Chapter 6: The Pruner from Faverolles
Even if Fantine kept her gaze fixed on her feet all the way to the police station, she still felt stripped and bare under every scornful glance thrown her way. 'What sorts of things might they be saying to each other now?' she wondered frantically as she tried to keep up with the police officer escorting her. Everything was now a fog before her eyes, which were now hot with the tears she did not dare to show to anyone. At times she felt as if she would collapse right there in the street but she willed herself to walk on, at least till the door of the police station.
For a moment she feared that she would see the formidable Inspector at the desk, but she saw only a bored seargent waiting in the station. "Monsieur, I do not know what they have brought me in for. I'm sure it must be some mistake. You have to believe me," she greeted breathlessly.
The seargent blinked blearily at her. "What is going on?"
"This woman was said to be in the factory yesterday, right when the money purse went missing," the arresting officer reported. "The other workers pointed her out."
Fantine felt her legs shake at this accusation and she clutched at the wall for support. "It's not true! I was at the factory yesterday but only to give a message!"
The seargent rifled through a pile of papers on his desk. "I have a statement here from the overseers that you were meddling in the workroom, and that you disrupted the flow of work and made off with the purse that had been with the foreman."
Fantine shook her head. "It's not true. They all saw me talking to the foreman of that shift, but that was all I did. Where did they get such an idea?"
"Is there anyone else who can vouch for your whereabouts and actions, Mademoiselle?" the arresting constable questioned firmly.
"Monsieur Madeleine was the one who gave me the message for the foreman," Fantine replied. "He can tell you I didn't do anything wrong."
"Why would he entrust you with such a task?" the seargent sneered. "Monsieur the Mayor is seeing to an important errand out of town today. You will simply have to wait here, Mademoiselle, the whole night if need be."
It was only now that Fantine's strength gave out thoroughly and she sank to the floor, huddling with her knees to her chest in order to hide her face. The idea of not being able leave on time, of having her daughter hear that she was taken away by the police, and of passing a sleepless night in this cold jailhouse was all too much for her to bear. 'And when I get out, what will people say? Everyone will know for sure I've been here,' she realized with horror and revulsion. The crowd that had accosted her at the factory and then at the infirmary now seemed to her to be akin to a pack of wolves eager to pounce and rip her from limb to limb.
It was at that moment that the station house door opened and the seargent at the desk rose to his feet. "Monsieur Inspector," he greeted the newcomer respectfully.
Fantine looked up even as she felt her limbs trembling, and it was with a great effort that she found herself on her feet. "Monsieur Inspector, I'm sorry to trouble you after your journey," she said as she managed a shaky curtsy. "Someone has played a dreadful trick on me, and wants me locked up though I did nothing. You have to let me go right away."
Javert's eyes were hooded as he regarded Fantine first, then the statement that the seargent handed to him. "Dismiss the crowd outside," he ordered the other men in the station. "There are many who are speaking against you, Mademoiselle," he said gravely to Fantine.
"I do not know what I did to make them talk that way about me," Fantine gasped, almost afraid now that her next words would leave her throat as a sob. "Monsieur Inspector, I have tried to be a good woman. I have not done anything to hurt anyone even if sometimes they try to vex me. I do not gossip, I do not even know what they are about. I'm not a thief, I swear it."
"Have you any proof in your favour?" Javert inquired harshly.
"Monsieur, you do not believe me? Oh you must!" Fantine begged. She threw herself at his feet and clasped his hands. "I cannot stay the night here. My daughter, you've seen her, will be asking for me. And what are the good sisters to tell her?"
Javert backed away from her. "Compose yourself, Mademoiselle. You are facing a very serious charge here and have had little to say for yourself so far." He turned to a constable just entering the station. "Please conduct Mademoiselle to her cell, where she will stay till this inquiry is resolved."
Fantine fell back so she was resting on her haunches, and buried her face in her hands to stifle her sobs for fear they would be heard outside the station. "Oh God! Oh God! What to do now?" she wept. She cringed as she heard the station door opening again and curled up on the floor.
Javert looked up sharply at this interruption but he bowed respectfully when he saw who was there. "Good afternoon Sister Perpetue."
The nun was red in the face, both from running and from the winter chill. "I have a letter from Monsieur the Mayor. He says that Fantine did nothing wrong and that she has to be released this minute," she said, thrusting a folded note into Javert's face.
Javert silently read the missive and put it down on the desk along with the other papers. He wrote down a quick note and folded it. "Constable, please bring this to the foreman at the factory. Make it clear to him he is to comply, otherwise I will have to take further action against him." He looked sternly at Fantine. "Go home, Mademoiselle."
Fantine shakily stood up and held on to Sister Perpetue's arm for support. "I thought that Monsieur Madeleine was away?" she asked in a shaky undertone.
"He only just arrived," Sister Perpetue explained as she gently led Fantine out of the police station. "They weren't rough on you?"
Fantine shook her head. "Where's Cosette?"
"With Sister Simplice," the nun replied.
