Mary Elizabeth Overstreet

© Copyright February 1997

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
—William Butler Yeats

- ONE -

She was no woman of ill-repute, perhaps ill-fortune, but without scandal to tarnish her name. That she had fallen on hard times, was her only crime. Jewelle Bonacieux and her sister Jeannette had shared a small room in the fringes of a nicer neighborhood until Jeannette took ill in the winter and died. Without her to share the expenses, Jewelle did not know what to do. Her job in the clothing factory paid too little to both cover rent and food. Jewelle knew hunger's claws in her belly before spring.

She was quite small in stature, black-haired, hazel-eyed, always slender, with pale, cream skin, very much like her taller sister Jeannette. In their late twenties, neither woman had ever married, Jeannette saying only that the men for whom she might have fallen would have brought her down. Jewelle was too shy and too frightened of most men to respond to inquiries thrown her way. In fact, she adopted her sister's philosophy that the men who might wish her hand would bring her down, and she felt her humble existence was as low as she could bear to go. She lived a clean and orderly life, and until Jeannette died, a seemingly content one. She had considered going into a convent once after Jeannette was gone, but believed what her sister had always told her—that to go into the service of the Lord in that way, one must feel the call. A devout Catholic, Jewelle nevertheless, did not feel it. She was afraid that becoming a nun would be a mockery, an easy out to her situation, and blasphemous because she did not feel "the call."

Her walk to work in the chill morning brought her to the corner of the town's main thoroughfare upon which she always crossed paths with the tall, dark policeman whom she secretly thought of as a big black bear. If she had to, Jewelle would look up at him, bow her head and with a slight curtsey, hurry past. His face was intimidating: dark frowning eyes, heavy black sideburns and short, stubby nose. But he was always unfailingly polite, once insisting a carter hold up so that she, who had already crossed most of the street, might finish her journey unhindered. And despite his forbidding appearance, he made her feel safe because he was the police. She both dreaded and looked forward to passing him, not wanting contact, but finding that intersection the securest part of her journey.

When Jewelle returned in the evenings, tired and hungry, she sometimes stopped by the market to buy whatever she could afford, sometimes only a loaf of bread, other times a fish or some vegetables. Uppermost in her mind was always having a roof over her head. She could be hungry, but she could not be homeless.

Elise Bouchard, her co-worker, who sat beside her on the left and chattered constantly, asked her one cold spring morning why she didn't get a roommate. Jewelle had never seriously considered this. Replace Jeannette? Impossible. How could she possibly trust anyone? She thanked Elise in her quiet way and said she'd manage just fine.

"But your color is off, Jewelle. You haven't a scrap of meat on your bones. Here, you come stay with Victor and me. We haven't much, but we wouldn't ask much of you."

"Merci, Madame." Jewelle felt her cheeks burning with what little blood she may have left in her thin body. "But I'm fine. Really."

"Well, you don't look fine, dear." Elise reached over and took the girl's hand. "Look at this, dear. Your wrist is a stick. At least come to our house tonight for supper. We'd be happy to have you."

Jewelle felt the ache in her wrist when Elise let go. One meal, she thought, one good meal would not hurt. It would make her bread go another day. "If you will allow me to help you, I'll come for supper."

Elise smiled. "Nonsense, but you come anyway. Victor can walk you home afterwards if you like."

The thought of a hot meal, of something besides fish or bread, made her mouth water along with her eyes. "You're so kind. Merci."

"I hate seeing you waste away, child. I know how hard losing Jeannette was for you. Now you just wait, we'll have a really nice stew tonight."

Jewelle couldn't help but look over at the place on her right, occupied now by a young woman named Babette. She had taken Jeanette's place, and Jewelle was still trying to school herself from turning to say something to her, some thought she had for Jeannette.

Anticipating a good meal made the day go quickly, and she listened contentedly to Elise's constant talk about everything from the weather, her son, to the revolution, to cooking. It was easy to listen, for once without the worry of what she would do for supper. Jeannette had always been the leader, the guide, the strong one. How she could have fallen ill and not given her sickness to Jewelle, the woman did not know. She knew only that life was cold and empty and frightening without her. And of course, she was so hungry.

