Sunday, April 14, 2013

Keeping Watch in the Night

Still waiting for the
waif named in this
volume to show up....
Book Second - The Ship Orion of Volume 2: Cosette in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, here I go. The Les Mis Project is unwieldy and getting a little out of my control, but I'm determined to wrestle it into leg irons. Plus, I'm 26% into the book and still having fun.

It watches over me, is why.
First off, you should know that Orion is my favorite constellation. Not for any textual or contextual reason. Just so you know. I realize I'm probably far from alone in this - it's like saying Pride and Prejudice is my favorite Austen. Doesn't make it less true.

Anyway, we quickly learn that Valjean's imprisoned again, though Hugo feels that "the reader will be grateful to us if we pass rapidly over the sad details." (p.250) Suffice to say that there was a certain amount of scandal in the newspapers. If it'd happened now, #24601 would be trending. 

Meanwhile, the town of M. sur M. We remember, of course, that as citizen, businessman, and mayor, Valjean had been some sort of paragon. Since his capture:

  • "...everything was gone on a small scale, instead of on a grand scale; for lucre instead of the general good. There was no longer a centre; everywhere there was competition and animosity. M. Madeline had reigned over all and directed all. No sooner had he fallen, than each pulled things to himself; the spirit of combat succeeded to the spirit of organization, bitterness to coordination, hatred of one another to the benevolence of the founder towards all; the threads which M. Madeline had set were tangled and broken, the methods were adulterated, the products were debased, confidence was killed; the market diminished, for lack of orders; salaries were reduced, the workshops stood still, bankruptcy arrived. And then there was nothing more for the poor. All had vanished." (p.251)
Another random plot point: people 'round those parts thought the devil was fond of burying treasure in
the woods. Only problem being that if you stopped him at it, or dug it up, or even looked for it, you were basically signing your death warrant. Still, this road-laborer, Boulatruelle, had taken, in the days preceding Valjean's re-incarceration, to wandering the woods in the evening, shovel in hand. Some folks laughed at him, some looked askance, but some - and our old pal Thenardier was one of them - thought the guy might have a non-demon-based reason for his actions.

Thenardier and the schoolmaster started plying Boulatruelle with wine and prying bits of info out of him. Eventually they deduced that Boulatruelle had seen an old acquaintance from the galleys (for Boulatrelle is yet another ex-con in this narrative) carrying a coffer into the woods along with some tools. "Now, the coffer was too small to contain a body; therefore it contained money." (p.254) But no matter where he looked, Boulatruelle couldn't find the thing. 

Now we jump again, this time to the ship. Orion had a long history, blah blah blah. More stuff about wars, political unrest, Bourbons, etc. I'm fascinated, truly. Whatever. The ship was at sea, now for whatever reason it's in the port at Toulon. (That's the same town where Valjean's galley ship was, back when he was #24601. He's #9430 now, which is way more boring and wouldn't trend at all.) I do like Hugo's musings about the awesomeness of ships:

  • "A ship of the line is one of the most magnificent combinations of the genius of man with the powers of nature.  /  A ship of the line is composed, at the same time, of the heaviest and the lightest of possible matter, for it deals at one and the same time with three forms of substance,-solid, liquid, and fluid,-and it must do battle with all three. It has eleven claws of iron with which to seize the granite on the bottom of the sea, and more wings and more antennae than winged insects, to catch the wind in the clouds. Its breath pours out through its hundred and twenty cannons as through enormous trumpets, and replies proudly to the thunder. The ocean seeks to lead it astray in the alarming sameness of the billows, but the vessel has its soul, its compass, which counsels it and always shows it the north. In the blackest of nights, its lanterns supply the place of the starts. Thus, against the wind, it has its cordage and its canvas; against the water, wood; against the rocks, its iron, brass, and lead; against the shadows, its light; against immensity, a needle." (p.256)
So it's a pretty impressive sight. Big and full of mysterious power and stories yet to be told. When it came to port, crowds of people came out just to watch the Orion sitting there. Like a reality show. And
The main topsail yardarm is that top crossbeam
on the middle spar, so: really, really high up.
this time, something truly exciting happened! The topman was up in the main-top-sail's upper corner, when he lost his balance and ended up dangling upside-down from the foot-rope, swinging back and forth above the abyss. It was way dangerous to go to his aid, and he was getting weaker. "[H]is exhaustion was visible in every limb; his arms were contracted in horrible twitchings; every effort which he made to re-ascent served but to augment the oscillation of the foot-rope...." (p.257) Basically, everyone was on death watch, riveted but half-turning away so as not to see the awfulness of his fall.

And then what happened? Tune in after this commercial break....

  • "All at once a man was seen climbing into the rigging with the agility of a tiger-cat; this man was dressed in red; he was a convict; he wore a green cap; he was a life convict. On arriving on a level with the top, a gust of wind carried away his cap, and allowed a perfectly white head to be seen: he was not a young man." (p.258)
  • So this convict, while everyone was first freaking out about the topman, went to an officer and asked if he could risk his life to save the guy, and the officer agreed. The convict "had broken the chain riveted to his ankle with one blow of a hammer, then he had caught up a rope, and had dashed into the rigging: no one noticed, at the instant, with what ease that chain had been broken;  it was only later on that the incident was recalled." (p.258) (suspicious!)
  • "In a twinkling he was on the yard..." (p.258) and everyone on the dock held their breath while he looked over the situation and began to walk along the yard (that's one of the big beams that holds up sails, not, like, your back garden or whatever, FYI.) He tied a rope to the yard, "then he began to descend the rope, hand over hand, and then,-and the anguish was indescribable,- instead of one man suspended over the gulf, there were two." (p.258)
  • "Ten thousand glances were fastened on this group; not a cry, not a word; the same tremor contracted every brow; all mouths held their breath as though they feared to add the slightest puff to the wind which was swaying the two unfortunate men." (p.258)
  • The convict gets to the topman surely in the nick of time, since the sailor was clearly about to lose his grip. He held on to one rope while he tied the other securely around the sailor. The convict climbs back up, dragging the sailor behind him, takes a moment to catch his breath then picks up the sailor and carries him to where he can be safely handed over.
  • "At that moment the crowd broke into applause; old convict-sergeants among them wept, and women embraced each other on the quay, and all the voices were heard to cry with a sort of tender rage, 'Pardon for that man!' " (p.258)
I mean! Such tension! Such drama! But it's not done yet:

  • "In order to reach [the detachment on deck] more speedily, he dropped into the rigging, and ran along one of the lower yards; all eyes were following him. At a certain moment fear assailed them; whether it was that he was fatigued, r that his head turned, they thought they saw him hesitate and stagger. All at once the crowd uttered a loud should; the convict had fallen into the sea." (p.258)
  • "Four men flung themselves hastily into a boat; the crowd cheered them on; anxiety again took possession of all souls; the man had not risen to the surface; he had disappeared in the sea without leaving a ripple, as though he had fallen into a cask of oil: they sounded, they dived. In vain." (p.259)
This book ends with the newspapers again: "Nov. 17, 1823. Yesterday, a convict belonging to the detachment on board of the Orion, on his return from rendering assistance to a sailor, fell in to the sea and was drowned. The body has not yet been found; it is supposed that it is entangled among the piles of the Arsenal point: this man was committed under the number 9,430, and his name was Jean Valjean." (p.259)

Talk about gossip-worthy!

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