enabled Marius not to lose a word of this conversation was the falling snow which deadened the sound of vehicles on the boulevard.
This is what Marius heard:—
“Listen carefully. The Croesus is caught, or as good as caught! That’s all settled already. Everything is arranged. I have seen some people. He will come here this evening at six o’clock. To bring sixty francs, the rascal! Did you notice how I played that game on him, my sixty francs, my landlord, my fourth of February? I don’t even owe for one quarter! Isn’t he a fool! So he will come at six o’clock! That’s the hour when our neighbor goes to his dinner. Mother Bougon is off washing dishes in the city. There’s not a soul in the house. The neighbor never comes home until eleven o’clock. The children shall stand on watch. You shall help us. He will give in.”
“And what if he does not give in?” demanded his wife.
Jondrette made a sinister gesture, and said:—
“We’ll fix him.”
And he burst out laughing.
This was the first time Marius had seen him laugh. The laugh was cold and sweet, and provoked a shudder.
Jondrette opened a cupboard near the fireplace, and drew from it an old cap, which he placed on his head, after brushing it with his sleeve.
“Now,” said he, “I’m going out. I have some more people that I must see. Good ones. You’ll see how well the whole thing will work. I shall be away as short a time as possible, it’s a fine stroke of business, do you look after the house.”
And with both fists thrust into the pockets of his trousers, he stood for a moment in thought, then exclaimed:—
“Do you know, it’s mighty lucky, by the way, that he didn’t recognize me! If he had recognized me on his side, he would not have come back again. He would have slipped through our fingers! It was my beard that saved us! my romantic beard! my pretty little romantic beard!”
And again he broke into a laugh.
He stepped to the window. The snow was still falling, and streaking the gray of the sky.
“What beastly weather!” said he.
Then lapping his overcoat across his breast:—
“This rind is too large for me. Never mind,” he added, “he did a devilish good thing in leaving it for me, the old scoundrel! If it hadn’t been for that, I couldn’t have gone out, and everything would have gone wrong! What small points things hang on, anyway!”
And pulling his cap down over his eyes, he quitted the room.
He had barely had time to take half a dozen steps from the door, when the door opened again, and his savage but intelligent face made its appearance once more in the opening.
“I came near forgetting,” said he. “You are to have a brazier of charcoal ready.”
And he flung into his wife’s apron the five-franc piece which the “philanthropist” had left with him.
“A brazier of charcoal?” asked his wife.
“How many bushels?”
“Two good ones.”
“That will come to thirty sous. With the rest I will buy something for dinner.”
“The devil, no.”
“Don’t go and spend the hundred-sou piece.”
“Because I shall have to buy something, too.”
“How much shall you need?”
“Whereabouts in the neighborhood is there an ironmonger’s shop?”
“Ah! yes, at the corner of a street; I can see the shop.”
“But tell me how much you will need for what you have to purchase?”
“Fifty sous — three francs.”
“There won’t be much left for dinner.”
“Eating is not the point today. There’s something better to be done.”
“That’s enough, my jewel.”
At this word from his wife, Jondrette closed the door again, and this time, Marius heard his step die away in the corridor of the hovel, and descend the staircase rapidly.
At that moment, one o’clock struck from the church of Saint–Medard.
Marius, dreamer as he was, was, as we have said, firm and energetic by nature. His habits of solitary meditation, while they had developed in him sympathy and compassion, had, perhaps, diminished the faculty for irritation, but had left intact the power of waxing indignant; he had the kindliness of a brahmin, and the severity of a judge; he took pity upon a toad, but he crushed a viper. Now, it was into a hole of vipers that his glance had just been directed, it was a nest of monsters that he had beneath his eyes.
“These wretches must be stamped upon,” said he.
Not one of the enigmas which he had hoped to see solved had been elucidated; on the contrary, all of them had been rendered more dense, if anything; he knew nothing more about the beautiful maiden of the Luxembourg and the man whom he called M. Leblanc, except that Jondrette was acquainted with them. Athwart the mysterious words which had been uttered, the only thing of which he caught a distinct glimpse was the fact that an ambush was in course of preparation, a dark but terrible trap; that both of them were incurring great danger, she probably, her father certainly; that they must be saved; that the hideous plots of the Jondrettes must be thwarted, and the web of these spiders broken.
He scanned the female Jondrette for a moment. She had pulled an old sheet-iron stove from a corner, and she was rummaging among the old heap of iron.
He descended from the commode as softly as possible, taking care not to make the least noise. Amid his terror as to what was in preparation, and in the horror with which the Jondrettes had inspired him, he experienced a sort of joy at the idea that it might be granted to him perhaps to render a service to the one whom he loved.
But how was it to be done? How warn the persons threatened? He did not know their address. They had reappeared for an instant before his eyes, and had then plunged back again into the immense depths of Paris. Should he wait for M. Leblanc at the door that evening at six o’clock, at the moment of his arrival, and warn him of the trap? But Jondrette and his men would see him on the watch, the spot was lonely, they were stronger than he, they would devise means to seize him or to get him away, and the man whom Marius was anxious to save would be lost. One o’clock had just struck, the trap was to be sprung at six. Marius had five hours before him.
There was but one thing to be done.
He put on his decent coat, knotted a silk handkerchief round his neck, took his hat, and went out, without making any more noise than if he had been treading on moss with bare feet.
Moreover, the Jondrette woman continued to rummage among her old iron.
Once outside of the house, he made for the Rue du Petit–Banquier.
He had almost reached the middle of this street, near a very low wall which a man can easily step over at certain points, and which abuts on a waste space, and was walking slowly, in consequence of his preoccupied condition, and the snow deadened the sound of his steps; all at once he heard voices talking very close by. He turned his head, the street was deserted, there was not a soul in it, it was broad daylight, and yet he distinctly heard voices.
It occurred to him to glance over the wall which he was skirting.
There, in fact, sat two men, flat on the snow, with their backs against the wall, talking together in subdued tones.
These two persons were strangers to him; one was a bearded man in a blouse, and the other a long-haired individual in rags. The bearded man had on a fez, the other’s head was bare, and the snow had lodged in his hair.
By thrusting his head over the wall, Marius could hear their remarks.
The hairy one jogged the other man’s elbow and said:—
“— With the assistance of Patron–Minette, it can’t fail.”
“Do you think so?” said the bearded man.
And the long-haired one began again:—
“It’s as good as a warrant for each one, of five hundred balls, and the worst that can happen is five years, six years, ten years at the most!”
The other replied with some hesitation, and shivering beneath his fez:—
“That’s a real thing. You can’t go against such things.”
“I tell you that the affair can’t go wrong,” resumed the long-haired man. “Father What’s-his-name’s team will be already harnessed.”
Then they began to discuss a melodrama that they had seen on the preceding evening at the Gaite Theatre.
Marius went his way.
It seemed to him that the mysterious words of these men, so strangely hidden behind that wall, and crouching in the snow, could not but bear some relation to Jondrette’s abominable projects. That must be the affair.
He directed his course towards the faubourg Saint–Marceau and asked at the first shop he came to where he could find a commissary of police.
He was directed to Rue de Pontoise, No. 14.
Thither Marius betook himself.
As he passed a baker’s shop, he bought a two-penny roll, and ate it, foreseeing that he should not dine.
On the way, he rendered justice to Providence. He reflected that had he not given his five francs to the Jondrette girl in the morning, he would have followed M. Leblanc’s fiacre, and consequently have remained ignorant of everything, and that there would have been no obstacle to the trap of the Jondrettes and that M. Leblanc would have been lost, and his daughter with him, no doubt.
On arriving at No. 14, Rue de Pontoise, he ascended to the first floor and inquired for the commissary of police.
“The commissary of police is not here,” said a clerk; “but there is an inspector who takes his place. Would you like to speak to him? Are you in haste?”
“Yes,” said Marius.
The clerk introduced him into the commissary’s office. There stood a tall man behind a grating, leaning against a stove, and holding up with both hands the tails of a vast topcoat, with three collars. His face was square, with a thin, firmmouth, thick, gray, and very ferocious whiskers, and a look that was enough to turn your pockets inside out. Of that glance it might have been well said, not that it penetrated, but that it searched.
This man’s air was not much less ferocious nor less terrible than Jondrette’s; the dog is, at times, no less terrible to meet than the wolf.
“What do you want?” he said to Marius, without adding “monsieur.”
“Is this Monsieur le Commissaire de Police?”
“He is absent. I am here in his stead.”
“The matter is very private.”
“And great haste is required.”
“Then speak quick.”
This calm, abrupt man was both terrifying and reassuring at one and the same time. He inspired fear and confidence. Marius related the adventure to him: That a person with whom he was not acquainted otherwise than by sight, was to be inveigled into a trap that very evening; that, as he occupied the room adjoining the den, he, Marius Pontmercy, a lawyer, had heard the whole plot through the partition; that the wretch who had planned the trap was a certain Jondrette; that there would be accomplices, probably some prowlers of the barriers, among others a certain Panchaud, alias Printanier, alias Bigrenaille; that Jondrette’s daughters were to lie in wait; that there was no way of warning the threatened man, since he did not even know his name; and that, finally, all this was to be carried out at six o’clock that evening, at the most deserted point of the Boulevard de l’Hopital, in house No. 50–52.
At the sound of this number, the inspector raised his head, and said coldly:—
“So it is in the room at the end of the corridor?”
“Precisely,” answered Marius, and he added: “Are you acquainted with that house?”
The inspector remained silent for a moment, then replied, as he warmed the heel of his boot at the door of the stove:—
He went on, muttering between his teeth, and not addressing Marius so much as his cravat:—
“Patron–Minette must have had a hand in this.”
This word struck Marius.
“Patron–Minette,” said he, “I did hear that word pronounced, in fact.”
And he repeated to the inspector the dialogue between the long-haired man and the bearded man in the snow behind the wall of the Rue du Petit–Banquier.
The inspector muttered:—
“The long-haired man must be Brujon, and the bearded one Demi–Liard, alias Deux–Milliards.”
He had dropped his eyelids again, and became absorbed in thought.
“As for Father What’s-his-name, I think I recognize him. Here, I’ve burned my coat. They always have too much fire in these cursed stoves. Number 50–52. Former property of Gorbeau.”
Then he glanced at Marius.
“You saw only that bearded and that long-haired man?”
“You didn’t see a little imp of a dandy prowling about the premises?”
“Nor a big lump of matter, resembling an elephant in the Jardin des Plantes?”
“Nor a scamp with the air of an old red tail?”
“As for the fourth, no one sees him, not even his adjutants, clerks, and employees. It is not surprising that you did not see him.”
“No. Who are all those persons?” asked Marius.
The inspector answered:—
“Besides, this is not the time for them.”
He relapsed into silence, then resumed:—
“50–52. I know that barrack. Impossible to conceal ourselves inside it without the artists seeing us, and then they will get off simply by countermanding the vaudeville. They are so modest! An audience embarrasses them. None of that, none of that. I want to hear them sing and make them dance.”
This monologue concluded, he turned to Marius, and demanded, gazing at him intently the while:—
“Are you afraid?”
“Of what?” said Marius.
“Of these men?”
“No more than yourself!” retorted Marius rudely, who had begun to notice that this police agent had not yet said “monsieur” to him.
The inspector stared still more intently at Marius, and continued with sententious solemnity:—
“There, you speak like a brave man, and like an honest man. Courage does not fear crime, and honesty does not fear authority.”
Marius interrupted him:—
“That is well, but what do you intend to do?”
The inspector contented himself with the remark:—
“The lodgers have pass-keys with which to get in at night. You must have one.”
“Yes,” said Marius.
“Have you it about you?”
“Give it to me,” said the inspector.
