Victor Hugo – "Thenardier and His Manoeuvres"
On the following morning, two hours at least before day-break, Thenardier, seated beside a candle in the public room of the tavern, pen in hand, was making out the bill for the traveller with the yellow coat.
His wife, standing beside him, and half bent over him, was following him with her eyes. They exchanged not a word. On the one hand, there was profound meditation, on the other, the religious admiration with which one watches the birth and development of a marvel of the human mind. A noise was audible in the house; it was the Lark sweeping the stairs.
After the lapse of a good quarter of an hour, and some erasures, Thenardier produced the following masterpiece:—
BILL OF THE GENTLEMAN IN No. 1.
Supper . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 francs.
Chamber . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 "
Candle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 "
Fire . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 "
Service . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 "
Total . . . . . . 23 francs.
Service was written servisse.
"Twenty-three francs!" cried the woman, with an enthusiasm which was mingled with some hesitation.
Like all great artists, Thenardier was dissatisfied.
"Peuh!" he exclaimed.
It was the accent of Castlereagh auditing France's bill at the Congress of Vienna.
"Monsieur Thenardier, you are right; he certainly owes that," murmured the wife, who was thinking of the doll bestowed on Cosette in the presence of her daughters. "It is just, but it is too much. He will not pay it."
Thenardier laughed coldly, as usual, and said:—
"He will pay."
This laugh was the supreme assertion of certainty and authority. That which was asserted in this manner must needs be so. His wife did not insist.
She set about arranging the table; her husband paced the room. A moment later he added:—
"I owe full fifteen hundred francs!"
He went and seated himself in the chimney-corner, meditating, with his feet among the warm ashes.
"Ah! by the way," resumed his wife, "you don't forget that I'm going to turn Cosette out of doors to-day? The monster! She breaks my heart with that doll of hers! I'd rather marry Louis XVIII. than keep her another day in the house!"
Thenardier lighted his pipe, and replied between two puffs:—
"You will hand that bill to the man."
Then he went out.
Hardly had he left the room when the traveller entered.
Thenardier instantly reappeared behind him and remained motionless in the half-open door, visible only to his wife.
The yellow man carried his bundle and his cudgel in his hand.
"Up so early?" said Madame Thenardier; "is Monsieur leaving us already?"
As she spoke thus, she was twisting the bill about in her hands with an embarrassed air, and making creases in it with her nails. Her hard face presented a shade which was not habitual with it,—timidity and scruples.
To present such a bill to a man who had so completely the air "of a poor wretch" seemed difficult to her.
The traveller appeared to be preoccupied and absent-minded. He replied:—
"Yes, Madame, I am going."
"So Monsieur has no business in Montfermeil?"
"No, I was passing through. That is all. What do I owe you, Madame," he added.
The Thenardier silently handed him the folded bill.
The man unfolded the paper and glanced at it; but his thoughts were evidently elsewhere.
"Madame," he resumed, "is business good here in Montfermeil?"
"So so, Monsieur," replied the Thenardier, stupefied at not witnessing another sort of explosion.
She continued, in a dreary and lamentable tone:—
"Oh! Monsieur, times are so hard! and then, we have so few bourgeois in the neighborhood! All the people are poor, you see. If we had not, now and then, some rich and generous travellers like Monsieur, we should not get along at all. We have so many expenses. Just see, that child is costing us our very eyes."
"Why, the little one, you know! Cosette—the Lark, as she is called hereabouts!"
"Ah!" said the man.
She went on:—
"How stupid these peasants are with their nicknames! She has more the air of a bat than of a lark. You see, sir, we do not ask charity, and we cannot bestow it. We earn nothing and we have to pay out a great deal. The license, the imposts, the door and window tax, the hundredths! Monsieur is aware that the government demands a terrible deal of money. And then, I have my daughters. I have no need to bring up other people's children."
The man resumed, in that voice which he strove to render indifferent, and in which there lingered a tremor:—
"What if one were to rid you of her?"
The landlady's red and violent face brightened up hideously.
"Ah! sir, my dear sir, take her, keep her, lead her off, carry her away, sugar her, stuff her with truffles, drink her, eat her, and the blessings of the good holy Virgin and of all the saints of paradise be upon you!"
"Really! You will take her away?"
"I will take her away."
"Immediately. Call the child."
"Cosette!" screamed the Thenardier.