Selling off some of the things she and Jeannette had acquired in their years alone together after their parents' deaths, occurred to Jewelle whenever she entered the garret they had shared. But to lose any part of her beloved sister was unbearable now that she was gone. Jewelle had, however, resorted to hemming Jeanette's dresses to fit her. At least she had more to wear, and they would last longer that way. She did not see herself ever being able to afford material for a new dress. Jewelle was afraid to look much further ahead than the next week because it seemed like an abyss into which she would fall without hope of salvation.

She walked with Elise—the first time she'd had a companion to walk with after work since Jeanette's last day at the factory. It felt strange, but gave her a trace of excitement.

The Bouchard family occupied three rooms in a boarding house, though two of the rooms were not separated by a wall, only an undefined threshold between the kitchen and small dining area and parlor. The other room was a bedroom, and Jewelle did not go into it.

She folded her hands and sat quietly at the table after Elise had admonished her to leave the cooking to her.

"Victor will be home soon. He works over at the mill, you know. I'm sure I mentioned it."

"Yes, madame. He is in charge of the grindstones."

"He's in charge of the men who tend the grindstones."

"Oh, yes, I'm sorry."

"Don't be, child. I think I hear him now."

Jewelle was nervous about meeting Victor, and that distracted her from the gnawing in her belly. She stood quickly, dropping her eyes when he came through the door, stomping his feet at the threshold to shake off any accumulated moisture or mud.

"Elise, woman, where—" He broke off at the sight of the prim figure in a neat black, wool dress. "What have we here?"

"Victor, stop staring. This is Jewelle Bonacieux. She's next to me at the factory. I've invited her to have supper with us."

Jewelle curtseyed. "Monsieur," she said without ever looking up.

"Why she is but a little mouse!" he exclaimed. "Delighted to meet you, mademoiselle." He turned to his wife. "Where is Pierre?"

"Where do you think? With his friends. I doubt he shall grace us with his presence until it is time for bed."

"Yes, I'm sure you're right." Victor looked at Jewelle again. "You are the one whose sister died, am I right, mademoiselle?"

"Yes, monsieur. My sister Jeannette. She caught a fever during the winter."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I hope you're getting by all right."

"Yes, monsieur."

"Look at her, Victor!" Elise said. "She's emaciated. We're having her over for supper as often as I can talk her into it."

Jewelle felt herself blushing. Only Jeannette had ever fussed over her since their mother's death. Jeannette, who had always seen to everything. Jewelle didn't know what to do. "You're very kind, monsieur."

"Sit down, child. Your work is over for the day. Victor, she will need an escort home afterwards."

"Oh, it would be my pleasure."

Jewelle chanced a look at the man. He was large and robust, his beard fully grown and shot with silver, his coarse coat patched from much wear. He caught her looking and smiled, his eyes full of friendliness, before she looked back down.

"It will be a delight to have someone other than our sullen son at the table, though the good Lord knows, I adore him."

"He's but a boy," Elise said. "Now, husband, please fetch more coal, or I'll not be able to heat this up."

"Ah, my wife, my master," he joked, winking at Jewelle who did not see it.

She felt grateful to Elise's kindness, but wished instead that she had gone home. Here, she felt like an intruder, and bread or no bread, this was so hard. If only Jeannette had been there. . .


Many good things could be said about police sergeant Javert; he was diligent, thorough, scrupulously honest, duty-bound like no other. Yet he carried his work to an extreme, and he never went off duty. Wherever he happened to be, he was watching, waiting for those around him to take a misstep, to break the Law, that which he held most sacred and which was his life.

It was evening, and he was on his patrol, longer than usual because his relief was delayed. His dark uniform blended into the shadows when he stopped walking, and Javert periodically did this to listen for the sounds of others. Nights in this town were usually quiet, only travellers on their way to or from Paris brought much trouble. Nonetheless, he was there just in case.

Two figures approaching, a man and woman judging from their silhouettes, were on the sidewalk. Javert noted the man's arm around the much smaller woman's shoulders. He thought perhaps he knew her—Javert knew everyone in his patrol area, both by sight and by name whether or not they knew his—and decided to just wait and see where they were going.

As they got a little closer Javert stepped from the shadows and began walking toward them—a warning, perhaps, or a reminder. It was quite late for local workers to be out, and he had never seen this woman with anyone besides her sister, now deceased. The man did not hesitate as Javert came up to them.

"Good evening, monsieur," the man said.

