In the midst of this prostration, a hand was laid on his shoulder, and a low voice said to him:
Some person in that gloom? Nothing so closely resembles a dream as despair. Jean Valjean thought that he was dreaming. He had heard no footsteps. Was it possible? He raised his eyes.
A man stood before him.
This man was clad in a blouse; his feet were bare; he held his shoes in his left hand; he had evidently removed them in order to reach Jean Valjean, without allowing his steps to be heard.
Jean Valjean did not hesitate for an instant. Unexpected as was this encounter, this man was known to him. The man was Thénardier.
Although awakened, so to speak, with a start, Jean Valjean, accustomed to alarms, and steeled to unforeseen shocks that must be promptly parried, instantly regained possession of his presence of mind. Moreover, the situation could not be made worse, a certain degree of distress is no longer capable of a crescendo, and Thénardier himself could add nothing to this blackness of this night.
A momentary pause ensued.
Thénardier, raising his right hand to a level with his forehead, formed with it a shade, then he brought his eyelashes together, by screwing up his eyes, a motion which, in connection with a slight contraction of the mouth, characterizes the sagacious attention of a man who is endeavoring to recognize another man. He did not succeed. Jean Valjean, as we have just stated, had his back turned to the light, and he was, moreover, so disfigured, so bemired, so bleeding that he would have been unrecognizable in full noonday. On the contrary, illuminated by the light from the grating, a cellar light, it is true, livid, yet precise in its lividness, Thénardier, as the energetic popular metaphor expresses it, immediately "leaped into" Jean Valjean's eyes. This inequality of conditions sufficed to assure some advantage to Jean Valjean in that mysterious duel which was on the point of beginning between the two situations and the two men. The encounter took place between Jean Valjean veiled and Thénardier unmasked.
Jean Valjean immediately perceived that Thénardier did not recognize him.
They surveyed each other for a moment in that half-gloom, as though taking each other's measure. Thénardier was the first to break the silence.
"How are you going to manage to get out?"
Jean Valjean made no reply. Thénardier continued:
"It's impossible to pick the lock of that gate. But still you must get out of this."
"That is true," said Jean Valjean.
"Well, half shares then."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You have killed that man; that's all right. I have the key."
Thénardier pointed to Marius. He went on:
"I don't know you, but I want to help you. You must be a friend."
Jean Valjean began to comprehend. Thénardier took him for an assassin.
"Listen, comrade. You didn't kill that man without looking to see what he had in his pockets. Give me my half. I'll open the door for you."
And half drawing from beneath his tattered blouse a huge key, he added:
"Do you want to see how a key to liberty is made? Look here."
Jean Valjean "remained stupid"—the expression belongs to the elder Corneille—to such a degree that he doubted whether what he beheld was real. It was Providence appearing in horrible guise, and his good angel springing from the earth in the form of Thénardier.
Thénardier thrust his fist into a large pocket concealed under his blouse, drew out a rope and offered it to Jean Valjean.
"Hold on," said he, "I'll give you the rope to boot."
"What is the rope for?"
"You will need a stone also, but you can find one outside. There's a heap of rubbish."
"What am I to do with a stone?"
"Idiot, you'll want to sling that stiff into the river, you'll need a stone and a rope, otherwise it would float on the water."
Jean Valjean took the rope. There is no one who does not occasionally accept in this mechanical way.
Thénardier snapped his fingers as though an idea had suddenly occurred to him.
"Ah, see here, comrade, how did you contrive to get out of that slough yonder? I haven't dared to risk myself in it. Phew! you don't smell good."
After a pause he added:
"I'm asking you questions, but you're perfectly right not to answer. It's an apprenticeship against that cursed quarter of an hour before the examining magistrate. And then, when you don't talk at all, you run no risk of talking too loud. That's no matter, as I can't see your face and as I don't know your name, you are wrong in supposing that I don't know who you are and what you want. I twig. You've broken up that gentleman a bit; now you want to tuck him away somewhere. The river, that great hider of folly, is what you want. I'll get you out of your scrape. Helping a good fellow in a pinch is what suits me to a hair."
While expressing his approval of Jean Valjean's silence, he endeavored to force him to talk. He jostled his shoulder in an attempt to catch a sight of his profile, and he exclaimed, without, however, raising his tone:
"Apropos of that quagmire, you're a hearty animal. Why didn't you toss the man in there?"
