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A Strange and Terrible Wonder

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It occurred one day within Monsieur Madeleine’s first week as mayor, when the new chain of office still weighed heavy around his neck and he felt at once cowed and discomfited by the hard eyes of appraisal pressing in from all sides, that he received word from his secretary that the inspector of police wished to speak with him pending his approval; and, having no wish to offend a man who could no doubt be a valuable ally, as well as being motivated by his own natural goodwill, he extended an invitation at the inspector’s convenience.

Madeleine was a busy man with many responsibilities, especially during his first days in office. He worked hard with earnest dedication—a fact which was noted by those who worked alongside him—and it was with consideration of the inspector’s requested appointment that he ensured he remained in his office for the rest of the day. It came as a surprise, therefore, when his secretary poked his head around the door not an hour later with word that the police inspector was waiting below.

Madeleine ordered the man sent up and returned to his papers, with the vague idea that he should appear to be busy in order to create a good impression without offending the inspector. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, still in a state of resigned bewilderment at the position into which he had been thrust: he retained a pronounced feeling of disbelief whenever passers-by inclined their heads respectfully in his direction, and had to suppress a start if a finely-dressed gentlewoman greeted him cordially, “Bonne journée, Monsieur le Maire.” He had a sense of playing a game of which he did not yet know the rules; but each successful interaction he underwent seemed to make the process more comprehensible, and even within his first week as mayor, having already garnered a respectable amount of experience as Père Madeleine, he anticipated his encounter with the inspector of police with far less trepidation than he would have done even a month before. That he felt a certain anxiety could not be denied; but it was not debilitating, and he listened to the firm steps ascend the stairs beneath him with only a slight chill down his spine.

The door was opened; the man entered; Madeleine stood up—and the cold which had before been confined to his spine seemed to flood his whole body, calcifying his heart and sending freezing water rushing to the very tips of his fingers, making him shake as though the ice was more than a fantasy constructed in a heartbeat by his paralysed mind.

He knew this man.

He was almost unchanged from how he had been when Madeleine had known him, except now he wore iron-grey rather than uniform blue, and his head was covered by a top hat rather than a peaked shako—or it would have been, had he not been holding the hat respectfully under his arm as he entered. His face was, perhaps, a little more lined than it had been before: the furrow between his bushy eyebrows deeper, the lines around his mouth carved more harshly into the swarthy skin; and there were threads of grey now at his temples and woven into the ferocious sideburns where before there had been black. There was also, greater than anything else, that same sense that there was something deeper buried beneath his human face; something hidden, frightful, too raw to be exposed to sunlight and the watchful eyes of men.

It was Javert.

Only extreme mastery of his faculties prevented Madeleine from recoiling. As it was, he allowed the tremors to pass through his body like a brief sickness, setting his hands trembling, before expelling them to the best of his ability and swallowing the nausea that had risen in his gut at the sight of that dreadfully familiar face. Where his hands were out of sight behind the stacks of paper on his desk, he clenched them; and when his face was momentarily free from scrutiny as Javert bowed low before him, he allowed himself an aborted shudder that changed his face suddenly to that of a different man, making his eyes wild and black with that animal instinct to flee that he only painfully kept in check. When Javert raised his head again, however, his pale eyes respectfully lowered yet still terrifyingly intelligent beneath his dark fringe, Madeleine’s face was a composed mask of benevolence once more, and he extended a hand to the police inspector without any betrayal of his muscles to reveal his horror.

“Monsieur le Maire,” Javert said. His voice sounded different when it was stifled in deference: Madeleine had only previously heard it raised in command, a harsh bark that carried even across the loudest dockyard; and to hear it now, lowered in something verging on diffidence, rough and coarse as gravel in its sincerity, seemed to him profoundly wrong.

“Monsieur l’Inspecteur,” Madeleine responded. Even with his desperate exertion of self-control it was hard to repress a spasm of dread as Javert’s long-fingered hand, encased in its black glove, closed around his own. Javert withdrew his hand very quickly, however, seeming ill at ease with the contact, for which Madeleine was intensely grateful.

“I hope this is not too great an intrusion upon your time, monsieur,” Javert said, returning, with the release of his hand, to a posture of military subservience. “I will not occupy you for more than a few minutes, if it is acceptable to you. I merely wished to introduce myself, given your recent instatement, for which I hope I may extend my congratulations.”

“Certainly,” Madeleine said. The smile he mustered felt as transparent as his outward hospitality. “Please, take a seat.”

