I finished reading Volume Two ("Cosette") of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and I wanted to highlight a passage to show the brilliance of this work. There are many to choose from. I was especially struck by the scenes with Cosette at the Thenardier’s home. Cosette was placed in their care by Fantine, her unwed mother, so Fantine could eke out a living. Fantine died before Valjean could bring Cosette back (see my previous excerpt), and so he vowed to raise the girl himself. Unfortunately he was imprisoned before he could get her, but he has now escaped and the authorities presume he’s dead. The Thenardier’s are the scum of society, and treat Cosette, though she’s just eight year’s old, as a slave. This is the scene where Jean Valjean meets her for the first time. Actually he doesn’t even know it is Cosette, but surmises it as the scene develops through the conversation. It is the wee hours of the morning, and Cosette has been awakened to fetch water for the horses. She has to walk a quarter of an hour to reach the spring and then she has to carry back in a heavy bucket. From lack of nutrition she is an underdeveloped eight year old, and even if she were totally healthy the weight of the bucket is extraordinary for a small child. Vajean had no idea the Thenardier’s were abusing the child in this way. He meets the little girl while on his way to the Thenardier’s. He walks up to help this little girl in the dark.
Cosette, as we have said, was not frightened.
The man accosted her. He spoke in a voice that was grave and almost bass.
"My child, what you are carrying is very heavy for you."
Cosette raised her head and replied:--
"Give it to me," said the man; "I will carry it for you."
Cosette let go of the bucket-handle. The man walked along beside her.
"It really is very heavy," he muttered between his teeth. Then he added:--
"How old are you, little one?"
"And have you come from far like this?"
"From the spring in the forest."
"Are you going far?"
"A good quarter of an hour's walk from here."
The man said nothing for a moment; then he remarked abruptly:--
"So you have no mother."
"I don't know," answered the child.
Before the man had time to speak again, she added:--
"I don't think so. Other people have mothers. I have none."
And after a silence she went on:--
"I think that I never had any."
The man halted; he set the bucket on the ground, bent down and placed both hands on the child's shoulders, making an effort to look at her and to see her face in the dark.
Cosette's thin and sickly face was vaguely outlined by the livid light in the sky.
"What is your name?" said the man.
The man seemed to have received an electric shock. He looked at her once more; then he removed his hands from Cosette's shoulders, seized the bucket, and set out again.
After a moment he inquired:--
"Where do you live, little one?"
"At Montfermeil, if you know where that is."
"That is where we are going?"
He paused; then began again:--
"Who sent you at such an hour to get water in the forest?"
"It was Madame Thenardier."
The man resumed, in a voice which he strove to render indifferent, but in which there was, nevertheless, a singular tremor:--
"What does your Madame Thenardier do?"
"She is my mistress," said the child. "She keeps the inn."
"The inn?" said the man. "Well, I am going to lodge there to-night. Show me the way."
"We are on the way there," said the child.
The man walked tolerably fast. Cosette followed him without difficulty. She no longer felt any fatigue. From time to time she raised her eyes towards the man, with a sort of tranquillity and an indescribable confidence. She had never been taught to turn to Providence and to pray; nevertheless, she felt within her something which resembled hope and joy, and which mounted towards heaven.
Several minutes elapsed. The man resumed:--
"Is there no servant in Madame Thenardier's house?"
"Are you alone there?"
Another pause ensued. Cosette lifted up her voice:--
"That is to say, there are two little girls."
"What little girls?"
"Ponine and Zelma."
This was the way the child simplified the romantic names so dear to the female Thenardier.
"Who are Ponine and Zelma?"
"They are Madame Thenardier's young ladies; her daughters, as you would say."
"And what do those girls do?"
"Oh!" said the child, "they have beautiful dolls; things with gold in them, all full of affairs. They play; they amuse themselves."
"All day long?"
"I? I work."
"All day long?"
The child raised her great eyes, in which hung a tear, which was not visible because of the darkness, and replied gently:--
After an interval of silence she went on:--
"Sometimes, when I have finished my work and they let me, I amuse myself, too."
"How do you amuse yourself?"
"In the best way I can. They let me alone; but I have not many playthings. Ponine and Zelma will not let me play with their dolls. I have only a little lead sword, no longer than that."
The child held up her tiny finger.
"And it will not cut?"
"Yes, sir," said the child; "it cuts salad and the heads of flies."
They reached the village. Cosette guided the stranger through the streets. They passed the bakeshop, but Cosette did not think of the bread which she had been ordered to fetch. The man had ceased to ply her with questions, and now preserved a gloomy silence.
When they had left the church behind them, the man, on perceiving all the open-air booths, asked Cosette:--
"So there is a fair going on here?"
"No, sir; it is Christmas."
As they approached the tavern, Cosette timidly touched his arm:--
"What, my child?"
"We are quite near the house."
"Will you let me take my bucket now?"
"If Madame sees that some one has carried it for me, she will beat me."
The man handed her the bucket. An instant later they were at the tavern door.
Excerpt taken from The Literature Network.