The day had begun to dawn. Fantine had passed a sleepless and feverish night, filled with happy visions; at daybreak she fell asleep. Sister Simplice, who had been watching with her, availed herself of this slumber to go and prepare a new potion of chinchona. The worthy sister had been in the laboratory of the infirmary but a few moments, bending over her drugs and phials, and scrutinizing things very closely, on account of the dimness which the half-light of dawn spreads over all objects. Suddenly she raised her head and uttered a faint shriek. M. Madeleine stood before her; he had just entered silently.
"Is it you, Mr. Mayor?" she exclaimed.
He replied in a low voice:—
"How is that poor woman?"
"Not so bad just now; but we have been very uneasy."
She explained to him what had passed: that Fantine had been very ill the day before, and that she was better now, because she thought that the mayor had gone to Montfermeil to get her child. The sister dared not question the mayor; but she perceived plainly from his air that he had not come from there.
"All that is good," said he; "you were right not to undeceive her."
"Yes," responded the sister; "but now, Mr. Mayor, she will see you and will not see her child. What shall we say to her?"
He reflected for a moment.
"God will inspire us," said he.
"But we cannot tell a lie," murmured the sister, half aloud.
It was broad daylight in the room. The light fell full on M. Madeleine's face. The sister chanced to raise her eyes to it.
"Good God, sir!" she exclaimed; "what has happened to you? Your hair is perfectly white!"
"White!" said he.
Sister Simplice had no mirror. She rummaged in a drawer, and pulled out the little glass which the doctor of the infirmary used to see whether a patient was dead and whether he no longer breathed. M. Madeleine took the mirror, looked at his hair, and said:—
He uttered the word indifferently, and as though his mind were on something else.
The sister felt chilled by something strange of which she caught a glimpse in all this.
"Can I see her?"
"Is not Monsieur le Maire going to have her child brought back to her?" said the sister, hardly venturing to put the question.
"Of course; but it will take two or three days at least."
"If she were not to see Monsieur le Maire until that time," went on the sister, timidly, "she would not know that Monsieur le Maire had returned, and it would be easy to inspire her with patience; and when the child arrived, she would naturally think Monsieur le Maire had just come with the child. We should not have to enact a lie."
M. Madeleine seemed to reflect for a few moments; then he said with his calm gravity:—
"No, sister, I must see her. I may, perhaps, be in haste."
The nun did not appear to notice this word "perhaps," which communicated an obscure and singular sense to the words of the mayor's speech. She replied, lowering her eyes and her voice respectfully:—
"In that case, she is asleep; but Monsieur le Maire may enter."
He made some remarks about a door which shut badly, and the noise of which might awaken the sick woman; then he entered Fantine's chamber, approached the bed and drew aside the curtains. She was asleep. Her breath issued from her breast with that tragic sound which is peculiar to those maladies, and which breaks the hearts of mothers when they are watching through the night beside their sleeping child who is condemned to death. But this painful respiration hardly troubled a sort of ineffable serenity which overspread her countenance, and which transfigured her in her sleep. Her pallor had become whiteness; her cheeks were crimson; her long golden lashes, the only beauty of her youth and her virginity which remained to her, palpitated, though they remained closed and drooping. Her whole person was trembling with an indescribable unfolding of wings, all ready to open wide and bear her away, which could be felt as they rustled, though they could not be seen. To see her thus, one would never have dreamed that she was an invalid whose life was almost despaired of. She resembled rather something on the point of soaring away than something on the point of dying.
The branch trembles when a hand approaches it to pluck a flower, and seems to both withdraw and to offer itself at one and the same time. The human body has something of this tremor when the instant arrives in which the mysterious fingers of Death are about to pluck the soul.
M. Madeleine remained for some time motionless beside that bed, gazing in turn upon the sick woman and the crucifix, as he had done two months before, on the day when he had come for the first time to see her in that asylum. They were both still there in the same attitude—she sleeping, he praying; only now, after the lapse of two months, her hair was gray and his was white.
The sister had not entered with him. He stood beside the bed, with his finger on his lips, as though there were some one in the chamber whom he must enjoin to silence.
She opened her eyes, saw him, and said quietly, with a smile:—