“Thank you,” Javert said mechanically, and sat in the chair on the other side of the desk, resting his hands symmetrically on his knees and staring across the table with alert perspicacity.

“I am Inspector Javert,” he said without preamble as Madeleine took his own seat, occupying himself with the armrests to postpone the moment when he would have to meet Javert’s penetrating gaze. “I was appointed to Montreuil-sur-Mer as your head of police, and I will henceforth make all reports pertaining to any issues in the town directly to you. I hope you will find me suitable, and I look forward to working alongside you, Monsieur le Maire.”

Having finished his speech, he bowed his head once more and returned to gazing attentively across the desk.

For a moment, Madeleine allowed himself to feel the dismay he had sought to suppress, exacerbated by this sudden vision of the future in which he would be forced into close proximity with this most dangerous of men; but Javert was still waiting for a response, and, quashing these unhelpful sentiments, he said in a voice he hoped retained some of its usual warmth, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Monsieur l’Inspecteur.”

“Please, monsieur; Javert will suffice.”

“Then, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Javert,” Madeleine said, managing another smile that stretched his face quite unnaturally. “I am sure we will function most admirably alongside one another. I had heard tell even before I was appointed mayor of the efficiency of the Montreuil police force; I am sure you must take the credit for a substantial part of that as head of police.”

Javert appeared buoyed by the praise, but seemed to make an effort not to let this show on his countenance and instead spoke, with inclined head, “I am only a cog in a far greater system, monsieur. I do my duty to the best of my ability; it is what should be expected of any police officer.”

“I am sure there are many who would disagree,” Madeleine said, watching Javert now with a faint note of curiosity easing some of his apprehension. “In many towns the police force does not have nearly such a glowing reputation.”

“Such officers should be ashamed,” Javert said. As he spoke he seemed to sit up straighter in his chair, his hands clawing on his legs, and a bright fire abruptly blazed in the cold eyes that had moments before been as still and focused as though they had been carved from stone. “The sole purpose of a man of the law should be to enact justice, and to ensure the words by which he is ordered are upheld. To have been given this duty and neglected it is an act of violation.”

Madeleine had listened to this outburst with an expression of polite interest, but in his soul he was undergoing a violent internal torment. That the one person who might recognise him—the one man to be in a position in which he could discover all, and reveal him for what he was—should be one with opinions such as these seemed to be a cruel trick played by Fate; for he could not believe that God would wish him to suffer thusly, unless he had not yet paid his due penance for the dark blot upon his past. And it was a dark blot indeed, one which still drove him to his knees before his hearth, the silhouette of the candlesticks he had placed there so many months ago carving twin stripes of shadow down either side of his vision; and the hidden cavity within the wall, separated from him by nothing more than a thin sheet of wood, its keyhole staring out into the room like a black eye, seeming to boom with words unspoken as he knelt in the darkness. Was it so unreasonable, then, to assume that God had not yet forgiven him for his long tryst with the Devil?—the thought frightened him, and he shied away from it. He would see Javert now as nothing more than a danger of which to be wary, and treat him no differently than he would any other man—even if he was, no doubt, incomparable to any other man Madeleine had met.

All this passed through his head before Javert had finished speaking; and he said, when the other man had fallen silent, “I can see you are a man of honour, Inspector. Such views are commendable, especially in one in a position to promote them. I look forward to seeing you in action.”

Javert’s lips peeled back to reveal his teeth, framed above and below by a sliver of pale gums, and Madeleine was abruptly seized by an irrepressible repulsion that made him almost lose control of his instincts: his hands tensed on the table and it took all his strength not to jerk backwards away from that terrible face, as though it was the Devil himself who sat in the wooden chair on the other side of the desk. At length he realised that Javert was smiling, an awful smile of doglike inhumanity, the animalistic snarl of a creature untouched by God or goodness and driven to snap and bite its way to civilisation with only the force of its jaws and the sharpness of its teeth. “This is no man,” he found himself thinking; and it was with great disquiet in his soul that he forced himself to meet Javert’s unflinching eyes, alone unchanged by the upheaval of his visage.

“That is all I came here to discuss, Monsieur le Maire,” the man said, rising to his feet and replacing his hat under his arm, that awful expression retreating from his face as rapidly as it had come. “I will, as I mentioned before, be making my reports directly to you from now on.”

“That is well,” Madeleine said. The untruth clung to his tongue like a sour residue. “In that case, I will see you when you make your next report. On which day is that scheduled?”

