He does not go back to the Prefecture.
It is remarkably easy, considering, to weave his way through the empty streets, following his instincts rather than any sort of route, barely noticing the stabbing pain in his ribs and wrists or the constant, pounding ache in his head where the students had clubbed him. They had been better at subduing him than he had anticipated. Perhaps if he had the energy he would feel ashamed.
He encounters a squadron of National Guard—‘startles’ would be a more apt term—who hem him in the centre of a bristling mass of carbines before he manages to show them his badge. Every one of them is at least twenty years younger than him, dust-whitened, dirtied, eyes flashing like cornered rabbits, crouched in this little corner of Hell in the stillness and the silence between each roar of the cannon. They know of his existence—he presumes they were warned beforehand that there would be police spies operating in conjunction with their own duties—and they address him as ‘Inspector’ as they send him on his way with curiously earnest instruction to stay out of sight and stick to the main roads wherever possible. As he leaves, he wonders how many of them will be dead by sunrise.
The Guardsmen’s advice was good, however naïve: the typically busier thoroughfares are deserted of both people and furniture. No barricades have been built here. He walks through the dark, tracing his path unconsciously, only familiarity and experience preventing him from stumbling repeatedly on the uneven stones, for the lamp-lighters have stayed at home tonight and left the streets blacker than pitch. The pain worsens as he walks, though his head is still sluggish and clouded, keeping the rawness of his wrists and chest at a distance as though they belong to someone else. He can’t think properly. There is something wrong with him. The students must have broken something deep inside him, because he can feel it, something cracked in his breast, something hot and cold at the same time, rising up his throat, choking him of breath.
He has stopped in the middle of the street without realising it, one hand pressed to his breastbone, staring fixedly at a puddle of something, blood or rainwater or other, which is reflecting the empty sky. It is no wonder the darkness is so absolute: there are no stars tonight.
He walks again.
He thinks about Jean Valjean, and the expression on Jean Valjean’s face as he watched him leave. He can see it perfectly, as though it has been drawn on the inside of his skull: Valjean standing at the entrance to the alleyway, framed by black bricks, his white hair haloing his face as though it were brightly lit, though the alleyway is dark. He is wearing a National Guard uniform, and holding a carbine in both hands. There is an indefinable expression on his face. He had been saying something. What had he been saying? He remembers walking to the end of the alleyway—he had been limping—but he does not remember looking back. No, he must have turned—because Valjean had said something—but he cannot remember—
He is standing still again, paralysed on the wet cobbles, watching a pillar of smoke climb the black firmament behind the jagged skyline. Another barricade, perhaps. He had not heard the cannon-fire.
He forces himself to move, dragging his beaten body through the silent streets, becoming aware for the first time of the feeling of his clothes and his hair, all wrong. His queue has come untied, and hair cascades down his shoulders and tangles in his face, knotted and filthy and matted with something that has encrusted his temple and flakes away when he touches it. His disguise feels different to his uniform, and he feels the absence of his greatcoat like the loss of his right hand. He suddenly feels an overwhelming urge to tear off these clothes, to return to his apartment for his uniform, and then, perhaps, once he has scrubbed the sweat and blood of this night from his skin, to lie down upon his bed and sleep until the broken thing in his chest has healed.
He masters himself. He does not return to his apartment. He keeps walking.
It cannot have been a coincidence, that Valjean was at the barricade. He could have been anywhere, on any barricade in Paris—or, more likely, at home, wherever his home is, keeping close to the ground, keeping his head down, not involving himself in student rebellions when he is already a known criminal with a warrant out for his arrest. He must have gone there with a purpose, or else he is an idiot—but he knows that he is not. Jean Valjean is many things, but a fool is not one of them. He is smart, smarter than any other criminal he has ever encountered, leagues above the common or garden scum that is scraped daily off the streets by the carriage-load. Jean Valjean is worse than a thief.
He is on the Quai de Gesvres without knowing how he got there. The Seine pulses and throbs just out of sight. He keeps his eyes on the stones beneath his feet, watching them tilt sickeningly with every bang of blood in his brain. He must have agitated his head at some point, for the right side of his face is hot and wet, fresh blood soaking his collar and trickling down the inside of his shirt. He realises belatedly that he is still wearing the tricolour cockade pinned to the front of his waistcoat, still proudly bearing its painted colours, though very ragged now. He cannot muster the energy to remove it.
