Les Miserables 30: Sister Simplice Put to the Test

So how was Fantine making out while Valjean was busy trying to get to Arras?  Not very well.  Her appearance had changed drastically just in the last few months:

A few months earlier, when Fantine had lost the last of her modesty, her last shame, and her last happiness, she was a shadow of herself; now she was a ghost of herself.  Physical suffering had completed the work of moral suffering.  This creature of twenty-five had a wrinkled forehead, flabby cheeks, pinched nostrils, shriveled gums, a leaden complexion, a bony neck, protruding collarbones, emaciated limbs, dun-colored skin, and her fair hair was mixed with gray.  How illness mimics old age.

Not a pretty sight.  I think you get the idea.

Compare this with how Fantine looked back when we first met her:

…Her splendid teeth had evidently been endowed by God with one function–laughter.  She carried in hand, rather than on her head, her little hat of stitched straw, with long, white ties.  Her thick blond tresses, inclined to blow about, easily coming undone, obliging her continually to do them up again, seemed designed for the flight of Galatea under the willows.  Her rosy lips babbled with enchantment.  The corners of her mouth, turned up voluptuously like the antique masks of Erigone, seemed to encourage impudence, but her long, shadowy eyelashes were discreetly cast down on the lower part of her face as if to check its festive tendencies.

See the drastic change that has come over Fantine on account of her moral and physical degradation.

Fantine was eagerly expecting Madeleine (Valjean) to show up at 3 PM as per his usual custom.  When he didn’t show, her spirits fell considerably.  In a poignant scene, Sister Simplice was moved to tears as she heard Fantine sing a lullaby that she had sung to Cosette as a baby.  Finally, at around 6 PM, Sister Simplice got word from the servant that Madeleine had been seen leaving town early that morning; some had seen him on the road to Paris and some had seen him heading toward Arras.

Now Sister Simplice was caught in a dilemma.  She did not want to tell Fantine the truth that Madeleine had gone away and no one knew where; that would be a devastating blow to Fantine in her condition.  Nor did she want to say that Madeleine was tied up with city council business, as the servant proposed–this was a lie.  And we will remember that Sister Simplice was extremely averse to the idea of lying.  She worked her way out of this by simply saying that Madeleine had gone away, and letting Fantine draw her own conclusions.

Of course Fantine drew the conclusion that Madeleine had gone to fetch Cosette, and this threw her into rapturous ecstasy.  This ecstasy caused her to look a whole lot better, even to the point where the doctor thought there was a chance she might pull through after all.

As averse as Sister Simplice was to the very idea of telling a lie, no matter how small, this situation was something of a crisis for her.  Yet she managed to come through with her virtue intact.  In a few chapters we will see how she makes out when there is much more at stake.

Meanwhile, over in Arras…

It was 8 PM and Valjean (Madeleine) was just pulling into town.  It had taken him fifteen hours to go sixty miles–a trip which should have taken less than eight hours.  (Granted these travel times seem strange to those of us who live in the automobile age and are used to doing sixty miles in one hour or less, but there you go.)

The first thing he did was go to the post office and reserve a seat for himself on the mail coach back to Montreuil-sur-mer which would be leaving at 1 AM.  Then he went about trying to find the courthouse.  He did not know his way around Arras, so he had to stop and ask directions.

Now as it turned out, the courthouse was undergoing renovations, so the court was temporarily relocated to the city hall, which had been a bishop’s palace prior to the Revolution.  There is a significance in this, which we will unpack a little later.

But for now, suffice it to say that when Valjean arrived, the court was still in session.  By asking some of the bystanders, he found out that the case had finished.  But it wasn’t the Champmathieu case–they had worked two cases into the same day, and the Champmathieu case was now in progress and about to wrap up.

Valjean tried to get into the courtroom, but it was crowded and they were not admitting anyone else.  There was, however, one seat in the section reserved for dignitaries.  Reluctantly, Valjean asked to be admitted as Monsieur Madeleine, mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer.  The judge granted this request, and the bailiff showed him in through the back way to the counsel chamber.  Here Valjean struggled profusely with his conscience once again:

…The decisive moment had arrived.  He vainly tried to collect his thoughts.  Particularly at those moments when we have sorest need of grasping the sharp realities of life do the threads of thought snap off in the brain.  He was in the very place where the judges deliberate and decide.  With a glazed tranquility he gazed at the silent and formidable room where so many lives had been shattered, where his own name would soon be heard, and which his fate was crossing at this moment.  He looked at the walls, then he looked at himself, astonished that it could be this chamber, and that this could be he.

…He went up to a black frame hanging on the wall, which contained under glass an old autographed letter written by Jean Nicholas Pache, mayor of Paris and minister….He was reading without paying any attention and without knowing what he was doing.  He was thinking of Fantine and Cosette.

While still musing, he unconsciously turned, and his eyes took in the brass knob of the door that separated him from the hall of the superior court.  He had almost forgotten that door.  His expression, at first calm, now fell.  His eyes, fixed on that brass knob, became set and wild and little by little filled with dismay.  Drops of sweat started above the hairline and rolled down his temples.

At one moment, with a kind of authority united to rebellion, he made that indescribable gesture that says and says so well, And who says I have to?

He left the counsel chamber and walked back into the hallway, intending to leave.  But when he slowed down, he could hear the silence and it was too much for him.

He had reflected all night, he had reflected all day; now he heard only one voice within him, saying, “Alas!”

A quarter of an hour went by this way.  Finally, he bowed his head, sighed with anguish, let his arms droop, and retraced his steps.  He walked slowly and as if overwhelmed.  It was as though he had been caught in flight and brought back.

He entered the counsel chamber again.  The first thing he saw was the door handle.  That handle, round and made lf polished brass, shone out for him like an ominous star.  He looked at it as a lamb might look at the eye of a tiger.

His eyes could not leave it.

From time to time, he took another step toward the door.

And then, before he knew what he was doing, he opened the door and was in the courtroom.