The posting service from Arras to M. sur M. was still operated at this period by small mail-wagons of the time of the Empire. These mail-wagons were two-wheeled cabriolets, upholstered inside with fawn-colored leather, hung on springs, and having but two seats, one for the postboy, the other for the traveller. The wheels were armed with those long, offensive axles which keep other vehicles at a distance, and which may still be seen on the road in Germany. The despatch box, an immense oblong coffer, was placed behind the vehicle and formed a part of it. This coffer was painted black, and the cabriolet yellow.
These vehicles, which have no counterparts nowadays, had something distorted and hunchbacked about them; and when one saw them passing in the distance, and climbing up some road to the horizon, they resembled the insects which are called, I think, termites, and which, though with but little corselet, drag a great train behind them. But they travelled at a very rapid rate. The post-wagon which set out from Arras at one o'clock every night, after the mail from Paris had passed, arrived at M. sur M. a little before five o'clock in the morning.
That night the wagon which was descending to M. sur M. by the Hesdin road, collided at the corner of a street, just as it was entering the town, with a little tilbury harnessed to a white horse, which was going in the opposite direction, and in which there was but one person, a man enveloped in a mantle. The wheel of the tilbury received quite a violent shock. The postman shouted to the man to stop, but the traveller paid no heed and pursued his road at full gallop.
"That man is in a devilish hurry!" said the postman.
The man thus hastening on was the one whom we have just seen struggling in convulsions which are certainly deserving of pity.
Whither was he going? He could not have told. Why was he hastening? He did not know. He was driving at random, straight ahead. Whither? To Arras, no doubt; but he might have been going elsewhere as well. At times he was conscious of it, and he shuddered. He plunged into the night as into a gulf. Something urged him forward; something drew him on. No one could have told what was taking place within him; every one will understand it. What man is there who has not entered, at least once in his life, into that obscure cavern of the unknown?
However, he had resolved on nothing, decided nothing, formed no plan, done nothing. None of the actions of his conscience had been decisive. He was, more than ever, as he had been at the first moment.
Why was he going to Arras?
He repeated what he had already said to himself when he had hired Scaufflaire's cabriolet: that, whatever the result was to be, there was no reason why he should not see with his own eyes, and judge of matters for himself; that this was even prudent; that he must know what took place; that no decision could be arrived at without having observed and scrutinized; that one made mountains out of everything from a distance; that, at any rate, when he should have seen that Champmathieu, some wretch, his conscience would probably be greatly relieved to allow him to go to the galleys in his stead; that Javert would indeed be there; and that Brevet, that Chenildieu, that Cochepaille, old convicts who had known him; but they certainly would not recognize him;—bah! what an idea! that Javert was a hundred leagues from suspecting the truth; that all conjectures and all suppositions were fixed on Champmathieu, and that there is nothing so headstrong as suppositions and conjectures; that accordingly there was no danger.
That it was, no doubt, a dark moment, but that he should emerge from it; that, after all, he held his destiny, however bad it might be, in his own hand; that he was master of it. He clung to this thought.
At bottom, to tell the whole truth, he would have preferred not to go to Arras.
Nevertheless, he was going thither.
As he meditated, he whipped up his horse, which was proceeding at that fine, regular, and even trot which accomplishes two leagues and a half an hour.
In proportion as the cabriolet advanced, he felt something within him draw back.
At daybreak he was in the open country; the town of M. sur M. lay far behind him. He watched the horizon grow white; he stared at all the chilly figures of a winter's dawn as they passed before his eyes, but without seeing them. The morning has its spectres as well as the evening. He did not see them; but without his being aware of it, and by means of a sort of penetration which was almost physical, these black silhouettes of trees and of hills added some gloomy and sinister quality to the violent state of his soul.
Each time that he passed one of those isolated dwellings which sometimes border on the highway, he said to himself, "And yet there are people there within who are sleeping!"
The trot of the horse, the bells on the harness, the wheels on the road, produced a gentle, monotonous noise. These things are charming when one is joyous, and lugubrious when one is sad.
It was broad daylight when he arrived at Hesdin. He halted in front of the inn, to allow the horse a breathing spell, and to have him given some oats.
The horse belonged, as Scaufflaire had said, to that small race of the Boulonnais, which has too much head, too much belly, and not enough neck and shoulders, but which has a broad chest, a large crupper, thin, fine legs, and solid hoofs—a homely, but a robust and healthy race. The excellent beast had travelled five leagues in two hours, and had not a drop of sweat on his loins.
He did not get out of the tilbury. The stableman who brought the oats suddenly bent down and examined the left wheel.
