Jean Valjean has just seen a lot of strange things happening at the Gorbeau House in the last couple of days, and he wants out of there. So at an opportune moment, he takes Cosette and leaves.
Victor Hugo begins this section with a disclaimer: Paris has changed significantly since the events depicted in this story, and a lot of the streets and neighborhoods that he will mention here aren’t there anymore. Here is a place where his sentimentality for the old Paris shines through. Having grown up in Baton Rouge and attended college in Athens, GA, I can definitely relate to what Victor Hugo is talking about here. Not only do I feel this way about Baton Rouge and Athens, I also feel this way to a certain extent about Hartford, Connecticut, and Fresno, California, where I spent significant amounts of time on business. And if I ever move away from Atlanta, I will probably feel the same way about Atlanta afterward. Any of you who have grown up or attended college or otherwise spent a significant amount of time in a different place from where you now live will probably also identify very strongly with these words of Hugo’s:
For many years now, the author of this book, who is reluctantly compelled to speak of himself, has been away from Paris. Meanwhile Paris has been transformed. A new city has sprung up which is in some sense unknown to him. It is unnecessary for him to say that he loves Paris; Paris is his heart’s birthplace. Through demolition and reconstruction, the Paris of his youth, that Paris he devoutly treasures in memory, has become a Paris of former times. Let him be permitted to speak of that Paris as though it still existed. It is possible that where the author is about to lead his readers, saying, “In such a street there is such a house,” there is now no longer either house or street. The reader may verify it, if he chooses to take the trouble. As for himself, the author does not know the new Paris and writes with the old Paris before his eyes in an illusion that is precious to him. It is comforting for him to imagine that something still remains of what he saw when he was in his own country, and that all is not vanished. While we come and go in our native land, we imagine that we are indifferent to these streets, that these windows, roofs, and doors mean nothing to us, that these walls are strangers to us, that these trees are like any other trees, that these houses we never enter are of no use to us, that the pavement where we walk is no more than stone blocks. Later, when we are no longer there, we find that those streets are very dear to us, that we miss the roofs, windows, and doors, that the walls are essential to us, that the trees are beloved, that every day we did enter those houses we never entered, and that we have left something of our affections, our life, and our heart on those paving stones. All those places that we no longer see, which perhaps we shall never see again, but whose image we have preserved, assume a painful charm, return to us with the sadness of a ghost, make the holy land visible to us, and are, so to speak, the true shape of France; and we love them and call them up such as they are, such as they were, and hold onto them, unwilling to change a thing, for one clings to the form of the fatherland as to the face of the mother.
Having said this, Hugo now begins to describe Valjean’s route. Valjean did not attempt to head straight down the Boulevard de l’Hopital; rather he took side streets and zigzagged his way through the neighborhood in an attempt to lose anyone who might be pursuing him. Gradually he made his way toward the river and the Pont d’Austerlitz. Along the way he passed a large square where some men were conferring and he recognized Javert. He took advantage of the fact that Javert and his men were busy conferring to get some separation between himself and Javert. He crossed over and went toward the right (east), toward what was back then the edge of town. He wound up in a neighborhood called Petit-Picpus, which would change significantly in subsequent decades and be completely gone by the time Hugo wrote this book. Don’t even bother looking for any of these places on Google Earth; you won’t find them.
Early on we see that Valjean is trusting God in the course of this journey:
No more than Cosette did Jean Valjean know where he was going. He trusted God, and she trusted him. It was as though he too were holding someone greater than himself by the hand; he believed he felt some invisible being leading him.
But this leading of God would take a completely different form from what Valjean was probably expecting. He headed toward Petit-Picpus in hopes of reaching the edge of town and finding freedom in the open countryside; instead he wound up walking into a trap. He wound up at the end of a dead-end street, with Javert and his men guarding all the exits.
But earlier in the story, we saw Valjean get off a carriage at Chelles and seem to vanish so completely that the carriage driver thought he had sunk into the ground. Would he pull a similar miracle here?
At this point Victor Hugo notes that Valjean “looked up at the sky in despair”; this is significant because it was from the sky that Valjean’s deliverance would come.
He looked up at the walls on the side of the street and had the thought of climbing over one of them. But he had a problem: He had Cosette with him. If it was just him, climbing the wall would have been a snap. But trying to get over the wall with Cosette on his shoulders would have been impossible. And Javert had just met and requisitioned a passing troop of soldiers; they were just now starting to make their way up the street, searching in every crevice of every building.
Valjean needed a rope. But where to find one? And then it hit him as he looked at a streetlamp across the way. The streetlamps were not yet lit with gas; they were lit by manually raising and lowering the light with a rope. They had not been lit that night because it was a full moon and a clear night. Valjean went over to the streetlamp, busted it open, and got his rope. With the rope, he scaled the wall and brought Cosette over with him. Just in time; he reached the top of the wall right when Javert and his men reached the spot where he had been.
He found himself in a courtyard. And then very strange things began to happen.
First, he heard the march of Javert’s men searching the streets outside for him. This was immediately followed by a sound of female voices singing, coming from God knows where.
…a celestial, divine, ineffable sound, as rapturous as the other [the sound of Javert’s guards] was horrible. It was a hymn emerging from the darkness, a bewildering mingling of prayer and harmony in the fearful, shadowy silence of the night; women’s voices, but with the pure accents of virgins, artless accents of children; voices not of this earth resembling those that the newborn still hear, and the dying hear already. This song came from the building overlooking the garden. As the uproar of the demons receded, one would have said, it was a choir of angels approaching in the shadows.
Cosette and Jean Valjean fell to their knees.
