M ONTFERMIEL was a little village in France. There were large houses there, and small houses, and shops, and a little church. It would have been a pleasant place to live, only for one thing: there was no water to be had in Montfermiel—one had to go a long, long way and fetch it in a bucket from the spring.
In one of the very large houses—so large that peddlers could stop there at night and sleep—lived little Cosette. She was only a tiny little girl, but she had no mother to love her and no one to buy her food and clothes. She took the place of a maid-servant in the house. There were Madame Thernardier and Father Thernardier, and their two little girls—Eponine and Azelma—who were happy and gay, but not one of them all was kind to little Cosette.
She was so thin and ragged and unhappy that they called her the Toad. All day long she ran upstairs and downstairs, and washed, and swept, and rubbed, and dusted, and fluttered about, and did all the hard work. It was Cosette's place, also, to go with the heavy bucket to the spring for water, even when it was night; and no one ever said "thank you" to her. Madame Thernardier only scolded her, or struck her for not hurrying faster.
It was one Christmas eve that I am going to tell you about. Father Thernardier's large house was full of peddlers stopping for the night, and they sat about the kitchen fire smoking. Little Eponine and Azelma were playing happily with the kitten, but little Cosette was not allowed to play. She sat on the crossbar of the kitchen table near the chimney corner. She was all in rags and her little bare feet were thrust into wooden shoes. She was knitting wool stockings for Eponine and Azelma. All at once one of the peddlers jumped up. "My horse has had no water," he said.
Little Cosette began knitting faster, but her heart jumped like a big snowflake.
"My horse has not been watered," said the peddler once more.
"Well," said Madame Thernardier, "where is the Toad?"
She looked down and saw little Cosette hiding under the table.
"Are you coming?" shrieked Madame Thernardier.
Cosette crawled out and went for the empty bucket in the chimney corner. The bucket was nearly as large as she.
"See here, Toad, on your way back you will buy a big loaf at the baker's," said Madame Thernardier. "Here is the money. Go along, now."
Cosette had a little pocket in her apron and she put the money in it; then she went out, and the door was closed behind her.
Across the road were the shops all gay with the Christmas things. The very last in the row was a toy shop glittering with tinsel and glass and magnificent objects of tin. In the very front of the window stood an immense doll nearly two feet high. She wore a pink silk robe. She had gold wheat ears on her head. She had real hair and enamel eyes. All day she had smiled out upon the little girls, but no mother in all Montfermiel was rich enough to buy her.
Poor little Cosette went across the road and set down her bucket to look at the doll.
"She is a lady," she said softly to herself. "And the shop is her palace. The small dolls—they are the fairies; and the toy man perhaps is as kind as the Eternal Father."
But she heard Madame Thernardier's voice calling to her: "What are you doing there? Get along, Toad, and fetch the water or I shall be after you."
So Cosette picked up her bucket again and ran as fast as she could until she was no longer able to see the lights from the toy shop and it was quite dark.
The farther she went the darker it grew. There was no one in the streets. At last she came to the open fields, and the darkness seemed full of beasts walking in the grass and spectres moving in the trees. She ran through the woods and came to the spring. But as she leaned over and plunged the bucket down, down, and then drew it up full again, the money for the loaf fell from her pocket and went splashing down into the water below.
Cosette did not hear it. She sat down in the grass too tired to move. Then she remembered how Madame Thernardier was waiting, and she started for the village again. But, oh! it was cold, the bucket was very heavy, and little Cosette walked like an old woman. The handle froze to her tiny fingers, and the cold water splashed down on her little bare legs. No one but God saw that sad thing—and her mother, perhaps.
Yet, suddenly, the bucket was not quite so heavy, for some one had taken hold of the handle, and a kind, deep voice said:
"My child, what you are carrying is too heavy for you."
"Yes, sir," said little Cosette.
"Give it to me," said the man; "I will carry it for you. Have you far to go?" he went on.
"A long way farther, sir," said little Cosette.
With one hand the man held little Cosette's cold fingers close in his and they went on together. Little Cosette was not in the least afraid, and she told the stranger all about how pretty Eponine and Azelma were, and the hard work, and how she had no mother.
"What do those little girls do?" asked the stranger.
"Oh," said Cosette, "they have beautiful dolls; they play all day long."
"And you?" asked the stranger.
"Sometimes I play," said little Cosette. "I have a little lead sword, and I wrap it in a cloth, and I rock it to sleep when no one sees."
Presently they passed the shops. "Why are they lighted?" asked the stranger.
"It is Christmas eve," said Cosette.
When they reached the house Madame Thernardier was waiting to scold little Cosette for being so long. "Where is the bread?" she cried.
Little Cosette had quite forgotten the bread. She turned her pocket inside out. What had become of the money? Madame Thernardier was about to strike Cosette, but the kind stranger stepped up to her. "Here is money," he said. "When I return I will stay at your house for the night."
Then the man went straight to the street door, opened it, and stepped out. When he opened it again he carried the wonderful toy-shop doll in his arms, with her pink silk robe, the gold wheat ears on her head, the real hair and the enamel eyes!
"Here, this is for you, little one," he said.
Little Cosette crept out from under the table. Her eyes filled with tears, but they shone with joy, too, like the sky at daybreak.
"May I touch it?" she asked, timidly. "Is the Lady mine?"
There were tears in the stranger's eyes, also. "Yes,
she is yours," he said again.
— Adapted from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables"
by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey