AS LUCIFER FELL
Paris: 7th June 1832: 1 a.m.
Night had long ago dropped a black cloak over the city. Few lights showed, even at the windows of the houses; most honest citizens were by now abed, and those who were not honest preferred to carry on their business without the benefit of illumination. Thus the man who left the police-post at Place du Chatelet and walked with long strides towards the river did so in the deepest possible gloom, a fitting counterpart to the darkness he carried within. Soon, however, he told himself, all that would be gone; the world would be able to forget him, and he the world, and everything would be as it would have been had he never lived.
A powerfully-built man, well above average height, he nevertheless seemed somehow diminished by despair. His grey-blue eyes were hollow and cold, his complexion pale, and a wayward lock of silver-grey hair hung lank and unattended where he had wrenched it loose from its ribbon and toyed with it in distracted fingers. There had already been more confusing twists and turns in the course of this night than any man could bear and expect his sanity to hold; in his anguish he had thought of a means of escaping from the terrors that pursued him, of finding the rest his spirit craved.
The idea of seeking permanent oblivion in the swirling waters of the Seine, at its deepest point where the whirlpool was strong enough to tear boats to matchwood, had come to him earlier in the night when he had dismissed his cab and its driver outside a certain house in the rue Plumet and simply begun walking in whatever direction his feet might take him. There had been no plan in his mind at the time save an overmastering desire to get away from the man who had caused his mental confusion, who had shattered the beliefs he had cherished all his life. In simple terms, Jean Valjean was a criminal - and he, Javert, as an Inspector of Police, was his natural predator. For seventeen years, since Valjean had broken his parole and gone on the run, Javert had pursued him with a bitter determination; that the law should not be mocked, and that a common little thief like Valjean deserved to be behind bars.
But if Valjean had been in prison two men who were now alive would have been dead in their blood some hours since; a law student named Marius Pontmercy, and Javert himself. That he owed his life to Valjean was bad enough, but that he had subsequently spared Valjean's life and even assisted in the rescue of the boy Pontmercy was something he could not reconcile with his concept of right and wrong. He, Javert, the most ferocious and incorruptible of all police officers, had aided in the escape of a wanted man. His purpose in life was denied; how, then, could he go on living? And of what use could he be, either to his employers or to himself?
The answer to that seemed clear enough. He had called in at the police-post to write one last report, putting forward with all due respect his suggestions for improvements to the service, and then he had stepped out into the night with the intention of losing his inner turmoil in the greater vortex of the river. There was no-one who would mourn him; it was better this way.
His hands found the top of the parapet that bordered the black water, long sensitive fingers spreading out over cold, rough stone as welcome now as the touch of a friend's hand - although that was a blessing he had never known - and he braced himself to jump up onto the wall. How quickly it would all be over, what profound peace he would know! He welcomed the moment, savoured it as the last of his existence, and a ghostly parody of a smile haunted his features as he gathered his strength for the plunge.
"Oh, Monsieur, thank goodness I have found you!"
A female voice, soft and musical in the darkness. He had seen no-one, and although he was in the deepest despair he knew he could not have failed to observe a woman - indeed, a lady of quality to judge by her tone - close enough to be able to reach out and lay a hand on his sleeve as this one had done. But no lady of quality would address a stranger so in the street except in the direst emergency, and the thought occurred that the woman might be a prostitute trying to importune him.
"Madame," he said, brusquely, "I am doing my duty; you may not detain me." Hiding behind the shield of duty had always been his way; the law had seemed so clear-cut, so dependable, and all he had ever needed to do was follow where it took him, never straying from the true path. Duty now demanded he put an end to himself, before his confusion over Valjean could be the cause of any more damage than had already been done.
"No, Monsieur l'Inspecteur," the woman said again, and despite himself he turned to try and see her face; where had he heard this voice before? "Your duty is not yet finished. You have a task to fulfill, and you may not rest until it is accomplished."
Javert felt a shudder pass through him, his whole body trembling at the gentle words. Death so close, and this female wished to tear him from its grasp?
"Who are you?" he asked bluntly. "I seem to know your voice."
"Ah, Monsieur, it has been many years, but we were once acquainted. You arrested me, at a place called Montreuil-sur-Mer, because I struck a man in the street."
His mind was racing, ranging back over his time in the provincial town where he had lived almost a decade before. "Madame, please explain yourself; I have arrested a good many women in such circumstances, but I do not recall you."
In the darkness he saw her head turn and thought perhaps he caught the glimmer of a smile.
"I am not here to talk about myself," she told him firmly, "but about you, and the task you have still to perform. It is clear enough; you may not die before Jean Valjean. You are to be with him when he dies. Do you understand?"
"No. I do not."
She caught at his sleeve again, this time reassuringly. "Never mind; for now, all that matters is that you turn away from the river. I cannot allow you to waste your life; if you do so now, you will kill the man who rescued you - and dozens, perhaps hundreds of innocent people will suffer because you are not there to prevent it. You are necessary, M. l'Inspecteur; Heaven has a plan for you, and you may not escape it."
"Please, Grandpere, please!" A third voice, the thin piping of a small child; a girl, he thought, perhaps six years of age, and dressed in dark colours like the woman. He had not realised there was a child present, but then neither had he seen the woman until she spoke. Perhaps the child had been concealed behind the woman's skirts.
"Is she addressing me?" Almost scandalised, he fixed on what seemed the most incongruous detail of all. "I have no grandchildren; Madame, I believe you and your daughter have mistaken me for someone else."
"I am her guardian, not her mother," the woman replied softly. "Eponine, you should not be here; I asked you to wait for me."
"But he argues so!" was the defiant response. "Doesn't he know that Grandpa Jean is dying? How can any of us live and be happy if he will not go to Grandpa Jean?"
"We cannot force him to go, my dear." The woman's tone was wise and gentle. "He must not go because we wish it, but because he does himself. Some people are simply afraid of happiness, Eponine - so afraid that they turn away when it is offered. Monsieur, if you will abandon your intention to die we will show you what it is to be happy. Have you never wondered how it would be to be loved?"
"Never." He could answer quite truthfully, because it had not once crossed his mind that love would ever be a part of his life.
"Then give me your hand. Walk with us a little way. What does it matter to you if you die now or in an hour's time? Give us an hour, now, to show you the life you have never known."
"Answer me one question first." Stubbornly his mind rebelled against her entreaties; he had long ago hardened his heart to the pleading of women. Nevertheless this relentless persuasion, this death's-door bargaining of hers, reminded him irresistibly of that old foe whose name she had invoked. What was this woman's connection with the thief Valjean, and who was the child? Valjean's grand-daughter? She had referred to him as Grandpa Jean, after all. "What is your name?"
An incisive question at last! Who are you? would only have produced more evasion. As it was, the answer was not one he wished to hear.
"I am Fantine," the woman said, as though he should have known it all along - as indeed he should.
When it occurred to him later that he had taken without hesitation the hand of a woman ten years dead, Javert was astonished at himself. The existence of ghosts was something he had never doubted, although he had not encountered one before. It was odd that, when he finally did so, it should be that of the woman Fantine - the factory worker dismissed from Jean Valjean's employment who had turned to prostitution to support her child, and who had come to the notice of the police by an unprovoked attack on a respectable citizen. Javert knew that Valjean had shown considerable interest in Fantine's fate, and had adopted her child when the woman died; what he could not understand, however, was why the shade of Fantine should behave with such courtesy and warmth towards himself, nor why the child she had addressed as 'Eponine' should cling so tightly to his hand as they walked through the streets together. Anyone glancing at them would think he saw a little family, to be sure - the commanding figure of the man, the slender form of the woman and the little wisp that was the child seemed to belong together. No-one could have believed that here was a man in the grip of a suicidal despair being harried by a phantom of the past and by some small spectre whose origins were unknown.
They came at last to the rue Plumet, and to the iron railings that surrounded the garden of Valjean's house. The street and its environs were supernaturally quiet - no human eye saw their passing.
"Grandpere, it is your garden!" The child seemed to have become more animated as they approached the dwelling, and now she gripped the railings and peered through into the dark garden beyond as though she expected to see or be seen by someone within. "Look, this is where all the children play on fine days, and there are the flowers you planted. I helped you!"
The patch she indicated was in the deepest shadow and Javert could not see any plants there at all, yet the girl was insistent.
"You took off your jacket and knelt on the ground," she said, "and with a little shovel you dug the holes for the roots. Grandpa Jean sat by in his chair and told you what to do, and you did it. You said they would die because you had never planted anything before, and Grandpa Jean said you should have faith and they would grow no matter what you did to them. Surely you remember?"
He shook his head, bewildered by her certainty. "I know nothing about growing plants," he said. "Perhaps it was someone who looked like me?"
"No. Grandpa Jean says that there is no-one else who looks like you in the whole of Paris."
"Grandpa Jean seems to be full of wise sayings," remarked Javert sourly, glaring down at the child who remained oblivious to it.
"He's a wise man," Fantine supplied, rejoining the conversation now that the child's attention was fixed on whatever vision she was seeing within the darkened garden. "But Eponine doesn't really understand that the things she is telling you about have not happened yet - and may never happen. If you decide to die, Monsieur, there will be no children playing here on fine days, no flowers planted in the bare patch over there. If you prefer instead to live ... you can do so much good."
"I? But how?"
Javert heard the smile in the woman's words as she replied; he had not dared to look right into her face, afraid of what he might see there.
"You must give M. Jean the strength he needs to carry on a little while longer," she explained softly. "He needs you, Monsieur - just as much as you need him."
Abruptly the man dropped the hand he held, aware of the child turning to him in some distress.
"Enough. Valjean and Javert have nothing in common; we are opposite poles, Madame, and we can never be more. For twenty years he has run from me and I have pursued him, and now I have put an end even to that. You say he is dying? Well, then, let him do so in peace - and let me do the same. Whatever daydream the child has seen I wish her well of it, but I do not think she will see me planting flowers in Valjean's garden."
"But Monsieur ... " Hopelessly Fantine held out her hand to him, but already he had pulled away from her and turned to leave.
"Grandpere ... "
It was the pleading of the child which brought Fantine to the realisation that the heart of stone would not be swayed. Javert, dragged back from the brink, had closed his mind to the possibility that his future might contain anything but the bitterest solitude. She had failed, then.
"No, Eponine," she said, her tone full of sadness. "We must not press. M. Javert must make his own decision. Perhaps, when he has had time to consider, he will change his mind. Goodnight, Monsieur ..."
Javert was already several paces away, hunched into the long black coat that almost swept the ground as he walked, his broad shoulders rounded and his hands plunged deep into his pockets. Ghosts and spectres, indeed; phantoms calling a polite 'goodnight' in the street! Was he raving mad, to think of such things?
He did not answer, and strode away as quickly as he could.
The marriage of Marius, Baron Pontmercy, to Mlle Euphrasie Fauchelevent - known as Cosette - was celebrated three weeks after the events of the night of 6th June 1832, the so-called 'Lamarque Riots'. The bridegroom was still weak from injuries received on the barricade during the abortive revolution, his face ashen pale and his steps faltering. However it was apparent to those who saw him thus that when hale and hearty again he would be a robust, even plump, young man. Indeed, he had been so until that fateful night; he had a good-natured, almost childlike face with honest blue eyes beneath a mop of light hair, and an openness of manner that greeted the world and everything in it with a warm affection which had contrived to make him beloved of all who knew him.
There was, however, some coolness between Marius and his bride's father, M. Ultime Fauchelevent, a wealthy manufacturer, which dated back to the night of the Lamarque Riots. On that night - Marius had never discovered how or why - the older man had been present at the barricades, and had with considerable courage and gallantry saved the life of Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels and Marius's dearest friend. That splendid act of bravado had been wasted, however; Enjolras had survived only long enough to lead the charge over the barricade and be cut down by the bullets of the Government troops who waited on the other side. Nonetheless Marius would have been eternally grateful to Cosette's father for his noble action had it not been that he had sought and received a reward from Enjolras - the right to dispose of a police spy captured by the rebels and kept by them tied up in the tavern they used as their headquarters. Marius had seen Fauchelevent lead the man away, and he had heard the sound of a shot; there was no doubting that Fauchelevent had killed the spy in cold blood. Whatever heroism the man had displayed in other circumstances was therefore cancelled out by Marius's knowledge that his father-in-law had murdered a defenceless man.
Not only that, but Fauchelevent knew he had been observed. Guiltily he kept away from the house he and his daughter had shared in the rue Plumet - the house which was in Cosette's name, and where she and Marius had chosen to begin their married life. Marius had lands and estates elsewhere - when his grandfather died he would be an exceedingly wealthy young man, and he was already possessed of the six hundred thousand francs Cosette had brought him on their marriage - but Cosette would not leave the rue Plumet lest her father should return and find her gone. Indeed, the old man's actions had been quite strange; he had handed his daughter over into the care of her new husband and left as if he had no further interest in her life, although it was obvious that he loved the girl dearly. There was certainly some mystery about M. Fauchelevent, but Marius was too concerned with his new bride and his own recovery from his wounds to spare much thought for his wife's father. However even her own happiness did not stop Cosette fretting about his absence, and it was perhaps a week or ten days after the wedding that she broke down in tears and confessed to Marius that the man she had called father was not in fact a relation at all but her guardian, who had adopted her after her mother's death. To the young man's simple way of thinking this eased matters considerably; after all, it was not his wife's father who was missing, merely a man who had taken her under his wing for a short while and, seeing her decently married, had then withdrawn from her life. Cosette, however, was inconsolable until three days later when a note arrived, brought by one of the many ragged urchins who could be found begging throughout the streets of Paris.
"Madame la Baronne Pontmercy,
Your father may be found at the hospital of the convent in the Petit-Picpus."
