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A Ribbon for a Spider

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When Fauchelevent returned to the hut, Father Madeleine was not there, but neither was his knee-bell; the spare shears were also gone and he had mentioned that morning over breakfast that the old wild apple trees were in need of pruning, so it was no great mystery as to where he had gone.

No, the mystery was not where he was -- nor, any longer, where he had come from -- but who he was. With a sigh, Fauchelevent dropped the basket to the floor and sat ungracefully on the small chair near the door to unbuckle his own bell. He had done his best to put the encounter from his thoughts on the way home, lest it somehow jump from mind to mouth without his permission, and after his long years of practice in solitude and silence had done tolerably well. But thoughtlessness was never a state that had come comfortably to him; he had spent most of his long life unable to leave a good bit of gossip alone, and here, safe at home, with no one to hear him, he could keep it back no longer.

"Who would have thought," he said to himself, hanging the bell on its hook by the door and gingerly stretching out his legs as he seated himself on his stool, "who would have thought? My God, what a tangle. And how is it that they came to be here? Well! when I asked myself that six months ago, I said that the Lord had caught him up in His hand and placed him here by mistake, though of course with the girl it must have been no mistake at all; but I cannot believe He would send the inspector after him, and yet here he is."

For it was Inspector Javert that Fauchelevent had met that afternoon in line at the tobacconist's, where he had stopped by to resupply himself after first resupplying the garden. He had changed not at all since his days in Montreuil-sur-Mer: the same remarkable height, the same grim face, the same bristling whiskers -- and Fauchelevent had never been one to forget a face or an acquaintance in any case, though he had not thought particularly often of Javert since the last time he had seen him.

In Montreuil they had not precisely been friends -- Fauchelevent was not entirely certain that Javert would ever have gone so far as to call anyone friend -- but they had certainly been acquaintances, and they had had several quite satisfactory conversations of a sort that Fauchelevent had not had in years, Javert always having been keen to hear any gossip that he might put to his work, and Fauchelevent having been keen to have it heard. And so it was that, in this flash of nostalgia, he had said, "Ah, Inspector! How did you come to be in Paris, too?" before he came to his senses and remembered that as often as not they had been speaking ill of Monsieur Madeleine.

Javert had turned and eyed him for a long moment -- just long enough for Fauchelevent's embarrassment to melt into a distinct annoyance that he should be so forgettable to everyone, when it was perfectly simple for him to remember them, the ungrateful wretches -- and then his mouth twisted somewhat, a strange light creeping into his eyes that did not quite look like recognition. "Fauchelevent," he said, "isn't it?"

It was somewhat gratifying, despite the awkwardness of the situation, and he had nodded in satisfaction. "Yes, that's right. I've kept the garden at the convent here in Petit-Picpus for a few years now." But something -- perhaps that glint in Javert's eye -- had warned him against saying any more about the odd similarities of Javert's sudden appearance in Fauchelevent's favorite tobacconist's to Madeleine's appearance in his garden. He kept his mouth shut and waited expectantly.

"That convent!" Javert had said, with such force that for a moment Fauchelevent had half-expected to be seized and informed that it was illegal to garden at all. But he had only given a harsh bark of a laugh, paid for his snuff, and when Fauchelevent had paid for his also, said "As for how I came to be here -- I am looking for someone. You remember him: Monsieur Madeleine."

These last words had been said with more venom than even Fauchelevent himself had ever managed to muster in the darkest days of his failing business; and, already on guard against the quickness of his tongue, the quickness of his thoughts served him well. "Ah?" he said, managing a passable scowl -- and if it was more at his own past foolishness than at the memory of the man himself, well, Javert had no need to know. "But why should the mayor be here in Paris?"

The gleam in Javert's eyes had darkened, becoming fiercer, more predatory, but his voice when he spoke was calm and confident. "The mayor?" he said. "No! I suppose not even news can pass those convent walls. Well: I tell you he is no mayor -- he is no monsieur -- he is not even a Madeleine; his name is Jean Valjean. He is a convict, a peasant, a thief, a robber, and a kidnapper; he was sentenced to life not a year ago and he has escaped. I have seen him here in the city; I have chased him here, and I will have him behind bars again."

 

 

That speech, delivered in that tone of absolute, iron certainty, had had the same ring of divine truth as any words of the Mother Prioress; indeed, he had had difficulty not replying with the nuns' more often! as he took his leave. It had echoed in his mind on the long walk home, and even now, in the familiar confines of his hut, surrounded by his things jumbled together with Madeleine's and his girl's in a pleasantly friendly way, Fauchelevent found Javert's words impossible to dismiss. Rather, the more he thought of the conversation, the more certain parts of it made sense: the drab, unfashionable state of Madeleine's clothes, the callused strength of his hands, his reticence and refusal to discuss either the past or how he had come to find himself in the convent at all. "Dieu-Jesus," Fauchelevent said to the empty air. "He must have climbed the wall to escape the police."

