A/N: Wow. Thanks again for all of these kind comments - I'm glad you still enjoy the story.
Up comes the next chapter, which contains about half of what it should as a living monument to the fact that I suck at planning out how long a scene will get. Ah well. I hope you still like it.
If you leave a comment you make my day :-)
Thanks to judybear again for corrections
On a side note, I am not sure if in 1832 the Paris sewer system extended to Picpus already. As a matter of fact I have a suspicion it didn't. Bear with me on this inaccuracy, if you will...
Chapter 39: Flower amidst the ruins
"It is good to have friends, is it not? Even if, maybe, only for a little while?"
"Even if only for a little while."
The sun above their heads was much too bright, and Combeferre made an effort not to squint too much against its cruel glaze as they walked in silence through the bustling streets of Paris.
The air was full of heat and noises, laughs and screams, discussions and whispers, a cacophony that was assaulting his senses from all sides, a pandemonium that was almost impossible to be shut out.
He closed his eyes for a moment, running his hands through his hair in a futile attempt at silencing the voices and images, but he knew that this would not help.
He knew only too well that sleep was the only cure for this particular sickness, but closing his eyes brought images of her pale face, lips bloodless but pressed together in determination (you can leave) and a posture of iron will that refused to yield.
There was no refuge in sleep from the ghost of Hélène.
In a way he was glad for something to do. Following Marius through the city was certainly not among the most pleasurable pastimes, but it was better than sitting around brooding. Although he could not remember ever having witnessed a conversation going so tremendously wrong.
This was certainly not what Marius had intended when he had returned from prison to question Éponine, but the results had been disastrous. The temper that had emerged in their round had been as unexpected as it had been fierce, and whatever else their conversation had been, it had certainly been a step backwards with respect to every goal that they had harbored.
There was nothing wrong with a heated discussion, but the conversation had been well beyond this.
He had not seen it coming. He had taken the news of Éponine's unusual side occupation in his stride – the last days had brought out much more disquieting news than that – but Marius, with his strong set of morals and innocent view of the world had been hit harder than he would have thought possible.
The callous words and unexpected revelations might prove to be more difficult to erase than it seemed at first glance. But this was a question for another day. First, they had to find Marius and prevent him from coming to harm.
Combeferre was grateful that, at least, Jehan spared him questions and opinions for now. Although he suspected that the young poet had a fairly gentle and forgiving view on the situation, he still was not sure that he felt inclined to discuss the matter right away.
Thus, they were closing in on Rue de l'Homme Armé in companionable silence when their stride was interrupted by a fresh young voice calling out to them loudly.
The shout was uttered from somewhere between the buildings, from the shadows and half-lights on the side of the street. A clear voice, breaking through their thoughts effortlessly.
Combeferre stopped in his stride and turned around to the source of the call that originated from between a wine shop and a tenement, where a small passage led into a backyard. Under his gaze, he saw a shape peeling itself out of the darkness, and then, slightly later, a second one.
Two gamins stepped into the dust and sunlight of the streets. A boy slightly younger than Gavroche, dark blond hair falling in unruly strands into his eyes, a cocky grin on his face; and a smaller one, no more than five, trailing behind, losing the shadows less easily than his elder comrade had.
Combeferre knew that these were comrades of Gavroche, living in the elephant with him; boys of dubious origin but sound heart. The elder one, who remembered his name from before his time on the streets, but never spoke of where he came from, was called Jean, while the younger, truly born and bred to the gutters of Saint Michel, had been given the name of Pucet by his older comrades.
From time to time they had run errands for the Amis. They were smart boys, hardened by the streets, but still with the merry spirit of a lark singing in the morning sun, one of gods greater miracles.
"Yes Jean?" Combeferre answered, attempting at kindness but sounding rather weary even to his own ears.
"Got some news for ye we do", Jean announced with all the grandeur of a newspaper boy, grinning proudly and twirling a key around his fingers. He leaned against the wall of the tenement and the younger boy, who – as Jehan remembered just now – went by the name of Pucet, followed the gesture with all the eagerness and earnestness of a younger boy imitating an older brother.
"From Gavroche?" Combeferre asked, feeling slightly anxious. They had heard nothing of the gamin during the last day. That in itself was not unusual – Gavroche came and went as he pleased – but Combeferre could worried none the less. The boys shook their heads though in an almost synchronous gesture.
