Oh my gosh, a fourth chapter! Inconceivable!
No, no, this story wasn't abandoned. Far from it. I just felt that I needed to step away from it for a while and do a lot of thinking. This was mainly due to AmZ's review which, in all fairness, made a lot of very good points.
In the process of writing this chapter, I think I have begun to slightly incorporate some of those suggestions that AmZ made. That is no guarentee that anything is really going to materialize. To tell the truth, I don't really know how everything in this particular section is going to resolve. And the story as a whole will be quite the behemoth. There's going to be a significant middle section before some of the major events take place.
I'm also planning to reupload chap. 2 (the previous chapter) with minor corrections. No major alterations will be attempted until I have made a decent amount of progress. Which will probably not occur until school work stops being such a priority (groan).
ANYWAY, reviews are very much appreciated (thank you LesMisLoony, Kzunten Kidaurqoi (I look forward to the day I can spell/pronounce your name), jeevesthemighty, and AmZ). :)
Well, on with the show. Again.
Disclaimer: GO AWAY! (brandishes herring)
It was another two weeks before I was summoned again. The painful memory of my first meeting had dulled slightly, but it was enough to make me a just a bit eager to revisit Richelieu's quarters. It probably puzzled the guards that I wasn't fighting tooth and nail not to go back, having witnessed my state when I last left that place. Optimism in the face of adversity was not a naturally-endowed trait of mine, and yet here I was sporting it, albeit in a subtle manner.
During my walk, I pondered how things would be this time around. Javert's treatment of me might be just as bad as before, maybe worse. There was no concrete way to tell, though. Besides, what didn't kill me would make me stronger, right?
The cliché provoked the ironic notion that I was being picked up like a stone and hurled toward an impenetrable brick wall. As I contemplated the figurative impact, dread sat in my stomach like a lead block.
The walk and the entrance process were the same as before; Javert did not seem any different, although he didn't immediately jump to the insults. That was a small breath of relief. The guards did not attempt to cross the threshold, so a word did not even pass between them and the lad. As soon as the door to the foyer was closed, however, an alteration was revealed.
Rather than heading for the hallway, Javert led me to the left wall of the room, extracted a second key from a hidden coat pocket, and revealed another door that was perfectly camouflaged with the rest of the wall. There was not even a handle, so Javert used the key as a way to pull the secret door open.
"You'll be going this way today, con," he explained coolly, then stepped aside to let me pass first.
I could feel a sense of routine beginning to sink in, although this route was completely new. I had figured out that Javert naturally wanted me in front of him so that I was always in his sight, and could not pull some escape stunt. At least that provided some sense of consistency.
There was a new hallway behind the secret door. It was similarly adorned as the foyer and larger hall, but a great deal smaller and narrower; I could think of a few fellow prisoners who would have had incredible difficulty passing through that corridor.
My mind had already concluded that this hall, as well as the other, must have led to Richelieu's study. That was my purpose for being here, was it not? I was here for whatever end Richelieu had in mind. One could only imagine how I felt when I met the opposite door and opened it thoughtlessly, only to be encountered both by piercing daylight and a congregation of aristocrats.
The scene made me think of a few dreams I had had over the years, in which I am in a public place and either naked or in women's clothes. Everyone's eyes are on me. Sometimes the crowd is laughing, and sometimes it is deadly silent.
At this moment, the group was the latter, time seemed as still as the old grandfather clock, and I was praying that this was a dream. Again, God must have been on holiday or something because I gave myself a small pinch and nothing changed. No, it was definitely not a dream.
The only person who was not shocked, frightened, or outraged by this was Javert. He locked the door behind me, gave me a light tap on the shoulder, and directed to the next one. I involuntarily stared at the wealthy party for another second, then quickly stumbled out the door. Before Javert shut it, I managed to catch one of the women saying, "Mercy me! What next?"
I could not even conceive what had happened. The only comprehensible thought that my mind could form was: "What are those well-dressed people doing in a prison? What could they have been arrested for? Being too rich?"
Needless to say, I was not my sharpest. Whether or not Javert sensed this remains a mystery to me. If he did, then this was a double-cruelty on his part. If not, then it was simply another unfortunate coincidence for me.
