Chapter 7: The Travelers in the Woods
Owing to the haste of flight and the dangers of the night, there was no room in Fantine's mind for any questions or even the slightest hint of doubt. The only thought was to make sure that she and her companions could get as far away as possible from Montreuil-sur-mer and anyone who would be searching for them. It was only when they stopped to rest and she caught sight of the first pale rays of dawn that she realized the possible folly of what she had just agreed to. She looked to where Cosette was asleep, using the carpetbag as a pillow and her cape as a mattress. 'My daughter and I on the run, and fleeing with a former convict!' she thought as she trained her gaze on the man standing at the roadside, looking up and down for any sign of trouble.
Yet all the same, this was the man who had helped her time and again, and was still on her side. She took a few deep breaths to summon her courage before stepping over to him. "Monsieur Valjean?" she asked tentatively.
Jean Valjean turned quickly, as if startled, before realizing who had spoken to him. "Mademoiselle Fantine. Is there anything you need?"
"Nothing. You shouldn't call me Mademoiselle though, Fantine said, feeling embarrassed at this little courtesy. A thousand questions were leaping in her mind, and it was a few more moments till she could settle on one. "Where exactly is Faverolles?"
"In the region of Brie. It is quite a long way from here," Jean Valjean answered. He tightened his grip around his walking stick, which was actually just part of a broken bough that he had found in the night. "I have nothing to return to there."
"No family whatsoever?" Fantine asked.
"Only my sister. The last I heard, she was in Paris with my youngest nephew, the youngest of seven. I don't know where the other six are," Jean Valjean said. "That was long ago though; they may not be there anymore," he added.
Fantine nodded, knowing all too well how easy it was to lose track of persons in that city. Perhaps, she fancied, she might even have met them without knowing it. "How could a man as good as you be a convict? I almost do not believe it."
Jean Valjean smiled ruefully at her. "I took a loaf of bread to feed those seven children. It was winter and there was no work to be found."
"How terrible!" Fantine whispered, remembering now how close she and Cosette had come to this sort of dire situation. "But to go to prison, for such a thing as bread! How long did you have to stay there?"
"I was given five years in the galleys, but I tried to escape several times," he said. "It all added up to nineteen years."
Fantine hissed this mention of time. She knew that she herself was turning twenty-seven that year, and in comparison to this the span of two decades seemed too large a fraction to properly comprehend. "Then what happened once you left the galleys?"
"I sought work, and stopped in Digne briefly. There I met the Bishop of that town." Jean Valjean's tone was reverent when he spoke again. "He was more than a bishop; he was a saint."
"What did he do?" Fantine asked after a moment.
"He called me a friend and a brother," Jean Valjean said. "After this, I eventually I came to Montreuil-sur-mer and made my living there."
Her brow furrowed as she took in this information. Now the tale made sense to her save for one last detail. "But if you already went to prison, why are the police after you again?"
He looked down. "I broke my parole, and I also robbed a little Savoyard. Unlike you and Cosette, I am far from an innocent."
Fantine was silent as she sat on a stone and regarded Jean Valjean. There was no doubt that he was speaking the truth, but somehow it seemed as middling as a tower of blocks or a mound of dirt when she placed this narrative side by side with what she did know of him: his goodness to her, the high regard with which the nuns, Fauchelevent, and so many others spoke of him, and everything he had done for the town. Even so, could she truly trust him?
When she looked at him again, she realized that he was deep in thought; perhaps he was not watching the road but he saw before him the galleys, or Digne, or perhaps a cramped hearth at a village she would never see. Somehow the thought brought before her own sight a memory of a crackling stove and of Tholomyes' voice in the dead of winter. 'I never told anyone about that," she realized. Who was she to judge, if she had something to conceal?
She primly smoothed down her skirt. "Monsieur, I'm not like Sister Simplice. I've lied too, just like everyone else, and it's awful since you thought I was honest," she said slowly. She smiled weakly when Jean Valjean looked at her. "I've hidden the truth too, about me and Cosette. I said her father was gone, but I never said 'where'. I was never a widow or an honest woman, as some people would say. I lived with her father for just about two or three years in Paris, then he left for his hometown. He never wrote back, never sent any help even when I asked."
