To love another person is the see the face of God.
Monsieur Fauchelevent squints sleepily, his nightgown tightly wrapped around his legs. The room is stuffy. Moonlight oozes from behind the thick clouds. The meager light falls through the window and onto the unexpected visitor. Monsieur Fauchelevent recognized Javert's massive figure in no time. The Inspector is sitting at the window, arms folded across his chest. As Monsieur Fauchelevent's eyes adjust to the darkness, he can make out the stern features of Javert's face and the folds of his greatcoat.
“Have you come to perform your duty?”
Javert frowns. It is the same frown that Monsieur Fauchelevent witnessed as the fiacre was taking the two men to Rue de l'Homme Armé, across the city that had fallen asleep after the final fit of gun cough. Monsieur Fauchelevent rubs his eyes. It feels like someone threw sand in them. Sleep is clinging to him, its persistent fingers lowering his eyelids. It is for a mere moment that Monsieur Fauchelevent closes his eyes but he finds no strength to open them again. Sleep rolls over him like a storm wave over the deck of a ship. Just before the wave hits, he remembers a three-week old notice in Le Moniteur. “A police Inspector named Javert, aged fifty-two, had been found drowned between the Pont au Change and the Pont-Nef”.
“He was only sixteen in Toulon,” thinks Monsieur Fauchelevent.
Sleep strangles him in embrace like an overly passionate lover. Monsieur Fauchelevent gives in.
* * *
He does not know why, of all who could have had a reason to visit him from beyond, it is Javert. Why not Fantine? Not the Bishop? Not Fauchelevent-senior? There are, indeed, matters to be discussed and news to be shared with every one of them. But Javert! What could he possibly say to Javert? Still, there are nights when Monsieur Fauchelevent finds himself awake and has to meet the former Inspector's watchful stare. Javert always sits by the window, arms crossed and head slightly tilted to the side. If the night is clear, Monsieur Fauchelevent can see the silver streaks in Javert's hair and sideburns highlighted by a passing-by moonbeam. Shadows lie across the Inspector's face, deepening in the wrinkles on the nose bridge. Moonlight makes Javert look as if he was carved out of stone. Stone would be equally unvocal.
At the second visit Monsieur Fauchelevent repeats:
“Have you come to perform your duty?”
At the third one he keeps silent. At the fourth asks:
“Why are you here?”
But Javert has never been the man to elaborate upon the reasons for his actions. His way was to be lead by a single reason called law and to follow it ruthlessly, meticulously , to the letter. Javert has always arrived when a crime – or what he thought to be a crime – had been committed. Why is he keeping silent? Why doesn't he make an accusation? An animal gut feeling tells Monsieur Fauchelevent that he would not find the words to melt Javert's silence. Still, he takes the thin blanket to his chest and tries one phrase after another.
“I am not the person you have always seen, Javert.”
“If only you understood, Javert.”
“We could have been spending nights being silent together for a long time now, Javert.”
“You could have visited me after your shifts. I would have introduced you to Cosette.”
A sudden thought leaps out like a rogue out of nowhere.
“We could have been...”
Monsieur Fauchelevent's mind refuses to finish the sentence. Nevertheless, at the next visit the silent monologue goes on.
“I do not blame you, Javert”.
“You have only done your duty, Javert.”
“It seems like Toulon devoured both of our pasts”.
The more Monsieur Fauchelevent speaks, the more of a person he sees. Not a prison guard, not a zealous servant to the law, not a spy – a man. Could he have been mistaken as well? The next thought springs to mind sooner than the inner censor can swipe it away.
“You, too, are not the one I have always seen.”
The thought makes him uncomfortable. Monsieur Fauchelevent's smooth surface, cultivated and polished by virtuous life, gives a crack. The crack widens like a bayonet wound. Monsieur Fauchelevent is trying to glue the edges back together but he cannot. Something hot and stubborn pushes from inside the crack and does not let it mend. He falls asleep with his arms thrown around his sides, as if trying to hold himself together.
* * *
By the family tradition, Monsieur Fauchelevent takes Cosette to church on Sunday, even though living by Christian humility proves to be more and more challenging. He watches Cosette's elegant hand in a laced mitten letting coins fall into alms baskets.
“The boy is to blame,” Monsieur Fauchelevent thinks.
Cosette is now radiating with joy when she looks at another man. That must be the reason for Monsieur Fauchelevent's inner turmoil that does not let him be under the sun or the moon.
But it is not about Cosette. Especially under the moon.
He wants to order for a memorial service.
“The name, if you please, Monsieur?”
He does not know the name. Finally, he just leaves a generous donation and hopes that God will make sense of his intentions.
At night Javert is furious. His fierce stare makes Monsieur Fauchelevent look away. He cannot bring himself to raise his eyes at Javert all the way until the first cry of the rooster. He does not need to hear the words to know what Javert would say.