"In the meantime," pursued the man, "I will pay you what I owe you. How much is it?"
He cast a glance on the bill, and could not restrain a start of surprise:—
He looked at the landlady, and repeated:—
There was in the enunciation of these words, thus repeated, an accent between an exclamation and an interrogation point.
The Thenardier had had time to prepare herself for the shock. She replied, with assurance:—
"Good gracious, yes, sir, it is twenty-three francs."
The stranger laid five five-franc pieces on the table.
"Go and get the child," said he.
At that moment Thenardier advanced to the middle of the room, and said:—
"Monsieur owes twenty-six sous."
"Twenty-six sous!" exclaimed his wife.
"Twenty sous for the chamber," resumed Thenardier, coldly, "and six sous for his supper. As for the child, I must discuss that matter a little with the gentleman. Leave us, wife."
Madame Thenardier was dazzled as with the shock caused by unexpected lightning flashes of talent. She was conscious that a great actor was making his entrance on the stage, uttered not a word in reply, and left the room.
As soon as they were alone, Thenardier offered the traveller a chair. The traveller seated himself; Thenardier remained standing, and his face assumed a singular expression of good-fellowship and simplicity.
"Sir," said he, "what I have to say to you is this, that I adore that child."
The stranger gazed intently at him.
"How strange it is, one grows attached. What money is that? Take back your hundred-sou piece. I adore the child."
"Whom do you mean?" demanded the stranger.
"Eh! our little Cosette! Are you not intending to take her away from us? Well, I speak frankly; as true as you are an honest man, I will not consent to it. I shall miss that child. I saw her first when she was a tiny thing. It is true that she costs us money; it is true that she has her faults; it is true that we are not rich; it is true that I have paid out over four hundred francs for drugs for just one of her illnesses! But one must do something for the good God's sake. She has neither father nor mother. I have brought her up. I have bread enough for her and for myself. In truth, I think a great deal of that child. You understand, one conceives an affection for a person; I am a good sort of a beast, I am; I do not reason; I love that little girl; my wife is quick-tempèred, but she loves her also. You see, she is just the same as our own child. I want to keep her to babble about the house."
The stranger kept his eye intently fixed on Thenardier. The latter continued:—
"Excuse me, sir, but one does not give away one's child to a passer-by, like that. I am right, am I not? Still, I don't say—you are rich; you have the air of a very good man,—if it were for her happiness. But one must find out that. You understand: suppose that I were to let her go and to sacrifice myself, I should like to know what becomes of her; I should not wish to lose sight of her; I should like to know with whom she is living, so that I could go to see her from time to time; so that she may know that her good foster-father is alive, that he is watching over her. In short, there are things which are not possible. I do not even know your name. If you were to take her away, I should say: 'Well, and the Lark, what has become of her?' One must, at least, see some petty scrap of paper, some trifle in the way of a passport, you know!"
The stranger, still surveying him with that gaze which penetrates, as the saying goes, to the very depths of the conscience, replied in a grave, firm voice:—
"Monsieur Thenardier, one does not require a passport to travel five leagues from Paris. If I take Cosette away, I shall take her away, and that is the end of the matter. You will not know my name, you will not know my residence, you will not know where she is; and my intention is that she shall never set eyes on you again so long as she lives. I break the thread which binds her foot, and she departs. Does that suit you? Yes or no?"
Since geniuses, like demons, recognize the presence of a superior God by certain signs, Thenardier comprehended that he had to deal with a very strong person. It was like an intuition; he comprehended it with his clear and sagacious promptitude. While drinking with the carters, smoking, and singing coarse songs on the preceding evening, he had devoted the whole of the time to observing the stranger, watching him like a cat, and studying him like a mathematician. He had watched him, both on his own account, for the pleasure of the thing, and through instinct, and had spied upon him as though he had been paid for so doing. Not a movement, not a gesture, on the part of the man in the yellow great-coat had escaped him. Even before the stranger had so clearly manifested his interest in Cosette, Thenardier had divined his purpose. He had caught the old man's deep glances returning constantly to the child. Who was this man? Why this interest? Why this hideous costume, when he had so much money in his purse? Questions which he put to himself without being able to solve them, and which irritated him. He had pondered it all night long. He could not be Cosette's father. Was he her grandfather? Then why not make himself known at once? When one has a right, one asserts it. This man evidently had no right over Cosette. What was it, then? Thenardier lost himself in conjectures. He caught glimpses of everything, but he saw nothing. Be that as it may, on entering into conversation with the man, sure that there was some secret in the case, that the latter had some interest in remaining in the shadow, he felt himself strong; when he perceived from the stranger's clear and firm retort, that this mysterious personage was mysterious in so simple a way, he became conscious that he was weak. He had expected nothing of the sort. His conjectures were put to the rout. He rallied his ideas. He weighed everything in the space of a second. Thenardier was one of those men who take in a situation at a glance. He decided that the moment had arrived for proceeding straightforward, and quickly at that. He did as great leaders do at the decisive moment, which they know that they alone recognize; he abruptly unmasked his batteries.
