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A Reflection of Starlight

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“Dawn begins at midnight.”

-Leo Jozef Suenens

 

***

 

     Either mechanically or for the sake of fresh air, Valjean stuck his head through the window, leaning out. The street was short, and the lantern illuminated it from end to end.

     Amazement overwhelmed him. There was no longer anyone there.

     Javert had left.

     Valjean stood motionless, unable to comprehend how this could be.

     In retrospect, he would not be sure why he had done this, only that something strange had come over him—a sense of wonder, of suspicion and curiosity—and he had ceased, for a moment, to think rationally.

     There was something almost foreboding in the atmosphere. That shadowed, empty street. The motionless, heavy air. The blackened sky. The lack of a presence that should have been there, its absence like a lingering ghost, silent, beckoning him into the depths of the night.

     Trance-like, he descended the stairs and reopened the door, entirely oblivious to the porter’s questioning voice behind him, walking out into the street.

     His gaze darted around, the houses quiet, air hushed and still.

     Without any particular intention or inclination of one, he drifted off towards one of the street-crossings.

     And then he thought he could hear, from a nearby alleyway, the sound of footsteps the like of which came from a pair of very particular boots.

     Valjean blinked, following the sound unthinkingly into the night as a traveler lost in the wilderness follows a distant light source.

     He trailed the man at a very healthy distance, careful to step lightly.

     Javert’s head was hung in a manner completely unlike him, hands clasped behind his back as he continued down backstreets and alleyways to a destination unknown.

     He didn’t seem to be wandering aimlessly, Valjean thought, but then he did not seem to be in any particular hurry to get anywhere, either.

     They reached the Quay des Ornes, skirted it, and passed the Greve. Javert stopped a little ways off from the post of the Place du Châtelet, at the corner of the Pont Notre Dame, where the Seine formed a sort of square lake. A dangerous point of the river, the waters surged and crashed against the bridge, swirling and coursing rapidly beneath it, swollen by the recent rains.

     Here Javert stood, propping his arms up upon the parapet and resting his chin on them, gazing off at what Jean Valjean could not say.

     Valjean’s instincts tore him in two. One, the stronger, more sensible one, said there was no reason for him to be here—nay, reason enough for him not to be here—and he should return home, to safety, to his daughter. But there arose another instinct, quieter, its craving for answers somehow equaling if not overpowering the other instinct’s urgency. And it told him he should stay, he should try to make sense of the situation; there was a sort of safety to be had in sense. Each urge, however, negated the other, and he was left not knowing what to do.

     He was not even sure why he had come in the first place; he was tired, and hungry, and filthy, and he desperately wanted to see Cosette.

     And yet.

     Something was off. Perhaps off in a way that was favorable for him. He wasn’t sure. He wanted to be sure. He wanted to know if he was truly safe in Paris—if they could stay there, as Cosette had begged him to, and not have to fear their world one day being torn apart by officers of the law.

     Was such a thing even possible? That Javert might, in the act of repaying one favor with another, allow Valjean’s presence in the city to go unrecognized? He had never known Javert to be merciful, or even kind. Surely such a thing, contradicting his duty as an inspector, would be inconceivable to him.

     And yet Javert had left.

     He had, just as he had finally gotten a firm grip on him, allowed him to go free.

     Or had he?

     Had he really? Or was he merely giving him a chance to flee, a gesture of gratefulness: one night, before he brought down the full force of the prefecture upon him in the morning?

     Had Valjean been allowed to go free temporarily, or permanently? This was not something he could possibly fathom himself asking directly; the question, however, was gnawing away at him incessantly, wracking his nerves, slowly driving him mad as he gazed upon the man, part of him wanting to flee and part of him wanting to walk right up to him and demand to know—as was his right as a citizen—what was to be done with him.

     He resolved, at long last, merely to watch. Until morning, perhaps, if need be. Surely something in the inspector's actions would tell him whether he was planning for his arrest the coming day.

     Although, already, Javert had been standing motionless for what seemed like hours, and Valjean had been unable to glean anything of use from him as of yet. The only thing of remark was that the man had been tangling his fingers in his whiskers—a gesture indicative of a deep pensiveness, and one which Valjean had never seen him do before. Still, the man said nothing, did nothing—and Valjean did not know what to make of it.

