Chapter 13: Oh Mother Who Bore Me
"My dear, they are still so young!"
"On the contrary the younger the better! They'll be useless if they turn into hags!"
"They're our daughters! How could you say such a thing?"
As these words intruded into Eponine's dreams, she plugged her ears with her fingers in a last-ditch effort to fall asleep. Next to her, Azelma groaned and squirmed as she pulled their makeshift blanket over her head. "What are they talking about, Ponine?" the younger Thenardier girl whispered.
"Something to do with us, obviously," Eponine murmured crossly. Seeing that sleep would continue to evade her, she made a show of stretching and rubbing her eyes. "Good morning Maman. Good morning Papa," she greeted as she sat up to look at her parents, who were both crouched by the hearth.
"There, you're finally awake you lazy thing," M. Thenardier chided. "Wake up Azelma. I have something important for you two to do today."
Eponine poked her sister's ribs, earning her a curse and a swat to her hand. She got to her feet and tried not to wince at the cold that seeped in from between her toes to up her shins. "What do we have for breakfast?" she asked distractedly.
"You listen up and you won't have to worry about breakfast for much longer," M. Thenardier snapped. He tossed down two five franc pieces. "Get yourselves two good dresses at the Temple. Nothing shabby now, you have to look respectable!"
"Are we going to the theater?" Azelma asked as she gingerly picked up a coin, almost as if she was afraid it would burst into flame between her fingers.
"Bah! Is that all you can think about?" M. Thenardier sneered. "We will soon be visiting Monsieur Verdier, who is interested in meeting one of you."
"A rich gentleman," Mme. Thenardier said, managing a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. "He is looking for a wife."
Eponine clutched at the wall for support even as she vaguely heard Azelma dropping the coin. "A wife? Whatever for?" she blurted out.
"Who cares what reason that man may have? At least he's offering a respectable situation," M. Thenardier growled. "Think of me and your mother. We're old and we cannot keep you here forever!"
Eponine looked to Azelma, who appeared to be on the verge of fainting. 'Papa will force me first, I'm older,' she thought. Yet it occurred to her that her father needed her somewhat for his other schemes, and therefore would be more willing to dispense with Azelma in this fashion. "Papa, are you sure it's quite legal? Zelma is only fifteen, and I'm not seventeen till April," she said.
"It will not matter in time. Now get dressed and stop wasting time!" M. Thenardier ordered. He looked to his wife and nodded. "I need you to come with me for today."
Mme. Thenardier gaped at him as if he had declared that the monarchy had suddenly turned into a Republic. "To go outside, my dear?"
"Where else?" M. Thenardier said. "You have to dress up too and inspire confidence!"
Mme. Thenardier nodded despairingly. "Then I will be ready in a few moments," she said before going to a heap of clothes in a corner. She pulled out a huge green tartan shawl and a black bonnet with drooping feathers. "You girls take the capes," she said, gesturing to the one that had been their blanket as well as the velvet cape that Eponine had borrowed from Cosette.
"Wait a moment, Maman," Azelma said as she took the bonnet. She snapped some of the feathers that hung down from the hat. "There, so it won't droop so and get in the way."
Eponine did not say anything but she looked to her mother and shook her head. 'Maman, please don't let him,' she begged silently, not daring to raise her further objections in her father's hearing. She felt something sink in her chest when Mme. Thenardier sighed deeply. "Must we?" she whispered.
"I only want you girls to be safe. He sounds kind; it might not be so bad," Mme. Thenardier said as she wrapped the tartan shawl over her skirt. Her movements were slow, as if she was wax or stone just forced into animation. "You'd better go; the market at the Temple opens soon."
Eponine bit her lip as she stuffed her feet into her leaky shoes and then threw on her borrowed cape. She ran her fingers through her hair in another attempt to tame it, or at least till she could look into the grimy windowpane and consider her reflection as somewhat passable. She looked to where Azelma was also trying to untangle her own tresses. "You'd best cover up using this," she said, tossing an old but relatively clean kerchief at her sister.
