TITLE: Charity in the Age of Marvels

AUTHOR: Susan M. Garrett (susanmgarrett@earthlink.net)

CATEGORY: Melodrama.

RATING/WARNINGS: Generally a PG, with an occasional R topic. There are some disturbing subjects intimated, but not discussed. If you have any issues with any kind of abuse of children, this story WILL upset you. Walk away now and no one will think the less of you for it.

MAIN CHARACTERS: Everyone.

THANKS: Thank you for reading with the understanding that I take responsibility only for mistakes of misspelling and grammar. What the characters do and say is entirely up to them.

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Chapter 1 - In which Jules Verne acquires a guest

It was one of those evenings that defined the reason Jules Verne had obeyed his father and left his home in Nantes to study law in Paris; the whispers of summer still lingered on the occasional autumn night, the moon was near full, and his friends were, as usual, getting royally drunk on the cheapest wine they could afford.

Theon and Norris were having a mock-battle over the last glass of wine poured from the bottle. He laughed as they splashed more wine on themselves than managed to get down their throats.

"Enough!" cried the proprietor, a large man with equally large and meaty fists. He lifted Theon from the floor by the back of his collar with one hand and grabbed a wild-eyed Norris by the shirtfront with the other. "Damned students," he muttered, dragging them to the door.

Grabbing his notebook, Jules then reached across the table to down the last of the wine in the abandoned glass. He followed the proprietor to the door, but backed up, hands raised chest-high in a moment of surrender when the man swung on him warily.

"You students! Tend to your books instead of the bottles!" the proprietor growled, slapping the flat of his hand heavily against the notebook and Jules' chest.

The force of the blow, however light, dropped him back a step and Jules slammed his back into the doorframe. "But then how would you make any money?" he countered.

"From respectable people!"

Jules stared at the man through bleary eyes - the world was beginning to swim. "I know - I know respectable people and they wouldn't dare set foot in a place like this!"

The proprietor's fist was raised and headed toward him. Before Jules could blink, he felt a tug on the back of his jacket collar. He was suddenly sitting on his rear in the unswept cobblestone street, Theon and Norris standing above him.

The proprietor came to the doorway and shook his fist at them. "If I see you in here again, I'll throw you all into the street. Filthy rabble!"

"We'd rather stay in the street!" replied Jules, but Norris placed an arm under his elbow and attempted to lift him to his feet.

"Jules! Will you get us barred from every tavern in Paris?"

"Who cares? Only the better-class establishments," noted Theon, with a slight hiccup. "And in a few weeks, most of my allowance will be gone, so I wouldn't be able to afford to vis-visisit them anyway."

"You're drunk," noted Jules, who was still trying to fight his way up off the stone-paved street. Despite Norris' valiant efforts, they were both sitting on the ground now. "I'm drunk, too."

The bells of Paris began to toll, two hours past midnight. Jules looked up at the night sky, wondering if he might see the shadow of the Aurora overhead. It had been two weeks since he'd last seen his English friends and in that time there had been no uncommon occurrences; just classes, hasty meals of stale bread and cheese, dreams of machines and places beyond his imagining, and long nights trying to recapture those visions in his notebook.

His friends from the Aurora were, as the proprietor had said, respectable people. He was a poor law student in Paris. Each time he said goodbye to them, he wondered if he'd ever seen them again, if they'd tire of his company.

There was an upward tug on his elbow.

"Make an effort, Jules, or I'll leave you here," warned Theon. "There are ladies waiting and I don't intend to disappoint them."

He looked up to find Norris already on his feet, albeit swaying slightly. Or maybe Norris wasn't swaying and it was just that his eyes were unable to focus?

It was an effort to get to his feet without dropping the notebook, but he did so.

"I thought you said you were out of money?" Norris was swaying, now seething with righteous indignation. "You pig! I paid for that last bottle!"

"I said I was going to be out of money soon," countered Theon. "It's a fine point of the language, the very embodiment of doctrinal law--"

"No," groaned Jules, placing his hands over his ears - made even more difficult by the fact that he was holding his sketchbook in one hand. "No more theology, Theon. I'm going home."

As Jules turned to go, Theon, who only seemed to become more agile after one too many glasses of bad wine, slipped in front of him, stopping him. "And miss Madame Larout's girls? I have enough money for each of us," he untied his purse from his belt and jangled it, letting them hear the coins rattle inside. "You can pay me later."

"Thank you, my friend, but not tonight." Jules placed his hand on Theon's shoulder, patting it as if to thank him, but also pushing him out of the way so that he could stagger home.

