Victor Hugo – "In Which Will be Found the Origin of the Saying: Don't Lose the Card"
This is what had taken place above the coffin in which lay Jean Valjean.
When the hearse had driven off, when the priest and the choir boy had entered the carriage again and taken their departure, Fauchelevent, who had not taken his eyes from the grave-digger, saw the latter bend over and grasp his shovel, which was sticking upright in the heap of dirt.
Then Fauchelevent took a supreme resolve.
He placed himself between the grave and the grave-digger, crossed his arms and said:—
"I am the one to pay!"
The grave-digger stared at him in amazement, and replied:—
"What's that, peasant?"
"I am the one who pays!"
"For the wine."
"That Argenteuil wine."
"Where is the Argenteuil?"
"At the Bon Coing."
"Go to the devil!" said the grave-digger.
And he flung a shovelful of earth on the coffin.
The coffin gave back a hollow sound. Fauchelevent felt himself stagger and on the point of falling headlong into the grave himself. He shouted in a voice in which the strangling sound of the death rattle began to mingle:—
"Comrade! Before the Bon Coing is shut!"
The grave-digger took some more earth on his shovel. Fauchelevent continued.
"I will pay."
And he seized the man's arm.
"Listen to me, comrade. I am the convent grave-digger, I have come to help you. It is a business which can be performed at night. Let us begin, then, by going for a drink."
And as he spoke, and clung to this desperate insistence, this melancholy reflection occurred to him: "And if he drinks, will he get drunk?"
"Provincial," said the man, "if you positively insist upon it, I consent. We will drink. After work, never before."
And he flourished his shovel briskly. Fauchelevent held him back.
"It is Argenteuil wine, at six."
"Oh, come," said the grave-digger, "you are a bell-ringer. Ding dong, ding dong, that's all you know how to say. Go hang yourself."
And he threw in a second shovelful.
Fauchelevent had reached a point where he no longer knew what he was saying.
"Come along and drink," he cried, "since it is I who pays the bill."
"When we have put the child to bed," said the grave-digger.
He flung in a third shovelful.
Then he thrust his shovel into the earth and added:—
"It's cold to-night, you see, and the corpse would shriek out after us if we were to plant her there without a coverlet."
At that moment, as he loaded his shovel, the grave-digger bent over, and the pocket of his waistcoat gaped. Fauchelevent's wild gaze fell mechanically into that pocket, and there it stopped.
The sun was not yet hidden behind the horizon; there was still light enough to enable him to distinguish something white at the bottom of that yawning pocket.
The sum total of lightning that the eye of a Picard peasant can contain, traversed Fauchelevent's pupils. An idea had just occurred to him.
He thrust his hand into the pocket from behind, without the grave-digger, who was wholly absorbed in his shovelful of earth, observing it, and pulled out the white object which lay at the bottom of it.
The man sent a fourth shovelful tumbling into the grave.
Just as he turned round to get the fifth, Fauchelevent looked calmly at him and said:—
"By the way, you new man, have you your card?"
The grave-digger paused.
"The sun is on the point of setting."
"That's good, it is going to put on its nightcap."
"The gate of the cemetery will close immediately."
"Well, what then?"
"Have you your card?"
"Ah! my card?" said the grave-digger.
And he fumbled in his pocket.
Having searched one pocket, he proceeded to search the other. He passed on to his fobs, explored the first, returned to the second.
"Why, no," said he, "I have not my card. I must have forgotten it."
"Fifteen francs fine," said Fauchelevent.
The grave-digger turned green. Green is the pallor of livid people.
"Ah! Jesus-mon-Dieu-bancroche-a-bas-la-lune!"17 he exclaimed. "Fifteen francs fine!"
"Three pieces of a hundred sous," said Fauchelevent.
The grave-digger dropped his shovel.
Fauchelevent's turn had come.
"Ah, come now, conscript," said Fauchelevent, "none of this despair. There is no question of committing suicide and benefiting the grave. Fifteen francs is fifteen francs, and besides, you may not be able to pay it. I am an old hand, you are a new one. I know all the ropes and the devices. I will give you some friendly advice. One thing is clear, the sun is on the point of setting, it is touching the dome now, the cemetery will be closed in five minutes more."
"That is true," replied the man.
