She had been dismissed towards the end of the winter; the summer passed, but winter came again. Short days, less work. Winter: no warmth, no light, no noonday, the evening joining on to the morning, fogs, twilight; the window is gray; it is impossible to see clearly at it. The sky is but a vent-hole. The whole day is a cavern. The sun has the air of a beggar. A frightful season! Winter changes the water of heaven and the heart of man into a stone. Her creditors harrassed her.
Fantine earned too little. Her debts had increased. The Thénardiers, who were not promptly paid, wrote to her constantly letters whose contents drove her to despair, and whose carriage ruined her. One day they wrote to her that her little Cosette was entirely naked in that cold weather, that she needed a woollen skirt, and that her mother must send at least ten francs for this. She received the letter, and crushed it in her hands all day long. That evening she went into a barber’s shop at the corner of the street, and pulled out her comb. Her admirable golden hair fell to her knees.
“What splendid hair!” exclaimed the barber.
“How much will you give me for it?” said she.
“Cut it off.”
She purchased a knitted petticoat and sent it to the Thénardiers. This petticoat made the Thénardiers furious. It was the money that they wanted. They gave the petticoat to Éponine. The poor Lark continued to shiver.
Fantine thought: “My child is no longer cold. I have clothed her with my hair.” She put on little round caps which concealed her shorn head, and in which she was still pretty.
Dark thoughts held possession of Fantine’s heart.
When she saw that she could no longer dress her hair, she began to hate every one about her. She had long shared the universal veneration for Father Madeleine; yet, by dint of repeating to herself that it was he who had discharged her, that he was the cause of her unhappiness, she came to hate him also, and most of all. When she passed the factory in working hours, when the workpeople were at the door, she affected to laugh and sing.
An old workwoman who once saw her laughing and singing in this fashion said, “There’s a girl who will come to a bad end.”
She took a lover, the first who offered, a man whom she did not love, out of bravado and with rage in her heart. He was a miserable scamp, a sort of mendicant musician, a lazy beggar, who beat her, and who abandoned her as she had taken him, in disgust.
She adored her child.
The lower she descended, the darker everything grew about her, the more radiant shone that little angel at the bottom of her heart. She said, “When I get rich, I will have my Cosette with me;” and she laughed. Her cough did not leave her, and she had sweats on her back.
One day she received from the Thénardiers a letter couched in the following terms: “Cosette is ill with a malady which is going the rounds of the neighborhood. A miliary fever, they call it. Expensive drugs are required. This is ruining us, and we can no longer pay for them. If you do not send us forty francs before the week is out, the little one will be dead.”
She burst out laughing, and said to her old neighbor: “Ah! they are good! Forty francs! the idea! That makes two napoleons! Where do they think I am to get them? These peasants are stupid, truly.”
Nevertheless she went to a dormer window in the staircase and read the letter once more. Then she descended the stairs and emerged, running and leaping and still laughing.
Some one met her and said to her, “What makes you so gay?”
She replied: “A fine piece of stupidity that some country people have written to me. They demand forty francs of me. So much for you, you peasants!”
As she crossed the square, she saw a great many people collected around a carriage of eccentric shape, upon the top of which stood a man dressed in red, who was holding forth. He was a quack dentist on his rounds, who was offering to the public full sets of teeth, opiates, powders and elixirs.
Fantine mingled in the group, and began to laugh with the rest at the harangue, which contained slang for the populace and jargon for respectable people. The tooth-puller espied the lovely, laughing girl, and suddenly exclaimed: “You have beautiful teeth, you girl there, who are laughing; if you want to sell me your palettes, I will give you a gold napoleon apiece for them.”
“What are my palettes?” asked Fantine.
“The palettes,” replied the dental professor, “are the front teeth, the two upper ones.”
“How horrible!” exclaimed Fantine.
“Two napoleons!” grumbled a toothless old woman who was present. “Here’s a lucky girl!”
Fantine fled and stopped her ears that she might not hear the hoarse voice of the man shouting to her: “Reflect, my beauty! two napoleons; they may prove of service. If your heart bids you, come this evening to the inn of the Tillac d’Argent; you will find me there.”
Fantine returned home. She was furious, and related the occurrence to her good neighbor Marguerite: “Can you understand such a thing? Is he not an abominable man? How can they allow such people to go about the country! Pull out my two front teeth! Why, I should be horrible! My hair will grow again, but my teeth! Ah! what a monster of a man! I should prefer to throw myself head first on the pavement from the fifth story! He told me that he should be at the Tillac d’Argent this evening.”
