Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,
Volume 1, Book Eighth, Chapter 5
A Suitable Tomb
Javert deposited Jean Valjean in the city prison.
The arrest of M. Madeleine occasioned a sensation, or rather, an extraordinary commotion in M. sur M. We are sorry that we cannot conceal the fact, that at the single word, "He was a convict," nearly every one deserted him. In less than two hours all the good that he had done had been forgotten, and he was nothing but a "convict from the galleys." It is just to add that the details of what had taken place at Arras were not yet known. All day long conversations like the following were to be heard in all quarters of the town: –
"You don't know? He was a liberated convict!" "Who?" "The mayor." "Bah! M. Madeleine?" "Yes." "Really?" "His name was not Madeleine at all; he had a frightful name, Bejean, Bojean, Boujean." "Ah! Good God!" "He has been arrested." "Arrested!" "In prison, in the city prison, while waiting to be transferred." "Until he is transferred!" "He is to be transferred!" "Where is he to be taken?" "He will be tried at the Assizes for a highway robbery which he committed long ago." "Well! I suspected as much. That man was too good, too perfect, too affected. He refused the cross; he bestowed sous on all the little scamps he came across. I always thought there was some evil history back of all that."
The "drawing-rooms" particularly abounded in remarks of this nature.
One old lady, a subscriber to the Drapeau Blanc, made the following remark, the depth of which it is impossible to fathom: –
"I am not sorry. It will be a lesson to the Bonapartists!"
It was thus that the phantom which had been called M. Madeleine vanished from M. sur M. Only three or four persons in all the town remained faithful to his memory. The old portress who had served him was among the number.
On the evening of that day the worthy old woman was sitting in her lodge, still in a thorough fright, and absorbed in sad reflections. The factory had been closed all day, the carriage gate was bolted, the street was deserted. There was no one in the house but the two nuns, Sister Perpetue and Sister Simplice, who were watching beside the body of Fantine.
Towards the hour when M. Madeleine was accustomed to return home, the good portress rose mechanically, took from a drawer the key of M. Madeleine's chamber, and the flat candlestick which he used every evening to go up to his quarters; then she hung the key on the nail whence he was accustomed to take it, and set the candlestick on one side, as though she was expecting him. Then she sat down again on her chair, and became absorbed in thought once more. The poor, good old woman bad done all this without being conscious of it.
It was only at the expiration of two hours that she roused herself from her revery, and exclaimed, "Hold! My good God Jesus! And I hung his key on the nail!"
At that moment the small window in the lodge opened, a hand passed through, seized the key and the candlestick, and lighted the taper at the candle which was burning there.
The portress raised her eyes, and stood there with gaping mouth, and a shriek which she confined to her throat.
She knew that hand, that arm, the sleeve of that coat.
It was M. Madeleine.
It was several seconds before she could speak; she had a seizure, as she said herself, when she related the adventure afterwards.
"Good God, Monsieur le Maire," she cried at last, "I thought you were – "
She stopped; the conclusion of her sentence would have been lacking in respect towards the beginning. Jean Valjean was still Monsieur le Maire to her.
He finished her thought.
"In prison," said he. "I was there; I broke a bar of one of the windows; I let myself drop from the top of a roof, and here I am. I am going up to my room; go and find Sister Simplice for me. She is with that poor woman, no doubt."
The old woman obeyed in all haste.
He gave her no orders; he was quite sure that she would guard him better than he should guard himself.
No one ever found out how he had managed to get into the courtyard without opening the big gates. He had, and always carried about him, a pass-key which opened a little side-door; but he must have been searched, and his latch-key must have been taken from him. This point was never explained.
He ascended the staircase leading to his chamber. On arriving at the top, he left his candle on the top step of his stairs, opened his door with very little noise, went and closed his window and his shutters by feeling, then returned for his candle and re-entered his room.
It was a useful precaution; it will be recollected that his window could be seen from the street.
He cast a glance about him, at his table, at his chair, at his bed which had not been disturbed for three days. No trace of the disorder of the night before last remained. The portress had "done up" his room; only she had picked out of the ashes and placed neatly on the table the two iron ends of the cudgel and the forty-sou piece which had been blackened by the fire.
He took a sheet of paper, on which he wrote: "These are the two tips of my iron-shod cudgel and the forty-sou piece stolen from Little Gervais, which I mentioned at the Court of Assizes," and he arranged this piece of paper, the bits of iron, and the coin in such a way that they were the first things to be seen on entering the room. From a cupboard he pulled out one of his old shirts, which he tore in pieces. In the strips of linen thus prepared he wrapped the two silver candlesticks. He betrayed neither haste nor agitation; and while he was wrapping up the Bishop's candlesticks, he nibbled at a piece of black bread. It was probably the prison-bread which he had carried with him in his flight.
