CAVEAT: If you are a new reader, there are spoilers for the second and third book present. This constitutes the only warning.
On another note, good news: although I did finish writing the book in first draft form last summer, I have not been happy with several key sections. Now I am beginning the process of deconstructing parts which I am not happy with, and refitting them back in ways which are much more pleasing. Hope springs eternal.
Meanwhile, click through the link to enjoy.
REGARDING THE PRESENT
JEAN VALJEAN AND Javert departed Hauteville House shortly before sunset bundled in extra scarves, which Mrs. Nichols had pressed upon them to accept. Although warmed by gifts and company, by tea and cakes and the afterglow of the hearth fire, the two elderly gentlemen felt a chill as they walked away from the great gray house, a cold borne not by weather, but by circumstance. Mrs. Nichols, the widow whom they had befriended, had spent Boxing Day distributing gifts to the poor and needy with all the charm and grace inherent in the season, but when nothing remained to be given away, somehow it seemed as if she had lost her purpose, her sense of self, and she withdrew from the world hollow and empty. Neither Valjean nor Javert made mention of this observation during their visit, since it would have been impolitic to do so, but both had noticed the phenomenon on earlier occasions and were equally aware as they left the house that the other was thinking about it as well.
They stepped into a weed-strewn yard and gazed across the expanse at the house opposite, a smaller, two-story cottage with lights in every window. They had been invited to the house of their other mutual friend, Dr. Devereaux, for supper. Mrs. Nichols had also been invited but she had politely declined, with that odd melancholy smile that belied her true feelings. She enjoyed the company of her circle, and yet she seemed to have the same need for self-privation from which Javert had long striven to wean Jean Valjean: no matter how fervently they implored her, they could not convince Mrs. Nichols to accompany them across the way.
Valjean paused at the edge of the street and inhaled the bitter December air in small, shallow breaths; Javert drew up beside him, stoic and severe, his hands planted on the pommel of his cane while Valjean struggled to take more and more air into his lungs until at last he was able to fill them in one great gasp. He held it for a moment and exhaled completely; he nodded to Javert as if to say, "I am finished." Javert glanced quickly up and down the road, saw no traffic, and gestured for Valjean to proceed.
They were the only persons about at this twilight hour; far in the distance they could barely discern hooves on cobbles in the town below and the bells of the ships in the harbor beyond. Finally Valjean said, "You are angry with me."
Javert waited until they were safely across the street before he paused and regarded his companion. "What makes you think so?"
"You are unhappy about the last time we spoke with Monsieur Hugo," said Valjean. "You are unhappy that I spoke about that ship."
Javert cringed a little inwardly. Scars long healed in the physical sense still twinged now and again, and so too did the scars in his memory. Until Hugo had interviewed them about their adventures between the years 1832 and the present year of 1855, they had not spoken of their ordeal aboard the Éponine, and but for a few occasions when it had been absolutely necessary, they had not uttered that unfortunate girl's name since that horrific circumstance. Nevertheless, Javert stuck his chin out from under his scarves and said, "I told you that you could tell him. You asked me and I told you to say what you like."
"Saying so does not mean that you agree with it, merely that you tolerate it."
"There's much about the whole thing I do not agree with, but I have said I will not stop you and I mean to keep my word."
Valjean looked down at his shoes. "If you are not happy with what I tell him, then say so and I will omit it."
"It doesn't matter. That, that ship...there were worse things, harder things, that came after it. I am not angry with you." But it was clear from his tone that something irritated him, and having been given the opening, he seized upon it. "I am however puzzled by it."
"That man, that writer," said Javert, in a tone which suggested that the descriptive was little more than an epithet, "promised us that if we helped him write his missive, his so-called magnum opus, that he would only write of things that happened before our association formed, that he would end his book with the marriage of your daughter and Baron Pontmercy and that nothing that happened afterwards would see print." He shrugged a little. "So why are you speaking of things that he will not write about? Why are you telling him of things that are, to be blunt, none of his business?"
"I see no harm in it."
"That's beside the point. It's neither here nor there if there's harm in it. You are not by your nature willing to speak about yourself, especially about the past, and even more especially about things that might put you in an admirable light. Almost any other man in the world would be only too glad to expound to a writer the hardships he has overcome. Even if he can't include the information in his book, he can use the impression to color the characters he intends to write about..." Javert trailed off, staring into nothing. Then he whirled on Valjean. "You..."
Valjean said nothing. He did not meet Javert's eyes. It was clear he could not do so without compromising himself.
"You," Javert repeated, and then repeated it twice more. He took a step back, turned, stopped, turned back, and struck his forehead with his palm. "Incroyable!"
"Now you are angry," said Valjean quietly.
"Angry?" Javert's mouth remained open as he realized the tone in his voice, and he softened it. "I am not angry," he insisted. He fought for better words, but he could not find them. He turned away and rolled his eyes heavenward, straining to regain his composure. Frustration ebbed into resignation and he faced Valjean again. "Thank you," he said. "I appreciate the thought, but it is not even remotely necessary."
"Not for you, perhaps," said Valjean. "But it is necessary for him."
