‘I have a secret to tell you, M. Pontmercy,’ the stranger said. ‘I’ll tell you the first part for nothing. I think you’ll be interested;
‘The man you think is your wife’s guardian is a murderer and a thief. His name is Jean Valjean.’
‘I know that.’
‘Did you know that he spent nineteen years in prison?’
‘I know that too.’
The stranger narrowed his eyes, trying to hide his disappointment and anger at Marius’s calmness. Then he gave a strange smile.
‘I have more information to tell you. It concerns money that belongs to your wife. It’s a remarkable secret and I’ll sell the information to you for 20,000 francs.’
‘I know this secret already,’ Marius said, ‘just as I knew the others.’
‘I repeat, you have nothing to tell me.’
‘But I need to eat, Monsieur!’ the visitor said, losing confidence. ‘I’ll tell you for twenty francs.’
‘I know it already,’ Marius said. ‘I know everything. I even know your real name. It’s Thenardier.’
The visitor laughed, but Marius went on, ‘You’re also Jondrette. And you once had an inn in Montfermeil.’
‘I deny it!’
‘You’re a completely rotten man, but I’ll give you this.’ Marius took a banknote out of his pocket and threw it in the stranger’s face.
‘Thank you, M. Pontmercy!’ the man said, examining the note. ‘500 francs! That’s real money. Oh well, I suppose we can relax.’
With those words, he removed his false nose, glasses and neat grey wig.
‘M. Pontmercy is absolutely right,’ he said, changing his voice. ‘I am Thenardier.’
He waited for a few seconds to see Marius’s reaction.
Marius, meanwhile, was grateful for finally having the chance to help Thenardier, and therefore to keep the promise he had made to his father. Thenardier’s presence, however, offered him another opportunity; it gave him the chance to solve the mystery of Cosette’s fortune.
‘Thenardier,’ he said. ‘Shall I tell you the secret that you were planning to sell me? I, too, have sources of information, and probably know more about the subject than you do. Jean Valjean, as you say, is a murderer and a thief. He’s a thief because he robbed a wealthy manufacturer and mayor of Montreuil, M. Madeleine. Jean Valjean, who knew the mayor’s background, reported him to the police and took advantage of his arrest to take over half a million francs from his Paris bank. The manager of the bank told me this himself. And he murdered the policeman, Javert. I know this because I was there at the time.’
Thenardier looked puzzled for a moment, then said, ‘Monsieur, I think you are mistaken.’
‘What! Are you denying what I said? Those are facts!’
‘They are incorrect, and I do not like to hear a man unjustly accused. Jean Valjean did not rob M. Madeleine, nor did he kill Javert.’
‘How do you know?’
‘First, he did not kill M. Madeleine because he was M. Madeleine! And second, he did not kill Javert because Javert killed himself. He killed himself by jumping into the river.’
‘What proof do you have?’ Marius said, wide-eyed with disbelief.
‘I have all the proof here,’ Thenardier said, producing an envelope in which there were several documents and newspaper articles. ‘I’ve spent a long time discovering the truth about Jean Valjean.’
Marius studied the documents carefully, then looked up with a smile of joy. ‘But he’s a splendid man! The fortune was really his, and he’s not a murderer or thief at all! He’s a hero and a saint!’
‘He’s a thief and a murderer,’Thenardier said quietly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I told you that I do not like to see a man accused unjustly, but I do like to see a man punished for crimes he has committed.’
‘And what crimes are those?’
Thenardier sat down and told Marius about the time he had helped Valjean to escape from the Paris sewer.
‘He was carrying the body of a man he had robbed and killed,’ Thenardier said. ‘Look, I have a piece of cloth from the dead man’s coat as proof.’
He produced a muddy piece of cloth and showed it to Marius, who immediately went pale and rose unsteadily to his feet. As Thenardier continued to talk, Marius opened a cupboard door and took out a coat.
‘That man was me!’ Marius cried. ‘And here is the coat I was wearing!’
Thenardier stared at the coat and the cloth in his hands, speechless with fear. He was even more surprised when, instead of chasing him out of the room, Marius ran towards him and pressed several thousand-franc notes into his hand.
‘You’re a terrible man,’ Marius said. ‘A thief and a liar. You came here to destroy a man, but you have done the opposite. If you hadn’t saved my father’s life at Waterloo, I’d report you to the police. I know that your wife is dead, but take the money and start a new life in America with your daughter. When you arrive there, I’ll send you another 20,000 francs. Now get out. I never want to see you again!’
When Thenardier had left, unable to believe his good fortune, Marius ran to find Cosette and told her everything immediately.