It had been the most mundane thing, the least dramatic of any of the arrests he had made that month: a young pickpocket with a thin face and thinner hands groping through a gentleman’s travel-bag in a dark alleyway. The gentleman had been foolish to pass that way, for the whores and assorted vagrants of Montreuil were known to congregate in such shadowed places; but Javert had wasted no time with censure and seized the boy by the collar before he even had the chance to feel the chill of his shadow.
Perhaps he was growing slower these days, though he was not yet old by any standard; or perhaps he had not been paying enough attention, for he had been working long hours that week on a protracted and frustrating case involving a botched robbery and the weariness was beginning to steal upon him as the days went by. Whatever the reason, he had failed to notice the metal flash of the boy’s knife before it was too late, and now he was marching through the deserted midnight streets with the cuffed pickpocket stumbling along beside him and a hole right through the palm of his hand.
The boy had not stopped talking since he had been collared, babbling away in a voice that shook violently as he stammered, “Please, Monsieur l’Inspecteur, I didn’t mean nothing by it, I’ve got three brothers and sisters, monsieur, I only wanted a couple of sous, please don’t send me to jail, monsieur, I’ve got three brothers and sisters—”
Javert was not prone to mercy, and he was even less prone to it when there was blood dripping from the tips of his fingers where it had soaked through his glove and pain pulsing sickeningly from the hand not gripping the boy’s upper arm. “Quiet,” he snapped now, tightening his hand, and the boy fell silent as though struck dumb. Javert could feel him trembling through his thin shirt.
The station was almost empty. Only one officer sat behind the desk in the small lobby, head propped up on his hand, reading a report by the light of a solitary candle. Javert recognised him as Allard. He looked up as Javert entered with the pickpocket and laid down the document.
“Evening, Inspector,” he said, rising from his chair. “Will you be wanting one of the cells opened up?”
“Yes,” Javert said tersely. The boy’s shaking was now so bad he could feel it rattling down his arm.
“What’s he in for?” Allard inquired as he emerged from behind the desk and crossed to the heavy wooden door on the adjacent wall, withdrawing a set of keys from his pocket.
Javert gritted his teeth. “Larceny,” he said shortly, “and assault of an officer.”
“I swear I didn’t mean it, monsieur,” the boy burst out in a high-pitched voice, seemingly unable to contain himself. “You just startled me is all, monsieur, I didn’t mean to—”
“Quiet!” Javert said roughly, giving the boy a brisk shake, and he fell silent once more.
“Assault of an officer,” Allard said, raising his eyebrows significantly as he unlocked the door and led them inside. There were three cells in here, all of them empty. “That’s a serious offence. Lots of paperwork,” he added, glancing at Javert.
Javert did not deign to answer, but instead pushed the boy inside the cell indicated by the officer and stepped back as the door was bolted securely. He did not look at the boy again, but turned and walked out of the holding cells, feeling pale eyes burning into his back as he went.
“So, assault of an officer,” Allard said as he closed and locked the door behind them. “I’m guessing the officer in question was you, monsieur?”
Javert nodded once. He flexed his fingers experimentally beneath the glove and felt the pain sharpen horribly. He tried not to let any discomfort show on his face.
“Are you alright, Inspector?” Allard asked, looking slightly concerned. “Were you wounded in the assault?”
“Not seriously enough to comment on,” Javert said brusquely. “A scratch.”
He could still feel the blood trickling down his hand, and had a sudden dread at the idea of Allard finding drops following his path through the jailhouse. He thrust his fist into his pocket instead, clenching his jaw as the wound was pulled where it was stuck to his glove.
“Well,” Allard said, still looking at him with a troubled frown, “make sure you put it in your report anyhow. Get ‘em off the streets, I say. Evening, Inspector.”
“Evening,” Javert responded mechanically. He left Allard at his desk and strode to the door, pulling it open with his good hand and stepping out into the November night.
The air was cold and sharp, the sky clear and free of clouds as he plunged again into the silent streets. Winter had come early this year, riming the cobbles with frost each morning and biting at exposed faces and hands. There was a warning of snow in the air, a heaviness to the clouds that sometimes gathered over the town like dense ash, thick and grey and muffling the weak light of the sun, turning it watery and pale.
Javert did not mind the cold. He only removed his greatcoat when absolutely necessary, in the baking heat of midsummer; and now he was grateful for it, and grateful too for his tall hat, which gave his head at least some measure of insulation. On a normal night he would have been more grateful still for his thick leather gloves, another permanent fixture of his outfit, which stopped his fingers becoming numb and useless in the frigid air—but tonight, as he felt the material stiffen and tug at the deep wound as the blood congealed, he regretted their presence for the first time.
He was also now faced with the vexing issue of what to do next. His patrol did not end for another four hours, and he could hardly put his duties on hold while he returned to his apartment to dress the wound. He was also uncomfortably aware of the fact that this injury was both rather severe, and located in a place which would make it very difficult for him to treat it on his own. It was not as though he had never dealt with injuries—he had dressed many wounds before this one, and was not inexperienced in sewing up cuts and gashes—but the thief had chosen, most inconveniently, to stab him in his dominant hand, which complicated matters somewhat.
He considered, for a moment, calling upon the doctor when his shift ended and having the issue dealt with by a professional—but then he remembered his list of weekly expenses, and the very small amount of money left over after he had paid his rent and bought food and purchased more thread to darn the tear in his coat, and quickly disregarded the idea. He would deal with it himself, as he always did.