Marius took his key from his waistcoat pocket, handed it to the inspector and added:—
“If you will take my advice, you will come in force.”
The inspector cast on Marius such a glance as Voltaire might have bestowed on a provincial academician who had suggested a rhyme to him; with one movement he plunged his hands, which were enormous, into the two immense pockets of his top-coat, and pulled out two small steel pistols, of the sort called “knock-me-downs.” Then he presented them to Marius, saying rapidly, in a curt tone:—
“Take these. Go home. Hide in your chamber, so that you may be supposed to have gone out. They are loaded. Each one carries two balls. You will keep watch; there is a hole in the wall, as you have informed me. These men will come. Leave them to their own devices for a time. When you think matters have reached a crisis, and that it is time to put a stop to them, fire a shot. Not too soon. The rest concerns me. A shot into the ceiling, the air, no matter where. Above all things, not too soon. Wait until they begin to put their project into execution; you are a lawyer; you know the proper point.” Marius took the pistols and put them in the side pocket of his coat.
“That makes a lump that can be seen,” said the inspector. “Put them in your trousers pocket.”
Marius hid the pistols in his trousers pockets.
“Now,” pursued the inspector, “there is not a minute more to be lost by any one. What time is it? Half-past two. Seven o’clock is the hour?”
“Six o’clock,” answered Marius.
“I have plenty of time,” said the inspector, “but no more than enough. Don’t forget anything that I have said to you. Bang. A pistol shot.”
“Rest easy,” said Marius.
And as Marius laid his hand on the handle of the door on his way out, the inspector called to him:—
“By the way, if you have occasion for my services between now and then, come or send here. You will ask for Inspector Javert.”
A few moments later, about three o’clock, Courfeyrac chanced to be passing along the Rue Mouffetard in company with Bossuet. The snow had redoubled in violence, and filled the air. Bossuet was just saying to Courfeyrac:—
“One would say, to see all these snow-flakes fall, that there was a plague of white butterflies in heaven.” All at once, Bossuet caught sight of Marius coming up the street towards the barrier with a peculiar air.
“Hold!” said Bossuet. “There’s Marius.”
“I saw him,” said Courfeyrac. “Don’t let’s speak to him.”
“He is busy.”
“Don’t you see his air?”
“He has the air of a man who is following some one.”
“That’s true,” said Bossuet.
“Just see the eyes he is making!” said Courfeyrac.
“But who the deuce is he following?”
“Some fine, flowery bonneted wench! He’s in love.”
“But,” observed Bossuet, “I don’t see any wench nor any flowery bonnet in the street. There’s not a woman round.”
Courfeyrac took a survey, and exclaimed:—
“He’s following a man!”
A man, in fact, wearing a gray cap, and whose gray beard could be distinguished, although they only saw his back, was walking along about twenty paces in advance of Marius.
This man was dressed in a great-coat which was perfectly new and too large for him, and in a frightful pair of trousers all hanging in rags and black with mud.
Bossuet burst out laughing.
“Who is that man?”
“He?” retorted Courfeyrac, “he’s a poet. Poets are very fond of wearing the trousers of dealers in rabbit skins and the overcoats of peers of France.”
“Let’s see where Marius will go,” said Bossuet; “let’s see where the man is going, let’s follow them, hey?”
“Bossuet!” exclaimed Courfeyrac, “eagle of Meaux! You are a prodigious brute. Follow a man who is following another man, indeed!”
They retraced their steps.
Marius had, in fact, seen Jondrette passing along the Rue Mouffetard, and was spying on his proceedings.
Jondrette walked straight ahead, without a suspicion that he was already held by a glance.
He quitted the Rue Mouffetard, and Marius saw him enter one of the most terrible hovels in the Rue Gracieuse; he remained there about a quarter of an hour, then returned to the Rue Mouffetard. He halted at an ironmonger’s shop, which then stood at the corner of the Rue Pierre–Lombard, and a few minutes later Marius saw him emerge from the shop, holding in his hand a huge cold chisel with a white wood handle, which he concealed beneath his great-coat. At the top of the Rue Petit–Gentilly he turned to the left and proceeded rapidly to the Rue du Petit–Banquier. The day was declining; the snow, which had ceased for a moment, had just begun again. Marius posted himself on the watch at the very corner of the Rue du Petit–Banquier, which was deserted, as usual, and did not follow Jondrette into it. It was lucky that he did so, for, on arriving in the vicinity of the wall where Marius had heard the long-haired man and the bearded man conversing, Jondrette turned round, made sure that no one was following him, did not see him, then sprang across the wall and disappeared.
The waste land bordered by this wall communicated with the back yard of an ex-livery stable-keeper of bad repute, who had failed and who still kept a few old single-seated berlins under his sheds.
Marius thought that it would be wise to profit by Jondrette’s absence to return home; moreover, it was growing late; every evening, Ma’am Bougon when she set out for her dish-washing in town, had a habit of locking the door, which was always closed at dusk. Marius had given his key to the inspector of police; it was important, therefore, that he should make haste.
Evening had arrived, night had almost closed in; on the horizon and in the immensity of space, there remained but one spot illuminated by the sun, and that was the moon.
It was rising in a ruddy glow behind the low dome of Salpetriere.
Marius returned to No. 50–52 with great strides. The door was still open when he arrived. He mounted the stairs on tip-toe and glided along the wall of the corridor to his chamber. This corridor, as the reader will remember, was bordered on both sides by attics, all of which were, for the moment, empty and to let. Ma’am Bougon was in the habit of leaving all the doors open. As he passed one of these attics, Marius thought he perceived in the uninhabited cell the motionless heads of four men, vaguely lighted up by a remnant of daylight, falling through a dormer window,
Marius made no attempt to see, not wishing to be seen himself. He succeeded in reaching his chamber without being seen and without making any noise. It was high time. A moment later he heard Ma’am Bougon take her departure, locking the door of the house behind her.
Marius seated himself on his bed. It might have been half-past five o’clock. Only half an hour separated him from what was about to happen. He heard the beating of his arteries as one hears the ticking of a watch in the dark. He thought of the double march which was going on at that moment in the dark — crime advancing on one side, justice coming up on the other. He was not afraid, but he could not think without a shudder of what was about to take place. As is the case with all those who are suddenly assailed by an unforeseen adventure, the entire day produced upon him the effect of a dream, and in order to persuade himself that he was not the prey of a nightmare, he had to feel the cold barrels of the steel pistols in his trousers pockets.
It was no longer snowing; the moon disengaged itself more and more clearly from the mist, and its light, mingled with the white reflection of the snow which had fallen, communicated to the chamber a sort of twilight aspect.
There was a light in the Jondrette den. Marius saw the hole in the wall shining with a reddish glow which seemed bloody to him.
It was true that the light could not be produced by a candle. However, there was not a sound in the Jondrette quarters, not a soul was moving there, not a soul speaking, not a breath; the silence was glacial and profound, and had it not been for that light, he might have thought himself next door to a sepulchre.
Marius softly removed his boots and pushed them under his bed.
Several minutes elapsed. Marius heard the lower door turn on its hinges; a heavy step mounted the staircase, and hastened along the corridor; the latch of the hovel was noisily lifted; it was Jondrette returning.
Instantly, several voices arose. The whole family was in the garret. Only, it had been silent in the master’s absence, like wolf whelps in the absence of the wolf.
“It’s I,” said he.
“Good evening, daddy,” yelped the girls.
“Well?” said the mother.
“All’s going first-rate,” responded Jondrette, “but my feet are beastly cold. Good! You have dressed up. You have done well! You must inspire confidence.”
“All ready to go out.”
“Don’t forget what I told you. You will do everything sure?”
“Because —” said Jondrette. And he left the phrase unfinished.
Marius heard him lay something heavy on the table, probably the chisel which he had purchased.
“By the way,” said Jondrette, “have you been eating here?”
“Yes,” said the mother. “I got three large potatoes and some salt. I took advantage of the fire to cook them.”
“Good,” returned Jondrette. “To-morrow I will take you out to dine with me. We will have a duck and fixings. You shall dine like Charles the Tenth; all is going well!”
Then he added:—
“The mouse-trap is open. The cats are there.”
He lowered his voice still further, and said:—
“Put this in the fire.”
Marius heard a sound of charcoal being knocked with the tongs or some iron utensil, and Jondrette continued:—
“Have you greased the hinges of the door so that they will not squeak?”
“Yes,” replied the mother.
“What time is it?”
“Nearly six. The half-hour struck from Saint–Medard a while ago.”
“The devil!” ejaculated Jondrette; “the children must go and watch. Come you, do you listen here.”
A whispering ensued.
Jondrette’s voice became audible again:—
“Has old Bougon left?”
“Yes,” said the mother.
“Are you sure that there is no one in our neighbor’s room?”
“He has not been in all day, and you know very well that this is his dinner hour.”
“You are sure?”
“All the same,” said Jondrette, “there’s no harm in going to see whether he is there. Here, my girl, take the candle and go there.”
Marius fell on his hands and knees and crawled silently under his bed.
Hardly had he concealed himself, when he perceived a light through the crack of his door.
“P’pa,” cried a voice, “he is not in here.”
He recognized the voice of the eldest daughter.
“Did you go in?” demanded her father.
“No,” replied the girl, “but as his key is in the door, he must be out.”
The father exclaimed:—
“Go in, nevertheless.”
The door opened, and Marius saw the tall Jondrette come in with a candle in her hand. She was as she had been in the morning, only still more repulsive in this light.
She walked straight up to the bed. Marius endured an indescribable moment of anxiety; but near the bed there was a mirror nailed to the wall, and it was thither that she was directing her steps. She raised herself on tiptoe and looked at herself in it. In the neighboring room, the sound of iron articles being moved was audible.
She smoothed her hair with the palm of her hand, and smiled into the mirror, humming with her cracked and sepulchral voice:—
Nos amours ont dure toute une semaine,28
Mais que du bonheur les instants sont courts!
S’adorer huit jours, c’ etait bien la peine!
Le temps des amours devait durer toujours!
Devrait durer toujours! devrait durer toujours!
28 Our love has lasted a whole week, but how short are the instants of happiness! To adore each other for eight days was hardly worth the while! The time of love should last forever.
In the meantime, Marius trembled. It seemed impossible to him that she should not hear his breathing.
She stepped to the window and looked out with the half-foolish way she had.
“How ugly Paris is when it has put on a white chemise!” said she.
She returned to the mirror and began again to put on airs before it, scrutinizing herself full-face and three-quarters face in turn.
“Well!” cried her father, “what are you about there?”
“I am looking under the bed and the furniture,” she replied, continuing to arrange her hair; “there’s no one here.”
“Booby!” yelled her father. “Come here this minute! And don’t waste any time about it!”
“Coming! Coming!” said she. “One has no time for anything in this hovel!”
Vous me quittez pour aller a la gloire;29
Mon triste coeur suivra partout.
29 You leave me to go to glory; my sad heart will follow you everywhere.
She cast a parting glance in the mirror and went out, shutting the door behind her.
A moment more, and Marius heard the sound of the two young girls’ bare feet in the corridor, and Jondrette’s voice shouting to them:—
“Pay strict heed! One on the side of the barrier, the other at the corner of the Rue du Petit–Banquier. Don’t lose sight for a moment of the door of this house, and the moment you see anything, rush here on the instant! as hard as you can go! You have a key to get in.”
The eldest girl grumbled:—
“The idea of standing watch in the snow barefoot!”
“To-morrow you shall have some dainty little green silk boots!” said the father.
They ran down stairs, and a few seconds later the shock of the outer door as it banged to announced that they were outside.
There now remained in the house only Marius, the Jondrettes and probably, also, the mysterious persons of whom Marius had caught a glimpse in the twilight, behind the door of the unused attic.
