Come and Go: Chapter Four: On the Wings of a Dream
It so happened that outside of Seaside, a few miles up the coast, the USS Orion was docked. She was growing too old to do many more sea voyages, and would soon be merely a piece in a museum.
But not yet.
At the moment, she was being cleaned down by convicts from the local prison. It was quite a sight to see; hundreds of men from all walks of life were all scrubbing away on the deck, or, by use of pulleys, were adding fresh coats of paint to her sides.
Things are easily over looked. A piece of frayed rope is simple to miss when dealing with hundreds of yards of rope. That is why it should not have been a surprise when one of the ropes that supported one of the convicts snapped.
Surprised, the guards raced to the starboard bow, trying to see if there was a way to save the man, who would soon fall to his death unless rescued. It would take a figure of immense strength to do the task.
One of the guards was nearly pounced upon by an old convict, his hair completely white. "Sir," the man begged, "let me be the one to save him."
The guard was taken completely by surprised, and stared, blinking, slack jawed. He glanced at his companion, who shrugged. "Suit yourself," he agreed.
"I'll need some rope."
The guard pointed to another convict. "You there! Go get this man some rope!"
Tense seconds passed. The rope was brought. The convict tied the knots carefully and intricately, finally starting to lower himself down. His hands were cramping, his muscles were shuddering. Such an old man should not do such an immense task. No matter, the man wanted to do it.
Minutes ticked by. On deck, people were holding their breath. Finally, the white haired convict reached his luckless compatriot, and the man carefully transferred ropes. The white haired rescuer was clearly quite tired by his adventure. Prisoners started lifting the rope, fearing that he could not rely upon his strength to bring him back up to the surface.
And, indeed, he could not.
Soundlessly, his hands slid from the rope, and he plunged into the sea. Screams, gasps, shouts, cries could be heard on board. People were quickly dispatched to try and find the hero. It was no use. The convict had been swallowed by the relentless waters.
The Pacific Ocean is not a forgiving ocean. She is not a friendly ocean. She is not a sweet ocean. She is cold, she is salty, she is deep, she is dark. Even on her more calm days, her waves will relentlessly pound against the cliff side. Her brine and sea foam are as violent as they are beautiful. Her shores are not like European beaches, or East coast beaches. They are rocky shores, sometimes cliffs that merely go straight up and down. They are wild, inhospitable, and recklessly seductive.
The chances of so old a fellow surviving the wiles of such an ocean are slim.
The search was quickly given up.
"Cosette! Go and fetch the mop!"
The child – a term so liberally applied by the way she was treated – shuddered. Huddled next to the furnace to keep warm inside the basement, she could hear, clear as a bell, the sound of the Thenardiess' voice, and her firm, unforgiving step above her. The door to the basement was flung open, and the silhouette of Mrs. Thenardier was cast upon the cement steps.
"Cosette!" the woman – another loosely applied term – shrieked again.
"I'm coming, ma'am!" was the frightened cry. She quickly snatched the mop from where it rested, and hurried up the steps under the merciless eye of the Thenardiess.
"Clean up room 25," she snapped, pressing the master key into the child's red, blistered hand. "The sink overflowed because you were careless enough to leave the tap on, you little brat!"
"The Little Brat," wrung her hands and bowed down to the woman's feet, uttering a thousand small apologies. Mrs. Thenardier merely aimed a kick at her – this meant that she was forgiven – and shouted for her to hurry up.
Cosette snatched up the bucket on her way out the door, and wordlessly skittered through the ill-furnished lobby, out the front door.
And into the cold.
A freezing gust of wind came down from the north, chilling the child, dressed inappropriately for the weather, to her bones. The only clothes Cosette ever had were things that Eponine had outgrown, or taken a dislike to. Most of these things were hideous, stained, torn, or threadbare by the time they reached The Little Brat, but she never complained of this. After all, if she complained, she ran the risk of being beaten, which she severely disliked.
Madame Thenardier, who doted upon her two daughters, Eponine and Azelma, despised Cosette. By giving the merest bone to the third, she felt she was depriving her own two progeny. Ponine and Zelma were, thusly, coddled all the more with whatever their heart desired, to make up for whatever Cosette seemed to force them to lack.
Cosette had turned five, so she gathered, because she seemed to vaguely remember that she was the same age as Eponine, who had turned five last month. Ponine's birthday was celebrated with a wonderful and glorious party. Cosette's was ignored. However, the child had counted herself lucky enough; she'd been allowed a small portion of cake.
The mop, clutched in the child's red, chapped hands, was taller than she was, and she worked it with some difficulty. She could barely reach the doorknob to room 25, and would not have been able to slip the key in had not a remarkable thing happened.
