Does she think I deserve this? All of us; Maman and Papa, 'Zelma… Does she think we deserve it after what we did to her? Does he?
Does he even remember?
Eponine looked back at the fencing of the house on the Rue Plumet.
Who would have guessed? The scullery maid and the Baron?
"Cosette! Cosette!" The Thenardier woman's voice roared through the inn, breaking the clatter of dish washing rising up from the kitchen. In the bedroom, the Thenardier girls looked up from their pet, both little faces lighted up with glee.
"Come on." The elder child stood up, letting the kitten she had held determinedly on her knee escape. She ran to the door, opening it just a crack so she could hear what was being said. After listening for a minute, she hurried back to Azelma.
"They're right downstairs. Do you want to watch?" Eponine's eyes werelighted with a gleeful malice. She loved seeing that other little girl, that Cosette, in trouble, though she didn't quite understand why. Azelma smiled and nodded. She didn't like the yelling. She didn't like seeing her Maman in that light. But Azelma did like doing what her big sister enjoyed, and so she took Eponine's proffered hand and let herself be led out of their room, and onto the little balcony which surrounded the tavern room. Eponine leaned over the banister, looking down in a way that Azelma never could because it made her dizzy, until she spotted Cosette and her Maman. She pulled her little sister a little way round the balcony, before tugging her down into a crouch. Eponine put her mouth to her sister's ear, whispering,
"You can see them there. Now keep quiet or we'll be sent away." Azelma nodded, peering down through the dark bars at her Maman and the little girl below.
"I thought I told you to do these floors first thing?" Madame Thenardier bent down, so that her face was almost level with the little girl. Cosette blanched, but stood her ground. She nodded, meeting Madame Thenardier's glare with trepaditien.
"I did, Madame. This morning, before you were awake. I scrubbed it."
"It does look clean." Azelma whispered to her sister after considering the floor for a minute. Eponine gave her sister a contemptuous glance.
"I said to be quiet. Anyway, it is dirty. You can't see proper 'cause you're too little."
Madame Thenardier appeared to agree with her eldest daughter. She looked at the floor, a sneering smirk on her face.
"It doesn't look scrubbed. Look. Look right there, Madame. And you tell me what that is."
Madame Thenardier pointed at a spot on the floor near the huge wooden table. Cosette moved closer, and on the balcony, Eponine strained forward, trying, in vain to see what her mother had pointed out.
"What is it, Cosette?" Madame Thenardier's voice was filled with foreboding. Cosette, on the other hand, was silent, averting her eyes from the woman towering over her. The ogress gave the child a minute to answer, before she raised her hand and slapped Cosette full across the face, leaving a red hand print on the child's pale cheek. On the balcony, both girls jumped; the slap echoed in the empty room and Azelma closed her eyes. She didn't want to associate a woman who could hit a child with her mama.
"Answer me, Cosette." Madame Thenardier caught hold of the girl's arm; Cosette, had, of course, began to retreat after she had received the blow.
"It's… it's a footprint, Madame." Cosette had defeat in her voice, and Eponine nudged her sister gleefully. This was the good bit now. This was the bit when her Mama told Cosette that she was useless and punished her. Azelma kept her eyes stubbornly shut.
"A footprint, Cosette?" Madame's eyes glinted. "And if you'd cleaned the floor, would there be a foot print?"
"No." Eponine mouthed it as Cosette vocalised the word.
"Which means you didn't clean it." Madame Thenardier leant in close to Cosette. "Did you?"
Cosette shook her head, not looking at Madame any more. She had cleaned it, Eponine knew she had. Cosette might have thought that the Thenardiers were asleep, but the sound of hard bristles on the wooden floor had woken Eponine. But she kept mum, because this was funny. Cosette was lying – and lying when she knew she'd be punished.
Madame Thenardier stood straight and sighed. "It's too late to clean it now, you wretch. The customers'll be coming in for lunch time in a minute. Can't 'ave them in on a wet floor. You'll have to do it tonight when they're gone."
