The Seamstress of Montreuil-sur-Mer

Fantine had given up her bird, had sold her hair, and even her teeth. She had given up tears, as they wore her out so that she could hardly sew. By day, she did fine embroidery, and by night, she stitched rough shirts for the prison. But together, her labours barely kept her room, and there was little to send to the Thénardiers. Christmas would come soon, and she hadn’t an extra sou to buy a present for Cosette. It would be all she could do to finish her work so that she could send most of what she owed.

But a seamstress must buy her own needles and thread, and her embroidery required three colours of silk. She knew she would have to use her last sou on a last bit of red, or else the roses would never be complete, and she would never be paid. There would be no bread for her that night.

She spent the day on the embroidery, filling out the delicate roses one by one. No longer did she have the breath to sing as she worked. She coughed a great deal as well, but she was always careful not to spit blood onto the pure white silk. The little mice who lived in the walls heard her coughing, and they were sad not to hear her sing, but the oldest among them had seen other tenants on the same path, and one more poor human was of little importance. She hadn’t enough crumbs for herself, much less for them.

She delayed going out until the sun had set, so that she could take every last moment to finish the thin stems and tiny leaves. But her fingers had grown cold and tired and clumsy, and as she tried to take hold of her last coin, it slipped from her grasp and rolled into a crack. She squinted, she pushed her fingers at the crack, but the sou was gone.

“Alas, I am done for! I shall have nothing until after Christmas, and I shall not be paid for late work, and I will have nothing to send Cosette!” Fantine collapsed in a fit of coughing, too dry for tears and too weak for sobs.

The little mice watched her with worry, but the coin was stuck fast and they could not push it out.

Fantine went out into the street anyway, but she came home cold and tired and fretting even more, for her foray had proved fruitless. She took up her needle and tried to work at the shirts for the prison, but she could not stop thinking of the red silk. Soon she fell into a fever and collapsed onto her thin pallet, her fingers still clutched around her needle and the unfinished shirt.

The mice crept out, lured by her laboured breathing. She tossed and turned for a long while, finally dropping her needle and the shirt as she rolled over.

The mice chattered quietly amongst themselves. The older ones said that those who helped no one but themselves did not deserve help in their time of need, but the younger ones, who had not known any of Fantine’s predecessors, liked the young woman, and they were sorry she no longer sang as she worked. All the night, they worked at extracting her last sou from its hiding place in the floor. They chewed at the floorboards to widen the crack until finally the sous fell all the way down to the ceiling below. They carried it back up through their little tunnels and laid it on the floor near her bed, then they stopped up the crack with whatever they could find so she would not lose it again.

But still the next morning she tossed and turned on her little pallet. Christmas was coming, but Fantine did not know it in her fever. The little mice talked again amongst themselves, and finally they took up her needle and set to work. All through the day, they stitched delicate little roses, and all through the night, they stitched rough linen shirts, but still Fantine did not wake from her delirium.

By the night before Christmas, they found that they had used all the silk in the house, and there remained two roses to complete. They had the sou, but how was a mouse to buy silk? Where was silk to be bought?

All the beasts can talk in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning, as is well known. A delegation of the mice ventured outside into the darkness, where the heard the pigeons singing hymns.

“A good evening to you, M. Pigeon. You sing so prettily.”

“What do you want?” the pigeon asked suspiciously.

“Might you know where one could buy silk?”

“What would scavengers want with new silk?”

“Please, M. Pigeon?”

“What kind of silk?”

“Red silk thread for embroidery.”

“Follow me. Little scavengers,” he muttered.

They followed him to the window of the shop where Fantine had not been able to buy the final twist on credit. The shop was dark, but they could faintly hear singing from inside. “How do we get in?” the mice asked.

“That is up to you.” The pigeon flew away, leaving them alone on the cold window sill.

The mice went exploring. All houses have an entrance just for mice, and they found the entrance to the shop behind a loose board near the back door. The visitors startled the mice of the shop, but these were in good humour and had mulled wine in a chestnut, so it was over sips of wine that the mice explained their quest.

“But you must take it. They are terribly mean to the people who come to the shop, and wasteful, besides. Look how we have mulled wine for Christmas.”

“We will pay. Someone will be blamed if it is missing and there is no payment.”

“No one else works in the shop. They cut the thread as it is wanted. How much do you want?”

“A sou worth. Enough to finish two roses.”

“We can snip that off in a moment. But you must share our Christmas. We’ve cheese and brioche and a bit of custard, and the brioche will soon grow stale.”

The delegation thought of their fellows at home, stitching shirts in the dark, and so they demurred. But when pressed, they ate some brioche and drank some more wine, and went home with more than enough red silk.

But they had stayed very late, and it was nearly dawn by the time they returned. Fantine was still asleep, but she slept calmly, the fever having broke. The mice had no time to finish the roses themselves, so they set the silk next to the sou and disappeared down their hole, to wait and watch.

Fantine woke with the church bells as Christmas dawned fair, but she immediately began to cry. “How long have I slept? I shall never finish in time, and I shall have nothing to send Cosette.” As she reached for the worn handkerchief, because she needed to cough, her hand brushed the twist of silk, and she nearly choked. “My sou!” She drank a little water, and when she pulled out the dress on which she had been working, she was astonished to see it nearly done. “Just two roses to finish. I must have been sewing in my sleep,” she exclaimed in wonder.

The roses were done as neatly as could be. Fantine hurried to finish the last two before the servant came to fetch the dress, which would be worn by a rich merchant’s daughter that afternoon. She had just bitten off the last thread when there came a knock at the door.

The footman in livery was accompanied by an austerely dressed woman. Fantine curtsied and tried to adjust her cap, but the woman asked brusquely for the dress. “Here it is, madame.” It was snatched from her hands and a practised eye went over every inch.

“They don’t match.”

“I don’t understand.”

“These are very well done,” she said, indicating the efforts of the mice. “These not so much. And these” - indicating the ones Fantine had just finished - “are deplorable.” She dug about in her reticule and thrust a handful of coins at Fantine.

“This is not what we had agreed, madame.”

“It is all this work is worth.”

“But madame, I have a daughter, please, she is so small, only six years old, please, madame, she needs every sou I can give her.”

“It is all the work is worth,” the footman cut in. ”You have your money, girl.”

When they left, Fantine curled up on her poor bed and sobbed. The money was not even half what she owed the Thénardiers for the month of December, and she had not paid in full for the last half of that year. The mice watched in sorrow as she ignored their work, caught up again in her fears for her daughter.


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