A large, scarred hand clasped over Cosette's own, and an arm encircled her thin waste. She was lifted up, and, trembling, yet not afraid, the girl slid the key into the lock, and twisted. The arms put her down, turned the handle of the door, and pushed it open.
"Here, let me help you with that," the owner of the arms said. His voice – an old, but sturdy voice – was dark and deep, and very sweet and kind. Cosette was constantly scolded by the Thenardiess that she mustn't talk to strangers, mostly because no one wanted to talk with a little word-unfit-for-repetition like her. She had gathered that things that were unknown were to be feared, and yet, five – oh, sweet, trusting age! – year old Cosette was not afraid. That is to say, she was five, but looked three or four, from lack of care.
Cosette had taken the broom and the bucket up again, and lifted her homely little face to see the stranger. He was about fifty-five, with light blue eyes, and very white hair. He was smiling patiently down at Cosette, and she felt unafraid; he wasn't going to hurt her.
"Thank you, sir," she replied meekly. Cosette was never helped with any of her chores. Kind words were strangers to her small, red ears. Suddenly, she felt embarrassed, for he was still smiling, and she quickly looked down, blushing, and entered the dark room. She set the mop and bucket down, turning the bucket over so she could stand on it. In this way, she endeavored to reach the light switch. Wordlessly, the man followed her into the room, and clicked the light on for her. Amazed – two good deeds to her in one day was well over a record – she stared at him again, but did not say thank you. The man was still smiling.
Cosette quickly scrambled down from the bucket, and dragged it, along with the shaggy mop, into bathroom. Setting the bucket upside down again, she turned off the sink, and got down, shaking her shoes a little, since all the water on the floor had made them wet. Her feet were cold, but then, they were perpetually cold. Her shoes were worn, close to loosing their soles. She turned the bucked over again, and, mop in hand, began her vain attempt at trying to dry the floor. The man stood in the bathroom door way for only a moment, pitying this poor creature – could she really be called a child? He exhaled a sad breath, and took the mop from the girl's red hands.
"Here," he explained, gently brushing her to one side, "let me do it."
Gazing at him as though he were a saint – and he probably was – she let him take the mop from her, and he began to scrub the floor. It was done in less than half the time it would have taken Cosette. He smiled at her when he was done, wringing the mop into the bucket one final time before pouring the water from the bucket into the bathtub.
"What is your name?" he asked, carrying the mop and bucket to the door while she followed meekly.
"Cosette," she answered simply.
The man suddenly stopped, and he looked down at her. His already sweet face perpetually glowed; he radiated this supreme happiness that Cosette could not understand, but it warmed her as well. A fire is not limited to warming one soul, no matter how small the flame. Such is happiness.
The man turned off the light and opened the door, helping Cosette to lock it again. She tugged at his sleeve, and he smiled, asking what she wanted.
"May I take my bucket and my mop now?" she asked him softly, and he frowned slightly.
"Why? I don't mind carrying it."
"Yes, but if Mrs. Thenardier sees that someone helped me, she will beat me."
The old man blanched, and whispered "Here," handing them to her. They walked on in silence until they reached the lobby, where the Thenardiess sat behind the counter, reading one of her trashy romance novels.
"It certainly took you long enough, you miserable little toad," she snarled, not looking up. It had taken no more than ten minutes at most, and yet it generally took Cosette three quarters of an hour to complete such a task. The man was scowling darkly, but he resiliently kept his mouth shut.
"A gentleman wants to spend the night, Mrs. Thenardier," whimpered the child, who quickly scurried away with the mop and bucket, with movements like a spider. The Thenardiess looked up from her book, and saw the man, who was beginning to take off his threadbare coat. She scowled, doubting that he had the means to pay.
"Hello, sir," she said with a rather rude, superior air. "We have plenty of rooms, and a dinning room if you're interested in dinner, but you have to pay in advance." The man was apparently quite used to such rude treatment, for he brushed over it as if it were nothing.
"How much?" he asked sociably.
"Sixty dollars a night, excluding dinner." It was thirty dollars a night, not sixty.
"All right," he replied, taking his wallet from his pocket, laying three twenties on the counter. Mrs. Thenardier watched the bills hungrily, quickly scooping them up with her fat fingers.
"There's fire in the den, if you're interested," she said, much more sweetly. "I'll have a room made ready for you."
"Thank you, I'll wait in the den." With that, still carrying his threadbare coat, he walked into the little side room, filled with old, worn chairs, and a gas fire place. Scowling at his back, the Thenardiess lifted each bill successively to the light, examining them carefully. They were real. Satisfied, she put the money in the till, and went about her business.