"Are you going far in this condition?" said the man.
He replied, with an air of not having roused himself from his reverie:—
"Have you come from a great distance?" went on the man.
"Why do you say, 'Ah?'"
The man bent down once more, was silent for a moment, with his eyes fixed on the wheel; then he rose erect and said:—
"Because, though this wheel has travelled five leagues, it certainly will not travel another quarter of a league."
He sprang out of the tilbury.
"What is that you say, my friend?"
"I say that it is a miracle that you should have travelled five leagues without you and your horse rolling into some ditch on the highway. Just see here!"
The wheel really had suffered serious damage. The shock administered by the mail-wagon had split two spokes and strained the hub, so that the nut no longer held firm.
"My friend," he said to the stableman, "is there a wheelwright here?"
"Do me the service to go and fetch him."
"He is only a step from here. Hey! Master Bourgaillard!"
Master Bourgaillard, the wheelwright, was standing on his own threshold. He came, examined the wheel and made a grimace like a surgeon when the latter thinks a limb is broken.
"Can you repair this wheel immediately?"
"When can I set out again?"
"There is a long day's work on it. Are you in a hurry, sir?"
"In a very great hurry. I must set out again in an hour at the latest."
"I will pay whatever you ask."
"Well, in two hours, then."
"Impossible to-day. Two new spokes and a hub must be made. Monsieur will not be able to start before to-morrow morning."
"The matter cannot wait until to-morrow. What if you were to replace this wheel instead of repairing it?"
"You are a wheelwright?"
"Have you not a wheel that you can sell me? Then I could start again at once."
"A spare wheel?"
"I have no wheel on hand that would fit your cabriolet. Two wheels make a pair. Two wheels cannot be put together hap-hazard."
"In that case, sell me a pair of wheels."
"Not all wheels fit all axles, sir."
"It is useless, sir. I have nothing to sell but cart-wheels. We are but a poor country here."
"Have you a cabriolet that you can let me have?"
The wheelwright had seen at the first glance that the tilbury was a hired vehicle. He shrugged his shoulders.
"You treat the cabriolets that people let you so well! If I had one, I would not let it to you!"
"Well, sell it to me, then."
"I have none."
"What! not even a spring-cart? I am not hard to please, as you see."
"We live in a poor country. There is, in truth," added the wheelwright, "an old calash under the shed yonder, which belongs to a bourgeois of the town, who gave it to me to take care of, and who only uses it on the thirty-sixth of the month—never, that is to say. I might let that to you, for what matters it to me? But the bourgeois must not see it pass—and then, it is a calash; it would require two horses."
"I will take two post-horses."
"Where is Monsieur going?"
"And Monsieur wishes to reach there to-day?"
"Yes, of course."
"By taking two post-horses?"
"Does it make any difference whether Monsieur arrives at four o'clock to-morrow morning?"
"There is one thing to be said about that, you see, by taking post-horses—Monsieur has his passport?"
"Well, by taking post-horses, Monsieur cannot reach Arras before to-morrow. We are on a crossroad. The relays are badly served, the horses are in the fields. The season for ploughing is just beginning; heavy teams are required, and horses are seized upon everywhere, from the post as well as elsewhere. Monsieur will have to wait three or four hours at the least at every relay. And, then, they drive at a walk. There are many hills to ascend."
"Come then, I will go on horseback. Unharness the cabriolet. Some one can surely sell me a saddle in the neighborhood."
"Without doubt. But will this horse bear the saddle?"
"That is true; you remind me of that; he will not bear it."
"But I can surely hire a horse in the village?"
"A horse to travel to Arras at one stretch?"
"That would require such a horse as does not exist in these parts. You would have to buy it to begin with, because no one knows you. But you will not find one for sale nor to let, for five hundred francs, or for a thousand."
"What am I to do?"
"The best thing is to let me repair the wheel like an honest man, and set out on your journey to-morrow."
"To-morrow will be too late."
"Is there not a mail-wagon which runs to Arras? When will it pass?"
"To-night. Both the posts pass at night; the one going as well as the one coming."
"What! It will take you a day to mend this wheel?"
"A day, and a good long one."
"If you set two men to work?"
"If I set ten men to work."
"What if the spokes were to be tied together with ropes?"
"That could be done with the spokes, not with the hub; and the felly is in a bad state, too."
"Is there any one in this village who lets out teams?"
"Is there another wheelwright?"
The stableman and the wheelwright replied in concert, with a toss of the head.
He felt an immense joy.