There are more plumes of smoke by the time he reaches the Quai de la Mégisserie, scratching thick lines of charcoal into the sky. He can see the glimmers of a fire across the Seine, the tell-tale flickering orange illuminating a cluster of roofs and chimneys, the only point of light in the darkness.
It is only when he has reached the junction and turned resolutely left onto the Pont Neuf that he realises he is following his usual patrol, his feet subconsciously leading him on the familiar path he has traced hundreds of times, though not often by night. It is strange, excessively so, to stand on this bridge, this artery of Paris, so often clogged with the great thronging mass of humanity, and to see not a single living soul. There is tension in the air still, but a different sort from that which crackled in the city’s blood before the violence broke out. He cannot name it. It is akin to the feeling he would sometimes get before a major break in a case: the smell of change, progression, but not as clean. This air smells dirty. He is not sure what he is thinking of anymore.
He stands at the divide between street and bridge for a long time, watching the distant fire burn, tongues of flame clawing higher and higher until, by degrees, it vacillates, withdraws behind the black rooftops, and at last is lost from view to smoulder alone in the dark. The river seems quieter now, though common sense tells him the rush of the rapids is always deafening across this stretch of stone, and it must be his own ears lying to his head. He once caught a pickpocket here, a street gamin of no more than five or six years, who had stolen an apple from a vendor at the waterfront. He does not remember the boy’s face. He never knew what became of him.
Sense returns slowly to his brain, drop by drop, though his head is still foggy and blank and his hands—he is leaning on the parapet, bent over at the waist, however he came to be here—shaking slightly where they are braced on the stone. Exhaustion, he tells himself. He has not slept in days.
He begins to walk again. Standing still has stiffened his legs and tightened his chest, and the air catches in his lungs, though it is not cold. The streets are no longer wet; the rain has dried. The absence of the moon means he cannot tell for how long he was standing, and he has no pocket-watch. This ignorance gnaws at his brain, along with something else, something more important that he has forgotten—something he had to do which he has left undone. Something missing.
The last of the daylight has bled from the sky by the time he reaches the Pont des Invalides, deepening the heavens to inky blackness in anticipation of the darkest hours. He leans on the parapet again, breathing deeply, feeling fresh bands of pain tighten around his ribs with every movement. He has not heard gunfire for a long time now. He cannot remember how long ago he left the barricade.
And then—through the gloom on the embankment—he sees movement.
He has straightened up before his mind registers what his eyes have seen. The shadow is man-shaped, hunched low, moving quickly along the bank with the haste of a sewer rat. His form is familiar.
His body is sluggish, his brain too, but police instinct overrides any hesitation and within seconds he has dropped down the embankment and fallen easily into the chase. Thénardier is walking fast, breaking into an aborted scamper at times, the back of his head moving this way and that as though scenting the air.
The streets are not quite so deserted now: every now and then a hackney carriage clatters past, and in the absence of cannon-fire the noise of the river seems to boom louder. The sound makes his head ache. Lights glint on the surface of the water, though he cannot tell from whence they are reflected. Up ahead, Thénardier looks over his shoulder. Their eyes meet in the dark.
Thénardier does not run, but his pace quickens, though his feet still make no sound over the rush of the river. Over the embankment a carriage passes, and he regrets more than ever the absence of his uniform, the presence of which would have made him instantly recognisable as an officer of the law. The coach drives on, and the lights in the river flicker like tiny fires. His head pounds. He realises suddenly that he does not have his bludgeon, nor his sword, nor any sort of weapon with which to subdue the criminal, and resolves to use his fists in the manner of the street brawlers; but before he can think any more on this topic, Thénardier has rounded a pile of rubbish at the water’s edge and vanished.
He breaks into a run, struggling to keep his balance to avoid toppling into the invisible rapids a few metres away. Dizziness makes him stagger; lights, like those in the river, blink in front of his eyes. The Seine roars.
He reaches the mound of rubbish, veers around it, and stops short.
Thénardier is gone.
For several minutes he stands motionless, staring at the empty space where his quarry had been. It is very hard to think, and the tilting, blurring motion of his eyes makes it difficult to look for any indication of his whereabouts. Then, through the fog of his eyes, he sees it: an iron grating, large enough for a man to slip through. A tunnel into the bowels of Paris.
For a moment he does not move. Then he advances upon the grating and, gripping the bars tightly with one ungloved hand, shakes it hard. It does not yield.
He steps back to the mound of rubbish and leans against the wall behind it, still staring at the grate. There is a half-formed idea in his mind to wait for Thénardier to emerge in order to arrest him.