He quickly discovered, however, as he settled back into his usual routine, that it was very difficult to concentrate when he could feel blood pumping sluggishly from the centre of his hand with every thump of his heart and pain radiating out from the point the knife had struck. It must have gone all the way through, because he could feel wetness on both sides. He did not relish the prospect of having to remove the glove later when the blood had fused it to the edges of the wound. Moreover—he felt a pang of dismay—he would have to buy a new set of gloves, for this one was surely ruined by the blood even if he could have darned the holes, and he knew that to do so would be stretching his expenses dangerously thin.
Javert shoved his chin deeper into his collar and walked on. His distraction was so great that he did not notice the figure approaching from the opposite direction until they were almost face-to-face, and only looked up when a voice said, “Good evening, Monsieur l’Inspecteur.”
Monsieur Madeleine was dressed well for the cold, a thick woollen scarf tucked into his coat, although his hands were bare. He was smiling, though Javert thought, as he had many times before, that there was something hidden beneath the kind face and gentle eyes that he could not quite identify. Gathering himself, he bowed respectfully and said, in what he hoped was a deferential tone, “Good evening, Monsieur le Maire.”
“You are out late tonight,” Madeleine said, still wearing that warm smile. “I do not often see you in these early hours.”
“I could say the same of you, monsieur,” Javert said, inclining his head. “For my part, I have been assigned night duties for the duration of the autumn and winter months.”
“Ah, I see.”
“I assume you had duties of your own to attend to, monsieur?”
Madeleine smiled again, and Javert thought, for the second time that night, that there was something beneath it that made him wary for a reason he could not ascertain. “Yes, indeed. I have been visiting the hospital this evening; there are many poor souls suffering in the cold at this time of year.”
Javert furrowed his brow, but did not respond except to bow his head once more.
“You do not approve?” There was no anger in Madeleine’s voice, merely benign interest.
Javert frowned, feeling slightly confused. “I should hardly think my opinion matters, monsieur.”
“You are my chief of police, Inspector,” Madeleine said, meeting his eyes with that damnably kind expression. “Your opinion matters very much to me.”
Javert could think of no response to that. Instead he said, in an effort to regain his footing, “Well, I do not wish to keep you out here in the cold, Monsieur le Maire.”
“Not at all, Inspector,” Madeleine said. “I will see you tomorrow for your briefing, then?”
“Yes, I should be—” He broke off, sucking a sharp breath in through his teeth. He had clenched his hand unthinkingly and a bolt of pain now shot through his palm as though the knife had struck for a second time.
“Inspector?” Madeleine said sharply, taking a step towards him. “Javert? Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Javert forced out. He could feel his hand shaking. “I am fine. I apologise for the concern, monsieur.”
“Nonsense,” said Madeleine, taking another step closer to him and running his eyes over his face and up and down his body. “Was there a disturbance? Have you been injured?”
“Monsieur le Maire, surely there are more important things for you to be worried about—”
“I will decide that,” Madeleine interrupted firmly. “As I said before, you are my chief of police, and your wellbeing is of vital importance to me. Now, are you going to tell me what is wrong?”
Javert stared at him for a few seconds, completely forgetting to keep his eyes respectfully averted. Madeleine stared right back, a determined set to his brow that Javert had rarely seen there before.
“There was some trouble earlier, monsieur,” he said at last, dropping his eyes to the ground. “A pickpocket, stealing from a gentleman outside the inn. I arrested him, but he stabbed me in the hand. It is not very bad, monsieur,” he added hastily, slightly alarmed, for Madeleine had made a sudden aborted movement and was now staring with wide eyes at the hand Javert was holding gingerly at his side, “it is merely a cut, I can deal with it.”
“Show me,” Madeleine commanded, not taking his eyes from the black glove.
Javert hesitated for a fraction of a second, then raised his right hand and held it out in front of him, palm down. Madeleine reached out himself and cupped the hand in his own—Javert felt a shudder run through his body at the contact—and carefully curled the fingers open, bending his head a little over the clean slit in his glove, turning the hand over to look at the entry wound with the gentleness of a soft breath. There was rather more blood than Javert had expected, and he looked away, feeling somehow ashamed as Madeleine straightened up again and looked at him.
“This is hardly a cut, Inspector.” There was something in his face—surely it was not concern?—that unsettled Javert still more than the physical contact.
“I have had worse in the past,” Javert said, intending to reassure Madeleine; but to his dismay the mayor’s face seemed to grow even more troubled, and he looked from the gloved hand still cradled in his own to Javert’s face, the groove between his eyebrows deepening.
“The knife went all the way through,” he said, after a moment. “You will need stitches, at the very least.”
“Yes, Monsieur le Maire,” Javert said. Madeleine had still not released his hand. “I have a medical kit at home; I was intending to deal with it after my shift ended.”
“A medical kit at—” Madeleine was staring at him, realisation dawning slowly on his face. “You—you mean to say you are intending to stitch this yourself?”
Javert was feeling increasingly disorientated. “Yes,” he said at last, staring back at Madeleine, “yes, of course. I always do.”
Madeleine’s fingers tightened almost imperceptibly on Javert’s hand. “Why do you not go to a doctor, Inspector? Stitching a wound like this yourself must be—”
Javert jerked his fingers almost subconsciously from Madeleine’s grip and said stiffly, “Doctors are an unnecessary expense, monsieur.”
