“Barrot?” Enjolras sniffed. “He’s a monarchist who gives lip service to the good of the people while still clinging to the king’s coattails.”
Combeferre frowned in that slightly-disappointed fashion that generally meant that he was about to ask Enjolras to ‘be reasonable.’ “He’s far more our friend than our enemy.”
When Enjolras merely sneered at this, he added, “Even you must admit that he would be improvement over Perier,” referring to the minister who had sent Marshal Soult and the army into Lyon to suppress the silk weavers’ revolts all the while pretending that it wasn’t a legitimate expression of workers’ grievances caused by economic distress but instead some kind of imaginary plot to restore Charles X to the throne. “Small reforms are better than no reforms.”
“No,” their newest member put in, “small reforms are politicians’ way of keeping the mob pacified by pretending to listen to them while truly preserving the status quo.”
“Precisely.” Enjolras stabbed a finger triumphantly in Maximilian’s direction. “You see, Combeferre? Our new comrade agrees with me.”
Maxime Vilette - he had adopted the name Maximilian in honor of Robespierre - had begun attending their meetings roughly a month before. Already a committed republican, he had been forced to seek out new compatriots after the club he had previously belonged to, associated with the Société des Amis du Peuple, had broken apart upon Raspail and Blanqui’s arrests. He was a young man of about twenty-five, slightly taller than Enjolras, with blond good looks and an amiable manner. Properly named Maxime de Vilette, he was the eldest son of a noble family and technically entitled to the title of comte, but he chose not to use it, even going so far as to drop the participle from his name, as Courfeyrac did.
“Of course he does,” Combeferre said. “Only total dismantling of our current system will do for our Monsieur Vilette.”
Maximilian took the remark as an excuse to expound upon the benefits of socialism, which, as a good Blanquist, he was as firm a believer in as Combeferre was in the virtues of universal education. “It will never be possible under our citizen king,” he went on, saying the words ‘citizen king’ with a sneer Enjolras felt entirely in charity with. “The only answer is a coup d’etate by those few of us who are prepared to resist. Then power can be handed over to the people.”
Enjolras frowned, sitting forward in his chair. Maximilian’s heart was in the right place, but, “There I must disagree. The people as a whole need to rise up in support of the revolution or it won’t work. The people are the republic, they must be involved. It’s already happening,” he added. “They’ve risen in Lyon, and the national guard sided with the people and joined them, for all that Perier and the army put a stop to it.”
“It must happen soon.” Feuilly put in. “The spirit of revolution is spreading across Europe. Belgium has rebelled against their tyrannical ruler and Poland is trying to throw off the chains of Russia, for all that our France refuses to help them.”
Maximilian shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that,” he told Feuilly in a friendly tone. “France cannot afford to court the enmity of Russia, and doing so would only worsen her prospects for change. Even helping Belgium got us more of Perier in power; we would have done better to leave them to it.”
Enjolras couldn’t think how to answer that; responding to Belgium’s call for aid had been the only right and moral course of action, but it had, as Maximilian said, also provided an excuse to keep Perier in power.
Feuilly would likely have responded hotly, but Maximilian cut him off.
“I know you’ve studied the matter as much as you can, but you underestimate its complexity, as I said. France must look to her own interests first.”
He’d made no friend there, Enjolras thought, as Feuilly stomped off to join Grantaire and Bahorel at one of the Musian’s other tables, where the two of them appeared to be building some kind of structure out of glasses and wine bottles. Everyone knew how Feully felt about his mother’s homeland.
Of course, Maximilian was new, he reminded himself. And not everyone understood that the fight for liberty was universal; their newest member was too focused on France’s need to look any further, and France’s need grew more obvious by the day.
“I wouldn’t question Feuilly’s knowledge of Poland,” Combeferre said mildly. “He’s made a special study of it.”
Feuilly flopped gracelessly down in the chair beside Bahorel, swaying sideways out of range with the skill of long practice when the other man attempted to elbow him in the ribs.
