One winter’s evening, a toothless woman with a grey face and flowers in her hair was arrested for attacking a man in the street. She was taken to the police station, where Inspector Javert, the chief of police, sent her to prison for six months.
‘Please, M. Javert.’ The woman fell to her knees. ‘I owe a hundred francs. If I don’t pay, my little girl will lose her home and be thrown out on to the streets. Please don’t send me to prison.’
Javert listened to her coldly, then ordered a policeman to take her away. While the policeman was trying to drag her to her feet, however, a voice from the shadows said, ‘One moment please.’
Javert looked up and saw Monsieur Madeleine, one of the most important people in the town.
M. Madeleine had arrived mysteriously in Montreuil one December evening in 1815. He had no money but he had a revolutionary idea: he knew a cheap and efficient method of manufacturing glass. Within a few months of his arrival, thanks to his new idea, the glass-making factory in Montreuil was making enormous profits. With the money he made, M. Madeleine built two new factories, which provided the town with hundreds of new jobs. He became a very wealthy man but lived a simple life, using most of his money to build new hospitals and schools. He was so popular that, in 1820, the townspeople elected him mayor of Montreuil.
There was one man, however, who did not like M. Madeleine. This was the chief of police, Inspector Javert.
He had always been suspicious of M. Madeleine, and was sure that he had seen him somewhere before, many years earlier. But he kept his suspicions to himself, not daring to say what he really believed: that M. Madeleine was, in fact, a dangerous criminal with a terrible past.
Now, years later, M. Madeleine was in the police station, trying to save Fantine from prison. Fantine, however, was not grateful. In fact, when she saw who it was, she spat at him.
‘You own the factory where I used to work!’ she shouted at him. ‘I lost my job because of you. Now I’ve become a bad woman, but what choice did I have? I’ll never get my daughter back if I don’t make money.’
The mayor turned to Inspector Javert and said, in a soft, firm voice, ‘This woman must be released.’
‘That’s impossible,’ Javert replied. ‘She attacked a man in the street, a respectable citizen. And now I’ve just seen her spit at you, the mayor of our town. A woman like this deserves to be punished.’
‘But I saw what happened in the street just now,’ M. Madeleine said. ‘It was the man’s fault, not this woman’s. You should arrest him, not her.’
Javert argued with M. Madeleine for some time, but finally gave in. He walked angrily out of the room, leaving the mayor and the prostitute alone together. Fantine trembled, as confused as Javert had been. The man who had just saved her from prison was also the man who had caused all her troubles. The devil had suddenly decided to be kind, and she did not know what to think.
‘I heard what you said,’ M. Madeleine said to her. ‘I honestly didn’t know that you had lost your job, but I’ll try to help you now. I’ll pay your debts and arrange for your child to return to you. I’ll give you all the money you need. I’ll make you happy again. And I promise that, in the eyes of God, you have never been a bad woman.’
Fantine gazed at M. Madeleine with tears in her eyes. After all her pain and suffering she had, for the first time in her life, found kindness in another human being. At last she would be cared for, and she could look forward to a life of happiness with Cosette. Without a word, she fell to her knees and kissed the back of M. Madeleine’s hand.
M. Madeleine sent the Thenardiers 300 francs and told them to send Cosette to Montreuil immediately. Thenardier, thinking that Fantine had suddenly become rich, wrote back and demanded 500 francs. M. Madeleine sent the money, but the Thenardiers found even more dishonest excuses for not sending Cosette back.
The weeks passed and, although she was happier than she had been for a long time, Fantine caught a fever. Months of poverty and misery had made her ill, and she soon became so weak that she was unable to leave her bed.
‘When shall I see Cosette?’ she kept asking M. Madeleine when he visited her.
‘Very soon,’ he would reply, and her pale face would light up with joy.
One morning, as M. Madeleine was making preparations to leave for Montfermeil and to fetch Cosette himself, he had a visitor. Inspector Javert walked into his office, and stood in silence waiting for him to look up from his work.
‘Well, Javert, what is it?’ M. Madeleine finally said.
‘I’ve come to apologize, M. Madeleine,’ the inspector replied.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’ve treated you unjustly. I was angry with you six weeks ago when you told me to release that woman. I wrote to the police headquarters in Paris and told them about you.’
‘Told them what about me?’
‘Forgive me, M. Madeleine, but I believed you were a man called Jean Valjean. He was a prisoner I saw twenty years ago, when I worked at a prison in Toulon. After being released from prison, this Valjean stole some silver from the Bishop of Digne and robbed a small boy on a public footpath. We tried to catch him, but he disappeared. When you arrived in Montreuil, I felt sure that you were this man, but now I know I was wrong, and I’m sorry. You will, of course, dismiss me from my job, as I’ve shown that I don’t deserve your trust.’