‘Can’t you see?’ Mme Thenardier said, red with anger. ‘That nasty little girl, who isn’t even my own daughter, who I feed and look after out of the kindness of my heart, has been playing with my daughters’ doll.’
‘I don’t understand,’ the old man said.
‘She’s touched it with her dirty hands!’ Then, hearing Cosette crying, she turned to the little girl and shouted, ‘Stop that noise!’
The old man left the inn and, minutes later, returned with something in his hands: the beautiful doll from the stall across the road.
‘Here,’ he said softly, placing it gently on the floor in front of Cosette. ‘It’s for you.’
There was a sudden silence in the room. Mme Thenardier, Eponine and Azelma stood absolutely still. The drinkers at the other tables paused, glasses half-way to their lips, and stared with disbelief.
‘What kind of man is this?’ they thought. ‘He dresses so poorly but can afford to buy the most expensive doll in Montfermeil!’
The Thenardiers gave the old man their best room for the night. The next morning they gave him the bill, charging him three times the usual price for a meal and a bed for the night. They waited nervously while the man studied the bill carefully, expecting him to complain or cause trouble. Finally, he looked up from the bill without expression and said, ‘Tell me, is business good here in Montfermeil?’
‘Times are very hard,’ Mme Thenardier replied immediately. ‘This is a poor country. I don’t know how we would manage without the occasional rich and generous traveller like yourself. We have so many expenses. That child, for instance — you’ve no idea how much she costs. We have our own daughters to look after. I can’t afford to look after other people’s children, too.’
‘What would you say,’ the old man said after a moment’s thought, ‘if I offered to take the child from you?’
‘Oh!’ Madame Thenardiers face brightened. ‘That would be wonderful.’
‘Just a minute,’ her husband said. ‘We love that child very much. It’s true we’re poor, and we have bad debts, but love is more important than money.’
‘How much do you need?’ the old man asked, taking an old leather wallet from the pocket of his coat.
‘1500 francs,’ Thenardier, who had already done his arithmetic, replied.
The old man put three 500-franc notes on the table and said, without smiling, ‘Now fetch Cosette.’
When Cosette came downstairs, the old man gave her new clothes to wear: a black woollen dress, black stockings, scarf and shoes. Half an hour later, the people of Montfermeil saw an old man in a tall hat and long yellow coat walking along the road to Paris, hand-in-hand with a little girl dressed completely in black. No one knew the man. And, because she was carrying an expensive doll and was no longer wearing rags, not many recognized Cosette.
Cosette was leaving at last. She did not know where to, or with whom. But, as she held the old man’s hand, she gazed wide-eyed at the sky. She had the strange but comforting feeling that she was somehow travelling closer to God.