Bahorel made some remark that prompted a burst of laughter from Grantaire, and for a moment, mirth transformed Grantaire’s face so that he looked almost like another man, someone bright and charming and unexpectedly appealing.
It was slightly disconcerting, and Enjolras hurriedly looked away before Grantaire could catch him staring and make mock of him.
“I’m sure he has studied hard,” Maximilian was saying. “But we were speaking of Barrot…”
When he got no response, he poked Grantaire with the stem of his pipe, frowning. “Are you listening to me?”
Grantaire leaned his head back against the wall, eyes closed, and blew out a long stream of sweet-scented opium smoke. “You must find another audience for your lyrics,” he said, after some little time had passed. “There’s no use speaking of romance and melancholy to one who’s already grown sick of them.”
“Make a mock of me, then,” he shrugged. “Only tell me what you think. I wish to capture the passion of love and the despair it engenders, and the seeking of the soul for an object of devotion even if it be yet a symbol.”
Grantaire snorted, nearly choking himself for a moment on the smoke. “A lot of stuff,” he sneered, when he had his breath back. “But I should not be surprised. I know what you romantics are like. To be Chateaubriand, or nothing!”
“One can be a royalist and still write brilliant novels,” Jehan pointed out mildly. It was difficult to be annoyed by anything after half a pipe of opium, even Grantaire’s best attempts to be obnoxious.
“Don’t let our noble leader catch you saying that,” Grantaire returned.
“Enjolras is many things, but he is not a literary critic.” He wasn’t even sure if Enjolras read poetry or novels, having never seen him with anything other than Republican newspapers or Buonarroti’s history of the Conspiracy of Equals. Thinking about it, Jehan couldn’t even say what the other man had come to university to study; whatever it was, he had set it aside to study Revolution instead.
Grantaire shook his head. “Men like him do not admire art, they inspire it. Did Cleisthenes write poetry, or Epaminondas any plays?” He gestured with the pipe, sending smoke trailing through the air. “No, his works of art were Leuctra and Mantinea.”
Jehan patted out the spark that had drifted down to singe a tiny pinprick in his bedclothes, and tugged the pipe from Grantaire’s grasp. The other man rambled on, about art and revolution and the impermanence of both, and possibly about the way sunlight gleamed on Enjolras’s hair; he had stopped really listening sometime around the description of the classical purity of the brushstrokes in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (“There is art that reflects reality for you. Lust and brutality in the foreground and decadence in the background. And he’s called a genius for some mawkish tribute to a revolution that changed nothing.”).
Jehan drew on the nearly-exhausted pipe again and then set it aside on the wash stand that was his bedroom’s only other piece of furniture. He closed his eyes for a moment, his head spinning pleasantly, and then opened them to find Grantaire listing sideways, still talking.
Jehan tugged him down to lie with his head in his lap, so that they were sprawled on the mattress together, no longer in any danger of falling off. For a few minutes, or possibly longer, he lay there, Grantaire’s head a heavy weight on his stomach and his voice a distant background noise, and contemplated the stanza form of his ode. Ought it to be irregular? Or perhaps not an ode at all, but something more classical, or rather, lessclassical, one of the medieval forms.
Sometimes the most difficult thing about poetry was not keeping to form, but choosing one.
Grantaire’s hair was thick and curly, almost wiry, and sprang back into shape after being flattened. It was curiously hypnotic.
Grantaire broke-off midway through a remark about which café in the Latin Quarter served the best coffee, with some tenuous connection to the slave trade and none at all to art, and blinked up at him. “What are you doing?”
“Your hair is all funny,” Jehan informed him. “It won’t do what it’s supposed to.”
“It matches the rest of me,” Grantaire said, with what might have been false gravity, and might have been real. “What was I talking about?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and since it was the best way of making Grantaire stop talking, leaned down and kissed him.
“Oh,” Grantaire said, when he pulled back. “Are we doing that?”