Marius decided that the moment had now arrived when he must resume his post at his observatory. In a twinkling, and with the agility of his age, he had reached the hole in the partition.
The interior of the Jondrette apartment presented a curious aspect, and Marius found an explanation of the singular light which he had noticed. A candle was burning in a candlestick covered with verdigris, but that was not what really lighted the chamber. The hovel was completely illuminated, as it were, by the reflection from a rather large sheet-iron brazier standing in the fireplace, and filled with burning charcoal, the brazier prepared by the Jondrette woman that morning. The charcoal was glowing hot and the brazier was red; a blue flame flickered over it, and helped him to make out the form of the chisel purchased by Jondrette in the Rue Pierre–Lombard, where it had been thrust into the brazier to heat. In one corner, near the door, and as though prepared for some definite use, two heaps were visible, which appeared to be, the one a heap of old iron, the other a heap of ropes. All this would have caused the mind of a person who knew nothing of what was in preparation, to waver between a very sinister and a very simple idea. The lair thus lighted up more resembled a forge than a mouth of hell, but Jondrette, in this light, had rather the air of a demon than of a smith.
The heat of the brazier was so great, that the candle on the table was melting on the side next the chafing-dish, and was drooping over. An old dark-lantern of copper, worthy of Diogenes turned Cartouche, stood on the chimney-piece.
The brazier, placed in the fireplace itself, beside the nearly extinct brands, sent its vapors up the chimney, and gave out no odor.
The moon, entering through the four panes of the window, cast its whiteness into the crimson and flaming garret; and to the poetic spirit of Marius, who was dreamy even in the moment of action, it was like a thought of heaven mingled with the misshapen reveries of earth.
A breath of air which made its way in through the open pane, helped to dissipate the smell of the charcoal and to conceal the presence of the brazier.
The Jondrette lair was, if the reader recalls what we have said of the Gorbeau building, admirably chosen to serve as the theatre of a violent and sombre deed, and as the envelope for a crime. It was the most retired chamber in the most isolated house on the most deserted boulevard in Paris. If the system of ambush and traps had not already existed, they would have been invented there.
The whole thickness of a house and a multitude of uninhabited rooms separated this den from the boulevard, and the only window that existed opened on waste lands enclosed with walls and palisades.
Jondrette had lighted his pipe, seated himself on the seatless chair, and was engaged in smoking. His wife was talking to him in a low tone.
If Marius had been Courfeyrac, that is to say, one of those men who laugh on every occasion in life, he would have burst with laughter when his gaze fell on the Jondrette woman. She had on a black bonnet with plumes not unlike the hats of the heralds-at-arms at the coronation of Charles X., an immense tartan shawl over her knitted petticoat, and the man’s shoes which her daughter had scorned in the morning. It was this toilette which had extracted from Jondrette the exclamation: “Good! You have dressed up. You have done well. You must inspire confidence!”
As for Jondrette, he had not taken off the new surtout, which was too large for him, and which M. Leblanc had given him, and his costume continued to present that contrast of coat and trousers which constituted the ideal of a poet in Courfeyrac’s eyes.
All at once, Jondrette lifted up his voice:—
“By the way! Now that I think of it. In this weather, he will come in a carriage. Light the lantern, take it and go down stairs. You will stand behind the lower door. The very moment that you hear the carriage stop, you will open the door, instantly, he will come up, you will light the staircase and the corridor, and when he enters here, you will go down stairs again as speedily as possible, you will pay the coachman, and dismiss the fiacre.”
“And the money?” inquired the woman.
Jondrette fumbled in his trousers pocket and handed her five francs.
“What’s this?” she exclaimed.
Jondrette replied with dignity:—
“That is the monarch which our neighbor gave us this morning.”
And he added:—
“Do you know what? Two chairs will be needed here.”
“To sit on.”
Marius felt a cold chill pass through his limbs at hearing this mild answer from Jondrette.
“Pardieu! I’ll go and get one of our neighbor’s.”
And with a rapid movement, she opened the door of the den, and went out into the corridor.
Marius absolutely had not the time to descend from the commode, reach his bed, and conceal himself beneath it.
“Take the candle,” cried Jondrette.
“No,” said she, “it would embarrass me, I have the two chairs to carry. There is moonlight.”
Marius heard Mother Jondrette’s heavy hand fumbling at his lock in the dark. The door opened. He remained nailed to the spot with the shock and with horror.
The Jondrette entered.
The dormer window permitted the entrance of a ray of moonlight between two blocks of shadow. One of these blocks of shadow entirely covered the wall against which Marius was leaning, so that he disappeared within it.
Mother Jondrette raised her eyes, did not see Marius, took the two chairs, the only ones which Marius possessed, and went away, letting the door fall heavily to behind her.
She re-entered the lair.
“Here are the two chairs.”
“And here is the lantern. Go down as quick as you can.”
She hastily obeyed, and Jondrette was left alone.
He placed the two chairs on opposite sides of the table, turned the chisel in the brazier, set in front of the fireplace an old screen which masked the chafing-dish, then went to the corner where lay the pile of rope, and bent down as though to examine something. Marius then recognized the fact, that what he had taken for a shapeless mass was a very well-made rope-ladder, with wooden rungs and two hooks with which to attach it.
This ladder, and some large tools, veritable masses of iron, which were mingled with the old iron piled up behind the door, had not been in the Jondrette hovel in the morning, and had evidently been brought thither in the afternoon, during Marius’ absence.
“Those are the utensils of an edge-tool maker,” thought Marius.
Had Marius been a little more learned in this line, he would have recognized in what he took for the engines of an edge-tool maker, certain instruments which will force a lock or pick a lock, and others which will cut or slice, the two families of tools which burglars call cadets and fauchants.
The fireplace and the two chairs were exactly opposite Marius. The brazier being concealed, the only light in the room was now furnished by the candle; the smallest bit of crockery on the table or on the chimney-piece cast a large shadow. There was something indescribably calm, threatening, and hideous about this chamber. One felt that there existed in it the anticipation of something terrible.
Jondrette had allowed his pipe to go out, a serious sign of preoccupation, and had again seated himself. The candle brought out the fierce and the fine angles of his countenance. He indulged in scowls and in abrupt unfoldings of the right hand, as though he were responding to the last counsels of a sombre inward monologue. In the course of one of these dark replies which he was making to himself, he pulled the table drawer rapidly towards him, took out a long kitchen knife which was concealed there, and tried the edge of its blade on his nail. That done, he put the knife back in the drawer and shut it.
Marius, on his side, grasped the pistol in his right pocket, drew it out and cocked it.
The pistol emitted a sharp, clear click, as he cocked it.
Jondrette started, half rose, listened a moment, then began to laugh and said:—
“What a fool I am! It’s the partition cracking!”
Marius kept the pistol in his hand.
Suddenly, the distant and melancholy vibration of a clock shook the panes. Six o’clock was striking from Saint–Medard.
Jondrette marked off each stroke with a toss of his head. When the sixth had struck, he snuffed the candle with his fingers.
Then he began to pace up and down the room, listened at the corridor, walked on again, then listened once more.
“Provided only that he comes!” he muttered, then he returned to his chair.
He had hardly reseated himself when the door opened.
Mother Jondrette had opened it, and now remained in the corridor making a horrible, amiable grimace, which one of the holes of the dark-lantern illuminated from below.
“Enter, sir,” she said.
“Enter, my benefactor,” repeated Jondrette, rising hastily.
M. Leblanc made his appearance.
He wore an air of serenity which rendered him singularly venerable.
He laid four louis on the table.
“Monsieur Fabantou,” said he, “this is for your rent and your most pressing necessities. We will attend to the rest hereafter.”
“May God requite it to you, my generous benefactor!” said Jondrette.
And rapidly approaching his wife:—
“Dismiss the carriage!”
She slipped out while her husband was lavishing salutes and offering M. Leblanc a chair. An instant later she returned and whispered in his ear:—
The snow, which had not ceased falling since the morning, was so deep that the arrival of the fiacre had not been audible, and they did not now hear its departure.
Meanwhile, M. Leblanc had seated himself.
Jondrette had taken possession of the other chair, facing M. Leblanc.
Now, in order to form an idea of the scene which is to follow, let the reader picture to himself in his own mind, a cold night, the solitudes of the Salpetriere covered with snow and white as winding-sheets in the moonlight, the taper-like lights of the street lanterns which shone redly here and there along those tragic boulevards, and the long rows of black elms, not a passer-by for perhaps a quarter of a league around, the Gorbeau hovel, at its highest pitch of silence, of horror, and of darkness; in that building, in the midst of those solitudes, in the midst of that darkness, the vast Jondrette garret lighted by a single candle, and in that den two men seated at a table, M. Leblanc tranquil, Jondrette smiling and alarming, the Jondrette woman, the female wolf, in one corner, and, behind the partition, Marius, invisible, erect, not losing a word, not missing a single movement, his eye on the watch, and pistol in hand.
However, Marius experienced only an emotion of horror, but no fear. He clasped the stock of the pistol firmly and felt reassured. “I shall be able to stop that wretch whenever I please,” he thought.
He felt that the police were there somewhere in ambuscade, waiting for the signal agreed upon and ready to stretch out their arm.
Moreover, he was in hopes, that this violent encounter between Jondrette and M. Leblanc would cast some light on all the things which he was interested in learning.
Hardly was M. Leblanc seated, when he turned his eyes towards the pallets, which were empty.
“How is the poor little wounded girl?” he inquired.
“Bad,” replied Jondrette with a heart-broken and grateful smile, “very bad, my worthy sir. Her elder sister has taken her to the Bourbe to have her hurt dressed. You will see them presently; they will be back immediately.”
“Madame Fabantou seems to me to be better,” went on M. Leblanc, casting his eyes on the eccentric costume of the Jondrette woman, as she stood between him and the door, as though already guarding the exit, and gazed at him in an attitude of menace and almost of combat.
“She is dying,” said Jondrette. “But what do you expect, sir! She has so much courage, that woman has! She’s not a woman, she’s an ox.”
The Jondrette, touched by his compliment, deprecated it with the affected airs of a flattered monster.
“You are always too good to me, Monsieur Jondrette!”
“Jondrette!” said M. Leblanc, “I thought your name was Fabantou?”
“Fabantou, alias Jondrette!” replied the husband hurriedly. “An artistic sobriquet!”
And launching at his wife a shrug of the shoulders which M. Leblanc did not catch, he continued with an emphatic and caressing inflection of voice:—
“Ah! we have had a happy life together, this poor darling and I! What would there be left for us if we had not that? We are so wretched, my respectable sir! We have arms, but there is no work! We have the will, no work! I don’t know how the government arranges that, but, on my word of honor, sir, I am not Jacobin, sir, I am not a bousingot.30 I don’t wish them any evil, but if I were the ministers, on my most sacred word, things would be different. Here, for instance, I wanted to have my girls taught the trade of paper-box makers. You will say to me: ‘What! a trade?’ Yes! A trade! A simple trade! A bread-winner! What a fall, my benefactor! What a degradation, when one has been what we have been! Alas! There is nothing left to us of our days of prosperity! One thing only, a picture, of which I think a great deal, but which I am willing to part with, for I must live! Item, one must live!”
30 A democrat.
While Jondrette thus talked, with an apparent incoherence which detracted nothing from the thoughtful and sagacious expression of his physiognomy, Marius raised his eyes, and perceived at the other end of the room a person whom he had not seen before. A man had just entered, so softly that the door had not been heard to turn on its hinges. This man wore a violet knitted vest, which was old, worn, spotted, cut and gaping at every fold, wide trousers of cotton velvet, wooden shoes on his feet, no shirt, had his neck bare, his bare arms tattooed, and his face smeared with black. He had seated himself in silence on the nearest bed, and, as he was behind Jondrette, he could only be indistinctly seen.
