IN WHICH THE READER WILL PERUSE TWO VERSES, WHICH ARE OF THE
DEVIL'S COMPOSITION, POSSIBLY
Before proceeding further, it will be to the purpose to narrate
in some detail, a singular occurrence which took place at about the
same epoch, in Montfermeil, and which is not lacking in coincidence
with certain conjectures of the indictment.
There exists in the region of Montfermeil a very ancient superstition,
which is all the more curious and all the more precious, because a popular
superstition in the vicinity of Paris is like an aloe in Siberia.
We are among those who respect everything which is in the nature
of a rare plant. Here, then, is the superstition of Montfermeil:
it is thought that the devil, from time immemorial, has selected
the forest as a hiding-place for his treasures. Goodwives affirm
that it is no rarity to encounter at nightfall, in secluded nooks
of the forest, a black man with the air of a carter or a wood-chopper,
wearing wooden shoes, clad in trousers and a blouse of linen,
and recognizable by the fact, that, instead of a cap or hat,
he has two immense horns on his head. This ought, in fact, to render
him recognizable. This man is habitually engaged in digging a hole.
There are three ways of profiting by such an encounter. The first is
to approach the man and speak to him. Then it is seen that the man
is simply a peasant, that he appears black because it is nightfall;
that he is not digging any hole whatever, but is cutting grass
for his cows, and that what had been taken for horns is nothing
but a dung-fork which he is carrying on his back, and whose teeth,
thanks to the perspective of evening, seemed to spring from his head.
The man returns home and dies within the week. The second way is
to watch him, to wait until he has dug his hole, until he has filled
it and has gone away; then to run with great speed to the trench,
to open it once more and to seize the "treasure" which the black
man has necessarily placed there. In this case one dies within
the month. Finally, the last method is not to speak to the black man,
not to look at him, and to flee at the best speed of one's legs.
One then dies within the year.
As all three methods are attended with their special inconveniences,
the second, which at all events, presents some advantages,
among others that of possessing a treasure, if only for a month,
is the one most generally adopted. So bold men, who are tempted
by every chance, have quite frequently, as we are assured, opened the
holes excavated by the black man, and tried to rob the devil.
The success of the operation appears to be but moderate. At least,
if the tradition is to be believed, and in particular the two
enigmatical lines in barbarous Latin, which an evil Norman monk,
a bit of a sorcerer, named Tryphon has left on this subject.
This Tryphon is buried at the Abbey of Saint-Georges de Bocherville,
near Rouen, and toads spawn on his grave.
Accordingly, enormous efforts are made. Such trenches are
ordinarily extremely deep; a man sweats, digs, toils all night--
for it must be done at night; he wets his shirt, burns out his candle,
breaks his mattock, and when he arrives at the bottom of the hole,
when he lays his hand on the "treasure," what does he find?
What is the devil's treasure? A sou, sometimes a crown-piece,
a stone, a skeleton, a bleeding body, sometimes a spectre folded
in four like a sheet of paper in a portfolio, sometimes nothing.
This is what Tryphon's verses seem to announce to the indiscreet
"Fodit, et in fossa thesauros condit opaca,
As, nummas, lapides, cadaver, simulacra, nihilque."
It seems that in our day there is sometimes found a powder-horn
with bullets, sometimes an old pack of cards greasy and worn,
which has evidently served the devil. Tryphon does not record
these two finds, since Tryphon lived in the twelfth century,
and since the devil does not appear to have had the wit to invent
powder before Roger Bacon's time, and cards before the time of Charles VI.
Moreover, if one plays at cards, one is sure to lose all that
one possesses! and as for the powder in the horn, it possesses
the property of making your gun burst in your face.
Now, a very short time after the epoch when it seemed to the prosecuting
attorney that the liberated convict Jean Valjean during his flight
of several days had been prowling around Montfermeil, it was remarked
in that village that a certain old road-laborer, named Boulatruelle,
had "peculiar ways" in the forest. People thereabouts thought
they knew that this Boulatruelle had been in the galleys.
He was subjected to certain police supervision, and, as he could
find work nowhere, the administration employed him at reduced
rates as a road-mender on the cross-road from Gagny to Lagny.
This Boulatruelle was a man who was viewed with disfavor by the
inhabitants of the district as too respectful, too humble, too prompt
in removing his cap to every one, and trembling and smiling in the
presence of the gendarmes,--probably affiliated to robber bands,
they said; suspected of lying in ambush at verge of copses at nightfall.
