The Importance of Five Francs
February 6, 1832
Chapter 6: The Importance of Five Francs
It was a foul time for the Thenardier family in the Gorbeau tenement that day, which was saying something.
It had started to snow in the early morning. Not the light, fluffy flakes that Éponine remembered fondly as a child in Montfermeil, but huge, wet drops that stuck to her eyelashes and clothes and made everything around her even colder. She and Azelma huddled close together, trying desperately to keep warm.
'Good thing we're not still living under that bridge like we were two years ago.'She thought gratefully. 'Otherwise, we'd all have probably frozen to death by now.' It was quite chilly in the Jondrette garret at the moment. The fire was burning dangerously low, and Papa and Maman were wrapped up in as many spare rags as they could find; all were taken, no matter how dirty. Usually, Éponine did not pity nor love her father much, between his dealings with Patron-Minette and his treatment of his family. But now, even she couldn't suppress the drop of compassion she felt for the cold, hungry old harpy sitting only several feet away from her. She hadn't forgiven him for beating her the other day; she never did, whenever he hit her. But unfortunately, that determination didn't make her heartless as well.
The philanthropist of the Church St. Jacques had written to them earlier, apologizing for his delay and saying that he would be arriving with his daughter within a few hours. Ever ready to shake down another unsuspecting bourgeois, Thenardier had put them to work, to curry as much sympathy as possible from their guest. They'd cracked one or two of their plates, dirtied the room even more (which Éponine had thought impossible), almost quenched the fire, crippled a chair, and, most extremely of all, broken a window. Their father had forced Azelma to punch it, and her hand was now bleeding horribly.
There was all of a sudden a loud knock at the door. Thenardier shot to his feet, likely expecting that it was the philanthropist.
"It's open!" He shouted, making his voice sound old and weak.
A man stepped inside, but it was not the philanthropist. It was Monsieur Marius, and in his decent shirt and trouser, he stuck out in the garret like a butterfly among grubs. As he closed the door behind him, Éponine was surprised to see that he did not convey any remote look of disgust on his face when he entered. If anything, he looked as though he was seeing something he'd already seen. 'How could that be?' Éponine wondered.
Then she noticed something on the wall. Part of the paper had fallen away or been torn aside, revealing a convenient peephole into the ugly little garret.
Éponine smiled mischievously. 'So, you've been spying on us, have you, Monsieur Marius?' She thought. 'Maybe you're not as perfect as I thought you were.'
"Monsieur Jondrette?" Marius asked Papa.
Thenardier bowed his head. "That is I." He said.
"I am Marius. I live next door. I would just like you to know that I received the letter you sent me."
"Ah!" Said Thenardier dramatically. "That is good news indeed, monsieur! My entire family, as you see us here, have been deeply in your debt for six months. I only wish that fool of a landlady had told us sooner!" He tutted disapprovingly. "So little to do for a poor workingman of good intent like me! If I could, I would leave this abominable city and head off to the provinces, where there is more work to be done." He spread his hands around the room. "But how can I, when my wife and daughters sit here, hungry and injured?"
Marius toke notice of Azelma's wound. He gasped and rushed to her sister's side. "How did this happen?" He asked.
"A most vile brute." Said Thenardier quickly. "I don't like my children being in this room too long. I can't afford for them to...that is, I don't want them to become ill. I urge them to spend much time outside, but that can sometimes have consequences in this neighborhood. Some barbaric man came upon my daughter yesterday and hit her! The poor dear."
Marius felt his coat pocket, and pulled out nothing but an old handkerchief. He sighed in annoyance, and began to dab away the blood from Azelma's hand. As he treated her, he saw Éponine, holding her sister in her arms. "Oh, hello, Éponine." He said kindly. "Are you well?"
She nodded, excited to be talking to him again. "Very good, monsieur!"
"Éponine, I've told you, just call me Marius."
She grinned. "Then I suppose you'll just have to tell me once more. Monsieur Marius."
Before he could respond, Thenardier asked, "Monsieur, I believe that, if you can recall my letter, I asked if you could be of charitable aid once again?"
Marius nodded. "I do. And I can." He opened his hand, revealing a gleaming gold five-franc coin.
Papa's eyes gleamed with greed. "Oh, you are a good man, indeed, monsieur. The world needs more men like you. I will gladly accept this gift of-"
Before he could take it, Éponine jumped to her feet, swiped the coin out of Marius's hands, and examined it. "Well, the snows end at last!" She said laughingly. "Ain't this a grand bit of luck? Enough to fill our mouths for two whole days at least! Thank you forever and ever, good monsieur!" She took off her cap, and made an awkward sort of bow.
Marius was staring at her uncertainly. Éponine blushed, realizing only now that she'd been speaking in rapid-fire argot. He probably hadn't understood a word she'd said. She felt humiliated.
Papa gently took the five-franc coin out of Éponine's hand. "Forgive my daughter, monsieur. She gets a bit queer now and then, throwing the occasional fit."
"Nothing needs forgiveness." Said Marius.
Éponine sat back down next to Azelma, and looked down at the floor, determined to try and ignore Marius now. It wasn't easy.
Before Papa could say anymore to Marius, there was a second knock at the door. "Is anyone there?" A voice asked.
Thenardier became excited. It was undoubtedly the philanthropist this time. "Yes, monsieur." He called. "Please, come in with your charming young lady."
The door opened, and an old man and a girl entered. Éponine looked up at the girl, and all thoughts but one fled instantly from her mind. One word that contained more shock, disbelief and anger than she had ever known in her life.