(Otherwise known as Love Has Come of Age, or Mireille Dalmot's Autobiography)

June 6, 1832

"You may go, Dalmot."

I nodded and drew my cloak from the hook, slipping the coins into a fold of my dress, and murmured an automatic reply.

"Yes, monsieur."

I half-curtsied and made my way toward the door, pushing hard on the ponderous oak as I always had to, hearing him shuffle his papers behind me.


I turned back, frightened in spite of myself by the odd tenseness in his normally urbane voice.


He seized my gaze and held it, eyes coldly burning, his long, slender fingers wandering restlessly across the immaculate desk, finally settling on the quill pen.

"I need those materials very promptly, Dalmot."

How many years had I been here now? More then I cared to count. Always quick about my work, always good at it. A command anent my speed or efficiency was never necessary, and he of all people was not likely to waste words or breath in a needless reiteration of what was always understood.

I bobbed a quick curtsy, trying to mask my curiosity.

"Yes, m'sieu. I shall be swift."

He nodded absently, and I again turned to go. And again his voice called me back--his quick, stiff tones, a latent plea underlying the clipped voice that stopped me in the doorway.


I turned back again, half impatient and half terrified, for to hear fear in HIS voice was to feel reality crashing down around me.


He would not look at me now, instead glancing at the papers neatly piled and labeled, and at his elegant fingers torturing the pen.

"Do not be too swift, Dalmot. A hurrying woman attracts notice, and the scum will be rampant after yesterday..."

Countless years, and I still stiffened and bit back the sharp words that struggled for freedom at the casual epithet he flung at those who had shown me greater kindness then all but a few of the "higher" class.

"Yes, monsieur."

I effected my escape quickly, before his longing to have someone near him, a longing even his superhuman suppression and collected coolness could not disguise, provided another delaying excuse.

So he is human! I thought, grimly satisfied.So he can fear for his life, can flinch in the face of a gun.

That he had been in dangerous work today was clear--that much I had gathered from conversations between him and Gisquet, and that there had also been complications, and terrible risk for him. I smiled coldly to myself, only a little ashamed of my cruel satisfaction at his evident unsettlement. He had never been unfair to me, I strove to remind myself--always been decent and polite, more so then many-but I could not shake my ancient, intense dislike of him. And tonight that inexplicable animosity had reached an inscrutable head.

He seemed human tonight, lost and uncertain, no longer a man but a young boy clearly in need of help. It was not for nothing that half of the younger ones called me "Maman Miri"....but I had felt no stirring of matronly sympathy at his clear turmoil. If anything, I had the oddest sense of vindication, of a long-festering wrong about to be set finally right.

I shrugged, shaking my head, and stepped out onto the cobblestones. The cool night air swept through me, blowing away the unfathomable hatred. It was a night you simply HAD to be at peace with the world. For two days hot, sultry weather had prevailed, the city seething and the streets burning as much with anger as with the sun, but now everything lay at rest. An invisible hand had drawn back the flowing clouds fading softly to pink after a sunset of bloody rage, and revealed a glittering trove of diamond stars on soft indigo velvet.

I laughed suddenly, a soft, wondering sound with no mirth but much joy in it. Tonight the old anguish had subsided to a sort of gentle, melancholy sweetness--the pain was there, but for the first time in many years there was a little good mingled with the bitter ache, and I clung to it, savoring the uninvited tears that pooled in my eyes and spilled softly down my cheeks, easing the bonds around my tight heart.

"You give her BACK, Claude!"

A child's voice, shrill with fury, cut across my reverie, and also the gay, mocking laugh that was its response.

A young boy suddenly emerged from the darkness and shot past me, turning back after a few steps.

"Hurr'up, slowpoke!" he crowed, dancing a gleeful little jig as he triumphantly waved his prize--a naked, somewhat dilapidated rag doll, carelessly held by one leg.

And now hte pursuit came into sight--a small girl, puffing furiously and vowing vengeance in the intervals when she had breath to do so, gripping in one sweaty hand what were evidently Dolly's garments, and waving another small fist threateningly.

"You...come back...NOW, Claude!"

With another victorious laugh, the ragged urchin spun on one bare, grimy heel and vanished into the darkness, the little girl giving furious pursuit.

I turned absently to watch them, imagining I was beside those two ragged innocents. I closed my eyes and could almost feel it, clothes flapping around me, tasting dust in my mouth, the hot wind rifling my carelessly loose hair, the cobblestones just warm enough to be uncomfortable beneath my bare feet, running with reckless abandon as if I was half my age, joy coursing through my veins in this the final summer, the final day, the final hour of my childhood...

PART ONE: September 24th to 25th, 1792

Chapter One

My outstretched hands suddenly encountered something soft and warm and yielding, something that fell beneath me with an audible "oof!".

I opened my eyes and sat back in the dusty road, staring balefully at the man who had interrupted my soaring imagination. He was climbing painfully to his feet, running a hand through long, wild brown hair.

"What in heaven's name is WRONG with you?" he demanded breathlessly, anger and concern mingling in his eyes. "Running down the street, eyes closed, arms held out....anybody'd think you were trying to fly, crazy child!"

I flushed, as much from the epithet "child" as from his accuracy in gauging WHAT my fantasy had been.

He was stooping now, helping me to my feet and brushing the dust from my clothes with large, gentle hands ere he turned his attention to himself, muttering all the while.

I stood sullenly, folding my arms.

"Y'were in my way."

He looked up, raising one eyebrow, and in spite of myself I took a quick step back at the sudden flame in his eyes, tugging nervously at my dress. The collar slipped down a little, revealing the delicate gold chain of the necklace I was wearing, and I fingered it nervously, his eyes following my motion.

Then the flame went out, and he lowered his head, burying his clenched hands in the pockets of his ragged, too-short pants, and somehow that was worse.

"Was I now? I'm sorry."

His voice was low, something awful and dangerous bubbling just below the surface, and I was suddenly and inexplicably anxious to reconcile with him.

"I...I suppose I wasn't really watching...I could have been carefuller..."

I tried to smile, an anxious, uncertain twist of the lips, and then suddenly realized my mistake.

"More careful, I meant, m'sieu...."

He shrugged quickly, dismissing either my apology, mistake, or both, but there was just a trifle more warmth in his voice.

"Are you hurt?"

I scanned myself hesitantly, noticing for the first time a stinging redness all along my lower right leg.

"A...a little."

I pointed hesitantly to the offending leg, and he made a formless sound of concern and apology, dropping on one knee to examine me.

I looked down at his bowed head as his fingers, awkward but firm and gentle, stepped lightly over the tender skin. I winced, and gave a soft, unwilling cry of pain, when his sure, grimy fingertips touched the worst.

