THE TORN COAT-TAIL
In the midst of this prostration, a hand was laid on his shoulder,
and a low voice said to him:
Some person in that gloom? Nothing so closely resembles a
dream as despair. Jean Valjean thought that he was dreaming.
He had heard no footsteps. Was it possible? He raised his eyes.
A man stood before him.
This man was clad in a blouse; his feet were bare; he held his shoes
in his left hand; he had evidently removed them in order to reach
Jean Valjean, without allowing his steps to be heard.
Jean Valjean did not hesitate for an instant. Unexpected as was
this encounter, this man was known to him. The man was Thenardier.
Although awakened, so to speak, with a start, Jean Valjean,
accustomed to alarms, and steeled to unforeseen shocks that must
be promptly parried, instantly regained possession of his presence
of mind. Moreover, the situation could not be made worse,
a certain degree of distress is no longer capable of a crescendo,
and Thenardier himself could add nothing to this blackness of this night.
A momentary pause ensued.
Thenardier, raising his right hand to a level with his forehead,
formed with it a shade, then he brought his eyelashes together,
by screwing up his eyes, a motion which, in connection with a slight
contraction of the mouth, characterizes the sagacious attention of a man
who is endeavoring to recognize another man. He did not succeed.
Jean Valjean, as we have just stated, had his back turned to the light,
and he was, moreover, so disfigured, so bemired, so bleeding that he
would have been unrecognizable in full noonday. On the contrary,
illuminated by the light from the grating, a cellar light,
it is true, livid, yet precise in its lividness, Thenardier, as the
energetic popular metaphor expresses it, immediately "leaped into"
Jean Valjean's eyes. This inequality of conditions sufficed
to assure some advantage to Jean Valjean in that mysterious duel
which was on the point of beginning between the two situations and
the two men. The encounter took place between Jean Valjean veiled
and Thenardier unmasked.
Jean Valjean immediately perceived that Thenardier did not recognize him.
They surveyed each other for a moment in that half-gloom, as though
taking each other's measure. Thenardier was the first to break
"How are you going to manage to get out?"
Jean Valjean made no reply. Thenardier continued:
"It's impossible to pick the lock of that gate. But still you must
get out of this."
"That is true," said Jean Valjean.
"Well, half shares then."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You have killed that man; that's all right. I have the key."
Thenardier pointed to Marius. He went on:
"I don't know you, but I want to help you. You must be a friend."
Jean Valjean began to comprehend. Thenardier took him for an assassin.
"Listen, comrade. You didn't kill that man without looking to see
what he had in his pockets. Give me my half. I'll open the door
And half drawing from beneath his tattered blouse a huge key,
"Do you want to see how a key to liberty is made? Look here."
Jean Valjean "remained stupid"--the expression belongs to the
elder Corneille--to such a degree that he doubted whether what he
beheld was real. It was providence appearing in horrible guise,
and his good angel springing from the earth in the form of Thenardier.
Thenardier thrust his fist into a large pocket concealed under
his blouse, drew out a rope and offered it to Jean Valjean.
"Hold on," said he, "I'll give you the rope to boot."
"What is the rope for?"
"You will need a stone also, but you can find one outside.
There's a heap of rubbish."
"What am I to do with a stone?"
"Idiot, you'll want to sling that stiff into the river, you'll need
a stone and a rope, otherwise it would float on the water."
Jean Valjean took the rope. There is no one who does not occasionally
accept in this mechanical way.
Thenardier snapped his fingers as though an idea had suddenly
occurred to him.
"Ah, see here, comrade, how did you contrive to get out of that
slough yonder? I haven't dared to risk myself in it. Phew! you
don't smell good."
After a pause he added:
"I'm asking you questions, but you're perfectly right not to answer.
It's an apprenticeship against that cursed quarter of an hour before
the examining magistrate. And then, when you don't talk at all,
you run no risk of talking too loud. That's no matter, as I can't
see your face and as I don't know your name, you are wrong in
supposing that I don't know who you are and what you want. I twig.
You've broken up that gentleman a bit; now you want to tuck him
away somewhere. The river, that great hider of folly, is what you want.
I'll get you out of your scrape. Helping a good fellow in a pinch
is what suits me to a hair."
While expressing his approval of Jean Valjean's silence, he endeavored to
force him to talk. He jostled his shoulder in an attempt to catch a sight
of his profile, and he exclaimed, without, however, raising his tone:
"Apropos of that quagmire, you're a hearty animal. Why didn't you
toss the man in there?"