Madeleine let his hands drop. Javert told himself firmly that he did not miss their warm pressure. “A doctor will ensure you do not lose your hand if this wound gets infected.”
“A doctor will charge twenty francs to do something I can do myself for nothing,” Javert snapped. The hole in his hand was throbbing distractingly, and Madeleine’s persistence was unsettling him. He wished he would leave and stop confusing him with questions.
“You do not mean—” Madeleine was frowning again, still wearing that expression of concern or distress or whatever it was that disquieted Javert so much. “You are surely not saying you cannot afford a doctor?”
Javert clenched his jaw and averted his eyes from Madeleine’s, tightening his good hand into a fist at his side. He did not answer.
“But—” Madeleine was looking distressed now, his hands rising again as though intending to take Javert’s once more, then dropping back to his sides. “But you are the chief of police; surely you earn enough to afford a doctor!”
“It is you who pays my salary, monsieur,” Javert said tightly. “I expect you would know better than I.”
For several seconds, Madeleine stared at him. Then, as though coming back to his senses, he bowed his head before Javert and said, in a tone of great contrition, “Forgive me, Inspector. It was unkind of me to push the matter and not respect your privacy.”
Javert was so taken aback by this that for a moment all he could do was stare at Madeleine. The man—the mayor—had spoken to him as an equal; had bowed his head before him and begged the apology of a common inspector. Javert felt more bewildered than ever as he responded, “There is nothing to apologise for, Monsieur le Maire.”
“Of course I should apologise; I was thoughtless,” Madeleine said earnestly; and then he reached out and grasped Javert’s shoulder with one hand, his eyes so very gentle. The touch sent a tremor through Javert—whether due to discomfort or something else he could not tell, but suddenly he could feel every knuckle of Madeleine’s fingers, feel the warmth of his palm radiating through the thick wool of his greatcoat, the gentle pressure as Madeleine rubbed his thumb briefly against Javert’s arm.
And then it was gone, and Madeleine was saying, his soft brown eyes still fixed gravely upon Javert’s face, “I would like for you to return to my rooms with me, Inspector, so I can dress your wound properly.”
It took Javert a long moment to process what Madeleine had said. He could still feel the place on his shoulder where Madeleine’s hand had rested, and which now felt very cold despite the warmth of his greatcoat. Now he felt a sudden and indefinable alarm and said quickly, “Monsieur, there is really no need—”
“You are injured,” Madeleine said simply, cutting across him. “I do not want you returning home in however many hours to stitch your hand shut by yourself. If you will not call upon a doctor, I would be glad if you would allow me to help you.”
“Monsieur le Maire,” Javert said, with some desperation, “I am still on duty, I do not want to inconvenience—”
“Javert,” Madeleine said, and Javert fell silent at once. “I am not forcing you to come. If you do not wish to, I will not push you, and you can return to your duties. All I want is to help you.”
Javert did not know what to think. He stared helplessly at Madeleine, who stared with as much firm sincerity back at him, the grey strands in his hair catching the moonlight so his whole head was threaded with silver.
At last, Javert said, in a voice as gruff as he could make it, “Very well. But I cannot stay long; I must return to my patrol.”
Madeleine smiled again. Javert felt some relief at seeing the frown replaced with a more familiar expression. “Thank you, Inspector. Shall we go, then? My rooms are not far.”
And before Javert could work out why he was being thanked, Madeleine had stepped out into the street and begun to walk at a leisurely pace, his face upturned to the cloudless sky, his naked hands clasped easily at his back, and a place on his left very markedly open for a man to walk at his side.
Javert fell into step beside him.
For several minutes, neither of them spoke. The streets of Montreuil-sur-Mer were very quiet at night—perhaps unsurprisingly, given the town’s small population—and they saw no-one as they made their way between the silent rows of houses. They walked more slowly as a pair than Javert was accustomed to when he walked alone; and given that the occasions when he was accompanied by another person were few and far between, he had to make a conscious effort to check his step and avoid leaving Madeleine behind. Madeleine, for his part, seemed content to amble along as though he regularly embarked on midnight strolls with a police inspector, that placid smile still on his face and his head turning every now and then to look up at the distant moon or one of the houses they passed.
Javert could not help feeling a distinct sense of awkwardness. It was not a feeling he was familiar with: the people with whom he generally interacted were not disposed to soft smiles and kind words, and in any case, the nature of his work had long since robbed him of any sense of discomfort during social interaction.
With Madeleine, however, he felt somehow diminished. He could not get a reading of the man: there was something unknown about him, something Javert had never encountered before and which filled him with a mixture of confusing emotions he did not want to examine. Javert was used to conversations he could pre-empt and react to without too much thought. He was used to shouted words in dark alleyways and brisk orders given with the weight of the law behind them; he was used to polite formalities and subservience, and to scripts he had learned in his Toulon days and never forgotten. He was not used to this.
“The person who stabbed you,” Madeleine said, and Javert startled slightly. “You said you arrested them?”
“Yes,” Javert said, recovering himself. “I took him to the holding cells to await his sentence. I will need to fill out a report.”
Madeleine hummed and took a moment to examine the limpid skies once more. The moon had just dipped out from behind a bare tree and the pale light turned his face ghostly as they passed into the darkness between two street-lamps.
“Will he hang?” Madeleine asked, after a pause. There was a strange inflection to his voice.
“Most likely,” Javert said impassively. “Assault is a capital offence. Assault of an officer is still more severe.”