Norris was suddenly on his other side, catching hold of his arm. "Jules, are you mad? She has the loveliest girls in Paris!"

"The loveliest that we can afford," corrected Theon. "But they're young. Still pretty. There are some new girls fresh from the country - she said she brought them in especially for us, the students! You wouldn't want them to be wasted on a bunch of old men, would you?"

Norris released Jules, nearly spinning him around, as he turned on Theon. "You've been to Madame Larout's already? And you didn't ask me to come along? You are a pig!"

Theon held off Norris' attempts to punch him by placing a hand on his forehead and holding him at arm's length. "You idiot - never insult the man who's going to pay for your night's pleasure. Jules, you must come with us - I'd like to have some civil conversation with someone who has a brain. What's the matter? Aren't they pretty enough for you? Not young enough?"

"I already have a mistress," countered Jules, tapping his notebook. "And she's jealous of the time I've already wasted with you buffoons."

Norris had since given up on actually striking Theon and had taken a step back. "I think we've been insulted."

"He's only insulted you," Theon told him. Grinning at Jules, he clapped an arm around Norris' shoulder. "Let's leave our friend to his muse. That means more money for us, eh? And you know what that will buy?"

"More wine?" Norris asked, as they wandered away.

"Yes. For you. Because if you pass out, I won't have to pay--"

Jules laughed at their antics, then groaned aloud because the sound made his brain pound in his skull. He hated what the drink meant he'd feel like in the morning, but sometimes it stopped the visions. And if a heavy head and a dry mouth were the cost of a half-night's measure of blessed oblivion, so be it.

It suddenly occurred to him, as he headed down the street toward his room, that he seldom had visions when he was flying aboard the Aurora. A few times, yes, but not like the average nights in his squalid attic room, when the images of terrible and beautiful things filled his head until he thought his mind would burst. He'd awaken drenched in sweat, his head pounding, knowing that the pressure wouldn't go away until he wrote or sketched every detail he that could remember into his notebook. The visions started to slip from him the moment he awakened and his breath would quicken in his chest as if his life depended on catching every nuance of the dream, fixing it on paper. He would write and draw until the morning sun crept over the chipped and broken sill of his room. Only then did it seem to release him and he would stumble to his bed, his hand cramped from the pen, his back aching from leaning too close to the page to gain what light he could from the dregs of the candle. He had spent more on candles these past few months than he had on food.

And more of nearly nothing was even less.

No wonder he looked to the sky for his friends and their airship. Was there something about flight, about being so high above the earth and among the clouds that relieved him of this burden? He would have to ask Arago.

"Monsieur?"

The voice was quiet and small. At first he thought it was a cat. Jules stopped suddenly, throwing his foot out to catch himself as he nearly toppled forward, then turned warily in the darkened street.

It was a child, a girl no taller than four feet, if that. Her hair was dirty and unkempt, although hung long down past her shoulders and was held back by something tied in her hair. She wore a smock that was ragged and torn, but clumsily patched in places, and her feet were covered with strips of cloth bound together to form some sort of shoe. She stood in the middle of the street; her hands clasped together, fingers twisting around one another.

"Monsieur?" she asked again.

The wine that had fogged his brain seemed to dissipate - no little girl of that age should be wandering the dangerous streets of Paris at that late hour. He walked toward the child and knelt down at her feet. "Are you lost? Do you need help to find your home?"

"I--" The child glanced back over her shoulder, into the darkness, then swallowed and faced him again. "Monsieur, you said that you would like someone younger. I am very young."

"What?" asked Jules, not quite understanding.

"I could kiss you and call you 'papa' if you like. And I won't cry unless you want me to."

Jules rose to his feet as a man walked from the shadows; he found his hand instinctively going to the child's shoulder, pulling her nearer him.

The newcomer was an elderly man, his grin nearly toothless, the stubble on his face days old. His clothing was in better shape than that of the child, but the stench that rose from him - a combination of drink and filth - nearly knocked Jules over.

"Only a few coins more than your friends would pay for those older girls," hissed the man, with an air of camaraderie. "You can have her until morning. She's experienced, but fresh - no taint to her. You can do what you like with her."

Jules looked down at the child, who placed her hand over his, then back up at the man. "Are you her father?" he asked in dismay.

"I look out for her." He held out a hand, the palm worn, dirt mired in the very grooves of his fingers. "It's late - perhaps you pay a few centimes less because of the hour?"