A few lazy caresses were all Jehan could summon the energy for. The opium had filled him with a pleasant lassitude, making it seem unimportant that Grantaire wasn’t the imagined delicate-but-remote female object of his romantic fantasies, and robbing the desire that his warm weight in Jehan’s lap was nevertheless stirring of any real urgency.
They never spoke of these encounters afterwards, or even really acknowledged what was happening while they were occurring. It wasn’t a true communion of body and spirit as a man would have with his mistress, but it was… comfortable. Friendly. And with nothing at stake but a few moments of half-drowsy pleasure, he didn’t even blush.
When, after relaxing sleepily into Jehan’s arms, Grantaire sighed something that sounded a lot like Enjolras’s name, he discretely pretended not to have heard.
He had been as ardent a believer in equality and the universal rights of man as any, once, but then he had grown up and looked around himself and realized that as nice as those ideals – as any ideals – sounded, they were unattainable in real life, crumbling and tarnishing under the weight of reality. Men acted in their own self-interest, unless they were saints or fools.
His friends were very likely both, and their naïve idealism was doomed. If their efforts on behalf of republicanism ever accomplished anything, it would only be to get them arrested and tried as insurrectionists.
He drained the rest of his glass and was pouring himself another when he caught sight of Maximilian Vilette still sitting at one of the tables across the room, absorbed in a stack of notes.
“Vilette, my friend,” he called out, before he could reflect on it and consider that the other man might perhaps wish to be left alone to read or study, “come and have a drink with me. I have a full bottle and no one to share it with.”
Maximilian looked over at him with his eyebrows raised, seeming surprised to be thus addressed. Then he smiled, folded up his papers and stuck them inside his coat, and came over to take a seat beside Grantaire.
“Ah, that’s more like it.” Grantaire poured him a glass and held it out, careful not to let any of the wine slop over the edge. “You seem so serious-minded a fellow that I thought you would refuse.”
Maximilian accepted the glass and lifted it in a toast before taking a sip. “Oh, I would never refuse such a generous offer.”
Half a bottle later, he had unbent sufficiently to begin discussing politics and literature (he showed the good sense to agree that Julian Sorel was an idiot and that Jehan’s beloved Sorrows of Young Werther was sentimental tripe) and his own experiences with Paris, which city he, unlike most of the young students in the Latin Quarter, had lived in nearly all his life.
Maximilian was proving not quite as good a drinking companion as Bahorel, who could always be counted upon to start an entertaining fight, nor the ever-cheerful Bossuet and Joly, but better than Feuilly, who had to keep sober workingman’s hours, and better by a long shot than Enjolras, whom Grantaire had never seen drunk and probably never would. He wouldn’t lower himself that way, would likely see it as base and beneath him and a waste of time.
What was it about Enjolras that made the most ludicrous sentiments sound like divine wisdom when coming from his lips?
He ought to resent him for making him want to believe them, but he couldn’t even do that, so firmly ensnared was he. Every once in a while, when Enjolras was truly fired up with conviction as he ranted about yet another injustice or talked about the Republic he believed in the way some men believed in god, Grantaire found himself just as caught up by his enthusiasm as the rest of them.
It only lasted for a moment, and then he would come to his senses again and feel even more hollow and disgusted with the world than before, but to feel something that strongly again, something that wasn’t self-disgust or loneliness or boredom, was more addictive than opium or wine, and Grantaire had never had any self-control.
“Everyone comes to Paris full of bright hopes and expectations,” he said, as roundabout answer to Maximilian’s latest comment. “I myself was going to be a great artist, and spite my father with my success.”
Maximilian smiled a little. “My own father hasn’t received me at home since I stopped styling myself the Vicomte de Villete. He’d probably cut me off without a penny, if he did not fear it would make him look a petty skinflint to his neighbors.”
