Victor Hugo – "The Use Made of M. LeBlanc's Five-Franc Piece"
Nothing in the aspect of the family was altered, except that the wife and daughters had levied on the package and put on woollen stockings and jackets. Two new blankets were thrown across the two beds.
Jondrette had evidently just returned. He still had the breathlessness of out of doors. His daughters were seated on the floor near the fireplace, the elder engaged in dressing the younger's wounded hand. His wife had sunk back on the bed near the fireplace, with a face indicative of astonishment. Jondrette was pacing up and down the garret with long strides. His eyes were extraordinary.
The woman, who seemed timid and overwhelmed with stupor in the presence of her husband, turned to say:—
"What, really? You are sure?"
"Sure! Eight years have passed! But I recognize him! Ah! I recognize him. I knew him at once! What! Didn't it force itself on you?"
"But I told you: 'Pay attention!' Why, it is his figure, it is his face, only older,—there are people who do not grow old, I don't know how they manage it,—it is the very sound of his voice. He is better dressed, that is all! Ah! you mysterious old devil, I've got you, that I have!"
He paused, and said to his daughters:—
"Get out of here, you!—It's queer that it didn't strike you!"
They arose to obey.
The mother stammered:—
"With her injured hand."
"The air will do it good," said Jondrette. "Be off."
It was plain that this man was of the sort to whom no one offers to reply. The two girls departed.
At the moment when they were about to pass through the door, the father detained the elder by the arm, and said to her with a peculiar accent:—
"You will be here at five o'clock precisely. Both of you. I shall need you."
Marius redoubled his attention.
On being left alone with his wife, Jondrette began to pace the room again, and made the tour of it two or three times in silence. Then he spent several minutes in tucking the lower part of the woman's chemise which he wore into his trousers.
All at once, he turned to the female Jondrette, folded his arms and exclaimed:—
"And would you like to have me tell you something? The young lady—"
"Well, what?" retorted his wife, "the young lady?"
Marius could not doubt that it was really she of whom they were speaking. He listened with ardent anxiety. His whole life was in his ears.
But Jondrette had bent over and spoke to his wife in a whisper. Then he straightened himself up and concluded aloud:—
"It is she!"
"That one?" said his wife.
"That very one," said the husband.
No expression can reproduce the significance of the mother's words. Surprise, rage, hate, wrath, were mingled and combined in one monstrous intonation. The pronunciation of a few words, the name, no doubt, which her husband had whispèred in her ear, had sufficed to rouse this huge, somnolent woman, and from being repulsive she became terrible.
"It is not possible!" she cried. "When I think that my daughters are going barefoot, and have not a gown to their backs! What! A satin pelisse, a velvet bonnet, boots, and everything; more than two hundred francs' worth of clothes! so that one would think she was a lady! No, you are mistaken! Why, in the first place, the other was hideous, and this one is not so bad-looking! She really is not bad-looking! It can't be she!"
"I tell you that it is she. You will see."
At this absolute assertion, the Jondrette woman raised her large, red, blonde face and stared at the ceiling with a horrible expression. At that moment, she seemed to Marius even more to be feared than her husband. She was a sow with the look of a tigress.
"What!" she resumed, "that horrible, beautiful young lady, who gazed at my daughters with an air of pity,—she is that beggar brat! Oh! I should like to kick her stomach in for her!"
She sprang off of the bed, and remained standing for a moment, her hair in disorder, her nostrils dilating, her mouth half open, her fists clenched and drawn back. Then she fell back on the bed once more. The man paced to and fro and paid no attention to his female.
After a silence lasting several minutes, he approached the female Jondrette, and halted in front of her, with folded arms, as he had done a moment before:—
"And shall I tell you another thing?"
"What is it?" she asked.
He answered in a low, curt voice:—
"My fortune is made."
The woman stared at him with the look that signifies: "Is the person who is addressing me on the point of going mad?"