Madeleine fell silent again. Javert felt inexplicably as though he had let him down somehow. He said, in an effort to explain himself, “He is a criminal, Monsieur le Maire. He cannot mix with normal society.”
Madeleine did not answer at once. After a moment, during which Javert watched his own feet, he said in a measured voice, “Is the purpose of the justice system not to enable criminals to enter normal society?”
“Of course not,” Javert said, his eyebrows contracting. “Criminals can never enter normal society. It is in their nature to rebel against civilisation.”
“You think it just to execute the rebels, then, rather than educating them?”
“Justice does not educate,” Javert replied, a little vexed. “It punishes those who need to be punished in order to protect the decent people who have done no wrong.”
Madeleine looked at him now, his eyebrows slightly raised. “Cannot a man do wrong even without opposing the law? Morally, for example?”
Javert’s forehead bunched. “Morals are not within my jurisdiction.”
Madeleine gave a short, surprised laugh, another smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. The sound made Javert feel suddenly warm, and he looked away quickly, burying his chin more deeply in his collar.
It only took another few minutes to reach Madeleine’s rooms, for which Javert was grateful: the blood had congealed thickly around the slit in his glove, and every movement of his hand was accompanied by a ferocious stab of pain. As they walked, he managed to ignore the discomfort for the most part—owing, he knew, to the consistent and likely intentional distraction provided by Madeleine. He was surprised to find himself enjoying the man’s company; never before had he engaged with another person like this, due at least partly to the fact that most people found him, if not downright frightening, then at least intimidating. He had never been able to quite decide whether he was glad of that or not.
“Here we are,” Madeleine said, and Javert looked up to see the mayor withdrawing a key from his pocket and inserting it into the lock of the house on the very end of the street. It was a small, unremarkable building of stone, with no candles burning in the windows or servants awaiting their master’s return at the door, but Javert was not surprised: he had heard tell of Madeleine’s parsimony when it came to his own living quarters.
The door swung open and Madeleine gestured Javert inside with a sweep of his hand and a small smile. Javert inclined his head and stepped over the threshold, noticing as he did so that Madeleine seemed to flinch slightly as he passed, though his smile remained in place. His sense of discomfort increasing, Javert removed his hat and cast a swift, cursory glance over the interior of the house, not moving from his position by the door.
The townspeople had not been exaggerating when they described the sparseness of Madeleine’s rooms. The walls were bare and drab, plaster flaking away in places around the skirting board and lintel, though it was clear Madeleine had endeavoured to patch up the worst of the damage: even through the darkness Javert could see the colour difference where he had used a different variety of plaster. The furniture was equally shabby: a single armchair in front of the empty fire, a battered coffer by the door on the opposite wall, a square table with two chairs facing one another. The sight was not unexpected to Javert, but to see it with his own eyes was striking nonetheless—these rooms were hardly better furnished than his own.
“I will light the candles,” Madeleine said, stepping further into the room himself and closing the door behind him. “Are you cold, Inspector?”
Javert gave a slight huff and furrowed his brow. “I am fine, monsieur.”
“You look cold,” Madeleine said without looking up as he rummaged through a drawer and withdrew a box of matches. “I will light the fire for us.” Then, glancing up to see Javert still standing stiffly by the door, “Please, sit down, Inspector.”
Javert hesitated a moment, then laid his hat neatly on the small table beside him and strode to the larger table where Madeleine was occupied with lighting a candle. As he pulled out one of the wooden chairs, Madeleine said absently, “You can take your coat off, if you like. We’ll quickly warm up once the fire gets started. My rooms are blessed with good insulation.”
Javert looked at him, disconcerted. Madeleine was smiling slightly.
“Very well,” he said at last, reaching up and beginning to unbutton his coat. Madeleine did not observe, but instead turned away and began to make his way around the room with his matches, a warm pool of yellow light blossoming at every place he paused.
Javert was having some difficulty extracting his right arm from the sleeve of his greatcoat. His hand felt taut and stiff now, locked in a half-clenched position, pain shooting out from the wound in his palm as he attempted to slide his cuff over the soaked glove. It was only when he gave a short huff of frustration that Madeleine looked over. He had been kneeling in front of the fire, busying himself with lighting the kindling, and now he raised his head to send a concerned glance across the room.
“Inspector?” came the familiar voice. “Are you alright?”
The glow from the new-born fire was lighting the side of Madeleine’s face, softening the lines carved into his brow and around his mouth so he suddenly looked ten years younger. The silver in his hair was washed away by the firelight, and Javert felt a sudden jolt in his chest, something burning, some flicker of memory that darted just out of reach, an image he could not catch hold of.
Madeleine had stood up and taken a few steps towards him now, the concern in his face more pronounced—and as suddenly as it had come, the image was gone. Javert shook himself, thrusting his chin back into his coat, and said, with some chagrin, “My—hand is rather unwieldly, Monsieur le Maire.”
“Oh!” said Madeleine, and for some reason he looked apologetic. “Forgive me, I had not thought—let me help you with that.”
“You need not keep asking my forgiveness, monsieur,” Javert said awkwardly as Madeleine moved behind him and began to carefully draw the greatcoat over his shoulders, taking care to avoid jarring his hand. “There is nothing for which I need to forgive you.”
“And yet I ask it anyway,” Madeleine said. His voice was very close behind Javert’s back, and he felt that same tremor once more as Madeleine took his arm very carefully in his large hands and guided the sleeve cleanly over the bloodied glove.
“You are a curious man, Monsieur le Maire,” Javert said, before he could stop himself, but Madeleine only chuckled.