"Why?" Javert spread his hands out, his cane pointing in the general direction of Devereaux's house. "I don't care the tip of my finger what he thinks about me! Why are you trying to make me look good in his eyes?"
"I'm not trying to make you look good," Valjean corrected him gently. "I'm trying to show him that he is wrong about you. I see it in the way he speaks to you, and you to him, the animosity he feels with regard to you. I can see what he will say about you and when it is put into the book, he will make a villain of you."
"What if he does? He is not my final judge, nor, I might add, are his readers."
"Bah!" said Javert. He pulled on Valjean's arm and said, "This is ridiculous. It's cold and darkening and we are a hundred paces from Devereaux's parlor and we are arguing out here instead of in there where it's warm and dry. Come on."
Javert led him toward the doctor's house but did not drag him, for fear that Valjean might have more trouble breathing; insistence is not force. Valjean allowed Javert to hustle him along without comment; acquiescence is not surrender.
REGARDING THE PAST
THE THREE MEN sat together in the library, sipping mulled cider; Valjean sat in the largest chair closest to the hearth, an extra blanket over his shoulders; he seemed to doze now and again while Devereaux and Javert talked of small things of no consequence. Over dinner, Javert had not contained his exasperation with Valjean regarding his motives in telling Hugo the story of their lives, and Devereaux had been in turns sympathetic and incredulous. Javert had not said to Valjean outright that he did not want his story related to Hugo any further, and it was clear that he had no intention of saying so. Valjean offered again to stop, if such were Javert's wish, but Javert did not take him up on it. Devereaux regarded both men with amused familiarity; he had heard their disagreements many times over the years on a variety of subjects, invariably yielding the same outcome: they argued for argument's sake, with no real intention of winning.
Devereaux rose and stood before the portrait of Esmerelda which hung above his cherished copy of Hugo's other great book, Notre Dame de Paris, the book his late wife loved; he glanced back behind him to the bookshelf which displayed the great Bible that had been his uncle's, the book he loved just as much. "I think you both have a point," he said softly, noting that Valjean's eyes had closed again. "When this man writes, he does not use one word when a hundred will do, but each one of those words is as perfect as the next. He paints pictures with words and those pictures evoke images that burn themselves into the brains of his audience. And while you may not care a whit what he writes about you, Lenoir, it would be a shame if you achieved literary immortality as a wicked caricature of yourself."
Javert snorted. Devereaux had known the pair long years ago under their aliases of Leblanc and Lenoir, and even in private still continued to refer to them in that manner, though he knew their true names. Most on the isle of Guernsey knew them by those colorful appellations, for reasons which neither Valjean nor Javert would openly discuss, even among the small circle of confidence to which Devereaux belonged.
As for Devereaux, he owed them everything, in a way: but for them he would never have been arrested on suspicion of being an insurgent during the abortive revolt of 1832; he would never have lost his right arm, nor his fortune, nor his social standing, and so he would never have been sent in disgrace to England to live with his uncle, the priest Pierre Abélard, nor ventured after that to Canada, and without that final action, he never would have met and married the woman who still, two years after her death, comprised half his soul. The sacrifices of his arm and his place in Parisian society were for him a small price to pay for the incomparable joy, brief though it lasted, that Mignon Beaulieu brought to him. But for Leblanc and Lenoir’s involvement, the two angels that slept in the room above the parlor, his sons Pierre and Albert, would never have come to Earth.
Devereaux had one read a quote from a long-dead Oriental philosopher, which posited that there existed three kinds of immortality: the immortality of children, the immortality of good works, and the immortality of books. To Devereaux belonged the first kind; his children were his immortality. To Jean Valjean belonged the second kind—although Cosette was as much his daughter as if she were his flesh and blood, it was his selflessness in adopting her, among so many other great charitable works, which gave him the second form of immortality, far above anything Hugo might write. And thus Javert would achieve that third kind of immortality…but it yet remained to be seen whether history and literature would vindicate or vilify him. Perhaps this was why Valjean seemed insistent on telling Hugo everything.
"Twenty-five years ago," said Javert suddenly; Devereaux raised his head, but Valjean did not move—he appeared asleep. "Yes, it was in 1830. I remember the date, it was the twenty-fifth of February. I had been in Paris for seven years, attached to the police there. It was after Montreuil-sur-Mer, when I was the inspector and Valjean was Monsieur le Maire, and after I had tracked him to the Rue Picpus, there to lose the trail. And it was before I found him again, in the garret of Gorbeau House, the prisoner of Patron Minette. Always in the back of my mind it rankled me that I had not caught him, but there were so many other malefactors that I moved on from that case and turned my attention to whatever the prefect ordered me to investigate. I thought it was a stupid assignment in the beginning, but a crime is a crime and it was necessary to watch, to wait, and to intervene, to spring the trap. I did as I was told." He eyed Devereaux. "We had received advance word, you see, that a crime was to occur that night, at the opening of a play. Indeed, it was known among us of the Sûreté that the play itself might be illegal, that it might be scandalous and libelous and anti-government in nature. So, I put on civilian clothes and for the first time in my life, I attended the theater."