Azelma scowled before tying the rag around her hair. "You still need a hat, Ponine."
"Maybe I'll find one if we get lucky," Eponine said as she snatched up the money that their father had given them and stuffed the coins into her sleeve. On their way out she thought of knocking on the cells next to her family's den, but she thought the better of it. Most likely their new neighbor was still sleeping the late night off. As she headed out side, she could feel a gnawing emptiness in her stomach but she willed herself to ignore it; if she bought even just a little bit of bread, there would not be enough for their clothes. Hopefully Azelma would be able to hold up too till they could finish their errand.
Nevertheless despite their best efforts and a fair bit of haggling, Eponine and Azelma wound up spending nearly all the money on two rather oversized dresses, one in puce and the other in a darker cerulean, as well as two matching plain bonnets "We have to go home now and tuck them in, or we'll look like we put on sacks," Azelma said.
"It's too fussy for us to do on our own; we'll just end up ruining them," Eponine pointed out, gesturing to the voluminous sleeves of the dresses. There was after all a reason that neither of them had found employment as needlewomen. "We're going to the Rue Plumet."
"That's almost all the way across Paris!" Azelma protested.
"That's why we have to start walking now," Eponine retorted. At the very least they were making the trek by day, which made matters far more bearable. Nevertheless it was indeed a long way down the Rue du Temple to the neighbourhood of the Hotel de Ville and the Pont d'Arcole, and then to the Ile du Palais. Here, the two girls made a detour so that they crossed the river in the area of the Quai Conti and the Place Dauphine instead of the more straightforward crossing at Pont Saint-Michel; the latter route would take them past the Sorbonne, the Place du Pantheon, and of course a little bit too close to the Place Saint-Michel, which was sure to still be under watch. From here the Thenardier sisters took a roundabout route past the Abbaye Aux Bois, skipping the Rue de Babylone and the barracks here, and finally arriving at the Rue Plumet.
Over here they found Victor Fabre at the gate, feeding scraps to some half-starved cats. The boy grinned cheekily at Eponine and Azelma as he straightened up and wiped his hands on his trousers. "Good thing the police haven't frightened you hens away," he quipped.
Eponine tugged on his ears lightly. "Is your Maman busy?"
Victor glanced over his shoulder at the house. "She's got company coming, but she won't let me or Cosette help out with it. If you don't mind waiting-"
"Oh please let us in!" Azelma begged.
Victor made a ridiculous imitation of a manservant's bow before letting them in. Instead of going to the front room, as they were accustomed to, Victor ushered them upstairs. All the while Eponine could hear the telltale sound of cutlery in the kitchen combined with the gentle gurgling of boiling water. 'What an odd luncheon!' she thought as they made their way to Cosette's room.
Cosette was busy embroidering yet another handkerchief but she threw her embroidery hoop aside the moment her door opened. "I was going to look for you two this afternoon if you sent no word!" she greeted as she hugged Eponine and then Azelma. "Your parents aren't angry about yesterday?"
"They don't know," Eponine said as she took off the cape. "Thank you for it. It was a little short but it got me through the night."
"Where's your grandfather?" Azelma asked the Fabres as they all found seats in the cozy room.
"He's visiting Monsieur Mabeuf at Austerlitz. You didn't see him on your way in?" Cosette replied.
Eponine shook her head. 'Maybe he went by some other way,' she thought. "What happened after I had to go?" she asked.
Cosette's lively smile turned grave while Victor rolled his eyes. "Something that Maman and Grandfather won't tell us. It must have been horrible since I woke up late last night and heard them talking downstairs in the front room. Maman was crying so hard, something about 'keeping them safe', 'having to pretend', and 'not loving him'." She wrung her hands before looking at her friends. "It has to do with us—at least Victor and me. It was such a terrible idea to go walking yesterday!"