"Thank you," Fantine murmured, now feeling at last that she could breathe. However when she looked about, she saw that there was a crowd waiting for her and Sister Perpetue. She clutched at the nun's arm. "What are we going to do?"
Sister Perpetue patted Fantine's hand before squaring her shoulders and going before the crowd. "The inspector already told all of you to go home. It's almost supper," she said.
"Step away from that hussy, Sister," Madame Victurnien, the only bold one in this group, spoke up.
Sister Perpetue shook her head. "We're going home."
Madame Victurnien's scowl soured further at the nun, but it was evident she would not dare to strike in front of this presence. "I do not know what she did to the inspector and his men, but it will not work on us," she said, casting a venomous look on Fantine. It was evident that she had been humiliated by the mayor's intervention, and she would not be gainsaid.
"If she tries it again, we will not be so kind to her or to the little girl either," another woman threatened.
"Don't you dare hurt my child," Fantine shouted as she stepped forward.
"What, you will tell the Mayor? I am not so sure he'll defend you now, if he knew what a liar and thief you are," Madame Victurnien taunted. She looked about and paled as she realized that the constables had followed Fantine and were now surrounding the mob. "You watch your step."
"I will," Fantine managed to say as the crowd began to move away, most of them silent but others still hissing imprecations. It was becoming clearer to her now that there was only one recourse left for her and Cosette. "We cannot stay," she said to Sister Perpetue.
"Yes, we must hurry back home. It's going to be a cold night," Sister Perpetue said.
Fantine shook her head. "Cosette and I can't stay in this town any longer."
Sister Perpetue paled. "Why?"
"You heard them. I may be safe today, but they'll come up with something else tomorrow, or sometime soon. Why must they be so horrid?" Fantine asked, struggling not to cry. "I'm an honest woman."
"And I didn't do anything wrong."
Sister Perpetue sighed. "Who knows where malice comes from? It will all look better in the morning, Fantine. Besides, think. Where will you and Cosette go?"
"Someplace where we shan't be known. Maybe I will simply say I'm a widow," Fantine said. "Anywhere. Maybe even back to Paris. It's been some years now."
The nun nodded gravely. "I wish you wouldn't."
"You know I must."
"At the very least, inform Monsieur the Mayor. If you are so set on this, he will help you, even write you a recommendation for you and Cosette. He will make sure you are provided for."
Fantine nodded, seeing the wisdom in these words. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Thank you," she murmured before setting off for Monsieur Madeleine's house, which was not far from the infirmary proper. She saw from the street that there was a light in one of the upstairs chambers, and so she hastened her steps. The portress was mysteriously absent from her post, but Fantine thought nothing of it and went straight to the second floor. "Monsieur Madeleine!" she called, knocking on the first closed door she found.
The door opened a crack. "Fantine? You shouldn't be here," the mayor greeted in a hollow one.
"Yes, but I need to speak with you right away," Fantine insisted as she threw the door open. She gasped when she saw M. Madeleine's face. "Oh good God! What has happened to you?" The man's gray hair was now as white as snow.
M. Madeleine sighed grimly. "Yes, it was not this way a few hours ago."
"Are you ill?" Fantine asked. "You were acting so oddly yesterday."
The mayor shook his head. "You must go."
Fantine swallowed hard before making a final effort; in her fright she quite failed to notice that M. Madeleine's eyes were dark and troubled despite his calm. "Monsieur Madeleine, I wish I didn't have to, but Cosette and I must leave Montreuil-sur-mer," she said.
M. Madeleine started. "Leave! Why?"
"Madame Victurnien and all the women..." Fantine trailed off as she tried to quell the harrowing memories of the past few hours. "I fear for my child's life. She is no safer here than she would be if we stayed in Paris."
M. Madeleine shook his head. "I will make sure someone will speak to her. The foreman-"
"He was part of it too," Fantine said. "Monsieur, you have been very, very kind to me and my daughter. I wish I could stay and still be of help to you and the sisters, but I can't. But could you please help me one last time still?"
M. Madeleine smiled at her sadly. "How then, can I help you?"
"Is there a place that Cosette and I can go?" Fantine asked. "Surely you must know some place; you're the mayor after all."
The man seemed stricken by these words. "Fantine, you do not look on a mayor, but on a man condemned, and rightfully so."
"Condemned? For what?" Fantine asked. She could see now that M. Madeleine had been putting his room in order, and had laid some items out on a table. "You, a saint!"
"A thief and a convict," M. Madeleine corrected. "I did a wrong thing many, many years ago, and now I must pay rightfully for it."
"In the galleys. Fantine, you must go now!"
Fantine almost shrieked at the mention of that horror known as the galleys, but a sudden resolve took hold of her and instead she clasped M. Madeleine's wrist. "Then you must come with me and Cosette."
"Impossible. I would only endanger you both."
"You asked how you can help me, and I ask that you do not let us travel alone."
"The police will arrest you as well if they see you with me. What then will become of Cosette?" M. Madeleine asked gently.