It felt very strange to be standing in front of the mayor in just his tailcoat, and even more so to sit at the square wooden table once Madeleine had hung Javert’s greatcoat on one of the coat-hooks along with his own and busied himself with digging through the drawer again. Never before had Javert sat in front of the mayor. To sit was to break the convention of their usual meetings, their weekly interaction when Javert would list the issues the police force had dealt with over the past seven days and Madeleine would nod and ask questions and send him on his way with a smile and a bonne journée. He felt as though Madeleine must at any moment realise what a mistake he had made in inviting the inspector to his house and Javert would be sent on his way once more. He could not tell whether he wanted that to happen or not.
“Here we go,” Madeleine’s voice sounded, and Javert raised his head as the mayor sat down across from him with a small black case in his hands. “This should not take long. I will clean the wound and stitch it and then you can be on your way again.”
Javert nodded and laid his right hand on the table as Madeleine opened the case and began arranging his equipment before him. He felt a vague sense of apprehension at the great increase in pain he would no doubt soon be feeling, but pain was nothing new to him, and it would certainly be a less uncomfortable experience when someone else was doing the stitching.
“The glove will have to come off,” Madeleine said, casting a critical eye across at his hand. “Do you think you can remove it yourself or shall we cut it?”
Javert raised his hand and tugged experimentally at the tips of his fingers, trying to extract his hand without doing too much damage; but the glove was now so soaked with dried blood that any effort tore at the open wound and made the pain flare worse than ever.
“It will have to be cut,” Javert said, abandoning the attempt and laying his hand once more on the table. “I would not have been able to salvage it anyway.”
“You know, I do not believe I have ever seen you without gloves, Inspector,” Madeleine said, smiling as he picked up a pair of small silver scissors and lifted Javert’s hand delicately in his own. His fingers were shorter and stockier, a weather-beaten brown, but lighter still than Javert’s long dark ones. “It is a shame the first time had to be under these circumstances.”
“It is also the first time I have ever seen your rooms, Monsieur le Maire,” Javert said, gritting his teeth as Madeleine slid the scissors beneath the cuff of his glove and began to cut. “I suppose some good often comes of a bad situation.”
Madeleine looked faintly surprised for a moment, then bent over the glove, the scissors tiny in his large hands. Javert rather thought he was smiling.
“Monsieur,” he said, feeling a strange urge to keep talking now he had started, “the townspeople talk of your frugality when it comes to your rooms. They do not,”—he winced as the leather snagged on the raw edges of the wound, and Madeleine’s hand stilled briefly—“They do not understand how you can be so generous to everyone except yourself.”
“Yes,” Madeleine said without looking up, his tone amused, “yes, I have heard that my lifestyle is a source of intrigue to some. It is a small town, people must find their amusement somewhere. I would not have taken you for a gossip yourself, though, Monsieur l’Inspecteur.”
Javert opened his mouth to respond, hoping very much that he would not sound defensive—then noticed that Madeleine was smiling jocosely, and relaxed slightly in his chair. Suppressing a wince as Madeleine began to peel the leather away from the wound, he said, “It is my job to hear things, monsieur. Gossip is a valuable source of information.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Madeleine said, laying down the scissors. “Though not so important in a town such as Montreuil, I hope?”
“On the—ah—on the contrary,” Javert said, catching his breath as his palm was revealed from beneath the black glove and Madeleine cautiously pulled the rest of it out from underneath, leaving his hand bare. The stab wound looked worse than he had anticipated, though that was likely due to the copious amounts of blood staining the skin up to his wrist: the gash itself was only a few centimetres across with mercifully little tearing. Javert hoped the pickpocket had kept his knife as clean as he kept it sharp. “Crime can conceal itself in the most unlikely places. It is my job to find it, and to bring those responsible to justice.”
Madeleine gave another smile. It looked a little strained in the candlelight. “I have never met someone as devoted to their job as you, Inspector Javert.”
Javert looked away from Madeleine and down at his uninjured hand, which he had bunched unconsciously in the fabric of his trousers as the glove was removed. “I am only doing my duty, Monsieur le Maire.”
“You do yourself a disservice,” Madeleine said, laying the glove aside and standing up again. “There are very few men who have such drive and dedication. You should be proud, Inspector. I will be back in a moment—I just need to fetch some water.”
He crossed to the door behind him and disappeared through it, leaving Javert sitting in a state of intense disorientation. Every word that Madeleine spoke confused him more than the last. First he had invited him to his house to treat his injury—an injury he could have dealt with himself, something hardly worth fussing over—and then he had bade him remove his coat and sit before him, and smiled as he cut away his glove; and now he was giving him compliments, telling him he should be proud for doing what any inspector should do, and touching him so gently with his great work-roughened hands.
For the first time in years, Javert was in unknown waters.
“Here we are,” Madeleine said, returning to the table and setting down a bowl of water and a clean white cloth. “Could you give me your hand, please, Inspector? I just need to clean it before we put the stitches in.”
Javert held out his hand obediently and Madeleine took it in his own. His skin was even warmer when not felt through a layer of leather—and Javert realised, with a jolt that made Madeleine look up in alarm, that this was the first time he had touched someone else, flesh to flesh, in as long as he could remember. The thought made something frightening stir in his chest, and he forced himself not to snatch his hand away, to allow Madeleine to continue to cradle his wrist, to resist the urge to stand up and walk out of Madeleine’s house and return to his patrol where everything was rigid and structured and there was no confusion.
