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The Bells of Saint-Saulve

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Valjean’s mind was chaos. For a moment, he remained motionless in the center of the room, his heart racing. His hand was burning where he’d clutched the hot coin.

From above, the Virgin looked at him, silent and severe. Even now, he could feel the weight of Fantine in his arms—as light as a feather, weighing little more than the gamins who’d crowd around him whenever he crossed a street.

Of course, those children knew that he could be surrounded without fear, that for every miserable child, Père Madeleine had a smile and a handful of coins. And what had he shown Fantine?

He’d been so terrified by the sins of his own past that he’d immediately dismissed her. He hadn’t listened to her. Hadn’t wanted to listen.

And instead of keeping his hands clean of further sin—as he had sworn to do—he’d not only stolen from a child, but driven a woman to ruin, and with her another innocent child.

Perhaps Javert had been right.

The thought came suddenly, and it refused to leave. Even when Valjean forced himself to step forward, to fall to his knees in front of the secret compartment where he’d hidden the heavy burden of the yellow passport, the thought lingered. He could feel its weight on his shoulders, heavier than the rocks he’d cut for nineteen years.

It was he who had caused Fantine’s downfall. He who hadn’t seen her despair.

And now it was Fantine who had paid for his sins.

Valjean’s fingers trembled as he looked down at the old passport. Years had passed, but still he remembered it so well: the humiliation of showing it in every town he entered. The way people stared at him. The whispers wherever he went.

To think that all along, Javert had known that he, virtuous Père Madeleine, was that wretched creature who had stolen from a child…

Valjean crumpled the paper in his hand. He eyed the fire.

The yellow passport would burn in a heartbeat. He’d already buried most of his money. A few minutes to gather his belongings, and he’d be free…

Instead, from across the square, he heard the sound of the church bells. Once, twice, three times they rang. Every toll of the bell hit him like a sudden punch to his gut, his entire body tensing as if he was under attack by an unseen assailant. Again the bell tolled, and again. Finally, after the eleventh toll, it fell silent.

And in the silence, Valjean could hear the sound of steps on the stones outside.

His heart clenched as if an iron hand had closed its fingers around it. For a moment, he couldn’t move. He recognized the sound of those steps. He didn’t even need to look out of the window.

Once, years ago, he had heard the sound of boots on wooden planks, his body chained, his skin bruised and aching.

Now he heard that same, determined rhythm in the sound of boots on cobble stones.

A moment later, there was a knock on the door downstairs that finally pulled him out of his shock. Hastily, Valjean shoved the yellow passport into his pocket. He turned around, hesitating for a moment as he stared at the fire place. The old knapsack he’d used when he came to this town had surely burned beyond recognition by now—but still. Still. Javert was nothing if not suspicious.

With a prayer of gratitude at the fact that the woman who kept his house left for her home as soon as she’d served his dinner, Valjean descended the stairs.

The sound of knocking came again, heavy and relentless.

Valjean took a deep breath before he reached out for the handle, forcing himself to smile—the way he had learned to smile when he had been pushed to accept the office of mayor.

Outside, Javert stood waiting. His expression was severe, his brows drawn together. When their eyes met, he inclined his head.

Did he know?

Valjean forced back the panicked thought.

“Inspector,” he said. “Is something the matter? It’s very late.”

Javert tilted his head a little. His expression was unreadable. Was that a smile tugging on his lips? Did he know—know that not only Madeleine was Jean Valjean, but that Valjean had once again doomed an innocent?

“May I come in?”

Before Valjean was able to utter a single word in reply, Javert took a confident step forward. Valjean, who’d learned in nineteen years of pain to lower his eyes and shrink back from every guard, now found himself just as instinctively retreating, as if they were indeed guard and convict once more instead of mayor and his newly appointed chief of police.

Javert drew the door shut behind himself with the assurance of a man who belonged where he stood.

“Thank you.” Now there was definitely a small smile on his face. “I thought we might talk. Somewhere where we won’t be disturbed.”

“Of course,” Valjean said, despite the pounding of his heart. “My portress is out—may I offer you a glass of wine? If you will come into my study—”

“Thank you.” Javert strode into the study on the ground floor, which contained several shelves overflowing with the factory’s records, a few chairs, and a desk still covered with the morning’s correspondence.

“You will ask yourself why I’m here,” Javert said abruptly.

