IV – Rose of the underworld (A chapter from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables)
A quite young girl was standing in the open doorway, facing the pallid light of the one small window in Marius’ garret, which was opposite the door. She was a lean and delicate-looking creature, her shivering nakedness clad in nothing but a chemise and skirt. Her waistband was a piece of string, and another piece tied back her hair. Bony shoulders emerged from the chemise, and the face above them was sallow and flabby. The light fell upon reddened hands, a stringy neck, a loose, depraved mouth lacking several teeth, bleared eyes both bold and wary: in short, an ill-treated girl with the eyes of a grown woman; a blend of fifty and fifteen; one of those creatures, at once weak and repellent, who cause those who set eyes on them to shudder when they do not weep.
Marius had risen to his feet and was gazing in a sort of stupefaction at what might have been one of those figures of darkness that haunt our dreams. But what was tragic about the girl was that she had not been born ugly. She might even have been pretty as a child, and the grace proper to her age was still at odds with the repulsive premature aging induced by loose living and poverty. A trace of beauty still lingered in the sixteen-year-old-face, like pale sunlight fading beneath the massed clouds of a winter’s dawn.
The face was not quite unfamiliar to Marius. He had a notion that he had seen her before.
‘What can I do for you, Mademoiselle?’
She answered in her raucous voice:
‘I’ve got a letter for you, Monsieur Marius.’
So she knew his name. But how did she come to know it?
Without awaiting any further invitation she walked in, looking about her with a pathetic boldness at the untidy room with its unmade bed. Long bare legs and bony knees were visible through the vents in her skirt, and she was shivering.
As he took the letter Marius noted that the large wafer sealing it was still damp. It could not have come very far. He read:
My warm-hearted 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, four of us, including my sick wife. If I am not deceived in my trust in humanity I venture to hope will relieve 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.
This missive threw an immediate light on the problem that had been perplexing Marius. All was now clear. It came from the same source as the other letters–the same handwriting, the same spelling, the same paper, even the same smell of rank tobacco. He now had five letters, all the work of one author. The Spanish Captain, the Fabantou, all were Jondrette–if needed, that was his real name.
As we have said, during the time Marius had been living in the tenement he had paid little to no attention even to his nearest neighbours, his thoughts being elsewhere. Although he had more than once encountered members of the Jondrette family in the corridor or on the stairs, they had been to him no more than shadows of whom he had taken so little notice that he had failed to recognize the two daughters when they bumped into him on the boulevard; even now, in the shock of his pity and repugnance, he had difficulty in realizing that this must be one of them.
But now he saw it all. He realized that the business of his neighbour Jondrette, was the writing of fraudulent begging letters under a variety of names to persons of supposed wealth benevolence whose addresses he had managed to secure, and that these letters were delivered, at their own peril, by his daughters: for he had sunk so low that he treated the two young girls as counters in his gamble with life. To judge by the episode of the previous evening, their breathless flight and the words he had overheard, the girls were engaged in other sordid pursuits. What it came to was that in the heart of our society, as at present constituted, two unhappy mortals, neither children nor grown women, had been turned by extreme poverty into monsters at once depraved and innocent, drab creatures without name or age or sex, no longer capable of good or evil, deprived of all freedom, virtue, and responsibility; souls born yesterday and shriveled today like flowers dropped in the street which lie fading in the mud until a cartwheel comes to crush them.
Meanwhile, while Marius watched her in painful astonishment, the girl was exploring the room like an audacious ghost, untroubled by her state of near nakedness in the ragged chemise which at moments slipped down almost to her waist. She moved chairs, examined the toilet-articles on the chest of drawers, fingered Marius’ clothes and peered into corners.
‘Well, fancy! You’ve got a mirror,’ she said.
She was humming to herself as though she were alone, snatches of music-hall songs, cheerful ditties which her raucous, tuneless voice made dismal. But beneath this show of boldness there was a hint of unease and awkward constraint. Effrontery is an expression of shame. Nothing could have been more distressing than to see her fluttering about the room like a bird startled by the light or with a broken wing. It was plain that in other circumstances of background and education her natural, uninhibited gaiety might have been made of her something sweet and charming. In the animal world no creature born to be a dove turns into a scavenger. This happens only among men.
Marius sat pondering while he watched her. She drew near to his writing table.
‘Books!’ she said.
A light dawned in her clouded eyes, she announced, with the pride in attainment from which none of us is immune: ‘I know how to read.’
Picking up a book that lay open on the table she read, without much difficulty:
‘General Baudin was ordered to seize and occupy, with the five battalions of his brigade, the Chateau de Hougomont, which is in the middle of the plain of Waterloo…’
She broke off and exclaimed:
‘Waterloo! I know about that! My father was there. My father was in the army. We’re all real Bonapartists in our family. Waterloo was against the English.’ She put the book down and took up a pen. ‘No spelling mistakes. You can see for yourself. We’ve done some schooling, my sister and me. We haven’t always been what we are now. We weren’t brought up to be-‘
But here she stopped and gazing with her dulled eyes at Marius she burst out laughing. In a tone in which the extreme of anguish was buried beneath the extreme of cynicism, she exclaimed, ‘What the hell!’