The handwriting was unfamiliar - large, looping, really quite distinctive and apparently written by someone entirely sure of the world and his place in it - but the note was not signed. The urchin, interrogated, merely showed the silver coin which had been given to her by the man who had sent the note. She said that he was an old man, but as on further questioning it was revealed that she thought Marius, too, was old, this did not offer much in the way of enlightenment.
"My father may be dying!" Cosette, already alarmed by her father's disappearance, took this news badly and urged Marius to go at once to see if it was indeed he who lay in the nuns' hospital, and though still weak himself the Baron summoned his manservant and the carriage and had himself driven to the convent.
Within an hour he was back, supervising while the manservant and the coachman carefully unloaded a man of over sixty years of age, of middle height and sturdy build now much weakened by illness. Ultime Fauchelevent's hair and beard were what is known as 'pepper and salt' in colouration; light brown strands mingled with grey and darker shades, but with white beginning to predominate, and his eyes were a most uncommon blue-green shade. His usual expression was one of pugnacious determination, as though warning those around him that they meddled in his affairs at their peril, but the look on his face now was one of desperation; he had prepared himself for death in the nuns' hospital, and this deliverance was beyond his understanding. He was painfully aware that he was to be under Marius Pontmercy's roof only for Cosette's sake, and that the young man who was now his son-in-law held no affection for him personally. That was as it should be; Cosette was happy, and it would not be for long. Death, he sensed, was still not far away.
"But how did you know where to find me?" he wheezed, when once he was settled into a comfortable chair by the fireside with maids scurrying about to bring him blankets and cushions and a footstool.
Cosette dropped to her knees beside the chair and laid her cheek on her father's hand. She was a pretty girl, her complexion dark and her cheeks rosy with good health although her eyes were red-rimmed from a good many tears shed. Seeing her father so brought down was a greater pain even than his absence had been, and it only occurred to her belatedly that perhaps he had sought to spare her this.
"Oh, Papa, we were so worried about you. It wasn't until your note arrived that we knew where you were."
"Note? I sent no note."
Cosette produced the crumpled paper from her pocket. During Marius's absence she had read and re-read it, folded it, spread it out smooth and stared at it from every angle until it had become a sorry-looking object, but it was still legible. Her father squinted at the note as though it pained him to try and read it, shaking his head in bafflement.
"But this is not my writing."
"No indeed, Papa, but I thought that perhaps one of the sisters had written it at your direction - although the child who brought it said it was given to her by an old man."
"I know nothing of this. Someone else has written this note. I don't know for certain who it may have been." Fauchelevent ran his hand listlessly through his daughter's dark curls. "You must forgive me, Cosette," he begged. "I never meant to distress you." Even in his present condition there was a kind warmth in his tone that would always betoken a man of good will, although he was aware that Marius radiated disapproval towards him. "I thought you would both be too happy to worry about me - and anyway, my course is almost run. Often lately I've dreamed of your mother, my dear, telling me that my troubles will soon be over. A few days, perhaps, that's all."
"No, Papa, you mustn't talk like that! You have many more years left to you; you're strong - you can fight this illness. You can't give up now!"
"Oh Cosette, if only it was that easy! If you could only forbid me to die, and if I could only obey, how happy we could all be - if your husband would learn to forgive me. But there, Monsieur le Baron, are three impossibilities."
He raised his eyes to the blank face of the young man and met only hostility; not even for Cosette's sake could Marius unbend from his strong principles, and silently Fauchelevent admired him for his stoicism.
"Just so," he murmured. "Just so. But Monsieur, I must beg one more favour of you; the smallest of favours, as you have already been so kind."
His language was formal, almost courtly, and certainly respectful towards one who although now a member of his family was of a much higher social standing than himself.
A stiff-shouldered bow from the younger man. "Please name it, Monsieur, and I will grant it if I can."
Encouraged, Fauchelevent leaned back in his chair and struggled to produce a thin smile.
"If the writer of this note should ever call here, Monsieur, I should like very much to see him. Please, if you will, allow him to be admitted. I should like to bid him farewell, if God will spare me long enough to do so."
Marius inclined his head formally. "You may see any visitors you choose to see, Monsieur," he said with cold politeness, "as long as you are well enough to receive them."
"Even if I am dying!" Fauchelevent told him, rallying from somewhere a last reserve of defiance. "Even if I am already dead! Let him in, I implore you; we must part as friends."
"Oh, Papa, please don't speak of such things ... "
Cosette's protest was ignored. Her father's eyes had locked onto the face of the young man and sought to impress him with the sincerity of the request, and with its paramount importance.
"Pontmercy, for the love of God!"
Marius's head turned. "Very well," he said brusquely; "Monsieur, even if you are dying or already dead this man will be admitted. I have promised it, and it will be done. Does that satisfy you?"
"It does indeed, Monsieur," the old man told him, his voice the merest thread of sound spooling unsteadily into the quiet room. "It does indeed."
For almost a week Cosette's father allowed himself to be nursed by the women of the house. In the mornings he was carried from his room by the manservant, brought downstairs and installed in his armchair for the day, from which he watched all the goings-on of the house without comment. Sometimes Cosette would sit with him and read aloud - or even sing a little; her voice was sweet and pure, and she knew all the old melodies he liked best - but most of the time he merely sat with a far-away look on his face as though he was remembering something from a very distant past. In the evenings he permitted the manservant to carry him back upstairs and put him to bed, and the very fact that this stubborn man was prepared to allow himself to be carried about like a doll or an ailing child was token enough of his weakness. In other times he would as soon have done battle with a pride of lions as allowed himself to be treated like an invalid; now he seemed to have no will to prevent it. Then, when he had been six days at the house in the rue Plumet, an event occurred which was to alter forever the pattern of life he had come to know.
The crashing of the door-knocker on the door sounded like a thunderclap immediately above the house, although the sky was clear. It was in fact a fine, sultry summer's evening, still warm - although there was a fire in the sitting-room and the invalid was swathed in blankets. At the least sign of a cough Cosette was ready with medicaments of all sorts - ointments and syrups, pills whose contents he could only guess at - and obediently he had taken everything he was offered and tried to feel better; it mattered little to him, and he did not want to disappoint anyone by refusing their remedies. He merely sat and drowsed - waited, it seemed, for something to happen that would bring an end to his misery.
At the sound of the knocking the old man seemed to brighten. A flush came to his cheek and Cosette, sitting by his side, was immediately alarmed.
"Papa? Are you feeling ill?"
He held up his hand for silence. He was straining his ears to hear the conversation taking place outside in the hall. There was a shapeless deep tone, too low to distinguish any words, and the rather shriller note of the housemaid who seemed inclined to protest about something. Then there were scurrying feet along the passage, and Marius was fetched from his study to intervene.
"Oh, Cosette, I think ... "
The door swung open and Marius entered the room, his expression grave. He looked from Cosette to her father in blank astonishment, but schooled his voice to calm as he spoke.
"Monsieur, a man is here who says he sent the note. You are still sure you wish him to be admitted?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Let him in, man, let him in!" A note of impatience, even intolerance, had crept into Fauchelevent's voice - an emotion so unfamiliar to his gentle nature that Cosette's dark eyebrows rose in amazement and she drew back instinctively from the strange phenomenon.
Marius stepped aside, although it was apparent that he had no intention of leaving the room. The man who strode past him had a defiant set to his shoulders, an arrogant tilt to his chin, and was swathed in a long black triple-caped coat which hung around him like a neglected shroud. For a moment he halted in the centre of the room, glittering blue eyes fixed almost malevolently on the invalid who sat by the fire, and then all certainty seemed to desert him at once.
"Valjean." It was neither a question nor an exclamation, but something like a sigh of acceptance.
"Javert." In this one word both relief and gratitude.
For several heartbeats neither man moved, and then Fauchelevent - Valjean, as the visitor had called him - lifted his right hand and extended it imploringly towards the black-garbed figure. In one massive stride Javert crossed the small sitting-room to accept the grip, but instead of the handshake he had expected he found that his hand was turned and brought to Valjean's lips and a gentle kiss placed on the scarred knuckles. He snatched the hand away, shocked beyond words - and then read the reproach in the green eyes and regretted it immediately.
Cosette had reacted with alarm to the arrival of Javert, but the look on her father's face had calmed her worst fears. Certainly despite the length of time he had spent trying to evade this man he was no longer afraid of him, but there was obviously far more to it even than that; the tone of his voice had been unmistakeable - Javert's arrival was exactly what he had been waiting and hoping for.
She got to her feet decisively. "Marius," she said, her voice little more than a tortured squeak, "we should leave these gentlemen to their reunion in peace. If you need anything, Papa, you have only to call. Please excuse me, M'sieur."
A polite inclination of her head towards Javert, and Cosette swept past him towards the door. Her husband might have protested, had he the least idea of what was going on, but he could not quite summon the energy. Instead he bowed briefly and allowed himself to be led away, still rubbing his eyes as he sought to understand the bewildering spectacle he had just beheld, and to make sense of the fact that the man he had long believed Cosette's father to have murdered was here, alive and well and conducting himself with a species of awed deference towards his supposed killer.
"I know that man." Back in his tiny study, a room to which in normal times Cosette was not admitted, Marius slumped down into the only chair and ran a hand across his brow trying to clear his thoughts. Cosette, with nowhere to sit, stood with her hands folded looking out of the window. "He used to be a police officer. His name is Javert."
"I know," his wife conceded nervously. "I've seen him before, but only at a distance." Ten years earlier Javert had almost succeeded in capturing her father; he had cornered him by night in a narrow cul-de-sac, and Valjean had only escaped by clambering over the roofs of the nearby houses with a terrified Cosette clinging tightly to his back.
Marius struggled to reconcile his past knowledge of Javert with the man's unexpected appearance at his house and the tableau he had just seen enacted.
"He ... lent me a pair of pistols once," he recollected with difficulty. "I was still carrying them ... the night of the barricade."
Cosette's eyes widened in astonishment. Marius Pontmercy had gone into battle carrying pistols that belonged to her father's lifelong enemy! It beggared the imagination!
"And why did he call your father by that name - Valjean - when his name is Fauchelevent?"
Taking a deep breath, the young woman steeled herself to answer the question she had always known she would have to face sooner or later.
"Marius," she said, "I have never known what my real name should be. My father adopted me when I was only eight years old and brought me to Paris. We lived with a man whose name was Fauchelevent; we pretended that Papa was M. Fauchelevent's brother and that I was his grand-daughter. Papa said that people like us who had no family should be family to each other, and so my name became Euphrasie de Fauchelevent where before it was only Cosette."
This explanation ignored a great deal, but although slight it had the virtue of being perfectly true.
"Then your father's name ... is really Valjean?" Grasping at straws, Marius seized on one fact he could comprehend.
"Then why should he try to hide it? Why conceal himself under an alias?"
The answer to that question was glaringly obvious, but the young man was hoping against hope that there would be some explanation which did not paint his bride's father as a common criminal.
"Because ... Oh, because Inspector Javert was pursuing him - although I don't know why, so it's no use asking. We were always hiding from Javert; that was why Papa wanted us to leave for England that night."
There was no need to ask which night. Marius and Cosette had scarcely confessed their love for one another in an agony of stammering and blushing before her father had announced that they must leave Paris immediately. Faced with inevitable and permanent separation from his beloved, in despair Marius had kept his promise to Enjolras and stood beside him on the barricade.
But Fauchelevent - Valjean - had changed his mind and had arrived at the barricade in time to save Enjolras's life, however futile a gesture it might have proved, and in return he had been given the life of Javert to dispose of as he saw fit. Why, if the man had been hounding him for years, had he not taken the chance to rid himself of his nemesis?
"I saw Javert that night," Marius said slowly, unwilling to admit to the suspicions he had harboured. "I had good reason to believe he was dead. Seeing him here today ... changes everything. And I swear I saw ... at least, I thought I saw..."
How to put into words the numbing fact that Valjean had kissed the hand of his persecutor? Marius abandoned the effort, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Yes. I saw it too. I don't understand, Marius, but I know my father would never allow Javert anywhere near this house if he still thought he could be a threat. Something has changed; I don't know what it is, but I trust Papa and I know there's nothing to fear. We must treat Javert as his guest, and never refer to the past; can you do that?"
"I can try," Marius conceded, without much hope. "Yes, I suppose I can try."
For a long time after the departure of Marius and Cosette neither Javert nor Valjean deemed it necessary to move or speak, each wrestling with some inner vision. Valjean had known since the night of the barricades that it would one day come to this - that if Javert's pride did not destroy him, eventually he would find his way to the rue Plumet - but there had been times when he truly wondered whether he would be alive to greet him.
Eventually Javert raised his eyes and looked across at the smaller figure propped by pillows in a chair and smothered in blankets.
"I came to ask you to forgive me," he said, a hollowness in his voice. "For misjudging you - and for almost throwing away my life merely to spite you." There came to his mind, unbidden, the memory of a time many years previously when he had reported himself to the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer for insubordination. There had been something familiar even then about the man to whom he spoke, but he had not recognised the prosperous and dignified businessman as the shambling convict released from prison seven years earlier; Jean Valjean had been both.
"Very well. You're forgiven."
The swiftness of the response took the big man by surprise, and he made an indecisive movement towards Valjean.
"As easily as that? But you don't understand what I'm asking."
Valjean fixed him with a stern look. "I understand," he said. "We've known each other nearly thirty years, Javert; in all that time, don't you think I've learned a little about you? And don't you think, too, that I forgave you a long time ago?"
Javert shook his head, his grey lion's mane catching the light unexpectedly so that it appeared almost golden.
"You make forgiveness sound so easy!"
Valjean's eyes closed briefly, then re-opened.
"No. It's never been easy. I learned it from the Bishop of Dignes when he forgave me for stealing his silver," he said, not shrinking from the awful truth although the memory was still a guilty one. "He taught me that every man can be loved, whether he loves himself or not. He was there to catch me when I fell."
"And now you dole out your little measures of absolution as though you were handing sweets to children? What right have you, Valjean? What right have you to forgive me?"