The previous scene has rattled me so that I nearly crashed into Javert when he suddenly turned around and faced me. What made it even more awkward was that he was standing on the second step of a flight of ascending stairs; ergo I practically walk into his chest. Startled, I jumped back an inch and looked up.
"Well?" he demanded, his voice like ice.
My throat constricted. "Well, monsieur?"
He paused a moment and tilted his head. "Do you think I'm handsome?"
Oh, God, not this again, I immediately thought, but then I reconsidered. There was nothing teasing in his question, only seriousness on the brink of innocent curiosity. This both calmed and bemused me.
"Well . . . yes, I suppose you are."
I gave a slight sigh. "You are handsome, monsieur." However flatly I said it, it still came out strangely on my tongue.
He tilted his head the other way. "Do you think I'm harsh?"
I took an honest moment to think about it. He hadn't really said much up to this point. I momentarily wondered if perhaps our passing through that other room had been some vicious plot of either his or Richelieu's, but I decided not to think so meanly of them. Not yet, in any case.
"No," I replied candidly, "not so much as last time."
Javert's eyes narrowed. "No so much, you say?"
I tensed, sensing some unidentifiable danger. "Well . . . no."
My reflexes are decent enough, but Javert had speed enhanced by agility at his command. My mind and body were only barely aware of what was about to happen before it did. The only action I could manage was covering the left side of my face after the nightstick found its mark.
"Take that, you swine!"
A bit of an odd way to get into it, but circumstances had finally achieved normalcy. At least the blow didn't sting all that much, even if his words did.
When I looked up again, he was leaning closer to me, eyes squinched and nose wrinkled. "What do you think of me now?"
I removed my hand from my cheek and straightened up. "I won't tell you."
"Why? Because you're going to run away? Is that it?"
This time it was my voice that went hard. "No. That's not it."
Javert must have felt that his opponent was gaining some backbone, so he threw down his trump. "Why don't you cry again, you wretch?"
I had one ready for his. "You'll never get another tear out of me."
There was a heavy pause as we held each other's glare. I knew Javert well enough by now to figure that even if he could not achieve a clear victory, he would never back down from a confrontation in which he believed he had the upper hand. Whatever he thought of me, I had no intention of giving him the pleasure of exposing my weaknesses anymore. I had been able to conceal them from the other prisoners. I would do so with him now, and then some.
Javert finally turned and proceeded up the stairs. He was clearly still unsatisfied, for his tone was even more caustic when he directed me to a door and growled, "In there, con."
It was only after he disappeared down the hall that I attempted to gain my bearings. Well, I was completely turned on my head now. The last time I was here, Javert had led me down a staircase. This time we had gone up one, which meant that this was going to be a completely different room.
I was grateful that at least my capacity for logic had finally returned.
I couldn't imagine what room Javert had taken me to, though. This door was bigger than the door to the study, and more elaborate in design. As before, I knocked a few times. There was no answer. After a few more unnecessary knocks, I decided that since I supposed to be here, and no one was inside, it couldn't hurt to go in.
What met my eye stunned me even more than my first view of the study. This room was not of a business nature. This looked like a lavish dining hall. There was even a fire burning in the hearth. The illumination here was limited as well, so it took me several moments to fully take in the condition of the chamber.
My eyes soon became fastened on the long table covered with all sorts of expensive dishes and delicacies. Whatever hunger this caused in me, however, quickly became dispelled when the stench of decay reached my nostrils. This was even worse than the study and the barracks combined. What truly made my stomach turn, though, was the sight of little rodents and maggots crawling all over the now decomposing food. There was one particularly large mound of grayish matter that was impossible to identify, but it seemed a favorite of the mice. I had to cover my nose and mouth to not be sick.
The next shock of the day came as a bony hand forcibly grabbing my shoulder. "Here you are."
I whirled around to face the bundle of gray-yellow flesh and crimson plush, now leaning on a thick gold-headed cane. Still shaking a bit, I made a small, awkward bow. "Yes, M. Richelieu."
"So the days have worn away, have they?" His words were as dry as the air that enveloped us.
"Yes, monsieur, about two weeks—"
"Enough of that. I know nothing of time. Not of the days or the weeks or the years. Bah, what use are they to anyone? Come, walk with me. Walk with me, walk with me!"
I was suddenly on his arm and matching his creaky stride as we circled around the nauseating odor that rose from the table. "You see all this?" he asked, motioning to the sight with the end-tip of his cane. "Can you guess what it is?"