“—vert?” Madeleine was saying. “Did I hurt you?”
His expression was writ with anxiety. Javert pulled himself together and said quickly, “No, not at all, I apologise.”
Madeleine did not look as though he believed him, but apparently decided to let the subject drop and instead reached over to dip the cloth in the bowl of water. “This will only take a minute. Stop me if I hurt you.”
“You are bound to hurt me, monsieur,” Javert said, frowning. “I have a hole in my hand.”
Madeleine gave a brief chuckle, and Javert felt that now-familiar warmth bloom in his chest again. “You are quite right, of course. Hold still, please.”
Javert had expected the pain, but that did not make it easier to tolerate. The first dab of the cloth drew a hiss from between Javert’s teeth as the dried blood was rinsed away, and he endeavoured to keep his hand as still as possible, though he was unable to fully suppress the tremors. He averted his eyes from the sight and glared instead at the slumbering fire, then at the mantelpiece with its scanty decoration of two silver candlesticks which had been left unlit, and on to the armchair where he presumed Madeleine sat of an evening. Perhaps he read, or darned, or sorted documents of the sort one must only sort when one is a mayor. It was a curiously pleasant sight to imagine.
Madeleine worked quickly but effectively, and before long he was saying, “There. Now I can see what I’m working with a little better.”
Javert cast an appraising eye over his hand. It looked a lot less alarming now the blood had been scrubbed away: he could see the cut properly at last, and allowed himself to feel relief that the knife seemed to have gone cleanly through without severing any tendons.
“It doesn’t look like the damage is too severe,” Madeleine said, apparently following Javert’s train of thought. “I’d say the only real risk now is infection. As long as you keep it clean and bandaged, though, it should be back in working order in no time.”
Javert nodded and brought his hand closer to the candle flame to see the extent of the injury. As he rotated his wrist to see it from every angle, he said abstractedly, “There is something very unpleasant about trauma to the hand.”
Madeleine was wringing out the cloth into the bowl, the water of which was now coloured pink. “True,” he said, picking up the little black case again and searching through it. “I would imagine it has something to do with the complexity of the structure. Lots of small bones. Would you agree?”
Javert hummed and turned his hand over again, watching the way the candlelight made the slit of tissue glisten pale against the dark skin. “That, and the fact that the repercussions of a crippled hand can be severe.”
“To be sure. I imagine you have had many other injuries to compare it to, in your line of work?”
Javert hummed again. Madeleine had withdrawn a curved needle from the black case and was threading it by the light of the candle, head bent over his hands and his face hidden in shadow.
For a few moments, there was silence, but for the rasp of the fire and the occasional crack as a piece of wood was engulfed by the flames. There was something about it, sitting here with Madeleine as he threaded his needle, looking for all the world as though he was about to start darning a torn shirt, that made the odd feeling rise in Javert’s breast again. He had a sudden yearning to sit here all night, watching the fire burn, feeling the presence of Madeleine across the table from him as they waited for morning; but before he could fully quash this unsettling wave of longing, Madeleine had lifted his head, the needle trailing its successfully attached thread.
“Alright,” he said, with a small, apologetic smile. “I suppose I do not have to warn you that this will hurt.”
“I am aware,” Javert said, and this time he held out his hand before Madeleine could ask. Madeleine took it, laying the heel of his palm on the table, and positioned the needle above the wound, glancing up at Javert. In the candlelight his brown eyes looked almost gold.
Javert nodded once, and Madeleine began to sew.
The pain was awful, agonising, worse than the knife had been. He clenched his teeth till they creaked but could not repress the snarl that slipped from his mouth as Madeleine pulled the thread taut, his face rigid with concentration, the needle flashing white in his hand. It was taking all his focus to keep his hand steady on the table as every instinct screamed for him to pull it away from the source of the pain—but Javert had long since learned to overpower his instincts.
“So,” Madeleine said suddenly, and Javert’s head twitched upwards from where it had been curled over the table, “you mentioned that you had been injured before? What sorts of injuries were those?”
Recognising the attempt at distraction, Javert forced himself to think, turning his eyes away from Madeleine’s careful hands. “There was—there was a time when I was—ah, clubbed in the head with a wooden plank when I was ambushing some robbers—it was a,”—he gave a sharp hiss as Madeleine made the second stitch—“failure on my part because I was—unaccompanied by another officer despite the uneven odds and I was overpowered.”
Madeleine made a sound of interest and tugged the thread through again before returning for another stitch. “Did you recover successfully?” he asked, without taking his eyes off his task.
“Yes,” Javert ground out, his free hand once more fisted in his trousers. “I was found several hours later by the officer who should—should have been accompanying me. In the end the criminals were apprehended and sentenced.”
“That was when you were working in a different town?”
“Yes, a smaller place than this, not—too far from here. That was the same town where I was,”—another growl as the needle dipped into his skin again—“stabbed in the chest by the owner of a brothel.”
Madeleine made a soft sound of astonishment, his eyebrows rising. “It sounds like there’s a story there.”
“A very extensive one,” Javert said. He was managing to tune out the pain better now, keeping his mind focused on the Javert of the past with a knife lodged between his ribs rather than the Javert of the present sitting here having his hand sewn shut. “I recovered easily enough, after I—arrested—arrested the perpetrator. He was not very good at fighting—the knife was unfortunate.”
