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©2004 Arlene C. Harris
nota bene: This story is not part of Pont-au-Change per se: though I consider it to be part of the canon, it does not appear in the book itself, nor do I think it would fit well within it, as it’s designed as a short story. For those who have old printouts of any of the original versions of Adrift, it takes place after Chapter VIII (“News From Here And There”) in Section 3 (Reflections In Black Glass). If you don’t have a copy, don’t worry about it. When Adrift comes out, just remember that this story takes place right at that point. Consider this my gift to the readers who have stuck by me all these years.
Coincidence, it has been said, is nature’s way of telling one to pay closer attention. Put differently, that which seems to be independent of design can in fact be part of such a grand scheme that a single part of it cannot be identified as anything other than a singularity. One drop of water may not portend a flood, but the flood’s origin may be traced back to one drop too many.
The same can be said of memory. One single item can encompass an entirety of remembrances, whether it is a tangible thing like a button or a book, a stone or a signet ring. It can be a color, or a scent, or a melody. That one point of reference can open up an encyclopaedia of experience, though it had been closed and all but forgotten for years upon years. And more often than not, such trifles bring up such momentousness at the least convenient of moments, and, paradoxically, at the very moments when they are most needed to be remembered.
In mid-December of 1835, a stranger entered the small church in the northern village of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Only one old woman, huddled in the back corner, was present to witness his appearance, a man not yet of middle age wearing shabby clothes and a bent-brimmed hat who knelt before the altar with a preoccupied sort of devotion. The church should have been filled, for it was Christmas Eve, but it was eerily deserted. One of the two resident nuns had passed away a few months before, and the other nun was on rounds; the visiting priest had already come and gone, disheartened yet not surprised by the lack of attendance.
The man knelt at the altar with a large coin in his hand. His fists were clenched together as he prayed, not so much to the One in Whose house he knelt, but to another one, from whose unmarked grave he had just returned. No words could describe what he was thinking, nor could one imagine what he might have said then had he spoken aloud. One can only report what it was that brought him there on that fateful night.
Two weeks earlier, a short time after receiving word that their dear friend Sister Simplice had passed away in the northern town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Madame la Baronne Pontmercy made a startling discovery—or rather, a rediscovery. It must be noted that she had been separated from her husband for several months, a separation which was not her choosing; after successfully delivering twins, she had suffered a miscarriage the following year and a well respected physician had told her bluntly that she would not survive another pregnancy. To her dismay, her husband Marius had taken the advice to heart and had voluntarily removed himself from their boudoir.
During the day he stayed at his factory, hard at work. At night he resided in the small cottage in the garden. Marius and Cosette were together for but a few hours in the evening, before and during supper. This was the only time he saw his year-old daughters. The Christmas season was approaching and for the first time since they had married they would not celebrate it together, as a young couple should.
While straightening out a drawer in an old armoire one afternoon, Cosette came upon a small fold of cloth that did not belong with any other article of clothing. She did not remember what it signified until she blithely unwrapped it, and a gold coin dropped noisily to the floor. In that instant a flurry of emotion, of memory, crashed on her like the heavy surf of a stormy sea, the tide swallowing her and drowning her in remembered sorrow and joy.
She was still crying when Marius returned home that evening; he heard her from the garden as he entered the back gate, the plaintive sobs falling on him from within the upstairs room that was now Cosette’s alone. He had made himself accustomed to her tears of late, for she had cried often since their separation began, but these were different tears, not the tears of a woman; they were the tears of a child. He tried to shut his ears to her sobs but he could not, and when their servant Toussaint informed him in her halting manner of speech that madame would not be present for supper, he went to see her, anticipating any possible argument against continuing the separation.
Cosette had not stirred from her place on the floor, her skirts spread out like a wilted flower on the rug. Her hair was loose, her bonnet halfway across the room; she had not even a kerchief to her hand. Whatever had upset her had come upon her quickly. Marius’s first instinct was to sweep her up into his arms and comfort her, but his heart was bound by shackles of his own making, in his well-meant desire to save his wife by sacrificing his marriage. But he could not stand over her and wait for an answer, an explanation. He could never be that ill-mannered or that insensitive. He chose the middle course and knelt on the carpet beside her. “Cosette?”
Only then did she notice him, and when she raised her eyes to him they were shining. “I had forgotten,” she said hoarsely, as if that explained all. When he said nothing, she understood and continued, “I had put it away. I could not spend it, even when we were so in need of it; it was impossible to part with, so I put it away. And now, here it is. Isn’t it amazing?”
He looked at the coin in her hand. “It looks newly minted,” he offered, unsure of what it was she was getting at.
“It does, doesn’t it? It was when it was given to me, a shiny gold piece. Twenty francs. A fortune to a penniless waif.”
It took a moment for him to understand. “He gave you this, then? Jean Valjean gave this to you?”
“My father,” she replied, both as a correction and as an endearment. “He will always be my father. This was but the first sign he gave me. No, that’s not quite true. This was the second. First came the doll.” She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve. “Did I ever tell you how I came to be his ward, how he became my guardian?”
