L'Amie de l'Abaissé - A Girl of the People
It was on her way back to her lodgings from Mme Verne's dress shop late on a freezing winter night that she heard the shrieks. They were the cries and sobs of a young girl, clearly in pain. A man's voice cursed obscenities that could be heard between her pleas and cries. The sounds came from down the alley that Marianne was passing by on her way home.
She knew it had been foolish to walk on her own so late at night, but she couldn't find a friend willing to accompany her, and she hadn't been able to finish the three dresses she had been assigned to complete until late that evening. She knew she had to bring them to the shop before the proprietress closed up and retired for the night, or she wouldn't get paid in full for the day's labor. Mme Verne was a stern taskmistress and demanded that her seamstresses finish all of their work on time by the end of the day, or they would get paid only half or less of the day's wages the following morning. She had made it just in time as the lady was just turning out the lights in the front room and retiring to the back where she slept.
Marianne knew it was even more foolish, some would say crazy even, to stop in front of the alley and slowly make her way down it closer to the sounds, but she could not help herself. The girl was still sobbing and crying and, as she moved closer, she could hear the lash of a whip on flesh. She flinched and clutched her thin shawl more tightly around herself. She knew she should simply leave and make her way back to her lodgings as fast as possible, but she could not make herself move away. She was never one to stand by while another person was suffering, and she hated the strong taking advantage of the weak simply because they could.
She crept stealthily down the alley, and as she turned the corner, she saw them. A girl lay on the ground her face turned away from her tormenter and her hands thrown up to protect her head. The man who stood over her brought down his whip on her back and the girl shrieked again in pain, louder this time. Marianne wanted to help the girl, but she didn't know what to do. She was not physically strong enough to restrain the man and she didn't know what else she could do to stop his assault on the poor girl. She could only watch in sympathy and pray for the man to stop and leave.
The girl pleaded again, and this time she could hear her muffled words. "Please, please, stop," she begged, "I'll do it next time, I swear. I won't refuse him".
"Don't you ever dare disobey me again, you little whore," the man snarled with another vicious flick of his wrist, "or I'll have you thrown on the streets for good".
"I won't, I won't" the girl cried. Finally, the man relented and after a final vicious kick to her chest, he stopped beating her and straightened up.
"You can spend the night outside. It'll do you good," he remarked with malice, before entering the tenement building behind him and slamming the door closed. There was the click of the latch and then silence.
The only sounds left were the girl's muffled sobs as she lay still on the hard-packed snow. Marianne, feeling a bit sick to her stomach hurried over to the girl's prostrate form and, after a moment of wondering what to say, asked "Are you alright?"
The girl's sobs abruptly stopped and she turned quickly over, startled to see Marianne leaning over her.
"Wh-who are you? Wh-what do you want?" she stammered out between gasps of air.
"I just want to help you," Marianne said soothingly. "Do you have any broken bones? Can you stand up? "
The girl shook her head at the first question and shrugged at the second. "You'll freeze to death if you stay here like this. Come, let me help you up," Marianne said firmly, sliding her arm under the girl's shoulder and lifting up to urge her to her feet.
The girl reluctantly obeyed and let Marianne haul her up slowly, flinching as she straightened up. Marianne could feel wetness across her back and she knew it was blood, not melted snow.
"Do you have a place to stay for the night? Any money?" Marianne asked, though she doubted the girl had either.
The girl shook her head and her lips twisted as she replied bitterly, "Nowhere but the streets. Or under the bridge, if I can find a man there who'll have me."
Marianne's stomach twisted uncomfortably at her words. Though the night was dark, from what she could see of her, the girl couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen years of age. What a wretched life she must live, she thought unhappily.
"Come with me then," she said, gesturing out of the alleyway.
"Where?" the girl asked somewhat suspiciously.
"You can stay with me for the night," Marianne replied.
"What do you mean?" The girl's eyes widened as she stared at her. "You would take me in?" she asked incredulously. "A complete stranger?"
"Of course," Marianne replied. "You are hurt and have nowhere else to go. If you try to sleep on the street, you'll freeze to death". And though she did not say it, she would not leave the girl with no choice but to whore herself out to a stranger for the night to sleep in a warm bed.
The girl stared at her for a moment longer and then nodded jerkily. They started walking then, Marianne directing their movement and gripping the younger girl's arm and moving slowly, as she saw she was clearly still in pain and moved stiffly.
Marianne hoped her landlady would be asleep by now. She did not know what she would say to convince her to let the girl stay in her room for the night. She would likely demand an extra fee for the extra "lodger", even if Marianne shared her own room with the girl, and the Lord only knew she was barely scraping by as it was.
She looked down at the younger girl beside her again. "What is your name?" she asked.
"Eponine. Eponine Thenardier," the girl replied without looking up.
"I am Marianne Larousse," Marianne said.
The girl- Eponine- said nothing in reply, and they walked on a little farther in silence.
As the two girls reached about halfway to her lodgings, Marianne suddenly noticed that Eponine was shivering more and more violently. Her raggedy dress was even more thin and threadbare than her own and ripped in several places, exposing quite a bit of skin to the chilly night air.
"Here," Marianne said, ripping her shawl from around her shoulders and thrusting it at the younger girl, trying not to notice the bitter cold sting of the wind on her bare shoulders.
Eponine stared at her oddly for a moment again, but grabbed the shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders tightly without a word.