"Five minutes more and you will not have time to fill the grave, it is as hollow as the devil, this grave, and to reach the gate in season to pass it before it is shut."
"That is true."
"In that case, a fine of fifteen francs."
"But you have time. Where do you live?"
"A couple of steps from the barrier, a quarter of an hour from here. No. 87 Rue de Vaugirard."
"You have just time to get out by taking to your heels at your best speed."
"That is exactly so."
"Once outside the gate, you gallop home, you get your card, you return, the cemetery porter admits you. As you have your card, there will be nothing to pay. And you will bury your corpse. I'll watch it for you in the meantime, so that it shall not run away."
"I am indebted to you for my life, peasant."
"Decamp!" said Fauchelevent.
The grave-digger, overwhelmed with gratitude, shook his hand and set off on a run.
When the man had disappeared in the thicket, Fauchelevent listened until he heard his footsteps die away in the distance, then he leaned over the grave, and said in a low tone:—
There was no reply.
Fauchelevent was seized with a shudder. He tumbled rather than climbed into the grave, flung himself on the head of the coffin and cried:—
"Are you there?"
Silence in the coffin.
Fauchelevent, hardly able to draw his breath for trembling, seized his cold chisel and his hammer, and pried up the coffin lid.
Jean Valjean's face appeared in the twilight; it was pale and his eyes were closed.
Fauchelevent's hair rose upright on his head, he sprang to his feet, then fell back against the side of the grave, ready to swoon on the coffin. He stared at Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean lay there pallid and motionless.
Fauchelevent murmured in a voice as faint as a sigh:—
"He is dead!"
And, drawing himself up, and folding his arms with such violence that his clenched fists came in contact with his shoulders, he cried:—
"And this is the way I save his life!"
Then the poor man fell to sobbing. He soliloquized the while, for it is an error to suppose that the soliloquy is unnatural. Powerful emotion often talks aloud.
"It is Father Mestienne's fault. Why did that fool die? What need was there for him to give up the ghost at the very moment when no one was expecting it? It is he who has killed M. Madeleine. Father Madeleine! He is in the coffin. It is quite handy. All is over. Now, is there any sense in these things? Ah! my God! he is dead! Well! and his little girl, what am I to do with her? What will the fruit-seller say? The idea of its being possible for a man like that to die like this! When I think how he put himself under that cart! Father Madeleine! Father Madeleine! Pardine! He was suffocated, I said so. He wouldn't believe me. Well! Here's a pretty trick to play! He is dead, that good man, the very best man out of all the good God's good folks! And his little girl! Ah! In the first place, I won't go back there myself. I shall stay here. After having done such a thing as that! What's the use of being two old men, if we are two old fools! But, in the first place, how did he manage to enter the convent? That was the beginning of it all. One should not do such things. Father Madeleine! Father Madeleine! Father Madeleine! Madeleine! Monsieur Madeleine! Monsieur le Maire! He does not hear me. Now get out of this scrape if you can!"
And he tore his hair.
A grating sound became audible through the trees in the distance. It was the cemetery gate closing.
Fauchelevent bent over Jean Valjean, and all at once he bounded back and recoiled so far as the limits of a grave permit.
Jean Valjean's eyes were open and gazing at him.
To see a corpse is alarming, to behold a resurrection is almost as much so. Fauchelevent became like stone, pale, haggard, overwhelmed by all these excesses of emotion, not knowing whether he had to do with a living man or a dead one, and staring at Jean Valjean, who was gazing at him.
"I fell asleep," said Jean Valjean.
And he raised himself to a sitting posture.
Fauchelevent fell on his knees.
"Just, good Virgin! How you frightened me!"
Then he sprang to his feet and cried:—
"Thanks, Father Madeleine!"
Jean Valjean had merely fainted. The fresh air had revived him.
Joy is the ebb of terror. Fauchelevent found almost as much difficulty in recovering himself as Jean Valjean had.
"So you are not dead! Oh! How wise you are! I called you so much that you came back. When I saw your eyes shut, I said: 'Good! there he is, stifled,' I should have gone raving mad, mad enough for a strait jacket. They would have put me in Bicêtre. What do you suppose I should have done if you had been dead? And your little girl? There's that fruit-seller,—she would never have understood it! The child is thrust into your arms, and then—the grandfather is dead! What a story! good saints of paradise, what a tale! Ah! you are alive, that's the best of it!"
