|Aw! Look at poor little Lark.|
What that girl needs is a
savior - any volunteers?
While we've been contemplating Waterloo and forest-dwelling devils and large ships at harbor, our Cosette has been huddled under a table at the Thenardier's inn at Montfermeil. When she's not getting up first thing to sweep the streets, changing linens for the travelers, taking care of their horses, etc. And always watching for the next, inevitable torrent of abuse from Madame Thenardier.
Now, one of the deals with Montfermeil is that there isn't a lot of water flowing through the town, so if you run out, or the enterprising guy who gets up early to fetch it and sell it door-to-door (what a business opportunity!) is done for the day, you have to go through the deep, dark woods to the spring to get it yourself. And obviously, running the inn, the Thenardiers go through a lot of water. Even though the bucket is just about as big as eight-year-old Cosette herself, she's the one who has to fetch it. And Cosette is terrified of the dark.
But before we get more into that, Hugo wants us to get a clearer picture of the delightful Thenardier couple:
- "Our readers have possibly preserved some recollection of this Thenardier woman, ever since her first appearance, - tall, blond, red, fat, angular, square, enormous, and agile...." (p.261)
- "Cosette was her only servant; a mouse in the service of an elephant." (p.261)
- "[T]he idea would never have occurred to any one to say of her, 'That is a woman.' This Thenardier female was like the product of a wench engrafted on a fishwife. When one heard her speak, one said, 'That is a gendarme'; when one saw her drink, one said, 'That is a carter'; when one saw her handle Cosette, one said, 'That is the hangman.' One of her teeth projected when her face was in repose." (p.261) (A Wench Engrafted on a Fishwife is totally going to be the title of my poetry chapbook.)
- "Thenardier was a small, thin, pale, angular, bony, feeble man, who had a sickly air and who was wonderfully healthy.... He had the glance of a pole-cat and the bearing of a man of letters." (p.261)
- "As for his prowess at Waterloo, the reader is already acquainted with that. It will be perceived that he exaggerated it a trifle." (p.262)
- "Every new-comer who entered the tavern said, on catching sight of Madame Thenardier, 'There is the master of the house.' A mistake. She was not even the mistress. The husband was both master and mistress. She worked; he created. He directed everything by a sort of invisible and constant magnetic action. A word was sufficient for him, sometimes a sign; the mastodon obeyed." (p.263) (Side note: never realized that mastodon had two 'o's in it before. Hugo = educational!)
- "This woman was a formidable creature who loved no one except her children, and who did not fear any one except her husband. She was a mother because he was mammiferous. But her maternity stopped short with her daughters, and, as we shall see, did not extend to boys. The man had but one thought, - how to enrich himself." (p.263) (Mammiferous! - my forthcoming bawdy musical.)
The Thenardier daughters dressed prettily and played with their toys and dolls. And "Cosette ran up stairs and down, washed, swept, rubbed, dusted, ran, fluttered about, panted, moved heavy articles, and weak as she was, did the coarse work." (p.264) It was Christmas-time, and some vendors had set up stalls up and down the town to sell gift items, and there was a toy shop right outside the Thenardier tavern. In the best tradition of shop-keepers everywhere, a gorgeous huge doll was prominently displayed for all to covet, and covet those girls all did.
"She set her bucket on the ground, thrust her hand into her hair, and began slowly to scratch her head, - a gesture peculiar to children when terrified and undecided what to do." (p.267) Much as she wanted to avoid the dark forbidding trees, she was more scared of Madame Thenardier. "What was she to do? What was to become of her? Where was she to go? In front of her was the spectre of the Thenardier; behind her all the phantoms of the night and of the forest. It was before the Thenardier that she recoiled." (p.267)
Cosette headed into the woods, and found the spring. Of course, when the bucket was full, it weighed
way more, plus - winter. Very cold water, slipping and splashing out of the pail with every struggling step. No stockings, just some wood shoes, so a little girl with cold wet feet, water spilling down her dress, taking ages to head back to the lights of town. Pathos, people. Pathos.
