Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,
Volume 2, Book Eighth, Chapter 4
In which Jean Valjean has quite the Air of having read Austin Castillejo
The strides of a lame man are like the ogling glances of a one-eyed man; they do not reach their goal very promptly. Moreover, Fauchelevent was in a dilemma. He took nearly a quarter of an hour to return to his cottage in the garden. Cosette had waked up. Jean Valjean had placed her near the fire. At the moment when Fauchelevent entered, Jean Valjean was pointing out to her the vintner's basket on the wall, and saying to her, "Listen attentively to me, my little Cosette. We must go away from this house, but we shall return to it, and we shall be very happy here. The good man who lives here is going to carry you off on his back in that. You will wait for me at a lady's house. I shall come to fetch you. Obey, and say nothing, above all things, unless you want Madame Thenardier to get you again!"
Cosette nodded gravely.
Jean Valjean turned round at the noise made by Fauchelevent opening the door.
"Everything is arranged, and nothing is," said Fauchelevent. "I have permission to bring you in; but before bringing you in you must be got out. That's where the difficulty lies. It is easy enough with the child."
"You will carry her out?"
"And she will hold her tongue?"
"I answer for that."
"But you, Father Madeleine?"
And, after a silence, fraught with anxiety, Fauchelevent exclaimed: –
"Why, get out as you came in!"
Jean Valjean, as in the first instance, contented himself with saying, "Impossible."
Fauchelevent grumbled, more to himself than to Jean Valjean: –
"There is another thing which bothers me. I have said that I would put earth in it. When I come to think it over, the earth instead of the corpse will not seem like the real thing, it won't do, it will get displaced, it will move about. The men will bear it. You understand, Father Madeleine, the government will notice it."
Jean Valjean stared him straight in the eye and thought that he was raving.
Fauchelevent went on: –
"How the de – uce are you going to get out? It must all be done by to-morrow morning. It is to-morrow that I am to bring you in. The prioress expects you."
Then he explained to Jean Valjean that this was his recompense for a service which he, Fauchelevent, was to render to the community. That it fell among his duties to take part in their burials, that he nailed up the coffins and helped the grave-digger at the cemetery. That the nun who had died that morning had requested to be buried in the coffin which had served her for a bed, and interred in the vault under the altar of the chapel. That the police regulations forbade this, but that she was one of those dead to whom nothing is refused. That the prioress and the vocal mothers intended to fulfil the wish of the deceased. That it was so much the worse for the government. That he, Fauchelevent, was to nail up the coffin in the cell, raise the stone in the chapel, and lower the corpse into the vault. And that, by way of thanks, the prioress was to admit his brother to the house as a gardener, and his niece as a pupil. That his brother was M. Madeleine, and that his niece was Cosette. That the prioress had told him to bring his brother on the following evening, after the counterfeit interment in the cemetery. But that he could not bring M. Madeleine in from the outside if M. Madeleine was not outside. That that was the first problem. And then, that there was another: the empty coffin.
"What is that empty coffin?" asked Jean Valjean.
Fauchelevent replied: –
"The coffin of the administration."
"What coffin? What administration?"
"A nun dies. The municipal doctor comes and says, 'A nun has died.' The government sends a coffin. The next day it sends a hearse and undertaker's men to get the coffin and carry it to the cemetery. The undertaker's men will come and lift the coffin; there will be nothing in it."
"Put something in it."
"A corpse? I have none."
"A living person."
"Me!" said Jean Valjean.
Fauchelevent, who was seated, sprang up as though a bomb had burst under his chair.
Jean Valjean gave way to one of those rare smiles which lighted up his face like a flash from heaven in the winter.
"You know, Fauchelevent, what you have said: 'Mother Crucifixion is dead.' and I add: 'and Father Madeleine is buried.'"
"Ah! good, you can laugh, you are not speaking seriously."
"Very seriously, I must get out of this place."
"l have told you to find a basket, and a cover for me also."
"The basket will be of pine, and the cover a black cloth."
"In the first place, it will be a white cloth. Nuns are buried in white."
"Let it be a white cloth, then."
"You are not like other men, Father Madeleine."
To behold such devices, which are nothing else than the savage and daring inventions of the galleys, spring forth from the peaceable things which surrounded him, and mingle with what he called the "petty course of life in the convent," caused Fauchelevent as much amazement as a gull fishing in the gutter of the Rue Saint-Denis would inspire in a passer-by.
Jean Valjean went on: –
"The problem is to get out of here without being seen. This offers the means. But give me some information, in the first place. How is it managed? Where is this coffin?"
"The empty one?"
"Down stairs, in what is called the dead-room. It stands on two trestles, under the pall."
"How long is the coffin?"
"What is this dead-room?"
"It is a chamber on the ground floor which has a grated window opening on the garden, which is closed on the outside by a shutter, and two doors; one leads into the convent, the other into the church."