Guess it? I couldn't even look at it. "I cannot, monsieur."
"It's a wedding feast. That mountain you see there? That was a cake for my bride. I had this heap of decay brought in here, and it and I have worn away together. Mice have been gnawing at it." His voice went a bit lower and darker. "But sharper teeth than teeth of mice have been gnawing at me."
I could make little of what he was saying, except that he had been a bridegroom at one point. It was impossible to imagine Richelieu as such, mainly due to the fact that it was impossible to imagine him as a youth. By this time I surmised that he was roughly in his seventies. (I was later informed that when I first met him, he was sixty-two.) He did seem a little less elderly in gait when he walked about. This was counteracted by the wrinkled hands and decrepit wig.
A door suddenly opened, and I thought Javert had decided to make a little stir in hopes of gaining some sort of triumph over me today. Instead, to my chagrin, we were greeted by the party of gentry-folk. There was a short moment in which my eyes met theirs, and each side briefly remembered the odd incident from not too long ago. The moment was transient, though, and their attention was quickly diverted to the older man at my side.
"Bonjour, M. Richelieu!" they chimed in not complete unison. One fellow with grayish-white hair added, "You look well, old chap!"
Richelieu's expression turned sour. "I do not look well, Remus Fauchelevant. I'm yellow, skin, and bone, and don't you try to convince me or yourselves otherwise."
He then lowered his voice and directed it to me. "Those, Jean Valjean, are my relations. Old Remus there is my cousin. Their only reason for coming here is to ask about my health." (Here he slipped in a meaningful wink.) "So once a year, on my birthday, I summon them to visit me. I can tolerate such visits only once a year."
I was taken aback. "Today is . . .?"
"There!" he cried suddenly, then became quiet again. "Why don't you call Javert and have him take you to the courtyard. He'll let you know when to come back in."
My mind was beginning to spin. Courtyard?
Despite the impressive turrets that blocked out most of the sky, the outdoors were a great improvement. The cool, unimprisoned air was far easier to breathe, and it stirred that old hunger that went beyond food and immediate needs. I was beginning to crave freedom again.
It was growly steadily harder to restrain the feeling. Many times I scolded myself, promising that when the opportunity arose, we would make the most of it, and be successful. I would make no room for doubt or error. Whatever plan I would conceive for escape, it would need to be foolproof. But the cage-bound animal within could not be appeased.
This taste of freedom's air brought that embittered creature to the surface, and I unconsciously began pacing the perimeter of the courtyard. The space was made entirely of rock: the flagstones under my feet, the exquisite, empty fountain that stood in the center, the gravel that surrounded said fountain, and the granite walls, pillars, and parapets that towered above me. Like the rest of the prison, it was a world of perpetual gray tones. Not one speck of green was present, which assured me that either Richelieu had the mind to hire a gardener to keep an eye out for any invading plant-life, or there were several layers of hardy rock beneath the surface. I did not risk prying up one of the stones to check, for I was being watched. I couldn't see the young guard, but I did not doubt that he was keeping a close eye on me. Even bolting on foot would have been impossible; I did not know the ways of the rest of the annex, and they likely made up a labyrinth that I would be unable to unravel.
I continued to think gloomily on the situation, as well as try to grasp what on earth this place was, and who its inhabitants were exactly. That is, until I heard a voice from above give a cry of salutations.
"Hello, down there!"
My head jerked upward. On one of the turrets, there was a window that let onto a small balcony, which was now occupied by an odd-looking man with a telescope. I say odd for several reasons. His clothes seemed to be those of a wealthy man, yet he wore them in such a careless, untidy manner. His hair, too, was strangely wild in its shape, sticking out from all sides of his head. He was sitting upon the railing, with one foot anchored to the floor and the other propped in front of him. He was not a young man, either, at least a few years my senior. Though his hair was dark, I managed to discern a few streaks of incoming gray.
"Hello," I replied cautiously.
He lowered the elevated leg so that he straddled the railing. "Who gave you permission to prowl about so?"
"Indeed! Well, you do it well, I have to give you that. Had me observing you for some time before I decided to call you. Where are you from?"
I wasn't quite sure how to answer this. He must have noticed my chains, though, and assumed that I was a convict.
