Christmas 1823 was especially lively and colourful in the village of Montfermeil. Entertainers and traders from Paris set up their stalls in the streets, and business at the Thenardiers’ inn was very good. While guests and visitors ate and drank noisily, Cosette — now eight years old — sat in her usual place under the kitchen table. Dressed in rags, she knitted woollen stockings for Eponine and Azelma.
One evening, Madame Thenardier ordered Cosette out into the cold to fetch water. The nearest water supply was half-way down the wooded hill on which Montfermeil stood, and Cosette hated fetching water, especially in the dark. Miserably, she picked up a large, empty bucket that was almost as big as she was, and was walking with it to the door when Madame Thenardier stopped her.
‘Buy some bread on the way,’ she said, giving the girl some money.
Cosette took the coin, put it carefully in her pocket and left. She was cold and hungry as she dragged the bucket behind her along the crowded street, but she could not resist stopping in front of one of the stalls. It was like a palace to her, with its bright lights, shining glass and pretty objects. But the object that most attracted Cosette’s attention was a large, golden-haired doll in a beautiful long pink dress. All the children in Montfermeil had gazed with wonder at this doll, but nobody in the village had enough money to buy it.
Cosette gazed at the doll for several minutes but, remembering her job, she sighed and continued on her way. She had soon left the colourful lights and the happy laughter of the village behind her, and was running down the hill into the frightening darkness of the wood. Finding the stream, she bent forward and began to till her bucket. She did not notice the coin that Mme Thenardier had given her for the bread fall out of her pocket into the water. When the bucket was full, she gripped the handle with her tiny, frozen hands and tried to pull it back up the hill. But the bucket was so heavy that, after a dozen steps, she had to stop for a rest. She managed a few more steps, and stopped again. Her progress became slower and slower. She was almost at the end of her strength, and she was still not out of the wood. Leaning against a tree, she cried aloud:
‘Oh God help me! Please, dear God!’
Suddenly, an enormous hand reached down from the sky and took the bucket of water from her. Looking up, Cosette saw a huge, white-haired man standing next to her. He looked very strange with his tall black hat and long yellow coat.
‘This is a very heavy bucket for such a small child,’ he said gently, looking down at her from his great height.
For some reason, Cosette was not afraid. There was something about his eyes, tilled with a strange sadness, that she liked and trusted. She let him carry the bucket up the hill and, as they walked back towards the village, she told him everything about her life with the Thenardiers. The old man listened with great interest, and asked her many questions.
As they were approaching the inn, Cosette turned to him and said, ‘May I have the bucket now? If Mme Thenardier sees that someone has been helping me, she’ll beat me.’
The old man gave her the bucket, and they entered the inn together.
‘What took you so long?’ Mme Thenardier said angrily when she saw the little girl.
‘This gentleman wants a room for the night,’ Cosette said, trembling with fear, expecting to be beaten.
Mme Thenardier glanced at the old man without interest. She could tell from his clothes that he probably had no money.
‘I’m sorry, the rooms are full,’ she said.
‘I can pay the price of a room,’ the old man said.
‘Forty sous,’ Mme Thenardier replied (although the usual price was twenty).
‘Forty sous,’ the man agreed.
He sat down and Cosette, after serving him some wine, returned to her place under the table. But before she could start her knitting, she heard Mme Thenardier’s angry voice demanding, ‘Where’s the bread I told you to get?’
Cosette, who had forgotten about the bread, came out from under the table.
‘The baker’s was shut,’ she lied.
‘Well, give me back the money.’
Cosette felt in her pocket and suddenly went pale. The coin was not there.
‘I’m waiting,’ Mme Thenardier said threateningly.
Cosette said nothing, speechless with fear as the woman raised her arm to hit her. But before she could deliver the blow the old man, who had seen everything, interrupted her.
‘Madame, I’ve just noticed this on the floor. It must have fallen from the child’s pocket.’
Mme Thenardier took the coin the old man held towards her and walked away.
At that moment the door opened and Eponine and Azelma appeared. They were two healthy girls, the old man noticed, dressed in warm clothes and with pink, healthy cheeks. After hugging and kissing their mother, they sat on the floor by the fire and played with a doll. Cosette, who had returned to her place under the table, looked up from her knitting and watched them sadly. A short time later, the girls grew bored with their game. They left the doll on the floor and went off to play with a baby cat. Cosette, checking that no one was watching, reached out and picked up the doll. She turned her back on the room and began to play with it, hoping that no one could see what she was doing. Her happiness did not last long, however. The two girls, when they saw Cosette with their doll, ran crying to their mother. Mme Thenardier rushed across the room towards Cosette who, afraid that she would be punished, put the doll gently on the floor and began to cry.