"I'm sorry!" he exclaimed in quick concern, on his feet again with a smooth movement that hinted at unguessable strength beneath the smudged skin. My eyes suddenly discovered something in the blunt-nailed, slender-fingered hands that caught and held them, and I flushed hotly, attempting to smooth my hair, loose, unwashed and unbrushed, with one grimy hand while tugging ineffectually at my blouse with the other, suddenly wishing it was not quite so old and worn.

"I...I'm alright, m'sieu..."

I stared hard at the ground, winding my fingers uncertainly together behind my back, risking a quick glance upward as I ended my sentence.

His face lit up almost imperceptibly, and then he spoke quickly.

"Still, that is an unpleasant scrape, mam'zelle..."

I flushed again, embarrassed but foolishly pleased at the formal address, and turned to go, not understanding my sudden odd shame but knowing only I must get away, and NOW.

"I-I'm sorry, m'sieu, excuse me..."

He reached and touched my shoulder with a powerful but jerky motion.

"Where is your home? I'll help you there."

I hastily mumbled out my address, and he drew closer in an effort to hear my muffled words, his hand still a warm pressure on my shoulder. All the world seemed concentrated in that faint warmth and firm weight resting on my skin, and the blood in my veins burned as each drop flowed faster to get its turn beneath that coveted spot.

And then came a voice, shaking and querulous, calling nearby.

"Jean frere? Jean frere?"

She slurred the words together, speaking as if they were all one--j'nfrair, she said. He stiffened suddenly, swinging around with an odd tension in his shoulders like a too-often-beaten cur who sees his master approaching, stick in hand, and I could have wept at how cold and alone my shoulder suddenly felt, deprived of his gentle clasp.

"Jeanne? Jeanne, where are you?"

His voice was harsh and strained, something I didn't want to explore filling the rough tones. A woman suddenly appeared, shuffling toward us in the gloom.

She was, I realized in shock, not more then 35 years old--my first impulse was to take her for sixty. Thin, draggled hair, that the gray of dirt and the gray of age had rendered an indeterminate color, hung innocent of recent wash or combing along her stooping shoulders. Her eyes, alternately wide in terror and squinched up like a child holding back tears, were a dull, overwashed blue, her thin, shaking hands held in claws that plucked incessantly at her grimy dress or limp hair, and her skin itself was old parchment in both texture and color. She shuffled toward us, shoulders hunched and head bowed, the colorless eyes staring listlessly at the cobblestones. Only when he darted forward and stooped to speak to her did she look up, pale gaze meeting his through the drab, filthy curtain of her hair, shrinking away even as she grasped his powerful arm with nervous tenacity.


She held out one gnarled hand, and he suddenly pulled angrily away. She tottered and seemed about to fall when his support was so suddenly removed, and instinctively I darted forward to catch her.

She gave a small shriek at my touch and cowered away, terrified tears again washing the faded eyes. I let her go, stepping back myself--up close the odor of uncared for body was offensive, and I could have sworn my wrist felt oily where her dingy locks had brushed it. Rubbing my arm to chase away the sensation, I backed away as the woman turned suddenly to him and half-fell into his arms, fawning on him as her shrill, trembling voice rose up and down like the sea, only it grated on the nerves rather then calming them.

"So this is why you will not give a little to the children, your poor sister's children who weep and starve. You have a YOUNG LADY now, Jean mon frere, Jean-ie my brother, and you will buy her silks and fine bread while I Jean, I, your own sister who all but RAISED you, your own Jeanne with her husband and all her dear little ones, that love their uncle Jean so, weep for hunger and long for gentle Death to end their misery..."

On she went, a monotonous, creaking whine, while her narrow hands fondled his and tears slipped from the brimming eyes and trickled down the sallow cheeks, seeming to leave a new wrinkle with each path they traced. He spoke quickly, gruffly, while with rough gentleness he dug deep into the ragged trousers and drew forth some coins, which he pressed unhesitatingly into the nervous, grasping fingers.

"That's it, Jennie, that's all of it, now.."

She thrust it into the pocket of what could hardly be called a dress, looking wide-eyed from me to him while still clinging to his arm. With incongruous gentleness he carefully pried the trembling fingers from his coarse sleeve, folding them in his own firm hand.

"Suppose you go home now, Jennie? Who's watching the little ones, hm?"

She watched him dimly through her bleared eyes, one claw-like hand occasionally pushing back the limp hair with an automatic, pathetically futile gesture.

"Luc's there..."

The hand that was not holding hers clenched briefly in the rough material of his trousers.

"You left them with LUC!?!"

"You should call him M'sieu Chapeau," she reprimanded dully, and a quick, bitter sigh emerged with the abruptness of a sneeze from his firm lips, which were leading my mind in new and wonderful and frightening directions by pressing themselves against mine in imagination.

After a moment, he let go of her hand, propelling her lightly back the way she had come.

"Suppose you go on home now," he reiterated softly. "Go home to the children and L--M'sieu Chapeau."

Reluctantly she turned, obedient with the dim, unquestioning obedience prevalent in one whose few notions of independence have been drowned beneath a dark fog of oppression and cruelty, and began again that slow shuffling walk down the cobblestones, colorless clothes and dingy hair melting into the ever-increasing gloom.

He came back to me quickly, eyes lowered and his large hands wandering, nervous but incessantly firm, from his pockets to his hair to each other.

"Now, where did you say you lived?"

I flushed, unaccountably nervous, and became fascinated with the patterns of dust on my petticoat.

"I--I don't want to trouble you.."

He shrugged, not meeting my eyes which were so pleadingly and unwillingly seeking his.

"No trouble."

His voice was gruff, a little annoyed, and undoubtedly indifferent. My heart dropped, and I blinked back sudden tears sent by the inexplicable misery his roughness called forth.

Awkwardly I again stumbled through my address, hiding my anxious, incessantly moving hands within the trailing shirt tails of the worn, hand-me-down blouse that hung over an equally threadbare skirt, serving me for play clothes.

It was a short walk, far too much so. He walked beside me in stolid silence, one hand shoved in his pocket and the other hovering awkwardly near my elbow. That spark of nearness, the overwhelming sense of his form near mine, made even the silent, uncomfortable journey heavenly.

I slowed my steps as we drew nearer to my home, almost unconscious of doing so, and he matched his pace to mine. We passed near the house of one of the neighbors, and I ran my hand aimlessly along the ornate gate leading into their garden--and something leapt from the close darkness within the gate, something soft and warm that yowled when I stumbled into it.

I twisted, struggling to keep my footing with the panicked animal tangled in my legs, crying out as it struck wildly and the claws scored my scraped flesh.

Firm hands were there suddenly, strong fingers cupped around my elbow whilst an arm encircled my waist. Standing sent agony through my bleeding leg and so I leaned against him, but it was more the sight that met my eyes as I turned to do so then his nearness that snatched the breath from my lungs in a gasp of elation.

