‘Monseigneur… ‘ the sergeant in charge of the group began.
Valjean raised his head with surprise. ‘Monseigneur?’ he repeated. ‘I thought he was a priest.’
‘Silence,’ said one of the policemen, ‘This is the Bishop of Digne.’
The bishop, meanwhile, had moved towards the group of men and was smiling at Jean Valjean.
‘I’m delighted to see you again, dear friend,’ he said. ‘But what about the candlesticks? I gave you those as well, don’t you remember? They’re silver like the rest, and worth at least two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?’
Jean Valjean’s eyes widened with disbelief.
‘Monseigneur,’ said the sergeant, ‘do I understand that this man was telling the truth? We found this silver in his bag, and
‘And he told you,’ the bishop finished the sentence for him, ‘that an old priest had given it to him? Yes, he was telling the truth.’
‘So this man isn’t a thief? ‘The sergeant looked as surprised as Valjean.
‘Not at all. So you can let him go at once.’
The policemen let go of Valjean’s arms. He moved his feet nervously, uncertain of what to say at first. Then he murmured, ‘Am I really free to go?’
‘Of course,’ said the bishop. ‘But this time, you mustn’t forget your candlesticks.’
He fetched them from a shelf and gave them to Valjean.
‘Now, go in peace,’ he said softly.
The policemen left, but Valjean did not move. He did not know what to think. The bishop walked up to him and said in a low voice, ‘Don’t forget that you’ve promised to use the money to make yourself an honest man.’
Valjean, who did not remember having made such a promise, was silent.
‘Jean Valjean,’ the bishop continued, ‘I’ve bought your soul from the Devil, and have given it to God.’
Jean Valjean left the town and ran into the countryside, blindly following lanes and paths, not realizing that he was running in circles. He was filled with a strange kind of anger, but he did not know why. Finally, as evening fell, he sat on the ground, exhausted, and gazed across the fields at the distant mountains, wishing that he was back in prison. When he had been angry at the world, he had felt calm and sure of himself. But now, for the first time in twenty years, a man had shown him great kindness, and he did not know what to feel.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of singing. A boy of about ten years old was coming along a footpath with a small box on his back and dirty knees showing through holes in his trousers. As he sang, he threw a coin into the air and caught it before it fell. Not noticing Jean Valjean sitting by the side of the path, he threw the coin higher into the air. This time, however, he did not catch it and it rolled along the ground towards Valjean, who immediately put his foot on it.
The boy, unafraid, walked up to Valjean.
‘Please, Monsieur, may I have my coin?’
‘What’s your name?’ asked Valjean.
‘Petit-Gervais,’ said the boy, smiling trustfully. ‘I’m a chimney sweep, and that money is all I have.’
‘Go away,’ said Valjean.
‘Please, Monsieur, that’s my money.’
Valjean lowered his head and did not reply.
‘My money!’ the boy cried. ‘My piece of silver! My coin!’
Valjean seemed not to hear him. The boy seized his collar and shook him. ‘I want my money!’ he cried.
Valjean slowly raised his head and stared with a sort of amazement at the child. Then, reaching for his stick, he said, ‘Go to Hell!’
The boy, suddenly afraid of the mad, fierce look in Valjean’s eyes, turned and ran.
Valjean stood for some time gazing emptily around him at the sunset and the shadows moving in on him. Suddenly he shivered, as if he had become aware for the first time of the icy wind. He bent down to pick up his bag but, as he did so, he caught sight of the silver coin, half-buried by his foot in the earth.
It affected him like an electric shock. ‘What’s that?’ he murmured. He stared at the coin with a look of puzzlement, as if he were trying to remember something. Then, with a sudden movement, he bent down and picked it up. He looked around but could see nothing in the darkness — just a purple mist rising slowly from the fields.
He called the boy’s name, but there was no reply. Within minutes he was running along the path, shouting. ‘Petit-Gervais! Petit-Gervais!’ There was still no reply.
A short time later, he met a priest on horseback.
‘Have you seen a boy go by?’ he asked.
The priest shook his head. ‘No. Why do you ask?’
Valjean produced two five-franc pieces and gave them to the priest. ‘This is for your poor, Monsieur. He was a boy of about ten, a chimney sweep. Monsieur, you must report me to the police. I’m a thief. I stole money from him. Here, let me give you more money
But before Valjean could produce more coins, the priest rode away in terror.
Valjean looked for the boy for another hour, running along the path, calling out his name, but with no success. Finally he stopped and sat, exhausted, on a rock. Then, his heart full of grief for what he had done, he buried his face in his hands and, for the first time in nineteen years, he cried.