He went on:—
"Thunder! It was not so very long ago that I was a parishioner of the parish of die-of-hunger-if-you-have-a-fire,-die-of-cold-if-you-have-bread! I have had enough of misery! my share and other people's share! I am not joking any longer, I don't find it comic any more, I've had enough of puns, good God! no more farces, Eternal Father! I want to eat till I am full, I want to drink my fill! to gormandize! to sleep! to do nothing! I want to have my turn, so I do, come now! before I die! I want to be a bit of a millionnaire!"
He took a turn round the hovel, and added:—
"Like other people."
"What do you mean by that?" asked the woman.
He shook his head, winked, screwed up one eye, and raised his voice like a medical professor who is about to make a demonstration:—
"What do I mean by that? Listen!"
"Hush!" muttered the woman, "not so loud! These are matters which must not be overheard."
"Bah! Who's here? Our neighbor? I saw him go out a little while ago. Besides, he doesn't listen, the big booby. And I tell you that I saw him go out."
Nevertheless, by a sort of instinct, Jondrette lowered his voice, although not sufficiently to prevent Marius hearing his words. One favorable circumstance, which enabled Marius not to lose a word of this conversation was the falling snow which deadened the sound of vehicles on the boulevard.
This is what Marius heard:—
"Listen carefully. The Croesus is caught, or as good as caught! That's all settled already. Everything is arranged. I have seen some people. He will come here this evening at six o'clock. To bring sixty francs, the rascal! Did you notice how I played that game on him, my sixty francs, my landlord, my fourth of February? I don't even owe for one quarter! Isn't he a fool! So he will come at six o'clock! That's the hour when our neighbor goes to his dinner. Mother Bougon is off washing dishes in the city. There's not a soul in the house. The neighbor never comes home until eleven o'clock. The children shall stand on watch. You shall help us. He will give in."
"And what if he does not give in?" demanded his wife.
Jondrette made a sinister gesture, and said:—
"We'll fix him."
And he burst out laughing.
This was the first time Marius had seen him laugh. The laugh was cold and sweet, and provoked a shudder.
Jondrette opened a cupboard near the fireplace, and drew from it an old cap, which he placed on his head, after brushing it with his sleeve.
"Now," said he, "I'm going out. I have some more people that I must see. Good ones. You'll see how well the whole thing will work. I shall be away as short a time as possible, it's a fine stroke of business, do you look after the house."
And with both fists thrust into the pockets of his trousers, he stood for a moment in thought, then exclaimed:—
"Do you know, it's mighty lucky, by the way, that he didn't recognize me! If he had recognized me on his side, he would not have come back again. He would have slipped through our fingers! It was my beard that saved us! my romantic beard! my pretty little romantic beard!"
And again he broke into a laugh.
He stepped to the window. The snow was still falling, and streaking the gray of the sky.
"What beastly weather!" said he.
Then lapping his overcoat across his breast:—
"This rind is too large for me. Never mind," he added, "he did a devilish good thing in leaving it for me, the old scoundrel! If it hadn't been for that, I couldn't have gone out, and everything would have gone wrong! What small points things hang on, anyway!"
And pulling his cap down over his eyes, he quitted the room.
He had barely had time to take half a dozen steps from the door, when the door opened again, and his savage but intelligent face made its appearance once more in the opening.
"I came near forgetting," said he. "You are to have a brazier of charcoal ready."
And he flung into his wife's apron the five-franc piece which the "philanthropist" had left with him.
"A brazier of charcoal?" asked his wife.
"How many bushels?"
"Two good ones."
"That will come to thirty sous. With the rest I will buy something for dinner."
"The devil, no."
"Don't go and spend the hundred-sou piece."
"Because I shall have to buy something, too."
"How much shall you need?"
"Whereabouts in the neighborhood is there an ironmonger's shop?"
"Ah! yes, at the corner of a street; I can see the shop."
"But tell me how much you will need for what you have to purchase?"
"Fifty sous—three francs."
"There won't be much left for dinner."
"Eating is not the point to-day. There's something better to be done."
"That's enough, my jewel."
At this word from his wife, Jondrette closed the door again, and this time, Marius heard his step die away in the corridor of the hovel, and descend the staircase rapidly.
At that moment, one o'clock struck from the church of Saint-Medard.
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