There was, in all of Montreuil-sur-Mer, but one person who did not succumb to the charms of Monsieur Madeleine. Indeed, wherever the man went, a pair of watchful eyes hidden beneath strong brows was sure to follow. The shadow's name was Javert, and he belonged to the police.
He observed Madeleine's comings and goings with a sort of disconcerted wariness, and it soon became obvious that something was bothering the Inspector whenever he looked at the well-loved man, but whatever it was, he kept it — as everything else — to himself. Madeleine himself had noticed Javert's fixation on his person but chose to ignore it. He treated the police man like he did everyone else and neither avoided him nor sought him out.
Madeleine only learnt what was troubling the Inspector when he found Père Fauchelevent trapped beneath his cart one morning and urged the bystanders to help the poor man out from under the crushing weight of the wheels. Javert pointed out that he only knew of one man strong enough to accomplish this, and Madeleine could see in his eyes that the Inspector had discovered his secret before he had even finished speaking. Nevertheless, he chose the man's life over his own safety and crawled out from beneath the cart with a rueful smile on his lips, returning Javert's burning gaze as calmly as he possibly could.
After Madeleine had been appointed mayor of the town, Javert avoided him more than ever. He had not dared make a move, doubts still plaguing his mind whenever he watched the supposed ex-convict go about his rounds, giving alms to the poor, and investing the better part of his own fortune in the town.
Javert was uncertain. His instincts had warned him that he had seen the man before when he had first laid eyes on Monsieur Madeleine, and soon after he had recalled where exactly that had been, but he still lacked proof. He recognised the limp, the beastly strength, little things he had noticed in 24601, but all the evidence he had was circumstantial at best. When Madeleine had lifted the cart off Fauchelevent's ribcage, he could have sworn he had seen a spark of… something in the man's eyes, but that too was nothing but guess-work.
So Javert waited. Knowing that Monsieur Madeleine was now Monsieur le maire made him uneasy and less confident in his quest than ever, but he could not shake the feeling of recognition. He was a dog who had picked up the scent of his prey, and he could not let go until he had recovered it, try as he might.
Javert did not pursue the matter further. There were no more leads to follow, and a man like him could never in good conscience denounce an authoritative figure like the mayor, but still he avoided him. Whenever his position required him to confer with Madeleine, he was never anything but formal, strict and polite. It was good.
When this man, this supposed ex-convict (for in his mind that was exactly what Madeleine was, no matter how hard he tried to convince the world otherwise) dared interfere with his work and then, to top it all off, turned him out of his own police station, in front of his men, no less! Javert could take it no longer. Livid, he posted the letter he had written a long time ago which only his rigid sense for propriety and lingering doubts had kept him from sending so far and was not seen for weeks after the incident in the police post if his duties did not demand it.
Madeleine, in the meantime, had not spared a second thought for the shame he had brought over the fierce Inspector and was thoroughly engrossed in getting Fantine's child to her as quickly as possible. He was appropriately surprised and — if he was honest — displeased when the Inspector demanded to speak with him. No matter how uncomfortable he had felt when Javert had entered his office, when the police man informed him of the reason for this audience, he forgot all of his initial disinclination.
He dismissed Javert despite the Inspector's pleas for punishment with nothing more than a well-deserved acknowledgement of his excellent work and stared in horror at the crumpled paper in his hand.
They had found the 'real' Valjean. Madeleine had been aware of Javert's justified suspicions for quite some time now, of course, but hearing that the Inspector had found it prudent to go so far as to denounce him had made a cold shiver overcome him, hidden from Javert's down-turned eyes. More than that, however, had shocked him the revelation that another, innocent man had been arrested in his stead.
He lay awake all night trying to make his decision. It was not easy, but in the end his conscience won. Who was he to deny this poor man his freedom? If Javert could own up to his mistakes and demand to be dismissed because he had behaved in an abominable manner, how could Valjean live with himself knowing that not only had he brought a man so rigidly clinging to what was right and just to doubt himself and his ability to hold his position because of a single misjudgement without further consequence, but also let an innocent man serve a sentence meant for him?