“You have no right!”
“To what?” Monsieur Fauchelevent asks helplessly.
The answer comes from inside the crack. One has no right to save the soul if one had awoken it and then did not save the body. Javert stops coming.
* * *
By the end of November Cosette is engaged to Marius. Every day Monsieur Fauchelevent takes her to no.6 at Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire. Young love is insatiable. The longer their visits, the stronger is Monsieur Fauchelevent's illogical, bizarre desire for Javert to return. Why, out of all who could have been called at this eleventh hour that takes away all hope, is it Javert whom he wants to see? Why not Fantine? Not the Bishop? Not his 'brother' whose name he is bearing?
Cosette gets carried away by wedding preparations. Monsieur Fauchelevent refuses to see her in her wedding dress as if he was the groom. Cosette sings the evenings away, talking about laces, flowers and the festive menu. The day before the wedding she spends the whole morning in her room, writing.
“It is only the guest list, papa.”
Later he finds the paper in the bin. There is a single phrase written over and over again in Cosette's dear handwriting with lovely loops: Madame the Baronesse Pontmercy. It takes Monsieur Fauchelevent a minute to understand who is this Baroness. When he does, he goes down to the kitchen, takes a breadknife and opens up his right palm. The sharp blade cuts through the flesh easily. A thin line begins to swell with blood. Monsieur Fauchelevent bandages the wound with a clean cloth. The next day he tells everyone that he had cut his thumb. He refuses for the wound to be examined and for his hand to hold the quill. The wedding contract has to be signed by the second guardian.
Monsieur Fauchelevent leaves – or, rather, escapes – the wedding early. Back in his bedroom he locks the door and takes out a small wooden chest from beneath the bed. One by one he spreads his treasures on the bed. A faded black dress. A bonnet. A pair of small laced boots. A doll. He dedicated his life to the girl who used to own these things. But they have nothing to do with the woman who was so tender with him today and kept promising that there would always be room for him in her life.
“Not for you,” the darkness from inside the crack says. “For the good old man whom she calls Father, for Monsieur Fauchelevent. But nor for you”.
There is no room for his name on the wedding contract, nor in Cosette's new life. His mind wonders back to Toulon where prisoners had to bribe the 'barkers' so that they would call their names distinctly. Dearly would he pay for his name to be said aloud right now. He wants it to roll off his tongue and fill the room, fill this rapidly spreading emptiness where Monsieur Fauchelevent's life used to be.
Now he know why Javert.
At night he invokes the darkness by the window.
Words crowd in his throat like a panicking mob at a narrow escape during a fire.
“Call me by my name, Javert! I beg of you, call me by my name!”
Monsieur Fauchelevent tosses and turns in his bed. The nightgown is soaked with sweat and sticks to the skin. The chair by the window is empty.
* * *
Monsieur Fauchelevent visits the newlyweds less and less often, and grows cold and distant with Cosette. He prefers solitary walks to dinners at the Pontmercys. His body must be at odds with his mind, why else would his feet bring him to Rue de Pontoise police station without asking the mind's advice? He introduces himself to a young sergeant on duty as a merchant from Montreuil-sur-Mer.
“Monsieur Inspector did a great favor to my shop once. Saved it from a robbery. I am passing by through Paris on business. Why not find Monsieur Inspector to thank him one more time, I thought. But then I learned about... the incident. From the papers”.
He cannot bring himself to call the 'incident' by its true name. It is a frightening name. Being barely born, it already freezes air in the lungs. It waits like a tiger ready to attack.
The two men exchange stiff condolences, one on the loss of a colleague, another on the loss of the business. Monsieur Fauchelevent does not understand but the chatty sergeant is eager to explain. Montreuil was all over the papers. Upon the arrest of the mayor who turned out to be an ex-convict, the heart of the city stopped. First the factory, then the shops, bank, farms, schools, the market – all gave in to devastation, ground to dust by chaos and taxes. Monsieur Fauchelevent has not thought about Montreuil since the summer of 1823. His body is once again at odds with his mind. His fingers begin to hurt, and he realizes that he has been clutching the left lapel of his coat, right across the heart.
“Oh, yes,” he says. “Montreuil. Inspector Javert and I used to be... friendly. Back in Montreuil. Could I, perhaps, learn where he is buried?”
The tiger roars. There is no place for truth on Monsieur Fauchelevent's lips today.
The policemen are probably not at liberty to disclose official information to strangers. But the sergeant is intrigued, his curiosity sparked at the mention of Javert's name and the word 'friendly' in the same sentence. Self-murderers are buried in a common grave and are not entitled to a cross or a plaque. Would monsieur like him to look up the cemetery sector for the June burials? Or, perhaps... The Inspector's file is still in the police archive, his suicide note attached. There is no protocol for cases like this but if monsieur would like to take a look...
