“Mice which ate cats”

Les Misérables logoIn Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo’s characters do not exchange  dialog. They declaim at one another, often histrionically.  The novel was written immediately after the tempestuous debut in 1829 of Hugo’s play, Hernani. Dramaturgy in one guise or another was paying the bills, and it sustained the young novelist as he scrambled to satisfy a publisher’s deadline long overdue. Hugo would come to practice a kind of “literary crop rotation,” in the words of biographer Graham Robb, alternating volumes of verse with plays and books of prose. By the time he wrote Les Misérables, Hugo had mastered the art of burnishing a scene with incisive dialog.  Here is the culmination of the scene inside the Elephant of Place de la Bastille (IV.6.2). With a horde of rats hovering above their heads, Gavroche reassures the yongest of his charges until fear subsides and he can fall asleep.

Hardly had the light been extinguished, when a peculiar trembling
began to affect the netting under which the three children lay.

It consisted of a multitude of dull scratches which produced a
metallic sound, as if claws and teeth were gnawing at the copper wire.
This was accompanied by all sorts of little piercing cries.

The little five-year-old boy, on hearing this hubbub overhead,
and chilled with terror, jogged his brother’s elbow; but the elder
brother had already shut his peepers, as Gavroche had ordered.
Then the little one, who could no longer control his terror,
questioned Gavroche, but in a very low tone, and with bated breath:–

“Sir?”

“Hey?” said Gavroche, who had just closed his eyes.

“What is that?”

“It’s the rats,” replied Gavroche.

And he laid his head down on the mat again.

The rats, in fact, who swarmed by thousands in the carcass of
the elephant, and who were the living black spots which we have
already mentioned, had been held in awe by the flame of the candle,
so long as it had been lighted; but as soon as the cavern,
which was the same as their city, had returned to darkness,
scenting what the good story-teller Perrault calls “fresh meat,”
they had hurled themselves in throngs on Gavroche’s tent,
had climbed to the top of it, and had begun to bite the meshes
as though seeking to pierce this new-fangled trap.

Still the little one could not sleep.

“Sir?” he began again.

“Hey?” said Gavroche.

“What are rats?”

“They are mice.”

This explanation reassured the child a little. He had seen white
mice in the course of his life, and he was not afraid of them.
Nevertheless, he lifted up his voice once more.

“Sir?”

“Hey?” said Gavroche again.

“Why don’t you have a cat?”

“I did have one,” replied Gavroche, “I brought one here, but they
ate her.”

This second explanation undid the work of the first, and the little
fellow began to tremble again.

The dialogue between him and Gavroche began again for the fourth time:–

“Monsieur?”

“Hey?”

“Who was it that was eaten?”

“The cat.”

“And who ate the cat?”

“The rats.”

“The mice?”

“Yes, the rats.”

The child, in consternation, dismayed at the thought of mice
which ate cats, pursued:–

“Sir, would those mice eat us?”

“Wouldn’t they just!” ejaculated Gavroche.

The child’s terror had reached its climax. But Gavroche added:–

“Don’t be afraid. They can’t get in. And besides, I’m here!
Here, catch hold of my hand. Hold your tongue and shut your peepers!”

At the same time Gavroche grasped the little fellow’s hand
across his brother. The child pressed the hand close to him,
and felt reassured. Courage and strength have these mysterious
ways of communicating themselves. Silence reigned round them
once more, the sound of their voices had frightened off the rats;
at the expiration of a few minutes, they came raging back, but in vain,
the three little fellows were fast asleep and heard nothing more.

[A Note on Sources: This text comes from the Project Gutenberg etext of Les Misérables, a 19th-century translation by Isabel F. Hapgood which is now in the public domain.]

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