No, his path was clear. He had to travel to Arras and set things right.
Who knows whether he would have had the courage to speak up had he made it into the courtroom in time? His intentions were honourable enough, but not everything is in the hands of men, and when his cart broke down on the way, leaving him with no means to continue his journey, he thought that maybe God had not meant for him to choose this path.
He arrived in Arras the morning after the trial and was able to find someone who could tell him the sentence, but there was nothing he could change about that now. Champmathieu was dead; his heart had stopped before they could put him behind bars.
Which is to say: Jean Valjean was dead.
Dumbfounded, Madeleine made his way back to Montreuil-sur-Mer, uncertain what to think of this unforeseen turn of events. Was this God's way of telling him that he was meant to serve the city rather than rot away in prison?
His journey had been disrupted, the man believed to be Jean Valjean was dead; what else could he think?
His conscience, however, was not clear. While he was still marvelling over the news, on his way back into town, he realised that, while he may have been a free man in the eyes of the law, he was not a free man in the eyes of God. He had sinned, and he had allowed the police to believe that an innocent man had been responsible for his crimes.
He had never felt so haunted.
That night, after having visited Fantine as was his custom, he resolved to strive for absolution. He did not know how he should accomplish such an impossible thing, nor did he believe he ever could, but he was willing to try. There was nothing else to do. He could not live with himself the way things were, and neither could he throw away the life God had obviously granted him.
It was a peculiar situation.
He was desperate, and there lay a burden upon his shoulders of a weight he had never carried before.
The road to repentance is a long and weary one, but as everything it must start somewhere. Valjean found his beginning in Javert when the man reported for duty as the mayor had requested through a messenger this morning. He could not tell the Inspector that his suspicions had been spot-on all along, but he could at least attempt to give him back his confidence in his own skills.
"Ah, Inspector Javert. Very good," Madeleine greeted him with a warm smile when he entered the office. "I have been expecting you."
"Monsieur le maire," Javert bowed stiffly, eyes not daring to meet the man's he'd disgraced.
"Please, none of that," he waved off, uncomfortable. "I called you here because I have a request to make of you."
Javert said nothing, gaze fixed on something above Madeleine's shoulder, but his posture said clearly that he was available for anything to follow.
"The woman you— Fantine," Valjean interrupted himself, fidgeting slightly when he remembered how he had treated Javert that night, deciding it would be best not to mention the incident. "She has a daughter in Montfermeil who is living with an inn-keeper and his wife."
Javert remained silent, but the tight setting of his jaw revealed he knew exactly which woman the mayor was talking about.
Valjean was glad the man wasn't looking at him with his usual unmatched attention in that moment; he would have doubtlessly suspected the mayor of hiding something at once. Even knowing that, however, Valjean could not help himself. Guilt was gnawing at his bones as it had the day the bishop had chosen to let him go free, giving him this life, undeserving as he had been. Even standing here, facing Javert with the knowledge that the other man would likely forever think himself unworthy of the uniform he wore, while he himself was pretending to be someone he was clearly not, was almost too much to bear.
He had to. There was no turning back now. The moment to speak up was gone; he was doomed to live with his choices, whether he liked it or not.
"I have exchanged a series of letters with the man," Madeleine continued calmly. "Thénardier is his name. He has demanded a… considerable sum of money to cover Cosette's, that's the girl, to cover her expenses, all of which he received."
Javert snorted and finally allowed his eyes to meet the mayor's. "With all due respect, Monsieur le maire, I do believe you have been taken advantage of."
"Indeed?" Valjean knew this to be true. He was simply glad the other man had finally decided to join his monologue.
"An inn-keeper, you say?" Javert looked contemplative. "I know such men; I have dealt with them before. A crook, no doubt. Robbing his customers blind, and now taking advantage of your undeserved trust and misguided kindness."
"Yes, we have established how highly you esteem my good will," Madeleine smiled slightly, "however, do not take me for a fool. I realise I have been robbed, but what am I to do? The child has to be procured; the mother is in need of her presence."