Time passes strangely. The lack of light in the distant sky gives him no anchor on which to tie his measure of time, so minutes or hours pass in spurts as he stands motionless on the shore, never tearing his gaze from the iron grate. The river fades in and out of his awareness, sometimes screaming like a devil and battering against his eardrums, other times reducing to a whisper, like wind through leaves.
The pain is still there. It has not reduced in the slightest; quite the contrary, it seems to be increasing in intensity with every moment that passes. It has concentrated in his skull, fusing into a single pounding knot of sickness that makes his head swim and every pulse of blood feel like a wooden stake is being driven deeper and deeper into his brain. He finds himself leaning more and more heavily on the embankment wall until his whole body is pressed lopsidedly against it, his hands splayed awkwardly to afford some semblance of being upright, his head inclined against the rain-chilled stone. He is so tired.
The scratch of metal on metal rips him from his stupor. He straightens quickly, avoiding overbalancing only by bracing himself against the wall, and listens hard.
The grate is being opened from the inside.
His hand moves automatically to his belt for his bludgeon; and, upon finding it absent, clenches into a fist at his waist where it remains, poised to strike. It is only when he moves his other hand that he realises he does not even have his handcuffs.
The grate is forced open with a shrieking scrape of rusty hinges, and before he can muster himself to move, two bodies come slithering out of the black shaft and sprawl in the mud on the bank.
Surprise keeps him frozen in place. He watches, disorientated, as the larger of the two figures drags itself to its knees, throws its head back, and takes several deep breaths with face upturned; then, seemingly making no attempt to clean itself of the filth from the sewer, it crawls unsteadily over to the second figure, which still lies motionless, and busies itself with something he cannot see, facing as he is the back of the silhouette.
It is then that the figure freezes. It turns slowly, still on its knees. Through the gloom, they look at each other, the kneeling creature dripping with mire and ordure, and the tall man framed black against the sky.
“Who are you?”
It is the first time he has spoken in hours. His voice comes out raw, and louder than he had intended.
“I,” says the kneeling figure. It is not Thénardier.
“Who is ‘I’?”
Something white hot seems to shoot through his body. The broken thing in his chest sears. He takes several steps forwards and leans down before the man, seizes his shoulders tightly with both hands, and stares straight into his eyes. His face is almost invisible, owing to the darkness and the filth. It is Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean, who saved his life at the barricade; who could have taken his chance to blast a crater in his head in revenge for the years he had spent pursuing him; who cut his bonds rather than his throat and bid him leave, and called out to him as he departed. Jean Valjean, the man he has been hunting for seventeen years, and who is now crouching on the banks of the Seine, covered in sewage and dragging a corpse and staring straight back at him with his lips moving soundlessly.
It occurs to him that Valjean is speaking. He has not been listening. He says, attempting to straighten without losing his balance, “What are you doing here? And who is this man?”
“It is with regard to him that I desire to speak to you,” Valjean says steadily. “Dispose of me as you see fit; but first help me to carry him home. That is all that I ask of you.”
Valjean’s face is swimming in the darkness. His words seem to come from a very long way away, muffled as though by water, some of them lost in the roar of the river—or is the roaring coming from inside his head?
To distract himself, he bends over the body, withdrawing a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping its bloodied brow. Even through the waves of dizziness, he recognises the boy.
“This man was at the barricade,” he says. “He is the one they called Marius.”
The boy had never returned his pistols, and now here he is, sprawled on the shore of the Seine, dead or dying, his face white as chalk through the caked sewage. He seizes the limp hand and presses two fingers against the hollow of his wrist; feels nothing.
“He is wounded,” says Valjean. He has not moved from his kneeling position.
“He is a dead man.”
Valjean shakes his head. There is an inexpressible weariness in the gesture. “No. Not yet.”
His head throbs. It is so hard to think. He straightens again, steadying himself unthinkingly on the wall, and stares down at the white corpse at his feet. “So you have brought him thither from the barricade?”
He supposes the others must be dead, or close to death otherwise. He remembers their faces clearly: he had striven to examine each of them in turn for use as evidence, or else in order to identify any bodies in the aftermath. He wonders what became of the child.
“—n the Marais, Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire, with his grandfather,” Valjean is saying. “I do not recollect his name.”
He watches abstractedly as Valjean fumbles in the boy’s coat and withdraws a pocket-book, passing it across to him with blackened fingers. He speaks the pencilled words aloud as he reads: “Gillenormand, Rue des Filles-du Calvaire, No. 6.”
