Jean Valjean entered Toulon an innocent, a simple peasant who had known only the simple love of a man for his sister and her children, the love of his parents and family; a man who had never so much as looked at a woman with lust.
He knew his own hand, but this was the response to a brief animal need, satisfied more easily than the more pressing need of his often-empty belly, or the reproach of his hollow-eyed nieces and nephews or his sister's carefully but incompletely concealed disappointment when he returned empty-handed in the evening to tell her, again, that no one needed a tree-pruner.
No man remains innocent in Toulon. Within a week, he knew what his fellow convicts did in the dark. There was enough play in the chains from the central post to permit them access to the refuse trough, and so also for them to reach each other.
Valjean learned, there in the dark, the sounds of other men's pleasure. It neither aroused nor disgusted him. He was too wrapped in his own despair to form any opinion on something he had never before contemplated.
In the scorching sun of Toulon, under the lash and the ever-ready cudgels of the guards, Valjean learned the sounds of other men's pain. Those, too, he recognized in the dark.
No one tried to force Valjean himself. He did not speculate on why, because it had not even occurred to him that they might. What others did seemed as distant from him as the seven children he already believed he would never see again. Toulon was a dream full of phantoms, the cries in the night no more real than the orders of the guards during the day, and Jean Valjean felt sufficient despair already.
He worked like an animal, uncomplaining, to exhaustion. His skin burned dark in the sun of Toulon; his hair crusted with salt; his once-bright red smock faded and turned to rags. He was filthy; he was wretched. He thought constantly, and his thoughts were full of rage and resentment.
Like all of his fellows, Jean Valjean seized his chance to run when it came. He enjoyed two days of fresh sweet air. He washed himself in a stream. He ate sour wild apples, and they tasted sweeter than anything he had ever tasted.
All the while he looked over his shoulder and started at every birdcall; he could scarcely keep in his mind the brief dream of finding his sister again. Paris and the Rue du Gindre were as distant as Africa to him.
He was dizzy with hunger when they caught him; he scarcely heard the tribunal’s condemnation. Another three years. An eternity in the shadows, illuminated only rarely by a terrible light.
In the shadows that he inhabited, Jean Valjean scarcely noticed the other residents. He was dimly aware that he had fellows, and he knew the names of those on his chain; but he forgot the names of those who died or were reassigned. The guards’ names he did not bother to learn. In his head, he called them argousin or gaffe. To their faces he called them ‘sir,’ always muttered so as to be nearly incomprehensible. He spoke to his fellows rarely, and then ordinarily with a kind of vague air, followed by an immediate return to his normal sullen contemplation.
He did not notice anything different in the eyes or the impersonal hands of the young guard who examined him from head to foot that day when he left the blacksmith’s shop for the evening meal, to make certain he had not stolen any tools he might use to escape. Valjean was bitterly tired from working the bellows all day, and his lungs burned from the coal-fumes; he wanted his beans, and since it was Wednesday, his morsel of beef, and then he would be permitted to sleep.
The guard had come to Toulon a year ago. Valjean had not noted him then, either.
He ate his beans without tasting them, sopping up the sour broth with the dry black bread, folded up his cap for a meagre pillow, and then laid down and tried to forget the weight of the chain dragging on his ankle.
The guards who had brought food had retreated to some distance away from the door, where the sea-breeze would carry the stink of the galley away from them, and two of them were playing cards. The third, the young man who had examined Valjean earlier, leaned up against the wall with his cudgel tucked under his arm, his chin sunk into his collar and his heavy brows drawn low over his eyes in a frown.
After a moment, the man at the far end of the benches murmured, "Jean had better watch his back with that one.”
"Oh, don't be coy, François," said someone else. Valjean could not place the voice. "Jean had better watch his arse."
A lugubrious laugh, quickly bitten off lest one of the guards hear and return, came out of the darkness. "Javert already does!"
"It's not so bad." That was one of the newer men, Alain. Valjean could barely see his face in the dark, twisted into a kind of rough sympathy he hardly recognized anymore. Too much time in Toulon beat the sympathy out of them all, save for that most basic agreement that one must always help a fellow to escape, given the opportunity. If one suffered a guard's ire, it was merely a relief for those who did not suffer. "Better than the lash or the cane, anyway. Hurts less. Over quicker."
"True enough," said François, a touch bitterly. He'd had the lash two days ago for trying to steal a chisel from the dockyard, and still slept on his belly to spare the wounds. "You might even learn to enjoy it--eh, Jean-le-chaste?"
"Bardache," the second man spat. "François lies like breathing, Jean. I'd rather have the lash any day. At least that only makes you a beast."
