"Cosette," Book Three: Chapter X
HE WHO SEEKS TO BETTER HIMSELF MAY RENDER HIS SITUATION WORSE
Madame Thénardier had allowed her husband to have his own way, as was her wont. She had expected great results. When the man and Cosette had taken their departure, Thénardier allowed a full quarter of an hour to elapse; then he took her aside and showed her the fifteen hundred francs.
"Is that all?" said she.
It was the first time since they had set up housekeeping that she had dared to criticise one of the master's acts.
The blow told.
"You are right, in sooth," said he; "I am a fool. Give me my hat."
He folded up the three bank-bills, thrust them into his pocket, and ran out in all haste; but he made a mistake and turned to the right first. Some neighbors, of whom he made inquiries, put him on the track again; the Lark and the man had been seen going in the direction of Livry. He followed these hints, walking with great strides, and talking to himself the while:—
"That man is evidently a million dressed in yellow, and I am an animal. First he gave twenty sous, then five francs, then fifty francs, then fifteen hundred francs, all with equal readiness. He would have given fifteen thousand francs. But I shall overtake him."
And then, that bundle of clothes prepared beforehand for the child; all that was singular; many mysteries lay concealed under it. One does not let mysteries out of one's hand when one has once grasped them. The secrets of the wealthy are sponges of gold; one must know how to subject them to pressure. All these thoughts whirled through his brain. "I am an animal," said he.
When one leaves Montfermeil and reaches the turn which the road takes that runs to Livry, it can be seen stretching out before one to a great distance across the plateau. On arriving there, he calculated that he ought to be able to see the old man and the child. He looked as far as his vision reached, and saw nothing. He made fresh inquiries, but he had wasted time. Some passers-by informed him that the man and child of whom he was in search had gone towards the forest in the direction of Gagny. He hastened in that direction.
They were far in advance of him; but a child walks slowly, and he walked fast; and then, he was well acquainted with the country.
All at once he paused and dealt himself a blow on his forehead like a man who has forgotten some essential point and who is ready to retrace his steps.
"I ought to have taken my gun," said he to himself.
Thénardier was one of those double natures which sometimes pass through our midst without our being aware of the fact, and who disappear without our finding them out, because destiny has only exhibited one side of them. It is the fate of many men to live thus half submerged. In a calm and even situation, Thénardier possessed all that is required to make—we will not say to be—what people have agreed to call an honest trader, a good bourgeois. At the same time certain circumstances being given, certain shocks arriving to bring his under-nature to the surface, he had all the requisites for a blackguard. He was a shopkeeper in whom there was some taint of the monster. Satan must have occasionally crouched down in some corner of the hovel in which Thénardier dwelt, and have fallen a-dreaming in the presence of this hideous masterpiece.
After a momentary hesitation:—
"Bah!" he thought; "they will have time to make their escape."
And he pursued his road, walking rapidly straight ahead, and with almost an air of certainty, with the sagacity of a fox scenting a covey of partridges.
In truth, when he had passed the ponds and had traversed in an oblique direction the large clearing which lies on the right of the Avenue de Bellevue, and reached that turf alley which nearly makes the circuit of the hill, and covers the arch of the ancient aqueduct of the Abbey of Chelles, he caught sight, over the top of the brushwood, of the hat on which he had already erected so many conjectures; it was that man's hat. The brushwood was not high. Thénardier recognized the fact that the man and Cosette were sitting there. The child could not be seen on account of her small size, but the head of her doll was visible.
Thénardier was not mistaken. The man was sitting there, and letting Cosette get somewhat rested. The inn-keeper walked round the brushwood and presented himself abruptly to the eyes of those whom he was in search of.
"Pardon, excuse me, sir," he said, quite breathless, "but here are your fifteen hundred francs."
So saying, he handed the stranger the three bank-bills.
The man raised his eyes.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Thénardier replied respectfully:—
"It means, sir, that I shall take back Cosette."
Cosette shuddered, and pressed close to the old man.
He replied, gazing to the very bottom of Thénardier's eyes the while, and enunciating every syllable distinctly:—
"You are go-ing to take back Co-sette?"