"In that case I would suggest a direct confrontation," Javert spoke with the confidence of a professional. "Go to the man himself and demand he hand over the child."
"That was also my idea," Madeleine nodded.
"In that case I must admit I do not see why you required my presence."
"Inspector Javert," Valjean sighed tiredly, "you know I hold you in high esteem. You are a man who demands respect and takes it wherever he goes. Your professional skill and judgement have served the city well, and I thank you for that. I said I had a request; it is like this: I plan to go to Montfermeil and fetch the child myself. That is a good plan. I have the written consent of the mother to hand over her daughter to me. That is well."
He had started pacing and chanced a look at the police officer every now and then, who still stood rigid as a military man awaiting an order.
"You say you know the kind of man this inn-keeper is," Madeleine continued, "you say you have dealt with the likes of him before. That is good. Inspector, I would request your assistance in the matter."
He stopped pacing and stared intently at the man before him. "If this man is a crook, he will not hand over the child simply because the mother requests it. I would have your impressive presence and professional prowess with me, if you please."
Javert considered him for a moment, now that the original apprehension had passed more willing to meet the mayor's eyes, and nodded slowly.
"It is true that you would likely hand over your last shirt to the man if he demanded it, simply to get hold of the child," he said calmly. "If unsupervised, you would not have enough money left to take the girl back with you, no doubt."
"It is as you say, Inspector," Madeleine sighed with a barely suppressed smile. "You know me well. Would you do me this favour? I would be deeply in your debt."
Javert gazed around the room uncertainly, unconsciously licking his lips, and suddenly snapped back to full attention.
"Very well," he said. "I shall accompany you. If this man is what I believe him to be, a visit from an official should not go amiss."
"Thank you, Inspector," Valjean smiled. "I knew I could count on you. We shall leave at noon. No doubt we will arrive in time for supper."
Javert's lips twisted upwards in a horrible way Madeleine had never seen before, and he knew immediately that this was not a smile; it was a promise.
Valjean had never been this grateful not be that man's prey any longer.
When Javert met him with unfailing punctuality, Madeleine already had a carriage and a driver waiting for them. He greeted the Inspector with a cheerful smile as he put a large stack of bills into an inner pocket. Javert scowled at him and unconsciously opened the door before their coachman could grasp for it.
"It is well that you requested my company," the police man said darkly. "You are already willing to give this thief everything that isn't his to ask for."
"I like to be prepared for any possible inconveniences," Madeleine shrugged, a knowing smile playing around his lips. Javert's dislike of his random generosity was public knowledge, and no one was more keenly aware of it than the mayor himself.
"I should like to see you deal with this situation on your own," Javert admitted and stepped aside to let the other man enter the carriage first. "It would be most educating for you to finally see how you are being taken advantage of."
"So why don't you let me go by myself then, Inspector?" Valjean asked. "Surely I would profit from such a valuable lesson."
"You have requested my help in this matter," Javert reminded him. "It is not my custom to deny my superiors what they ask of me. Besides, being kind is easy. I could do you the favour of stepping aside and let you see for yourself how trustworthy men really are, but I shall not."
"And why is that, Javert?" Valjean asked as the Inspector sat down opposite him.
"Because the difficulty lies in being just," he said. "If this man is, as I believe, a crook, he should be made an example of. Someone ought to put an end to his schemes."
"And this duty falls to you?"
"Who else is there to do it?" Javert snorted. "Are you offering to make him answer for his unjust enrichment at the expense of your generosity?"
"Ah," Madeleine nodded. "You are, of course, right, my dear Inspector. I should not think I would be able to leave the same impression as an encounter with you undoubtedly will."
"No, that much is certain," Javert said and turned to face the window as the carriage started moving. "You would attempt to intimidate him with generous amounts of money, no doubt."
Valjean almost didn't catch the last part, so quietly was it spoken, but he managed nevertheless. He smiled softly to himself and tried to imagine the rigid figure in front of him ever speaking like this to the convict he secretly was. It was impossible to think of Javert ever treating Jean Valjean with anything other than utmost contempt, a stain on the perfect glass of justice, but the mayor had the opportunity the convict had never had: this wasn't the officer Javert; it was the man behind the uniform, and Valjean found himself surprised at the humanity glancing through every now and then.
