In this illustration, raindrops fall on still water, sending gentle ripples outward. Most of remain isolated as they fade into the surface, but two lucky ones manage to connect. From our new collection, “On Love.”
Read an excerpt from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo:
CHAPTER V—A NIGHT BEHIND WHICH THERE IS DAY
Jean Valjean turned round at the knock which he heard on his door.
“Come in,” he said feebly.
The door opened.
Cosette and Marius made their appearance.
Cosette rushed into the room.
Marius remained on the threshold, leaning against the jamb of the door.
“Cosette!” said Jean Valjean.
And he sat erect in his chair, his arms outstretched and trembling, haggard, livid, gloomy, an immense joy in his eyes.
Cosette, stifling with emotion, fell upon Jean Valjean’s breast.
“Father!” said she.
Jean Valjean, overcome, stammered:
“Cosette! she! you! Madame! it is thou! Ah! my God!”
And, pressed close in Cosette’s arms, he exclaimed:
“It is thou! thou art here! Thou dost pardon me then!”
Marius, lowering his eyelids, in order to keep his tears from flowing, took a step forward and murmured between lips convulsively contracted to repress his sobs:
“And you also, you pardon me!” Jean Valjean said to him.
Marius could find no words, and Jean Valjean added:
Cosette tore off her shawl and tossed her hat on the bed.
“It embarrasses me,” said she.
And, seating herself on the old man’s knees, she put aside his white locks with an adorable movement, and kissed his brow.
Jean Valjean, bewildered, let her have her own way.
Cosette, who only understood in a very confused manner, redoubled her caresses, as though she desired to pay Marius’ debt.
Jean Valjean stammered:
“How stupid people are! I thought that I should never see her again. Imagine, Monsieur Pontmercy, at the very moment when you entered, I was saying to myself: ‘All is over. Here is her little gown, I am a miserable man, I shall never see Cosette again,’ and I was saying that at the very moment when you were mounting the stairs. Was not I an idiot? Just see how idiotic one can be! One reckons without the good God. The good God says:
“‘You fancy that you are about to be abandoned, stupid! No. No, things will not go so. Come, there is a good man yonder who is in need of an angel.’ And the angel comes, and one sees one’s Cosette again! and one sees one’s little Cosette once more! Ah! I was very unhappy.”
For a moment he could not speak, then he went on:
“I really needed to see Cosette a little bit now and then. A heart needs a bone to gnaw. But I was perfectly conscious that I was in the way. I gave myself reasons: ‘They do not want you, keep in your own course, one has not the right to cling eternally.’ Ah! God be praised, I see her once more! Dost thou know, Cosette, thy husband is very handsome? Ah! what a pretty embroidered collar thou hast on, luckily. I am fond of that pattern. It was thy husband who chose it, was it not? And then, thou shouldst have some cashmere shawls. Let me call her thou, Monsieur Pontmercy. It will not be for long.”
And Cosette began again:
“How wicked of you to have left us like that! Where did you go? Why have you stayed away so long? Formerly your journeys only lasted three or four days. I sent Nicolette, the answer always was: ‘He is absent.’ How long have you been back? Why did you not let us know? Do you know that you are very much changed? Ah! what a naughty father! he has been ill, and we have not known it! Stay, Marius, feel how cold his hand is!”
“So you are here! Monsieur Pontmercy, you pardon me!” repeated Jean Valjean.
At that word which Jean Valjean had just uttered once more, all that was swelling Marius’ heart found vent.
He burst forth:
“Cosette, do you hear? he has come to that! he asks my forgiveness! And do you know what he has done for me, Cosette? He has saved my life. He has done more—he has given you to me. And after having saved me, and after having given you to me, Cosette, what has he done with himself? He has sacrificed himself. Behold the man. And he says to me the ingrate, to me the forgetful, to me the pitiless, to me the guilty one: Thanks! Cosette, my whole life passed at the feet of this man would be too little. That barricade, that sewer, that furnace, that cesspool,—all that he traversed for me, for thee, Cosette! He carried me away through all the deaths which he put aside before me, and accepted for himself. Every courage, every virtue, every heroism, every sanctity he possesses! Cosette, that man is an angel!”
“Hush! hush!” said Jean Valjean in a low voice. “Why tell all that?”
“But you!” cried Marius with a wrath in which there was veneration, “why did you not tell it to me? It is your own fault, too. You save people’s lives, and you conceal it from them! You do more, under the pretext of unmasking yourself, you calumniate yourself. It is frightful.”
“I told the truth,” replied Jean Valjean.