"Nah", Jean dismissed. "This news is our own, though Gavroche knows as well. Depends if ye wanna know."
Jehan, picking up the hint more quickly than Combeferre, slipped a hand in his pocket and fished for a franc, while young Pucet entered the discussion eagerly.
"There's floaters!" he announced in a delighted squeal, and Jean, seeing his news spoiled, gave his smaller comrade a decent smack over the head.
"Stupid kid", he scolded. "First pay then news."
For a moment Pucet looked as if he was going to cry, but he did think better of it and the screwed face smoothed out again, his eyes glued on Jehan's hand as he produced the franc and handed it over to the older gamin.
"I think", he reminded them friendly, "we have been honest with one another and should stick to this habit, don't you think? So there is no need for worry."
Jean nodded, having obviously understood what Jehan was trying to say, flipped the coin through the air before it vanished somewhere in the depths of his ragged clothing.
"Young chatterbox here's right", he said. "There's floaters."
"I beg your pardon?" Combeferre entered the discussion. "Floaters?" He had a suspicion what the boys meant, hoping against hope that he was wrong.
"Dead bodies", Pucet supplied cheerfully, his tone completely at odds with his statement, confirming Combeferre's fears. "In the water. That's why it's floaters. And they smell."
He frowned disapprovingly.
"Dead bodies", he echoed. "Where? And what sort of bodies?"
Jean picked his nose diligently before he answered.
"In the sewers", he then answered. "Floating. And guys like you. Young and rich. Thought, you'd want to know."
Jehan and Combeferre exchanged a quick gaze, and Combeferre was certain they were thinking the same thing.
So many of the Picpus group had vanished and were unaccounted for.
"I can bring you", Jean offered, stretching out a hand in attendance of possibly yet another coin. "Know where they are and can bring you there so you don't bring trouble."
"This is a tempting offer, Jean", he admitted. "However, we are currently trying to find a friend of ours who is unaccounted for. He left our assembly a bit early and we suspect that he has left for Rue de L'Homme Armé. Maybe we can go after we checked on him?"
Jean chewed on his lips thoughtfully.
"Wouldn't do that. Now that I know others will as well. The floaters will probably be gone soon."
The boy rolled his eyes, as if having to explain the simplest matters to the most stubborn pupil.
"Cause they were rich, of course. And folk are poor."
Combeferre decided he did not want to dwell on the matter, and apparently unspoken, Jehan came to the same unhappy conclusion. The dilemma, however, remained.
"Perhaps", Combeferre answered, "we could go to Rue de L'Homme Armé together. From there on, we might divide and one of us could follow you to where these floaters are."
Jean pondered the proposal for a moment, continuing to worry his already heavily abused lip. Then, finally he shrugged.
"Why not", he answered and turned on his heel. "Come, Pucet."
The boy followed, and thus the two gamins passed through the Paris streets, effortlessly like fish through water. Jehan and Combeferre were hard pressed to follow at equal speed, and when they finally reached the dwellings of Cosette and her father, the boys were already there, Jean with a bored expression on his face, Pucet bouncing excitedly.
For a moment, all four of them stood in front of the entrance. Jehan hesitated for only a moment before he spoke.
"I will go with them, Combeferre", he proposed. "It's… probably for the best."
Combeferre looked at him in surprise. It was not quite like Jehan to volunteer for a mission like this, and yet, their poet friend had been known to find initiative at the oddest of times. There was determination in his gaze, and this was a certain measure of relief. Weary and worn as Combeferre was, he was not sure he was up to the gruesome sight of bodies several days dead. There was a part of him that started scolding himself for this show of laziness, but he was tired, so tired, like a heavy blanket weighing down on his shoulders. Combeferre hesitated for a moment.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
Jehan considered this for a moment earnestly, the young, open face slightly thoughtful before he nodded.
Combeferre sighed and passed two weary hands through his hair, feeling the tangles, before he nodded.
"Very well", he said then, almost softly. "Thank you."
Jehan nodded, and he turned and followed the two gamins through the streets of Paris, while Combeferre entered the house that the Fauchelevents lived in.
Slightly uncertain, Jehan looked at the gaping hole before him.