“And so you get all the satisfaction of a break with your family and three hundred years of aristocratic privilege, without the pain of feeling it in your pocketbook. Let us hope your father continues to value the public appearance of being a doting pater familias over his royalist principles.” He wasn’t sure himself if he meant that to be sincere or critical. Preserving some slim hope of reconciliation with his parents likely meant more to Maximilian than he let on; the total loss of all familial ties left a man cut-off and adrift, defendant entirely upon the generosity of friends to satisfy the need for companionship.
Who knew that better than he did, the jester and hanger-on of a group of men who, if they ever stopped to think about it, would realize how little he had in common with them?
He poured himself another glass and took a long swallow, washing the bitterness out of his mouth before he had time to taste it.
“Let us hope,” Maximilian echoed. Was he irritated with him? He seemed as if he might be. People generally were when Grantaire started talking.
“I talk too much,” he said, by way of both explanation and excuse. “You needn’t take it to heart; no one else does. They have all learned better by now that to mark anything I say after the second bottle.”
Mostly that was a blessing, because Grantaire said a great many things that he didn’t actually mean. Once he got going, either drinking or talking, it was generally impossible to stop himself; the words just spilled out until someone told him to stop. If it stung a little to be told to quiet himself, it was also the only way to make him cease being a nuisance to others.
He found himself explaining as much to Maximilian, and then confessing his greatest worry about his friends – not that they would finally see him for what he was, because that was inevitable, but that they would finally see the world around them for what it was and their own efforts to improve it for the exercise in futility that they were. His dread of seeing the reality of failure crush Courfeyrac’s almost kitten-like enthusiasm, turn Combeferre with his endless faith in the potential of humanity into a cynic like himself when he finally was disappointed once too often, of seeing Enjolras’s fire burn out – and Maximilian nodded sympathetically and poured him another glass, and another.
Grantaire mostly lost track of the rest of the evening after that.
The first thing that registered when he awoke was the headache. It was worse than usual, pounding intensely enough to make him feel nauseous.
He closed his eyes and lay still, willing himself not to be sick. He was in his own lodgings, the cramped, single room he rented from a middle-aged landlord thankfully tolerant of late payment, which was generally a positive sign. He’d woken in worse places.
Most of the previous evening was a blank. He remembered drinking with Maximilian, and then stumbling home through the streets, while he tries to string together words in the correct order to tell the other man where he lived. He had no clear memory of reaching home, though obviously he had, but he vaguely recalled someone, presumably Maximilian, pulling his boots off.
Nice of him, Grantaire thought. It would have been even nicer if he’d paused to smother Grantaire with his pillow before leaving and spared him the necessity of waking up at all, but one couldn’t have everything.
Why was the water pitcher on the other side of the room? Usually he remembered to leave it by the bed so it would be near to hand when he woke up.
No, he’d broken it last week by tripping over it and had to buy a new one, which he’d carefully placed atop the washstand where he couldn’t fall over it when getting in and out of bed. Stupid of him. Drinking so much that he made himself ill was also stupid, and he told himself, once again, that he would remember to stop before he reached that point next time.
The sheets were twisted around him, damp with sweat even though the room was cold. Grantaire made a face and levered himself up, swallowing hard as the room swayed around him and his stomach lurched. Moving intensified the pain in his head.
The chamber pot was still under the bed where it belonged, which saved him from having to be sick on the floor.
He sagged back to the mattress afterward, feeling only slightly better for emptying his stomach, and belatedly realized that he was naked.
He didn’t usually manage to take his clothes off before succumbing to the twin influences of alcohol and Morpheus. No wonder he was cold.
He pulled the clammy sheets back up over his shoulders and told himself that he would get up and get some water to wash the taste out of his mouth in a minute.
When he woke up again, the angle of sunlight coming in through the window declared silently that it was afternoon, and his mouth was so dry that the thirst was even worse than the lingering headache.
It wasn’t until he was standing naked next to the wash basin, after he’d used the chamber pot – for its intended purpose this time – and finally gotten the drink of water he’d promised himself that he noticed the fresh, red bruises on his neck and the inside of his thigh.