The fourth time
He woke up with a gasp, the waters of the Seine rushing through his dreams. A chill that would not release him, just as the coils of time refused him freedom from this wretched life.
Dully, Javert noticed how crisp his old uniform was on its hanger. Readied for yet another first day as inspector of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Here, his nightstick leaned against the bed, always within reach. There waited his hat, his shaving kit, the shirt he had bought before leaving Paris.
In the coat was the letter with his credentials, left-side pocket, waiting to be presented to his new superior. Again.
The inn's room was austere, but clean. The first time Javert arrived, he had suspected that the local constabulary had forewarned the innkeepers of the new inspector's tastes. After a few weeks, when he had examined all hostelries and most public houses in Montreuil-sur-Mer and seen the wholesomeness of many buildings and the well-kept roads, he had revised his opinion. This one town was elevating itself to a higher standard and he had been pleased to do his part to help order and common decency win ground in this corner of France.
During that very first morning, he had not known his true face, hadn't yet met the saint in a devil's disguise. Though it had not been much of a disguise, had it? A devil who hoodwinked only the law, in its incarnation as a foolish jailer and policeman grown old before his years. Certainly the citizens of the town would have happily worshipped their Monsieur le Maire, was he not too humble a Christian to accept their accolades.
Closing his eyes, Javert tried to relax back onto the rustling linens, unwilling to face this day again. But the walls of the room seemed to shrink around him, an ever-tightening snare wrapped around his soul. The lavender scent wafting from the sheets, the hint of salt always in the air and the maid humming her infuriating, unchangeable tune as she passed his room with two pails of water clunking against her legs... Another morning, another nightmare. He forced away the memory of vertigo, before his soul sank into the rapids of despair.
He was so weary of this room, this morning.
The first time, years ago, he had not reflected on it in any great measure. A new post might unsettle another man, but to Javert each assignment was as another. Justice was the same everywhere, and he went where the law willed, satisfied in doing his duty.
Memories had faded over time, but there had been plenty of occasions for him to attempt to recall the details. That first morning, Javert believed he had risen at his accustomed time. Had washed and dressed – fresh shirt, clean coat, brushed hat – then taken a light breakfast.
Observing the town around him, he had gathered the troop which had arrived with him the night before, and they had all made their introductions at the Administration Centrale for Montreuil-sur-Mer. He greeted the local men he would lead and was guided through the offices, the cells, the interrogation rooms.
Javert had been satisfied with the routines and sense of order, if not overly impressed with the state of discipline. Had continued on a wider tour through the areas of the town most likely to need the firm hand of the constabulary; ridden past the docks, seen the gates and noted each guard. They had ended their ride at one of the factories owned by the mayor, and there Javert had encountered him. The exalted M. Madeleine, benefactor and ruler of this little hamlet.
Javert had presented his papers; they had exchanged polite words. Despite the niggle of recognition, he could never have dreamed that this short meeting spelled his doom.
The second time had been, as far as his own memory was concerned, only a few months ago. He had washed and dressed mechanically, a puppet in the hands of fate. He had cleaned and loaded his gun despite its already spotless state, then left. Had walked out without breakfast or notifying his men, driven to his task like the monstrous Golem of the story.
Because in the night before, in a night years ahead of this morning, Javert had ended himself. Caught between grace and duty, choosing the first over the second for the only in his life, he had failed and broken the laws of heaven.
And had awoken here, in Montreuil-sur-Mer. If this was where God's hand placed him, here at the beginning of his long, slow fall into damnation, how else should he take the judgement? Failure could not be forgotten. Disgrace stained forever. And yet, some silent judge had given him one more opportunity to set things Right, to let law rule where mercy had failed. And so Javert took up his gun and went to right his final mistake.
A knock on the door, a pointless greeting called. Familiar eyes widening in recognition, a mouth opening – the word never spoken.
One bullet between the eyes, and Monsieur le Maire was no more.
