It was a chilly day in late October when Mlle. Gillenormand called her servant Nicolette and told her that she wished to go to market. Nicolette did not show her surprise. Eight years of service in the Gillenormand household had given her a great power to accept an employer's whims. Still, it was unusual. Mlle. Gillenormand was a spinster to the utmost, layered in starch and padding, polishing her little treasures and vanities, denned in her home like a wintering mouse, the walls of her soul reinforced by family and by choice, the walls of her habits no less. She had not been to a market in months.
Nicolette acquiesced with two simple words: "Yes, mademoiselle."
The truth was that Aunt Gillenormand was at loose ends. Her father had died a month before. He was ninety-three years old. He had cackled repeatedly: "Ninety-three has not killed me yet! It's had two chances, the young fool, and failed twice." But in the end it had. He spent a cheerful day, went to bed as usual, slept peacefully, never woke. Sometimes old age comes all in an instant. He had been his daughter's tyrant, the prop of her old age as she was the prop to his, capricious, charming, often enraged, as volatile as she was silent, the center of her universe. And now he was dead. The household now orbited around her melancholy, scarred nephew and his gay young wife. She loved them both, in her cotton-wool way, but they were not what she wanted now. All had turned topsy-turvy in the silence of a night. Her days lacked in bombast.
She would have summoned her nephew Theodule to her side, that he might distract her with smiles and ready flattering charm, but a dashing lancer has only so much time for an aunt, and his regiment had been sent north for training exercises. Besides, at times one does not want too much sunshine.
Shopping at the Marché des Innocents would provide her with something to do, she thought. She would buy something for her nephew or his wife: autumn flowers, a fan, a good walking stick. For herself, a good muff or a fichu. Winter was coming, and her bones grew cold at night.
They went by carriage. Mlle. Gillenormand would never have dreamed of doing otherwise.
Until the penultimate year of his life, Old Gillenormand had maintained, in strident defiance of fact, "The streets were safe in your youth, my dear! These rabid revolutionaries ruined the lamppost. Before them it was a blessing. A child could walk alone without fear! Now thieves and criminals lurk in every alley." He was wrong about the past, but perhaps correct about the present. His daughter had heard these sentiments repeated so many times that she had come to believe both equally.
Nicolette, whose real name was Marguerite, would have preferred to walk on such a fine autumn day. She had sturdy limbs and a sweetheart who worked as a butcher in the Rue de la Ferronnerie. But it was not her place to object. By carriage they traveled, the old woman with her hands in her lap and her eyes fixed forward, the younger with her head turned to watch the city pass by.
The square was crowded. Mlle. Gillenormand began to regret a little that she had come. But she was embarked upon her course, and she would not change it for mere regret. She set out to enjoy her shopping.
She had managed tolerably well, and Nicolette was carrying several packages, when she rounded the corner by a fanmaker's shop and nearly trod upon two small boys. They were skinny, ragged, shag-haired, pigeon-chested, one barefoot, the other in shoes so poor they were nearly in pieces, huddled close together, obviously brothers. She was obliged to catch herself with a hand against the brickwork so as not to stumble. "Watch yourselves!" she snapped.
The younger boy flinched. The older raised dark, wistful eyes to her. "Please, madam, could you spare some alms?"
Begging was, Mlle. Gillenormand felt in her stiffly starched soul, not entirely proper. All the same, these gamins were better spoken than most, polite by comparison with their fellows, clearly in need. She fished in her purse for a coin of the appropriate size. Moderation was her goal, she whose heart had never learned any appreciation for excess, and she held to moderation in her generosity as well.
The older gamin was staring at her.
"What is it?" Discomfort made her a little testy. "Is something wrong with you, boy? How you stare!"
This curious utterance was not spoken in joy. No touching reunion of warm hearts here: he spoke first in astonishment. Mlle. Gillenormand, even more astounded, was reduced for a moment to silence.