It was absurd in itself, and hearing it said aloud made it no less so. Shaking his head, he reached for the bottle of wine and poured himself an over-full glass. Javert had not thought it possible, clearly; Fauchelevent, knowing it had been done, could hardly credit it himself. "But say it is so," he said, and drained the glass, then refilled it. "Say it is so. He carries the girl into the convent without being seen. He asks only shelter for a night, and offers to pay for it. He saves girls and men at the risk of his own life. No! even if he is a thief and a brigand, he is a good man, the best of men -- and to be sure Someone remembered him in Paradise, to see him safe over that wall with Javert at his heels. Lord! And I told him we were all saints here. I didn't know the half of it."

His mutterings, helpful to the workings of his mind though they might have been, had covered the sound of the bell outside, so that when the door creaked open unexpectedly he started to his feet in alarm, sending both stool and wine bottle flying. "Saints preserve us," he said, "Father Madeleine!"

Madeleine froze in the doorway, hand still on the knob, eyes wide with alarm that quickly faded into concern. Of course it could not have been anyone else at the door; Fauchelevent could hardly blame him for being surprised at such a reception -- and yet Javert's words haunted him like exceptionally persistent ghosts. "I was only thinking out loud," he said, laughing a bit nervously, "and you startled me, that's all. A good thing the sisters aren't woolgathering old men, or they would have to fit us with cow bells instead of knee decorations."

"That would be inconvenient," Madeleine agreed, coming inside and shutting the door behind him. His voice had its normal, quiet, serious tone, but when he hung up his own bell and came to help Fauchelevent right the stool and wipe up the spilled wine, there was a reassuring glint of humor in his eyes.

He had nearly finished the bottle in his ponderings; there was not much more than a glass wasted. Fauchelevent tutted over it anyway and sat down heavily on the stool again when everything had been tidied, rolling the errant bottle between his hands. Normally he would have carried on the joke; pressed it a bit farther, perhaps, tried to coax a laugh or two from his solemn friend -- but when he thought of Madeleine standing there with a heavy chain about his neck, bell attached or no, it seemed the farthest thing from funny. "How was Cosette today?" he asked instead.

"Well enough." Madeleine pulled a second chair to the table and set a new bottle and a bit of bread atop it before seating himself. "She is a spider now, she says, because three of the older girls left the convent quite suddenly and things had to be rearranged. But she seems happy to be one."

"I suppose there are worse things to be," said Fauchelevent, then flinched slightly at his own words; words that only yesterday would have seemed perfectly innocent to him. The thought of causing him more trouble or discomfort after all the good he had done for him had always been insupportable; now there seemed so many more ways to blunder into it. "Better a spider than a -- a wood-louse, was it, before?"

"Yes," Madeleine said, pouring the wine for them both. "Though if there were no woodlice, the spiders might starve."

"Anything but that," Fauchelevent said, taking up his refilled glass gratefully. "Well, to be sure, your spider seems to be thriving on woodlice and crickets. Oh!" He drained the glass again and hauled himself to his feet, crossing to the corner where he had dropped the large basket on the way in. Underneath the paper packet of snuff he had bought under Javert's watchful eye and the load of supplies he had originally set out to get, there was a smaller bundle; he extracted it and brought it back to the table. "I had forgotten completely," he said to Madeleine's curious look. "Driven right out of my mind, what with -- things. M. Dubois, who keeps the twine and rope stall at the market, had some new stock in today. What do you think of this?"

The ribbons were simple cotton, plain and unadorned; but the warm, rich brown matched the shade of Cosette's hair rather perfectly, and Fauchelevent felt himself beginning to puff up with pride as Madeleine unbundled them gently, passing them through his strong fingers to feel the fine weave. "He had green silk ones," he said, "the talk of crickets reminded me, you see -- but I thought she could hide the brown better in her hair, under her cap, and still have something pretty with her. So! What do you think?"