That sort of magnetic instinct which turns aside the gaze, caused M. Leblanc to turn round almost at the same moment as Marius. He could not refrain from a gesture of surprise which did not escape Jondrette.
“Ah! I see!” exclaimed Jondrette, buttoning up his coat with an air of complaisance, “you are looking at your overcoat? It fits me! My faith, but it fits me!”
“Who is that man?” said M. Leblanc.
“Him?” ejaculated Jondrette, “he’s a neighbor of mine. Don’t pay any attention to him.”
The neighbor was a singular-looking individual. However, manufactories of chemical products abound in the Faubourg Saint–Marceau. Many of the workmen might have black faces. Besides this, M. Leblanc’s whole person was expressive of candid and intrepid confidence.
He went on:—
“Excuse me; what were you saying, M. Fabantou?”
“I was telling you, sir, and dear protector,” replied Jondrette placing his elbows on the table and contemplating M. Leblanc with steady and tender eyes, not unlike the eyes of the boa-constrictor, “I was telling you, that I have a picture to sell.”
A slight sound came from the door. A second man had just entered and seated himself on the bed, behind Jondrette.
Like the first, his arms were bare, and he had a mask of ink or lampblack.
Although this man had, literally, glided into the room, he had not been able to prevent M. Leblanc catching sight of him.
“Don’t mind them,” said Jondrette, “they are people who belong in the house. So I was saying, that there remains in my possession a valuable picture. But stop, sir, take a look at it.”
He rose, went to the wall at the foot of which stood the panel which we have already mentioned, and turned it round, still leaving it supported against the wall. It really was something which resembled a picture, and which the candle illuminated, somewhat. Marius could make nothing out of it, as Jondrette stood between the picture and him; he only saw a coarse daub, and a sort of principal personage colored with the harsh crudity of foreign canvasses and screen paintings.
“What is that?” asked M. Leblanc.
“A painting by a master, a picture of great value, my benefactor! I am as much attached to it as I am to my two daughters; it recalls souvenirs to me! But I have told you, and I will not take it back, that I am so wretched that I will part with it.”
Either by chance, or because he had begun to feel a dawning uneasiness, M. Leblanc’s glance returned to the bottom of the room as he examined the picture.
There were now four men, three seated on the bed, one standing near the door-post, all four with bare arms and motionless, with faces smeared with black. One of those on the bed was leaning against the wall, with closed eyes, and it might have been supposed that he was asleep. He was old; his white hair contrasting with his blackened face produced a horrible effect. The other two seemed to be young; one wore a beard, the other wore his hair long. None of them had on shoes; those who did not wear socks were barefooted.
Jondrette noticed that M. Leblanc’s eye was fixed on these men.
“They are friends. They are neighbors,” said he. “Their faces are black because they work in charcoal. They are chimney-builders. Don’t trouble yourself about them, my benefactor, but buy my picture. Have pity on my misery. I will not ask you much for it. How much do you think it is worth?”
“Well,” said M. Leblanc, looking Jondrette full in the eye, and with the manner of a man who is on his guard, “it is some signboard for a tavern, and is worth about three francs.”
Jondrette replied sweetly:—
“Have you your pocket-book with you? I should be satisfied with a thousand crowns.”
M. Leblanc sprang up, placed his back against the wall, and cast a rapid glance around the room. He had Jondrette on his left, on the side next the window, and the Jondrette woman and the four men on his right, on the side next the door. The four men did not stir, and did not even seem to be looking on.
Jondrette had again begun to speak in a plaintive tone, with so vague an eye, and so lamentable an intonation, that M. Leblanc might have supposed that what he had before him was a man who had simply gone mad with misery.
“If you do not buy my picture, my dear benefactor,” said Jondrette, “I shall be left without resources; there will be nothing left for me but to throw myself into the river. When I think that I wanted to have my two girls taught the middle-class paper-box trade, the making of boxes for New Year’s gifts! Well! A table with a board at the end to keep the glasses from falling off is required, then a special stove is needed, a pot with three compartments for the different degrees of strength of the paste, according as it is to be used for wood, paper, or stuff, a paring-knife to cut the cardboard, a mould to adjust it, a hammer to nail the steels, pincers, how the devil do I know what all? And all that in order to earn four sous a day! And you have to work fourteen hours a day! And each box passes through the workwoman’s hands thirteen times! And you can’t wet the paper! And you mustn’t spot anything! And you must keep the paste hot. The devil, I tell you! Four sous a day! How do you suppose a man is to live?”
As he spoke, Jondrette did not look at M. Leblanc, who was observing him. M. Leblanc’s eye was fixed on Jondrette, and Jondrette’s eye was fixed on the door. Marius’ eager attention was transferred from one to the other. M. Leblanc seemed to be asking himself: “Is this man an idiot?” Jondrette repeated two or three distinct times, with all manner of varying inflections of the whining and supplicating order: “There is nothing left for me but to throw myself into the river! I went down three steps at the side of the bridge of Austerlitz the other day for that purpose.”
All at once his dull eyes lighted up with a hideous flash; the little man drew himself up and became terrible, took a step toward M. Leblanc and cried in a voice of thunder: “That has nothing to do with the question! Do you know me?”
The door of the garret had just opened abruptly, and allowed a view of three men clad in blue linen blouses, and masked with masks of black paper. The first was thin, and had a long, iron-tipped cudgel; the second, who was a sort of colossus, carried, by the middle of the handle, with the blade downward, a butcher’s pole-axe for slaughtering cattle. The third, a man with thick-set shoulders, not so slender as the first, held in his hand an enormous key stolen from the door of some prison.
It appeared that the arrival of these men was what Jondrette had been waiting for. A rapid dialogue ensued between him and the man with the cudgel, the thin one.
“Is everything ready?” said Jondrette.
“Yes,” replied the thin man.
“Where is Montparnasse?”
“The young principal actor stopped to chat with your girl.”
“Is there a carriage at the door?”
“Is the team harnessed?”
“With two good horses?”
“Is it waiting where I ordered?”
“Good,” said Jondrette.
M. Leblanc was very pale. He was scrutinizing everything around him in the den, like a man who understands what he has fallen into, and his head, directed in turn toward all the heads which surrounded him, moved on his neck with an astonished and attentive slowness, but there was nothing in his air which resembled fear. He had improvised an intrenchment out of the table; and the man, who but an instant previously, had borne merely the appearance of a kindly old man, had suddenly become a sort of athlete, and placed his robust fist on the back of his chair, with a formidable and surprising gesture.
This old man, who was so firm and so brave in the presence of such a danger, seemed to possess one of those natures which are as courageous as they are kind, both easily and simply. The father of a woman whom we love is never a stranger to us. Marius felt proud of that unknown man.
Three of the men, of whom Jondrette had said: “They are chimney-builders,” had armed themselves from the pile of old iron, one with a heavy pair of shears, the second with weighing-tongs, the third with a hammer, and had placed themselves across the entrance without uttering a syllable. The old man had remained on the bed, and had merely opened his eyes. The Jondrette woman had seated herself beside him.
Marius decided that in a few seconds more the moment for intervention would arrive, and he raised his right hand towards the ceiling, in the direction of the corridor, in readiness to discharge his pistol.
Jondrette having terminated his colloquy with the man with the cudgel, turned once more to M. Leblanc, and repeated his question, accompanying it with that low, repressed, and terrible laugh which was peculiar to him:—
“So you do not recognize me?”
M. Leblanc looked him full in the face, and replied:—
Then Jondrette advanced to the table. He leaned across the candle, crossing his arms, putting his angular and ferocious jaw close to M. Leblanc’s calm face, and advancing as far as possible without forcing M. Leblanc to retreat, and, in this posture of a wild beast who is about to bite, he exclaimed:—
“My name is not Fabantou, my name is not Jondrette, my name is Thenardier. I am the inn-keeper of Montfermeil! Do you understand? Thenardier! Now do you know me?”
An almost imperceptible flush crossed M. Leblanc’s brow, and he replied with a voice which neither trembled nor rose above its ordinary level, with his accustomed placidity:—
“No more than before.”
Marius did not hear this reply. Any one who had seen him at that moment through the darkness would have perceived that he was haggard, stupid, thunder-struck. At the moment when Jondrette said: “My name is Thenardier,” Marius had trembled in every limb, and had leaned against the wall, as though he felt the cold of a steel blade through his heart. Then his right arm, all ready to discharge the signal shot, dropped slowly, and at the moment when Jondrette repeated, “Thenardier, do you understand?” Marius’s faltering fingers had come near letting the pistol fall. Jondrette, by revealing his identity, had not moved M. Leblanc, but he had quite upset Marius. That name of Thenardier, with which M. Leblanc did not seem to be acquainted, Marius knew well. Let the reader recall what that name meant to him! That name he had worn on his heart, inscribed in his father’s testament! He bore it at the bottom of his mind, in the depths of his memory, in that sacred injunction: “A certain Thenardier saved my life. If my son encounters him, he will do him all the good that lies in his power.” That name, it will be remembered, was one of the pieties of his soul; he mingled it with the name of his father in his worship. What! This man was that Thenardier, that inn-keeper of Montfermeil whom he had so long and so vainly sought! He had found him at last, and how? His father’s saviour was a ruffian! That man, to whose service Marius was burning to devote himself, was a monster! That liberator of Colonel Pontmercy was on the point of committing a crime whose scope Marius did not, as yet, clearly comprehend, but which resembled an assassination! And against whom, great God! what a fatality! What a bitter mockery of fate! His father had commanded him from the depths of his coffin to do all the good in his power to this Thenardier, and for four years Marius had cherished no other thought than to acquit this debt of his father’s, and at the moment when he was on the eve of having a brigand seized in the very act of crime by justice, destiny cried to him: “This is Thenardier!” He could at last repay this man for his father’s life, saved amid a hail-storm of grape-shot on the heroic field of Waterloo, and repay it with the scaffold! He had sworn to himself that if ever he found that Thenardier, he would address him only by throwing himself at his feet; and now he actually had found him, but it was only to deliver him over to the executioner! His father said to him: “Succor Thenardier!” And he replied to that adored and sainted voice by crushing Thenardier! He was about to offer to his father in his grave the spectacle of that man who had torn him from death at the peril of his own life, executed on the Place Saint–Jacques through the means of his son, of that Marius to whom he had entrusted that man by his will! And what a mockery to have so long worn on his breast his father’s last commands, written in his own hand, only to act in so horribly contrary a sense! But, on the other hand, now look on that trap and not prevent it! Condemn the victim and to spare the assassin! Could one be held to any gratitude towards so miserable a wretch? All the ideas which Marius had cherished for the last four years were pierced through and through, as it were, by this unforeseen blow.
He shuddered. Everything depended on him. Unknown to themselves, he held in his hand all those beings who were moving about there before his eyes. If he fired his pistol, M. Leblanc was saved, and Thenardier lost; if he did not fire, M. Leblanc would be sacrificed, and, who knows? Thenardier would escape. Should he dash down the one or allow the other to fall? Remorse awaited him in either case.
What was he to do? What should he choose? Be false to the most imperious souvenirs, to all those solemn vows to himself, to the most sacred duty, to the most venerated text! Should he ignore his father’s testament, or allow the perpetration of a crime! On the one hand, it seemed to him that he heard “his Ursule” supplicating for her father and on the other, the colonel commending Thenardier to his care. He felt that he was going mad. His knees gave way beneath him. And he had not even the time for deliberation, so great was the fury with which the scene before his eyes was hastening to its catastrophe. It was like a whirlwind of which he had thought himself the master, and which was now sweeping him away. He was on the verge of swooning.