Jean Valjean's expression was sympathetic. "I feel that it was through no fault of your own."
Fantine laughed bitterly. "I was young, and no one told me to do anything better. No father, no mother, no brothers or sisters, and I don't think my friends or the ladies I knew then could have helped me much." She looked over her shoulder to where Cosette was still sleeping. Heaven forbid that her sweet little girl meet a similar fate. "I've lied to several honest people. That is also very bad. You stole bread to care for someone, but I only lied since I didn't want people to think ill of me or Cosette. I don't know if one is better than the other anymore."
Jean Valjean nodded slowly. "It is not for either of us to judge." He looked up at the sky, which was growing light. "We can rest for a while, and then we move again. We cannot hope to catch any coach or diligence till we're at least a day away. The police will be on the alert."
"Cosette will get tired."
"I'll carry her."
Fantine smiled as she got to her feet. "You're a good man. I think you always were. Thank you," she said before going to curl up beside her daughter. For a long while she listened with her eyes closed for any sign of their benefactor leaving, but eventually the heat of the day and exhaustion lulled her into a mercifully dreamless sleep.
This was how a sort of easy peace began to form between them, helped along by Cosette's good cheer. It was a hard trek, with nights spent standing watch as two would sleep in a hollow or in a dry ditch, and days spent begging for food or searching for roots and water to eat. As they travelled northwards, Jean Valjean sometimes pointed out animals or old landmarks. Fantine sang ditties and ballads she'd learned in Paris. Cosette asked a myriad of questions or chased after birds. They rarely told stories; Jean Valjean did not like to speak of them and Fantine claimed she hardly knew any.
One day, when they had been trekking for just over a week, Fantine wandered into the woods to look for something to eat. Jean Valjean and Cosette were resting in a nearby glen. Fantine had gone a good way from them when suddenly her foot caught on a wayward root. In a moment she was sprawled in the mud, almost unable to move for the fiery pain in her left ankle. 'Oh Lord, no, no, please,' she begged, knowing somehow that she had twisted it. She tried to raise herself to her feet but only fell down again, all the while biting back a cry of agony.
Before she could make another attempt, she heard footsteps in the woods followed by a high pitched giggle. "Ponine! Come back here!" a little girl's voice shouted. In a few moments, a child dressed in a plain calico smock ran into the clearing. She looked to be about Cosette's age, or perhaps a little younger since she was shorter. She was thin but neat and clean, with her long raven hair done up in two braids. Yet her manner was nervous as she ran through the glen, clearly in search of someone. "Ponine, stop hiding, where are you?"
Fantine managed to raise herself to a sitting position. "Who are you looking for?" she called to the child.
The little girl turned and screamed with fright when she saw Fantine. Suddenly another girl rushed in, clearly startled by the first child's shrieks. "Zelma! What happened?" she asked as she grabbed her sister. She nearly jumped when she saw Fantine but she quickly regained her composure. "Oh you silly, it's only a lady!" she scolded.
Fantine wiped some mud off her face. "I'm sorry to have scared your sister," she said to the second girl. "I've only had a little fall."
The older child bit her lip as she looked Fantine over. She was dressed in a pink gown with slightly faded lace, and she had a white ribbon that kept her auburn hair away from her face. "Are you lost?"
"Not really," Fantine said. "I'm hurt though, and I need someone to help me, or have a look at my leg."
"Papa could help," the girl with darker hair said.
"Papa is sleeping and he'll be angry if we wake him up," her sister chided. "Maybe we'll ask Maman what we can do," she told Fantine.
Before Fantine could say anything, more footsteps sounded through the woods. "Maman!" Cosette shouted as she sprinted ahead of Jean Valjean and launched herself into her mother's arms. "Are you hurt?" she asked.
"I only tripped," Fantine said reassuringly, but she dared to give Jean Valjean a worried smile. "I need help standing up."
"We need to get your ankle bound up," Jean Valjean said as he took off his scarf.
In the meantime Cosette had noticed the two other girls in the clearing. "Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm Eponine, and this is my little sister Azelma," the older of the girls said proudly, making sure to put emphasis on their full names. "What's your name?"