They were standing in Rue de Reuilly, at the border between Saint Antoine and Picpus. Here, a small cabin was built that housed nothing but a narrow staircase leading downstairs. Against the bright, sunlit street, the darkness was absolute and a foul, sour smell from below showed only to clearly that he was standing at one of the entries into the Paris sewer system.
Jean nodded towards the staircase.
"That's where it was."
Prouvaire nodded weakly.
"I have not brought a lamp", he realized as he stared into the black, but Pucet squealed and shot towards the entrance, rummaging at the side of the stair case until he produced an oil lamp that he proudly shoved towards Jehan.
"They got lights", he announced with all the grandeur of a young child, and Prouvaire nodded gratefully.
"How many… floaters were there do you think?" he asked. Jean shrugged.
"Dunno. A dozen or so, I guess. Didn't stay to count."
Prouvaire was not quite sure that he even wanted to know how the boys had stumbled upon this hiding place of bodies, but this was a question for later; and probably a question better asked to Gavroche. Instead, he fished for another coin from his pockets and pressed it this time into the younger boy's hand. Jean grinned and nodded.
"Thanks M'sieur", he slurred. "Now let's get going. Wouldn't want us to get covered in mold, would we?"
Prouvaire smiled despite himself and nodded.
"Indeed", he said. "We would not."
Lighting the lamp, he took a last breath of sweet air and stepped into darkness.
The sewers were a gruesome place. A web of channels under the streets of Paris, signs of the street names clinging to the moist walls in a mockery of the city above. Darkness covered it, only broken here and there, where a connection had been drawn to the outer world to allow rain and worse to drip down into the underworld waters that flowed lazily through this labyrinth. Unlike the first impression suggested, the sewers were not completely dark, but dotted with brighter spots, that bathed the complete installation into a murky half-light.
The smells were miasmatic, a mixture of the waste of humanity and decaying human flesh, mingled with older odors that had ingrained themselves too deeply into the walls to be removed again.
Next to these stinking rivers, stepping stones close to the walls of the tunnels allowed relatively clean passage. Jean found his way with the agility of a small cat, safely and surely, and Pucet, following him was no less nimble. Prouvaire had slightly more trouble with the slippery stones and was careful to place his feet on steady ground, but in general they were progressing well.
Until the boys before him halted in their stride.
Prouvaire stopped as well, standing behind them and peering into the tunnel, trying to make out details in the darkness before him. Then, however, he heard the voices.
Fairly quiet, but clearly distinguishable over the soft squishing of the underworld rivers. Jean made a face.
"Told ya", he whispered. "Time was running out. Others found the floaters."
Prouvaire pondered this for a moment, and then nodded. He extinguished the flame of the lamp that carried far here in this somber surroundings and allowed for his eyes to adapt to darkness. The voices were too far away to discern what was spoken, but he recognized at least one man and one woman, and he took a deep rallying breath.
"Stay back", he whispered to the boys, who, surprisingly, seemed inclined to obey, and carefully closed in on the sounds, his steps all but drowned out by the quiet squishing and splashing of water.
It was the most gruesome sight he had ever seen. In a niche about five meters deep, just off the main underworld river, he saw a heap of clothes and human remains. Even expecting it, it was a terrible thing to behold, and the stench that had been clearly distinguishable all through his passage here was almost overwhelming.
It was summer. Decay came quickly.
Jehan forced down a feeling of sickness and avoided looking too closely at the bodies.
The clothes indeed spoke of wealth, chemises, waistcoats, a few jackets despite the heat, even several hats; spoiled and tainted by the surroundings.
Jehan took a moment to stare at the remnants of what probably were indeed the missing members of the Picpus cell. A quick count – a rough count since Prouvaire tried not to look too closely – brought up that the number was roughly fitting to the number of missing comrades from the area, and the hiding place – just off the cemetery of Picpus – completed the picture he suspected.
A silent prayer passed his lips almost unbidden; it was gruesome to lose comrades this way, and all the more to find them days later, and in a place such as this.
So distracted he was by the dead, that he would have almost missed the living that were present as well, mere shades, but the source of the murmuring he had heard for a while.
Three shapes were moving between the dead, ransacking what could be salvaged from the bodies – jewelry, clothes, boots…
Two of the shapes were men, one a man of average height in a faded jacket, moving with agility and experience that made Prouvaire shudder, the second large and spindly and pale, gliding between the dead with the grace and cunning of a nasty snake.