They did not know what it was; they did not know where they were; but they both felt, the man and the child, the penitent and the innocent, that they ought to be on their knees.
These voices had a strange effect: They did not prevent the building from seeming deserted. It was like a supernatural song in an uninhabited dwelling.
Valjean left Cosette to explore the courtyard in hopes of finding some better shelter from the cold. And then, as if the women’s voices singing hadn’t freaked him out already, he looked in a window and saw something that freaked him out even more.
The hall was deserted, and not a thing moved. However, looking more carefully, he thought he saw something stretched out on the pavement, which appeared to be covered with a shroud and resembled a human form. It was lying facedown, with arms outstretched in a cross, in the stillness of death. One would have said, because of a sort of serpent trailing along the pavement, that this sinister figure had a rope around its neck.
The whole hall was enveloped in that haze peculiar to dimly lit places, adding to the horror.
Jean Valjean often said afterwards that although in the course of his life he had seen many funereal sights, never had he seen anything more chilling and more terrible than that enigmatic figure fulfilling some strange mystery in that gloomy place, and glimpsed that way in the night. It was terrifying to suppose that perhaps it was dead, and still more terrifying to think that it might be alive….
Where was he? Who would ever have imagined anything equal to this sepulcher in the midst of Paris? What was this strange house? A building full of nocturnal mystery, calling to souls in the shadows with the voice of angels, and, when they came, abruptly presenting them with this frightening vision–promising to open the radiant gate of Heaven and opening the horrible door of the tomb. And that was in fact a building, a house with a street number? It was not all a dream? He had to touch the stone walls to believe it.
And then, as if all of that was not enough, Valjean next heard a bell ringing. He turned around and saw that someone was in the garden. He noticed that this man moved with a limp, and that the ringing of the bell followed his every move. He was afraid, because surely if this man saw him he would turn him in to Javert and his spies, who were surely still waiting outside.
But then he felt Cosette’s hands; they were ice cold. He knew he had to get help, no matter what the risk to himself. So he walked straight up to the man and introduced himself. It took a long time for Valjean to recognize this, but the man turned out to be Fauchelevent, whom he (as Father Madeleine, the mayor of MSM) had earlier rescued from under an oxcart. Fauchelevent had been installed as gardener at a convent in Paris upon his recommendation; this was the very convent. They took Cosette inside Fauchelevent’s hut, and within a half hour she was just fine.
Valjean trusted God to lead him during the course of this adventure, as we saw earlier. He thought he was heading for the edge of town and freedom in the countryside, but God had other ideas. Instead, he wound up at this convent–the very convent where he, as mayor of MSM, had placed Fauchelevent. This would prove to be a defining moment in Valjean’s life.
Up until this point in the story, Valjean had done good and been repaid with nothing but evil. He gave himself up to save Champmathieu, and was rewarded with prison and disgrace. He sought to visit Fantine one last time after the trial, but wound up walking right into the one place where Javert would find him, and causing her to be killed from the shock of seeing Javert. He gave alms to the beggars on his street while he was at Gorbeau, but he wound up attracting the attention of the police and Javert to himself. Now, for the first time in the story, a good deed which Valjean had done is rewarded positively; he saved Fauchelevent’s life and now Fauchelevent avails himself of the opportunity to save his life.
Now that Valjean is safely inside the convent walls, Victor Hugo takes a timeout to walk us through the whole thing from Javert’s point of view, to show how he found Valjean and lost him again.
When Valjean escaped from Javert at MSM, of course the police suspected that he was headed for Paris. This is because the city of Paris is a social maelstrom in which a criminal on the run from the police can easily lose himself. Sure enough, they found him en route to Montfermeil (surely to fetch Cosette). It also came out that he had been in the vicinity of Montfermeil the previous day for some reason. Javert had been called in to assist in the hunt for Valjean in Paris; he did so well that the superintendent of police in Paris had him transferred there.
A few months later, Javert saw a news item which said that Valjean was dead. (This came from him “drowning” in the ocean at Toulon.) Shortly after, a report of a kidnapping at Montfermeil reached his ears. Turns out, the Thenardiers did not take the loss of Cosette lying down. They spread the report of kidnapping out of malice. But then Thenardier got a clue that a reported kidnapping would attract the attention of the police, and he would probably not do very well to have the police looking too closely at his business affairs. So they quickly changed their tune; by the time Javert got to Montfermeil their story was that the girl’s grandfather had come for her and that they had spread the kidnapping story because they wanted him to stay on for a couple more days.
Then, reports filtered in to Javert’s precinct about a beggar who gave alms. Javert wanted to see this thing for himself, so he convinced the beggar that Valjean regularly gave alms to to let him take his place. Disguised in the beggar’s coat, Javert recognized Valjean. He tracked Valjean to the Gorbeau house and got a room there. When Valjean headed out, the landlady alerted Javert. Javert tracked him all the way to the river, but stopped to pick up reinforcements because he did not want to take any chances. He saw Valjean cross the Pont d’Austerlitz and followed him to the Petit-Picpus neighborhood, knowing that he was walking into a trap. He stationed his men to guard all the exits, and then gradually closed the net. He closed it all the way–only to find that his quarry was gone.
Along the way we see more animal imagery for Javert; we see him likened to “a tiger finding his prey”, “a hound putting his nose to the ground to be sure of the way”, “the spider that lets the fly buzz, or the cat that lets the mouse run”.
To close out this section, we see that Javert, upon finding that Valjean has escaped, is “crestfallen as a spy who has been caught by a thief”. Those of you who already know the story of Les Miserables, whether from seeing the musical or otherwise, will recognize this line as a little bit of foreshadowing of Javert’s ultimate end.