Eponine nudged Azelma gleefully again. There'd be no sleep for Cosette tonight; she'd have to tidy up the tavern too, and then scrub the floors all over again. And the lot that Thenardier got in his inn weren't the most polite of customers. There was the odd traveller, looking for a bed, but a lot were the locals, here for a pint and or twenty, and they weren't afraid to vomit where they sprawled.
"As for now." Madame Thenardier bent down to the little girl in front of her again. "You'll look at me, Madame." She shook Cosette until the child turned her gaze onto the ogress's face. "You'll do without your meals, for you're sure to cost me business tonight, and you'll peel and chop all of them onions by yourself for the broth. And if they ain't right, my girl, you'll be sorry." Cosette whimpered a little, but with another quick smack, Madame Thenardier let go of her arm, and Cosette scurried away into the kitchen, almost tripping over her own feet as she hurried away from the woman.
Up on the balcony, Eponine grinned at her sister. "That was funny, wasn't it, 'Zelma? Did you see how scared of Maman she was? What a silly child to be scared of Mama." But then she looked at her sister properly. Azelma still had her eyes firmly shut, and had put her fingers in her ears. Eponine pouted, and then reached for her sister's elbow, pinching hard. Azelma squealed, at once removing her fingers from her ears and opening her eyes. Eponine glared at her.
"Shut up, 'Zelma. Why didn't you watch?" Azelma shrugged, and Eponine opened her mouth to berate her sister – but her attention was caught once more by her mother.
"Where are you? Oh there-" Her mother danced out of Eponine's sight, remarkably agile if not graceful, for a woman of her size. Her mother had evidently spotted her father emerging from one of the side rooms leading off from the tavern, for now it was his grating voice that came to Eponine's ears.
"The little wretch. I'll give 'er what for with me belt." Thenardier patted the wide metal buckle at his waist. "Thinking she can just stay 'ere for nothing and not do as she's told. Cheeking you. Well, I won't have it. Not in my house. "
"Temper, husband. Won't do to really hurt 'er in front of the cooks, will it? She can make 'erself useful in the kitchen for now. And besides –"
No matter how Eponine strained, she couldn't hear what her mama said. She pinched Azelma again instead, and glared when the little girl squealed.
"Aye, take them out. There's a new market set up down the road for Christmas, I hear. Take them there. Let them pick some sweets."
Eponine grinned at her sister. "Looks like we're getting a treat before Christmas. Come on, so they don't know we've been listening."
Azelma obediaently got to her feet and followed her big sister, so by the time Madame Thenardier came to find her children, the girls were sat playing with their cat again.
It had been a good day as far as Eponine was concerned. Roast chicken for dinner, Cosette told off and roast chestnuts from the market stalls down the road. And there was always that delicious feeling that Christmas, and therefore presents, was nearly upon them. Now, she and Azelma were sat by the big fire in the tavern, lounging on the thick rug whilst they played with their doll and kitten again. The only blight on Eponine's day had been that doll, that beautiful big doll on one of the market stalls. It was very expensive, but Maman had said St Nicholas was sure to bring a beautiful doll for Christmas, and that was good enough for Eponine. She had made sure to chatter about the doll to her Papa, to impress upon him just how much she wanted the doll. He would get it for would make sure Saint Nicholas brought her the doll. He always gave his Eponine whatever she wanted.
Lazing on the rug, Eponine spotted Cosette under the table, playing with her old sword.
"What are you doing?" Her voice rang out sharp, and Cosette heard it, even over the noise from the other customers. "Come here." Cosette looked around nervously, but there was nobody else there. Eponine was talking to her. Hesitantly, she crawled out and went to join the Thenardier children by the fire.
"What's that?" Eponine plucked the small sword out of Cosette's hands. "Is that what you call a doll?" Eponine giggled as she looked at the crude dress that Cosette had dressed the sword in. Cosette made to snatch the sword back, but Eponine held it high above her head. She was a tall child, taller by far than the petite Cosette, and she laughed again when Cosette couldn't reach.
"Do you want me to call Mama and tell her you've been bad. She'll give you another black eye to match the one you got this morning."
"But I haven't." Cosette tried to snatch the sword back again. "Give it to me, Ma'mzelle Eponine."