Madeleine gave another sonorous chuckle and cut the end of the thread, using the needle to tie a tidy knot at the end of the row of stitches. “I imagine you were handcuffing him with the knife still stuck in your chest?”
“It’s…possible that I was,” Javert said evasively, and Madeleine laughed more richly this time.
“If you could turn your hand over now, Inspector,” he said, still looking amused as he rethreaded the needle, “I just need to stitch the palm.”
Javert laid the back of his hand against the table and waited for the pain. It came sharply, burning a white-hot line down the whole length of the wound, though it was not quite as bad as it had been at first: Madeleine’s distraction was working well.
“What were you saying before?” Madeleine asked, as if on cue. “About your battle scars?”
Javert grunted, half in pain and half in mirth. “I would hardly call them battle scars, monsieur, they are merely—ah—physical reminders of my missteps.”
Madeleine’s moustache twitched, but he did not raise his head from the stitches. “I would rather call them ‘battle scars’ than ‘physical reminders of my missteps’.”
Javert gave a brief bark of laughter, then quickly stifled it. He had been told before that his laugh was unpleasant—he did not wish Madeleine to tell him so as well. Before Madeleine could speak, he said, “I was also shot, when I attempted to arrest a traveller on the road for suspected highway robbery.”
“Good grief, Inspector,” Madeleine said, “is there any injury you have not suffered?”
“I am—sure there are many,” Javert said, grimacing as the thread dragged across the wound. “Oh, there was also a time—many years ago—when I was attacked during a prison riot.”
Madeleine’s hands stilled in the middle of drawing the thread.
“It was at Toulon,” Javert continued. “The prison hulks. There was a disturbance and I was caught in the middle of it.”
The needle pierced his palm again. A log in the fire popped. Madeleine’s head was still bowed over his hand as he said, in an expressionless voice, “You were not badly hurt, I hope?”
“No,” Javert said, gripping his trouser leg more tightly, “merely a broken arm; but another guard was not so lucky. He had his skull crushed. I believe he died, a short while later.”
For a long moment, Madeleine was silent. Then, as he tightened the final stitch, he said quietly: “I am sorry. Was he a friend of yours?”
Javert shook his head, staring at Madeleine’s hands as he cut the thread with his silver scissors and knotted the ends. The stitches were very neat, a short row of black lines that hid the pale innards of the wound from view.
“You are good at stitching,” he said, lifting his hand into the candlelight again. “This is a much better job than anything I have ever done.”
“No doubt it is more difficult when one is operating on oneself,” Madeleine said. He had still not looked up, but was rummaging through his medical kit, withdrawing a roll of bandages and laying it on the table between them.
“I have never operated on anyone other than myself,” Javert responded, “so I would not know.”
At this, Madeleine looked up at last. There was a strange expression on his face, one which Javert could not read; but it quickly melted into another smile, though once again there was something forced about it, as though a different emotion was concealed beneath the gentle countenance.
“I will just bandage your hand now, Inspector,” he said, raising the roll, “and then you can return to your duties, as I’m sure you have been longing to do.”
Javert made a sound of assent that felt more uncertain than it had any right to be. He laid his hand on the table, however, and Madeleine took it once more in his calloused fingers and began wrapping the bandages around his wrist and up over the meat at the base of his thumb, taking care to avoid brushing the wound, his lowered eyelashes casting fragile shadows across his cheekbones.
The silence drew on. Javert felt as though he should speak, should thank Madeleine for his patience and his care and his kind words; but he did not want to break the bubble of quiet that had bloomed around the little table, enclosing himself and Madeleine in a sphere of flickering yellow light, robbing him of breath as he watched the other man work with his head bent and the bandages bright white in his strong brown hands.
“There,” Madeleine said at last, and the spell was broken. Javert sat up straighter in his chair, looking at the carefully tied bandages which hid the wound from view, and trying not to feel regret at the loss of Madeleine’s warm hands.
“Thank you, Monsieur le Maire,” he said. “I am most grateful.”
“It is no trouble at all, Inspector,” Madeleine said, and he smiled. “In fact I am grateful to you for allowing me to do this; I know you would rather not be interrupted from your duties. I will rest easy tonight knowing you are safe and healthy, and not still walking around with a hole in your hand.”
Javert stared at him. There was something building in his chest, something he had to get out, something hot and unfamiliar which he had never felt before. Abruptly he said, in a strained voice: “Why are you so kind to me?”
Madeleine’s smile faltered slightly. “I’m sorry?”
“I said,” Javert forced out, his good hand tightening on his leg, “why are you so kind to me? Why are you helping me, and saying I should—should be proud of myself?”
He could not bear to look into Madeleine’s eyes. He turned resolutely away from the table and stared instead at the fire, watching the flames without seeing them, becoming aware, as he did so, that he had just been horribly disrespectful towards the mayor and that Madeleine was probably furious with him for his insolence. If they could see Inspector Javert now, he thought, if they could only see—
Something closed around his hand and he jumped, turning quickly back from the fire. Madeleine was looking straight into his eyes, his own so soft and lit with bronze, and one of his hands covering Javert’s on the scratched table-top.
“Javert,” he said, and Javert’s chest tightened and glowed warm again, “I am kind to you because you deserve kindness. I am helping you because you deserve to be helped, and I am saying you should be proud of yourself because you deserve to hear it. You are a good man, Javert. You are the finest police officer I have ever known, and I could never ask for a better inspector to guard my town. I will tell you these things again and again if you need to hear them. You deserve goodness, Javert.”