“Not the full story. I understood some of it, from what he said. That your mother had left you in the care of two innkeepers and that they used you as a drudge, that they extorted money from your mother until she died, never knowing your condition. That as a request, Jean Valjean went to the innkeepers and purchased what debts they said remained outstanding, and took you into his care.”
“How simply you say these things,” she murmured. “Just like a lawyer, speaking only to the facts, and to none of the feelings.” She eyed him with a kind of pity. “It’s not a criticism that I say that. It’s only an observation.”
Marius nodded. When Cosette criticized him, it was with the accuracy of a surgeon, and more often than not exactly when he needed such surgery most.
“Let me tell you a story.” She reached out and patted his hand. “A Christmas story. You may enjoy it. It has a good ending.” She clutched the coin to her bosom and drew a deep breath. “Once upon a time there was a little girl whose mother had died. The girl did not know this, because she had been left with strangers on the road, who had promised to care for the girl in exchange for a small sum of money. But the strangers increased their demands with every letter, and the mother, because she loved her daughter, paid them whatever they asked. In the meanwhile, the mother had been let go from the factory she worked at, because the supervisor of the women learned about the existence of the child, and the fact that the child’s father was… well, why not say it? Because the mother had not been married. So the woman was left without work and a mounting debt incurred by those who were supposedly caring for her child, and because of debts incurred by her own landlord she was not able to leave the town and go fetch back her daughter herself. So she found other ways of earning money to send to her daughter. She sold her hair to a wigmaker. She sold her two front teeth to a traveling dentist. She worked her fingers to the bone for a pittance, and when she had nothing left to sell, she sold herself.”
Marius sat back, unable to speak, for no words he could say would be meaningful in such a moment.
“There is more to tell of the mother, but… let us just say that when she died, she died poor and almost alone. But do you know, the man who owned the factory where she had worked came to aid her in the end. He had not known she had been dismissed. But he swore to her on her deathbed to find her child, to raise her daughter as his own.
“And so it was that he came to the shabby inn where the little girl was staying, and here he learned the truth of her condition: the innkeepers had kept her in servitude, near slavery, starving and beating her and telling her that her worthless mother had abandoned her, and that but for the goodness of their hearts she would be on the street. They told her that she was useless and ugly and horrible and that she should be grateful that she had a roof over her head. She never knew what it was to laugh, or to play, or to sing; in jest they called her l’Alouette, the lark…”
Marius drew back, horrified. He had heard Thénardier refer to her as such, and Marius had gone to the place in Paris called the “Field of the Lark” when he had despaired of finding Cosette again, after her father had taken her away in secret, fearing discovery. It was not an endearment, nor even a description, it was an epithet, and Marius knew he could never think of that phrase again without feeling shame at his unwitting complaisance.
“This kind man had escaped prison to fulfill his vow to the mother,” Cosette continued. “He was traveling in danger of his own life, for if he were discovered he would be sentenced to death. But he searched for her anyway, and he found her, found the inn, and the ones that called her their ‘charity case’, and he arrived on Christmas Eve.
“The girl had been sent to fetch water from the well, at night. The well was a quarter of a mile away from the inn, deep in the woods, and she was terrified of the dark and the woods, but she was even more terrified of the innkeeper’s wife, who would beat her severely. And as she could not carry both the bucket and the lantern at the same time, she carried only the bucket through the dark. It was here, at the well, that the man found her; he did not know who she was, but he saw that she was a small girl with a large, heavy bucket, and he carried it for her back to the inn. When he learned who she was, his heart went out to her and he decided to speak to the innkeeper.
“Sometime during that evening the man saw that the girl had no toys to play with and that the innkeeper’s daughters treated her horribly as well, having learned such behavior from their parents, so he went out to one of the nearby shops and purchased a large doll, the largest and most beautiful doll the girl, or any of them, had ever seen. And he gave it to her, and told her to play.” Cosette smiled wistfully. “She named the doll Catherine, just like that.”
“Catherine,” Marius echoed. Initially, when she had first learned that she was to have a child, she had declared to him that if she had a daughter she would want to name her Catherine. When she delivered not one but two daughters, last New Year’s Eve, they chose instead to name the girls for their father and grandfathers; one was named Marie-Lucie, for Marius and his grandfather Luc-Esprit Gillenormand, and the other was Jeanne-Émilie, for Jean Valjean and the man who accompanied him on his present travels, Inspector Émile Javert. But Marius had always wondered why she had settled on the name Catherine, and now he knew: it was the name of her first “child”, her first doll.
“Later that night,” Cosette continued, “after he had agreed to pay the innkeepers fifteen hundred francs to take the child away, no questions asked, he saw that the innkeepers’ daughters had put their little shoes out and that Père Noël had already placed shiny coins in the slippers. But when he came to the orphaned girl’s little wooden shoes he saw that they were empty, and he knew that she had never before been visited by Père Noël, only by his brother Père Fouettard. So he placed in one of them a twenty franc coin… not one of the old coins, the ones bearing the face of Napoléon, but a new coin of the Restoration. And the following morning, when the girl found the coin, she didn’t know what to do with it. She put it in her pocket and said nothing. When she left with the stranger that morning she had three things she had never known before: money, a doll, and a father.”
