Since his arrival in Paris in the Spring of 1824, Enjolras had picked up many good habits, and only a few bad ones.
For as long as he could remember, his father had cast a distrustful eye on the city. He had been a student at the Sorbonne himself once, but that was before it had been suppressed by the Revolution. While the conjugation of Latin verbs and the expansion of algebraic equations had changed little since M. Enjolras' time, he harbored a deep suspicion that nothing else was the same.
Enjolras the younger harbored a suspicion still more terrible: perhaps his father was right.
The temptations of the city were great for even the most impoverished of workingmen and the most unsophisticated of peasants, but for a young student of some means, they were endless. M. Enjolras had feared – perhaps not without cause - that his son would be seduced into vice or, worse still, laziness.
At sixteen, Enjolras had been a pensive boy, given to violent moods. He dreamed a little, and thought a lot, delighting more in the process of reasoning than in the reaching of any particular conclusion. When the subject of morality was broached, he would sigh, wearied by rights and wrongs, concerned only with how a situation could have arisen where such a judgment might need to passed.
People called him apathetic when they were being polite, amoral when they were not. They said he had the makings of a libertine in him. On none of these accounts were they entirely incorrect.
His father had waited two years before sending Enjolras to Paris, to see if the problem would clear up with age; had he held off much longer, the damage might have become permanent. But by the end of his first month in the city, something that had long lain dormant in Enjolras' breast had begun to stir.
Being new to Paris, friendless, burdened with free time, and not yet acquainted with the maze of alleys and unmarked doors, Enjolras walked the Champs Elysees like a tourist. Though sometimes, he found it hard to look straight ahead when he did. No matter how far he walked, the boulevard was eternally before him, pointed like an arrow at the horizon. Stretched so long that the horizon curved and the earth dropped away before it.
That point where horizon and road met seemed somehow wrong to him. It repelled, like a limb twisted by a badly broken bone.
And yet Enjolras returned. Every afternoon he went, so that his shadow would drag behind him or rise to meet him, depending on which way he turned. He felt that he, too, was becoming straight. That he was, not receding into the distance, but unwinding like ribbon from a spool.
He was learning, with time, that he, too, had a final destination. But that he, too, had much to examine along the way.
He wrote a letter home every week, and he hid nothing. If M. Enjolras was flustered by his son's politics, he never let on. He was far more concerned whether or not Enjolras was attending his anatomy lectures, and if he had yet squandered his allowance.
Some of Enjolras' most passionate polemics appeared in the letters he sent home to his father. They were a whirl of radical ideas, fierce denunciations, and skilled rhetoric. He was answered with inquiries into how his winter clothes were holding up and requests to procure a copy of The Last of the Mohicans as soon as he found it available.
Had it been anyone else, Enjolras would have spent days in what felt like an icy rage but looked like a sulky pout. But he loved his father dearly, and so he forgave him his flaws.
He even bought him a copy of the damned Mohican book, though surely he would have perished of shame if any of his comrades from the University ever saw him with such rubbish.
When he fell in with the labor movement and the Socialist salons, he became eloquent for the first time. He learned to talk to almost anyone about almost anything, and, when he couldn't talk, to close his mouth and nod convincingly. He channeled his natural thoughtfulness toward the subjects of greatest importance. Between classes, organizing, recruitment, studying, culture, and dreams, he had no time for apathy.
He eschewed drinking, gambling, and dandyism - though he grudgingly saw the crude appeal of them - only women held not the slightest interest for him. This troubled him sometimes and puzzled him often. Surely there was some innate flaw common to all women, invisible to the conscious mind but unable to fool the subconscious. Something viscerally repulsive.
Many times, Enjolras had vowed to investigate the matter and at last come to some definite conclusion, but something else always interrupted him before he could make much progress.
Paris had instilled but one bad habit in him, and that was a love of the night. For a long time, he had always gone to bed early, sometimes nodding off at his desk over a book before he even knew sleep was coming. When that happened, the book bled over into his slumber, and he dreamed himself as the subject of whatever it was he had read about: a cathedral, a battle, an insect, a letter, a rivalry.
This had not bothered him before, but now he found it deeply disturbing. He would start awake from such dreams drenched in a cold sweat, with a deep sense of foreboding.
And so Enjolras no longer read before retiring to bed.
Instead, he would walk after dinner. To stroll the streets of Paris during the day was a respectable pastime, but he knew that if he did that he was bound to see only one type of person and he was more a promenader than a pedestrian. It was only in the evenings, when the factories closed and the theaters opened, that you could see the city for what it really was.
He rarely walked the Champs Elysees these days; he was more interested in the twists and sidestreets and cul-de-sacs. The capillaries of the city. Branches of branches of branches.
And if he was ever worried that the labyrinth of the inner city, charming and enigmatic in daylight, became dangerous when the sun went down, he never let on. He considered it more hazardous to his health by half that he did not sleep until later and later, and yet his responsibilities continued to compound and he still rose at the same early hour each day.
"Insomnia is a symptom of a tumor on the brain," Joly informed him one day.
"I don't have a tumor."
"Or a lesion…"
"I'm sure I don't have a brain lesion, either."
Joly's eyes narrowed, and he looked him over with the gaze of a compulsive gambler. "Have you counted the number of breaths you take in a minute while asleep?"
"How am I supposed to count while I'm asleep?"
"You don't do the counting yourself. You get someone to sit with you while you fall asleep and then count for you."
"I don't doubt I'd sleep poorly with someone watching me like that. I'd be nervous."
He could not help but notice that Joly had edged away from him slightly, as if whatever he had was contagious. "Parasites in the intestines," he said shrewdly, "Can disrupt sleep patterns, too."
"Don't mind him," said Bossuet, who had been listening intently. "Joly's just jealous. Insomnia is one affliction he hasn't tried yet."
While Enjolras appreciated the support, he was not bothered much. Joly tried to warn him that sleeping so little at the beginning of life could shave a decade off the end, but that seemed a small loss. It wasn't that he wanted to die, but he didn't want to live to be obsolete, either.
More than that, he didn't want to give up the night.
Paris seemed to exist under a different sky than his home in the South had. In the country, you felt free; in the city, you could see the bars of your cage with undeniable clarity. Between the streetlights and the pollution, there were almost no stars and the moon sometimes looked sickly and gray. But Enjolras was no sentimentalist, no contemplator of moonlight on black water or the arc of Orion.
He found constellations on earth instead. For there were streets where the fading light framed a tenement building just right, and made it look like a fortress locked down before a siege. Places where the shadows fell on the spires of Pont Neuf and made them seem, when taken at a glance, like heads mounted on pikes.
It had snowed for three days straight, and on the fourth day the sun had peeped out hesitantly and melted the drifts to gray slush. But when the sun set it turned the dirty puddles red, and they looked to him like puddles of blood around his boots.
He knew the resemblance was but a cursory one, and it withstood only the most fleeting of scrutiny.
But he was not the only one who saw it.
It had been a bad year, one of the unluckiest yet. The last had been better, for it had been in the long twilight of that summer that Montparnasse had taught himself how to kill.
His first had been an old man with sparce gray hair and a pair of loaded dice. They'd only been playing for coppers, but when Montparnasse had caught him cheating he swung at him from the shoulder and struck him, and the old man had died.
Perhaps he hadn't meant to kill him, but he had not found the coldness of the corpse repellant. He had not been frightened by its glassy eyes. If the act of murder disgusted him at all, it was only in how easy it was, in how little passion it took to commit. Montparnasse remembered that he had lingered a while beside the body, with his lips pressed tight in thought.
He had killed, for almost nothing. He had brought chaos. The old man was dead now, and so what was to stop Montparnasse from eating his flesh? From ravaging his body before the last of the warmth drained from it? Only that he lacked any real desire to do either. But then, he hadn't really wanted to split the man's skull, either.
It had been so easy, he must have been a natural.
Montparnasse covered the old man with his own coat and left the scene of the crime more puzzled than ever. He did not remember to search the corpse before he left. Surely the old man wouldn't have had much, but Montparnasse hadn't even thought to get his money back.
It was the only significant career error he had ever made, and one he corrected with the next kill.
He did that one with a knife, thinking that it would be more certain than a club. It was only messier. He had not yet learned that half of being a surgeon was knowing where to make the incision, and half of the art of the slaughterhouse was knowing when to bring the axe down.
The traveler had been past middle age, but he hadn't gone easily. He had screamed. There had been a lot of blood. He had landed a blow that had made Montparnasse's head spin, and the next day his eye was swollen shut and his lip was fat and caked with blood.
But in the pocket of his coat was a purse that had not been there the night before, and in the purse there was a handful of coins.
He killed three more that summer. He got better quickly, and he didn't mind the money. He spent all that autumn putting it to good use. Montparnasse had two suits, both black. Waistcoats that cinched tight in the back, and shirts with bits of whalebone in the collars to make them stiff. He wrapped his hair in curling papers. He was pleased with himself, and he kept his boots polished like dark mirrors even though he almost never went out until after nightfall.
It was hard to say exactly when his luck had taken a turn. He was adopted by a local syndicate, who thought him a precocious talent, but they beat him when he didn't make his quota. Montparnasse was no stranger to violence, and at first he only laughed when they hit him. Then came the morning when he bent over the basin to wash his face, and one of his teeth dropped out into the water.
His heart skipped a beat.
It was one of the flat teeth from the back of his mouth, and it didn't show. But he spent a long time in front of the mirror that morning, holding his lip back with one gloved hand and inspecting the hole.
That same week, he packed his things and found a new place to live.
When he had worked for the syndicate he'd had some protection, but without them he was harried from both sides: by the police, and by the gangs that ran his new neighborhood. He became as careful as a cat and as timid as a cockroach. Like a sparrow, the slightest sound, or a flash of movement would startle him into flight.
He drank more often than he ate. Wine was good, but whiskey was better. On the days after he'd had a lot, he would not look at himself in the mirror because he knew that he would be pale and his eyes would be swollen.
If he could have had but one wish, it would have been to be beautiful, even at the moment of death.
The ache of realization had stolen into him with the coming of winter, and he felt the cold, constant presence of a destiny he could not escape. He was going to die young. He knew - he had always known – that he was not meant to live long.
He noticed things he never had before: The ambiguous fog of his breath. The sky, gray and low and oppressive. The mass graves of shriveled leaves heaped around the naked roots of trees. Montparnasse held his breath and waited for the moment the wind would catch them and sweep them into the street and beneath the wheels of a passing carriage.
It always sounded like bones breaking.
It seemed to him that when he was a child he'd had many friends, but that almost none of them came around anymore. It seemed that once he had known many tricks, but now he could only remember a few.
That winter it snowed early, and before it stopped Montparnasse had begun to cough.
He couldn't bring himself to eat, and he almost never slept. He kept awake in the dark and listened to the wind. His joints ached, and sometimes he trembled uncontrollably.
He didn't think about it much. When he needed a distraction, he matched patterns in his mind. Half-remembered cuts and colors he had seen in store windows as he passed.
He liked blue. It brought out his eyes.
What worried him more than the cough was the way his coats had begun to grow thin at the seams, the way the cuffs of his shirt had begun to unravel. His hair no longer curled; it was straight and lank from the cold sweats that gripped him. Though his boots were still polished, they had started to split from their soles.
When he couldn't put it off any longer, Montparnasse dressed at sundown and went out to hunt.
His limbs were weak, but when he patted the knife in his pocket he felt stronger. He was dizzy, but when he imagined the twang of a garroting wire pulled taut it focused him.
The sun was not yet set, but it was very low. The snow had been melting all day, and the sidewalk was slick with puddles. In the red glow of the sunset they seemed, for all the world, like pools of blood.
There were ghosts on the Rue Saint-Honore; he could see them out of the corner of his eye. If he glanced towards them, they became whirlwinds of snow lifted by a gust of wind, or the fingerprints of lamplight on windows. But he was not fooled. The faces he wanted least to remember watched him from the shadows, grinning fit to kill.
One by one, they had all become phantoms. He must have been close to them now, almost close enough to touch. He could feel sulfurous hands on his heart, squeezing, and he knew that a moment would come when one would catch him in its grip and not let go.
They were angry, perhaps, but Montparnasse did not blame them. He would have been angry too, if it had been him there.
Three times he fell in behind a solitary pedestrian, and three times he lost the trail and retreated back to the shelter of an alley or doorway. All those skeletal fingers, creeping out from around the edges of the darkness, welcomed him. They drew him, at last, into a little alcove where two walls came together, one extended further than the other, making an acute angle to the street. A grocer's striped awning had been left out carelessly, and it sagged under an accumulation of snow, but the pavement beneath it was dry. From here, he could watch the boulevard without being seen.
He sat down on the edge of a stone that jutted near the base of the wall. When he pulled his knees up, he wasn't so cold. He buried his face against them when he coughed to muffle the sound.
He had been wracked by choking fits for so long now that he almost didn't notice them anymore. When one came, he would turn his face into his sleeve until it passed, but the movement had become automatic, like the smoothing of his clothes after they were ruffled by a gust of wind, or the knotting of his hands into anxious fists when someone followed him too closely on the street.
No blood had come up, not yet at least. And he wasn't about to jump to any conclusions before he saw blood.
His thoughts were slow to coalesce, but he had a vague feeling of urgency, as if there were some important bit of business waiting for him somewhere nearby. Yet he was paralyzed, like in a dream. He was thinking of the river, and of certain bridges where the bodies always seemed to wash up. In the bad times, when bread was scarce or the nights were cold, it seemed like there was a new one every few days.
Not all of them were suicides.
When he'd been a boy, he'd learned to remember where the corpses were. The students from the lycee were almost always willing to pay him a few coins if he led them to an interesting one: a workman with his skull caved in on one side, or a girl with the bodice of her dress torn open.
It had kept him from going hungry, but as he got older it had become unviable. Most of his prospects had.
But he could remember back, further still, to when he had been a child of four or five, and a girl had jumped from the roof of the tenement he lived in. He had seen her only a minute or two after she fell, and she was not cold yet. She was on her back and her eyes were closed; her head was tilted so her cheek rested against the pavement. There hadn't been any blood, not that he could see.
She looks like she sleeping, someone had said.
But she hadn't. Not in the least.
Montparnasse thought he had long ago forgotten her face, but he remembered it now, every tense line of it. And though she was dead, she turned slowly toward him. Her neck when it moved made a sound like a seam popping.
Her lips moved. A bubble of blood formed, and then burst, splattering her cheek.
It seemed that soon she would begin to speak. Though he was but a stranger with deceitful eyes, she would confide in him all the intimate secrets of death. Between her parted lips, he could see her teeth, stained pink with blood; the bottom row was thrust out past the top by her broken jaw. Her voice was very faint. He leaned in to listen, and a shadow passed before his eyes.
On the Rue Saint-Honore, Montparnasse started awake.
He had slept like a cat, with his eyes half-open. The light from the lamp on the corner across the way hadn't bothered him; it was only when someone had passed in front of his alcove, a silhouette against the silvery glow of the streetlight, that Montparnasse had been jolted out of sleep.
He had come up without a sound, he was certain of that, but the stranger must have sensed someone near. He would be arrested now, Montparnasse thought, by the vague and unnamable dread of a man who has just stepped into a house where ghosts dwell. Though his coat was wool, very fine, buttoned to the throat; though his boots were so new they were still stiff around the toes, he might shiver a little, gripped by a sudden chill.
Montparnasse was very still: not moving, not even breathing. The cough that had nagged him continually for days did not bother him now. The stranger was very near, but Montparnasse was hidden well.
He watched the stranger turn slowly, glance back, as if he expected to see someone following immediately on his heels. Montparnasse could have leaned forward, stretched out a hand, and grazed the hem of his coat with his fingertips. If the man had thought to look down, he would have seen a pair of footprints in the last of the accumulated snow. One on the sidewalk right in front of him, another veering off to the left, disappearing into the darkness where street and wall met.
He didn't look down, and after a moment he shook himself and continued on.
A man of weaker constitution might have gone in a rush, perhaps even broken into a run, but this was no coward. He did not bundle his coat about himself more tightly, nor jerk his head nervously from side to side, nor hum to chase away his fear. He had looked, seen nothing, and trusted his senses.
Montparnasse wished he could say he felt the same confidence, but in truth he was very tired. His limbs were stiff from the cold; he felt weak and leaden, like when he drank too much in the heat of summer.
He hadn't gotten a good look at the stranger who had passed by him, but had seen enough to know that it was a young man. A student, probably. Nearly a full head taller than Montparnasse was, and broader across the shoulders, too. Strong, Montparnasse thought dismally. He probably fenced, or kept a horse at a boarding stable outside of the city. Something quaint and annoying like that.
A man who walked alone late at night, cautious but unafraid, was perhaps looking for an opportunity like this. A chance to prove his courage.
Maybe they both had been waiting.
But Montparnasse was not about to let some bourgeois vigilante revenge fantasy keep him from eating for another day. He sprang up, and his eyes darted over the street, taking everything in at a glance. There was the stranger - lean and straight – moving away now. There was Montparnasse. There was a wind that raised a little noise, enough to muffle a footstep, and a cry if he was lucky.
They were alone.
Montparnasse ducked out of his alcove. He darted across the street, risking the streetlamp for a moment. There had been a time when that would have been a moment too much, but hunger had made him reckless. If the dark was jealous, it needn't have been. Soon enough, they would have an eternity together.
He shadowed the student from the opposite side of the street, beneath the cover of the houses, overtook him before the road curved, and moved to cut him off before he reached the corner. He touched the knife in the pocket of his coat, like a young girl would touch her crucifix.
Seeing him come out from the shadows, the student had stopped, and he watched Montparnasse approach. He cocked his head, as if chasing a strange thought that had occurred to him all at once and was now trying to escape. He folded his arms, but not against the cold.
"You must have business with me," he said, and Montparnasse nearly hesitated, so unexpected was that voice in the stillness.
"Something like that," Montparnasse replied. He stood barring the student's path, one hand in his coat, curled around the hilt of his knife. He felt its power like a talisman now; felt it moving through him. Up his arm, and toward his heart.
The student regarded him calmly. He wore his hair long – perhaps a little longer than was entirely respectable – and very straight. His lips were parted slightly, in apprehension but not fear. Montparnasse could not tell whether his eyes were light or dark, only that, whatever their color, it was surely striking.
After a moment, his expression relaxed. "Citizen…" he murmured, extending a hand.
Montparnasse sprang away.
"Your watch!" he snapped. "Your watch and your purse..."
The student hesitated, his hand still outstretched, bridging half of the gap between them. "Pardon me?"
"Give them to me," Montparnasse said. The words caught in his throat, and his voice was hoarse.
The student was quiet for a moment. Gradually, his lips inverted into a frown. "I don't have much."
Montparnasse could feel the blood pulsing at his temples. His hand convulsed around the hilt of his knife, and he drew it. It flashed like a single sharp tooth in an empty mouth, and the glare went to his head. It washed over him, and before his eyes swam incandescent spots and his ears were filled with a sound like tearing cloth, like flesh being rent.
His hand was shaking, shaking uncontrollably.
He must have wavered on his feet, because the student came forward a step, holding his palms out in front of him. Montparnasse lashed out at him, felt resistance against his blade, but could not be sure if it was skin.
"Stay away!" he cried. And he began to cough.
He turned away, cupping a hand over his mouth. He had thought the fit would pass quickly, as had the ones that had come before it, but it did not. His spine contorted in anticipation of each new spasm; his ribs leapt to meet them.
The knife slipped from his fingers, but he did not hear it strike the concrete. Montparnasse brought his other hand to join the first, and he clamped them both over his mouth as he coughed. Something was shaking lose inside of him. He felt it, like a mountain might feel an outcropping of rocks poised to fall, or a snowy overhang that would avalanche as soon as the sun struck it.
The taste of copper flooded his mouth. He knew it was blood.
It came up all in a rush, and his hands were soaked. It seeped from between his fingers and stained the cuffs of his shirt.
His head began to spin. He could hear almost nothing over the ringing in his ears, and his sight was almost gone, almost swallowed up in darkness. He knew he was fainting, and he tried to rally himself. He tried to turn and run, but he only made it a single step. He felt his limbs go slack, and he was unable even to keep a chaste hand to lips.
His knees unhinged, and he pitched forward. It was the last thing he remembered.
From the instant the young thief had materialized out of the shadows until the instant he collapsed less than a minute had passed. To Enjolras, it seemed like far less time, and far more. And it was too soon to say if it was horror that had paralyzed him, or something else.
His heart was racing; he could feel his pulse in the back of his throat, hard and metallic like a small coin or a bullet. He could feel it behind his eyes. And yet, he hadn't panicked. In fact, he felt almost no fear at all. It was as if his mind stubbornly refused to comprehend what had happened.
Montparnasse lay on the pavement at his feet. Though Enjolras was brave, he was burdened with an active imagination; he was well acquainted with the way certain dark streets could turn a tree or the broken bars of a fence into the figure of a person. A man, crouched and waiting.
He had not known until tonight that the opposite might also be true. Montparnasse's black coat had fallen open over him, and his black hair covered his face. There was very little that seemed human about him: he was only a slightly darker patch against the dark pavement. One could walk right past the body without even noticing it. Had Enjolras come by this spot five minutes later, he might have even stepped over it, thinking it nothing but a bundle of rags tossed from one of the third floor windows.
But he had not. And Enjolras couldn't shake the feeling that he was here, now, for a reason. Montparnasse had not stumbled into his path; he had been flung. He was ragged and thin. A little dirty, a little fearsome. It would troublesome getting him a bed at a hospital at this time of night. Someone would have to pay for his medicines.
A lesser man would have flinched away from such responsibility, Enjolras thought. He tossed his head back haughtily without even realizing he had done it. He knew he was no such man, no pallid scholar with a head full of ideals but no execution to back them up, and he needed something more tangible than notes penciled in the margins of Voltaire and Rousseau. Here, at last, was a chance to achieve warriorhood. To bury his sword to the hilt in the practical guts of society, to spill red reality into the streets.
Resolved now, Enjolras stepped forward. He felt something shift beneath his boot, and scrape the pavement harshly. When he bent to retrieve it, he was shocked to find that it was a knife.
He picked it up by the blade, and held it pinched between two fingers. He remembered now, the swift arc the knife had made when it swung toward him. Montparnasse had been so close to him; surely you couldn't miss at that distance.
Enjolras' hand flew to his throat. His overcoat was torn across the collarbones, a ragged gash made by a blade that was no longer new, not very well cared for, but still sharp. He pushed his fingers past the frayed edges, as tentatively as he would probe the wounds of a corpse.
He felt his shirt underneath, untouched. There was no blood. The blade hadn't gone through.
The knife slipped from his fingers, clattered against the pavement almost loud enough to make him jump. Maybe he did jump, maybe just a little, but later he would tell himself that he had been steadfast.
Even now, he was assuring himself that it had been sympathy and not panic that had made him forget Montparnasse's true nature a moment ago. The boy was a thief, and a killer if the ease with which he had tried to cut Enjolras' throat was any indication. Such a creature was beneath his pity; fallen men like that did a disservice to their class, so many of whom were noble in their suffering, and grateful for charity when it came…
And besides, Enjolras thought. Besides, he had seen Montparnasse's eyes for a moment when he had lifted his head. They were yellow, like the eyes of a wolf. There was more of the animal in them then of the man.
Even the fainting spell could have easily been a trick. Perhaps shadowy figures were approaching even now, stronger of arm and wilder of eye, having waited until Enjolras was distracted by their young accomplice.
Enjolras' breath caught in his throat. He turned sharply, straining to peer into the shadows on all sides. Straining to hear a cough or a footstep that was out of place; straining to feel that slight electrical charge that sometimes betrays a presence.
The street was empty, save for the two of them. There was no one to harm him, but also no one to offer help.
Enjolras pursed his lips severely, and looked back to the body on the ground. He seemed a heavier burden now than he had a moment ago, and Enjolras' first thought was to leave the young thief where he lay. But it was not a thought he entertained for long. The glimpse he had caught of Montparnasse's eyes would not leave him. They were more beast than human, true. But they were also more child than man.
Enjolras knelt and snatched up the knife again. This time, he grasped it firmly by the hilt and was glad to have it. He had half expected it to feel as heavy as a cudgel or a mace in his hand, like some outdated and horrific instrument of ancient warfare. But the hilt was made of a light wood, and wrapped in a scrap of worn leather to give it a better grip, and the blade was thin and flexible.
Holding the weapon out in front, he crept forward a step, then two. He was close enough now to take Montparnasse by the shoulder and turn him onto his back. Had the boy moved then, or made a sound, Enjolras was quite certain he would have killed him outright. But he was very still as Enjolras slipped a hand behind his neck and lifted his head. His hat fell off and rolled into the gutter.
His hair still hung over his face. Enjolras hesitated for a moment, but then put the knife down, sliding it behind himself so it would at least be out of Montparnasse's reach. The locks he brushed aside had perhaps been curls once, Enjolras thought, but now they were like weeds.
Montparnasse was terribly still. His eyes were closed; they did not even flutter like a man who is asleep. He was very pale, except for his lips and around his eyes, stained so dark as to be almost black.
Enjolras gasped, and dropped him back to the pavement, knowing then that he was already dead.
It seemed impossible. That a boy like this, who was young, who seemed strong, could have died so easily, hardly putting up a fight at all. Only a minute ago, he had been lucid. Surely he hadn't known then that he was already a ghost drifting through the world of the living. Enjolras knew now that the boy had watched him, had stalked him, had waited for the right moment to strike. He had done it because he thought he had time.
Enjolras fell back on his knees. His dismay had not subsided, but he felt it slowly being pushed aside. Something new was dawning in his mind, something he could not yet put a word to. But he rose to meet it all the same, to embrace it, for he knew that once he understood it he would understand everything.
His eyes had not left Montparnasse's body. That was why he saw when the hollow of the boy's throat trembled a little.
Enjolras' breath caught. He watched a while, but Montparnasse did not stir again, and at last Enjolras seized his glove in his teeth and pulled it off. The cold stung his bare hand; his fingers were numb almost instantly.
Montparnasse, he noticed with a frown, had no gloves at all.
Slowly he reached out, held his hand just above the boy's lips. A gust of warm air blew against his palm; there was a little life in him still.
Enjolras kept his hand in place a moment more, until he was certain. Montparnasse's breathing was shallow, but steady. He had only swooned. Which meant, Enjolras realized, that he might awaken at any moment. He groped blindly for the knife he had laid down, found it, and immediately felt foolish for having done so. Enjolras had daydreamed through his last four medical lectures, but you didn't have to be a doctor to see that Montparnasse wasn't in any shape to hurt him.
He glanced up again, half expecting to see a crowd beginning to gather around them, or at last a carriage swinging around the corner. But the street was still empty.
Enjolras scowled, and tried to think. The closest police post was by the river. That was at least fifteen minutes if he ran the whole way, which he doubted he was in any shape to do. He might meet a coach, but it was late and this was a quiet part of town. He wouldn't be able to count on it. He could try one of the houses on the street, but all the windows were dark and if even he had recoiled at the thought of helping Montparnasse, any other would surely refuse outright.
If he ran for the police, then it would be nearly three quarters of an hour before he could bring back help. It was unthinkable, to leave the boy for that long. Even if Enjolras covered him with his coat, he would still be stretched on the cold pavement, which was rapidly icing over. And then there was always the chance that the predator could become prey for something even worse
Enjolras was suddenly, fearsomely protective. If he handed Montparnasse over to the authorities, they might be able to cure him, but afterwards only a prison cell or an executioner's scaffold would await him.
Enjolras was a disciple of justice, but the thought made his blood run cold.
In a moment, he was resolved. He slipped off his wool overcoat, laid it over Montparnasse and wrapped him up in it. He was shivering, but he didn't feel cold at all. He wondered if maybe something else was the cause.
First, he had to dispose of the knife. If he left it here, it would be noticed and that would arouse suspicion. Of late, Enjolras had found his idle political speculations becoming less and less idle. He hardly considered himself a criminal, but he knew the value of keeping a secret.
He snatched up the knife, having completely forgotten that he had once been afraid of it, and wrapped it in his handkerchief. Now there was only the question of where to hide it. A hedge seemed a safe bet, but there a gardener might uncover it. Enjolras wished suddenly, fervently, that he had bothered to glance through that Mohican novel before sending it home to his father. There wasn't much those American pulps were good for, but they bulged with harrowing situations. It might have given him an idea, at least.
At a loss, Enjolras tucked the knife into the pocket of his coat. He slipped one arm under Montparnasse's shoulders, the other under his knees. He was afraid, fleetingly, that he wouldn't be able to lift the boy, but Montparnasse was lighter than he had expected. So light that for a moment Enjolras wondered if he hadn't greatly overestimated his age. Montparnasse's head rolled against his shoulder; it seemed that his chest rose in a silent sigh, but after that he was still.
Enjolras started for home. His boardinghouse was only two streets away, and Montparnasse gave him no trouble on the way. He made the trip without having to set him down or stop to shift his weight. The windows of the house were all dark. Enjolras' neighbors were rather young, rather fashionable, but if they planned on coming home tonight, even they would be abed at this hour. That was what he was counting on, at least.
On the front walk, Enjolras lowered Montparnasse's feet to the ground and hugged him tight around the waist to keep him upright while he dug out his key. Once the door had been unlocked, he wrestled the boy inside. The foyer was dark, but rather than light the candle that was always left out for tenants coming home late, he just closed the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
He slid his other arm around Montparnasse's waist and cupped one of his hands around the back of the boy's neck, cradling his head against his shoulder. It was a great comfort to him that he could still feel the slow stirring of breath against his throat.
He was nearly confident enough to move when he heard a door on the second floor unlatch and swing open. He had only long enough to lower Montparnasse to the floor, and thrust him out of sight behind the low table that held the candle before a light appeared a the head of the big staircase, blinding him again.
"Who's there?" called a woman's voice, thick with sleep.
"It is only I, Mother Demaraise."
"M. Enjolras?" The landlady came down the stairs a few steps. He could see her silhouette, bundled up hastily in a housecoat, but her face was hidden behind a halo of light from her lamp.
Enjolras toed one of Montparnasse's feet back behind the table.
"That's right," he said. "There's no need to come down. It's very late."
"You've been out with your smart friends again, I suppose," the landlady said. "Discussing all matters of life and death, at all times of the day and night. I suppose saving the world couldn't wait until morning."
"I was at the opera," Enjolras replied, too hastily. "It was Artaxerxes."
"It must have been wonderful."
"It wasn't that great," Enjolras said vaguely, his attention elsewhere.
Mother Demaraise was quiet for a moment. Enjolras could feel her squinting down into the darkness at him. At them.
"Have you gone out without an overcoat?" she said.
Enjolras froze, certain that she could see everything taking place in her immaculate foyer. It took him a moment to realize it was only the white of his cuffs and collar, illuminated by the candlelight, that she had glimpsed.
"Don't worry so," Enjolras said airily. He was shocked at how easily the lies came now. "I was walking beneath the eves on the way back here, and a sheet of snow gave way. Half the roof's worth must have gone down my back."
"That sounds dreadful." Her voice had softened considerably, and he knew she was convinced.
"I'm just going to shake my coat out down here, and then I'll be coming up. No need to go to any trouble for me."
His heart leapt into his throat when he heard her footsteps on the stairs, descending. "Let me at least boil some water for tea…"
"No need!" Enjolras gasped, and when Mother Demaraise hesitated he ventured to add, "I'll be going right to bed."
He was very still, listening, sure that the hammering of his pulse would give him away. But at last, he heard Mother Demaraise's footsteps receding back up the stairs. A moment later, the light went out. Enjolras waited until he heard the sound of her door locked and latched once more, and then he knelt quickly to gather Montparnasse into his arms.
He had to find the boy by touch alone; he was nightblind again, but he didn't dare wait any longer for his eyes to adjust. He bundled Montparnasse up, less efficiently then before, and started for his room. He felt each step with his toe before taking it, and so it was slow going. If the boy came awake now, he thought, there would be no saving either of them.
But he did not wake, and Enjolras carried him inside. He took Montparnasse back to the little alcove that held his bed. When he laid him down, the boy did not stir. Enjolras pulled a blanket over him, and he did not utter a cry.
The adrenaline that had carried him from the boulevard was waning now, and Enjolras realized that his arms ached. He was trembling, and he felt suddenly, unbearably weary.
They were here, he thought dully. He felt nothing in particular about it. No terror, and no pride, not even grim fatalism. At some point along the way, Montparnasse had ceased to frighten him much, and Enjolras had ceased even to question his own motives in doing this.
This boy had needed him, and for now that was enough.
He reminded himself of that as he lit a candle and came back to the bedside. Montparnasse looked the same, only his expression had changed a little. His lips were still blue, but now they were drawn back a little in something like a sneer. It showed all his teeth. They were straight, and very white.
It occurred to Enjolras for the first time that, if the circumstances were different, Montparnasse might have been a pretty thing. Those yellow eyes, black curls. That mouth, downturned a little in the corners as if locked in a perpetual pout.
Enjolras had always prided himself on being able to appreciate the male form much as the Hellenes had, and so he was a little relieved that he had not noticed Montparnasse's looks until now.
He didn't want to think that his intentions had been purely aesthetic in nature.
Absently, he stroked Montparnasse's cheek with the back of his hand. The boy sighed, and his eyelashes trembled faintly, but he was still unconscious. It would be better not to wake him prematurely. Enjolras withdrew his hand.
He pulled all the blankets on the bed up to the boy's throat, smoothing the edges over him.
He had to go out again and bring back help, but he dreaded it. If Montparnasse awoke while he was gone, in a strange bed, in a strange house, he would assume the worst. Enjolras didn't know this boy at all, but he felt that he understood the sort of creature he was.
Enjolras hastened to his writing desk and tore a clean corner off one the sheets of paper. When he dipped his pen in the inkwell it first clicked dryly against the crust of ice that had formed on top, then broke through to the fresh ink underneath.
He scribbled a few lines. His handwriting was small, cramped, jittery. The last was new. Even on a bad night Enjolras could make words on any subject lofty and metaphysical leap unselfconsciously from his pen, yet he stumbled over the two sentences that composed this note. Before he was done, there were several blots of ink on the page, and several words scribbled out.
Enjolras left the note beside the bed, propping it up so Montparnasse would surely see it when he awoke.
On the way to the door, he reached automatically for the peg where his overcoat usually hung. It was not there; Montparnasse was still wearing it. There was a spare – an old coat with a frayed collar – hanging in the back of his wardrobe, but Enjolras did not think of it.
He only gathered his topcoat closed at the collar, and went out.
Enjolras had not thought he would feel nervous once he was outside again. He had not considered that it was still dark out – the smothering dark of moonless night – and that the streets were still as empty as he had ever seen them. He prepared a stern lecture for himself on the improbability of a man being robbed twice in one hour, but still he could not shake the feeling that eyes watched him from every shadow, that each gust of wind was the wings of a great bird swooping in to make him its prey.
He reasoned that, without an overcoat, he would seem like a poor man. An unlikely target. And he was so pleased with the logic that he did not stop to think that he knew nothing about the mind of a brigand, certainly not by what measure they chose their victims.