He had not sat down. Instead, he’d halted in the center of the room, turning around so quickly that Valjean found himself eye to eye with him. Just as instinctively, Valjean began to take a step back—and Javert’s hand shot out, quick as a whip, and grabbed hold of his arm.

Valjean’s heartbeat was echoing in his ears. For a moment that seemed like an eternity, all he could do was stare at Javert, who was watching him with narrowed eyes.

Even now, Valjean could recall the way Javert had circled him in Toulon. Back then, Javert had worn a simple shirt and a waistcoat. Valjean had been able to see the sweat glisten at his throat in the stifling heat of the hulks.

Now, Javert was immaculately dressed, his chest and throat covered by a neatly knotted cravat, a waistcoat, a jacket, and a greatcoat over that. Not a single fold was out of line.

Javert was an ambitious man. Valjean had been right about that. It was obvious in every single detail, from the way Javert dressed to the confidence with which he had first strode into the mayoral office. Javert had come far since those days in Toulon—and so had Valjean.

Again Valjean felt the dull throb of the brand. It burned as if he were still clutching the hot coin in his hand.

A moment later, he realized that he’d been silent for too long when Javert laughed softly.

“No? You’re not curious then, Monsieur le Maire?”

Was he imagining it, or had Javert spoken those words with the same derision with which he’d once addressed him by a number?

Again Valjean’s heart twisted in his chest. Outside, there was the sound of the church bell once more, striking a quarter past. Valjean flinched as the sound echoed through his body, the throb of the brand increasing. And Javert’s smile widened.

“As I recall, we were talking once. About wickedness. About the evil some men try to hide in plain sight.”

“I recall,” Valjean said, his mouth dry. “You find that aspect of your work fascinating?”

“I do indeed.” Javert exhaled another sound of amusement.

His eyes were still unreadable, but Valjean thought he recognized in them some of that confidence and satisfaction he’d last seen when he’d been in chains.

“And I recall that you promised me further discussion on that topic.”

Valjean swallowed, his eyes going to the window. It was dark outside. “Surely not at this time of the evening,” he began, but his voice sounded weak even to his own ears, filled with what had to be unmistakable guilt.

“What better time, monsieur? Honest men are in bed at this time of night. Only whores and thieves are out on the streets now.”

Had he imagined it, or had Javert’s fingers tightened slightly around his arm?

When Valjean’s eyes fell to where Javert’s hand was still clenched around his shirt, Javert took half a step forward. They were so close now that their chests were touching. For a panicked moment, Valjean was certain that Javert would be able to feel the terrified racing of his own heart.

“Of course, there are no wicked men in this room. No thieves. Isn’t that true?” Javert paused. “They say you cherish honesty above all else.”

Slowly, Valjean raised his head. There was a fire going in the fireplace; they stood close enough that there was a russet gleam to Javert’s skin, the flames reflecting in his dark eyes. What could Javert see on Valjean’s own face? The warm glow of the fire—or the flush of guilt and shame?

A heartbeat later Valjean had to avert his eyes. His heart was still pounding. He couldn’t even muster the smile of the mayor that had proved such an effective shield in his years in Montreuil.

“Tell me, Monsieur le Maire.” Javert’s voice had darkened. Was Valjean imagining it, or had all pretense of politeness gone? “If a man is caught in a lie, is there not a need for consequences? A need for punishment?”

The coin was burning in Valjean’s hand as though he was still clutching it. The church bell rang again. Had another quarter of an hour passed so quickly? Could Javert hear the same bell?

Javert’s hand tightened further.

“Well?”

Javert had spoken with all the cold, curt command of the guards, and Valjean, dizzy with fear and shame, found himself responding before he could think.

“I agree,” he said breathlessly.

“Ah. There we have it. I knew we would agree at last.”

Valjean watched, dizzy, as another smile tugged on Javert’s lips. Valjean exhaled heavily. He didn’t dare to look away from Javert’s face—not now, when it seemed as if the smallest twitch of a muscle would give his secret away, when it was so obvious that Javert knew...

“Tell me, Inspector,” he said, then licked his dry lips. He could feel sweat dripping down his back.

Javert tilted his head again. All of a sudden the words Valjean had wanted to speak were gone. All he could think of was the dying woman in the hospital, the burning pain where the coin had seared his skin—and the fact that even now, Fantine was waiting for her child.