The day had been humid and gloomy, oppressive clouds veiling the blazing sun and bringing night early. But now they had been swept away by a gentle but insistent evening wind, revealing a stunning glory.

The sun was setting, a ball of fire sinking like a ruby-colored pearl into the soft cushions of blue and pink and lavender.


It was little more then a breath on my part, inaudible any other time but this tranquil summer evening, but he heard and raised his eyes to the sky.


I spun in his arms to look up at him, smiling a broad, foolish, infectious grin. The smudged, strongly-cut face looked oddly vulnerable bathed in that radiant light, the lowered, sullen eyes humbly raised to the sky, the tight, angrily-compressed lips parted in wonder.

He raised one hand to shield his eyes from the brilliance, and shadows from his long, slender fingers were thrown across his face in heavy horizontal bars. I shivered suddenly then, for the bold lines, standing in sharp relief against the rest of his fiery-lit features, seemed to make his cheekbones narrower, the eyes sunken, his whole firm face drawn with lines of fear and anguish.

In quick, unreasoning terror I stepped out of his supporting embrace, and nearly fell again. The spell shattered, he stooped, placing powerful arms protectively around me.

"Is something wrong? You were well before.."

I pushed away, ashamed of my momentary weakness, and ignored the dull pain that went through my leg as I stood up straight.

"I--I'm alright. The cat...I'm quite fine now," I added reassuringly, but he had taken my arm as I spoke and made no gesture to let go now, and I was certainly not going to object to that.

He was watching me in concern, dark, bright eyes that reminded me of a polished jet necklace my sister once had anxiously scanning mine.

"We're not far now," he said after a moment, "so if you truly can't manage, I shall carry you, alright?"

At the last word he hesitantly raised one grimy finger and brushed my cheekbone with the smooth nail. At that everything new and confusing and exhilarating in me rushed in one radiant flow straight to my eyes, and my shy, hesitant, ecstatic soul stared him straight in the face.

He went red, then pale, eyes widening, then he pulled quickly away.

"Come, mam'zelle. It will be dark soon, your family will worry..."

I laughed, a little irrelevantly perhaps. The sunset was fading, the hot, oppressive day yielding to cool, gentle night, and HE was next to me. A current of throbbing gladness ran through my body, and all of the joy and gaiety and elation had to be let out SOMEHOW.

I pounced upon his arm, no longer conscious of my uncombed hair and smudged face, grinning.

"THEY'LL not worry, never fear. It's a safe town, this, and on nights like this I simply MUST be outside..."

I leapt away, spinning in the breeze like an autumn leaf, dancing over the road. He watched me, those glowing dark eyes lighting up, and he smiled--and there was such a shy, awkward, BEAUTIFUL uncertainty in that smile that I ceased my antics suddenly, standing almost in awe. The molded lips, with the lines about them that so eloquently stated they were constantly tightly compressed to hold back cries of rage or pain, were curved in what I knew to be a rare smile, something soft and glad and bittersweet, and the unconscious beckoning of that expression was turning me from an awkward girl to a woman trembling with newness all at once.

"Ma ray? Is that you?"

The childhood nickname--I was "her ray" of sunshine--sounded like a death knell, and I turned, biting back a cry of disappointment, as the waning light revealed yet another form gradually taking shape as it drew near. But rather then the stooped, shrunken figure of the woman who was at once young and unbearably old, I was seeing a tall, graceful shadow that swayed like a tree in the faint hint of breeze as she walked.

"Ma ray!"

She leapt forward and caught my hands, her heavy rope of brown-gold hair falling over one slim shoulder.

"Goodness, but I WAS worried!"

"What did I tell you?"

His voice was low and a little mischievous, audible only to me, and I giggled before I could stop myself, scandalizing my elder sister.

For the first time she seemed to be aware that I was hanging on the arm of a young man, and she flushed bright red.

"Ma ray...Mireille, if you're going to be out late you really SHOULD let someone know.."

I was up in arms suddenly, tense and angry, and I felt his gaze on me grow concerned.


The word came out like a gunshot, sharp and abrupt, and she winced.

"We worry.."

"YOU worry, Jolie."

She sighed, refusing to agree but knowing she had no counter-argument to offer, and reaching out with one slender hand she awkwardly brushed the arm he was not holding. She looked sad and weary, older then her twenty-five years, and in quick remorse I flung my arms around her neck.

"I wasn't staying away on purpose, truly I wasn't Jolie. Honestly.."

He spoke out loud for the first time since her appearance, interposing in an ashamed mumble.

"We crashed into one another--I crashed into her--Mademoiselle...I..I thought it was only courteous to make sure she reached home all well after that.."

He trailed off, stepping back so it was impossible for me to unobtrusively leave my sister and return to his arms, and Joline nodded absently.

"My parents and I are indebted to you, m'sieu...Monsieur?"

She lilted the reiteration to make it a question, and he flushed a deep angry red, eyes again searching the ground with a bitter shame I could not understand while his clenched hands again disappeared into his pockets. He looked sullen and dangerous, and looking up at my sister like a child between two elders whose discourse is both literally and figuratively over her head I saw Joline's face tighten in disapproval, though his answer was clear and courteous enough.

"Jean Valjean, mademoiselle. And I'm glad to be o' any help."

She nodded stiffly, taking my elbow with an air of possession I had never before felt resentful of--she WAS after all my sister--but now seemed monstrously unfair.

"Yes, well, thank you.."

She began to turn, her hand drawing on my arm, but I stood firm and unmoving, a dangerous light leaping in my eyes, and she perforce had to return.

"Would...would you like to stay for supper?" she inquired lamely, in response to my fierce look, and he shook his head with a quick, vigorous motion. There was clear animosity now in the dark eyes that flicked so brightly along the pavement, and I knew he had seen and understood her movement to go.

"No THANK YOU, Mademoiselle," he replied tightly, a bitter stress on the two words. Joline flinched visibly again but nodded, drawing my arm through hers, and pulled me quickly up the road toward our home. I turned back just at the gate, waving enthusiastically, partly out of an impish desire to infuriate Joline, who had barely said an angry word since she was two years old, and partly out a far deeper longing not to allow him out of my life just yet---perhaps not ever.

"Good night, M'sieu Jean cher!"

He was already nearly gone, a dim figure melting rapidly into the gloom, but he too turned back, uncertainly lifting one hand, the palm gleaming white in the darkness, and I felt rather then saw that odd, shy smile again curving his lips.


"So THERE you are! I've been wondering when you decide to again grace us with your presence! What gutter did you pluck her out of, Joline?"


She ignored my father's vain pleading, plowing relentlessly onward as I stood, sullen and smudged, the exquisite happiness of that strange encounter smothered beneath an old discontent. Joline's hands tightened in simultaneous concern and apology on my shoulders, as my father shrank back in his chair and allowed his wife to vociferate.

