One morning M. Madeleine was passing through an unpaved alley of M. sur M.; he heard a noise, and saw a group some distance away. He approached. An old man named Father Fauchelevent had just fallen beneath his cart, his horse having tumbled down.
This Fauchelevent was one of the few enemies whom M. Madeleine had at that time. When Madeleine arrived in the neighborhood, Fauchelevent, an ex-notary and a peasant who was almost educated, had a business which was beginning to be in a bad way. Fauchelevent had seen this simple workman grow rich, while he, a lawyer, was being ruined. This had filled him with jealousy, and he had done all he could, on every occasion, to injure Madeleine. Then bankruptcy had come; and as the old man had nothing left but a cart and a horse, and neither family nor children, he had turned carter.
The horse had two broken legs and could not rise. The old man was caught in the wheels. The fall had been so unlucky that the whole weight of the vehicle rested on his breast. The cart was quite heavily laden. Father Fauchelevent was rattling in the throat in the most lamentable manner. They had tried, but in vain, to drag him out. An unmethodical effort, aid awkwardly given, a wrong shake, might kill him. It was impossible to disengage him otherwise than by lifting the vehicle off of him. Javert, who had come up at the moment of the accident, had sent for a jack-screw.
M. Madeleine arrived. People stood aside respectfully.
"Help!" cried old Fauchelevent. "Who will be good and save the old man?"
M. Madeleine turned towards those present:—
"Is there a jack-screw to be had?"
"One has been sent for," answered the peasant.
"How long will it take to get it?"
"They have gone for the nearest, to Flachot's place, where there is a farrier; but it makes no difference; it will take a good quarter of an hour."
"A quarter of an hour!" exclaimed Madeleine.
It had rained on the preceding night; the soil was soaked.
The cart was sinking deeper into the earth every moment, and crushing the old carter's breast more and more. It was evident that his ribs would be broken in five minutes more.
"It is impossible to wait another quarter of an hour," said Madeleine to the peasants, who were staring at him.
"But it will be too late then! Don't you see that the cart is sinking?"
"Listen," resumed Madeleine; "there is still room enough under the cart to allow a man to crawl beneath it and raise it with his back. Only half a minute, and the poor man can be taken out. Is there any one here who has stout loins and heart? There are five louis d'or to be earned!"
Not a man in the group stirred.
"Ten louis," said Madeleine.
The persons present dropped their eyes. One of them muttered: "A man would need to be devilish strong. And then he runs the risk of getting crushed!"
"Come," began Madeleine again, "twenty louis."
The same silence.
"It is not the will which is lacking," said a voice.
M. Madeleine turned round, and recognized Javert. He had not noticed him on his arrival.
Javert went on:—
"It is strength. One would have to be a terrible man to do such a thing as lift a cart like that on his back."
Then, gazing fixedly at M. Madeleine, he went on, emphasizing every word that he uttered:—
"Monsieur Madeleine, I have never known but one man capable of doing what you ask."
Javert added, with an air of indifference, but without removing his eyes from Madeleine:—
"He was a convict."
"Ah!" said Madeleine.
"In the galleys at Toulon."
Madeleine turned pale.
Meanwhile, the cart continued to sink slowly. Father Fauchelevent rattled in the throat, and shrieked:—
"I am strangling! My ribs are breaking! a screw! something! Ah!"
Madeleine glanced about him.
"Is there, then, no one who wishes to earn twenty louis and save the life of this poor old man?"
No one stirred. Javert resumed:—
"I have never known but one man who could take the place of a screw, and he was that convict."
"Ah! It is crushing me!" cried the old man.
Madeleine raised his head, met Javert's falcon eye still fixed upon him, looked at the motionless peasants, and smiled sadly. Then, without saying a word, he fell on his knees, and before the crowd had even had time to utter a cry, he was underneath the vehicle.
A terrible moment of expectation and silence ensued.
They beheld Madeleine, almost flat on his stomach beneath that terrible weight, make two vain efforts to bring his knees and his elbows together. They shouted to him, "Father Madeleine, come out!" Old Fauchelevent himself said to him, "Monsieur Madeleine, go away! You see that I am fated to die! Leave me! You will get yourself crushed also!" Madeleine made no reply.
All the spectators were panting. The wheels had continued to sink, and it had become almost impossible for Madeleine to make his way from under the vehicle.
Suddenly the enormous mass was seen to quiver, the cart rose slowly, the wheels half emerged from the ruts. They heard a stifled voice crying, "Make haste! Help!" It was Madeleine, who had just made a final effort.
They rushed forwards. The devotion of a single man had given force and courage to all. The cart was raised by twenty arms. Old Fauchelevent was saved.
Madeleine rose. He was pale, though dripping with perspiration. His clothes were torn and covered with mud. All wept. The old man kissed his knees and called him the good God. As for him, he bore upon his countenance an indescribable expression of happy and celestial suffering, and he fixed his tranquil eye on Javert, who was still staring at him.