Chapter 2: The Faces of Succour
Although it was a long journey to Montreuil-sur-mer, Fantine suddenly was reluctant to quit the road once she came in sight of the town one afternoon as the sun was beginning its descent towards the horizon. 'Can I really bring Cosette into this?' she wondered as she paused at a glen to rest her feet and let Cosette sleep for a little while undisturbed. As she combed out her hair and tied it back with a kerchief, she tried to think of stories and alibis to explain away all the years she'd spent in Paris, but she could not set her brain to concocting a story that could spare her most of the jeering. 'I can't let my child hear such awful things. Maybe I should have left her to stay with someone, maybe in Paris,' she couldn't help thinking as she splashed some spring water on her face.
Yet that dire thought passed the moment Fantine looked at her daughter dozing peacefully with her pretty head pillowed on the carpetbag. How could she abandon such an angel to the care of strangers? And even so, how could they possibly be reunited? With her resolve now clear, she carefully placed the comb back in the carpetbag before shaking Cosette gently. "Cosette, wake up. We have to go now."
The child yawned and blinked her eyes open. "Maman?" she asked quizzically.
Fantine did not say anything but she helped her daughter to her feet before smoothing out Cosette's hair and her much mended dress. The once white and beribboned gown was now tinged a little gray and the ribbons were somewhat tattered, but some air of charming still remained around Cosette's attire. As for Fantine's own garb, she had done only what was necessary to keep warm and retain her modesty; even now her large blue handkerchief had to cover the much worn neckline of her brown dress. Both Fantine and Cosette were tanned from having walked a great deal under the sun. As a result, this pair was at least several steps above beggary, but a few steps too low for respectability.
Nevertheless Fantine saw no alternative, at least if she was to retain some dignity and happiness about her person. She took Cosette's hand and they walked down the newly paved road towards the center of the town. All the while Fantine kept her head down in order not to elicit any suspicion, but now and then she had to raise her eyes in order to get her bearings. 'I hardly know anything of this place anymore!" she realized with both bemusement and horror as she took in the sight of the better kept houses and clean roads of the town. The wretched hovels and lean-tos of her girlhood were now replaced by this landscape of newfound prosperity. Another startling change was that the trinkets factory in the 'lower' part of town had suddenly changed its face; what had once been a decrepit edifice was now fresh and bustling with life, and larger than ever.
For a moment this sight filled Fantine with hope; surely this place had a large workroom, and perhaps there would be a place in it even for a former needlewoman like her. Even if it was already the end of the workday, she still held hope that perhaps she could secure a place for the next morning. Yet before she could make her way towards the factory she saw several women exiting the premises, clearly gossiping among themselves. She stopped in her tracks, feeling suddenly chilled. 'If I come forward and ask, they will ask as well and what will I say to them?' she realized. She suddenly had the feeling as if she was watched from the windows or from the passing coaches, and at that moment it was as if her feet had suddenly taken root on the unforgiving pavement.
Suddenly Cosette tugged on her skirt. "Maman, look!"
"Cosette, it's rude to point!" Fantine chided as she grabbed her child's hand. Even so she couldn't resist looking around for what had caught her daughter's attention, and she almost cringed when she realized that Cosette had been staring at a woman dressed in a flowing white habit. "I'm sorry about that, Sister. She has never seen a nun before," Fantine said furtively to the lady.
The nun gave them that sort of smile which would have been amused and even a little mocking on any other woman, but on her face was only kind. "She isn't the first child to be so startled," she said. "Is she your daughter?"
Fantine nodded. "Her father is gone," she added almost reflexively. For some reason, no lie could leap to her lips, or at least it was impossible in the presence of this seemingly ethereal woman.
The nun's expression was wan as she regarded mother and child. "And where are you staying?"
"We only just arrived," Fantine admitted. Suddenly a wild, almost pitiful idea leapt to her mind. "If it is possible, may we stay at your convent at least till morning?" she asked. "My daughter will not take up much room, and I can sleep on the steps."
"We're hospitalers," the nun replied. "We do not rest at a convent."
"Is there work to be done there?" Fantine inquired. She held out her hands, which still bore the scars of her trade. "I never worked at an apothecary and I'm not a nurse, Sister. I can sew and help make bandages. I promise, my daughter shall be good and won't be a bother if I can stay and work."
The nun sighed as if in deep contemplation. "I shall have to speak with Monsieur the Mayor; he is the one who has a say in the running of the hospital. What is your name, Mademoiselle?"