Javert could have attempted to explain himself. He could have revealed the brand and pulled attention to the manacle scars. But he choose silence. The explanations were ash in his mouth, the sunlight too dirty, as if it had all been drenched in the filthy waters of the river.
Two days later, mind still numb from betrayal and failure, former inspector Javert was led to the guillotine in front of a hungry crowd. He heard the rapids rushing loud in their jeers when his verdict was read aloud and when he laid his head on the block, felt the straps tightening around his body, he knew nothing but relief at the approaching dark.
The third time Javert woke to this damned morning, it was with a choked-off scream and the sound of the death's heavy thud echoing in his ears. His neck burned like fire, his mouth gasped for impossible air, and his hands shook when he finally touched the unbroken skin of his throat. Dimly, he thought to recall the water freezing his sundered self together, before the stream swept him back to this beginning once again.
He had kept his silence then, feeling as if a thousand unseen eyes saw the brands of death upon him when he walked through the town. Silent judgement from the marble saints above the church door, old rain carving grey tears on cold faces; mockery in the imbecile grin of the boar painted by the public house and taunts in the cloudy eyes of a stinking beggar blocking his way.
Javert had barely spoken barely the entire day. Handed handed over his letters with the minimal amount of words required. He went on patrol like an automaton, feet taking him through foetid alleys and past suspicious hovels he was not meant to know about yet.
When dawn arrived, his mouth was parched. But all water carried the taint of filth and sand, as if he drank the effluences of the million souls of great Paris. In every drop of wine, he tasted the blood of misguided children dead before their time. The red of their wasted lives lingered on the streets of his mind; the streets where harsh words had been spoken by a man who understood nothing and judged on hollow grounds. They had all drowned in the end, silly boys who played at rebellion, and were swept away from their familiar cobblestones by the red waves – only he lived on, to regret his thoughtless condemnations.
He kept his silence. He ate little, but did his work and that night, his dreams were were empty with exhaustion. Nights rolled into days; duty was endless, silence was rare, and the winter grew longer than in his memory.
Perhaps, Javert had thought then, this was what the accursed town wished from him. Perhaps it had pulled the rot from Valjean's soul, had left him pure and holy at the price of one failed policeman's imprisonment.
Might he be allowed to pay off this debt?
The numbness gradually dispersed as he did his work, the rushing of the rapids growing dimmer with every smile Monsieur le Maire showed him. The suffocating weight that had choked him since the night of the barricades began to diminish while he laboured and struggled. For the first time, he tried to dispense justice and mercy with an even hand.
If he was perhaps not yet eternally damned, might he be on trial in the grand court above? Had his suicide been forgiven, insofar that he was allowed to navigate the paths of purgatory? For his true hell, Javert knew with the certainty of the lonely child who had wept in the the darkness, would be eternal rebirth in the dungeons of his youth. Much as he had come to hate the room and the city alike, there were yet depths of misery he had not been forced to relive.
Then came the night where he went ahead to stop a robbery turned murder. An old watchmaker working late, beaten to death by the brute (convict) whom Javert had collared two lifetimes ago.
Save a life where he could. Bring a criminal who would murder an old man to justice; for once, his duty and burden alike were easy to satisfy.
Too many nights on patrol, perhaps. Too many dreams of rushing water, too many doubts still weighing him down. Underestimating the loyalty of an old con, too, who had carried his silence into the grave. Because a companion appeared behind Javert, a man hidden from the law in all preceding lives. A knife, a moment of fire between his ribs, and he was drowning again. Drowning in red heat, his temper flaring even as his own pistol roared.
There was a grim satisfaction in knowing that the old watchmaker would live, even as Javert choked on the iron of his own lifeblood, hearing the alarm raised too late On the great clock above him, gilded and severe, the likeness of St. Maurice watched his passing. For the first time since he had abandoned duty in the face of wracking doubt, he thought he saw a hint of compassion in the blank eyes. Then the shadows pulled him down and he prayed that this time, the darkness would be eternal.
But he had woken once more, in this thrice-damned bed, on this thrice-damned morning and he did not know if he could face this day again.
