Whose heart wasn't melted by the scene of Valjean finding Cosette in the woods in the 2012 movie? This story popped into my head while I was rewatching it for the 500th time recently. My icon for this story is Léopoldine Serre as young Cosette in the 2000 French miniseries – isn't she so cute?
(For my own reference: 55th fanfiction, 4th story for Les Miserables.)
The first words that he ever said to her were a command.
Of course, he didn't know who she was at the time; had he known, he would've chosen his words differently. But when he first laid eyes on her, he didn't know that she was Cosette, the very child he had been searching for. He only knew that he couldn't let such a young girl wander through the woods alone at this hour. What on earth was she even doing out here? The poor thing must be lost. He decided to accompany her safely home, then continue on his way to the inn to find Cosette.
He approached her slowly, but still she startled and abandoned the bucket she was carrying to run and hide from him behind the nearest tree. So he called softly, "Don't be afraid of me."
It wasn't until he gave her another command, "Tell me your name, child," and she answered obediently, "I'm called Cosette," that he realized with a jolt – Cosette? My God, it's her! – that a new story had already begun, and he hadn't even known it.
When Javert spied them slipping out of the carriage in Paris, he chased them through the streets on his horse, and Valjean scooped Cosette up and carried her because she couldn't run fast enough. She whimpered once, afraid, and he ordered breathlessly, "You must keep quiet, Cosette. Hold onto me and don't let go, no matter what happens." She obeyed and clung to him, wrapping her arms around his neck so tightly that Valjean felt somewhat reassured. If, God forbid, Javert did catch up with them, he would have to pry them apart.
He knew Cosette was frightened out of her mind, and as they hid from Javert atop the wall, he worried that she would start crying and give them away. He readied to press his hand over her mouth to muffle her cries... but he was wrong. She didn't make a sound.
Later that night, after they were safe again, he gave her a bath, and when he saw how thin and filthy she was, how raw her feet and hands were from exposure to the cold, and worst of all, the bruises, then he understood why she was so obedient. No wonder she did whatever he told her to. The poor child was so relieved that he had taken her away from her miserable life at that inn, so grateful that no one was hitting her anymore, that it never even occurred to her to disobey him.
Still, whenever Valjean thought back to their first meeting, he marveled that Cosette had obeyed his first order so easily. Don't be afraid of me, he'd called to her, and just like that, she'd come out from behind the tree and approached him. Just like that, she wasn't afraid of him anymore. He looked back on that in wonder. How had she done it? How, after so much fear and hurt, had she found a place inside her that wasn't afraid?
He didn't like to think about how many orders she must have heard at the inn. Those terrible people had probably made her work all day, screaming commands at her and hitting her if she didn't obey them quickly enough. He made sure that all his orders to her were the gentle, for-your-own-good kind that were easy to obey, the kind of commands that little girls were supposed to hear from their papas.
Cosette, wash your hands before you eat, love. Put your hat on, Cosette, it's chilly outside, sweet. Wait, Cosette, take Papa's hand before we cross the street, my girl. Cosette, remember to say your prayers before bed, precious. She always obeyed him happily. Yes, Papa, she always answered, scrubbing her hands in the basin of the wash-stand before she sat down to eat, tying her hat on over her golden hair before she ran outside to play, wrapping her hand tightly around his finger before they crossed the boulevard, dropping to her knees and folding her hands to pray before he tucked her into bed.
Cosette, give Papa a kiss. That was his favorite order to give her, and, judging from the smile it always brought to her face, her favorite to obey. She would lean against him if she were sitting in his lap, or tug his hand so he'd crouch down to her level if she were standing beside him, and smack her lips against his cheek.
They were so happy together that the years flew by like minutes – or so it seemed to Valjean, as his Cosette grew from a little girl to a young lady in no time at all. She went to school and learned to read and write. Valjean bought her a Bible and said that he wanted her to read from it every day, and so of course, she did. Her favorite scene in the whole book was the angel heralding Christ's birth in the Gospel of Luke, and one night, as Valjean was tidying up after she'd gone to bed, he understood why. As he fetched her coat from where she'd forgotten it on the back of a chair, a slip of paper fell from the pocket, and on it, in her best handwriting, Cosette had copied down three verses.
"There were shepherds in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were so afraid. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid of me, for I bring you tidings of great joy.'"
Valjean never spoke of it to her, but over the years, he glimpsed several such papers, always with those same verses. They appeared in Cosette's pockets, in her coin-purse, on her bedside table – first in large, childish print, then in cursive that became progressively neater and smaller as she grew older. Sometimes the words do not be afraid of me were underlined. Valjean realized then where that frightened, broken child in the woods had found the courage to obey a strange man when he told her not to be afraid of him. It had come from God. God had orchestrated their first meeting, every second of it.
