Saturday, May 4, 2013

There, Out in the Darkness, a Fugitive Running

LesMis Project time! Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is still on the hunt for misery. I'm in the middle of Volume 2: Cosette, and I tell ya, that kid is really not out of the woods yet, for all that she's been airlifted out of the Thenardier's lives by Jean Valjean.

Hey, old guy & little gal, I'm just not
sure the cops aren't going to find you.
Book Fifth - For a Black Hunt, a Mute Pack

(That's some serious hunting terminology, which tells you a little about how temporary that temporary refuge of Cosette & Valjean is.)

So, when last we saw them, Valjean & Cosette were living in an obscure rented room on the outskirts of Paris, giving alms to the poor but otherwise trying not to be noticed much. But then one of the regular wretches looked like a certain police inspector from Valjean's past, and then a guy who also seemed particularly Javert-ish moved in down the hall, so Valjean shoved all his cash (except for one coin that fell on the floor and rolled off) into his pocket, gathered Cosette, and headed off into the night.

It was a bright moon, but that's okay: "Jean Valjean could glide along close to the houses on the dark side, and yet keep watch on the light side." (p.306) Not to beat us over the head metaphorically or anything. Poor Cosette just goes along with it all quietly, thanks to having been brought up to obedience no matter how unpleasant the situation. Plus she likes Valjean so if he drags her off for a journey by foot crossing and re-crossing the streets of the city, well, such is life.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times he doubled back and circled round and practiced evasive manoeuvres, Valjean could sense he was being followed. (Apparently 19 or so years in prison makes you fairly attuned to those sorts of things.) He spotted three men a couple of times, and one of them was pretty darn reminiscent of Javert. Finally he got a glimpse of the men in full moonlight, and saw that yes, it was his old nemesis. That meant full-out concerted getting away, carrying Cosette whenever she tired, unfortunately getting a little held up paying a toll over a bridge, but still unable to fully lose his followers. "Jean Valjean shuddered like the wild beast which is recaptured." (p.309) There was little escape - he headed into a quiet street, came up against a Y shaped turning, basically got them trapped in the middle of a labyrinth with a guard stationed at the only opening he could see. "[T]o advance was to fall into this man's hands; to retreat was to fling himself into Javert's arms. Jean Valjean felt himself caught, as in a net, which was slowly contracting; he gazed heavenward in despair." (p.311)

And looking heavenward is, as I'm sure Hugo would like us to realize, generally a good idea:

  • A troop of handily-recruited soldiers started a dark-niche-by-hidden-corner search of the alley down which they hid. "A few minutes only separated Jean Valjean from that terrible precipice which yawned before him for the third time. And the galleys now meant not only the galleys, but Cosette lost to him forever; that is to say, a life resembling the interior of a tomb." (aww!) "There was but one thing which was possible.  Jean Valjean had this peculiarity, that he carried, as one might say, two beggar's pouches: in one he kept his saintly thoughts; in the other the redoubtable talents of a convict. He rummaged in the one or the other, according to circumstances." (p.313)
  • "[T]hanks to his numerous escapes from the prison at Toulon, he was, as it will be remembered, a past master in the incredible art of crawling up without ladder or climbing-irons, by sheer muscular force, by leaning on the nape of his neck, his shoulders, his hips, and his knees, by helping himself on the rare projections of the stone, in the right angle of the wall...." (p.313) (Ouch!)
  • So he checks out the 18-foot wall, the one ledge about 5 feet up, the flat stone on top of the wall. Unfortunately the 8-year-old didn't climb all that well. "Should he abandon her? Jean Valjean did not once think of that. It was impossible to carry her. A man's whole strength is required to carry out these singular ascents. The least burden would disturb his centre of gravity and pull him downwards." (p.313) (I should think so!)
  • Fortunately, there's a rope nearby, used in aid of lighting the street lanterns. He dashes over and fetches it. Cosette is finally starting to get right freaked out, and asks who's out there. " 'Hush!' replied the unhappy man; 'it is Madame Thenardier.' " (p.314) (MEAN! But effective.) So he makes a kind of harness from his cravat and the rope, sticks the rope in his mouth, and in seconds is on top of the wall, then hauls Cosette up to join him, and they're out of sight mere moments before the soldiers rush into that part of the alley. Whew!
They drop to the other side of the wall and find themselves in a big rambling deserted garden with a shed in the corner, to which they retreat. "A man who is fleeing never thinks himself sufficiently hidden." (p.315) They can hear the soldiers searching on the other side of the wall. And then, weirdly, they hear some women singing religious chants somewhere, but they can't see where. It makes them kneel and confuses them. Then everything's quiet.

After a bit of wind but no human sounds, Valjean relaxes enough to notice Cosette's trembling. He asks if she's cold, but she only wants to know if Madame Thenardier is still after them. (Nice parenting skills, man. Way to terrify!) He tells her they're safe, and wraps her in his coat, and goes to scope out their surroundings.

