THE VICISSITUDES OF FLIGHT
This is what had taken place that same night at the La Force:--
An escape had been planned between Babet, Brujon, Guelemer,
and Thenardier, although Thenardier was in close confinement.
Babet had arranged the matter for his own benefit, on the same day,
as the reader has seen from Montparnasse's account to Gavroche.
Montparnasse was to help them from outside.
Brujon, after having passed a month in the punishment cell,
had had time, in the first place, to weave a rope, in the second,
to mature a plan. In former times, those severe places where the
discipline of the prison delivers the convict into his own hands,
were composed of four stone walls, a stone ceiling, a flagged pavement,
a camp bed, a grated window, and a door lined with iron, and were
called dungeons; but the dungeon was judged to be too terrible;
nowadays they are composed of an iron door, a grated window,
a camp bed, a flagged pavement, four stone walls, and a stone ceiling,
and are called chambers of punishment. A little light penetrates
towards mid-day. The inconvenient point about these chambers which,
as the reader sees, are not dungeons, is that they allow the persons
who should be at work to think.
So Brujon meditated, and he emerged from the chamber of punishment
with a rope. As he had the name of being very dangerous in
the Charlemagne courtyard, he was placed in the New Building.
The first thing he found in the New Building was Guelemer, the second
was a nail; Guelemer, that is to say, crime; a nail, that is
to say, liberty. Brujon, of whom it is high time that the reader
should have a complete idea, was, with an appearance of delicate health
and a profoundly premeditated languor, a polished, intelligent sprig,
and a thief, who had a caressing glance, and an atrocious smile.
His glance resulted from his will, and his smile from his nature.
His first studies in his art had been directed to roofs. He had
made great progress in the industry of the men who tear off lead,
who plunder the roofs and despoil the gutters by the process called
The circumstance which put the finishing touch on the moment
peculiarly favorable for an attempt at escape, was that the roofers
were re-laying and re-jointing, at that very moment, a portion of
the slates on the prison. The Saint-Bernard courtyard was no longer
absolutely isolated from the Charlemagne and the Saint-Louis courts.
Up above there were scaffoldings and ladders; in other words,
bridges and stairs in the direction of liberty.
The New Building, which was the most cracked and decrepit thing
to be seen anywhere in the world, was the weak point in the prison.
The walls were eaten by saltpetre to such an extent that the
authorities had been obliged to line the vaults of the dormitories
with a sheathing of wood, because stones were in the habit of
becoming detached and falling on the prisoners in their beds.
In spite of this antiquity, the authorities committed the error
of confining in the New Building the most troublesome prisoners,
of placing there "the hard cases," as they say in prison parlance.
The New Building contained four dormitories, one above the other,
and a top story which was called the Bel-Air (FineAir). A large
chimney-flue, probably from some ancient kitchen of the Dukes de
la Force, started from the groundfloor, traversed all four stories,
cut the dormitories, where it figured as a flattened pillar,
into two portions, and finally pierced the roof.
Guelemer and Brujon were in the same dormitory. They had been placed,
by way of precaution, on the lower story. Chance ordained that
the heads of their beds should rest against the chimney.
Thenardier was directly over their heads in the top story
known as Fine-Air. The pedestrian who halts on the Rue
Culture-Sainte-Catherine, after passing the barracks of the firemen,
in front of the porte-cochere of the bathing establishment,
beholds a yard full of flowers and shrubs in wooden boxes, at the
extremity of which spreads out a little white rotunda with two wings,
brightened up with green shutters, the bucolic dream of Jean Jacques.
Not more than ten years ago, there rose above that rotunda
an enormous black, hideous, bare wall by which it was backed up.
This was the outer wall of La Force.
This wall, beside that rotunda, was Milton viewed through Berquin.
Lofty as it was, this wall was overtopped by a still blacker roof,
which could be seen beyond. This was the roof of the New Building.
There one could descry four dormer-windows, guarded with bars;
they were the windows of the Fine-Air.
A chimney pierced the roof; this was the chimney which traversed
The Bel-Air, that top story of the New Building, was a sort of
large hall, with a Mansard roof, guarded with triple gratings and
double doors of sheet iron, which were studded with enormous bolts.