But just as she cries piteously out to God, the bucket stops weighing so much. A giant hand has reached out of the darkness and taken hold of the handle. Some big dark stranger. "This man, without uttering a word, had seized the handle of the bucket which she was carrying. / There are instincts for all the encounters of life. / The child was not afraid." (p.270)
Hugo is coy a little here, describing this stranger. Dressed poorly but with something wealthy about his carriage and expression. Carrying a cudgel-like walking stick, a little bundle of clothes, and not much else. We get a little history of this stranger evading some guards, entering the forest, examining certain trees and arrangements of stones, leaving the woods, and encountering Cosette. Once they walk a little in silence, they get to chatting, and of course he learns that she's not the most well-cared for of children, that she serves the inn-keepers, and that her name is Cosette. Stranger-man tags along to the inn, where he is well-received, once his money makes an appearance. He settles in with a drink to observe the life in the public rooms, where Cosette had gone to sit under a table and knit stockings for the Thenardier daughters. (They, meanwhile, sit nearby playing with a doll, ignoring her.) This is what Stranger-man sees in her:
- "Her entire clothing was but a rag which would have inspired pity in summer, and which inspired horror in winter. All she had on was hole-ridden linen, not a scrap of woolen. Her skin was visible here and there and everywhere black and blue spots could be descried, which marked the placed where the Thenardier woman had touched her. Her naked legs were thin and red. The hollows in her neck were enough to make one weep. The child's whole person, her mien, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the intervals which she allowed to elapse between one word and the next, her glance, her silence, her slightest gesture, expressed and betrayed one solo idea, - fear." (p.276)
The Thenardiers can't figure this guy out. He only eats bread and cheese and accepted a 'room' in the stable, but he pays up front and buys an extravagant doll. Thenardier is all about making money (especially as he has a giant 1500 franc debt looming over him), so he plays nice and encourages Cosette to say thanks and go off and play. Cosette will only do so once his wife grants permission (pathos!) but eventually the kids are all abed and the inn-keepers open up their finest room for Stranger-man. (They call it 'reposing' because "a chamber where one sleeps costs twenty sous; a chamber in which one reposes costs twenty francs." (p.284))
Stranger-man doesn't 'repose' right away - he heads down the hall and sees that Cosette is sleeping on a dirty pile of straw in a space under the stairs. The daughters, of course, are in lovely twin beds in their lovely room. They, along with Cosette, had put shoes on the hearth, because it was Christmas Eve and the good fairy drops cash in children's shoes that night. The 'fairy' had already visited, so the daughters were all set, but Cosette's wooden shoe was, of course, empty. Stranger-man took care of that, with a giant gold coin. Then, to bed.
In the morning, the Thenardiers were chuckling over the outrageous bill for the lodging they were going to give Stranger-man, and complaining about Cosette. He showed up and offered to take her away, and also didn't gripe about the bill. Thenardier wasted no time expressing various reservations about how he'd miss the darling little tyke and how even though she's always sick and costing him cash, he just adores her like his own kids, and Stranger-man just eyes him throughout. Thenardier points out that he'd feel better if he saw Stranger-man's passport and knew where Cosette was going, so he could check in on her periodically, but Stranger-man doesn't fall for that, and lets him know that once they leave, Thenardier would never see them again.
Now, Stranger-man had been observing a lot about the inn-keeper and his family, but he wasn't the only one with open eyes. "While drinking with the carters, smoking, and singing coarse songs on the preceding evening, [Thenardier] had devoted the whole of the time to observing the stranger, watching him like a cat, and studying him like a mathematician." (p.289) So Thenardier has a good inkling about how to handle Stranger-man, and finally puts his cards on the table: he needs 1500 francs to pay this
debt of his. And he got it.
Stranger-man gives Cosette a set of mourning clothes he'd carried in his little bundle, and with that and the giant doll in hand, they leave. It doesn't take long for Thenardier to realize he could have probably gotten more out of Stranger-man, so he tracks them down as they sit in a secluded spot off the road. He says he's taking back Cosette, because he'd miss her too much. Plus, he'd promised Fantine to take care of her, so what proof did he have that Stranger-man really was legit? Stranger-man took out his wallet, and Thenardier was giddy about the inevitable payoff, but instead Stranger-man produced a letter from Fantine instructing Thenardier to hand Cosette over to the bearer. Ha! Take that, Thenardier!
Thenardier was briefly inclined to attack Stranger-man for his clearly abundant stores of cash, but Stranger-man made it clear, via body-language with his cudgel/cane, that it wouldn't be wise. He went back to his tavern.
Now, finally Hugo decides to let us in on this giant secret: "Jean Valjean was not dead." (p.294) (Duh.) After he "fell" from the Orion while rescuing the topman, he swam under the ship and found a boat to hide in until that night, whereupon he made his way to shore and got himself clothed in civvies. A little sneaky travel through France got him to Montfermeil and Cosette. And once he had her, he took her hand and they walked off into a new life together.