For a few seconds he stares at the page. It is very difficult to decipher any meaning from the words, owing to the fact that they are twisting over themselves and the letters muddling amongst each other, making very little sense at all. His head swims, and the pain in his chest suddenly blazes.
After a minute of silence, in which Valjean kneels and watches him wordlessly, and the corpse lies as a figure of stone, he says: “I will call a carriage.”
Valjean rises quickly to his feet as though this was the signal he was waiting for, and stoops to gather the body in his arms. He does not ask for help, which is just as well.
They mount the embankment slowly, Valjean following behind as he leads the way onto the Quai d’Orsay and halts at the side of the road to wait for a carriage. The corpse is laid gently upon the ground with Valjean’s coat folded beneath its head, the man himself crouching again beside it and returning to wiping its bloodstained face with the corner of his sleeve.
He leans against the parapet, watching Valjean silently. The short climb back to the street has exhausted him, despite it only being a very brief exertion, and the pain in his ribs has redoubled. He tries to ignore it, thinking instead about the situation with which he has been presented.
Jean Valjean is in his custody.
He will take Jean Valjean to the boy’s house, deposit the corpse, and then he will arrest Jean Valjean and have him in the jailhouse before sunrise. Jean Valjean is a dangerous criminal. He will arrest Jean Valjean.
He sees, again, Valjean standing in the alleyway in his National Guard uniform, his hair white and flaming, his face—and he is saying something—
He presses a hand to his head, squeezing his eyes shut, and tries to force his brain to reinvigorate itself through the haze of disorientation that has plagued him since the barricade. The nausea returns in waves. The broken thing shudders.
Valjean is saying something. He lets his hands drop from his head to the parapet. He tries to ignore how much they are shaking.
“Inspector Javert?” Jean Valjean is saying.
It is the most familiar sound in the world, to hear his name from Valjean’s lips. It has followed him through the years, this name from this mouth, called in fear, in anger, defiance, solemnity, spoken softly, as a friend. Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.
He does not believe in Fate, but he imagines—
“Inspector?” Valjean says again. He has risen to his feet.
Javert takes a step back. It is more of a stagger. “Stay back, Valjean.”
Valjean does not stay back. He steps forwards, his hands half-raised, as though approaching a wounded animal. “You are hurt, Inspector.”
“I am well,” Javert says roughly. He wishes his vision would stop swimming so he could look at Valjean directly. “I said stay back.”
Valjean stops at last, though he does not return to his former position beside the corpse. Instead he stands, slightly bent at the waist in protection of the boy, but his body turned fully towards Javert. His expression is strange.
“Were you wounded at the barricade?” he asks, not taking his eyes from Javert’s face.
“I am well,” Javert repeats, as forcefully as he can muster; then, thankful for an excuse to turn his eyes from Valjean’s, “Coachman!”; for a hackney carriage has just rattled around the corner, melting abruptly out of the darkness like a phantom.
Within a few minutes, the corpse is safely deposited on the back seat, having been carried carefully into the carriage by Valjean and the reluctant coachman; and Javert has seated himself beside Valjean on the front seat, with instruction to the driver to take them as swiftly as possible to No. 6, Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire.
The rush of the Seine does not fade entirely as their carriage departs the quays. Javert can still hear it, beating against his brain, even louder now than it was at the shoreside; and with every jolt of the carriage the pain stabs, not just in his ribs and head now but everywhere, as though his body has been tossed against rocks by a fierce current. Valjean sits quietly at his side. He does not look at him, but instead watches the steady drip of blood from a strand of the corpse’s hair, illuminated at intervals by the bars of yellow light that spill into the carriage as they pass beneath occasional lit street-lamps.
The carriage clatters across a pothole, jerking its occupants violently, and Javert shuts his eyes. He does not open them again until they reach the Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire.
The porter is half-asleep when he opens the door. His expression grows more awake and more horrified with every word Javert says, as over the Inspector’s shoulder he watches the corpse of Marius being carried from the carriage by Valjean and the coachman.
“He went to the barricade, and here he is,” Javert says. He feels rather than sees the presence of Valjean at his shoulder.
“To the barricade?” the porter exclaims loudly. The shout sends a shard of pain into Javert’s head.
“He has got himself killed,” he continues brusquely. “Go waken his father.”
The porter continues to stare, his dismayed eyes flicking between Javert, looming huge in his doorway, and Valjean, black with filth, standing behind him.