For the first time in years, Valjean felt something besides despair. It was fear, a paralyzing, tongue-tying fear at the realization that there was yet that more Toulon could take from him, that there was a portion of the simple tree-pruner's soul yet unstained. Had another prisoner looked at him so, Valjean would have ignored it. He was Jean-le-cric, respected by the other convicts and feared by those who crossed him; he did not go out of his way to abuse others, and kept to himself, but neither did he hold back his fists when a fight came to him, and his retribution for a slight was swift, instinctive, and brutal.
But with a guard--even one so young as Javert--all that meant nothing. And young as he was, Javert had been at Nîmes for years before this. He had come to Toulon already hard-faced and pitiless, already practiced in keeping control of men much older and stronger than himself. That Valjean had not yet seen him exercise cruelty meant nothing; after all, he had not been looking for it, had not before marked out Javert as one to be wary of. Javert had been only another uniform, another cudgel, another face not to raise his eyes to.
"Shut up," Valjean told the others. "I want to sleep now."
He did not sleep. The phantoms had abruptly become real.
Valjean could feel the weight of Javert's gaze on him after that, like an unwanted touch to the sunburned flesh of his aching back when he labored in the shipyard. The gaze burned his hardened soul as surely as the sun burned his skin. Neither Javert nor the sun had any mercy in them.
He felt Javert looking at him in the spinning workshops, his gaze lingering on Valjean's hands, work-roughened and fumbling on the hemp. Valjean had always hated working in the shops, for hands stiffened by heavy labor were no good for finer work. It meant a free hand with the cudgel from whoever oversaw the shop that day, and as often as not, his meagre pay docked further. It was better than the sail shop had been, but not by much.
When Valjean looked up from the hemp, which was not often, Javert would look away quickly, that mouth that was too stern for such a young face compressed into a tight line.
Javert did not speak to Valjean except when he had to, nor did he touch him, save to test his shackles or to ascertain that he had not stolen anything from the workshops. There was never anything different in his touch, only his eyes, but it made Valjean shudder inwardly all the same. It was only a matter of time, Valjean knew. Javert was a guard and Valjean a prisoner; Toulon was Hell, and the rules of Hell could be broken by its overseers, if never by its residents, not without punishment.
A month later, one of the newer convicts, a man who had been sentenced to the red cap for eight years for forgery, threw himself into the harbor. He had been a soft-faced young fellow, a model prisoner who was unchained during the day for good behavior. The wolves had circled him since his first day in Toulon, and more than circled. It was too much for him to bear. He was a swift runner, slippery as an eel; his body was already a broken mess on the rocks of the harbor by the time the guards reached him.
"He can serve out his sentence in Hell," one of the guards said, shrugging. "Might as well tip him into the harbor for fish bait. The tide'll take him."
Valjean remembered the lad’s cries in the night, and the sobbing that followed after. His natural compassion for others had atrophied in eight years under the lash, but in those moments when he was hideously aware, in a stark lightning flash moment, of his life, his ability to imagine fresh horror was not diminished.
The possibility of suicide, as it might apply to himself, had not before entered his mind, either.
"No," Javert said, in that uncompromising voice that made older guards listen to him, although he was only an adjutant-guard. He had been born to be a jailer, Valjean thought, and shuddered, thinking of the jailer's eyes, imagining the hands that wielded the cudgel touching Valjean's own flesh. "Dumping refuse in the harbor is not permitted by the civil code. There is a report to write, and someone ought to notify his family, if he has one."
The first guard laughed and clapped Javert's shoulder. "I think you've volunteered, eh?" He turned to the convicts who had been standing around, half of them in genuine shock and half taking advantage of the opportunity to rest a little, and raised his cudgel. "Here, you filthy lot! Quit gawking and get back to work!"
It was Wednesday, and Valjean had a morsel of tough old beef in his beans, but he could scarcely choke it down. The numb reverie of distant, thwarted rage that allowed him to tolerate his life escaped him. In his breast churned equal parts of anger and fear, tied together with a deep resentment of everything from the elbow of the man next to him knocking into his ribs as the man ate, all the way up to God himself, who allowed every injustice. He was consumed with hatred.
Deliberately, but with a curious detachment, Valjean took up his bowl and dumped its contents over his benchmate's head.
He had the lash for starting a fight, of course. Two men had ended up in the infirmary, no good for work until they healed. Desperate men must be kept in line.
It was not Javert who punished him, and Javert did not watch. The argousins made Alain do it, and threatened him with the lash himself if he did not put his back into it. Valjean imagined Javert’s phantom there, smiling, all the same.