Jean Valjean preserved silence.
Thénardier resumed, pushing the rag which served him as a cravat to the level of his Adam's apple, a gesture which completes the capable air of a serious man:
"After all, you acted wisely. The workmen, when they come to-morrow to stop up that hole, would certainly have found the stiff abandoned there, and it might have been possible, thread by thread, straw by straw, to pick up the scent and reach you. Some one has passed through the sewer. Who? Where did he get out? Was he seen to come out? The police are full of cleverness. The sewer is treacherous and tells tales of you. Such a find is a rarity, it attracts attention, very few people make use of the sewers for their affairs, while the river belongs to everybody. The river is the true grave. At the end of a month they fish up your man in the nets at Saint-Cloud. Well, what does one care for that? It's carrion! Who killed that man? Paris. And justice makes no inquiries. You have done well."
The more loquacious Thénardier became, the more mute was Jean Valjean.
Again Thénardier shook him by the shoulder.
"Now let's settle this business. Let's go shares. You have seen my key, show me your money."
Thénardier was haggard, fierce, suspicious, rather menacing, yet amicable.
There was one singular circumstance; Thénardier's manners were not simple; he had not the air of being wholly at his ease; while affecting an air of mystery, he spoke low; from time to time he laid his finger on his mouth, and muttered, "hush!" It was difficult to divine why. There was no one there except themselves. Jean Valjean thought that other ruffians might possibly be concealed in some nook, not very far off, and that Thénardier did not care to share with them.
"Let's settle up. How much did the stiff have in his bags?"
Jean Valjean searched his pockets.
It was his habit, as the reader will remember, to always have some money about him. The mournful life of expedients to which he had been condemned imposed this as a law upon him. On this occasion, however, he had been caught unprepared. When donning his uniform of a National Guardsman on the preceding evening, he had forgotten, dolefully absorbed as he was, to take his pocket-book. He had only some small change in his fob. He turned out his pocket, all soaked with ooze, and spread out on the banquette of the vault one louis d'or, two five-franc pieces, and five or six large sous.
Thénardier thrust out his lower lip with a significant twist of the neck.
"You knocked him over cheap," said he.
He set to feeling the pockets of Jean Valjean and Marius, with the greatest familiarity. Jean Valjean, who was chiefly concerned in keeping his back to the light, let him have his way.
While handling Marius' coat, Thénardier, with the skill of a pickpocket, and without being noticed by Jean Valjean, tore off a strip which he concealed under his blouse, probably thinking that this morsel of stuff might serve, later on, to identify the assassinated man and the assassin. However, he found no more than the thirty francs.
"That's true," said he, "both of you together have no more than that."
And, forgetting his motto: "half shares," he took all.
He hesitated a little over the large sous. After due reflection, he took them also, muttering:
"Never mind! You cut folks' throats too cheap altogether."
That done, he once more drew the big key from under his blouse.
"Now, my friend, you must leave. It's like the fair here, you pay when you go out. You have paid, now clear out."
And he began to laugh.
Had he, in lending to this stranger the aid of his key, and in making some other man than himself emerge from that portal, the pure and disinterested intention of rescuing an assassin? We may be permitted to doubt this.
Thénardier helped Jean Valjean to replace Marius on his shoulders, then he betook himself to the grating on tiptoe, and barefooted, making Jean Valjean a sign to follow him, looked out, laid his finger on his mouth, and remained for several seconds, as though in suspense; his inspection finished, he placed the key in the lock. The bolt slipped back and the gate swung open. It neither grated nor squeaked. It moved very softly.
It was obvious that this gate and those hinges, carefully oiled, were in the habit of opening more frequently than was supposed. This softness was suspicious; it hinted at furtive goings and comings, silent entrances and exits of nocturnal men, and the wolf-like tread of crime.
The sewer was evidently an accomplice of some mysterious band. This taciturn grating was a receiver of stolen goods.
Thénardier opened the gate a little way, allowing just sufficient space for Jean Valjean to pass out, closed the grating again, gave the key a double turn in the lock and plunged back into the darkness, without making any more noise than a breath. He seemed to walk with the velvet paws of a tiger.
A moment later, that hideous providence had retreated into the invisibility.
Jean Valjean found himself in the open air.