"Yes, sir, I am. I will tell you; I have considered the matter. In fact, I have not the right to give her to you. I am an honest man, you see; this child does not belong to me; she belongs to her mother. It was her mother who confided her to me; I can only resign her to her mother. You will say to me, 'But her mother is dead.' Good; in that case I can only give the child up to the person who shall bring me a writing, signed by her mother, to the effect that I am to hand the child over to the person therein mentioned; that is clear."
The man, without making any reply, fumbled in his pocket, and Thénardier beheld the pocket-book of bank-bills make its appearance once more.
The tavern-keeper shivered with joy.
"Good!" thought he; "let us hold firm; he is going to bribe me!"
Before opening the pocket-book, the traveller cast a glance about him: the spot was absolutely deserted; there was not a soul either in the woods or in the valley. The man opened his pocket-book once more and drew from it, not the handful of bills which Thénardier expected, but a simple little paper, which he unfolded and presented fully open to the inn-keeper, saying:—
"You are right; read!"
Thénardier took the paper and read:—
"M. SUR M., March 25, 1823. "MONSIEUR THÉNARDIER:— You will deliver Cosette to this person. You will be paid for all the little things. I have the honor to salute you with respect, FANTINE."
"You know that signature?" resumed the man.
It certainly was Fantine's signature; Thénardier recognized it.
There was no reply to make; he experienced two violent vexations, the vexation of renouncing the bribery which he had hoped for, and the vexation of being beaten; the man added:—
"You may keep this paper as your receipt."
Thénardier retreated in tolerably good order.
"This signature is fairly well imitated," he growled between his teeth; "however, let it go!"
Then he essayed a desperate effort.
"It is well, sir," he said, "since you are the person, but I must be paid for all those little things. A great deal is owing to me."
The man rose to his feet, filliping the dust from his threadbare sleeve:—
"Monsieur Thénardier, in January last, the mother reckoned that she owed you one hundred and twenty francs. In February, you sent her a bill of five hundred francs; you received three hundred francs at the end of February, and three hundred francs at the beginning of March. Since then nine months have elapsed, at fifteen francs a month, the price agreed upon, which makes one hundred and thirty-five francs. You had received one hundred francs too much; that makes thirty-five still owing you. I have just given you fifteen hundred francs."
Thénardier's sensations were those of the wolf at the moment when he feels himself nipped and seized by the steel jaw of the trap.
"Who is this devil of a man?" he thought.
He did what the wolf does: he shook himself. Audacity had succeeded with him once.
"Monsieur-I-don't-know-your-name," he said resolutely, and this time casting aside all respectful ceremony, "I shall take back Cosette if you do not give me a thousand crowns."
The stranger said tranquilly:—
He took Cosette by his left hand, and with his right he picked up his cudgel, which was lying on the ground.
Thénardier noted the enormous size of the cudgel and the solitude of the spot.
The man plunged into the forest with the child, leaving the inn-keeper motionless and speechless.
While they were walking away, Thénardier scrutinized his huge shoulders, which were a little rounded, and his great fists.
Then, bringing his eyes back to his own person, they fell upon his feeble arms and his thin hands. "I really must have been exceedingly stupid not to have thought to bring my gun," he said to himself, "since I was going hunting!"
However, the inn-keeper did not give up.
"I want to know where he is going," said he, and he set out to follow them at a distance. Two things were left on his hands, an irony in the shape of the paper signed Fantine, and a consolation, the fifteen hundred francs.
The man led Cosette off in the direction of Livry and Bondy. He walked slowly, with drooping head, in an attitude of reflection and sadness. The winter had thinned out the forest, so that Thénardier did not lose them from sight, although he kept at a good distance. The man turned round from time to time, and looked to see if he was being followed. All at once he caught sight of Thénardier. He plunged suddenly into the brushwood with Cosette, where they could both hide themselves. "The deuce!" said Thénardier, and he redoubled his pace.
The thickness of the undergrowth forced him to draw nearer to them. When the man had reached the densest part of the thicket, he wheeled round. It was in vain that Thénardier sought to conceal himself in the branches; he could not prevent the man seeing him. The man cast upon him an uneasy glance, then elevated his head and continued his course. The inn-keeper set out again in pursuit. Thus they continued for two or three hundred paces. All at once the man turned round once more; he saw the inn-keeper. This time he gazed at him with so sombre an air that Thénardier decided that it was "useless" to proceed further. Thénardier retraced his steps.