“Friday, if it is amenable to you, monsieur.”

“Friday it is, then. Bonne journée, Inspector.”

Bonne journée, Monsieur le Maire.”

Madeleine waited until the door had closed behind Javert and the sound of his steady footsteps on the stairs had faded before he strode to the window and positioned himself carefully behind the shield of the curtains, peering around the heavy material down to the pavement below. After a few seconds Javert emerged, the top of his dark head now hidden by his hat; and without a break in his step he continued out the door and down the street, anomalous amongst the lightly-dressed townsfolk by his dark greatcoat and the fact that he was at least a head taller than most he passed, his pace brisk and unfaltering in its self-assurance. Halfway down the street he halted, and for a second that could have stretched into an infinite future his head turned and his pale eyes seemed to stare directly into Madeleine’s where he stood frozen behind the curtain; then, with no change in expression, he turned away once more and continued to the end of the street, at which point he turned left and was lost from view.

Madeleine drew away from the window and returned to the place behind his desk he had vacated at Javert’s departure. It was remarkable how, in a few short minutes, his carefully constructed façade of respectability and propriety, so carefully honed over the past months, could suddenly seem as fragile as if it were made of paper. The proximity of Javert meant peril; disaster; a danger so pronounced as to make his whole position tenuous. It was as though he had been sent back to the torment of the years before, like the man who escapes the noose only to find the wolf-pack in the safety of the dark woods; he had convinced himself, shamefully, knowing he made a mistake in doing so, that Montreuil-sur-Mer was the dark wood in which he could conceal himself from the executioner: a place where he was unknown, a traveller pure of intention and soul, free to rebuild himself away from the scrutiny of Justice’s blind eye—but it was he who had been blind. He could not be safe whilst Javert was here.

Madeleine drew a deep breath and pressed his palms to his head, gripping his hair with hands that shook as though with supressed emotion, though his face was expressionless.

Another in the room, had there been any, might have heard him murmur at that moment, “Oh, God,”; but there was no other, and the only one who might have been listening made no earthly indication that his voice had been heard.

*             *             *

Madeleine’s wish to see Javert in action, however ingenuous, was nevertheless granted within a few weeks of it being made.

They had met several times since their initial introduction, usually in the form of Javert’s weekly reports which he delivered punctually every Friday in Monsieur Madeleine’s office. These were generally unexciting, and detailed any misdemeanours committed within the town or the surrounding area—although these were few and far between, as Madeleine’s investments in the jet industry had greatly decreased the crime rate in the region—along with any issues regarding infrastructure; upkeep of the town; formal or informal complaints; and other matters of a similar nature. Javert, whom Madeleine had expected to disparage these latter duties as less worthy of his attention than his obligations as a peacekeeper, treated every responsibility with the same severity and exercised his personal control over every area in which he was needed. It was a difficult fact to accept, given Madeleine’s predisposition to be wary of Javert’s presence in the town; but he had come to realise across the weeks in which they were in contact that Javert was an almost invaluable asset to Montreuil-sur-Mer. His efficiency, his regularity, his apparently tireless dedication to resolve any issue with which he was presented: all combined, along with his regrettably natural inclination to harshness, to make a police officer upon whom Madeleine could unfailingly rely; and it was only Madeleine’s persistent anxiety whenever they were in close proximity, and the jolt of the heart he felt upon seeing Javert’s distinctive figure in the street, that prevented him viewing Javert as a blessing sent to the town in the form of a police inspector.

Quite apart from these rational fears, there was also an aspect to Javert that would indubitably have unnerved Madeleine even in absence of his particular mistrust of the policeman. There was something about the man that was alarming by virtue of its intangibility; some sense that if one were to remove his greatcoat and top hat there would not be a man beneath. Indeed, it was almost impossible in the first place to imagine Javert hatless and coatless, for he was never seen without either, and neither was he ever without his black gloves—with the result that the only human part of him that could be seen was his dark face swathed in wool and shadow beneath the brim of his hat, and the occasional flash of white in the dusk below his heavy brows when the light caught his frigid eyes. As a rule, Madeleine strove to disregard appearances in favour of character, and oftentimes criticised himself for judging based on his own prejudices, for Javert could not be blamed for his physiognomy; but nonetheless he could not prevent himself, seeing those lupine eyes or the sharp row of teeth bristling on either side with dark hair, from feeling a shudder of visceral dread.