"It's a funny name," Azelma said in a breathy whisper.
Something about the little strangers' names made Fantine start. 'Where have I heard those before?' she wondered as she tried to stand up, only to end up stumbling and having to catch Jean Valjean's shoulder. "I don't think I can walk very far," she said through gritted teeth.
Jean Valjean nodded to her and then looked to Eponine. "Mademoiselle, do you live near here?"
"No, we're only passing by," Eponine said. "If you want you can talk to our Maman or Papa if it's something very important."
"It is. Can you show us the way?" Jean Valjean asked.
Azelma looked to her sister. "Papa is sleeping you said-"
"They asked," Eponine replied in a tone that made it clear that she was not to be contradicted. "It's not far away, let's go!"
Cosette lost no time in racing after the girls, clearly happy to finally see someone her age. Fantine winced as she managed to take a step with Jean Valjean supporting her injured side. Her eyes watered with every move, and she was almost faint by the time she caught sight of a large and badly painted wagon half-hidden by some large trees. A rather thin nag was tied up nearby and chewing on some old hay. A man and a woman were arguing near the wagon; the man had a pipe in his mouth and was leaning against a bare tree while the woman was seated on a rickety stool. The man was of a spare build, with graying hair that escaped his knitted cap and teeth that were beginning to yellow. He had a prickly and foreboding air, especially when his brow knitted with indignation at his spouse's words.
Yet it was not the man, but the woman who made Fantine pale and tug Jean Valjean's arm. The woman, though she had not seen her in a number of years, still loomed large in Fantine's memory. 'What has driven the Thenardiers to this?' she wondered. Had the winter been so harsh so as to drive them out of their own inn?
Mme. Thenardier was rapidly growing red in the face as she listened to her husband's imprecations, but her furious look softened as soon as she caught sight of her own children running up to her. "Where have you two treasures been?" she crooned as she lumbered over to the girls. She stopped when she saw Cosette, then Jean Valjean and Fantine. "Are you lost?"
'She does not recognize me,' Fantine realized. "We were travelling and I met a little mishap. Your daughters found us in the wounds and said we could get help here."
"We're not doctors," Mme. Thenardier said.
"Maman, don't you and Papa have something?" Azelma asked, tugging on her mother's skirt.
"It's only to bind it up with," Mme. Thenardier said, gesturing to Fantine's injured foot. She looked to her husband, who was watching them intently. "Do we have anything of it left?"
"It's over by the baskets. You fetch it yourself, Lisette," M. Thenardier said. He rubbed his hands and straightened up as he went to Jean Valjean and Fantine. "It's a good thing my girls are so clever and kind; who knows what could have become of you in these horrible woods," he said as he showed Fantine to the rickety stool.
"It's a good thing I didn't fall too far away," Fantine said, trying not to bristle at his wheedling words. She looked to where Cosette had somehow joined the Thenardier girls as they were playing with their dolls. "Are they your only children?"
"There's another brat inside," M. Thenardier said dismissively. He extinguished his pipe as his wife returned with a half-empty bottle of salve and some rags. "What brings your family so far into the woods Monsieur—"
"Fabre. Urbain Fabre," Jean Valjean said briskly. "I'm travelling with my daughter and her child."
"Ah a child who is a prop for her father's old age," M. Thenardier said. "Is there a Madame Fabre?"
Jean Valjean smiled ruefully. "There was, twenty-seven years ago."
M. Thenardier bowed almost sympathetically before he watched Fantine remove her worn out shoes. "And where have you Fabres come from?"
"Toulouse," Fantine blurted out. She paused, realizing now the possible error of this. "At first; we've been travelling a fair bit."
"And where are you going?"
"Paris," Fantine said firmly, daring to catch Jean Valjean's wary look. 'I hope he agrees to it,' she thought before looking to where Thenardier was putting some salve on a bandage. "What about you and your family Monsieur-"
"Thenardier," the man said. "Nicolas Thenardier. It's doubly lucky that my little ones saw you. It seems as if it is our good fortune for our families to travel together, Mademoiselle."