“Go along with you!” Javert snaps, when the porter shows no sign of moving; then, to his retreating back, “There will be a funeral here to-morrow.”
Marius is carried up to the first floor and laid out on a sofa with the aid of the various servants awoken by the porter. Javert waits at the foot of the stairs, steadying himself against the wall, and listens to the hushed clatter of furniture and hurrying feet from upstairs to distract himself from the sickening pain in his head. He is roused briefly when a man—one of the servants, presumably—hurries past him in search of a physician; and then again a few minutes later—or it could have been an hour—when someone touches him on the shoulder and he startles into awareness to see Valjean watching him carefully, his hand still hovering near his arm.
Javert pushes himself off the wall, fury at his own lapse in concentration lending him energy. He strides out to the waiting carriage and climbs back into the front seat, Valjean following at his heels, and is on the point of reaching out to instruct the coachman when Valjean says, “Inspector Javert, grant me yet another favour.”
“What is it?” Javert demands. He does not look at Valjean.
“Let me go home for one instant. Then you shall do whatever you like with me.”
Javert remains silent for a few moments. He closes his eyes briefly again, trying to find relief in the darkness of his eyelids. He does not find it.
At last, lowering the glass and front, he calls to the coachman: “Driver, Rue de l’Homme Armé, No. 7.”
Valjean does not speak again until the carriage is slowing at the entrance to the street. In the absence of the corpse the carriage feels simultaneously larger and smaller than it had been before; the upholstery where the rebel had lain is livid with mire and blood, and seems to draw Javert’s eye as he tries to remain upright in his seat. The noise of the coach as it rolls through the streets—almost untouched, these ones, devoid of broken furniture and bodies—is such that Javert almost does not hear Valjean speak; but he sees too the movement of Valjean’s body as he turns his head to the Inspector, and folds his arms tighter across his breast.
“Inspector Javert,” comes Valjean’s familiar voice, “I believe you need to seek medical attention.”
He lets out a snort that he intends to sound mirthless, but instead sounds simply tired. “You have no place to be telling me what to do.”
“Inspector, your head—”
“It is no concern of yours,” Javert says. He cannot muster the energy to look at Valjean. “Leave me be.”
He is grateful that the carriage halts at that point, forcing Valjean to cease his protests as both alight. It is not so dark here; a few more street-lamps are lit, and the puddles of yellow light lead a flickering path down the Rue de l’Homme Armé. Javert finds his legs shake as he attempts to climb down the short steps of the coach, and forces himself not to use the wall for support, for Valjean is still watching him silently.
Once he has dismissed the coachman—a protracted enterprise, as the man is nervous to request a substantial fee in recompense for his damaged seats—he begins to walk, with Valjean, strangely, at his side. They enter the quiet street together. After a minute, Valjean stops outside No. 7, and Javert stops too, closing his eyes briefly against the light from a street-lamp above.
He expects Valjean to knock upon the door, but Valjean does not move. He stands still in the glow from the lamp, his face wreathed in shadow, white hair turned luminous by the yellow flame.
“Go along, then,” Javert says, when Valjean continues to watch him mutely. He badly wants to sit down, or at least lean against the wall; but he is loath to display weakness in Valjean’s presence, especially when the man’s gaze is so frustratingly attentive.
“Are you going to go to the hospital?” Valjean asks at last. That strange expression is back on his face.
Javert lets out a sharp breath of impatience, and immediately regrets it as the street tilts wildly, Valjean’s face reducing to a pale crescent moon above a smear of impenetrable black. He cannot distinguish his eyes at all.
“I told you to leave me be,” he says, with an effort. “Go inside.”
“I cannot leave you alone out here,” Valjean says, and he takes a step away from the door towards Javert, raising a hand towards him. “You are bleeding.”
Javert jerks backwards, and the world sways. “Do not touch me.”
Valjean stops dead. His face is still lost in the darkness.
“Go inside,” Javert says again, taking deep breaths to steady himself. His ears are ringing.
Valjean continues to look at him for another moment; then, slowly, he raises a fist to the door and knocks. The sound booms down the deserted street like the blast of a cannon. In a moment the door has opened, and Valjean is suddenly lit from the side by the glow from within, stripping his face of the black shadows and embossing his features in gold. He is still looking at Javert.
“It is well,” says Javert. “Go upstairs.”
Valjean does not move. He is still wearing that hated expression that Javert cannot define nor understand. He says, carefully: “I would like for you to come inside, Inspector.”