"Filthy, unkempt, running wild...WHAT will they think of us.."

She paused for breath, and I seized my chance. I could not stand and take this much longer.

"You're right, madame, I'm sorry."

The last few words were flung over my shoulder as I hastily made my escape upstairs, dashing into my room before she could say a word and slamming the door quickly behind me. Hot tears of frustration and anger burned unshed in my eyes as I washed and dressed, slamming down the washing bowl and pitcher, pulling my night dress irritably down over my head, and yanking at the buttons until one of them popped off and went skittering across the floorboards.

At that I burst into a flood of tears I did not understand and flung myself down on my bed, wanting only to cry until the hard tight anger and frustration and sorrow knotted inside me went away. I buried my face in my pillow, clenching my fists at my side, and did not move when the door opened and felt the bed creak as someone sat next to me and ran her hand up and down my back murmuring in sympathy and apology.

"Ma ray, ma ray, I SWEAR I thought she was asleep and wouldn't speak to her..she'd gone to bed when I left to find you.."

I pushed away, shaking my head, and rubbed tears across my face with my hand, watching my sister's anxious visage through blurred vision.

"No...it's not that..."

It wasn't, either. Maman, while a loving parent, lectured both her daughters--me more with Joline, but that was hardly unexpected--with such frequency and biting sarcasm I was more then used to it. But the anger at her had brought forth tears that belonged something deeper, stronger, and, to an sixteen-year-old girl who always acted and felt just a little younger then she was, terrifying. Something I knew all too well was in part, maybe even wholly due to a powerfully-built young man with dark eyes that glittered and a face that always seemed bitter and furious, except when he smiled. Except when he smiled.


Part One, Chapter Two

Something--perhaps it was God, guiding my life as He guides all--woke me before the sun the next morning. I rose as soon as my eyes had opened, moving silently about the little room Joline and I shared.

Swiftly I washed, scrubbing until I glistened, and even swifter dressed in one the few dresses I owned that was not an overlarge hand-me-down from my tall, slender sister, and brushed my hair at the speed of lightning. There was reason for my haste--Maman would be seething yet, and if I could not escape the house ere she forbade me to do so, it would be, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable day. And I had a particular reason, which I denied even to myself, to wish to be outside today... Joline, too, gentle and unselfish and so aggravatingly MORAL, although she might understand as well as me if not better how unpleasant Maman could and would make things, would insist that I be the dutiful daughter and not leave without asking.

With a final half defiant, half apologetic glance at my still-sleeping sister, I tiptoed down the stairs and slipped out on to the dimly lit streets of Faverolles.


The sun had only just risen, only the poorest or busiest of the little town astir. There were few to see me, but I still kept close to the shadows, a diminutive figure scarcely noticeable in the dubious light of dawn, I was easy enough to miss, to be sure--while Joline was tall and willowy, our mother through and through in appearance at least, I bore far more of the qualities of Monsieur Dalmot. Short, slim and delicate, called lightly built by the kind and scrawny by less charitable folk, I at sixteen stood barely five feet and three inches tall. I was the sort of person it was easy to overlook when I was jumping up and down, let alone trying purposely to avoid attention.

I told myself it was a mere wish to go where Maman would not venture that turned my footsteps toward the southern fringes of the town, the poorer district where humble dwellings huddled in the shadow of the forest, relying on kindly darkness to conceal their numerous faults.

I wandered there aimlessly, weaving between the dwellings--carelessly dilapidated or bearing the painful dignity of once-fine houses whose owners had lost the means to keep them up --and finally, with a sigh of regret I refused to try and fathom, I left town and sought the security of the high trees.

I had often stayed out all day with only these same trees for company, and been more then content. Now, however, I wandered restlessly, all the old, quiet spots where I was wont to tryst with my thoughts seeming hateful to me. When I was thirsty, I drank from a pure stream, well-known to me, that now tasted bitter, and when a deer, startled by my presence, bounded gracefully away, I did not try to race it as I normally did, for I might fall and then what would become of my dress and hair?

It was late afternoon when I finally turned my weary footsteps again toward home, exhausted after a day of gentle wandering as I had never been after a childish summer romp, and burdened with a gnawing disappointment that I vainly assured myself I was an utter fool to feel.

I meandered my way through the woods. Faverolles was built like a stepladder, or a comet. In the north resided a flaming head of the town's few public officials and aristocratic descendants, still lower class by Paris' standards but seeming a fountain of extravagance and elegance to the tiny town. And then the most destitute of Faverolles' few inhabitants, the draggled tail, eked out a precarious existence in the south. My father was one of the wealthier ones, a well-to-do attorney older then most men with young daughters, who lived quite comfortably on his salary and an allowance left him by some distant uncle, but our luxurious home was still located in the modest section where he and Maman had originally lived. I took therefore the longer route back, wending my way north to enter Faverolles through the more affluent district and then find my way home through the streets. The sun had begun to set by now, and I tried in vain to tell myself it was merely good sense, a wise and prudent wish not to be among the poorer, more dangerous streets of Faverolles longer then was unavoidable at this uncertain hour of dusk, and not a violent aversion to seeing Maman, Father, or even dear Jolie ere I could wipe from my face the expression of crushingly disappointed hopes, that inspired such a circuitous route.

And so a second autumn day found me meandering slowly homeward, only this sunset, in sharp contrast to its predecessor,s hone upon a weary, uncertain woman with leaden spirits, who dared not let her imagination take girlish flight for terror of where it, swamped by a host of burning emotions it had never before been introduced to, might take her.

With a shiver, I quickened my steps, even Maman's shrill condemnations, Father's weak protests and Joline's loving, unbearably searching gaze seeming suddenly preferable to this balmy solitude where the very thoughts I had striven all day to suppress came surging back quick and close, clustering around me like moths to a flame.

"Valjean! Haven't you finished yet?"

The voice belonged to one of the servants of the house I was passing by, and I froze suddenly, not daring to trust my ears, as another voice answered, outwardly placid, but that tense fury bubbled just below the surface exactly as it had last night.

"Nearly, monsieur. Just a few more branches."

I knew that voice--knew it! Every cell in my body was suddenly trembling, as the rough tone of the servant sounded forth again, grating on my twilight-soothed nerves.

"A'right then, but it best be done ere dark, or monsieur'll be angry."

The slam of a door echoed across the yard, hidden from me by a high stone wall, and after a moment of sullen silence the same voice which I had listened for with so much eagerness I scarcely breathed broke into absent song.

"Sur le pont, d'Avignon

L'on y danse

L'on y danse

Sur le pont, d'Avignon.."

Hesitant, barely breathing, I rounded the high wall that hid him, half expecting to see a wholly different form from the one I so longed for, another man with his precious name and mellow voice.

