There are so many passages I could have selected for this, and perhaps I’ll pick another in time. But since we just had Mother’s Day this past Sunday, I think what is most appropriate is this passage where Fantine, on her death bed, anticipates the arrival of her long separated daughter. For those that might not know the story line, Fantine is a young woman with a child, abandoned by her lover, and she has temporarily put her daughter, Cosette, up with the Thénardiers, a rather ruthless husband and wife who extract whatever money they can from Fantine. Fantine sinks deeper in debt and resorts to whatever she can to provide money for her daughter, including prostitution, selling her teeth and hair, and working until she is thread bare alive. Finally she has been rescued by the Mayor, M. Madeleine, but unfortunately she has contracted tuberculosis Here she is being cared for by nuns, and she wonders why M. Madeleine does not visit her as he has done every night. She has put a lot of hope in getting her daughter back through the Mayor.
This is from the fourth chapter (“Sister Simplice Put to the Proof”) of the seventh book (“The Champmathieu Affair”) of the first volume (“Fantine”).
But at that moment Fantine was joyous.
She had passed a very bad night; her cough was frightful; her fever had doubled in intensity; she had had dreams: in the morning, when the doctor paid his visit, she was delirious; he assumed an alarmed look, and ordered that he should be informed as soon as M. Madeleine arrived.
All the morning she was melancholy, said but little, and laid plaits in her sheets, murmuring the while, in a low voice, calculations which seemed to be calculations of distances. Her eyes were hollow and staring. They seemed almost extinguished at intervals, then lighted up again and shone like stars. It seems as though, at the approach of a certain dark hour, the light of heaven fills those who are quitting the light of earth.
Each time that Sister Simplice asked her how she felt, she replied invariably, "Well. I should like to see M. Madeleine."
Some months before this, at the moment when Fantine had just lost her last modesty, her last shame, and her last joy, she was the shadow of herself; now she was the spectre of herself. Physical suffering had completed the work of moral suffering. This creature of five and twenty had a wrinkled brow, flabby cheeks, pinched nostrils, teeth from which the gums had receded, a leaden complexion, a bony neck, prominent shoulder-blades, frail limbs, a clayey skin, and her golden hair was growing out sprinkled with gray. Alas! how illness improvises old-age!
At mid-day the physician returned, gave some directions, inquired whether the mayor had made his appearance at the infirmary, and shook his head.
M. Madeleine usually came to see the invalid at three o'clock. As exactness is kindness, he was exact.
About half-past two, Fantine began to be restless. In the course of twenty minutes, she asked the nun more than ten times, "What time is it, sister?"
Three o'clock struck. At the third stroke, Fantine sat up in bed; she who could, in general, hardly turn over, joined her yellow, fleshless hands in a sort of convulsive clasp, and the nun heard her utter one of those profound sighs which seem to throw off dejection. Then Fantine turned and looked at the door.
No one entered; the door did not open.
She remained thus for a quarter of an hour, her eyes riveted on the door, motionless and apparently holding her breath. The sister dared not speak to her. The clock struck a quarter past three. Fantine fell back on her pillow.
She said nothing, but began to plait the sheets once more.
Half an hour passed, then an hour, no one came; every time the clock struck, Fantine started up and looked towards the door, then fell back again.
Her thought was clearly perceptible, but she uttered no name, she made no complaint, she blamed no one. But she coughed in a melancholy way. One would have said that something dark was descending upon her. She was livid and her lips were blue. She smiled now and then.
Five o'clock struck. Then the sister heard her say, very low and gently, "He is wrong not to come to-day, since I am going away to-morrow."
Sister Simplice herself was surprised at M. Madeleine's delay.
In the meantime, Fantine was staring at the tester of her bed. She seemed to be endeavoring to recall something. All at once she began to sing in a voice as feeble as a breath. The nun listened. This is what Fantine was singing:--
"Lovely things we will buy
As we stroll the faubourgs through.
Roses are pink, corn-flowers are blue,
I love my love, corn-flowers are blue.
"Yestere'en the Virgin Mary came near my stove, in a broidered mantle clad, and said to me, `Here, hide 'neath my veil the child whom you one day begged from me. Haste to the city, buy linen, buy a needle, buy thread.'
"Lovely things we will buy
As we stroll the faubourgs through.
"Dear Holy Virgin, beside my stove I have set a cradle with ribbons decked. God may give me his loveliest star; I prefer the child thou hast granted me. `Madame, what shall I do with this linen fine?'--`Make of it clothes for thy new-born babe.'
"Roses are pink and corn-flowers are blue,
I love my love, and corn-flowers are blue.
"`Wash this linen.'--`Where?'--`In the stream. Make of it, soiling not, spoiling not, a petticoat fair with its bodice fine, which I will embroider and fill with flowers.'--`Madame, the child is no longer here; what is to be done?'--`Then make of it a winding-sheet in which to bury me.'
"Lovely things we will buy
As we stroll the faubourgs through,
Roses are pink, corn-flowers are blue,
I love my love, corn-flowers are blue."
This song was an old cradle romance with which she had, in former days, lulled her little Cosette to sleep, and which had never recurred to her mind in all the five years during which she had been parted from her child. She sang it in so sad a voice, and to so sweet an air, that it was enough to make any one, even a nun, weep. The sister, accustomed as she was to austerities, felt a tear spring to her eyes.
The clock struck six. Fantine did not seem to hear it. She no longer seemed to pay attention to anything about her.