Javert looked at his face in the dim light from the street lamp. He looked also at the woman and her face turned up to his was a ghostly pale mask. He saw the fear there, the plea, and knew it had not come from a fear of himself. Her eyes tracked quickly to the man beside her, and her imploring look grew more desperate. Javert's deep and permanent frown did not change, though he scowled inside.

"Monsieur, mademoiselle," he rumbled, then walked on past them. The woman, he thought, was Jewelle Bonacieux, a common woman who was, however, characterized by her chaste and moral existence. Not once since Javert had been on patrol here, had a man visited her garret. He saw her most every day coming and going from her home, first arm in arm with her sister, then alone. When he considered it, she seemed to be wasting away. His memory of her with her sister did not reveal such a thin and pitiful creature. What trouble or illness had befallen her was not really his concern unless she resorted to criminal activity to get out of it. That had happened many a time. Whore's were taken off the street every day for various offenses. But Mlle. Bonacieux was more like a nun, and he would have been disappointed in her had she ever changed her way of life. He respected it, it was orderly and abiding.

But what was this with this man? he wondered. Clearly she had not been entirely willing to be with him. Had she made some error in judgement? Trusted someone in a fit of stupidity? Lowered herself to the level of many women and decided to take a man, then realized it was a mistake?

He turned around without hesitation. It would not do to let this matter go unnoticed. If she was in need, he would do his duty. If not, she would merely be joining the ranks of the majority of the people in their lives of excess and immorality.

Javert knew, of course, where she lived and followed the two at a discreet distance until they turned the corner. He crept up to the corner of the building in which she had her room and listened to the man's words, faint though they were.

"Ma petite souris, won't you let me come up? Surely you could use a little company, no?"

"Please, monsieur, no. Madame will be waiting for you. Please, monsieur, no!"

"Come, petite souris, madame will not know. . ."

"Monsieur, no, please! I cannot! Please, let me alone!"

Javert laid one huge hand on the other man's collar. "Monsieur, you will release mademoiselle instantly."

The man obeyed, raising his hands as if held at gun point. He twisted his head around to see who had grabbed him.

"Mademoiselle, are you all right?" Javert noted that she was trembling and knew he had made the right decision.

"Yes, Monsieur Policeman. Merci." She looked once at her escort, barely able to keep from bolting into the building. "Monsieur, I will say nothing to madame, but please. . ." She faltered, her voice going high and weak. "Please do not ever try to see me again." With that she fled into the building, only to end up retching her fine meal into the chamber pot.

Javert released the man's collar and looked down at him. He was taller, but not by that much. His air of authority gave him all the height advantage he would ever need. "Monsieur, I would take you in for assaulting mademoiselle if I could. So be warned that a second such incident will not require anything of you but verbal harassment for me to arrest you. Is that clear? What is your name?"

"Victor Bouchard, monsieur. And I promise you that I will never lay eyes upon that girl again. She came to my house with my wife. I thought she had talked her way in, if you know what I mean." He shrugged. "It was harmless, I tell you."

Javert felt nothing but contempt for the man. "Be on your way, monsieur. Do not come here again."

"Yes, monsieur. You needn't worry about that."

Javert watched him hurry away, cast a glance up at the building, then went back to the main street. Harmless, indeed, he thought, despising the man for his base and dishonorable intentions. Javert had passed his battle with raging desires in his youth, and at thirty considered any man who could not control himself to be no better than a whore. But to deliberately corrupt something pure and righteous was utterly despicable and worthy of his deepest loathing. It was those corruptions that led to rebellion and crime, to offenses against order and justice. Javert would pounce on those criminals with relish, and he thought he might well make it a point to see that Mademoiselle Bonacieux was not forced into corruption. He would keep an eye on her and protect her from men such as Monsieur Bouchard. It fell well within the directives of his duty to do so, and with that incentive he could do it. Not for personal satisfaction, no, but because it was what was right. And for a man such as Javert, who denied the existence of something like compassion in his own heart, acts of kindness that fell within the boundaries of duty were acceptable and sometimes a by-product of the duty itself. Or so Javert justified it to himself. He would not have felt his own heart melting through the wall of hatred and belief in the Law that served as his foundation. He believed nothing could shake his foundation, certainly not the plight of one girl.

* * *


Chapter 2