Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,
Volume 5, Book First, Chapter 9
Employment of the Old Talents of a Poacher and That Infallible Marksmanship Which Influenced the Condemnation of 1796
Opinions were exchanged in the barricade. The firing from the gun was about to begin again. Against that grape-shot, they could not hold out a quarter of an hour longer. It was absolutely necessary to deaden the blows.
Enjolras issued this command:
"We must place a mattress there."
"We have none," said Combeferre, "the wounded are lying on them."
Jean Valjean, who was seated apart on a stone post, at the corner of the tavern, with his gun between his knees, had, up to that moment, taken no part in anything that was going on. He did not appear to hear the combatants saying around him: "Here is a gun that is doing nothing."
At the order issued by Enjolras, he rose.
It will be remembered that, on the arrival of the rabble in the Rue de la Chanvrerie, an old woman, foreseeing the bullets, had placed her mattress in front of her window. This window, an attic window, was on the roof of a six-story house situated a little beyond the barricade. The mattress, placed cross-wise, supported at the bottom on two poles for drying linen, was upheld at the top by two ropes, which, at that distance, looked like two threads, and which were attached to two nails planted in the window frames. These ropes were distinctly visible, like hairs, against the sky.
"Can some one lend me a double-barrelled rifle?" said Jean Valjean.
Enjolras, who had just re-loaded his, handed it to him.
Jean Valjean took aim at the attic window and fired.
One of the mattress ropes was cut.
The mattress now hung by one thread only.
Jean Valjean fired the second charge. The second rope lashed the panes of the attic window. The mattress slipped between the two poles and fell into the street.
The barricade applauded.
All voices cried:
"Here is a mattress!"
"Yes," said Combeferre, "but who will go and fetch it?"
The mattress had, in fact, fallen outside the barricade, between besiegers and besieged. Now, the death of the sergeant of artillery having exasperated the troop, the soldiers had, for several minutes, been lying flat on their stomachs behind the line of paving-stones which they had erected, and, in order to supply the forced silence of the piece, which was quiet while its service was in course of reorganization, they had opened fire on the barricade. The insurgents did not reply to this musketry, in order to spare their ammunition The fusillade broke against the barricade; but the street, which it filled, was terrible.
Jean Valjean stepped out of the cut, entered the street, traversed the storm of bullets, walked up to the mattress, hoisted it upon his back, and returned to the barricade.
He placed the mattress in the cut with his own hands. He fixed it there against the wall in such a manner that the artillery-men should not see it.
That done, they awaited the next discharge of grape-shot.
It was not long in coming.
The cannon vomited forth its package of buck-shot with a roar. But there was no rebound. The effect which they had foreseen had been attained. The barricade was saved.
"Citizen," said Enjolras to Jean Valjean, "the Republic thanks you."
Bossuet admired and laughed. He exclaimed:
"It is immoral that a mattress should have so much power. Triumph of that which yields over that which strikes with lightning. But never mind, glory to the mattress which annuls a cannon!"