The last word was a pained cry as Javert turned his back on the older man, his shoulders hunching as his mind wrestled with the contrariness of his own emotions in seeking this man's pardon while at the same time despising what he had done.
"No right. Every right. Don't you understand yet, Javert? I'm here to catch you, my friend - but you have so far to fall."
"To ... catch ... " He had turned back, horror-struck grey eyes fastening on Valjean's calm face. "You will catch me?"
The serene assertion was accompanied by the stretching-out of Valjean's hand once again to the man who had previously rejected his touch. To judge by the expression on Javert's face it seemed as if he would do so again, but he no longer had any will of his own. He plunged forward, falling to his knees, so that Valjean gripped at his shoulder and pulled him closer still - and did not draw breath until Javert's head rested on his blanket-covered knee.
"It's not my forgiveness you need, Javert," Valjean whispered, hesitating only a fraction of a second before resting one hand reassuringly on the man's hair. "No, not even God's. It's your own. You must learn to forgive yourself. You've set a standard for your life that no man can hope to meet, and you constantly fall short. Let me show you another way."
"You?" A confused sound, muffled against the blanket. "How could we be together and not speak of the past?"
"We can't - but I've told you before that I never blamed you for doing your duty. Let it rest at that for now, and try to look forward. You must stay here; we can send for your possessions, wherever they are."
"I have nothing but what I carry in my pockets; I was reported dead after the riot and my landlord sold all my belongings." There had not been much; clothes, a few books. Javert had never placed any great store in ownership of anything beyond the essentials.
"Then your slate is clean; you can start again with me."
"How? And why? And as what? You can save your pity, Valjean, I won't be your charitable case!"
Valjean allowed himself a quiet chuckle. Javert had never been the man to accept anything at face value, and even in the extremes of mental torment he could not be comforted unless he knew precisely what Valjean intended.
"This is not charity," he assured Javert. "I am offering you a home and a life, that's all - as my friend, perhaps, in time, but if not quite that yet, well, I still need a nurse. I have to be carried everywhere, and your shoulders are broad enough for the task. Old age afflicts us all," Valjean continued with a smile. "You may need a nurse yourself one day, my fine Inspector Javert."
"Never. Not so long as there is still a river."
"No." The laughter left Valjean's face. He had understood what Javert had not said, and a great deal more that Javert had not been able to understand for himself, and he knew that age and infirmity were not for this man. Death, when it came, would find him still defiant - and still afraid to be alone.
Marius and Cosette returned to the room some little time later to discover that Javert had brought a plain wooden chair to the fireside and was perching on the very edge of it, as though unwilling to trespass on the Baron's hospitality any further than strictly necessary, his large hands folded in front of him and his attention entirely devoted to Valjean - although the conversation that had passed between them had for the most part been inconsequential. It was not that they had nothing to say to one another, rather the opposite; they had too much to say, but most of it was so private and difficult that it could scarcely be blurted out in the first few minutes of their re-acquaintance. Besides which, Valjean clearly would not have had the stamina for any deep and far-reaching discussion; he had grown weary very quickly, and now slumped in his chair on the edge of sleep simply listening to whatever trivia Javert might dredge up to entertain him. As a man utterly unused to making smalltalk Javert had struggled to keep the older man's attention, and now welcomed the arrival of the young couple as a positive relief. He scrambled to his feet as they entered, stepping back a little as though unsure of his place. However whilst Cosette went instantly to her father's side, Marius addressed himself to Javert.
"M'sieur," he said, "I apologise for the way you were received when you arrived here. The truth of the matter is, I believed you had died on the night of the riot."
Javert cleared his throat awkwardly. "We ... were on opposite sides that night, M. le Baron, but you must understand that I was not responsible for the deaths of your friends. When ... " he swallowed uncomfortably, trying to accommodate a difficult truth " ... when M. Valjean released me, I left and did not return."
A distant expression crossed Marius's face; in these past few weeks he had never been far from tears, and it seemed now as if he might disgrace himself in front of Javert. However he pulled himself together and controlled his voice carefully.
"M'sieur, the one thing I learned from that night is that nothing could have saved my friends. They were doomed from the moment they took up arms against the Government - and whether you had any hand in their deaths or not, they would still have died. It's only by a miracle that I myself survived, although sometimes I wonder whether or not it is a blessing."
The irony of this remark was not lost on Javert. "You are not alone in that, M'sieur; I wonder myself why he chose to save my life when he could easily have allowed me to die."
Marius's sideways look caught Javert unawares. "'He'? By the tone of your voice, I take it you are not referring to God? Do you know something about the man who rescued me? If so, you must tell me his name so that I can thank him."
Javert looked up sharply in Valjean's direction, catching the look that warned him to silence only when it was far too late.
"I ... have sworn not to tell," he said uncomfortably.
"But you must!" Unthinkingly Marius had gripped Javert's arm, his fingers biting down through layers of clothing to encounter muscle as hard as iron beneath. "If you know who it was that brought me home, please tell me; I owe that man everything, and I must in honour try to return what he has done for me."
"Please, M'sieur, you must not ask me." The words were more firmly spoken, and gently Javert detached Marius's imploring hand, but he could not stop himself looking over towards Valjean and Cosette who were both watching the exchange with a mixture of fascination and horror; naturally Valjean's daughter had known the identity of Marius's saviour, but she had complied with her father's wishes in keeping the matter secret.
Marius's gaze followed Javert's, and in a moment his mind made the connection.
"Of course," he said, excitedly. "Who else would you be so anxious to protect? Monsieur Fauchelevent, was it you who carried me home?"
Valjean exchanged a brief glance with Cosette, her look promising to support him in whatever decision he made. Then, slowly, he nodded his head.
"In the first place," he said, "my name is Jean Valjean, and that is would like you to call me from now on. In the second place, it was Javert and I who brought you home."
"Javert?" This was unexpected news, and Marius who had taken a step towards the invalid now turned back to the bulky figure of the ex-policeman where he stood against the fading light.
Disconcerted, the big man made to deny it. "No, no, it was M. Valjean who carried you on his back through the sewers. All I did was help load you into the carriage and bring you back here. I thought," he added, "that you were dead. I was very surprised to see you alive and well."
Marius swung around again to face his father-in-law, beginning to comprehend only belatedly the injustice he had done this man.
"You saved my life," he repeated. "I was too blind ... too foolish ... to realise it, but I have no doubt of it now. I swear, Monsieur Valjean, if there is ever anything I can do for you - anything you ask, including my life, shall be yours."
The dramatic statement rang through the little room, bringing forth different emotions in each of its three hearers. To Cosette it was a noble speech, but the notion that Marius might sacrifice his life in any cause was a chilling one. To Javert it had the ring of the same false idealism that had motivated the students in their rebellion, but at the same time he envied the certainty that made it possible. To Valjean, exhausted by the torrent of words and emotions, it was simply a glorious intention which might never be accomplished and he smiled indulgently on the speaker.
"Monsieur," he said, "in making my daughter happy you have already done all that I could wish for - but there is one more thing I would ask."
"Name it, M'sieur."
Valjean's tone made it clear that this was not a request so much as an ultimatum. "A place here for Javert," he said. "He will be staying. Please have a bed set up for him in my room."
Looking from one to the other, Marius ventured; "But there are ample rooms, M'sieur, you could have one of your own."
"No," Javert told him. "I may be needed."
Marius quelled his astonishment only with difficulty. "Of course; anything you wish. Monsieur Javert, you are welcome to stay as long as you like."
"And I will no longer have to trouble your servants, my dear M. Pontmercy, whenever I need to be carried from place to place," Valjean added. "Javert will be here to help me, and from now on I will refuse to be carried by anyone else."
Cosette, watching this exchange with something between bewilderment and amused fascination, intervened to bring the conversation back to more practical matters.
"Then Papa," she said, "I believe M. Javert should begin on his new duties at once. You are overtired, and I really think you should rest. Monsieur," she addressed Javert, "if you will bring my father, I will show you the way - and we will arrange everything as he wishes."
For answer Javert merely moved across the room and lifted Valjean all in one piece with his blankets, effortlessly cradling the whole bundle in his arms as he stepped after Cosette towards the stairs, grateful at last to be given clear and unambiguous instructions that he could obey.
It was only when he was halfway up the narrow flight of stairs to the first floor that it occurred to him how welcome was the burden in his arms, and only much later still that he realised that this was what had brought him to the house in the first place. Now he merely adjusted his grip on the unprotesting weight of Jean Valjean and tried not to notice that the man's head was resting on his shoulder as though perfectly accustomed to being there. It simply did not do to examine these matters too closely; there would be time enough to enquire into feelings and motives later, but for now - he acknowledged it with profound gratitude - he had a purpose again, and he concentrated all his efforts on accomplishing it. The rest, he decided, could wait.
Apart from its size, Valjean's bedroom could have been a monkish cell. It was a large, bare room with a high ceiling, its walls some indeterminate colour between white and grey, its floor bare boards of dark wood highly polished and spotlessly clean. At the window hung slatted shutters which divided up the remaining daylight into thin slivers which fell across the floor at an angle. The furniture comprised a wide wicker bateau lit - an obvious triumph for Cosette over her father's simpler tastes - and a chest of drawers of what appeared to be rough village carpentry on top of which resided a pair of cheap candlesticks and a plain ewer and basin. Beside the fireplace, in which a fire had already been lit, was an upright wooden chair with a blanket draped over the back of it. There was nothing else - no books, no pictures, not so much as a crucifix above the bed. However even as Javert brought Valjean into the room and carefully set him down on the chair one of the menservants appeared in the doorway carrying a folding bed like the one the Emperor had always used on campaign and established it against the wall parallel with the bateau lit.
Suddenly the room was crowded; Javert found his place usurped by two maids apparently intent on helping the weary Valjean out of his clothing and into bed, while Baron Pontmercy stood in the doorway directing the placing of the folding bed. Cosette gripped Javert's arm and drew him back outside onto the landing.
"M'sieur," she said, "whatever it is that brings you here, I'm grateful for it. My father has been very ill, but since you arrived he seems much better. And it's you we have to thank for finding him and sending the note; how did you know where he was?"
Javert's lips compressed into a thin line. "I was at the hospital. I saw him there," was all he said. The tone of the words warned Cosette that he was unwilling to add to this remark.
She looked at up him then, assessing him critically for the first time since he had walked in through the door. All her life Javert had been the one person she had feared; her father's existence had been a perpetual chess-game in which he had never made a move without considering what Javert's response might be. Together they had run and hidden, fleeing before the shadow that was Javert, disguising their lives and their names and taking refuge in places where Javert would not or could not look. Yet fear was not what she felt now; curiosity, certainly, and despite herself also a large measure of compassion. The man looked hunted, pursued by demons, in a way her father never had; Valjean had always borne his persecution with fortitude, had made a virtue out of his eternal preparedness, but Javert seemed worn down by the pursuit as though he and not Valjean had finally been run to ground by the chase.
In a flash she knew that it was so; that Javert had long ago lost sight of the reason for the pursuit but had gone on following Valjean because he knew no other way of life. Without Jean Valjean, Javert's existence would have no object; he had been brought here by that knowledge, and to continue his own life in the only way he knew how - by being close to Valjean.
"He was waiting for you," she said, wondering why that notion reminded her so vividly of her own life before Marius had entered it. "He knew you would be here."
Javert nodded. "I made a promise," he said. Indeed, it had been more of a vow; Wherever you may hide away, I swear to you I will be there.
"Well, then, you have kept it. You can do so much good here, M'sieur; you can help Papa get well again."
The phrase she had used was exactly the one he had heard from the creature that called itself Fantine. Javert's blue eyes regarded the young woman coldly, but his own fear was readily detectable in the gaze he turned on her. In the weeks that had passed he had never been quite certain whether the encounter with Fantine had been real or just a part of the nightmare that had engulfed him since the riot; Cosette's words, echoing those of her mother, shocked him out of the certainty that he had imagined the whole business.
"Why do you say that? And what's the matter with him? I've always known him to be a strong man; I once saw him take the weight of a loaded cart so that a man could be pulled out from underneath it."
"That man was my Grandfather Fauchelevent!" Cosette told him, wide-eyed, having heard the story many times but unaware that Javert had been present at the time. "You were really there?"
"Yes, Madame, as your father will no doubt corroborate. But tell me what ails him."
She shook her head. "I don't know, M'sieur, beyond age and exhaustion. He wore himself out carrying Marius from the barricade - as you must have realised, since you were there too - and then he vanished, and we had no idea where he was until your note arrived. If you know that he was in the hospital, surely you know what was the matter with him?"
Javert's expression was helpless. "Sometimes when I woke I thought I saw Valjean," he said, "and sometimes not. There was fever everywhere - fluxing and vomiting; those who did not have it when they arrived caught it in the hospital. There were visions and nightmares, men cried out in their sleep. Sometimes a voice called my name ... But I could never be sure of anything."
"Then you had the fever too? You seem strong enough now - you brought Papa up the stairs safely."
"I had the fever," Javert confirmed. "If it was the same as your father's illness, rest and good food are all he needs and in a week or so he will be well again. I will stay only as long as he needs me to carry him about; after that, I'll leave you in peace."
It was in Cosette's mind to protest, to assure this man that her father's need for him would be continuous, but she stopped herself. She had no right to speak for Valjean, especially on a subject she understood so little about. He would find a way to make sure Javert stayed with him, and she knew it was important that he did. Meanwhile, if Javert chose to believe his usefulness would last only as long as Valjean's indisposition, who was she to argue?
"Whatever suits you best, M'sieur," she said diplomatically, "but you're welcome all the same."
Javert scrutinised her expression for signs of deceit, but he saw none. The woman truly meant what she was saying, and not for the first time in the presence of this family he felt humbled.
"Thank you, Madame," was all he said as he followed her back into the bedroom.
