Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Two Sous

This week's sentence was taken from Victor Hugo's 'Les Misérables'.

It was: 'Between the walls of the two yards there was a dark and narrow street, the Rue de Chemin-Vert-Saint-Antoine, which seemed to be exactly what he was looking for.'

Two Sous

Nobody gave a second glance to the stocky figure, black clad, bespectacled and riotously moustachioed, as he lugged a canvas sack through the dank labyrinth of Parisian slums which in those years clung desperately to the riverside; a pestilential netherworld of fester and reek, of crime and destitution. Down here life was as cheap and vile as the compendious varieties of vice available in every cellar and alley.
Émile, in his mire-bespattered element had been wandering for days through this godforsaken gehenna, alert at all times for the slightest glimpse of his quarry. His client's requirements were exacting but he knew the area well and was certain he would find the right girl in this most wretched and hopeless human sewer.
By mid-morning the rain had cleared and low grey clouds were scudding on a brisk breeze. Émile found himself betwixt a coopers' yard and that of a tannery, the stench from which would have been unbearable had the bitter wind not borne it away from him.
Between the walls of the two yards there was a dark and narrow street, the Rue de Chemin-Vert-Saint-Antoine, which seemed to be exactly what he was looking for. Scarcely wide enough for a handcart it ran for thirty paces between crumbling, ivy-clad walls before opening slightly into a ramshackle terrace of dingy drinking dens and squalid tenements, the cobbles slick with refuse and worse, the buildings leaning at crazy angles, falling forward like drunks and leaving the street below in perpetual semi-darkness.
Émile's eye had been drawn to the pitiful sight of a small girl attempting to clear some kind of pathway through the filth. A tiny, starved waif, dwarfed by the broom she was using, clad in tattered rags; her lank, matted hair soaked from the earlier rain.
He smiled. The child was perfect. He approached slowly, trying not to startle her.
A woman's shout stopped him dead and froze the girl to the spot. Emerging from a narrow alley like some slimy behemoth, a monstrous harridan charged at him.
"Bastard! Pervert!" she yelled accusingly.
Émile, conciliatory, arms out, palms upturned.
"Madame, your daughter?"
"For shame! She is much too young."
She looked him up and down, haughtily.
"I do, however, have a girl more suited. Do you have money?"
"Madame, please! You misunderstand."
He proffered his hand.
"My name is Émile Bayard. I am an artist and merely wish to sketch the child. I can offer you money but all I ask is the chance to draw her just as she stands. She would add a certain character to an illustration I have planned."
The woman looked from Émile to her daughter and back again.
"Two sous!"
Émile produced the money.
"I really am most grateful, Madame. If you would ask your daughter to stand just as she is for a few minutes …"

The girl's wide, frightened eyes stared up at them as Émile peeled back the proof from his etching plate.
Victor gasped, his own eyes suddenly wet with tears.

Émile Bayard's original illustration for Cosette.

My own treasured copy of Les Misérables, bound (beautifully but inexplicably) in bright blue leather.

I have no idea if Bayard found the model for Cosette on the streets.
Perhaps she was paid to pose in a studio, though from the diaries of Bayard's contemporaries whose works I collect it seems likely that Cosette was indeed a street urchin sketched en plein air or at best the daughter of a friend.
I do wonder - when I see those eyes everywhere advertising the musical derived from Hugo's story - what she might think if only she knew how famous her face would become.


Vanda said...

You are good.

dive said...

And you are sweet, Vanda.
Your piece is awesome this week. It's nice that someone's keeping the flame of noir alight now that I've stopped shooting people on a Thursday.
Yay, you!

Scout said...

And if she were a street child, and her mother only received a little money for allowing her to pose, imagine how much she could have received if her mother had thought to demand a percentage of profits in the future. Sheesh.

what a chilling tale, Dive. Very captivating.

dive said...

Robyn: I've always loved that picture of Cosette. I remember being very annoyed when they used her to advertise the musical.
Les Mis is one of those very few really special books that enrich your life more and more every time you re-read them. I am amazed at the amount of people who have never read it.