Javert could do nothing but watch, helplessly, as that man––24601––disappeared into the night. Why had he let him go? Just when his life's work was almost complete, he had let him slip out of his grasp again! He cursed himself for being such a fool.
And yet, he knew why he had let Valjean go. He was hiding behind the body of that half-dead boy he dragged from the barricade. And as determined as he was to arrest Valjean, Javert could not bring himself to allow the death of an innocent man. Let him go; the boy probably wouldn't make it through the night anyway.
But there was another reason. As much as he loathed to admit it, Javert knew he owed Valjean his life. The man had been given the chance to kill him, but instead he had let him go! What kind of twisted game was he playing? Any man in his right mind would have killed his lifelong adversary when he had the chance! What kind of fool was Valjean, to let him go?
A very clever one, thought Javert. Ever since Javert had first caught up with Valjean, ten years after he broke parole, in Montreuil-sur-Mer, he had been playing the part of the benevolent saint. Running that factory more like a charity. Caring for that wretched prostitute; then adopting her orphaned daughter and lavishing his affection and his wealth on the girl––it was clear from her clothes that he denied her nothing. Distributing alms to the beggars in the streets. It was all a grand charade; giving the appearance of being a good man, winning people over to his side so that they would hate Javert. And that act of mercy, letting him go free when he should have killed him––it was all part of the act!
Javert refused to play a part in this masquerade. Valjean had promised him: "Another hour, then I'm yours." When Valjean returned home, Javert would be waiting at his doorstep with a pair of handcuffs, and four––no, eight––no, ten policemen! He would have the entire police force! Let them come from wherever they were scattered throughout Paris to witness his moment of triumph!
No, no. Not the entire police force. Just a few select officers to ensure that Valjean did not evade him again. Javert would savor the fulfillment of his mission in private––the victory would be his and his alone.
He had been walking for some time now, striding blindly along. Valjean's house was on the other side of the river; he was heading more or less in that general direction. But as he approached the bridge, he suddenly stopped.
What if it was not an act? Could it be that the man really had changed? What if all his acts of kindness were genuine? And if that were the case…then Javert's life's work was for nothing!
As he crossed the bridge, Javert looked up toward the sky. It was clouded over; the stars, which had brought him clarity and conviction, were obscured, leaving nothing but a great, vast, empty darkness. He pressed the palms of his hands against the railing of the bridge, looking down at the river below. It was constant, unchanging––in its own way, as faithful as the stars. There was one way out of this trap in which Valjean had cornered him.
Slowly and deliberately, Javert stepped over the railing, still gripping it tightly with both hands. He stood for a moment, closed his eyes…and let go.
He was falling, falling, falling. When he hit the water, the sharp impact was enough to knock his breath out of him; he made no attempt to get it back. With calm surrender, he felt the water close over his head, and did not try to fight it. The weight of his drenched clothes pulled him down; he did not struggle. He was sinking into oblivion when he felt an arm tighten around his chest. He tried to pull away, but whatever or whoever it was held him fast. Someone was pulling him up toward the surface. Whoever it was must be a strong swimmer. His head was pulled above water; air rushed into his mouth of its own accord. He felt himself being dragged toward the stone walkway beside the river. He was hauled up out of the water onto the pavement. He felt a large hand on his chest, pressing the water out of his lungs, forcing him to breathe. He opened his eyes and stared up at the face above him in disbelief. "Jean…Valjean…!" he gasped between coughs.
"Take it easy, Inspector," the older man chided. He got up from where he was kneeling on the ground, and extended his hand to Javert. Javert pushed his hand away. He managed to sit up on his own, but after several unsuccessful attempts to stand up, he reluctantly took Valjean's hand with a mumbled, "Thank you."
"Come," said Valjean, "We'll go back to my house and you can dry off." He picked up his coat, which he had thrown off before diving into the water, and started to put it around Javert's shoulders. "No!" Javert protested, "I don't want your coat, I don't want your kindness, I don't want your help! What kind of fool do you take me for, Valjean?"
"You talk too much," replied Valjean, "I already told you, your life is safe in my hands. I'm unarmed; I won't hurt you. I promise. Just come with me."
He put his arm around Javert's shoulders; Javert shrugged him off, insistent that he could walk on his own. However, when he stumbled after a step or two, he reluctantly allowed Valjean to help him up the stone steps leading up from the river.
Javert refused to speak as Valjean led him through a maze of little-trafficked streets and back alleys to his home, although when they arrived at the gate he could not help muttering, "So this is where you've been hiding." He soon found himself sitting in an armchair beside a warm fire, wrapped in Valjean's dressing gown while his drenched clothes hung up to dry. "Tea, Inspector?" asked Valjean, coming in from the kitchen with a couple of steaming teacups. Javert took the cup from him, not looking up. He stared into the flames in the fireplace, so many questions burning in his mind.
"Are you cold?" Valjean asked, "I'll get you a blanket––"
"No!" said Javert. "I am fine; you've done enough already. More than enough." After several moments of silence, he glanced over at Valjean, who was sitting in a straight-backed wooden chair by the fireplace, quietly drinking tea.
"Why are you doing this?" Javert finally asked. "This is the second time in less than twenty-four hours that you have saved my life," Javert continued, "Why? You, of all people, should wish me dead. And yet when given the chance to kill me, you let me go; and then when I tried to take my own life you stopped me? Are you mad? Why don't you just let me die?"
Valjean slowly turned to face Javert. The expression in his eyes looked almost sad. "Inspector Javert," he said, "when I look at you, I see a man as lost and broken as I once was. The man you knew as prisoner 24601 was a bitter, jaded man who had turned his back on a world that showed him nothing but hatred. But there was one person who showed kindness to me––a great act of kindness that shattered everything I had thought to be true. He taught me to live in forgiveness and love rather than vengeance and hate. All my life I have been trying to follow his example. How could I do any less? How could I fail to show mercy to others, when I myself was shown mercy?"
"It was my right to die," said Javert through clenched teeth. "Twice, already, you have denied me that right. Is it not more merciful to let a wretched and defeated man die in peace than to force him to live in torment?"
Valjean pulled his chair closer to Javert's, and put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "Your life is a precious gift," he said, "I could not take it from you, nor could I allow you to throw it away. Will you accept it, and begin again, as I did?"
Tears glistened in the corners of Javert's eyes. He nodded slowly. "I…will…" he said, a slight choke in his voice, "But you…you must show me how."