It was still only mid-evening when Jean Valjean retired to his room. A little while later one of the maids brought a tray containing a dish of stew, half a loaf, and plates and cutlery for two, and still later returned to remove the empty plates. By this time the sun had set and someone had lit the two candles on the chest of drawers. She shivered a little as she picked up the tray; the brooding presence of Javert, standing now in the darkest corner of the room and observing her as though he did not quite trust her, reminded her of some of the stories she had heard about this man. He had a reputation for cruelty, and it was well known that an appeal to Javert's better nature was doomed to failure. Everyone knew that his heart could not be melted; knew, indeed, that he had no heart.
Still, if any danger threatened Javert would be just the man to have on your side. Obviously M. Fauchelevent's life was in danger - he was a rich man, not in the best of health, and a natural target for any villain - and the Baron had hired Javert as a bodyguard; why else would he be required to sleep in the old gentleman's room?
The gossip in the kitchen that evening was all of assassins, thieves and bodyguards, a topic that kept all its participants well entertained and secretly rather thrilled until it was time to go to bed. Nevertheless there were very few of the servants who would not have admitted that, if trouble was coming, they were glad to have so ferocious a champion as the famous Inspector Javert living in the house. Let any attacker try to get past Javert, by night or by day - they'd soon regret it!
Marius was the last to retire that night, making the rounds as usual to ensure that all shutters were closed and all doors bolted. Passing along the corridor towards his own quarters last of all, he noticed that there was still a light burning in his father-in-law's room. Afraid it might indicate that the old man was ill again, he paused and tapped discreetly on the door. When no reply was received, he turned the handle quietly and entered the room.
The sight that met his eyes was so stunning that he paused open-mouthed in the doorway, the candle he carried quivering in his hand before he had presence of mind enough to set it down on the mantelpiece. Valjean sat propped up against the pillows, his eyes open and one finger pressed to his lips to enjoin silence. In an upright chair drawn to the side of the bed sat Javert, still coated and booted as though for a journey, but the upper half of his body was slumped forward so that it rested across the bed, his head on Valjean's chest. His face was turned towards Marius, and he was quite obviously deeply asleep. Valjean's left hand rested lightly on Javert's neck as if frozen there in mid-caress, and the look on the older man's face was a curious mixture of pride and benediction.
"Please, M'sieur, don't wake him," he whispered.
"No," Marius conceded rapidly, and just as softly. "Not at all. Is there anything you need, M'sieur?"
Valjean's expression indicated that he had all he could ever possibly need, right there.
"Nothing, thank you, but perhaps you could extinguish the candles?"
"With pleasure." Firmly ignoring the extraordinary nature of the scene he had witnessed, Marius adhered to the civilities. He stepped around the back of Javert's chair to blow out the two candles, then returned to where he had left his own light and took it up again. "Sleep well, messieurs," he said, with a slight bow.
"Thank you, M. le Baron." Even in a whisper there was still a tone eloquent of gratitude. "And goodnight."
Marius withdrew and closed the door behind him. He walked the few steps to his own room in a haze of confusion, and went to bed without telling his wife anything of what he had just seen.
Within a week of Javert's arrival a change was noticeable in the health of Jean Valjean. Although still weak, he had begun to take a livelier interest in all that went on around him. He ate well, and the day came at last when instead of meekly permitting Javert to carry him down to the parlour and settle him in his chair by the fire he demanded to be escorted into the garden. Not only that, but he insisted that he would walk there on his own two feet, leaning on Javert for support as he went. This made the journey down the steep staircase a perilous enterprise; Valjean took one slow step at a time, his left shoulder jammed up against the wall, his right forearm gripped in Javert's steely grasp, Javert's left arm solicitously around his waist. Against the bulk of Javert Valjean seemed a smaller man for all his erstwhile strength, bringing home vividly to Cosette as she watched exactly how close she had come to losing him. Indeed she was convinced that, had it not been for Javert, her father would already have been taken from her; to her gratitude for Marius's deliverance therefore was added the certainty that Javert had saved Valjean's life also, and she felt an increasing affection towards the man.
Javert adapted his steps to Valjean's faltering pace as he helped the older man along the narrow flagged passage and out into the overgrown garden. Cosette followed, a book in her hand from which she was to read to her father. He could read well enough for himself if he chose, but his eyes tired quickly these days and he far preferred to listen to the gentle sound of Cosette's voice. Besides, this was one time in the day when they could be certain of being together, a precious hour every morning in which they were once again fond father and dutiful daughter.
Once he had established Valjean on the seat beneath the apple tree, wrapped him in a blanket and made sure he was comfortable, Javert returned to the house. Valjean leaned back against the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes, but he soon lost the ability to concentrate on the story Cosette was reading to him. He put out a hand to silence her, and for several minutes they sat and listened to the birdsong in the branches above. Then a striped cat slunk through the undergrowth and alarmed the birds and Cosette got to her feet to shoo it away, returning to find her father chuckling softly.
"What's amused you, Papa?" she asked, as she took her seat again.
"Nothing of importance my dear." Valjean's voice was warm and mellow, still holding a trace of the countryman's brogue which spoke of his peasant origins. "I was just thinking how good it is to be here with you and your husband and not to have to worry any more about hiding from Javert."
The tone of the words was encouraging enough for Cosette to seize her opportunity.
"You must realise, Papa, that I really don't understand about Javert. I know you're no longer enemies, but I don't know why you changed - and I don't even know why he's here. Won't you explain it to me, please?"
Valjean's mirth increased. "Madame la Baronne," he said mockingly, "you're utterly shameless. Is this how you wheedle your poor husband into doing what you want?"
"Oh yes, Papa, and it works with him!"
"Well, so it should, unless he has a heart of stone. All right, Cosette, I'll tell you some of what I know - but it won't be everything, because the story is not over and I don't know yet how it ends. Will that satisfy you?"
The girl's head nodded vigorously, and Valjean paused to collect his thoughts before continuing.
"When your mother died, Cosette, and entrusted you to my care, I was already a wanted man. I had served nineteen years in the prison at Toulon, breaking rocks in the quarry there, and for part of that time one of the guards was a young man by the name of Javert."
Briefly memory took him back to the harsh sunlight and the bitter toil of his days of slavery. The men on the chain-gang had been worked like dogs, and for most of them the only release was in death. He'd seen a lot of good men give up and allow the cruel regime to defeat them, but somehow he had never done so himself.
Eight years into his sentence, with three failed escape attempts behind him each one of which had added to the time he had to serve, the prisoner Jean Valjean had first become aware of the new warder. The dislike between them had been instant and instinctive, Javert responding with lordly disdain to the wretched condition of all the prisoners in his charge and treating them as the animals he no doubt considered them to be. For his own part Valjean had taken one look at the arrogant younger man, so secure in the knowledge of his own superiority, and hated him. The fascination of that hate had kept him sane during the rest of his sentence; despising Javert had given him a purpose in life.
"After I was released from prison," he continued in a more reflective tone, "I found it impossible to get work. No-one would risk having me in the house; they slammed their doors in my face and set their dogs on me as I passed. By the time I met Bishop Myriel I was so embittered by my experiences that I stole all his silver. I was caught, of course - I have never been a very successful thief - but the Bishop told a lie to save me. He said that he had given me the silver as a present, and that I must use it to become an honest man." His smile became wistful; his old benefactor the Bishop was long gone from the world, and Jean Valjean had mourned him with genuine grief.
"But Javert was not prepared to let the matter drop. He pursued me, even though many years passed before we met again - and then he didn't recognise me at once."
"The incident with the runaway cart!" Cosette concluded with a little cry. "He told me about that!"
"Really? Well, from that moment on Javert was no more than half a pace behind me until you and I reached Paris and went to ground - but even then he was always there, waiting in the shadows for me to make one ill-considered move. On the night of the riots he had been spying for the Government and the students were intending to kill him, which would have been a great injusticex... But mercifully I was able to prevent it." He did not elaborate on the rescue of Enjolras. "You see, Cosette, I had begun to realise how ... necessary ... Javert had become to me. Without Javert I could have lived an easier life, but it would have been an empty one. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Papa." The response came readily; the young woman had absorbed and considered every word, not surprised in the least that her father had developed such a complete understanding of the man who had tracked him for almost twenty years. How else, indeed, could he have kept one step ahead of his enemy but by knowing him intimately? Yet there was one intimacy that still confused her. "But I don't know why ... why you kissed his hand?"
A momentary pause, that lengthened until she was sure he would not answer and indeed that her question had offended him.
"Oh, Cosette," he replied, a great weight of sadness carried in the voice that had become suddenly hoarse, "isn't it obvious? Couldn't you see that no-one had ever touched him before? You saw how he pulled away from me - there had never been any gentleness in his life until that moment. Now he is learning - very slowly - how to touch and how to be touched. He is so afraid of weakness ... I learned from the Bishop many years ago that the proper thing to do with a gift of love is not to return it but to pass it on. I set myself the task of loving Javert, that's all ... and I found it not so difficult as I expected."
The words rang true; how easily what had started out merely as a matter of duty could have turned into a deeper and truer emotion, perhaps without either of the parties involved being fully aware of what had happened.
"But in that case, Papa," Cosette asked, as innocently as she could, "how is it that he loves you so devotedly?"
The thought was a novel one, and Valjean was both fascinated and disturbed by it. He had set out to tame a notorious predator, but had he perhaps gone too far and reduced him to the status of a house pet? Troubled, his green eyes met those of Cosette, dark and guileless. He could not deny that he had hoped to win Javert's affection, his loyalty, but he had thought that it would take years of careful nurturance. Now Cosette told him that Javert was already won over, and suddenly he had no anchor for his own feelings. The bonds against which he had been straining for most of his life were removed - he was free at last of the threat of Javert. His mood darkened, and without knowing he did so he raised his eyes towards the bedroom window that overlooked the garden; could Javert endure this knowledge? For that matter, could Javert exist without him or he without Javert? He had begun to doubt it, and a chill shivered through him at the very thought, yet there was one thing he was fixed upon and nothing would alter his determination; neither of them would ever again be prisoner of the other. He would open his hand and allow Javert to go; there was no other honourable course.
Javert had returned to the bedroom to tidy the blankets on his folding bed and rake out the ashes from the fireplace. It was there that Marius found him some time later, the smile on the young man's face rivalling the shining of the sun.
"I understand that my wife's father walked down the stairs by himself this morning," he exclaimed excitedly. "M'sieur, you've worked a miracle!"
Broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Not I, M. le Baron."
"Oh yes, I think so." Stepping into the room, Marius closed the door behind him firmly and his expression became serious. "Monsieur Javert, I'm told that it's your intention to leave us soon - when M. Valjean is well enough to manage without you?"
There was no immediate reply except for the return of the look of watchful caution that had previously been Javert's trademark. He was suspicious, and on his guard.
"I ask," explained Marius,"because it seems to my wife and I that her father is much happier with you here, and his health is better. We would like to ask you to stay."
"For how long?" The question betrayed an extreme reluctance.
"I see." Javert turned away. "And has M. Valjean asked you to make this suggestion?"
Taken aback, Marius answered almost defensively.
"No indeed, this was our idea - because we both care for M. Valjean and want whatever is necessary for his happiness. As do you, M'sieur," he finished, boldly.
"I ... care for M. Valjean?" Javert repeated, as though testing the validity of the words.
"Certainly!" Marius was emphatic. "Believe me, Monsieur, I have witnessed enough of love and suffering to recognise both when I see them. My friend Grantaire ... "
He stopped, the words refusing to form. Grantaire had died that night on the barricades, and according to the rumours that had reached the rue Plumet Grantaire's body had been discovered next to that of Enjolras, its out-flung arms half-wrapped around the dead revolutionary leader as though in death Grantaire had finally accomplished what had always been denied him in life and now lay forever in Enjolras's embrace. Having once himself been the unworthy recipient of a similar devotion, Marius could only too readily imagine the depth of the feelings involved.
"Your friend Grantaire?" Javert prompted, almost unwilling to break into the young man's reverie.
"My friend Grantaire is dead," Marius concluded shortly, his mood altered by the melancholy reminiscence. "Well, M'sieur, if you must leave then I suppose you must, but we should all be sorry to lose you - and M. Valjean most of all. If I may speak frankly, M. Javertx..." he waited for the nodded assent "x...xthen it seems to me that your importance to M. Valjean is far greater than you realise - perhaps greater than he realises himself. Whether or not you are willing to admit that you care for him, you must be aware that he cares deeply for you."
"Of course," said Javert, with a devastating simplicity. "And that is precisely why I must leave. I have no desire for Valjean's pity or his sympathy; I have kept my promise, and now it is time for me to be on my way. Please do not try to make me change my mind, M. le Baron, but allow me to go. I have done what I came here to do."
The force behind Javert's argument left Marius with no alternative but to concede. "Very well, M'sieur, since you are so insistent - but the offer will stand. You have a home with us whenever you choose to accept it."
Torn between astonishment at the warmth of the invitation and a deep-rooted mistrust of the younger man's motives, Javert found it wisest not to speak. Instead he merely inclined his head in acknowledgement, and returned to his self-imposed duties as Marius, in some confusion, left the room and the sound of his footsteps receded down the staircase.
When the time came for Valjean to return to the house, Javert could not be found. Shortly after the conclusion of his interview with Marius he had slipped away silently without telling anyone he was going, and although Cosette maintained firmly that he had only gone for a short time and would soon be back a point was reached when even her optimism failed. Valjean tottered a few steps on his own and was glad enough to lean on Marius the rest of the way; no word of resentment or even of loss passed his lips, although his feelings were transparently obvious to both Cosette and Marius. To them it seemed as though the light that had illuminated his spirit for the past few days had suddenly been snuffed out, and that in his efforts to speak and act as if nothing very remarkable had transpired were the seeds of desperation.
"It will kill Papa!" Cosette insisted in great distress when, several hours later, she and Marius were alone in their bedroom. The rest of the household had retired for the night, and they met like conspirators and talked in whispers although no-one could have heard them; the gravity of their worries simply seemed to demand hushed voices.
