Summer and autumn passed, and winter came, but Marius saw no sign of M. Leblanc or ‘Ursula’. He searched everywhere for them, but without success. He became like a homeless dog, wandering the streets in a mood of dark despair. Without ‘Ursula’, his life had become meaningless, work disgusted him, walking tired him, solitude bored him.
‘If only I hadn’t followed them home,’ he told himself. ‘It gave me so much happiness just to look at her, and now, through my stupidity, I’ve lost even that.’
Enjolras and his other friends tried to cheer him up by taking him to exciting places, but these expeditions always ended in the same way: Marius would leave the group and walk around the streets of Paris unhappily on his own.
One cold but sunny afternoon in February, Marius was walking along the street when two young girls dressed in rags ran into him. One was tall and thin, the other smaller. From what they were shouting at each other, he understood that they were running from the police. He stood for a moment staring after them as they disappeared round a corner. Then he noticed a small parcel of papers lying on the ground.
Realizing that one of the girls must have dropped it, he picked it up and called after them, but it was too late. The girls had already disappeared from sight. With a sigh, he put the package in his pocket and went on to dinner.
That night at home, Marius opened the package and found that it contained four letters, all addressed to different people, and smelling strongly of cheap tobacco. Marius read the four letters and discovered that they were all asking for money. However, there was something strange about them: although they all seemed to be written by different people, they were written on the same rough paper in the same handwriting. He also noticed that each of them had similar spelling mistakes. Thinking no more about it, he wrapped the letters up again, threw them into a corner and went to bed.
The next morning, while he was working, there was a gentle knock on his door.
‘Come in,’ Marius said, expecting it to be the concierge, Mme Bougon. But the voice that answered, saying, ‘I beg your pardon, Monsieur,’ was not that of Mme Bougon. It was more like the voice of a sick old man.
Marius looked up quickly and saw that his visitor was a thin girl wearing just a skirt and shirt. She looked cold and ill, and when she spoke, Marius saw that she had lost several of her teeth. There was, however, still a trace of beauty in the sixteen-year-old lace, like pale sunlight beneath the thick clouds of a winter’s dawn. Marius rose to his feet, sure that he had seen the girl somewhere before.
‘What can I do for you, Mademoiselle?’ he asked.
‘I’ve got a letter for you, M. Marius.’
Marius opened the letter and read:
My warm-hearted neighbour, I have heard of how you kindly paid my rent for me six months ago. I thank you for it. But my eldest daughter will tell you that my wife is sick and none of us have had any food for four days. Please, Monsieur, show us the kindness of your generous heart again. My daughter is at your service. Yours truly, Jondrette.
Marius realized at once that the handwriting, the yellow paper and the smell of cheap tobacco was the same as in the four letters he had read the previous evening. He now had five letters, all the work of one author: the man who lived with his family in the next room.
The Jondrette family had been Marius’s neighbours for many months, but he had never before paid much attention to them. This was why he had failed to recognize the two daughters when they had run into him on the street. But now he understood that Jondrette’s business was writing dishonest letters, asking for money from people he imagined were wealthier than himself.
Marius looked up from the letter and watched the girl moving fearlessly around his room, studying the furniture and the mirror on the wall. Her eyes lit up when she noticed the books on his writing desk.
‘Books!’ she said, and then added with pride, ‘I know how to read and write. Look, I’ll show you.’
Picking up a pen that lay on the table, she wrote on a piece of paper, Be careful! The police are coming! She showed Marius her work and then, changing the subject quickly, for no reason at all, she gazed into his eyes and said shyly, ‘Do you know, M. Marius, that you’re a very handsome boy?’
Approaching him, she rested a cold red hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You never notice me, M. Marius, but I know you. I see you on the stairs, and I see you walking around the streets, looking so sad and alone.’
Marius’s cheeks went red. He moved away from the girl’s touch and said, ‘I think, Mademoiselle, that I have something belonging to you.’ He handed her the parcel of letters.
She clapped her hands and cried, ‘We’ve been looking for that everywhere! How did you know they were mine? Of course, the handwriting. You were the man we ran into last night.’
While she talked excitedly, she took out one of the letters. ‘Ah, this is for the old man who goes to church every day. If I hurry, I might be able to catch him. Perhaps he’ll give me enough for a dinner. We haven’t eaten for three days… ‘