Combeferre didn't expect to die for his country.
Not because it wasn't worth dying for—wiser and braver men than him had struggled, slowly and then quickly, to change it for the better. But because he had been so enamored of their successes and caught up by his faith in progress. If the battles of a past generation had been fought and won, what need was there for him to give his life?
It didn't mean there wouldn't be struggles. There would be fights he could be called to, further advances he could make in the world. Just slower ones, he thought. Less dramatic, the simple work of living day to day.
Évariste didn't expect to die for his country.
The country was big, and battles for its future only came around every so often. Statistically speaking. In between there were all the smaller—but far more numerous—spats and provocations and backstabbings (literal and figurative) between friends and comrades and newfound enemies. It wouldn't take much to set him off. An insult, a slight, a pack of rhyming lies. Even something stupid, something he didn't even care for all that much, would be enough. He knew he was a Galois—it wasn't like he was proud of it, but that was the way it was.
It's an evening in July when Combeferre takes to the streets.
He'd been above the fray for a while, literally and figuratively. Waiting on the rooftops and slowly trying to redirect the troops in the streets. All sorts of revolutionaries are stationed around him; some alumni of the École Polytechnique ask, half in jest, whether breaking paving stones in smaller pieces, to increase their surface area while keeping their volume constant, would be an efficient strategy. Others simply dig tiny flowers out of flowerpots, as if they're going to transplant them when the fighting's over.
It doesn't last. Within a couple hours, there are a dozen dead, and they've slipped down to the crowded streets. They carry the body with them—there's no time for a funeral, just the challenge that more deaths must follow.
They pass by streetlight after streetlight, the lamps that so recently he'd marveled at. Surely, theirs was an enlightened age, that could produce their own balls of gas to hold back the night.
By the end of the first day, there are thousands of shards across the streets of Paris.
Within three days the fighting has ended and a new order is rising. And with a new order comes the associated novelties of disorder, older groups being permuted around and their members mapped to alternative associations.
It goes something like this. Bahorel's informed about a new society, he investigates, one day they meet to compare notes. The “established” cohort have claimed the rights to be known as the “Friends of the ABC,” and the newcomers are left with the slightly more generic “Friends of the People.”
“That won't do,” says Courfeyrac, “not a pun at all, there.”
Enjolras gives him one of his unimpressed glances.
“There are some polytechniciens,” Bahorel volunteers with a glance at Combeferre, “you'd like them.”
Combeferre gives a noncommittal nod, the sort that says I might, but I oughn't jump to conclusions, there are plenty more people without much education I might like just as well, it's important to be tolerant after all. But he visits anyway, and sure enough there's Étienne the dropout and François-Vincent the biologist. Combeferre listens closely to him, then reports back to Courfeyrac that, in life as in politics, great effects can be achieved from even the smallest and most close-knit cells.
And then there's Évariste.
Combeferre comes by to a couple meetings after that, glancing over at him, asking his opinion. Évariste thinks nothing of it. Why would an older student care what he thought? He hasn't been able to get out in the fighting, he hasn't been doing anything noteworthy. Some of the others have fought Charles X; he's argued with some teachers. Maybe if Combeferre was a woman, he could understand the glances, but he isn't. Which is just as well, because Évariste would only have disappointed him, too.
By October, the Friends of the People have dissolved. Friendships are not guaranteed to last.
Of course, they still meet. Of course, Combeferre still drops in, every once in a while.
It's Galois' friend Ernest who finally puts it to him that maybe, between Combeferre's other political commitments and his medical service, it's not the other Amis' political agenda that he keeps coming to see.
“You're not serious!” Galois says. “You're trying to set me up...”
“I'm not. I mean, I could be wrong. He could be trying to set you up, maybe he likes messing with you, or maybe he's an informant sent here to spy on us all.”
“No. I won't believe it.” Not of Combeferre, with all his patient demeanor and all his quiet curiosity.
Which means that Ernest has a point.
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“Invite him over, ask him to dinner, see if he enjoys making conversation with you outside these secretive meetings. If he doesn't, you've lost nothing. Maybe then we can denounce him as a spy!”
And when he thinks it over on his own, after dismantling every possible objection, Galois decides he's right again. He will have lost nothing, if Combeferre refuses him, he hasn't invested anything in the potential of a relationship. Nothing to take too seriously.
It's easiest, at first, to just swap reading lists, to trade other peoples' words instead of risking one's own. “You know Arago, from the Friends—our Friends, that is?” Galois ventures.
“Of course!” Combeferre smiles. “I've been to his theater, it's beautiful.”
“His brother is a scientist of some distinction—”
“Francois? The polarization of light? But I have read some of his work, it is brilliant!” With light there can be no disputation—even when it is polarized, it does not lead to opinions at cross-purposes, but only brings a richer truth.
“And yourself, have you read Fourier?”
“I have,” says Galois. “In fact I wrote to him, showing him my work.”
“Good for you! Although I cannot quite follow his thought process on the temperature of the earth, he's a fascinating thinker.”
“Really? I found it quite straightforward. Once you estimate the power of the sun, at that distance, you need to incorporate additional terms.”
“But why should that not remain constant over time?”
“Up to negligible variance, I think it is constant. Are you sure you're understanding his argument?”
“I'll have to revisit that. What about his writings on the labor of women?”
“I have not read those, sorry to say.”
“Well, I don't speak of employment in the modern sense—the world of work ought to be reformed, to stem the excesses of trade—but doing work to earn decent wages, should be the province of both women and men.”
“I suppose. But they might have different skills...”
“Different strengths and interests are all well and good. But too often, women are sequestered by marriage—a partnership that is, ah, not satisfactory for all individuals.”
“He must have been a true polymath.”
“That he is.”
“Come again? He's still alive, surely?”
“I heard he died last spring. Otherwise he'd better have a good reason for not writing back to me...”
Combeferre pauses, then turns red. “Of course, I'm so sorry, you would have been talking about Joseph Fourier, in the Académie...” And he bursts out laughing.
Galois raises his eyebrows. “Oh? What are his views on the suitability of marriage?”
Combeferre doesn't know. They hypothesize, however, that while the institution might not be for everyone, something very close to it can be obtained by increasingly-wiggly approximations.
One night, Combeferre is tickling Galois' knees. He squirms, laughing. “How do you do that?”
“I'm very talented,” Combeferre deadpans. “Or at least my fingers are.”
“You write, you maneuver medical instruments, you tickle well. That's sufficient.”
“And I can shoot a gun,” sighs Combeferre, switching knees to amuse himself as much as Galois. “More than adequate.”
“Guns have their places.”
“Ah! Were you involved in the July revolution?”
Galois pauses. “Don't move your thumb.”
Combeferre freezes up. “Yes?”
“There, right underneath, that is where I was bruised during the uprisings.”
“Oh? Very good.”
“I...I could not fight.”
“That is no matter; what's accomplished is done.”
“I tried to escape, to take part with my comrades. The gates were locked to me, the windows barred. When I tried to climb the walls, only these needless injuries resulted.”
He turns over his hand to where another bruise has already been covered by time, and Combeferre takes it in his. “You are braver than even I imagined—which will teach me. What prison was this?”
Galois gives a fleeting smile. “The École Normale.”
It's with Combeferre that Galois really gets into writing letters. Not love letters—they don't need those, not when they have each other so close by. There is no need for censorship or codes or even societies that do not, officially, exist. But with Combeferre's guidance, he starts to believe people might listen to him. Even acting from a distance.
Dear Principal Guigniault, This fine school of ours is no less storied and no less bound up in the history of our great country than the École polytechnique. Even without a military focus, we too might benefit from wearing uniforms like our fellow students. After all, in uncertain times, even the common people can be moved to riot. Every citizen should be able to benefit from well-maintained clothing, to preserve the public order.
The request is refused.
“Why would you want to look like the polytechniciens?” Combeferre asks.