Guidance, he prayed, my Lord in heaven, give me but one sign to follow! Let me know your will through one word and I shall obey, but do not abandon me to this morning for an eternity, or I must surely break apart.
When Javert finally emerged from his room, only his closest superiors would have noticed anything amiss. The hour was later than the one he usually rose at, but not by too much. The uniform was spotless, his eyes were hard and if he turned to answer questions almost before they were asked, what of it? The Inspector was an observant man, his men would say, quick to react and difficult to rattle.
Once again, Javert followed his guide: through the depths of the department building, across the streets of Montreuil-sur-Mer, past its dilapidated harbour – their benefactor, their blessing, Monsieur Madeleine had not yet had time to spread his wealth and wisdom over it, his guide informed him, but it was but a matter of time – feeling half adream until his horse carried him towards the factory area.
He found himself slowing down, strange fancies making him fumble with the reins. There was money in his pocket, there was a good horse to his name. Who would miss him if he left? This damned city, this sinful folk? A lifetime in the New World, a passage on the first, ship wherever it might take him... would that not be enough, to forget and escape?
As if his mount could feel his thoughts, it snorted and danced beneath him, and he was brought back to the moment. No. Javert was many shameful things, but coward he would never become. His destiny might be stuck here in Montreuil-sur-Mer, but he would rather die a thousand deaths before he tried to run from it like a whipped dog.
Instead, Javert dismounted and handed the reins to the closest man, barely remembering to give the order for his troop to remain behind.
He came somewhat later, this time, and so he saw a young woman thrown from the factory, her pink dress a wilting flower on the muddy pavement. Even so, he almost missed the meaning of this moment, thoughts turned inwards. There was his ignorant assumption, too, that she was in her right place. Anyone thrown from that holy fool's premises must have earned it badly.
She was was whimpering, praying perhaps, and he sidestepped her without slowing his stride.
Perhaps the saints had heard his silent plea that morning. Perhaps the fates occasionally pitied even blind policemen. For something drew his attention – her voice, her fine long hair, or the claw-like hand digging in the dirt for a single coin – and he turned, looked down and finally saw.
A moment cold as the river, then the light that had been denied him flared within his mind.
Not the mayor, not the town? Could it be? The abyss drowning his soul, was it because of the woman and the girl?
"Mademoiselle, are you in need of assistance?" He crouched and offered her his hand, tried to display whatever comfort he might still have to spare.
Her dark eyes were wide with fright, but in her answer, spoken through half-clenched teeth, he heard the anger hidden in her. Pride, she had; pride and a temper ready to ignite like phosphorus. This was what would bring her to Javert's attention in about a year and propel her into Monsieur le Maire's gentler hands.
Anger or no, her voice was full of fear, the explanation disjointed and hesitant. Kindness did not come easy to him, nor did patience. Rather than ruin everything, he sent her away before either ran out, first making sure that she had money in her pocket and her ears full of trite reassurances.
It took but a moment to distract old Fauchelevent, for he wanted no disturbances during the coming discussion. When the cart broke, it fell harmlessly in the mud and Javert left the unfortunate man behind, thinking that he was lucky to bemoan the loss of money so loudly.
Then he was walking up the stairs, a thrum of excitement rising inside; the allure of the game returning after too long a time.
The woman. The child. The convict beneath the mayor's mask. Which one of them could it be, which one responsible for his fate? He did not know, but it felt as if his instincts had finally woken up, after months of staggering through despair.
It was obvious to him now; if his mistake had only concerned Valjean, why should he be brought back so far? The town, he had believed, the people cursing him for the loss of their beloved Madeleine... but did not all men curse the death of a gentle master? Would not every able king, every beloved commander be immortal in that case? No, the begging of the crowd went unheard in this world and all others. One particular voice, it must have been; one perpetrator who chained Javert to life.
And if her salvation was the price? If coddling that weak soul, holding her back from the fall, was all the payment needed to escape those dreams of rushing waters? Then by God, salvation she would have! He would hunt down the solution that fate demanded, even if he had to cram grace down their throats until they all choked!