This was proved by the crumbs which were found on the floor of the room when the authorities made an examination later on.
There came two taps at the door.
"Come in," said he.
It was Sister Simplice.
She was pale; her eyes were red; the candle which she carried trembled in her hand. The peculiar feature of the violences of destiny is, that however polished or cool we may be, they wring human nature from our very bowels, and force it to reappear on the surface. The emotions of that day had turned the nun into a woman once more. She had wept, and she was trembling.
Jean Valjean had just finished writing a few lines on a paper, which he handed to the nun, saying, "Sister, you will give this to Monsieur le curé"
The paper was not folded. She cast a glance upon it.
"You can read it," said he.
She read: –
"I beg Monsieur le curéto keep an eye on all that I leave behind me. He will be so good as to pay out of it the expenses of my trial, and of the funeral of the woman who died yesterday. The rest is for the poor."
The sister tried to speak, but she only managed to stammer a few inarticulate sounds. She succeeded in saying, however: –
"Does not Monsieur le Maire desire to take a last look at that poor, unhappy woman?"
"No," said he; "I am pursued; it would only end in their arresting me in that room, and that would disturb her."
He had hardly finished when a loud noise became audible on the staircase. They heard a tumult of ascending footsteps, and the old portress saying in her loudest and most piercing tones: –
"My good sir, I swear to you by the good God, that not a soul has entered this house all day, nor all the evening, and that I have not even left the door."
A man responded: –
"But there is a light in that room, nevertheless."
They recognized Javert's voice.
The chamber was so arranged that the door in opening masked the corner of the wall on the right. Jean Valjean blew out the light and placed himself in this angle. Sister Simplice fell on her knees near the table.
The door opened.
The whispers of many men and the protestations of the portress were audible in the corridor.
The nun did not raise her eyes. She was praying.
The candle was on the chimney-piece, and gave but very little light.
Javert caught sight of the nun and halted in amazement.
It will be remembered that the fundamental point in Javert, his element, the very air he breathed, was veneration for all authority. This was impregnable, and admitted of neither objection nor restriction. In his eyes, of course, the ecclesiastical authority was the chief of all; he was religious, superficial and correct on this point as on all others. In his eyes, a priest was a mind, who never makes a mistake; a nun was a creature who never sins; they were souls walled in from this world, with a single door which never opened except to allow the truth to pass through.
On perceiving the sister, his first movement was to retire.
But there was also another duty which bound him and impelled him imperiously in the opposite direction. His second movement was to remain and to venture on at least one question.
This was Sister Simplice, who had never told a lie in her life. Javert knew it, and held her in special veneration in consequence.
"Sister," said he, "are you alone in this room?"
A terrible moment ensued, during which the poor portress felt as though she should faint.
The sister raised her eyes and answered: –
"Then," resumed Javert, "you will excuse me if I persist; it is my duty; you have not seen a certain person – a man – this evening? He has escaped; we are in search of him – that Jean Valjean; you have not seen him?"
The sister replied: –
She lied. She had lied twice in succession, one after the other, without hesitation, promptly, as a person does when sacrificing herself.
"Pardon me," said Javert, and he retired with a deep bow.
O sainted maid! you left this world many years ago; you have rejoined your sisters, the virgins, and your brothers, the angels, in the light; may this lie be counted to your credit in paradise!
The sister's affirmation was for Javert so decisive a thing that he did not even observe the singularity of that candle which had but just been extinguished, and which was still smoking on the table.
An hour later, a man, marching amid trees and mists, was rapidly departing from M. sur M. in the direction of Paris. That man was Jean Valjean. It has been established by the testimony of two or three carters who met him, that he was carrying a bundle; that he was dressed in a blouse. Where had he obtained that blouse? No one ever found out. But an aged workman had died in the infirmary of the factory a few days before, leaving behind him nothing but his blouse. Perhaps that was the one.
One last word about Fantine.
We all have a mother, – the earth. Fantine was given back to that mother.
The cure thought that he was doing right, and perhaps he really was, in reserving as much money as possible from what Jean Valjean had left for the poor. Who was concerned, after all? A convict and a woman of the town. That is why he had a very simple funeral for Fantine, and reduced it to that strictly necessary form known as the pauper's grave.
So Fantine was buried in the free corner of the cemetery which belongs to anybody and everybody, and where the poor are lost. Fortunately, God knows where to find the soul again. Fantine was laid in the shade, among the first bones that came to hand; she was subjected to the promiscuousness of ashes. She was thrown into the public grave. Her grave resembled her bed.
[THE END OF VOLUME I. "FANTINE"]