He let out a laugh. "You came all the way from Faverolles in those!"
I looked down at the shackles. Hadn't I endured enough humiliation?
No, apparently not.
"So," the stranger continued, "are you Edmond's new lackey now? Or maybe that dandy's whipping boy?"
Dandy? Surely this fellow was not referring to Javert.
"Edmond?" I inquired instead.
"M. Richelieu, I mean."
"Not as far as I know." I tried to seem indignant, but instead I sounded like an idiot even to myself.
"Still waiting for an assignment, then. I see."
His initial halt in speech did not convince me that he was through. For once, I was right.
"Hold on a moment, I'll be right down."
Great. Just what I needed.
It was not too long before the stranger reappeared. I felt the mildest twinge of guilt when he appeared in the yard red-faced and winded. That must have been quite the series of steps he trekked.
"I know this may seem untoward," said the man rapidly, "but I always dread these visits to my cousin's, and at the moment I am in severe want of a companion. You know, someone to while away the hours with so as not to be done in by boredom."
If there had been any similarity between him and Richelieu to persuade me that they be related, it was an unusual tendency to pursue the company of convicted felons in order to avoid ennui. I could not make sense of it, and it seemed pointless to even try.
"I praise my brother for being so clever," he continued. "My cousin Remus comes strolling by to collect us for this ridiculous trip, and what does my brother do? He tells him he's enlisted in the army and going abroad with Napoleon! Of course, he had the foresight to predict our cousin's arrival, and took care of the business ahead of time. He's a terrible liar, I'm afraid. A good liar and he would not have to go to such lengths. I too am quite terrible at it, and honesty did not seem to do the trick in the matter. I would have followed my poor brother's example were it not for my rheumatism. Yes, yes, in the right knee. Oh, don't be concerned, there weren't that many flights. I just take them steadily and the pain is not that great. In any case, here I am. Oh, I see you're looking at my telescope. Funny story about that. Well, here I was putting my bag together – quite unhappily, as you can imagine – and suddenly I find this old thing. I used it in my university days, you see. I had taken a brief but passionate interest in astronomy, and was determined to prove how devoted I was to the science by buying my own telescope. Well, I ended up dropping it for several reasons. Astronomy, I mean, not the telescope. First, there really is no vocation – or money – in it. I needed something that would provide a greater guarantee for my future financial success. Second, the grisettes are far more interested in students who are studying to be surgeons or politicians, which may be accounted to reasons similar to the one I just mentioned. Some do fancy the artists, which I never understood. Oh, yes, there was another reason, too: turned out this telescope was bloody defective. I couldn't distinguish objects more than twenty miles away. I suppose I should have expected such a thing from a pawnbroker, but what alternative did I have? My account was often on the low end in those days. Actually, they have always been low, even today. At least in the military, you can either die as a hero on the battlefield, or survive to be loaded with honors. But marching and fighting and rheumatism really do not go well together. Oh, how thickheaded of me! You are probably wondering what I was doing with it. It may not give you a glimpse of the stars, but it does well in magnifying other objects, like the sea. You have seen it, no doubt. From one of those galleys, I imagine. But you have not really seen the sea until you see it from shore, with the sky and the land at its head and foot. Such a sight it is! You really ought to have a look sometime. It's hard to believe that that is the very same body of water that the Italians see, and the Greeks see, and the Egyptians see! My cousin certainly picked the right spot, however cracked he may be. I wonder how he could ever look at it, though, with every window shuttered up. Such a waste, really. I'm certain he does not fail to amuse himself, though, like when he named this wretched place."
His roving rant had lulled me into a state of apathetic numbness until this point. His last statement caused enough confusion in my mind to stir me out of the trance. I raised a puzzled brow. "What do you mean?"
He gave me a bewildered look. "Do you not know what this place is called?"
I tried to understand what he was asking. I finally answered, "Le Prison de Toulon?"
The man laughed even harder this time. "My, you really are quite something! I meant the house."
My eyes must have widened like those of a frightened deer, for the bizarre man laughed hysterically. I was half-afraid, half-hoping that he would suddenly keel over from a stroke. When he finally calmed down, he panted, "You really don't know? Where do expect someone like Richelieu to live? Mind you, he did not live here all his life. Or, rather this house was not always here."