Jérôme, for that was the elder's name, was remembering happier days. In his youth, he and his brother had been cared for by a woman who was not their mother, and supported by a man who was not their father. (Of his true parents, he knew only the name, and he had been instructed to forget that; he had obediently tried, but found himself not gifted at the exercise. In substitution, he avoided speaking of them with his little brother.) They spoke instead of the woman who cared for them, that Magnon of whom we have spoken before, and called her Mother; of the old man who sent eighty francs monthly for their care, whom they called not-our-Father; of his daughter, grey-haired herself, who had three or four times accompanied not-our-Father on his twice-yearly visits. She spoke little to them, peered at the gaudily decorated walls as if they hurt her eyes, seemed glad to leave. In the absence of real information about her thoughts, they had made up outlandish little stories about her. They called her Mademoiselle to her face, but between themselves they called her Aunt Sister. He had not recognized her at once, but the combined effect of duration and her pinched, awkward generosity had brought about the revelation. "Aunt Sister!" he had cried involuntarily.
The words had a galvanic effect on the smaller boy. He uttered a low cry.
The reader will already have guessed it. These were Gavroche's little mômes.
"No," answered Mlle. Gillenormand, in great confusion. "I am not at all your aunt – I am not at all a holy sister – I am an old spinster, and I do not know what you mean by such cheek. Here is some advice: you will win more hearts with courtesy and by knowing your place in the world."
The boys were rebuked. They were not quashed. She was the first familiar face they had seen since they came home to find Magnon arrested and gone. "Mademoiselle," replied the older, clasping his brother's hand for courage. "Mademoiselle, please, don't you know us? I am Jérôme, this is Jean-François."
Mlle. Gillenormand was struck dumb. Nicolette no less. The poor mite continued:
"Your father was a good monsieur who supported us. He was not our father, but he supported us as if he were. We used to live at – I don't recall the address. I can describe the furniture for you, every picture. Our mother is gone. Please, good mademoiselle, you must remember us."
The little fellow trembled. The last year had been very hard. He was hungry all the time. When they had food, he connived to make sure that his little brother had the larger share. He remembered Gavroche doing that for them, and it had made an impression. Sometimes his childhood seemed to him only a hazy dream. Warmth, food, affection – all far away.
"I remember," said Mlle. Gillenormand at last. She was in a daze. She had never wanted much to do with these boys. To support them, very well; if her father had indeed brought them into the world with a servant-girl, that would have been a family shame, but as he had not, it was charity; that mollified her. Charity, she felt, only became foolishness when it was taken to an extreme, and neither she nor her father had ever been in danger of that. But she had not wanted anything to do with them. She had visited them only when her father insisted upon it, and trailed as ever in his ebullient and stormy wake, but she had not enjoyed the visits. And here they were! Gamins! Little starving urchins, clad in rags! She felt obscurely insulted by their poverty. "I sent the money as usual." She had been accustomed to sending all regular payments such as this even during her father's lifetime. He commanded grand gestures; it fell to others to execute them. "Where is your mother gone?"
The little boys shrugged.
"We don't know, mademoiselle," said Jérôme.
Nicolette pressed her lips together. It was not for her to suggest a course of action to her employer, she felt. But the boys were pitiable.
Mlle. Gillenormand was irresolute. She had not wanted anything to do with these children. She still did not. They were ragged, dirty, starved to ugliness, two little birds of the gutter, motherless, fatherless. And yet she could not bring herself to turn her back. Her father had taken responsibility for them. The money she sent had not reached them in months: so she had been cheated, and they had suffered for that. She thought to herself, out of habit, "I will ask my father--" and then she was obliged to stop. "My father is dead," she said to herself again. It was a yawning emptiness.
In the space of that hollow, grieving silence arose the grimy, hopeful faces of two small boys.
Mlle. Gillenormand realized that she would have to make this decision herself.
Then she thought of two others: her nephew, once a little solemn sad boy underfoot, now a tall sad man who smiled only for his wife, and that same wife with her mysterious wealth and her laughing generous heart. Marius and Cosette. Perhaps, she thought, Marius would like to meet these children. She did not know her nephew's heart well; she could not say what might bring him joy; still, it could do no harm. And that would give her time to decide upon a course of action.
"Well," she said, and put the coin back in her purse. "You are very dirty. I suppose you're hungry too. Very well. You may as well come along with me. We will figure out what to do with you. My father supported you, and he would not want to see his good work lost to the gutter."