It did not assuage his fear of the dark streets, but it did at least convince him that it ought to be assuaged. This was good enough, and for the remainder of his walk Enjolras had nothing to think about save the boy he had left in his bed. It had occurred to him only after he had gone from his house that Montparnasse wouldn't be able to read the note he had left. Someone like that wouldn't have been able to learn even if he'd desired it; even if he'd had someone to teach him.
He would awake, alone in an unfamiliar room, and he would panic like a cornered animal.
Certain that even now Montparnasse was arming himself with a makeshift club or fashioning a shiv, Enjolras all but sprinted the last block to Combeferre's apartment.
He pounded on the outside door for a full minute before a window slid open and a light struck him in the face. The porter scrutinized him for a moment, seemed to recognize him, and drew back the bolt on the front door. As Enjolras stepped inside, he was annoyed that he had not thought, as Combeferre had, to take into account the discretion of the landlords when choosing a room to rent.
His place did have a better view though, Enjolras reflected mildly, then he shook himself, and, with a hasty thanks to the porter, rushed up the stairs to Combeferre's room.
Montparnasse needed a doctor; Combeferre was only an intern, and a squeamish one at that. Still, this was the only place Enjolras could have gone under the circumstances. He knew that he was not thinking clearly. It wasn't madness, but it was a profound disorientation, as if he had been suddenly dropped into one of the back alleys of a strange city, or plunged into water so deep he could no longer tell surface from depths.
But Enjolras recognized Combeferre as his equal in the sense that he was an almost entirely sensible man. He would know what to do, and even if he didn't Enjolras would be grateful for a familiar face by which to orient himself.
That didn't mean he was looking forward to the scolding that was certain to follow.
Combeferre was still half asleep, and only half dressed when he came to the door. One arm was through the sleeve of his shirt, the other through the neck, a development which had left him baffled and defeated.
He pulled the door open a crack, and blinked out into the hall. "Enjolras?" he said hoarsely. "What's going on?"
"I need your help."
"All right…" he muttered, not awake enough yet to be annoyed. "Come in. Don't stand in the hall."
Enjolras followed him inside, and averted his eyes as Combeferre tugged his shirt off to correct his error. "What time is it?"
"Late," Enjolras said. "I don't really know."
"It couldn't have waited?" Combeferre smoothed his shirt, and began to dress from the pile of clothes on the floor beside the bed.
"It could not."
"I might have guessed."
He laced up his boots, yawned mightily, and met Enjolras at the door. "Where's your coat?"
Combeferre frowned. "Let me get you something to wear."
"I'm fine," Enjolras said. "Let's just hurry."
Combeferre didn't press the issue, for which Enjolras was grateful. He hadn't given it much thought before, the way Combeferre always knew when he wanted to argue, and when he wanted to be obeyed. It had happened all on its own; they had never spoken of it. He had hardly even noticed it until now.
They didn't talk much on the walk back, but once in a while Combeferre would glance at him. It made Enjolras a little uneasy, for he could not place his expression. They went in by way of the garden, to keep from waking the house. At the door to his room, Enjolras thought of the knife he had hidden in his pocket, and its weight seemed so great that he couldn't imagine how he had forgotten about it until now.
"Wait," he said. "Don't follow me right away."
He went inside, and shut the door behind himself. Nothing had been disturbed, but the room no longer seemed like his own. Enjolras' hand shook when he tried to light the candle; it took him several tries, and when the shadows at last leapt back, he nearly flinched.
He swung the candle around so he could see into the corners.
"If you're here…" he said, and then he stopped. He didn't know how to finish. "If you're here, don't be afraid."
It was difficult to imagine Montparnasse being scared, though, and Enjolras wondered which of them he wanted to convince. He held the candle far out in front of himself, but he didn't hesitate as he went around the partition that separated his bed from the rest of the room. He caught his breath. He didn't know how long he had been holding it, but his lungs ached.
Montparnasse had not moved.
Enjolras went back to the front door and let Combeferre in. "It's all right."
Combeferre laughed to ease the tension. "That's a relief. I can only imagine the mess you've made, if it calls for all this trouble."
"Nor can I," Enjolras said.
Combeferre followed him around the partition. He didn't say anything at first, and Enjolras was troubled that he could not guess what he was trying to find the words to express.
Enjolras set the candle beside the bed and slid his gloves off. His hands were frozen, and when he held one to Montparnasse's lips his breath burned his skin. Enjolras sighed. All the terror he had felt at the thought of finding the boy awake was nothing compared to the horror that would have accompanied returning home to a corpse in his bed. To think that this boy might die a stranger to him, that Enjolras might never even know his name, was chilling to contemplate.
"I suppose you want me to start at the beginning," Enjolras said. "I wish I could remember where that was."
Though he did not look up, he heard Combeferre move closer. "I don't understand. Who is this person?"
"I don't know," Enjolras admitted. "He was on the avenue, and he collapsed. There was no one there but me, and I couldn't take him anywhere else. I can't tell you any more than that."
"You mean, you don't know any more than that."
"I mean, I can't tell you more," Enjolras said. "He would have died if I'd left him. He spat blood."
Combeferre had been about to fold the blankets down, but he hesitated a those words. "Then he may die yet. And take us both with him."
"What would you have had me do? Leave him there?"
Combeferre turned the covers down. "To start with, I would have had you fetch a real doctor."
"I can't trust doctors."
"Then Joly, at least. He's more qualified than I am."
"I trust you."
"I see there's no reasoning with you," Combeferre said. He had spread open Enjolras' coat, and was loosening the buttons on Montparnasse's shirt. "How long were you planning on leaving him in these wet clothes?"
"I didn't think…"
"Just be quiet for a moment and let me listen."
He bent his head down and pressed his ear to Montparnasse's chest. Enjolras glanced away, mortified by the presence of a half-naked stranger in his bed, ashamed that his mind had framed it in such terms.
Combeferre lifted his head. "One lung is clear. That's a good sign."
"Will he be all right, then?" Enjolras ventured to ask.
"I can't say, not with any certainty." Combeferre pressed a hand to his eyes. "I'm sorry, Enjolras. You've done all you could, but it's probably too late. Here, at least, he's warm, and he can rest. That's probably more than he had in life."
"He's alive now," Enjolras said.
"Yes, but he may never wake."
Enjolras glanced at the bed; Montparnasse had not stirred. His chest was still uncovered, and the triangle of skin that showed between the folds of his clothes was smooth, unmarked save for a bruise where he had struck the pavement.
"We shouldn't talk about that. Not where he can hear," Enjolras said. "I assume he will need medicines. I'll pay for them, of course."
Combeferre frowned. "You've made your decision, then."
"There was never a choice to make. Any man in my place would have done what I did."
"Stop," Combeferre said. "You want me to tell you that you're brave and selfless, but I won't. You know your virtues without being told, but it's your flaws that have always given you trouble. You know, he's just a child, and it's probably been a long time since anyone did anything for him. Even if he does live, he won't be grateful. He's probably forgotten how."
Enjolras was silent. By the time he realized that he should have been angry, the moment for it had already passed.
"Will you bring the medicines by tomorrow?" Enjolras said. "I'll give you some money in advance if you need it."
Combeferre sighed. "In the morning, I promise. As soon as the druggist's opens. I doubt I'll be getting any sleep tonight."
"Neither will I."
"Then you should put some fresh clothes on him, and make sure you keep his head up." He showed the angle of elevation with his arm. "If he starts to cough violently, help him lean over the side of the bed so the blood doesn't run down his throat. Give him water, but no brandy, even if he complains of chills."
Enjolras nodded. "Is there anything else?"
"If there is, then I've forgotten it. Or I never knew. You really can't send for a doctor?"
Enjolras took his arm, and led him back to the door. "Be quiet when you go out. My landlady…"
"I remember her." Combeferre smiled weakly. "Will you ever tell me what just happened?"
"I can't right now, not while he's here. But after he's gone, I'll tell you everything."
"Be careful," Combeferre said, and turned to go.
Enjolras caught him by the sleeve. "You can't say anything about this. Not to anyone."
"It's going to be difficult. They'll ask about you. As I understand it, you're a popular fellow in the circles you frequent."
"Make something up, then."
"It seems bad form to lie to one's friends." Combeferre shrugged. "But I suppose I'd rather face all their wraths combined than yours alone. I should go now. I'll see you in the morning."
After he had left, Enjolras returned to the bedroom. He rid Montparnasse of his damp coat and shoes, and propped up his head as Combeferre had instructed. Then, too weary to do more, he sank down beside the bed and leaned his head against the frame.
It had been an hour, perhaps two at the most. Enjolras shoulders ached from carrying the boy, and he was cold without his coat. But he stayed where he was, stubbornly. He wanted to suffer a little, just for a short while.
For three days, Enjolras waited for something to change. He couldn't bear to be in the same room as Montparnasse for long, but he looked in on him constantly. Though the boy was feverish, he was not fitful. He didn't talk in his sleep, and he coughed only occasionally, without much force.
Enjolras was grateful for the quiet. He had never been so nervous before.
Combeferre brought the medicines he had promised, looked in on the patient, but didn't stay long. Aside from his visits, Enjolras saw no one, but he called in what favors he could. Mother Demaraise assumed that he had caught a chill on his way back from the opera, and so she prepared his meals for him without needing to be asked. Enjolras set them aside so they would be there if Montparnasse awoke, and for himself he ate only a little dry bread and cheese that the neighbors brought by for him.
He didn't have much of an appetite anyway. In the afternoons, he would sleep for a few hours on the divan, for he had convinced himself that if Montparnasse regained consciousness it would surely be at night, or in the blue hours of the dawn. Surely not in the middle of the day, with sunlight streaming through the windows and the sounds of voices bubbling on the street just outside.
Mostly, Enjolras sat with a book open on his desk, staring at the page without seeing it. If anyone had seen him then, they would have said he was deep in thought. But if he thought of anything substantial during those hours, he forgot it almost at once.
Twice a day, he dissolved some of the powder Combeferre had brought into a glass of water, slipped an arm behind Montparnasse's head and made him drink. He had to go slow, or else Montparnasse would begin to cough and not stop for some time. When that was done, Enjolras loosened the bedclothes in which he had dressed him, and pressed an ear to the boy's chest, listening to his breath wheeze and rattle. Combeferre had not told him to do it, and he didn't know what he was supposed to hear. It seemed to Enjolras that the sting of guilt he felt when he laid his cheek against skin was disproportionate to the crime.
Close to dawn on the third day, Montparnasse's fever broke. Enjolras knew at once that something had changed, for the boy's entire countenance seemed different. The deep furrows had vanished from between his eyebrows, and the spots of livid color on his cheeks were faded considerably.
He had passed out of insentience and into proper sleep. Tentatively, Enjolras felt the boy's forehead and found it cool to the touch. Montparnasse sighed; his breath brushed Enjolras wrist, and he jerked his hand away. It had felt just like a brand.
Enjolras left the medicine next to the bed, and crept out. For the next few hours, he treaded softly around the apartment, an intruder in his own home.
Midday came and went, without a sound from the other room. Enjolras slowly became aware that he was nervous, and had been for some time. Once he became aware of it, it was impossible to ignore. He didn't like to admit it, but his meeting with Montparnasse had knocked him off balance and he had yet to regain his footing. He would have to face the boy again eventually; it would be better to do so on his own terms.
With that in mind, Enjolras returned to Montparnasse's bedside. He had meant to march in resolutely, but when he reached the panel he hesitated and stole a glance around the edge of the partition before he entered and stood beside the bed. He brushed a stray lock of hair from Montparnasse's face, touched the side of his throat and felt the pulse that throbbed boldly beneath the skin.
Enjolras' throat felt dry. He loosened the buttons on the front of Montparnasse's clothes. His touch was no longer clinical as he slid his hand inside, trapping it against Montparnasse's skin. He watched the movement of his hand beneath the cloth, and it hardly seemed like his own, as if it had been amputated with shocking painlessness, right at the point where his wrist disappeared beneath the folds of fabric.
Had Enjolras felt any guilt, he would have stopped at once. But he felt nothing, really, nothing in particular, as he traced the slant of Montparnasse's ribs towards his waist. The waistband of his bedclothes made a ridge against Enjolras' fingertips, but the boy was thin and the pants fit him loosely. Enjolras found his hand slipping easily into the hollow between Montparnasse's sharp hipbones. Dark curls grazed the pads of his fingers, and he dared go no futher.
It seemed that a long time passed like that. When at last Enjolras looked up, he saw that Montparnasse's eyes were open, and he was staring down at him.
He had no time to speak. Enjolras' head snapped to the side, and he stumbled back a step. He felt a sharp pain a moment later, but it took longer than that for him to realize that Montparnasse had hit him.
When he looked back, Montparnasse had clawed out from beneath the blankets and drawn his feet up under himself. He was crouched at the head of the bed, like a cat preparing to spring.
"Where am I?" he snapped.
"Easy, Comrade." Enjolras kept his distance. He had been preparing what he would say when the boy awoke for three days now, but in his mind his voice had sounded much stronger. "This is my home. You've been recovering here. You're safe."
Montparnasse's eyes skated from his face, took in the room at a glance. He seemed to relax a little. "What were you doing just now?"
"You've been sick. I was examining you."
"Are you a doctor?"
"No…" Enjolras admitted. He looked away, and rubbed his jaw where Montparnasse had slapped him. There was surely a red welt there, and he hoped it would disguise the color that flooded his cheeks then.
"Did that hurt?"
Enjolras shook his head. "You're still as weak as a kitten."
Montparnasse leaned back against the wall and sat down on the mattress, folding his legs under himself. He narrowed his eyes, a shrewd expression which Enjolras could not decipher. It made him uncomfortable, how closely this boy was watching him.
"Are you hungry?" Enjolras said.
"You must be. It's been days."
"Maybe a little," Montparnasse admitted.
"I'll bring you something to eat," Enjolras said. "Don't go anywhere."
Montparnasse didn't answer, which he didn't like much. Enjolras retrieved the eggs Mother Demaraise had left that morning, and the last of the bread from the day before.
"I'm sorry," he said as he returned. "It's not much."
"Give it to me," Montparnasse snapped. His eyes had fallen on the food as soon as Enjolras entered, and they did not leave it until he handed it over.
Enjolras watched him tear into the bread, and he was distressed. Though he had always known on an intellectual level that people were going hungry all around him, he had never seen anyone who was so clearly starving. A poor man could be met on any street in Paris, but the truly destitute kept to themselves, and lived in places where no one else needed to go. For the city was modest, and she kept her impoverished hidden behind a veil which only the bold dared to lift.
Only when the bread and eggs were gone did Montparnasse look up; his expression was not so guarded as it had been.
"Isn't there any more?" he said.
"Not in the house," Enjolras said. "I'd have to go out."
"Then a little wine, at least?" Montparnasse coaxed.
"You're not allowed to have wine. You've been very sick."
"It was a lack of wine that got me there in the first place. Any doctor would tell you that."
Enjolras frowned. "Don't act smart. You could at least tell me your name, since I've gone to all this trouble for you."
"Fine. It's Montparnasse."
"That's not a name."
"It's what people call me. If that's too long, I'll answer to 'Parnasse."
His lips twitched, momentarily, into a smile. With the food, his strength seemed to have returned somewhat. Montparnasse pushed his hair back, and though his hands fluttered over the bedclothes, smoothing them, Enjolras could not help but notice that he did not button his shirt.
"Montparnasse will do for now," Enjolras said. "You tried to rob me, you know."
Almost at once he regretted having said it, for the change in Montparnasse's expression was abrupt. His smile remained in place, but his eyes turned cold and seemed to probe very deeply. "Of course. I remember."
Enjolras was quiet for a moment, as if expecting more. Montparnasse did not lower his gaze, but he tilted his head inquisitively. Here, Enjolras thought, was someone who didn't miss much, and he was made uneasy by how closely Montparnasse was watching him now. He didn't believe in keeping secrets, but if he did this boy would surely have guessed them all before too long.
"You don't have to apologize," Enjolras said at last.
"I wasn't about to."
"But I want you to know, if you had only asked I would have given you all I had."
"Maybe," Montparnasse said. "But you'd have tried to make me feel bad about it. I'd rather take a man's money, and let him keep his lecture. That way neither of us has to go away empty handed."
Enjolras' eyes narrowed. "You tried to kill me, too."
"That's because you weren't very good at being robbed." Montparnasse looked at him steadily. "What are you going to do about it? Turn me in? Fine, I'm not afraid."
"That's good to know," Enjolras said. "Because I may hand you over to the authorities yet. But for now, I'm going to keep you here until you're well again. We shall see at that time if you're still a danger to society, or if you can be rehabilitated."
Montparnasse was startled into laughter, but almost at once he began to cough. He buried his face in the sleeve of his bedshirt until the fit had passed, and Enjolras watched him closely. He did not care to admit, even to himself, how ready he had been to spring to Montparnasse's side if his condition had worsened. But the boy recovered, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and inspected it until he was satisfied there was no blood.
"Maybe it wasn't the consumption after all…"
"An infection," Enjolras said. "Of the lung tissue. People usually recover from such afflictions, if they take proper care of themselves, that is."
"I can see that you're hoping to infect me with a sickness of a different kind."
And to think, Montparnasse had been a model patient as long as he had been asleep. Enjolras sighed. "I'll bring you something more to eat, as long as you promise me that you'll stay in bed. I haven't locked up the valuables. Nothing like that. But if you take them and leave now, you'll never get a chance to spend the money. Do you understand?"
Montparnasse said nothing.
"Tell me you understand," Enjolras said sharply.
"I do," Montparnasse replied. "You want me to be good. I don't know what kind of man you think I am, but I can be good. I'd be more inclined to, though, if you brought back some wine."
"No wine," Enjolras said. "Virtue for virtue's sake."
"Then I won't make any promises."
"I'm not asking you to," Enjolras said. "But I'm trusting you all the same."
He turned on his heels and went out without looking back, as if confident that his gamble would pay off, which could not have been further from the truth.
They came to a silent agreement, one which pleased them both: there would be no talk of how close Montparnasse had come to death. Though the boy had laughed when the subject came up, Enjolras could tell by the look in his eyes that it disturbed him deeply. And Enjolras, who had always thought himself too practical a man to concern himself with the fate of the soul, remembered how he had been kept up nights, wondering if Montparnasse's ghost would haunt him.
Once, Enjolras had thought a fear of death the surest sign of a selfish man, a man who would live regardless of those dying all around him. A man who looked neither right nor left at his fellows, but lowered his head to the horizon and pressed on, no better than a ox harnessed to a plow.
Of course, Enjolras had always known his own death would be a noble one. His name would pass from one battlefield or another and into history. Though he might die, he would be resurrected every time his name was spoken, and so he would live forever. Not a pitiful shade, but a proud one, blowing through the bodies of those who came after him, plucking their strings. Casting ripples through them, like a wind on the face of still water.
But if a man were to die alone, unknown, without even a name to go on the certificate of death, that would be different. That man would be forgotten as soon as he was in the ground. After a day or two, even the coffin maker wouldn't remember his face. Montparnasse never mentioned any family, and as near as Enjolras had been able to gather, he didn't have any close friends. For someone like that, death would be a true end to existence. To even contemplate such things struck Enjolras as metaphysically vulgar; however, he now found that he could not quite look upon the boy the same as he had.
Montparnasse did not seem to notice the change in him. Though Combeferre had pronounced him out of danger, he was still a long way from fully recovered. He still slept most of the time, but he would rouse once or twice during the day, and eat ravenously. Enjolras supposed his body was trying to make up for all the lost sleep and skipped meals.
They didn't talk much. Between long and sound sleeps, Montparnasse would sit up in bed and watch him move around the apartment. He seemed to be waiting, incuriously, for Enjolras to break the silence. But Enjolras never did manage to think of anything to say.
One day, on a whim, Enjolras bought a cage and a pair of singing birds and he left them on a table near the bed.
"I was afraid you might be lonely," he said.
Montparnasse ran a fingertip over the cage. His nail made a metallic musical sound where it struck each bar. "I'm not lonely. Maybe a little bored. There's not much to do but think. I thought that was the one thing anyone could do, but I'm not very good at it."
"How do you mean?" Enjolras said.
"My thoughts are all out of order. They run around loose in my head, and make me chase them. They're slipperier than alley cats. And when I finally get a hold of one, it's never what I wanted. It looked like an answer from far away, but when you look close, it's just another question."
"An educated man knows how to avoid such traps. A well-trained mind is more important than one full of facts and figures."
Montparnasse shrugged. "I'm not an educated man, but I do know a thing or two. It's gotten me through."
He tapped the cage, and the finches ruffled their feathers in indignation. They seemed to recognize the predator in him, to see only what was catlike.
"Anyway," Montparnasse said. "You could at least bring me a book."
"I can manage that. What subjects do you prefer?"
Montparnasse laughed roughly. "Just bring me the one with the most pictures in it."
"I see. I didn't think you'd be able to read."
"I can. Just a word here or there. Le vin. Les jeunes filles." His gaze strayed and combed downward, until Enjolras could no longer make out his expression, which annoyed him. "Les garcons ravissantes…"
Enjolras glanced away. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
He heard a shift of fabric as Montparnasse leaned forward. He did not dare to look directly at him, though, sure that if he did he would not find the eyes of a man looking back, but rather those of some mythical beast with a gaze that would turn him to stone, or hypnotize him, or strike him dead on the spot. But Montparnasse did not look away, and with his silence he dared Enjolras to come closer, with his stillness he grappled him into submission.
There was a knock on the door, and Enjolras flew to it as if it were a hand stretched out to rescue him from death. Halfway to the door, he realized he could hear Montparnasse laughing, softly, from behind the partition.
Enjolras flushed, and he knew it was not from anger. He was glad he could not be seen.
"Be quiet back there," he snapped. "And let me see to this."
Montparnasse fell silent. The knock came again, and Enjolras hastened to the door. He held his hand over the latch, as if afraid it would rise on its own.
"Who is it?"
"Enjolras?" The voice that came from the other side of the door was familiar to him. "It's me. Jehan."
"What do you want?"
There was a long silence, long enough for Enjolras to become curious. "May I come in?" Jean Prouvaire said finally.
Enjolras narrowed his eyes. He glanced back toward the bedroom; Montparnasse had remained hidden. Enjolras could feel him listening, though. Missing nothing. He pulled the door open, just enough to let Jean Prouvaire in.
"Is this a bad time?" he stammered. He had to turn his body sideways to slip in between the door and the frame. Once he was inside, Enjolras slammed the door closed behind him.
"What are you doing here?"
Jean Prouvaire tugged at the knot in his cravat. It was a flighty, nervous gesture, but when he looked up his gaze was firm. "No one's seen you in almost a week. We were starting to get worried."
"We?" Enjolras echoed.
"Yes. We. Your friends. Have you forgotten us?"
"I haven't forgotten," Enjolras said. "I've just been busy. Did they elect you to check up on me?"
"They didn't do anything. I came on my own." He tugged again at the knot of his cravat. For some time now, he had been wearing it in the flowing bohemian style of the English poets, but he hadn't gotten used to it yet. He was always worrying the edges, until they frayed; then he would pull at the threads until they unraveled.
Over time, Enjolras had ceased to be annoyed by his fidgeting, it was beginning to grate on him again afresh.
"I was worried about you," Jean Prouvaire said. "If I may be honest. I thought maybe you were sick."
"As you can see, I'm quite well."
"Do you need anything? It's no trouble, if you do. I don't live far."
"You've never been there, but it's only a few streets over."
"But then, I've never been here, either. Not until now."
Without meaning to, Enjolras had glanced back towards the bedroom. He had only shifted his eyes in that direction, only for a moment, but Jean Prouvaire had the perception of an artist.
He lowered his voice. "Enjolras? Is there someone else here?"
"Who else would be here?" Enjolras said. He had lied more over the past few days than he had since he was a child and he would try to tell elaborate imaginings as if they were truth. He hadn't been much good at it then; he'd always lose track of the details and forget himself in the intricacies.
But now that he was grown, the lies seemed much easier. For the landlady had believed him, and Combeferre had believed him, and it now seemed that Jean Prouvaire did too. He was proud of his newfound talent, and a little shocked at his conceit. For only Montparnasse hadn't been fooled.
"Right," Jean Prouvaire said. "Forget I asked. Are you certain there isn't anything I can do?"
"I'm fine." Enjolras tried to smile reassuringly, for Jean Prouvaire had not stopped watching him since he arrived. "I don't think I've been gone that long. You shouldn't have gone to all this trouble."
"It seemed longer," Jean Prouvaire said. "That is to say, people notice when you're not there. Is there anything I can tell them, in case they ask?"
"Nothing," Enjolras said.
"Tell them their concern is touching, but unwarranted."
"That's not really an answer, is it?" Jean Prouvaire said. "But I guess I don't deserve any better. I've disturbed you."
If he was trying to joke, it didn't show in his voice. Enjolras saw him to the front door of the boarding house, and once back in his room he secured the latch tightly. When he looked up, he saw that Montparnasse had come out from the bedroom. He seemed steady on his feet, but he gripped the edge of the partition tightly in both hands.
"Who was that?" he murmured. His expression did not change, but it seemed he was barely able to contain his laughter.
"What are you doing out of bed? You shouldn't be on your feet."
"I was only curious."
Enjolras started forward, and Montparnasse started to step back, out of his reach. But his legs were still stiff from disuse, and they tried to betray him. Enjolras caught him before he could fall, held him by the shoulders and hauled him upright again.
"I don't know what you're trying to do," he said. "But you're being juvenile about it."
Montparnasse did not shrink from Enjolras' grip, but later, after he had relaxed it, he realized he had been holding him hard enough to bruise. "I just want to know who that was."
"He acts a little queer around you. Why do you think that is?"
Enjolras thrust him down on the bed, and Montparnasse landed in a flustered heap of blankets. A lock of black hair slipped out of place and fell over his eyes; he blew it out of the way with a sharp exhalation.
"You could have been nicer to him," Montparnasse continued. He leaned back against the wall, stretching his legs out across the mattress. "Don't you think?"
"He knows I mean well."
"You've been so nice to me, I was starting to think you didn't have any claws at all. I thought I'd sized you up all wrong. I'm pretty good at guessing what a man's like inside. It's not a skill, because I didn't learn it. It's more like a talent, I guess. I would have hated to think I was losing my touch."
"That's ridiculous. A man of intellect could not be unraveled so quickly."
The same lock of hair had returned to trouble him. Montparnasse tossed his head to shake it back. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, keep quiet and get some rest. Don't forget, I can toss you out of here any time I please."
Montparnasse's expression changed, collapsing in on itself so that only a shell remained. Enjolras knew at once that it had been the wrong thing to say, but he didn't feel guilty. Montparnasse had a lot to learn yet about civilized society.
"Fine," Montparnasse said. "I don't have much of a choice, do I?"
He seemed to want to say more. Enjolras knew an apology was out of the question, but he waited all the same. Montparnasse was silent, though; only his eyes spoke, and what they said was venomous.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Jean Prouvaire slunk out of Enjolras' house by the side door that opened onto the garden. It was too late in the year, and there were no flowers with perfume to revive him, or overgrown trees to hide him from the street. He hadn't accounted for that.
Disappointed, Jean Prouvaire sank down on a bench which had been covered by a decayed blanket of fallen leaves. It was a shame, he thought. They ought to take better care of this place.
He tugged at the edge of his cravat, and was hardly aware that he was doing it until a thread came loose between his fingers. He tried to snap off the frayed end, but succeeded only in making the damage worse. He drew a sharp breath, and shoved both edges of his cravat over his shoulder so they hung down his back.
He refused to be humiliated, least of all by Enjolras, for whom humiliating people was something of a hobby, and a defense. No one had told him as much, but Jean Prouvaire was a talented observer. In the months since they had been introduced, he had watched Enjolras from a distance. A distance was always necessary with a man like that. Jean Prouvaire had lost track of how many times he had seen Enjolras shrink behind a cold look like a turtle drawing into its shell, or how he had brandished a tart word like a porcupine raising its quills.
Soon, he would come to understand him, Jean Prouvaire was sure of it. They would come to understand each other, more than any two men ever had before. That was what he longed for, someone who knew what he was thinking a moment before he knew himself, who knew what was in his heart even when there were no words to explain it.
He knew it wasn't unreasonable to hope, for he had felt such an abiding attachment many times before. When he read the words of men who were long dead, and felt them peering out at him from the pages, watching his progress, nodding to him occasionally in encouragement. For a long time, it had been enough to sustain him, but as Jean Prouvaire had grown older, he had come to long for such a connection to a living man.
They could have had an affection as deep as any of the great loves of Antiquity: Achilles and Patrocles, or Hadrian and Antinous, Mahmoud and Ayaz. Enjolras had only to realize it. Jean Prouvaire knew that he would, in due time, but he had grown tired of waiting for him.
He knew it had been forward of him to arrive at his door unannounced, but he could not bring himself to be sorry. Only a little disappointed, and more bewildered than he had been before he came.
Enjolras had been acting strangely, so maybe he was sick after all. Sick, Jean Prouvaire thought, and too proud to admit it. Or too considerate to let it worry him. Yes, it was surely something like that. And there couldn't have been anyone else. Jean Prouvaire remembered suspecting, but not what had made him suspicious.
It had been nothing, then.
Jean Prouvaire frowned. Without realizing he was doing it, he had picked up the end of his cravat and resumed plucking at it. The end was pretty well mangled by now, and so he tucked it underneath and out of sight as best as he could. There'd be time to buy another one later, after he finished his newest project. He always did the most damage when he was puzzling out a rhyme.
He found the thought of all those blank pages left to fill at once exciting and exhausting. It revived him, more than the cold air had done at any rate. He felt inspired. And he was sure that if he hurried home he could write a thousand words before his candle burned down. Ten thousand words, and each a small and separate truth.
He sprang up, and left the garden by the gate that led onto the street. He was certain he looked quite wild, like a man possessed, and he almost felt frantic enough that he did not notice that no one he passed on the street looked at him as though there was anything alarming about his appearance. Only one young girl who sat darning at the open window of her apartment giggled a little at his cravat, but she was so bored with the work that she was glad for any distraction.
A block from his building, Jean Prouvaire was waylaid by Courfeyrac and informed that an upstanding young lady had agreed to a rendezvous, provided Courfeyrac could find a chaperon for the mousy girl with whom she shared her room.
A sure thing, Courfeyrac said with a wink. If only Joly weren't in bed with ague and Bossuet refusing to leave his side, and Grantaire curled up in a gutter God only knew where, and Feuilly looking so damned shabby these days that any respectable girl would rather point him to the nearest soup kitchen.
Jean Prouvaire let himself be led away without complaint, though he did cast a longing look back at his boarding house before Courfeyrac dragged him around the corner and it dipped out of sight.***
The next day, Jean Prouvaire was late in rising. The thought of the pages that lay still blank in his desk drawer pained him greatly. But not as much as his hangover did.
The fire of inspiration that had burned in him the night before had long since gone out, and Jean Prouvaire was consumed by the gloomy certainty that it would not return. He gathered his papers into a satchel, and went out in search of something to quench his thirst.
The usual room in the back of the Café Musain was empty save for him, but Jean Prouvaire was glad for the quiet. He took a table, and spread out his papers with all the ceremony of a bishop preparing for a service. He did not begin right away, but he took some time to admire what he had made.
Presently, Combeferre made an appearance, and Joly and Bossuet followed close behind him. By then, Jean Prouvaire was glad for the distraction, and he was quick to rise and join their table.
"I was just doing a little work," he explained, perhaps too hastily for it to sound entirely casual. "I'm really making some headway."
He chose to ignore the look Joly and Bossuet exchanged then.
"I'm glad for you," Combeferre said diplomatically. "My brother had a few poems published in L'Odyssée before they went under last year. They never even paid him for his last submission…"
"It's not as if I've never been published before," Jean Prouvaire hastened to add. "But I have a good feeling about this. I think it's going to get some recognition from the right people. That's really more important than getting paid for your work."
"If that means you don't want the money, you're welcome to give it to me," Bossuet said. "I wouldn't complain."
Jean Prouvaire tugged at the end of his cravat. "It's not like I'm in any position to. It's funny, my allowance doesn't seem to hold out like it used to."
"Rents are going up," Joly said vaguely.
"And necklines on the ladies are going down," Bossuet added. "Which is the surest way to make my savings vanish."
"I've cut back on the theater," Combeferre said. "Twice a month, and more than that only if there's something I can't bear to miss."
"Mark my word," Joly said. "They'll raise the price of coal again before spring. Warm weather will come again, but we'll all be dead of pneumonia long before that."
"I had to take a little work," Jean Prouvaire said, and he sighed as if his heart would break. "Just to tide me over through the winter. It does intrude on my writing, but I suppose it can't be helped."
"You never struck me as the type to do good honest work," Joly replied. "I'm proud of you. As for myself, I'm afraid I'm quite allergic, and I'm quite happy to leave it to those sturdy lower classes. They're of a much stronger constitution than I."
"Really," Combeferre murmured. "I don't think that's very funny…"
He was soundly ignored, and Bossuet spoke up quickly, before he had a chance to ruin the mood of good natured self-pity entirely. "What are you doing, Jehan? Fish-mongering, I'd imagine. Or maybe you were lucky enough to land a job washing shirts for handsome soldiers."
Joly and Bossuet laughed; Combeferre did not. Jean Prouvaire lowered his eyes, and gave the end of his cravat such a yank that it disintegrated into a handful of loose threads.
"There's an elderly gentleman who's just arrived in Paris," he said. "He's quite respectable, though he's not French, or English, or even Prussian. I can't place his accent at all, and he has a most exotic physiognomy. His nose is just like a hawk's."
"He's most certainly an Italian," Joly said. "That's what they look like."
"How do you know?" Combeferre said. "You've never met an Italian before. You wouldn't know one if he showed up right now with a whole tree of tomatoes! Tell me, Jehan. Is his complexion dark? He might be from Arabia."
Joly sniffed. "I read about them in a book once."
"I don't think he's from Arabia," Jean Prouvaire murmured. "And I don't think tomatoes grow on trees…"
Much offended, Joly rose to his feet and began to pace around the back room.
"What's gotten into you?" Combeferre said.
"If you must know, I'm circulating my blood. It's very important if you want your brain to work at maximum efficiency. In fact, as you know, the entire body is like a machine. I like to keep it well-oiled with a fine cabernet sauvignon."
Jean Prouvaire glanced nervously between them. "But about the gentleman. He's in political exile, so I think he must be a noble old soul. His eyes are failing, and reading pains him. I stop by every few days and read him the newspaper, and then a bit from the Bible. He's quite fluent in French."
"He's probably lonely," Combeferre said with authority. "Does he have any relations here in Paris?"
"None," Jean Prouvaire replied. "But he told me his wife stayed behind in their homeland. He has a miniature of her that he keeps near his heart, but it must be rather old. He showed it to me once, and it was a picture of a young woman. She wore a fur collar, and she had the same hawk nose that he does…"
"That's romantic," Combeferre sighed.
Not to be outdone, Jean Prouvaire heaved an even longer sigh. "True love notices not when the years slip by, nor when miles rise up to thwart it."