Cosette touched her hand to her burnished cheek. “The doll, she had to leave behind; once in Paris she and her father had to make a quick departure from a lodging house. She put the coin away and forgot about it. But her father… even though he is far from us, even though he believes us to have forgotten him, that we don’t want to hear from him again, he is never farther from me than my own heart, my own memories. He gave me so much, more than I can ever repay. Without him, what would have become of me? I never would have met you, certainly. I never would have known that my mother didn’t abandon me after all, I never would have known that she loved me to her dying breath. Neither time nor distance can take any of that away from me. That’s why I’m crying, Marius. We lost so much in the beginning, you and I, and even now we make painful sacrifices, but even if I lost everything else, I would still have love. Nothing can part me from that.”
Marius felt his resolve evaporating. He loosened his collar. “Cosette…”
Her thin eyebrows arched delicately as she understood his dilemma. “No,” she whispered. “I could make you break your vow right now, but it would be for the wrong reasons. I love you too much to do that to you. It pains me, this separation, but until you choose otherwise, I could not force you to come back to me.” She pressed the coin into his hand. “You take this, now. I don’t need it anymore. Do with it as you think best, keep it, spend it, hand it to a passerby. All that it symbolizes, I keep within myself now. I don’t need to own it to remember what it means.”
He pressed his lips together and held back words he did not dare speak yet. Instead he kissed the coin and put it into his waistcoat pocket. Then he stood and took his wife’s hand, raising her to her feet. “Madame,” he whispered, “I shall not forget, either.”
The ill-clothed man at the altar a fortnight later in Montreuil-sur-Mer, one may have already guessed, was Marius Pontmercy. He had returned in secret, illegally—for the mayor had sworn to arrest him if he ever set foot back in the town again—but his purpose was so great that not even the threat of imprisonment was enough to discourage him. Cosette of course had no idea that he had gone there; that he was away from her on Christmas Eve was unfortunate, but given the circumstances of their separation it was hardly surprising.
Marius crossed himself and rose, passing by the sparse assortment of half-melted candles, the prayers of the few who had ventured into the church that day. Only a few were lit; the rest were silent, vigilant, pregnant with the possibility of their future use. Marius felt he could sense their sadness at being ignored on this night above all others, and turned to take up a bit of straw to light the rest.
At that moment he heard a cough behind him, a ragged cough from deep into the lungs. It was only then that he saw the woman in the corner.
She hardly saw him, bundled in rags poorer than the ones he wore; her shawl was drawn over her face and she coughed again into it. Marius could see flecks of blood at the corner of her mouth. He stayed his hand. Then he went to her side. She did not acknowledge his presence as he dropped to one knee before her.
“Here, mother,” he whispered gently. “This was meant for the poor-box, but I see your need right now, and you cannot wait. Here, take this.” He folded the coin into her hand and closed her gnarled fingers around it; she turned up her face to him and he saw that her face was round and sallow and looked withered like a browned apple; it was certain she had no teeth left. “I’ll help you to the hospital, it’s just next door. The good sister will care for you…”
She shook her head, betraying her shorn locks; she held out her hand, gesturing toward the poor-box. This frail victim of fate was refusing the gift! Even the poorest creature will seek to aid those poorer still, thought Marius wonderingly. “No, it’s for you,” he insisted. “Have you family? Have you a place to stay? I could…”
A roar filled his ears, and a flash of white light; he felt the heat behind him and he turned quickly. The entire candle box was ablaze! Marius shielded his eyes from the glare. “How did that….” He took a step forward. “How?” he repeated.
His lawyerly mind told him it must have been a trick of the wind, that the drafty church had carried the flame from one wick to another in a seamless cascade. Thus are miracles born, he chided himself. To the unenlightened it would seem a sign from above. At the same time he was congratulating himself on reasoning out the true cause, he halfway wished he were that innocent, or ignorant, that he could still believe in such things. “I’ll take you to the hospital,” he repeated as he turned his attention once more to the old woman.
She had vanished. As ill as she seemed, she was surprisingly swift in her departure.
Just then he heard a bright metallic ring, the sound of gold echoing through wood; it came from the poor-box clear on the other side of the church. But there was no one at all in the church besides himself, and no door close to the box. No one could have entered and left so swiftly.
My mind is playing tricks on me, Marius reassured himself. He gripped the back of the rickety pew for support. Then his heart leapt.
On the bench in front of him, where the old woman had been sitting, there lay a long, white pinion feather and a single strand of long, golden hair.
He had no rationalization for this, nor did he dare to try. He merely picked up the items and kissed them, and took them away with him back to Paris as memento mori—remembrances of the dead.
*Père Fouettard, a.k.a. “Father Spanker,” accompanies Père Noël on his Christmas route, delivering to the kids on the naughty list a well-deserved spanking. Makes you kind of thankful for coal, doesn’t it?