When one entered from the north end, one had on one's left the four
dormer-windows, on one's right, facing the windows, at regular intervals,
four square, tolerably vast cages, separated by narrow passages,
built of masonry to about the height of the elbow, and the rest,
up to the roof, of iron bars.
Thenardier had been in solitary confinement in one of these cages
since the night of the 3d of February. No one was ever able to
discover how, and by what connivance, he succeeded in procuring,
and secreting a bottle of wine, invented, so it is said, by Desrues,
with which a narcotic is mixed, and which the band of the Endormeurs,
or Sleep-compellers, rendered famous.
There are, in many prisons, treacherous employees, half-jailers,
half-thieves, who assist in escapes, who sell to the police
an unfaithful service, and who turn a penny whenever they can.
On that same night, then, when Little Gavroche picked up the two
lost children, Brujon and Guelemer, who knew that Babet, who had
escaped that morning, was waiting for them in the street as well
as Montparnasse, rose softly, and with the nail which Brujon had found,
began to pierce the chimney against which their beds stood.
The rubbish fell on Brujon's bed, so that they were not heard.
Showers mingled with thunder shook the doors on their hinges,
and created in the prison a terrible and opportune uproar.
Those of the prisoners who woke, pretended to fall asleep again,
and left Guelemer and Brujon to their own devices. Brujon was adroit;
Guelemer was vigorous. Before any sound had reached the watcher,
who was sleeping in the grated cell which opened into the dormitory,
the wall had, been pierced, the chimney scaled, the iron grating which
barred the upper orifice of the flue forced, and the two redoubtable
ruffians were on the roof. The wind and rain redoubled, the roof
"What a good night to leg it!" said Brujon.
An abyss six feet broad and eighty feet deep separated them from
the surrounding wall. At the bottom of this abyss, they could
see the musket of a sentinel gleaming through the gloom.
They fastened one end of the rope which Brujon had spun in his dungeon
to the stumps of the iron bars which they had just wrenched off,
flung the other over the outer wall, crossed the abyss at one bound,
clung to the coping of the wall, got astride of it, let themselves slip,
one after the other, along the rope, upon a little roof which
touches the bath-house, pulled their rope after them, jumped down
into the courtyard of the bath-house, traversed it, pushed open
the porter's wicket, beside which hung his rope, pulled this,
opened the porte-cochere, and found themselves in the street.
Three-quarters of an hour had not elapsed since they had risen
in bed in the dark, nail in hand, and their project in their heads.
A few moments later they had joined Babet and Montparnasse,
who were prowling about the neighborhood.
They had broken their rope in pulling it after them, and a bit
of it remained attached to the chimney on the roof. They had
sustained no other damage, however, than that of scratching
nearly all the skin off their hands.
That night, Thenardier was warned, without any one being able
to explain how, and was not asleep.
Towards one o'clock in the morning, the night being very dark,
he saw two shadows pass along the roof, in the rain and squalls,
in front of the dormer-window which was opposite his cage.
One halted at the window, long enough to dart in a glance.
This was Brujon.
Thenardier recognized him, and understood. This was enough.
Thenardier, rated as a burglar, and detained as a measure of precaution
under the charge of organizing a nocturnal ambush, with armed force,
was kept in sight. The sentry, who was relieved every two hours,
marched up and down in front of his cage with loaded musket.
The Fine-Air was lighted by a skylight. The prisoner had on his
feet fetters weighing fifty pounds. Every day, at four o'clock
in the afternoon, a jailer, escorted by two dogs,--this was still
in vogue at that time,--entered his cage, deposited beside his bed
a loaf of black bread weighing two pounds, a jug of water, a bowl
filled with rather thin bouillon, in which swam a few Mayagan beans,
inspected his irons and tapped the bars. This man and his dogs made
two visits during the night.
Thenardier had obtained permission to keep a sort of iron bolt
which he used to spike his bread into a crack in the wall, "in order
to preserve it from the rats," as he said. As Thenardier was kept
in sight, no objection had been made to this spike. Still, it was
remembered afterwards, that one of the jailers had said:
"It would be better to let him have only a wooden spike."