But no, it WAS him. Precariously perched high above in a tree, several feet above hte ladder placed for him, he straddled a branch. The sun shed soft, dying rays on his ragged, grimy clothes, catching hints of red and gold amid the matted brown hair that fell to just below his chin, glinting off the knife he held in one hand as he worked away at a branch to the rhythm of the song he murmured between teeth clenched around a second knife--the two blades, I realized, had once been a single pair of shears.

"Sur le pont, d'Avignon

L'on y danse tout le roud!"

He worked quickly and surely, cutting away at limb after limb with skillful strength as he hummed.

One of the leafy branches suddenly crashed to earth mere inches from my feet, and I jumped back, a soft cry escaping my lips despite myself.

His head jerked around then, the keen black eyes searching the garden, made already nearly dark by the high wall which blocked the last rays of the sun that still reached him up high.

His whole face changed suddenly as he caught sight of me, his mouth falling open and the knife between his teeth dropping earthward. He wrenched his eyes away from mine with a cry of exasperation, catching it with marvelous dexterity ere it could do more then deeply cut into a narrow lower branch. Valjean swung down, graceful and agile, and I had to look away, suddenly frightened as I became overwhelmingly conscious of WHY I had wondered today, hoping desperately for something that left me empty and frustrated when it--when he-- did not come He was sawing away now at the already half-cut limb, shooting quick, curious glances out of his dark, bright eyes at me. Heaven knows how, for my own heart seemed about to burst from my chest with its wild beating, but I always met these rapid looks with a steadfast gaze, inquiry and encouragement mingling as they shone from my eyes, and he would over and over flush guiltily and return to his work, both of us repeating this awkward, absurd, glorious cycle several times in the short minute or so it took him to cut the branch free.

He waited until it crashed into the carpet of leaves below with a muffled thump, then spoke uncertainly.

"Mam'zelle! I...you are visiting?"

I smiled quite placidly, wondering if he could see my hands clenching so tightly in nervousness behind my skirt that the knuckles were turning snow white while blood-red half-moons swelled around my digging nails.

"No, m'sieu, I don't have the pleasure of acquaintance with this house. I'm waiting for you."

Oh, but he blushed at that! And I had not the faintest idea why my own cheeks were not burning red.

"F-for me, mam'zelle?"

Again the gentle nod, the complacent smile, while inside I was laughing and weeping in hysterical, joyous awe at my own boldness, and in trembling hope at what this courage, which was surely a gift from a God who approved of this union, might bring in its wake.

"Yes, m'sieu, for you. But you're not quite done yet, I see, and I would like to see the sunset. Shall I wait outside?"

Without waiting for a reply, I bobbed just the hint of a curtsy and stepped back into the road, leaving lingering in his eyes the reflection of a smile, lovely, shy, and inviting, that was just the sort of thing I had seen Joline, who WAS still a young human girl, practicing in front of the mirror when she was expecting some young man for whom she had a fancy.

Once outside in the relative safety and privacy of the fast-darkening road, I leaned against the cools tone, burying my now-feverish face in my hands. Had I truly said those things? Had he truly looked GLAD to have them said?

And at that thought, that I had been as incessantly in his dreams since that hauntingly beautiful encounter last night as he had been in mine, a current of hope and joy went singing through my veins, leaving me and thrilled and terrified. I was sixteen! People did not feel like this at sixteen!

I prayed wildly, as desperate for guidance from Him who had never failed me as if the kindly, awkward young man had already proposed.

"Oh heavenly Father, what do I do, what do I SAY..."


His voice, shy and uncertain, but I could sense his smile even before my searching eyes located him perched with dangerous unsteadiness on the wall high above me.

"Sprouted on a tree. They don't like blossoms, and 'tis so pretty, a shame to waste it..."

Flushing, awkward, he finished with sudden brusqueness "Well, have it if y'want," and something small and white, gently stained with light rose, delicate lavender, or just a hint of orange as the wind turned it toward the jeweled sunset, fluttered down into my hesitant, upreached hands.

I caught the delicate flower, cradling it in careful fingers, and after a moment set it amid the wild tendrils of my incessantly uncontrollable auburn hair, remembering to send up a prayer of thanks for what seemed to me an unmistakable sign.


Part One, Chapter Three

I had been leaning against the wall, trying with but limited success to calm my pounding heart, for about ten minutes ere I heard him suddenly call out lustily.

"All done now, m'sieu!"

Pressed against the cold stone that seemed only to increase the heat of the fever coursing through me, I could hear every sound--the slam of the door and approaching footsteps of the employer, the rustle as HE made his way down the tree, HIS muted humming.

It was nearly dark now, and I edged again around the wall, keeping to the shadows, savoring the pleasure of watching him without his being aware of it. The owner had come close now, holding up a torch that shed its flickering light across his face. He was standing tall and proud, shedding the rebellious, discontented slouch that seemed his habitual posture, and I almost stopped breathing as that warm light danced across his face--tapering chin, straight nose, firm, high cheekbones that ran to the deep set dark eyes, which reflected the torchlight cast on them like carefully polished black stone. He was not overwhelmingly handsome--but something BENEATH those dark eyes took my breath away.

"All is finished and done, m'sieu, as is plain to see," Valjean announced, waving proudly behind him at towering tree.

The man, whom I already disliked if only because MY..friend had to bow and scrape to him, held his light higher, frowning as his severe glance flicked across the branches, and suddenly he pointed an accusing finger at the stump of the branch Valjean had had to saw off after it had been accidentally cut by the dropping blade.

"That limb was not dead, was it? It stretched out toward the wall, and my son was going to use it for a sort of play house..."

I could have wept, for then came the change. His severe voice, even without more then a hint of rebuke, altered the smiling young man beyond recognition. Valjean's straight shoulders, were suddenly hunched as if to ward off a blow, the firm hands clenched and shoved deep into his pockets, while he hung his head, shooting smoldering glances from beneath sullenly lowered lids. I shrank back into the shadows, not wanting to see THAT...the proud, honest, kindly young man transformed into a rebellious, glowering beast, a cruelly beaten dog that will not bite, but only watches its tormentors, the helpless fury growing more and more dangerous as he hides it.

"Jean, Jean, WHY?"

It was the first time I had called him by his Christian name, even in thought, and I felt my cheeks burn scarlet at my own daring.

"Yes, m'sieu, it was an accidental cut. I beg your pardon."

The man surveyed it coolly, then shrugged.

"A sad mistake. The branch was crucial."

He turned back to the house, remarking to his steward, "Half of what was promised him, I think."

Valjean's head jerked up, the smoldering dark eyes leaping into sudden flame. He was no longer the man I had been so desperately searching for all day, and I began to wish I had not taken advantage of this chance to watch him secretly.