The third shape was holding back, standing at the side of the carnage, uncertainly prodding at a finger, or a piece of cloth, her whole posture speaking of hesitancy.
It was a wisp of a girl with dark hair and cautious movements, trying to stay out of sight of both men without having to get too closely to the decaying bodies.
Only when she stepped behind the pile, bringing her face in his full view, he recognized her.
Like a fire trail shooting into his limbs, shock gripped him for a moment and he could do nothing but stare at the surprise of seeing her so unexpectedly, and in a place such as this. For a moment, he did not know what to think or do, his eyes just drinking in the image of the pale, narrow face, the small, birdlike figure, the large, sorrowful, beautiful eyes.
There were no tears in them, but a mixture of disgust, fear and sadness that was impossible to resist.
He must have made a sound, uttered some word or shout, for after a moment she raised her head. No less shocked than he was, she stared for a moment, before she slowly shook her head. His presence seemed to manage what the dead had not been able to; tears were forming in her eyes and a deep, rallying breath went through her whole, slender shape.
And then she ran.
She passed the carnage with surprising speed, passed him as well, too quickly for him to react.
"Go away", she shouted in passing, and he would have flinched, had she not seemed so much like a deer on the run, following its first and most primal influence to flee in the face of opposition, to flee to live another day.
Her flight and shouts had attracted the attention of the other two as well, who, still occupied with the carnage, interrupted what they had been doing.
They screamed at him, and Prouvaire vaguely saw the smaller of the two lifting something from the floor to throw it at him, but he did not wait to see what it was.
The Picpus brothers were dead, and there was little he could do to save their dignity now.
The girl, Azelma, however, was living.
And so, Jehan ran in pursuit.
They raced through the tunnels of the sewers of Paris, the girl before him, her comrades somewhere in the rear, shouting and cursing in French and argot alike.
Vaguely, Jehan realized that the boys were no longer there – probably taking flight at the uncertain prospect of being brought up against these fully-fledged members of the underworld – but there was no time for these thoughts, not, when they were running through the echoing tunnels that played tricks on their senses and called forth specters of the mind.
He was not even aware of the danger, did not waste a thought on what would happen if the two men caught up with him. More gruesome, and more frightening, stood in his mind the image of the girl, and that this should be the memory they retained of one another, in this dark place of shadows. He could not, would not explain why it was this, that drove him on, but Jehan embraced and followed the impulse and it granted him wings.
They say that a man on a just cause has his own sense of directions, and that he possesses a special kind of guidance, and for the first time Jehan found the saying to be true. In pursuit of Azelma, he decided his path at crossings on sound and intuition alone, and yet, while he heard the two others giving up on following after a while, he never lost her track.
Finally, out of breath, he reached a dead end in the sewers, the river vanishing in a gurgling stream through a hole in the wall and Jehan found himself next to another staircase leading up into the streets again.
Out of options he climbed the stairs and stepped into the afternoon sunlight.
She was not far.
Their flight had led them to the banks of the Seine, and there she was, having climbed down a set of stairs usually used by fishermen, and let her hands run through the water, rubbing on them, cleaning a stain away that only she could see.
He took a moment to watch her, the hunched figure, her face hidden by the long hair that fell over her shoulder, the tips almost touching the water surface, but he did not stay unremarked long.
As if she had sensed his presence, she looked up.
And froze, eyes wide in shock.
With careful, deliberate movements, Jehan took a seat on the quai, legs dangling in the air, as unobtrusive a posture as he could think of. The stones were warm and the seat almost comfortable, if not for the images that he could not shake, and the haunted look in the eyes of the girl before him.
A careful, very careful invitation. Like a shy animal he tried to beckon her, barely moving.
She blinked once, twice, staying motionless at the bottom of the stairs, before she slowly unfolded herself to full height, hands and sleeves and skirt dripping wet as she looked up to him. His stillness seemed to have infected her as well, and she met his gaze, unsmiling, almost unblinking.
"I bear you no ill will." Again, Jehan used a quiet, tender tone, trying to wash away the menace of the way they had met, the darkness of the scenario. She did not react, and he continued, giving his best shot. "Azelma."