“No,” retorted Marius, “the truth is the whole truth; and that you did not tell. You were Monsieur Madeleine, why not have said so? You saved Javert, why not have said so? I owed my life to you, why not have said so?”
“Because I thought as you do. I thought that you were in the right. It was necessary that I should go away. If you had known about that affair, of the sewer, you would have made me remain near you. I was therefore forced to hold my peace. If I had spoken, it would have caused embarrassment in every way.”
“It would have embarrassed what? embarrassed whom?” retorted Marius. “Do you think that you are going to stay here? We shall carry you off. Ah! good heavens! when I reflect that it was by an accident that I have learned all this. You form a part of ourselves. You are her father, and mine. You shall not pass another day in this dreadful house. Do not imagine that you will be here to-morrow.”
“To-morrow,” said Jean Valjean, “I shall not be here, but I shall not be with you.”
“What do you mean?” replied Marius. “Ah! come now, we are not going to permit any more journeys. You shall never leave us again. You belong to us. We shall not loose our hold of you.”
“This time it is for good,” added Cosette. “We have a carriage at the door. I shall run away with you. If necessary, I shall employ force.”
And she laughingly made a movement to lift the old man in her arms.
“Your chamber still stands ready in our house,” she went on. “If you only knew how pretty the garden is now! The azaleas are doing very well there. The walks are sanded with river sand; there are tiny violet shells. You shall eat my strawberries. I water them myself. And no more ‘madame,’ no more ‘Monsieur Jean,’ we are living under a Republic, everybody says thou, don’t they, Marius? The programme is changed. If you only knew, father, I have had a sorrow, there was a robin redbreast which had made her nest in a hole in the wall, and a horrible cat ate her. My poor, pretty, little robin red-breast which used to put her head out of her window and look at me! I cried over it. I should have liked to kill the cat. But now nobody cries any more. Everybody laughs, everybody is happy. You are going to come with us. How delighted grandfather will be! You shall have your plot in the garden, you shall cultivate it, and we shall see whether your strawberries are as fine as mine. And, then, I shall do everything that you wish, and then, you will obey me prettily.”
Jean Valjean listened to her without hearing her. He heard the music of her voice rather than the sense of her words; one of those large tears which are the sombre pearls of the soul welled up slowly in his eyes.
“The proof that God is good is that she is here.”
“Father!” said Cosette.
Jean Valjean continued:
“It is quite true that it would be charming for us to live together. Their trees are full of birds. I would walk with Cosette. It is sweet to be among living people who bid each other ‘good-day,’ who call to each other in the garden. People see each other from early morning. We should each cultivate our own little corner. She would make me eat her strawberries. I would make her gather my roses. That would be charming. Only . . .”
He paused and said gently:
“It is a pity.”
The tear did not fall, it retreated, and Jean Valjean replaced it with a smile.
Cosette took both the old man’s hands in hers.
“My God!” said she, “your hands are still colder than before. Are you ill? Do you suffer?”
“I? No,” replied Jean Valjean. “I am very well. Only . . .”
“I am going to die presently.”
Cosette and Marius shuddered.
“To die!” exclaimed Marius.
“Yes, but that is nothing,” said Jean Valjean.
He took breath, smiled and resumed:
“Cosette, thou wert talking to me, go on, so thy little robin red-breast is dead? Speak, so that I may hear thy voice.”
Marius gazed at the old man in amazement.
Cosette uttered a heartrending cry.
“Father! my father! you will live. You are going to live. I insist upon your living, do you hear?”
Jean Valjean raised his head towards her with adoration.
“Oh! yes, forbid me to die. Who knows? Perhaps I shall obey. I was on the verge of dying when you came. That stopped me, it seemed to me that I was born again.”
“You are full of strength and life,” cried Marius. “Do you imagine that a person can die like this? You have had sorrow, you shall have no more. It is I who ask your forgiveness, and on my knees! You are going to live, and to live with us, and to live a long time. We take possession of you once more. There are two of us here who will henceforth have no other thought than your happiness.”
“You see,” resumed Cosette, all bathed in tears, “that Marius says that you shall not die.”
Jean Valjean continued to smile.
“Even if you were to take possession of me, Monsieur Pontmercy, would that make me other than I am? No, God has thought like you and myself, and he does not change his mind; it is useful for me to go. Death is a good arrangement. God knows better than we what we need. May you be happy, may Monsieur Pontmercy have Cosette, may youth wed the morning, may there be around you, my children, lilacs and nightingales; may your life be a beautiful, sunny lawn, may all the enchantments of heaven fill your souls, and now let me, who am good for nothing, die; it is certain that all this is right. Come, be reasonable, nothing is possible now, I am fully conscious that all is over. And then, last night, I drank that whole jug of water. How good thy husband is, Cosette! Thou art much better off with him than with me.”