Fantine shook her head, unwilling to dwell on this possibility. "What will become of us if we are to face this winter alone?" She saw M. Madeleine's look grow grave at this question. "We plan to go far away, maybe as far as Paris, maybe even further. No one can find you there."
M. Madeleine looked down, as if something had finally broken him or as if he was considering some grave possibility. "I will see you and Cosette to safety, that much at least I can do before I must give myself up." He cast a glance over his shoulder at the things in his room before quickly going in to snatch up a bundle that had been lying to one side. "We must go right away."
"Thank you Monsieur Madeleine!" Fantine said quickly but she regretted it almost instantly on seeing the mayor flinch at that name. They silently made their way to the infirmary, where they found Cosette waiting at the doorstep.
The little girl let out a cry and ran into Fantine's arms. "Maman! The people were saying you weren't coming back!" she sobbed.
Fantine looked at Sister Perpetue and Sister Simplice. "Who said that?"
"Some of the patients' relatives," Sister Simplice replied sadly. "Fantine, may I please ask you to stay?"
At that moment Fantine almost relented, but one look at Cosette's pale frightened face only strengthened her resolve. "Were I alone, I would be strong and bear it, but my child cannot. "
Cosette looked at Fantine curiously. "Maman? What is happening?"
Fantine crouched so that she was eye level with her child. "We have to live elsewhere, Cosette. We will be leaving this town right away."
Cosette's eyes went wide. "Maman! Why?"
"Please, don't ask and just do as I say," Fantine whispered sternly as she hurried to the garret to begin packing their few belongings. By this time Cosette's dresses were much larger than those she had on arriving in Montreuil-sur-mer, and it took a fair bit of work for Fantine to make these things fit in her lone carpetbag. She put on some of her own clothes in layers in order to save as many items as possible, but nevertheless she still had to leave one of her good dresses behind.
Cosette watched these preparations silently for a little while. "Maman, can I bring this?" she begged, holding the book that M. Madeleine had given her.
"Oh!" Fantine cried as she grabbed the book. 'Is there still room for it?' she wondered, knowing that it would break Cosette's heart to leave it behind. Much to her relief she found that she could just squeeze the book in between some of their clothes.
Just as she was helping Cosette put on a cape over her clothing, she heard a pounding on the infirmary door. 'The police!' Fantine realized, fearful now not only for herself and for Cosette, but for M. Madeleine. She blew out the candle in the garret and tiptoed to where she could push the door open a crack. From where she stood she could see M. Madeleine in a dark corner behind the door; from elsewhere in the room he was not so easily espied. Sister Simplice was kneeling at her prie-de-dieu, clutching a rosary to her forehead.
Cosette wriggled under Fantine's arm to take a look and let out a little gasp. "Maman, the Inspector!"
"Shhh, Cosette!" Fantine whispered, hardly daring even to breathe. She saw Javert in the doorway, his face stern and almost imperious as he surveyed the room. 'Don't let him come nearer, don't let him see!' Fantine prayed silently. One wrong move, one cough, or even one breath would doom them all.
Javert stood for a long moment as he looked at Sister Simplice. "Sister, are you alone in this room?"
Sister Simplice looked up calmly from her prie-de-dieu. "Yes."
Javert nodded. "Then, I must ask only out of duty Sister, have you seen this evening a man—his name is Jean Valjean? Has he been in the infirmary this evening?"
Sister Simplice's voice was solemn. "No."
Javert made a deep bow. "Pardon me," he said before stepping back and closing the door.
Up in the garret, Fantine fell against the door, not trusting herself to move after witnessing such a terrible scene. At last she grabbed her carpetbag and hurried downstairs to where Sister Simplice was now bowed over her prie-de-dieu. "Oh Sister..." she whispered almost in disbelief.
The nun's face was white but she managed a smile. "It was that or the worse sin."
Fantine warily looked to the man standing in the corner and met his stricken expression. She had to clap her hand over her mouth to keep from calling him "Monsieur Madeleine", for she already knew that in a matter of hours he would be dead to many of those who had once revered him. "Monsieur?" she asked.
He looked down. "No, not that. I am only a pruner from Faverolles."
Fantine nodded, though the name of the village was unfamiliar to her. "I am only an urchin who's fallen in a bad way." She glanced at Cosette, who was watching them both with a pensive look. "This never was home for any of us."
The man nodded gravely. "You and Cosette must go soon."
"And you should come along before the police will return."
Sister Simplice got to her feet. "I will make sure your instructions will get to the cure," she said to the man who had been called Monsieur Madeleine. She dabbed at her eyes. "May God protect the three of you, wherever you may go."
Fantine smiled bravely before looking to where Cosette was now tearfully clutching at Sister Perpetue, and then at their mysterious companion. "Will we meet again? I'm sure we must."
"If God wills it," Sister Simplice said. "Go now before someone returns."
Fantine nodded before shouldering her carpetbag. "Come, Cosette," she said, holding out her hand. She took a deep breath as Cosette's little hand closed around hers, before they followed Jean Valjean out into the forbidding night.