"That's enough of that," Bossuet said abruptly. "Save that nonsense for the page, Jehan."
"You're just being a cynic," Combeferre said sharply. "And you might as well give it up before Grantaire gets here. You're no match for him."
"I've got to agree," Grantaire said from the doorway. He laughed, triumphantly as he strode inside and clapped Combeferre amiably on the shoulder. "I always knew you talked about me when I wasn't here."
Combeferre brushed his hand away. "I don't know what you were drinking last night, but you're sweating it out this morning."
"Last night," Grantaire said, "was a beautiful dream. What you smell is the breath of the angels that clings to me still."
"You're upsetting Joly," Bossuet said.
Grantaire did not seem to hear him. He had spotted the spray of papers that Jean Prouvaire had left carelessly out on the table and had started towards them. Jean Prouvaire realized his intentions and rose to intercept him, a moment too late.
"What's this?" Grantaire said. He snatched up a few sheets, and retreated to the opposite side of the table when Jean Prouvaire tried to grab them back.
"Leave them be! That's a work in progress."
"Then I'll tell you what I think of it so far. I'm a bit of a man of letters myself, as you know." As Grantaire rifled through the pages, a few slipped from his hands. "Ah, but I'm jittery! I see none of you thought to have a bottle of brandy brought in. No, I had to think of that myself. As you can see, Jehan, your work is in the hands of a brilliant mind."
He drew a hip flask from beneath his coat. The leather on it was worn down soft, and the silver was tarnished in the shape of fingers. Grantaire took a long drink, and revived.
"Please, just give it back," Jean Prouvaire said, defeated.
When Grantaire lifted the pages again, another fluttered out of his grip. He stooped to retrieve it, but a hitch in his back made him think better of it.
"Why, Jehan," he said. "I see you've been bitten by the bug of Antiquity. It's a common affliction among today's educated set, who conveniently forget that those strapping Spartan youths would barely stand as tall as their shoulders…"
But the flask at his belt was still nearly full, and it seemed that he didn't yet have the stamina for a full tirade. He began to read aloud instead, with all the theatrical trappings he could rally.
"To the golden Nile shore they came
The king and the companion of his heart
Five years they traveled on campaign
Brave Achilles' tomb, with sacrifices to impart
Girded in grief for those lovers long dead
And dressed in raiment of heroes past
Said Hephaistion to the one he adored, "I dread,
What becomes of love when it founders in oblivion so vast."
Replied the king, "O my rider, fear not death's defeat.
For so closely are we two souls entwined
That our intercourse would be no less sweet
In that place where the Lethe's dark water's wind."
Grantaire broke off abruptly to laugh. "Why Jehan, you're making me blush. I didn't know you had it in you, my boy."
Jean Prouvaire snatched the bundle of papers out of his hand, crumpling them in his fist. A wave of furious tears sprung to his eyes, and he blinked them away. "I told you, it's not done yet."
"Leave him be, Grantaire," Combeferre sighed. "You just don't know when you're becoming tedious."
Joly, who had set up a barricade of dirty mugs at a table across the room, scratched his head and said, "I thought Achilles' tomb was at Troy. Is Troy in Egypt?"
"You illiterate ass," Grantaire sniffed. "You Philistine. Troy is in Scythia."
Jean Prouvaire looked down. "I've just remembered an appointment," he said, and collected the rest of his papers, shoving them all into his satchel. "It's important. I shouldn't miss it. So I'm afraid I have to take my leave of you all."
"Wait a second," Grantaire said. "I told you I'd help with your poem, didn't I? In fact, I'll even give you the next stanza for free.
"T'was Helen's face
Which launched one thousand ships
But only Hephaistion's thighs
Could erect the king's obelisk."
"Grantaire, stop!" Combeferre made a considerable effort to sound stern, but the laughter he was choking back crept into his voice.
"Exactly," said Joly. "How would you feel if you were Hephaistion? He's been dead for two thousand years, and people are still talking about his thighs."
"Please," Grantaire said. "I'm sure he's flattered by all the attention."
Jean Prouvaire didn't hear any more. He slung his satchel over his shoulder and hastened out.
Jehan's poem is a reference to the story about Alexander the Great and Hephaistion and the pilgrimage they made to Achilles and Patrocles' tomb (which is in modern day Turkey, for the record).
Three blocks down from the Café Musaine, Jean Prouvaire's mind was a whirl of cutting remarks. Some were flip and witty, but most were scathing and dignified. By the time he reached the main thoroughfare at the end of the Rue Saint-Denis, he had stopped trying to keep count of them all. The point had been made sufficiently: there were a thousand things he could have said to Grantaire that would have sent him scurrying back to his corner like a kicked cat. But Jean Prouvaire, erudite as he was, had been unable to think of a single one when he had needed it.
He was annoyed at the way he had behaved, and honestly a bit shocked. He knew Grantaire hadn't meant any harm. No matter how cruelly he teased, he never did it with malice in his heart, just a weary and wide-eyed desperation. They all knew that, and accepted it, except, perhaps, for Enjolras, who was too saintly to forgive so easily the sins of man.
And yet, when Grantaire had snatched up his pages – they were still notes at this point, unformed and helpless – Jean Prouvaire had felt his stomach tighten and the back of his neck grow prickly with panic. It was a sensation all together new to him, and he had no armor yet to cover it. The feeling was gone now; he had left it behind when he fled the Café, and he was glad for it. Grantaire was not such a fearsome foe, not compared to the horror of a well-kept secret.
There were places in each man's soul that he ought not peer into too closely, avenues down which it was highly indecorous to travel. As a poet, he knew his duty was to give names to all the nameless forces that drove men. Still, it was no reason to get carried away.
It might have been a coincidence, or just a stroke of luck, but Grantaire had managed to stumble onto just the right words to make him feel awkward and exposed. It wasn't that his teasing had been vicious, or even any more grating than usual, but Jean Prouvaire had recoiled from it in shock, and he had fled rather than see where it take him.
Jean Prouvaire knew that it had been boorish of him to run out, but he would be forgiven. They would assume that he was touchy about his work, and it was better they think him humorless and too sensitive than realize the truth. Jean Prouvaire could bear the former; it was a noble enough thing to be protective of one's creation.
He was satisfied for now with that rationale, but his mind still clamored – a thousand thoughts striving to be heard at once – and it made him uneasy to the point of sickness. He longed for something to drown out the noise, but he couldn't return to the Musaine this day. Enjolras would not have him either, and so for a time Jean Prouvaire was at a loss.
Perhaps he had become too habitual. It was comforting, but also dreary to him, to think that he really didn't have anywhere else to go.
Eventually, he made his way to the east side of the river, to a neighborhood where the houses were old and a little untidy. Jean Prouvaire turned down a narrow side street that quickly dwindled to an alley before terminating in a dead end. There was a small, somewhat shabby cottage at the end of that street. It was well back from the pavement, crouched in the shadow of overgrown trees.
Jean Prouvaire was not expected until the following week, but he didn't think the old man who lived here would find his visit intrusive. He was a good old campaigner, but he had few callers. He lived alone, and he seemed to have little to fill his days. Jean Prouvaire went up the overgrown walk. As he drew near the house, he thought for a moment that he saw the sash on the front window raised a little, as if to allow someone to watch him without being seen. But when he looked again, he saw it had only been a trick of the light through the leaves.
The old man had only one servant, a mute peasant girl of 13 or 14. She came quickly at Jean Prouvaire's knock, and showed him in to the familiar parlor. Every time Jean Prouvaire came here, he was struck by how dark it was. He thought the old man must keep it so out of pride, for his sparse furniture was all very old and very worn in a great many places.
"M. Razumov…" Jean Prouvaire said. He always spoke softly in this house, almost in a whisper. He always held his hat in his hands. "Am I intruding?"
Razumov leaned forward in his chair, very slowly, as if the movement pained him. "Come into the light," he said.
Jean Prouvaire stepped forward, and allowed the glow from the single lamp to fall over his face. He realized that he had never seen Razumov sit anywhere but that same red armchair he occupied now. It was pushed far back into the corner where the light was dimmest. It occurred to Jean Prouvaire that perhaps Razumov feared the furniture was not the only thing that had grown unsightly with age.
"Oh, Jehan," Razumov continued. "Yes, I thought I recognized your voice. Could it be that it is Tuesday already? I've completely lost track, and I'm afraid I haven't prepared any reading for you."
"No," Jean Prouvaire said deferentially. "It's not Tuesday yet. But I was passing nearby and I thought…"
"And you thought you'd look in on an unfortunate old man."
Jean Prouvaire lowered his eyes. "I'm afraid my intentions were not so selfless, M. Razumov."
"I see," Razumov said. "It's you, then. You wanted someone to talk to."
"Perhaps I was too forward…"
"Nonsense," the old man said. He seemed surprised, pleasantly so. "I'll send for some tea."
He made a motion to the peasant girl, and she left them. Razumov eased himself back into his chair, and steepled his hands.
Jean Prouvaire had always thought of Razumov as extremely old, but in truth it was impossible to know his age for certain. He could have been a robust man of 90, or an exhausted one of 35. He had a full head of snow white hair, hardly thinning at all. He wore it long and tied back, in the style of a student or a gentleman of leisure. His face was lined with many wrinkles, but his skin was tan and did not look brittle. Though he moved with difficulty, as if his joints pained him, his body was lean and trim. All his clothes were too big, as if he had lost a great deal of weight suddenly, and the sleeves of his coat gaped around his wrists, making his hands seem more delicate than they were.
He always wore gloves. Jean Prouvaire had never seen him without them. They were not the white or yellow silk gloves of a gentleman, either. They were heavy, brown leather, trimmed in wool, like the gloves a laborer might wear.
All of these idiosyncrasies, Jean Prouvaire attributed to Razumov's foreign birth. Not all men, he reminded himself, were fortunate enough to have been born in a place as civilized as Paris.
"What," Razumov said, "shall we talk about, then? I am afraid I haven't had the luxury of such an education as you."
"It's all right," Jean Prouvaire replied. "Because actually, I was hoping we could talk about you."
Razumov said nothing for a while, long enough for Jean Prouvaire to begin to think his silence strange. The maid returned and served them tea from a little tin pot. After she had departed again, Jean Prouvaire raised his eyes and found that Razumov's expression had righted itself.
"Forgive me," he said. "Sometimes I forget that in your country a young man's inquires are rewarded. Where I come from, nothing good ever comes from curiosity."
"Where are you from?" Jean Prouvaire asked. "You talk about it so little…"
"Russia," Razumov replied. "And you needn't tell me how well I speak your language. I know already. France is quite fashionable in my country these days, and I learned it at the University. If a young man of few means wishes to advance in society, he must be always prepared with an epigram in French, you see?"
"You were that young man, I assume," Jean Prouvaire said. He quivered a little when he thought of the wild steppes and untamed taiga of the Russian landscape.
"Perhaps my means were not as few as you think," Razumov replied. "I was no savage man, wrapped in the skins of wild beasts."
"That's a relief," Jean Prouvaire murmured, but he had spoken too hastily. He realized a moment later that Razumov had been joking.
The old man went on, as if he had not heard. "My father was a provincial landowner. My family name was a respectable one. But we were outsiders in St. Petersburg; I had no relations there. However, I was diligent enough at my studies, and I was soon appointed to a position as a teacher of history."
He kept talking without falter, as he leaned forward to pour more tea. His voice no longer quaked with age and weariness, Jean Prouvaire noticed. It was steady now, and even and strong in such a way that it cast a kind of hypnosis over him. Jean Prouvaire no longer thought to ask questions; he hardly dared even move or speak, for fear of missing the next word.
"My country has a proud history, Jehan, just as yours does. And I must have had a talent for telling it. More than once, a student in one of my lectures was stirred to noble tears. I gained something of a reputation in this way, and I was asked to serve as tutor to the sister of one of my friends from my school days. He was a Minister of Finance, and his sister was young, bright, and cosmopolitan. She had a healthy interest in the subject, and she asked me to visit her often and tell her of great men and battles. After a time, she stopped even making a pretense of taking notes on my lectures. But I didn't stop my visits to that house. I, too, was young, you see."
Jean Prouvaire nodded mutely. He was thinking of the woman in Razumov's miniature. She hadn't struck him as exceptionally pretty before, but now, in his mind, she became exotic and fair.
"We were married soon after," Razumov said. "I know that she had other suitors, but she had made her decision. I promised her that she had not made the wrong one. I did all I could to make her deliriously happy. But then the political troubles came."
Jean Prouvaire could not tell whether Razumov's accent had become more pronounced during his story, or if he was only noticing it more. Either way, he was keenly aware of it, and the way it made his consonants sound hard. It was lovely, Jean Prouvaire thought, and fearsome, like the portrait of the strange Russian girl.
"I was denounced as a conspirator," Razumov said. "It may seem a small matter to you, who could prove his innocence before a court, but in my country it was a death sentence. A colleague at the University warned me in time, and provided me with documents so I could cross the border. My wife was not suspect, and so she was safe. She planned to join me as soon as she was able."
"She never came, did she?" Jean Prouvaire sighed.
"No," Razumov said. "I never received so much as a letter. But I learned later, it was my rival for her affections who denounced me. Only God can say what ghastly blackmail and coercion he perpetrated upon her after I was gone…"
"How dreadful," Jean Prouvaire said. "Is there really nothing to be done?"
"I can't go back," said Razumov. "And it seems she is unable or unwilling to come to me. For a long time, I thought only of destroying that corrupt system by which I was forced into exile. I joined with a group of revolutionaries in Geneva. I thought constantly of revenge. Not on the landowners, of whom I was one; not on the country, which I loved so; not on the Tsar, who I had always respected. I cared about none of that any more. But I couldn't go on living without the hope that one day I would be able to kill that man who had abused his power so contemptibly."
He sighed, and sank back in his chair. It was as if he had used all his strength just getting to this point and he had no more left to finish the tale. Jean Prouvaire half rose, as if to go to him, but in the end he didn't dare.
"But it was weary work, Jehan. And they could make me no promises. I know now that I will not see her again in this life, and I fear that I will not see her in the next, either."
"M. Razumov," Jean Prouvaire murmured. "I know…"
He stopped. Though he was silent for a long time, Razumov did not speak again. He just watched, but his eyes seemed to draw the words out by force.
"I know how you feel," Jean Prouvaire said. "I, too, love someone dearly. Someone who seems very far away…"
"Is that so?"
Jean Prouvaire stroked his fingers nervously through the frayed edge of his cravat. "Forgive me. You are a good man, M. Razumov. And I shouldn't trouble you with my concerns."
"I'm used to it," Razumov said. "It seems I have one of those auras about me. Men cannot help but trust me with their secrets."
"You must be very discreet."
"It was something I had to learn," Razumov said. "But you may trust me to keep your confidences, Jehan."
Jean Prouvaire made the mistake of looking up just then, and Razumov's colorless eyes seemed to pierce his heart. Jean Prouvaire's pulse thudded in his ears, and when it had subsided he was surprised to hear his own voice. He was already talking, telling all that had happened that day, at Enjolras' apartment and at the Café.
"I see," said Razumov, when he was through.
"It's a trifle," Jean Prouvaire murmured, embarrassed.
"I disagree." He put a gloved hand to his cheek thoughtfully. "How envious I am. Youth pardons all indiscretions. You were very indiscreet indeed today, Jehan, and yet it only adds to your charm. In time, your friend will realize this."
"Do you think so?"
Razumov smiled thinly. "Perhaps I was hasty. To be honest, I don't have the pleasure of knowing the man. But if he lets you slip away from him then it will be his loss."
Jehan felt his cheeks heat. "M. Razumov, I'm surprised. I didn't know that Russians understood the sacred bond between, uh, men."
"I can't speak for my countrymen," Razumov replied. "I am a very well-travelled Russian."
"You are," Jehan said. "And thank you, for your advice."
He pushed to his feet to take his leave. Razumov did not rise to see him off, but he leaned forward in his chair and took Jean Prouvaire's hand between both of his. His touch seemed very intimate, in spite of the gloves, or perhaps because of them.
Jehan extricated himself quickly, and hurried to the door, pausing only long enough to call over his shoulder, "I'll see you Tuesday, M. Razumov."
He rushed down the walk, but by the time he reached the pavement again he had forgotten why he was so urgent. He glanced back at the little cottage, and he thought he saw, just for a moment, the edge of the curtain in one of the front windows raised, just a little.
Montparnasse had become such a constant fixture in the little apartment that Enjolras would often forget how little he actually knew about the boy. Hours, even days, would go by when Enjolras thought nothing of the company, but then the true horror of the situation would strike him all at once: No matter how noble his intentions may have been in bringing Montparnasse here, he was still abetting a dangerous criminal.
For the moment, Montparnasse seemed content to accept his hospitality, but Enjolras knew that he was no house pet at heart. He would stay a while, perhaps through the winter, but he would grow restless soon enough. Enjolras' conscience would not allow him to set a known murderer free once more on an unsuspecting city. He had once entertained the notion of reforming the boy, but that prospect had seemed a less challenging one when Montparnasse was near death then it did now that he was well again and may have had another fifty years ahead of him.
Regardless, Enjolras knew he would have to try, for the only alternative would be to deliver Montparnasse to the authorities. That was the last thing he wanted. Enjolras was acquainted only casually with a circle of prison reformers, but from their talk he had gathered enough to know what sort of fate would befall Montparnasse there. For someone like that, who was still young, who had a fresh face and a weakness in his chest and no connections to mention, there would be only one unnamable option open to him if he wanted to survive. Such were the stories Enjolras had heard. He believed them, mostly, even if he did not always approve of the salacious way in which they were told.
Over the long days of Montparnasse's convalescence, Enjolras had come to feel fiercely protective, though he was careful not to let on too much. Montparnasse had a touchy kind of pride. He didn't have much to his name, but what he did possess, he guarded well. His independence was one, his looks another.
Montparnasse knew he was handsome, though perhaps, Enjolras sometimes thought, he overestimated himself a bit in that regard. While he had been sick, Enjolras had thought his face might have the trappings of beauty, but now that Montparnasse was well again – his hollow cheeks filled in, and his sallow coloring deepened to blush – Enjolras could see that he was merely pretty.
For some reason, the discovery relieved him.
He did have to admit that Montparnasse had rather striking eyes, and that his neck was long and exquisitely curved.
But Enjolras suspected that Montparnasse had embraced vanity as a surrogate for all he had been denied in life, and he wondered if breaking the boy of that particular bad habit might make the rest of his vices easier to confront.
Once, Enjolras had asked him what he expected to do once his looks began to fade. Montparnasse had only laughed at him, though. He laughed often when Enjolras tried to question him, and without any humor. Of all his habits, it was the one Enjolras found most unnerving.
"It's no good," Montparnasse announced one evening, as outside the snow fell and the wind gusted so hard that the windows rattled in their frames. "You'll have to send down for a bath."
Enjolras stabbed his pen against the page, smearing the ink. He didn't bother trying to finish the sentence he had been writing; he had lost the thought the moment Montparnasse spoke. "Pardon me?"
Montparnasse didn't look up from Enjolras' mirror. He had been perched in front of the glass all evening, trying to set his hair into curls. After so many long days spent abed, he was having little luck with the task. "I think I'd like to see what it's like to be clean, for once."
Though he wanted to be annoyed at having his work interrupted, Enjolras found that he could not. Montparnasse didn't ask for things often. So he shooed him back into the bedroom, out of sight, and sent word down to the porter to haul water. After he had gone, and Enjolras had drawn the latch on the door after him, Montparnasse slipped out from behind the partition.
"You always act like you have a jealous husband. Or an overprotective father. Next, you'll be making me hide under the bed." He winked boldly. "Don't worry, I know a thing or two about that."
Enjolras wanted to tell him that he didn't appreciate such talk, but by the time he opened his mouth he had already forgotten the words. Casually, unselfconsciously, Montparnasse had unbuttoned his bedshirt and started to undress. Enjolras' jaw snapped shut so suddenly that his teeth clicked. He turned away, snatched his pen and a handful of papers up from his writing desk and headed for the bedroom with such haste that he was surprised he made it without stumbling over the furniture.
He supposed it was too much to hope for that Montparnasse hadn't noticed. Though he was safe now on the other side of the screen, out of sight, Enjolras could still hear the whisper of clothing sliding to the floor, the soft hiccup of water displacing as Montparnasse slipped his legs into the tub.
"Is everything all right, M. Enjolras?" he cooed. And Enjolras knew that he was being mocked, but he could not work up the anger the situation deserved.
"Fine," he snapped.
"It's just that you moved so very quickly…" Montparnasse said soothingly. "I thought you'd want the water first. I'm so dirty, you see. Far dirtier than you are."
Enjolras set his jaw. "Just don't spend too long in there. You'll take a chill."
"It feels good, though," Montparnasse said.
There was a splash as he dipped his head under the water. Or so Enjolras imagined, and regretted his presumptuousness at once. Montparnasse may have been immodest, but that was no excuse for Enjolras to forget his own good breeding. He knew a thing or two about how the impoverished lived, entire families in a single room, with no space left over for privacy, or shame.
After a time, he heard Montparnasse stand up out of the water. Then, he appeared at the edge of the screen, wrapped in a dressing gown which he had belted loosely, so it gapped open around his legs.
Enjolras did not look up, he was resolved not to look up, but Montparnasse waited there, silent and still, until at last he raised his eyes.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were embarrassed," Montparnasse said. His hair was slicked down around his face, and it clung to his skin like cracks in porcelain. It was longer than Enjolras had thought. "It's just you and me. There's nothing to be embarrassed about, is there?"
Montparnasse stepped forward, and Enjolras retreated into the familiar and unsentimental fortress of common sense. "You'll make yourself sick again, walking around like that."
"But I've been so much better these days. If you keep talking like that, you'll never get a chance to see how good I can really be."
Enjolras felt a brief moment of annoyance. Montparnasse was talking nonsense, of course. Perhaps his fever really had returned. He opened his mouth to protest, but Montparnasse only shook his head and came forward. Enjolras could see by his eyes that his intent was wicked indeed. It was not in his nature to shrink from danger, but all the same he was glad for the stiff back of the divan. It kept him from flinching away as Montparnasse crossed the floor towards him.
With a sweep of his arm, Montparnasse gathered up the book that lay open across Enjolras' thighs. He flicked his wrist and tossed it to the floor, and Enjolras forgot that he was supposed to be afraid for his life.
"For God's sake…" he snapped. It was the harshest oath he knew, but he might have even said it a second time if Montparnasse had not, at that moment, come to occupy the place in his lap where his books had just been.
They were close enough that Enjolras' could feel the inside curves of Montparnasse's thighs against his hipbones. The muscles there were tense and twitching; they did not yield, not quite. Montparnasse's hands fluttered up to wrap around his collar, and Enjolras did not yield, either. Nor did he resist.
Montparnasse leaned in, but he also pulled him forward. Forcing Enjolras up to meet him halfway. It was not his first kiss, not even the first that had been stolen from him so brazenly, but this was the first time he had not jerked away in alarm, or pursed his lips tight to keep out invading particles.
When he realized that Enjolras wasn't pulling away, Montparnasse's hands relaxed. They fell limp on his shoulders; his thumbnails brushed against the bare skin above Enjolras' collar. How easy it would be, he thought, for Montparnasse to close his hands around his throat at that moment. How easy to throttle the life out of him. He might even have allowed it; he had let Montparnasse kiss him, after all.
Enjolras tilted his head back a little, and Montparnasse broke away. He seemed only to need a moment to catch his breath. Enjolras' head was still humming, at any rate, when he began to speak.
"I kept thinking you were going to come to me," Montparnasse said. "I thought you were just waiting for the right moment. I thought maybe it got you excited, playing indulgent nurse, and stern father, and Jesus Christ himself all rolled into one. Maybe that's what gets a man like you hot. But when you ran off like that, I finally understood. You poor dear. You were scared to death."
Numbly, only half comprehending, Enjolras licked his lips; they were dry suddenly, and a little sore. He felt shaken. As if he had been sound asleep beneath a mound of blankets, dreaming soft and meaningless dreams, when all at once a hand had come to snatch away the bedclothes, and the a shock of cold air had slapped him awake.
"You're always reminding me how you saved me," Montparnasse said. "Let me do something for you now. Then we'll be even, and you won't be able to hold it over me any more."
He leaned close again, and Enjolras' felt his heart leap into his throat. He caught Montparnasse by the shoulders, holding him at bay.
"I'm not going to bargain with you…" he rasped.
Montparnasse leaned back on his knees. He still sat defiantly astride Enjolras' hips, but at least he was far enough away now that Enjolras could breathe without feeling that the air was tainted. He could not take his eyes from Montparnasse's face, the inversion of his eyebrows and the bemused expression he wore.
Enjolras knew that he was blushing, and it irritated him greatly.
"That's not why I saved you," he snapped. "I never wanted… never…"
Montparnasse looked at him critically. "Never?"
"You don't understand why I did what I did. How could you? It's like trying to explain the social contract to a mongrel dog."
At first, he was afraid he had gone too far, but Montparnasse only looked sulky and bored. He tossed his damp hair and flounced out of Enjolras' lap, sliding off the edge of the divan and down to the floor at Enjolras' feet, where he sat like a prim Infanta.
"So maybe that's true," he said. "But it's not like you understand me any better."
"You're no great mystery," Enjolras said. "I've let you play at it, all these weeks. Dodging my questions. Laughing at the sound advice I gave you. But I know the truth; you're nothing but a lazy, sullen wastrel. And you'd rather die than change your ways."
Montparnasse sprang to his feet, but Enjolras had anticipated the movement and he rose to meet him. He caught hold of Montparnasse's arms before he could turn away. "It will be easier for both of us if you just admit that I'm right."
The thief was tense in his grip, so tense he was almost trembling, but he was too poised to pull away.
"I'll admit it," he said quietly. "If you admit that you liked that kiss I gave you."
Though he had resolved to hold Montparnasse there until he agreed to see reason, at those words Enjolras thrust him away. "You're impossible…"
Montparnasse sniffed and straightened himself. He went to the small mirror and began to shape his damp hair into curls.
"You liked it," Montparnasse said. "But you want to pretend that you didn't. You'll never say it. You'll never thank me. But when it's convenient for you, then you'll come back. Then I'll be good enough for you to use. Rich boys like you, you're always such cold fish, but I'll do my part. I'll prop up your fragile little ego for you…"
He flinched when Enjolras' hand came down on his shoulder. His fingers clenched in his hair, so hard that a few black strands came loose in his grip.
"If we're ever going to get anywhere," Enjolras said, "you're going to have to stop blaming me for everything bad that's befallen you. If you've been wronged, then so be it. I've tried to only do right by you."
Montparnasse's shoulders slumped. He let Enjolras turn him away from the glass, but he didn't lift the hand from his hair until Enjolras reached up, took him by the wrist and urged it away.
"I know," Montparnasse sighed. "You're always so damned decent. You're so decent to me. Do you really hate me that much?"
"You're talking nonsense," Enjolras said. He drew Montparnasse away from the mirror; gently, but with a steely grip that indicated he would not tolerate any further foolishness, he guided him over to the divan and made him sit. He took a blanket from the bed, and Montparnasse drew it around his shoulders.
He looked up. His eyes were feverish, but Enjolras did not worry. He had seen that expression before; it did not always indicate sickness.
"I suppose you want me to say I've done things I'm not proud of," Montparnasse said. "I won't. I'm not ashamed. It was just something I did to make a little money, before I learned that I could take it. It was fine, for a while. I'm too old for it now."
Enjolras looked away. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I don't know," Montparnasse admitted. "I'm talking like I'm drunk. But I don't feel drunk. You haven't let me have a drop in weeks…"
His eyes flicked over Enjolras' face as if it were a page in a book. "I know you don't hate me. It might be easier if you did."
"Easier to do what?" Enjolras asked. But Montparnasse only fidgeted in his seat and said nothing.
Enjolras knelt down, to better see his eyes.
"I like you a lot…" Montparnasse started to say, but Enjolras silenced him with a glance.
"You're confused," he said. "Because your mind has grown lax from disuse. Beginning tomorrow, I shall take responsibility for your education."
He scooped the book that had been knocked from his lap up off the floor and placed it in Montparnasse's hands. He took it without complaint, but held it as if it were something dead.
Enjolras said, "It's what I should have been doing all along."
When Enjolras awoke the next morning, there was but a little leaden light in the room. He was glad that it was early, and that the air sagged with the chill of a winter dawn. When he pushed back the covers, he was glad, still more, for the chastising sting of the cold. For Enjolras knew that he had been remiss of late. The events of the night before had proven as much. Yes, he remembered them well; they had not faded in the slightest with sleep. If anything, the sensations were more clear. The outline of Montparnasse's hands on his shoulders, the brand of those smirking lips against his own.
It had shocked him, as if he were still a boy from the provinces, freshly arrived in Paris, with his credulousness writ large on his face. For here was a vice which, in all his long hours musing on the moral failing and the abolition thereof, Enjolras had never thought of before. It was not the love between men that bothered him. Long ago, Enjolras had grown weary of salon conversations that revolved around nothing but the latest developments in the scientific study of "sexual inversion", and decided that, if such a thing really were a sin, then all sins should be so harmless to those involved.
No, it was not the act which had so unsettled Enjolras, but rather the ease with which Montparnasse had committed it. As if he had done it before a hundred times, which was, perhaps, not such an unreasonable estimate. He was a whore, after all. He'd said as much himself.
Enjolras found that hard to accept. He had never been intimately acquainted with such professions the way Courfeyrac and Grantaire were; however, he was well read in all the ways of human suffering, and on top of that he had once heard a most eloquent and informed speaker give a talk on the unfortunate lot of fallen women.
But Montparnasse seemed nothing like those unlucky creatures the gentleman had described. His looks had not been blighted by disease and worry; if anything, he had been more handsome in that moment of passion, when he had descended. He had seemed neither shameless, nor deeply ashamed, but rather only a little hesitant, a little curious, as if he didn't yet know what Enjolras would like, but he was prepared to try until he found something that stuck.
No, Enjolras knew that he had not been the first. All of Montparnasse's tricks had been honed in the dark corners of public houses, in alleys where the broken paving stones cut his knees. Down on his back in a cramped garden apartment, then up on his feet again, already counting his money and thinking of revenge.
Enjolras paused in the act of feeding a bit of kindling into the stove. He did not know where those last thoughts had come from, but they clung stubbornly and did not dissipate even when he shown the bright light of his high intellect upon them. He dropped the kindling back into the bin beside the stove and shut the little door. It seemed, suddenly, that he might prefer to endure the chill air a little longer.
He crept into the bedroom, where Montparnasse slept on. He wouldn't stir until the early afternoon, and by then Enjolras would be gone. He did not have plans to return until late, and he hoped that a day would be enough time to reorient his feelings towards this boy. Perhaps Montparnasse would even awake alone, feel embarrassed for what he had done, and slip out of the house. Perhaps, when Enjolras got back, he would be gone.
But he neither expected that, nor hoped for it. Montparnasse would not be gotten rid of so easily; he would stay, until there was nothing left for him here.
Enjolras gathered a clean set of clothes, and before he went back to the main room he risked one more glance at the bed. Though he had tried to stay as quiet as possible, he was not surprised to find that Montparnasse was awake. His yellow eyes peered out from a crack between the blankets.
"Where are you going?" he said, muffled.
"I have business," Enjolras replied stiffly. "I've been idle long enough."
"Okay," Montparnasse yawned, sleepy enough that he had forgotten for the moment that he was too elegant for colloquial speech. "I'll see you later. But don't forget, you promised you'd teach me."
"I did," Enjolras said, after a moment's hesitation. He had, in fact, forgotten completely.
Montparnasse closed his eyes again. "Bring back one of those little books with pictures for all the letters. I always wanted one of those."
Enjolras feared being away from his commitments for too long. For all the long weeks of Montparnasse's convalescence, Enjolras had not dared venture far from the boy's bedside. He had written to his professors pleading illness and begging to be excused from lectures, and he had dispatched Combeferre to keep his troops in line.
His days had seemed suddenly very long, and he had spent them reading and writing. But no time passed at all before his ideas dried up, and he could no longer concentrate on law and history. He retreated into adventure novels and little magazines of pastoral poetry. Enjolras would have denied it if anyone asked, but even he had a few such items around, and he battered his mind against them until it became dull from the trauma.
The slackening of his mental faculties was a horrifying feeling. He knew that he spoke with imprecision now. His thoughts lurched through a thick fog, surfacing from time to time, seemingly at random. When he wanted one in particular, he had to dig deep for it, and wrench it free by its roots.
Naturally, he blamed Montparnasse, though in truth he could muster little anger towards the young thief. He reserved his anger, instead, for a world that had the audacity to continue on his absence, as if it didn't need him at all.
Enjolras went to four lectures that day, and found the time in between them to pester as many professors into surrendering their notes for the classes he had missed. When one of them dared to ask if, perhaps, it wouldn't be better for him to wait another quarter to take his exams, Enjolras poisoned him with his eyes and declared he would be more than ready and he hoped it would be a challenge.
He left feeling that he had been too rash, that he had not behaved as a man recovering from illness ought to. But the professor had not been awed by Enjolras' fortitude, nor suspicious of his motives; he had only spared him a glance that lasted a little longer than normal. Enjolras had been surprised by that, for he had little reverence for scholars. He respected them for the knowledge they kept, and despised them for what little good they had done with it. He often had such conflicting feelings about people, and when in doubt he preferred to err on the side of dislike.
It seemed to him safer that way, for he knew there were few he could trust. And after he finished this visit to the long-neglected back room of the Café Musaine, he expected that list to have become even shorter. They would have made a mess of everything, Enjolras thought darkly. His lieutenants were faithful, yes, but they were quick to stray without his firm hand to guide them. So eager to wander down the wrong path…
Combeferre pulled him aside as soon as he entered, before he had a chance to survey the damage. Enjolras knew what he would ask about, that it would be the very thing he had come here to escape.
"I tried not to worry," Combeferre said apologetically.
"Yes, so did I." Enjolras was not looking at him. His eyes were combing over the room, over his comrades. They were engaged in dominos, in the papers, in their schoolwork; it looked much as it had when he had last been here. But Enjolras was not fooled. The sin and the slothfulness had crept in somewhere.
"I mean about that boy," Combeferre said. "You told me he was recovering. And then I heard nothing more from you. What was I to believe?"
"That I was caring for him, I should think."
Enjolras vowed he would say no more about it. Combeferre was dear to him, but there were some things that even dear friends did not need to know. But he felt the man's eyes on him, searching, and without meaning too Enjolras thought of the night before. Of Montparnasse's unclothed limbs, his damp hair. So clearly did he see them in his mind, that he feared Combeferre might see them too, reflected in the glass of his eyes.
Again, Enjolras found a lie springing to his lips.
"He's gone," he said.
"You let him go?" Combeferre asked. "Did you find out who he was? Anything?"
Enjolras shook his head. "He just slipped out one night. I was asleep. He wasn't anyone, Combeferre. Just an urchin. It's like you said, he had forgotten how to be grateful. And how to be sensible as well. Let us pray that his luck has taken a turn for the better, and then wash our hands of the matter."
