In truth, it was not so unusual for Valjean to wake to an empty house, even at all hours of the night. Javert was partial to taking leisurely, unaccompanied walks, especially when he could not find sleep. At least, Valjean assumed the walks were leisurely, but now suspected them to be an attempt to control the bouts of dreadful thoughts Javert wished not to share. These fits of restlessness had recently lessened in frequency, but it would not surprise Valjean to find him unnerved after the previous night.
Sluggishly, he rose and pulled off his sheets. Changing from his bedclothes, he picked at a light breakfast and peeked outside the curtains, distracted. Snow lined the edges of the windowsill, and large flakes were beginning to fall lazily to the ground. He imagined Javert would return, covered in snow, trying to shake off the clumps hanging onto his pelt. Valjean would laugh at the sight, they would read together, warmed from the fire and from one another; all would be well, the looming melancholy forgotten.
In the pit of his stomach, he dreaded what he might say to Javert. Genuinely, he had never considered that his actions may be perceived as Javert had seen, but he now looked back on it with mortification. He had been petting Javert, for God’s sake. Not even to himself could he justify his lack of mindfulness of Javert’s situation; the notion was unmistakably horrifying, though he had been afraid to inquire of how Javert had found himself this way. It was as if he had already accepted Javert’s state as unremarkable, for he was ultimately still the same man at heart, if not more concerned for Valjean’s eating habits. Surely though, his predicament was incredibly distressing, to be trapped in such a position. He thought to Javert’s attempt to read and felt his heart drop; the look had been of a man so thoroughly lost. It was the same expression he wore as he gracelessly unraveled the previous night.
Never before had he seen Javert in such hysterics. It was not as if he could never comprehend his emotions. In fact, he was quite easy to read, more so now that his ears and tail so often put his feelings on display. But, he found Javert typically did not give so much thought to matters of the heart, any rumination and decisions running solely on observation and logic. Undoubtedly, the emotions had tangled themselves slowly, unbidden, until Javert could no longer be constrained by the overflow of intrusive thoughts, as if a dam had burst open in his mind. He assumed Valjean thought of him as nothing more than a soulless hound that should be put out from its misery.
He needed to apologize properly to Javert, to more clearly assure him of his intent. Though, he was unsure of what he meant for Javert. In his view, they were surely friends, uncertain feelings aside. Out of some goodness or obligation, Javert had taken it upon himself to wrench Valjean out of his stupor, to hold onto life for a time longer. Perhaps it was only his way of repaying what he felt was a debt after the barricade. At the time, Valjean’s decision to free Javert was not to convince him of anything; it was simply saving a man because he knew he might spare a life. It would have been the same had it been any other soul about to be executed. Though, had Javert already felt his debt repaid? He left Valjean that night at his home, promised he would wait for him, but let him free, disappearing into the night. It would be months before Javert returned to his threshold, begging to be killed.
Inexplicably, his attitude towards Javert was now worryingly complicated. Even if Javert only meant to fulfill an obligation, he had surely done so already. Valjean was nearly back to health, as much as possible for a man his age. Yet, he stayed. Was it because he had no place to go as a wolf, or because he truly was waiting for Valjean to end his life? He thought of their long walks, the meals they shared, the earnest way Javert would weave a tale, and the gentle way he would curl around Valjean as he read. Valjean felt his face grow hot at the thought. Beyond doubt, Javert wanted to be there. If only indulging Valjean’s nonsensical desires, he chose to indulge him nonetheless.
Valjean gave an apprehensive look towards the window; he had moved to his chair, leafing through one of his timeworn books with uncharacteristic disinterest. Snow was beginning to fall harder, further obscuring the view of the far-off trees. The day was growing late, and Javert was nowhere to be seen. Daylight was harder to come by as winter rolled in, and the sun was near to setting. Narrowing his eyes, he rose from his perch and went to pull on his greatcoat and boots.
By the time Valjean reached the edge of the forest, the snowfall was thick enough to shroud his vision beyond a short distance. Its bare trees sat silently, growing together in a tangle that deepened, buried under white. The fresh powder had covered much of the ground, presumably hiding any tracks Javert may have left. He squinted against the blizzard, looking for anything that might point to his whereabouts. Suddenly, a great distance away, he heard a reverberating howl, then another, until they became a harrowing chorus as the sky darkened. Shivering at the cold, he reluctantly made his way back to the cottage, feet crunching through the snow.
Weeks passed in terrible slowness, and Valjean had seen nothing of Javert. Each day, even in the heavy snows, he returned to the outskirts of the forest, occasionally calling for him, and often simply walking, hoping Javert might catch his scent. He dared not venture too deep into the thicket, knowing the ferocity of a winter-starved pack of wolves. While he would normally take such reckless action without reservation, he thought better of it upon considering the scolding Javert would give him. He would receive enough of his ire for simply walking into the snow; the blizzards had only worsened over the month, piling halfway up to his knees.