"Well then, follow me. At the very least you and Cosette-it's Cosette, isn't it-shall have a good dinner tonight. I will see to that."
"Oh than you Sister!"Fantine cried. Had no one else been on the street, she might have kissed the hem of this nun's habit, but as it was she contented herself with wiping away a happy tear. "How may I call you, Sister?"
"Sister Simplice," the nun replied.
For the first time in many days Fantine felt safe and heartened as she took Cosette's hand and they followed their benefactor towards the hospital some streets away. 'What good fortune these nuns are!" she couldn't help thinking, despite having once harboured an innocent disregard for their presence during her years in Paris. At the very least she could hope to be treated kindly and perhaps pointed to some situation suitable for her and Cosette.
The nun admitted them to a tiny apartment adjacent to the hospital's entrance. Here, another nun was busy making lint. "Sister Perpetue, we have a guest," Sister Simplice greeted her companion. "The lady is Fantine, and the little girl is Cosette."
Sister Perpetue, who was a more sturdily built and squat woman, nearly knocked over a nearby seat as she got to her feet. "May God bless you, Fantine. And haven't you got such an angel with you," she greeted openly. "Are you travellers?"
Fantine shook her head. "I'm here to make a living."
"We must speak with Monsieur the Mayor about giving her a place here," Sister Simplice said.
"Aren't there always places at the factory?" Sister Perpetue asked.
"Yes, but her child is still too young for the school; there is no way she can work there till that time," Sister Simplice replied. "Haven't we got a little meat for the stew?"
In the meantime Cosette was looking about restlessly, and she suddenly let out a startled cry. "Maman, over there!"
"Shhh. It's a room for sick people to rest," Fantine said, scooping up her child and sitting in a chair across the room so she wouldn't have to look at the sickroom next door.
Cosette's eyes were wide with fright as she climbed into her mother's lap. "Rest?"
"To get better."
Sister Perpetue pinched Cosette's cheek. "Now don't you worry about that, little girl," she crooned over the sound of knocking at the door. "That must be Monsieur the Mayor."
"Also known as Monsieur Madeleine," Sister Simplice explained to Fantine. "He visits every day since he helped put up this place."
Fantine smoothed out her hair just as the door opened to admit a venerable looking gentleman who must have been about fifty or so years old since his hair was thinning but not yet white with age. He was far from frail; there was strength in his shoulders but on closer inspection one could see that he had a way of dragging his right leg. She stood up by way of courtesy as this man exchanged a few gracious words with the nuns. "Good evening Monsieur," she greeted.
The mayor bowed graciously. "Good evening Mesdemoiselles. Welcome to Montreuil-sur-mer."
'More like welcome home perhaps,' Fantine thought as she sat down and set Cosette onto the floor. The little girl looked around before darting after Sister Perpetue, who had brought a cake out from a cupboard to tempt her with. She tried not to tap her feet as she watched Sister Simplice and Monsieur Madeleine in discussion; there was no need to even guess what the matter was about. She wrung her skirt in her lap, hardly noticing the creases this made in the fabric.
At length Monsieur Madeleine sat down at the table. "Sister Simplice has just informed me you are seeking work in this town," he said in a grave but polite tone.
"I am willing to do anything, Monsieur," Fantine said. A flying blush crossed her face as she realized how untoward this statement might have sounded. "I had thought of getting a place in the factory, but I do not know if it will be possible since I have my daughter with me, and she is too little to simply stay someplace while I try to work."
"Have you no kin here?"
"None at all. Cosette is all I have."
Monsieur Madeleine nodded pensively. Something in his expression was tender, but it was more akin to that springing from a dear memory than actual pity. "You can see that this hospital is not a large one. Nevertheless there is always much to be done. I cannot promise that you will have much in the way of wages, but there will be room and board for you and Cosette should you choose to have a place here," he finally said.
Fantine stared at him and Sister Simplice in disbelief. "I may stay? "
"If that is your wish," Sister Simplice said.
These words were sweeter than any benediction Fantine had ever heard. "Then I will do my very best here. Oh you are such good people," she replied happily. "I promise you will not regret it, Monsieur Mayor, Sister Simplice!"
"Sister Simplice will show you your tasks after dinner," Monsieur Madeleine said. "Only be honest. That is all I ask."
Fantine nodded happily. "I shall, Monsieur."