A noise became audible at the door.
It was the doctor entering.
“Good-day, and farewell, doctor,” said Jean Valjean. “Here are my poor children.”
Marius stepped up to the doctor. He addressed to him only this single word: “Monsieur? . . .” But his manner of pronouncing it contained a complete question.
The doctor replied to the question by an expressive glance.
“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”
A silence ensued.
All breasts were oppressed.
Jean Valjean turned to Cosette. He began to gaze at her as though he wished to retain her features for eternity.
In the depths of the shadow into which he had already descended, ecstasy was still possible to him when gazing at Cosette. The reflection of that sweet face lighted up his pale visage.
The doctor felt of his pulse.
“Ah! it was you that he wanted!” he murmured, looking at Cosette and Marius.
And bending down to Marius’ ear, he added in a very low voice:
Jean Valjean surveyed the doctor and Marius serenely, almost without ceasing to gaze at Cosette.
These barely articulate words were heard to issue from his mouth:
“It is nothing to die; it is dreadful not to live.”
All at once he rose to his feet. These accesses of strength are sometimes the sign of the death agony. He walked with a firm step to the wall, thrusting aside Marius and the doctor who tried to help him, detached from the wall a little copper crucifix which was suspended there, and returned to his seat with all the freedom of movement of perfect health, and said in a loud voice, as he laid the crucifix on the table:
“Behold the great martyr.”
Then his chest sank in, his head wavered, as though the intoxication of the tomb were seizing hold upon him.
His hands, which rested on his knees, began to press their nails into the stuff of his trousers.
Cosette supported his shoulders, and sobbed, and tried to speak to him, but could not.
Among the words mingled with that mournful saliva which accompanies tears, they distinguished words like the following:
“Father, do not leave us. Is it possible that we have found you only to lose you again?”
It might be said that agony writhes. It goes, comes, advances towards the sepulchre, and returns towards life. There is groping in the action of dying.
Jean Valjean rallied after this semi-swoon, shook his brow as though to make the shadows fall away from it and became almost perfectly lucid once more.
He took a fold of Cosette’s sleeve and kissed it.
“He is coming back! doctor, he is coming back,” cried Marius.
“You are good, both of you,” said Jean Valjean. “I am going to tell you what has caused me pain. What has pained me, Monsieur Pontmercy, is that you have not been willing to touch that money. That money really belongs to your wife. I will explain to you, my children, and for that reason, also, I am glad to see you. Black jet comes from England, white jet comes from Norway. All this is in this paper, which you will read. For bracelets, I invented a way of substituting for slides of soldered sheet iron, slides of iron laid together. It is prettier, better and less costly. You will understand how much money can be made in that way. So Cosette’s fortune is really hers. I give you these details, in order that your mind may be set at rest.”
The portress had come upstairs and was gazing in at the half-open door. The doctor dismissed her.
But he could not prevent this zealous woman from exclaiming to the dying man before she disappeared: “Would you like a priest?”
“I have had one,” replied Jean Valjean.
And with his finger he seemed to indicate a point above his head where one would have said that he saw some one.
It is probable, in fact, that the Bishop was present at this death agony.
Cosette gently slipped a pillow under his loins.
Jean Valjean resumed:
“Have no fear, Monsieur Pontmercy, I adjure you. The six hundred thousand francs really belong to Cosette. My life will have been wasted if you do not enjoy them! We managed to do very well with those glass goods. We rivalled what is called Berlin jewellery. However, we could not equal the black glass of England. A gross, which contains twelve hundred very well cut grains, only costs three francs.”
When a being who is dear to us is on the point of death, we gaze upon him with a look which clings convulsively to him and which would fain hold him back.
Cosette gave her hand to Marius, and both, mute with anguish, not knowing what to say to the dying man, stood trembling and despairing before him.
Jean Valjean sank moment by moment. He was failing; he was drawing near to the gloomy horizon.
His breath had become intermittent; a little rattling interrupted it. He found some difficulty in moving his forearm, his feet had lost all movement, and in proportion as the wretchedness of limb and feebleness of body increased, all the majesty of his soul was displayed and spread over his brow. The light of the unknown world was already visible in his eyes.
His face paled and smiled. Life was no longer there, it was something else.