At two o'clock in the morning, the sentinel, who was an old soldier,
was relieved, and replaced by a conscript. A few moments later,
the man with the dogs paid his visit, and went off without
noticing anything, except, possibly, the excessive youth and "the
rustic air" of the "raw recruit." Two hours afterwards, at four
o'clock, when they came to relieve the conscript, he was found
asleep on the floor, lying like a log near Thenardier's cage.
As for Thenardier, he was no longer there. There was a hole in
the ceiling of his cage, and, above it, another hole in the roof.
One of the planks of his bed had been wrenched off, and probably
carried away with him, as it was not found. They also seized
in his cell a half-empty bottle which contained the remains
of the stupefying wine with which the soldier had been drugged.
The soldier's bayonet had disappeared.
At the moment when this discovery was made, it was assumed that
Thenardier was out of reach. The truth is, that he was no longer
in the New Building, but that he was still in great danger.
Thenardier, on reaching the roof of the New Building, had found
the remains of Brujon's rope hanging to the bars of the upper trap
of the chimney, but, as this broken fragment was much too short,
he had not been able to escape by the outer wall, as Brujon and
Guelemer had done.
When one turns from the Rue des Ballets into the Rue du
Roi-de-Sicile, one almost immediately encounters a repulsive ruin.
There stood on that spot, in the last century, a house of which only
the back wall now remains, a regular wall of masonry, which rises
to the height of the third story between the adjoining buildings.
This ruin can be recognized by two large square windows which are
still to be seen there; the middle one, that nearest the right gable,
is barred with a worm-eaten beam adjusted like a prop. Through these
windows there was formerly visible a lofty and lugubrious wall,
which was a fragment of the outer wall of La Force.
The empty space on the street left by the demolished house is
half-filled by a fence of rotten boards, shored up by five stone posts.
In this recess lies concealed a little shanty which leans against
the portion of the ruin which has remained standing. The fence
has a gate, which, a few years ago, was fastened only by a latch.
It was the crest of this ruin that Thenardier had succeeded
in reaching, a little after one o'clock in the morning.
How had he got there? That is what no one has ever been able
to explain or understand. The lightning must, at the same time,
have hindered and helped him. Had he made use of the ladders
and scaffoldings of the slaters to get from roof to roof,
from enclosure to enclosure, from compartment to compartment,
to the buildings of the Charlemagne court, then to the buildings
of the Saint-Louis court, to the outer wall, and thence to the hut
on the Rue du Roi-de-Sicile? But in that itinerary there existed
breaks which seemed to render it an impossibility. Had he placed
the plank from his bed like a bridge from the roof of the Fine-Air
to the outer wall, and crawled flat, on his belly on the coping of the
outer wall the whole distance round the prison as far as the hut?
But the outer wall of La Force formed a crenellated and unequal line;
it mounted and descended, it dropped at the firemen's barracks,
it rose towards the bath-house, it was cut in twain by buildings,
it was not even of the same height on the Hotel Lamoignon as on
the Rue Pavee; everywhere occurred falls and right angles; and then,
the sentinels must have espied the dark form of the fugitive; hence,
the route taken by Thenardier still remains rather inexplicable.
In two manners, flight was impossible. Had Thenardier, spurred on
by that thirst for liberty which changes precipices into ditches,
iron bars into wattles of osier, a legless man into an athlete, a gouty
man into a bird, stupidity into instinct, instinct into intelligence,
and intelligence into genius, had Thenardier invented a third mode?
No one has ever found out.
The marvels of escape cannot always be accounted for. The man
who makes his escape, we repeat, is inspired; there is something
of the star and of the lightning in the mysterious gleam of flight;
the effort towards deliverance is no less surprising than the
flight towards the sublime, and one says of the escaped thief:
"How did he contrive to scale that wall?" in the same way that one
says of Corneille: "Where did he find the means of dying?"