He had developed a habit during his days as Père Madeleine of walking the streets of Montreuil-sur-Mer with a pocket of loose change and a few hours to spare, and he persisted with this as Monsieur le Maire, taking a circuitous route around the town and observing its happenings in quiet solitude. He was engaging in one of these walks on an evening around two weeks after his first meeting with Javert when he saw the man himself emerging at speed from an alleyway, in close pursuit of a smaller figure who, as Madeleine watched, stumbled on the uneven stones and fell to his knees.

In that moment, Madeleine was not sure whether he was seeing a man at all; for the ferocity with which Javert bore down upon the scrabbling figure, his great hands emerging from beneath the sleeves of his greatcoat, his head thrown back and the jagged fangs bared in triumph, eyes yellowed and flaming in the dark, seemed to transform him suddenly into something else entirely: a black creature appearing to split the seams of his coat with hackles raised and fur bristling, the jaws closing like a beartrap around the neck of the unfortunate victim; and Madeleine was not at all surprised to hear, frozen where he stood a dozen yards away, a great cacophony of noise erupting from the vicious struggle that chilled him to the bone marrow, for there were no human voices in that terrible uproar.

In an instant it was over. Javert had the unlucky man—though he was barely more than a youth, his white face glistening with sweat in the glow of the street-lamp above—pinioned beneath his knee, both wrists trapped in one enormous hand as the other withdrew his handcuffs from a pocket of his greatcoat.

“What a bother!” Madeleine heard him exclaim as the man was cuffed, his face still pressed into the cobbles. “If you had come quietly we could have avoided this upset!”

It was at that point that Javert appeared to sense that he was being observed, and, raising his head from where it had been bent over his quarry, his eyes found Madeleine immediately.

“Monsieur le Maire,” he said, rising to his feet with the youth in tow and bowing his head before the mayor, “I had not expected to see you out at this hour. I hope you will pardon the disturbance.”

His appearance was as familiar as it had ever been, with no sign of alteration or irregularity in neither the dark features nor the hands that had moments before lacerated the leather of his gloves; but his voice seemed rougher, and somehow strangled, as though it was an effort to force the words from his mouth.

“Inspector Javert,” Madeleine said, and it was with difficulty that he summoned the benevolent placidity of Monsieur le Maire as he spoke the name. “May I be of service to you in this issue?”

“There is no need, monsieur,” Javert said, casting an oblique eye upon the youth, who had fallen still and frightened at his side. “It is a matter of little consequence. This man was caught stealing from the butcher’s, and fled when I attempted to apprehend him. I will take him to the cells for tonight and his case will be examined in the morning.”

“I see,” spoke Madeleine. He did not recognise the youth, and assumed he must be a traveller passing through from a neighbouring town. “In that case, I will speak to you about it tomorrow.”

Javert seemed slightly confused by this remark; but, recognising the dismissal, he bowed once more to Madeleine and proceeded, with the cuffed man stumbling alongside him, back down the alleyway whence he came.

With the inspector out of sight, Madeleine allowed himself a brief moment of paralysis as he remembered the dark shape with tooth and claw descending upon the white-faced boy. Then, with the resolve to put the issue from his mind, he returned home; and if he took a shorter route than usual, or lay awake for longer hours than was was his habit listening to the howling he had always assumed came from the surrounding hills, he did not allow himself to dwell on it; and if any of the townspeople noticed that from that point on Monsieur le Maire was no longer seen out in the evenings, the matter went unremarked upon.

*             *             *

It was only after he had enjoyed, or rather endured, the position of mayor for several months that Madeleine finally became comfortable enough in Javert’s presence for the revulsion to fade to the point that he could mostly ignore it when in the man’s vicinity. That is not to say that he ever lowered his guard around the inspector—he was far too experienced for such naiveté—but over the months his anxiety lessened to the point that he could spend time with Javert without fear of immediate discovery. There had been no further incidents like the one he had witnessed on his evening patrol, and, more significantly, Javert did not appear to have made any connection between Madeleine and another man he may have known in a distant past.

The presence of Javert in the town had inspired in Madeleine a return to habits he had presumed were long since abandoned. Following their initial encounter, he found himself, in the subsequent weeks, starting at sudden noises and feeling the urge to duck into doorways if a person appeared at the end of the street; and merely the sound of a voice raised in anger or play made him break out in a cold sweat. In short, Javert embodied a physical reminder of suffering.