Galois hesitates. Why would he? He's not jealous of them. Certainly not. Not when he has his studies and his friends and Combeferre and everything he could ask for. It's not like the instructors are any good, not like they set worthwhile qualification exams. Not like they know what they're talking about.
Just another silly thing to get worked up over, something he'd never have loved anyway. "Good point. A more pressing demand, then."
Dear Principal Guigniault, Theoretical knowledge, while useful, cannot take the place of applied skills. In order to supplement our academic pursuits, it would be beneficial for interested students to participate in military training exercises. Providing us with weaponry would assist this civic-minded purpose. That one he even finds a group to sign off on. Or at least, a subgroup of the larger class—most of the others don't want to talk politics. But develop a strong enough identity, he thinks, and even a relatively small group can exert its power.
Except that, despite their solidarity, the request is also refused.
“They're singing the Marseillaise at the École polytechnique,” he complains. “They've driven Binet out of school!”
“That wasn't the students' doing. He has not, ah, supported our king profusely enough to earn the king's support in return.”
“Arago's, then, or the other Arago.”
“I don't think you're really jealous of students getting to sing.”
“And why is that?”
“Because,” says Combeferre, “I've heard you sing.” And then Combeferre is tickling him again, so Galois can have something else to blame the spurt of laughter on.
He decides the next letter ought to bypass Guigniault entirely. Of course the principal was never going to be responsive. Just another waste of time. So he writes to the newspaper instead, anonymously explaining what a loyal patriot he has had the honor to learn from.
Within a week, he's been expelled from school. His little group of colleagues was not normal enough to fit in.
They'll go back and forth in the papers—maybe some of the students will disclaim they were not that anonymous correspondent, maybe it'll turn out to have been Principal Guigniault pulling the strings all along. By that point Galois doesn't care. The École normale isn't worth it either. Now there's no excuse not to get a uniform and practice artillery lessons, as a member of the republican faction in the National Guard.
Until there is an excuse.
The Bourbons are back in France, their ministers on trial, and secretly, Galois is glad. If they are merely imprisoned, well, then there will be a proper uprising, and he'll be there at the center of it. Executed, and the world will be rid a handful of problems. No need for any republicans to risk their lives, just to incite change—why, the Bourbons probably won't even know that they're helping the cause.
He waits quietly, heedless of the rest of the guard moving in around them, mulling over some figures in his head. Harmless.
Then the cannon sounds to punctuate the sentence. “They're letting them off!” A useless commutation.
They're still surrounded by the rest of the guard, but a larger ring is forming around even them: the wary citizens of Paris, unwilling to let the guard turn on itself—or maybe just very frustrated and trying to go to the art museum for a nice holiday break. Even Lafayette comes by, telling everyone to stand down, and they disperse, weapons and people slowly trying to make their way through the quadrangles.
Combeferre finds him. “You're all right!”
“Of course I am. You showed up?”
“Wouldn't miss it.”
Galois shakes his head. “If we're going to be all peaceable, the least we could do is kill the ministers.”
“They're already in the past. Progress marches on.”
So it does, Galois is forced to concord, and all it costs them is the existence of the artillery as they know it. Lafayette is dismissed, Galois hands in his weapons, and he finds himself, once again, looking for a job. He's not going to be a burden on his mother, not without his father. He'll find a way.
“Combeferre,” he says one day, “how would you like to learn some algebra?”
Combeferre would like to learn some algebra, it turns out, and at first, so would some of his friends. On paper. Everything's clearer on paper.
Ernest is there, and their friend Auguste, and some of the other republicans in their circle. So Galois tries to keep things simple at first, but it's boring, and not relevant to much of anything.
“Show us some of your own results,” Combeferre asks. And that's enough of an invitation for Galois to throw himself into the lectures with new energy, abandoning the preliminaries and jumping to novel consequences. He loves it, and he loves Combeferre, and it's almost enough to keep going.
The others stop coming. Not all at once—his own society would like to continue making eye contact with him at their republican meetings, so a few diehards go through the motions and sleep through the equations. And a few of Combeferre's friends stick around, but don't pay dues and submit their homework under false names. From a class of maybe forty, it dwindles through the spring to fewer and fewer members, Thursday after Thursday.
“It only goes to show,” Galois sighs, collecting the papers under his arm. “All our usual calculations hold in the infinite sense, but we must also confront these very finite fields.”
“Again. Why should the factorization of the size matter?”
“Because you want the axioms to hold up! Take a composite number, twelve, you see it can be broken down as three and four. Now three times four would give zero, if you were to go—round the clock, and say that eleven plus one is zero again. You don't want to multiply two things together, to get zero.”
“Yes, but three by three gives nine, and you let nine work—”
“I don't let anything happen, it's already true! Because it's a power of a single prime, not like twelve.”
“But three and six make nine, in both cases...”
“In the case of nine members, it's really not the number three and the number six, you're not starting from one. But with twelve, you're adding one and one over and over again. So three, six, nine, and twelve, do make their own subgroup...”
“...but one, four, seven, and ten are a different coset—”
“Do you want to move in with me?”
And Galois drops the papers. “Come again?”
“It'd be cheaper for you than having to find a place on your own.”
He bends down to pick up the paper, not meeting Combeferre's eyes. “On your salary? We wouldn't fit. My mother has been—”
“You still live with her?”
“Not exactly. I'm still in her house. She—well. I'll make do."
“It wouldn't be an imposition.”
“Do you have a friend named Nicolas?”
“Look at this!” Collecting the jumbled papers together, he peels off the now-topmost one. “By Nicolas LeBlanc. Not an answer given, just clever slogans about the king on the throne and the bats in my belfry. Blank indeed.”
Combeferre takes it, gently. “Look, the handwriting changes. I think it's three or four of them, working together.”
“And not a centime among them.”
“They are clever slogans, though. You have to give them that.”
Galois sighs. “Very well.”
“They kept their guns?” Évariste asks.
Ernest sighs. “Not all of them. Just a handful.”
“They kept their guns. When we were supposed to turn them in.”
“Yes, the national guard broke the law, I'm sorry to inform you.”
“You should be! If I'd have known, I'd wanted in.”
“To do what?” Ernest mutters.
“...to make a point,” Évariste trails off.
“And get yourself arrested?”
“Well, why not?”
“There are plenty of places to make points, you might as well choose one that won't get you in trouble.”
“We've seen how effective the law is. Prison for the Bourbons, remember? Which is what brought this on to begin with.”
“What happened to your algebra class?”
“People stopped coming. You stopped coming, you're one to talk.”
“Start it up again, and I'll come back if it'll save you the trouble.”
“What's come over you? What of the artillery? What of the revolution?”
“Time passes, Évariste, and we progress with it.”
“So you've given up?”
“If I find something to fight for, today, I'll let you know.”
The nineteen artillery-men are let off the hook. There's a party planned, to celebrate the victory, and Évariste drags Ernest along. Republican festivities will remind him what he's fighting for.
It's a good party, as parties go. Ernest is, if noncommittal, at least enjoying his chicken, and there's wine at every plate. Red and white. Revolutionary colors.
Évariste sips his, while the toasts fly freely. The window's open, and a breeze is blowing in from the garden while a crowd of republicans who definitely aren't drunk enough to blame it on the alcohol start parading around in yet more guard uniforms. Whose these are, nobody's quite sure. Pescheux, one of the acquitted, is flirting with everyone indiscriminately, winning himself some job offers that no doubt he'll turn around and use to start funding the guard again. François-Vincent blushes as his friends drink in his honor.
“To ninety-three!” someone toasts, and Ernest takes a bland sip. Évariste, at the end of the table, vigorously clinks his glass with him.
“Is this another one of your mathematical jokes?” Ernest mutters.
“Only if they're really exclaiming it,” says Évariste. “Come on, drink up! Or who else shall we toast? Robespierre?”
“Robespierre, then,” Ernest echoes.
“Come, now.” He stands, raising his glass. “To Louis-Phillipe!”
A few whistles from his friends on the other side of the table, booing the monarchistic overtones. Time for a clarification.