That had her flinch visibly, and she would almost have slipped from the wet stones, but her balance was good and she caught herself again, but the moment – and her gaze – was gone.
"Who are you…?" Her voice was vibrating with suspicion.
It was not much, but it was a start. At least she was responding.
"My name is Jean Prouvaire", he answered openly, and then added, his voice a slightly warmer shade, "Jehan."
She took in this information with a somber earnestness that seemed beyond her age and nodded slightly, almost thoughtfully.
"What do you want from me?" she continued at length, and shot him a gaze between the brown strands that had started to fall over her face again. He smiled carefully, searching for words for a moment before he continued.
"A conversation, Mademoiselle", he offered softly, quietly. "A conversation, nothing more."
She cocked her head slightly, measuring him up carefully.
"Just talk?" she asked suspiciously, almost disbelieving, and he nodded. She had not tried to run away again, yet, had not tried to fling herself into the coursing river, had not screamed for help.
On the whole, this was not the worst of signs.
"Though I would prefer you step up to me for this", he proposed carefully, only belatedly realizing that his fingers were fidgeting with his cuffs again. "I would not want to talk down to you."
Again, she considered this for a moment before she stepped up the staircase, bit by bit, carefully setting her feet, never leaving him out of her gaze.
She seated herself on top of the stairs, a good two meters away from him, weaving her skirt around her feet and legs. Again, her face vanished behind a curtain of hair, and Jehan wished he still could see her eyes.
"Thank you", he said, slightly uncertainly, and her head briefly twitched in his direction, but there was no glimpse of her face, of her eyes.
Silence settled for a moment, despite all his wishes to talk to her. It was a strange moment of peace they were having, on the quais with the hustle of the city going on behind them, and yet in a different way all was quiet and silent and the only thing he heard was the sound of both their breathing.
It was certainly folly, the fact that he had not been able to chase her face from his mind since their meeting in Picpus some days back, but it was a sweet folly, and Jehan did not ask for reasons. Something had granted him a precious moment in time.
After a while he heard her taking a deep breath.
"Why are you following me?" she asked, and he could feel warmth rising into his cheeks at this question that came so quietly out of nowhere. Staring into the swirling waters of the Seine, he tried to compose his thoughts.
"I'm not", he said. "It… was all coincidence. Not that I had not… if I knew where to find you… Mademoiselle." Words came haltingly. He had no intention to spook her or send her away, and he was treading dangerous ground.
When silence was his only response, he turned his head again and found her measuring him, a slight frown between her brows, questions that she did not ask alight in her eyes. Instead, she nodded quickly, and then the curtain of her hair was back and Jehan suppressed a sigh.
"You followed me through the sewers", she said softly, after another pause.
"Oh", he answered quickly. "But that was because…" he wondered what he was actually going to say and took a moment to compose his thoughts. "Because I wanted to talk to you. Because I did not want to have you vanish like mist in the morning sun again…"
"Like mist in the morning sun…", she echoed and moved up her head to look towards the skies, and the curtain of hair fell back a little to expose her face. A tiny smile was his reward for the poetic turn of phrase. "I think I like that", she said. "Beautiful words."
Jehan hesitated for a moment, but she did not seem inclined to flee right now, her posture still tense, but at least not vibrating with caution. And so he dared another step.
"A morning loses all its magic when the mist flees the meadows", he whispered, continuing to weave the thread of thought that his careless turn of phrase had begun, wondering if he had gone too far.
"The mist flees the light and the heat lest it burns it and tears it apart."
Now it was his turn to pause, staring at the figure beside him while her words reached him, and he was surprised, so utterly surprised. On a first glance, she looked like a woman in thousands, dirty, torn and tattered, a pale whisp of a girl, all bony angles and huge eyes. If asked, he could not even have begun to explain why she was so hard to forget. She was no beauty.
But there, in this simple phrase, there was it all, effortlessly bound together in a moment of clarity; the shyness, the mystery, the tender beauty of a second glance. Jehan knew about things hidden beneath the surface, he was a master of shifts and undercurrents; of the warmth and cold that could seep into a melody, of the beauty of a turn of phrase, of the simple wonder of a growing leaf.
Azelma was full of the same kind of hidden wonders.
