“The Paris brat ain’t made of straw”

Les Misérables logoGavroche’s sleep inside the Elephant is interrupted by a whistle from the thug Montparnasse. He needs the gaman to help rescue one of his gang who has escaped from prison and is stranded precariously on the edge of a high wall not far from Place de la Bastille. Chapter IV.6.3 describes the prison break in excruciating detail. The stranded man is Thenardier, the blackest blaggard in Les Misérables. Thenardier also happens to be Gavroche’s indifferent father. Victor Hugo’s wrap of this long scene is so uncharacteristically understated it makes your heart sink.

Seven or eight minutes elapsed, eight thousand centuries to Thenardier;
Babet, Brujon, and Guelemer did not open their lips; at last the gate
opened once more, and Montparnasse appeared, breathless, and followed
by Gavroche. The rain still rendered the street completely deserted.

Little Gavroche entered the enclosure and gazed at the forms of these
ruffians with a tranquil air. The water was dripping from his hair.
Guelemer addressed him:–

“Are you a man, young ‘un?”

Gavroche shrugged his shoulders, and replied:–

“A young ‘un like me’s a man, and men like you are babes.”

“The brat’s tongue’s well hung!” exclaimed Babet.

“The Paris brat ain’t made of straw,” added Brujon.

“What do you want?” asked Gavroche.

Montparnasse answered:–

“Climb up that flue.”

“With this rope,” said Babet.

“And fasten it,” continued Brujon.

“To the top of the wall,” went on Babet.

“To the cross-bar of the window,” added Brujon.

“And then?” said Gavroche.

“There!” said Guelemer.

The gamin examined the rope, the flue, the wall, the windows,
and made that indescribable and disdainful noise with his lips
which signifies:–

“Is that all!”

“There’s a man up there whom you are to save,” resumed Montparnasse.

“Will you?” began Brujon again.

“Greenhorn!” replied the lad, as though the question appeared
a most unprecedented one to him.

And he took off his shoes.

Guelemer seized Gavroche by one arm, set him on the roof of the shanty,
whose worm-eaten planks bent beneath the urchin’s weight,
and handed him the rope which Brujon had knotted together during
Montparnasse’s absence. The gamin directed his steps towards
the flue, which it was easy to enter, thanks to a large crack
which touched the roof. At the moment when he was on the point
of ascending, Thenardier, who saw life and safety approaching,
bent over the edge of the wall; the first light of dawn struck white
upon his brow dripping with sweat, upon his livid cheek-bones, his sharp
and savage nose, his bristling gray beard, and Gavroche recognized him.

“Hullo! it’s my father! Oh, that won’t hinder.”

And taking the rope in his teeth, he resolutely began the ascent.

He reached the summit of the hut, bestrode the old wall as though
it had been a horse, and knotted the rope firmly to the upper
cross-bar of the window.

A moment later, Thenardier was in the street.

As soon as he touched the pavement, as soon as he found himself out
of danger, he was no longer either weary, or chilled or trembling;
the terrible things from which he had escaped vanished like smoke,
all that strange and ferocious mind awoke once more, and stood erect
and free, ready to march onward.

These were this man’s first words:–

“Now, whom are we to eat?”

It is useless to explain the sense of this frightfully transparent remark,
which signifies both to kill, to assassinate, and to plunder.
To eat, true sense: to devour.

“Let’s get well into a corner,” said Brujon. “Let’s settle it
in three words, and part at once. There was an affair that promised
well in the Rue Plumet, a deserted street, an isolated house,
an old rotten gate on a garden, and lone women.”

“Well! why not?” demanded Thenardier.

“Your girl, Eponine, went to see about the matter,” replied Babet.

“And she brought a biscuit to Magnon,” added Guelemer. “Nothing to
be made there.”

“The girl’s no fool,” said Thenardier. “Still, it must be seen to.”

“Yes, yes,” said Brujon, “it must be looked up.”

In the meanwhile, none of the men seemed to see Gavroche, who,
during this colloquy, had seated himself on one of the fence-posts;
he waited a few moments, thinking that perhaps his father would
turn towards him, then he put on his shoes again, and said:–

“Is that all? You don’t want any more, my men? Now you’re out
of your scrape. I’m off. I must go and get my brats out of bed.”

And off he went.

The five men emerged, one after another, from the enclosure.

When Gavroche had disappeared at the corner of the Rue des Ballets,
Babet took Thenardier aside.

“Did you take a good look at that young ‘un?” he asked.

“What young ‘un?”

“The one who climbed the wall and carried you the rope.”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, I don’t know, but it strikes me that it was your son.”

“Bah!” said Thenardier, “do you think so?”

[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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