Évariste lifts his knife and smirks. “To Louis-Phillipe!”
“To Louis-Phillipe!” they echo, “to the king!” And then he's dropped the knife and they're dancing across the room, even Ernest is laughing wildly, they're making their way down the stairs, some people have found a shortcut out the window (all right, maybe they're running away), their toasts are echoing through the streets, and he thinks, if dancing could always be like this, then he'd never embarrass Combeferre...
When they arrest him the next day, he thinks, at least he won't be running up expenses at his mother's apartment.
Dear Ernest, I have every confidence that I will be let off, never worry about me—you know the precedent of these jurors, all too well. Dear Michel, How is life outside? Have another glass of wine for me, and if you are to do something senseless do warn your brother in advance or he'll fret. I shall write to him soon.
Dear Combeferre, Dreadfully boring. Is there any word from Poisson? We had barely started class when I sent off the memoire, I expect to hear from him eventually...but do not check my mail, I believe even that may well be an offense these days, at this rate.
My love is sent to mother, and—under another function, turning slightly—to Alfred, and—likewise—to Nathalie, and, always, to you. This much is my identity, I will always come back to you...
The republicans have friends in the law school, and they're the ones that set Galois up with a lawyer. “Tell them you were taken out of context,” says Dupont. “This is for Louis-Phillipe, if he betrays us.”
“Very well, then,” says Évariste, and launches into an ironic spiel about the unfortunate probability of the king to betray the nation of France, and how well the knife had dealt with both chicken and turkey, of course he was holding it in his hand and it just so happened to be elevated along with him, there's no smooth changeover from sitting to standing that leaves the knife fixed, it was all just a coincidence.
He's nineteen, and, in spite of himself, doesn't have a criminal record. The jury lets him off.
He takes the knife, which the court had the decency to bring along. It's the next best thing to having an actual uniform again.
Évariste promises himself he's not going to be a burden to his mother again, and moves into his own house as soon as he's acquitted. Freedom is wonderful for himself; so much more wonderful, then, when liberation will be extended to all of France.
The one upside of the jail stint is that, perhaps feeling guilty about the banquet, Ernest is an ardent republican again. That's always been Ernest's way, to lurch between extremes—one day he's negative about the cause, the next a beacon of positivity, and Évariste for one is going to take advantage of that as long as things stay on the up.
It's summer, and the republicans are feeling arboreal. They'll commemorate Bastille Day by planting some liberty trees. It's nice to put down roots.
Combeferre's invited, but he's already made plans. “I'm sorry I can't make it. I just don't want to let down the medical students.”
“The Fête de la Fédération?” asks Évariste. “Really?”
“And truly,” says Combeferre. “We are, after all, still one nation.”
“And yet even that day was chosen in honor of the Bastille.”
“Days come around once a year, like it or not. Such is the nature of revolution.”
And everything's on track. Ernest is playing along, all their uniforms and weapons are in order. But the night before, Combeferre rushes to find him. “The police are onto you.”
“We're planting trees to bloom and grow in the future of our city. How much more patriotic can we be?”
“I don't know, we've got a hardline commissioner to deal with. He doesn't like your posters.”
“That's too bad, we're not calling it off.”
Combeferre smiles. “Stay with me tonight.”
“If they're watching your home. Don't let them find you.”
“Ha! So even you admit, they see me as dangerous?”
Combeferre rolls his eyes. “They do now.”
“Very good.” Évariste is silent a moment, then gives a brief smile. “Thank you.”
“I'll be by in half an hour, I need some clothes.”
“No you don't.”
“Ah, you tease.”
“Go, then, but be quick. I'll make supper.”
“Take a rest, I can cook when I get there.”
And while Combeferre protests, it's not for long. Soon enough, Évariste is back, the dinner is thrown together, and they eat quietly. When night falls, Combeferre digs out his old candles, and for hours they hold each other close, the folds in blank sheets proof of their companionship.
When the commissioner comes to Évariste's house, two hours after dawn, there's no one to be found.
“How do I look?”
“Handsome, as always.” Combeferre rolls over in bed, without looking.
“Come on, up with you! Don't you have the Fête de la Fédération to honor?”
“The Fête can wait.”
“I made you breakfast.”
That gets Combeferre climbing up. “Already?”
“No time to be wasting,” says Évariste. “Here.”
“Will this breakfast include, ah, chicken?”
“Hadn't planned on it. Why?”
“Because I was wondering whether you have your chicken knife on you.”
Évariste is back in full artillery attire; uniform, rifle, dagger, and a pistol or two. “I think I'm set, but thanks for checking.”
Breakfast is terse—there's not much to chew when you're armed to the teeth. “Good luck,” Combeferre offers.
“I shouldn't be needing it.”
“You never know.”
They embrace at the door. “I love you.”
“You too.” But Évariste pulls away. “I should go. Ernest will be waiting for me.”
Combeferre smiles, raising a hand in farewell, as Évariste makes his way down the street.
And Ernest is there, dressed to the nines in yet another guard uniform. The sun climbs high in the sky as they make their way through the streets, and one by one other students rise to join them. Together, they walk through the city, out to the Pont-Neuf bridge.
That's when the police finally catch up with them.
Dear Combeferre, No news yet. I have reassured Ernest that all is well, we'll be out soon, and, emboldened, he's taken this opportunity to draw a charming portrait of our monarch here in the walls. It is a permanent record and, unlike my speech, it shall not lack for context. So long as he remains confident, our excursion shall have been worth our while...
Dear Alfred, This has been a trying week. No, I am wrong—would that we were actually on trial! Instead this monotone wait is growing, but how slowly.
I know I shall be free soon, we have seen this before, but Ernest is losing hope once again. Even his doodles mock him—it is all well and good, to wait for the death of kings. But what liberty is this, worth having faith in, if its only altar is the guillotine! If death is the best we can expect, this world is a storm indeed...
To my friend, I do not know to whom exactly I address this letter. Have pity, for neither do I know who writes it. It is a tragedy when a country must be at war with itself, one nation split apart by disloyalty and betrayal. How much more so when a single man is at war with his own soul!
One man drinks wine and is moved to quickly draw against the king. Another drinks liquor, and can think only to raise a weapon against his own self. One man has no love for women. Another will be caught up by them, moved to ridiculous lengths by their petty actions. One man takes care to live alone and save his mother grief. Another curses his father for falling victim to slanderous knaves, leaving his family to disappointment. One man rejoices in the memory of love, in the traces of a body who would circle him. Another is only jealous for what shall not be again, and wishes he had loved in spirit alone. One man rushes to completion, breaks through new ground and leaves the old fools behind. Another is still a reckless child.
And both must solve the same problems, both turn into each other after some more turning about. I can only hope that all of my best and worst are bound up together. But perhaps things are not so fair—perhaps there is room in reality only for the man who is the worst of me, and all the rest is merely imaginary...
When the pain in his head clears, Évariste reads the letter over again and remembers he still does not know where to send it. Impetuously, he scribbles Nicolas LeBlanc, and sends it off.
Can it be only a year since the barricades and rooftops of July? I know we spent much of it apart, but I am no less grateful for the moments I have shared with you.
Warm but quiet here, though I suppose it is much the same for you. Work is the same as usual—at once a blessing to try and help patients, one by one, and tiresome to think that it shall all be much the same tomorrow. Still, I shall not take the opportunity to work for granted.
Otherwise little is new. There has not been much room for anything in terms of different societies rising or falling. Nor would I write you if there was—mail can be intercepted. Perhaps there are undergrounds even we know nothing of.
Have faith! Things will work out, in time...
How quickly one adjusts to circumstances, for better and worse! For me it is almost a relief to be back among the regular prisoners again.
To explain. The twenty-seventh we were invited to a mass, in honor of those killed last year. I accepted, which was perhaps another of my mistakes. And yet nothing came of it, despite our political diversities. But, as you know—alas, better than I—the revolution took longer than a single day. Two days later, as we were going to bed, someone shot into the open room and knocked out a fellow prisoner. Mercifully, he lived, but were we to take this as some coincidence? When the authorities around us have such power? It seemed to be aimed at us, I protested, and for my cool analysis was removed from the group of “us” entirely.