Fifty francs and an intriguing lie buy Monsieur Fauchelevent the right to know. He is reading through Javert's calm, surgically precise handwriting. Javert is telling about bribery, indiscreet gendarmes and barefoot prisoners who are not allowed to have chairs in their cells.
“He must have gove mad,” Monsieur Fauchelevent tries to persuade himself.
Six months ago he was still sure that he knew God. Now God seems farther away with every line while the ink-dark night is growing wider, spreading from the crack. The night knows the truth. The night says that it was not madness that made Javert let him go, as it was not madness that made him step up for the prisoners and the canteen women in his last report. The night bears the very same name that cannot be said aloud today. As Monsieur Fauchelevent is leaving the station, he stops by the duty desk.
“Sergeant! Are the prisoners allowed to keep chairs in their cells now?”
The young man blinks.
The sergeant watches the strange merchant from Montreuil go until he disappears from the view. Should it be strange that the mad Inspector's friend turned out to be slightly off his head as well?
Meanwhile, the 'friend' goes to the city archive and spends the whole day over the newspaper files. Le Drapeau blanc. Le Moniteur. La Gazette parisienne. Triumphal speeches about the vigilant police and the merciful King who granted the offender a life-long sentence instead of sending him to death row give way to alarming news from Montreuil. The factory being carved up. Workers fleeing the workshops and the city. Unbearable tax burden. Poverty. Mutual hatred. Monsieur Fauchelevent's memory is ruthless. It offers the long payroll lists with the names on them. He remembers all of them. The workers. The farmers who came seeking his advice. The children who were so happy when he made them toys with coconut shells and straw. The teachers, interviewed and handpicked by Mayor Madeleine.
An archive clerk comes to inform the visitor that the building is closing and finds Monsieur Fauchelevent with his elbows pressed into the desk and face buried in his palms – a typical pose of a very tired person. As for the red eyes, it must be all the dust and the small print, the clerk thinks.
This night Javert takes up his position by the window for the first time in two months. For the first time Monsieur Fauchelevent dares to address him aloud.
“I thought you went mad. It was in the papers.”
For the first time Javert reacts. The edges of his stern mouth and the wings of his nose begin to twitch. Javert's face is flooded with gloomy merriment. An acid chortle bubbles on his lips. The Inspector throws his head back and laughs soundlessly. Monsieur Fauchelevent remembers the sound of that laughter: the growling waves hitting piers in Toulon harbor. He though that he had stopped fearing those waves. He did not.
“It is not true,” Monsieur Fauchelevent whispers. It is not a question – an acknowledgment.
Javert stops laughing and nods. Not a trace of last time's fury is left on his face. The Inspector looks amused.
Javert snorts again. Merriment turns bitter. Monsieur Fauchelevent knows: should he look Javert in the eye, he would understand something important. He has no life force left to understand that thing. Still, he looks. And says:
“They have not allowed the convicts to have chairs in their cells.”
Javert raises his eyebrows in surprise. It seems that he has not expected to be bothered by the lack of chairs in the Madlonettes prison ever again.
“I though you went mad,” Monsieur Fauchelevent keeps saying. “Oh God, Javert. You are nor mad. You are not mad, Javert!”
The Inspector keeps silent. The Inspector is listening.
“They wrote about the factory. About Montreuil. I have not thought about Montreuil for ten years.”
Something breaks in Monsieur Fauchelevent's voice. The tiger wiggles impatiently, ready to jump. No more lies.
"I have not thought about Montreuil for ten years. Oh, Javert, how right you were! I am a thief. But it is not a loaf of bread that makes me one. Theft out of need deserves mercy. Theft out of cowardice is a different thing. I built a factory. Gave work to anyone who asked and was honest with me. Built a hospital and a school. You scolded me for every unfortunate man and woman whom I helped with money, or work, or a slice of bread, or a kind word. I betrayed them all, Javert! I had no right to leave my post.”
The Inspector gives a slow thoughtful nod.
“I was delusional. I almost decided not to go to Arras. But I did. Driven not by a noble heart but a faint heart. I used Champmathieu's good as a cover for my cowardice. Out of two hells I chose the bearable one. I was not saving my soul but escaping the pain. True, my pain would have been stronger and fiercer than that which comes with the lash and the shackles. And yet it was but a private pain. I bought myself out of it at the cost of hundreds of souls.”
There is no trace of the all-too-familiar triumph that the Inspector used show when hearing out confessions. None of the beagle tracking down its prey is left in Javert. There is only attention. He is listening like no priest could. God's stewards must convey celestial mercy that offers a second chance. It is easy to open up in front of the all-forgiving God – and much more difficult to do so in front of another human being made of vulnerable flesh that is so easily wounded.