A sharp rap on the door, a call of welcome. He schooled his features and opened the door.
"Greetings, Monsieur le Maire," he said. "Please, know me as Inspector Javert." One small moment of amusement at the tension that made those broad shoulders hunch, the stillness of the prey who feared discovery. Surely, that little thing could not be denied him?
He handed over the letter, repeated the phrases he must speak, observed. There, that movement was the old con, the mask not so much cracking as shifting to show the truth beneath. But the voice was all M. Madeleine, and the smile was far too gentle to ever have been worn in Toulon.
What, Javert found himself wondering for the first time, had turned the beast into a man? Where originated the wellspring of his kindness?
"Ah, before I take my leave... If I may ask for another moment of your time, Monsieur le Maire?"
"Of course, Inspector, whatever you may need. We both work for the improvement of this town, after all."
"Yes," he replied, pushing down the vision of making the entire damned hovel sink into the sea, "so we do. Monsieur, I met a woman outside your door. Her plight touched me, for she had been turned out from your factory on what appears to have been one man's whim."
The satisfaction of making Jean Valjean's features twist with shock was almost worth the river.
"I beg your pardon, Inspector?"
"The cause was a petty man, a lustful creature, who took revenge when he had the opportunity." He did not need to feign the disgust that coloured his voice now. Though Valjean had never noticed, Javert had seen the foreman among the fallen women often enough to recognize his type. "For a youthful mistake that left her burdened with a child she was fired from your factory. It happened just now. Without references her prospects seem faint. One might ask if the punishment of ruin is equal to the weight of her crime?"
Valjean was still gaping at him, forgetting that he was supposed to play a cultured gentleman.
"You pity her, Inspector?"
He spread his hands diffidently, offering neither denial nor confirmation. "As a man of the law, my main concern lies in the formalities. Whatever the woman's fault, she deserves to have her cause heard properly, her offence judged fairly."
There was a choked sound that might have indicated curiosity. He hoped it was not the sound of shock tearing open a blood vessel in Valjean's head; that would be inconvenient. But this charade had gone on for long enough, and the next words, he spoke with true conviction.
"The law is greater than the sum of its parts, Monsieur le Maire, and on occasion, justice must rise above its written rules. I believe you know this as well? After all, only the ignorant and the foolish would confuse God's justice with the actions of those who enforce and shape man's justice; policeman and magistrate alike, mere mortals as well, and thus as fallible as all men ." He waited a beat, but though Javert could see that he had his listener's rapt attention, there seemed to be no understanding in him.
"While I am certain that the regulations of this factory were written with the best intentions, your foreman is neither fair nor just; that much has been revealed even to a newcomer such as myself. And so I humbly ask you, Monsieur le Maire, to consider what might make your reputation suffer worse: a minor quarrel on the factory floor, or the fact that even the lowest patrolman is happy to tell any new arrival that your foreman frequently 'samples' the young women who walk through your door?"
Javert fell silent, unsure of how to go on; he dared not plead his case further. If he spoke more, there was a real chance that he would reveal the disdain he still felt for that weak creature who seemed to have trapped him in this cycle of repeated death. Nor did the mayor speak yet; he merely shook his head slowly, confusion written large in his face.
Had Javert's plea rung too false, after all? Or had the turning of the lifetimes changed this man: was too much of the old thief still alive in the mayor at this time?
Then Monsieur le Maire grasped his hand, and spoke his name with a new warmth in his voice. And Javert saw that the smile blooming on his face was the smile of Jean Valjean, and for a moment the two were one and the same.
The seventh time
For the first time on this morning, he woke to confusion as to how he had arrived. For several heartbeats, Javert lay disoriented in his bed and listened to the river of his nightmares rush around him.
The scent of lavender surrounded him, rising from the sheets. The maid, her buckets sounding like the tolling of the bell of doom, ringing out his judgement. No reprieve, no rest, nothing but failure and failure again.
He could at first not remember how he had died. Then images appeared; a horse startling, a great rumble and the crushing weight upon his back...