How I escaped solitary confinement, I am not sure. I did not believe I had made a favorable impression on my colleagues, after they mocked me into drinking liquor and...that unfortunate night, and yet they rose up in spite of their imprisonment! Until the troops showed up to surround them—at which point I was brought out of the center of this trap and back into the rooms with the others. Louder and warmer and more distracting if I am trying to compute, to be sure, but not unwelcome...
What a relief to hear you are well. You see, you still have true friends, even within prison! Though I cannot be numbered among them, never fear, I work to make change in my own way.
Even if you did not enjoy the mass, it is at least a reminder that all our dead are united in the same country, never mind what colors they wore. The principles which encompass us know no boundaries...
That's as may be, but I prefer to work with abstractions that do not contain particles or mass anyway.
For better and for worse, I do get practice singing by night—every evening, the same patriotic songs. If nothing else, the love of my fatherland remains sacred. Though since my confinement the guards are less tolerant of children hanging around and joining us, so there is no one to reassure us that they will enter the artillery to avenge us someday...
Do not worry—compared to many of us you are still young, after all. Once you are free you shall continue the work of the revolutions that have come before, completing the spaces we left last year and building on the matters already there...
Good news at last! Ernest is acquitted of his drawings, they shall surely move on to our actual accusations quickly now.
I wish I could celebrate more for him, but despite this he remains gloomy. Not even the Marseillaise rouses him, sung as it is by only us prisoners. I tell him I shall be quiet, so perhaps he can have a well-sung version, and I get no reply. This ambivalence perhaps scares me even more...
Congratulations! You see, not all victories come through the shot of a gun.
Even here there are no guarantees that friends will remain satisfied. There are many political factions, not all of whom get along, here as well as within jail—to say nothing of unexplained gunshots and rash liquors. Yet, we persevere, and eventually they all do come around, jailed or no...
The prosecution is willing to take yet more risks; they have appealed Ernest's decision. I cannot pity them their folly, but at least more work for the court means they will do less harm to those in their way. The negative side, of course, is that they are no sooner to letting us out for the actions that brought us here in the first place...
Not much in the way of news. I have been sent to buy some strange drugs which the doctors believe will be beneficial to our patients. Certain of my friends, who are not familiar with the jargon, tease me and ask whether they are just code words for secretive individuals I am supposed to meet with. So I tell them that if they were, I would not want to risk the health of my contacts by bringing them to a hospital to meet all the sick people. Unless I am a double agent who just wants them to fall victim to the miasma!
As you know, I am not a double agent, and therefore nothing in this letter will be much use to anyone reading it. I wish good fortune to Ernest, and all your friends...
The fortune has been delivered successfully! The appeal was rejected. Many thanks.
Ernest still too glum to write, I can only hope he has other friends to send mail to. François-Vincent, however, sends his regards and asks whether you use camphor. Apparently it has worked on some of the patients here? I must admit, if I am stuck here much longer perhaps even the other sciences will hold my attention long enough to listen to him. Until then, perhaps he'll write you his own letter...
I am not familiar, no. I asked one of my fellow students of medicine, and he is also unfamiliar with the notion. Perhaps we shall ask around, although we are hardly at liberty to carry out our own experiments at the moment...
Do what you will. I confess I have little taste for properly-run experiments—too much in the way of control. At least here we are equals of sorts. François-Vincent volunteers to diagnose us, we accept, and he tries to cure us all.
But the axioms I reason from do not need any sort of experimentation, here or outside. I have been trying to distract myself with some deductions, but it's slow going.
I still wait for word from Poisson, but there's no sense in you forwarding my mail, I don't even know where he'd write back to me now. My mother's house? I am not even sure if she is well. My apartment from June? Prison, since I'm here now? Prison, since I was there in June? My position changes a bit too rapidly for comfort, and yet, it is just as bad if I remain in place...
Yes, I suppose this is one of the reasons I did not continue in school for the sciences. In whatever I do, it is right to be humble—to concede when we do not know things with surety. But it is not, conversely, humble to be right. It would make no sense to conclude at the end of a reasoned argument that one has a duty to cure the sick, and then sit back and wait for other data to suggest that perhaps my understanding is incomplete and what one really ought to do is let them suffer. It is a bit presumptuous of me to skip over all the preliminaries and go directly to work, but this is how I operate.
I have seen your sister, I believe she is trying to mail something to you separately, that you may read it in your own privacy...
All is hopeless.
The sentencing for Ernest first: three months. He was issued a uniform by the law of the state (to say nothing of by right, another matter entirely), our other friends wore it, he knows the law well and disputes it. To no avail.
He will not speak of the justice of the ruling, or much of anything. Perhaps his spirit has been broken. In which case, why bother with the expense of locking him up? If his republican dreams have been killed, they might as well turn him loose.
As for myself? The court knows I have been compliant, I did not resist arrest, nor did I even decorate the cells for the prisoners who will follow after me. If or when I ever get out of here. But having heard of my previous crime, they sentence me to six months. Added beyond the days I have already passed here—a cruel extension of this punishment.
Even then, perhaps I could have endured the nights of captivity by shrouding myself in the night of ignorance. If I did not know what awaited me on the outside, that hope might sustain me. But this news confirms the worst. Poisson has failed to understand. One reader dead, another dead to truth!
So much for them. Tyrants of the state kill their enemies directly, but titans in the sciences trust rather to neglect. If the death of Abel meant nothing to them, I should expect no higher standards.
I miss even August and its potential. Then at least I had my convictions of being set free. It's all well and good to appeal, but in the meantime...well, I also miss Auguste, but perhaps I shall write to him with what remains of my notes. I suspect it cannot possibly reach any smaller an audience.
Three days past I was a youth of nineteen. Today I am a man of twenty. I would have hoped for more continuity, but it cannot be helped—if there is no one else to trust, I shall hone the edges of these results all the more...
Where to begin? I don't know if I can possibly arrange my thoughts into any sort of order, but I'll try.
Pardon me for missing your birthday. No excuses, celebrations of this magnitude are deservedly far between. Under the circumstances I hope you could find some aspect of the day that was to your pleasure. In lieu of any belated sentiment I should instead note that, to me, you'll always be a young prodigy. These differences remain constant, after all.
Please, if there is anything I can do, send me your notes. I can try to point out which sections might benefit from expansion. I confess that much of my inattention during those algebra classes was due to you accidentally distracting me. If these letters are all I have of you, I think I can manage to focus long enough to make sense of it all, and if even I can, then certainly publishers can as well.
There is nothing wrong with seeking freedom—indeed if you had not been disappointed in the verdict I would fear much more had gone wrong! Hold fast to your simple indignation, and the sentence will play itself out. Yes, your friend is another matter, of course he will react differently, but the worst is over now—there's no more uncertainty, he can begin counting down till his release.
As for the scientific pests, try not to overestimate them. I'd have to revisit Genesis but if memory serves, the blood of Abel has been on the hands of one's slower brothers for quite some time...
This building is a prodigy as buildings go, young and full of potential that takes many shapes. In our case, Ernest's doodle. Though I suppose you'd be dazzled just as well by the whiteness of the blank wall.
I hope you will not mind if I concentrate first on sending copies to Auguste. In your position, I'm afraid, I would be half-tempted to hold onto the manuscripts too long, if they were all I had of yours. I know you are more sensible than me, you would serve progress. But I am in no mood to be slowly corrected by anyone, least of all you. An enemy will be happy to poke holes in your argument and make it clear what they're doing. A fool, or a friend, will hesitate, claim they do not understand, and distract you until you've forgotten what you were doing. Auguste first.
But if I have the time, of course I will write duplicates to you, once I've sent along everything that needs to be published. I should think I'll hardly be lacking for spare time, here.