“And what did he offer?” asked Marguerite.
“That makes forty francs.”
“Yes,” said Fantine; “that makes forty francs.”
She remained thoughtful, and began her work. At the expiration of a quarter of an hour she left her sewing and went to read the Thénardiers’ letter once more on the staircase.
On her return, she said to Marguerite, who was at work beside her:—
“What is a miliary fever? Do you know?”
“Yes,” answered the old spinster; “it is a disease.”
“Does it require many drugs?”
“Oh! terrible drugs.”
“How does one get it?”
“It is a malady that one gets without knowing how.”
“Then it attacks children?”
“Children in particular.”
“Do people die of it?”
“They may,” said Marguerite.
Fantine left the room and went to read her letter once more on the staircase.
That evening she went out, and was seen to turn her steps in the direction of the Rue de Paris, where the inns are situated.
The next morning, when Marguerite entered Fantine’s room before daylight,—for they always worked together, and in this manner used only one candle for the two,—she found Fantine seated on her bed, pale and frozen. She had not lain down. Her cap had fallen on her knees. Her candle had burned all night, and was almost entirely consumed. Marguerite halted on the threshold, petrified at this tremendous wastefulness, and exclaimed:—
“Lord! the candle is all burned out! Something has happened.”
Then she looked at Fantine, who turned toward her her head bereft of its hair.
Fantine had grown ten years older since the preceding night.
“Jesus!” said Marguerite, “what is the matter with you, Fantine?”
“Nothing,” replied Fantine. “Quite the contrary. My child will not die of that frightful malady, for lack of succor. I am content.”
So saying, she pointed out to the spinster two napoleons which were glittering on the table.
“Ah! Jesus God!” cried Marguerite. “Why, it is a fortune! Where did you get those louis d’or?”
“I got them,” replied Fantine.
At the same time she smiled. The candle illuminated her countenance. It was a bloody smile. A reddish saliva soiled the corners of her lips, and she had a black hole in her mouth.
The two teeth had been extracted.
She sent the forty francs to Montfermeil.
After all it was a ruse of the Thénardiers to obtain money. Cosette was not ill.
Fantine threw her mirror out of the window. She had long since quitted her cell on the second floor for an attic with only a latch to fasten it, next the roof; one of those attics whose extremity forms an angle with the floor, and knocks you on the head every instant. The poor occupant can reach the end of his chamber as he can the end of his destiny, only by bending over more and more.
She had no longer a bed; a rag which she called her coverlet, a mattress on the floor, and a seatless chair still remained. A little rosebush which she had, had dried up, forgotten, in one corner. In the other corner was a butter-pot to hold water, which froze in winter, and in which the various levels of the water remained long marked by these circles of ice. She had lost her shame; she lost her coquetry. A final sign. She went out, with dirty caps. Whether from lack of time or from indifference, she no longer mended her linen. As the heels wore out, she dragged her stockings down into her shoes. This was evident from the perpendicular wrinkles. She patched her bodice, which was old and worn out, with scraps of calico which tore at the slightest movement. The people to whom she was indebted made “scenes” and gave her no peace. She found them in the street, she found them again on her staircase. She passed many a night weeping and thinking. Her eyes were very bright, and she felt a steady pain in her shoulder towards the top of the left shoulder-blade. She coughed a great deal. She deeply hated Father Madeleine, but made no complaint. She sewed seventeen hours a day; but a contractor for the work of prisons, who made the prisoners work at a discount, suddenly made prices fall, which reduced the daily earnings of working-women to nine sous. Seventeen hours of toil, and nine sous a day! Her creditors were more pitiless than ever. The second-hand dealer, who had taken back nearly all his furniture, said to her incessantly, “When will you pay me, you hussy?” What did they want of her, good God! She felt that she was being hunted, and something of the wild beast developed in her. About the same time, Thénardier wrote to her that he had waited with decidedly too much amiability and that he must have a hundred francs at once; otherwise he would turn little Cosette out of doors, convalescent as she was from her heavy illness, into the cold and the streets, and that she might do what she liked with herself, and die if she chose. “A hundred francs,” thought Fantine. “But in what trade can one earn a hundred sous a day?”
“Come!” said she, “let us sell what is left.”
The unfortunate girl became a woman of the town.