It was evident that Providence was intervening. That it was it who had broken the wheel of the tilbury and who was stopping him on the road. He had not yielded to this sort of first summons; he had just made every possible effort to continue the journey; he had loyally and scrupulously exhausted all means; he had been deterred neither by the season, nor fatigue, nor by the expense; he had nothing with which to reproach himself. If he went no further, that was no fault of his. It did not concern him further. It was no longer his fault. It was not the act of his own conscience, but the act of Providence.
He breathed again. He breathed freely and to the full extent of his lungs for the first time since Javert's visit. It seemed to him that the hand of iron which had held his heart in its grasp for the last twenty hours had just released him.
It seemed to him that God was for him now, and was manifesting Himself.
He said to himself that he had done all he could, and that now he had nothing to do but retrace his steps quietly.
If his conversation with the wheelwright had taken place in a chamber of the inn, it would have had no witnesses, no one would have heard him, things would have rested there, and it is probable that we should not have had to relate any of the occurrences which the reader is about to peruse; but this conversation had taken place in the street. Any colloquy in the street inevitably attracts a crowd. There are always people who ask nothing better than to become spectators. While he was questioning the wheelwright, some people who were passing back and forth halted around them. After listening for a few minutes, a young lad, to whom no one had paid any heed, detached himself from the group and ran off.
At the moment when the traveller, after the inward deliberation which we have just described, resolved to retrace his steps, this child returned. He was accompanied by an old woman.
"Monsieur," said the woman, "my boy tells me that you wish to hire a cabriolet."
These simple words uttered by an old woman led by a child made the perspiration trickle down his limbs. He thought that he beheld the hand which had relaxed its grasp reappear in the darkness behind him, ready to seize him once more.
"Yes, my good woman; I am in search of a cabriolet which I can hire."
And he hastened to add:—
"But there is none in the place."
"Certainly there is," said the old woman.
"Where?" interpolated the wheelwright.
"At my house," replied the old woman.
He shuddered. The fatal hand had grasped him again.
The old woman really had in her shed a sort of basket spring-cart. The wheelwright and the stable-man, in despair at the prospect of the traveller escaping their clutches, interfered.
"It was a frightful old trap; it rests flat on the axle; it is an actual fact that the seats were suspended inside it by leather thongs; the rain came into it; the wheels were rusted and eaten with moisture; it would not go much further than the tilbury; a regular ramshackle old stage-wagon; the gentleman would make a great mistake if he trusted himself to it," etc., etc.
All this was true; but this trap, this ramshackle old vehicle, this thing, whatever it was, ran on its two wheels and could go to Arras.
He paid what was asked, left the tilbury with the wheelwright to be repaired, intending to reclaim it on his return, had the white horse put to the cart, climbed into it, and resumed the road which he had been travelling since morning.
At the moment when the cart moved off, he admitted that he had felt, a moment previously, a certain joy in the thought that he should not go whither he was now proceeding. He examined this joy with a sort of wrath, and found it absurd. Why should he feel joy at turning back? After all, he was taking this trip of his own free will. No one was forcing him to it.
And assuredly nothing would happen except what he should choose.
As he left Hesdin, he heard a voice shouting to him: "Stop! Stop!" He halted the cart with a vigorous movement which contained a feverish and convulsive element resembling hope.
It was the old woman's little boy.
"Monsieur," said the latter, "it was I who got the cart for you."
"You have not given me anything."
He who gave to all so readily thought this demand exorbitant and almost odious.
"Ah! it's you, you scamp?" said he; "you shall have nothing."
He whipped up his horse and set off at full speed.
He had lost a great deal of time at Hesdin. He wanted to make it good. The little horse was courageous, and pulled for two; but it was the month of February, there had been rain; the roads were bad. And then, it was no longer the tilbury. The cart was very heavy, and in addition, there were many ascents.
He took nearly four hours to go from Hesdin to Saint-Pol; four hours for five leagues.
At Saint-Pol he had the horse unharnessed at the first inn he came to and led to the stable; as he had promised Scaufflaire, he stood beside the manger while the horse was eating; he thought of sad and confusing things.
The inn-keeper's wife came to the stable.
"Does not Monsieur wish to breakfast?"
"Come, that is true; I even have a good appetite."
He followed the woman, who had a rosy, cheerful face; she led him to the public room where there were tables covered with waxed cloth.
"Make haste!" said he; "I must start again; I am in a hurry."
A big Flemish servant-maid placed his knife and fork in all haste; he looked at the girl with a sensation of comfort.
"That is what ailed me," he thought; "I had not breakfasted."
His breakfast was served; he seized the bread, took a mouthful, and then slowly replaced it on the table, and did not touch it again.
A carter was eating at another table; he said to this man:—
"Why is their bread so bitter here?"