Madeleine still said nothing, but he was smiling as he rolled the ribbons back into their curls and tucked them back into the bag, a brilliant, happy smile that first warmed Fauchelevent, then sent a chill through him; the secrecy and cleverness that came naturally to him wilting under its light. But he deserves to know, he thought, and said, "Father Madeleine--" at the same time as Madeleine said "I--"

They both stopped; Madeleine drew breath to try again, and Fauchelevent rushed forwards before he could begin: "No," he said, "Ah! No, let me -- there is more." It seemed to him that Madeleine was about to thank him, which seemed suddenly, unnaturally unbearable. But how to tell him? It was a thing that must be done, and yet it was impossible. In any other circumstance he would ask Madeleine's own advice on the matter. "Two months ago," he said, feeling quite as if he was digging out another grave without any certainty of what he should find within, "you asked that I should not try to find out anything more about you, and I said I should not, and so I did not, for I knew quite enough that the rest didn't matter in the slightest. And I still have not looked, but-- you see -- oh, the deuce with it." There was nothing to do but to pry off the lid in one go. "I was not looking for you when the good Lord stretched out His hand and put you into my melon bed, and I was not looking for Inspector Javert when -- someone -- put out his hand and dropped him into my tobacconist's."

By the time Fauchelevent had finished with this, Madeleine had gone quite still and pale. It seemed as good as a confession. "Father Madeleine," he said again, feeling entirely unsuited to pronounce absolution on a saint, "two months ago I asked myself whether I should do anything I could to save a man who had done such good, who had saved my life twice over without thinking of his own, whether he was a saint or -- or a thief -- or both at once," Fauchelevent finished unhappily. It seemed wholly inadequate. "I did not ask him a thing," he said, "I could not have, after what I promised you; but he wanted to talk, and I could not help but listen. Ah! to the convent I am deaf, and to the police I am blind, and to the world I limp."

If Madeleine had been pale before, he was a ghost then, his arms slack on the table, wine and bread untouched. Impulsively, Fauchelevent reached out and took one of Madeleine's hands in his own, absurdly relieved to find that it was still warm with life. "I said we were all saints here," he said, "and Lord knows that's not true; I'm an old man and no more, but pardine! I'm no Judas, either. And what is it to me if you are Dismas or Madeleine instead of Vincent? To the convent you are my brother Ultime; to me, you are a good friend and a better man, no matter who you call yourself."

The pallor did not fade from Madeleine's face even as he stirred faintly, his hand shivering underneath Fauchelevent's. "I don't understand," he said at length.

Fauchelevent squeezed that trembling hand, whether to reassure Madeleine or himself -- or both -- and said, "Well! What's to understand? Here." He took up Madeleine's still-full glass and pressed it into his hand. "Drink!"

Slowly, almost mechanically, Madeleine did so; the taste of the wine seemed to shock him, sending another shudder through his body and bringing a faint touch of color back to his cheeks. He swallowed convulsively; drank again; let out a long, tense breath, and closed his eyes. "Javert spoke to you," he said.

"That's right."

"He told you that I --" Here he paused, his face twisting out of its blank numbness into a grimace, his eyes still shut. "That I am a thief. An escaped convict."

"He said a great many things," Fauchelevent agreed, reaching for the wine bottle and topping his glass up again.

"And you said nothing to him."

"That's right," Fauchelevent said again. "Well, certainly I said, 'Hello, Inspector!' and 'my God, really?' and 'I had heard no such thing, the convent is so quiet, you know' and 'Goodbye, Inspector!' -- but, Father Madeleine, if you are asking whether I would give him my savior and my friend, I think I have already answered that. Perhaps convents make all men go deaf from the silence!"

"Then you came back here."

"That's right."

Madeleine shook his head slightly and opened his eyes again, looking first down into his wineglass as if surprised to see it full again, then up at Fauchelevent. "And you called me Madeleine," he said. "I don't understand it."

"Well, why shouldn't I have?" Fauchelevent said, refilling his own glass and reaching for a piece of bread, as he was rather beginning to feel the effects of so much moral fortification. "If you had rather be called something else, you should say so, and I'll do it. It's no great trouble! Though outside it still ought to be Ultime until the cherubs lose interest -- if they ever do."

"He must have told you that is not my name."

"What of it?" He swallowed down a mouthful and nudged the basket across the table. "I told you it is all the same to me if you are a Picard or a Gascon. But if you want me to call you Father Valjean, I will."

Madeleine flinched at the sound of the name as if Fauchelevent had slapped him across the face; for a moment he wondered if he had remembered it wrong, or if he ought not to have said it at all -- but there was a slow, guarded wonder growing in his eyes, a faint spark of hope. "It is all the same to you," he echoed quietly.

"That's right," he said once more. "God brings a girl into the convent through the front door and He changes her name; God drops a man from Heaven, why should He not change his as well?"

For a moment there was again the ghost of a smile on Madeleine's lips; then it faded, though Fauchelevent fancied the light of it still lingered. "You know," he said, "that I did not really fall from Heaven that night."

"I know no such thing," said Fauchelevent, waving the crust of his bread at the basket. "But you are here now, whether you did or not, so -- eat."