The man paused and turned back, in gravely courteous astonishment that the other was capable of speech after he had been dismissed.

"Why, yes, my good man. What more could you expect, with such a flagrant error?"

Valjean seemed to have but a vague idea of what "flagrant" meant, and the other man's steady, patient tones gave no hint as to the meaning, but Jean could gather at least that he HAD heard correctly, that this smoothly indifferent man meant to deprive him of half an honest day's labor due to a single, scarcely noticeable slip. He took a quick step forward, the formidable hand clenched at his side in a way I did not at all care for, but the cool, condescending disdain of his employer brought him back to himself. Jean Valjean stepped very close and said quiet and firm and rapid, so low I had to strain my ears to hear:

"M'sieu, please..my sister, her children. Things have been bad, a baby not yet six months, m'sieu, you are a father you must know how easily they get ill at that age, must I let the little ones starve m'sieu?"

The other watched him coldly.

"Who is your sister?" he queried peremptorily, interrupting my Jean's--MY JEAN!?! What on earth was I doing thinking THAT?--low murmur that was neither plea nor argument. Valjean stood uncertain a moment, then mumbled a name low and uncertain, eyes on his nervously fidgeting hands. Hands that I must NOT look at, for even splintered and grimy they were achingly handsome.

M'sieu seemed not to share Jean's scruples about the name of his sibling.

"Mere Jeanne has a husband perfectly able to care for his offspring."

"And the day Luc Chapeau raises a finger to gain any sou that doesnt' go toward wetting his own greedy gullet will be a cold one 'n hell!" Valjean shot back in a hoarse whisper, " You know that as well as I do!"

The man watched him for a moment, and I could almost imagine the sight that met his mild eyes. The lips pressed tightly together, dark brows drawn bristling over the flashing black eyes--yes, I COULD see it, with sudden, startling clarity, and it frightened me. How many times must I have seen that face in my mind's eye to so easily picture it in every emotion? For I could picture it in any emotion, knew just how it would look laughing, how his face would appear tear-streaked with sorrow, knew how his dark eyes would shine speaking words of...

I cut off my thoughts savagely, ruthlessly flinging my attention at the words the man was now speaking.

"That is no concern of mine. Since you help to support a family, you may have two thirds your pay. Good evening."

He plucked some coins from his purse and dropped them disdainfully into Jean's hand, then spun and strode inside.

Valjean remained where he had been left, abandoned, the strong hand closing automatically around the coins.


The man did not turn back--I was not even sure he had heard. Jean Valjean suddenly sighed, a quick, bitter sound that hinted at sorrows I could not, did not WANT to understand, and pushed the meager recompense into his pocket.

I turned and nearly ran back into the streets, knowing suddenly, instinctively, that whatever this thing was, this trembling, newborn child that i had so unknowingly stumbled over in yesterday's twilight, I would lose it irrevocably if he knew I had seen him so basely treated.

I leaned again against the wall as I had done only minutes before, the clear street with the faintest lingerings of light still diluting the shadows seeming like a sunlit glade after the pressing darkness of the garden.


He came hesitantly out, his head swiveling in search of me with a quick, birdlike movement.

"I'm here."

I stepped forward, devoutly thankful for the shadows which hid my unaccountable blush. People did NOT feel like this...this pulsating joy at his voice...

I had held out my hand as I stepped forward, almost unaware of doing so. I stood there, closer to him then decorum permitted without meaning to, my eyes raised to meet those that were like ebony quicksilver, glowing with reflected fire.

He took my hand, and it trembled, a frightened little bird in his grasp. But a trapped bird will flee at the first chance, and my hand would not have left his clasp even if to remain like this, his warm fingers gingerly closing around mine, meant the end of the world.

"You missed the sunset."

I scarcely knew I had spoken. It seemed as if a mischievous breeze had murmured those words, shattering the spell.

He turned and began to walk, letting go of my hand but not releasing my gaze.

"I could see it from where I was working. It's..it's actually very nice up there. Good sight."

I nodded absently. My hands were wandering confusedly from my petticoat to my hair to any other place where they could at least appear to be occupied, and I saw his firm brown fingers doing the same, up and down and around.

Marveling at my daring, I put out one hand and captured his, and sighed in contentment as his sturdy fingers closed around mine. The hand not in his ceased to exist, and the other seemed to be in its perfect place.

"Shall I walk you home?"

All I managed was a nod. He began to walk again, and after a long moment spoke abruptly:

"She's my sister."

"She looks as if she could be your mother."

The words slipped out before I could stop them, and I froze. My heart was fluttering wildly in my breast, and I was not sure which frightened me more--the thought I might have hopelessly offended him, or how terrified that thought made me.

But he did not seem offended. He merely sighed, a soft, gently mournful sound, and gave my hand a familiar squeeze. That familiarity, which I would have been vaguely uneasy about with any other, from him sent me soaring joyously into realms as close to heaven as earth permits us.

"Jeanne has had a hard life. And made some...unwise choices."

He trailed off, and there was a bitter edge now to his smile and a hardness in his face I wanted to chase away. I groped awkwardly for something to say.

"She seems to love you very much."

A shrug. Uncertain, but encouraged by his hand on mine, I continued.

"I..I understand that. Joline, my sister, she is very dear to me, she is my closest friend, I think I love her best of..of almost anyone in the world."

Today was September 25. On September 23--the day before I had met him--the "almost" would not have been in the sentence. He smiled, a real smile.

"That's...that's good."

I looked at him suddenly.

"I know your name. I've thought of nothing else since last night. Do you know mine?"

That second sentence had SURELY not been spoken aloud!!! Surely the beneficent Deity that had arranged this meeting would not allow such a thing as THAT to slip past my lips...

But it HAD. I could see it in the sudden awkward shyness of his smile, in those glittering eyes that abashedly would no longer meet mine. But he still would not let go of my hand.

"Your sister calls you Ma Ray, or Mireille when she remembers strangers are present.."

I laughed, a little irrelevantly but grasping at any straw to dispel the atmosphere of embarrassment--PLEASED embarrassment--that lingered.

"Mireille Dalmot at your service, m'sieu."

I drew my hand from his only long enough to make a curtsy, and he grinned and reciprocated with a clumsy bow of his own, clumsy both because he was not accustomed to bowing and because he would not let go of the hand I had re-surrendered to him.

"Jean Valjean at yours, although you've said you knew that."

I flushed.

"Yes, I knew."

There was a pause as we went on, but not an awkward one. It was the sort of pause that came at night after Joline and I had lain awake, addressing our remarks to the ceiling. The pause of two people sinking into their own thoughts, secure in the knowledge that these thoughts were so remarkably similar there was no need for speech. I felt the quality of this silence, the things it foretold happening so singularly soon after our first meeting, and thrilled to it--then my cheeks burned at the notion that HIS thoughts might be tending the same direction as mine unwillingly were.