"The church in the street, the church which any one can enter."
"Have you the keys to those two doors?"
"No; I have the key to the door which communicates with the convent; the porter has the key to the door which communicates with the church."
"When does the porter open that door?"
"Only to allow the undertaker's men to enter, when they come to get the coffin. When the coffin has been taken out, the door is closed again."
"Who nails up the coffin?"
"Who spreads the pall over it?"
"Are you alone?"
"Not another man, except the police doctor, can enter the dead-room. That is even written on the wall."
"Could you hide me in that room to-night when every one is asleep?"
"No. But I could hide you in a small, dark nook which opens on the dead-room, where I keep my tools to use for burials, and of which I have the key."
"At what time will the hearse come for the coffin to-morrow?"
"About three o'clock in the afternoon. The burial will take place at the Vaugirard cemetery a little before nightfall. It is not very near."
"I will remain concealed in your tool-closet all night and all the morning. And how about food? I shall be hungry."
"I will bring you something."
"You can come and nail me up in the coffin at two o'clock."
Fauchelevent recoiled and cracked his finger-joints.
"But that is impossible!"
"Bah! Impossible to take a hammer and drive some nails in a plank?"
What seemed unprecedented to Fauchelevent was, we repeat, a simple matter to Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean had been in worse straits than this. Any man who has been a prisoner understands how to contract himself to fit the diameter of the escape. The prisoner is subject to flight as the sick man is subject to a crisis which saves or kills him. An escape is a cure. What does not a man undergo for the sake of a cure? To have himself nailed up in a case and carried off like a bale of goods, to live for a long time in a box, to find air where there is none, to economize his breath for hours, to know how to stifle without dying – this was one of Jean Valjean's gloomy talents.
Moreover, a coffin containing a living being, – that convict's expedient, – is also an imperial expedient. If we are to credit the monk Austin Castillejo, this was the means employed by Charles the Fifth, desirous of seeing the Plombes for the last time after his abdication.
He had her brought into and carried out of the monastery of Saint-Yuste in this manner.
Fauchelevent, who had recovered himself a little, exclaimed: –
"But how will you manage to breathe?"
"I will breathe."
"In that box! The mere thought of it suffocates me."
"You surely must have a gimlet, you will make a few holes here and there, around my mouth, and you will nail the top plank on loosely."
"Good! And what if you should happen to cough or to sneeze?"
"A man who is making his escape does not cough or sneeze."
And Jean Valjean added: –
"Father Fauchelevent, we must come to a decision: I must either be caught here, or accept this escape through the hearse."
Every one has noticed the taste which cats have for pausing and lounging between the two leaves of a half-shut door. Who is there who has not said to a cat, "Do come in!" There are men who, when an incident stands half-open before them, have the same tendency to halt in indecision between two resolutions, at the risk of getting crushed through the abrupt closing of the adventure by fate. The over-prudent, cats as they are, and because they are cats, sometimes incur more danger than the audacious. Fauchelevent was of this hesitating nature. But Jean Valjean's coolness prevailed over him in spite of himself. He grumbled: –
"Well, since there is no other means."
Jean Valjean resumed: –
"The only thing which troubles me is what will take place at the cemetery."
"That is the very point that is not troublesome," exclaimed Fauchelevent. "If you are sure of coming out of the coffin all right, I am sure of getting you out of the grave. The grave-digger is a drunkard, and a friend of mine. He is Father Mestienne. An old fellow of the old school. The grave-digger puts the corpses in the grave, and I put the grave-digger in my pocket. I will tell you what will take place. They will arrive a little before dusk, three-quarters of an hour before the gates of the cemetery are closed. The hearse will drive directly up to the grave. I shall follow; that is my business. I shall have a hammer, a chisel, and some pincers in my pocket. The hearse halts, the undertaker's men knot a rope around your coffin and lower you down. The priest says the prayers, makes the sign of the cross, sprinkles the holy water, and takes his departure. I am left alone with Father Mestienne. He is my friend, I tell you. One of two things will happen, he will either be sober, or he will not be sober. If he is not drunk, I shall say to him: 'Come and drink a bout while the Bon Coing [the Good Quince] is open.' I carry him off, I get him drunk, – it does not take long to make Father Mestienne drunk, he always has the beginning of it about him, – I lay him under the table, I take his card, so that I can get into the cemetery again, and I return without him. Then you have no longer any one but me to deal with. If he is drunk, I shall say to him: 'Be off; I will do your work for you.' Off he goes, and I drag you out of the hole."
Jean Valjean held out his hand, and Fauchelevent precipitated himself upon it with the touching effusion of a peasant.
"That is settled, Father Fauchelevent. All will go well."
"Provided nothing goes wrong," thought Fauchelevent. "In that case, it would be terrible."