Suddenly, flashes of brief, detailed scenes passed through my mind. The shoe on the desk, the spoiled wedding feast, the dressing gown . . . this was Richelieu's home! His mansion! And it was connected to the prison.
In the moment of this revelation, I began grinding my teeth irately. How could I have been so dense?
"Now, now," coaxed the man, observing my self-directed anger, "do not be too hard on yourself. Perhaps they did not want you to know. But it is really none of my concern whether you do or not."
Another memory was revived, and I heard Richelieu instructing Javert to be sure to lock the "back door" this time. Back door . . .
Steadying my tense voice, I dragged in a breath and began to speak again, slowly and mindfully. "So, you mean to say that . . . this is a house . . . that has an entrance . . . that leads to the . . . outside?"
The man furrowed his eyebrows, the first sign of apprehension he had displayed thus far. "Well, yes, of course. Not that you will ever find it, I dare say. No, no, Edmond will be sure to take care of that. Bloody hell, I don't know how many times I've gotten lost in this dreadful edifice. I would not attempt it, there are things hidden away in here that are best left undiscovered."
What did that matter to me? What could be worse than what I was living every day? It may have been as futile as trying to pass through Hell and back, but as far as I could see, it was my best chance.
Now hold on, came the soft, resilient voice of reason. There's no point in being hasty. Remember, Javert will never let you out of his sight. He would never trust you.
No, not now, but maybe if I prove that I deserve his trust . . . that I'm not just some low, dirty, soulless animal . . .
"Are you still there?"
My eyes blinked violently, and I saw the frizzy-haired kook. "Oh, sorry."
"Not at all, I understand," he replied, a ludicrous grin plastered on his face again. "I just thought you'd be anxious to know what the old bat named this place."
That's the pot calling the kettle black, I couldn't help thinking, but I decided to entertain him in the hopes of him finally going on his way. "What is it, then?"
He raised his chin and held the pose for dramatic effect. At last he leaned toward me and answered in a hushed voice, "La Maison d'Erebus."
I frowned but remained silent for a minute, thinking that he might offer an explanation. When none came, I couldn't fight the urge to ask, no matter how much my voice of reason screamed at me. "What is that supposed to mean?"
The man was beaming now. "Ah! I see you are not well read on Greek myth."
Of course I wasn't! I was a bloody peasant turned bloody convict! I could barely read!
"No," I answered tightly.
The infuriating buffoon did not hesitate to launch into an explanation now, and was not the least bit deterred by the lethal anger that burned in my eyes. "Well, the name 'Erebus' is in fact the Latinized version of the Greek name 'Erebos.'(1) In Greek mythology, Erebos was the offspring of Chaos, a primordial God. Some scholars argue that the name, meaning 'darkness,' is connected to the Hebrew word erebh and the Akkadian word erebu, both of which mean 'evening' or 'sunset.' As a being, Erebos was the personification of darkness. His name has been used in several other ways; sometimes as a place in Hades, the Underworld, and sometimes as a name for Hades the god himself!(2) Quite a fascinating topic, Greek mythology. There's a lot to learn from them, I'll tell you. When you are released, I recommend the first thing you do is acquire some decent texts on the subject. You never can know when such references will pop up in conversation."
I was aching for this particular conversation to be over. I was not sure whether to interrupt him and tell him to leave me alone, or to simply punch him.
I released my breath. Hallelujah, God was back from holiday! Let sweet manna rain from Heaven!
"I have to go," I quickly muttered before fleeing from my companion and his unnerving harangue.
"There you are," glowered Javert as I approached him in another dark, fusty hall. "It's time to go back now."
"Already?" I replied in as facetious a tone as I could manage. I wanted to hide any betraying trace of gratitude.
He only retorted with a crinkled nose. I thought I saw his nostrils flare out a bit, too.
Strangely, as we made yet another long procession to the back door, I felt an unexpected lightness in my chest. Not in the wholly carefree sort of way, but as if an extra weight had been mercifully removed. I felt a bit taller, even in Javert's presence.
Had I not been determined to seem stalwart, and perhaps not secretly afraid of receiving another knock from the formidable nightstick, I would have hugged him.
(1) Erebos – 20,000 Names from Around the World
(2) Erebus - Wikipedia
Dammit, footnotes did not work the way I wanted them to! Grrr.
Note: Reuploaded this with miniscule edits.