I. Dramatis Personae
Once the café was sufficiently empty, Marion Grantaire let the sneer he'd been suppressing the whole of the evening creep across and transform his mismatched features into a rather remarkable sort of gargoyle's grimace. He sighed and relaxed out of the stiff posture of projected 'presence' he assumed always for meetings; his boots graced the table and a wine bottle made the loving companion of his palm and lips. More satisfying than any mistress, more solace than the sacred confessional, hereby the leader of Les Amis de L'ABC absolved himself of the cumulative sins he perpetrated this and all nights, before the worried eyes of his chief lieutenant, René Combeferre. In the bottle and in the steady, concerned gaze of his partner, Grantaire found some small comfort that was not quite shattered by the anticipation and the other's inevitable speech. Not, mind you, the bottle, though that would have been remarkable indeed - no, a far more predictable query from the far more predictable source.
"So, what is it?" asked Combeferre.
Grantaire sighed expansively, his smile ironic. "I think you know."
"What else? That boy is a menace. He will get the lot of us killed, or worse."
"He's an idealist."
"My point exactly, and what is worse, is that he thinks that I am so as well! Thank the gods for you, René, that you are not fooled by my theatre."
The words were meant as a compliment and a mollification, Combeferre knew, but he found that he felt neither complimented nor mollified. He spoke slowly and quietly, so that Grantaire almost did not hear him over the roar of liquor in his ears. "Many of the friends that we have gathered to us over time are also idealists. Enjolras is not the only one who believes in the things that you say. I do."
"But you- and they- know that I do not."
"That is false."
"You think this of me?" Grantaire raised an eyebrow, to Combeferre's irritation.
"Marion! I know better. I mean to say that your words do inspire minds other than that of the young Enjolras."
"Pfft! They believe in a grotesque. And it does not matter anyway- they expect nothing of me but that I mollify them with my pretty speeches, night after night. They are the quintessential bourgeois sons, and our little coven is the theatre of the subversive- a witches' sabbat where they can dream of their rich fathers' heads rolling under the righteous blade as might have happened in '89. The black magic spell is woven in lofty words and grand vagaries: Rights of the People, Rights of Man, Social Contract, French Revolution, Republic, Democracy, Humanity, Civilisation, Progress- all these things mean so very much nothing, but they can light a bonfire in these boys' souls and create for them the catharsis of the greek tragedies- they pay for little more than a glass of wine or a baguette, and they go home feeling better. What has that to do with me? They call me Capitaine Grandeur but my name is Punch, and you are my Judy, so of course you know the play. I forgive you. What fault is it of mine if some of the patrons have tricked themselves into believing that there is Meaning behind the great Absurdist Production? Remarkable, isn't it? I have always found this deception amusing. But Enjolras... he is not amusing. He is dangerous. He would have what Les Amis are content to hear about. He is madness incarnate- do you see him, during the meetings, when I am speaking? There is a fire in his eyes and a light in his face that is both alarming and compelling. I find myself frightened to my core, René, for, while I seduce through beautiful words with billowing ephemeral dreams behind them - this boy will open his mouth, speak two words with all the strength of his conviction behind them, and men will nod their heads. They will raise arms! He will turn my little shadow-play into a macabre - a tragedy, a Titus Andronicus; and we'll all lose our heads; shriven on the same blade that took Louis St Just and Louis Capet. I don't like it."
Combeferre sighed, and tried again. "Do you not think... Marion, listen to me. It is true; Enjolras has passion; he is a man of conviction. He believes with all his soul in the imminent advent of the Republic, and the People's Revolution, and he believes, however much you do not, that you are the prophet -"
"Hah!" snorted Grantaire, taking a deep gulp.
"- that you are the prophet of the enlightened era. You have spoken like such a man for years now. You speak with such passion that I know at times you fool yourself."
"You do. I've watched your face when all of a sudden, you realize the truth of what you are saying and it takes you by complete surprise. Because you do speak the truth, Marion. Why do you think that I have always supported you, even knowing what you profess to believe? Or not believe, rather. I know better, but I know better." He crossed his arms, looking Grantaire dead in the eye.
The latter stared back almost soberly, then burst into a soft chuckle. "Pardieu, my love, I almost believe you."
Combeferre, half in irritation, snatched the bottle from him and swallowed enormously. Grantaire watched, impressed, as Combeferre wiped his mouth off and thunked the bottle upon the table. His hand remained absently on its delicate curve.
Grantaire sighed too, compelled somehow to explain further. "You don't understand how much he bothers me, René. It is not just that he foolishly places his faith in me. Pardieu, did you hear what he called me the other day?"
Combeferre closed his eyes and recited, "A visionary and a Shepherd, our Capitaine Grand-R is the Moses who will part the red sea of Tyranny on the one side and Terror on the other, to deliver the people safe and happy to the freedom that is their God-given right."
