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A Remission Before God

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It was some time before Javert could fully acknowledge this, but the evidence was clear: in bringing about his rescue from the Seine, God, that unknowable superior, had shown him the ultimate grace.

For it appeared He had torn up Javert’s resignation note, rejecting his attempt to drown himself in dark waters. He had prevented him from committing the ultimate of sins, which would have resulted in the ultimate punishment – the everlasting condemnation and death of hell, from which there could be no hope of salvation.

That night on the parapet of the quay at the angle of the Pont Notre-Dame, Javert had looked into his soul and not seen a way to reconcile the two paths that had opened before him. He could not discern how a former convict — feared amongst even those hardened criminals in Toulon — who had had Javert in his grasp, who should have taken his revenge, had chosen to ruin himself rather than ruin his enemy. How was it that such a man, condemned by society, might find himself at the summit of everything that was correct and holy?

As he stood on that parapet, gazing into the waters of the Seine, everything around him was mired in darkness. His life, built on the bedrock of his granite certainty, was a swirling fog of doubt. The only clarity: that he must choose between arresting the fugitive as the law required, or forgo such arrest and tear his entire world down from its foundations.

Javert chose the lesser sin: to destroy himself, that that infamous man could be set free.

But then that man himself had pulled Javert from the treacherous, swift-flowing river, from which even expert swimmers were said to never escape. That man had put him into his own bed and sought to convince him there could be yet another path for him.

"God saved you from the pit, and now He requires that you live," that man, Jean Valjean, had announced, when Javert first opened his eyes.

In the beginning, Javert was entirely insensible to such persuasion, and indeed to words themselves. For several days, drifting in and out of consciousness, there was nothing for him but the sickness from the river and his own continued wretchedness.

When sanity returned, when he first could understand precisely where he was — between starched sheets, in a modest, white-walled bedroom in Valjean's house in the remote Rue Plumet, hidden by its wrought-iron fence, its large, wild garden — when he finally regained his powers of speech, it was to curse God, all the saints and Valjean himself for not letting him drown.

"Is it not enough," he said, coughing, barely enough breath to form the words, "that I came to your heel like a dog to its master and helped you deliver that boy's corpse where you asked? Am I now to be kept alive in your home like some house pet? Did God steal my death only to deliver me into your power?"

"The boy lives," Valjean said, "we brought him home to his family," but Javert did not believe it, nor did he care. He kept coughing, kept cursing, would have flung himself from Valjean's bed onto the wooden floorboards if he had had any strength at all.

Some time later, Javert registered the presence of another man, who spoke in the low, authoritative tones of a physician, taking Valjean to task for letting his patient over-exert his lungs. Javert found he had insufficient breath to curse at M. le Docteur as well. He went unwillingly down into the well of unconsciousness in a huge, helpless rage.

Still, Valjean persisted, repeating the injunction like the paternoster. He attended to Javert himself when the physician was not present. Javert suffered medicine and broth in the morning, cold compresses in the afternoons, and evenings filled with Valjean's voice in quiet prayer.

Javert’s world had shrunk to this: his accursed weakness of limb, this unadorned room, the white curtains that shut out the wide world outside, and Jean Valjean — as stubborn as he had been in the bagne at Toulon, as steadfast as at the helm of Montreuil-sur-Mer, as resolute as at the barricades. He was immoveable, a rock at Javert's bedside; when he was not busy with the medicine and compresses and soup, he sat serenely in an armchair, reading and praying, filling the room with his unmistakable presence.

And when he perceived that Javert was awake, he said to him, "God requires that you live, Javert. Do not deny Him this.”

“You do not understand,” Javert said, finally, still many days later, when his fever had broken and he had run out of invective. He turned his face to the bare wall. His lungs still ached, he felt unequal to the challenge of breathing. He detested beyond measure that he was still too weak to raise himself from this bed. Civilisation was in rubble and there was no longer any place for him in it.

There was a long silence. Perhaps the source of his catastrophe, this malefactor who had not let him drown, would now leave him in peace.

Then Javert heard a chair being drawn up, and Valjean was sitting at his bedside. “Help me understand, then.”

Surely this was the grandest jest of all. “You now place yourself in the role of my confessor? And why not. After all you have already shown yourself stronger than the whole social fabric of our country.”

“Explain this,” his confessor said, not ungently.

