Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,
Volume 2, Book Fifth, Chapter 9
The Man with the Bell
He walked straight up to the man whom he saw in the garden. He had taken in his hand the roll of silver which was in the pocket of his waistcoat.
The man's head was bent down, and he did not see him approaching. In a few strides Jean Valjean stood beside him.
Jean Valjean accosted him with the cry: –
"One hundred francs!"
The man gave a start and raised his eyes.
"You can earn a hundred francs," went on Jean Valjean, "if you will grant me shelter for this night."
The moon shone full upon Jean Valjean's terrified countenance.
"What! so it is you, Father Madeleine!" said the man.
That name, thus pronounced, at that obscure hour, in that unknown spot, by that strange man, made Jean Valjean start back.
He had expected anything but that. The person who thus addressed him was a bent and lame old man, dressed almost like a peasant, who wore on his left knee a leather knee-cap, whence hung a moderately large bell. His face, which was in the shadow, was not distinguishable.
However, the goodman had removed his cap, and exclaimed, trembling all over: –
"Ah, good God! How come you here, Father Madeleine? Where did you enter? Dieu-Jesus! Did you fall from heaven? There is no trouble about that: if ever you do fall, it will be from there. And what a state you are in! You have no cravat; you have no hat; you have no coat! Do you know, you would have frightened any one who did not know you? No coat! Lord God! Are the saints going mad nowadays? But how did you get in here?"
His words tumbled over each other. The goodman talked with a rustic volubility, in which there was nothing alarming. All this was uttered with a mixture of stupefaction and naive kindliness.
"Who are you? and what house is this?" demanded Jean Valjean.
"Ah! pardieu, this is too much!" exclaimed the old man. "I am the person for whom you got the place here, and this house is the one where you had me placed. What! You don't recognize me?"
"No," said Jean Valjean; "and how happens it that you know me?"
"You saved my life," said the man.
He turned. A ray of moonlight outlined his profile, and Jean Valjean recognized old Fauchelevent.
"Ah!" said Jean Valjean, "so it is you? Yes, I recollect you."
"That is very lucky," said the old man, in a reproachful tone.
"And what are you doing here?" resumed Jean Valjean.
"Why, I am covering my melons, of course!"
In fact, at the moment when Jean Valjean accosted him, old Fauchelevent held in his hand the end of a straw mat which he was occupied in spreading over the melon bed. During the hour or thereabouts that he had been in the garden he had already spread out a number of them. It was this operation which had caused him to execute the peculiar movements observed from the shed by Jean Valjean.
He continued: –
"I said to myself, 'The moon is bright: it is going to freeze. What if I were to put my melons into their greatcoats?' And," he added, looking at Jean Valjean with a broad smile, – "pardieu! you ought to have done the same! But how do you come here?"
Jean Valjean, finding himself known to this man, at least only under the name of Madeleine, thenceforth advanced only with caution. He multiplied his questions. Strange to say, their roles seemed to be reversed. It was he, the intruder, who interrogated.
"And what is this bell which you wear on your knee?"
"This," replied Fauchelevent, "is so that I may be avoided."
"What! so that you may be avoided?"
Old Fauchelevent winked with an indescribable air.
"Ah, goodness! there are only women in this house – many young girls. It appears that I should be a dangerous person to meet. The bell gives them warning. When I come, they go."
"What house is this?"
"Come, you know well enough."
"But I do not."
"Not when you got me the place here as gardener?"
"Answer me as though I knew nothing."
"Well, then, this is the Petit-Picpus convent."
Memories recurred to Jean Valjean. Chance, that is to say, Providence, had cast him into precisely that convent in the Quartier Saint-Antoine where old Fauchelevent, crippled by the fall from his cart, had been admitted on his recommendation two years previously. He repeated, as though talking to himself: –
"The Petit-Picpus convent."
"Exactly," returned old Fauchelevent. "But to come to the point, how the deuce did you manage to get in here, you, Father Madeleine? No matter if you are a saint; you are a man as well, and no man enters here."
"You certainly are here."
"There is no one but me."
"Still," said Jean Valjean, "I must stay here."
"Ah, good God!" cried Fauchelevent.
Jean Valjean drew near to the old man, and said to him in a grave voice: –
"Father Fauchelevent, I saved your life."
"I was the first to recall it," returned Fauchelevent.
"Well, you can do to-day for me that which I did for you in the olden days."
Fauchelevent took in his aged, trembling, and wrinkled hands Jean Valjean's two robust hands, and stood for several minutes as though incapable of speaking. At length he exclaimed: –
"Oh! that would be a blessing from the good God, if I could make you some little return for that! Save your life! Monsieur le Maire, dispose of the old man!"
A wonderful joy had transfigured this old man. His countenance seemed to emit a ray of light.
"What do you wish me to do?" he resumed.
"That I will explain to you. You have a chamber?"
"I have an isolated hovel yonder, behind the ruins of the old convent, in a corner which no one ever looks into. There are three rooms in it."
The hut was, in fact, so well hidden behind the ruins, and so cleverly arranged to prevent it being seen, that Jean Valjean had not perceived it.
"Good," said Jean Valjean. "Now I am going to ask two things of you."
"What are they, Mr. Mayor?"
"In the first place, you are not to tell any one what you know about me. In the second, you are not to try to find out anything more."
"As you please. I know that you can do nothing that is not honest, that you have always been a man after the good God's heart. And then, moreover, you it was who placed me here. That concerns you. I am at your service."
"That is settled then. Now, come with me. We will go and get the child."
"Ah!" said Fauchelevent, "so there is a child?"
He added not a word further, and followed Jean Valjean as a dog follows his master.
Less than half an hour afterwards Cosette, who had grown rosy again before the flame of a good fire, was lying asleep in the old gardener's bed. Jean Valjean had put on his cravat and coat once more; his hat, which he had flung over the wall, had been found and picked up. While Jean Valjean was putting on his coat, Fauchelevent had removed the bell and kneecap, which now hung on a nail beside a vintage basket that adorned the wall. The two men were warming themselves with their elbows resting on a table upon which Fauchelevent had placed a bit of cheese, black bread, a bottle of wine, and two glasses, and the old man was saying to Jean Valjean, as he laid his hand on the latter's knee: "Ah! Father Madeleine! You did not recognize me immediately; you save people's lives, and then you forget them! That is bad! But they remember you! You are an ingrate!"