"No, the bad idea was going into that cafe," Victor pointed out. "We should have cleared out when we saw Bahorel and his friends in the neighbourhood."
Eponine bit her lip, knowing that Victor was correct. Bahorel had never made a secret of his anti-monarchist and now anti-Orleanist leanings, so it was a matter of time till he and any comrades of his would attract the attention of even the most obtuse police agent. She nearly laughed as she recalled the young man she'd accosted on the stairs; he was definitely the sort who was impossible to miss or even forget. 'Looks like a tough one though; it won't be the cold that will drive him out,' she thought.
At that moment a light knock sounded on the door, signalling Fantine's entrance. She was dressed elegantly for one who was to stay at home: she had on a sky blue dress that was belted at the waist with a satin ribbon. She'd even gone as far as to wear matching slippers and to put her golden hair up in knots. "How are you four up here?" she asked kindly.
"Very well, Maman," Cosette said.
Fantine nodded before looking to the Thenardier girls. "I haven't seen you in a long time, Azelma," she said to the younger one.
"I like staying at home," Azelma said. "Ponine said you could help us."
"It's only to get these dresses altered, Madame Fantine," Eponine explained. "Papa says he's bringing us out for something nice."
Fantine nodded as she looked over the dresses that the girls had brought. "What about your Maman?"
"She has things of her own," Azelma chimed in.
Eponine had to keep a straight face as she recalled their mother's attire earlier that day. "Actually she might find something," she said. "I should wear that puce dress and Azelma the blue one?"
Fantine sighed and shrugged. "I'd rather see you wearing green since it would go better with your hair," she told Eponine before she motioned for her and Azelma to stand up straight. "Try on those dresses so we can see what has to be done."
Eponine waited for Victor to quit the room before she pulled the puce dress over her own clothing. 'I bet Maman didn't look this horrid when she was my age,' she thought as she let Fantine tuck and pin the dress to see how it ought to be taken in to fit her skinny frame. By some trick of fate, Azelma had turned out into a more feminine and far less horrific likeness of their father, but Eponine had inherited the dark auburn hair and freckled looks of her mother's family, the Sorels. She gritted her teeth as she looked at herself in the mirror. How could even Montparnasse stand to lay eyes on her?
"I'll have the dresses ready for you tomorrow," Fantine said, breaking through Eponine's reverie. "If your mother comes with you, I can also alter something for her as well."
'If we can get her to come along,' Eponine thought. "Thank you Madam Fantine. I only have four sous left though-"
Fantine shook her head. "Don't think anything of it." She looked to Cosette, who was going through her own closet. "I need you and Victor to get me some wool. I need to make a few more things for the church basket."
Cosette wheeled around, clearly startled at this errand. "Are you sure, Maman?"
"I have a lot to do today. Besides, I trust your choices," Fantine said. "It shouldn't take you two very long; I want you back here straightaway."
Cosette nodded confusedly before she laid out a pink dress as well as two others in dark green and lavender. "Please come with us?" she asked the Thenardier sisters.
Azelma nodded gleefully but Eponine hesitated on seeing the dresses, which were even finer than those she'd just brought. "I might dirty those."
"We're friends going on a stroll. I don't want anyone to think otherwise," Cosette said.
Only then Eponine nodded in assent; at any rate Cosette's dresses would be a lot warmer than her own rags. She and Azelma took the opportunity to clean up as best as they could with washcloths since there was no time to draw a full bath. Azelma insisted on having her hair braided and curled, but Eponine, already quite frustrated with her own unruly waves, was content to simply pin her hair back into a knot. Yet when Eponine put on the dark green dress and looked in the mirror, she found that she liked what she saw. 'Almost a lady,' she thought, especially when she realized that she only had to smile to complete the effect.
Cosette was all gaiety as she made her toilette and helped out her friends, but as soon as they and Victor were out the door and at the corner of the Rue Plumet, her smile turned suspicious. "Maman never lets us pick the cloth," she remarked.