"No. I'm not paying anything." Pulling his hand away from the girl's shoulder, Jules backed away, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. "I don't want her." He looked around, but the streets were deserted and the houses dark. "I should call a gendarme--"

"No need, no need," said the pimp pleasantly. He reached forward and grabbed a length of the girl's hair as if caressing it, drawing her toward him, even at the girl watched Jules with wide eyes. "We overheard, Monsieur, that was all. We were mistaken. Good night."

He needed to turn and walk away, but something made him stay - perhaps the look of terror in the child's eyes. The pimp began to drag her behind him, murmuring, "You'll find a customer tonight, little bitch, or I'll know the reason why--"

"Where--where are you taking her?" asked Jules. "Wait--"

The sound of running steps on the cobblestones echoed in the narrow street - in the silence they seemed to come from everywhere. The pimp hesitated, looked left and right, as if trying to find a place to hide. Whistles sounded and there were shouts of "Thief! Thief!"

A man appeared before them - working clothes, a cap, shoes, and a cloth bundle under his arm. He hesitated as he ran up to them, as if uncertain whether they would try to stop him. The pimp stepped forward as if to take the bundle from him by force, but then the sounds of pursuit were brought to reality by the appearance of two gendarmes.

The thief turned toward the gendarmes, pulling a knife from his pocket as he moved. Seeing this, Jules ran forward and ducked low, catching the villain in the small of the back. The thief fell forward onto the cobblestones, the bundle spilling open and candlesticks and silverware clattering out onto the cobblestones.

One of the gendarmes reached the man as he was rising and cuffed him on the side of the head with a stick - the thief didn't move. The other gendarme moved to Jules, who was picking himself up off the cobblestones. "Who are you?"

"Jules Verne. I'm a student," he said, showing his notebook. "I'm on my way home from the tavern."

The gendarme eyed him warily and nodded, as if he accepted the story. Then he caught sight of the child. "It's a bit late to have your sister up. Or is she yours?"

The little girl had moved closer to him, hiding behind him as soon as the gendarmes appeared.

"Mine?" squeaked Jules, his blood freezing as the intimations of the pimp ran through his mind again. But then he realized that the gendarme was asking a different question. "No," he said, forcing a laugh. "She's my sister. Mama sent her to find me. I was drinking with my friends, lost track of the time--"

The gendarme nodded again, this time curtly. "Get home, then. Thanks for your help, but a student shouldn't keep such late hours at the tavern, Monsieur Verne. Or have their baby sisters drag them home."

"Yes, sir. No, sir." Jules looked into the shadows of the building, but there was no sign of the pimp. He took the girl's hand and added aloud, "Let's go home."

The child peered into the darkened alleyways and crevices just as he had, then looked up at him. When Jules smiled at her, she smiled back and she wrapped her fingers around his. Jules headed back to his room with the little girl in tow, certain that on some street up ahead the pimp would run into them and demand the child back. He could have told the gendarmes the truth, but would his story have been believed? And what would have happened to the child? He knew they locked up grown prostitutes, but would they jail children as well?

The pimp never appeared. Jules surveyed the area cautiously as they approached his rooming house, but he saw no sign of anyone following them. Stopping at the door, he knelt down in front of the little girl. "Can you find your way home from here?"

The child shook her head from side to side, still watching him with wide eyes.

Sighing, Jules rose to his feet. "I suppose you'd better stay for the night. But be quiet - my landlady warned me not to keep any pets and I think she might object to children."

He tugged on her hand to lead her upstairs, but the little girl hesitated. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"I must be paid," she said in a small voice, holding out her palm. "If I don't give Dondre the money before I go upstairs, he beats me. I must be paid, Monsieur."

Jules felt his throat tighten. He knelt down in front of the little girl again and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. "What's your name?"

"Aimee."

"Aimee, my name is Jules. I won't make you go back to Dondre again. I won't hurt you. I won't let anyone hurt you."

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I won't have to go back to Dondre? You've bought me from him?"

"No, I haven't bought you." Jules wiped his hand across his face wearily - this wasn't working and his brain was fuzzy. He had younger sisters at home. Had he forgotten everything he'd ever known about dealing with children? "We'll talk about it in the morning, when I'm sober . . . and awake. Just come upstairs."

The little girl watched him, her eyes still wary. Rising to his feet, Jules held out his hand and smiled at her. "Come on. I might have some bread and cheese for you, if the mice haven't gotten to it yet."

The mention of food won her over. She swallowed as he spoke, then timidly placed her hand in his. Those eyes fixed on him, wide, but never trusting.

