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An Education

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Genflou was a man of brains, which he used.

He knew well enough that the guards did not trust him. His position of authority, such as it was, had only been granted to him because it saved them work – that, and having prisoners hand out punishments tended to undermine any rebellious sentiments. If not even one's fellow bagnards were on your side, an aspiring Spartacus might reason, then who was to be trusted? No one.

Genflou himself had learned this the hard way as a young man, when Matthieu, his confidant, had not only betrayed the plans of their escape to the head guard, but been the one to wield the whip as Genflou stood bound and shaking in the yard, everyone's eyes upon him. It had been a most educational experience.

From then on, he took care to work with the system. Only a fool would attempt to swim against the tide, to ruin himself in a useless fight, and he was no fool. One had to make use of the benefits life offered, no matter how they presented themselves.

And so he accepted his role as a cog in the great machinery of the galleys. He kept a strict eye on the men on his chain gang, dealing out blows when prompted, and sometimes when unprompted. He broke up fights with the same authority he broke up friendships that had grown too close. A word from him was enough to stay the hand of the angriest convict; the mention of his name induced a cowed respect amongst the most quarrelsome of brutes.

When a young man named Jean Valjean, freshly arrived from the north, was added to his chain gang, Genflou saw immediately that this one meant trouble. It would be hard work disciplining the lad, but someone had to do it, if only for his own benefit.

 

*

 

Jean was a strong man, but that was a little help to him now; even he could not break the chains that were keeping his arms in place, stretched taut above his head. Brevet's blows rained down hard enough to cover the naked torso in red and angry welts, as Jean arched his back and groaned with pain.

"That's enough," Genflou said at length, and Brevet's arm fell to his side, heavy and exhausted. "No need to overdo it."

He crossed the floor to stand close to Jean, tilting his head up. Jean gazed at him with wet, uncomprehending eyes. For a moment, Genflou almost felt pity for him.

"This is what happens when you try to run," he said quietly. "You cannot escape this place, just as you cannot escape those chains around your wrists. If you know what is best for you, you will keep your head down and behave. Do you understand?"

Jean trembled. He tried to speak; a sob came out. Genflou waited a little, then asked again, "Do you understand?"

"Yes," Jean rasped. A tear slid from the corner of his eye and down his cheek.

Genflou followed it with his eyes as it dripped down onto Jean's naked collarbone. "I'm glad," he murmured. "This is for your own good. I'm teaching you one of the most important lessons you will ever learn."

 

*

 

As time passed, Jean changed. When he'd first arrived, there had been something earnest about him, something sensitive – a wide-eyed youth insisting that he had only wanted to save the lives of his friend's children. Now he grew sullen, taciturn, his eyes always scanning his surroundings suspiciously, as if constantly trying to anticipate whence the next blow might come.

He did not try to run anymore, but neither did he seem to have gained the necessary respect for the guards and their rules. Instead, he followed Genflou's bidding. He would not grasp his oar or pick up his sledgehammer until Genflou had done the same; he usually waited for Genflou to repeat the guard's orders before deigning to lift a finger. Often enough, he would glare at the guards with open hostility until Genflou made him wipe the look off his face.

It was worrisome, as the guards would not hesitate to punish them both if they noticed, but Genflou doubted Jean was doing it on purpose. In a way, it was also flattering, much as the constant burden of responsibility increased his own workload.

"Come here," he said one night, when their cell was covered in darkness, the only light a torch flickering on the far wall of the hallway outside.

An arm's length away, Jean raised his head. Their cellmates had already fallen asleep on their pallets, Brevet's heavy snores countered by Cochepaille's light whinnying.

Genflou flipped his blanket aside. "Don't make me ask again."

Jean hesitated for a long moment. In the darkness, it was hard to make out his expression, but then again, there was no need – the nervousness of his movements were clear enough to Genflou.

"Good," he said quietly as Jean stretched out next to him on his pallet. It was narrow, barely enough space for one man, let alone two. "I'm going to teach you something new."

Jean drew in an audible breath as Genflou slid a hand up his thigh, letting it rest on his hip. "Is this also for my own good?"

His eyes were wide in the dim light. For a moment, Genflou remembered him as he had been once – innocent, helpless, incomprehending. A young man who still believed mercy could be found in this world.

"Yes," he muttered, "I believe it is," and he moved his hand to Jean's groin, smiling as Jean kept himself still and obedient under his touch, trembling slightly with fear or excitement or both.

 

*

 

Years later, when he stood in a courtroom face to face with Jean Valjean once more – his Jean, whom he had recognised as soon as he rose to his feet, despite his new name and neat moustache and fancy clothing – all Genflou could think to himself was, You fool, you did not teach him anything after all. For Jean insisted on taking the place of the old simpleton Champmathieu, on returning to prison, as if he had not yet grasped the most important of Genflou's lessons: that one had to make use of the benefits life offered, no matter how they presented themselves.

"He's an idiot already," he said, turning his head so he would not have to look at Jean so eagerly throwing his life away. "What does it matter?"

"I don't want your loyalty, Genflou," Jean snapped. "Tell the court who I am!"

At this, Genflou raised his eyes to meet Jean's gaze. It was righteous, bold, the gaze of a man who had grown used to being listened to, a man by now accustomed to his counterfeit freedom, to being held in the world's regard. He had forgotten the cruelty of the iron and the whip, the futility of trust: everything Genflou had tried to teach him.

"If this is what you want," he said, "you are Jean Valjean."

He let his gaze linger on Jean's face for a moment, conveying his feelings without words. Soon enough, Jean would again be a convict, no better than Genflou; soon enough, they might be cellmates once more, and this time for life. But he knew without being told that never again would Jean Valjean do his bidding.