She began to hum again and then said:
‘Do you ever go to the theatre, Monsieur Marius? I do. I’ve a young brother who knows one or two actors and he gives me tickets. I don’t like the gallery, the benches are uncomfortable and it’s too crowded and there are people who smell nasty.’
She fell to examining Marius with a coy look:
‘Do you know, Monsieur Marius, that you’re a very handsome boy?’
The words prompted the same thought in both their minds causing her to smile and him to blush. Drawing nearer, she laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘You never notice me, Monsieur Marius, but I know you by sight. I see you by the stairs, I’ve seen you visiting an old man called Père Mabeuf in the Austerlitz quarter when I’ve been that way. It suits you, you know, having your hair untidy.’
She was striving to make her voice soft but could only make it sound more guttural, and some of the words got lost in their passage from her throat to her lips, as on a piano with some of the notes missing. Marius drew gently away.
‘I think, Mademoiselle,’ he said with his accustomed cold gravity, ‘that I have something belonging to you. Allow me to return it.’
He handed her the wrapping containing the four letters. She clapped her hands and cried:
‘We looked for that everywhere!’
Seizing it eagerly, she began to unfold it, talking as she did so:
‘Heavens, if you knew how we’d searched, my sister and me! And so you’re the one who found it. On the boulevard, wasn’t it? It must have been. We were running, and my sister went and dropped it, the silly kid, and when we got home we found it was gone. So because we didn’t want to be beaten, because what’s the sense in it, what earthly good does it do, it’s simply stupid, we said we’d delivered the letters to the people they were written to and they hadn’t coughed up anything. And here they are, the wretched letters. How did you know they were mine? Oh of course, the handwriting. So you’re the person we bumped into yesterday evening? It was too dark to see. I said to my sister, “Was it a gentleman?” and she said, “I think it was.”‘
By know she had fished out the letter addressed to ‘The Benevolent Gentleman outside the church of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas’.
‘Ah, this is for the old boy who goes to Mass. Well, it’s nearly time so I’d better run along and catch him. Perhaps he’ll give me enough for our dinner.’ She burst out laughing again. ‘And do you know what that will mean? It will be breakfast and dinner for yesterday and the day before – the first meal for three days. Well, who cares? If you don’t like it you’ve got to lump it.’
This reminded Marius of why she had called upon him. He felt in his waistcoat pockets, while she went on talking as though she had forgotten his existence.
‘Sometimes I go out at night and don’t come home. Last winter, before coming here, we lived under the bridges. You had to huddle together not to freeze and that made my little sister cry. Water’s dreadful, isn’t it? Sometimes I wanted to drown myself, but then I thought, No, it’s too cold. I go off on my own when I feel like it and sleep in the ditch, likely as not. You know, at night when I’m walking along the boulevards the trees look to me like pitchforks, and the houses, they’re so tall and black, like the towers of Notre-Dame, and when you come to a strip of white wall it’s like a patch of water. And the stars are like street lamps and you’d think they were smoking, and sometimes the wind blows them out and I’m always surprised as though a horse had come by and snorted in my ear; and although it’s night-time I think I can hear street-organs and the rattle of looms, all kinds of things. And sometimes I think people are throwing stones at me and I run away and everything goes spinning round me. When you’ve had nothing to eat it’s quite queer.’
She was gazing absently at him. Marius, exploring his pockets, had now succeeded in retrieving a five-franc piece and sixteen sous, all the money he possessed at the moment. Enough for today’s dinner, he reflected, and as for tomorrow, we’ll hope for the best. So he kept the sixteen sous and offered her the five francs.
‘The sun’s come out at last!’ she cried, eagerly accepting the coin; and as though the sun had power to release the torment of the popular jargon that was her every day speech she declaimed:
‘Well, if that isn’t prime! Five jimmy-o’goblins! Enough to stuff us for two days. You’re a true nobleman, mister and I tip my lid to you. Tripe and sausage and the tipple to wash it down for two whole blooming days.’ Hitching up her chemise and making Marius a profound curtsey, she turned with a wave of her hand towards the door. ‘Well, good day to you, mister, and your humble service. I’ll be getting back to the gaffer.’
On her way to the door noticed the crust of stale bread gathering dust on the chest of drawers. She snatched it up and started to devour it.
‘It’s good, it’s tough – something to get your teeth into!
And she departed.
She sees your impression of her–ugly, unfortunate, pitiful, repulsive, a creature not worth more than dirt between cobblestone, given not so much as a proper name–and raises you a girl that is oh so in love.