At all events, dripping with perspiration, drenched with rain,
with his clothes hanging in ribbons, his hands flayed, his elbows
bleeding, his knees torn, Thenardier had reached what children,
in their figurative language, call the edge of the wall of the ruin,
there he had stretched himself out at full length, and there his
strength had failed him. A steep escarpment three stories high
separated him from the pavement of the street.
The rope which he had was too short.
There he waited, pale, exhausted, desperate with all the despair
which he had undergone, still hidden by the night, but telling
himself that the day was on the point of dawning, alarmed at the idea
of hearing the neighboring clock of Saint-Paul strike four within
a few minutes, an hour when the sentinel was relieved and when the
latter would be found asleep under the pierced roof, staring in
horror at a terrible depth, at the light of the street lanterns,
the wet, black pavement, that pavement longed for yet frightful,
which meant death, and which meant liberty.
He asked himself whether his three accomplices in flight had succeeded,
if they had heard him, and if they would come to his assistance.
He listened. With the exception of the patrol, no one had passed
through the street since he had been there. Nearly the whole of
the descent of the market-gardeners from Montreuil, from Charonne,
from Vincennes, and from Bercy to the markets was accomplished
through the Rue Saint-Antoine.
Four o'clock struck. Thenardier shuddered. A few moments later,
that terrified and confused uproar which follows the discovery
of an escape broke forth in the prison. The sound of doors opening
and shutting, the creaking of gratings on their hinges, a tumult
in the guard-house, the hoarse shouts of the turnkeys, the shock
of musket-butts on the pavement of the courts, reached his ears.
Lights ascended and descended past the grated windows of the dormitories,
a torch ran along the ridge-pole of the top story of the New Building,
the firemen belonging in the barracks on the right had been summoned.
Their helmets, which the torch lighted up in the rain, went and came
along the roofs. At the same time, Thenardier perceived in the
direction of the Bastille a wan whiteness lighting up the edge
of the sky in doleful wise.
He was on top of a wall ten inches wide, stretched out under the
heavy rains, with two gulfs to right and left, unable to stir,
subject to the giddiness of a possible fall, and to the horror
of a certain arrest, and his thoughts, like the pendulum of a clock,
swung from one of these ideas to the other: "Dead if I fall,
caught if I stay." In the midst of this anguish, he suddenly saw,
the street being still dark, a man who was gliding along the walls
and coming from the Rue Pavee, halt in the recess above which
Thenardier was, as it were, suspended. Here this man was joined
by a second, who walked with the same caution, then by a third,
then by a fourth. When these men were re-united, one of them lifted
the latch of the gate in the fence, and all four entered the enclosure
in which the shanty stood. They halted directly under Thenardier.
These men had evidently chosen this vacant space in order that they
might consult without being seen by the passers-by or by the
sentinel who guards the wicket of La Force a few paces distant.
It must be added, that the rain kept this sentinel blocked in
his box. Thenardier, not being able to distinguish their visages,
lent an ear to their words with the desperate attention of a wretch
who feels himself lost.
Thenardier saw something resembling a gleam of hope flash before
his eyes,--these men conversed in slang.
The first said in a low but distinct voice:--
"Let's cut. What are we up to here?"
The second replied: "It's raining hard enough to put out the
very devil's fire. And the bobbies will be along instanter.
There's a soldier on guard yonder. We shall get nabbed here."
These two words, icigo and icicaille, both of which mean ici,
and which belong, the first to the slang of the barriers, the second
to the slang of the Temple, were flashes of light for Thenardier.
By the icigo he recognized Brujon, who was a prowler of the barriers,
by the icicaille he knew Babet, who, among his other trades, had been
an old-clothes broker at the Temple.
The antique slang of the great century is no longer spoken except
in the Temple, and Babet was really the only person who spoke it in
all its purity. Had it not been for the icicaille, Thenardier would
not have recognized him, for he had entirely changed his voice.
In the meanwhile, the third man had intervened.
"There's no hurry yet, let's wait a bit. How do we know that he
doesn't stand in need of us?"
By this, which was nothing but French, Thenardier recognized
Montparnasse, who made it a point in his elegance to understand
all slangs and to speak none of them.