Where had he erred this time?
When Javert rose, the shadows of deaths seemed to weigh him down in body as well as soul. The water battering him was always there, on every step of his road. The pain in his neck, the blade in his side and the way his arm, jaw and skull felt when crushed beneath heavy blows – those were almost familiar now.
The memory of a growing shortness of his breath... Phantom coughs which plagued him if he reflected on the sound of his breathing too much. That had been a death to fear; the mere memory made his heart race with terror. The thin line of fire where Madame Guillotine had tapped him once was nothing in comparison.
Never one too impressed by fainting poets and limp artists, Javert had seen enough victims dragged to a choking, gasping death, that he had chosen a faster escape once it became clear that the White Plague held him. Whatever destiny awaited him in the final world, it was not to waste away in Montreuil-sur-Mer's hospital a mere three years after being assigned to the city.
Seeing the woman reinstated to her old position while the foreman was chastised and moved to a factory staffed by men, his despair had faded. In due time, the daughter arrived. She visited with her mother, seemed happy enough when Javert spotted her, and soon left for a convent school on Monsieur le Maire's expense. He dared hope for deliverance.
For a year, his dreams were empty of terrors and he managed to fill his days with work.
After his "mercy" had been revealed to Madeleine, the man's fear of discovery seemed to diminish. They carefully navigated the reefs of small talk, and slowly, Madeline began asking Javert's counsel. His own opinions too were shared more openly than before. Despite the secrets they both kept, Javert found that their professional co-operation ran smoother than the first time he had been in Montreuil-sur-Mer. Things seemed good.
But when the year turned, the winds changed. The wintry barrage of the river against the old pier became the roaring of the Seine beneath his feet, a red shawl glimpsed became a flag in the hand of a dead youth, and his nights turned restless and cold.
The persistent cough began at the height of summer. As the days grew shorter, he felt his strength slowly leech away. Monsieur le Maire began insisting that he come over for some hearty food and take more rest.
Javert refused to admit the truth to himself, until a coughing fit overcame him in the street; intense enough to bend his body with steel bands of pain, it could not be ignored. He was forced to accept a helping hand – that, or seek support against the dirty factory wall and like as not slide down into the gutter. Finally regaining control, though he was still gasping for air, Javert turned and met the mayor's worried countenance. Though his eyes remained kind, they were no longer surrounded by those small crinkles of amusement Javert had unconsciously come to expect. Instead, it was wholly the man of charitable duty who spoke encouragements, only that damn tireless altruist looking down at him with eyes fair shining with pity.
Perhaps his fate was to be the Sisyphus of Montreuil-sur-Mer, but pity was not something Inspector Javert would ever accept.
Allowing himself a final repast and a glass of fine wine, which tasted only faintly of blood and dreams washed up in dirty alleys, Javert spent the evening with Madeleine. When he had made his farewells, he went home and cleaned his room. He packed away his belongings and wrote a few letters of guidance, regarding the current cases he was working with. He already owned a rope and easily tied it into a noose. The rope went around a wooden beam, the chair went beneath the rope, and the noose around his neck. Efficient, he had dared hope. Permanent, he could only wish.
It had been neither.
Javert had not know it would take such very long time for the dark to come, nor that his failing spirits would rise instinctively at the threshold of death. He died disgracefully with fingers clawing at the noose, gagging for one more breath; a mindless animal at the end.
To draw breath anew after such an exit... The elation at the simple act – free, unhindered, air flowing into him, reviving healthy limbs – had quickly overcome that first moment of horror at waking through death.
His joy was short-lived, though, for a too deep breath caused him to gasp and almost cough. The waters seemed to rise around him for a moment and he thought to see a trickle of red along the floorboards. A warning or an omen? A vision of what was to come, if he did not find the right path soon?
