In Which Eponine Meets Henri
It was a cold, dark night; the moon's pallid light glowed dimly in the evening sky. Only the black outline of a figure wrapped in a long coat could be perceived in the growing mist. As the person came closer, one could see it was a young man, a cap covering his thick hair and thin, patched clothing for shelter against the growing cold. The harsh bitter wind whipped at his face and bit his thin fingers, but he did not seem to mind. In his shadowy face could be seen the serene expression of thoughtfulness. The boy was musing.
Suddenly, another shadow loomed over him, and with it was brought the cold severity of a commanding air. Under the moon's pale glow, the man's (for it was a man) face shone, pale with anger and chiseled with merciless lines of age and weariness; he stared with marked impatience upon the child and finally, he cried angrily:
"What! And where have you been, boy? Out for a midnight stroll, are we? Come, lost for words, are ye, pretty boy?"
With that, the large man struck with his fist: a dull red began dripping from the boy's cheek.
"Come on!" continued the attacker, the corners of his thin lips curling maliciously, "Speak!" He lifted his hand again, and down with a snap! "Where have ye been, boy? Your mama's worried sick!" The man laughed at some unknown joke of his as the boy, who was now half kneeling on the ground, rubbed his tender jaw and glared at the other with hatred.
At the man's last words, the boy stood quickly, a brave, furious passion bursting in his thin chest, and his clear, loud voice silenced the laughter:
"What have you done with her? Answer me, you cruel, sniveling monster!"
"What did ye say to me?" demanded the other.
"I said," began the boy emphatically, "What have you done with my mother, you cruel, sniveling monster!"
That 'cruel, sniveling monster' was now staring with a look of disbelief and fury at the passionate man in front of him. Finally the spell was broken, and the older man said with a voice edging towards a scream, "What did ye say to me? I'll kill ye, I will! You're just like yer mother, you!"
But before he could lay his hands upon the boy, the boy had slipped skillfully behind him and was running with all the strength he could muster away from his raving father; the sound of the other man's threatening screams slowly dissolved into a silent, still air, and the boy made his way again in the darkness.
Eponine shivered, moving closer to the faint warmth of her little fire. Outside, the wind continued howling ferociously—a hungry wolf searching for prey. Protected from the cold night, Eponine had enough gratitude to thank God for her filthy yet secure abode.
As she shuffled close and wrapped herself in a dirty thick sheet, a sharp rap came from the door. She sprung up, the blanket tumbling down to her bare feet.
"Yes?" said she in her hoarse, low voice; she had opened the door just enough to peep warily from the black hole, for the life of the poor is one of fear and suspicion. As she stared out into the dark night from her little gap, her mouth parted slightly in surprise.
A boy, not more than ten or eleven, was standing in front of her, his thin coat unable to preserve his puny body from the winter, as Eponine could clearly observe, for he trembled at intervals as he spoke:
"Please, mademoiselle, will you let me in? I'll stay only a while and I shan't take anything from you, I give my word. Please… it is so cold!"
He was quivering from head to foot; his large black eyes glanced with pathetic misery at the sympathetic girl in front of him.
She let him in, moving back with an expression of dumb wonder, for never in her seventeen years had she witnessed such desperate wretchedness. Eponine had seen the harsh effects of poverty; she had experienced brutal treatment and agony too horrible to mention; life horrid enough to drive one to starvation was not unknown to her. But as she stared at the shivering, scrawny child, his dirty hair dripping and his eyes returning the glance with such knowing grief, she realized just how blessed her poor life was. What child deserves to be robbed of his happy youth at so young an age!
"Mademoiselle, would you mind if I sat by the fire?"
His simple question had been presented with such hopeful delicacy; it woke Eponine from her reverie.
"Of course!" exclaimed she. "Come; remove those drenched clothes of yours!" And so saying, the girl bustled about, changing his filthy rags to reasonably clean, at least to Eponine, warm garments. She wrapped a sheet, the one that had dropped to her feet, around his quivering body, as gently as was possible, for she believed the faintest pressure would break his fragile frame.
At last the boy was properly dressed and sitting comfortably near the small fire. As Eponine sat down in front of him, the crackling fire radiated the small, dark room and she could see the boy's face more clearly.
The boy had a thin face, gaunt cheeks and the red lips of a woman. His fair hair, now scrubbed viciously clean from all signs of grime and filth, was of a light brown, falling down in thick waves to his pale forehead. It was a pretty face, despite the pitifully bony, lean body, but the most striking feature of it were the eyes—marvelous to behold were they! They were large and clear, surrounded by long, curling lashes; the eyes were black, but in the fire's warm, faint glow, they shone and sparkled with the knowledge of the stars; and the best thing about these magnificent great orbs was that they held such mournful wisdom, rare in a young creature, and as if they had their own sad story to tell.
"What is your name?" asked she after a pause, trying to soften her voice but only succeeding in making it very low: she never had been one for gentleness.
"Henri," was the hesitant reply.
"Where are your parents, Henri?"
He answered with a shrug of his thin shoulders, and Eponine fell silent, falling into her own thoughts. When finally she remembered and glanced at the boy, he was already breathing gently, his eyes closed with the weariness of sleep.
As she watched him, Eponine felt something surge into her, something quite unfamiliar to her. She was not sure what it was and it bewildered her, as would anything so strange do, and she reacted by struggling against it, but in vain. This strange feeling, unknown to Eponine, was that of love. She had never before felt it and had thought it simply the thing that bound a man and woman together, such as that between her mother and father—and because of that, she did not care to associate herself with it.
The love she now felt unconsciously for this boy was that of a mother, gentle and devoted, patient and kind. It had been resting in her heart ever since, and now the emotions of sympathy stirred it.
For now, she sighed and waited for morning, quite ignorant of that feeling in her heart.