"But Mama would believe me. Now stop it, Cosette, or Azelma will put it in the fire, won't you, 'Zelm?"
The younger girl looked up from trying to stuff the cat into one of her doll's dresses. "What?"
Eponine shook her head at her sister and turned back to Cosette. "She will."
Cosette glared angrily at Eponine for a minute, but then she sighed and settled down on the rug. "You may have it, Ma'mzelle."
Eponine grinned an unfriendly smile at Cosette. "I know." She picked at the dress the sword wore. "I can't believe you dress up an old sword, Cosette. It isn't even a doll. Let me tell you about a real doll I saw today. She was beautiful, wasn't she, 'Zelm? And my Mama is going to make sure I get her for Christmas. And when I do, I might think about letting you play with our old doll."
Cosette's eyes lit up at Eponine's promise, but the little girl wasn't finished there. She smirked. "I said, I might. That doesn't mean I will. I don't want your dirty hands messing up Marie's clothes, do we, Azelma?"
Azelma looked up. She hadn't particularly been paying attention. "No…" She went back to trying to stuff the kitten into Marie's dress. But her answer, however lacklustre, had satisfied Eponine, who turned back to Cosette.
"And we definitely won't let you touch our new doll. You're far too dirty. In fact, you better not even look at her. And you'll want to look at her, because she's beautiful. She has brown, curly hair like mine, and beautiful blue eyes. Not like yours, all washed out. Properly blue. And she has the most beautiful pink dress on, and a golden wreath. And she's almost as big as Gavroche. How is that for a doll?"
That doll. Cosette's mouth trembled. She'd seen that doll, of course. Every child in Montfermiel had seen that doll. And she was to be Eponine's. How Cosette longed for it. How she longed to stroke the pink crepe of the dress and pet the doll's beautiful hair. And now it was to be Eponine's and Cosette knew that the other little girl would never, ever let her near it. Eponine was laughing; she was a sharp child, and had not missed the expression on Cosette's face, despite how quickly the child tried to hide her disappointment.
"Surely you are not surprised, Cosette? We are the richest people around here." That was an untruth, but Eponine, secure in the knowledge that her family lived in comfort, whilst Cosette did not, felt comfortable enough to say this anyway. "And you have nothing. You don't even have a Mama who loves you. You would never get that doll. You will only ever have this sword."
Eponine delivered her final taut with a quick kiss to Cosette's cheek, causing Madame Thenardier, who had just come out of the kitchen to bark,
"Eponine! Get away from that filthy child."
Cosette sat where she was, her cheeks burning as if Eponine had slapped her. It was bad enough that Eponine taunted her with the doll she would never own, but to taunt her about her mother? Cosette loved her Mama dearly, and she longed, every day to be with Fantine. Whilst Eponine's attention was diverted by her mother, Cosette took her chance to snatch up the sword from in front of Azelma, who was still preoccupied with the cat, and retreated back under the table. There, she tried to hide her tears. Her poor face stung from where Madame had hit her that morning, and Eponine's kiss only added insult to injury. How she wished she could be anywhere but that inn.
Poor little girl; her wish came true when Madame chased her out of the inn to fetch water from the well. Eponine, and even Azelma had giggled then. But their laughter had stopped when that man had come. Eponine had listened curiously to what he had said; she sniffed at his cracked leather boots. He wasn't rich. He was probably here just to get drunk like the other labourers. But then he had gone out and got the doll – THAT doll – the doll Eponine wanted – and he had given it, not to pretty Madamoiselle Eponine, but to Cosette. That wretched, horrid little creep of a girl, Cosette. Eponine had watched, outraged, as the man handed it over. Why wasn't her Maman stopping him? How had he even got the doll that her parents had promised her? Unless… unless Papa hadn't bought it. Was it possible? Eponine didn't know who she was most mad at. Her parents, that man or Cosette. How she longed to snatch up that doll, take it by it's beautiful curls and STAMP on it's head. If Eponine couldn't have it, then she didn't want anybody else to have it, either.
Eponine went to bed in a bad mood that night. And the night after that. And after that and after that and after that. Because that was the beginning of the downfall of the Thenardiers.