Jules took the steps slowly, knowing every creak in every board . . . and that his landlady would toss him into the street if she found him sneaking a child into his tiny attic room. Quickly abandoning the idea of trying to teach the little girl where the wood would betray their presence, he leaned down and scooped her up in his arms. She made no protest and fell limp immediately, like a bag of washing. Her hands went around his neck.

There was the smell of the old man about her and her clothing - dirt and drink and sordid grime. The feel of her fingers on the back of his neck was rougher than a child's should have been. The moment they entered his room, he lowered her to the floor; he couldn't wait to release her.

She stood like a statue just inside the door, as Jules moved knowingly through the darkness of the room and lit the stub of a candle that was sitting on the table by the window. The quarter loaf of bread on the table had small marks around the edges. He picked up a paring knife and cut the nibbled bit from the crust, then held it up for her to see.

"Are you hungry?"

"Yes, Monsieur."

But still Aimee stood at the doorway.

"It's Jules. Call me 'Jules.'" Grabbing the cheese, he sat down on the step between the floor levels in the room, then patted the space beside himself. "Sit here."

Only after he had instructed her to sit did the child move, snuggling close to him. He put an arm around her shoulder. "Here, I'll show you the proper way to slice the cheese, so you don't cut yourself."

Aimee watched him flip the knife through the hard rind of the cheese; the blade came away with a soft, nearly transparent covering as the slice fell into his hand. He handed it to her and this time there was no need for instruction - it disappeared into her mouth and was gone before he could blink.

There wasn't much left of the cheese. Throwing caution to the wind, Jules cut the remainder as best he could, pacing it out with bits of bread. He reached up to the table to grab a wine bottle that rested there - perhaps a quarter full. Unstopping the cork, he took a swallow . . . and immediately realized what a bad idea that was, as the alcohol in his system suddenly made itself known again. Before he could drop the bottle, he set it on the floor at his feet and leaned forward, his head in his hands. Not only did he not want to be sick at the moment, but he also didn't want to waste the cheese and bread he'd just eaten.

His stomach queasy, Jules turned his head and found Aimee watching him. "There's water on the table," he managed. "If you want a drink."

She was looking at the bottle at his feet. "That's wine."

"You might call it that," admitted Jules, somewhat reluctantly to himself, as well as to her.

"Dondre says not to drink wine because it makes me fall asleep and then they won't pay." She looked up at him. "But wine makes it not hurt so much."

Jules stomach twisted again, but less from the excess of wine he'd had earlier than from what Aimee had said, and that her expression had never wavered, still blank.

"It's time you went to bed," he told her. "There's a wash basin up there. Wash your face. And take off your shoes."

"Yes, Monsieur."

"Jules," he said softly.

She backed up a step, as if she were afraid that he'd hit her. "Jules," she repeated, with a solemn expression.

Jules watched her pour water into the battered porcelain basin, then he moved toward his bed. The sheet was almost as threadbare as the blanket, but not quite as patched. There was another blanket in a chest that Rebecca had left with him on some pretext - he'd washed it, aired it to dry, then folded it up and put it away, fully intending to return it to the Aurora. It wasn't as if she wanted it back, but he felt wrong keeping it.

Only . . . it was soft, and blue and smelled like her, the light perfume she wore when she was dressed for an event, like the morning he'd unexpectedly been presented to Queen Victoria. Each time he left to meet his friends, he promised himself that he'd remember to take the blanket, but it always seemed to slip his mind.

Jules opened the chest, took out the blanket, and then threw his old blanket to the floor. He shook the blue blanket over the sheet as best he could, then turned to see what had become of Aimee.

She was not only washing her face in the basin, but her hands as well. After dabbing her wet face with the towel by the basin, she studied her features in the partially corroded glass on the washstand.

"Shoes?" he reminded her.

She jumped when she heard his voice and looked down guiltily, as if ashamed to have been caught looking in the mirror. Returning to the step on which they'd been seated, Aimee sat down and untied the cloths around her feet. There was a bundle of paper or light board at the center, which had seemed to serve as a sole.

She needed shoes. Stockings. A better smock. A proper bath. Food. Toys.

A family.

There was no way to take her to Nantes. His mother would accept the child because she had that kind of heart, but not his father. There would be questions about how he had come about her. She was perhaps seven or eight, so it wasn't a matter of whether the child was his, but to whom else the child might have belonged. Until Jules could return satisfactory answers, his proud father wouldn't accept a waif like that into his household.

No answer that he could give would satisfy his father in this situation.