"I am cold," said Jean Valjean.
This remark recalled Fauchelevent thoroughly to reality, and there was pressing need of it. The souls of these two men were troubled even when they had recovered themselves, although they did not realize it, and there was about them something uncanny, which was the sinister bewilderment inspired by the place.
"Let us get out of here quickly," exclaimed Fauchelevent.
He fumbled in his pocket, and pulled out a gourd with which he had provided himself.
"But first, take a drop," said he.
The flask finished what the fresh air had begun, Jean Valjean swallowed a mouthful of brandy, and regained full possession of his faculties.
He got out of the coffin, and helped Fauchelevent to nail on the lid again.
Three minutes later they were out of the grave.
Moreover, Fauchelevent was perfectly composed. He took his time. The cemetery was closed. The arrival of the grave-digger Gribier was not to be apprehended. That "conscript" was at home busily engaged in looking for his card, and at some difficulty in finding it in his lodgings, since it was in Fauchelevent's pocket. Without a card, he could not get back into the cemetery.
Fauchelevent took the shovel, and Jean Valjean the pick-axe, and together they buried the empty coffin.
When the grave was full, Fauchelevent said to Jean Valjean:—
"Let us go. I will keep the shovel; do you carry off the mattock."
Night was falling.
Jean Valjean experienced rome difficulty in moving and in walking. He had stiffened himself in that coffin, and had become a little like a corpse. The rigidity of death had seized upon him between those four planks. He had, in a manner, to thaw out, from the tomb.
"You are benumbed," said Fauchelevent. "It is a pity that I have a game leg, for otherwise we might step out briskly."
"Bah!" replied Jean Valjean, "four paces will put life into my legs once more."
They set off by the alleys through which the hearse had passed. On arriving before the closed gate and the porter's pavilion Fauchelevent, who held the grave-digger's card in his hand, dropped it into the box, the porter pulled the rope, the gate opened, and they went out.
"How well everything is going!" said Fauchelevent; "what a capital idea that was of yours, Father Madeleine!"
They passed the Vaugirard barrier in the simplest manner in the world. In the neighborhood of the cemetery, a shovel and pick are equal to two passports.
The Rue Vaugirard was deserted.
"Father Madeleine," said Fauchelevent as they went along, and raising his eyes to the houses, "Your eyes are better than mine. Show me No. 87."
"Here it is," said Jean Valjean.
"There is no one in the street," said Fauchelevent. "Give me your mattock and wait a couple of minutes for me."
Fauchelevent entered No. 87, ascended to the very top, guided by the instinct which always leads the poor man to the garret, and knocked in the dark, at the door of an attic.
A voice replied: "Come in."
It was Gribier's voice.
Fauchelevent opened the door. The grave-digger's dwelling was, like all such wretched habitations, an unfurnished and encumbered garret. A packing-case—a coffin, perhaps—took the place of a commode, a butter-pot served for a drinking-fountain, a straw mattress served for a bed, the floor served instead of tables and chairs. In a corner, on a tattered fragment which had been a piece of an old carpet, a thin woman and a number of children were piled in a heap. The whole of this poverty-stricken interior bore traces of having been overturned. One would have said that there had been an earthquake "for one." The covers were displaced, the rags scattered about, the jug broken, the mother had been crying, the children had probably been beaten; traces of a vigorous and ill-tempèred search. It was plain that the grave-digger had made a desperate search for his card, and had made everybody in the garret, from the jug to his wife, responsible for its loss. He wore an air of desperation.
But Fauchelevent was in too great a hurry to terminate this adventure to take any notice of this sad side of his success.
He entered and said:—
"I have brought you back your shovel and pick."
Gribier gazed at him in stupefaction.
"Is it you, peasant?"
"And to-morrow morning you will find your card with the porter of the cemetery."
And he laid the shovel and mattock on the floor.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded Gribier.
"The meaning of it is, that you dropped your card out of your pocket, that I found it on the ground after you were gone, that I have buried the corpse, that I have filled the grave, that I have done your work, that the porter will return your card to you, and that you will not have to pay fifteen francs. There you have it, conscript."
"Thanks, villager!" exclaimed Gribier, radiant. "The next time I will pay for the drinks."
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