"If you wish," Combeferre said.
He seemed hesitant, but Enjolras did not wait to find out why. He slipped past him, and escaped. "I see you've become lax in your work," he said, loudly enough to attract the attention of Joly and Courfeyrac, who glanced at him boredly and then returned to their game of dice.
"Hardly," Combeferre said. "But I knew you'd say that, so I was sure to take notes."
With a flourish uncharacteristic to him, he retrieved a folio from one of the tables, flipped it open, and presented the page to Enjolras. In the left margin there were was a series of dates, each followed by a line or two in Combeferre's tidy hand, concerning matters of covertly distributed pamphlets and stockpiled munitions.
"You might have had the sense to not write such sensitive information down," Enjolras said, but Combeferre only smiled, as if he had been given the highest praise.
"I'm sure things will progress much more smoothly now that you're back."
"Indeed..." Enjolras replied, but he was distracted. He had seen, out of the corner of his eye, the door swing open and Jean Prouvaire enter. His pallid completion and his tattered cravat grated on Enjolras nerves, but not as much as the way his eyes widened when he caught sight of Enjolras. The way his stride turned into a creeping shuffle as he approached.
Enjolras was quite certain he would never understand it. When Jean Prouvaire had entered the room, he had been resolute and of noble bearing. It was only when he had spotted him there...
Enjolras pursed his lips. Honestly, he was worse than Grantaire in some ways.
"I've missed seeing you," Jean Prouvaire said. "It has been a while."
There was something in his tone that Enjolras disliked instinctively. He turned away, giving Jean Prouvaire his profile.
"I would have thought you got your fill of me at my apartment," he said. He noticed Combeferre slipping away, extracting himself from the conversation. Enjolras could not understand why his cheeks suddenly seemed flushed with color, but that, too, aroused in him a deep sense of irritation.
Jean Prouvaire winced. "You're still angry about that, then."
"I was not angry," Enjolras said. "Though, if you have some business with me, I would prefer that you speak plainly and have out with it. These hints and murmurs do not convey your message so well as you think."
"There's nothing," Jean Prouvaire replied. "Nothing to be said."
His eyes clouded a little, and for a moment he seemed to look inward. "If only the ballad were finished..." he mumbled.
Enjolras scowled. He wanted to hear no talk of poetry right now. He had always thought of Jean Prouvaire's rhymes as skillful, but vapid; better suited for children's books and Ladies' quarterlies then the serious publishing establishments to which he was perpetually submitting work. He had never said as much aloud, though. For in truth, when Jean Prouvaire was not in one of his flighty moods, as he was now, Enjolras was rather fond of him, and he knew that he would not take his criticisms well.
"Show it to me when it is," Enjolras said when Jean Prouvaire made no move to explain himself or go on, and he extracted himself from the conversation, but not quite quickly enough to keep from seeing the way Jean Prouvaire's expression brightened.
The poet caught him by the sleeve before he could get far. "There is someone who wishes to meet you, Enjolras."
"Oh?" Enjolras was startled. He could not conceive who might make such a request, but he knew by Jean Prouvaire's expression that he was not suggesting such a thing in casualness.
"It's not another lady admirer, is it?" he asked. "I'm sure she is possessed of a great many charms, Jehan. And I know that you are the sort of man who still believes in love. However..."
"It's a man," Jean Prouvaire said. "An old man, and a foreigner, but one who will be of some interest to you. A Russian who has had..." Here, he hesitated. "Dealings with certain groups in Geneva. Groups with which we share certain interests."
It took Enjolras a moment to decipher the needlessly convoluted language. "A comrade, then? A brother?"
"A brother in arms," Jean Prouvaire said. "He's killed men, Enjolras. He's never said as much, but I really think he's killed..."
"Enough of that talk. We ought never wish our struggle to come to that," Enjolras said. But secretly, his heart thrilled. "Still, though, we ought to be prepared for any eventuality."
"He's expressed an interest in you," Jean Prouvaire ventured. "I didn't tell him anything about your work here. But…"
"I understand. And I shall meet with your friend, if you arrange it."
Jean Prouvaire started as if a current had passed through him. It was a moment before he could stammer out a response. "Yes. Yes, I shall."
Though he was somewhat optimistic about Jean Prouvaire's news, not to mention pleasantly surprised by the contents of Combeferre's folio, Enjolras was also annoyed that so much had taken place while he was away. His greatest fear had been that his lieutenants would have sunk into chaos without him, but his greatest annoyance was that they had carried on almost as well when he wasn't there.
It was then that he spotted Grantaire in one of the corners, not yet drunk enough that he would not cringe and stumble in a most satisfactory manner when attacked. Enjolras turned at once, and fell upon him, with the intent of giving him such a savage dressing down that anyone who witnessed it would wish he'd never come back.
As the winter stretched on, Enjolras began to feel that the pieces of his life were falling back into order. He was gone frequently during the days, at the University preparing for his exams or out amongst his fellows, and he no longer feared leaving Montparnasse alone. Despite his lofty proclamations, Enjolras had not dared hope that much would come of the boy's education; however, most times when he returned home it was to the sight of Montparnasse bent over his books, squinting in the low light of the candle. Though sometimes it seemed to him that the bedcovers were creased, or the singing birds agitated in their cage, or the looking glass still warm from a lingering gaze as if it had been abandoned in great haste, these occurrences were infrequent enough. And besides, Montparnasse really did seem to be making progress.
In the evenings, while Enjolras ate a hasty supper before retreating to his own studies, Montparnasse pestered him with questions which seemed not entirely chosen at random. Then they would each settle into their books once more. Enjolras still and silent over his, and Montparnasse fidgety and prone to flights of darting motion. Interruptions which Enjolras disliked intensely, but permitted as long as they did not occur frequently enough to annoy.
But any sudden movements from Montparnasse's quarter startled him, and they had ever since Montparnasse had proven how unpredictable he could be. Though neither of them had mentioned it again, Enjolras found his thoughts returning time after time to that kiss they had shared. As for Montparnasse, he seemed to have forgotten it entirely.
In the cramped main room of the apartment, it was inevitable that from time to time they would come closer to each other than was comfortable, but Montparnasse seemed neither to seek out these moments, nor to shrink from them.
Enjolras was relieved at first, then, eventually, offended. Sometimes he seethed: If Montparnasse had only known how many propositions Enjolras had spurned, only to yield to this boy's clumsy and pitiable advances. How many respectable people would have given anything to be where he had been once.
He was embarrassed by his capricious feelings, and he tried to bury them beneath the iron logic of Kant and Hegel. For a time, he was even successful.
It was Christmas Eve, and it was snowing heavily and without any indication of abating. On neither subject was Enjolras particularly inclined to comment. There were no decorations or presents, as Enjolras did not much care for celebration. He had bought both of them dinner, though, and even allowed Montparnasse a little wine.
While they ate, Montparnasse told him about a girl he had once known who had near infinite charms. Enjolras listened politely, as was his custom when such subjects arose, until he felt a constriction of emotion in his throat. It welled up into his mouth, and tasted bitter on his tongue. And Enjolras recognized it at once as a pang of jealousy.
His horror must have shown plainly on his face, for Montparnasse trailed off in the middle of his thought and gave him a curious look. "You must not care for girls like that. Wicked girls. Do you really hate them that much?"
"I hadn't given the matter a lot of thought," Enjolras admitted.
Montparnasse raised his wineglass and pressed the rim to his lips thoughtfully for a moment, before taking a drink. "Do you like girls at all?"
"Yes," Enjolras replied. "Of course I do. I understand the importance of those fairer and gentler souls. But there is no place in my life for them. Women would not even enter my thoughts if you were not so intent on talking about them."
"I was only making conversation."
"I don't care for your choice of subject."
Montparnasse shrugged. "Fine. I disgust you when I try to tell you about myself, and I bore you when I ask you questions. I thought maybe I'd let you talk for a while, but you don't want that either."
"I'm willing to talk, just not-"
"Just not about yourself," Montparnasse finished for him. "I don't understand you. Here I am, living under your roof, and you do these things for me. All these things. But you don't ask for anything. You don't really seem to want anything from me. I think you're more curious about the habits of those canaries over there then you are about me."
"If you're unhappy here, then you know where the door is," Enjolras said. He had begun to relax over the course of the evening, but when Montparnasse spoke like that, he felt all his old defenses snap back into place. "I am sure you know how to make use of it."
"I'm not...!" Montparnasse raised his voice for only a moment before breaking off into a fit of dry coughing. Enjolras watched him, fingers vice-tight on his wineglass, wondering how quickly he would fly to the boy's side if his condition worsened.
But it did not. Montparnasse brought himself back under control, and dabbed at his lips with a handkerchief.
"I'm not unhappy," he said, quieter now. "I'm happy with you. Even when you ignore me. Even when you treat me bad. It's..."
His eyes flickered as he searched for the words, then he laughed. "It's fucked up. That's what it is."
"The language of the gutters..." Enjolras muttered.
"Sometimes its the only thing that fits." Montparnasse stood up, tossing his napkin on the table. His hair was becoming long and unkempt, Enjolras thought, like something wild.
"Merry Christmas," he said quietly.
Enjolras watched his turned back curiously, taking note of the way he kept one hip tucked in, thrusting up into the other. One foot always a little behind the other, as if he would push off it into a dead run at any moment. His figure, still skinny, but starting to fill out after a month of decent food and immobility.
He assented at last, "Merry Christmas."
But already Montparnasse was slipping away. He went to the little window that overlooked the garden. The curtains had already been drawn across it for the night, and Montparnasse nudged them aside so he could gaze out. But with all the lights blazing within, and the darkness without, Enjolras wondered if he could really see anything at all.
He stared so intently, though, that Enjolras couldn't help but become curious. He stood, and went to join Montparnasse. The wind was blowing against the house, driving the snow against the glass so that the flakes spiraled out of the darkness and revolved like stars around the small portal of the window.
Enjolras had the disconcerting feeling that if he focused on it for too long, he would be frozen as if by the basilisk's stare.
"I thought I saw something," Montparnasse said after a while. "Something moving out there."
"Just a trick of the light," Enjolras said. He shook himself from the trance induced by the falling snow, and realized that Montparnasse was regarding him with a mix of predation and supplication. Enjolras was unsettled by that expression, which was simultaneously nostalgic and utterly alien.
Montparnasse had been looking for some time, it seemed. Watching his profile; watching him watch the snow. He made no mirror of his eyes. His intentions were clear in them, but Enjolras did not draw away, even when Montparnasse swayed closer and his elbow bumped against Enjolras' arm. There was but a small voice in the back of his mind, urging him to get a hold of himself. To circumnavigate the approaching storm, or at least fortify against the impending attack. But that voice was becoming softer by the moment. Softer still, until he could ignore it completely. And then it was gone at last.
He seized Montparnasse by the front of his clothes, pulling him up and into a bruising kiss.
It was then that he knew he had been vanquished. By the old notions of chivalry which Enjolras, out of a lack of anything better to believe in, was a strict adherent, there was no shame in being vanquished by a worthy adversary. It bothered him to know that he had been so easily conquered, yet when he pulled away at last, his lungs hungry for air, he had no strength for a cutting remark, or indeed for any words at all.
Montparnasse touched two fingers to his lips, as if surprised. It was a spare and elegant gesture, which he had probably learned from some stage melodrama or another. Enjolras reached up and caught his hand, pulling it away from his mouth and pressing it tight.
He held it like that long enough that it became clear to both of them that he didn't know what to do next. Mercifully, Montparnasse beckoned him back to the bedroom.
All his thoughts a warm blur of fever and frenzy, Enjolras wasn't sure what possessed him to let his coat fall to the floor, to leave his boots in the middle of the room where anyone could stumble over them. He had always been careful with his things, had always prided himself on their long lives. But the next morning he found his clothes strewn across the bed, the divan, the little wooden chair. He found them tangled up with Montparnasse's, so that at a glance it was impossible to determine where one began and another ended.
Montparnasse perched on the edge of the bed, his neck arched like a countess. He had been quick to throw off his bedclothes, but now he made no move to either cover or acknowledge his nakedness. Enjolras kept his trousers and undershirt on until the last possible moment, when he had no other recourse but to shed them like some crawling creature grown too large for its shell.
He felt awkward and clumsy beside Montparnasse's neat gracefulness, but when he bent to take the thief's shoulders in his hands, he was surprised to find that Montparnasse was trembling.
"You're cold?" Enjolras ventured, but Montparnasse only shook his head. His expression was draped in layers of obscure shadows; his eyes were unreadable.
"Afraid, then?" Enjolras said.
"You ask too many questions."
"Just a moment ago, you were scolding me for not talking enough."
Montparnasse smiled. "And now I'm scolding you for your poor sense of timing."
"I can't win with you."
"There is a way…"
Enjolras felt himself drawn forward, felt Montparnasse crumple beneath him. Then they were in bed, and Montparnasse's arms were around him, lean and cool. His mouth was pressed against Enjolras' ear, and the things he murmured were so obscene as to be almost beautiful.
He would have blushed, but there wasn't enough blood left in that hemisphere of his body. "Don't be vulgar," he sighed.
"I'm not being vulgar," Montparnasse said. "I'm being obvious. So you won't have any trouble following along." His fingers fluttered down Enjolras' chest, and they were almost to his belt before he realized that they had left a trail of undone buttons in their wake.
Montparnasse's arms wrapped around him as a vine around a root, and did not loosen, even when Enjolras reached to blow out the lamp.
"Leave it," he said. But Enjolras pretended he hadn't heard. He didn't want to know what the light would reveal if he let it burn.
The morning came, cold and bright as he needed it.
Leaden light seeped around the edge of the partition, and Enjolras' first thought was a chastising one. He had forgotten to draw the curtains the night before, and the chill air had drafted in. He didn't feel the cold though; in fact, it seemed unseasonably warm beneath the blankets.
Gradually, Enjolras became aware of a pressure on his arm. He sighed, remembering all that had transpired and feeling nothing in particular about it. He was curiously empty of thought and emotion. For one with an intelligence such as his, it should have been like unto a living death. But in fact, Enjolras was comforted.
He turned onto his side, slowly so as not to wake Montparnasse. The young thief's face was colored by the dawn light, and the contours of his cheeks stood out sharply. His lips were parted a little, as if he were smiling at a private joke. Beneath the blanket, one of his feet was thrust back and between Enjolras' knees, which struck him as both absurd and tender.
For the first time, he realized how close they were. Though his arm had been around Montparnasse's waist when he had settled in the night before, Enjolras had taken for granted that they would drift apart during the night, as if sleep were the one salvation left for him.
Enjolras felt himself trapped now by an inescapable truth. When he tested his conscience for the sore spots that should have been upon it, he found them already soothed. Yes, he was peaceful this morning, and relieved, as if a possession he had long since thought lost had been returned to him.
He inclined his head slightly so he could see Montparnasse's face, and with unaccustomed wryness he thought that the lost things were always in the last place one looked.
He suspected he would not be able to understand more fully than that until Montparnasse was awake, which might not happen for some time now. The boy did like to sleep late and then stretch luxuriously upon waking. Enjolras thought of the long line of his muscles, the careless tilt of his head, and he was startled to feel a tightening in the low places on his body.
It was not unpleasant, but it did make him very aware of Montparnasse's closeness. He could wake him; he knew that Montparnasse would be accommodating. But he did not move. He was afraid that the affection he felt was precarious, and that it might vanish as quickly and inexplicably as it had come.
Better, then, to let Montparnasse sleep, and let his own base feelings subside of their own accord. Carefully, so as not to jostle his companion, Enjolras settled his head once more on the pillow. Presently, the urgency passed, and he was drowsy once more. Only a little after that, he was asleep again.
When Enjolras woke for the second time, the other side of the bed had been empty long enough to become cold. Without Montparnasse's presence, Enjolras felt his nakedness keenly, and despite the heap of blankets that had been piled around him by careful clumsy hands, he was embarrassed.
He sat up slowly, so he could be sure the top sheet adhered to his shoulders. Montparnasse was perched on the divan, his feet drawn up under his body against the bite in the air, a shawl around his shoulders and a book open on his lap. Enjolras could see that he took no pleasure from the task; the irritation was written plainly on his face, but so too were the long lines of determination.
The serious expression he wore struck Enjolras a strange kind of blow, and he felt himself soften. He wondered if he wasn't growing complacent and sentimental, a prospect which both frightened and intrigued him. He had awakened this morning expecting to feel like a different man, but when he took inventory of himself he found himself little changed.
It puzzled him that one human soul could have enough room in it for both chastity and lasciviousness, pity and gratitude, fear of being alone and fear of one day finding that he had let someone so close the bonds between them could no longer be severed with neatness.
Abruptly, Montparnasse raised his head, a quick sharp motion, as if Enjolras' gaze had exerted a physical pressure on his turned shoulder. He twisted, his expression already disintegrating and reforming into a smile.
"Well…" he purred. "You slept like the dead."
Enjolras frowned a little. "I didn't mean to disturb you."
He glanced at the book in Montparnasse's hands, only to see it snapped abruptly shut.
"Forget about that." Montparnasse got to his feet, let the shawl fall, and moved across the floor with soundless steps.
He dropped into Enjolras' lap and looked up at him through his lashes. His hand moved to stroke his cheek, and Enjolras shrank from him.
"What are you doing?"
Montparnasse looked startled. "I thought…"
He reached out again, and Enjolras caught his wrist. He felt a twinge of cruel pleasure at the hurt expression on Montparnasse's face, at the way he tried so hard to hide it. When he had awakened to find Montparnasse studying without a fire in the stove, Enjolras had felt a pang of fondness, sharp and sudden as a spasm. That was gone now, as was the countenance that had inspired it. Montparnasse's eyes were as blank as shuttered windows; his smile was frozen. He must have thought he looked coy, but Enjolras found him grotesque.
Montparnasse must have seen the change in his expression, because he drew away. "You don't have to explain. I understand."
Enjolras wasn't sure he liked that. He didn't know himself what had happened between the night before and this morning; he didn't know what was happening to him. For a moment, which he would be ashamed of later, Enjolras wondered if Montparnasse really did now him as well as he claimed. If he did, could he not be persuaded to share some of that private knowledge?
Already Montparnasse was on his feet again, and Enjolras watched him walk away and wondered where he thought he would go. He couldn't bring himself to get out from under the covers until after Montparnasse had left the room, and he dressed so hastily that he misbuttoned his shirt twice in the process.
In the main room, Montparnasse did not look up to meet his eyes. Enjolras fed kindling into the stove with his back to the silence, as if he could ignore it until it went away. He felt the muscles in his jaw growing stiff, as though his face were gradually becoming marble, or wood. Still, Montparnasse did not speak, though Enjolras knew that he knew he could dispel the silence with a wave of his hand, like a conjurer dispelling fire. So Enjolras kept feeding sticks into the stove, breaking them up as he did, then breaking them again, until they were only slivers; even then, the stove was full too soon, and at last there was no other recourse for him but to turn and face him.
Montparnasse was on his feet now, looking at him. Something told Enjolras that the expression he wore must have been the same one as the night they had met, when Montparnasse had watched him from the shadows. Watched him, not knowing quite what he was watching for, but knowing it when he saw it, and then acting before he could even put a name to what he had seen, as a small animal might act when it hears a predatory movement in the grass, or when it sees a predatory shadow pass overhead.
Enjolras took a deep breath. His thoughts were in turmoil, and they would not coalesce.
He met Montparnasse's gaze, and without stretching out a hand, without moving at all, he said, "Come here."
Slowly, Montparnasse approached. His feet were bare; the air before him fogged with each breath he took, so his face was veiled, then unveiled, from one step to the next. Enjolras set his hands on Montparnasse's shoulders, and felt that he was shivering a little.
"Are you really that cold?"
"No," Montparnasse replied. It wasn't a lie, but Enjolras drew him close. His hands slid from Montparnasse's shoulders, around his back, and he felt the sharp edges of his shoulder blades against his palms, and then the ridge of his spine. And then his hands passed one another, and Montparnasse was up against him. His palms pressed against Enjolras' chest, and then he turned them dovetail at the wrists, so he could slide his fingers under the lapels of Enjolras' dressing gown.
Enjolras sighed, and his breath too made a veil to cover them both. He could feel his shoulders untensing now, and he knew he would have to talk fast before he lost his rigidity again.
"I didn't mean for it to happen like that," he said. "I know what you were, and how it must have shamed you. I never wanted you to have to endure such a thing again…"
Montparnasse looked up. His mouth was slack, but his eyes terrible, comprehending. "You think I was ashamed?"
"You needn't be."
"So, it's because I sold it. That's why you hate me. There are other reasons, but you like that one, I guess." He had not moved from Enjolras' arms, but with each word, he seemed to fall further away. "But that's what you don't like. That there were other men. There were girls, too, but that's not the same thing. Not as long as there were other men, and some of them maybe even as handsome as you, and some of them who made me feel like you did. And maybe some who made me feel better."
"No," Enjolras said. But he thought, by God he was so young. Still so green and countrified that compared to him, Montparnasse was already ancient. An old man wrapped up in the skin of a boy of sixteen.
"You said you'd make me good," Montparnasse went on, as if unaware that he was talking to a child. "You thought I could be good. And so maybe there were other men, and none of them with hands much different than yours, and none of them looking much different than you do with the lights off. But they're not like you, because they never thought I could be good, or bad, or anything. But now you've changed your mind."
Enjolras' tongue was pressed against the roof of his mouth in preparation of another 'no', but he couldn't make it come unstuck. He couldn't speak. Montparnasse's expression was bitter, unflinching, stern, defiant, and his chin was tilted in the way that a young fencer or a grappler might tilt when issuing or accepting a challenge. In a surge of panic, Enjolras drew him forward and kissed him. At first, he was afraid Montparnasse would not yield to it, but he did. He pushed up on his toes, his fingers curling a little against Enjolras' chest, hooking into the silk of his bedclothes.
It unstopped his throat, and all the words he had grasped for shook loose. "You can be good," he said. "You can still be good. And I can be better. I swear, I swear…"
Jean Prouvaire arranged the meeting on a gray afternoon in January. If he resented being thrust abruptly in the role of Enjolras' messenger and valet, he did not complain. In fact, he seemed to relish the task in a way that bordered upon indecorous, but this was something Enjolras did not think on excessively. He much preferred to be obeyed.
The restaurant he had chosen was called Lapérouse, and it was one of innumerable unmarked bistros in the Latin Quarter. It was known mostly for the secrecy of its staff, and as such was a favorite of well-to-do students and their mistresses. It was suitable, too, for secret meetings of a different kind. Though he had never been given to any such dalliances, Enjolras knew the restaurant's reputation, and as he waited alone in one of the private salons, he was suddenly, violently uncomfortable.
Not so long had passed since the days when he would have been able to sit in a place like this and not think of what had transpired before his arrival. But now, the luxurious divan seemed to hold the memories of a thousand deeply personal moments. He imagined he could still hear murmurs hung in the air like so many crepe ribbons, that he could still smell the sweat of lovemaking sunk into the cushions.
He was plagued by thoughts of Montparnasse. They troubled him during his lectures, and they tormented him while he gave instruction to his lieutenants. One moment he would be conducting his life in a way proper and befitting, the next he would be consumed completely by a memory of the last moment before he has slid out of bed that morning: Montparnasse's arm tightening around him, a silent entreaty for him to stay, which Enjolras had stubbornly ignored.
There was a word for what he was feeling, but, even for all his innocence, Enjolras knew that word was not love. Infatuation was more accurate, or lust, but he had always considered that a horrid term.
Though he knew he could never bring Montparnasse here, regardless of its reputation for discretion, Enjolras found himself wondering what he would make of a place like this. He had found that he took a certain enjoyment from presenting Montparnasse with gifts. Small things, carefully chosen, like a little hand mirror or a pair of gloves, which he knew would appeal to the young man's vanity. He was careful not to let on how long he had spent choosing them, how it gratified him to show off his own good taste. How it pleased him to know he could give Montparnasse things he would never have been able to buy on his own.
He would always watch Montparnasse's expression very closely, cataloguing each shift from surprised, to flattered, to pleased. Enjolras would think them over later, run them through his mind like slides, and feel intensely satisfied with himself and his capacity for good works.
There was a tap on the outer door that separated his room from the rest of the restaurant. Enjolras pushed to his feet, but once there he swayed a little, feeling awkward. Of late, he had found himself being arrested by such feelings with some frequency, and he knew that his wandering thoughts were to blame. No one could possibly have known how Montparnasse consumed his private moments – no, one such as he would never be suspected of such sordidness – but he could not shake the feeling that the truth was clear to anyone who looked closely enough.
They would all find out: this was his fear. They would know, and then he would not be unimpeachable any longer.
The door opened, and a waiter with a subtle and deliberate manner showed Razumov in. The Russian did not seem at all as Jean Prouvaire had described him, and in a moment of initial confusion, Enjolras raised his eyes to ask if there hadn't been some mistake. But the waiter had already withdrawn, and closed the door behind him with almost no sound at all.
Razumov came forward, looking as sturdy and assured as a man half his age. He extended a hand. "M. Enjolras. What a pleasure to put a face to that name."
"Indeed," Enjolras replied. Razumov's grip was firm, the roughness of his hand impossible to gauge for the heavy gloves he wore. "You are Razumov, then?"
He made no reply save for a slight curl of his lips, and when he moved as though to come further into the room, Enjolras found himself stepping aside to let him through. He was struck by Razumov's eccentric appearance, the flourish in his movements. From the way Jean Prouvaire had told it, he had expected a shabby, sickly old man, toothless and sallow and yellow about the eyes. Razumov was clearly advanced in years, but if he seemed hardly worse for the wear. He had the spring in his step of a young man, the roving eyes of a rake, the long hair of a dandy.
Razumov did not speak again until he had poured himself a glass from the decanter left out on the table. He settled himself on the long divan, his coat draped carelessly over the arm beside him. He set his hat beside it, and leaned his stick at a rakish angle, but he did not remove his gloves. Enjolras found this most curious, though they did not seem to impede Razumov in the least. One hand slipped with easy grace into the inside pocket of his coat, and he drew out a silver case. He retrieved a cigarette, small and black, and lit it from the box of matches on the table. Having been, until now, acquainted only with cigars, Enjolras watched him draw the smoke into his mouth. It disappeared for what seemed an inordinately long time, and then reappeared again at his nostrils.
Only then did Razumov speak. "I understand that we share certain interests, you and I. It flatters me, to think that someone so young might have some use for my humble services. But I suppose everything old is new again, as they say. If the young, smart set wants bloodshed, then far be it for an old man like me to deny them that pleasure."
Enjolras was struck dumb. Though he had come to accept that he was still naive in certain ways, he was no less embarrassed that he could find nothing to say to the man before him now. Razumov seemed to know this, and was not bothered by it. With the wineglass cupped in one hand, and the cigarette pinched in the other, he had the air of a man who had been away from pleasure for some time, but hardly long enough to forget it.
"It is weary work," Razumov continued after some time. "Never forget that it is weary, weary work…"
Enjolras started as if the words had pricked him.
"I am not afraid," he said quickly. "If you are truly our comrade, then you already know that."
"Comrade? No. I'll stick with 'fellow traveler' if it's all the same. My fighting days are long past. But the world you want is not so far away as you might think. A clear mind will help you get there, but a strong arm does so much more."
"What are you saying?" Enjolras said.
"Don't you know?" Razumov smiled coolly, as if savoring some private joke. "Perhaps I was mistaken in coming here. Maybe you are not the young man I thought you were."
Though he made no move to rise from his seat, Enjolras started forward as if to detain him. "No. No, I understand. You mean that it's all well and good for us to speak our ideals, and write them in the press, and teach them to our children. But for anything significant to change, we must apply brute force. We must bend the world to our will…"
"That's really what you think?" Razumov mused, as if speaking to himself. He watched Enjolras with benevolent expectation, like a tutor waiting for an answer from his student. Had it been anyone else looking at him so, Enjolras would have thrown himself into the rhetoric with all his soul. He would have embraced the idea wholeheartedly. But something Razumov's eyes checked his tongue, and Enjolras looked away as if embarrassed.
"I don't know," he said.
"Yes," Razumov said. "Yes, because all your life you have been told you are an enlightened man. You are good, and just. And so how could it be that you are called to kill men, to send them into that great cipher which is death? You, who never even hunted in his youth, who has never killed anything larger than a house spider. You would have to murder men."
Enjolras was shaken. The things Razumov has said would have struck him as absurd and melodramatic, had they not been so utterly correct. A sudden fear arrested him: Razumov knew still more about him. This old man knew all his secrets, all the things he had worked so hard to keep hidden.
"To kill in wartime is not murder," he managed to say. His mind was drifting, a single word from Razumov had been enough to start it down a dangerous path. He was thinking of Montparnasse. Alone, kept, in that apartment Enjolras had once thought was barely big enough for one. For a moment, he could see it all as if for the first time, and it seemed an absurd situation.
Razumov was watching him still, his eyes making an unblinking catalogue of Enjolras' expression. He did not speak for what seemed a long while.
"Forgive me," he said at last. "It has been a long time since I have wrestled with such questions within myself. I remember their nature, but not their effect on the soul. But, pardon my directness, you must be even more sensitive than I was back in those days. You look thoroughly spooked."
"Meeting you is like starting out on a long journey, and meeting on the road a specter of yourself returning from the same."
"You flatter me, young man." Razumov made a motion with his smoking hand. The cigarette between his fingers had burned down to a long column of ash. It seemed ready to disintegrate at any moment, but somehow it held fast.
"Have a drink," Razumov said. "It will calm your nerves. You know, Jehan speaks very highly of you, and I can see why."
Grateful for the excuse to lower his eyes, Enjolras poured himself a glass of wine. "Do you?" he said bitterly. "I feel quite the fool."
"Such is the curse of youth," Razumov said. "You boys care too much what other people think. You all have a touchy kind of pride. And yet there is no reason to be ashamed. Fiercer men than you, with far more reason to fight, have hesitated when the time came to strike a decisive blow."
"But that's not the only reason…"
Enjolras winced, regretting his words the moment they were out. They had slipped from him while he was distracted. Though they were cryptic, Razumov was nothing if not observant. He would see them for what they were, Enjolras was sure of that, and he would lose the support of this most valuable of men.
"Then what?" Razumov said gently. Enjolras could feel him trying to draw the truth out with his eyes. It should have worried him, but instead he felt soothed, like a man going under ether. Razumov had a trustworthy face, after all, and an aura that hinted this was not the first secret he would be told, or the first he would keep. He would have liked someone else to know about Montparnasse, if only so he could have a chance say the whole affair aloud and maybe make some sense of it in his own mind.
But he tore his eyes away. "You say that you sympathize with our cause, and yet you have done nothing to prove it, sir. Have you anything for me? Or have I simply bought you lunch out of Christian charity?"
Razumov smiled, a smile that did not reach his eyes, and stretched an arm out lazily to stab his cigarette into an ashtray. "I know some men. Fine men. I know them from a different life. But I shall see how they react to the mention of your name, M. Enjolras."
Enjolras walked home in a daze. He was unaware of it, but he had pulled his head down and hunched up his shoulders so his face was hidden in the collar of his overcoat. On a cold eve as this, such an affectation might have been only to protect his nose from the wind, but he knew that to every eye his carriage was unmistakable one of deep embarrassment.
The interview with Razumov had left his thoughts in disarray, and Enjolras could not begin to imagine how to right them. The Russian had promised him the names of sympathetic comrades within the movement, but he had not divulged any identities as of yet. Even as he swore it, Enjolras had known it was the most flimsy of promises, unequal to the information he had surrendered in turn. And yet, he had accepted it, and even felt a sharp pang of gratitude where his indignation should have been.
He hadn't meant to bring up Montparnasse. Enjolras knew he hadn't said much, but he had the distinct feeling that it had been more than enough for Razumov to surmise the entire story. He wasn't normal, that man. Enjolras recoiled at the remembrance of his steady gaze, but he blamed only himself. Before he had met Montparnasse, Enjolras would have laughed at the notion of his personal life interfering with his public. There had, until now, been very little in the way of a personal life at all.
And yet, Montparnasse had crippled him with barely any effort at all. Any gap in his thoughts, any hesitation, any crack between two ideas, was a place for him to slip in.
Enjolras was gasping for breath by the time he ascended the walk to his building. He could feel his heart pounding, like the onset of a panic, and he knew there was but one thing he could do to heal himself. He must cast out that demon, tear it from his breast, no matter how painful the operation might be. Then all would be well again.
He banged through the front door, past the porter who had come to let him in. He did not even raise his eyes, but moved like a man in the grip of a trance, or a blind rage, down the hall to his room.
Montparnasse had not moved far from where Enjolras had left him. He was wedged sideways in the armchair, his legs draped over one arm and his back up against the other. A book was open on his bent legs, but he set it aside as soon as he heard the key in the lock.
"How was your date?" he said wryly as Enjolras stepped inside.
He turned to him, and Enjolras knew at once that the look on his face must have been strange and terrible, for Montparnasse's entire countenance transformed. His smile vanished; his eyes emptied of all feeling. Enjolras knew the expression at once, as the one Montparnasse had worn when he first came here, in the days just after he awoke. All his old defenses had come back, as if they had never gone away at all, but only lain dormant all these months.
Slowly, Montparnasse swung around in the armchair, and set both feet firmly on the floor. He watched Enjolras with cautious eyes.
"What's gotten into you?" Enjolras said at last. "I was only gone for two hours…"
"The way you looked at me just then…" Montparnasse said. His voice sounded strange, and Enjolras knew that the muscles in his throat where straining and tight. "It was a look I know."
"It's only me." Enjolras sighed. Already he was growing weary of this, and he wished it over. Montparnasse always drew things out, though; he always had to make things more complicated than they were.
"Did you hate me just then?" Montparnasse said quietly. "Did you want to hurt me? Because that's what I saw, and I know it when I see it."
"Not now. Then! It's gone now, but a moment ago it was there. Has it passed?"
Enjolras regarded him in silence for a moment. It was fear, then, that had caused Montparnasse's strange behavior. And it was, like most fears, irrational. However, Enjolras could summon little sympathy for him; at the moment his cringing suspicion was nothing but another obstacle between Enjolras and his mission.
"I wish," he said, measuring out his words, "you would think a little better of me."
Montparnasse blinked, as if Enjolras' voice had awakened him from a spell. "I didn't mean that. I think all the world of you…"
He pushed to his feet suddenly, and seemed to stumble forward, off balance, until his arms were around Enjolras' neck. "Was he mean to you? That man you met, was he so bad?"
Enjolras turned his head, so the kiss that Montparnasse aimed at his lips only glanced along his cheek. Montparnasse was undeterred, though, and he pressed forward, making their bodies fit each other. "Can I make it better for you?" he whispered. "How can it be better?"
Enjolras grabbed his arms, and pushed him off firmly. "You're clinging."
Montparnasse stepped back, his hands falling limply at his sides. His expression did not show any hurt, only he seemed paler, wilted. "I guess I read you wrong."
"And perhaps I allowed you to," Enjolras replied. "I have been indulgent, haven't I?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?" Montparnasse said quietly.