Javert does not look at him. The pulsing pain carves deeper into his head. The lights overhead swim like stars in the sea. With as much resolve as he can gather, he says: “I will wait for you here.”
Valjean starts, “Javert—”, but Javert cuts him off. The broken thing in his chest is cracking open, and there is something hot within it, something that is slowly spilling out and seeping up his throat like bile.
“I will wait for you here,” he repeats, and he folds his arms, grasping at the image of Inspector Javert in an invocation, and meets Valjean’s eyes at last.
Valjean stands for a moment longer, not taking his eyes from Javert’s face. The light from beyond the door makes him look strangely unreal, as though he stands on the threshold of a dream. Then, after a long minute, he takes a step back from Javert, and puts one foot over the doorframe. Javert does not move, but keeps his arms folded to mask the way his hands are shaking.
Valjean takes another step backwards. His face is unreadable. Javert stays, watching him, a guard-dog at its post.
He is gone very suddenly, and Javert hears the creak of the stairs as Valjean mounts them quickly, the sound of his feet soon lost in the silent house.
For a moment, Javert waits, watching the empty door and the rectangle of golden light bleeding out onto the pavement. Then, in one swift movement, he turns and begins to walk down the empty street.
His step is slow, with head inclined, his eyes trained in the region of the cobbles below him but focusing upon nothing. His hands hang loose at his sides; were he in more command of his balance he might have clasped them behind his back, but the street undulates before his eyes and he avoids collapse only through intense distraction.
There is no fixed direction in his mind, but he follows one nonetheless.
He skirts the Quai des Ormes, passes the Grève, and at last comes to a halt at the Pont au Change, shadowed on one side by the Notre-Dame and the Quai de la Mégisserie on the other. Below him, the river crashes in white foam, breaking here and there into patches of black and silent water that warn of concealed rapids. The sound is terrible, a cacophony that howls against the inside of his skull, a bloodlike roar that pulses in synchrony with his heart.
Javert crosses to the centre of the bridge and leans his elbows on the parapet, resting his head in his hands. The river stretches blackly on all sides, swallowing the parapet and the stone banks, reducing the indistinct buildings which line the quay to mist and shadow.
A catastrophe is occurring in Javert’s mind.
This revolution has been building for hours, an insurrection made not of broken chairs and overturned carts but of emotion, that incomprehensible branch of humanity from which he has so long removed himself. There are pictures and words coursing through his mind in an undammed torrent, drowning him, sickening him, flashing before his eyes in an irrepressible tide; and the roaring grows louder as though the river has suddenly swollen, rising up towards the parapet to engulf him even as he stands silent and motionless in the darkness.
The face that appears again and again, burning itself on his eyes like a white-hot brand, is that of Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean is standing in the alleyway in the dark, watching him leave, his hair glowing, and he is saying something.
Jean Valjean is kneeling on salt-stained stone with his hands chained to a wooden post and red lines are opening on his back, weeping, and he is not making a sound but staring straight at him with his eyes burning, the colour of scorched earth.
Jean Valjean is holding out his hand, the chain of office gleaming gold on his chest, and he is smiling and saying his name kindly, gently, as though talking to a friend.
Jean Valjean is advancing with a knife in his fist and he feels vicious satisfaction, imagining the feel of the knife in his throat, the hot gush of blood, and he smiles in victory.
Jean Valjean is waiting at his front door with his expression of concern—
He grips his head in his hands and bends over the parapet, the pain blinding him, horror and sickness tearing him apart from the inside out, his heart cracking and splitting in his breast. He cannot think. He is being destroyed, broken into pieces, flayed open. His soul is laid bare.
An observer passing the bridge—although on that night there were none, for the fear of revolution had driven most into their homes, and the dawn was still slumbering beneath the horizon—would have seen that solitary figure stand for a long time, bent at the waist, curiously insubstantial despite his tremendous height in absence of the familiar coat and hat. He is motionless, affixed to the parapet like a deformed statue, isolated in the darkness with his eyes fixed sightlessly on the black void beneath him.
Then, after an indeterminate period of time, he straightens. Inspector Javert stands beside the parapet with his head raised; then, as if ordered by the toll of a silent bell, he turns on the spot and begins to walk towards the Place du Châtelet.
His stride is purposeful now, and the pain has diminished somewhat, to be replaced with a curious sensation of unreality. There is renewed vigour in his body; although something about his brisk pace brings to mind the ticking of a clock, as though to look behind those fixed eyes would be to see a mechanism of clockwork gradually winding towards its conclusion.