"Do you think I don't know that?" Dramatic as Cosette's statement had been, Marius knew it for no less than the truth. In a moment he regretted his vehemence, knowing he had only added to her fears, and he took her hand soothingly and tried to reassure her of his love. "It's all such a waste," he told her, squeezing her fingers in anguish. "Why should people who care for one another be so afraid of admitting it? I wish you had known my friends, Cosette; they knew everything there was to know about love."
She stared up at him, wondering what exactly his friends had to do with the present case, but in a moment he enlightened her.
"I think we were all a little in love with Enjolras," Marius said. "Every last one of us, me included. You never knew him, Cosette, but he was a hero; we would have followed him anywhere and died for him if he asked us to. Most of us did." Memory supplied a radiant vision of Enjolras - half a head taller than Marius and strikingly handsome, with dark hair that flopped across his forehead at moments of great excitement and sparkling blue eyes that could have seduced anyone, man or woman, into doing whatever Enjolras wanted.
"But it was Grantaire who loved him best," Marius continued. "Grantaire wanted much more from him than the rest of us; he wanted the kind of love that husbands and wives share. Grantaire loved Enjolras so much there were times I thought his heart would break just from being close to him and not being able to touch him. Do you understand, Cosette? Do you know that sometimes men can love each other in that way?"
"Yes." Even in the candlelight Cosette's blush was perfectly apparent. The intimacies of her own bedroom had come as something of a surprise to her, and she had never yet paused to consider what might be going on in anyone else's, but even in a convent education there were rumours about what occurred in the wider world and she had heard that such things were known to happen. "I was told it was a sin," she added, "but I never quite knew why. I don't really see how any kind of love can be wrong."
A sigh of relief escaped Marius. One word from Cosette in condemnation of Grantaire's honest emotions and he would have been torn between his love for her and his loyalty to what he had always believed to be right.
"Most people," he admitted, "would consider it wrong for men to share the tenderness and the ... the physical pleasure ... that married people know." He knew he did not need to explain this to her, but at the same time he was willing her to follow his argument through to its logical conclusion, to take the step which in his mind he had already taken.
"Grantaire always hoped that one day Enjolras would love him in that way, but with Enjolras the revolution was always his first and only thought. Whatever his own desires were, he sacrificed them for what he believed in - like a monk, I suppose, or a priest. There never seemed to be time for anything in his life but politics, but perhaps ... " he faltered " ... if he had loved anyone, it would have been Grantaire."
Cosette was regarding him with a cool, level stare that was almost adversarial.
"What are you saying, Marius? Are you suggesting that your friends died because they had unworthy feelings towards one another? Do you think it was God's punishment?"
"No! Oh no, Cosette, far from it!" Shocked, Marius was gabbling out the words in a desperate attempt to placate her. "No, what I mean is that it was too late for them but it may not be too late for ... for ... "
"For my father and Javert?" The words were said at last, the subject they had skirted now lay open between them. Cosette could only wonder at her own temerity, made more amazing still by the fact that not a single frisson of guilt assaulted her senses. Other people went out of their way to avoid discussing such things; why was she not ashamed to speak of it? "Do you think Papa is like Grantaire?"
Cautiously, Marius considered the question before replying. "No. Not exactly. I think Grantaire always knew that what he wanted he could never have, but your father ... I think your father would have been willing to love Javert for ever and expected nothing in return, but then he realised that Javert loves him just as much. God, how I wish I'd never said those things to Javert! He could have gone on ignoring it, pretending that it wasn't happening, but I told him that he cared for your father. He had to admit not only that he did, but that someone else knew about it. I think he was afraid we would laugh at him, or even disapprove."
"Why should we?" Cosette was scandalised at the misjudgment.
"It's still a sin," Marius reminded her. "That's what Javert believes, anyway. Remember what your father told you - that there had been no gentleness in his life? All Javert expects from the world is pain and ridicule - and if he has a choice he'd prefer pain, because being thought ridiculous hurts far more."
"The poor man!" Cosette wrung her hands together animatedly, lost for a way to express the compassion she felt for the enemy who had haunted her childhood.
"He doesn't want your sympathy, Cosette, or your pity; he'd reject them."
"I know, I know - but this is not pity, Marius, this is... He's our friend and my father loves him; can't we find him somehow? Can't we bring him back?"
The look of agony that passed across Marius's face gave Cosette her answer long before he spoke. There was nothing they could do.
"We mustn't interfere, Cosette. Even if we could, we must not. Neither of them would never forgive us. No, our job is to take good care of your father so that if ever Javert comes back he'll find him safe and well and still as fond of him as he's always been. I wish it could be different, but that's all we can do."
Snuggling against Marius's shoulder, Cosette acknowledged the truth of what he had said.
"You're right, of course," she admitted. "I hope he will come back; he belongs here, Marius, with Papa. I wouldn't want it ever to be ... to be too late for them."
"No," he told her, on the verge of tears, "you wouldn't. And neither would I."
The region of Paris known as the Petit-Picpus was one of the poorest and meanest in the city, honeycombed with narrow streets and criss-crossed with alleys offering hundreds of decaying tenement lodging-houses for those who could not afford to be too particular. There was work, too, by the day or by the hour for any who cared to undertake it, in establishments which varied from slaughter-houses to bakeries, taverns to schools, and covering everything in between. Those who for any reason objected to legitimate work also found plenty of scope for their activities, for although for the most part the people of the Petit-Picpus were not worth robbing there was a tremendous wealth of criminal talent available there and specialists could be found for any sort of crime the human mind could envisage. The area also offered the most excellent hiding-place any criminal could hope for; a thorough local knowledge was all that was required, and a man entering the Petit-Picpus with the hounds of hell behind him could disappear off the face of the Earth forever among its courtyards and passageways.
For a man who did not want to be found, the Petit-Picpus was a natural environment. Javert found himself there on the evening of the day he left the rue Plumet, and immediately took such steps as were needed to blend unobtrusively into the milieu.
He sold his coat. A heavy one, of good quality black cloth, it brought him more than enough money for a night's lodging above a wine-shop and a meal of bread and cheese, and the rag merchant who bought it had started casting envious eyes at Javert's knee-length black boots and making tentative offers to buy them, too. At the time he declined, but with the knowledge that he could if necessary go back and sell them at some future date.
Earning a more permanent living was not likely to be a problem. Already his keen eyes had detected the presence of a number of old acquaintances among the criminal fraternity, and the rewards to be obtained by turning them in to the Police would provide him with a frugal but honest existence as long as he kept on the move and changed his appearance where necessary. Since Javert was widely reputed to have died on the night of the riots those who saw him and thought they recognised him might well question their own eyesight, but there were hundreds of new faces among the floating population of the Petit-Picpus that must also be investigated and if his luck held out he could operate for several months before his identity was exposed.
And if it should come to it, well, he was still young enough and strong enough to obtain labouring work of some sort where his great bulk would be of assistance. He was willing to take on more or less any sort of employment in which the sweat of his brow would earn him an honest crust, but the one thing he would never, ever attempt again was the job of nurse to an ailing elderly man.
Alone in his room above the wine-shop as days drew into weeks, Javert had more than enough time to contemplate the bizarre nature of his connection with Jean Valjean and the emotions he had experienced during his recent sojourn in the rue Plumet. He had known from the very moment back in Toulon when he first set eyes on the prisoner Valjean that some mysterious fate bound them together; there were times when the 'sight' he had inherited from his gypsy mother surfaced inconveniently and he suddenly realised that he knew things he could have discovered in no other way. With Valjean there had been an instant conviction that they were inextricably linked, a part of one another's lives until the end of time, and thus had begun his obsession with the man.
Even now, with a large portion of the city of Paris separating them and hundreds, perhaps millions, of people between them, he knew what Valjean was doing at every hour of every day. It was clear to him when Valjean awoke, when he struggled down to the garden to sit with his daughter, when he returned in lonely anguish to his bedroom, and when he prayed nightly for Javert's safe return. He had long ago ceased to question whether it was simply his imagination that provided these glimpses; whether it was or not, he no longer cared. Valjean had taken up residence inside his head and would not be removed, and the best he could do was learn to live with it.
But the feelings Valjean engendered in him were a different matter altogether. A ferocious effort was necessary to excise them from his soul, to dispel the great tenderness and the depth of passion he had learned to associate with the older man. Even in the prison the seeds of that passion had been present; admiring the strong physique of his prisoner had not seemed such a serious matter at the time, but then he had been quite innocent of the ways of the world. The first time one prisoner in his charge had raped another was the first time Javert had realised that such things were possible between men.
From that time forward, that particular sin had seemed to be everywhere among the convicts - those who still had the energy after their labours. Not only that, but he discovered that it had a variant which did not always involve violence and bloodshed; some of the men formed attachments that seemed almost to parody marriages - they were affectionate, they were faithful, and they cared for one another. They said that it was love, indeed, but Javert knew nothing of love except that it happened to other people. In any case, although under the Code Napoleon such things were no longer illegal, the word of God was clear enough on the subject; these associations were an abomination, and it was his duty to end them. Whenever he heard of such a pair of lovers he took steps to part them so permanently that the others very quickly learned from this not to indulge in a similar evil - or, he acknowledged with the benefit of hindsight, they simply found better ways to conceal what they felt.
And then the hideous irony of it all had been visited on him in the night, like the vengeance of God, and he had suffered for it ever since.
Even now, more than twenty years later, he remembered every detail of the dream. In it he had been with Jean Valjean, indulging in the very sort of vice he so condemned in others; useless to try and pretend that it had not been so, when something of the alien sweetness of the dream lingered in his mind still whenever he thought of Valjean. He had tried most assiduously to shrug it off as a moment of deranged hallucination, but without success.
The dream had been crystal clear and very specific. He remembered that he had kissed Valjean, like a man kisses his beloved, and held him in his arms as if nothing more precious existed in the world. If he had ever been in love, he supposed this was how it might have felt - but the notion of his being in love with Valjean was nothing more than a sick joke, a particularly vicious and twisted pleasantry played by a malign spirit.
The dream had gone further, much further, than a simple affectionate kiss; it had descended into a nightmare of lust that still frightened him with its power. All the carnal desires he had ever suppressed in a chaste and almost entirely virtuous life had been directed towards Jean Valjean in that single dream, and what was worse the ghostly Valjean of the vision had responded with an avidity that matched his own.
Valjean's hands were scarred and calloused from long years of manual labour; in the dream their texture was like silk and their tiny touches on his exposed skin unbearably thrilling. In the dream they had matched each other touch for touch, their passion increasing until they had committed a sin that it made his blood run cold to contemplate. Not merely that, but afterwards they had slept together, delighted with each other and the evil they had done, and had woken again still entirely unrepentant.
He knew the dream had been a punishment for something. In the years since he had tried to work out for himself what he had done that was foul enough to merit such retribution; much as his conscience pained him, he could not face the thought of confessing this particular nightmare to a priest, and so had had to learn self-sufficiency and keep his dilemma to himself.
Now ... Now there was a complication far beyond anything he might have guessed at. He had been close enough to Valjean in his days at the rue Plumet to know how easily the dream could have become reality - that Valjean would not despise him and would even welcome his advances. This sat ill with the knowledge he had finally accepted after years of denial, that Valjean was not the criminal Javert had tried to believe him to be but a good man whose life had conspired to lead him astray. Having reconciled himself to that fact, he now faced the dilemma of the desire that had grown between himself and Valjean. If it was a sin, did that indicate that he had been mistaken and that Valjean was a criminal? Or, if Valjean was as honest and good a man as Javert believed him to be, did that mean that what they felt was no sin after all?
Only one thing was certain these days; unless and until he knew the truth he would absent himself from the rue Plumet and from any contact with Jean Valjean. If it took the rest of his life to find the answers to these questions, then so be it; he would endure whatever he must endure, and would try to do so with a good grace.
Whatever the price might prove to be, he, Javert, would pay it.
Valjean's routine had returned to its pattern of a few weeks previously, although he was becoming stronger day by day and no longer needed any help to climb or descend the stairs. He was less content than he had been to sit in the garden and listen to Cosette reading aloud; the certainty that there was something unresolved about his life nagged at him like a decaying tooth and he probed his own feelings on the subject ruthlessly.
In admitting to Cosette that he cared for Javert he had at last admitted it to himself, but it was also necessary to admit that his need for the man had grown out of all proportion to the desire to teach his enemy love. Valjean cursed himself for ever thinking that he had any right to reach out to Javert in mercy; Javert's stinging critique of his forgiveness now seemed justified and his own actions and words a monstrous arrogance which had turned his friend away.
He neither wants nor needs my charity, Valjean conceded. He's afraid of me and everything I am, and yet he slept with his head on my chest...
They had never mentioned that night, when exhaustion had overtaken Javert but he had been too stubborn to relinquish his post at Valjean's side. After Marius's departure Valjean, too, had fallen asleep, and had woken to discover that Javert had removed himself to the campaign bed along the wall and passed the rest of the night in its narrow confines. From that time forward Javert had been attentive but in a way unreachable, as though Valjean were some unpleasant duty he must endure, and yet Cosette had spoken of Javert's love for him in terms that made him question his own senses.
He knew now he had been unforgivably short-sighted. Loving Javert in the abstract had been a fine and noble ambition, but loving Javert the man was a different matter; it required him to accept that physical desire had at last entered his life, and that he must decide between the chastity of forty years and his growing need to make amends to Javert for the mistreatments of the world. In this light, he began to see his own abstention as arrogance, too.
And who, exactly, do I think I am? he asked himself savagely. What cause is served by my remaining chaste? While Cosette was a child it seemed a small sacrifice to make, but now she is a grown woman and married and certainly not virgin any more - my obligations to her are fulfilled.