“You showed me generosity,” Javert said. The words were bitter. His new conscience clamoured loudly within him. “I pursued you unto persecution, you had me in your power, and yet you chose mercy. You are a convict, and yet you are sublime, it is inexplicable. If I were to do my duty, I would have brought you back to face justice, but this I could not do. What the law required — it would have been a sin. Imagine that, the law a sin!”

Javert glared at the blankness of the wall as if it horrified and dazzled him.

“Now black is white and I am certain of nothing any more. Save this — without duty, without the law, I am nothing, I cannot continue to serve. Authority is dead and I might as well be too. I could not bring myself to arrest you then, and, God knows, I cannot do so even now that I find myself still alive.”

Behind him, the man who was in truth his benefactor was silent. Javert heard his low, even breaths, could almost hear him thinking. At last, he said, “I think I begin to understand.”

Javert rather doubted this, but Valjean was just commencing his opening argument. He said, "God is above the law, Inspector. He saved your body from death and your soul from eternal damnation — if you had succeeded in destroying yourself, you would have committed a mortal sin, and the communion of God and his Saints would be lost to you forever."

The cold chill in Javert's lungs seemed to have made its way down into his bones. The ecclesiastical authority was one he had esteemed the chief of all, as indeed he had been superficial and correct in all things, and Valjean's words rang with the conviction of truth.

Still he did not turn from the bare wall. He had been convinced at Pont Notre-Dame that it would be an even greater mortal sin to bring this man to ruin. Even after these long days of rage and frustration in this walled-off room, he still felt that conviction — that it was somehow worth the penalty of eternal damnation in the next life, to have shown mercy in this life, to this man.

It was not something he readily understood. The ways of God, of conscience, were a mystery to him. But if he understood Valjean correctly, God had by some miracle decided to spare Javert's life and his soul thereby, repaying Javert's one act of mercy with mercy of His own.

Valjean continued, "And He spared you because He requires more from you than just the guard dog that hears his master’s voice and blindly obeys. He desires a different service from you.”

The note of sureness in Valjean's voice made Javert turn around to face him, finally. It was akin to the crystal certainty that had filled Javert in his past life, when the law was simple and his path was straight and clear — and yet it was different. This sureness was the benevolent certainty that one might see in the face of God.

“How do you know? I am condemned for everything I have done and failed to do. What more could be desired of me?”

Valjean’s eyes were very bright. “How does any man know God’s will?” he asked. “By prayer, by meditation, by reading the Scriptures. By the actions of God’s instruments. I know this better than any other because a good man showed me mercy long ago."

His mouth tightened. "You say I am sublime, that it is inexplicable how I chose to ruin myself rather than you? I am no saint. You do not know how afraid I was to go into the river to do what I had to, to retrieve you. You do not know how afraid I still am, Javert, even though you are in my house. It is you who has the power, as you always had. My daughter does not know about Jean Valjean and you could take everything away from me."

Despite these avowals, Valjean did not sound like a man who was particularly gripped by fear; Javert could not remember now, but he was certain Valjean used to sound afraid of him. It sounded like, since the barricades, since the Seine, the world had changed for more than just one former Inspector.

Valjean continued: "I can only do God's work, despite my fear, my weakness, because of what the Bishop of Digne did for me long ago. I stole from him, I was lower than an animal, and yet, the miracle: he called me his brother, he gave me everything he had. God used him to save me, to call me to a holy life, to serve His purposes, and now He is using me to call you."

He leaned in. His broad face wore an expression that Javert could not describe, an unknown, brilliant, moral sun. “Believe that God’s mercy is above the laws made by men. His ways are mysterious, and His grace is unlimited. He has performed miracles on your behalf. He has a purpose for you, and He believes you will be equal to the challenge."

Javert could not keep looking at him; with difficulty, he turned back to face the wall.

“Priests say this, also, and I never took any heed of them,” he muttered, and refused to speak another word that day.

But when finally the long weeks of illness had left him and he was able to rise up from Valjean's bed, he looked upon his former enemy and found that his treacherous spirit had after all been roused by this appeal to the ultimate Authority.

He spared you because He requires more from you than just the guard dog... He desires a different service from you.

God had saved him from the river: a miracle. In the face of such mercy, who was any man to deny Him? Let alone a man such as he, who had always bent his will to Authority? Could he turn away from the decree of the sovereign judge over all heaven and earth?

God's instrument had saved him; it seemed he was indeed required to live, to serve. To what end, he would need to discover.