Aimee put her 'shoes' to one side and stood again, watching him. Her feet were dirty - but that could be handled in the morning. She should have something else to sleep in . . . .

Jules picked up a bag beneath the window - there was a shirt inside, not fully worn, but the sleeve had been too badly torn on one of his adventures to be mended correctly. Rebecca had asked Passepartout to throw it away, but Jules had rescued it, knowing that it was worth a few centimes at least from the ragman. Thanking fate that he'd been too busy to visit the ragshop, he found the shirt - it had been washed, at least. Taking the paring knife, he hacked away the sleeves and fastened the front of the garment. "Here," he said, handing her the makeshift smock. "You can wear this to sleep. I'll find you something cleaner to wear tomorrow."

Jules hadn't considered what the child might do - she surprised him by simply slipping the dirty rag of a smock over her head and letting it drop to the floor. She took the shirt from his hand and struggled into it the same way.

In between, when he saw that she wore nothing beneath the smock but dirt and scars and purplish bruises, he could have wept. But he hid his feelings and smiled for her. Seating himself on the bed, he patted the blanket. "You'll sleep here."

She walked toward him, still silent and obedient. As she approached, he pulled back the blanket and the bed-sheet. Aimee climbed into the bed without a word and lay quietly, her arms at her sides. Jules carefully replaced the coverlet up to her chin. He hesitated, then, not quite knowing what to do. Memories of bedtime at his family's house lingered. "Do you want to say your prayers before you sleep?"

"I don't have any prayers."

"All right." Leaning down, he kissed her forehead. "Good-night. If you get frightened, I'll be sleeping right here, beside the bed."

As he began to shrug out of his jacket and fold it into a makeshift pillow. Aimee sat up suddenly, terror in her eyes. "Have I been bad, Jules?" she asked anxiously.

"No, no," he said, cupping her face with his hand to reassure her. "You haven't been bad."

"If I was bad, Dondre wouldn't sleep with me. And then he beat me. I won't be bad for you, Jules. Ever! I'll do everything you want, even if it hurts. I won't cry. I won't ever cry."

There was panic in her voice. He sat down on the bed beside her and kissed her forehead again as much to quiet her as to comfort her - his landlady would take one look at the child wearing his shirt in his bed and--

"I don't sleep with little girls. I'm not angry with you. And I'm not going to hurt you. I promised that, remember?"

When he drew back from her, she nodded, if uncertainly.

"I want you to go to sleep now." He stroked her hair with his hand, then pressed her back against the meager pillow. "If you have bad dreams, I'll be right here," he gestured toward the floor beside the bed.

She looked down at the floor, then back at him. "I don't dream anymore," she said solemnly.

His first thought was that it might not be such a bad thing, but he smiled and patted her head again. "Then go to sleep. In the morning we'll see if we can find some eggs, all right?"

Settling back against the pillow, Aimee's shy smile reappeared. "I like eggs."

"So do I," he confided, casting a surreptitious glance toward the sock in which was hidden all of his worldly wealth. He wasn't about to admit to her what a luxury eggs could be for a struggling law student in Paris.

The eggs seemed to have eased her mind somewhat, for her face had lost some of that mask-like quality. "Shall I kiss you good-night?" she asked.

"If you like."

She popped up from under the blankets, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him lightly on the lips. Then, just as quickly, she burrowed down beneath the blankets again, her head poking out from the protective cavern she'd formed. "Good-night, Jules," she whispered.

"Good-night, Aimee."

Tossing his wadded-up leather jacket onto the floor beside the bed, Jules couldn't decide whether to use the blanket as a mattress or padding. Realizing after a moment that the cloth was so thin that it didn't offer much protection or comfort either way, he paused only to blow out the candle. It was flickering, the diminished wick almost swallowed by the small pool of wax at the base - it wouldn't last him another night.

Another expense.

Placing the blanket around his shoulders, he made himself as comfortable as he could on the uneven boards of the ancient floor. Only one of the shudders had been pulled to, so that the moonlight entered, casting shadows around the room. The window had been propped open and with the traffic of the day having passed, the smells of the street had once again settled - the breeze was sweet and slightly chill, but not uncomfortably so.

It was as he drowsed that he heard the music, a quiet singing. It took him a moment to realize that it wasn't coming from the street outside and below, but from the bed beside him. Aimee was singing and humming softly, so softly that only the absolute stillness allowed him to hear her senseless, wordless little tune. As it lulled him to sleep, he wished fervently that this night, at least, it might keep his visions at bay.

That night, he did not dream.

****

End of Chapter 1