1800. Toulon


Towards the end of this fourth year Jean Valjean's turn to escape arrived. His comrades assisted him, as is the custom in that sad place. He escaped. He wandered for two days in the fields at liberty, if being at liberty is to be hunted, to turn the head every instant, to quake at the slightest noise, to be afraid of everything,—of a smoking roof, of a passing man, of a barking dog, of a galloping horse, of a striking clock, of the day because one can see, of the night because one cannot see, of the highway, of the path, of a bush, of sleep. On the evening of the second day he was captured. He had neither eaten nor slept for thirty-six hours.

-Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Volume I, Book Second, Chapter VI "Jean Valjean"


In the fourth year of his sentence, Jean-le-Cric's chain-mate died of a lung-fever, coughing his life out on the next bench, every spasmodic movement jerking their shared chains so they chafed against Jean's skin. He ought to have been in the hospital, Jean thought, but he did not say so to the guards who took away the body in the morning, with as much respect as they would have shown a dead dog.

His new chain-mate was named Eugène. He was a bluff, blond fellow from Arras, some years younger than Jean himself, and everything that Jean was not: garrulous where Jean was silent, charming where Jean was sullen. He had sweet-talked one of the guards, lynx-eyed old Père Mathieu, who distrusted all the convicts, into transferring him out of Room Three for fear of his life. Now he was chained with Jean and permitted to labor. It was curious, though, that he had been afraid of the other convicts. Eugène made friends as naturally as breathing; the chief of their chain said to anyone who would listen that a man like Eugène did not belong in Toulon.

"I am innocent, you know," Eugène told Jean the first night. "My fellows only asked to use my cell to write; how was I to know they were forging pardons?"

Eight years' hard labor for forgery and another three for trying to escape during his transfer to Toulon. He was probably lying about his innocence, but everyone lied in Toulon: it mattered nothing to Jean.

"What are you in for?"

"I stole a loaf of bread," Jean said, slowly, "and broke a window."

Eugène's broad face was full of sympathy, and his brows lifted like question marks over his pale eyes. "You shouldn't be here, either, my friend," he said, clapping Jean on the shoulder.

Jean said nothing. It was the first time in four years that anyone had shown him sympathy. He could no longer weep. The only alternative was to rage, but he did not know where to direct his anger.

A day later, Jean woke in the the night to a hand on his shoulder and another clamped over his mouth. Eugène was leaning over him, and when he was certain Jean would not make a sound, he thrust a bundle of fabric at him and leaned close, whispering, "Wear these under your cassock, and wait for my signal."

It seemed unreal, like a dream, but Jean managed to work his way into the clothing, and cover it up again with his ragged uniform. There was a trick to dressing while in chains, and a greater trick to doing it quietly, but Jean had mastered both, and no one awoke.

His heart was in his throat all the next day. If he was caught, he should be beaten. But he might be beaten at any time: for insolence, for working too slowly, because a guard had a bad day. This was a chance at freedom, and he could not pass it by. Eugène said nothing to him, but worked by his side in silence.

When the time came at last, Jean obeyed without question, in a daze; he slipped his chains and threw off his cassock and ran for the docks, Eugène a step ahead of him. He followed him abroad the docked frigate Muiron; he kept silent as Eugène convinced the cook that they were new crew; he followed when Eugène jumped into a boat and took up an oar, as if he had been commanded to do so.

It was not until they were outside of the city in the quiet of the piney mountains that Jean-le-Cric spoke again: "I would have been free in a year," he said in a mournful voice, for now that the escape was done, the unthinking instinct of the caged wolf to flight had passed from him. Three days he had known Eugène, and in those three days his life turned upside-down! "What am I to do now? I cannot go to my sister, not as a wanted man."

Eugène slung an arm across his shoulders, companionably, and his expression was not without sympathy. "Stick with me, my friend Jean, and I will take care of you."

Jean bowed his head in acquiescence. What else could he do?


HISTORICAL NOTE:

Eugène-François Vidocq really did successfully escape from Toulon in March of 1800, although I have glossed over the details because I frankly find all of his prison escapes sort of incomprehensible (Vidocq was a wizard?). And Jean Valjean's first escape attempt was in 1800...so I mashed the two together. Someday I'd really love to see a longer story where Vidocq and Valjean interact at Toulon, since their sentences overlapped.