“I have ruined the city. I am a thief, Javert. I stole a coin from Petit Gervais. I stole lives from the citizens of Montreuil. I stole hope, protection and future from them. I stole from you... Oh God, Javert, I have ruined you!”
The tiger leaps. Air boils in Monsieur Fauchelevent's lungs. There is a spasm in his throat. Words turn into sobs. Monsieur Fauchelevent is bursting at the seams. The crack sprouts all over him. Monsieur Fauchelevent comes apart like an egg shell. Jean Valjean falls down onto the bed and wails into the thin pillow, his body convulsing. He stays there until there are no more tears left. When he finds his tongue, Javert is gone.
* * *
The next day Valjean confesses to Marius. The Baron meets his truth coldly but it no longer matters. Once at home, Valjean takes out a quill and some paper. He writes the days away, often forgetting to eat. Page after page he tells the story about his way to Digne and the Bishop's silverware, and the secret of the black jet, and his trip to Montfermeil, and the story of six thousand francs buried in the forest, and the convent of Bernardines in the Rue Petit-Picpus, and the real Fauchelevent. At nights he reads the story aloud. The chair by the window remains empty but Valjean somehow knows that he is heard. As days go by, his hands surrender to tremble. The more of Jean Valjean's life goes onto paper, the less of it remains in the man himself. It is not too long before he will put the final period to his story. But the sentence breaks half-though as someone knocks at the door.
Then there is Cosette clinging to his chest and lavishing him in tenderness. There is Marius on his knees, begging to accept his gratitude for saving his life. Someone suggests that they call for the doctor. Someone begs him to live and harvest strawberries in a secluded little garden. Someone jokes in Valjean's voice, “Yes, forbid me to die”. Someone asks if they should call for a priest.
“I have one,” Valjean says and looks beyond the scared children and servants at the man who is entering the room. 'It is time,' he thinks.
“I am not a priest, Valjean,” is the first thing that Javert says to him after all these months.
Valjean stands up from his chair and goes to meet the Inspector. He absently notices that two voices, a male and a female one, break into tears behind his back. Javert looks just like he remembers him from the time of his service in Montreuil. Only his younger face is no longer deformed by suspicion.
“And yet you accepted my last confession. But the sacrament does not finish with repentance.”
Valjean reaches to the Inspector. He carefully touches the other man's shoulder, fingertips sliding down to meet a warm and a very real hand. He nestles it in his palms.
“Repentance is to be followed by absolution. Could you ever forgive me, Javert?”
The Inspector keeps silent. Then he nods. Valjean lets out a moan. He brings Javert's hand to his lips and covers it with kisses: the palm, the back, the fingers.
“I am so guilty.”
“You are not a thief, Valjean.”
“I had to follow you, to find you.”
“Neither a murderer.”
“Will you not leave me again?”
Javert shakes his head and looks behind Valjean's shoulder. There a young couple is grieving at the feet of a shrunken old man.
“The boy lived.”
“And that's the girl.”
“You love her.”
“Yes. Will you not go, Javert?”
There is something else that Valjean wants to say. That they could have had this conversation a year ago. That instead of sleepless nights they could have played chess, drunk wine and discussed Javert's proposals for reforming the penal system. Or read aloud. Or planted strawberries together in Cosette's garden.
“I will. But you will come with me.”
Valjean thinks of a thought that scared him to the bone during Javert's earlier visits.
“We could have been...”
He breaks short. The corner of Javert's mouth gives a twitch, and hell, it looks almost like a smile.
“We will have plenty of time. Are you ready?”
Jean Valjean turns around to have one last look at Cosette. Out of everything that still makes him human he wishes her love that does not kill.
Two men are walking along the Seine. The river, trapped between the banks and the bridges, growls with discontent. The two stop at the Pont au Change. Water rolls in terrible waves and attacks the piles of the bridge.
“Was it here?” the older man asks.
His companion nods.
“I am so sorry, my friend.”
“Well, you came after all.”
“A year later.”
“We both know how long it takes you to do to the right thing.”
“The longest being fourteen years?”
“Nineteen. Had you only asked for that bread or work at the bakery.”
“Who would have though that I'd hear these words from you.”
Valjean is getting ready for one of their verbal sparrings, those friendly, yet stubborn fights that happen a lot lately. But Javert puts his hand on the parapet and keeps silent.
“I would not wish to hear these words from anyone else. In fact...”
A lighter-toned but equally broad and heavy hand covers Javert's.
“I would not wish for anyone else.”
Javert turns to him, and it is for the first time that Valjean sees him not smirking but smiling. For a moment he thinks that in this smile he has seen the face of God.