And the fact that she had picked up his metaphor…
There was much sadness and darkness about the abaissé. With sorrow, Jehan had watched many of them falling into a dull, somber state, the light of their spirit extinguished with their bodies still living. Azelma however, for all her shyness, her pale worry, carried a spark hidden in her eyes.
And she had granted him a glimpse.
"I would not do that", he finally answered, much less elegantly, but still slightly shaken of the revelation, and this blunt phrase seemed to rally, almost frighten her.
He could see her retreating into herself again, body slightly curling in as her head was bowed again and the spark he had beheld for a moment sputtered and died.
She did not reply, and thus he continued to speak.
"I'm sorry, Mademoiselle", he answered. "I… I did not mean any harm. I…"
"I have to go back."
Her voice was almost inaudible, but he could discern the words, if with difficulty.
"Back to…" he nodded towards the entrance of the sewers, a gesture she could not see but did not need.
"They will be waiting for me", she said, resigned.
"Who?" Jehan asked. "What were you doing there? Why…"
She heaved a noiseless sigh.
"We need to eat…"
For a moment, Jehan remembered another gamine, a statement similar to this, but spoken in boiling anger, not calm sadness, but the message, and its desperate undercurrent, were the same. Jehan buried a hand in his pockets, fishing for what coins he had placed there in the morning.
"I could…", he began, but she shook her head.
"That won't help", she said, softly. "He'll still want my help. And if I give him the money, he'll think…", she hesitated a moment before she continued, "… things of what I did for it."
Jehan felt himself pale. He would not even have thought of this, but there was a certain twisted logic to the reasoning, as much as he would like to deny it.
"What?" he asked none the less, in exasperation, and she flinched at the vehemence of his words.
"He doesn't believe in kindness", she explained.
"But I do", Jehan answered with conviction. He fully turned towards her and found her looking at him again, and for a moment, his earnest gaze was rewarded with the hint of a smile, not at the sun, not at herself, but at him and yet, as soon as he blinked it was gone. And she sighed.
"Go if you must, Azelma", he answered. "But please, please be careful. I… would not want to see you come to harm."
"They are dead", she answered with a shrug. "They cannot hurt me."
That was not what he had meant, and he suspected that she knew and deliberately sidestepped, yet, her words had made him remember how he had gotten into her company in the first place.
"You know who they are?"
She wordlessly shook her head.
"How did you then learn of them?" Jehan pressed on and got a shrug as a response.
"My father knew", she answered. Her father. Of course. For a moment, Jehan felt boiling rage at the treatment she had to suffer and from a parent no less, but he shoved the notion aside, because this was not about her father, and not about his rage. This conversation was all about her. "Someone told him, I guess."
Jehan nodded slowly. His thoughts were jumping a few steps ahead, and although he did not like where they were leading him, he followed the path through none the less.
"Azelma, I…", he began carefully, "I would ask you a favor, if I may."
The suspicion was instantly back in her eyes, but she did not run and continued to listen. Jehan spoke on, in quick, hasty, soft tones.
"If you have to go back there… could you take a look at the bodies of the dead? See if you can see how they died? Try to learn who they are? I do not want to bring you to danger… but there may be so much information missing after… well after your father is done. I… I hate to ask this of you, but…"
"All right." Her words were so soft that he would have almost missed them, but her tiny nod accentuated them and made him believe it was no dream.
"All right", she confirmed, a little stronger, pressing her pale lips together. "I can do that."
"Thank you", Jehan answered unhappily. "I… I will pay you of course."
"You have given me five francs already, Monsieur", Azelma reminded him softly, and he found himself wishing to inch closer to her, but it was so probable that she would run away again, at this sort of motions.
Like mist in the morning sun.
"I implore you to be careful, though. Do not take risks, do you hear me?" She nodded mutely, again retreating at his insistence. Jehan, trying to keep her with him, turned to the practical again. "Where can I find you?"
She worried her lip thoughtfully, taking a deep breath before she answered.
"Picpus", she said, finally, and he nodded as he confirmed it, knowing that she meant the gates to the cemetery, where he had seen her for the first time, a few days ago.
"Picpus it is, then", he confirmed and was rewarded with a final glance before she got up and turned around, first to step between the crowds that covered the quais, and then, finally to step into the dark mound again that swallowed her whole.