But this is no hedgerow dalliance with a farmer's daughter! This is Javert, and Javert is …
His mind reeled as it sought for a definition of what Javert had become to him. More, now, that merely 'necessary' which was all he had admitted to Cosette, Javert had assumed a significance which had grown far beyond the part he had played in Valjean's life hitherto. When all his waking thoughts were of Javert, and dreams of the man pursued him in his sleep, and when Javert's happiness was his only remaining concern, there was only one way his importance to Valjean could be described.
... everything …
He'd been aware - no-one could have been otherwise - of the couplings amongst the male prisoners at Toulon. He'd even acquired a little vicarious information about the techniques involved, and along with that a certain measure of curiosity. No harm in admitting that it intrigued him, and also that there was something charming and redeeming about a strong and sometimes brutal convict learning to love another person. The absence of love was what drove men to extremes; there was no man alive who would not be better for being loved - and so he had decided, quite calmly, that he should love Javert.
Or had it been such a rational decision? Hadn't there been, in the very swagger of the younger man and the defiant tilt to his chin, something that attracted Valjean whilst at the same time repelling him? Because certainly that defiance was there still, and certainly it was still attractive. A cowed or subdued Javert would be merely a parody of the man he loved, and one motivated only by gratitude would be totally emasculated. If ever Javert returned it would be because he wanted to, and because he wanted everything that being with Jean Valjean would imply; let Javert once set foot in the rue Plumet again, and Valjean would not let him go without a struggle!
Or at least, he mused, he would give Javert a good enough reason never to want to stray from his side again.
There was one inhabitant of the Petit-Picpus who had claimed Javert's attention right from the beginning. A red-faced man, an old soldier by his clothes and the way he carried himself, he seemed to be at the centre of everything that was plotted in that region, and to know all there was to know about whatever criminal activity was going on. The man's name was Thenardier; Javert had known him before the night of the insurrection and had arrested him more than once, and knew that wherever Thenardier was trouble would not be far behind.
In the mornings, Thenardier set forth from his house with two small children - a blind boy about four years of age and the boy's sister, four or five years older. They would walk together into one of the more prosperous quarters of the city, to a place where well-dressed people congregated, and there the children would be set to begging. As they were both still young enough to be appealing and the boy's condition was pitiable, they were able to melt even the sternest hearts and extract money from very nearly everyone they met. Javert, indeed, had dropped the occasional coin into the little girl's lap as he passed, and was always aware that her gaze followed him as he strode away. Thenardier certainly had not noticed that he was under observation, but the child had missed nothing.
Periodically during each day Thenardier would return to take whatever the children had collected - often getting no further than the nearest tavern with it - and at the end of the day he would collect the children. The three of them would walk back towards the Petit-Picpus, the little ones exhausted and hungry and Thenardier as often as not drunk and cursing. Javert, patiently in and out of the shadows on Thenardier's trail, would sometimes catch the girl's gaze. It was as if she always knew where he would choose to hide himself, and looked through him with the acuity of the phantom child Eponine, but there was nothing in any way disconcerting about her observation; it was merely a secret they shared, the man and the child.
There was a day when Thenardier's route to the more fashionable part of Paris took him close to the rue Plumet. He detoured, in fact, to walk past the house where Valjean, Cosette and Marius still resided, and spent a long time looking up at the windows. It was still early morning, and although some of the shutters were open in the upper part of the house it was obvious too that some of the residents were still abed. Javert did not let his attention wander far enough to look towards the window of Valjean's bedroom; he hoped that the shutters were closed, but that sense of restlessness inside him told him that Valjean was already awake and unhappy. He put it from his mind, and concentrated on Thenardier and the children.
Thenardier's scrutiny of the house was leisured and meticulous, and when it was completed he seemed to make up his mind about something and hurried the children away to their pitch for the day. Having settled them outside a church where they would be plainly visible to the ladies as they came out of Mass he scuttled off about whatever mysterious business he conducted, leaving Javert in a discreet corner with his eyes firmly on the children and his keen mind working already on the puzzle of what he had seen.
When he was sure Thenardier was not likely to return immediately, Javert stepped forward and approached the children. The little girl saw him, jumped to her feet and walked to meet him.
"M'sieur," she said, "why are you following us?"
Since she was no more than half his height Javert had to bend a long way to talk to her, and solved the problem by sitting down on a low stone wall that ran around the churchyard.
"I am not following you. I am following that man you were with. Is he some relative of yours?"
"No, M'sieur. We work for him, that's all."
The tone of his voice or the look on his face must have betrayed disapproval, for she was quick to her own defence.
"Yes - but it's all we can do. I must have the sort of work where I can look after my brother."
The morning was warm. Javert unbuttoned the collar of his jacket and looked down at the smaller child thoughtfully.
"Where are your parents?"
The girl shrugged. "Both with God, M'sieur. Mama died when my brother was born, and Papa was a dragoon. He was killed by students in the riots."
Javert's heavy eyebrows lifted at this information. This was the other side of the coin; however many students had been brought down by the Government troops, they had managed to make their mark in return. Enjolras and Grantaire, whom Marius Pontmercy esteemed so much, had done their share of killing before their own lives had been taken; there were very few who had been involved in that conflict and did not have someone's blood on their hands.
"And this man?" Javert prompted.
"Monsieur Thenard? We live in his house, that's all. He takes the money we make, and he gives us a room and food. He's good to us most of the time, but sometimes when he's been drinking ... " She did not finish the sentence, but left him to draw his own conclusions.
"And what is his interest in that house in the rue Plumet?" asked Javert, almost casually.
The little girl's eyes widened. "He says the man who lives there is a murderer, M'sieur, and that he killed someone on the night of the riots - a spy called Javert."
"Indeed?" A gleam of amusement entered the blue eyes as Javert considered the implications of this. "And is it Monsieur Thenard's idea that this man will give him some money not to tell what he knows?"
"Yes, M'sieur, that's it exactly! But you're going to stop him, aren't you?"
Javert thought about it a moment. "No," he said. "I think I'll let him over-reach himself; no-one at the rue Plumet will give him any money, because ... You can keep a secret?"
"Of course I can!"
Of course she could! She had not betrayed him to Thenardier, after all. Javert, who had never had much to do with children, considered himself duly rebuked.
"Well, then ... They will not give him any money because Javert is not dead. They will laugh at him and turn him away. Would you like to see that?"
A devil of mischief entered the girl's expression. "Yes, I would," she agreed, "but afterwards he'll be in a foul temper and he might beat us again."
"He might," Javert conceded, "but I may be able to make sure he doesn't. Will you trust me?"
"Yes, M'sieur. And they're good people in that house, they were kind to me there; I don't want him to take their money!"
Dumbstruck, for a moment Javert could only stare at the little girl in disbelief. "They are good people," he said, slowly, "but how could you know that?"
"Why, M'sieur, you sent me there yourself with a note, and you gave me a silver coin for going - and the lady gave me another. My brother hadn't eaten for a week, and I was able to buy him some bread. If you've forgotten, M'sieur," she added with triumphant finality, "I haven't! When M. Thenard comes back to collect us this evening, that's when he'll go to the rue Plumet again."
"Good," said Javert, thinking no further ahead than the promised encounter between Valjean and Thenardier. "Then so will we."
By evening, Thenardier's enquiries about the household in the rue Plumet had been concluded. This was not the first time he had contemplated doing business in this neighbourhood; earlier in the year he and a gang of cronies had been all set to rob the same house when their plans had been spoiled by that thankless little bitch Eponine, his very own daughter.
Oh, but he'd known the old man a long time though; Fauchelevent, or whatever he called himself. Ten years previously he'd met the man one dark evening at Montfermeil, where the Thenardiers ran a tavern that was part wayside inn and part thieves' kitchen. Until that time all had been very well with the family Thenardier and their pampered daughter; then out of the night this man had arrived - and what had he wanted but their little scullery maid Cosette? The girl's mother was dead, and he was there to take Cosette away; fifteen hundred francs he paid for the privilege, and that was the last Thenardier expected to hear of either of them.
Then the tavern had failed, and Thenardier and his wife and Eponine had come to Paris to make their fortune, and Eponine had run wild and mixed with all kinds of people - radical students, mostly. Thenardier didn't approve, but sometimes the kid brought home useful information; which houses were worth breaking into, which citizens worth robbing. Only she'd stopped him and his gang breaking into this house in the rue Plumet - and when after the riots Thenardier heard how his daughter had died, he knew why.
She'd taken a fancy to Marius Pontmercy - the fool who, in his turn, had fallen for their little Cosette. That was why Eponine had wanted to protect Fauchelevent and his daughter from Thenardier's attentions; that was why she'd died so stupidly on the barricade, taking a bullet that was meant for Pontmercy. What a wicked waste! She was a wilful brat, to be sure, but she could've been worth something one day. Cleaned up and tricked out she'd have done well as a rich man's mistress, and her family would have benefited right along with her.
Still, that didn't prevent her grieving father finding a way to exploit Fauchelevent and Pontmercy. Looked at in one way, they owed him something for the loss of his most valuable asset - his lovely daughter. Yes, they'd be worth blackmailing all right; no sense in them trying to cover up the death of Javert when he knew only too well what had happened. Fauchelevent had demanded the right to execute Javert, and who had seen Javert since? Numbers of burned and nameless bodies had been thrown into mass graves after the riots - obviously Javert's had been among them. And now there was nobody but Thenardier to avenge his murder!
He had almost worked himself into a state of righteous indignation by the time he approached the Pontmercy house. Oh yes, Fauchelevent would pay handsomely to have his secret kept; this was the best scheme he'd ever hatched, and it was the one that would make his fortune.
Thenardier rubbed his palms together in greedy anticipation before reaching out to lift the knocker on the front door. He was going to enjoy this.
Ushered into the presence of M. Fauchelevent himself, Thenardier smiled a fox's smile and gave the most perfunctory of bows. He was every bit the social equal of this secretive magnate, and he was going to make sure the old boy knew it right from the start.
"Monsieur," he opened in a tone unpleasantly poised between blandishment and threat, "I haven't yet congratulated you on your daughter's fine marriage." A dirty chuckle issued from Thenardier, then he continued; "A long way she's come from sweeping the tavern floor at Montfermeil, eh?"
The conspiratorial enquiry failed to impress Valjean, who looked up at the taller Thenardier with an expression of faint disgust.
"I understood you to say, Thenardier, that you treated Cosette as your own flesh and blood when she lived with you. Did your own daughter sweep the floors too?"
"You leave my daughter out of this!" was the brisk response. "'Ponine did what she was told, rest her soul, and quick about it too - but your little Cosette was always delicate, and we took extra care of her on that account."
Valjean could well imagine what form this 'extra care' had taken; the Thenardiers had worked the eight-year-old Cosette to exhaustion every day, feeding her only the bare minimum to support life and screeching at her until she lived in a state of perpetual terror.
"No doubt," he said, with cold courtesy. "What is it you want, Thenardier?"
The innkeeper launched into his story with confidence; he had spent most of the day polishing his performance, adding little touches to impress his mark, and the tale of the foul murder of Inspector Javert now rolled out of him with all the fluency and detail of a melodrama. Indeed, he was extremely proud of his dramatic gifts, and he brought his peroration to a close with a final flourish that seemed to demand a round of applause.
"What's more. M'sieur, there's a witness who saw it all and can testify what happened to the body."
This had been his best idea so far; it implied that Thenardier was not alone in his plot and that even if he was eliminated the story would still somehow leak out.
"I really think, Monsieur, that if you value your peace and quiet you might consider making another small contribution to my family's funds. Shall we say one thousand francs?"
"A witness? To the murder of Javert?" Valjean rose from his chair and went to the doorway. One of the maids was scurrying past on business of her own, and he sent her to fetch her employer. A few moments later Marius entered the room, glancing around at the two men within in mystification.
"Monsieur le Baron," Valjean said gravely, "this gentleman has brought me some very disquieting news. He says that the policeman Javert was murdered on the night of the riots, and that I am suspected of killing him. He asks me for one thousand francs not to tell what he knows. Monsieur, the fact is that I no longer possess one thousand francs; would you be kind enough to advance me the money? The good name of this family," he added, his expression not wavering, "is at stake."
Marius had caught on to the comic possibilities of the scene quickly.
"One thousand francs, and he will say nothing to anyone about the murder of Javert? It seems a reasonable enough rate for covering up a killing, but how can we be sure he won't come back again and again?"
Valjean shrugged. "Well, I suppose that having murdered once - and having murdered someone as formidable as Javert into the bargain - I might be disposed to do so again."
"Ah, now, M'sieur, there's no call for that!" Thenardier insisted, stepping backwards, "and you'll remember there's another witness. You can't kill us all, you know."
"I don't believe there was another witness," Valjean told him menacingly, advancing towards him. "I don't believe there was any witness present at all when I murdered Javert - neither yourself nor anyone else. I made absolutely certain that no-one saw what happened."
Warming to his role of villainous murderer, Valjean bestowed a menacing smile on the quaking Thenardier.
"Now, M'sieur, there's no need to take that attitude; an honest man has a living to make, after all, and there's no question about it - somebody murdered Javert, and good riddance to him!"
Backing away still further, Thenardier found himself in the doorway. He dared not take his eyes from Valjean in case he turned violent, and so had missed the look of ill-suppressed amusement on the Baron Pontmercy's features. Perhaps that would not have surprised him, for he knew he had been made to look stupid, but then he was not in a position to see what had appealed to the younger man's sense of humour.
One step more, backwards, away from these madmen, and he bumped up against something solid and immovable and froze in his tracks, the look on his face one of the most abject terror.
"There is no question about it," a deep voice repeated behind him. "Somebody murdered Javert. I can honestly say, Messieurs, I do not feel in the least bit dead."
Marius was grinning idiotically, no longer able to suppress his delight at the man's timely return, but although Valjean was struggling with far more complex feelings it was he who found his voice first.
"Javert! How in heaven's name do you come to be here?"
