With great care, Madeleine folded the paper he’d been studying and raised his eyes to Javert. The Inspector’s bearing was as upright as it had been when he’d entered the room. The fierce tension in his jaw was, if anything, tighter than it had been before he’d made his confession, but there was a wildness to his eyes. Madeleine took a guilty moment to commit the image to memory before he spoke.
“You’re a fine officer,” he said. “The town is the better off for having you. You won’t be dismissed today or any other day – if anything, you should be promoted.” He paused, scanning Javert’s face for a response. “In the meantime, you’ll return to your post, Sir.”
Javert’s expression was a polite blank. Taking the silence as an acceptance of his suggestion, Madeleine nodded and sat back in his chair, affecting a sudden interest in an invoice that sat on his desk. Javert’s news hung heavy across his shoulders. The knowledge of the innocent man weighed down with his name. A human life, dangling before the jaws of justice! Could Madeleine stand idle while another man’s world was plunged into darkness? Did he have the right? Did he have the-
A small cough. Madeleine looked up in surprise. Javert was still facing him.
“Javert,” Madeleine’s smile was stiff. “Is there something the matter?”
Javert shifted. He glanced behind him at the door to the mayor’s office before fixing his gaze on Madeleine with a kind of nervous urgency.
“If I may remind Monsieur,” he said. “I have disgraced the uniform that I wear.”
“Yes, you mentioned,” Madeleine said. “You mustn’t fret so. Did I tell you that you’ve done your duty, nothing more?”
“Well then,” Madeleine said, with a smile that he hoped would encourage Javert to leave.
Javert made an uneasy sound in the back of his throat, but didn’t seem inclined to argue. Madeleine smiled his most beatific smile and mentally bid Javert run along so he could concentrate on more important matters. The workers of his factory! The people of the town! The ownership of his soul! The-
Javert had not left.
“Only Monsieur,” Javert said, and his deference was impeccable if a little strained. “I must remind you that I acted out of anger, not justice.”
Madeleine nodded, “yes, you explained quite thoroughly. You know, it’s really not so-”
“I lusted for vengeance,” Javert hissed. “Lusted for it. You must understand that I wanted nothing more than to see you brought to your knees.”
“I absolve you, Javert,” Madeleine said. “Go forth and lust no more. Now let that be an end to it.”
Javert made an abortive gesture.
“I was unkind to the woman, the prostitute,” he said. “You remember? I was going to arrest her. I still would, given the opportunity.” He fixed Madeleine with a searching expression. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t see it in the Mayor’s face, so he continued. “I have been derelict in my duties out of disrespect for your authority.”
“It’s true. Two weeks ago, overhearing two young ladies complimenting your handsome physique, I loudly and deliberately snickered. It was inappropriate.”
“Honestly, none of this warrants dismissal, even taking all of it into account.”
“I think your school will be a disaster,” Javert said. “I have no truck with the way you hand out alms.”
Madeleine waved a dismissive hand.
Javert, casting about with a sort of despairing fury, said, “I dislike your paperweight.”
“Then I’ll be sure to keep it out of sight next time you deliver a report,” Madeleine snapped. “What in heaven’s name has gotten into you, man?”
Javert took a deep breath.
“Monsieur. I will explain this as simply as I know how. This morning I awoke before dawn and enjoyed a hearty breakfast of absolutely nothing. I fastened my coat as tightly as possible to spare the citizens of your prosperous town the unseemly sight of the patches on my shirtsleeves. I tell you this not in a bid for sympathy, Monsieur, but only to give you context for the next. I arrived at the prefecture only to learn that an informant I’d relied upon heavily in the past is laid up and won’t be of use to me for weeks. That’s assuming he recovers at all, of course - although I’ve no doubt he’ll be fine now, thanks to Monsieur’s seemingly endless reserves of generosity. You can find the old bastard in Rue de Saint Pierre, should you feel the need to visit your kindness upon an unrepentant cutpurse.”
“I am sorry, Monsieur. I digress. The crux of the matter is this: today I received word from Paris that I had committed a heinous offence. Not only did I learn that I was mistaken about the identity of Jean Valjean - something I would have sworn to under oath, you may remember - I also realised that, in my haste, I had slandered an upstanding gentleman. My dismissal would be the only appropriate end to the matter.”
Here, Javert raised his eyes to meet Madeleine’s.
“To come to these realisations is no small thing. To come to these realisations and steel one’s self to the inevitable is, I can candidly tell you, exhausting. I must have aged five years in the walk up the stairs to your office.”
Madeleine opened his mouth, but Javert fixed him with a glare so fierce that he closed it again.
“So you will understand,” Javert said, “that the outcome of this meeting has been something of an anticlimax. Monsieur, you are a religious man. You understand the concept of penance. I will ask you once, and only once, to show me some of your celebrated mercy and tell me, please: what must a man do to get punished in this town?”
Javert lifted his chin slightly, apparently awaiting an answer.
Madeleine, finding himself lost for words, made a helpless gesture.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I simply can’t dismiss you. You’re far too valuable to the community.”
“Dismiss me!” Javert threw up his arms. “No, we’ve certainly established that we won’t be employing any sort of justice today. What I am trying to tell you is that I have had a long, hard day and I am filled with all sorts of discomforting nerves and that perhaps my mood would be improved if the ever-merciful injured party would do me the very great favour of bending me over his desk and driving into me so hard that I see the face of God.”
His speech finally complete, Javert snapped his mouth shut. He watched Madeleine for a few wary moments before taking a deep breath. “But obviously Monsieur has his mind on other things, so I will take my leave. I will return as usual with tomorrow’s morning report. Have a pleasant evening, Sir.”
Javert dipped a stiff bow and turned on his heel. He was halfway to the door, his stride a half-step faster than usual, when Madeleine found his voice.
“Wait- Javert! Hold on a moment!”
Javert froze in the office doorway. His shoulders were rigid beneath his greatcoat.
“Would you,” Madeleine took a moment to moisten his lips. “Could you please come back in here a moment?”
Javert turned slowly, drawing himself together with incredible dignity.
“If you’re planning on reciting Biblical verses, I’m leaving this minute,” he said. “Mayor or no mayor.”
Madeleine shook his head and, rising from his chair, said, “I need a moment to clear my desk.”
Javert stepped back into the office. He shut the door firmly behind him without looking once over his shoulder.
Madeleine slipped the offending paperweight in the desk drawer along with a stack of papers and his ethical quandaries. They could wait a little longer.