Javert knew. That much was certain. Why else return here to torment Valjean once more, if not to draw out the pleasure of his arrest? Valjean had hidden his money and the candlesticks—but what of Fantine? What of the child?

He’d told Madame Victurnien to retrieve the child—but had she left? Would she not have waited for tomorrow’s diligence—and, once the truth came to light, would she not immediately abandon her task?

After all, what worth had the demands of a convict?

With burning shame he recalled her words now. She’d called Fantine a whore. She’d accused her of having abandoned her child. And he, who’d spent nineteen years in the bagne for trying to save seven small children, who still bore the mark of his own betrayal of the little Savoyard, had recoiled at that accusation, dismissing Fantine as if with her, he could dismiss his own past.

She hadn’t been guilty. Instead, it had been Madame Victurnien, pious and honest, who went to Mass every Sunday and was well known for her righteousness, who had led him down this path to further sin.

Here, in Montreuil, Valjean had thought that he could learn to be good. To be a righteous man. To make up for past sins by doing good deeds, by demanding honesty and virtuousness from his workers.

And yet it turned out that his path hadn’t let to virtue after all. With his own house, his soft mattress, his mayoral scarf, he’d grown used to comfort and blindly damned another innocent.

A shudder ran through Valjean as he recalled the sound of Petit Gervais’ sobs. The church bells rang once more, every toll hitting him like a punch until he trembled. How fast the night was passing.

“Well?” Javert said impatiently, and Valjean flinched.

“If such a wrongdoer—if a man harboring a secret were to divulge it...” Cold sweat was dripping down Valjean’s back. He heard his own voice as if coming from far away. Before his mind’s eye, he saw the bagne once more, the shame of being stripped, the endless toil. But even so, the burn at the center of his palm was hurting as if the coin was still searing his flesh.

“If such a man were to admit his crime, in return for a favor...”

Javert threw back his head at that, a laugh escaping him. “A favor? Ah, monsieur, I’m not in the habit of making deals with criminals.”

Valjean drew in another trembling breath. “But if such a deal gave you the proof you seek... You told me yourself that it takes a long time to gather evidence.”

Javert inclined his head slightly, his eyes still resting on Valjean, cold and amused. “Perhaps. I assume it would depend on the nature of the favor.”

“A request,” Valjean said desperately, struggling to breathe. He raised his free hand to tug on his cravat, but a heartbeat later, Javert’s hand came up as well.

“What request?”

Valjean didn’t dare to move as Javert fixed his cravat—not only straightening it, but tightening it until Valjean could feel the weight of the iron around his throat again. The pad of Javert’s thumb brushed against the exposed skin of his throat. Valjean felt his heart skip a beat, his pulse thundering in his ears.

“A request for a child to be reunited with the mother,” he said tonelessly.

Javert smiled again. “Ah. Yes. That’s a request one might grant, if it speeds up the legal proceedings.”

“Then...”

“Then?” There was still an amused twist to Javert’s lips.

Javert’s eyes were gleaming—not with the reflection of the fire, but something deeper, darker. The triumph of the hound who had its prey between its jaws, Valjean thought. But even now, there was a way out. Even now, he could laugh it all off, smile at Javert the way he had smiled at the magistrates of the town, thank Javert for the entertaining conversation, and send him out.

The church bells rang once more. They rang a second time, a third time, again and again, not stopping even when they reached twelve.

For a moment, Valjean saw himself on a dusty path, the sun shining down on him as Digne rose in the distance. Once more anguish tightened around his throat until he couldn’t breathe, his shame burning hotter than the coin he had clutched in his hand.

And would he live thus, as a man who’d caused harm to not only one child, but to two children and a mother who’d been prepared to sell her own body out of love, while Valjean had accumulated riches? When he’d lived uncaring that by prioritizing his own fears and guilt, he’d consigned her to a hell worse than the one he’d suffered in for so long?

“Then,” he said again, his chest tight with horror at what he knew awaited him, “then I’ll choose to believe that you’re an honorable man, and that you’ll keep your word.”

His fingers trembled as he reached into his pocket. Javert was still so close that Valjean could feel his breath on his face, see every twitch of his facial muscles.

The incessant tolling of the bells had stopped, Valjean noted as he pulled the crumbled yellow paper out of his pocket. The burn in his palm was no longer hurting. For a moment, Valjean felt weightless, strangely unmoored, the terror within him so great that the moment seemed unreal.