The first thing she did was to shout down to Cosette to ready a room – she had retreated back to her nook by the furnace – and the next was to find her husband. He was watching football in the back, and listened with some interest as his wife relayed to him the story of the man who looked a pauper, but paid a prince. Mr. Thenardier hummed, and collected a few magazine's and the day's paper, and went to the den. He passed little Cosette on his way there, who was staggering under the load of linens to take to the gentleman's room, and scurried away from Thenardier with the agility of a stray kitten, which was what she resembled. Mrs. Thenardier went back to the desk, saw the child carrying the burden, and snapped at her not to drop a single fold onto the floor. The girl responded with a muffled "Yes, ma'am."
The Thenardiess was the one who paid the most attention to Cosette, however unfavorable the attention was. Mr. Thenardier held absolutely no interest in her. She was just "that girl," "what's her name," and occasionally "Cosette." Mostly she was "the cash cow," but the cash cow hadn't been producing any milk. They figured Fantine had abandoned her, the ungrateful wench!
Undoubtedly, Fantine was watching her daughter devotedly from heaven, and crying that she was so mistreated.
Thenardier humbly entered the den and laid the magazines and papers onto the coffee table. The man had picked up an ancient copy of Time and had been flipping through that when Mr. Thenardier walked in.
"Good evening, sir," the inn keeper said jovially. "I trust you have had a pleasant trip?"
The man nodded. "Yes, thank you."
Thenardier stood there for close to two minutes, though nothing was said between the two. He was just about to leave when the man suddenly asked "That little girl….Are you her father?"
"What little girl?"
"The one who is cleaning up my room."
"Oh, Cosette. No."
The man seemed very relived at this, and ventured to ask "Where are her parents?"
"They left her on the door step of the church," Mr. Thenardier replied, sitting down. "My wife – she's such a kind hearted soul – could not stand to see the poor foundling abandoned, and took her in when she was but this tall, sir!" He motioned about to the middle of his calf with his hand. "However, times are very hard, and with two little girls of my own, we can only just scrape by some months."
The man looked solemn, and nodded understandingly.
"If the gentlemen could possibly see his way to donating…we do work hard, and bear our burdens with the best, but with three daughters to raise…." Thenardier licked his dry lips, his beady eyes staring in a manner that was supposed to be endearing. It was closer to revolting.
Without a word, the man dug into his coat pocket and placed two more twenties on the coffee table, which Mr. Thenardier scooped up, thanking him profusely.
"The bastard's practically rich!" he related to his wife in the safety and security of the back room. "We've got to milk him for all he's worth."
"Of course, darling," she responded, stoking his ego as best she could.
The next morning, little Cosette was struggling under a stack of newspapers to be delivered to each room. Huffing, her red fingers tightened on the shaky tower, when without warning, a large number were suddenly lifted away.
"Let me take the rest."
Cosette stared wide eyed up at the same man as before, the same smiling saint, the copies of The Oregonian tucked under his arm. Mechanically, her hands clenched on the papers he left her and shook her head, by no means ungrateful, just wary.
"Mrs. Thenardier might get mad," she explained, and the kind old man frowned sympathetically.
"And where are you off to this morning, little Cosette?" he asked, walking with her down the hall and setting down papers where she'd told him to. "Don't you have school?"
The child shook her head.
"Then where are the other two girls?"
Cosette did not recall having mentioned Ponine or Zelma to the man, but did not question it. "School," she replied simply.
The man's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Why aren't you with them?"
"I am home schooled," she explained. "Mrs. Thenardier teaches me."
"And what does she teach you?"
"To cook, and clean, and make a bed, and fold the towels. She sometimes teaches me math and reading. That is very fun!" she cried, her eyes glittering in an excited memory.
The man's scowl had deepened. "And when do you play?"
"I don't play."
"But surely…" He couldn't think of what came after that.
"Sometimes, if I work very, very hard, or Ponine and Zelma need an extra person, I am allowed to play."
Before the little thing could protest, the man had taken the rest of the papers from her, whispering in a very solid way "Here, let me take that." It was a manner in which refused protest, and she felt that she'd said something wrong. He seemed angry, and it made her tremble just a little bit.
Finally, after what seemed to be a very long time, he asked her "Would you like to go away, Cosette?"
Confused, the child blinked her large, dark eyes. "Away?" Was such a concept possible?
"Then you could learn to read and write, and you could have pretty things, and play all the time…"
"I…I…" She did. But she couldn't, could she? "But Mrs. Thenardier-"
"There would be no Mrs. Thenardier."