"I followed this rogue," Javert said smoothly. "When I saw him ring the doorbell I climbed over the garden fence and let myself in at the back door. I was sure you wouldn't object. Now tell me, Thenardier, when was it that I was murdered, and by whom?"
The innkeeper's jaw had dropped. "Ob - obviously there's been some mistake, Inspector, I was sure I'd seen ... "
"It was I who killed you, Javert." Valjean sounded like a penitent making a confession. "During the riots, I believe."
"This would be," put in Marius, enjoying himself hugely, "at about the time you two gentlemen were so nobly saving my life."
"But I saw you," Thenardier insisted. "Down in the sewers, I saw you carrying a body on your back!"
"That body was myself," Marius told him, almost pityingly. "Monsieur brought me safely home after the battle."
"And for my part," Javert added, causing Thenardier's attention to return to him, "I have known this gentlemen for almost thirty years, and so far from committing a murder and destroying the evidence I have never known him do anything unworthy or unlawful. You've chosen the wrong mark this time, Thenardier; you're trying to blackmail a truly honest man."
The effect of these words was more strongly felt by Valjean, who was overwhelmed by emotion, and Marius, who was quietly exultant, than by Thenardier who seemed inclined to argue.
"Oh, now, Inspector, you know as well as I do that there isn't a man alive who hasn't got something to hide. Even you, if I may say so, probably have your ... interesting little secrets?" The slimy, wheedling tone was back as Thenardier sought to deflect attention from the blackmail attempt upon Valjean.
Javert took a step closer, looming ominously over Thenardier and making the difference in their heights seem even greater than it was.
"Do I look," he asked mildly, "like a man who has 'interesting little secrets'?"
A rueful grimace crossed the blackmailer's face. "Ah ... no. Now that you come to mention it, perhaps not. No offence, M'sieur."
"Then it seems," rejoined Valjean smoothly, recovering from his astonishment and looking not at Thenardier but at Javert, "that you have nothing to sell."
Javert returned the scrutiny calmly, although for the first time Valjean thought that he detected a glimmer of humour deep in the blue eyes.
"That isn't strictly true," he replied, over Thenardier's head. "There are the children."
Valjean's eyebrows rose. "Children?" he echoed in confusion.
"Yes. Our friend here has acquired two children who were left orphan after the riots. He sets them to begging and then drinks away the money they make. A nice way for a grown man to make a living, don't you think?"
Neither Valjean nor Marius saw fit to comment on the morality of Thenardier's occupation. Instead Valjean asked; "Where are they?"
"Safe," was Javert's reply. "I left them waiting outside. You should be able to see them from the window, M. le Baron."
Marius crossed and glanced out. "I see them - an older girl and a younger boy, across the street. What's your idea, Javert?"
"Well, now," Javert said, taking a deep breath and preparing to gamble on everything he thought he knew about Valjean and his son-in-law, "Madame la Baronne once told me that people who are without families should be family to each other. If you believe that, M. Pontmercy, then you will give this man the thousand francs he asks for and take the children into your protection."
"What?" Breathless with astonishment, Marius turned to Valjean for confirmation that his ears had not deceived him. "Give this scoundrel a thousand francs and take in two beggar children?"
"I can get you more children," Thenardier put in quickly, sensing a business opportunity. "As many as you like, any age, very cheap. Just tell me what you want, Messieurs, and you shall have it."
"I want you to leave Paris," the Baron Pontmercy said, speaking for them all. "If you ever set foot on my property or approach any member of my family in the future, Inspector Javert will have no hesitation in throwing you into prison for the rest of your life."
Thenardier's face fell, his look one of abject misery; he had no reason to doubt the veracity of this nobleman's words, and he would not trust Javert one step further than he could throw him. "But the children, M'sieur ... " he blustered. "My thousand francs ... ?"
"You'll have your thousand, you crook, and the children will have a home. Call them in, Javert; Cosette will welcome them, she dotes on children."
As Javert went to the door to summon the children and Marius left the room to fetch the money, Thenardier and Valjean were left facing one another in an uncomfortable silence.
"Well, M'sieur," said Thenardier, "it seems to have worked out very well for you after all. You have some powerful friends. Odd, though ... When Javert came to look for you at Montfermeil, he didn't say anything about being your friend. He said that he was hunting a desperate escaped criminal. What do you say to that, eh, M'sieur Fauchelevent?"
Valjean could not hold back a smile of wicked amusement.
"Are you mad, Thenardier? Do you believe that a man like Javert would be friendly with a criminal? When have you ever heard it said that Javert was corrupt?"
"Well, I ... "
"Never!" Valjean insisted, forcefully, "and you never will. A better and more honest man never breathed." He stopped suddenly, aware that he was on the verge of saying too much, and to Thenardier of all people. "If you'll take my advice," he added more cautiously, "you'll take your wife and go far away. I hear there's a good living to be made in America for a man who has his wits about him. I should think that would suit you very well."
Marius had returned, and Javert was escorting the children through the house towards the kitchen. The innkeeper had no opportunity to reply, but accepted the money that was put into his hands and allowed himself to be led out to the door and deposited in the street, with his ill-gotten gains, before ever he had a chance to wonder what was happening to him. Bested by an old man, a boy and a damned copper no less! How would he ever hold his head up in public again?
But there were opportunities in America, were there? Now, that sounded like a very tempting proposition.
Before he was even out of the rue Plumet, the plan for his next triumphant swindle was already forming nicely in his mind.
Javert watched from the window as the figure of Thenardier vanished around the corner, then turned back into the room with a grin so broad as to be dazzling. It took years off his age, altering the strong lines of his face so much that he was almost unrecognisable as the stubborn and determined upholder of the law.
"Do you know," Valjean told him softly, "that in thirty years that is the first time I've seen you smile?"
Javert acknowledged the sentiment with a nod of his head. "Do you think I have lost my mind?" he asked, gazing out into the street again.
"No," said Valjean. "I think you have found your heart."
He watched in awe as the leonine head turned towards him again and the deep-set eyes fixed on his face as though to communicate in silence something that was not yet ready to be put into words. Just as Valjean raised one hand towards Javert and made the first move to close the distance between them, the figure of the Baron reappeared in the doorway and the mood was broken in an instant.
"Javert!" Marius yelped, crossing to him. "Are you back for good this time? Or do you just intend to call in at intervals and bring us stray children to look after? Heaven knows there's plenty of room here - we could feed half of Paris if we had to."
"I ... " Javert faltered, feeling Valjean's gaze on him. "You were good enough to say, M. le Baron, that I would be welcome," he reminded the young man.
"So I did, and meant it. But must you both always call me by my title? My name, as if you didn't know it, is Marius. Call me that - or Monsieur Marius, if you prefer."
Some notion that it would be disrespectful to address a nobleman by his first name crossed Javert's mind and a lifetime of deference to authority reasserted itself.
"Thank you, Monsieur Marius, and if your invitation still holds then I will accept it if I may."
"You may." It was Valjean who spoke, crossing to where the two stood by the window. "And M. Marius, will you return the compliment and call me by my name?"
"I will, M. Jean, gladly."
There was a brief moment of awkwardness, and then Javert said; "I must ask you both to excuse me, but I have no other name - or if I have, I don't know what it is. 'Javert' is all I have ever been called. 'The child Javert' or 'the boy Javert', and then just 'Javert'. I have never really felt the need of another name."
Until now, the sudden silence added.
"It isn't important," Valjean hastened to assure him, not quite aware that he had patted Javert's arm consolingly. "I could never get used to thinking of you by any other name at this late stage."
"Nor I you," responded Javert without a moment's hesitation.
"Well," put in Marius in exasperation, "did you at least manage to learn the names of our two new charges?"
"Yes, of course," Javert told him, taken aback by the enthusiasm the young man had shown for this unanticipated development. "The girl is called Martine and her brother is Philippe. They are the children of a dragoon who was killed in the fighting."
The expression on Marius's face altered swiftly at mention of the riot, and he became suddenly serious.
"Well, then," he said soberly, "we definitely have a duty towards them. Don't worry, Javert, I promise we'll take good care of them - and of you, too, if it comes to that."
But when he looked up again, Marius Pontmercy became aware that the two older men were so intent on one another, and so captivated by whatever transaction was passing in the silence between them, that neither one had heard a word he was saying, and he retreated from the room and set off in the direction of the kitchen without them ever noticing that he had gone.
"Why did you come back?" Valjean asked quietly, without preamble.
Once more Javert turned and looked out of the window. "I had expected you to ask why I left," he remarked, his outwardly calm manner covering a seething confusion of spirit.
"You left," Valjean informed him, "because you were afraid of the closeness growing between us. Because you had still not learned to think of me except as an escaped convict you had sworn to bring to justice."
"No, Valjean, you misjudge me. I left to spare you embarrassment, and I returned ... because of the children."
Valjean let the face-saving lie pass without comment, fixing instead on the first part of Javert's statement. "How could I be embarrassed by having you here?" he demanded. "Don't you understand? This is where you belong! I've tried to tell you how much ... how much I need you with me. For God's sake, Javert, must I say this thing which frightens you?"
"No! At least, not yet. And it doesn't frighten me, Valjean - not as much as it did." The big man turned back towards Valjean, looking him squarely in the eyes for once. "What frightens me is that it must end."
"All things end," was the soft response.
"Not this," Javert told him with terrible intensity. "Never. Not after so many years."
"Hush," counselled Valjean, seeking only to spare Javert further torment and not to deny the validity of his words. "Time enough to talk about all this later, when we can close the door between us and the world and I can touch you at last. That is ... what you want?"
"Yes." Blazing stubbornness the equal of his own met Valjean's concerned gaze.
"Good. But at our age we can afford to give each other a little more grace, don't you think? Cosette will want to see you, and by the look of you I should think you could do with a decent meal. Come along, now, and introduce me to these children of yours."
Relief washed through Javert; he had anticipated a far more difficult scene, with a terrible passion unleashed in ways that would shame them both. Valjean's quiet acceptance of the situation was reassuring, as were his common-sense words. They were not nineteen-year-old newly-weds frantic to be alone together but two men of mature age whose smouldering emotions would burn more brightly for having been banked up so long. There would always, now, be plenty of time.
Nevertheless his hand shook as he opened the door for Valjean. What he both longed for and feared above everything else was now only a hand's touch away from him, and although he would wait forever if he had to there was an urgent anticipation spreading through his body that he knew must be desire. So this was what other people felt - and now it was what he felt as well. Something that had been missing from his life was at last in place, and as Valjean passed him on his way out of the room the delight that flashed from Javert's eyes made his appreciation of that fact abundantly clear.
If asked, neither man could ever have recalled the topic of conversation at dinner that evening - some grandiose scheme of Marius's to carry out Enjolras's principles of social reform, they might dimly have recollected. In fact Marius, fired by a new enthusiasm as a result of the arrival of Javert and the children - the latter were even now being tucked up in an attic bedroom by one of the housemaids - had begun to spin a fantasy about rescuing orphaned children from the streets en masse and turning over a large portion of his wealth to support them.
And there were fallen women, too, who deserved a second chance at a decent life. Delicacy prevented him mentioning the name of Cosette's mother in this connection, but all the same her image was before them all as he spoke. Fantine had paid for her small sins in ways that were horrible to contemplate; cast out by society, forced to sell her hair and even her front teeth, she had ended up as the most degraded and pathetic of prostitutes. If there was a way to prevent the same thing happening to other young women whose only guilt lay in being too trusting, shouldn't they do all they could to find it?
Numbly the two older men nodded agreement, only half listening to his generous-hearted plans, both crushingly aware of the gulf between intention and action. Marius might talk from dawn to dusk about what could be done for the poor, but what was needed was action - and not of the kind Enjolras had advocated.
Cosette, it seemed, was happy to leave the talk to her husband. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes downcast throughout most of the meal, although when she caught either her father or Javert looking in her direction she returned their interest with warm smiles as if to say that listening to Marius was her chief joy. She made little contribution to the conversation, and nor did she make much progress with her meal. In fact, for separate reasons, no-one could manage much in the way of food that evening, and the almost-full plates that were returned to the kitchen were the cause of considerable comment.
At last the torment was over. Cosette excused herself and retired upstairs to visit the children, while Marius dived into his study and began frantically making lists and drawing up plans. Bidding him goodnight Valjean and Javert climbed the stairs to the bedroom they had shared in previous times, entered the room and closed the door firmly.
All was exactly as it had been on the morning when Javert had slipped away from the house. The campaign bed was still against the wall, freshly made up, and a fire burned in the grate. The evening was still quite light but the shutters were across the window and Valjean lit a candle and set it on the chest of drawers to give him enough light to read the expression on Javert's face. It was one of genuine bewilderment. Javert had been overtaken by a situation for which he had no point of reference; every time he had believed he understood the emotions flowing between himself and Valjean, he had discovered still more that delighted and terrified him at the same time. Now he had gone beyond fear. and was left only with wonder.
"You ... said that we would talk," he ventured hesitantly, uncertain.
"So I did," Valjean conceded. His tone was ordinary enough, but he passed a weary hand over his face as he spoke. "But now that at last we have the chance I find there is only one thing I want to say to you, Javert." He seemed to steel himself for some grandiloquent speech, but the words that followed were simplicity itself. "Whatever Marius feels for Cosette, and whatever she feels for him, that is what I feel for you - and more besides."
Javert was watching him avidly, studying every feature of his face, drinking in the sight of him like a man dying of thirst.
"You said that you would catch me when I fell," he reminded Valjean hoarsely. "Must I fall?"
"Yes. You must."
Javert seemed to reach some kind of conclusion. His shoulders lifted and fell again in a shrug of helplessness and he said, in a voice far too small for his bulk; "Then ... catch me."
