Origin of Fantine
V.H. was elected to the Academie one Tuesday. Two days afterwards Madame de Girardin, who lived at that time in the Rue Laffitte, invited him to dinner.
At this dinner was Bugeaud, as yet only a general, who had just been appointed governor-general of Algeria, and who was just going out to his post.
Bugeaud was then a man of sixty-five years of age, vigorous, with a very fresh complexion, and pitted with smallpox. He had a certain abruptness of manner which was never rudeness. He was a mixture of rustic and man of the world, old-fashioned and easy-mannered, having nothing of the heaviness of the old martinet, witty and gallant.
Madame de Girardin placed the general on her right and V. H. on her left. A conversation sprang up between the poet and the soldier, Madame de Girardin, acting as interpreter.
The general was in very bad humour with Algeria. He maintained that this conquest precluded France from speaking firmly to Europe; that nothing was easier to conquer than Algeria, that the forces could easily be blockaded there, that they would be taken like rats, and that they would make but one mouthful; moreover, that it was very difficult to colonize Algeria, and that the soil was unproductive; he had examined the land himself, and he found that there was a distance of a foot and a half between each stalk of wheat.
"So then," said V.H., "that is what has become of what was formerly called the granary of the Romans! But even supposing it were as you say, I think our new conquest is a fortunate and grand affair. It is civilization trampling upon barbarism. It is enlightened people which goes out to a people in darkness. We are the Greeks of the world; it is for us to illumine the world. Our mission is being accomplished, I only sing Hosanna! You differ from me, it is clear. You speak as a soldier, as a man of action. I speak as a philosopher and a thinker."
V.H. left Madame de Girardin rather early. It was on the 9th of January. It was snowing in large flakes. He had on thin shoes, and when he was in the street he saw that it was impossible to return home on foot. He went along the Rue Taitbout, knowing that there was a cab-rank on the boulevard at the corner of that street. There was no cab there. He waited for one to come.
He was thus waiting, like an orderly on duty, when he saw a young man, well and stylishly dressed, stoop and pick up a great handful of snow, and put it down the back of a woman of the streets who stood at the corner of the boulevard in a low necked dress. The woman uttered a piercing shriek, fell upon the dandy and struck him. The yound man returned the blow, and the woman responded, and the battle went on in a crescendo, so vigorously and to such extremities that the police hastened to the spot.
They seized hold of the woman and did not touch the man.
Seeing the police laying hands upon her, the unfortunate woman struggled with them. But when she was securely seized she manifested the deepest grief. While two policemen were pushing her along, each holding one of her arms, she shouted, "I have done no harm, I assure you! It is the gentleman who interfered with me. I am not guilty; I implore you to leave me alone! I have done no harm, really, really!"
"Come, move on; you will have six months for this business."
The poor woman at these words, "You will have six months for this business," once more began to defend her conduct, and redoubled her supplications and entreaties. The policemen, not much moved by her tears, dragged her to a police-station in the Rue Chauchat, at the back of the Opera.
V.H., interested in spite of himself in the unhappy woman, followed them, amid that crowd of people which is never wanting on such an occasion.
Arriving near the station, V.H. conceived the idea of going in and taking up the cause of the woman. But he said to himself that he was well known, that just then the newspapers had been full of his name for two days past, and that to mix himself up in such an affair was to lay himself open to all kinds of disagreeable banter. In short, he did not go in.
The office into which the girl had been taken was on the ground-floor, overlooking the street. He looked through the windows at what was going on. He saw the poor woman lie down upon the floor in despar and tear her hair; he was moved to pity, he began to reflect, and the result of his reflections was that he decided to go in.
When he set foot in the office a man who was seated before a table, lighted by a candle, writing, turned round and said to him in a sharp, peremptory tone of voice, "What do you want, sir?" "Sir, I was a witness of what took place just now; I come to make a deposition as to what I saw, and to speak to you in the woman's favour." At these words the woman looked at V.H. in mute astonishment, as though dazed. "Your deposition, more or less interested, will be unavailing. This woman has been guilty of an assault in a public thoroughfare. She struck a gentleman. She will get six months' imprisonment for it."
The woman once more began to cry, scream, and roll over and over. Other women, who had come and joined her said to her, "We will come and see you. Never mind. We will bring you some linen things. Take that for the present." And at the same time they gave her money and sweetmeats.
"When you know who I am," said V.H., "you will, perhaps, change your manner and tone, and will listen to me."
"Who are you, then?"
V.H. saw no reason for not giving his name.
He gave his name. The commissary of Police, for he was a Commissary of Police, was prolific of excuses, and became as polite and deferential as he had before been arrogant; offered him a chair, and begged him to be good enough to be seated.
V.H. told him that he had seen with his own eyes a gentleman pick up a snowball and throw it down the back of the woman; that the latter, who could not even see the gentleman, had uttered a cry indicating sharp pain; that indeed she had attacked the gentleman, but that she was withing her right; that apart from the occasioned by the snow might, in certain circumstances, do the woman the most serious injury; that so far from taking away from this woman, who had possibly a mother or a child to support, the bread so miserably earned, it should rather be the man guilty of this assault upon her whom he should condemn to pay a fine; in fact, that it was not the woman who should have been arrested, but the man.
During this defence, the woman, more and more surprised, beamed with joy and emotion. "How good the gentleman is!" she said, "how good he is! I never knew so good a gentleman. But then I never saw him. I do not know him at all."
The Commissary of Police said to V.H.: "I believe all that you allege, but the policemen have reported the case, and there is a charge to be made out. Your deposition will be entered in the charge-sheet, you may be sure. But justice must take its course, and I cannot set the woman at liberty."
"What! After what I have just told you, and what is the truth - truth which you cannot and do not doubt - you are gong to detain this woman? Then this justice is a horrible injustice!
"There is only one condition on which I could end the matter, and that is that you would sign your deposition. Will you do so?"
"If the liberty of this woman depends on my signature, here it is."
And V.H. signed.
"The woman continually repeated, "How good the gentleman is! How good he is!"
These unhappy women are astonished and grateful not only when they are treated with sympathy, they are none the less so when they are treated with justice.
From "Things Seen."