Azelma had never seen her brother's abode; still, it was not difficult to find the only elephant in Paris.
She was not a monkey like the gamin-boys. Her mother had often told her so. She would not climb up, but sat on an elephant's foot until her brother should come down, which he eventually did, looking distracted.
“Ho, Azelma,” he greeted her, as if her appearance was the most usual thing in the world. “Have you seen two brats of mine?”
“Have brats got brats now?” Azelma replied. “No; but I hear you've seen my father.”
“Who told you that?”
“That dandy!” Gavroche laughed; the thought of Montparnasse itself was enough to amuse him. “Well, it turns out it's true. He flew the coop this morning and I happened to be by.”
“Do you know where he's gone?”
A shrug of supreme indifference.
“Is there any news of my mother?”
“That's that, then,” remarked Azelma, and stood. She did not know now where she would go; she had spent the last weeks aimlessly, going from hole to hole, waiting for direction. This was longer than ever before that she had been alone.
Gavroche was regarding her now with a little more attention. “Where's 'Ponine? Still in lockup?”
“Eponine's in love,” said Azelma, morosely. “She trails around after a mad student looking like this –” She gaped with her mouth and used her thumbs to pull down the hollows of her eyes.
Gavroche rocked with laughter. “Poor 'Ponine! Her belly's rumbling, that's all, and she thinks it's her heart.”
“Her stupid student won't fill it,” said Azelma. Her own stomach rumbled, reminded, but she was practiced at ignoring this. “If she was going to fall in love, she should have picked a banker. Perhaps he'd pay her to leave off.”
“A banker!” exclaimed Gavroche. He shook his head at her, with a look more of sorrow than scorn. “Those old ancestors of ours, they're a bad influence on you.” He sang a snatch of doggerel verse – d'ou viens-tu, bourgeois? D'ou viens-tu? Je viens de la rabouin – and then, before she could think of a retort, interrupted himself. “I've an errand to run. Want to come along with me?”
Now it was Azelma's turn to shrug her shoulders, but she was surprised, and it could be seen. “If you like,” she answered.
She was used to trailing after her sister, who was tall. The young ought to follow their elders. Trailing after Gavroche made her feel a fool, and, as they moved through the streets, she picked up her pace to walk next to him. “Where's it we're going?”
“It's all the same to you.”
Azelma clicked her tongue in irritation; for of course he was right.
“Well, I'll tell you this, there's likely a few sous in it,” Gavroche said, comfortingly, “and then there's dinner for you; you stick by me, I'll see you right.”
Azelma did not want to be comforted by her younger brother, either. She was scowling when Gavroche slowed and then stopped in front of a small workshop. He hopped up on the step, banged the door open, and called: “How is a fan-maker like a wallet?”
“There is more than one answer to that,” came the response. The man – a fan-maker, Azelma supposed – came forward, his fingers bright-stained with paint. “But I can't think of one that's not terrible.” He looked tired; he had been working all day; but his smile, as he looked down at them, was kind.
Gavroche was unperturbed. “Well, then, a man with a name like a page shouldn't receive secret messages.” He looked the fan-maker up and down, with the cool impudence of youth. “Yes, you're the one for sure,” he said, satisfied, “I've seen you at the Rue Glaciere,” and began to rummage through his pockets. Finding what he was looking for at last, he held out an old red fan. It was battered and scratched, as any old fan might be – though a suspicious eye might have thought the scratched looked a little too regular, as if they had been made by hand, and with intent. “That's for you. If there's an answer, I'm to come by tomorrow to collect it.”
“There will be, thank you,” said the fan-maker, accepting it gravely, and deposited ten sous in Gavroche's outstretched hand in return, which, from the looks of his shop, he could ill afford; Azelma's eyes tracked them as they disappeared in Gavroche's pockets. “I've seen you there as well. Your name is Gavroche, I think; but your lady friend, I don't know.”
Azelma and Gavroche both responded to this immediately, with equal indignation.
“She's no lady friend of mine!”
“Can't you see I'm taller than him by a head!”
“And uglier, the same!”
This deserved a blow, which Azelma delivered, and the fan-maker laughed. “Well, I see clearly my misunderstanding now,” he said, “but you are in the wrong too, to slander your pretty sister so.”
“My other sister's prettier,” remarked Gavroche. “This one would be a red-faced bourgeois if she could.”
“With three meals a day? Yes, please,” said Azelma, “I'll have your red face over your red fan any day of the week.”
Gavroche chuckled, but the fan-maker had gone still, watching her, and his pleasant worker's face was troubled.
“Don't worry,” said Gavroche, noticing. “She's not with us, but she won't gab. She's little enough still. It's the fine big people you've got to look out for.”