Determined not to hold this against the inspector, Madeleine exerted a pronounced effort to interact with Javert whenever he saw him, and to resist his instinctual desire to avoid him as much as possible. Javert himself was impeccably mannered in his behaviour towards the mayor; in fact, Madeleine found it a little unnerving how rapidly his tone could change depending upon the person he was addressing. Nonetheless, he found himself seeing more and more of the inspector as time went on, for better or for worse.

One of these encounters occurred on a Friday afternoon in the form of Javert’s weekly report. The man had been slightly out of breath when he arrived, and through the course of his report the cause for this was revealed to be a disturbance which had occurred outside involving a cart-horse and a negligent coachman.

“I issued the driver with a fine, but as there was no damage done to people or property, the matter will not require your attention, monsieur,” Javert was concluding. He was standing before Madeleine’s desk in customary fashion, one hand holding his hat stiffly beneath his arm. Madeleine noticed that several strands of hair had escaped his queue and were hanging parallel to his face. “In truth, I am surprised you did not hear the disturbance; it was rather loud.”

“Ah,” Madeleine said, with a smile that was perhaps not as forced as his previous attempts, “I must confess that I was very absorbed in the documents I was reading. One would not assume that agricultural methods could be quite so enthralling.”

“You have an interest in agriculture, Monsieur le Maire?”

Madeleine gave a slightly abashed laugh. “Not an interest; merely a curiosity. I know little of farming.”

“We have that in common, then,” Javert said. “Although in my case it is the interest rather than the experience which is lacking.”

“You have never worked in agriculture?”

It sounded a foolish question even as he uttered it, for surely Javert, enveloped as he was in all his layers of authority and obedience, had been introduced into the world with a cudgel in one hand and a set of manacles in the other; but apparently Javert did not think so, for he said frankly, “No, but I would not be actively averse to it, should I ever have cause to leave the police.”

“I cannot imagine you ever leaving the police, Javert.”

“Nor I, but situations arise which necessitate difficult sacrifices.” Javert paused, then said, “Have you ever worked in agriculture, Monsieur le Maire?”

“Yes, when I was—” He stopped very suddenly, and in that instant the feeling of being a creature with its leg in a trap, cursing blindly the blunder that led to its predicament, its ears full of the howls of hunting-dogs and eyes rolling madly in the dark, swept upon him in a deathly wave. Javert’s eyes had narrowed almost imperceptibly, and he was watching Madeleine with his expression unchanged but an intensity to his gaze that seemed to pierce Madeleine’s very soul.

“—when I was a boy,” he finished, with an almost herculean effort to keep his voice offhand.

Javert had not blinked. His eyes were boring into Madeleine’s in a manner that would, had he not been overwhelmingly distracted, have seemed to Madeleine a dramatic departure from his usual level of respect bordering on docility. At length he said, in a slow voice, “Yes, I see. You have the appearance of a man who has known hard work, Monsieur le Maire.”

Coldness swept through Madeleine’s body. Javert’s pale eyes kept him pinned like a stuffed rabbit, affixed to his desk by those twin points of ice.

“If that is all, monsieur,” Javert said after a pause, sweeping his hat from under his arm and making a short bow before raising his eyes once more to Madeleine’s, “I will update you on any further issues as they present themselves.”

Madeleine’s throat was very dry as he spoke, “Yes, please do. Bonne journée, Inspector.”

Javert took two steps towards the door before halting. He turned, his hat still held in his hand, and said, “You know, you reminded me of someone just now, monsieur.”

Madeleine felt a tremor run from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He said, in a carefully absent voice, “Is that so?”

“Indeed,” Javert said. His hands were curled around the brim of his hat so Madeleine could not see the ends of his fingers; but there was something queer about the manner in which he moved his mouth as he spoke. “But it is no matter—forgive me. Bonne journée, Monsieur le Maire.”

He turned to leave; and Madeleine saw, as Javert moved back towards the door, those black nostrils seem to dilate, the great dark head rear slightly as though scenting the air, a shudder appearing to run down the iron-grey shoulders—before the door opened and Javert was gone, and Madeleine was left alone where he was standing with his eyes frozen to the place he had disappeared and fear coursing like ice through his veins.

He slept little that night, tossing and turning in sweat-bathed sheets into the early hours of the morning; and when he finally did slip into an uneasy slumber, his dreams were haunted by the cries of wolves and yellow eyes burning in the dark, and he awoke to the cold dawn feeling as though he had not slept at all.