I had gone from a man of repute, the mayor of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, to a hunted, worthless convict in a matter of moments.
Then again, that is what I always shall be.
I fled, but her face was imprinted in my memory, and no matter what I tried, I could not shake her from my thoughts. So, instead of banishing them, I embraced them, and they served to sustain me as I ran.
Her. I'd seen her before, before that day when I had intervened in her arrest, and thus unknowingly initiated once again my life as a criminal. Could it be that she was one of the women at the factory, the one that the foreman had thrown out?
I couldn't be sure, but something within me maintained that she was.
I continued to run, but not in any direction that a wanted man would normally head towards in his flight. I made for the hospital, the one in which she was lying, sent there because of me, and I shuddered to think of what could have occurred had I not stepped in and she had been sent to prison.
I needed to see her again.
Regaining my composure near the entrance of the small parish hospital, I opened the door, and one of the good Sisters greeted me.
"How might I help you, Monsieur?" she asked.
"Please, Sister, I need to know the name and whereabouts of a woman just admitted here earlier today."
Her expression grew thoughtful, and she consulted some papers. "She is in the ward at the end of the hall," she said.
"And her name?" I persisted.
When I entered the room, it was very dark; a single candle was the only source of light. From the way the nun had been talking, I had half-expected her to be dead already, but she was sitting up in bed, speaking to someone.
I stood in the corner quietly, watching. She was clearly hallucinating, speaking sweetly to who I only supposed must be her bastard child, the reason she had been sent away and forced into prostitution.
My heart broke as I took in the sight of her broken figure, the gaunt, pale face, the dark eyes. Coughs wracked her body; she was not going to last long.
Fantine. So devoted to her child that she would give up her job, her dignity, her life. I thought back so long ago to my thievery, my crime…a single loaf of bread to sustain my sister and her child.
We were not so different, then.
The thing that consumed me, pained me, was the fact that, had she not been fired from my factory, by my foreman, she would not be here, on the verge of death. She would be working still, providing for her child, and would not have needed to degrade herself so, becoming an offering, a slave to the violent passions of men.
She was going to die.
And I was responsible.
I stepped forward from the shadows, firm in my resolve. "Oh, Fantine…" I said, approaching the bedside. I grasped her hand. "Our time is running out, but, Fantine, I swear—"
Earnestly, still swept away in her hallucinations, she pointed in the corner opposite her. "Look, Monsieur, where all the children play," she said, disgusted, hoping to bring my attention to the deplorable conditions of the streets in which her child most likely spent her time.
"Be at peace," I said, soothing her, running a hand over her brow; she was feverish.
"My Cosette…?" she persisted, obviously concerned; what would happen once she died? Who would care for the child?
My mind already made up, I said firmly, "Shall live in my protection."
"Good Monsieur," she sighed, relief washing over her face, mere echoes of the beauty it must have once been. She held my hands tightly in hers. "You come from God in Heaven."
"None shall ever harm Cosette as long as I am living," I promised.
Satisfied, she released my hands, and I stood to leave. "Take my hand," she whispered, her voice growing fainter, more distant. "The night grows cold…"
"Then I will keep you warm," I replied, gently tucking her in under another blanket, then taking her hands once more.
"Take my child…I give her to you keeping…" she continued, coughs once again overtaking her.
I brushed a short lock of hair away from her face. "Take shelter from the storm…" I was losing her.
She clung to my arm. "For God's sake," she gasped. "Please, stay till I am sleeping, and tell Cosette…tell Cosette I love her and…and I'll see her when I wake."
"I will," I promised again, watching sadly as the light left her eyes with the utterance of these last words. "I will."
If ever any piece of me had died before my time on earth was over, my heart was to be counted among the number; in the span of a day, it had resurfaced, only to be buried again…this time for an eternity.