Surely this was just one of his nightmares. Hadn’t he seen this exact scenario a thousand times in his dreams?

Then Javert exhaled with obvious satisfaction, his hand releasing Valjean’s cravat at last to take the yellow passport from him. Javert’s smile widened before he’d even unfolded the passport. He glanced at it for no longer than it took to read the name there. Then he folded it carefully and slipped it into his pocket.

“Jean Valjean.”

There was such pleasure in his voice that Valjean found himself trembling, the familiar surroundings of his study receding until he smelled the salt and wet wood of the prison hulks once more, the sound of the waves crashing against the ship drowning out even the thunder of his heartbeat.

Javert chuckled. “Well. I told you once that you can’t win. The wickedness will always come out, no matter where you’re hiding. You must’ve laughed. Did you think you could make a fool of me again? But I knew. I knew as soon as I saw you.”

Valjean swallowed heavily. “You’ll keep your promise? I gave Madame Victurnien money so she could fetch the girl.”

“Do you think I care about a whore’s child?” Javert came even closer, his hand clenching around Valjean’s cravat again. “Let her bring the child then. It doesn’t matter. I’m here for you. I’ve always been.”

“Thank you.” Valjean closed his eyes in exhaustion as the fate that awaited him seemed to build higher and higher, a wave of terror and shame and pain that would soon crash over him and bury him until all he’d achieved was gone.

He’d be Père Madeleine no more. He’d be no more mayor, factory owner, would no longer have coins to hand out to the children of the town. He wouldn’t even be Jean Valjean anymore. He’d be just another chained body, toiling in the burning sun...

Javert laughed again. Valjean could feel the heat of Javert’s breath against his cheek—and a moment later, strong fingers grabbed his hair so that Valjean’s lips parted for an involuntary gasp, his eyes flying open to meet Javert’s gaze.

Javert was still smiling. “No more Monsieur le Maire,” he said with deep satisfaction. “Isn’t that right? Monsieur 24601?”

“Javert,” Valjean began, his pulse still echoing in his ears, “I know you that you won’t believe that I—”

The back of Javert’s hand made his head spin around, his cheek burning. Shocked, Valjean stumbled a step backwards, but Javert followed immediately, grabbing hold of his arms.

And then there was the familiar, chilling sound of iron clicking into place and the weight of handcuffs around his wrists.

“There. Suits you better than the mayor’s scarf.” Javert laughed again, his eyes still boring into Valjean’s. “To think that you truly thought I’d be your dupe. I warned you, Valjean. I told you this would happen. Discipline must be maintained. Wickedness must be punished.”

He breathed another sound of amusement against Valjean’s face. Valjean didn’t reply, and Javert was silent for a while.

“I should drag you to jail,” Javert then mused. “Drag you through the streets in handcuffs, so that all the people in your fine town see what sort of man has been posing as their beloved Père Madeleine.”

Valjean swallowed again, the shame that was rising up in him unbearable, even now when he knew that there was worse to come.

“But will it be enough to teach you your lesson? I don’t think so.” Javert reached out again, burying his hands in Valjean’s hair, then pulled out the ribbon that had held it tied together.

Valjean didn’t dare to move as the strands settled around his face.

The corners of Javert’s mouth turned up again. “I told you it would take a bad end. But you’ll learn the lesson this time. I’ll make sure you won’t forget it.”

A moment later, Javert grabbed his arm again, then pushed with sudden force. Unbalanced, the handcuffs keeping him from reaching out to break his fall, Valjean stumbled and fell to the ground—and a heartbeat later, Javert was atop him, his hands going straight to the fall of Valjean’s trousers.

Valjean groaned in instinctive fear. But likewise, old instincts that had once saved his life had abruptly come forward again. Even though his pulse was as loud as a drum in his ears, panic making his chest so tight that it seemed impossible to draw in air and fill his lungs, he didn’t raise a hand to struggle.

Then Javert yanked down his trousers and brutally pushed him onto his stomach.

For so many days filled with honest work and blue skies and quiet evenings, Valjean had lived the life of a respectable man in this house. Now he found himself sprawling on the floor of his own study, his trousers pulled down, his backside exposed—and Javert standing above him, heaving for breath.

Valjean’s fingers clenched when he heard the sudden, unmistakable sound of a buckle being opened. Then there was the sound of leather sliding against skin.