"No. There's no need." Enjolras looked away, suddenly deeply troubled. He was still wearing his overcoat, and the snow that had accumulated in the folds of the collar was beginning to melt and leak down the back of his neck. He slid out of it, and hung it by the stove. Now that his back was to Montparnasse, he found he could speak more easily.
"I have come to wonder if what we're doing is proper," he said. He dusted the sleeves of his overcoat, taking great care with them. Lingering, so he would not have turn back and face Montparnasse's accusations.
"Oh, is that what you're worried about?" Montparnasse laughed, and Enjolras turned on him.
"You might not be so glib when I try to speak to you seriously."
"Of course," Montparnasse said. "Of course, now you're being serious. You probably have a lecture all ready for me. Fine, get it over with. I'm listening. Tell me all about how improper we've been lately…"
"How quickly you change your tune."
Montparnasse glared, but made no reply. Enjolras would have preferred he argue, or insult him, or even dismiss him. Anything would have been better than his unreadable expression, and the accusations implicit in his silence.
"Regardless," Enjolras went on. "The fault rests entirely with me. I have tried to do right by you, but I can see that I have been too indulgent. I've done you more harm than good, I fear. Allowing your whims to govern us as such…"
"It's not as if I forced you," Montparnasse said. "I never made you do anything. You wanted what you wanted. And if you don't want it anymore…"
"I don't want it anymore."
Montparnasse's eyes came up at the words. "You do. But something won't let you… Fine. I don't care if you never touch me again. Just don't act like you're doing it for me. You're not saving me from myself."
"Am I not?" Enjolras said. "You owe me your health, your education. Your life."
"Yes. Yes, I know all that. You never let me forget." He knotted his hands into fists, clenching them tight so that his knuckles were like a row of small white vertebrae. "All this time, I thought you hated that I had killed. But it's not that… It's not that. You could have saved me if I were only a murderer, but that's not all I am, and so the damage is done."
He wavered a little on his feet. It was a sinuous, expectant movement, as if he had manufactured it as a way of making Enjolras reach out to steady him. But Enjolras did not move. He was loathe to touch him, loathe to speak. He wanted nothing but an end to this ugly scene in which he somehow played a part. He could not extricate himself; he knew not even how he had come to be here.
"Slut," Montparnasse said lowly. "The word you want is slut."
"I never called you that," Enjolras managed. His jaw was tight, and it was hard to speak. "I would never be so crude."
Montparnasse turned away from him with a sharp, jerking movement. One hand, still clenched in a fist, went to his lips, and he pressed it there, kneading a blue knuckle against the bow of his mouth. To Enjolras, it seemed so like a bad melodrama that he could not suppress a sigh of irritation.
"Come now…" he said, reaching out to take Montparnasse's shoulder. "If this is the way it's to be, then it is best that we end it now and spare ourselves the heartache later on."
"Is it we?" Montparnasse said. "Is it really our heart that aches?"
"I'm not enjoying this, if that's what you're asking." Enjolras tightened his grip. "Just because I'm not hysterical…"
Montparnasse turned on him suddenly, and, startled, Enjolras tried to pull away. Montparnasse caught his wrist, holding it fast. "Call me whatever you want, but not that. I know what I feel. It's you. You…"
"I know as well as you do," Enjolras said. He felt the conversation shifting back onto familiar ground, and without fuss or hesitation, he calmly took control of it again. "Yet I do not let me feelings govern me. You have a lot to learn still about being rational."
With a shake, Enjolras disengaged his wrist. Montparnasse's hand remained hovering in the air between them, forgotten. He was quiet for a long time, but his throat worked as if to form words. Enjolras waited to see if he would find his voice again. Fifteen seconds, then half a minute. Then he turned away, and went back to the stove to check on his overcoat.
It was nearly dry, so he took out the brush and had begun to go over it when Montparnasse said, quietly, and from far away, "Tell me it was more than pity."
Enjolras did not look up. "Pardon me?"
"Even if it was only when we slept together. Even if it was only for a second. Tell me you felt something more than just sorry for me. I want a lot from you – when I look at you all I do is want - but not that."
"What else, in your estimation, am I to feel?"
"I knew I didn't have anything you wanted. I knew since the beginning, I didn't have anything for you. But I still thought. I hoped…"
His voice broke off. He turned away when Enjolras looked up, but not in time to hide his dampened eyes. Enjolras was appalled that someone would weep in front of him in such a way. He dropped his gaze back to his coat, and pretended he had not seen.
"We have mistaken each other," he said.
"No," There was no tremor in his voice. "No. I'm as bad as you think. I'm bad, and I belong in hell. But at least there, I will be far away from you."
Enjolras refused to dignify a remark like that with a reply. He moved the brush along the sleeve of his coat, smoothing it slowly, evenly. He went over the same spot so many times he lost count, until at last Montparnasse went around the screen and into the bedroom.
He did not speak nor trouble him again.
The twilight was beginning to deepen into proper darkness when Enjolras started for home on a certain June evening. There was still a blush in the western sky, but it was not enough light to pierce the canopy of roofs that crowded the boulevard. At street level, it was already quite dark, illuminated only by intermittent street lamps.
Enjolras did not hasten his footsteps; he was unafraid of the deepening night. Though he had once been accosted by a cut-throat on this very street, that incident was two years past now and it had done little lasting damage. Even his wounded pride was almost fully recovered. Once, he had known the exact square of pavement where Montparnasse had fallen at his feet, and he would mark it often as he passed, as if it were a monument or a statue. But his memory had grown hazy over time, and now he could say only the general vicinity where the encounter had taken place. He almost never took note of it anymore, so often was his mind occupied with other, more pressing matters.
Such was the case on this particular evening. For several minutes now, he had been aware of the far-off sound of women singing. They were raising an awful racket for so late at night, in such a proper neighborhood, and Enjolras frowned. He did not relish the thought of being beset by giggles and solicitous attentions at this late hour, but the darkness would only embolden them. How they would jostle him, he thought, and he felt a bead of sweat trickle down his back. How they would press against him from all quarters.
The women were rapidly drawing closer, and presently Enjolras could make out that they were singing about how Labor was a mighty giant. But the words were sung in such a harsh and jolting accent that it would have taken a linguist to decrypt them. This patois made Enjolras' frown deepen.
Presently, three figures came into view at the end of the street. The women were fairly young, but well past girlhood. They all three wore the unbustled skirts and heavy shoes of washerwomen, but only two of them had the patches on their clothes and worn hemlines that bespoke lives of hard labor. The third was a tall, slender woman who wore her peasants' clothing like a costume. She had a narrow face, with a few lines just beginning to come in on her forehead and a look of intelligence and restless energy. Her skin was the color of coffee with milk, and her loosely done-up hair fell around her temples in black ringlets.
She saw Enjolras first, and she stopped singing. A moment later, the other two women followed her example. They glanced up at her, awaiting further instruction; clearly she was both leader and idol.
As she drew close enough to converse, she tossed her head so her curls swung and said, "Take note, citizenesses. It's a rare night that Apolline and Athena meet."
Her accent bore the hard nasal twang of the Americas. She had been in Paris for six years now – a student who had overstayed her last year at the convent school – but she had made no attempt to learn proper French. Her strange colloquialisms were worse than provincial, and they set Enjolras on edge.
"Good evening, Mademoiselle St. Joan," he said through clenched teeth. This was a battle that he knew better than to resume, but before he could check himself, he was saying, "I couldn't help but notice the nature of your song. Surely it was innocent folly that you would spout such sedition on a public street. Even at such an unlady-like hour as this."
Apolline burst into laughter. "Your concern is touching, M. Enjolras. As a matter of fact, I've just come from the Hotel St. Quentin, and a most lively meeting of the women from the factory on the Rue de Laurents. Did you know that they braid hempen rope for some 12 hours a day? Imagine breathing all those horrible little fibers. They say that there are times when the air looks like a cloud of brown dust."
Here, her eyes narrowed shrewdly and she said, "Needless to say, they have demands. I thought I had my fill of singing, but my sisters have managed to spur me into one more song."
"Forgive me," Enjolras said. "I would never have taken you for blood relations. You look nothing alike."
This time, Apolline's laughter did not come so easily. She fixed Enjolras with a chilling stare which would have made a lesser man tremble. But Enjolras had been the recipient of it so many times now that he barely even quivered anymore.
"Far enough back," she said, "we all share the same father and mother. It takes a cause to reunite us, though. Speaking of which, your absence tonight was conspicuous, M. Enjolras. Some pressing business kept you, I assume."
"While you were helping factory girls squabble over a few sous one way or the other at the end of the week, I was engaged in contemplating the fates of such poor wretches who have not even those sous to their names, and who would be grateful for the fine opportunity to braid hempen rope."
"Bravo," Apolline said. Her eyes narrowed like a gambler about to play a winning ace. "By the way, Ivan Ivanovich inquired after you..."
But even the allusion to their mutual patron did not give Enjolras pause. "Next time, tell him he may seek me in my usual place, amongst my usual fellows. He is always welcome there."
"But not I?" Apolline said, making it sound like 'ah.'
"Let's not make it personal."
"No, of course. There are ways hetaera, housewife, and whore alike must not venture. You like order, M. Enjolras. You like everything to be in its place."
"Having seen the alternative," Enjolras said, "yes, I do."
"Then you'd love my homeland," Apolline said. "I'll take you some day, if you live long enough, that is."
Enjolras scowled. "Beware of such loose talk. And of being so cavalier with matters of life and death. Not one of us wants-"
"Oh, wouldn't it be nice to always get what we want?" Apolline laughed, which started her two companions to giggling.
"Come, sisters," she said, seizing each by the arm. "We're keeping M. Enjolras from serious work."
They set off together, and a few steps on they had remembered their song and seemingly forgotten him entirely. Enjolras watched them go, with the curious feeling that he, too, had forgotten something. He looked down at the square of pavement at his feet as if he expected to be able to read the answers he sought in the cracks, like leaves at the bottom of a cup of tea.
Coming up blank, he went on the last block to his boarding house deep in contemplation
They had all noticed the change that had come over Enjolras, but only Jean Prouvaire had speculations as to its cause. His comrades, he suspected, thought of their leader as simply passing into the next phase of his existence, as natural and inevitable as a chrysalis opening into a butterfly. But the mental notes Jean Prouvaire kept about Enjolras were as detailed and thorough as the ones in the margins of his Arrian and Plutarch.
He knew that the change had begun two winters ago. Enjolras had disappeared for a time, much as, Jean Prouvaire fancied, a young member of a savage tribe might when the time came for him to be inducted into manhood. He had returned to them some months later, without explanation or apology, and even then Jean Prouvaire's keen power of observation had detected a hardening behind his eyes, a stiffening of the muscles around his mouth, as if slowly Enjolras' expression was becoming fixed as a statue's.
The transformation progressed in fits. Enjolras' carriage was already straight and stiff, but he became rigid. His lips, already slow to smile, seemed to lose the ability entirely. He moved less and less, and when he did the motion seemed calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient one he could make. Where once he had merely avoided women, he seemed now to actively seek them out in order to repulse them.
It was unnerving to see his old friend so changed, but Jean Prouvaire had the cannibalistic nature of a poet. During the days he may have mourned for the man Enjolras had once been, but by night he was writing the man he had become into his work. The deep affection between Alexander and Hephaistion still preoccupied him. The poem he had originally intended as a sonnet, originally conceived as a sketch of a single incident, had grown over the past two years to a size more typical of an epic. It stretched in two directions: back to the boyhood of the two generals, and forward to the end of their lives, plunging into the madness and tragedy that characterized them. It was Enjolras as he appeared now that Jean Prouvaire took as his model for Alexander at the time of the crossing of the Hindu Kush.
With careful hands, with neither malice nor any great love in his heart, Jean Prouvaire molded him like clay into the shape of the page.
One day, it threatened rain and Enjolras came to the Cafe Musaine with his blond hair curling from the humidity. Feeling a renewed inspiration, Jean Prouvaire retreated to a secluded corner where he could observe without interruption as Enjolras at once engaged Combeferre in a conversation. Though their business was conducted in the open, in unhushed tones, without any air of secrecy at all, no one dared approach them while they spoke. It was, like most of the laws that governed their fraternity, implicit yet strictly obeyed.
At first, Jean Prouvaire had thought that they all submitted to Enjolras out of fear. But then he had probed more deeply into his own feeling on the matter, and he was surprised to find that he was not afraid in the slightest. He had known Enjolras too long for that; he could remember the provincial boy he had once been, awkward, reticent, a few years older than the other students due to his late start. No, he could not fear him, but Enjolras had taken so naturally to the role of leader that when he gave an order it seemed natural, too, to follow it.
Such was the sort of man he was, and Jean Prouvaire knew now that he had been spoiled for he could never love another who was otherwise. He did not particularly mind; it all gave him great material.
Jean Prouvaire was just finishing stanza 97, wherein Hephaistion recalled with perfect clarity a moment which had never happened, when a hand came down on his shoulder. Jean Prouvaire startled, and struggled to shove the virgin lines out of sight.
"He was not given to gaze at stars
And thus was the sky of his dream barren
Like the Lethe's black depthless water
Domain of the boatman Charon."
Grantaire recited flatly.
"How many times must I tell you not to read it before it's finished," Jean Prouvaire gasped, blushing all the way up to his ears.
"At least once a week since you started this behemoth, which was so long ago that your subjects could have checked it for errors themselves."
"It's my greatest work to date," Jean Prouvaire said. "It takes patience, and precision-"
"No one will have the balls to publish it," Grantaire sighed. "It's not very good, so they'll have a convenient excuse. Which is a shame because at least it's honest."
"I don't care if no one else ever sees it." Jean Prouvaire's eyes were on Enjolras' turned back. He felt sure his gaze exerted a physical pressure, something uncomfortable which Enjolras must have felt, and yet he could not look away.
"Just leave, Grantaire," he cried suddenly, squeezing his eyes shut though even then he was able to see Enjolras. "You're so tiresome."
He knew from the way Grantaire shuffled his feet that he was hurt. Without another word, he withdrew, and Jean Prouvaire kept his eyes closed until he was certain he was gone. When he opened them again, Enjolras was sitting opposite him.
Jean Prouvaire started and struggled to hide the stanzas he had been working on before realizing they were already safely out of sight.
"I didn't mean to scare you," Enjolras said.
"You looked like you were thinking."
"Thinking, yes. But you could have interrupted me."
Enjolras seemed more confused than flattered. "I've come for the pamphlet," he said.
Digging beneath the loose and crumpled sheets in his folio, many of which looked as if they had been thrown in the bin amongst the kindling in a fit of temper only to be rescued again later on, Jean Prouvaire drew the clean and unwrinkled pages of the editorial he had been tasked with writing.
"I can make changes," he said, handing it over to Enjolras. "If you think it best."
He watched enraptured as Enjolras read over the pages. In Enjolras' unmoving face he fancied he could detect subtle changes of expression which indicated pleasure, or disappointment. But when he at last looked up, what Jean Prouvaire saw in his eyes was the last thing he had expected.
"Do you really pity me so, Enjolras?" he asked. He shifted in his chair as if something under the cushion pained him.
"It's fine work," Enjolras replied. "Likely the best work you've ever done. I was just thinking that it's a shame no one will ever know who it's by."
"I don't mind," said Jean Prouvaire. "Just use the usual pseudonym. I've grown to like that old fellow, and I don't mind sharing the glory with him."
Enjolras did not seem to be amused. "Take care you do not spend too much time on your fancies, Jehan. You may lose sight of what is real and concrete."
"I could never forget as long as you are here to serve as a constant reminder."
Enjolras seemed perplexed at first, but as he was accustomed to receiving compliments, he decided to take Jean Prouvaire's words as one. "And yet," he said, "you have not put your talents fully at the disposal of our movement. There is no more beneficial use for them, Jehan, and none more glorious. You ought to consider abandoning those frivolous pastorals you write."
Jean Prouvaire laughed, because he was too surprised to do otherwise. "Those pastorals bring in a little money. I must eat, mustn't I?"
But Enjolras did not seem impressed by his reasoning, and so Jean Prouvaire lowered his voice, as if conferring a secret. "I'm working on something. It's nearly done. When it is, things will be different. Better, I suppose. After that, I'll do whatever you wish of me."
Enjolras gave him a look composed of equal parts pity and anger at having his pity aroused, the same look he always had for the various heretics and backsliders and enemies of the common good that he encountered from day to day. Though he had seen it many times before, Jean Prouvaire still shrank from it, not because of what it implied, but because it was Enjolras implying it.
"I hope that time will come soon," Enjolras said. Gathering up the papers Jean Prouvaire had given him, he stood to go.
"Wait," Jean Prouvaire said.
Enjolras fixed him with a burning look. "Yes?"
"Was that all you came for?"
"Yes. Do you have more to speak to me about?"
Here, Jean Prouvaire hesitated. "Not exactly. It just occurred to me that you and I haven't talked in some time. We must have things to discuss. I can't think of any now, but-"
"Nonsense," Enjolras said. "You're here every day, the same as I am."
"Yes, but we almost never speak..."
"We must," Enjolras said, and that was all. He folded the papers neatly and placed them in an inside pocket, and then he left to see to more important work.
"It's late," Combeferre informed him. Enjolras recognized it at once as a gesture of sympathy, which embarrassed and annoyed him. Perhaps mistaking his irritated silence for indifference, Combeferre shrugged and said, "You looked lost in thought. I didn't know if you'd noticed. Everyone else has already gone."
"Yes," Enjolras said. "It's quiet. I'm glad for it."
"Oh, I'll leave you be."
"No, I didn't mean you."
"May I sit, then?"
"Do as you like."
Combeferre took the chair across from him, but the light of the candle on the table between them made him seem far away. Enjolras leafed through his folio, barely glancing at the pages as he turned them, until he came upon an etching of a diagram which he studied with intense interest.
"I'm dreadfully behind," he said after a while. "Tonight, I can't afford to think about Fourier or Marcus Aurelius, at least until I'm through with Galen."
"That's not like you," Combeferre replied mildly. "You used to go through books quicker than the lecturers could recommend them to you."
"My Latin isn't what it used to be. I'm afraid it's gotten rusty. The great writers of the people use a more common, vulgar tongue. And in those learned men of the University I used to see only promise; now I don't see anything but biases and privilege and suppression of ideas."
"You sound tired," Combeferre said.
"And you sound like you're worried for me." Enjolras managed to smile, weak but genuine.
"I'm not. Not yet, but-"
"Don't start. I neither need nor deserve your concern. When I first came here from Avignon, my father and I agreed I would study for four years and then return. Soon, I will have been away for six. But I'll stay as long as I have to, as long as I'm needed here. This work is greater than I am."
"Don't," Combeferre said. "Stop right there. I've always found that a calm, moderate temperament is the most conducive to the reading of Galen."
Enjolras looked down doubtfully at the book. His eyes seemed steadfastly opposed to the idea of taking in even one more word. "Jehan gave me this today," he said, handing over the pages of his editorial.
Combeferre glanced over it. "It reads like him. He's got a distinct style. Or maybe I only think that because I know him. I suppose it's not up to your standards?"
"It will do. But his arguments cajole rather than stir. It's as if he's always writing the long way around, trying to trap you into taking his side. Our position is both logically and ethically sound; there's no need for semantic dirty trickery."
"There's nothing wrong with dressing things up a little. Some people need to see some smoke and mirrors before they're impressed."
"It makes me suspect a weakness of his character."
Combeferre frowned. "That's a friend of mine you're talking about. A friend of yours too, I should hope. And he has a stouter heart than that royalist, Pontmercy, the one you've been bombarding with lectures as if converting him were your pet project."
"We're not talking about Pontmercy," Enjolras said shortly. "Rest assured, I have my thoughts on the state of his character as well. However, he's a learned man who knows something of what it is to be hungry and cold. That alone makes him of use to us in our work."
"And what use is a poet who writes whatever you ask of him without hesitation or complaint, no matter the danger to himself?"
"Yes, he's done us some good," Enjolras said. "But he's distracted."
"There's nothing in his life but you, and that ode he'll never finish."
"That's one more idol than I'd prefer."
Combeferre reached over and took his hand. His fingers were unpleasantly cold, and Enjolras tensed at the touch but did not pull away. He was surprised, that was all; they had embraced many times in the past, and Combeferre had always seemed warm.
"When we first met," Combeferre said, his eyes downcast, "I liked you immensely. Almost at once, I knew I wanted to see more of you, though it rarely ever happens that way, does it? Later, I came to respect you as much as I adored you. But if you go on like this, someday soon I will come to fear you too."
"It's not I that frightens you. I am but a voice, a vessel for enduring truths."
"I only wanted you to know. I didn't think it would change your mind." Combeferre looked up. There was a pall on his expression that made Enjolras recoil. He had seen it somewhere before, but he could not place it. All he knew was that he didn't like it.
Enjolras pushed quickly to his feet, and Combeferre rose to follow him. He stepped around the edge of the table and stumbled forward a step so that they stood uncomfortably close. Their hands were still clasped, and Enjolras was aware of Combeferre's fingers growing icier and more brittle by the moment.
"I should go now," Enjolras said. "I can read as well by my candle as theirs."
"You have no mercy anymore," Combeferre murmured. "That's why you can't allow Jehan his poem. If only you had something you loved as he does..."
Again, Enjolras saw something flicker in his companion's eyes, a question he could not answer or a plea to which he had no response. It stirred an unpleasant feeling of dread in him, and Enjolras extracted himself with a jerk from Combeferre's grip, fumbled his papers into his satchel, and muttered an apology as he fled.
Outside, he was angry, but his anger was confused and he knew not whether to direct it at Combeferre for his strange behavior, or at himself for his own. Shivering a little, feeling a chill creeping over him despite the temperateness of the evening, he walked home through the streets. With his face downturned into his coat and his shoulders drawn up, he looked to be deep in thought, but in fact he wasn't really thinking of anything at all. He returned to his boarding house, prepared to escape to his room where he could sort out his feelings at his leisure, or at least forget them in 200 pages of Galen, but Mother Demaraise came out of the sitting room and caught his arm before he could slip away.
"You have a guest," she informed him. "He's been here some time. I told him you were out, but he insisted on waiting. I suppose it's one of your theater friends. He certainly looks it..."
"Of course," Enjolras murmured automatically. In the course of his work, he had many visitors to his home. It was M. Razumov who had concocted the cover story of Enjolras having taken a stage managing job with a small theater, an explanation which seemed to satisfy Mother Demaraise and most of her simpler tenants.
All the same, Enjolras thought with a scowl, he had not expected anyone tonight.
Mother Demaraise led him into the sitting room. The young man was on the divan nearest the fireplace, turned away from them when they entered. A delicate white hand was raised to the knot of black curls poking out from beneath his rakishly angled hat. It was not the way he looked that triggered Enjolras' memory; it was the way he moved, self-consciously tucking an errant lock of hair back into place. In his bones, he knew everything in that moment, but his mind refused to comprehend it and his tongue to give it voice.
The young man turned and caught sight of him there. The years had deepened the golden color of his eyes some, but his curious close-lipped smile, the one that meant he was genuinely pleased, was the same as Enjolras remembered.
It was Montparnasse.
Enjolras was riveted to the spot as Montparnasse rose with deliberate slowness from his seat by the fire. There was no doubt that he had grown more beautiful with age; all his rough edges had been sanded down in to the smooth and curved form of a young dandy. He came forward, his steps light, his hips twitching like a woman's when he walked. Enjolras felt a growing dread, and yet he remained fixed to the spot.
"My dear old friend," Montparnasse said. When he smiled, there was something unsettling about the gesture. "I've missed you so."
He went up on his toes and took Enjolras' shoulders in his hands. Enjolras' stomach contracted, and his heart surged up into his throat. It was something so very near revulsion that he felt now, and yet not revulsion at all. Montparnasse's lips touched his right cheek: a kiss without passion, a formality. He moved to kiss the left in turn, but this time he leaned closer still, putting his mouth against Enjolras' ear.
"You must help me." It was barely a whisper, barely a breath, and yet Enjolras started as if a current had passed through his body.
Montparnasse leaned back, looking at him patiently, expectantly. There was no doubt in his eyes, no apprehension that he would be turned away. Enjolras wanted to shove him back, and say something haughty and imperious like, I must do nothing, you knave. Now go, before I send for the police!
But he only nodded mutely, like a man in the grip of a horrible trance. "Yes, come up to my room," he heard himself reply. "We'll be able to talk there."
Montparnasse smiled again, and this time it was not quite so terrible to behold. While he retrieved his overcoat and his stick, Enjolras turned to Mother Demaraise and said, "This is a friend from the provinces. He's welcome here."
His voice was metallic rasp, yet Mother Demaraise smiled trustingly.
"He may stay with me a few days," Enjolras added, not knowing why. Even now, he felt he had only to shake off for a moment this fugue that had arrested him and he would throw Montparnasse out on his ear.
"Of course," Mother Demaraise said. "As long as you need."
Montparnasse touched his arm then, and Enjolras nearly jumped.
"Come," he murmured. "Come quickly. I'm tired to my very bones."
Enjolras thought for a moment that he could detect a note of desperation in the younger man's tone, as if he might plead with him, if only he knew how. This made Enjolras angry in a way he could not articulate. He took Montparnasse's arm to escort him, but with each step down the hall, his grip tightened until Montparnasse was trembling in his grasp. It wasn't until they reached his room and Enjolras had thrust him roughly inside that he realized Montparnasse shook not with fear, or with pain, but only with repressed laughter.
He let out a great bray of it as he stumbled inside the small room. "Your friend from the provinces? Oh my, imagine that. Me, a country lord."
Enjolras drew the bolt on the door firmly, and weighed the option of jamming a chair under the knob just to be safe.
"This place hasn't changed at all," Montparnasse was saying. "My god, two years and the only new thing you've gotten is more dust."
Enjolras turned and watched Montparnasse pace around the room, touching all the old furniture, running his hands along the spines of the books on the shelf. But he wasn't moving at random; indeed, he kept returning to the small window that faced out onto the street. He stirred the heavy curtains with one hand, and became unsettled and quiet.
The third time he did this, Enjolras stepped up behind him, pinning him there. Montparnasse lifted his head sharply, as if looking for the means to escape, but he made no move to push against Enjolras or otherwise get free.
"Please, please, let's move away from the window."
"Why? What's out there?"
"I feel a draft. A terrible chill…"
But Enjolras did not move, and Montparnasse became agitated. "He followed me!"
"I don't know! I tried for hours to shake him, but he kept on me like that. Always just far enough back that I couldn't see his face no matter how bright the street was. And when I turned and yelled for him to come out, he vanished like he'd never been there. I wandered so far just trying to lose him, and I don't have friends in this part of the city. Only you. But I had to go somewhere to get away. Anywhere. I think I'd have thrown myself in the deepest cell I could find, if it just meant being free of those awful footsteps behind me…"
"You little fool!" Enjolras snapped. He grabbed Montparnasse by the arm, jerking him away from the window. "You mean to say you've brought the police to my very doorstep?"
Montparnasse yelped as Enjolras shoved him back onto the couch. "No! No, not the police at all!"
"I don't know!"
Enjolras felt his fury desert him. He desperately wanted to be angry still, but he knew that it had abandoned him completely. Montparnasse sat on the sofa with his head lowered, trembling a little.
"Look here," Enjolras said. "Mother Demaraise said you'd been waiting for hours. Surely whoever it is has given up and gone by now."
Montparnasse shook his head. "No. He's out there."
"I didn't see anyone."
"He was there," Montparnasse said. He looked up, and Enjolras saw that he was pale, and his face was taut with dread. "You must believe me. You must let me stay here tonight. I'll be good, I swear. I'll be so good…"
Enjolras was silent for a long time, staring down at him. There was no doubt in his mind as to what Montparnasse was. He had left Enjolras' house two years ago, and stepped right back onto the sinful road he had walked before they met. He was on that road now, a little further down it. A little bit harder to call back to civilization. A little bit more tempting to try.
"You may sleep out here on the sofa," Enjolras said at last. "You'll be gone first thing in the morning, and you'll get nothing else from me. Understand?"
Enjolras hesitated for a second, then added, "And if you murder me in my sleep, so help me…"
"No!" Montparnasse exclaimed, springing to his feet. "How could you think that? I would never dream of such a thing."
He stroked Enjolras' sleeve solicitously, but when he realized Enjolras was looking at him with a rather cold cast to his eyes, he withdrew his hand.
"There's a little bread in the cupboard," Enjolras said. "If you're hungry."
Montparnasse slipped off, and while he was rummaging through the cupboard Enjolras went to the window and drew the curtain back. He could see nothing on the dark street, even when he cupped his hands around his eyes to block out the light. Perhaps Montparnasse was mad. Even before this, Enjolras had thought the boy tottered dangerously close to the edge of that precipice. Perhaps the stresses of his life had finally pushed him over it, or maybe it was something more mundane than that. One too many glasses of absinthe…
He felt a hand on his elbow. It didn't startle him. Enjolras let the curtain fall and turned around to look at Montparnasse. He held a wedge of bread on one hand, and he swallowed the bite in his mouth before he said, "I don't have to sleep on the sofa if you don't want me to."
Enjolras just looked at him curiously.
"Like the old days," Montparnasse said. "When we used to—"
"That's quite enough of that," Enjolras replied. "I don't want to hear any talk of any old days from you."
"But I just…"
"You were the one who walked out, Montparnasse." Enjolras was surprised by the bitterness in his voice. "You were the one who disappeared. And you have the gall to talk about the old days. As if I don't know what you are."
"And you blame yourself for that, don't you?"
Enjolras was taken aback, but he wasn't sure why. Montparnasse had shown these keen, almost unnatural, flashes of insight in the past. "You don't know what you're talking about," he stammered.
But Montparnasse's eyes narrowed, and he went on as if he hadn't heard. "You said you were going to save me, but you never did. You think there was something you could have done, but there wasn't. I knew what I was long before I met you, and all the good intentions in the world couldn't have changed that."
"Don't pretend you had no other options, Montparnasse. I don't believe that. There's always honest work out there for a willing young man."
"Honest work?" Montparnasse tossed his curls disdainfully. "You mean twelve hours a day in a factory? Never seeing the sun at all? Taking home enough at the end of the week to feed yourself for the next seven days, and all the while feeling your hands get rough, your eyes get dull, your good looks leave you. The only thing you ever had to call your own."
"You could have made enough money to survive," Enjolras said stubbornly. "To desire anything beyond that is merely greed."
"Fine, then it's greed." Montparnasse turned on his heels and marched over to the small mirror hanging on the wall. It was still in the same place it had been last time he visited this apartment, the silver frame only a little duller than it had been. Holding the bread in his teeth, Montparnasse began to pull the pins out of his hair, letting his curls down around his shoulders.
Enjolras watched him with a growing anxiousness. There seemed nothing more they could possibly say to each other; Montparnasse was uninterested in repentance, and indeed he seemed to feel no guilt at all for his innumerable crimes. He was repellant. And yet, Enjolras was still drawn to him.
These were base feelings, and he was ashamed of them. But Montparnasse was a base creature; surely, he would understand.
Slowly, not knowing exactly what he would do when he got there, Enjolras approached him. Montparnasse did not look up, but his hands fell away from his hair and hung limply at his sides. Enjolras knew he was being watched in the mirror; watched in reverse, as he reached out and touched a lock of Montparnasse's hair, letting it coil around his finger.
Montparnasse remembered the bread between his teeth and reached up quickly to retrieve it.
"I know you must think I lie about everything," he said. "As if I cannot tell the truth at all. As if I am incapable of not being wicked. But when I told you back then that I adored you, I meant it."
Montparnasse laughed. "That's just the thing. I don't know. I really have no idea at all. Maybe it's just because you're handsome. Maybe it's just because you don't hit me when you're drunk. Maybe it's because you didn't let me die. Maybe it's really something that simple. Or maybe it's because you think I'm better than I could ever be."
He turned, and they were so close that he was almost in Enjolras' arms, almost pressed up against him. "Now, you."
"What about me?"
"Now, you tell me what you like about me."
Enjolras' lips parted, but he knew he would not answer. Could not answer. Montparnasse was looking at him expectantly, but perhaps he didn't want Enjolras to reply either. No, it seemed there was something else he was waiting for.
They were touching now. Montparnasse's hands were splayed open on his chest, and every time that Enjolras breathed he could feel the press of another body. Yet, it wasn't painful at all. Enjolras felt none of the awkwardness that had driven him from Combeferre's side earlier that evening, none of the suffocating weight that sometimes pressed him when in the company of Jean Prouvaire.
It was the very fact that Montparnasse had sinned so greatly that made him incapable of judging Enjolras' transgressions now. Even if he had been able, he wouldn't have. The life of a criminal had made him free, in a way. He had a great capacity to accept all things deviant and strange and impulsive. He had, too, a great tendency towards secrecy.
Montparnasse's lips were parted now, and tugged into a tiny, inviting half smile. Enjolras leaned over him and kissed him, and Montparnasse's hands clenched his collar and held fast, all the fear that had driven him here at once forgotten.
The next morning, Enjolras awoke at his customary early hour, but he lingered about the apartment until late in the morning. He was hoping that Montparnasse would awake; he wanted to be spared the embarrassing domesticity of rousing the younger man himself. Though he plumbed his thoughts deeply as he went through the motions of dressing for the day, Enjolras felt no sense of guilt over what had transpired; no old pains or regrets had been shaken to the surface.
In fact, he felt only peace that morning, and, try as he might, he could have it no other way. He even managed to read some of the long-neglected pages of Galen.
After a time, Montparnasse emerged from behind the partition that divided the rooms. He had dressed in a hurry, in only his pants and shirt. The buttons at his throat were undone, so the white ruff gapped open over his chest. He leaned against the back of Enjolras' chair. On impulse, Enjolras reached up and touched his hand, surprised by his own tenderness.
Montparnasse lingered a moment, and then pulled away. "I'll get dressed quick. I don't want to overstay my welcome…"
Enjolras did not call him back, but rather than listen to the melancholy sound of Montparnasse putting his clothes in order, he rose and returned the book to the shelf, then he put on his own overcoat and fussed so long over the knot in his cravat that Montparnasse emerged fully dressed as he was finishing with it. "Wait, I'll go with you. I have business this morning."
Montparnasse looked at him skeptically, but said nothing.
"Is that acceptable?"
"Yes…" The word was made with an intake of breath. "I was going to ask if this means you're suddenly not ashamed to be seen with me. But I didn't want to ruin the moment."
"Do I have cause to be ashamed?"
"I don't think so," Montparnasse said. "I am a discreet villain."
Enjolras supposed he had meant it as a joke, but he did not laugh. In fact, he felt as though his sentiment had been soured somehow, and that Montparnasse knew it was and that was why he had said it.
They went out together, Montparnasse leaning companionably on his arm, laughing and chatting easily. It was a crisp morning, not cold, but fresh and bright as if a frost had just evaporated off the grass. Enjolras did not notice until they were nearly to the front gate that Montparnasse had fallen silent, but just before they crossed the threshold onto the street, he dug his heels in and clutched fast to Enjolras' arm, holding him up.