"Does it make any difference?" Victor asked.
"It makes all the difference," Cosette said. "That's why she wants to pick it out herself, usually, so she knows exactly what she's working with."
'I'd do much the same if I was in that trade too,' Eponine mused "Where will we go?"
"Rue Ferou. That's where Maman always gets the cloth," Cosette replied, trying to sound calm but the worry was still evident in her voice. "Ponine, this isn't making sense, you can tell."
"Nothing makes sense anymore," Eponine said gloomily. She thought of mentioning her present predicament and the reason for the dresses, but she bit her lip. 'Wouldn't do to have the Fabres asking even about that,' she thought as they walked on towards the Rue Ferou.
Their path brought them to a large, respectable looking shop on the corner of this street, just facing the famous park. It was clear in a moment why Fantine frequented this place; Zephine now had a position here, working the front counter. While Cosette busied herself talking with Zephine, Victor waited outside the shop door while Eponine and Azelma perused some of the ready-made gowns in the shop window. "The best places don't show their wares like this," Eponine noted. "The dressmakers keep them a secret, only for the rich ladies who can pay them."
Azelma glanced up from where she had been running her hands over a lacy skirt. "We used to have things at least half as nice, when Maman had time to make them."
'Time isn't quite the problem,' Eponine thought even as she caught sight of a needlewoman rearranging a pelisse that had almost fallen to the floor. She studied this dark haired woman for a moment, up until she heard the grisette laugh merrily at some joke a roguish customer uttered. Eponine slipped away from where Azelma was still in raptures over another gown, and went over to this woman. "I didn't say thank you for last night, Mademoiselle," she greeted.
The grisette nearly started at the sound of Eponine's voice. "Do I know you?"
"Somewhat. You pulled me and my friend into an alley after that trouble in the cafe," Eponine replied.
The grisette's eyes flashed as she looked from Eponine to Cosette. "You've got a lot of nerve coming into this neighbourhood then."
"So do you."
"I work here. That is easier to explain away."
Eponine bit her lip as she met the grisette's eyes. She would have to drop a name, as risky as this practice usually was. "Do you know Monsieur Bahorel? He's an old friend."
The grisette nodded slowly. "He helped you and your friend escape from the cafe."
"Where can I find him?"
"I don't know where he'd be at this hour."
Suddenly Zephine made a whistling sound from the counter. "Musichetta! Please show Mademoiselle Fabre here our latest acquisitions," she called to the grisette who'd been conversing with Eponine.
"That would be my friend," Eponine said, gesturing to Cosette.
Musichetta glanced from Cosette to Eponine. "I need to talk with you later," she said before going off to assist Cosette.
'What an operatic name,' Eponine noted as she watched Musichetta talking to Cosette. Perhaps it was only a sobriquet, but it was a pretty one which certainly suited the Romantic tastes of the students of the quartier. Before she could mull on this further she saw Victor enter the shop. "Shouldn't you be outside?" she asked him.
Victor shrugged. "I know her."
"Oh how now?"
"She lives with a medical student just up the street."
"She was at that cafe last night," Eponine said. "With them, I'm sure of it."
"She watches the front while the gentlemen talk of gunpowder in the back," Victor replied in a matter-of-fact tone. He waved to Musichetta, who was hurrying back now with Cosette in tow. "Good day to you, Mademoiselle Laurain."
Musichetta grinned at him. "You, I know. So you have a sister after all?"
Victor nodded. "How is everyone?"
"Still abed except for those who have duties and masters," Musichetta replied. She glanced about before motioning for the Fabres as well as the Thenardiers to follow her out of the shop and towards a cul de sac some way up the street. "The raid was very well planned. Someone sounded them out."
"And you think it was us?" Eponine asked accusingly.
"It never happened before," Musichetta retorted.
Cosette looked up with wide eyes. "It was us, but by mistake," she admitted. "A gendarme asked my mother if we were with the party inside, and she said that we weren't."