Stepping closer, and holding Valjean's gaze so that now there could be no mistake, he did what he had been wanting to do all evening; he took Valjean's hand and raised it to his lips, kissing the knuckles just as Valjean had kissed his so many days before in the room below. The world seemed to freeze around them, to concentrate all its massive energy into this one moment; in all his life Javert had never found it necessary to bestow a kiss on any living being, and it seemed to him incredible that when he did so it should be upon Jean Valjean - and that he should care so deeply about Valjean's acceptance of him.
The look he saw in the green eyes was infinitely compassionate; then something like fear clouded the older man's gaze and he clutched convulsively at Javert's trembling hand, gripping his fingers hard.
"Be sure." That gentle brogue only emerged at times of particular stress. "Be sure you know what you're doing. Oh my friend, you have so much to lose!"
"What could I lose that would matter to me?" countered Javert passionately. "My life? My pride? My hope of Heaven? They are all gone already. Losing you is the only thing I fear now."
The smile was back, that look on Valjean's face that was part parental indulgence and part utter adoration.
"You have followed me for nearly twenty years," he reminded Javert, reclaiming their joined hands and drawing them towards him to kiss Javert's fingers one by one. "Do you think after that anything but death could part us?"
"Not even that." Forced by a grip stronger than his own, Javert lurched a half-step closer; he was more conscious than ever of his own bulk as he drew nearer to the smaller figure of Valjean, and was terrified lest his clumsiness cause the other man even a second's misgiving. "You will never go anywhere without me again." So saying he exerted his strength, turning Valjean's hand in his until he could bring the palm to his lips and kiss it with all the formidable intensity he had brought to his pursuit of this man.
A shudder ran through Valjean's body, a shiver of apprehension almost as though he were cold, yet there was fire in his blood as he looked up into eyes that were at once apprehensive and expectant; Javert had come to him seeking a miracle, and now that the time had come to unleash it they both cowered like frightened children before its power. Well, one of them must be strong and determined enough for both, or it was certain they would both drown in their fears.
Valjean's free hand lifted, snagged away the delinquent black ribbon from Javert's hair and let it drop to the floor, releasing its burden in a grey-white torrent that dropped like a waterfall around the big man's shoulders. How, in dreams, Valjean had toyed with this splendid mane! How his fingers had itched to entwine themselves in the silver strands! Surely Javert could have no idea how fascinating his appearance was - or how gentle was the face that had been schooled to harshness all his adult life?
There were tears at the corners of Javert's eyes as he leaned down, moving halfway, not daring to take the final decision for both of them; yet the grip on his hand did not falter, and when Valjean's fingers brushed across Javert's cheek it was understood between them that they had both accepted the inevitable.
"God forgive me!" The deep, baritone whisper betrayed both the need and the terror that had brought Javert to this moment.
"Don't be afraid." In other circumstances the merest platitude, but now the only reassurance Valjean could offer. Then his hand slid around Javert's neck to the back of his head and drew him down so that at last their mouths touched in an inexpert kiss which gained in confidence in an instant, and then the grip of their hands was sundered and Javert's strong arms wrapped themselves around Valjean and he held him, as he had done so long before in a dream, as though he was the most delicate treasure the world had ever possessed.
It was so easy at first, just to cling to each other, to kiss and be kissed, to learn that being together was everything they had separately hoped it might be, that arousal caught them almost unawares. The gentleness turned quickly to urgency, Javert's starved body pressing tightly against Valjean's in a blind quest for the physical comfort it had always been denied - only to learn that the increased closeness did not ease the situation but only exacerbated it further. Afraid of his own passions and desires he pulled away suddenly, passing a distracted hand across his face to tidy away a stray strand of hair, and looked down at Valjean with eyes that glittered like stars in the gloom.
"I don't know ... " he faltered, panic in his breathless whisper. "How could I know, I've never ... Teach me, Valjean, please."
Valjean's eyes widened, but he quelled his astonishment for Javert's sake.
You're mistaken, he thought dazedly, if you imagine I know any more about this than you do. One girl, one sunny afternoon, and I was fifteen years old! I know how to find my way into a girl's body, but for what you and I want there are no maps.
But to have admitted that would have been catastrophic; instead he gripped Javert's arms in reassurance.
"What I know I'll teach you," he promised, ignoring the voice in his head that reminded him it would not be much. "As for the rest, we'll make it up as we go along."
"I can't yield ... I won't yield! I've seen what happens to men who yield!"
"Do you think that I would do that to you? No, don't answer," Valjean told him. "I will yield - this time and every time until you tell me otherwise. Will that please you?"
"Yes." But the fear was still there, along with the hunger.
Valjean had always known that Javert would need the most gentle handling; for all his height and strength it would be so easy to hurt him, to break his spirit beyond repair. He had never been so close to anyone as he was to Valjean now, had never confided in a living soul to such a great extent, but he must understand it for himself.
"Will you trust me, Javert? Will you trust me never to hurt you?" The words spilled out of Valjean as liltingly as the words of a ballad, unplanned but heartfelt. "Will you trust me never to lead you into any sin? I promised you once before that you would always be safe in my hands."
"You have never broken any promise you made to me," Javert conceded, drawing him closer once more. "Yes, Jean Valjean, I trust you."
"And will you also trust me to love you as long as I live?"
Javert paused, considering the words as though they were some slightly dubious proposition. As though, in fact, there could be two possible answers.
"Yes," he said at last. "For that, too, I trust you. And you must trust me in the same way."
"I do," was Valjean's delighted response, revelling in the avid embrace that claimed him again. "And more than that, my dearest Javert, I always have."
A slow and satisfied morning crept into the room many hours later. Indeed, the ordinary muted sounds of the household awakening and going about its business had been continuing for quite a long time when Valjean lifted his head from the pillow of Javert's shoulder and turned his face towards the window. The shutters were thrown wide open and he blinked painfully in the dazzling sunshine that poured into the room before the patient hands that had remained unmoving on his back finally adjusted their grip, sliding up to hold him still more firmly.
He turned back and let his gaze focus on Javert, noting how the strong features of his face had softened in repose as if a rigid mask had shattered and released some gentle, affectionate being long trapped within. Blue eyes were watching him uncritically, the mouth that had once seemed so cruel set into a slight smile.
"How long have you been awake?" Valjean asked in a hoarse whisper. He let his fingers tangle in the long greying hair that spread across the pillow, lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
"Long enough to realise that we have no secrets," Javert told him. "Your son-in-law's manservant has been in here this morning."
"What? You saw him?"
"No. It was while I was still asleep. But someone has opened the shutters and brought us hot water for washing - although it will be cold by now. I heard the door close behind him," Javert went on. "I think that was what woke me up, and that was more than half an hour ago."
The implications of this fact were not lost on Valjean. Marius's manservant was not known for his discretion and the tale of what he had seen in the bedroom of the Baroness's father would already have spread throughout the household. That Marius himself had so far refrained from battering down the bedroom door and ordering the two of them out into the street could mean one of only two things - either that he was awaiting a more appropriate moment to effect their humiliation, or that for some extraordinary reason he had elected to overlook their indiscretion. In either case there seemed very little that could be done about it, and Valjean was in no mood to worry unless given good cause. He dismissed the question from his mind with a shrug.
"And how are you feeling this morning?" he asked lightly, as though the answer was of only minor importance.
The smile faded from Javert's face and his expression became suddenly serious. "Still in love with you, I'm afraid," he confessed gravely. "And you?"
"Still in love with you," Valjean echoed. "And grateful for every moment we have together."
Javert's hold on Valjean shifted again, his hands stroking the muscular shoulders and back soothingly.
"What puzzles me," he admitted sheepishly, "is why I should have struggled so hard to be free of you, when I've known since the first moment I saw you that we would end like this. Or one of us dead," he added.
"You say you knew? How could you know? I didn't know myself until the night of the barricade. Not for sure."
"I see things." Javert sketched in the history of his mother's gift of sight, passed on to him at birth, and the visions he had endured. "Your factory-woman Fantine appeared to me," he concluded, apparently uncaring whether he was believed or not, "and told me that I must go to you and learn about love. There was something, too, about the house being full of children."
Valjean laughed affectionately. "If Marius has his way he'll adopt every orphan in Paris," he conceded, "so your vision may well come true. What else did you see?"
"I saw a child named Eponine who called you 'Grandpere' and spoke of you instructing me in gardening - although I should warn you, I have never had anything to do with plants and whatever I touch will probably die."
"Ha! You should have faith, Javert; it isn't easy to kill a plant, however clumsily you may deal with it."
"Yes," was the grave response. "That is exactly what the child told me you would say. But you don't seem surprised by all this talk of ghosts."
"Why should I be?" asked Valjean. "Fantine has appeared to me, too, in dreams; when I was ill in the convent she seemed to be with me constantly, telling me that all would be well and you would soon be beside me. The sisters told me that when the fever was at its worst I called out your name."
"I heard you," Javert conceded. "But I thought I was imagining it. When I realised you were there and would live ... "
"You wrote your note to Cosette and Marius came for me in the carriage. But you couldn't stay away," Valjean went on triumphantly, "because we belong to one another and one of us must always find the other one, wherever we may be. Well, from now on it will be a shorter search; it will be a very long time before I'm willing to let you out of my sight again for more than a few minutes. I swear it to you," he finished with a flourish, "on everything we both hold dear."
"And I to you, by the same token," was Javert's reply, and then once again the words that he had used so long ago and which had meant something quite other then. "I swear to you, I will be there."
At the window of his bedchamber an hour or so later, Marius Pontmercy stood and stared down into the garden. It was autumn now, the roses overblown and beginning to lose their petals in the roughening winds, and they would soon have to start thinking about pruning and tidying everything ready for the winter. There were going to be a great many adjustments made one way and another, because by the spring this house would no longer simply be the home of a modest little family of three.
Four, he amended, as Javert appeared in the garden sniffing the breeze as cautiously as a cat.
"I must go down soon," he said over his shoulder to where Cosette still lay in the bed propped by pillows and sipping cautiously at a glass of water. Her stomach was delicate in the mornings lately, and if the household in general had so far failed to notice that fact it was only because they were preoccupied with other matters.
"What will you say to them?" she asked, in no real anxiety but curious as to how he could possibly introduce the subject he wanted to discuss.
"I don't know, yet," he admitted, "but by the time I've finished they'll know exactly how I feel about both of them. And I must have that damned campaign bed removed from your father's room," he added, as much to himself as to her. "I don't suppose Javert will ever wish to sleep on that again, do you?"
He looked out of the window again. Valjean had joined Javert and they were standing close together, and if for a brief moment he saw in their place Enjolras and Grantaire leaning towards each other and exchanging softly-spoken words of affection it was surely only a trick of the light. His eyes brimmed with tears; something was saved from the wreckage after all.
He'd known even before the manservant brought the tale to him this morning - half scandalised, half thrilled - how the two older men had passed the night. There had been no mistaking the air of distraction that had prevailed at dinner, the way they could hardly tear their eyes away from one another. When he'd seen Thenardier off the premises he'd been fully aware what Javert's return would mean to the whole household; he'd left Javert and Valjean to themselves and gone off to the kitchen to make the acquaintance of Javert's two foundling children and to double the wages of all the staff on condition they kept their mouths shut about whatever might take place from now on. They'd all been so grateful they had agreed on the spot, although he did wonder how many of them would still be grateful when he announced his plan for turning the house into an orphanage.
It was a wonderful plan. Valjean had managed a factory with hundreds of workers, and Javert had kept order in a vast part of the city of Paris. Together, surely, they could control thirty or forty orphaned children? No help for it, they must live on the premises, but the rooms under the eaves would make convenient living quarters for two men who asked little more out of life than to be together and to be useful. He would supply the money and anything else they needed, but they would make it work. He would simply be too busy, himself, with his own family.
"Will you tell them about the child?" asked Cosette feebly. Early days yet for that, as Cosette's waistline had barely begun to thicken and the only outward signs of her condition were her pale complexion and intermittent appetite.
"I think so. They'll enjoy having a grandchild of their own." The words were out before he had a chance to think about them, but when he did he knew he would not have changed them. "I've been thinking," he added. "If it's a boy, we ought to call it 'Jean'."
"And if it's a girl?"
His eyes lifted to the horizon, to the treetops and the roofs of the houses and to some far-away prospect of what had never been except in dreams.
"Eponine," he said.
Fantine watched through the railings of the fence as two dark-clad figures moved slowly in the garden of Jean Valjean's house. Bless Marius for his kind intentions and for his goodness towards her girl! Sending little Eponine to them had meant a painful parting for her, but it would only be the blinking of an eye before they were all together again. She barely remembered the way time was counted in the mortal world, now that she no longer had any use for it, but the years to come would pass all too quickly. She could have told them about Valjean's gentle ending and Javert's immediate and unswerving determination to follow him - but that time would come by itself and nothing said now would alter their actions, so why trouble them with thoughts of the end when they were only just beginning?
In the corner by the apple tree, shaded from the gaze of the outside world and from any prying eye but hers, Javert leaned down briefly and touched Valjean's mouth with his own in a kiss that was both swift and daring and drew a look of complete adoration from his lover. He was learning at last, she thought. One day he would perhaps have the grace to admit to her that she had persuaded him to go to Valjean, to overcome his fears of allowing any human being close enough to hurt him. Perhaps he would even thank her for what she had done.
She would watch over them all, but they would never again need her intervention in such a material way. Just as well, too, because it had tired her to do so much. She could go and rest now, and come back later to see how her grandchild fared.
Fantine smiled, and turned away, and left the house in the rue Plumet to its own devices for a while.
* * *
I once had a devoted 'Les Mis' fan e-mail to ask if I was serious about this story, i.e. did I really believe Valjean and Javert would end up as lovers. I think he'd missed the point of slash fiction a bit, but just in case there are others like him out there; no, I'm not serious in that I don't believe for one moment Victor Hugo intended anything of the sort but yes, I am serious in that there is a credible way of making it work if you just happen to be the kind of fan who likes things that way!
Click here for the sequel A CHRISTMAS TALE by Sandi