“I hope you are very sure of that,” said the fan-maker, in a low voice.
“Well!” said Azelma, not displeased by their suspicions. She had no inclination to go to the police about anything; still, there was a certain satisfaction for her at seeing the fan-maker's unease. Gavroche had only asked her to come along on his errand to show off. It would serve him right, Azelma thought, to receive an ear-twisting from his fine conspirator friends for his carelessness.
Knowledge of her power made her impudent. “It's your own lookout,” she said, to the fan-maker, “letting him hang about you all like this. You can see he's only a brat. He could blab all sorts of things, and then you'd be in real trouble.”
Gavroche made a noise of outrage and pinched her hard, but the fan-maker answered her seriously. “It's true there is danger to him, and perhaps danger from him. But it would be wrong to stop him from working towards what he believes. Those who are least rich – in status, in wealth, in years, in anything – are the ones who should least be prevented from doing so.”
The gravity of his answer surprised her somewhat; her boldness fled her, she ducked her head and did not know how to respond.
Then, to her greater surprise, the fan-maker smiled at her again. “Well,” he said, “I cannot gift you with a red face, but a red fan I can give you, and perhaps you'll find a use for it.” He went to the back of his shop, and when he came back there was indeed a lady's wooden fan in his hand, painted red – not old and battered like the one Gavroche had brought, but pretty and new, ready to be sold.
He handed it to Azelma. It was cheap; hundreds like it were sold every day in the street for less than a franc; still, it was the finest, brightest thing she had had for herself in some time. She opened and closed it in wonder, trying to cost out how much money it would lose him to to give it to her, and why on earth he would.
“All well and good,” said Gavroche, still annoyed about what she had said, “if there were any flames in her to fan – but she's nothing but a soggy milkweed, after all!”
Still, he had forgiven her enough by the time they turned round the block to remark, “Now you do look fine and grown-up after all, we should have somewhere to go; perhaps we'll go to the theater.”
“What, go to the theater! It's a waste of cash.” Still, she did not say it as vehemently as she might. She knew she did not look grown-up or fine, in her ragged pigtails and her ragged dress that showed her ankles; but it pleased her to flutter the fan in her hand, and play at being a lady.
“Cash!” said Gavroche, pityingly, “what kind of mackerel pays cash for the theater? You leave it all to me, the manager will let us by into the stalls, and we'll use my workman's wages to buy cakes.”
This seemed a sensible plan to Azelma. She agreed; and some time later, their bellies round and aching from sweets, they were scrambling up the stairs into the stalls, stepping on the shoes and skirts of the fine ladies and gents and followed by indignant comments about gamin impudence.
None of it was familiar to Azelma. Eponine went to the theater often, but Azelma preferred not to go; sometimes their father did not care what they did or where they went, but sometimes he wanted them for something or other. You could never tell when it would be that he would suddenly have them in mind, but if they couldn't be found there were consequences. Eponine announced she didn't care a sou for an old goat's anger, and laughed away her bruises; for Azelma it was simpler, she did not like being hit.
“There!” cried Gavroche, and pointed to a space on the balcony that looked clear. There were some people squarely between them and Gavroche's chosen spot, two students with a grisette accompanying them. Gavroche thought as little of this blockade as if they were curtains to be brushed aside; he launched himself past their knees, and Azelma, after a moment of hesitation – this was the kind of boisterous gamin-behavior her mother disliked in boys – followed his lead.
Fortunately the students were merry, and did not seem to mind having their toes stepped on. As they scrambled past, the bald one laughed and remarked, “It's too bad our philosopher didn't come along with us tonight. Think of the sermon he could deliver – see the Paris gamin, who leaves his stomach empty, but comes every night to fill his head.”
“Not the head, I think,” answered the other, “but the heart. From a medical perspective, the human animal can go on very well without learning. Consider your own shameless good health – and when was the last time you saw the inside of a classroom? Laughter, on the other hand, is indispensable.”
“Laughter? My dear fellow, tonight it's a tragedy!”
“Well, it's the gamin we're speaking of! A tragedy makes him laugh the most, the more Romantic the better – and you should know that very well too, for you're exactly the same.”
The woman between them said nothing, but her gaze snagged on Azelma as the girl squeezed by her, and the corner of her mouth twitched, rueful, amused and knowing. Azelma was not unused to getting looks of this kind from women like that – looks that said, I've been there where you are, someday perhaps you'll be where I am. She felt something about this; she had not decided what it was, though she knew the decision would have to come soon. It was a year or two ago already that Montparnasse had started making excuses to hang around Eponine, and Azelma was catching up to the age her sister had been then.