In the meantime, Thenardier, whom we shall henceforth call by no other name, was pacing up and down in front of the table in a sort of frenzy and wild triumph.
He seized the candle in his fist, and set it on the chimney-piece with so violent a bang that the wick came near being extinguished, and the tallow bespattered the wall.
Then he turned to M. Leblanc with a horrible look, and spit out these words:—
“Done for! Smoked brown! Cooked! Spitchcocked!”
And again he began to march back and forth, in full eruption.
“Ah!” he cried, “so I’ve found you again at last, Mister philanthropist! Mister threadbare millionnaire! Mister giver of dolls! you old ninny! Ah! so you don’t recognize me! No, it wasn’t you who came to Montfermeil, to my inn, eight years ago, on Christmas eve, 1823! It wasn’t you who carried off that Fantine’s child from me! The Lark! It wasn’t you who had a yellow great-coat! No! Nor a package of duds in your hand, as you had this morning here! Say, wife, it seems to be his mania to carry packets of woollen stockings into houses! Old charity monger, get out with you! Are you a hosier, Mister millionnaire? You give away your stock in trade to the poor, holy man! What bosh! merry Andrew! Ah! and you don’t recognize me? Well, I recognize you, that I do! I recognized you the very moment you poked your snout in here. Ah! you’ll find out presently, that it isn’t all roses to thrust yourself in that fashion into people’s houses, under the pretext that they are taverns, in wretched clothes, with the air of a poor man, to whom one would give a sou, to deceive persons, to play the generous, to take away their means of livelihood, and to make threats in the woods, and you can’t call things quits because afterwards, when people are ruined, you bring a coat that is too large, and two miserable hospital blankets, you old blackguard, you child-stealer!”
He paused, and seemed to be talking to himself for a moment. One would have said that his wrath had fallen into some hole, like the Rhone; then, as though he were concluding aloud the things which he had been saying to himself in a whisper, he smote the table with his fist, and shouted:—
“And with his goody-goody air!”
And, apostrophizing M. Leblanc:—
“Parbleu! You made game of me in the past! You are the cause of all my misfortunes! For fifteen hundred francs you got a girl whom I had, and who certainly belonged to rich people, and who had already brought in a great deal of money, and from whom I might have extracted enough to live on all my life! A girl who would have made up to me for everything that I lost in that vile cook-shop, where there was nothing but one continual row, and where, like a fool, I ate up my last farthing! Oh! I wish all the wine folks drank in my house had been poison to those who drank it! Well, never mind! Say, now! You must have thought me ridiculous when you went off with the Lark! You had your cudgel in the forest. You were the stronger. Revenge. I’m the one to hold the trumps today! You’re in a sorry case, my good fellow! Oh, but I can laugh! Really, I laugh! Didn’t he fall into the trap! I told him that I was an actor, that my name was Fabantou, that I had played comedy with Mamselle Mars, with Mamselle Muche, that my landlord insisted on being paid tomorrow, the 4th of February, and he didn’t even notice that the 8th of January, and not the 4th of February is the time when the quarter runs out! Absurd idiot! And the four miserable Philippes which he has brought me! Scoundrel! He hadn’t the heart even to go as high as a hundred francs! And how he swallowed my platitudes! That did amuse me. I said to myself: ‘Blockhead! Come, I’ve got you! I lick your paws this morning, but I’ll gnaw your heart this evening!’”
Thenardier paused. He was out of breath. His little, narrow chest panted like a forge bellows. His eyes were full of the ignoble happiness of a feeble, cruel, and cowardly creature, which finds that it can, at last, harass what it has feared, and insult what it has flattered, the joy of a dwarf who should be able to set his heel on the head of Goliath, the joy of a jackal which is beginning to rend a sick bull, so nearly dead that he can no longer defend himself, but sufficiently alive to suffer still.
M. Leblanc did not interrupt him, but said to him when he paused:—
“I do not know what you mean to say. You are mistaken in me. I am a very poor man, and anything but a millionnaire. I do not know you. You are mistaking me for some other person.”
“Ah!” roared Thenardier hoarsely, “a pretty lie! You stick to that pleasantry, do you! You’re floundering, my old buck! Ah! You don’t remember! You don’t see who I am?”
“Excuse me, sir,” said M. Leblanc with a politeness of accent, which at that moment seemed peculiarly strange and powerful, “I see that you are a villain!”
Who has not remarked the fact that odious creatures possess a susceptibility of their own, that monsters are ticklish! At this word “villain,” the female Thenardier sprang from the bed, Thenardier grasped his chair as though he were about to crush it in his hands. “Don’t you stir!” he shouted to his wife; and, turning to M. Leblanc:—
“Villain! Yes, I know that you call us that, you rich gentlemen! Stop! it’s true that I became bankrupt, that I am in hiding, that I have no bread, that I have not a single sou, that I am a villain! It’s three days since I have had anything to eat, so I’m a villain! Ah! you folks warm your feet, you have Sakoski boots, you have wadded great-coats, like archbishops, you lodge on the first floor in houses that have porters, you eat truffles, you eat asparagus at forty francs the bunch in the month of January, and green peas, you gorge yourselves, and when you want to know whether it is cold, you look in the papers to see what the engineer Chevalier’s thermometer says about it. We, it is we who are thermometers. We don’t need to go out and look on the quay at the corner of the Tour de l’Horologe, to find out the number of degrees of cold; we feel our blood congealing in our veins, and the ice forming round our hearts, and we say: ‘There is no God!’ And you come to our caverns, yes our caverns, for the purpose of calling us villains! But we’ll devour you! But we’ll devour you, poor little things! Just see here, Mister millionnaire: I have been a solid man, I have held a license, I have been an elector, I am a bourgeois, that I am! And it’s quite possible that you are not!”
Here Thenardier took a step towards the men who stood near the door, and added with a shudder:—
“When I think that he has dared to come here and talk to me like a cobbler!”
Then addressing M. Leblanc with a fresh outburst of frenzy:—
“And listen to this also, Mister philanthropist! I’m not a suspicious character, not a bit of it! I’m not a man whose name nobody knows, and who comes and abducts children from houses! I’m an old French soldier, I ought to have been decorated! I was at Waterloo, so I was! And in the battle I saved a general called the Comte of I don’t know what. He told me his name, but his beastly voice was so weak that I didn’t hear. All I caught was Merci [thanks]. I’d rather have had his name than his thanks. That would have helped me to find him again. The picture that you see here, and which was painted by David at Bruqueselles — do you know what it represents? It represents me. David wished to immortalize that feat of prowess. I have that general on my back, and I am carrying him through the grape-shot. There’s the history of it! That general never did a single thing for me; he was no better than the rest! But none the less, I saved his life at the risk of my own, and I have the certificate of the fact in my pocket! I am a soldier of Waterloo, by all the furies! And now that I have had the goodness to tell you all this, let’s have an end of it. I want money, I want a deal of money, I must have an enormous lot of money, or I’ll exterminate you, by the thunder of the good God!”
Marius had regained some measure of control over his anguish, and was listening. The last possibility of doubt had just vanished. It certainly was the Thenardier of the will. Marius shuddered at that reproach of ingratitude directed against his father, and which he was on the point of so fatally justifying. His perplexity was redoubled.
Moreover, there was in all these words of Thenardier, in his accent, in his gesture, in his glance which darted flames at every word, there was, in this explosion of an evil nature disclosing everything, in that mixture of braggadocio and abjectness, of pride and pettiness, of rage and folly, in that chaos of real griefs and false sentiments, in that immodesty of a malicious man tasting the voluptuous delights of violence, in that shameless nudity of a repulsive soul, in that conflagration of all sufferings combined with all hatreds, something which was as hideous as evil, and as heart-rending as the truth.
The picture of the master, the painting by David which he had proposed that M. Leblanc should purchase, was nothing else, as the reader has divined, than the sign of his tavern painted, as it will be remembered, by himself, the only relic which he had preserved from his shipwreck at Montfermeil.
As he had ceased to intercept Marius’ visual ray, Marius could examine this thing, and in the daub, he actually did recognize a battle, a background of smoke, and a man carrying another man. It was the group composed of Pontmercy and Thenardier; the sergeant the rescuer, the colonel rescued. Marius was like a drunken man; this picture restored his father to life in some sort; it was no longer the signboard of the wine-shop at Montfermeil, it was a resurrection; a tomb had yawned, a phantom had risen there. Marius heard his heart beating in his temples, he had the cannon of Waterloo in his ears, his bleeding father, vaguely depicted on that sinister panel terrified him, and it seemed to him that the misshapen spectre was gazing intently at him.
When Thenardier had recovered his breath, he turned his bloodshot eyes on M. Leblanc, and said to him in a low, curt voice:—
“What have you to say before we put the handcuffs on you?”
M. Leblanc held his peace.
In the midst of this silence, a cracked voice launched this lugubrious sarcasm from the corridor:—
“If there’s any wood to be split, I’m there!”
It was the man with the axe, who was growing merry.
At the same moment, an enormous, bristling, and clayey face made its appearance at the door, with a hideous laugh which exhibited not teeth, but fangs.
It was the face of the man with the butcher’s axe.
“Why have you taken off your mask?” cried Thenardier in a rage.
“For fun,” retorted the man.
For the last few minutes M. Leblanc had appeared to be watching and following all the movements of Thenardier, who, blinded and dazzled by his own rage, was stalking to and fro in the den with full confidence that the door was guarded, and of holding an unarmed man fast, he being armed himself, of being nine against one, supposing that the female Thenardier counted for but one man.
During his address to the man with the pole-axe, he had turned his back to M. Leblanc.
M. Leblanc seized this moment, overturned the chair with his foot and the table with his fist, and with one bound, with prodigious agility, before Thenardier had time to turn round, he had reached the window. To open it, to scale the frame, to bestride it, was the work of a second only. He was half out when six robust fists seized him and dragged him back energetically into the hovel. These were the three “chimney-builders,” who had flung themselves upon him. At the same time the Thenardier woman had wound her hands in his hair.
At the trampling which ensued, the other ruffians rushed up from the corridor. The old man on the bed, who seemed under the influence of wine, descended from the pallet and came reeling up, with a stone-breaker’s hammer in his hand.
One of the “chimney-builders,” whose smirched face was lighted up by the candle, and in whom Marius recognized, in spite of his daubing, Panchaud, alias Printanier, alias Bigrenaille, lifted above M. Leblanc’s head a sort of bludgeon made of two balls of lead, at the two ends of a bar of iron.
Marius could not resist this sight. “My father,” he thought, “forgive me!”
And his finger sought the trigger of his pistol.
The shot was on the point of being discharged when Thenardier’s voice shouted:—
“Don’t harm him!”
This desperate attempt of the victim, far from exasperating Thenardier, had calmed him. There existed in him two men, the ferocious man and the adroit man. Up to that moment, in the excess of his triumph in the presence of the prey which had been brought down, and which did not stir, the ferocious man had prevailed; when the victim struggled and tried to resist, the adroit man reappeared and took the upper hand.
“Don’t hurt him!” he repeated, and without suspecting it, his first success was to arrest the pistol in the act of being discharged, and to paralyze Marius, in whose opinion the urgency of the case disappeared, and who, in the face of this new phase, saw no inconvenience in waiting a while longer.
Who knows whether some chance would not arise which would deliver him from the horrible alternative of allowing Ursule’s father to perish, or of destroying the colonel’s saviour?
A herculean struggle had begun. With one blow full in the chest, M. Leblanc had sent the old man tumbling, rolling in the middle of the room, then with two backward sweeps of his hand he had overthrown two more assailants, and he held one under each of his knees; the wretches were rattling in the throat beneath this pressure as under a granite millstone; but the other four had seized the formidable old man by both arms and the back of his neck, and were holding him doubled up over the two “chimney-builders” on the floor.