The only thing in his favor was that he was a drunkard.
This is what people thought they had noticed:--
Of late, Boulatruelle had taken to quitting his task of stone-breaking
and care of the road at a very early hour, and to betaking himself
to the forest with his pickaxe. He was encountered towards
evening in the most deserted clearings, in the wildest thickets;
and he had the appearance of being in search of something,
and sometimes he was digging holes. The goodwives who passed took
him at first for Beelzebub; then they recognized Boulatruelle,
and were not in the least reassured thereby. These encounters seemed
to cause Boulatruelle a lively displeasure. It was evident that he
sought to hide, and that there was some mystery in what he was doing.
It was said in the village: "It is clear that the devil has appeared.
Boulatruelle has seen him, and is on the search. In sooth, he is
cunning enough to pocket Lucifer's hoard."
The Voltairians added, "Will Boulatruelle catch the devil,
or will the devil catch Boulatruelle?" The old women made a great
many signs of the cross.
In the meantime, Boulatruelle's manoeuvres in the forest ceased;
and he resumed his regular occupation of roadmending; and people
gossiped of something else.
Some persons, however, were still curious, surmising that in all
this there was probably no fabulous treasure of the legends,
but some fine windfall of a more serious and palpable sort than
the devil's bank-bills, and that the road-mender had half discovered
the secret. The most "puzzled" were the school-master and Thenardier,
the proprietor of the tavern, who was everybody's friend,
and had not disdained to ally himself with Boulatruelle.
"He has been in the galleys," said Thenardier. "Eh! Good God!
no one knows who has been there or will be there."
One evening the schoolmaster affirmed that in former times the law
would have instituted an inquiry as to what Boulatruelle did in
the forest, and that the latter would have been forced to speak,
and that he would have been put to the torture in case of need,
and that Boulatruelle would not have resisted the water test,
for example. "Let us put him to the wine test," said Thenardier.
They made an effort, and got the old road-mender to drinking.
Boulatruelle drank an enormous amount, but said very little.
He combined with admirable art, and in masterly proportions,
the thirst of a gormandizer with the discretion of a judge.
Nevertheless, by dint of returning to the charge and of comparing
and putting together the few obscure words which he did allow to
escape him, this is what Thenardier and the schoolmaster imagined
that they had made out:--
One morning, when Boulatruelle was on his way to his work, at daybreak,
he had been surprised to see, at a nook of the forest in the underbrush,
a shovel and a pickaxe, concealed, as one might say.
However, he might have supposed that they were probably the shovel
and pick of Father Six-Fours, the water-carrier, and would have
thought no more about it. But, on the evening of that day, he saw,
without being seen himself, as he was hidden by a large tree,
"a person who did not belong in those parts, and whom he, Boulatruelle,
knew well," directing his steps towards the densest part of
the wood. Translation by Thenardier: A comrade of the galleys.
Boulatruelle obstinately refused to reveal his name. This person
carried a package--something square, like a large box or a small trunk.
Surprise on the part of Boulatruelle. However, it was only
after the expiration of seven or eight minutes that the idea of
following that "person" had occurred to him. But it was too late;
the person was already in the thicket, night had descended,
and Boulatruelle had not been able to catch up with him. Then he
had adopted the course of watching for him at the edge of the woods.
"It was moonlight." Two or three hours later, Boulatruelle had seen
this person emerge from the brushwood, carrying no longer the coffer,
but a shovel and pick. Boulatruelle had allowed the person to pass,
and had not dreamed of accosting him, because he said to himself
that the other man was three times as strong as he was, and armed
with a pickaxe, and that he would probably knock him over the head
on recognizing him, and on perceiving that he was recognized.
Touching effusion of two old comrades on meeting again. But the
shovel and pick had served as a ray of light to Boulatruelle; he had
hastened to the thicket in the morning, and had found neither shovel
nor pick. From this he had drawn the inference that this person,
once in the forest, had dug a hole with his pick, buried the coffer,
and reclosed the hole with his shovel. Now, the coffer was too small
to contain a body; therefore it contained money. Hence his researches.
Boulatruelle had explored, sounded, searched the entire forest
and the thicket, and had dug wherever the earth appeared to him
to have been recently turned up. In vain.
He had "ferreted out" nothing. No one in Montfermeil thought
any more about it. There were only a few brave gossips, who said,
"You may be certain that the mender on the Gagny road did not take
all that trouble for nothing; he was sure that the devil had come."