Grantaire bit his tongue so as not to scoff at particulars. Each word pricked him and made him snigger. Faith, the boy had been listening too much to him, that he had learned to emulate Grantaire's own style of meandering, flighty speech. Dangerous. He gritted his teeth and said, "This is ridiculous. You know it and I know it - but it makes me nervous. His wide-eyed, fresh-faced faith mocks me; the unblinking purity of his misguided purpose holds a distorting mirror up to my beautiful lie. He makes my lie ugly and dangerous. I almost falter beneath his gaze. But I cannot! I see him watching me and I am almost driven to fervency; I used to play to the mindless crowd, the faces of bright and stupid sheep. They can believe me all they wish, but pardieu, René, Adrien Enjolras is not stupid, nor is he a sheep. I used to play to the shills, but now I find myself more and more playing to him."
"I've noticed." said Combeferre, almost voicelessly.
Grantaire's face lit up. "Are you jealous?"
Combeferre shook his head, and suppressed a smile, not wishing to lighten the mood.
"No. I can't say that I blame you. He's beautiful, isn't he?"
"He is." Combeferre did not protest as Grantaire reclaimed the bottle and resumed speech in a soft, almost tender tone, "It is frightening. I wish to seize him by that gorgeous golden hair and shake him, to make him see that I speak in tongues, in castles, in madness and illusion, that the dreams I carve of the air are no more substantial than those that pour from a bottle of absinthe, and are far less pleasant. But I cannot, and I am also afraid of him discovering this lie. In those moments you spoke of, I find myself giving pause, and I wish- for moments only!- to be this man that he believes me to be. But that is impossible. I have no truck with faith. I cannot. I simply cannot. And I know that one day, the rest of the Amis will come to me expecting Capitaine Grandeur, the war god of this gilded youth's vainglorious dreams, and they will find only Marion Grantaire: charlatan, drunkard, imp of the perverse. What will happen when this bright shade looming over me with his hopeful, expectant, maddening eyes looks into my guilty ones and learns the farce that my truth has made of his Truth? Pardieu, we will both break: he will shatter with disillusioning, and I will die of a broken heart. It is a conundrum, a grotesque, an actor's nightmare. And you know what they do to the bad actors? They send them to the place á greves." His sneer returned, and he finished the bottle with a grunt. "You have brought my measuring glass?"
"Of course." Combeferre produced the apparatus from his black bag, the attache of a medical student, while a bottle of Absinthe appeared on the table between them. Combeferre waited while the liquid louched to a pale, fascinating green, before speaking again. "You don't know that. I know you, and I know you, and I retain faith. All you need is to listen to that voice that comes out of your mouth as you stand on your soapbox- oh, by god, listen to your words! You touch the people, and can further, if you allow Enjolras to drive you, and I will reach them. It doesn't have to be a dream, Marion."
The glass paused halfway to Grantaire's lips. The darkness within him manifested in his eyes and bored holes in his lieutenant. "What do you mean to say?"
"I mean," said Combeferre steadily, ignoring the formal vous that Grantire had used to goad him, "that it will happen. I know that you cannot move, so I have done it for you." Combeferre produced a pamphlet from his back pocket.
The words on the cover were familiar to Grantaire: a slogan of some pith, that he himself had uttered the week previous, meaningless and clever. He shuddered in horror. "You don't mean to show these to people?"
"I already have. Enjolras and Courfeyrac are distributing them tonight."
All traces of good humor and tolerance hit the table with the glass of absinthe. "What in the name of Satan's grandsire have you done! Do you wish to see me balanced on the point of a bayonet, frog-marched up the steps to the scaffold? Or rather, accompany me? For with this sheet you've signed the death warrant of us all- of you, and I, and him."
"It is printed anonymously, Grantaire."
"It will be easy enough to trace. Par diable..." He turned away angrily, then barked, "Combeferre?"
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Leave." He tried to retain some of his force and fury, but the expression on Combeferre's face and his innate, paradoxical gentleness made that impossible. "Please?"
Combeferre sighed. "All right. Try to get home sometime tonight, hien? Goodnight, Marion."
"Goodnight, René." He waited until Combeferre had left before raising the glass to his lips. The scent of anise elicited some small tendril of delight in him even as it dulled the sharp edge of his troubling thoughts.
"It is all right. It doesn't matter anyway. What harm is one little scribble? René should have known better. I shall have to forgive him, shant I? He's really dear, he is. He means well." Sip by loving sip, the liquor granted him further distance and an obscurity like a thick lense of green glass. Grantaire felt giddily content as lack of concern and the reassurance of alchohol melted subsequently into a veneer of dreamless, drunken sleep.