To further the freakishness of the night, he hears a strange bell ringing periodically, and sees that it is accompanied by a light bobbing through the garden. "Where was he? Who could ever have imagined anything like that sort of sepulchre in the midst of Paris! What was this strange house? An edifice full of nocturnal mystery, calling to souls through the darkness with the voices of angels, and when they came, offering them abruptly that terrible vision; promising to open the radiant portals of heaven, and then opening the horrible gates of the tomb!" (p.317)

Cosette, bless her little heart, had crashed out, and now Valjean also had to worry about her dying from exposure. If he didn't get her inside, she might not make it. But it turned out that the bell and light were attached to some sort of man, so he pulled out some cash and bravely went up to him to offer a pile of money in exchange for shelter. And then the man said, essentially, 'oh, hey there, M. Madeline, howzit?' Which REALLY freaked Valjean out. The guy is chatting away, all, 'how'd you end up here, how weird, what's going on?' and finally Valjean asks who on earth he is.

"'Ah! pardieu, this is too much!' exclaimed the old man. 'I am the person for whom you got the place here, and this house is the one where you had me placed. What! You don't recognize me?'" (p.319)

Not the most helpful reply, though funny. A bit of moon hit the old man's face, though, and Valjean realized: it was Fauchelevent. (That would be the guy back in M. sur M. who was about to be crushed under a broken cart until super-strong 'Madeline' got under it and lifted it up, thus outing him to Javert as maybe being that super-strong missing Prisoner 24601.) So Providence is still on Jean Valjean's side, and sent him to the very convent where Fauchelevent was working (and wearing the bell so the women in the convent could avoid his boy cooties.) Because of Valjean's unacceptable gender, Fauchelevent couldn't take them into the convent, but he did put them in his own cottage, where Cosette warmed up and started breathing normally and generally came back from the brink of harm.

Old gardener: "Will you take 20?"
(Once in the gardener's house, "Fauchelevent had removed the bell and kneecap, which now hung on a
nail beside a vintage basket that adorned the wall." (p.321) I giggled a little at the idea of this old gardener going to some flea market in search of chic vintage accessories for his cottage.)

So, now that Valjean & Cosette are at least temporarily safe & warm, we get to find out how Javert got on their scent. When Valjean first escaped:
Looks pretty maelstrom-y to me!

  • "[T]he police had supposed that he had betaken himself to Paris. Paris is a maelstrom where everything is lost, and everything disappears in this belly of the world, as in the belly of the sea. No forest hides a man as does that crowd. Fugitives of every sort know this. They go to Paris as to an abyss; there are gulfs which save. The police know it also, and it is in Paris that they seek what they have lost elsewhere." (p.321)
  • So Javert had relocated to Paris, where the cops found him "useful in divers and, though the word may seem strange for such services, honorable manners." (p.321) Eventually Valjean was recaptured and then reported dead after diving off the Orion, and he wasn't on Javert's radar. "[T]he wolf of to-day causes these dogs who are always on the chase to forget the wolf of yesterday...." (p.321)
  • However, Javert did overhear talk about "the abduction of a child, which had taken place, under peculiar circumstances, as it was said, in the commune of Montfermeil." (p.321) And the child was named Cosette, and was the daughter of a dead woman named Fantine. So that rang a bell or two. Javert headed to Montfermeil, but didn't really get anywhere. (Thenardier had reported the abduction since "the disappearance of the Lark had created a sensation in the village." (p.322) - and way to go, peeps of Montfermeil, letting the poor kid get abused under your noses every day but saying nothing until she disappears. But Thenardier quickly realized that going on about it would mean people asking uncomfortable questions like, 'so how'd you pay off that 1500 franc debt, anyway?' etc., and changed his story to one of the kid going off with her kindly grandfather.)
  • Javert forgot about Valjean again, until he heard about this "mendicant who gives alms" over in Saint-Medard, who was a man of mystery. A man of mystery who lived with an 8-year-old girl from Montfermeil! Interesting.... So Javert switched places with the beggar by the church well (who happened to be a police informant) and waited for the "mendicant" to give him alms. "[T]he shock which Jean Valjean received on recognizing Javert was equal to the one received by Javert when he thought he recognized Jean Valjean." (p.323)
  • He wasn't quite sure - it was a darkish night - "and when in doubt, Javert, the man of scruples, never laid a finger on any one's collar." (p.323) So he followed him home, interrogated the portress, got himself a room, tried unsuccessfully to spy on his new neighbors, but was there when the portress heard that coin rolling across the floor as Valjean packed up to leave. She warned Javert, who hopped to it, and was ready to start following the escapees as they left the hovel. 
He had his crew following, but he didn't tell them exactly what was up - it would be pretty
Note: not historically accurate,
scandal-sheet-wise. But you get
the idea.
embarrassing to be wrong, plus satisfyingly theatrical to be all 'ta da!' at the end of the chase - and since the papers would go to town with a headline like, "COPS TACKLE INNOCENT GRANDDAD OUT FOR A MIDNIGHT STROLL," he had to make sure of his facts.

At one point in the chase, Valjean was lit up in the moonlight, and then Javert was sure of the chase. He wanted no room for error, so he recruited the passing soldiers, and knew - just knew - there was no way 24601 would escape him this time. He ensured that the alley search would be very thorough. Unfortunately, that meant Valjean had time to escape via feats of strength and daring-do. "When [Javert] reached the centre of the web he found the fly no longer there. His exasperation can be imagined." (p.325) To put it mildly, I'm sure.

And thus ends this book. I'm officially 1/3 of the way through this novel, and just over 1/3 of the way through this year. Maybe I'll meet the "read it all in 2013" goal after all! Or maybe my fly will escape, too. Stay tuned!

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