I do not remember what the words were when we at last began to speak again. Commonplace enough, I should think--we were both too young, too glaringly new to the feelings surging through us, to say the words that trembled on our lips. Light inquiries about each other's families, preferences, and past--I told him about Joline, my sickly father and the mother who was a gentle lamb to him and a furious shrew to everyone else, about the year in Paris when I was fifteen that was all the formal schooling I had ever received. And he, halting and uncertain, fearing what I might think, told me of his parents death ere he turned ten, of living with his married elder sister til then--thirteen years. He spoke of Jeanne in the slightly worried, affectionate tones of a parent with a child who seemed unaccountably ailing, rather then those of a small brother who had been raised by her, and of her six children in a voice of unmistakable caring. Of his sister's husband he said nothing, only once, remarking on the reserved, gentle manner of the oldest boy, added that "and he looks EXACTLY like Luc!" as if the two facts were somehow inconsistent.

I did not attempt to disguise my heavy sigh when we reached my gate, the stars slipping shyly out one by one, and his own melancholy countenance flushed with embarrassed pleasure.

We stood awkwardly there, neither wanting to be the first to make a movement to leave. After a moment, I took my courage in my hands--well, the one not holding his--and spoke.

"Could I see you tomorrow? After you're done working?"

He flushed, and the broad shoulders lifted in brief uncertainty.

"I..I suppose..."

Then, suddenly, he tensed.


He let go of my hand quickly, turning to go. I reached out for him, bewildered and hurt by his sudden desire to go, and in spite of myself his name leapt from my tongue.


He turned unwillingly, pale and tense, and I suddenly thought I could hear what had prompted his sudden exit. Far off, still distant down the lane but coming swiftly closer, I could hear rough, heavy footsteps pounding into the soil.


I paused, awkward and uncertain, and finally held out my hand.


He smiled briefly, a quick warm flash that called forth an answering sun in me, and he took my hand and gave it a faint, swift pressure that sent a thrill through my veins.

The next moment, he was gone, off into the darkness with quick, oddly furtive movements.

I am more then a little convinced that I did not walk inside but rather floated. Certainly I managed to slip up the stairs to my room quietly enough that Joline, Maman and Father, eating a late dinner--probably having waited for me, I thought, with a twinge of remorse, an extremely wispy and transitory cloud across my overwhelming happiness--did not notice a thing.

I could not do anything practical at the moment--I was in a state of dreamy bliss that i had so often read about in novels and denounced as inevitably the product of the author's over-idealistic imagination. Drifting over to the window, I sank down onto the hard, narrow little windowsill--Joline's industriousness periodically transformed it into a charming little window seat, and periodically my mother would descend on our room and declare the use of cushions a "Waste" and commandeer them--and gazed out the window, cupping my chin in my hands.

The room Joline and I shared was in the back of the house, and from the narrow window I could see a low field that led to the forest surrounding Faverolles. I leaned against the window frame, drowsily contemplating the overgrown meadow, bare and plain, in the faint light of the rising moon. IT had always struck me as horribly ugly, and now seemed bathed in heavenly beauty. At the moment, everything did.

I became slowly aware of a figure moving through the twilight--a tall, powerful man, who half-ran stooped over, with swift, delicate movements. I Leaned forward suddenly, pushing open the glass pane with a glad cry rising to my lips, for the man had slipped across a patch of moonlight and revealed a pair of broad shoulders and a head of course, just-slightly-longer-then-standared hair that seemed currently to be little less then divine.

The cry died stillborn on my lips, a sound of love ruthlessly murdered by the drama enacted before my horrified eyes.

Another form had appeared, running behind my Jean. He was tall and powerful, with golden hair that gleamed sickly green in the shimmering light, and with an awkward, clumsy flying tackle felled the pursued to the ground.

A third figure appeared ere anything else could happen, and this figure was familiar to me. Thin and stooped, shaking hands held out in incessant supplication, stringy hair falling limply along a ragged dress--Jean's sister.

She gave a soft, feeble cry, clinging to the arm of the blond man, who had risen to his feet and stood towering over the other figure. Jean was lying prone and quiescent--stunned, probably. Or feigning it in the hope that his attacker would leave. Jeanne was thrown roughly to the side by the man, where she lay, a huddled bundle of dirty rags and dirtier stretched curls that not even kindly moonlight could make beautiful. Even as she fell Jean was on his feet, daring quickly between his sister and her attacker before the latter's raised fist could fall again.

And I saw nothing more, because I had left the window and was dashing outside, no longer floating but pounding on the steps quite loudly, sweeping my cloak on as I ran.

My mother's angry, astonished cries fell on deaf ears as I lunged through the door and plowed recklessly onwards, head bent and shoulders thrust forward as if the darkness was trying to stop me. I plunged ahead around the house toward the field.

I could hear things now, whimpering cries from Jeanne and rough shouts from the man, but no sound from Jean.

"No, dear God, please, no, please God.."

A small, very distant part of me wondered why the thought of Jean Valjean inert, maybe dying, beneath the blows of the unknown should cause my heart to scream in such unreasonable agony, but even that part was swept away in a flood of grief and rage as I bounded into the clearing.

"Eighteen cursed sous--not enough to buy half a flask, you...! Spent it all on your whore, have you? Jennie told me about that, about your dirty little.."


A sudden, hysterical shriek as Jeanne caught sight of me and fled into the shadows. The man followed instantly, thankfully without glancing back and realizing the object of terror was nothing more then a young girl barely holding back tears--with the unquestioning wariness of a man more often pursued then not, he ceased mid-blow and vanished into the darkness.

I stumbled forward, falling next to him on my knees.


For one awful, hellish second, I thought him dead, lying so still and silent, and thrust my hand against my mouth and bit down hard on my index finger in an attempt to hold back hysterics.

But before they could begin to come he stirred, sitting up with a hand to his head as he smothered a moan, and then saw me.


I sat back on my heels and stared at him, giddily happy for two reasons--he had said my name, and he was alive to say it.

"I saw you. I saw you an' I came out."

He stared a moment, uncomprehending, and then his face suddenly tightened and he dropped his head into his hands, hissing through clenched teeth.

"Oh! You're hurt!"

I crawled forward, pulling his hands away and folding them in mine, trying to examine him by the dim moonlight.

"I'm fine!"

He yanked away, struggling to his feet, and instantly collapsed again.

I put my arms around him, simply and naturally, and after a tense moment he sank down in my embrace with a sigh.

How long we sat there, silent in the moonlight, I could not have told you. Finally, he stirred slightly, wincing, and I, still in total silence, rose and drew him to the back door of my home. In I slipped, almost liquid in the smooth quiet of my movements, and returned home with a bowl of water and an old towel.