Musichetta sighed tersely. "That's only one possibility," she said before looking at the four youngsters. "You Fabres need to get clear, if you can. You girls too. The gendarmes might start looking elsewhere."
"Good God, what is going on?" Cosette asked as she looked at Victor. "Now even you?"
Victor hung his head guiltily. "I didn't want you or Grandfather to worry, and I knew Maman would be furious if I ran into trouble."
Azelma looked around uneasily as the Fabre siblings began arguing. "Ponine, maybe we should go home before Papa wonders where we are."
"He won't do that for a little bit longer," Eponine said. She looked to Musichetta, who was eyeing them intently. "We won't cause you any more trouble. I'm sorry, Mademoiselle Laurain."
"What name do you two go by?" Musichetta asked briskly.
Eponine paused, wondering what sobriquet to give out. 'We're using Jondrette at the tenement, but maybe we're not known that way elsewhere,' she thought. She took a deep breath and looked at the seamstress. "We're Thenardiers."
To her surprise, an approving smile, almost one of recognition, spread over Musichetta's face. "Then you really are Bahorel's friends, and Victor's. Ponine and Zelma, isn't it?"
"It's Eponine and Azelma," the older Thenardier girl corrected.
"I'm sorry, but that's how I heard it before," Musichetta replied. She glanced over her shoulder to where Zephine was now looking up and down the Rue Ferou. "You two stay clear. I can't think of a reason you'd like to be involved in...this, but if you aren't willing to get shot for it, stay away."
"I s'pose you're right," Eponine said while Azelma merely nodded. 'Don't ladies normally stay out of things like those?' she wondered. 'Marianne is certainly a lady but it's only men who'd be allowed to raise a gun for her like in that painting,' she mused as she watched Musichetta speak to both Cosette and Victor before hurrying back to the shop.
Cosette took a deep breath as she looked at Victor apologetically. "You're the only brother I have, Victor. I know it's natural, but sorry if I do it a bit much."
"I'm sorry about lying. No secrets?" Victor offered.
Cosette nodded. She looked at the Thenardier sisters. "I'm really sorry about this."
"Better over this problem than something else," Eponine said. 'Though what would they say at Saint-Lazare to this sort of trouble?' she wondered.
Cosette looked about. "Let's go back by way of the Luxembourg."
"Why, what's there?" Azelma asked. Much to their surprise Cosette didn't answer but resolutely headed down towards the promenade. It was nearly noon now, and the park was lively now with people strolling, chatting or attempting to have picnics, but much of the crowd consisted of people merely passing through.
It seemed as if Cosette had no particular object in going to the Luxembourg; the route she led them through was quite circuitous leading to the side of the Rue del'Ouest, but there was a determination in her eye that not even impetuous Eponine dared to cross. 'There's hardly anyone here!" Eponine noted as she looked up and down this relatively quiet part of the promenade.
It was at this critical juncture that a gust blew up, sending among several things, a few leaves of paper flying through the air. A raven haired young man was in pursuit, desperately trying to gather these wayward sheets into a folio. The sight of him dashing about, with an old coat flapping off his arms, was so decidedly comical that Victor and Azelma burst out laughing. Cosette though immediately ran to his assistance while Eponine retrieved a page that got caught in a nearby bush.
"Thank you Mademoiselle," the young man said breathlessly when Cosette handed some pages to him. "I'm sorry for all the trouble."
"It's no trouble at all, but you're welcome though," Cosette said graciously. She smiled as she saw some of the pages that the man held out. "Are these for your studies, Monsieur?"
The young man shook his head even as a lovely blush crept onto his face. "I do translations and some paperwork for a publisher."
Eponine, who had just managed to extricate a paper from a branch, now looked on this scene incredulously. 'She's seen him before,' she realized. It made perfect sense after all; the Luxembourg wasn't too distant from the Rue Plumet, many young men frequented the area or just passed through, so there was some chance or another that they'd espied each other before.