Javert, glowering even more than usual, brought Valjean's hard black bread for supper, to the cell where Valjean was chained alone. Valjean's back burned and smarted viciously--Alain had done his tormentors proud--and his eye ached where someone had landed a lucky blow in the fight. There was no bed, only the filthy floor, and he had not managed to find a way to lean against the wall to ease himself.
Javert thrust the loaf of bread through the bars. "Take it," he said impatiently, "if you do not wish to eat it off the ground."
Valjean moved to take the bread with some stiffness. Javert watched him, his eyes glinting in the light of the lantern he carried. The light danced; his hand was shaking.
"Was it worth it?" Javert asked.
Valjean could not fathom what he meant. Starting the fight? He could not even answer that to himself. And why should Javert care? His voice, long disused but for the occasional mutter, came out rusty and raw. "What?"
"You stole a loaf of bread," Javert said. "and broke a window, but I suppose you would not have done that if not for the bread. Was it worth it?"
Valjean stared at him, for the moment forgetting the dread that followed Javert like a hungry cur, waiting to leap upon Valjean and devour him until there was nothing left. "Of course not.” The words came slowly. It was like learning to speak again, and Javert’s question made no sense. “Nothing is worth Toulon. Not even--" He stopped.
Some years ago, he had ceased to believe that if only the bread had saved his nephew, it was worth it. The boy hadn't even eaten the bread, and likely they were all dead now anyway. Nothing under heaven was worth his suffering in this abhorrent place. But that was none of Javert's business, this man who had been born a jailer.
Javert regarded him a moment longer, thoughtfully. "I have known many men like you," he said, and it sounded like a warning.
There was something inwardly twisted about the contempt in his voice that Valjean could not understand. Had he understood, it would not have reassured him.
He ate after Javert left, slowly, wishing for some water to soften the bread. His lash-marks throbbed. At last he managed to prop one shoulder against the wall and sleep a little, after a fashion, but he dreamed of Toulon, and so it was little better than waking.
Valjean tried to escape again, three years after Javert came to Toulon. As with the first two attempts, it was primarily the unthinking instinct of a man treated as a beast, seizing the opportunity to run without reasoning through the consequences. Jean Valjean had thought a great deal about his situation, and had resolved not to run: he had only three years left to serve, although they seemed a lifetime. It was true that Toulon had not yet exercised all its horrors on him, but still, only a fool would run. And yet: a file lifted from his work at the shipyard and hidden under his rags, a drunken guard snoring on duty, and it was as if he had never known reason. He ran.
It was Javert who caught up to him first, in those grey dawn hours, Javert who watched and watched until Valjean felt scarred and blistered by his gaze. Javert ran him to ground in an alley outside a factory on the edge of town. It was still too early for most folk to be out in the street, and so there was no one to see them. Javert was alone, without any of the others. It should have reassured Valjean--one man he could overpower--but instead it filled him with dread.
“You cursed fool!” Javert hissed, his hands clamping down on Valjean’s shoulders like vises, fingers digging into Valjean’s flesh in a way that would have hurt a man not inured to casual blows. Valjean scarcely noticed it. “You ninny! You would have been out in three years! Will you plague me forever?”
Valjean submitted to this interrogation in shock: he had never before seen Javert upset. He had seen him cold and stern, and he had seen that hot, fearsome lust in his eyes, but he had not seen him angry. This, on the heels of his few hours of freedom--or the illusion of freedom felt by the hunted wolf that hears the hounds bay at his heels--loosed his tongue. He was sick of dread; better to have it over with and know what he faced. “You claim you want me gone? I have seen you watching me. Be done with it,” Valjean said, with the kind of despairing submission that could turn in a moment to equally despairing violence. “Have what you want. You have time before anyone misses you. Here I am.” He swallowed, but forced himself to say, "I will not fight you."
Javert started back, but his hands were still fisted in Valjean’s red smock, so he jerked Valjean with him. He had gone pale, and the paleness was followed by a livid flush. “I do not want--” he began.
In sick fascination, Valjean watched Javert choke on the lie. The turmoil revealed in his face was terrible. Jean the tree-pruner from Faverolles would have recoiled from it, uncomprehending. M. Madeleine, the man he would become, would have felt a sort of abstract, still uncomprehending, pity, a pity laced with horror. But for Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601 in the galley of Toulon, it was as if a guard dog showed a human face, a phantom became substantial. He trembled.