My original point stands. I don't believe our generation's Abel was lured to his death by being directly invited out into the field. If he was, he was dimmer than I thought! And I doubt that. Even if he's restricted himself to some special cases, there are some remarkable subtleties in his work. A more general formulation should be able to bind it all together...
I understand, or at least I understand more readily than I would your work. No loss there!
In case these are being read: there are worse things I could have of yours than this, or at least, more incriminating ones. It would do me no good to rotate into prison just as you were being released, though if we could have timed ourselves to serve concurrent sentences, it would perhaps have been invigorating. Still, that's my opportunity to regret, not yours...
Happy birthday! I wish you many happy years and decades to come. Not necessarily returns of the date, because everyone wanting to celebrate with you can estimate the date to considerable accuracy anyway. Unlike the rest of us, who get stuck with the dregs of the saints' name-days—and that's in the best-case scenario where the name gets used on time instead of being saved in wait a couple years for the next child.
You see, I find things to take relative pride in, even here. Don't worry for me. If I come out of this looking grown, perhaps it will bring the respected elders to take me seriously, which my youth has not managed.
I hope your Christmas was pleasant. Give my love to Mother, if you see her, and all the best to Benoît. And some free advice from me; if you're trying to have children any time soon, name them after Father or perhaps Alfred, anyone in the family would suit better than an uninteresting saint...
I have had the pleasure of looking over a copy of your work at last! Auguste kindly volunteered to explain the general theory, but I suspect he has better uses of his time. Perhaps when you are free, if you are not too busy, you can explain more of it to me.
Otherwise things continue on here. I've just sat through several hours of grievances, most having to do with whose roommate has caught cold and who's having to take care of them. So far I am fortunate to have escaped, though that has not prevented several of the better cooks I know from babying me preemptively...
Don't work yourself sick! At least for your patients' sake. Your friends may show some vestiges of intelligence, diagnosing you with a cold.
At the rate things have been going, I hardly think I'll lack for opportunities to explain the details to you. Oh, I'll find a job, don't worry about that—or perhaps the publication will at last catch the right eyes—but at least at first, I should have enough of time.
Ernest is gone. Whether he wants to return to law school, I am not sure, but I fear he no longer wants to study the law so much as follow it. Between the two of us he has seen that a blank record yields leniency (despite whatever he could think of getting up to in jail itself!) but an accumulated history does not. So if he gives up our hopes and falls in line to avoid any longer jail stints, the turnkeys could have hardly had a better exemplar of why they do give out those short sentences. Perhaps if I had not been arrested before, we could have endured this like comrades, and he would not have been so quick to fall away...
Now, now. Claim credit for your original insights, by all means, but there are so many established officials who would dearly love to dissuade would-be revolutionaries. I won't have you taking responsibility for whatever your friend decides to do with his allegiances when we can chalk it up to those irritants who've made it their mission to change his mind. Save your bragging for where it's properly deserved. I shouldn't have to tell you what to think of everyone else.
Well, maybe I should. I suspect he still considers you a friend, and wants a safer, more prosperous world for you to thrive in as well—and so do many people in the government, whether they agree with you on how to build it or not. Don't give up on them if you don't want to, but don't worry about him too long either if it'll only disappoint you. You know what's best...
Ah, sometimes I don't deserve you. Equivalently, you don't deserve me, this is a symmetric relation after all. If you've been carrying on with others in my absence, I cannot resent you. (Only, do me the favor of not mentioning it!) What of Pescheux? If you forgive his particle, he's as dashing a brother-in-arms as you could ask for. And attractive, too.
No, he and I would never have worked out—he's a bit too frilly for my tastes—but you certainly have odd standards. And no, this is not a preemptive bid for forgiveness on my part, there's been precious little in the way of potential lovers in here. Well, most of the others didn't expect any, so they can't be disappointed. But all the same...
Nonsense. Unless you mean to say that I am insufficiently daring enough to earn the pleasure of your company, in which case I can only agree with you—you see, you should be careful to specify your terms, when negating these sorts of statements. But since I doubt you meant that, worry not.
So, if we're being specific; I've been fully faithful. How could I not, with your letters beside me? I can revisit them at any hour of the day, I can take my time to try and come up with something clever for you, and I know that you're not making some perilous voyage or caught up in a distant war, which taken together is none too bad, as relationships go. I still miss you, of course, but it won't be too long now...
Combeferre isn't throwing himself any deeper into his work, but as winter slowly gives way to spring, he finds himself becoming more and more absorbed by his medical duties. The work itself becomes engrossing, repetitive, and it takes less and less to lull him into a pattern. Maybe he's treating more patients than before, but how can that be when there are still so many frail bodies gathered outside? By the time he gets off work, he's exhausted, the preceding hours a blur, and as he rushes home, he gathers his clothing tighter about himself so as to not catch cold.
Day in, day out, they gather. Some are sent home with downcast expressions, trying to leave no tracks of their disease in the filth around them. Others are kept inside the hospital—it's safer there, for them and for everyone else. Combeferre himself remains healthy, and doesn't even worry that the illness might be infecting his friends—the ever-stirring meetings of the Friends of the ABC are a welcome contrast from the futile hours at the hospital.
And that's why, despite him being in the eye of the storm, he's just about the last to realize the scope of the epidemic. Of course his routine has become more of the same; everyone's suffering from the same disease. So his movements are practiced, pat, and he carries them out without thinking. There's still no understanding—what's spreading it? Or who? And why? It's only the particulars of the situation that can sink in; here, in his hospital, and now, in the spring. It's all he can do to stay put, while the sick shuffle through from every direction.
But the illness spreads all throughout Paris, infecting the mighty and the powerless alike. Generals fall prey to its forces; the poor stagger under another burden.
And some young prisoners, hardly immune, are preemptively moved to a hospital.
Évariste tries not to get his hopes up. If someone's visiting it'll only be Nathalie or Alfred, come with bad news about their mother, or maybe one of his comrades come to strategize and unintentionally make him feel guilty about not being able to help. Or it'll be someone coming to visit someone else entirely. The hospital's a big place, with lots of people, both ill and merely confined. He shouldn't get excited.
His intuition is somewhat accurate. The visitor is for someone else. But it's not really for one of the residents. No, Stephanie, the doctor's daughter, has earned herself a suitor. A young man, a law student, perhaps flighty but on the whole—
“Évariste? You're—are you well?”
“Perfectly, merely stuck inside this nursing home.” He spreads his arms wide. “You see, they've made an old man out of me.”
“But you're not sick?”
“No, things carry on much the same.”
“A student? Hardly, I do my own work. Slow going, but as I say, just as fruitful in here or out. How are you?”
“I'm not sure what's come over me. All I know is that I'm in love.”
Évariste sizes up Stephanie from a distance, quietly. “You seem to have chosen well!”
“It was hardly a free choice.”
“Ah, you underestimate freedom. Again.”
Ernest's eyes tense, but at a questioning look from Stephanie he laughs it off. “Oh, never mind that. Walk around with us, it's good for the health.”
“Do we know that for sure?” Stephanie interrupts. “Father says it's unclear.”
“Don't worry,” says Évariste, “a walk will do me good. Particularly one in your company.”
“Why!” Stephanie clings to Ernest's arm.
Évariste raises a hand, tucking his book under his other arm. “Pardon me. Both of your companies. You'll do Ernest good.”
And that much is true. Ernest already seems calmer, less agitated, then when Évariste saw him last. Though, since when Évariste saw him last was when they were both in prison, it's not much of a comparison.
He doesn't expect to run into Stephanie after that, at least not until Ernest comes by to visit again. As long as he stays healthy, there's no reason her father will need to come by and treat him—and the doctor's more than overworked, given the deteriorating conditions in and out of the hospital. Stephanie's mother spends these days in the company of her good friend Faultrier, instead; a onetime officer, he owns the building, and can always be counted on to be around. So Stephanie looks for a friend of her own with whom to pass the time.
