"Saint-Denis," Book Fifteen: Chapter II
The Street Urchin an Enemy of Light
How long did he remain thus? What was the ebb and flow of this tragic meditation? Did he straighten up? Did he remain bowed? Had he been bent to breaking? Could he still rise and regain his footing in his conscience upon something solid? He probably would not have been able to tell himself.
The street was deserted. A few uneasy bourgeois, who were rapidly returning home, hardly saw him. Each one for himself in times of peril. The lamp-lighter came as usual to light the lantern which was situated precisely opposite the door of No. 7, and then went away. Jean Valjean would not have appeared like a living man to any one who had examined him in that shadow. He sat there on the post of his door, motionless as a form of ice. There is congealment in despair. The alarm bells and a vague and stormy uproar were audible. In the midst of all these convulsions of the bell mingled with the revolt, the clock of Saint-Paul struck eleven, gravely and without haste; for the tocsin is man; the hour is God. The passage of the hour produced no effect on Jean Valjean; Jean Valjean did not stir. Still, at about that moment, a brusque report burst forth in the direction of the Halles, a second yet more violent followed; it was probably that attack on the barricade in the Rue de la Chanvrerie which we have just seen repulsed by Marius. At this double discharge, whose fury seemed augmented by the stupor of the night, Jean Valjean started; he rose, turning towards the quarter whence the noise proceeded; then he fell back upon the post again, folded his arms, and his head slowly sank on his bosom again.
He resumed his gloomy dialogue with himself.
All at once, he raised his eyes; some one was walking in the street, he heard steps near him. He looked, and by the light of the lanterns, in the direction of the street which ran into the Rue-aux-Archives, he perceived a young, livid, and beaming face.
Gavroche had just arrived in the Rue de l'Homme Armé.
Gavroche was staring into the air, apparently in search of something. He saw Jean Valjean perfectly well but he took no notice of him.
Gavroche after staring into the air, stared below; he raised himself on tiptoe, and felt of the doors and windows of the ground floor; they were all shut, bolted, and padlocked. After having authenticated the fronts of five or six barricaded houses in this manner, the urchin shrugged his shoulders, and took himself to task in these terms:—
Then he began to stare into the air again.
Jean Valjean, who, an instant previously, in his then state of mind, would not have spoken to or even answered any one, felt irresistibly impelled to accost that child.
"What is the matter with you, my little fellow?" he said.
"The matter with me is that I am hungry," replied Gavroche frankly. And he added: "Little fellow yourself."
Jean Valjean fumbled in his fob and pulled out a five-franc piece.
But Gavroche, who was of the wagtail species, and who skipped vivaciously from one gesture to another, had just picked up a stone. He had caught sight of the lantern.
"See here," said he, "you still have your lanterns here. You are disobeying the regulations, my friend. This is disorderly. Smash that for me."
And he flung the stone at the lantern, whose broken glass fell with such a clatter that the bourgeois in hiding behind their curtains in the opposite house cried: "There is 'Ninety-three' come again."
The lantern oscillated violently, and went out. The street had suddenly become black.
"That's right, old street," ejaculated Gavroche, "put on your night-cap."
And turning to Jean Valjean:—
"What do you call that gigantic monument that you have there at the end of the street? It's the Archives, isn't it? I must crumble up those big stupids of pillars a bit and make a nice barricade out of them."
Jean Valjean stepped up to Gavroche.
"Poor creature," he said in a low tone, and speaking to himself, "he is hungry."
And he laid the hundred-sou piece in his hand.
Gavroche raised his face, astonished at the size of this sou; he stared at it in the darkness, and the whiteness of the big sou dazzled him. He knew five-franc pieces by hearsay; their reputation was agreeable to him; he was delighted to see one close to. He said:—
"Let us contemplate the tiger."
He gazed at it for several minutes in ecstasy; then, turning to Jean Valjean, he held out the coin to him, and said majestically to him:—
"Bourgeois, I prefer to smash lanterns. Take back your ferocious beast. You can't bribe me. That has got five claws; but it doesn't scratch me."
"Have you a mother?" asked Jean Valjean.
"More than you have, perhaps."
"Well," returned Jean Valjean, "keep the money for your mother!"
Gavroche was touched. Moreover, he had just noticed that the man who was addressing him had no hat, and this inspired him with confidence.
"Truly," said he, "so it wasn't to keep me from breaking the lanterns?"
"Break whatever you please."
"You're a fine man," said Gavroche.
And he put the five-franc piece into one of his pockets.
His confidence having increased, he added:—
"Do you belong in this street?"
"Can you tell me where No. 7 is?"
"What do you want with No. 7?"
Here the child paused, he feared that he had said too much; he thrust his nails energetically into his hair and contented himself with replying:—
"Ah! Here it is."
An idea flashed through Jean Valjean's mind. Anguish does have these gleams. He said to the lad:—
"Are you the person who is bringing a letter that I am expecting?"
"You?" said Gavroche. "You are not a woman."
"The letter is for Mademoiselle Cosette, is it not?"
"Cosette," muttered Gavroche. "Yes, I believe that is the queer name."
"Well," resumed Jean Valjean, "I am the person to whom you are to deliver the letter. Give it here."
"In that case, you must know that I was sent from the barricade."
"Of course," said Jean Valjean.
Gavroche engulfed his hand in another of his pockets and drew out a paper folded in four.
Then he made the military salute.
"Respect for despatches," said he. "It comes from the Provisional Government."
"Give it to me," said Jean Valjean.
Gavroche held the paper elevated above his head.
"Don't go and fancy it's a love letter. It is for a woman, but it's for the people. We men fight and we respect the fair sex. We are not as they are in fine society, where there are lions who send chickens to camels."
"Give it to me."
"After all," continued Gavroche, "you have the air of an honest man."
"Give it to me quick."
"Catch hold of it."
And he handed the paper to Jean Valjean.
"And make haste, Monsieur What's-your-name, for Mamselle Cosette is waiting."
Gavroche was satisfied with himself for having produced this remark.
Jean Valjean began again:—
"Is it to Saint-Merry that the answer is to be sent?"
"There you are making some of those bits of pastry vulgarly called brioches [blunders]. This letter comes from the barricade of the Rue de la Chanvrerie, and I'm going back there. Good evening, citizen."
That said, Gavroche took himself off, or, to describe it more exactly, fluttered away in the direction whence he had come with a flight like that of an escaped bird. He plunged back into the gloom as though he made a hole in it, with the rigid rapidity of a projectile; the alley of l'Homme Armé became silent and solitary once more; in a twinkling, that strange child, who had about him something of the shadow and of the dream, had buried himself in the mists of the rows of black houses, and was lost there, like smoke in the dark; and one might have thought that he had dissipated and vanished, had there not taken place, a few minutes after his disappearance, a startling shiver of glass, and had not the magnificent crash of a lantern rattling down on the pavement once more abruptly awakened the indignant bourgeois. It was Gavroche upon his way through the Rue du Chaume.