“I was born in a prison,” Javert said at last, in a rough, bitter voice. “Do you think I have clawed my way from the gutter for this? Do you think I have strived to walk the correct path only to force other men into depravity?” His eyes, half-wild, searched Valjean’s face; his hands flexed convulsively against Valjean’s chest. “Of course you think so: you are a beast. Your soul is already withered. Perhaps with you it would not be force. Perhaps it is a sin you already know well. God! I told them we ought to seek out this habit and correct it, not only punish it when it is done before our faces. But when half the guards are as debased as the bagnards...”
He was speaking to himself now, and for a moment the animal instinct to break free and run rose up again in Valjean’s breast. He was stronger, and Javert was alone. Perhaps this time he could escape in truth. But to where? He was not the kind of man who could charm one of the townsfolk into hiding him until the search had passed. Where could he hide in his ragged red smock?
“No,” Javert continued, his gaze snapping back to Valjean’s face. “I do not want that. I will not be that man. I will be irreproachable. They will give you another three years for this. Perhaps this time you can restrain yourself, and in six years’ time we will bid each other good riddance.”
Javert shoved Valjean up against the wall of the alley, twisting his arm up between his shoulderblades to contain him. Valjean could feel his breath on the back of his neck, and it made him shudder, remembering the weight of Javert’s gaze on his bared back as he labored. But he did not fight. He had fought the guards last time, and that had been an extra two years in addition to the three for his vain attempt at escape. Five years, for an hour crouched miserably under the keel of a ship.
It did not matter in the end, for he could not truly believe he would ever be paroled.
The cold iron of the cuffs closed around his wrists again. By the time Javert had marched him back, he had again sunk fully into the resentful dream of Toulon, the constant contemplation of the terrible absurdity of his life.
Valjean was not reassured by Javert’s self-control; it would not last. What man bothered to control his depravity in Hell? And if it was not Javert, surely it would be another. Now that Valjean recognized the possibility, it was inescapable.
Three more years passed in that gray world of shadows. The fire in Javert’s eyes was banked, his mouth more severe than ever. He did not speak to Valjean at all. But it was too late for this to be any comfort to Valjean. There were other guards who he knew abused prisoners, who might turn their attentions to him at any moment, and he hated Javert for making him see it.
He tried to escape once more, and was recaptured as swiftly. The week after, when he was carrying a mast in the shipyard with some of the other men of his work-squad, someone stumbled. The mast slipped; Valjean fell, and the weight came crashing down upon him. The pain in his leg was the worst pain he had ever felt, breath-stealing and dizzying, so that he scarcely noticed the guard’s cudgel that fell across his shoulders, or the hated voice that barked, “Leave him be: he is injured.”
It was Javert kneeling beside him, prodding his leg in a serious but not ungentle manner that still made Valjean hiss through his teeth at the agony. “Can you stand?”
Valjean tried to move his leg. It felt like rocks grinding together and made bile rise in his throat, and he was sweating from only that small effort. He shook his head.
Javert grimaced and stood up again. “Likely it is broken. He will be off the work-line for some time. Here, you and you, fetch a plank. You will have to carry him to the hospital.”
Valjean fainted when they eased him onto the plank. He woke again when they set the bone. It took four convicts to hold him down, and he dimly remembered later the crunch of someone’s nose under his fist. He slipped into darkness again.
He awoke this time in a clean bed in the light upper room of the hospital on the Grand Rang. Through a narrow, salt-etched window he could see the harbor. His leg throbbed with a deep, dull ache and his belly roiled with nausea.
Valjean would be confined for some weeks to the hospital, but not for any reason of humane compassion. It was better to lose his labor now and ensure that his leg healed well than to lose his labor in the shipyard forever, when the Emperor so desperately needed ships-of-the-line for his wars.
Without labor to distract him, without physical exhaustion to push the world from his awareness, Valjean thought more than ever. When one of the black-clad Ignorantin brothers from the new school for convicts came to speak to him of God, Valjean kept his thoughts to himself, and asked with a rough courtesy if the brother might teach him to read. He had concluded, in an unfocused manner, that the best way to revenge himself upon the world that had been so unjust to him was to take the scourges that had been used on him and learn to turn them back against the world. The details of this plan still escaped him, but he trusted that they would come in time.
The weeks in the hospital as his leg began to heal were a strange period of peace for Valjean, if still an imprisoned one. He saw Javert not at all. There was no reason for any of the guards to use a cudgel on a man who could not even get out of bed without causing harm to himself.
When he could walk again, with the aid of a crutch, he was given light duty in the workshops until his leg was fully healed. Every day for an hour, he went to the school and struggled over the Bible verses he did not believe. Where had the God of the Ninety-fourth Psalm been, when he, Jean Valjean, was crushed by the wicked? No, he would not leave vengeance to the Lord, but seek it out himself, although he had not yet determined the method of it. He would have revenge on everyone who had harmed him, someday, Javert first of all.