At first, Évariste just thinks he's there to fill in for Ernest—to hold down his place until he cycles around again. But then their conversations change, from him sharing memories of Ernest joining in the merriment of toasts, to him skirting around the conversation of how they grew apart, to him talking politics, venting about the monarchy as Stephanie curiously looks on. Even if she doesn't make much conversation, she's anything but a captive audience, and she listens still.
When Ernest finally visits again, Stephanie tentatively mentions the drawbacks of the July Ordinances. Ernest steps back in shock.
“I did not put her up to it!” says Évariste. “I mean, I might have brought it up to her, but I thought it was between us.”
“I thought it was interesting,” Stephanie protests.
At Ernest's nervous glance, Évariste says, “Here, look at me, interrupting the two of you while you should be—I don't know what. Go on, go enjoy yourselves somewhere else.”
“Are you feeling well?”
“Fine. But I have letters to write. Come on, now, don't be shy.”
Stephanie snorts, but Ernest blushes, and their arms are draped around each other's shoulders before Évariste sneaks off to write to Combeferre again.
A few days later, her father is preemptively making the rounds, but he looks so haggard that it doesn't take much for Évariste to send him on his way. Just a confident rundown of all the symptoms he doesn't display.
And then Stephanie emerges, as if she'd been following him. “I'm sorry about that.”
“Perhaps it was too much to expect, that men and women could be friends?”
Évariste snorts. “I'm not much of a man.”
“Don't be silly. I'm not much of a woman, going on about politics.”
“You're brilliant. It's Ernest's fault if he doesn't appreciate that.”
“Why should he? It's like the fairy tale; no one wants a clever princess.”
“Only in fairy tales are kings good and princes given magic powers. Ernest needs to come back to the real world.”
“Ah, not so quickly. You have to bestow your gift of wit on me.”
“What does that make me, the ugly tufted prince? Please, go on and wed someone else, don't waste your magic on me.”
“I'd never dream of it, you're handsome enough already.”
Évariste shakes his head. “Maybe you are really that unintelligent, if you think so.”
“Well, I like you. So you're handsome to me.”
“No princesses for you, no monarchs. You're as clever and as wise as a...a tribune's mother. Yes, that's right, you'll have a bundle of brilliant children, teach them language and rhetoric. Ernest can teach them law.”
“And you must come over and teach them mathematics.”
“Well.” He nods at the hospital walls. “Let's not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Laws can—perhaps should—be changed. Languages go out of fashion. Write your books now, and they'll still be true when I have children of my own.”
Évariste smiles. “You're right. Of course. Thank you.”
And he does write, sending another letter or two to Auguste, and then writing one he doesn't send. Even when he was shooting his mouth off to the principal or the newspapers, he never hesitated, he'd never been afraid. Now, though, he doesn't know whether it will be a waste of time to mail a letter if he'll go free the next day, and he can take it himself. But what if the move to the hospital has thrown off the police's count, again? Whatever fraction of his term he's spent there, he hopes they'll be rational about it and let him go, but he can't know that for sure.
He hangs onto the letter, just in case. And the next morning, he finds that they're turning him loose.
When Combeferre finds Évariste, for a while they don't speak, their words dried up by the months of letters. Instead, Combeferre just holds him quietly.
“Go on, then,” Évariste finally says, voice empty and trying not to shiver any further, because he's pretty sure if he stays any longer Combeferre's just going to guess that he doesn't have anywhere else to go and make him move in. “I'm sure you have republicans to rile up.”
“I can support republicans right here.”
“Oh, you think I'm not sufficiently energized as it is?”
“I never said that—”
“I've been stuck in a jail for the last nine months, I'm plenty hungry for action.”
“Are you hungry for real food, however? I've missed your cooking.”
Évariste squeezes Combeferre back. “Cooking can wait.”
“Mm. The problem with democracy is how it breaks down with only two voters.”
“Go poll your friends, then, ask their opinion.”
“Tomorrow. One of my good friends has been meeting with some polytechnic students, would you like to catch up with them?”
“Later, I suppose. I'll have to see whether my own group of sympathizers has been busy.”
“I suspect they have. But people drift in and out all the time, be careful where you speak.”
“All right,” says Évariste. He doesn't mean it very seriously—for the moment, Combeferre is there, and he can trust him. He's had months worth of planning ahead and dreaming of any sort of future, so it's a nice change of pace just to think of one night at a time.
When he does make it to a meeting of the Friends of the People, everything's a blur. No ceremony, not even patriotic songs, but just a whirl of directions and connections traced out. It seems a waste. They're growing under the surface, one member at a time—but why bother with smooth growth, when all you're waiting for is a rupture anyway? For some great discontinuity with the past.
It's not like everyone's moved on without him, and that the conversation just sails above his head. Quite the contrary. Plenty of other people have been in and out of jail, and plenty more are newcomers, so there's lots of catching up. But maybe the society is too large as it stands, and the real work is being done by smaller offshoots that preserve the important duties of their organization?
“They don't trust me,” he says.
“Of course they do,” says Combeferre. “They're just busy.”
“No, I don't think so. Before things were more close-knit, we were all able to come and go the same ways. Now—it's not the same, the center's scattered apart.”
“François-Vincent went to prison, nobody thinks less of him.”
“So did Ernest,” says Évariste, “and he never really came back. Without him, everything breaks down.”
“There will be new factions, there already are.”
Évariste nods. “And he seems happy, the last time I saw him—I just don't know.”
“It'll be all right,” says Combeferre, but Évariste can feel his trust wearing thin.
Yet life goes on. Évariste meets a ridiculous royalist who thinks he's God's gift to poetry, and mocks him accordingly. “He can't be that bad,” Combeferre protests.
“He can,” says Évariste. “Well, in fairness, I haven't tried his poetry. The prose was enough.”
“It's a big country. There's lots of people out there who care about a man ringing some bells.”
“England's a big country. Why not write a book about men ringing some bells in England?”
“It's got more bells.”
“No accounting for taste.”
“I once read that the bells in England were too heavy and slow to ring proper music on. But you can play them in patterns, right? Everyone tolls their own bell once, then it goes around again, in a different order.” He tries to remember how he explained things to Stephanie—when there's no chance of explaining what anything's useful for, and all you can capture is the way the patterns suddenly come across. “So you take turns, every time the bells show up in a different order. If you just swap with the person next to you, then the next time, you swap back, you only get two different arrangements. But if you let things get more complicated, you can play your own bell more and more quickly each time, work your way from the end of the row to the start. And then turn around and go back.”
“There's only so many bells, if you go long enough you'll still run out of ways to play them. Then you'll have to cycle back to the beginning.”
“Yes. Yes!” There's no time for regretting how useless a teacher he'd turned out to be—in the moment, the thrill of breaking through is worth whatever failures came before. “That's algebra.”
For being revolutionary, and all for change, they still have each other, and for those brief spring days it seems like their relationship is fixed. So when a breakup distorts the world and all the connections they've made, Évariste is in shock.
But it's not his romance that's ending. It's Ernest's.
It's dizzying to walk free, to retrace his steps back to the same place he'd stayed for so long, and to know he can leave at his leisure. Well, perhaps he can be detained—Faultrier tries to drown him in small talk, doesn't he have class to be getting to, is he a law student? No? That was that nice young man from before? But, while somewhat infuriated, Évariste manages to escape even him.
Stephanie's been crying, and trying not to show it. “It's all right,” says Évariste, “if he makes you cry, that's his fault, not yours.”
“Too many sick people...” she shakes her head. “What good are my sorrows?”
“It can't be easy, with your father not around for you...” Évariste forces a smile. “Trust me.”
“I should have seen through him. Ernest.” She snorts. “Looking back, now, he was so fearful...”
“He's always been like that. In politics too. Extremely passionate when he wants to be, but fickle in the end. Maybe I can talk sense into him.”
“There's no need.”
“You might be right. You probably deserve someone more faithful, anyway.”
She sniffles, glancing up at him. “Oh?”
“No! I mean, yes, but I cannot—I'm sorry.”