"Sir," said he, "I am in need of fifteen hundred francs."
The stranger took from his side pocket an old pocketbook of black leather, opened it, drew out three bank-bills, which he laid on the table. Then he placed his large thumb on the notes and said to the inn-keeper:—
"Go and fetch Cosette."
While this was taking place, what had Cosette been doing?
On waking up, Cosette had run to get her shoe. In it she had found the gold piece. It was not a Napoleon; it was one of those perfectly new twenty-franc pieces of the Restoration, on whose effigy the little Prussian queue had replaced the laurel wreath. Cosette was dazzled. Her destiny began to intoxicate her. She did not know what a gold piece was; she had never seen one; she hid it quickly in her pocket, as though she had stolen it. Still, she felt that it really was hers; she guessed whence her gift had come, but the joy which she experienced was full of fear. She was happy; above all she was stupefied. Such magnificent and beautiful things did not appear real. The doll frightened her, the gold piece frightened her. She trembled vaguely in the presence of this magnificence. The stranger alone did not frighten her. On the contrary, he reassured her. Ever since the preceding evening, amid all her amazement, even in her sleep, she had been thinking in her little childish mind of that man who seemed to be so poor and so sad, and who was so rich and so kind. Everything had changed for her since she had met that good man in the forest. Cosette, less happy than the most insignificant swallow of heaven, had never known what it was to take refuge under a mother's shadow and under a wing. For the last five years, that is to say, as far back as her memory ran, the poor child had shivered and trembled. She had always been exposed completely naked to the sharp wind of adversity; now it seemed to her she was clothed. Formerly her soul had seemed cold, now it was warm. Cosette was no longer afraid of the Thenardier. She was no longer alone; there was some one there.
She hastily set about her regular morning duties. That louis, which she had about her, in the very apron pocket whence the fifteen-sou piece had fallen on the night before, distracted her thoughts. She dared not touch it, but she spent five minutes in gazing at it, with her tongue hanging out, if the truth must be told. As she swept the staircase, she paused, remained standing there motionless, forgetful of her broom and of the entire universe, occupied in gazing at that star which was blazing at the bottom of her pocket.
It was during one of these periods of contemplation that the Thenardier joined her. She had gone in search of Cosette at her husband's orders. What was quite unprecedented, she neither struck her nor said an insulting word to her.
"Cosette," she said, almost gently, "come immediately."
An instant later Cosette entered the public room.
The stranger took up the bundle which he had brought and untied it. This bundle contained a little woollen gown, an apron, a fustian bodice, a kerchief, a petticoat, woollen stockings, shoes—a complete outfit for a girl of seven years. All was black.
"My child," said the man, "take these, and go and dress yourself quickly."
Daylight was appearing when those of the inhabitants of Montfermeil who had begun to open their doors beheld a poorly clad old man leading a little girl dressed in mourning, and carrying a pink doll in her arms, pass along the road to Paris. They were going in the direction of Livry.
It was our man and Cosette.
No one knew the man; as Cosette was no longer in rags, many did not recognize her. Cosette was going away. With whom? She did not know. Whither? She knew not. All that she understood was that she was leaving the Thenardier tavern behind her. No one had thought of bidding her farewell, nor had she thought of taking leave of any one. She was leaving that hated and hating house.
Poor, gentle creature, whose heart had been repressed up to that hour!
Cosette walked along gravely, with her large eyes wide open, and gazing at the sky. She had put her louis in the pocket of her new apron. From time to time, she bent down and glanced at it; then she looked at the good man. She felt something as though she were beside the good God.
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