No Mrs. Thenardier? Now surely that was just a dream world!
"You are teasing me," she muttered sadly. He bent down and placed a kiss on her hand, which confused her.
"I am not. I would like to take you away, and make you very happy."
Cosette blinked again, still very astounded. "I would like that very much. But…But I can't go. I have to water the hedges."
"Not after today."
"I have a proposition for you."
Thenardier put the sports section of the paper down, glancing in a slightly confused manner at the same man as before.
"I'm always open for propositions," he replied smoothly, swiping away the paper with a movement of his hand.
"The girl, Cosette. How would you like to be rid of her."
"Rid of her, sir?" the man cried, affecting hurt. "Why, she is my jewel! I could never stand to part with her!"
The man dug a fat wad of bills from his pocket and slid them onto the counter. Thenardier could not help but watch them.
"I think you could."
After a moment's hesitation, Mr. Thenardier declined again. "You can't possibly buy her out of my life. That is unethical."
"How much is it that you're look for, sir?"
Thenardier fumbled. "But…I would need your name, where she was going. I would have to visit her, at least sometimes. That way I would know that she wasn't….that is to say…." A gleam in the stranger's eyes forced the rest of the sentence out. "There are bad people in the world today. Sexual perverts who would do evil things to a child. I'm not saying that you're one of those people, sir, not at all! I'm sure you're just as much against them as I am. However, since I don't know you…."
"There are bad people in the world," the man approved mechanically with a nod. He knew this because he was looking at one of them. "I can promise you, I am not one of those people. Cosette would be well taken care of. And you will have no name, nor location, nor contact of any kind."
"All the same…."
The man slid another fat wad of bills onto the counter, glaring a look that defied all protests.
"My wife will be loathed to part with her," he tried.
"Time heals all wounds. I'll go fetch the child."
"Well…yes. Yes, of course."
The odd man had handed Cosette a bundle of clothes – a pretty dark shirt, with matching pants. There were real, thick socks, and shiny black shoes with a daisy on the buckle, and a thick wool coat – something Cosette had never had – along with mittens.
"Here, these are yours, go and put them on," he'd said. Cosette had stared at them for a moment, before, a feeling of terrible, wonderful wickedness in her, she snatched them up and rushed to change. They felt like nothing Cosette had ever owned before. They were thick, and dark, and they weren't dirty and they didn't have holes. They fit her just perfectly, and weren't stretched out or stained at all. She felt so terribly pretty that it was amazing. This must be how princesses felt every day.
She'd come back to the man, modeling her new garb proudly, if a little nervously. He'd grinned and motioned her to him. "You look so pretty! Come here, let's take care of your hair." He'd pulled out a comb, attacking the snarls and snags in her dark, dirty hair. And yet, his rough fingers were very gentle, and the brave little child did not once whimper or cry aloud. Unskillfully, he clipped the static filled mess back with two barrettes, and it looked better, though far from perfect.
"You look very lovely! Your mother would be so proud of you," he praised, still smiling. "Do you have any toys?" She shook her head. "Is there anything you want to take with you?" She shook her head again. "Here, this is also yours." And from his ratty bag he produced a brand new teddy bear, a red ribbon tied around his thick, fuzzy brown neck. Cosette gasped, astounded at the sight, for it was even more glorious than even Ponine's bear, but she did not reach out to take it. The old man frowned slightly. "Go on, take it. It's yours." Very, very hesitantly, as though fearing a trap, Cosette reached out and touched the bear.
The old man gave her an encouraging look, and before she could stop herself, she'd reached out and pulled the bear to her, delighting in the fuzzy, sweet smelling stuffed toy, giggling in what was the first time in she didn't know how long. It was a sweet sound to the ear.
The old man took her hand, and they pranced out the door, the merriest pair in existence.
"Where are we going?" she asked, not the least bit afraid.
"To Portland. Do you know where that is? Have you ever been there?" She shook her head. "It is a big, marvelous city. You'll love it, I promise. And we'll live together, and you'll play, and go to school, and be very, very happy."
Grinning, the child swung their arms back and forth as they walked toward the man's car. "Who are you?" she finally asked. "Are you an angel?"
He smiled bitter sweetly at her. "I'm not an angel."
"Then, are you my papa?"
The man practically glowed at the sound of the name. "Yes, Cosette, I'm your papa now. And I'll always take care of you, and love you." He opened the door to the car and helped her in, carefully buckling her seat. "Watch your fingers," he said, and shut the door, coming around to the driver's seat.
"I think you are an angel," she contradicted as he reversed and pulled out of the lot. And the man smiled.
To Be Continued….