“Don't trouble yourself.”
“I can't—I'll go talk to him. It's the least I can do.”
“Please, don't worry about me,” she stammers. But what else is there to do? He couldn't turn Ernest back to the republicans, there in prison, couldn't be Stephanie's lover, couldn't even write a manuscript to come to the attention of enough people...
“Are you all right?” Stephanie's mother asks as Évariste leaves.
“Frankly, no. I'm concerned about Stephanie, and I miss my friend, even if it's natural to grow apart.”
“That's understandable. It's nice of you, to try and be friendly, but don't overwhelm her—it's a rough time.”
“I'm trying my best. If she writes to me, I think I owe it to her, to be there for her.”
“Good for you,” she smiles. “But you can't be too careful. Don't want things to become—complicated.”
Galois snorts. “We're not interested in each other, like that. If there were any way for her and Ernest to patch things up, believe me, I'd be all for it.”
She hesitates. “There may yet be hope. Don't count it out.”
The meetings of the Friends of the People grow ever more heated. Évariste has to keep introducing himself, which would be wonderful if it was just because of the gathering crowds. Instead it's another round of “oh, you're the one who stole Ernest's girlfriend!”
“How do you know Ernest?” he acts, because if his old friend is among the republicans again then the whole sorry episode might almost have been worth it.
But they don't, it's just gossip, and people don't know him enough to trust his word over even some unknown quantity. Pescheux tries to help, joking about how Évariste is no more likely to steal anyone's girlfriend than Pescheux himself is. But people who don't know him either misunderstand, and there's another embarrassing round of explanations.
Just as often, Évariste finds it easier to be a go-between, joining Combeferre and his friends or making his way among the other societies. It's his turn to see where they intersect, and imagine what they might be once they're joined together.
But it also means that anybody could be a spy, trying to root out one society or the next, and he has to be that much more vigilant to make sure people don't trace out the connections among them. The well-dressed gentleman, matching his pace on the opposite side of the street, looks too familiar for comfort, and when he doesn't stop following him, Évariste decides he might as well fend him off before he can learn to recognize too many other associates.
The man seems to recognize Évariste as he approaches, and when he calls out his name, Évariste flinches—but there's no way to fight back. Then he does a double-take, realizing where he's seen him before. “Faultrier?”
“Good afternoon! What are you up to?”
“Oh...I was just trying to meet with...Ernest,” says Évariste. “There've been some rumors going around I'd just as soon put a stop to.”
Faultrier laughs. “He's worried about you too.”
“You're still in touch?”
“He's been looking for some business advice.”
“Has he, now?” Évariste sighs.
“Well, yes. But I'm sure he'd like to talk things over with you.”
Évariste wonders if only Ernest would have the bravado to take business advice from Stephanie's family friend, as if he'd changed his mind one day and decided he could win her back. Probably it wouldn't last a week. But, in that case, all the more reason to take the chance while he has it. “Yes, of course.”
Faultrier nods, giving him a time and place to meet. At Évariste's glance, he adds, “Stephanie is like family to me. Of course I want to protect her good name.”
“Afternoon.” Ernest nods warily.
“Afternoon,” says Évariste.
“Galois, here,” says Faultrier, “was concerned, he was hoping to meet with you to, ah, clear up any misunderstandings...”
“There was a lot I didn't understand,” says Évariste. “Before. Now, I do.”
“Understand what?” asks Ernest.
“For one, how you could be stupid enough to believe Stephanie would take you back.”
“You think you can just walk back whenever you want, when you get sick of whatever you move on to, and she'll let you in with open arms, is that it? Like you expect of the republicans.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You care what they think of me, and of you. Or you wouldn't bother to spread a bunch of lies!”
“I've never spread any lies.”
“Who else would have an excuse to start them? Or do you think it's true? That I'd have any interest in her?”
“For all you know, she might be in love with you.”
“I know she isn't, she's written to me.”
“She's written to you?” Faultrier asks. “Forgive me, but you don't seem to be bolstering your case.”
“I don't have a case, I have the truth. I don't—whatever someone as inconstant as you thinks of me, I don't care. But she deserves better.”
“If she's nothing to you,” Ernest asks, “why are we having this conversation?”
“Excellent question.” But where else is he going to be? Not the academy. Not jail. Combeferre...but even he, with his silently-growing arsenal, would have reacted if he'd been followed. “Maybe because she doesn't have anyone else to stand up for her, her family, her friends, all have better things to do.”
“Stand up for her? What are you going to do?”
“For honor? When it's the name of Galois being dragged through the mud, with your lies? I'll fight, I'll do whatever I need to do.”
“You'll fight me?” Ernest laughs.
“Only if it comes to that. We were friends, once, I have no particular desire to hurt you.”
“You can't have it both ways.” Ernest turns to Faultrier. “I can duel, well enough anyway. Do you happen to have any pistols? I would ask Galois, here, but I'd assume he knows better than to smuggle any weapons away.”
Évariste tenses as Faultrier says, offhandedly, “Two, yes. If you need me to arbitrate, I can make sure that one is empty, to prevent any needless injury.” He turns to Évariste. “For the sake of your old friendship.”
Which would be the perfect way to ensure Évariste was unarmed, if he'd been conspiring with Ernest. Or had Évariste inadvertently given him the idea?
“Perfectly satisfactory to me,” says Ernest, and he almost seems too composed to not be in on it. But there's no way to be sure. “If Galois agrees.”
He remembers the Bourbons, and knows he will never turn into them. He's not going to be an unwitting sacrifice.
Beyond them, an enormous city with countless interconnections. Students and principals. Writers and lawyers. Doctors and patients. Brothers and sisters. Combeferre and Stephanie. The question is this; eliminate one radical element, and will it make any difference to the rest of them? Are they all related, enough, that his life can swing the balance?
It doesn't always work. He knows, better then anyone, it can't always be done.
But sometimes, it's enough.
“So be it.”
Once, he wrote to fill up time, those hours in the prison that little else could occupy, save doing new work. Now, he writes hastily, trying to draw out the night. No sense trying to think ahead, he'll only regret anything he can't fit down into the remaining pages.
He tells himself he'll write to Stephanie, to explain things or apologize, maybe after he writes to Auguste? Or to some of his other friends? Or the republicans? Or...
No, better it's a clean break. There was nothing she could have done. And if, for whatever reason, he survives, he can explain things later—but even then, it's an absurd hypothesis.
Ernest looks like he's slept, though he's still groggy. The normal student schedule would not have him awaken before dawn to make his way to the secluded pond. But he's dressed and presentable.
Évariste isn't sure how he looks—perhaps overly tired, numb from not having slept, but the nervous energy has sustained him. But nobody's in the mood to comment, and really, there's nothing left to say at all.
Faultrier makes a show of turning the pistols over and over in his hands, behind his back, but it would be easy enough for him to keep track of which one is where, if he knew where he wanted them to wind up. Ernest takes first pick. Évariste doesn't protest.
They count off paces, steps squared, and then they turn. That's the moment when time begins to fill up again, instead of rushing past. Because it's still Ernest there, who'd once stood by his side in love and prison, and Évariste knows, even if somehow he's gotten the loaded gun, he won't be able to do it. And if he can't shoot now, even for his life, what good would he ever have been in a revolution? Or, no, nobody would try to conspire against him if they didn't think he was a danger, they believed in him, even if his friends were misguided by lies...
But then Ernest's shot, the bullet strikes him in the stomach, and all doubts vanish.
Ernest flinches, then turns and runs. Faultrier calls something after him, but then follows in a hustle.
Évariste's head hurts. Perhaps it's only been a moment since he fell, or perhaps it knocked him out for a couple of hours. It doesn't matter. They're gone. Wincing, he finds he can ignore the pain long enough to try and stand. But he meets no success, and the sky is still spread out above him, limitless.