Thus, the master of some and mastered by the rest, crushing those beneath him and stifling under those on top of him, endeavoring in vain to shake off all the efforts which were heaped upon him, M. Leblanc disappeared under the horrible group of ruffians like the wild boar beneath a howling pile of dogs and hounds.
They succeeded in overthrowing him upon the bed nearest the window, and there they held him in awe. The Thenardier woman had not released her clutch on his hair.
“Don’t you mix yourself up in this affair,” said Thenardier. “You’ll tear your shawl.”
The Thenardier obeyed, as the female wolf obeys the male wolf, with a growl.
“Now,” said Thenardier, “search him, you other fellows!”
M. Leblanc seemed to have renounced the idea of resistance.
They searched him.
He had nothing on his person except a leather purse containing six francs, and his handkerchief.
Thenardier put the handkerchief into his own pocket.
“What! No pocket-book?” he demanded.
“No, nor watch,” replied one of the “chimney-builders.”
“Never mind,” murmured the masked man who carried the big key, in the voice of a ventriloquist, “he’s a tough old fellow.”
Thenardier went to the corner near the door, picked up a bundle of ropes and threw them at the men.
“Tie him to the leg of the bed,” said he.
And, catching sight of the old man who had been stretched across the room by the blow from M. Leblanc’s fist, and who made no movement, he added:—
“Is Boulatruelle dead?”
“No,” replied Bigrenaille, “he’s drunk.”
“Sweep him into a corner,” said Thenardier.
Two of the “chimney-builders” pushed the drunken man into the corner near the heap of old iron with their feet.
“Babet,” said Thenardier in a low tone to the man with the cudgel, “why did you bring so many; they were not needed.”
“What can you do?” replied the man with the cudgel, “they all wanted to be in it. This is a bad season. There’s no business going on.”
The pallet on which M. Leblanc had been thrown was a sort of hospital bed, elevated on four coarse wooden legs, roughly hewn.
M. Leblanc let them take their own course.
The ruffians bound him securely, in an upright attitude, with his feet on the ground at the head of the bed, the end which was most remote from the window, and nearest to the fireplace.
When the last knot had been tied, Thenardier took a chair and seated himself almost facing M. Leblanc.
Thenardier no longer looked like himself; in the course of a few moments his face had passed from unbridled violence to tranquil and cunning sweetness.
Marius found it difficult to recognize in that polished smile of a man in official life the almost bestial mouth which had been foaming but a moment before; he gazed with amazement on that fantastic and alarming metamorphosis, and he felt as a man might feel who should behold a tiger converted into a lawyer.
“Monsieur —” said Thenardier.
And dismissing with a gesture the ruffians who still kept their hands on M. Leblanc:—
“Stand off a little, and let me have a talk with the gentleman.”
All retired towards the door.
He went on:—
“Monsieur, you did wrong to try to jump out of the window. You might have broken your leg. Now, if you will permit me, we will converse quietly. In the first place, I must communicate to you an observation which I have made which is, that you have not uttered the faintest cry.”
Thenardier was right, this detail was correct, although it had escaped Marius in his agitation. M. Leblanc had barely pronounced a few words, without raising his voice, and even during his struggle with the six ruffians near the window he had preserved the most profound and singular silence.
“Mon Dieu! You might have shouted ‘stop thief’ a bit, and I should not have thought it improper. ‘Murder!’ That, too, is said occasionally, and, so far as I am concerned, I should not have taken it in bad part. It is very natural that you should make a little row when you find yourself with persons who don’t inspire you with sufficient confidence. You might have done that, and no one would have troubled you on that account. You would not even have been gagged. And I will tell you why. This room is very private. That’s its only recommendation, but it has that in its favor. You might fire off a mortar and it would produce about as much noise at the nearest police station as the snores of a drunken man. Here a cannon would make a boum, and the thunder would make a pouf. It’s a handy lodging. But, in short, you did not shout, and it is better so. I present you my compliments, and I will tell you the conclusion that I draw from that fact: My dear sir, when a man shouts, who comes? The police. And after the police? Justice. Well! You have not made an outcry; that is because you don’t care to have the police and the courts come in any more than we do. It is because — I have long suspected it — you have some interest in hiding something. On our side we have the same interest. So we can come to an understanding.”
As he spoke thus, it seemed as though Thenardier, who kept his eyes fixed on M. Leblanc, were trying to plunge the sharp points which darted from the pupils into the very conscience of his prisoner. Moreover, his language, which was stamped with a sort of moderated, subdued insolence and crafty insolence, was reserved and almost choice, and in that rascal, who had been nothing but a robber a short time previously, one now felt “the man who had studied for the priesthood.”
The silence preserved by the prisoner, that precaution which had been carried to the point of forgetting all anxiety for his own life, that resistance opposed to the first impulse of nature, which is to utter a cry, all this, it must be confessed, now that his attention had been called to it, troubled Marius, and affected him with painful astonishment.
Thenardier’s well-grounded observation still further obscured for Marius the dense mystery which enveloped that grave and singular person on whom Courfeyrac had bestowed the sobriquet of Monsieur Leblanc.
But whoever he was, bound with ropes, surrounded with executioners, half plunged, so to speak, in a grave which was closing in upon him to the extent of a degree with every moment that passed, in the presence of Thenardier’s wrath, as in the presence of his sweetness, this man remained impassive; and Marius could not refrain from admiring at such a moment the superbly melancholy visage.
Here, evidently, was a soul which was inaccessible to terror, and which did not know the meaning of despair. Here was one of those men who command amazement in desperate circumstances. Extreme as was the crisis, inevitable as was the catastrophe, there was nothing here of the agony of the drowning man, who opens his horror-filled eyes under the water.
Thenardier rose in an unpretending manner, went to the fireplace, shoved aside the screen, which he leaned against the neighboring pallet, and thus unmasked the brazier full of glowing coals, in which the prisoner could plainly see the chisel white-hot and spotted here and there with tiny scarlet stars.
Then Thenardier returned to his seat beside M. Leblanc.
“I continue,” said he. “We can come to an understanding. Let us arrange this matter in an amicable way. I was wrong to lose my temper just now, I don’t know what I was thinking of, I went a great deal too far, I said extravagant things. For example, because you are a millionnaire, I told you that I exacted money, a lot of money, a deal of money. That would not be reasonable. Mon Dieu, in spite of your riches, you have expenses of your own — who has not? I don’t want to ruin you, I am not a greedy fellow, after all. I am not one of those people who, because they have the advantage of the position, profit by the fact to make themselves ridiculous. Why, I’m taking things into consideration and making a sacrifice on my side. I only want two hundred thousand francs.”
M. Leblanc uttered not a word.
Thenardier went on:—
“You see that I put not a little water in my wine; I’m very moderate. I don’t know the state of your fortune, but I do know that you don’t stick at money, and a benevolent man like yourself can certainly give two hundred thousand francs to the father of a family who is out of luck. Certainly, you are reasonable, too; you haven’t imagined that I should take all the trouble I have today and organized this affair this evening, which has been labor well bestowed, in the opinion of these gentlemen, merely to wind up by asking you for enough to go and drink red wine at fifteen sous and eat veal at Desnoyer’s. Two hundred thousand francs — it’s surely worth all that. This trifle once out of your pocket, I guarantee you that that’s the end of the matter, and that you have no further demands to fear. You will say to me: ‘But I haven’t two hundred thousand francs about me.’ Oh! I’m not extortionate. I don’t demand that. I only ask one thing of you. Have the goodness to write what I am about to dictate to you.”
Here Thenardier paused; then he added, emphasizing his words, and casting a smile in the direction of the brazier:—
“I warn you that I shall not admit that you don’t know how to write.”
A grand inquisitor might have envied that smile.
Thenardier pushed the table close to M. Leblanc, and took an inkstand, a pen, and a sheet of paper from the drawer which he left half open, and in which gleamed the long blade of the knife.
He placed the sheet of paper before M. Leblanc.
“Write,” said he.
The prisoner spoke at last.
“How do you expect me to write? I am bound.”
“That’s true, excuse me!” ejaculated Thenardier, “you are quite right.”
And turning to Bigrenaille:—
“Untie the gentleman’s right arm.”
Panchaud, alias Printanier, alias Bigrenaille, executed Thenardier’s order.
When the prisoner’s right arm was free, Thenardier dipped the pen in the ink and presented it to him.
“Understand thoroughly, sir, that you are in our power, at our discretion, that no human power can get you out of this, and that we shall be really grieved if we are forced to proceed to disagreeable extremities. I know neither your name, nor your address, but I warn you, that you will remain bound until the person charged with carrying the letter which you are about to write shall have returned. Now, be so good as to write.”
“What?” demanded the prisoner.
“I will dictate.”
M. Leblanc took the pen.
Thenardier began to dictate:—
“My daughter —”
The prisoner shuddered, and raised his eyes to Thenardier.
“Put down ‘My dear daughter’—” said Thenardier.
M. Leblanc obeyed.
“Come instantly —”
“You address her as thou, do you not?”
“Who?” asked M. Leblanc.
“Parbleu!” cried Thenardier, “the little one, the Lark.”
M. Leblanc replied without the slightest apparent emotion:—
“I do not know what you mean.”
“Go on, nevertheless,” ejaculated Thenardier, and he continued to dictate:—
“Come immediately, I am in absolute need of thee. The person who will deliver this note to thee is instructed to conduct thee to me. I am waiting for thee. Come with confidence.”
M. Leblanc had written the whole of this.
“Ah! erase ‘come with confidence’; that might lead her to suppose that everything was not as it should be, and that distrust is possible.”
M. Leblanc erased the three words.
“Now,” pursued Thenardier, “sign it. What’s your name?”
The prisoner laid down the pen and demanded:—
“For whom is this letter?”
“You know well,” retorted Thenardier, “for the little one I just told you so.”
It was evident that Thenardier avoided naming the young girl in question. He said “the Lark,” he said “the little one,” but he did not pronounce her name — the precaution of a clever man guarding his secret from his accomplices. To mention the name was to deliver the whole “affair” into their hands, and to tell them more about it than there was any need of their knowing.
He went on:—
“Sign. What is your name?”
“Urbain Fabre,” said the prisoner.
Thenardier, with the movement of a cat, dashed his hand into his pocket and drew out the handkerchief which had been seized on M. Leblanc. He looked for the mark on it, and held it close to the candle.
“U. F. That’s it. Urbain Fabre. Well, sign it U. F.”
The prisoner signed.
“As two hands are required to fold the letter, give it to me, I will fold it.”
That done, Thenardier resumed:—
“Address it, ‘Mademoiselle Fabre,’ at your house. I know that you live a long distance from here, near Saint–Jacquesdu-Haut–Pas, because you go to mass there every day, but I don’t know in what street. I see that you understand your situation. As you have not lied about your name, you will not lie about your address. Write it yourself.”
The prisoner paused thoughtfully for a moment, then he took the pen and wrote:—
“Mademoiselle Fabre, at M. Urbain Fabre’s, Rue Saint–Dominique-D’Enfer, No. 17.”
Thenardier seized the letter with a sort of feverish convulsion.
“Wife!” he cried.
The Thenardier woman hastened to him.
“Here’s the letter. You know what you have to do. There is a carriage at the door. Set out at once, and return ditto.”
And addressing the man with the meat-axe:—
“Since you have taken off your nose-screen, accompany the mistress. You will get up behind the fiacre. You know where you left the team?”
“Yes,” said the man.
And depositing his axe in a corner, he followed Madame Thenardier.