“You deserve this,” Javert murmured, his voice thick and satisfied. “You know you do.”

Then the belt came down.

Valjean groaned as fire exploded across his backside. Again and again the belt fell, Javert striking his buttocks, his thighs, with no apparent rhythm. Dimly, Valjean could hear himself groaning, his fingers scrabbling against the wooden floor—but there was no escape from the brutal lashing.

Again the belt came down. Valjean cried out at the hot flash of pain searing across his left buttock, and then there was another blow of the belt, and another, until his face was wet with his tears, his skin red and on fire with pain.

When Javert ceased at last, Valjean didn’t even register that the blows had stopped. He was gasping for air, tears still running down his cheeks. Then fingers clenched in his hair once more and pulled up his head.

Javert was kneeling next to him, his eyes alight with triumphant satisfaction. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. How does that feel, Monsieur le Maire? Do you still feel like preaching about goodness to me? About circumstances?”

He laughed when Valjean could only gasp weakly in response.

“There’s worse than that waiting for you,” Javert said derisively. “Of course, I won’t be there to see it—but never mind. When you’re back in Toulon where you belong, I’ll still be here—thinking of your arse red from my belt.”

Javert laughed again, the sound low and satisfied. There was still a breathlessness to his voice when he spoke. Valjean tightened his fingers against the wooden floorboards beneath him, thinking of the planks that would be his bed soon enough.

His skin burned. His body ached, every nerve on fire, the way he had ached so many times before.

Nevertheless, something was different. The church bell was no longer ringing. The sound of a young boy sobbing in the distance was gone.

Javert had freed him from his demons—at least for now. And perhaps that was enough to be grateful for, even for a man who knew the shame that awaited him. Even for a man who still had that long walk through the streets of a town he had governed before him.

He met Javert’s eyes. Javert’s fingers were still tight in his hair. Valjean could feel them curl slightly against his scalp, but he didn’t move or try to resist.

Javert had what he wanted. What more could he do now? He’d humiliated Valjean, just as he’d wanted since the day they’d first faced each other in his office.

Exhausted, and filled by a strange, tremulous euphoria, Valjean let his head drop.

And there, he found himself greeted by an unmistakable bulge visible at Javert’s groin.

For a moment, Valjean’s breath caught in his throat. His chest was suddenly so tight again that he couldn’t breathe as panic made his heart thunder.

Javert’s fingers tightened further. Valjean could feel Javert’s blunt nails against his scalp. Before his eyes, he could see the clothed, swollen length press even harder against the woolen fabric confining it.

For a moment, neither of them moved. Valjean became abruptly aware of his nakedness, of the handcuffs—of the fact that if he were to struggle, Javert might simply shoot him here, with the yellow passport as proof that he’d been right all along.

Then Javert released his head with another sound of disgust, straightening.

“You’re going to jail now.” Javert’s voice vibrated with a sudden, furious anger. “Get dressed. And no more of your insolence now. The game’s over. You’ve lost.”

Valjean swallowed heavily and inclined his head, his fingers trembling as he pulled up his trousers, barely even aware of the stinging pain as wool slid over the red welts decorating his backside. The blessed peace that had filled his soul earlier had vanished as well. When the church bell rang, he flinched at first before he realized that this was indeed the familiar bell of Saint-Saulve, striking a quarter past eleven.

Instead of the former serenity, a buzzing restlessness now filled his blood. He was breathless with terror—and also with a strange, helpless yearning to experience that peace once more.

When he raised his eyes, he saw that Javert’s expression hadn’t changed. His lips had narrowed, his brows were drawn together—but Valjean could still see the reflection of the fire in Javert’s eyes. They faced one another for a long moment, Valjean’s heart racing in his chest as he gazed at Javert, remembering how once, long ago, Javert had gazed at his naked body.

Then Javert exhaled and shook his head, frowning as if in impatience. “Come along now,” he said. “And if you try to run, it’ll be more than my belt.”

Valjean swallowed, taking one last look at the place that had been his home for the past few years.

“Yes, Inspector,” he said quietly and lowered his head.

When he followed Javert to the door, he thought that in the distance, he could hear the peal of bells once more. Their call wasn’t slow and mournful, but ringing with a promise this time, their sound carrying far away, filling a blue sky that stretched as far as the eye could see.