Sister Simplice sent a serving-maid to inquire of the portress of the factory, whether the mayor had returned, and if he would not come to the infirmary soon. The girl returned in a few minutes.
Fantine was still motionless and seemed absorbed in her own thoughts.
The servant informed Sister Simplice in a very low tone, that the mayor had set out that morning before six o'clock, in a little tilbury harnessed to a white horse, cold as the weather was; that he had gone alone, without even a driver; that no one knew what road he had taken; that people said he had been seen to turn into the road to Arras; that others asserted that they had met him on the road to Paris. That when he went away he had been very gentle, as usual, and that he had merely told the portress not to expect him that night.
While the two women were whispering together, with their backs turned to Fantine's bed, the sister interrogating, the servant conjecturing, Fantine, with the feverish vivacity of certain organic maladies, which unite the free movements of health with the frightful emaciation of death, had raised herself to her knees in bed, with her shrivelled hands resting on the bolster, and her head thrust through the opening of the curtains, and was listening. All at once she cried:--
"You are speaking of M. Madeleine! Why are you talking so low? What is he doing? Why does he not come?"
Her voice was so abrupt and hoarse that the two women thought they heard the voice of a man; they wheeled round in affright.
"Answer me!" cried Fantine.
The servant stammered:--
"The portress told me that he could not come to-day."
"Be calm, my child," said the sister; "lie down again."
Fantine, without changing her attitude, continued in a loud voice, and with an accent that was both imperious and heart-rending:--
"He cannot come? Why not? You know the reason. You are whispering it to each other there. I want to know it."
The servant-maid hastened to say in the nun's ear, "Say that he is busy with the city council."
Sister Simplice blushed faintly, for it was a lie that the maid had proposed to her.
On the other hand, it seemed to her that the mere communication of the truth to the invalid would, without doubt, deal her a terrible blow, and that this was a serious matter in Fantine's present state. Her flush did not last long; the sister raised her calm, sad eyes to Fantine, and said, "Monsieur le Maire has gone away."
Fantine raised herself and crouched on her heels in the bed: her eyes sparkled; indescribable joy beamed from that melancholy face.
"Gone!" she cried; "he has gone to get Cosette."
Then she raised her arms to heaven, and her white face became ineffable; her lips moved; she was praying in a low voice.
When her prayer was finished, "Sister," she said, "I am willing to lie down again; I will do anything you wish; I was naughty just now; I beg your pardon for having spoken so loud; it is very wrong to talk loudly; I know that well, my good sister, but, you see, I am very happy: the good God is good; M. Madeleine is good; just think! he has gone to Montfermeil to get my little Cosette."
She lay down again, with the nun's assistance, helped the nun to arrange her pillow, and kissed the little silver cross which she wore on her neck, and which Sister Simplice had given her.
"My child," said the sister, "try to rest now, and do not talk any more."
Fantine took the sister's hand in her moist hands, and the latter was pained to feel that perspiration.
"He set out this morning for Paris; in fact, he need not even go through Paris; Montfermeil is a little to the left as you come thence. Do you remember how he said to me yesterday, when I spoke to him of Cosette, Soon, soon? He wants to give me a surprise, you know! he made me sign a letter so that she could be taken from the Thenardiers; they cannot say anything, can they? they will give back Cosette, for they have been paid; the authorities will not allow them to keep the child since they have received their pay. Do not make signs to me that I must not talk, sister! I am extremely happy; I am doing well; I am not ill at all any more; I am going to see Cosette again; I am even quite hungry; it is nearly five years since I saw her last; you cannot imagine how much attached one gets to children, and then, she will be so pretty; you will see! If you only knew what pretty little rosy fingers she had! In the first place, she will have very beautiful hands; she had ridiculous hands when she was only a year old; like this! she must be a big girl now; she is seven years old; she is quite a young lady; I call her Cosette, but her name is really Euphrasie. Stop! this morning I was looking at the dust on the chimney-piece, and I had a sort of idea come across me, like that, that I should see Cosette again soon. Mon Dieu! how wrong it is not to see one's children for years! One ought to reflect that life is not eternal. Oh, how good M. le Maire is to go! it is very cold! it is true; he had on his cloak, at least? he will be here to-morrow, will he not? to-morrow will be a festival day; to-morrow morning, sister, you must remind me to put on my little cap that has lace on it. What a place that Montfermeil is! I took that journey on foot once; it was very long for me, but the diligences go very quickly! he will be here to-morrow with Cosette: how far is it from here to Montfermeil?"
The sister, who had no idea of distances, replied, "Oh, I think that be will be here to-morrow."
"To-morrow! to-morrow!" said Fantine, "I shall see Cosette to-morrow! you see, good sister of the good God, that I am no longer ill; I am mad; I could dance if any one wished it."
A person who had seen her a quarter of an hour previously would not have understood the change; she was all rosy now; she spoke in a lively and natural voice; her whole face was one smile; now and then she talked, she laughed softly; the joy of a mother is almost infantile.
"Well," resumed the nun, "now that you are happy, mind me, and do not talk any more."
Fantine laid her head on her pillow and said in a low voice: "Yes, lie down again; be good, for you are going to have your child; Sister Simplice is right; every one here is right."
Excerpt taken from Literature Network.
This is one of several of the passages surrounding Fantine that literally brought tears to my eyes. The prayer to the Virgin Mary and the humanity of the Nuns is not an anomaly. This is one of the most Roman Catholic novels I've ever read.