But when Eponine was Azelma's age, she hadn't had an older sister around to make her look small by comparison. That gave Azelma some time – unless Eponine really did run off with her student and leave them alone for good. What she would do then, she didn't know.
Gavroche was hanging dangerously over the balcony when she caught up with him. She grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled him back, without thinking. “No one's paid for tickets to see you crack your head.”
“It might do them good to see a real citizen shed his blood,” answered Gavroche. “Those Hernanistes, they think they're something wild, but I say too many kings and queens will send people straight to sleep anyhow; they'll think our old Louis of the Umbrella is just another actor, and they'll keep right on snoring through the climax. Me now, I'm wide awake!”
Azelma scoffed. “Of course it's always got to be kings and queens! If plays were just like anybody's real life, who would go?”
As the play went on, however, both Azelma and Gavroche found themselves satisfied. True, there was a queen involved, but she got enough noblemen murdered throughout the course of the story in various exciting ways that she was, as Gavroche shouted out during the bloodiest one, even better than a a Robespierre.
Azelma waited until the intermission to give her opinion. “They're very good murders,” she said twirling her closed fan with the air of a connoisseur, “as good as my mother's novels. I wonder whatever became of those books of hers! I suppose some cop has got them now, and sneaks off to stick his nose in them when he's supposed to be out scouting.”
Gavroche laughed. He was certainly an awful brat, but it was pleasing how ready he was to laugh; perhaps there was something in all the nonsense the students had been spouting. “There's a couple of she-thieves living in your old place now,” he told her, “a pair of turncoat light-fingers; perhaps they've got the books, they seem to like fiction – they brag that they're pulling a fast one on old Vidocq the cop's dog.”
“I know about that,” said Azelma, glum again. Their old place had been the first place she'd gone back, after she and Eponine were let out. “The landlady chased me out when she saw me. That old bag! She's the kind who's fine with anything as long as you don't let her know about it, but once you get caught it's nose in the air and get out, you rats.”
“Where's your digs now, then?”
“A haystack, last.”
Gavroche hopped up on the edge of the balcony and sat there, perilously perched. “I'd got my guest room ready last night,” he remarked, “for those brats I may have mentioned to you before. But I don't know where they've got to now, so I've accommodations available. ”
He said it as if he were doing her a great favor, of course. Azelma bridled; but she then took another look at him, so small and so careless.
Another perspective presented itself. She had been by herself for some weeks; she had been lost, lonely, listless; in a word, it had been terrible. Gavroche had been by himself for some years. He was accustomed to it, one could assume. But perhaps, all the same, he was no less lonely than she; perhaps even more so.
She swept the fan open again. “Well,” she said, as careless as he, “I may as well take a look, and see if it's not better than the other.” Her mother would not like her climbing elephants; but her mother was not here.
“The rent is cheap as it comes,” said Gavroche, “but, fair warning, my kids may turn up again after all. Then we'll have a real crowd!” He didn't sound displeased at the idea. Then he cried, abruptly, “Now you shut your trap, it's starting again!”
“It wasn't me yapping!” said Azelma.
The play ran through to its end; Gavroche cheered each time a royal died, and by the last execution appeared to be in goodwill with all the world. He started to sing as they shoved through their way through the crowd and down the stairs. It seemed reckless to sing while surrounded by so many high and mighty people, but after half a verse the students ahead of them joined in, and Azelma found she did not care so much about making a spectacle of herself; she jumped in on the chorus, bah, bah, lui dit le roi, la reine l'a bien plus noire que moi! The woman with the students was singing, too. She had a pretty voice. It was strange, to hear so many people being happy, and feel as if she were a part of it.
Then they passed the doors to the mezzanine, and it became more of a crush than ever; there was no way to go on singing when you had no breath in your lungs. Azelma nearly lost Gavroche in the crowd, but she could hear his laughter ahead of her, and followed it. They emerged, gasping, onto the front steps, and ran around to the side and down the smallest, emptiest alley. Then Azelma gasped for another reason. She held up her wrist to show Gavroche; there was a dangling cord around it, but the fan had snapped off, lost somewhere in the crowd.
“Females and their fripperies,” said Gavroche, and shook his head, with the air of a sage old man. “Well, never mind, I'll find it for you; it would take you too long, you mind people too much!” He was off before she could protest that it was not worth it, it would already be trampled. It was still cold at night, though it was spring; she stood in a corner between two walls and rubbed her shoulders, feeling the warmth in her seep out through the holes in her dress.
She had waited perhaps five minutes when a shadow crept along the other side of the alley.
She froze quite still, and the shadow noticed her and went still too; in that moment, they recognized each other. “Well,” said Thenardier, relaxing, “it's you.”