He suddenly realised that even though they had known each other for years, longer than Valjean had known anyone else, he had never really KNOWN Javert. In fact, the Javert he was sharing a carriage with now was nothing like the one he had met when the Inspector had been freshly assigned to the town. That Javert had been an officer of the police who was suspicious of him, had regarded him with hard and disconcerted looks, seeing but never seen, and had avoided him whenever possible. Valjean had never taken it personally. Back then he had been treated as every other criminal who had the misfortune of appearing on Javert's radar. He neither resented nor blamed the man for that; it was his nature.
Now, however, he found himself oddly stricken by the sudden transformation the Inspector had gone through. Before Javert had confessed to him that he had denounced him as an ex-convict, for the first time in his life treating Valjean with absolute and honest courtesy, respect, and even — dare he say it? — admiration, he had been almost positive that Javert was incapable of anything other than natural distrust and suspicion. As it turned out he had been wrong. There was a man behind that uniform, Valjean had just never been in a position to see it.
Until now. How odd life was! If Javert knew that he was sharing this carriage with an ex-convict, the very one he had accused him of being only to be proved wrong, he would surely turn livid. Valjean could not help but laugh quietly at the thought. The fox had outwitted the lion. If only the Inspector could share in on the joke.
"Is there a cause for amusement?" Javert asked stiffly, turning his gaze back to the mayor.
"Perhaps," Madeleine smiled. "I was just thinking how bizarre this is." He gestured wildly at them in the carriage. "Who would have thought we would ever end up in a confined space like this out of our own free will?"
"I fail to see how this could be such an entertaining thought," Javert said coldly. "There is nothing extraordinary about it."
"Isn't there?" Valjean asked. "When you first came to town you looked at me as if you wanted to bury me alive. You would always watch me, but never speak, and when I became mayor that didn't change much. I think it is quite amusing."
"Then you have an odd sense of humour," Javert said calmly. "You will remember that I treated you thus because I suspected you to be an ex-convict."
"Water under the bridge, my friend," Madeleine waved off quickly. "But it is good to know that it was no personal matter."
"I daresay it was quite personal."
"Only as long as you believed me to be a convict."
"Yes, I seem to remember to have mentioned that."
Valjean regarded the Inspector before him quietly before he leaned back in his seat with a heavy sigh and said: "Do you still want to be dismissed, Javert? Be honest now. I wish to know."
He found himself pierced by those startling bright eyes and wished he had remained silent.
"You know I do," Javert said finally, looking out the window again. "I do not understand why you persist in refusing me this. It is no less than I deserve. Knowing that you would have me escape justice is making me uncomfortable. As always, you are too kind."
"How can anyone be such a thing as 'too kind'?" Valjean asked. "You always make it sound as if it was a nasty trait. I thought you to be a religious man, Javert; do you not believe in forgiveness?"
"I believe in justice and what is right," the Inspector said stiffly, looking at him again. "You think being lenient with your people makes them happy? If everyone treated the law as lushly as you, there would be anarchy on the streets. No honest man would be safe. Rules exist for a reason; our society could not exist without them, yet you constantly mock the system that provides you with your power. You believe me to be too harsh, I know. That is true. I am harsh; as I should be."
He sighed tiredly and gestured outside the window where their town disappeared in the distance.
"You know little about what I do," he said. "That is well. It is not your concern. You witnessed me arrest the woman of the town and questioned my judgement in the matter, putting your authority over mine. You treated me harshly, and unjustly so. Yet, when I treat someone the way you did me, with justice, you call me too harsh. You were kind to that woman, Monsieur le maire, I know. Being kind is easy, being just is not."
Javert straightened his uniform in an attempt to escape Madeleine's searching eyes and said quietly: "If I treated every criminal the way you did that woman, simply because they plead with me, ask me for mercy, give me a thousand-and-one excuses that would melt a heart of steel, no one would respect me or the uniform I wear. We would not need a police force since everyone would be doing whatever they pleased either way."