What he doesn't expect—well, there's a lot of things he doesn't expect, fluke imaginaries that have no chance of becoming real. But among the many things he doesn't expect is the thing that happens. Someone—nobody of importance, nobody he knows, someone who wanted to go for a nature walk, maybe, finds him.
“Are you all right?”
People really are stupid. “I've been better.”
“Do you need a doctor?”
“A priest, then?”
He thinks it over. “I can get help. There's an officer nearby, a reputable man. He'll help you.”
Évariste groans, and it's not just because of the pain in his stomach. “That won't be necessary.”
Maybe he looks like he's lost his wits, because the peasant sprints off, his concern evident even from behind. And sure enough, it isn't long before he returns, accompanied by Faultrier.
“You forgot your pistol,” Évariste says, as Faultrier raises his eyebrows, then joins the passerby to lift Évariste and carry him forward. “Although this one might not have done you much good, on balance.”
Faultrier stoops to pick it up anyway, and for a moment Évariste lurches sideways, but then they're moving on.
They don't go to the nursing home, but proceed north, into a chilly hospital. Évariste can't tell whether there are actually sick people there, but it wouldn't surprise him; the poor go on vomiting up what little food remains to them. And he doesn't want to be seen like that, insides splayed out, like some half-completed experiment...
He sleeps, or doesn't, time looping around him in that inconsistent way. When he wakes, or looks again, another dawn has passed. Someone's holding him, and he's too tired to turn away. It's not catching, at least...
“Évariste?” The voice is trembling, about to break. “The murderers! I never trusted them...”
“Ssh. Alfred?” It's his little brother, still so little—as young as he'd been, when he'd been trapped in the École normale. When he met Combeferre. And Alfred can't be childish about this now; otherwise he'd have been a child too, and looking back, he can't find a moment when he really grew old. Better to have it done with, not to be the prodigy who wasted his chance.
He thinks Alfred understands. But he's not certain. Sight is a blur, the pain another, and the only thing he can feel is the warmth of his brother's arms. Then that, too, fades.
By funereal standards it's all right. If one ignores the ignominious common grave. And the police officials sprinkled throughout the crowd, attempting to impose an order on the complex structure. Okay, maybe funereal standards aren't that high.
Nobody's getting arrested at the cemetery itself, although Combeferre isn't sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing—by the light of day, maybe there's a chance that people would respond. Better then than the arrests the previous night, with the Friends of the People not going deep enough underground to evade detection. Dozens are accosted, suspected, and it's all he can do to stay free one more day. The Friends of the ABC help, keeping him out of the way when he's still too numb to protest.
But by the day of the funeral itself, he can take in enough to know that, uprising or no, people are there. There must be thousands—the law school republicans, some of Combeferre's acquaintances from the medical school, even the old artillery is back. “I don't even know who they are,” Combeferre nods at another crowd, “did you actually recruit the polytechniciens?”
“Myself? Not this time,” Courfeyrac admits. “Doesn't mean they don't have friends who got arrested and decided to tag along.”
“He'd be—he's—I don't know. Proud. To know he had so many friends...”
“Proud. But maybe not surprised?”
Combeferre sighs. “Yes. I think on some level, he must have known all along—even in prison, people didn't even know him, but he was still their little scholar.”
“There's a difference between knowing something, and making yourself believe it.”
So he watches the crowd, waits for some kind of sign. Then there's a youth loping in; a gamin, maybe, or one of the “kids” from around the jail. Combeferre halts as an officer walks up to the kid, seems to ask if everything is all right, but eventually the newcomer is able to pass through the crowd, and if there are a couple more whispers among the republicans, to accompany the speechmaking, nobody stirs.
Then Enjolras makes his way over to Combeferre and Courfeyrac, his face all business. “Lamarque died last night. Be ready; we strike Tuesday.” He regards Combeferre for a moment. “I'm sorry.”
And that's when Combeferre breaks down. His friends shield him so the gathered crowd cannot see him, racked by mourning, and so he can not see them, their multitudes amounting to nothing.
Throughout the streets the procession curves and bends, the friends and relations of General Lamarque, but far more than them—a crowd ready to take off in every direction, shooting off into the infinite, not quite bounded by the government guards. Lafayette is there, and so are the polytechniciens cutting classes, but so too are working people, and women who watch from the rooftops. Nobody's positive how this disease really works, what killed Lamarque and the thousands of less distinguished Parisians, but by the end of the night, there'll be a lot more to confuse them.
So, Combefere thinks, Enjolras was right. They'll mourn a general, who schemed and planned how to kill with greater efficiency, more than even a man who got locked out of the fight. He isn't sure what to feel.
They begin to build up before they tear anything down, each piece of furniture an extension of the last, until a barricade takes shape among them. Combeferre, somehow, has acquired a national guard gun and a pair of pistols. But there's no need for them, not yet. Not even when the prodigious gamin pesters everyone about weaponry. They'll wait.
Enjolras tells them to sleep, but they're used to disobedience, and stay awake while he disappears into the city. And by dawn, Combeferre is already counting him among the dead.
When Enjolras returns, it's to put an end to the flickering hopes among them. Or try to. He meets, not for the last time, with little success—the insurgents are ready to stay, have put their hopes in something greater.
So he pulls Combeferre aside. Below them lie the empty guard uniforms, and Combeferre smiles in spite of himself. They will not serve as symbols of defiance again, but they need not be something to be defied. They can be a passage to safety.
“If,” says Enjolras, “I knew how to convince them.”
Combeferre looks down at the uniforms again. “There are fathers. Remind them that they have—a duty to their families. The injustice of the king is all too unfair, we know that, but it is all the more unjust to break under the strain, to make a pointless end of yourself. What would their children come to, then?” He tries not to imagine the answer, not to wonder how many more useless rebellions will follow this one. They have the chance to make some change, even now.
Enjolras nods, but still looks unconvinced. Small wonder; he must be exhausted from circling the city without reward.
So it's Combeferre's turn to reach out, putting a calming hand on his shoulder. “Enjolras. Let me.”
“Why?” Enjolras reaches down, gathering the uniforms into his arms.
“Because I'm your friend, and I can help you.” Combeferre picks up the stray accessories, smiling again. “And because if I speak to them, they won't ask why I stay behind.”
The heat of the battle grows with the morning, and the assault begins again. The bullets do not stay fixed, but recoil and cycle around, killing more of the insurgents. For a moment, Combeferre can still admire the abstractions of the weapons in flight, at the junction of theory and practice, but a new emotion takes its place when Enjolras attempts to return fire.
He's aiming at a young artillery-man, young, well educated, and nothing Combeferre can do will change his mind. He shoots the captain in the chest, and one brother kills another, the same story it's been since Cain slew Abel. Time passes, and progress seems impossibly far-won.
Nevertheless, they make their stand.
Combeferre reaches into his pocket, pulls out a well-creased letter, and reads it again.
...I would have written more, but I do not have the time.
My consolation is that I know you will understand. That I have chosen to write instead to those who can perhaps evaluate the importance of my work. Even if you do not quite follow whether it is true, there's no fear—that's my responsibility, after all. But you always appreciated it, and me, so I already know you will not be disappointed, and I thank you for that.
By the time you read this, I hope the revolution will be close at hand, though I am sorry to have missed it. Know that our correspondence has been one of the great joys of my life. My love is yours, always...
The bells sound noon.
The barricade falls, leaving in its wake spilled wine and splintered wood. Letters are discarded in what amounts to a funeral pyre for a spark that never caught.
But five men live.
And so do the women they go home to defend, and the women of Paris who prosper yet. Adélaïde will marry again—she will outlive two husbands, two sons, two republics, two empires, and several kings. Alfred will raise a daughter into the future, and so will Nathalie, and so will her daughter. And their families will interweave, a family tree full of mothers and daughters and all sorts of connecting lines, names shuffled through and cousins joining together.
And one day, Stephanie will meet a language professor, who will love her voice and heart, and they will speak to each other until their union has no need of letters.
And truth will grow from truth, slowly but surely. Someday, they will build a country greater than they have known. They will walk in broader fields.