Enjolras turned to him, ready to say something cross, but he stopped when he saw Montparnasse's face. He was ashen, so pale he was almost gray, and his lips trembled slightly.
"What?" Enjolras said. "What is it?"
He could remember suddenly the way Montparnasse's face had looked in the hours of his deepest sickness. Not like this, no, but close enough that Enjolras felt a stirring of those old protective instincts.
Montparnasse raised a quivering hand and pointed across the street. A small dark figure was crouched on the paving stones, a shapeless hunch that only suggested a man.
"It's him," Montparnasse whispered. "The man who followed me. What does he want?"
The last word was a strangled gasp. Montparnasse was clutching him very tightly by now, as if Enjolras' presence were the only thing that kept him from fleeing back into the house. Enjolras frowned a little, looking from Montparnasse's stricken face, to the stranger across the street. Last night, he had dismissed Montparnasse's fears as the product of a youthful imagination and an overworked mind; they had seemed to fade so quickly once he had managed to cajole Enjolras into bed. Now, in the bright light of morning, such hysterics seemed unjustified.
"We ought to go ask him," Enjolras said. It seemed the reasonable response to him, but Montparnasse twitched at the words, shifting on his feet as if at any moment he would spring away and flee.
Enjolras clamped a hand over his wrist, keeping him firmly at his side.
"We're going over there," he said. "You and I. If you have brought one of your debtors or some blackguard with a vendetta against you to my home, then I wish to know. I have no fear of pimps of petty thieves."
Montparnasse laughed, a thin nervous sound. "Ah, you know nothing. Nothing about the city that exists beneath your very feet. I hope you never learn."
Enjolras only tightened his grip and gave Montparnasse a tug. He followed, dragging his feet more like a sulky child then a frightened man. As they drew close, the stranger pushed to his feet, shaking out his clothes. He had been watching them, Enjolras thought. He had seen them come down the walk, watched them converse, watched Montparnasse make as if to run, and yet he had made no move to approach. He had been here all night, his eyes fixed on the the house, suffering cold and hunger and sleeplessness. It showed a remarkable devotion, a stoic singleness of purpose that Enjolras grudgingly admired.
"Good morning, sir," he said with all the sternness called for by the occasion. "I am afraid my friend and I do not have the pleasure of your acquaintance."
The stranger looked at him sullenly. The collar of his coat was turned up, his hat pulled down low over his brow, leaving only a slit where his eyes showed with hot defiance."If this man is a friend of yours, then you keep strange bedfellows. My business is with him, though."
He inclined his head toward Montparnasse and a few locks of unbound black hair slipped from his collar to lay against his throat. Enjolras struggled to place his accent, which was not of Paris but was not entirely unfamiliar to him.
"I am not privy to all of M. Montparnasse's affairs," Enjolras said, "but I am stout of heart. You may speak freely in my presence."
"Yes," Montparnasse gasped. "He can stay. Just tell me what you want."
The stranger regarded them with scornful arrogance; the sharpness of his gaze seemed not dimmed in the least by what had surely been a sleepless night. He gave the impression of being young, but upon scrutiny his real age was impossible to determine. Enjolras could only imagine the kind of life he must have lived to have his seriousness and his suffering stamped so indelibly on his face, but the thought excited him.
"You may call me Vulich," he said. "Neither of you know me, but I have come to offer M. Montparnasse a business proposal."
Enjolras turned and saw that Montparnasse was regarding Vulich with wary interest.
"Needless to say," Vulich went on, "I am not an officer of the law. I represent a charitable organization. We want information about a certain acquaintance of yours. Of course, we're willing to pay you for your time."
"I don't give a damn who you represent. I won't sell out a comrade of mine—"
"Monsieur, please." Vulich did not raise his voice in the slightest, but it cut through Montparnasse's protests all the same. "I know that there is no love between you and your comrades. You'd sell the dearest of them for the price of a cask of brandy and the secure knowledge that they'd be put away and no longer competition for you."
Montparnasse paled. "It's not true…"
"If you agree to my proposal, you will have done your duty as a citizen. I don't suppose that means much to the likes of you, and so I can promise you that you will also turn a tidy profit from the affair. Now, say that you will do it. I have no patience for your little subterfuges and complaints."
Enjolras gripped Montparnasse's arm and found it rigid and trembling in his grasp. He felt that this scene would quickly escalate into violence, that Vulich knew this, and that he even relished it.
"Sir," Enjolras said, "I think you might choose your words more carefully around a potential business partner."
Vulich's eyes were on him then, two hot dark coals that seemed to punch clean through him. "So you would have me bolster the ego of a common thief. Had I my way, there would be no dealings, no rewards for blackguards and cutthroats, but vipers tend to nest together, do they not? And if one seeks the Devil, then he is well advised to take the counsel of demons."
"Enough!" Montparnasse said. "Tell me who you're looking for and then go bother him. If it's blood you want, I'm sure you'll talk him to death before long."
Vulich shook his head. "No. Not here."
Again, Enjolras felt Montparnasse tremble with suppressed rage, but this time he held his tongue.
"Damn you," Montparnasse said. "You spent a whole night following me around like some lovelorn trick, and now you don't want to talk?"
"Had you held still a moment last night, we could have talked then. But now…" Vulich inclined his head toward a trio of workingmen passing them on the street. "I fear prying ears."
"You fear, do you?"
"Yes, I have much to fear. More than you know."
All at once, he extended a gloved hand as if to clasp Montparnasse's. Montparnasse gave him his fingertips, as if touching something clammy and unpleasant, but Vulich slipped closer, clasping Montparnasse's hand firmly and giving it three enthusiastic pumps.
"Come this evening," he said, the flatness of his voice in sharp contrast to the stalwart handshake. "We'll talk then."
He gave Enjolras a fleeting look, and then turned on his heels and walked away.
Enjolras realized he was still holding fast to Montparnasse's arm, and he let him go. "What an unpleasant man."
Montparnasse did not seem to hear. He was looking down into his open palm, the one that Vulich had grasped in the moments before he departed. A folded scrap of paper rested there, and peeping out from between the creases was the gilt edge of a five franc coin. Montparnasse ran his thumb along the ridge of the coin, and with a flick of his wrist made it disappear.
"You're not going to meet with him, are you?" Enjolras said. "He insulted you."
"I trust him," Montparnasse said with a shrug. "He wouldn't have said those things if he was going to turn me in. He would have tried to flatter me or something, I guess."
He looked up at Enjolras, and in the bright dawn light his cheeks seemed very pale, as if he almost never saw the sun. He must have been almost completely nocturnal by now, Enjolras thought, and the notion fascinated him.
"I'll come with you," he heard himself say, without knowing the reason why.
Montparnasse looked at him curiously, and then he laughed. "Oh God, spare me…"
"I mean it." As if to prove his sincerity, Enjolras plucked the paper out of Montparnasse's hand and unfolded it to read the address writ on it. He did not recognize the street name. "Last night, you were afraid. You must be still…"
Montparnasse laughed again, tossing his curls gleefully. "I'm not afraid. I know exactly what he wants. I can even tell you the name of the man he's looking for."
"I know. I just know. Maybe he's right and I don't have any honor. But I will be sad to see that fellow go. He did a favor for me once…"
"Who do you mean?"
"It doesn't matter, does it? Not to you and I. Let's keep that nasty business out of what we have."
"What we have…" Enjolras echoed.
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that and you know it."
He touched Enjolras' arm, his fingers so light that they were more the suggestion of pressure than an actual force exerted upon him. "I'll come this afternoon, a little before sunset. I do want you to come. I want you beside me."
His smile then was strange, too full of teeth, and Enjolras thought that Montparnasse meant to make him party to some horrible sin. That he wanted to throw back the covers and let Enjolras see him in his wickedness, as if it might prove something. It might be the wedge that drove them apart once more, or the cord that bound them together for the rest of their days.
Enjolras had no way of knowing if Montparnasse actually intended to meet with him. He could easily have changed his mind since that morning, found some new distraction to amuse him; or perhaps he'd never had any intention of seeing Enjolras' again at all. For all his desperation the night before, all his solicitousness just after waking, Enjolras knew that he ultimately meant very little to the younger man. Perhaps Montparnasse had already departed from the realm of what was real to Enjolras, returning to the world of memory and regrets he had once occupied.
He had become so convinced of this, that Enjolras found himself startled and elated when he saw Montparnasse come around the corner. His movements were languid, unhurried, and they seemed to convey a certain brazenness, as if his mere presence on the street during the daylight hours was a kind of challenge.
Montparnasse touched the brim of his hat in greeting. He had changed clothes since the morning, from one gaudy array of colors into another. Enjolras thought it unseemly to meet a business prospect in such a suit as would put a peacock to shame, but he held his tongue on the matter. Truthfully, he was very glad to see Montparnasse just then.
"Shall we go?" Enjolras said, and Montparnasse gave him a sly smile, as if he had sensed Enjolras' unease and was laughing at him for it.
Enjolras stopped a public carriage and handed the driver the address. Montparnasse was silent on the ride, and Enjolras did not attempt to engage him, for he could think of nothing for them to discuss that was suitable to be overheard. The driver took them across the river, stopped twice to ask directions from a passerby, and then turned down a narrow street between two tenements.
For the first time, Enjolras was seized with doubt. It was nearly dark now, and the looming buildings on either side cast a gloomy pall over the street. He glanced at Montparnasse, but found nothing in his expression to indicate wicked intent.
He was on his guard all the same, as the carriage pulled to a stop in front of an unmarked door. Enjolras paid off the driver, making sure to display the lightness of his purse as he did so.
Montparnasse seemed hesitant to go ahead.
"I was thinking," he murmured. "I suppose it could all just be a joke, right? Maybe someone set all this up, just to see if we'd really come all the way out here…"
"That seems very unlikely," Enjolras said, but he was touched by the same unexpected pity that had moved him the night before when Montparnasse confessed his fear. "There's no way to know unless we go in."
"Yes. I have to, now that you're here. You haven't left me with any choice."
"I have forced nothing on you."
"You have. You just don't know…" Montparnasse seemed ready to say more, but then he only shook his head with a jerk and started toward the door.
He knocked once, then again, and when no one came he tried the handle. The door was unlatched, and it swung open easily beneath his touch. The room beyond was sunk in impenetrable darkness, and within, all was silent.
"See? It was all a joke, just like I said. Well, we might as well give them their punch line, then," Montparnasse said, and strode resolutely inside.
Enjolras tried to display the same steadfastness, but he knew as soon as he set foot inside that something was not as it should be. He hung back by the door, which admitted a little dim light, and listened to Montparnasse bang around in the darkness. He was cursing in a low monotone, as if he found it the proper response to the occasion but took no satisfaction in it.
At last, a flame sputtered to life, and Montparnasse was standing before him holding a candle in one hand. "Don't come in any further."
"Why?" Enjolras said. "What has happened?"
"I don't know exactly, but I know death when it's near." He turned and went back inside, and, against his advice, Enjolras followed.
"Death? Whose death?"
"I can't tell yet."
The interior was a cramped room, unfurnished save for a small table with a single candle on it and an empty space where its pair, which Montparnasse now held in his hand, had once stood. There was an accumulation of splintered wood and other debris against the walls, as if the room had formerly been used for storage and cleared hastily.
Montparnasse was walking around the perimeter, casting the light of the candle into the corners. In the one furthest from the door, he seemed to find what he was looking for in the form of a heap of newish-looking rags. He grabbed them by a corner and gave them a tug and they spilled their contents heavily upon the floor.
The light fell upon the dead man's face, and Enjolras recoiled. He had seen it only for a moment, but he knew that the corpse was the stranger, Vulich. His eyes had been open, glassy; they had shown dully, as if cataracted, in the glow of the flames.
"What happened here?" Enjolras demanded, as Montparnasse knelt close to the body. "What are you doing? Get away from him."
"You talk as if I've done this," Montparnasse said. "He's barely cold. It's only been a few minutes, half of an hour at the most."
Enjolras backed away another step. His back struck the doorframe and he felt a cold tightening in the pit of his stomach. He had seen his share of corpses before, at the funerals of distant relatives he had attended dutifully in his younger years, but never had he come upon death in such an uncompromised state.
"What happened to him?" Enjolras asked, though he scarcely wanted to know.
"He was murdered."
"Are you certain?"
"It's hard to mistake such things," Montparnasse replied, with a note of wry humor that Enjolras didn't like under the circumstances.
"Then the killer might still be here."
"No, no, he's long gone. I can tell by the work he's done here. One clean thrust of a knife between the ribs. I don't even think he saw it coming. Whoever did the deed knew exactly what he wanted when he set out."
Montparnasse stood up, wiping his hands on a handkerchief. Enjolras was not close enough to see if they were stained with blood.
"His purse is gone. I don't think it was a simple robbery, though. M. Vulich, whoever he may have been, seemed more than capable of defending himself against common cutthroats. Damn it all, though. I suppose this means I don't get my reward after all…"
"How can you speak so casually?" Enjolras said, his voice a rasp.
"How can you be so worked up? It's not as if you knew the man. He was the one who came looking for me. And see now where it's gotten him…"
"I suppose you would say the same of me, if it were I lying there," Enjolras said.
Montparnasse's expression darkened. "Don't. Why do you always have to say things like that? It's like you know the exact words that will upset me the most. Listen, he came around asking about dangerous men and he got what was his due. It's that simple."
"There's nothing simpler than a knife in the back."
"No, there isn't," Montparnasse replied. "Come on, let's go."
A moment ago, Enjolras would have agreed with the suggestion without a second thought, but now he hesitated. "Wait. Tell me the name of the man he was looking for."
"Why?" Montparnasse said, eyes narrowing.
"Because you said you knew. And I want to know, too. In spite of…"
"You won't like the story, I warn you." Montparnasse sighed. "I suppose it can't be helped. I first met the man about two years ago. It was just after you…" Here, he paused to correct himself. "It was after you and I split up. I wasn't quite ready to be back on my own, so I spent a few days wandering around, picking up a little money where I could, but the old allure was gone. That old thrill that used to come when you look into a man's eyes and say, without words, 'If you wanted to live as much as I do, you would find some way to stop me'… I can see I have disturbed you."
"Not at all," Enjolras said, and, surprisingly, it was the truth. He had so long now been party to Montparnasse's peculiar breed of darkness that nothing the man said could particularly shock him.
Montparnasse regarded him warily, and then went one. "I went to this place I used to visit a lot. Kind of a cafe, where a gentleman with some money and a boy with some need might come to an arrangement. I thought I was no longer of the right age for that kind of foolishness, but I wasn't there long when a man sat down. He was older, with a kind of military look to him, but you could just tell by the way he talked, the way he gave you the roving eye, that he was more mercenary than anything. He started to talk, but he didn't name a price. He just kept on like that, talking and talking. And then, all of a sudden, I was talking too. He had a way of drawing out your secrets. He would ask a question, and you would think a lie, or an evasion, but before you could put it to words, there would be the truth. You'd hear yourself say it, and not know why."
Enjolras had come away from the door. His eyes, for the first time, were not fixed on the dead man but on the living one.
"I told him everything," Montparnasse said. "Or near enough. I told him about the people I'd killed. I told him I'd had someone to pay the bills, but that he'd thrown me out. I even told him I was thinking about getting into some honest work, which was something I hadn't even known myself. And then he gave me a kind of stern look, and he said, 'That seems a waste of a prodigious young talent.' He made me a promise, then. He said he'd do a favor for me, but some time in the future I might have to do a favor for him."
"A favor?" Enjolras said. "Did he mean…?"
"He passed my name on to some men he knew. Real professionals, a big step up from the kind of syndicates I'd been dealing with even in my best days. I'd had a bad turn in the past and I wasn't sure I wanted to work for a gang again. But a few days later, there was a knock on the door, and three men standing there telling me to pack my things and go with them. I couldn't really refuse…"
"And you think this man had something to do with it?"
"I know it," Montparnasse said. "Because I took one look at those men who called themselves Patron-Minette, and I thought, yes, these are people he would know. Not that he was a thief himself. No, he had a polished way around him. He was a man who was plenty used to getting other people to do his dirty business for him, though."
"But how do you know he was the one M. Vulich was looking for?"
"Because I took one look at M. Vulich and I knew that he was the type of man that old Russian would know, too."
"You didn't say he was a Russian," Enjolras said. He felt a fresh knot of dread forming in the pit of his stomach.
"Yes," Montparnasse said. "But I think he had been away for quite some time. His French was quite good. He said his name was Razumov."
They didn't speak a word to each other on the ride home, but Enjolras knew without asking that Montparnasse would not leave him that night.
He was glad for the company. They had left the door to Vulich's room open, left the body in plain sight in the middle of the floor, and Enjolras knew it was only a matter of time until someone else happened upon the corpse. Someone more scrupulous or less suspicious looking than they had been, who would report the crime to the proper authorities. Enjolras could not, in good conscience, believe in spirits, but all the same he knew that he would rest easier once he knew that M. Vulich's furious bones were safely at rest in the Potters Field.
For tonight, at least, he had Montparnasse to distract him. They were scarcely through the door of Enjolras' room before they were twined around each other. Enjolras was bothered by a nervous energy, and all at once he found that he couldn't let Montparnasse go for even a moment, though he squirmed and suffered so when Enjolras crushed the ruffles on the front of his shirt and wrinkled the creases of his pants.
He flung Montparnasse down on the bed with a strength that would make him blush when he thought back on it in a more sober moment, pinned his wrists to the mattress, and took him on top of the covers. Montparnasse gasped and moaned at the ungentle treatment, but not once did he complain or make a move to stop him.
Enjolras awoke the next morning to find Montparnasse kindling a fire in the stove, almost as if he intended to stay a while. Enjolras was still trying to figure out whether he would be pleased by such a development or not, when Montparnasse looked up and their eyes met. It seemed that a whole conversation passed without a single word spoken, and then Enjolras was moving stiffly, mechanically, towards the cupboard in the kitchen where the spare key was hidden.
He handed it over to Montparnasse. Their fingers brushed, lingered, as he took it. Montparnasse smiled a little, showing the two neat, straight lines of his teeth.
Then Enjolras went out with the distinct feeling that something good had happened, but not the sense of satisfaction he thought should accompany it.
He went through the motions of the day without showing any outward indication that his circumstances had changed. He attended a lecture in the morning, then an observation session at the Academie de Medicine. When he met Combeferre for lunch, the conversed easily, even pleasantly, and there was nothing in Enjolras manner to indicate that he was troubled. Throughout it all, though, he could not forget the way Vulich's eyes had looked milky and dull in death. He could not forget the name that Montparnasse had spoken.
Enjolras didn't doubt for a moment that the Razumov who had advised him and the Razumov who had aided Montparnasse were one and the same. Even such a city as Paris was not big enough to hold two men of his type. He wanted nothing to do with murderers and associates of common criminals, but Razumov was already so deeply affiliated with their movement that to cut ties with him would be a great inconvenience.
Briefly, Enjolras wondered if he might not keep quiet about the whole affair, but then he saw again the expression death had left on Vulich's face and his stomach pulled into a small hard knot. He couldn't pretend it hadn't happened. He couldn't keep silent until it went away.
Confronting Razumov directly was out of the question. Enjolras could not bring himself to face the man now, not after what he had seen. He had always detected a hint of menace in Razumov's manner, and if he had killed once, then what was to stop him from doing so again?
Enjolras checked himself before he followed that particular thought too far; he was afraid he would lose his nerve entirely if he did. For dying didn't frighten Enjolras, only getting killed did.
Save for Jean Prouvaire, Enjolras' lieutenants were not acquainted with Razumov, and even Jehan still thought of him only as a worldly old gentleman with failing eyesight. Razumov dealt only with the captains of each revolutionary cell, and he swore them to silence about his existence to minimize damage in the event that a sympathizer should fall into the hands of the enemy. It was a shrewd plan on his part, but also one that isolated Enjolras from any potential confidant. He knew the other captains only in passing, and wasn't sure he could trust any of them.
There was only one he could say with any confidence would approach the matter with a clear head and offer sound advice, but the prospect of seeking her out seemed to him an even more foolhardy idea than facing down Razumov.
But, as the day wore on, Enjolras found himself troubled more and more by the problem. As the evening came on and the time he habitually made his way to the Cafe Musaine drew near, Enjolras was blocks away from his usual meeting place, walking along the river towards a block of modest bourgeoisies townhouses. He knew the number of the one he wanted. A fortunate turn, for there was nothing but numbers to distinguish the outside of one house from another.
Enjolras ascended the neat walk and rang the bell. He had never been here before, never been invited, but he was secure in his purpose. He would not be turned away from such a place as this.
A young maid with a shrewd face came at his second summons. Enjolras gave his name, and she regarded him with wry indifference.
"Tell Mademoiselle St. Joan I have come to speak with her," he said, the words coming out through a clenched jaw.
The maid slipped back inside, her every move seeming to exhale silent amusement. She wasn't laughing at him, Enjolras told himself. She would not dare. And yet, once the idea had taken hold it would not release him.
Presently, the girl returned and ushered him inside. Enjolras went, removing his hat with exaggerated casualness, as if he knew exactly what to expect when he went inside. In fact, he had no idea what Amazonian war cries, what scenes of Sapphic luxuries might await him. Would it be the Temple of Ishtar, or the Witches of Macbeth beyond these doors?
Enjolras had briefly considered that he might be a brave pioneer: the first man to see what lay within this house. In fact, when the maid brought him to the small and tidy parlor, he saw that he had been preceded by several respectable workingclass fellows in worn but neat flannel suits. The vast majority of those in attendance were women, though. Most wore the frayed and faded skirts of factory girls, but there were those amongst them in silk and bustles, too.
He picked out an older woman with a fashionable dress and a scrap of black crepe fitted into her hatband like an irony. She could have been none other than the wealthy Widow Laurent, the mistress of the salon.
There, in the midst of them all, Apolline St. Joan held court like a queen of ancient times. Enjolras had always resented her Americanized manners – the broadness of her gestures, the loudness of her voice – but he had to admit that here, amongst her followers, the grandeur suited her.
She glanced up then, and caught sight of him standing in the doorway. Where she looked, the others followed, and Enjolras felt the press of a dozen pairs of eyes on him. Women's eyes, neither hostile nor welcoming, but prodding him with curiosity.
Enjolras felt a bead of sweat trickle slowly down his spine.
Apolline rose, and gave a placating wave of her hand, as if everyone was awaiting her signal to return to their conversations. Enjolras thought it insufferably arrogant of her, though he knew he had been known to do the very same thing. He could feel his teeth clenching tighter with each step Apolline took towards him. By the time she was near enough to speak, the points of his jaw were small, hard knots.
"Let's step into the hall," Apolline murmured.
Enjolras followed her out, and watched her tip the door closed very softly. "This isn't a social call," he said.
"I know. I wouldn't have had you if it was. Tell me what the trouble is."
Enjolras watched her eyes closely, and tried one last time to think of a reason not to trust her. A woman - a foreigner at that - would surely gossip. She might swoon at the mention of a murder. Enjolras could easily imagine both these things happening, and yet he knew that they would not. Apolline was as steadfast as anyone he had ever met, and serious enough to keep a secret. Enjolras had watched her closely over the years, taking note of every small misstep, tallying ever deviation against her, and now he felt that, in his dislike, he had come to know her better even than some of his closest friends.
"It's about Razumov," he said at last.
Apolline scowled. "The old coot's dropped dead, hasn't he? Damn, I knew it would happen…"
"Not exactly," Enjolras replied. "I've come into some information about him. I wanted to bring it to a—" Here, he could not quite bring himself to use the word 'trustworthy'. "—to a familiar agent."
"All right." Apolline regarded him evenly. "So let's hear it."
"A man was murdered last night. I think Razumov was involved. Nay, that he was the culprit."
She lifted a hand to her mouth, and Enjolras thought at first that she meant to gasp out some strange, feminine sounds of horror. He realized too late that she was only stifling a laugh.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry. It's just that you sounded so very grim. Who was the victim, then?"
"A man named Vulich. He was…" Enjolras shrugged. "I don't know."
"A stranger. But then, I suppose Razumov lived a great deal of life before we met him. We can't blame him for tying up loose ends."
"You almost sound as if this pleases you."
"It does," Apolline said. "It's a pleasant surprise. I had thought that old dog had lost all his teeth. Vulich is a strange name, don't you think? Maybe he came from the old man's homeland. If that's the case, then it's not really any of our business. We ought to concern ourselves with French matters"
Here, she stopped, and her brows came together so that the wrinkles between them made a sharp 'V'. "What's the matter with you?"
"A man is dead. Killed in cold blood. Do you understand?"
Apolline stroked her jaw thoughtfully. "I can see that this troubles you. I admit, I'm surprised."
Abruptly, her manner changed, became stern and consoling all at once. Enjolras saw a brief glimpse of something maternal in her, and could see why she did not show it very often.
"M. Enjolras, you knew when you began this that we might be called upon to kill at any time. Razumov has shown us what lies at the end of the road we're on, and if you can't look at it without flinching, then maybe you ought to reconsider what you're doing here."
"But to kill a man in battle is righteous and honorable. To stab him in the back is…"
He could see that Apolline was not going to be swayed, and his demeanor became abruptly cold. "You were always too bloodthirsty."
"Perhaps my grievances are greater than yours."
"It ought not be about your grievances at all."
"My mother was born a slave," Apolline said quietly, calmly. "Set free on the death of her captor, only to find she had no options but to become the mistress of a white man. Don't begrudge me my grievances, M. Enjolras, and I won't begrudge you the circumstances that led to your lack of them."
After that, there was nothing he could say. Had he tried, Apolline would not have listened. She was present in body, but her thoughts had retreated into some impenetrable stronghold.
"I'm sorry to have troubled you," Enjolras muttered at last.
"It was no trouble." Apolline hesitated a moment, and then added, "Don't bring this matter up to anyone else."
"I hadn't planned on it."
She nodded thoughtfully, and Enjolras first wondered if she pitied him, then if she hated him, and finally why he cared either way.
"Jacqueline will see you out," Apolline said, and she excused herself back into the parlor.
Enjolras did not wait for the maid to return. He set his hat firmly atop his head and took his leave. It was dark by now, the moon a tiny sliver over the rooftops.
He wondered if Montparnasse would be waiting for him when he arrived home, or if he had gone out to prowl. Enjolras tried to conjure up an image of the younger man in his mind, something that might console him on the walk home. But whenever he tried to imagine Montparnasse reaching out to pull him close, instead of hands his arms ended in the Hydra's many heads.
A week later, a summons came from Razumov.
It arrived by messenger in the middle of the day while Enjolras was away, and Mother Demaraise deposited it with Montparnasse for safekeeping. Enjolras found it waiting for him on the table when he arrived home: a perfectly innocent white envelope, save for the return address in the upper corner. He recognized the house number at once, and he fell upon the note and tore it open, hunching his body instinctively over the paper afraid that Montparnasse, who was on the other side of the room and engrossed in a decent translation of Virgil, would spy over his shoulder.
My dear boy, (the letter ran) I have received urgent news concerning our mutual interests. Please meet me tomorrow at our usual place. I have a matter of the utmost importance to discuss with you.
At the bottom was Razumov's small, unembellished signature.
Enjolras' head jerked up, a quick unnatural movement. Montparnasse was peering at him curiously over the top of his book.
"Bad news?" he said.
"It's just work," Enjolras gasped.
His thoughts must have shown plainly on his face, though, because Montparnasse sighed. "For god's sake, it's not as if I read it. I don't creep about while you're gone and spy on your things, you know. I have some manners."
Enjolras recognized the opening strains of a familiar argument. Montparnasse was adamant about being praised for even the smallest acts of virtue, as if he expected to be as much of a savant at goodness as he had been at murder. Enjolras was not accustomed to distributing compliments so readily, but Montparnasse could almost always have a few out of him by the time they were through. Tonight, though, he had no patience for it.
Deliberately ignoring Montparnasse's baiting, Enjolras crushed the letter in his hands, pulled open the door of the stove and tossed it inside. He thought it had been a casual gesture, one that wouldn't seem at all out of the ordinary, but when he glanced back at Montparnasse he saw that the younger man was watching him still. On his face was an expression of immense and conspiratorial sympathy, as if he longed to say, Ah, yes, I too understand secrets.
Enjolras did not give him the chance. He slammed the door on the stove and made himself so busy with so many minute, neglected tasks around the apartment that Montparnasse had no opportunity to interrupt him.
They didn't speak again until it was time to blow out the candles for the night. Enjolras was irritated to see that Montparnasse had progressed more than a few pages through the Virgil, that he had done so without complaint or question. He was hurt that Montparnasse no longer regarded him as teacher and sage.
Enjolras felt strained. There had been nothing overtly threatening in Razumov's letter, but he was plagued with foreboding about the summons. Razumov knew everything, he thought; Razumov always knew everything. Enjolras had not thought of Vulich in days, but he thought of him now. And he wondered, not with fear but rather with an academic detachment, if that was the fate that awaited him, too.
Montparnasse set his book aside, patting the cover a few times like it was a house pet. He rose, and put his arms around Enjolras' neck. Enjolras felt the slim heat of his body, the smallness of his waist when he fit his hands around it. He felt that neither of them really knew very much about the other, that they had only small and isolated windows into each other's solitude.
They could not have managed any other way.
The thought that he might ignore Razumov's letter entirely did cross Enjolras' mind, but in the end he dismissed it. He was too well-bred, too much a product of the countryside. He would rather have faced knife or garrote than the social embarrassment of missing an appointment. The next afternoon saw him admitted to the private room in the back of Laperouse. His manner was, if not that of a man on the eve of his execution, at least that of a schoolboy about to be soundly scolded.
Razumov was waiting for him, but he hadn't been for long. The thin hand-rolled cigarette he held pinched between his fingers was only half gone.
"It's been a while, my boy," Razumov said, and Enjolras felt his throat clench. Those few words, that knowing look, it was all he needed to confirm his fears that Razumov already suspected.
He didn't think that Apolline had talked, though. No, Razumov had his own ways of finding things out, and he likely would have resented the implication that he did not. In the end, it didn't really matter how he knew. All that mattered was that Enjolras was trapped now, as surely as if the discreet waiter had bolted and barred the door behind him when he left.
Razumov did not accuse him all at once. He motioned for Enjolras to sit, and, as he leisurely smoked his cigarette down, he questioned him on familiar matters. He asked Enjolras about his lieutenants by name, though he had never met any of them save Jean Prouvaire. He asked him about weapons, about sympathizers amongst the working men, about wealthy anonymous donors. He stroked him conciliatorily with success stories overheard from the other cell captains, and Enjolras took smug pride in the knowledge that he had brought in more fresh blood over the last month than Apolline had.
But all the while, Razumov's eye was cold and calculating. He was waiting for him to relax, Enjolras thought. As soon as he was comfortable, he would spring his trap.
All at once, it occurred to Enjolras that he might still gain the upper hand. Razumov, was wily – more fox than man – but surely he wasn't impervious to surprise. Enjolras seized upon the notion, and weighed the benefits of it for a full fifteen seconds before he spoke.
"M. Razumov," he said firmly, interrupting him in the middle of a speech about theoretical carbine distribution. "Who's Vulich?"
Enjolras wished almost at once that he had not spoken. His attempt to surprise Razumov seemed to have failed, and indeed Enjolras himself gave more of a start at the sound of that name than Razumov had.
"Vulich…" Razumov echoed. His pale eyes seemed to retreat into their sockets. Enjolras could not say if it was it was wistful nostalgia or an automatic masking of his thoughts, but either way the effect disturbed him. "I've heard that name before."
"I should think that you have," Enjolras said. He felt that he had committed himself to this unwise line of question, and that now he had no option but to go through with it.
Razumov looked at him critically. "How did you come by it? That name, I mean."
"A man told it to me, a few hours before he turned up dead."
"Turned up dead…" Razumov chuckled. "What a polite way of putting it. He was murdered, you mean."
"So, you admit to knowing about it?"
"Of course, my dear boy. I saw to the unfortunate task myself."
Enjolras was riveted to his seat. In spite of everything, he had not thought Razumov would actually confess so readily. He could feel his resolve draining away before Razumov's steady confidence. When he spoke next, his voice was hoarse, uneven. "He was… an enemy of our cause, wasn't he?"
"No, not him." Razumov leaned over, jabbing the butt of his cigarette into the ashtray. He rolled another as he spoke. "His politics never quite made the leap from East to West. He's a Serb, as you might have gathered from his name."
"Yes," Enjolras said, though in truth he had no idea what a Serbian name should sound like, and, he realized now, only a vague indication of where a Serb might live.
"From an old Cossack family," Razumov went on. "Very loyal to the Tsar. Loyal to the last…"
Razumov sighed. He sealed his cigarette, lit it, and brought it leisurely to his lips. He did not speak again for almost a full minute, and Enjolras did not try to interrupt him.
"I knew his father from court," Razumov said at last. "We were both poor men. Hangers-on. He was a soldier and I a scholar, but I liked him immensely. I dare say, he liked me too. He was most tolerant at any rate. Then the uprising came. It was a small affair, as these things go. Of course, they never seem small at the time, but in hindsight, yes… a most inconsequential revolution indeed. Of course, the men of my homeland are almost as accustomed to regular riots as are the citizens of Paris."
Razumov chuckled dryly. "When it happened, I simply followed my conscience and he followed his. Just like that, we were enemies. I can't really bear the man any ill-will, though I am a little envious that his conscience never had to bear the weight of being on the losing side. I fled the country – this you know. I lived in Stockholm for a while. I saw the elder Vulich while I was there. He had involved himself in intelligence work. He thought I was an easy target for assassination, but by that point I had acquired a few tricks of my own."
"You killed him, then." Enjolras heart was thudding in his chest.
"It was self-defense." Razumov did not seem overly concerned, though. "I had hoped that nasty affair was over, but it seems that the son followed in the footsteps of the father."
Enjolras felt the knot in his throat loosen. All at once, he could talk again; it was as if Razumov had lifted an enchantment. "This is very hard to accept."
"Yes, I understand. But, I pray that you will believe me when I say that I wonder every hour of every day if there is a younger Vulich already inducted into the Tsar's guard. Perhaps it is my punishment to revisit the same old sins time and time again…"
"I don't know about that," Enjolras said stiffly. "But I know I cannot abide murderers in our ranks. We are fighting to pure and holy ends, and so corruption cannot be allowed to take root from within."
"This had nothing to do with our cause," Razumov said. "It was begun as a personal affair, and I wish it had been allowed to stay one. Surely, M. Enjolras, even you have affairs outside of the cause."
The choice of words checked him, and Enjolras felt a rush of blood in his cheeks. "My personal affairs do not involve murder…"
"No, but you must have indiscretions all the same." Razumov's expression was one of a frail, wounded old man, but Enjolras could feel the strength behind each word, the way Razumov thrust them at him like a boxer throws his fists. For the first time, Enjolras was not taken in by him. For the first time, he wondered if Razumov had ever spoken a word of truth.
"I have no indiscretions," Enjolras said, and he felt a sense of triumph in fighting Razumov's lies with one of his own.