Finally Javert's eyes met Madeleine's, and the mayor repressed a shiver when he said: "If men like me didn't exist, Monsieur le maire, there would be no safe place for you on earth. You have money and influence; two highly desirable things many people would kill for. How long do you think would it take before someone robbed you in the street, or perhaps inside your house, knowing you would likely never even report them out of kindness?"
Valjean swallowed heavily, pinned against the backrest by Javert's piercing glare, and he felt a sort of dread he hadn't experienced since the Inspector had put an end to his chase overcome him. Javert neither moved nor blinked, it seemed, until Madeleine finally had recovered enough to wet his lips and speak softly,
"You know I value your position highly, Javert. I realise how much the town owes to you and your police force, I never expected you to stop performing as admirably as you do. I simply asked you to let go of a sick woman who had acted in self-defence."
Javert laughed at that, and it must have been the first time Valjean had ever witnessed him do so, for he was quite certain he would have remember an occurrence as terrible as this. It was not a happy laugh. It was cold and hideous, and as soon as it was over, the Inspector's eyes once again held him firmly in place like a butterfly on a needle.
"You would have had me let her go?" Javert asked with a cruel twist to his lips. "Without any charges, I take it? Very well. I should have done so, should I not?" Madeleine thought he should have nodded but found himself unable to do so. Even when he had been running from the officer he had never been this afraid.
"I see. Let us pretend I had," Javert continued. "A woman of the town attacks a respectable citizen, leaves her mark for everyone plain to see on the gentleman's face, and gets away unscathed because Inspector Javert would have it so. That is well. The woman goes free, she continues to do her trade, she feeds her child; she is happy. The gentleman's face will heal, no doubt, perhaps there won't be scars. All is good. I should be content knowing that I did a good deed."
"I'm glad you realise it," Madeleine said.
"I have not finished," Javert said calmly. The mayor was silent. "The story is known to everyone in town. Honest people are outraged, the gentleman more than anyone, and they demand justice. Perhaps the victim will file a complaint against me. He might get his way, and I should be dismissed. No matter; I deserve it. I would find something else. While the honest people of the town are gossipping about the former Inspector Javert, the criminals, too, are talking, but they are not outraged. They are happy, as is the woman who got away without punishment, for now Inspector Javert is gone. And if he won't arrest them, who will? If Javert can be swayed, why should the same not also be true about every other officer in the force? Why still be scared of the law if there is nothing to fear?"
Javert breathed in deeply before he finally eased off his intensity in glaring at Madeleine and said quietly: "Being kind is easy, Monsieur le maire, being just is not. I would not expect you to understand, since I have always known you to be kind and never to be just, but that is the way it is. Did the woman deserve to go free? Perhaps. Did she deserve to be punished? Definitely. It is the law. If we start bending the rules to our liking, if we start ignoring those we do not personally agree with, who is to stop us from acting without any restraint at all? You think me harsh; perhaps I am. I have to be, doubly so, for you are not. As the mayor of the town you have a responsibility to uphold the values and laws it was build on. You cannot bend rules to your will as you please if you want people to respect you."
"Do you respect me?" Valjean asked just as quietly, suddenly comfortable again. Javert's anger had subsided; he seemed tired now, more than anything, and when he answered, he did so with a minute smile.
"You are too kind," he said simply. "You believe your kindness to be beneficial for others. You think you are doing them a favour, that you are helping them. I think you to be wrong in that assessment. Men cannot grow if they are not faced with hardship. In taking their responsibilities from them and giving them whatever they need, you are making them weak and greedy. It is not a favour, it is abominable. I have often watched you being kind to others. I would ask you not to treat me such; I see nothing noble about it."
"You would have me treat you harshly?" Valjean asked with a frown. Javert was the first person he had ever encountered who honestly despised his charitable nature. At first he had assumed it was because the Inspector suspected him to be an ex-convict who was trying to distract from his past, but now he knew it to be a set opinion not only pertaining to himself. It was… odd, yet not unpleasant.
"I would have you treat me justly," Javert said simply and turned towards the window again.