Whatever it was, it had been too heavy-handed. Flinging the covers aside, Javert found himself near shaking with fury as he rose from the bed. How dared they! How dared any unseen power, any God or Fate above, twist him such! He was to rise again, whatever happened? He was to do his duty – though he had no map, no law to follow – or he was to suffer death and death again? And now, the Powers had not even had the decency to send a loaded gun his way, but were happy to let him wither away before his time! All for breaking an invisible edict, for failing at this enigmatic task he had been given with unspoken, unwritten orders no man could know to follow!
The girl and her mother were safe, the memory of Valjean had died and Monsieur Madeleine thrived in his place. What else could they want? Would he not be freed until he went on his knees before the throne, until the old con was pardoned under his own name?
Javert gritted his teeth to stave off the roar of fury. He had been choked for too long, his anger was boiling over, and he knew that he must act – act at once, or suffocate forever on his own hatred.
Uniform, stick, rapier. A moment to send a man with a feeble excuse to the local constabulary while he saddled his horse, and then he was thundering towards the mayor's home. How he hated that sight of that mockingly austere building, so perfectly fit for a living saint!
He banged on the door, drawing his sword with a rattle as soon as Valjean's voice made it through his fury. When he he heard the final click of the latch, he kicked the door aside and stumbled inside, cornering his prey and finally allowing himself to let his emotions run free.
"I know you!" he snarled, rage making it difficult to keep his blade still against the other's bare throat. "I know you, Jean Valjean!"
"Javert," he whispered, that thief, that miserable liar. Colour fled his face, he raised empty hands into the air, and it was a balm to hear the fear with which his name was uttered. "Javert!"
Finally, after too long a time, they were not Monsieur Madeleine and his faithful underling. Here and now remained only Valjean the Prisoner, and Javert the Law. The world was righted.
Javert was in full uniform, gloved hand clasped with painful firmness around the handle of his rapier. Valjean, in contrast, was unshaven and unarmed, only a nightgown between the blade and his skin.
Here, at least, here he still had the power! And if everything else was falling apart, if he was drowning in time itself, as long as he was a hunter with a prey, Javert would hold on.
"You can never hide from me," Javert said. He stepped closer, slowly, savouring each moment. "But this ridiculous charade? Monsieur le Maire, you barely even tried."
Oh, how he wanted tear apart all the things that trapped him here and none more than this man, this living mockery of every principle he had once held.
"I don't see," Valjean began, but the rapier laid against his cheek silenced him fast, and his hands trembled.
"You will run, Valjean," he mouthed; make him listen, now, make him strain and strive to understand! "You will run, and you will hide, and if you can live a long, long life in your fox-hole, then so be it. But I will not allow natural order to be further mocked! If you have any care for your sorry neck, then begone! Or I shall see you split asunder and cut down, if it so takes me five lifetimes 'fore I drive you beneath the guillotine!"
"You're not arresting me?" Valjean asked, eyes never leaving Javert, as if the thin line of red opening on his cheek was a fly he couldn't bother to swat away.
What use to attempt arrest when he had spent his entire life striving for that, and been rewarded only with this living hell?
"Then..." Valjean swallowed and lifted his head, lips pressing together to hide their tremble. "Be quick."
During the ride here, there had been no thoughts in him. He had only felt the need to take himself back – Javert, the Inspector. Javert the Hunter. But not, it appeared, Javert the Executioner.
"No," he whispered. And slowly, regretfully, Javert drew his blade back until only one scarlet line remained – a statement of all his failures.
The sword's rattle when it was returned to the scabbard, reminded him of the cough. It forced the repeated invitations from the convict, requests for them to break bread together, to the forefront of his mind.
No; not an executioner today. Not of Jean Valjean.
"I have an errand outside of town that takes priority," he said, impotent fury twisting his voice into a hateful growl. "But if you are still here, still playing at being our dear, pious Monsieur le Maire when I return in three days..."
"My presence will not darken the streets of this town again," Valjean promised, voice almost shaking. It was good to see him brought so low. It soothed Javert's confused soul to see him press white knuckles against the cut upon his cheek. The gesture did not hide the pain in his face for the city he would have to leave, the longing for the comfortable life that had been torn from his unworthy hands. It was far too good to see him so.
