The Sewers of Paris

Marius had indeed been taken prisoner, but not by the soldiers. It was Jean Valjean’s hand that had caught him as he fell. Valjean had taken no part in the battle. He had been looking after wounded men while bullets flew all around him. When Marius had been hit, Valjean ran to him at once, grabbed him before he fell and carried his unconscious body into a small alley behind the wine shop. Valjean lowered Marius to the ground, stood with his back to the wall and looked around him.

The situation was terrible. There seemed to be no escape. On one side of him was the field of battle. On the other side was the low barricade, behind which hundreds of soldiers waited for rebels trying to escape. Both ways meant certain death. It was a situation that only a bird could have escaped from. Valjean looked desperately around him, at the house opposite, the barricade, the ground. And then he had a sudden idea!

At the foot of the smaller barricade, half-hidden by broken stones and pieces of wood, there was a hole in the road covered with an iron grille. Valjean leapt forward and, using all his strength, he moved the stones and wood, opened the grille, lifted Marius on to his shoulders and climbed down into the darkness.

A few minutes later, he found himself in a long underground passage, a place of absolute peace and silence. He was inside the Paris sewers. He could just see, by the grey light from the grille above his head, that he was surrounded by walls. Ahead of him lay total darkness, but he had to go on. The soldiers might discover the grille by the barricade at any moment, and come down in search of him.

With Marius lying across his shoulders, Valjean walked forward into the darkness, feeling his way along the wet, slippery walls with his hands. He moved from one passage into another, slipping several times on the wet floor. He could not see where he was going, but he knew he had to follow the downward slope of the passages towards the river.

He walked blindly downwards in this way for a long time, his clothes wet with the blood from Marius’s wound, the faint whisper of the young man’s breath in his ear. He walked in total darkness, the silence broken occasionally by the thunder of gun carriages and horses racing along the streets of Paris far above his head.

Suddenly, he saw his own shadow on the floor of the passage in front of him. Looking back, he saw the distant light of a torch. He was being followed! He pressed himself against the wall, held his breath and waited. In the distance, a group of men formed a circle around the torchlight. They seemed to be listening for something, waiting for someone to move. Finally, the group of men moved off along another passage, and Valjean was left in total darkness once again.

He continued his journey through the sewers. Sometimes the roof of the passages was so low that he had to bend down as he walked. His feet slipped all the time in the water on the ground, and he felt sick and faint with the terrible, airless smell. At last, exhausted, he stopped beneath a large grille that brought him much-needed light and fresh air. He laid Marius down gently at the edge of the sewer, and looked down at his face. It was covered with blood and as pale as death. Valjean tore pieces oft his own shirt and bandaged Marius’s wounded shoulder as well as he could. Then, bending over the unconscious body, Valjean stared at Marius with hatred in his eyes.

He found two objects in Marius’s clothing: a piece of bread and a wallet. Valjean ate the bread and, opening the wallet, found a note which Marius had written:

My name is Marius Pontmercy. My body must be taken to the house of my grandfather, M. Gillenormand, 6 rue des Filles-du- Calvaire, in the Marais.

Valjean repeated the address until he could remember it, returned the wallet to Marius’s pocket, picked Marius up again and continued his journey downwards towards the river. He did not know what part of the city he was passing under or how far he had come. The only thing he was sure of was that the light through the grilles far above his head was growing weaker, which meant that the sun was setting. At one point he had to walk waist-deep through water, and almost sank as the ground turned to sand beneath his feet. Finally, when even his great strength was beginning to fade, he saw ahead of him a light — the clear light of day. He was suddenly filled with new energy at the sight, at last, of his way of escape from the sewers. Forgetting the weight of Marius on his shoulders and his own hunger and tiredness, he ran towards the light. He had to bend as the roof of the tunnel became lower, but when he reached the light, Valjean stopped and gave a cry of despair. The opening was closed with a strong iron gate, held firm by a huge, rusty lock. Through the bars, Valjean could see daylight, the river, a narrow riverbank — but how could he get out?

Valjean laid Marius down by the wall, where the floor was dry. Then, moving to the gate, he shook it fiercely with both hands, trying to bend the bars with the last of his strength. But the gate was solid and the bars were firm.


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