Javert could not tear his eyes from Madeleine’s face. He could feel his heart pumping painfully behind his ribs.
“People are afraid of me,” he said at last. He had not meant to say it, but he ploughed on, his hand twitching beneath Madeleine’s. “People tell me I frighten them. I do not mean to. Are you afraid of me, Monsieur le Maire?”
Madeleine stared evenly back. For a beat he was silent, apparently thinking. Then he said, in a voice that suggested he was choosing his words carefully, “When you first arrived here, I was. Primarily, I think, because—and I’m sure you will not deny this—you are a very tall man, Inspector. Your height can seem imposing, especially to those of us who are not blessed with such impressive stature.”
He smiled, but the smile quickly faded, and he tightened his hand a little over Javert’s. “You are a stern man. You radiate authority. People fear the police, even if they have done nothing wrong, purely because of the power you wield.”
“I do not wish people to fear me,” Javert said. The bang of his heart was almost painful now. “Not good people. If criminals fear me I do not mind—I would rather they did—but not people who are honest and good. I do not wish you to fear me, monsieur.”
Something tightened in Madeleine’s face. He closed his eyes briefly, letting his head dip down over his chest; but when he raised it again, his eyes were open and clear.
“I do not fear you, Javert,” he said. “Not anymore.”
The fire hissed. One of the candleflames fluttered, then resumed its steady burning.
“You are a good man, Javert,” Madeleine said again. “One needs only to look past their presumptions to see that.”
For a long minute, neither of them spoke. There was a strange feeling in the room, as though something had travelled between them, some thread that had bound them together for the briefest moment. Before the silence could stretch too long, however, Javert withdrew his hand from beneath Madeleine’s and stood up.
“Thank you, Monsieur le Maire,” he said. “I should be on my way now.”
Madeleine stood up too, his face still lit by the circle of candlelight. “That is well,” he said. “I will escort you out, if that suits you.”
Javert nodded his assent, and Madeleine made his way past him to the door, lifting his greatcoat down and handing it to him as Javert collected his hat. Once Javert had shrugged on his coat once more and buttoned it one-handed, Madeleine opened the door onto the bitter night and Javert stepped out into the darkness of the very early morning, the streets still deserted, the moon still bright, and the rustle of the trees the only sound that broke the drowsing stillness.
“Will you return to your patrol?” Madeleine asked as Javert donned his hat and turned back towards the door to bid him farewell.
“Of course,” Javert responded, then, “Damn,”—for he had just attempted to put on his gloves and found that he had only one.
“Oh, one moment, Inspector,” Madeleine said, and he ducked back inside the house. Before Javert had time to wonder what he had gone for, Madeleine was back, clutching something in his hand.
“Here,” he said, holding out the object. “In recompense for cutting up your other ones.”
It was a pair of gloves. They looked very similar to his old ones, made of black leather, but without the various patches and stitched holes that his had accumulated over the years.
Javert stared at the gloves, then up at Madeleine. “Monsieur, I cannot accept this.”
“Of course you can,” Madeleine said, not dropping his hand. “I accept full responsibility for the loss of your last pair; I am merely reimbursing you. These have always been a little long in the finger for me, anyway.”
Javert did not move. “You only cut up one of them, monsieur.”
“Ah, but you cannot go around with mismatched gloves, Inspector,” Madeleine said, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Think of what the gamins would say.”
Javert’s jaw clenched. He said, stiffly, “I do not require charity.”
The smile that had been tugging at Madeleine’s mouth faded. He looked at Javert for a moment, the gloves limp in his outstretched hand. At last he smiled once more, though there was something different about it now, something almost sad, as he held out his hand more firmly and met Javert’s eyes. “Think of it as a gift, then. A thank-you for keeping me company this lonely evening.”
Javert looked at Madeleine for a second longer; at the smile that was both kind and sad in equal measure, and his terribly earnest eyes. Then, without a word, he reached out and took the gloves.
They fit just as well as his last ones had as he tugged them on, taking care with his bandaged right hand. The leather was far softer and of better quality than he was used to, and he rather felt he could still feel the warmth from where Madeleine had held them. Once they were snugly in place, he looked up and met Madeleine’s eyes, and said, “Thank you, monsieur.”
The genuine warmth in Madeleine’s face made the night air seem suddenly less cold. “You are very welcome, Inspector,” he said, and he held out his hand again, empty this time. “Take care on your patrol, then. I will see you tomorrow for your briefing, when perhaps we can arrange a time for you to tell me the full story of your encounter with the knife-wielding brothel-owner.”
Javert inclined his head and took Madeleine’s hand, black glove on bare skin. “I would like that.”
They shook hands. When Javert let go, he found the warmth persisted, as though it had been stitched into the glove. Taking a step back from the doorway, he reached up and tipped his hat. “Good evening, Monsieur le Maire.”
“Good evening, Monsieur l’Inspecteur,” Madeleine responded, raising one hand in farewell, his eyes bright in the darkness. “Take care of yourself.”
Javert did not linger. He turned away from the door and stepped out onto the street, pulling his collar up around his face as he began to walk into the night. The sun was not due to rise for many hours yet, but he almost imagined he could see, behind the ragged silhouettes of the trees rising above the rooftops, a pale glow burning faintly on the horizon.
When he reached the end of the road, he turned back. Madeleine’s door was closed, but there was now a single candle burning in the window, casting a square of golden light onto the pavement.
Javert turned and strode once more into the black and silent streets.
Yes, a curious man indeed.