"Then you may deliver me to the gendarme if you wish," Razumov replied. "Of course, I'll never have a fair trial. The Tsar has spies in Paris. He'll have me extradited. At least I shall face a swift execution in the land of my birth."
Enjolras shuddered. He felt that he was being manipulated again, and yet did not at least this part of Razumov's story seem plausible? He wanted no hand in assassination and political terror.
"This troubles me deeply," he murmured.
"I understand. You need time to think on the matter."
Enjolras looked up sharply, and Razumov gave him a reassuring smile. "I'm too well-established in this life to go running off at the first sign of trouble. I'm getting too old for it. You have my word: I shall remain at my residence if you wish to discuss this matter further. Or, if you prefer to send an officer of the law to collect me."
"Why should I believe that?" Enjolras said.
"Because you know that I have nowhere else to go."
"Yes…" Enjolras said.
"It's comforting, in a way. I've exhausted my options and now I can only let things happen as they will. I must trust Providence, as the English would say."
He put out his cigarette and stood up. "I suppose there's no sense continuing our interview now. I shall meet with you at a more convenient time to discuss the rest of the matters on the agenda."
Enjolras half rose to see Razumov out, but then sank back down onto the divan. Razumov did not seem overly concerned: he pulled on his overcoat and left.
Alone with his thoughts, Enjolras replayed the conversation in his mind. It was Razumov's assertion that he had no other options that especially troubled him. Enjolras had believed it, but unwillingly. At last, he understood why. Razumov's words had seemed so credible because they had so perfectly mirrored Enjolras' own sentiments.
Spring came and the snow melted. Enjolras had not seen Montparnasse in days.
He assumed they were still living together, as Montparnasse had not come to collect his things. Every evening, Enjolras would check the cabinet where Montparnasse kept his clothes. Occasionally, he would find the shirts rifled, or one of the two garish suits exchanged for the other. Sometimes the contents of his bookshelf were picked over.
Enjolras didn't know what vile deeds Montparnasse had found to keep himself distracted, and he was desperate not to find out. He had dicovered that, as long as Montparnasse did not talk about his sins, Enjolras was still able to think of him as relatively pure when he needed to.
It grieved him greatly to think that Montparnasse had taken another lover, though he supposed that was precisely what had happened. Sometimes he managed to convince himself that he was only worried for Montparnasse's safety, but more often he was forced to admit the truth: he was bitterly jealous.
Enjolras entertained the idea that he might find a mistress of his own, not out of any desire for the company but only to make them even. However, after so many ascetic years, Enjolras had no idea how to secure a woman's company. He had never paid attention to Courfeyrac's boisterous conquests, and so he had missed out on the best instruction on the subject that he was likely to get.
Women had always paid him a lot of attention, and Enjolras had assumed, rather haughtily, that if he so chose he could have had his pick of them. Likely, he could have had more than his share had he not frozen the first catcall or amorous glance directed at him.
He knew that there was a point when he was supposed to pay a woman compliments, and a point when he was supposed to pay her in gifts; a point when he was supposed to press her hand, and a point when he was supposed to boldly slip his arm around her waist. But he was damned if he understood the order or logic to any of it.
It had always been easy with Montparnasse. He had made the first move. He had told Enjolras simply and without patronizing exactly what he needed to do.
Enjolras could easily imagine that he had been a very successful whore indeed.
Annoyed at his lack of success with women, Enjolras threw himself into his work. He found a thousand small matters that he had neglected during his time with Montparnasse, and he pounced upon each with newfound vigor. At first, he was pleased to see more of his lieutenants, but soon their company came to fill him with a strange melancholy.
They understood nothing, and he could confess his sins and secrets to no one. Even Combeferre wouldn't understand.
The more time he spent with them, the more isolated Enjolras felt. If anyone noticed, he said nothing. They had long since become accustomed to Enjolras' solitude; they thought him well past the point of feeling loneliness.
Perhaps they were more right than Enjolras would have cared to admit. True, he missed Montparnasse, but he did not pine for him. He was more bored without him than heartbroken. Indeed, entire days would go by when Enjolras did not spare him a single thought. It was only after he had left his studies and his work behind, in the last few steps before he reached his apartment door, that his heart would beat faster and he would dare to hope that tonight the room would not be empty when he arrived.
It always was. Montparnasse knew his schedule, and he was clearly taking pains to avoid the apartment when he knew Enjolras was there.
If that was what he wanted, then Enjolras wasn't about to stop him. He was too proud to grovel or compromise, and he made no effort to catch Montparnasse at home. Twice he began a note to leave out for him, and twice he abandoned the idea. He had no idea what he wanted to say.
He might have let the arrangement go on indefinitely out of stubborn pride and an unwillingness to let Montparnasse go, but then one evening, two weeks after he had vanished, Montparnasse returned.
Enjolras heard the key in the lock, and he sprang to his feet at the sound. He felt that he ought to do something, ought to enact some grand welcome or some horrible revenge, but he couldn't think of a single thing.
Montparnasse slipped inside. He was hard, polished, perfect and unyielding, as if he had been sculpted out of ice. His hair was set in tight curls that did not invite stroking or petting. His expression was inflexible, a suggestion of feeling but never a commitment to any particular emotion.
"Hello," he said softly.
Enjolras felt all his accusations drain away. He held out his arms and Montparnasse went to them; he didn't seem to relish the embrace, but he didn't seem opposed to it, either.
"Where have you been?" Enjolras murmured.
"You won't like it if I tell you."
"Cavorting with criminals, then. I dislike admitting it, but I've long since become accustomed to the idea. You no longer shock me with your exploits."
"It's not that," Montparnasse said. "Well, it's that too. But that isn't why I left."
He pulled away, enough that he could look up into Enjolras' face but not enough to break free of him. "It was you. I wanted to be away from you for a while."
"From me?" Enjolras was shocked.
"Yes. I had to leave, and then return so I could see you afresh. I wanted to go away long enough that I started to forget what you looked like. Then, when I came back, maybe I could see you like I did back then. When I first laid eyes on you. I…"
He trailed off. "Damn, I've said too much. You'll be hurt now, I know it."
"I'm not hurt," Enjolras said. His brows knitted together. "I'm only a little perplexed."
Montparnasse shrugged. "Your work means more to you than I do. I think I might be able to live with that, if you were only willing to make a little time for me. When I'm with you, I can't talk to anyone else I know. You wouldn't approve of them, and you'd probably be right not to. But to endure that and to hear you talk like you do? Enjolras, do you have any idea what it does to me to hear you say you'd happily die for your cause?"
"Why should I not say it? It's true."
"Fine, so it's true. Can't you leave me out of it?"
"Montparnasse…" Enjolras sighed, taking Montparnasse's shoulders in his hands, stroking his arms. He could feel how tightly his muscles were clenched, how tensely he was holding himself. "You're already a part of it. You're the proof that it all works. I took you in, and I gave you some schooling. And you learned. You weren't too degenerate. And now-"
"Now I'm the same as I always was," Montparnasse snapped. "Only with some reading and some writing and some figures."
"I don't believe that," Enjolras said firmly. "But perhaps you were almost too old when I found you. What if you had been a child still when you began your studies? Wouldn't that have made a difference?"
"I don't remember very much from when I was a child." Montparnasse smiled grimly, without humor. "I probably drank most of it away. I didn't have a father. My mother was a whore. She wasn't young anymore, and she'd been doing it for some time when I came. But she'd been very pretty once, and she still had enough of a reputation to run the business out of her apartment rather than off the street. There'd been other chances to have a child before, but she knew a doctor who would take care of them for her. There were chances after I came, but she got rid of them, too."
Montparnasse groped blindly for Enjolras' hand. When he found it, he squeezed it hard. "She told me all this, you know. Not to warn me, or to confess. Just as conversation. She must have been lonely, I suppose. I guess I knew that all along, but I never really thought about it before. What other people endure…"
He looked up, as if unsure whether or not Enjolras was still listening.
"She knew that she had damned me," Montparnasse said. "But I think she was glad to have me with her anyway. And I was glad to be alive. I still am. She took laudanum, and she drank. She was confused a lot of the time. When men would come over, she'd throw me out of the apartment. Even before I could walk she'd do it. And I'd sit in the hallway outside, hearing everything because the walls were none too thick, and understanding none of it. She really thought she was protecting me. When I was hungry, I'd eat the mud caked on the floorboards. One day, she said she had three clients in a row, and when she finally came out to get me, there was a ring around where I was sitting, a perfect circle that gleamed like it had been scrubbed and polished. She used to laugh when she told me the story, like maybe she was pleased I'd been so resourceful."
He broke off abruptly, and looked up at Enjolras. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. It's all just coming out. Things I haven't thought of in years. I'm frightening myself."
"Please," Enjolras said quietly. "Continue."
Montparnasse held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. Slowly, he went on, "When I was a little older, I'd wander around the tenement, out into the street. I'd go a little further each time, stay out a little later. One night, I didn't go back at all, and that was the end of it. My childhood. So when you ask me what I would have done with a little learning back then, I really don't know. I wouldn't have had much use for a school. I didn't like being around other boys my age. I was small, and I didn't like to fight. Even now, I can't bear the sight of fists being thrown. But I think if I had known someone like you, someone who would have taken me and looked after me and been a little indulgent…"
He did not finish that thought. "I don't dare hope that anything could have been different. My life was not so bad, not compared to some people. I had a place to live. No one beat me. It was a mistake to leave. But if you only knew what it was like to want like that…" He shook his head. "I'm sorry. That's not an answer. I don't know if I have an answer for you."
Enjolras did not reply right away. Montparnasse slipped out of his hold and sank down on the divan. He looked pale and haggard, and in the ten minutes since he had come through the door, he seemed to have aged considerably.
"I understand the complexity of the situation," Enjolras said at last, carefully and diplomatically as a lawyer. "And I have never believed that change would come immediately. Perhaps not even within the first generation. But soon after, surely…"
"Yes," Montparnasse said. "That's fine. I believe you. I believe everything. Can we stop talking about it?"
Enjolras was irritated by the abrupt retreat into petulance. "Very well. What would you rather we talk about?"
Montparnasse raised his eyes. "I thought you might… tell me everything would be all right. I thought you might care about all those things I told you. I never told anyone else, you know."
Enjolras looked startled, and Montparnasse lowered his gaze. He seemed to regret having said that almost at once. "I came back because I wanted to give you another chance. I don't even know what I wanted to change about you, but I knew that something had to. But you won't. You can't. And if you ever did, you wouldn't be the man I adore so."
"What are you saying?"
Montparnasse stood up. He looked resolute now, with his narrow shoulders thrown back and his head high. "I want my things. I'm leaving."
Enjolras was not surprised by the words. He did not stand in Montparnasse's way as he took his clothes out of the closet, folding them neatly and sliding them into a paper sack. He took a thin volume from his coat pocket and returned it to Enjolras' bookcase. He accepted some money when Enjolras offered it to him.
After he was gone, the apartment seemed very empty. Enjolras wandered through the small rooms, touching all the things that Montparnasse had touched, straightening what was not out of order. Though Montparnasse had been gone for weeks beforehand, Enjolras had never seemed to notice the cavernous silence his absence left behind.
And so Montparnasse was gone. Enjolras was not glad for it, but wasn't it for the best?
He seemed now to surface as if out of deep, cloudy water and saw the world through new eyes. His lieutenants were no longer the callow students he remembered; they had become cold-minded, calculating revolutionaries. Their preparations no longer existed solely in the realm of words and dreams; they had taken the startlingly concrete shapes of carbines and sabers. The city no longer whispered of discontent; it shouted its grievances now from every parapet.
All of these things had come to pass. He had slept through the changes, or rather he had sleepwalked. He was awake now, and Montparnasse was a dream, already fading with the coming of the day.
So Enjolras told himself, and so he came to believe. He still had his moments of weakness, his moments of wanting, but they came less and less often. When he could not banish such thoughts from his mind, he diverted them. He told himself that he had cared for Montparnasse no more and no less than he would have cared for any other unfortunate child, and if Montparnasse still seemed close to his heart, it was only because of all they had accomplished together.
To take a boy like that - who cared for nothing, who longed for death – and to teach him to read and write, to teach him, even, to take some pleasure in those things seemed to Enjolras a miracle, but the kind of miracle which needed no church sanction or papal seal of approval and so was all the better. A real miracle, tangible and attainable. A miracle of the People.
It would lead to others, Enjolras thought. Such things were inevitable now. For how long could Montparnasse persist in darkness now that such a bright light shone upon him? He might keep going for a while now, simply out of momentum, but when he wound down at last he would stop and take account and realize that he had become honest and good, and all that was left was to begin to act the part. Then he would realize, as Enjolras had, that they no longer had any need of each other.
Yes, all these things would come to pass, just as a new Paris would soon come. For if one miracle, then why not another? Why not one for every impoverished, suffering man?
Enjolras told himself all of these things, and they assuaged his loneliness. They put a balm on it, so that for a while he did not feel how utterly alone he was. He could hide it from himself, but he could not be rid of it. This worried him, for he envisioned the loneliness as a poisoning in the blood, moving through his body, making his veins show black against his skin. It was coursing towards his heart, and when it reached it, he did not know what would happen.
Unless it never did.
He was not alone, and he did not need to be alone. For he had come awake to many things when Montparnasse had walked out that final, irrevocable time, and not the least of these was the looks his comrades sometimes gave him. Once, he had mistaken them for admiration, but did they not linger a little too long sometimes? Did they not probe too deep?
It startled Enjolras to think that he might have such sway over men. Perhaps it had been more than chance that Montparnasse had wanted him. Perhaps there was something about him – his face, his manner – that compelled.
To Enjolras, the power was as mysterious and unexpected as if he had awakened one day and found himself able to draw spirits or read palms, but it was power all the same. He knew how to handle that.
Still, he was surprised by how quickly his plans moved from speculation to concrete possibility. Had he really become so desperate? No, it was best not to think of it that way. There was time enough now, opportunities that he might not have later on. He wanted what he wanted, and that was all there was to it.
Unbeknownst to his comrades, Enjolras began to observe them in return. He was careful about it, though; as careful as they thought they were being. He immediately ruled out Combeferre. They were too close, and he needed Combeferre's even temperament too much. He could not jeopardize what they already had together. He knew he could also safely disregard Grantaire's dog-like devotion. To acknowledge that desire in him would be to simultaneously take advantage of him and to degrade himself.
Then, he thought of Courfeyrac, with whom he was none to close but not on bad terms at all. But he could get no further than that.
Courfeyrac was not un-handsome, but his features were too heavy and genial. His build, too, was broad; he did not have that tapering dandyish line from his shoulders to his waist.
Enjolras cursed himself. That, on top of everything, he should start to become picky… But wasn't that only to be expected? It was natural to have preferences. What had been unnatural was to think that he might change out one lover for another, with no more consideration then the changing of a shirt. That was how beasts behaved, and surely he was no better.
He was ashamed, and yet his longing did not ease. Late at night, he awoke to damp sheets and dreams he could not remember. Shame gripping his heart like a hand locked in the rigor of death.
If only he could see Montparnasse again, then it would be better. Kiss him once more, and then go to his destiny. That was not an unpleasant dream, but it was a dream all the same. Here was the real world he had to live in, where, with each passing day, he slipped further and further into desperation and into utterly futile fantasies.
In all the confusion, he had overlooked Jean Prouvaire entirely.
It had been easy enough to do. Jehan was a thin, mousy boy, affecting a Byronic costume he was never quite comfortable in; he was a tireless, reliable worker for the cause, but often he was disengaged and dreamy. He did well when left on his own, and so Enjolras would often not think of him for months at a time, not until he needed something.
He needed something now.
Enjolras was shaken by the thought. He had known all along that Jean Prouvaire adored him, of course. Known, and ignored it with polite decorum.
Jehan, with his frayed cravat and his silly odes that went nowhere, there hadn't been much sense in him holding out hope for as long as he had, but perhaps his patience would pay off at last. Perhaps now, they could both take what they needed…
No, there was no perhaps about it. Enjolras had made his decision.
And yet, he still missed Montparnasse.
Once he had decided, everything seemed to progress very quickly. Like a hitched horse that knows its own way home, Enjolras had only to keep one hand lightly on the reigns.
He was now much in the habit of staying late at the Cafe Musaine. There was nothing waiting for him back home save an empty room, a cold bed tainted by humiliating dreams, and a suffocating pall of silence. Here, he was but a few steps from the public room of the Cafe, and he might, any time he so chose, step out and watch the revelers for a moment. He did it to remind himself of his reasons, and of his great and inexhaustible well of tenderness towards all men.
It was as he returned from one of these excursions that he found the back room emptied as if by a sudden storm. The tables were cluttered with empty dishes, the chairs clustered haphazardly, but unoccupied.
Only Jean Prouvaire remained behind, seated at a table in the back corner, a little bit out of the light. There was a candle set out for him, but he had not lit it. Indeed, he seemed not even to know it was there, though he squinted in the low light, down at the fan of papers spread out before him.
Enjolras had found him like this often of late, deep in thought, oblivious to the world around him. He'd been working hard lately, but there would be no more opportune time than this. Taking a moment to shore up his resolve, Enjolras started forward.
Jean Prouvaire glanced up as he approached. His eyes were dull, his expression uncomprehending, as if he were drunk or just awakened from a sound sleep. But he was neither of these things, though he made no sound as Enjolras took the seat beside him.
Unsettled by his silence, Enjolras scooped up one of the loose papers and gave it a cursory read.
Bacchus' hold was strong that night
On king and common man
Spoke once in haste, then spoke again
The king's passion he did alight
Alexander took up his sword
With his reason long since fled
He struck his companion dead
All who saw were struck with horror
Silence fell upon the throng
They knew death had entered in
To witness such a hideous sin
And such a grievous wrong
Alone, Hephaistion hid the scene
He bid them take the corpse away
And when shone the first rose light of day
The stones had all been washed clean
His expression tightened, but Jean Prouvaire uttered only a tired sigh, "What do you want, Enjolras?"
He was started by the chilly welcome, but he did not falter. "You're the one who's always saying we ought to talk more. So let us talk."
Jean Prouvaire laughed, bitterly. "I said that months ago."
"Have you changed so much since then?"
"No. You torment me still."
"There's no need for melodrama, Jehan. Tell me of your work. This…" He made a sweeping gesture, meant to indicate the sprawl of papers.
Jean Prouvaire glanced up at him, guilty but still defiant. "I no longer pretend that it isn't deeply personal. That it isn't about me. And you."
"You think that we will come to such an end?" Enjolras said with a frown.
"If you mean, do I think that we will die…" Here, Jean Prouvaire shrugged. "It happens to the best of us."
"Still, it seems an ill omen."
Jean Prouvaire laughed another brittle laugh. He began to gather the papers together, smoothing each one tenderly before adding it to the pile. "If it makes you feel any better, they didn't know how they were going to die. How could they have known? But they still did what they did."
"I thank you for the vote of confidence," Enjolras said. Even he couldn't tell whether he meant it genuinely or not.
"Don't say such things," Jean Prouvaire murmured. "You don't know how it wounds me…"
"I didn't," Enjolras said. On impulse, he reached out and touched Jean Prouvaire's hand. He felt that the moment had come, and if he waited much longer it would pass them by. "But I do now."
Jean Prouvaire's head jerked up. His hand trembled beneath Enjolras'. It threw sparks. "What are you saying? Why tell me these things …?"
Enjolras felt things moving very swiftly now, moving forward in such a steady, natural progression that he needed only keep up abreast of them. Had Montparnasse taught him this? No, no, best not to think of Montparnasse now.
Taking a deep breath to steel his composure, Enjolras leaned forward. He heard the sound of paper crushed beneath his hand, heard it even over the rushing of blood in his ears. Jean Prouvaire submitted to a kiss. He did not even shiver beneath it, but his lips seemed charged with the same restless energy as his fingers. His skin was cold, unpleasantly so, but Enjolras brought a hand up to his cheek, touching him beneath his curls, feeling the divot where his temple was and where his cheek hollowed. He felt the burn of a long day's stubble beneath his palm. Montparnasse's cheek had always been smooth, like velvet. Or was he misremembering it now?
"Lock the door," Enjolras said hoarsely.
Jean Prouvaire's eyes were closed, his chin tilted back and his lips parted a little. He would have looked like an ecstatic if he did not look so foolish. "No…" he breathed.
"No. I shan't."
He was on his feet suddenly, his hip knocking against the table so that a hail of papers scattered across the floor.
Enjolras frowned severely. His body ached, anticipating. He tried to ignore it, passing the back of his hand over his lips to rid them of the sensation of being kissed. "What's gotten into you, Jehan?"
"Into me?" Jean Prouvaire wavered on his feet, gripping the edge of the table to steady himself. Another sheet of paper fluttered, unheeded, to the floor. "Into me…"
"You've wanted this for years. Did you think I didn't notice?"
"I wanted nothing," Jean Prouvaire said. "Nothing, save that you might find some worthy use for me. But I never thought… this…"
"Never?" Enjolras replied skeptically.
"We all took you for such a virtuous man."
Enjolras had taken a step forward, reached out to draw Jean Prouvaire against him, but at those words he hesitated. "I never wanted to be virtuous. I only wanted to be right. And in this, I am not wrong."
Jean Prouvaire looked violently away.
"Am I, Jehan?"
Jean Prouvaire made no reply, though Enjolras let the silence go on long past the point that it became ridiculous. At least Montparnasse, for all his mysteries and secrets, had never been so damned inscrutable and vague. If he were here now, this would never have had to happen.
Enjolras brought his hand down hard on the table and brought up a fistful of loose papers. "What of this then?"
Jean Prouvaire flinched, as if he had been dealt a blow. "I don't know!"
"I do," Enjolras said softly. His temper had exhausted itself now, and with it his desire, but he felt he could not abandon the plot now. No, no, better to see it through, no matter how distasteful it had become.
"What do you know?" Jean Prouvaire murmured
"I was as bad as you, once."
He stepped forward. Jean Prouvaire did not flinch or shrink from him, which to Enjolras was consent enough. When he touched him, Jean Prouvaire swayed up and into the embrace.
"But here?" he whispered.
"Yes, here," Enjolras said. He was beginning to grow impatient. "No one ever comes in at this time of night. Lock the door if you're worried."
Jean Prouvaire flushed. "I meant only… couldn't we retire to bed?"
"We must seize upon the moment," Enjolras said. "Or else it may pass us by."
"I see." Jean Prouvaire turned his face upward, and his expression was one of blind, complicit trust. Enjolras knew then that he would do anything, and that all his secrets would be safe.
And at last, he would be free of Montparnasse's hold on him.
It was a stroke of luck running into the Thenardier girl when he did. Out of all the people he knew, Eponine was the only one he could trust to not ask where he had been for the past few months, where he had been hiding himself. She acted like she hadn't even noticed he was gone, which, coming from her, didn't seem like an insult.
Montparnasse had been picking his haunts carefully of late, staying clear of the usual places. He didn't want to see anyone, not yet, but Eponine found him anyway. He was half-drunk when she did, not unpleasantly so, and as he watched her cross the floor of the public house, to the little table in the rear corner that he had staked for himself, she swayed and wavered like a mirage. She projected the aura of an off-duty whore, and he was damned if every man in the place didn't leave her alone. They barely even looked at her.
Eponine stared at him for a while. Her eyes were huge, unblinking, so round they were almost perfect circles. They were brown, but one of her irises had a big shapeless blob of blue floating in it. She was a weird looking kid. Not ugly or anything, but the kind of pretty that you had to get used to before you could appreciate it. Montparnasse didn't mind her. She talked too much, but it was almost never anything you had to listen to. Being with her while she talked and talked was almost the same has having quiet.
"What are you doing?" she asked him.
"Can I help you?"
When she smiled, the corners of her lips squashed in and her mouth became as round as her eyes. Three perfect circles hovering on her face as if suspended in thin air.
Montparnasse weighed his options. He was bored, and Eponine was practically never boring. He had Enjolras' kiss-off money burning a hole in his pocket. Though he had been contemplating in the vaguest way doing something constructive with it, hell, why not just have a party instead?
"I don't care."
She sat with him, not across the table but all the way around so that she was at his side. Their knees touched shamelessly, and they were short a glass so they drank from the bottle instead.
"You've had a stroke of luck," she said. "Well, so have I. But I won't tell you his name, only that you should know he's no threat to you. I'd have a better chance with a fairy prince or a statue in a garden. Sometimes I dream about him, but that isn't anything, really. I just do it to stay warm. And even then, I am always sure to say, 'Dear husband,' (we're married by then) 'You must let me have my friends.' And so he does, and also he tells me, 'By the way, my eccentric old uncle has died, and I am to inherit his title.' So that is the story of how I become the Duchess. Do you like it?"
She smiled that tight, close-lipped smile of hers. Montparnasse figured that she did it to hide her teeth. She'd lost another since the last time he had seen her, but it didn't matter much. It wasn't as if they were eating filet mignon every night.
"Why stop at Duchess?" Montparnasse said. "You deserve a Marquis, at least."
"No, I' m sure I'd make a better Duchess. It pays to know these things, Montparnasse. Now, I've told you my dreams. I want to hear about yours."
"If you're a Duchess, then what am I?"
"Bastard son of a prince," Eponine answered easily. "Don't try to change the subject. Tell me what you dreamed about last night."
Montparnasse took a swallow from the bottle before he answered. "Last night, I dreamed I peeled all the skin off my face and I was a different person underneath."
"You must be one of the most interesting people I know."
Her eyes darted quickly, up to his face and then away. The whites flashed sickly colors in the candlelight. Montparnasse could not tell if she was joking, could not tell anything about her. She was a stranger to him, but at least she was accommodating. All at once, he wondered what Enjolras would make of her. All her education; her reading and history and figures. It hadn't gotten her anything, except for a bigger vocabulary to describe her misery, a firmer grasp on just what fate awaited her.
What if things never get any better? That was what he had wanted to ask Enjolras before he left, but Montparnasse was relieved now that he hadn't. It would have hurt him, and all for nothing.
He didn't want to hurt Enjolras. When he thought about it, it seemed to Montparnasse that he had never really wanted to hurt anyone. He had just done it, as if by accident, through neglect or momentum. He had looked at their pain without really seeing it; their suffering had been to him as the theatrics of characters in a play.
Things were different now. He was different. He watched Eponine throw her head back and drink, and realized for the first time that her skin looked like wax, that her hair had become very thin and fine, like the hair of an old woman. When she coughed, it sounded dry and futile; a handful of stones rattling in her chest. Montparnasse felt the extent of his newfound awareness, as if all of his senses had become suddenly and terrifyingly enhanced.
If this was the result of Enjolras' education, then he wanted no part of it. For how could he go on now? Seeing everything, knowing all…
They left the public house, her arm hooked in his. They had not talked of where they would go now, but Montparnasse knew that she was waiting for him to take her back to his room. He had one now, paid three months in advance. It was even furnished. But what good was a table with no food to go on it? Or a stove with nothing to burn?
He'd be out of money soon enough, but he had never let a little thing like that worry him before. Something would come up. It always did.
Eponine's shivering was agitating him. He could feel her bony elbow knocking up against his side, catching him under the ribs. He shook her loose, and she sprang away from him. Her bare feet rose up from beneath her skirt, then plunged back beneath it again. He saw them in glimpses. Like small fish coming to the surface of a pool. Now like birds. Now fish again.
She jerked her head as if listening to some faint song that only she could hear. Then she picked up the tune.
"Les pêches dans l'été
Les pommes dans l'automn
Je ne peux pas garder la fille que j'ai
Je ne peux pas la garder à tous"
Montparnasse realized that he was still thinking about Enjolras, wondering whether he surfaced much these days from his fugue of books and plans to spare a thought for what he'd had. It had been no small feat that he'd gotten Montparnasse to play at domesticity, but it hadn't been coercion or anything like that. For a while at least, Montparnasse had wanted it to be exactly like it was.
He was not lonely without Enjolras, not exactly, but he felt, even now, something lacking. He had always wanted nice things, and nothing more.
Eponine was peering up at him, giving him a sly sideways look, her gaze slanting out from between the strings of her hair. She'd been watching him all along, taking note of the way his lips moved up and down with his moods, as if he were humming along to a song of his own.
"What is it?" she said.
Montparnasse shrugged. He didn't want to talk.
She twisted her face into a pout. On a prettier, fresher, more innocent girl, it would have been charming. "I only want to help."
"You want to help anyone who catches your eye."
"You're right, of course," Eponine said. "Helping you poor useless men makes me forget my own troubles. You're all so much worse off than me."
"I like you better when you're not trying to be funny."
"I'm not trying to be funny. I like you better when you're not sighing and sad-eyed."
She seemed to realize that he was debating the merits of slapping her senseless, because she sprang away again. She took up her song, not where she had left off, but a few lines on, as if the music she heard had kept playing without her.
"Il est en haut de ici de penser
Et il est contrebas y de danser
N'est pas le façon contraire"
They came to the rooming house where he was staying. There were still a few lights on in the ground floor windows. No one stayed on the upper levels – the floorboards were all rotted through. The landlord was too afraid to walk on them even long enough to bring the furniture night long, Montparnasse could hear the floors creaking under the weight of abandoned beds and dressers, and he waited for the moment when they all came crashing down on him.
There was a porter. When he came to let them in, his eyes roamed over Eponine's bare arms.
"She's my sister," Montparnasse said, a lie that did nothing but embarrass all of them. It made Montparnasse think of Abraham and Sarah going down into Egypt, which was about as far as he'd read into the Bible that Enjolras had thrust on him.
It kept coming back around to him. The harder Montparnasse tried to push his thoughts of Enjolras away, the more tenaciously they clung. One thing he had always liked about Eponine: she'd do just about anything he asked her to. In bed, she was impersonal, efficient; a body without a soul. With her, he felt as close to nothing at all as was possible, but she could never be the wedge he was hoping for.
They went down the dark hallway to his room, and Montparnasse abruptly said, "It's money. That's all. I've been thinking about money."
"That's what old men worry about," Eponine scolded.
He showed her into his room. They didn't bother with a candle.
"Come back and do a job or two with your old friends. You'll soon remember what you thought you forgot."
For as long as he could, Montparnasse resisted returning to his former occupation simply because the idea had been suggested to him. Stubbornly, he rode out the last of his dwindling finances. He ate only every other day, and rolled drunks for small sums. Mostly, he kept to himself. Word would travel quickly if the right people got hold of it. It would get back to his former partners, and they would not be pleased. Patron-Minette was not an organization to be joined casually or left on a whim.
It was only the end of May and already intolerably hot in the city. Cholera was rampant. Montparnasse did not admit as much, least of all to himself, but he lived in terror of sickness creeping in to his body, turning his carefully cultivated pride against him. He did not want to die owing anyone anything, neither Enjolras, nor Eponine, nor the anonymous and well-intentioned Sisters at the convent hospital. He didn't want to survive if it meant being dependent.
There were days when his arrogance burned so hot he mistook it for fever. He saw disease everywhere he looked, in every mendicant's pinched face or day laborer's broken posture. A baby in his boarding house cried ceaselessly day and night, and Montparnasse began to see its room as an epicenter, out of which pestilence continually poured. One night he dreamed that he opened the door and the cholera washed over him in a red wave. When it finally subsided, his face was the face of an old man.
The nightmare did not leave him with the coming of the day; it remained lodged like a barb in his mind. He went out into the sunlight, hoping that would banish it. It was then that he saw Razumov on the street.
Montparnasse spotted him in the shadow of a grocer's awning, and some dormant instinct awoke in him, urging him to approach by stealth. He crossed over to the opposite side of the street, and went on by measured degrees. Razumov was dressed in a black suit, neat but somber. He had cropped his hair since Montparnasse had last seen him – no, he had only swept it back and tucked the tail into his collar. There was a touch of the old-fashioned about him, and not a sign of the flamboyance Montparnasse remembered.
He was talking to a trim girl with a dark complexion and a stern face. Montparnasse could tell at a glance that she belonged to no underworld. This was not the Razumov who amused himself with petty criminals the way some men amused themselves with the classification of birds. This was the other Razumov. The man of efficient and gentlemanly murders and unexplained foreign connections.
For the first time, Montparnasse allowed himself to be drawn out of his dark thoughts and his solitude. He could see the two of them well from his vantage point. Razumov was talking; the girl was nodding her head in vicious jerks. Montparnasse found himself watching her very closely. One instant she seemed very pretty, and the next not at all.
They talked for another minute. The girl's nodding became more rapid, and she swayed a little on her feet as if eager to be set loose to run. Razumov leaned close, so that at first Montparnasse thought that he meant to kiss her and he tasted metal in his mouth. But Razumov only whispered a few quick words in her ear. The girl stopped nodding abruptly, and then she slipped past him and went on her way down the street.
Montparnasse followed her with his eyes, but not for so long that Razumov had a chance to slip away. As soon as the girl was out of hearing, Montparnasse trotted briskly across the street. Razumov turned and saw him, and he did not seem surprised or angry or pleased, or much of anything at all. But as Montparnasse came closer, he seemed to detect something moving in Razumov, something shifting just under the skin.
By the time they were face to face, Razumov was once more the wry, aloof villain he had known.
"Welcome back, my boy," he said. There was perpetually a touch of laughter in Razumov's voice, as if he were relishing some private joke. "How long it has been since we last talked."
Montparnasse mustered a little amusement of his own. It had always seemed to him the surest defense against Razumov's condescension. "That was a nice piece you had there. Where'd you turn up a girl like that?"
"You mustn't question an old man's fancies," Razumov replied. "And besides, I might ask you the same. Where have you been spending your nights?"
Montparnasse jerked back, and a projectile of laughter escaped from Razumov's throat.
"Yes, I know about him," he said. "I knew all along, and I was not the only one. But your little indiscretions are not of such general interest as you think. I only kept it in mind because Little Red Riding Hood and I are well acquainted."
Montparnasse felt the whole force of the surprise attack he had mounted against Razumov turned back against him. While he struggled for something to say and found himself, to his humiliation, coming up utter lacking, Razumov reached beneath the collar of his coat and freed the silver mass of his hair. It made him look lupine and imposing.
"My dear boy," he went on in a conciliatory tone. "You are not without your flaws, but I like you all the same. I liked you from the first, and that's why I helped you. A boy like you knows his place. You're a predator, and you are vicious when you want something. If you consort with zealots and troublemakers, they will try to break you of you; they would knock you down amongst the rabble and ask you to be grateful. I think that you know better than to be taken in by their nonsense."
Montparnasse felt himself swept under by the torrent of Razumov's words. His accent was hypnotic, his pitch forceful. He seemed to leave no recourse open but blind and complete agreement. Montparnasse struggled, and for an instant his head broke the surface of Razumov's rhetoric. He reached out, groping like a drowning man, and seized at a spar.
"What's your business with him?" he said. "Why do you know so much?"
Razumov smiled. It was a soft, tender expression, like a father might favor his son with.
"Who are you really?" Montparnasse gasped.
"My boy, my boy." Razumov's smile broadened. He was practically beaming. "Go back to your friends in the Patron-Minette. They need you now more than ever. If you're worried that they will be less than welcoming, I can assure that will not be the case. I'll have a word with them on your behalf."
