Les Miserables 29: Forms Assumed by Suffering During Sleep

So Jean Valjean has been up all night deliberating about whether or not he would go to Arras and denounce himself to save Champmathieu.  At first he seemed set on going, then he seemed set on not going, but now he doesn’t know what he is going to do.  All this time he had been pacing up and down the floor, but at 3 AM, he finally collapsed into his chair and fell asleep.  He had a very disturbing dream.  I think the best thing would be to just quote it straight out, and so here it is, in Jean Valjean’s own words, according to Victor Hugo:

“I was in a field.  A vast, grassless, sad field.  It did not seem to be day or night.

“I was walking with my brother, the brother of my childhood; this brother of whom I must admit I never think and whom I scarcely remember.

“We were talking, and we met others who were walking.  We were speaking of a former neighbor, who, because she lived by the street, always worked with her window open.  Even while we talked, we felt cold because of that open window.

“There were no trees in the field.

“We saw a man passing nearby.  He was entirely naked, ashen-colored, riding a horse the color of earth.  The man was hairless; we saw his skull and the veins in his skull.  He was holding a stick that was limber, like a twig of grape vine, and heavy as iron.  This horseman passed by and said nothing.

“My brother said to me, ‘Let’s take the deserted road.’

“There was a narrow, deep-cut road where we saw not a bush or even a sprig of moss.  All was earth colored, even the sky.  A few steps farther, and no one answered me when I spoke.  I noticed that my brother was no longer with me.

“I entered a village that I saw.  I thought that it must be Romainville (why Romainville?).  [Author’s footnote:  This parenthesis is in the hand of Jean Valjean.]

“The first street I entered was deserted.  I turned into a second street.  At the corner of the two streets a man was standing against the wall.  I said to him, ‘What is this place?  Where am I?’  He did not answer.  I saw the open door of a house; I went in.

“The first room was deserted.  I went into the second.  Behind the door of this room a man was standing against the wall.  I asked him, ‘Whose house is this?  Where am I?’  The man did not answer.  The house had a garden.

“I went out of the house and into the garden.  The garden was deserted.  I found a man standing behind the first tree.  I said to this man, ‘What is this garden?  Where am I?’  The man did not answer.

“I wandered through the village, and I realized it was a city.  All the streets were deserted, all the doors were open.  No living being was going by in the streets or moving in the rooms or walking in the gardens.  But behind every turn of a wall, behind every door, behind everything, there was a man standing in silence.  Only one could ever be seen at a time.  These men looked at me as I passed by.

“I left the city and began to walk in the fields.

“After a while, I turned and I saw a great crowd following me.  I recognized all the men I had seen in the city.  Their heads were strange.  They did not seem to be hurrying, and yet they walked faster than I.  They made no sound as they walked.  Suddenly, this crowd came up and surrounded me.  Their faces were earth-colored.

“Then the first one I had seen and questioned as I entered the city said to me, ‘Where are you going?  Don’t you know you’ve been dead for a long time?’

“I opened my mouth to answer, and I realized no one was there.”

Okay, I will confess that this one has me completely and totally stumped.  This is a weird dream, and I have no idea what it means.  If any of you out there are English majors who can enlighten me on this, that would be greatly appreciated.

At any rate, Valjean woke up.  Shortly thereafter, the tilbury that he had rented from Master Scaufflaire arrived.  The concierge informed him of this, and he struggled to make sense of it.  It was 5 AM and he had just had a very rough night, so he wasn’t exactly on top of things.  But it finally registered with him what was going on.  And when the concierge asked what she should tell Master Scaufflaire’s drive, he hesitated for several moments, then told her to say he was coming down.

So Jean Valjean would go to Arras after all.  But he still had to get there.  And getting to Arras would not exactly be a slam dunk.  What follows is perhaps the most famous chariot ride in all of Western literature.

Now, instead of showing Valjean leaving MSM in his tilbury, Victor Hugo starts off by describing the chariots used to deliver the mail.  These were old-school (even by early 19th-century standards) contraptions which had long spikes for wheel hubs; these were meant to keep other carriages from getting too close.  As it turned out, one of these was entering MSM at 5 AM to bring the mail.  As it rounded a corner, it happened to run into a tilbury which was heading out of town like a bat out of hell–it just so happened that this was Valjean’s ride.

One of the wheels was badly damaged in this collision, yet Valjean continued completely oblivious for a good fourteen miles.  When he made his first stop at the Hesdin relay station, the attendant pointed out that his wheel was badly damaged and that, though he had just gone fourteen miles, he would not be going any farther on it.  Valjean asked around for someone to repair it; no one could do it and have it done that day.  He then asked if there was another carriage he could borrow, but there was none to be had.

Relief.  Valjean had exhausted every possible effort, but could not find a way to get to Arras.  Clearly God was on his side, right?

Not so fast.

Once again we see Hugo’s thing for the insignificant detail with momentous consequences, which we shall run into again and again through the course of this story:

If his (Valjean’s) conversation with the wheelwright had taken place in a room of the inn, it would have had no witnesses, nobody would have heard it, and it is probable that we should not have had to relate any of the events to follow, but the conversation took place in the street.  Any discussion in the street inevitably gathers a crowd.  There are always people who ask nothing better than to be spectators.  While he was questioning the wheelwright, some of the passersby had stopped around them.  After listening for a few minutes, a young boy whom no one had noticed separated himself from the group and ran off.

The boy ran off to fetch his mother, the mother came back and offered him her carriage.  It was an old, rusted-out rat trap of a carriage, but it would get him to Arras.  He paid her for it, left the tilbury to be fixed, and was off.

As Valjean was leaving Hesdin, the boy stopped him and asked for some payment for the trouble he went to in going to fetch his mother.  This episode is somewhat reminiscent of Elisha’s servant Gehazi stopping Naaman as he was leaving and asking for money (2 Kings 5:19-27).  Valjean refused sternly–perhaps because he had been happy at the prospect of not being able to make it to Arras and was not too amused that he would be going after all.

This was not the end of Valjean’s difficulties in attempting to reach Arras.  The carriole was very slow going, and by the time he reached Tinques school had just let out and it was starting to get dark.  (It was February, and the days in northern France are much shorter during the winter than they are here in Georgia.)  He passed through Tinques only to find that there was road construction up ahead and he would have to backtrack and take a detour.  Plus, his horse was getting very tired, so he would have to stop at the inn and fetch another horse and a stable boy to serve as guide–resulting in an additional delay.

In spite of all these troubles, Valjean finally made it to Arras.  But had the case already finished?  Had he gone to all of this trouble for nothing?  And how was Fantine making out back at MSM?  Tune in next time.

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