As for the fourth, he held his peace, but his huge shoulders
betrayed him. Thenardier did not hesitate. It was Guelemer.
Brujon replied almost impetuously but still in a low tone:--
"What are you jabbering about? The tavern-keeper hasn't managed
to cut his stick. He don't tumble to the racket, that he don't!
You have to be a pretty knowing cove to tear up your shirt, cut up
your sheet to make a rope, punch holes in doors, get up false papers,
make false keys, file your irons, hang out your cord, hide yourself,
and disguise yourself! The old fellow hasn't managed to play it,
he doesn't understand how to work the business."
Babet added, still in that classical slang which was spoken
by Poulailler and Cartouche, and which is to the bold, new,
highly colored and risky argot used by Brujon what the language
of Racine is to the language of Andre Chenier:--
"Your tavern-keeper must have been nabbed in the act. You have
to be knowing. He's only a greenhorn. He must have let himself be
taken in by a bobby, perhaps even by a sheep who played it on him as
his pal. Listen, Montparnasse, do you hear those shouts in the prison?
You have seen all those lights. He's recaptured, there! He'll get
off with twenty years. I ain't afraid, I ain't a coward, but there
ain't anything more to do, or otherwise they'd lead us a dance. Don't
get mad, come with us, let's go drink a bottle of old wine together."
"One doesn't desert one's friends in a scrape," grumbled Montparnasse.
"I tell you he's nabbed!" retorted Brujon. "At the present moment,
the inn-keeper ain't worth a ha'penny. We can't do nothing for him.
Let's be off. Every minute I think a bobby has got me in his fist."
Montparnasse no longer offered more than a feeble resistance;
the fact is, that these four men, with the fidelity of ruffians who
never abandon each other, had prowled all night long about La Force,
great as was their peril, in the hope of seeing Thenardier make
his appearance on the top of some wall. But the night, which was
really growing too fine,--for the downpour was such as to render
all the streets deserted,--the cold which was overpowering them,
their soaked garments, their hole-ridden shoes, the alarming noise
which had just burst forth in the prison, the hours which had elapsed,
the patrol which they had encountered, the hope which was vanishing,
all urged them to beat a retreat. Montparnasse himself, who was,
perhaps, almost Thenardier's son-in-law, yielded. A moment more,
and they would be gone. Thenardier was panting on his wall like the
shipwrecked sufferers of the Meduse on their raft when they beheld
the vessel which had appeared in sight vanish on the horizon.
He dared not call to them; a cry might be heard and ruin everything.
An idea occurred to him, a last idea, a flash of inspiration;
he drew from his pocket the end of Brujon's rope, which he had detached
from the chimney of the New Building, and flung it into the space
enclosed by the fence.
This rope fell at their feet.
"A widow," said Babet.
 Argot of the Temple.
"My tortouse!" said Brujon.
 Argot of the barriers.
"The tavern-keeper is there," said Montparnasse.
They raised their eyes. Thenardier thrust out his head a very little.
"Quick!" said Montparnasse, "have you the other end of the rope, Brujon?"
"Knot the two pieces together, we'll fling him the rope, he can
fasten it to the wall, and he'll have enough of it to get down with."
Thenardier ran the risk, and spoke:--
"I am paralyzed with cold."
"We'll warm you up."
"I can't budge."
"Let yourself slide, we'll catch you."
"My hands are benumbed."
"Only fasten the rope to the wall."
"Then one of us must climb up," said Montparnasse.
"Three stories!" ejaculated Brujon.
An ancient plaster flue, which had served for a stove that had
been used in the shanty in former times, ran along the wall and
mounted almost to the very spot where they could see Thenardier.
This flue, then much damaged and full of cracks, has since fallen,
but the marks of it are still visible.
It was very narrow.
"One might get up by the help of that," said Montparnasse.
"By that flue?" exclaimed Babet, "a grown-up cove, never! it would
take a brat."
"A brat must be got," resumed Brujon.
"Where are we to find a young 'un?" said Guelemer.
"Wait," said Montparnasse. "I've got the very article."