Javert’s feet take him to the door of the station-house, and he opens it in a motion so familiar as to be automatic. He steps inside and closes the door behind him.
For a moment, he does not acknowledge the scene within. Then, so suddenly as to knock the breath out of him, the silence is broken by a rush of voices and movement as what looks to be half the department hurries towards him.
“It’s the Inspector, he’s back—"
“Monsieur, we thought—”
“—no reports from the barricade—”
“—informed of a captured spy—”
It is only deep mental and physical exhaustion that prevents him reeling backwards. He stands still in the onslaught of voices, staring with incomprehension at the mass of his assembled colleagues grouped around him.
“Good Christ,” he hears one of them say in a low voice, “look at his head—”
This voice rings out above the others, louder and firmer than those beneath it. A figure cuts through the throng, parting the rabble with brisk efficiency; and Javert abruptly finds himself looking into the face of the Préfet de Police, his grey hair in disarray, his face contorted in a combination of anger and relief.
“Good God, man!” Gisquet ejaculates, stopping before him and staring him furiously in the eye. “Where the Devil have you been? You were supposed to give your report nine hours ago! What in Christ’s name took you so long?”
Javert stares at him. There is a ringing in his ears. He can see the desk over Gisquet’s shoulder with its sheets of blank paper and the pen in its inkwell.
“Well?” Gisquet exclaims, taking half a step towards him. Javert gives an involuntary flinch backwards, still not taking his eyes off Gisquet’s face; he can feel the eyes of the other officers on him, hear their low whispers.
“Javert?” Gisquet says, less loudly. His brow is furrowing, and Javert sees his gaze travel up and down his body, resting on the dried blood on the side of his head. His eyes widen.
“You must dismiss me, monsieur,” Javert says. He had not intended to speak; the words come out cracked and raw.
Gisquet’s eyes widen further. There is an expression of alarm dawning on his face. He goes on, before Gisquet can interrupt: “I have failed to carry out the duties assigned to me. I have neglected to give my report, which could have prevented loss of life of police and civilians. I must be dismissed.”
“Inspector,” Gisquet says, and his voice is slow and very careful, “you are not well. If you come with me, I will escort you to the hospital where you can—”
“I must be dismissed,” Javert says, more loudly than he intends. Gisquet falls out of focus and back in again, and he realises he is gripping the doorframe as he sways on the spot. “I have failed in my duties, I have disgraced—I have—”
There is an eruption in his chest, something burning rushing through his body, robbing him of breath. His head hurts terribly. He takes a step back towards the door, hears Gisquet’s voice, “Javert!”—and then he is outside on the street again and running back towards the Seine, staggering on the uneven stones, his vision blinking in and out as the pain in his head eclipses every thought except that of the river, the river, the river.
There are sounds behind him, shouts, running feet, but he ignores them. He knows his destination; he is a gutter rat; he can blend into the night like a drop in the ocean, plunging into the silent streets with his heart ripped out from his chest, leaving an empty chamber behind, a hollow where Inspector Javert used to be and where now there is nothing but oblivion.
He has a duty to perform.
He reaches the Pont au Change and lurches onto the bridge, barely holding himself upright, his thoughts lost in the river’s lament. There is a sickness in his body, he must get it out, he must cleanse himself of the shattered thing that throbs and bleeds in his breast, this disease that was borne by Jean Valjean and which is tearing apart his soul—
He drags himself onto the parapet, straightens, steadies himself on thin air, and the river roars.
Jean Valjean, standing in an alleyway, his hair is white, he is speaking—
“Javert, please, come down!”
Jean Valjean, waiting in his doorway, his countenance lit with gold, and his face so concerned, concerned for Javert—
“In the name of God, Javert, please, get down from there, please, God, don’t jump!”
Jean Valjean, standing on the bridge, his hands outstretched, his face terrified, staring straight at him.
“Javert,” Valjean says, and his voice is hoarse with fear over the boom of the river, “come towards me, take my hand—”
He is still black with the filth from the sewer; his eyes are wide and rimmed with white, like a frightened animal. He is approaching very slowly, crouched low, his arms reaching out, and Javert can see them shaking, see the exhaustion and terror writ in every line of his body, of his dirty, blood-spattered face.
“Jean Valjean,” Javert says. “I told you to go upstairs.”
“You told me you would wait,” Valjean says, still moving steadily closer, his eyes never leaving Javert’s. His breathing is ragged; whether due to exertion or emotion he cannot tell. “I followed you.”