The answer seemed so obvious that he was surprised he hadn't realized it sooner.
Her papa didn't usually take her with him, when he went into the slums to give alms, but one day, Cosette pleaded with him until he relented. "Very well, Cosette, you can come," he said, putting his hat on as they stepped outside onto Rue Plumet. "But stay close to me, and don't let go of my arm." Cosette hardly thought that was necessary, but she didn't say so; she just took his arm and fell into step beside him. Her papa had always been protective of her, but lately, Cosette had begun to feel that he was too much so. Of course there was more crime in the slums, but she was grown-up now, and what did Papa think could happen in the middle of the day?
But as it turned out, a great deal could happen. There was a handsome, freckle-faced young man who stared at her from across the street. He didn't speak to her, or even approach her, but he didn't need to. Somehow, his gaze was enough to make Cosette feel as if he'd known her and loved her for years. His gaze was enough to make the streets and people around her fade away, until there was no one in the world but the two of them.
But she was brought very abruptly back to reality by her father calling her name and pulling her back to his side. She'd lost her grip on his arm, somehow, and he had nearly been robbed. But when a policeman arrived just in time to break up the robbery, that seemed to bother Papa even more. As soon as the officer's back was turned to them, he grabbed Cosette's hand and dragged her away down the street. There was a look of sheer panic on his kind old face that she had never seen before. She started to ask him what the matter was, but he cut her off.
"Don't ask questions, Cosette, just keep walking," he said, holding her hand so tightly that it hurt her a bit. Their close encounter with Javert had shaken him to his core, and his voice sounded sharper than he meant it to. "Hurry, but don't run, it attracts attention. And don't look back."
Cosette, of course, obeyed him. She didn't ask any more questions, but she knew that even if she did, her papa wouldn't tell her what was wrong. He still thought of her as a little girl; he would never tell her what was troubling him. She didn't look back over her shoulder, either, even though she desperately wanted to – not to see the policeman who had frightened Papa so, but to catch another glimpse of that young man whose gaze had struck her to the bone, almost breathless with delight. Papa hadn't even noticed him, and Cosette was grateful for that. He wouldn't approve. He would tell her that she was still just a child.
It was the first time that Cosette ever wanted to disobey her papa, but she didn't know how to do it. Obedience was second nature to her by now. It had been drilled into her for so long. She remembered the sisters at the convent school teaching her Bible verses until she knew them by heart – children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right, Ephesians; children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord, Colossians; and a dozen more like them. But she did not remember a rough voice screaming at her, Better mind me the first time I tell you to do something, you little good-for-nothing. If I have to tell you again, I'll wollop you so hard...
Cosette had locked those memories away in the deepest part of her mind, but even after so long, they were still there. Even after so long, a small part of her still expected to be struck if she didn't obey an order the first time. She didn't know where the blow would come from, since her papa would never hit her or allow anyone else to. She didn't even know that she was waiting for it. She only knew that lately, there seemed to be two sides to her – a young woman who wanted more independence, and a little girl who still wanted to feel protected. Perhaps that was part of growing up.
In all the years that they were together, there was only one command that Valjean had ever given Cosette that she hadn't obeyed. It was during their earliest days together, one night when a thunderstorm awoke her and frightened her out of her bed. She ran to the chair by the fire where Valjean sat, reading the newspaper.
"Oh, my Cosette," he cooed, lifting her into his lap, "you're not frightened of a thunderstorm, are you? You just stay right here with Papa." She snuggled in against his chest, and he stroked her hair and hummed to her. She fell asleep again quickly, but Valjean wasn't so quick to put her back in her bed. He held for a long time, wishing that he could freeze this moment forever – the rain falling outside, the fire crackling merrily before them, Cosette sleeping peacefully in his arms. Why couldn't she always stay small enough to fit in his lap?
"Cosette," he said, and she roused slightly at the sound of her name. "Don't you ever grow up, my girl."
Her brow furrowed in confusion, and he smoothed it with his thumb. "How can I do that?" she asked, still half-asleep.
She was a curious child, always asking him questions, and he was always happy to answer them. He loved teaching her, guiding her. But for this question, he knew no more than she. "I don't know, I'm afraid," he answered, laughing a little, "but just... find a way, won't you? Promise me you'll find a way to never grow up."
It was the only order he ever gave her that she didn't obey. But then, it was also the only time he ever asked her to do the impossible.
P.S. Yes, I did write this while listening to the Taylor Swift song "Never Grow Up." :)