As they set off, Thenardier thrust his head through the half-open door, and shouted into the corridor:—
“Above all things, don’t lose the letter! remember that you carry two hundred thousand francs with you!”
The Thenardier’s hoarse voice replied:—
“Be easy. I have it in my bosom.”
A minute had not elapsed, when the sound of the cracking of a whip was heard, which rapidly retreated and died away.
“Good!” growled Thenardier. “They’re going at a fine pace. At such a gallop, the bourgeoise will be back inside three-quarters of an hour.”
He drew a chair close to the fireplace, folding his arms, and presenting his muddy boots to the brazier.
“My feet are cold!” said he.
Only five ruffians now remained in the den with Thenardier and the prisoner.
These men, through the black masks or paste which covered their faces, and made of them, at fear’s pleasure, charcoal-burners, negroes, or demons, had a stupid and gloomy air, and it could be felt that they perpetrated a crime like a bit of work, tranquilly, without either wrath or mercy, with a sort of ennui. They were crowded together in one corner like brutes, and remained silent.
Thenardier warmed his feet.
The prisoner had relapsed into his taciturnity. A sombre calm had succeeded to the wild uproar which had filled the garret but a few moments before.
The candle, on which a large “stranger” had formed, cast but a dim light in the immense hovel, the brazier had grown dull, and all those monstrous heads cast misshapen shadows on the walls and ceiling.
No sound was audible except the quiet breathing of the old drunken man, who was fast asleep.
Marius waited in a state of anxiety that was augmented by every trifle. The enigma was more impenetrable than ever.
Who was this “little one” whom Thenardier had called the Lark? Was she his “Ursule”? The prisoner had not seemed to be affected by that word, “the Lark,” and had replied in the most natural manner in the world: “I do not know what you mean.” On the other hand, the two letters U. F. were explained; they meant Urbain Fabre; and Ursule was no longer named Ursule. This was what Marius perceived most clearly of all.
A sort of horrible fascination held him nailed to his post, from which he was observing and commanding this whole scene. There he stood, almost incapable of movement or reflection, as though annihilated by the abominable things viewed at such close quarters. He waited, in the hope of some incident, no matter of what nature, since he could not collect his thoughts and did not know upon what course to decide.
“In any case,” he said, “if she is the Lark, I shall see her, for the Thenardier woman is to bring her hither. That will be the end, and then I will give my life and my blood if necessary, but I will deliver her! Nothing shall stop me.”
Nearly half an hour passed in this manner. Thenardier seemed to be absorbed in gloomy reflections, the prisoner did not stir. Still, Marius fancied that at intervals, and for the last few moments, he had heard a faint, dull noise in the direction of the prisoner.
All at once, Thenardier addressed the prisoner:
“By the way, Monsieur Fabre, I might as well say it to you at once.”
These few words appeared to be the beginning of an explanation. Marius strained his ears.
“My wife will be back shortly, don’t get impatient. I think that the Lark really is your daughter, and it seems to me quite natural that you should keep her. Only, listen to me a bit. My wife will go and hunt her up with your letter. I told my wife to dress herself in the way she did, so that your young lady might make no difficulty about following her. They will both enter the carriage with my comrade behind. Somewhere, outside the barrier, there is a trap harnessed to two very good horses. Your young lady will be taken to it. She will alight from the fiacre. My comrade will enter the other vehicle with her, and my wife will come back here to tell us: ‘It’s done.’ As for the young lady, no harm will be done to her; the trap will conduct her to a place where she will be quiet, and just as soon as you have handed over to me those little two hundred thousand francs, she will be returned to you. If you have me arrested, my comrade will give a turn of his thumb to the Lark, that’s all.”
The prisoner uttered not a syllable. After a pause, Thenardier continued:—
“It’s very simple, as you see. There’ll be no harm done unless you wish that there should be harm done. I’m telling you how things stand. I warn you so that you may be prepared.”
He paused: the prisoner did not break the silence, and Thenardier resumed:—
“As soon as my wife returns and says to me: ‘The Lark is on the way,’ we will release you, and you will be free to go and sleep at home. You see that our intentions are not evil.”
Terrible images passed through Marius’ mind. What! That young girl whom they were abducting was not to be brought back? One of those monsters was to bear her off into the darkness? Whither? And what if it were she!
It was clear that it was she. Marius felt his heart stop beating.
What was he to do? Discharge the pistol? Place all those scoundrels in the hands of justice? But the horrible man with the meat-axe would, none the less, be out of reach with the young girl, and Marius reflected on Thenardier’s words, of which he perceived the bloody significance: “If you have me arrested, my comrade will give a turn of his thumb to the Lark.”
Now, it was not alone by the colonel’s testament, it was by his own love, it was by the peril of the one he loved, that he felt himself restrained.
This frightful situation, which had already lasted above half an hour, was changing its aspect every moment.
Marius had sufficient strength of mind to review in succession all the most heart-breaking conjectures, seeking hope and finding none.
The tumult of his thoughts contrasted with the funereal silence of the den.
In the midst of this silence, the door at the bottom of the staircase was heard to open and shut again.
The prisoner made a movement in his bonds.
“Here’s the bourgeoise,” said Thenardier.
He had hardly uttered the words, when the Thenardier woman did in fact rush hastily into the room, red, panting, breathless, with flaming eyes, and cried, as she smote her huge hands on her thighs simultaneously:—
The ruffian who had gone with her made his appearance behind her and picked up his axe again.
“Nobody there! Rue Saint–Dominique, No. 17, no Monsieur Urbain Fabre! They know not what it means!”
She paused, choking, then went on:—
“Monsieur Thenardier! That old fellow has duped you! You are too good, you see! If it had been me, I’d have chopped the beast in four quarters to begin with! And if he had acted ugly, I’d have boiled him alive! He would have been obliged to speak, and say where the girl is, and where he keeps his shiners! That’s the way I should have managed matters! People are perfectly right when they say that men are a deal stupider than women! Nobody at No. 17. It’s nothing but a big carriage gate! No Monsieur Fabre in the Rue Saint–Dominique! And after all that racing and fee to the coachman and all! I spoke to both the porter and the portress, a fine, stout woman, and they know nothing about him!”
Marius breathed freely once more.
She, Ursule or the Lark, he no longer knew what to call her, was safe.
While his exasperated wife vociferated, Thenardier had seated himself on the table.
For several minutes he uttered not a word, but swung his right foot, which hung down, and stared at the brazier with an air of savage revery.
Finally, he said to the prisoner, with a slow and singularly ferocious tone:
“A false address? What did you expect to gain by that?”
“To gain time!” cried the prisoner in a thundering voice, and at the same instant he shook off his bonds; they were cut. The prisoner was only attached to the bed now by one leg.
Before the seven men had time to collect their senses and dash forward, he had bent down into the fireplace, had stretched out his hand to the brazier, and had then straightened himself up again, and now Thenardier, the female Thenardier, and the ruffians, huddled in amazement at the extremity of the hovel, stared at him in stupefaction, as almost free and in a formidable attitude, he brandished above his head the red-hot chisel, which emitted a threatening glow.
The judicial examination to which the ambush in the Gorbeau house eventually gave rise, established the fact that a large sou piece, cut and worked in a peculiar fashion, was found in the garret, when the police made their descent on it. This sou piece was one of those marvels of industry, which are engendered by the patience of the galleys in the shadows and for the shadows, marvels which are nothing else than instruments of escape. These hideous and delicate products of wonderful art are to jewellers’ work what the metaphors of slang are to poetry. There are Benvenuto Cellinis in the galleys, just as there are Villons in language. The unhappy wretch who aspires to deliverance finds means sometimes without tools, sometimes with a common wooden-handled knife, to saw a sou into two thin plates, to hollow out these plates without affecting the coinage stamp, and to make a furrow on the edge of the sou in such a manner that the plates will adhere again. This can be screwed together and unscrewed at will; it is a box. In this box he hides a watch-spring, and this watch-spring, properly handled, cuts good-sized chains and bars of iron. The unfortunate convict is supposed to possess merely a sou; not at all, he possesses liberty. It was a large sou of this sort which, during the subsequent search of the police, was found under the bed near the window. They also found a tiny saw of blue steel which would fit the sou.
It is probable that the prisoner had this sou piece on his person at the moment when the ruffians searched him, that he contrived to conceal it in his hand, and that afterward, having his right hand free, he unscrewed it, and used it as a saw to cut the cords which fastened him, which would explain the faint noise and almost imperceptible movements which Marius had observed.
As he had not been able to bend down, for fear of betraying himself, he had not cut the bonds of his left leg.
The ruffians had recovered from their first surprise.
“Be easy,” said Bigrenaille to Thenardier. “He still holds by one leg, and he can’t get away. I’ll answer for that. I tied that paw for him.”
In the meanwhile, the prisoner had begun to speak:—
“You are wretches, but my life is not worth the trouble of defending it. When you think that you can make me speak, that you can make me write what I do not choose to write, that you can make me say what I do not choose to say —”
He stripped up his left sleeve, and added:—
At the same moment he extended his arm, and laid the glowing chisel which he held in his left hand by its wooden handle on his bare flesh.
The crackling of the burning flesh became audible, and the odor peculiar to chambers of torture filled the hovel.
Marius reeled in utter horror, the very ruffians shuddered, hardly a muscle of the old man’s face contracted, and while the red-hot iron sank into the smoking wound, impassive and almost august, he fixed on Thenardier his beautiful glance, in which there was no hatred, and where suffering vanished in serene majesty.
With grand and lofty natures, the revolts of the flesh and the senses when subjected to physical suffering cause the soul to spring forth, and make it appear on the brow, just as rebellions among the soldiery force the captain to show himself.
“Wretches!” said he, “have no more fear of me than I have for you!”
And, tearing the chisel from the wound, he hurled it through the window, which had been left open; the horrible, glowing tool disappeared into the night, whirling as it flew, and fell far away on the snow.
The prisoner resumed:—
“Do what you please with me.” He was disarmed.
“Seize him!” said Thenardier.
Two of the ruffians laid their hands on his shoulder, and the masked man with the ventriloquist’s voice took up his station in front of him, ready to smash his skull at the slightest movement.
At the same time, Marius heard below him, at the base of the partition, but so near that he could not see who was speaking, this colloquy conducted in a low tone:—
“There is only one thing left to do.”
“Cut his throat.”
It was the husband and wife taking counsel together.
Thenardier walked slowly towards the table, opened the drawer, and took out the knife. Marius fretted with the handle of his pistol. Unprecedented perplexity! For the last hour he had had two voices in his conscience, the one enjoining him to respect his father’s testament, the other crying to him to rescue the prisoner. These two voices continued uninterruptedly that struggle which tormented him to agony. Up to that moment he had cherished a vague hope that he should find some means of reconciling these two duties, but nothing within the limits of possibility had presented itself.
However, the peril was urgent, the last bounds of delay had been reached; Thenardier was standing thoughtfully a few paces distant from the prisoner.
Marius cast a wild glance about him, the last mechanical resource of despair. All at once a shudder ran through him.
At his feet, on the table, a bright ray of light from the full moon illuminated and seemed to point out to him a sheet of paper. On this paper he read the following line written that very morning, in large letters, by the eldest of the Thenardier girls:—
“THE BOBBIES ARE HERE.”
An idea, a flash, crossed Marius’ mind; this was the expedient of which he was in search, the solution of that frightful problem which was torturing him, of sparing the assassin and saving the victim.
He knelt down on his commode, stretched out his arm, seized the sheet of paper, softly detached a bit of plaster from the wall, wrapped the paper round it, and tossed the whole through the crevice into the middle of the den.
It was high time. Thenardier had conquered his last fears or his last scruples, and was advancing on the prisoner.