I knelt beside him, dabbing at the bruises and bandaging the few places where skin had been broken, no sound breaking the stillness of the night save our soft breathing (his occasionally broken by a hiss of pain) the wind in the trees, the ripples of the crimson-tinged water in the bowl as I time and time again dipped the rag.

Quietly and steadily I worked, feeling strangely apart and distant from all of this--from his glowing eyes, staring fixedly at the desolate landscape when they were not shut in pain, from his long, coarse hair which the breeze occasionally wafted against my cheek or forehead or wrist, from his calloused skin, marked with many previous beatings, that quivered warm and rough beneath my fingertips.

Finally I tied the last bandage in place, hands firm and heartbeat normal, and set the bloodied rag in the red-tinted water with an air of finality. A few bandages peaked form beneath the torn clothes, but other then that he seemed not a bit different--the very commonness of this occurrence was made heartbreakingly clear by the expertise with which he had shielded his head so there were few marks on his face, and the faint swelling over the rest of his body was lost in the dim uncertain light.

"All done."

They were the first words I had spoken, either of us had spoken, since he held me. It seemed to pierce the dream of this night, to turn the thick fog into a thin haze hovering uneasily, only waiting the right sort of wind to dispel it completely. My words fell strange and awkward on my own ears, and he took my hand with a faint air of bewildered surprise.

"I...thank you.."

He looked at me as he spoke, sparkling black stars of eyes that beckoned and pulled me so deep into their depths I was irrevocably, joyously drowning, and the dreamlike mist vanished completely and totally, leaving the world sharper an d clearer then it had ever been before, as he leaned forward and kissed me.


I could never say how long that kiss lasted. It seems sometimes that it has never ended, that all the tears and joy and turmoil since then have been nothing more then a flash of dream, a spark of fantasy born when our lips meant, as fleeting and transient as it was vivid and sharp.

But somehow it did end, and I had slipped down in his arms, my wild hair spread across his chest. I closed my eyes, afraid my heart would burst from my chest, pounding in my ears--but even that deafening sound could not drown out my acute consciousness of his own careful breathing, his heart beating close to my ear, his arms closing around me.

Firm fingers stroked my hair, and I looked up, smiling dreamily, and his eyes met mine.

Black stars, dark coals set dancing with flame, searched my soul to its very core. Liquid jet slipped from his eyes into mine and flamed downward through my veins, coating bone and sinew and changing me forever, striking far deeper and more frightening and RIGHT then even that kiss had done. I was falling, terrified and overjoyed--his eyes filled a chink in my soul, healed a hurt I had not known existed, and merged so completely I was never again sure which part of my heart and soul was Mireille Dalmot and which was Jean Valjean. And it felt RIGHT.

I stumbled away, tearing my eyes from his as if I was ripping out my heart, and ran inside. Through the hallway I struggled, straining for the haven of my own room.


I spun at the foot of the stairs, tensing instinctively as I recognized my mother's voice.

Already attired for bed, candle in hand, she had emerged from the kitchen, reproach and relief mingling in the deep set eyes. She had waited up for me.

"Mireille, where have you BEEN?" She demanded, coming swiftly forward. There was concern and affection in her tones, and the two pronged assault of love and anger, the weapon of every mother and especially my own, pierced through the flimsy armor I had hastily erected around the turmoil of my heart.

"I..I don't feel well.." I choked out somehow, and then made my escape up the stairs.

Joline was sleeping with her face turned toward the door, motherly concern for her absent sister shadowing the peace of the sleeping features. She slept lightly, nervously, starting and quivering beneath the oppressive bedclothes, but my tread was superhumanly soft and she scarcely stirred as I slipped around the room. Rapidly but without the fierce clumsiness of--had it truly been only YESTERDAY?--I slipped from my dress into a soft nightgown that soothed my body but could do nothing for my soul.

Soft white clouds fell away from my face and settled on my shoulders, and I suddenly discovered I stood in front of the mirror.

I froze suddenly ,staring at hte image that looked back at me in the moonlight.

Small and delicate, the billowing nightgown--clean and soft but overlarge, a hand me down from tall graceful Joline--seeming to leave my tiny form lost amid its folds, the small, triangular face with its light hazel eyes a pale blur swimming amidst a seat of wild auburn hair, thrown into further disarray by dressing.

A rather commonplace figure, to be sure, notable only for the diminutive delicacy that sometimes, when my eyes burned and my hair grew wild with some strong emotion, left me looking otherworldly. And I was, after all, just sixteen.

Sixteen. Not old enough to have someone's eyes meet mine at once bold and hesitant, and look at my very soul with a gaze that somehow regarded my very humble spirit lovingly. Too young to have arms close around me delicate and trembling, as though they had been waiting all their existence for that one privilege and shivered at finally gaining joy almost beyond endurance. Too young to have lips, gentle and firm, press themselves against mine...

I suddenly turned the mirror against the wall with trembling hands, bounding into bed and shivering as I pulled hte coverlets over me, though I was far from cold. Images crowded through my mind, clustering like a thousand delicate moths I was powerless to brush away. Fir m hands cutting at a branch, clenching in pain, folding gently over mine. A square, weatherbeaten face, marked with lines of sadness and smoldering anger, but still able to laugh and smile and watch with gentle wonder the glory of the sunset. Eyes..his eyes..!

I turned on my stomach, burying my face in my pillow in an attempt to smother the soft cries of distress that rose to my lips. For now there was another vision in front of me--a powerful young man, prone and unmoving on the ground, ragged clothes so disordered they revealed in some places bruised skin painfully close to the strong bones beneath it, and the above him a man who again and again brought his heavy hands down upon the unresisting victim. I thought of the man's face, features twisted with a horrible animal cruelty, a life to pitied transforming him into a man to be abhorred, the hateful brutality--and I saw a vision of that expression on another mans' face, only now it was a stern, homely face, all gentleness wiped away by suffering..

"He does not care for me," a voice said suddenly, in my head, a quiet, distant, inexorable voice that I believed I believed. "He does not care. He is poor and young and thought you pretty, but he will never CARE. Forget him."

I believed that i believed that voice spoke true, I deceived my own deception. I would not see him tomorrow, I told myself, and with that decided I rose again, lit my candle, reassured Joline when she came anxiously awake, and carefully readied myself for bed, allowing no break in my routine save that i did not read a verse from the little leather bound Bible nor kneel beside my bed afterwards. Too tired, I told myself.

But when I closed my eyes, there were dark stars on my eyelids that stared at me, and I fell into a troubled sleep. All night I saw those eyes, and though the face around them changed--sometimes young and smiling, sometimes older and fierce, frightening me, sometimes old and great and indescribably melancholy. But always the eyes were the same, polished jet that burned with cleansing fire, caressed with gentle love, and pleaded with soft endurance all the night through.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*END OF PART ONE*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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