“I've been looking for you,” Azelma answered, her voice high. For a moment, she could not remember why.
“Have you?” said Thenardier. “You'd think you could make your way better, old as you are! – still, you may be useful, you might as well come along then – not with me now, I'm on business that doesn't need you. You'll see me later.” He gave her an address; she nodded dumbly. Then he went away. She became aware that Gavroche had arrived at some point and was standing next to her.
“I think,” remarked Gavroche, “that's what you'd call a prodigal father.”
“Yes,” said Azelma, blankly. The prospect of living with her father, alone without her mother or sister there, seemed suddenly dreadful to her. And yet, what could she do? Someday soon, her mother would be released and come to find them. And then it would be her mother alone with her father, and that was no good, either.
“The address he gave,” she asked him, “do you know it?”
“Ah – so you're going!”
Azelma looked at him. “You could come too,” she said. He had not said Gavroche might; but he had not said he might not. “You might have a roof, and belong to somebody.”
Gavroche made a careless gesture. “After all, between that and this, I think I'd prefer to belong to nobody.”
Azelma ducked her head. He had no right to sound disappointed in her; but then, it was foolish of her to be disappointed in him. “Well, you now, you wouldn't understand – if my mother were to lose me, how she would cry!”
“Maybe so,” said Gavroche, dubious. “Either way, some people have better things to do than to make sure a dog doesn't yap. But then,” he added, with a philosophical shrug, “some people like dogs.”
This stung. “It's all very well,” Azelma snapped, “to care for nobody but yourself. But I know what it is to have someone who cares for me. Eponine's off in a dream, and who does that leave?”
“I have a mother too,” Gavroche informed her, “and she's prettier than yours; she's Paris.”
“You learned to say that from a student.”
“So? It's true for them, it's true for me.”
“Not the same true for them as for you,” said Azelma. She was very angry all of a sudden. Gavroche might love Paris, but Paris loved Gavroche no more than Madame Thenardier did. Paris had her favorites, her little darlings, the ones she fed and dressed well and made cooing noises over; Gavroche would never be one of them, any more than Azelma would, no matter how loud they sang. When they all stopped singing, some of them would still have holes in their shirts.
But Azelma could be her mother's favorite, at least. And if Gavroche couldn't – well, that was too bad for Gavroche!
“Well,” she announced, “I'm off.” She did not know where to find the address her father had given her, but she could manage; what she could not do anymore was ask Gavroche where to find it.
“Take this, then,” said Gavroche, and passed her the red fan. As she thought, it had been stepped on. “A little glue will set it right, if you can get some.” He saluted her, then shoved his hands into his pockets and marched off in the other direction, carelessly singing the ca ira.
If a policeman heard that, he would be in trouble, but that was not her business. Azelma went in the other direction. The fan, she decided, had been broken beyond repair; she threw it in the river on the way home. She'd no use for things that were useless.
“They're laying out the bodies from the barricade at the Rue de la Chanvrerie!” someone shouted, and Azelma ran over to see – at first simply because dead bodies were always a sight worth seeing, and perhaps there was something to be nicked from a pocket if you were lucky and quick.
Then she saw the first of them laid out at the end, a face she recognized; it was the fan-maker.
She went closer then, though the further you went along the line the more people there were, and the less possible it was to steal anything. Some were policemen, they were the ones doing the sorting; the rest were were women, coming to claim the bodies that belonged to them.
One of the women caught Azelma's gaze. She looked familiar, and Azelma thought she'd seen her before – perhaps in the theater. Or perhaps not. Her eyes were red from weeping, but her voice itself was calm, and pretty; so maybe it was the same woman after all. “Do you think your father's there?” she asked, with a nod towards the bodies.
“No,” said Azelma. “Not my father.”
She walked on, looking at the bodies, the blood on their clothes. They all had bullet-holes in their shirts. Some had them also in their heads. There were so many bodies that there was not much space left, and more of them still to be laid out; Azelma recalled that she had heard that the barricade at the Rue de la Chanvrerie had been bloodier than any of the others.
Her eye had just fallen on the corpse of a young, slim-looking workingman when she heard one of the policeman call, “Where should I put this one?” He was lifting a small body. It was Gavroche.
“You may as well leave it,” answered the other. “Brats like that don't belong to anybody.”
This was how Gavroche's pretty mother treated her children.
Azelma's voice exploded from her throat, so loud that later she would realize that it hurt to speak; she would be silent and empty tomorrow and the day after, but now she was full to bursting. She had not known she had so much anger in her.
“That's not so!” she cried, and the cops turned round to stare at her, the half-grown girl in the ragged dress and the ragged, rage-swollen voice. “That's not so; he belongs to me!”