Javert turned on his heel, intending to leave, when a thought coming to him. "It would serve you ill to stay here, even if you wished to take your punishment as a man," he said, throwing the words over his shoulder.
"There are no men in Toulon," Valjean answered, "for it twists all who enter into beasts and rots every last bit of decency in us." Perhaps not having to face Javert had let him find his worn old whining about 'salvation' again.
He glanced back. Valjean had his arms crossed protectively in front of his chest, wearing that old expression of mulish righteousness, never doubting the justness of his words. How could this convict playing mayor carry on without hesitation or doubt? How could he forget the creeping wreck of 24601 and be wholly Valjean, sturdy as an old tree, with dignity in his stance despite the ridiculous old nightclothes and the greying stubble on his cheeks?
And yet, however he had transmuted himself from dross to shining silver, even Valjean was affected by the traces so many deaths had carved onto Javert's face and soul. Today, the forces haunting him must cast a dreadful shadow, for when the Inspector turned and their eyes met again, whatever Valjean saw made him grow pale and back down. As he had never done during Javert's first, true, existence.
The sight of his fear made the next words sweet to utter. "If I see you again in this life, I will shoot you like a dog."
"Then I thank you for deigning to warn me like a man!" Valjean called over the slamming of the door.
Leaving him behind, knowing that death and time would bring them together sooner than he wished, Javert turned his mind forward. Time to face that tiny soul that must be tying him to a life he had grown weary of the first time around.
He rode for Montfermeil in a thunder of hooves, leaving behind the confused cries of his men, diving into woods as if their silence was the roaring of the Seine.
Javert rode to his death, but he did it on his own terms, and the wolf's grin on his face remained during his journey. It widened when he faced the pathetic Thénardier and ignored his whimpers and his cries. It was still there when one of the drunkards tried to club him down, when Javert finally threw off all restraints and felt the blood of human filth stain his stick, his hands and his snarling mouth.
It had been a good way to die.
To his regret, the opening of his next life had been among the worst thus far. His entire body felt so broken and battered that he was forced to half roll out of bed, and staggered to the washbasin. It was uncanny how the deaths accumulated on him, old pains merging into new, though none ever eclipsed that first claustrophobic grip of the river.
It also begged the question of how much more his body could take... when would the Inspector find himself chained to a bed like the lowest convict, forced to rot away until death rolled over again, and captured him anew? It was an image of hell; not the fires of penance Javert had expected to find at the bottom of the river, but a far less dignified eternity. Equally void of hope. Perhaps, if he fell so low, he would be returned to Toulon in his soul, if not in body. Helpless like a babe, chained in darkness and filth until death threw him back to the beginning of his sentence... He shivered, fought down bile, and pushed the vision away.
To the end, he would remain himself: Inspector Javert, striving to do his duty, whatever befell him.
He had washed. Had called for a hot drink and even managed a shave. Armed himself in uniform and pushed down his lingering aches. Put on his hat, walked out into the same day and spoke the same lines, for what felt like the hundred time.
One death for his rage. Very well; it had been a fair trade with fate, but as the memory of pain showed him, it was not one he might afford too often.
Strategy, then. What, if anything, had he learned? The girl was pitiful and the innkeeper a maggot; nothing Javert wasn't already aware of and knew. Monsieur le Maire could either fear his rage, or grow to trust him by a small show of charity. His task was not to drive the man out of town. Nor, if Javert was any judge of the strange omens haunting every false step he took, should he threaten him with the law.
It had all gone wrong so quickly, he mused to himself while his feet took him through the familiar inspection of the Administration Centrale faster than his guide managed to follow.
Last time, he had received a year of peace. Something akin to a ceasefire with his old enemy. And then, overnight, it had been ruined without any conscious action of his.