“Why?” Javert spits, swaying on the parapet; he sees Valjean’s eyes widen. “Why could you not have the decency to leave me alone?”
“I was worried about you!” Valjean says, his voice rising in panic. “You were behaving strangely, you’re covered in blood, for God’s sake—you were supposed to arrest me!”
Javert stares at Valjean; at Valjean’s face, his frightened eyes, his outstretched hands, still bearing the shiny scars where manacles rubbed the flesh away. He says: “I cannot arrest you.”
The act of saying the words sucks the breath from his lungs. The bridge tilts and he staggers, one foot scraping the edge of the parapet, and the empty sky wheels overhead as he tips backwards, the roar of the river growing deafening, thundering in his head, he can feel the cold already, and his heart, he thought it was gone but it must remain, banging against his ribcage as though trying to escape the bars of his chest, and he is falling at last—
—and something seizes him around the wrist like a vice and drags him back over the parapet and he slams back onto something solid, not stone, but something warm and powerful that is heaving up and down like an engine and gasping desperate breaths onto the top of his head.
Jean Valjean. Of course it is Jean Valjean.
He does not move. He is suddenly so tired he feels he could stay here forever, lying with Valjean’s hands still gripping his wrists and the beat of his heart against his back. The river roars.
“Javert?” Valjean says again. His voice is so familiar.
Javert stares at the parapet and the black sky beyond. The river is out of sight. He says, in a hollow voice that barely carries over the rushing water: “I cannot arrest you.”
For a moment, Valjean says nothing. Then he shifts slightly, manoeuvring them gradually upright, and says, “Will you let me take you back to my house? I have a bed and spare clothes; you can sleep there tonight, and decide what to do in the morning.”
Javert does not struggle. He lets Valjean lift him to his feet—gently, oh, so gently—and guide him slowly back to Rue de l’Homme Armé, his arm supporting Javert’s back, his hands ready to steady him if he stumbles. The sound of the river has faded by the time they reach No. 7, and Valjean leads him carefully inside, closing and locking the door behind them.
By the light of a candle lit in the dark corridor, Valjean steers him upstairs—Javert finds himself leaning almost the entirety of his weight on Valjean, but Valjean voices no complaint, instead keeping a firmer hold around his shoulders—and takes him into a small bedroom, letting the candle sit on the bureau, where it casts a golden light upon Valjean’s face as he prepares the bed. Javert stands against the wall as he does so, watching in silence. He is more tired than he has ever been in his life, hollow, exhausted beyond endurance. The broken thing in his chest aches.
Once the bed has been set up with clean sheets and blankets, Valjean approaches Javert cautiously where he leans against the wall, a small medical case in one hand and a cup of water in the other. Javert barely lifts his gaze as he approaches; he is too weary even to flinch away.
“Will you let me look at your head?” Valjean asks, raising the case and cup of water. “It will only take a moment. Then you can sleep.”
Javert’s nod is barely perceptible, but Valjean understands anyway. He leads Javert to the bed and bids him sit; then he seats himself beside him with the candle in one hand and begins to gently sponge away the dried blood at his temple.
Javert finds himself drifting as Valjean works, his eyes falling slowly shut, the aches in his body and the enormous, terrifying sound of the river fading with the blood as it is washed away. He can still hear it—it is not gone completely, and he knows he will have to face it again before long—but for now, as Valjean sits beside him on the dark bed, it is not quite so loud.
At last, Valjean lays down the cloth and cup of red-tinted water, and rises to his feet. He says things that Javert does not comprehend—the state of the wound, something about a doctor, something about to-morrow—and then he leans over and arranges the blankets, laying them over Javert with his large, gentle hands, his eyes downturned, his face lit with gold.
Once he is satisfied, Valjean stands upright again, looking down at Javert with his earth-coloured eyes. He asks: “Would you like me to stay?”
Again, his response is so faint as to be almost indistinguishable; but Valjean understands. He draws a chair from across the room and sits a few feet away from the bed, his white hair blazing in the candle-flame. Javert watches him. He remembers a wall of black brick; a National Guard uniform.
“At the barricade,” he says. His voice is almost inaudible, but Valjean hears it. “When you let me go. What did you say?”
Valjean looks at him steadily. His eyes are bright in the candlelight. “I said, ‘Be safe, Javert’.”
Javert says nothing. He closes his eyes.
Sleep, when it comes, is dreamless and deep.