His breath sank, his glance grew grander. He was a corpse on which the wings could be felt.
He made a sign to Cosette to draw near, then to Marius; the last minute of the last hour had, evidently, arrived.
He began to speak to them in a voice so feeble that it seemed to come from a distance, and one would have said that a wall now rose between them and him.
“Draw near, draw near, both of you. I love you dearly. Oh! how good it is to die like this! And thou lovest me also, my Cosette. I knew well that thou still felt friendly towards thy poor old man. How kind it was of thee to place that pillow under my loins! Thou wilt weep for me a little, wilt thou not? Not too much. I do not wish thee to have any real griefs. You must enjoy yourselves a great deal, my children. I forgot to tell you that the profit was greater still on the buckles without tongues than on all the rest. A gross of a dozen dozens cost ten francs and sold for sixty. It really was a good business. So there is no occasion for surprise at the six hundred thousand francs, Monsieur Pontmercy. It is honest money. You may be rich with a tranquil mind. Thou must have a carriage, a box at the theatres now and then, and handsome ball dresses, my Cosette, and then, thou must give good dinners to thy friends, and be very happy. I was writing to Cosette a while ago. She will find my letter. I bequeath to her the two candlesticks which stand on the chimney-piece. They are of silver, but to me they are gold, they are diamonds; they change candles which are placed in them into wax-tapers. I do not know whether the person who gave them to me is pleased with me yonder on high. I have done what I could. My children, you will not forget that I am a poor man, you will have me buried in the first plot of earth that you find, under a stone to mark the spot. This is my wish. No name on the stone. If Cosette cares to come for a little while now and then, it will give me pleasure. And you too, Monsieur Pontmercy. I must admit that I have not always loved you. I ask your pardon for that. Now she and you form but one for me. I feel very grateful to you. I am sure that you make Cosette happy. If you only knew, Monsieur Pontmercy, her pretty rosy cheeks were my delight; when I saw her in the least pale, I was sad. In the chest of drawers, there is a bank-bill for five hundred francs. I have not touched it. It is for the poor. Cosette, dost thou see thy little gown yonder on the bed? dost thou recognize it? That was ten years ago, however. How time flies! We have been very happy. All is over. Do not weep, my children, I am not going very far, I shall see you from there, you will only have to look at night, and you will see me smile. Cosette, dost thou remember Montfermeil? Thou wert in the forest, thou wert greatly terrified; dost thou remember how I took hold of the handle of the water-bucket? That was the first time that I touched thy poor, little hand. It was so cold! Ah! your hands were red then, mademoiselle, they are very white now. And the big doll! dost thou remember? Thou didst call her Catherine. Thou regrettedest not having taken her to the convent! How thou didst make me laugh sometimes, my sweet angel! When it had been raining, thou didst float bits of straw on the gutters, and watch them pass away. One day I gave thee a willow battledore and a shuttlecock with yellow, blue and green feathers. Thou hast forgotten it. Thou wert roguish so young! Thou didst play. Thou didst put cherries in thy ears. Those are things of the past. The forests through which one has passed with one’s child, the trees under which one has strolled, the convents where one has concealed oneself, the games, the hearty laughs of childhood, are shadows. I imagined that all that belonged to me. In that lay my stupidity. Those Thénardiers were wicked. Thou must forgive them. Cosette, the moment has come to tell thee the name of thy mother. She was called Fantine. Remember that name—Fantine. Kneel whenever thou utterest it. She suffered much. She loved thee dearly. She had as much unhappiness as thou hast had happiness. That is the way God apportions things. He is there on high, he sees us all, and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars. I am on the verge of departure, my children. Love each other well and always. There is nothing else but that in the world: love for each other. You will think sometimes of the poor old man who died here. Oh my Cosette, it is not my fault, indeed, that I have not seen thee all this time, it cut me to the heart; I went as far as the corner of the street, I must have produced a queer effect on the people who saw me pass, I was like a madman, I once went out without my hat. I no longer see clearly, my children, I had still other things to say, but never mind. Think a little of me. Come still nearer. I die happy. Give me your dear and well-beloved heads, so that I may lay my hands upon them.”
Cosette and Marius fell on their knees, in despair, suffocating with tears, each beneath one of Jean Valjean’s hands. Those august hands no longer moved.
He had fallen backwards, the light of the candles illuminated him.
His white face looked up to heaven, he allowed Cosette and Marius to cover his hands with kisses.
He was dead.
The night was starless and extremely dark. No doubt, in the gloom, some immense angel stood erect with wings outspread, awaiting that soul.