He opened the gate of the fence very softly, made sure that no one
was passing along the street, stepped out cautiously, shut the gate
behind him, and set off at a run in the direction of the Bastille.
Seven or eight minutes elapsed, eight thousand centuries to Thenardier;
Babet, Brujon, and Guelemer did not open their lips; at last the gate
opened once more, and Montparnasse appeared, breathless, and followed
by Gavroche. The rain still rendered the street completely deserted.
Little Gavroche entered the enclosure and gazed at the forms of these
ruffians with a tranquil air. The water was dripping from his hair.
Guelemer addressed him:--
"Are you a man, young 'un?"
Gavroche shrugged his shoulders, and replied:--
"A young 'un like me's a man, and men like you are babes."
"The brat's tongue's well hung!" exclaimed Babet.
"The Paris brat ain't made of straw," added Brujon.
"What do you want?" asked Gavroche.
"Climb up that flue."
"With this rope," said Babet.
"And fasten it," continued Brujon.
"To the top of the wall," went on Babet.
"To the cross-bar of the window," added Brujon.
"And then?" said Gavroche.
"There!" said Guelemer.
The gamin examined the rope, the flue, the wall, the windows,
and made that indescribable and disdainful noise with his lips
"Is that all!"
"There's a man up there whom you are to save," resumed Montparnasse.
"Will you?" began Brujon again.
"Greenhorn!" replied the lad, as though the question appeared
a most unprecedented one to him.
And he took off his shoes.
Guelemer seized Gavroche by one arm, set him on the roof of the shanty,
whose worm-eaten planks bent beneath the urchin's weight,
and handed him the rope which Brujon had knotted together during
Montparnasse's absence. The gamin directed his steps towards
the flue, which it was easy to enter, thanks to a large crack
which touched the roof. At the moment when he was on the point
of ascending, Thenardier, who saw life and safety approaching,
bent over the edge of the wall; the first light of dawn struck white
upon his brow dripping with sweat, upon his livid cheek-bones, his sharp
and savage nose, his bristling gray beard, and Gavroche recognized him.
"Hullo! it's my father! Oh, that won't hinder."
And taking the rope in his teeth, he resolutely began the ascent.
He reached the summit of the hut, bestrode the old wall as though
it had been a horse. and knotted the rope firmly to the upper
cross-bar of the window.
A moment later, Thenardier was in the street.
As soon as he touched the pavement, as soon as he found himself out
of danger, he was no longer either weary, or chilled or trembling;
the terrible things from which he had escaped vanished like smoke,
all that strange and ferocious mind awoke once more, and stood erect
and free, ready to march onward.
These were this man's first words:--
"Now, whom are we to eat?"
It is useless to explain the sense of this frightfully transparent remark,
which signifies both to kill, to assassinate, and to plunder.
To eat, true sense: to devour.
"Let's get well into a corner," said Brujon. "Let's settle it
in three words, and part at once. There was an affair that promised
well in the Rue Plumet, a deserted street, an isolated house,
an old rotten gate on a garden, and lone women."
"Well! why not?" demanded Thenardier.
"Your girl, Eponine, went to see about the matter," replied Babet.
"And she brought a biscuit to Magnon," added Guelemer. "Nothing to
be made there."
"The girl's no fool," said Thenardier. "Still, it must be seen to."
"Yes, yes," said Brujon, "it must be looked up."
In the meanwhile, none of the men seemed to see Gavroche, who,
during this colloquy, had seated himself on one of the fence-posts;
he waited a few moments, thinking that perhaps his father would
turn towards him, then he put on his shoes again, and said:--
"Is that all? You don't want any more, my men? Now you're out
of your scrape. I'm off. I must go and get my brats out of bed."
And off he went.
The five men emerged, one after another, from the enclosure.
When Gavroche had disappeared at the corner of the Rue des Ballets,
Babet took Thenardier aside.
"Did you take a good look at that young 'un?" he asked.
"What young 'un?"
"The one who climbed the wall and carried you the rope."
"Well, I don't know, but it strikes me that it was your son."
"Bah!" said Thenardier, "do you think so?"