Gradually, he found the cottage, a prison of his own design, an unbearable punishment. The irony did not escape him, for it was Valjean’s original intent. To live out his last days in solitude, quietly disappearing as he had no other use for life. Now, it boasted the hallmark of a true cell, an inescapable toil of loneliness. Even his books, ever the loyal friends, were no comfort. They would only remind him that if he were to read aloud, there was no one to receive it. Indeed, he was tempted to again stop eating, to make his escape. However, each time the thought came to him, he could hear so clearly Javert’s chiding tone disallowing the idea.
His only reprieve was writing to Cosette letters that she may never read, but even this was retribution. Over and over, he drafted the letter, trying to tell best his idiosyncratic life and how she came into his care. How does one express such love while speaking of one’s most grotesque actions? It was as though he were attempting to translate the words from another language for which there was no equivalent, the complexities lost in a sea of forgotten context and history. With terror, he thought of the chain gang that Cosette so fearfully looked upon; for her to look at him with that disposition should kill him rightly. He desperately wished for Javert’s presence, to calm his nerves and provide any sort of solace. Of anyone, Javert would understand the heartache of dredging up these memories but would call him an old fool, curtly assuring him of his daughter’s compassion. If Javert could find benevolence for Valjean, he could surely persuade him of Cosette’s.
The courier would not resume his route until the spring, so he took care in writing the letter without hurry. He would send it ahead of him before he would visit the Pontmercy estate at winter’s end. He only hoped he would not be turned away at the door, but would accept his fate in either case. Until that time, he would need to bear the winter and wait for Javert. The thought was untenable. It was presumptuous that he would believe he would return and absurd to desire it; he deserved none of the happiness he would provide.
The wind was fierce and howling. Valjean could feel it in his bones before cold could even hit his skin. Both his leg and his old scars ached with dull pain just before storms would roll in; it was an alarm of sorts. When he could feel the weather shifting, he would attempt again to coax Javert from the forest before the snow would drive him back inside.
It was on one of these nights and the precipice of the fifth week that the blizzard was particularly harsh; the snow piled outside, partway up the door. Valjean sat in only his shirtsleeves and pants, warming a basin water on the fire to make a half-hearted endeavor at calming the pain striking his back and joints. Typically, he would do nothing, gritting his teeth through any hardship brought on by severe weather. There was a part of him, after all, that needed to feel the reminder of what lie underneath the veneer of a gentleman. This storm, unfortunately, was exceeding his limit for what he would allow himself. Before the storm, he had barely been able to move as he limped roughly to the edge of the trees, calling uselessly for Javert.
As he waited for the pot to boil, he heard a sudden scratch, a pause, and then the sound of tearing wood. Looking up quickly, Valjean faltered for no more than a second before flying towards the door and wrenching it open with unintended force, his heart threatening to leap from his chest. He was faced with an enormous wolf, standing so tall that their eyes met without need to crane his neck in either direction. Its dark, grey streaked fur was coated in a layer of snowflakes, wet and matted. Its ears drooped slightly, and its stance seemed unsteady. Only then did Valjean notice the way it carried its front right leg and the blood streaming down it, mixing with the snow underfoot. Breathing hard, steam billowing from its mouth, the wolf looked as if it meant to speak before collapsing into a heap onto the ground.
Javert was unconscious on his doorstep.
For a moment, Valjean stared blankly, eyes wide, as snow began to drift into the house and the reality of the situation dawned on him. Without wasting another second, Valjean summoned all his strength to awkwardly grab hold of a hopelessly limp Javert and pulled him towards the fireplace. He could barely fit his arms around him, but Valjean could feel his protruding ribs and something slick on his arms. Trying not to dwell on it, he made his way across the room, struggling with the immense weight. Leaving Javert to lie by the fire, he went to close the door. As he held the knob, he furrowed his brow worryingly as his eyes moved from his blood-covered hands to the red trail that ran across the floor to Javert’s lying form.
There would be no time to think. Rushing to the fire to retrieve the boiling water, he lowered to his knees to look at Javert, hands floating nervously above him. But for his shallow breathing, he was entirely still. Small wounds covered his body, many caked with dried blood and some more recent. A deep gash went through his leg from which blood was pooling slowly, but steadily onto the rug. Bleeding, he thought, panicking. He needed to stop the bleeding. Fumbling, he began to take off his shirt. Valjean ripped the cloth in half, first soaking it in water in an attempt to clean the wound before tying it off with the remains of the shirt. While he was no doctor, it was the best he could manage with what little he knew. He stood to retrieve a washcloth and a fresh shirt, intending to clean the rest of the injuries he could find. It would be, he thought wearily, a night long and unforgiving.