     All of a sudden, Javert rose.

     Tense and overly self-aware, Valjean followed far behind.

     He paled when he saw that Javert was headed towards the station house at the corner of Place du Châtelet, the lantern on its door still lit. He watched him enter the station with a sense of dread, choosing to hide himself behind the corner of a nearby building.

     No, no, Javert was going to tell them; he should have taken his chance …

     But then again, could he not presumably just be making his daily report before heading home? A report that, if fortune was favorable, might not contain a single word about a certain long-escaped convict?

     Sweat dripped down the back of Valjean’s neck.

     What to do? If Javert truly was sealing his fate here, would he even be able to escape with Cosette if he ran back home now? The seemingly endless darkness of the barricades and the sewers had stripped him of his sense of time. Was there enough night left to wake his poor daughter, to give a no-doubt unsatisfactory explanation and convince her to flee, to pack necessities and plan a route? Could he even bring himself to do that to her again?

     And with her love for Marius! She would never agree to it. How could he tear them away from each other now, when he didn’t even know if the boy would live?

     He tormented himself with these thoughts, feverish, shuddering.

     In the space of fifteen minutes, Javert exited the station. Alone.

     He returned, to Valjean’s surprise, to the precise spot along the quay that he had been standing at earlier. He stood still, chin resting on his hands as before.

     Valjean’s brow furrowed. What on earth was he doing?

     Again, Javert rose, only this time he merely bent his head, gazing at the body of water beneath him. He remained thusly for a minute or so before removing his hat and placing it on the parapet beside him. Then he hoisted himself up and rose to his feet upon the edge of the divide, looking down into the river’s depths.

     Valjean froze, breathless.

     Javert stared into the gulf below, leaning over the edge to better his view, and then straightened himself, shoulders sagging. A moment later, to Valjean’s horror, he allowed himself to fall forwards.

     And with that, he disappeared over the quay without a word.

     Valjean gaped, unable to process what had just occurred.

     It had happened so quickly, and with so little warning or fanfare, that it seemed more like a fleeting shadow—a phantom flashing in the night—than a real man, and a real act.

     Was it a trick of his eyes? Was this some kind of dream? Had the stress of it all driven him mad? Surely it was not possible that Javert, that singular, steadfast man that he’d known for so many years, was even remotely capable of—

     It was not until the muffled sound of a splash met his ears that he came to his senses and bolted for the water.

     He did not even consider the rapids below, or the distant whirlpool, or the great height from which he would fall. It was in an instinctual panic that he vaulted over the parapet and flung himself into the Seine, unthinking and motivated beyond all logic.

     The force of the impact drove the air from his lungs, and the cold temperature ignited every nerve in his body as he struggled back towards the surface. Gasping and coughing, his eyes darted around frantically. He could see nothing; all was black as pitch. For split-seconds, serpentine slivers of light reflected off the rushing water, but they illuminated nothing, and only served to confuse his senses.

     “Javert!” he called as he fought to stay afloat, turning this way and that. He could hear only the sounds of the rapids and the rough panting that escaped his own throat. “Javert!”

     Despite his efforts he could find no trace of the man. Gritting his teeth, he dove under. It was impossible to make anything out; the river might as well have been night itself made liquid, and it gave him a horrible sense of claustrophobia.

     Again and again he dove down, rose for air, dove down again, following the river's current. Each time his gasps were more and more pained. “Javert!” he cried over and over, his voice growing hoarse. The water stung his eyes and sapped the strength from his body.

     Once more he sucked in a breath and dove below, the world swallowing him up as he swam deeper and deeper.

     Blindly, he groped in the darkness, and by chance his fingers brushed past something that felt like wool. With a start he reached out for it, the river already trying to drag it away, and he managed to grab hold of what he realized was the edge of a greatcoat. Fumbling, he followed it up until his hands met a torso, and he wrapped his arm around it and tried to make his way back to the surface.