“Something is falling!” cried the Thenardier woman.
“What is it?” asked her husband.
The woman darted forward and picked up the bit of plaster. She handed it to her husband.
“Where did this come from?” demanded Thenardier.
“Pardie!” ejaculated his wife, “where do you suppose it came from? Through the window, of course.”
“I saw it pass,” said Bigrenaille.
Thenardier rapidly unfolded the paper and held it close to the candle.
“It’s in Eponine’s handwriting. The devil!”
He made a sign to his wife, who hastily drew near, and showed her the line written on the sheet of paper, then he added in a subdued voice:—
“Quick! The ladder! Let’s leave the bacon in the mousetrap and decamp!”
“Without cutting that man’s throat?” asked, the Thenardier woman.
“We haven’t the time.”
“Through what?” resumed Bigrenaille.
“Through the window,” replied Thenardier. “Since Ponine has thrown the stone through the window, it indicates that the house is not watched on that side.”
The mask with the ventriloquist’s voice deposited his huge key on the floor, raised both arms in the air, and opened and clenched his fists, three times rapidly without uttering a word.
This was the signal like the signal for clearing the decks for action on board ship.
The ruffians who were holding the prisoner released him; in the twinkling of an eye the rope ladder was unrolled outside the window, and solidly fastened to the sill by the two iron hooks.
The prisoner paid no attention to what was going on around him. He seemed to be dreaming or praying.
As soon as the ladder was arranged, Thenardier cried:
“Come! the bourgeoise first!”
And he rushed headlong to the window.
But just as he was about to throw his leg over, Bigrenaille seized him roughly by the collar.
“Not much, come now, you old dog, after us!”
“After us!” yelled the ruffians.
“You are children,” said Thenardier, “we are losing time. The police are on our heels.”
“Well,” said the ruffians, “let’s draw lots to see who shall go down first.”
“Are you mad! Are you crazy! What a pack of boobies! You want to waste time, do you? Draw lots, do you? By a wet finger, by a short straw! With written names! Thrown into a hat! —”
“Would you like my hat?” cried a voice on the threshold.
All wheeled round. It was Javert.
He had his hat in his hand, and was holding it out to them with a smile.
At nightfall, Javert had posted his men and had gone into ambush himself between the trees of the Rue de la Barrieredes–Gobelins which faced the Gorbeau house, on the other side of the boulevard. He had begun operations by opening “his pockets,” and dropping into it the two young girls who were charged with keeping a watch on the approaches to the den. But he had only “caged” Azelma. As for Eponine, she was not at her post, she had disappeared, and he had not been able to seize her. Then Javert had made a point and had bent his ear to waiting for the signal agreed upon. The comings and goings of the fiacres had greatly agitated him. At last, he had grown impatient, and, sure that there was a nest there, sure of being in “luck,” having recognized many of the ruffians who had entered, he had finally decided to go upstairs without waiting for the pistol-shot.
It will be remembered that he had Marius’ pass-key.
He had arrived just in the nick of time.
The terrified ruffians flung themselves on the arms which they had abandoned in all the corners at the moment of flight. In less than a second, these seven men, horrible to behold, had grouped themselves in an attitude of defence, one with his meat-axe, another with his key, another with his bludgeon, the rest with shears, pincers, and hammers. Thenardier had his knife in his fist. The Thenardier woman snatched up an enormous paving-stone which lay in the angle of the window and served her daughters as an ottoman.
Javert put on his hat again, and advanced a couple of paces into the room, with arms folded, his cane under one arm, his sword in its sheath.
“Halt there,” said he. “You shall not go out by the window, you shall go through the door. It’s less unhealthy. There are seven of you, there are fifteen of us. Don’t let’s fall to collaring each other like men of Auvergne.”
Bigrenaille drew out a pistol which he had kept concealed under his blouse, and put it in Thenardier’s hand, whispering in the latter’s ear:—
“It’s Javert. I don’t dare fire at that man. Do you dare?”
“Parbleu!” replied Thenardier.
“Well, then, fire.”
Thenardier took the pistol and aimed at Javert.
Javert, who was only three paces from him, stared intently at him and contented himself with saying:—
“Come now, don’t fire. You’ll miss fire.”
Thenardier pulled the trigger. The pistol missed fire.
“Didn’t I tell you so!” ejaculated Javert.
Bigrenaille flung his bludgeon at Javert’s feet.
“You’re the emperor of the fiends! I surrender.”
“And you?” Javert asked the rest of the ruffians.
“So do we.”
Javert began again calmly:—
“That’s right, that’s good, I said so, you are nice fellows.”
“I only ask one thing,” said Bigrenaille, “and that is, that I may not be denied tobacco while I am in confinement.”
“Granted,” said Javert.
And turning round and calling behind him:—
“Come in now!”
A squad of policemen, sword in hand, and agents armed with bludgeons and cudgels, rushed in at Javert’s summons. They pinioned the ruffians.
This throng of men, sparely lighted by the single candle, filled the den with shadows.
“Handcuff them all!” shouted Javert.
“Come on!” cried a voice which was not the voice of a man, but of which no one would ever have said: “It is a woman’s voice.”
The Thenardier woman had entrenched herself in one of the angles of the window, and it was she who had just given vent to this roar.
The policemen and agents recoiled.
She had thrown off her shawl, but retained her bonnet; her husband, who was crouching behind her, was almost hidden under the discarded shawl, and she was shielding him with her body, as she elevated the paving-stone above her head with the gesture of a giantess on the point of hurling a rock.
“Beware!” she shouted.
All crowded back towards the corridor. A broad open space was cleared in the middle of the garret.
The Thenardier woman cast a glance at the ruffians who had allowed themselves to be pinioned, and muttered in hoarse and guttural accents:—
Javert smiled, and advanced across the open space which the Thenardier was devouring with her eyes.
“Don’t come near me,” she cried, “or I’ll crush you.”
“What a grenadier!” ejaculated Javert; “you’ve got a beard like a man, mother, but I have claws like a woman.”
And he continued to advance.
The Thenardier, dishevelled and terrible, set her feet far apart, threw herself backwards, and hurled the paving-stone at Javert’s head. Javert ducked, the stone passed over him, struck the wall behind, knocked off a huge piece of plastering, and, rebounding from angle to angle across the hovel, now luckily almost empty, rested at Javert’s feet.
At the same moment, Javert reached the Thenardier couple. One of his big hands descended on the woman’s shoulder; the other on the husband’s head.
“The handcuffs!” he shouted.
The policemen trooped in in force, and in a few seconds Javert’s order had been executed.
The Thenardier female, overwhelmed, stared at her pinioned hands, and at those of her husband, who had dropped to the floor, and exclaimed, weeping:—
“They are in the jug,” said Javert.
In the meanwhile, the agents had caught sight of the drunken man asleep behind the door, and were shaking him:—
He awoke, stammering:—
“Is it all over, Jondrette?”
“Yes,” replied Javert.
The six pinioned ruffians were standing, and still preserved their spectral mien; all three besmeared with black, all three masked.
“Keep on your masks,” said Javert.
And passing them in review with a glance of a Frederick II. at a Potsdam parade, he said to the three “chimney-builders”:—
“Good day, Bigrenaille! good day, Brujon! good day, Deuxmilliards!”
Then turning to the three masked men, he said to the man with the meat-axe:—
“Good day, Gueulemer!”
And to the man with the cudgel:—
“Good day, Babet!”
And to the ventriloquist:—
“Your health, Claquesous.”
At that moment, he caught sight of the ruffians’ prisoner. who, ever since the entrance of the police, had not uttered a word, and had held his head down.
“Untie the gentleman!” said Javert, “and let no one go out!”
That said, he seated himself with sovereign dignity before the table, where the candle and the writing-materials still remained, drew a stamped paper from his pocket, and began to prepare his report.
When he had written the first lines, which are formulas that never vary, he raised his eyes:—
“Let the gentleman whom these gentlemen bound step forward.”
The policemen glanced round them.
“Well,” said Javert, “where is he?”
The prisoner of the ruffians, M. Leblanc, M. Urbain Fabre, the father of Ursule or the Lark, had disappeared.
The door was guarded, but the window was not. As soon as he had found himself released from his bonds, and while Javert was drawing up his report, he had taken advantage of confusion, the crowd, the darkness, and of a moment when the general attention was diverted from him, to dash out of the window.
An agent sprang to the opening and looked out. He saw no one outside.
The rope ladder was still shaking.
“The devil!” ejaculated Javert between his teeth, “he must have been the most valuable of the lot.”
On the day following that on which these events took place in the house on the Boulevard de l’Hopital, a child, who seemed to be coming from the direction of the bridge of Austerlitz, was ascending the side-alley on the right in the direction of the Barriere de Fontainebleau.
Night had fully come.
This lad was pale, thin, clad in rags, with linen trousers in the month of February, and was singing at the top of his voice.
At the corner of the Rue du Petit–Banquier, a bent old woman was rummaging in a heap of refuse by the light of a street lantern; the child jostled her as he passed, then recoiled, exclaiming:—
“Hello! And I took it for an enormous, enormous dog!”
He pronounced the word enormous the second time with a jeering swell of the voice which might be tolerably well represented by capitals: “an enormous, ENORMOUS dog.”
The old woman straightened herself up in a fury.
“Nasty brat!” she grumbled. “If I hadn’t been bending over, I know well where I would have planted my foot on you.”
The boy was already far away.
“Kisss! kisss!” he cried. “After that, I don’t think I was mistaken!”
The old woman, choking with indignation, now rose completely upright, and the red gleam of the lantern fully lighted up her livid face, all hollowed into angles and wrinkles, with crow’s-feet meeting the corners of her mouth.
Her body was lost in the darkness, and only her head was visible. One would have pronounced her a mask of Decrepitude carved out by a light from the night.
The boy surveyed her.
“Madame,” said he, “does not possess that style of beauty which pleases me.”
He then pursued his road, and resumed his song:—
“Le roi Coupdesabot
S’en allait a la chasse,
A la chasse aux corbeaux —”
At the end of these three lines he paused. He had arrived in front of No. 50–52, and finding the door fastened, he began to assault it with resounding and heroic kicks, which betrayed rather the man’s shoes that he was wearing than the child’s feet which he owned.
In the meanwhile, the very old woman whom he had encountered at the corner of the Rue du Petit–Banquier hastened up behind him, uttering clamorous cries and indulging in lavish and exaggerated gestures.
“What’s this? What’s this? Lord God! He’s battering the door down! He’s knocking the house down.”
The kicks continued.
The old woman strained her lungs.
“Is that the way buildings are treated nowadays?”
All at once she paused.
She had recognized the gamin.
“What! so it’s that imp!”
“Why, it’s the old lady,” said the lad. “Good day, Bougonmuche. I have come to see my ancestors.”
The old woman retorted with a composite grimace, and a wonderful improvisation of hatred taking advantage of feebleness and ugliness, which was, unfortunately, wasted in the dark:—
“There’s no one here.”
“Bah!” retorted the boy, “where’s my father?”
“At La Force.”
“Come, now! And my mother?”
“Well! And my sisters?”
“At the Madelonettes.”
The lad scratched his head behind his ear, stared at Ma’am Bougon, and said:—
Then he executed a pirouette on his heel; a moment later, the old woman, who had remained on the door-step, heard him singing in his clear, young voice, as he plunged under the black elm-trees, in the wintry wind:—
“Le roi Coupdesabot31
S’en allait a la chasse,
A la chasse aux corbeaux,
Monte sur deux echasses.
Quand on passait dessous,
On lui payait deux sous.”
31 King Bootkick went a-hunting after crows, mounted on two stilts. When one passed beneath them, one paid him two sous.
[The end of Volume III. “Marius”]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56