The carter was a German and did not understand him.
He returned to the stable and remained near the horse.
An hour later he had quitted Saint-Pol and was directing his course towards Tinques, which is only five leagues from Arras.
What did he do during this journey? Of what was he thinking? As in the morning, he watched the trees, the thatched roofs, the tilled fields pass by, and the way in which the landscape, broken at every turn of the road, vanished; this is a sort of contemplation which sometimes suffices to the soul, and almost relieves it from thought. What is more melancholy and more profound than to see a thousand objects for the first and the last time? To travel is to be born and to die at every instant; perhaps, in the vaguest region of his mind, he did make comparisons between the shifting horizon and our human existence: all the things of life are perpetually fleeing before us; the dark and bright intervals are intermingled; after a dazzling moment, an eclipse; we look, we hasten, we stretch out our hands to grasp what is passing; each event is a turn in the road, and, all at once, we are old; we feel a shock; all is black; we distinguish an obscure door; the gloomy horse of life, which has been drawing us halts, and we see a veiled and unknown person unharnessing amid the shadows.
Twilight was falling when the children who were coming out of school beheld this traveller enter Tinques; it is true that the days were still short; he did not halt at Tinques; as he emerged from the village, a laborer, who was mending the road with stones, raised his head and said to him:—
"That horse is very much fatigued."
The poor beast was, in fact, going at a walk.
"Are you going to Arras?" added the road-mender.
"If you go on at that rate you will not arrive very early."
He stopped his horse, and asked the laborer:—
"How far is it from here to Arras?"
"Nearly seven good leagues."
"How is that? the posting guide only says five leagues and a quarter."
"Ah!" returned the road-mender, "so you don't know that the road is under repair? You will find it barred a quarter of an hour further on; there is no way to proceed further."
"You will take the road on the left, leading to Carency; you will cross the river; when you reach Camblin, you will turn to the right; that is the road to Mont-Saint-Éloy which leads to Arras."
"But it is night, and I shall lose my way."
"You do not belong in these parts?"
"And, besides, it is all crossroads; stop! sir," resumed the road-mender; "shall I give you a piece of advice? your horse is tired; return to Tinques; there is a good inn there; sleep there; you can reach Arras to-morrow."
"I must be there this evening."
"That is different; but go to the inn all the same, and get an extra horse; the stable-boy will guide you through the crossroads."
He followed the road-mender's advice, retraced his steps, and, half an hour later, he passed the same spot again, but this time at full speed, with a good horse to aid; a stable-boy, who called himself a postilion, was seated on the shaft of the cariole.
Still, he felt that he had lost time.
Night had fully come.
They turned into the crossroad; the way became frightfully bad; the cart lurched from one rut to the other; he said to the postilion:—
"Keep at a trot, and you shall have a double fee."
In one of the jolts, the whiffle-tree broke.
"There's the whiffle-tree broken, sir," said the postilion; "I don't know how to harness my horse now; this road is very bad at night; if you wish to return and sleep at Tinques, we could be in Arras early to-morrow morning."
He replied, "Have you a bit of rope and a knife?"
He cut a branch from a tree and made a whiffle-tree of it.
This caused another loss of twenty minutes; but they set out again at a gallop.
The plain was gloomy; low-hanging, black, crisp fogs crept over the hills and wrenched themselves away like smoke: there were whitish gleams in the clouds; a strong breeze which blew in from the sea produced a sound in all quarters of the horizon, as of some one moving furniture; everything that could be seen assumed attitudes of terror. How many things shiver beneath these vast breaths of the night!
He was stiff with cold; he had eaten nothing since the night before; he vaguely recalled his other nocturnal trip in the vast plain in the neighborhood of D——, eight years previously, and it seemed but yesterday.
The hour struck from a distant tower; he asked the boy:—
"What time is it?"
"Seven o'clock, sir; we shall reach Arras at eight; we have but three leagues still to go."
At that moment, he for the first time indulged in this reflection, thinking it odd the while that it had not occurred to him sooner: that all this trouble which he was taking was, perhaps, useless; that he did not know so much as the hour of the trial; that he should, at least, have informed himself of that; that he was foolish to go thus straight ahead without knowing whether he would be of any service or not; then he sketched out some calculations in his mind: that, ordinarily, the sittings of the Court of Assizes began at nine o'clock in the morning; that it could not be a long affair; that the theft of the apples would be very brief; that there would then remain only a question of identity, four or five depositions, and very little for the lawyers to say; that he should arrive after all was over.
The postilion whipped up the horses; they had crossed the river and left Mont-Saint-Éloy behind them.
The night grew more profound.