     The heavy burden caused him to make little headway, and Valjean began to wonder if he too might drown in this seemingly endless abyss. The weight of the wet, wool coat was no doubt an unnecessary hindrance, but he didn’t dare waste time trying to remove it. Besides, any attempt he might make at undoing the buttons would be blind: clumsy and pointless. He gritted his teeth, his lungs burning, kicking as hard as he could while he tried to propel himself skyward with his one free arm.

     He thought it a miracle when he finally breached the surface, and filled his chest with the night air in greedy gulps.

     He could not allow himself to rest before starting again, knew he had no time to spare. So, wheezing, he swam forwards, fighting against the current in an effort to make it back to the nearest bridge.

     It was most certainly over-exertion, but the current seemed so much stronger than before, and he could feel himself being pulled back, back from salvation. If he stopped for but a single second, he knew he would be swept away, and he stretched and strained in the darkness, barely able to breathe.

     Finally, with one last lunge, he caught hold of one of the bottom rungs on the side of the Pont Notre Dame. Bracing his feet against the hard stone, he began hauling himself upwards rung by rung, the dripping body shifting limply on his back with each change in angle, dead weight.

     When Valjean managed to climb over the railing, he slumped straightaway onto the other side. He didn’t even care how hard his shoulder was struck upon the landing. He just wanted to be still for a moment.

     Unable to summon up any more strength, he sprawled out on the cobblestone, panting between coughs.

     The rush of relief from being once more upon solid ground suppressed his senses and almost allowed him to forget all else. But mere seconds later his eyes popped open, and he scrambled to his hands and knees.

     “Javert, Javert—” The words were mere breaths now, barely making it out of his throat.

     He hovered over the inspector, panic setting aflame every fiber of his being and strangling his pounding heart.

     “Javert—”

     He pulled back the dark, wet locks of hair from the man’s face, revealing eyes that were sunken and shut. Tapped his palm against its clammy cheek, jostling his head frantically.

     Javert did not stir. It seemed no spark of life remained within his waterlogged body.

     Valjean's voice broke. “Javert …”

     He did not know how long he had been searching for, did not know how long either of them had been adrift in the Seine, and it ate away at him, the suspicion that he was too late, that Javert was gone—and that somehow, despite it going against all sense, it was his fault.

     But he refused to give up.

     Only glancing briefly at the surrounding streets to reaffirm that, yes, there was unfortunately no one around he could call on for aid, Valjean steeled himself and set to work. He only thanked his lucky stars he’d once had the occasion to see this lifesaving technique performed on a sailor in Toulon.

     Giving a few thrusts to the man’s ribcage, he tilted his head and put his lips to his, forcing air into his lungs. More thrusts, another breath. His motions fell into a pattern, words surfacing in his mind along with it:

 

     No,

     Javert.

 

     If you die,

     after all of this,

     I do not know

     how I can forgive myself.

 

     Why;

     why

     have you done this,

     Javert?

     Why?

 

     I do not

     understand.

 

     Javert,

     live.

 

     Chest compression, air; compression, air—he repeated these actions mechanically, oblivious to everything around him. Not a single thought entered his mind; not once did he ask himself in earnest if the attempt was futile, if he should not give up. Indeed, there was a terror in him that all might be for naught, but somehow this only drove him further onwards.

     On and on he continued, for he did not know how long, until suddenly the body beneath him convulsed.

     Javert’s abdomen heaved, and he retched up river water on the cobblestone, spasming violently. Still unconscious, he choked and gagged on his own reflexive, half-thwarted breaths, the water dribbling down the side of his cheek as he quivered.

     Panting, Valjean sat back, overwhelmed with emotion at the sight: relief and joy and anxiety all at once. As he watched the man’s coughing slowly subside, chest rising and falling, he felt as though a crushing burden had been lifted from him.

     For the first time in his life, he found himself looking at Javert without even a hint of fear. Not for himself, not anymore. Only for him.

     He gathered the man up and clutched him close, cushioning his lolling head in the crook of his arm and gazing down at him with worry.

     His heart pounded in his chest.

     He was acutely aware of the damp, heavy weight of him in his arms, the coolness of Javert’s skin, and the gentle, sporadic tremors of his torso as the man’s body tried to purge itself completely of the Seine.

     Hunched over him shelteringly, and still trying to catch his breath, he bent his brow to his and prayed.

 

***