The more he read, the less able he was to retreat from the horrors of Toulon into the shadows. The lightning illuminated everything around him with stark honesty: every injustice, every cruelty. He knew that he himself had become wicked, had become impious, and yet he was powerless to prevent it. His soul dried away.
He did not try to escape again.
M. Madeleine was still displeased with Javert over the matter of Fantine, and he could not deny that there was a part of him--a part that would disappoint the good Monseigneur Myriel if he knew of it, but a part that Madeleine could not deny--that took some pleasure in seeing the granite-faced Javert, who had plagued him in Toulon and who plagued him in Montreuil-sur-Mer, so shaken.
In Toulon, the prisoner Jean Valjean had known no weapon but hate. He knew now that hate was a poor weapon, more easily turned on its wielder than upon its target. Mayor Madeleine had better weapons, the weapons of civilized men: those of wealth, of status, and of office. He could bring all of these weapons to bear upon the man he had feared for so many years, the man whose eyes had haunted his nightmares. It was only by the grace of God that Toulon had not taken from Valjean the chastity of his body along with the hope of his soul.
“I failed. I must be punished. I must be turned out,” Javert said, with a kind of sad, desperate dignity. It was inexplicable, and yet it tempted a dark corner of Madeleine’s soul, one that the light had yet to reach.
Javert had delivered into his very hands the means of his own destruction. He made it possible for Valjean to wreak that brute vengeance that he had dreamt of in Toulon. For Javert, whose post was everything to him, to be turned out would be worse than a beating, worse than any violation of his body. What did it matter that it would be unjust to punish Javert for being correct? Everything in Toulon had been unjust, and that had not mattered to anyone who wielded the lash.
And then all thoughts of revenge upon Javert fled his mind at the phrase “old convict.” Javert was looking down, thank God, and so he did not see Valjean turn livid, and then pale.
“And what did they tell you?” Madeleine asked, mechanically, picking up his docket again with hands that trembled a little.
“That I was a fool,” said Javert. “Well, they were right. The real Jean Valjean has been found.” Madeleine let Javert speak at length about the man Champmathieu--poor wretch, and twice poor to be mistaken for Jean Valjean!--his mind in a froth.
And at the last, Javert begged for dismissal again. Even in his distracted agony, Madeleine was tempted. He knew this base desire for vengeance was wrong and must be rooted out of his soul. He heard himself saying, as if from a distance, that Javert deserved promotion, which was true; and that he esteemed him, which was also true after a fashion, but which made old memories howl within him. How could he esteem the jailer who had haunted him for so many years?
Javert continued to speak, with his eyes downcast, everything about his ordinarily rigid and correct person projecting an air of agitation and disarray. There was in his humble speech a curious pride. “I have often been severe in my life, to others. This was just. I did right. Now, if I were not as severe to myself, all that I did that was just would become unjust. Should I spare myself more than others? No. What! If I was good only for punishing others, but not myself, I would be a villain, and those who say 'that beggar Javert' would be correct! Monsieur le Maire, I do not wish you to treat me with kindness. Your kindness roused enough bad blood in me when it was for others.”
Madeleine scarcely heard the rest of this singular speech, save for the last of it: “I simply request the dismissal of Inspector Javert.” Madeleine sat there in shock for a moment, no longer able to even pretend attention to the docket in his hands. He understood Javert at last, too late. Javert had told the truth all those years ago: that he wished to be irreproachable. Javert had always told the truth; it was Madeleine himself who was a lie. He knew now that Javert was the kind of man to keep his pitiable desires chained away as firmly as Madeleine wished to chain away the man he had been for nineteen years in hell; Valjean had never needed to fear that from him.
And Madeleine found that he could not destroy this honest man, this man who did not even understand how to be merciful to himself. His world, without grace or mercy, with only the justice of fallible men to guide him, must be its own kind of darkness. Jean Valjean had spent nineteen years in such darkness, but Javert--how old was he? Forty? Forty-five? And there was no light waiting for him.
No, Madeleine pitied him; perhaps he even forgave him. If Javert knew, he would hate him for that forgiveness, perhaps even more than he would hate him if he knew the truth. Madeleine could be generous: he could forgive Javert, the man who could not forgive himself.
Everything Madeleine had built was about to be turned upside-down. There was the man Champmathieu to think of; already the soul of Jean Valjean, in the breast of M. Madeleine, was in turmoil. But there were yet a few hours before any decision had to be made, before everything would change irrevocably.
It was too cruel to ask for Javert to be dismissed.
“We shall see,” Jean Valjean said instead, and offered Javert his hand.