Azelma had stopped laughing and was now watching with interest, while Victor was scowling and gritting his teeth. "He seems decent enough!" Victor muttered, taking care not to be heard by Cosette and her conversation partner.
"Oh what would you know?" Eponine chided. While this young man was certainly not wealthy, he seemed to be kindly and even noble in bearing, there was something congenial about him that differentiated him from the likes of Montparnasse. On the whole though, she found him charming but unimpressive. 'I wouldn't have given him a second glance if he'd been in that cafe last night,' she noted.
"Marius Pontmercy!" a voice shouted from somewhere else on the promenade. Everyone turned to see a slightly shorter man dressed at the height of fashion, save perhaps for his slightly dented hat. He had reddish brown hair, deep dimples in his cheeks, an expression best suited for laughter, and a stride that was confident but not arrogant. Eponine lowered her eyes at the sight of him; she had seen him too at the cafe.
The man named Marius looked about and blushed. "Good afternoon Courfeyrac."
"You're having a better one," Courfeyrac said, clapping Marius on the shoulder. "You have left my friend too awestruck. What is your name, Mademoiselle?"
"Cosette," the girl replied. "I'm with my brother Victor, and my friends Eponine and Azelma."
Victor saluted to Courfeyrac. "You'd better be careful, that's my sister there," he warned.
"Pontmercy here is my friend," Courfeyrac said, nodding to Victor. He grinned approvingly at Marius and Cosette before looking to the Thenardier girls. "Victor has done everyone a great disservice by neglecting to introduce you two."
"We rarely go out walking with him," Azelma replied.
"A shame," Courfeyrac quipped. He waved to someone else approaching them on the walkway. "You look like you've had a rough evening, my friend."
Eponine looked about and caught sight of a tall young man dressed in an elegant black frock coat over a maroon waistcoat. He was impossible to miss on the promenade owing to his height, his haughty bearing, as well as that messy golden hair which could not really be hidden even under a hat. Eponine knew better than to run, knowing that doing so would only betray her trepidation at seeing him again but this time under broad daylight.
The blond stranger lightly clapped Courfeyrac's shoulder before nodding cordially to Marius and Victor, and more cursorily to the girls. "Good to see you're well," he said. "Later, we need to make a visit."
Courfeyrac nodded understandingly. "Will Combeferre or Joly's assistance be necessary?"
"So it may seem," the newcomer said. "I heard that you were...present last night," he said to Victor.
"Was only stopping in, didn't mean to get in a race," Victor replied.
Courfeyrac laughed at this quip. "In the meantime, let's have more mannerly talk. Enjolras, meet Cosette, Azelma, and Eponine. Ladies, meet my long-time comrade."
Eponine made sure to look Enjolras in the face while the other girls murmured their greetings. Although for the most part his expression was stoic, she was able to detect a flicker of surprise and recognition in his blue eyes when he met her gaze. "It is good to properly meet you, Monsieur," she finally said.
Enjolras merely nodded at this remark. "It has been a long time, Pontmercy," he said to Marius, who was still conversing obliviously with Cosette.
Marius nearly jumped when Courfeyrac grabbed his shoulder to call his attention. "Enjolras is asking how you are," Courfeyrac explained.
"Oh. I've had a lot to manage at work," Marius said distractedly, looking first from Cosette, then to the rest of the group.
"If you have time, your assistance would be more than welcome," Enjolras told him.
'With moving out perhaps,' Eponine couldn't help thinking now that she remembered that Enjolras had said that he hadn't planned to stay long at the Gorbeau tenement. Suddenly she felt Azelma tug on her sleeve. "What now?"
"Ponine, we're going to be in trouble," Azelma said through gritted teeth.
Before Eponine could ask why, hurried footsteps cut through the quiet of the park. "Cosette! Victor! What are you two doing here?" a voice snapped.
All eyes turned to see Fantine walking up to them, hands akimbo and her eyes dark in a way that hardly needed any interpretation.