Jean Valjean preserved silence.
Thenardier resumed, pushing the rag which served him as a cravat
to the level of his Adam's apple, a gesture which completes
the capable air of a serious man:
"After all, you acted wisely. The workmen, when they come to-morrow to
stop up that hole, would certainly have found the stiff abandoned there,
and it might have been possible, thread by thread, straw by straw,
to pick up the scent and reach you. Some one has passed through
the sewer. Who? Where did he get out? Was he seen to come out?
The police are full of cleverness. The sewer is treacherous and
tells tales of you. Such a find is a rarity, it attracts attention,
very few people make use of the sewers for their affairs,
while the river belongs to everybody. The river is the true grave.
At the end of a month they fish up your man in the nets at
Saint-Cloud. Well, what does one care for that? It's carrion!
Who killed that man? Paris. And justice makes no inquiries.
You have done well."
The more loquacious Thenardier became, the more mute was Jean Valjean.
Again Thenardier shook him by the shoulder.
"Now let's settle this business. Let's go shares. You have seen
my key, show me your money."
Thenardier was haggard, fierce, suspicious, rather menacing,
There was one singular circumstance; Thenardier's manners were
not simple; he had not the air of being wholly at his ease;
while affecting an air of mystery, he spoke low; from time to time
he laid his finger on his mouth, and muttered, "hush!" It was
difficult to divine why. There was no one there except themselves.
Jean Valjean thought that other ruffians might possibly be concealed
in some nook, not very far off, and that Thenardier did not care
to share with them.
"Let's settle up. How much did the stiff have in his bags?"
Jean Valjean searched his pockets.
It was his habit, as the reader will remember, to always have some
money about him. The mournful life of expedients to which he had
been condemned imposed this as a law upon him. On this occasion,
however, he had been caught unprepared. When donning his uniform
of a National Guardsman on the preceding evening, he had forgotten,
dolefully absorbed as he was, to take his pocket-book. He had
only some small change in his fob. He turned out his pocket,
all soaked with ooze, and spread out on the banquette of the vault
one louis d'or, two five-franc pieces, and five or six large sous.
Thenardier thrust out his lower lip with a significant twist
of the neck.
"You knocked him over cheap," said he.
He set to feeling the pockets of Jean Valjean and Marius,
with the greatest familiarity. Jean Valjean, who was chiefly
concerned in keeping his back to the light, let him have his way.
While handling Marius' coat, Thenardier, with the skill of a pickpocket,
and without being noticed by Jean Valjean, tore off a strip which he
concealed under his blouse, probably thinking that this morsel
of stuff might serve, later on, to identify the assassinated man
and the assassin. However, he found no more than the thirty francs.
"That's true," said he, "both of you together have no more than that."
And, forgetting his motto: "half shares," he took all.
He hesitated a little over the large sous. After due reflection,
he took them also, muttering:
"Never mind! You cut folks' throats too cheap altogether."
That done, he once more drew the big key from under his blouse.
"Now, my friend, you must leave. It's like the fair here, you pay
when you go out. You have paid, now clear out."
And he began to laugh.
Had he, in lending to this stranger the aid of his key, and in
making some other man than himself emerge from that portal,
the pure and disinterested intention of rescuing an assassin?
We may be permitted to doubt this.
Thenardier helped Jean Valjean to replace Marius on his shoulders,
then he betook himself to the grating on tiptoe, and barefooted,
making Jean Valjean a sign to follow him, looked out, laid his finger
on his mouth, and remained for several seconds, as though in suspense;
his inspection finished, he placed the key in the lock. The bolt
slipped back and the gate swung open. It neither grated nor squeaked.
It moved very softly.
It was obvious that this gate and those hinges, carefully oiled,
were in the habit of opening more frequently than was supposed.
This softness was suspicious; it hinted at furtive goings and comings,
silent entrances and exits of nocturnal men, and the wolf-like tread
The sewer was evidently an accomplice of some mysterious band.
This taciturn grating was a receiver of stolen goods.
Thenardier opened the gate a little way, allowing just sufficient
space for Jean Valjean to pass out, closed the grating again,
gave the key a double turn in the lock and plunged back into
the darkness, without making any more noise than a breath.
He seemed to walk with the velvet paws of a tiger.
A moment later, that hideous providence had retreated into
Jean Valjean found himself in the open air.