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CHAPTER II—FIRST SKETCH OF TWO UNPREPOSSESSING FIGURES
The mouse which had been caught was a pitiful specimen; but the cat
rejoices even over a lean mouse.
Who were these Thenardiers?
Let us say a word or two of them now. We will complete the sketch later
These beings belonged to that bastard class composed of coarse people who
have been successful, and of intelligent people who have descended in the
scale, which is between the class called "middle" and the class
denominated as "inferior," and which combines some of the defects of the
second with nearly all the vices of the first, without possessing the
generous impulse of the workingman nor the honest order of the bourgeois.
They were of those dwarfed natures which, if a dull fire chances to warm
them up, easily become monstrous. There was in the woman a substratum of
the brute, and in the man the material for a blackguard. Both were
susceptible, in the highest degree, of the sort of hideous progress which
is accomplished in the direction of evil. There exist crab-like souls
which are continually retreating towards the darkness, retrograding in
life rather than advancing, employing experience to augment their
deformity, growing incessantly worse, and becoming more and more
impregnated with an ever-augmenting blackness. This man and woman
possessed such souls.
Thenardier, in particular, was troublesome for a physiognomist. One can
only look at some men to distrust them; for one feels that they are dark
in both directions. They are uneasy in the rear and threatening in front.
There is something of the unknown about them. One can no more answer for
what they have done than for what they will do. The shadow which they bear
in their glance denounces them. From merely hearing them utter a word or
seeing them make a gesture, one obtains a glimpse of sombre secrets in
their past and of sombre mysteries in their future.
This Thenardier, if he himself was to be believed, had been a soldier—a
sergeant, he said. He had probably been through the campaign of 1815, and
had even conducted himself with tolerable valor, it would seem. We shall
see later on how much truth there was in this. The sign of his hostelry
was in allusion to one of his feats of arms. He had painted it himself;
for he knew how to do a little of everything, and badly.
It was at the epoch when the ancient classical romance which, after having
been Clelie, was no longer anything but Lodoiska, still noble, but ever
more and more vulgar, having fallen from Mademoiselle de Scuderi to Madame
Bournon-Malarme, and from Madame de Lafayette to Madame Barthelemy-Hadot,
was setting the loving hearts of the portresses of Paris aflame, and even
ravaging the suburbs to some extent. Madame Thenardier was just
intelligent enough to read this sort of books. She lived on them. In them
she drowned what brains she possessed. This had given her, when very
young, and even a little later, a sort of pensive attitude towards her
husband, a scamp of a certain depth, a ruffian lettered to the extent of
the grammar, coarse and fine at one and the same time, but, so far as
sentimentalism was concerned, given to the perusal of Pigault-Lebrun, and
"in what concerns the sex," as he said in his jargon—a downright,
unmitigated lout. His wife was twelve or fifteen years younger than he
was. Later on, when her hair, arranged in a romantically drooping fashion,
began to grow gray, when the Magaera began to be developed from the
Pamela, the female Thenardier was nothing but a coarse, vicious woman, who
had dabbled in stupid romances. Now, one cannot read nonsense with
impunity. The result was that her eldest daughter was named Eponine; as
for the younger, the poor little thing came near being called Gulnare; I
know not to what diversion, effected by a romance of Ducray-Dumenil, she
owed the fact that she merely bore the name of Azelma.
However, we will remark by the way, everything was not ridiculous and
superficial in that curious epoch to which we are alluding, and which may
be designated as the anarchy of baptismal names. By the side of this
romantic element which we have just indicated there is the social symptom.
It is not rare for the neatherd's boy nowadays to bear the name of Arthur,
Alfred, or Alphonse, and for the vicomte—if there are still any
vicomtes—to be called Thomas, Pierre, or Jacques. This displacement,
which places the "elegant" name on the plebeian and the rustic name on the
aristocrat, is nothing else than an eddy of equality. The irresistible
penetration of the new inspiration is there as everywhere else. Beneath
this apparent discord there is a great and a profound thing,—the