Chapter 3: A Nest for Wanderers and Wolves
By the end of the evening, Fantine had found not just a situation but a room, or to be more to the point, a garret nook. "It is not much but it is warm," Sister Perpetue explained as she showed Fantine and Cosette this tiny room above the hospital. "The windows are wide and let in a great deal of air, so you will not have to worry about any foulness coming up from the hospital," she added in a brighter voice.
"I think it will do nicely," Fantine replied as she looked around the room, which was bare of everything except an old iron bed, a creaky chest of drawers, and a rush chair. She set down her carpetbag next to the bed. "Cosette can share the bed with me; you can see she is so little."
"Someday she will need a cot," Sister Perpetue said as she set up a candle atop the chest of drawers and threw a coverlet onto the bed. She smiled a little ruefully at Fantine. "Sister Simplice believes your coming here is a blessing."
"I don't think my being led here is an accident either-it is better than I hoped for, especially for Cosette," Fantine replied as she wrung her hands.
Sister Perpetue nodded. "Well thank God for it. We begin work at dawn tomorrow. Good night, Fantine. Good night Cosette," she said before quitting the room.
As the door closed, Cosette looked up at her mother. "Maman? We stay here?"
"Yes. This is home now darling," Fantine said, scooping her up and setting her on the bed to remove her shoes. "We both have to be good so we can remain here."
Cosette nodded trustingly as she sucked her thumb. Fantine helped her kick off her little shoes and then looked around the tiny room. It was hardly a place of her own, but it was a roof over her head, and a start of something.
Yes, they could try to be happy here.
It was not an easy life, but it held joys enough. Fantine would rise at dawn and begin sweeping the ward and airing the room while the nuns attended their morning prayers. After this, Sister Perpetue made breakfast for everyone; usually by this time Cosette would be awake and would be trailing after her or after her mother. Sister Simplice in the meantime saw to the restocking of the dispensary, or summoned the parish priest to hear confessions or minister to the dying. By seven in the morning the infirmary doors would be opened, and the place would soon be bustling with people seeking medical attention or visiting ill friends and neighbours. Fantine repaired linen and made bandages, helped move and wash patients, and ran errands for the nuns. The infirmary only closed after vespers, and only then would their little household sit down to its evening meal before retiring for the evening. There was no shortage of things to do, and thus there were few opportunities for Fantine to think back on Tholomyes, her former companions, or almost anything to do with what she had left behind in Paris. Yet there were still a few times, in the deepest watches of the night, that she dreamed she was being serenaded with a soft voice singing to the languid strains of a Spanish guitar.
As for Cosette, she flourished and grew merry. In Paris she'd known only her mother; here in Montreuil-sur-mer there were children her age to run about with. Sister Perpetue loved her chatter when they went about the kitchen together, and Sister Simplice delighted in teaching her simple prayers and catechism. Cosette often played little pranks on Fantine, chattered with the infirmary's inmates, and listened to M. Madeleine whenever he happened to visit the hospital.
Once, towards December of that year, M. Madeleine brought a simple book of drawings and words for the other children in the infirmary. Cosette had listened to him silently, eyes wide as if taking in everything he said. When he was about to take his leave, she walked up to him. "What's there?" she asked, pointing to the book.
"It's a book for children," M. Madeleine said.
Cosette frowned. "Not praying?" she asked. Sister Simplice's prayer book was the only volume to be found in this place.
"It's about something else," M. Madeleine said.
Fantine, who'd been passing by with some linen, looked on curiously. "What is in the book Monsieur?"
"Stories of the folk here," M. Madeleine answered.
Cosette's eyes went round at the mention of stories. "I want one!"
"You're meant to read them, or maybe have someone read them to you," M. Madeleine replied.
Fantine blushed hard on seeing the eager, almost pleading look that Cosette gave her. 'If only I could,' she thought ashamedly. "Maybe Sister Simplice or Sister Perpetue can read to you after vespers," she suggested kindly.
It was enough impetus for Cosette to take the book from M. Madeleine and thank him effusively before running off to show Sister Perpetue her new prize. Fantine winced before looking at the mayor, who now had a thoughtful air about him. "I only know how to write my name," she explained. "Once Cosette starts school, she will know better than I will!"
"It isn't too late for you, Mademoiselle," M. Madeline said.
Fantine laughed. "At my age, learning to read!" The idea was incredulous, almost too fantastical. M. Madeleine simply sighed before taking his leave. That night, when Cosette was asleep, Fantine opened a page of the book to try to make sense of the letters printed beside pictures of familiar objects such as an apple, a cat, a house, and the sun.
Time passed, marked with this slow but steady progress. Cosette grew and Fantine mused, and before long nearly two years had elapsed.
It was then that this peace was broken by an otherwise unremarkable instance. One afternoon, Fantine was busying herself with a basket of bandages, and had left Cosette to run about and play, provided she did not wake any of the patients in the infirmary. In the midst of cutting and folding the linen, Fantine suddenly heard an indignant yell from the passage followed by her child's scream. She jumped up from her seat and ran into the next room, and found Cosette quavering on the floor, clutching her reddened cheek. Looming over her was an indignant crone, one hand still clutching her rosary while the other was poised to strike the little girl again.
"Leave her alone!" Fantine shouted, pushing back the woman before scooping up Cosette. "How dare you hit her!"
"This little brat has no respect for her elders. Imagine, interrupting my prayers-" the woman retorted.
"She's a child, she certainly didn't mean it!" Fantine shot back. Her rage only heightened on seeing how red her daughter's cheek was; without a doubt the red handprint there would certainly turn into a bruise. "Just see what you've done!"
"If you kept better watch on her, I wouldn't have to discipline her," the woman snapped.
"I don't care what you mean to do or say, but no one ever hits my child," Fantine said furiously.
Suddenly the door to the nuns' apartment opened. "Why what's the commotion?" Sister Simplice asked. Her eyes were startled, then worried as she took in the scene. "She's not hurt, is she?" she asked Fantine.
"Only a bruise," Fantine said through gritted teeth.
Sister Simplice nodded with the serenity of someone who already knew what to do in this terse conflict. "Cosette, I think Sister Perpetue has tartlets she wants you to try. She's in the kitchen," she said. She turned to look at the crone. "Madame Victurnien, I believe Monsieur the Mayor is still at his previous appointment. He hasn't been here to visit yet."
Madame Victurnien's expression soured further. "There is an urgent matter in the workroom. Where is he now?"
"Maybe he is at his office," Sister Simplice said, stepping aside to let Cosette flee into the kitchen.
Madame Victurnien chewed the inside of her cheek. "Thank you Sister Simplice," she said before stalking out of the infirmary.
Fantine crossed her arms and shook her head as the door shut. "I cannot believe it!" she whispered indignantly. "Cosette didn't mean any harm and she hit her!"
Sister Simplice sighed deeply. "Madame Victurnien has had much to worry about since her neighbor is ill and she is the only one around to watch. God grant her peace of mind." She motioned for Fantine to sit before picking up some linen and beginning to fold it. "Though I advise you stay out of the way; there is no use in provoking another's anger."
"How could you stand to be around her? I wouldn't do it for a million francs," Fantine muttered.
"Nor would I, but for Him I would," Sister Simplice said, gesturing briefly to the heavens. For a long while the two women worked in an amiable silence, until a knock sounded on the infirmary door. The nun got to her feet and opened it. "Ah Monsieur Madeleine! Madame Victurnien was here a little while ago, looking for you," she greeted.
"Yes, I have spoken to her," the mayor said. He nodded to a man standing next to him. "I am only giving a brief tour to our recently arrived Inspector."
By this time Fantine had gotten to her feet, but she found herself taking a slight step back at the mere sight of the inspector. He was lofty and grim, with whiskers and a long face that did not do much to inspire anyone's confidence. The contrast between him and the mayor was like that of a dark place just adjacent to a soft glow from a lamp. "Good afternoon and welcome to Montreuil-sur-mer, Monsieur Inspector-" she greeted.
The man cut her off with a shake of his head followed by something of a grin,. His smile would have been cordial had it ever managed to reach his eyes. "Madame, the name is Inspector Javert."