In Which a Dreamer Encounters a Rose
Chapter 3: In Which A Dreamer Encounters A Rose
The next night, after dinner, Marius brought himself to tackle the new puzzle that entered his life; the mystery of the four letters.
After the two street-girls had rushed by him and dropped them, he'd picked them up in hopes of returning them, in the event that he should meet the owners again. But after reading the four letters, he had discovered several things. One, the letters were clearly not written by the girls; it was too obviously a man's writing, and what's more was that it smelled faintly of tobacco. Two, the letters were all asking the same thing: money for a person who had fallen on hard times. And thirdly, though the stories were all slightly altered, Don Alvares, Mother Balizard, Genflot, and Fabantou all had the same author, to judge from the paper and handwriting. Who was this four-faced beggar?
Since leaving the house of M. Gillenormand five years ago, Marius had known poverty, but he had never known crime. That criminal world that existed beneath Paris, Pantin, was one he had never entered or had any interactions with. So what could a pair of gamines have to do with that?
Marius suspected that some larger plot was at work. How innocent were these begging letters? He did not know.
Perhaps he would have formed his theory before the knock at the door. He did not know. But the knock came, and he asked, "What do you want, Madame Bougon?" Mme. Bougon was the irascible landlady of the Gorbeau tenement, and she often dismissed Marius's wish for solitude as foolishness.
"I beg your pardon, Monsieur..." Said a soft, thin voice which was not Bougon's. It sounded like an old man with a tone thickened by liquor.
'Now who could that be?' Marius wondered. Curious, he opened the door.
Standing before him was not a man, but a girl.
The girl was not very old. Marius doubted if she was any older than seventeen. Her clothes were a disgrace; a ragged old chemise and skirt, which would have been pitiful in the summer, but utterly tragic in winter. Her belt was a string, and her hat nothing more than a boy's cap, allowing her long dark hair to spill down her shoulders and across her chest. But even her hair, wild and long as it was, could not hide the rest of her painfully thin body. Bony shoulders, a deflated chest, a complete but yellowed set of teeth, and hands raw and red as a workingman of forty's. The one thing that seemed truly...alive about her was her eyes. Large brown pupils darted across Marius's face in fear, as though he were about to grow horns and spit fire.
But the saddest thing about her was that she was not ugly. When she was a child, Marius decided, she must have been rather pretty. Now, her beauty seemed to wane behind all the rest of her sad self, like a rose forced to try to bloom in dirt.
Though he was not sure why, Marius felt that he had seen her somewhere before.
"Yes, Mademoiselle?" He asked her tentatively.
She held out her hand. "There's a letter for you, Monsieur Marius." She said in her strange guttural accent.
How on earth did this strange girl know his name?
Without asking him, the girl stepped inside. She observed Marius's room, not with any criticism, but with a kind of wonder, as though she marveled at the idea that one person could have so much space for themselves. She sat down on the side of his bed, and extended her hand again.
This time, Marius took the letter. He read:
My warm-hearted young neighbour, most estimable young man!
I have heard of the kindness you did me in paying my rent six months ago. I bless you for it. My elder daughter will tell you that for two days we have been without food, including my sick wife. If I am not dissieved in my trust in humanity I venchure to hope that your generous heart will be by our afliction and that you will releeve your feelings by again coming to my aid.
I am, with the expression of the high esteem we all owe to a benefactor of humanity,
P.S. My daughter is at your service, dear Monsieur Marius.
A light was dawning inside Marius's head. He snatched up the old letters from yesterday and compared them with this new one. It was another match; the handwriting, spelling mistakes, paper, and even odor of tobacco was the same. All these aliases were in fact, Jondrette, his luckless neighbor. Was Jondrette even his true name?
Marius barely knew the Jondrettes, and only now did he realize that this odd girl sitting before him was one of the two gamines he'd seen yesterday, the other likely her sister. They must be the two Jondrette girls.
Marius placed the letters back on the desk, the wheels spinning around in his head. The plan was all laid bare for him to see now. Jondrette was a crook, that was obvious, for not only did he write fraudulent begging letters, but he used his own children as the pawns with which to deliver them. At their own peril as well, he remembered, recalling the hushed conversation the night before. And judging from the postscript Jondrette had left him -"My daughter is at your service"-Marius could not help but wonder what else the man had used his daughters for. Because of one man's trackless greed, two young girls were repeatedly stripped of everything; youth, virtue, identity, freedom, and much more.
Suddenly, Marius's hatred of Jondrette was almost as great as the pity he felt for the unfortunate person that was sitting on his bedside.
Without a word, the girl suddenly stood up, and began to walk about the room, delighting in almost every commodity that Marius owned. She checked her reflection in the mirror, attempted reciting from a book on the battle of Waterloo, and even wrote a sentence or so on of his loose sheets of paper. She seemed to take immense pleasure in everything that was there. She hummed a soft, sad song as she went about, not even noticing that Marius was there anymore.
After a few minutes of her exploring, Marius cleared his throat. "What is your name, Mademoiselle?' He asked her.
She turned to him, her brown eyes startled by his question. "Éponine. My name is Éponine." She told him, after a moment's hesitation.
"You can call me that if you like." She said blandly. "It's all the same with me."
Marius frowned. He wasn't sure whether that was really her answer, or if she was simply jesting with him. "What do your friends call you?" He asked.
She smiled wanly. "Nothing I'd like to repeat to you, monsieur; trust me on that. My sister, though, calls me 'Ponine sometimes." She said thoughtfully.
Marius nodded. "I will call you 'Ponine then. And please, no need to call me monsieur. Marius is just fine."
The girl smiled, and for a moment a small grain of life seemed to flow through her. She curtsied to him, and said "As you wish, monsieur."
Before Marius could say anything else, Éponine's eyes grew wide. "Where did you get those?" She asked, pointing at the false letters.
"Oh!" Said Marius, only now remembering them. He picked them up and handed them to her. "You and your sister dropped these yesterday." He explained. "Please, allow me to return them."
Éponine grabbed the letters, and held them tight to her chest. "Lordy Lord, how I've looked for these! You picked these up off the boulevard, didn't you? No wonder I couldn't find them afterwards, they were here all along!" She tried to laugh, but only succeeded in giving herself a rattling cough. "Now, Papa won't be upset with me. He may even hand me a crust for dinner. And that dinner will count for tonight's dinner, and today's breakfast, and last night's dinner and yesterday's breakfast." She positively beamed at Marius. "Merci, Monsieur Marius, merci!" And with that, she was out the door, the letters in her hand, humming her song.
"What an odd girl that Éponine is." Marius reflected. "She seems to me either quite intelligent, or quite mad, or both."
Not having any reason to stay up late, Marius retired. That night, he imagined the sight that had haunted his dreams for months; a beautiful golden-haired girl, sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens with her father. As Marius walked by them, she glanced up at him and smiled, revealing her brilliant white teeth. She opened her mouth to speak the words of love that Marius knew were on her lips-
And he fell down onto the floor with a thud.
Marius gave a bitter laugh. He'd fallen out of his bed in his sleep, like a child after a nightmare. "Ah, the trials of love," he commentated, and he rubbed his cheek.
While his nose was slightly bruised, Marius's emotional pain was far greater than the physical. He sighed sadly. "If only I could see her one more time!" He thought wistfully. "To see her, to be near her, to talk with her, to know her name..." He glanced up the ceiling in despair. "Truly, God," He said, not certain to whom he was speaking. "Is that too much for me to ask of you?"