Why? And if Montreuil-sur-Mer was not where Valjean was needed, why had he erred again when he forced the blasted man to escape? There was money in his coffers, enough to take him all the way to the New World or buy him a fine house in Genève or London, far beyond Javert's reach. But the sound of the river had been with him all through his ride to the Thénardier's inn. Not, he must admit, that he had felt up to the task of saving the little girl; but if fate had allowed a comforting sun to sooth the twisted shadows and quiet the river? Perhaps his rage might have faded.
And before that was his slow, drawn out death, handed him while nobody had reason to suspect that M. Madeleine had any blots on his past. Had he overlooked something with the woman and the girl after all? He could imagine nothing wrong with Fantine's daughter being schooled in a convent. Did that not serve the will of God? Fantine herself had still been working, last he saw her. Perhaps more worn from her life than a rich woman of her age, but surely the fates were not demanding that he rain down gold on every wretch around him?
The factories of Montreuil-sur-Mer had been thriving, the people grateful for their lot. As long as Javert kept his silence, their owner was safe in his seat, growing more comfortable in the mayor's post with each passing year. With no damning letter sent to Paris, Valjean need not learn of the trial which forced him to abandon the town and might well remain Madeleine for the rest of his life.
Javert halted so suddenly that the young constable walked into him, his apologies as immediate as unnecessary. He needed not have worried, because the inspector wouldn't have heard even if someone had just cursed him to hell and back.
The clouds of his mind had lifted again and he fancied that he saw a vision of a different river, a great water clear and blue, glittering in the sun. The River of Life, he thought, or perhaps the forgiving waters of the Lethe, where he would finally be able to put aside his doubts.
It had taken two painful deaths, but he had come one step closer to escaping this endless morning and the purgatory of Montreuil-sur-Mer. It was a small price to pay.
The trial of Jean Valjean!
Now, if he could only recall the name of that imbecile who had been mistaken for Valjean, he might even save him without the risk of unsettling Monsieur le Maire from his little fiefdom. The pattern was finally becoming clear: He'd save the falsely accused idiot from jail, he'd keep the major in place, the girl would grow up safely and the town's coffers remain fat and happy – oh yes, he could act the saint and loathe them in silence! To escape this damned town, these ever-appearing faces, Javert would do everything to perfect their miserable lives! Surely, the fates could demand nothing more from him?
As it turned out, they could demand that he spend a moment thinking of where he put his feet, or he would be run down on the street while he was mentally composing his letter. It had been intended for the Magistrate in Paris, containing information of a suspicious vagabond sighted near Montreuil-sur-Mer. The man would bear a great likeness to the escaped prisoner 24601. This message should have been enough to upset the trial without the mayor ever having to be disturbed, and if not enough, Javert's testimony would surely settle the matter...
He paid a heavy price for his thoughtlessness. The vehicle which crushed him was far more elaborate than the cart which had nearly killed old Fauchelevent, but that only meant that it was heavier. Javert did not need to taste the blood in his mouth to know that it was far too late for him, even before a team of his men heaved the damned thing away. He prepared to die cursing the fickle fates once more.
The honest sorrow on Monsieur le Maire's face when he arrived too late to help, too late to do anything but offer a prayer for his new inspector, was admittedly a surprise.
"Oh, don't fuss so," he growled, batting at Valjean's hand trying to press his. "I shall see you," when the darkness refuses me and I wake once again.
And here he was once more – awake on the same morning as usual, if not in the same wretched state as before. Perhaps his earlier glimpse of salvation had given him strength? Or the mindless weight of a cart did not leave the same bruises as the hateful beating at the hands of a drunken mob, for his body felt no worse with another death laid on it. Better, even, then in the life before.
His remembrances had brought him something else; the name which had so long eluded him. The man whose forgotten fate had doomed him to the creeping death of the White Plague when all else had gone so well. Champmathieu, it was, the foolish man who must not be convicted on false grounds, but whose capture must also not endanger the place of M Madeleine.
Finally, Javert had a name, a time, and a goal. Now, he needed to find a way to save the idiot. And the woman, and the child, and of course the infuriating old con himself... When this was done, Javert thought while he dressed and shaved, he hoped less for heaven's salvation than for the great black silence of the grave.