"The play," said Devereaux wonderingly. "How can anyone forget the sensation it caused! And you were there?" He patted the mantle over the fireplace and grinned. "Would it surprise you to know that I was there too, in attendance? I was in our reserved box, the one my family had always used, along with the others of my standing. It was on the floor that the rebellion started."
"I was on the floor," said Javert, "among so many young troublemakers. Now they say it was a battle between the Classicists and Romanticists, and that the play was the first salvo in the battle to transform art, whatever that means. For me it was a battle between established order and irreverent chaos. For me, it was the sign of the times to come, since six months after its premiere came the July Revolution and the reign of Louis Philippe. I can't even remember what the play was supposed to be about, except that for a supposedly French play there were too many damned Spaniards in it."
Devereaux let the comment go without responding; for all he had suffered, Javert had an excuse for his bigotry. "I remember the gist of the play," the doctor said, "but Heaven help me, I can't remember a line of it. We in the balconies shouted down the actors while those in the stalls below us shouted up to quiet us, some of them reciting the play's lines so they could be heard, and all the while there he was, in front of the stage in that bright red vest, at the center of the maelstrom, preening like a peacock at the birth of his dramatic masterpiece." He shrugged. "How far Monsieur Hugo has come from that point! Hérnani was his best play; he peaked young. Everything else after that was banned or snubbed or forgotten. The only thing he got out of his final play was that mistress of his. He lost his earnestness and became a cynic and now he writes bad poetry and political criticisms."
"And a book," said Javert. He looked over to Valjean, gesturing toward him with his chin. "He believes in Hugo's book, at any rate."
"And I believe in it too," said Devereaux, "if only because I believe in Leblanc. His virtue transcends us all. If Hugo can capture a hundredth of Leblanc's essence, then the world will be better for the end result."
"I agree," said Javert. "And that is the only reason why I put up with this carnival." One corner of his mouth turned up just the tiniest amount as he regarded Valjean, peaceful and unmoved in slumber. "He thinks that by talking to Hugo about me—by which I mean he speaks of the man I am now and not the man I was then—that Hugo will come to regard me in a favorable manner. But the reason I allow him to do that is that the more he seeks to improve Hugo's opinion of me, the more Hugo comes to regard Valjean. Whether Valjean likes it or not, he will be the hero of his own story. If that means I must be the villain of it, then so be it."
"Perhaps not," said Devereaux.
REGARDING THE FUTURE
RENÉ DEVEREAUX TOOK the poker from the andiron and blackened the tip in the fire, drawing a straight line on the hearthstones. Above the line he made a crude V and below it, a lopsided J. "This is what you think Monsieur Hugo will make of you, that Leblanc is above and you below. But that would imply that Hugo writes simply, and he does not." He made two more lines, descending downward to meet below the horizontal line, creating an upended triangle, so that the J was trapped within the lines of the figure. Devereaux hesitated momentarily, then put the tip of the poker below the point of the triangle and scratched the letter T. Javert drew back in surprise.
"I think in the end it will be that brigand, I will not give his name, who proves to be the villain of Hugo's work. And you, you are here." He tapped the J. "You, at least at the time, existed within the confines of the law, unable to venture outside of it. Leblanc exists above it, and the other man at its nadir. You are neither good nor bad: neither hero nor villain. You are the middle path, neutrality, which may prove to be the hardest role of all." He replaced the poker in the holder. “You are the neutrality that allows evil to be done in the name of good, or, in this case, that prevents justice from being done by enforcing an unjust law. For such an evil to happen, it is only necessary that the forces of right remain ambivalent.”
“I wonder,” Javert murmured. “You posit that, because Evil will, Good therefore must. That implies that goodness exists solely—or more aptly, merely—to react against evil, and not to act of its own accord. I think you have them reversed. Good does not fight against evil. Rather, Evil fights against good.”
“I daresay Leblanc would agree with you,” said the doctor wryly. “But Hugo, I fear, would not. He would say that you personify what must be defeated; he will say that you were hard, unyielding, tenacious, inflexible, a stone in the path of progress..."
Javert stared into the hearth, regarding the diagram. "He will be right, if he says that about me; I was that man. I still am, you know. I am still hard and tenacious and inflexible, but not about the same things as I was then. He will say that and it will be true, so what does it matter?"
"Here's what else I think," said Devereaux. "I think he will also say that you are honest and diligent and that you acted without malice. You did your duty, you acquitted yourself with honor, though in the wrong cause."
"If he says that," Javert repeated, "then he will be right, and I can live with that."
"Well, yes, but that may be the biggest tragedy of all."
Devereaux thought deeply before answering, choosing the words with care. "Because, truthfully, if Leblanc had been the man you thought he was—if he was a hardened recidivist, a dangerous criminal, a thief who steals from chimney sweeps and priests, a conniving saltimbanque who hoodwinked an entire town and vanished with the company funds, and a despicable kidnapper—then you, my friend, truly would be the hero of Hugo's book, and not him."
Javert snorted again, turning away from the fire. "That's ridiculous," he muttered. "Me, a hero? Don't make me laugh!"
Behind him, Valjean remained motionless, his eyes still closed, and yet his lips parted slightly, forming a beatific smile.