He leaned closer, the same dipping of his head that Montparnasse had, at a distance, mistaken for a kiss. Montparnasse did not move closer to accept the dispensing of his confidences, but he found he was powerless to pull away.
"It shall reconcile all in justice," Razumov said. His voice was very low, but not yet a whisper. "It will be soon now. A week, not more than two. Some of us cannot live on wild notions of a vague and uncertain future."
He leaned back. His smile had not faltered. "Men long for justice, Montparnasse. If they did not, then they would not be men. Let me give them what is needed, and do not over-burden yourself with the intricacies."
"What are you talking about?" Montparnasse said.
"Be grateful that you do not have to understand." Razumov made a motion with his gloved hand that was partway between dismissive and inclusive. "It is weary work indeed. Run along now, my boy, and make sure you do as I've said. I'm afraid that things will go badly for you if you stray too far from your appointed path."
All was said with such certainty that it seemed there was no way Montparnasse could protest and nothing more they could discuss. Razumov had said that he would reconcile all, and that promise weighed heavily on Montparnasse. It did not occur to him until after Razumov had taken his leave to wonder what his idea of justice might look like, or why it might preoccupy him so.
Montparnasse was resolved now to go back to where he belonged, to rejoin the Patron-Minette and take up that work again. All along, he had expected that he would find his way back there, but he felt himself hurried toward his inevitable end by Razumov's sure and decisive hand.
When the moment came, it was so sudden, so lacking in fanfare, so little in line with his imaginings, that Enjolras almost didn't recognize it.
The old general – the steward of the people – died during the night, and by the morning the news was general around Paris. The word was carried by the coachmen who worked overnight, the servants and shop keeps who rose hours before dawn, and by the time Enjolras had awakened and made his preparations for the day, it had wound its way up to his circle.
He had always thought he would feel some grief when the old man passed away. Enjolras had not known Lemarque personally, but through his actions and deeds he had come to feel a kind of fraternity with him. But now, confronted with the news of his death, Enjolras felt nothing but coldness and calculation. The sensation of his thoughts detaching themselves and whirling ahead of his body.
Enjolras dressed as usual. He left his room and walked toward the University. He had thought that this would be the hardest part – waiting for news, acting as if nothing had changed – but he felt he had taken leave of his flesh entirely. His body went on, but his mind was far away, striding on to glory.
This sensation of being beyond himself did not last long. A courier met him on the street and slipped an envelope into his hand. Enjolras did not turn to look at him as he passed, and he waited until he was on the next block before tearing open the note and reading it. A single line was carefully copied in Razumov's anonymous, schoolboy-ish handwriting.
"The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than then thousand truths."
Enjolras could hear his pulse in his ears. His mouth flooded with the coppery taste of his own wildly beating blood.
It was the signal they had agreed upon months ago. They were to go ahead with their plans.
All across Paris, the other cell leaders were receiving similar notes. Did they pause, Enjolras wondered, and take accounting of the moment? Did they make note of their feelings so they could recount them later? Or did they go at once, without hesitation, to meet their destiny?
Enjolras was tempted to do the second, but then he thought better of it and made a moment for the first. The generations that were to come would want to know everything they could about this day.
He spent a moment on his meditations, and then started off, almost at a run, towards Combeferre's apartment.
The morning was chaotic, but Enjolras felt that he walked above it. The gathering of his lieutenants around him was like the donning of armor; Enjolras felt secure even before they had pried up the first paving stone. They had failed to rouse Pontmercy, but Enjolras considered it no great loss. He had long since grown weary of playing foil to him.
There were fits and false starts that he hadn't anticipated. The number of men under his immediate command fluctuated by the hour, some arriving fresh at the Corinth, others slipping away when his back was turned, having grown bored or nervous or tired of the hard work. Enjolras took off his coat and worked in his shirtsleeves, savoring the feeling of honest labor that he had long been denied.
He spent the afternoon prying up paving stones. Once he had dislodged them, Combeferre and another man – he changed every hour or so with the fluctuations of their forces – carried them away.
"Do you think we should number these so they'll be easier to put back later?" Combeferre asked. He was flushed and sweating, but in high spirits. The pervasive mood was that of a festival, but Enjolras did not share it. He was too restless, too distracted, to settle into the good natured camaraderie of the moment.
He felt like he had forgotten something important.
He remembered that he had caught sight of Apolline on the boulevard after Lemarque's funeral procession had passed. He'd only seen her for a moment before her entourage had closed around her like a chrysalis and swept her away. She had gone towards the area in the city south where she was known best.
Enjolras collared one of the small boys who had gathered to gawk at the rising barricade and deployed him with a message. He wanted to keep in contact for as long as he could; more than that, he wanted to keep an eye on her.
The message dispatched, Enjolras thought that he might at last be able to rest his mind a moment and survey his works. He looked shrewdly at the haphazard piles of stone, the cloud of gray dust rising from beneath the pavement, and he took a kind of craftsman's pride in the destruction he had brought about. It took the eye of an artist, however, to see what it might become.
Enjolras passed the bar he had been using to pry up the stones off to Joly, who, pleading a fear of hernia, immediately passed it to Bossuet. Enjolras turned his back on them, irritated by the imperfections they left on his otherwise flawless vision of fraternity, and he almost collided with Jean Prouvaire.
It felt like a long time before either of them spoke. Jean Prouvaire resisted the urge to look up, but eventually he did raise his eyes enough to glimpse Enjolras' face through the shadow of his lashes.
"I'm late," he said. He plucked at the frayed edge of his flowing cravat. "I know I am. I suppose you're going to scold me for it."
That had in fact been exactly what Enjolras was planning to do, but Jean Prouvaire's voice gave him pause. "You're here now. You haven't missed much. The rest can be forgiven."
Jean Prouvaire stared at him blankly, as if he hadn't heard. Enjolras showed mercy so infrequently that he was not accustomed to having it pass unappreciated, but he couldn't be angry, or even annoyed, not with Jean Prouvaire looking at him that way.
All at once, the Corinth seemed very far away. The colors muted, and the sounds passed through a layer of dampening gauze before they reached him. He felt that he had been transported to a lonely, isolated place – an uninhabited isle or an Arctic waste unknown to man. Far from his comrades, and from his cause; and with only Jean Prouvaire for companionship.
Enjolras remembered the last time they had been alone together, and he gave an involuntary start. He had not thought of it for some weeks now. They had not spoken after the deed was done, and Jean Prouvaire had gathered up his papers and left. His shoulders had been slumped, his look downcast, as if the whole thing had gone a different direction and he had suffered a humiliating rejection.
Though he knew that he had done something terribly wrong, Enjolras felt sure that, in this particular instance, his naivete protected him from censure. He couldn't possibly have known this would happen. That his petty personal revenge would end with Jean Prouvaire watching him like this, his eyes like the eyes of a man trapped in some dark place.
"What are we doing here?" Jean Prouvaire said. "For the life of me, I can't remember why I ever thought I'd be able to go through with this…"
"Is that why you didn't come earlier?" Enjolras said, but Jean Prouvaire gave him such a reproachful look that he did not attempt another guess.
"I don't know what's come over me lately. I used to think that getting killed would be easy compared to killing a man. That was the only thing I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do for you. But these days, I see how wrong I was. I had that in me all along."
"Don't talk like that," Enjolras said, pleased that he had not made it sound like an order. "Don't even think about it. It's ill fortune."
"You've said something like that to me before."
"I don't remember."
"No. You wouldn't, would you?"
Enjolras could tell that Jean Prouvaire wanted him to say something specific, but when he searched his conscience for an explanation as to what had happened between them, he found only excuses. When he tried to formulate an apology, he found he had only rebuffs. Even now, he was certain he had not misjudged Jean Prouvaire's interest in him, and he did not understand how it had so quickly curdled. Enjolras had used him, that was true. But had it really been such an unpardonable sin?
He had seen it happen countless times: two people coming together out of convenience or loneliness or any of a thousand other reasons. Jean Prouvaire would permit them all their agendas and impulses, but expected Enjolras to be somehow above it.
Enjolras resented the implication that he was pure. He had bedded down with a whore, and then he hadn't even been able to keep him.
"I hate when you look at me like that," Jean Prouvaire said suddenly. "I hate watching your thoughts turn back on themselves, like you're remembering something. Someone else. Who is she, Enjolras?"
Enjolras frowned. "There isn't a woman. There never was."
Jean Prouvaire shook his head. "It doesn't matter. You won't tell me, and I don't want to know. The poets would have you think that jealousy is noble and beautiful and true. But it is ugly, Enjolras. It is hideous to behold."
He reached into his coat, and wrenched a handful of papers out. The stack had been neatly folded into thirds, but Enjolras could see that many of the sheets were crumpled and worn around the edges, as if they had passed through many hands.
"Take it," Jean Prouvaire said, his voice a harsh rasp. "If it is with me, then anything might happen to it. But with you, it will be safe. Nothing can touch you, Enjolras."
Enjolras accepted the packet. The paper felt soft and pliable, like cloth that had been washed many times, almost to translucency. Jean Prouvaire did not look at him again; he turned away stiffly and disappeared into the wine shop.
For a moment, Enjolras did nothing. He had the feeling that this would be his last chance to speak on the matter, to justify himself or to beg pardon, but he could not find the right words. Slowly he unfolded the packet of papers Jean Prouvaire had left him. He knew what it contained, and it embarrassed him immensely. But he felt that he had to see it, all those horrible lies.
A title had been sketched quickly in the top margin of the first page. The letters were smudged in several places, as if the ink had not had time to dry properly. The Unconquerable,, it said. And the hand that had written it had clearly trembled a little.
Enjolras felt a hot surge of embarrassment as he scanned the neatly arranged stanzas of verse on the first page. He turned to the next and found more lines, written in several different colors of ink and harried by corrections.
He couldn't bear to look at the rest. He refolded the pages along the immaculate creases and shoved them deep into the lining of his waistcoat. Nearest to his heart, where he knew it would not slip out and be lost.
Montparnasse awoke and he knew almost at once that something was wrong in the city.
When he had first moved in, he had blacked out his window so he could sleep through the day. He had no need of the sun; he could tell the time near enough by the sounds of the street below. Montparnasse always listened hard when he first awoke. If the sounds were those of the evening, then he would go back to sleep for an hour, or lounge in bed and reflect on how sophisticated it made him. If the sounds were night sounds, then he rose and dressed quickly, because he knew that when dealing with the Patron-Minette it was best not to make himself conspicuous by his absence.
Tonight, however, he heard nothing at all.
Montparnasse went to the window. He stood for almost a full minute, staring straight ahead as if he could see through the heavy canvas he had plastered over the panes. He heard not a single voice, not a single footstep.
His stomach wrenched with anxiety. Montparnasse scratched at the edge of the canvas until he managed to slip a fingernail underneath it. The cheap paste he had used to secure it gave easily, and he peeled back a corner. A wedge of yellow light streamed through the gap: tawny dusk light. The dust motes in the air leapt into sharp contrast, and all at once the room seemed shrouded.
Montparnasse blinked. His nocturnal eyes ached, and they were slow to adjust.
The street was empty. Montparnasse watched for what felt like a long time, but no one passed by. He pressed first one cheek against the glass, and then the other, but the rest of the street was as still as the patch outside his window.
His hands shook has he smoothed the canvas back into place. His throat felt like a fist. It was in his nature to be suspicious, but he did not think there was a man in the world who would not be nervous to find an entire neighborhood vanished around him.
Montparnasse dressed quickly. He twisted his hair up with a few practiced strokes, and put on a suit of funeral black. He wanted to look respectable, or, at the very least, anonymous. On impulse, he concealed a little folding knife in his waistcoat. If he went out, he might find some use for it.
The door to the rooming house had been left ajar. A woman stood on the front steps in bare feet. She was wearing a threadbare shift, a dressing gown knotted hastily over it. Montparnasse recognized her as his neighbor, though they did not know each other well. She had several young children, and she mended shirts for a living.
She supplemented her income in the usual way.
Montparnasse watched her back for a moment before going outside. Her hair was down; he supposed she had been ready to receive clients but no one had come. Montparnasse liked whores. He trusted them more than he trusted clean women. Before he stepped outside, he cleared his throat so that she would not be startled.
"What is it?" he said.
She looked at him dispassionately, and then inclined her head in the direction of the river. "Fighting in the streets."
Though the light was almost gone from the sky, Montparnasse could make out two columns of smoke drifting upward into the deepening night. It explained the empty streets: this was not a wealthy neighborhood. The people who lived here preferred to stay out of the way of the police. But as that anxiety eased, a new deeper dread came to replace it.
"Who?" he said. His voice was a rasp.
The woman shrugged as if lifting a burden. "I don't know. Everything is so slow to trickle down here. Maybe they mean well…"
"I know someone who—" Montparnasse snapped his mouth shut so quickly that his teeth clicked together. She watched him for a moment, to see if he would speak again, and then turned away.
"There hasn't been much shooting yet, but I've heard the drums more than once. They're moving troops in. They're not going to tolerate any foolishness. I remember '28, though. You could get in if you wanted to. Right up to the end, if it was important enough."
Montparnasse said nothing.
"It's a bad night for it, though," the woman said. "Things like this always happen when there are bills due."
Montparnasse barely heard. In fact, he was not thinking of the woman at all. All at once, his body jerked as if a current had passed through it. He reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out the coins he found there. Without looking at them, he pressed them into the woman's hand.
"That's a loan," he said. "Not charity."
He did not think that she thanked him. If she did, he was already too far away to hear. He bounded off the steps, and once he hit the street, he started to run.
Night closed in quickly, and no one came to light the lamps. The windows were all bolted and shuttered.
Montparnasse was glad for the dark. He moved in the shadow of the buildings where he couldn't be seen. Three times, cabriolets passed him in the street, the drivers bent low on the box, whipping the horses to a gallop. If there was anyone else on foot, they were as conscientious about staying hidden as Montparnasse was.
A pair of gendarmes stood sentry at the bridge. Montparnasse crouched low against the inner railing and crept by them. He felt a gamin's thrill as one passed within a meter of him without looking down. Then he was up again, moving so lightly that his steps made no sound. He slipped the patrol on the opposite bank in the same way.
He knew by the tension in the air, by innumerate things that he could not find the words for, that he was close. He thought that if he could only find Enjolras, then his mind would be at ease. They wouldn't even have to speak; in fact, Montparnasse hoped they would not. He wanted nothing more than to see Enjolras once, to know that he was as arrogant and assured and imperial as always, and then he would be at ease.
Montparnasse turned down an alley between two towering tenements and for the next few minutes he moved through utter darkness. Somewhere to the east, a single shot rang out, like the cry of a bird in the night. Never before had he gone willingly into danger. Every robbery was a risk, but a calculated one, and Montparnasse always had something to gain from it. It occurred to him that it must mean something that he was willing to do this for the sake of Enjolras.
It was more than Enjolras' kindness. If Montparnasse had felt nothing but a kind of grudging gratitude, then it would have faded long ago. They hadn't seen each other in months; Montparnasse had not thought of him often, and when he did the memories did not pain him much. There was more to it than that; more than Enjolras' patience or Montparnasse's thankfulness or both of their lusts.
He couldn't understand. It troubled him. And for a moment, he hesitated, and suddenly felt very afraid of the darkness and the uncertainty that lay beyond the end of the alley.
Montparnasse forced himself on. Another three steps and he began to hear men's voices. They were very faint at first, but even when he came nearer Montparnasse couldn't make out individual words. At the mouth of the alley, he pressed his back flat against the masonry and eased himself out onto the street.
He had come out on the Saint-Denis. I t was a main thoroughfare, and a few of the lamps had been lit and across the way four men had clustered in the glow cast by one of them. Three wore the uniforms of guard lieutenants, but the fourth was a civilian. Montparnasse kept back in the shadows and made himself invisible, and presently the three lieutenants moved on.
The fourth man stayed behind, and while Montparnasse looked on, he reached into his coat and drew out a leather pouch. It contained papers and tobacco, and he went quickly through the familiar motions of rolling himself a cigarette. He struck a match and cupped his hands around it. The light fell across his face for no more than a moment, but it was long enough. Montparnasse saw his hawk-like profile, the shock of white hair slicked back from his temples.
There was no mistaking him. It was Razumov.
Montparnasse knew that he had seen something he was not meant to. Razumov had never wanted for connections, but Montparnasse had never suspected that he might have acquaintances amongst the police. Briefly, Montparnasse wondered if he hadn't been the one responsible for the mass arrest at Thenardier's apartment, but he dismissed the idea quickly. Razumov was clearly no common snitch.
Across the way, Razumov raised his head sharply. He stared into the darkness for several seconds before starting forward. Montparnasse realized too late that Razumov was coming towards him, and even then his body was slow to obey his mind's order for it to move. He turned gracelessly, like a man who has been asleep on his feet. Razumov's gloved hand came down on his arm, and, with the strength of a man many years younger, he thrust Montparnasse back against the wall.
"This is no place for a boy like you," Razumov said. When Montparnasse tried to pull away, his grip tightened. The knuckles of his leather gloves creaked, and his fingers cut in hard enough to leave bruises on Montparnasse's arm. "What are you doing here?"
"What's it to you?" In Montparnasse's head, the words had sounded brave. On his lips, they were something much less.
"You came because you thought he wanted your help. You thought he needed you." Razumov released him abruptly. "Go home, Montparnasse. He's beyond your reach now."
Montparnasse shivered. It was bad enough that Razumov knew; he didn't have to sound so conciliatory, so concerned. As if he really understood. "What has happened? I'm not going anywhere until I know."
Razumov looked at him for a while in silence. At least, he took the pouch out of his coat and began to roll himself a fresh cigarette. "We all must make sacrifices, Montparnasse. Fortunately, some are better equipped than others to choose the place and the time and the nature. I ask you this, my boy: what would you do without a fat and stable bourgeois class to prey on? Live by your wits? Get some honest work? No, I doubt it. You would surely starve. Practically no one benefits when the social balance is upset, but that boy whose company you have been keeping would see revolution general all over Europe."
"He never said anything like that to me."
"There was no need. I've seen this play out before. Russia is no stranger to upstarts and opportunists. The Tsar is my employer, and he doesn't want any trouble like that during his time, so he sent me to see that Paris becomes a warning."
Montparnasse shook his head. "I don't understand. M. Razumov, who are you really?"
"That's a curious question. I'm Razumov. I have never been anyone else."
"But how do you know M. Enjolras?"
"How do I know you? How do I know the Patron-Minette? I collect acquaintances, as simple as that. Listen, my boy. There are countless revolutionary sects throughout the city, and I have been, over the course of the past few years, in touch with most of them. M. Enjolras set out today thinking that there was to be a mass mobilization of troops in every neighborhood of the city, but in truth I warned most of the lieutenants not to take to the streets. Don't think I chose at random, though. I know what mercy is. I spared the working men, the union leaders, those who contribute. That left only the professional upstarts and a handful of endlessly matriculating students. Even betrayal will not wound them too deeply. They will go to their deaths as happy as any man could."
Razumov dragged on his cigarette, savoring it.
"And in good time," he went on, slowly. "The papers in London and Warsaw and Munich and Petrograd will print cautionary tales to last another generation. They will know my work here, but never my name. Alas, my boy. It is weary work."
Montparnasse was shivering as if caught in the grips of a bad chill. He had to set his jaw so that his teeth wouldn't chatter.
"He'll die, then," he said. He had heard everything Razumov had said, but it was slow to make sense to him. He had to move through the information piece by piece, setting everything straight.
"Yes," Razumov replied. "I am certain he will."
"Tell me where he is."
Razumov sighed. "My dear boy…"
"Tell me!" he snapped. "I'm going to warn him. You can't stop me."
"I would not dare try. But you must try to understand, warnings will mean nothing to him. He's a mad dog, Montparnasse. He's lost his reason. He loves nothing so much as the thought of his death."
"I'll find him," Montparnasse said. "Whether you tell me or not."
Razumov's lips pressed into a tight line. "At the Corinth wine shop," he said. "Where the Rue de la Chanvrerie terminates in a dead end. I've been to see their fortifications. You'll do best to come around from the back."
Montparnasse nodded, taking it in. As he turned to go, he abruptly recalled the knife tucked into the lining of his waistcoat, and he reached to touch the hilt as if to assure himself that it was there. As always, it acted as a charm to revive his strength.
He had just laid his palm flat against the hilt when he heard a footstep behind him, the scrape of a boot on the stones. Immediately, all thoughts of Enjolras dropped out of his mind and furious animal instinct moved to replace them. Montparnasse drew the knife with a flourish, turning around and dancing back a step in the same movement.
He saw the dagger long before he registered that it was Razumov who held it. He kept the long blade low, near his hip and poised to thrust upward so that it would not catch a stray gleam from the streetlight.
Their eyes met a moment. Montparnasse could see from Razumov's that he was neither surprised nor afraid; he had the calm, expectant look of a man well used to covert assassinations. Montparnasse could not say if his own expression was so composed.
Then Razumov moved, and Montparnasse was moving too, as if borne forth on a tide or before a gust of wind. Razumov came in low, aiming for the knot of muscle below Montparnasse's ribs where he could hit him hard and cut off his wind so he could not scream.
Montparnasse twisted, going up on one foot, precariously off balance. He felt the blade of Razumov's dagger graze his hip, so close that it passed through the tail of his coat. It tangled there, and Razumov had to pull hard to retrieve it. But by then Montparnasse had brought his knife up even with his chest. He cupped his free hand around the butt of the blade, and he leaned. The weight of his body drove the blade home.
It lodged high on Razumov's chest, wedged in snuggly between two ribs. Razumov died without so much as a whisper.
The corpse fell, and Montparnasse stepped back, avoiding the worst of the blood. His knife was in his hand, and without looking at it, he took a handkerchief from his pocket and cleaned the blade. He didn't look at the soiled handkerchief either, when he let it fall, crumpled, to the pavement beside Razumov. He put the knife away inside his waistcoat, and then he turned and ran. Sprinting in the shadow of the buildings toward the dead end in the Rue de la Chanvrerie.
Montparnasse only made it a few blocks before his trembling limbs stopped him short. He ducked into the mouth of an alley and leaned against the brick, feeling its coldness through his clothes. His stomach had clenched into a hard, bitter knot. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat so he wouldn't have to see them shaking.
Killing had always been easy on his conscience, but hard on his nerves.
A drink would have been nice, he thought wistfully. Just a taste, and then he'd be able to think clearly.
Enjolras' name was in his throat. Soon, he would have to spit it out or else choke on it. The night was moonless and absolute, but the Corinth was close. He didn't know what he'd do when he got there, but he'd always been good at improvising.
He leveraged himself away from the wall. His legs were steady under him; his heart throbbed in his breast. No cry had yet been raised from the direction he had come, which meant that Razumov's body was still undiscovered.
Montparnasse felt good. Good enough to stand in the shadow of death's wings.
He hugged the walls of the buildings as he traversed the Saint-Denis. The streetlights were almost all lit now, and Montparnasse could hear the buzz of many voices from further down the street. He froze where he was, stirring only the fingers of one hand, stretching them to touch the hilt of his blade. All at once, there was a flurry of movement, and the sounds of footfalls on the pavement. The noise echoed, so that it took Montparnasse a long time to realize that they were moving away from him.
The guard was on the move, then. He had come up behind them undetected, but he did not trust his luck to slip around them on the undarkened street.
He turned down the closest side street, and immediately the darkness closed around him. Montparnasse felt his way with his hands, and he searched for each step with his foot before taking it. The appearance of the guard had made him feel urgent, but he made himself move with caution. If he broke his damned ankle tripping over tramp or trash, then he wouldn't be any good to anyone.
The bell from Saint-Merry sounded ten o'clock. Montparnasse counted the strokes; it seemed his heart was moving in time with them.
Eventually, his eyes adjusted somewhat and he found a narrow passage around the backs of the houses. He was heading in the right direction now, and he could hear the company of guards on the main street. He hung back. Let them keep their lead. He knew that he was safe back here, in this alley that was hardly wide enough for a cat to squeeze through, but he didn't want to push his luck. Everything about tonight was new and unfamiliar to him.
All at once, the sounds of marching stopped. Montparnasse stopped too, listening. He heard only the white noise of the night, and so he went on slowly, experimentally. A few steps later, the pavement dropped out from under him, and his foot sank into soft muck.
Montparnasse leapt back, and when he reached down with one hand and felt along the broken edge of the pavement. The stones had been removed here, lifted cleanly away by the hands of men.
He must have been close then.
Montparnasse was thinking that over when the first volley of gunfire rang out in the Rue de la Chanvrerie.
He bolted upright. His head struck a ridge of stonework that jutted out a few inches from the wall, and hissing filled his ears. Lights danced in front of his eyes, bursting like bullets and throwing sparks. In the darkness behind his closed lids, Enjolras' face rose up to meet him like the corpse of a drowned swimmer surfacing from deep water.
The second volley of gunfire brought him back.
Montparnasse lurched again to his feet. His head swam and his eyes refused to focus, but he felt his way along the wall, trusting his instincts. There was no barricade on this side, but a low pyramid of stones marked the entrance to the Rue de la Chanverie. Montparnasse paused there, behind the bend of the wall, and sharpened his senses. There seemed to be movement from within, until, all at once, the silence was cleaved by shouts.. He couldn't make out the words, but he heard the urgency in the voices. His hand went to the hilt of his knife, and he held it like a ward against evil. The fog lifted from before his eyes and his head cleared. All his fear and his uncertainty dropped away.
He grabbed the top of the barricade and hauled himself over. Across the way he saw a similar figure in black scrambling over the low barricade opposite. Montparnasse drew his blade and it carved the air like a ribbon of silver. He started toward the intruder, but a pistol shot stopped him cold in his tracks. A second made him wince. And the carbine report that answered made him retreat against the houses.
Terror seized his throat; he fought it down. He had to keep his head, find Enjolras. Figure out the rest later.
Montparnasse edged over to a doorway and slipped inside. He could make sense of the fighting now. The gendarmes had come over the large barricade in the Rue de la Chanvrerie. The insurgents were in the back, retreating towards the wine shop. Montparnasse did not move from his hiding place, but scanned them for a telltale broad back or a sweep of golden hair.
When he saw nothing at first, Montparnasse had only enough time to think that Razumov had, in the end, managed to lie to him one final time. Then, a voice rang out above the fighting, and it shook him like a fist around his throat.
"Fire," Enjolras said, and then Montparnasse was deafened by the sound of it.
A cloud of smoke filled the enclosure between the buildings. Montparnasse caught a glimpse of white shirtsleeves – the last thing to be swallowed by it – and he seized upon the image. He flung himself out from the doorway and darted forward, trusting the cloud of powder to conceal him. He caught sight of one of the gendarmes affixing a bayonet, and Montparnasse flung himself onto the man's back, wrapping both arms around his neck. The guard straightened, lifting Montparnasse's boots off the ground, but still he clung fast.
His elbow crooked around the guard's throat. He squeezed, pinching the airway shut, and he felt the body go rigid beneath him. A sharp cry slipped Montparnasse's throat, and he rammed his dagger home with his free hand. He pulled the blade out, slid it in again. This time there was almost no resistance at all.
The guard fell. Montparnasse was slow in letting him go, and he stumbled back unsteadily when his feet were once more on solid ground. A hand closed around his shoulder, and Montparnasse turned and struck blindly with his knife. He was still off balance and the swipe didn't connect.
Montparnasse had just enough time to see the shock register on Enjolras' face as he reeled back from the blade, and then he was casting the knife aside as if it had burned him.
"You…" he started to say. His voice sounded muted to his own ears, and he realized that they were still ringing from the gunfire. Enjolras had been in it so deep, Montparnasse doubted he could hear much of anything at all.
Montparnasse stumbled forward a step, reaching out to touch his face. Enjolras turned away with a sharp jerk of his head. One hand fastened around Montparnasse's collar and he gave him a jerk that almost pulled him to his knees.
He was moving now, taking long strides that left Montparnasse almost running to keep up. "Wait… wait…" he gasped. "Razumov…"
Enjolras jerked open the door to the Corinth and he thrust Montparnasse inside. He struck one of the tables with his hip and fell forward to brace himself against it with his hands. He turned, momentarily forgetting his urgent message in his annoyance at being thrown around. Enjolras' eyes were ablaze with cold fire.
"Stay there," he snapped, though his voice seemed little more than a whisper over the clamor in Montparnasse's ears. "Until I come for you."
Montparnasse started towards him, but he only made it a step before Enjolras swung the door closed in his face.
A moment later, the gunfire ceased, and a cacophonous silence came to take its place. Slowly, the insurgents crept down from the upper floors, bayonets at the ready. Montparnasse kept back until the last of them, and then, finally, he let the strength go out of him. Gripping the edge of the table, he worked his way over to the windowsill and sat down. He leaned his cheek against the glass, and breathed.
He was not alone, but he was very careful not to look in the direction of the barricade's prisoner, the police spy tied to the post in the center of the room. Montparnasse knew him, of course, though only by reputation, but it was hard to mistake a visage like that one. He wasn't in any hurry for an introduction now. He could feel Javert's eyes on him, though, making record of his every move.
"This place attracts all manner of filth," he said. His voice cut through the fog in Montparnasse's head.
At least his hearing was coming back, Montparnasse thought, and he laughed ruefully.
"You're drunk," Javert sneered, and Montparnasse laughed again. Absently, he reached up under his waistcoat and felt for his knife, but it wasn't there. He remembered now: he'd dropped it outside.
"Fortunate for you…" he murmured, as if to himself.
It was then that Enjolras returned, and Montparnasse bolted to his feet. Enjolras did not stop, or try to speak to him, but he cut his eyes in Montparnasse's direction as he went past. Montparnasse got up unsteadily and followed him. Enjolras took him back into the empty taproom, letting Montparnasse stand close to him so he could shut the door and lean against it.
"Why did you come here?"
"I had to warn you. I saw—" Montparnasse stopped. The light in the taproom was dim, but he didn't need much to see the pallor on Enjolras' cheeks, the lines etched into his brow. "What happened to you?"
Enjolras' eyebrows creased. "You're bleeding."
"It's not mine…" Montparnasse started to say, but then Enjolras touched his temple where he had hit it on the wall earlier, and Montparnasse winced. "Oh. That."
"He's dead," Enjolras said quietly.
Montparnasse was startled. "Who?"
Enjolras did not answer right away. He drew a packet of papers from inside his coat and turned it over thoughtfully in his hands. Montparnasse's expression soured as he felt a pang of jealousy, small and hopeless in the face of all he had seen that night.
"You have his letters. I see."
"They're not… letters," Enjolras said irritably, slipping the papers back into his coat. "Montparnasse, what are you doing here?"
Montparnasse didn't look at his face. He was watching the place where the bundle of letters had disappeared into Enjolras' coat, but he seemed not even to see that.
"I saw Razumov this evening," he began at last. "He has played you for the fool, Enjolras."
"Razumov…" Enjolras' expression tightened. "I might have known you would have figured out about our association in time. How did you do it? Did you read my letters while you were staying with me?"
"He told me himself. He told me a lot about you. He talks too goddamn much."
"M. Razumov and I have had our disagreements in the past, but he is a noble man. Whatever you're trying to do here, Montparnasse, I'll thank you not to make him a part of it."
"He's a liar, and a spy. He wants you dead, and if you don't listen to me…"
"Enough!" Enjolras snapped. "I don't know what you're trying to do, Montparnasse, but you have no business coming to me at a time like this. You had your chance. You had years and years. It's too late now. I don't want to see you anymore."
"You would think that this is about us," Montparnasse said stiffly.
"No. It's about you. And how I don't want you to die for some stupid reason. Something that doesn't even matter."
Enjolras winced as if Montparnasse had made to touch him. "Clearly I have failed in your education. Perhaps this way was always better…"
"Enough of that. If it pains you to think of my death, then you ought to go away from here. I'm sure it won't bother either of us for much longer."
He turned to go. Montparnasse made a grab for his sleeve, which Enjolras promptly jerked out of reach.
"Go, I said."
"After everything we had, you still don't trust me."
"You've never been rational, Montparnasse. You are in the service of your emotions even now. Go home, before you get hurt."
After Enjolras left, Montparnasse stayed back in the taproom, listening to the insurgents file back in to the Corinth. They were bringing in the wounded, from the sound of it, and, he assumed, the dead. He wondered if the man who had replaced him in Enjolras' bed was amongst them. Montparnasse didn't want to see his face, didn't want to have to be jealous of a dead man.
Montparnasse knew that it was time to collect his thoughts. Time to decide what to do.
He went out of the taproom, wincing at the attention his appearance attracted. The insurgents did not know him, but it was clear that he had fought with them in the attack a moment ago. There was blood on his face, and that blood had bought him in to their fraternity. Montparnasse tried to avoid their eyes, but there was one young fellow who gave him such a brazen stare that he could not help but return it.
The student was crouched down by one of the mattresses on which they had placed the wounded when Montparnasse passed him by. He was well-dressed, and he still wore his coat, though almost everyone else was in shirtsleeves. His face was pale and scholarly; his age impossible to say save that he was young. Montparnasse looked at him once, and then turned away quickly, but he felt the student's gaze follow him all the way to the door.
Outside, Montparnasse retraced his steps from the door of the Corinth until he found his knife lying on the ground. He picked it up, and for a moment he just held it, both hands fast around the hilt.
"You picked a strange time to come here."
The voice came from behind him. Montparnasse turned hard towards it, and found himself face to face with the young student.
"All the same," he went on, "I'm glad you did."
"I don't usually do this sort of thing," Montparnasse said.
"It's all right." The student held out a hand. "I'm Combeferre."
Montparnasse hesitated a moment, and then took the offered hand. Combeferre's grip was tight, as if he were clutching an anchor that might, at any moment, be wrest away. But if he was as nervous as his handshake suggested, he hid it well.
"It's not my real one."
Combeferre's lips tightened, but he did not press the issue. "You missed all the hard work," he said, indicating the main barricade with a sweep of his hand.
"Dying is harder than you think."
Combeferre hesitated a moment, and then he laughed. The sound was dry and without humor. "I don't much care for your pessimism, sir."
"And I regret I can't share your optimism."
"What are you really doing here?" Combeferre said. "I warn you, we've dispatched one spy already."
"I'm not a spy."
"Yes, I can tell that just by looking at you. Besides, I saw you kill a man."
"I've done it before."
"We've already had to dispatch one murderer, too. M. Enjolras was without mercy…"
Montparnasse gave a start at the sound of that name. "Enjolras did that?"
"You know him?" Combeferre seemed surprised at first, but then and expression of thoughtful understanding came over his face. He looked Montparnasse over, and he seemed to see him for the first time.
"So, you're the one."
Combeferre had taken on a knowing tone and Montparnasse was repulsed by it. He didn't want this man to know him. He didn't want to hear him talk about Enjolras.
"It's all right," Combeferre said, seeing the twist of Montparnasse's lips. "Enjolras was always discreet. He never talked about you. But we could tell. Your comings and goings… He was different when you were around."
"I wouldn't know about that" Montparnasse said stiffly. He longed to run. To turn without a word and bolt back into the labyrinthine back allies of the Halles, where the darkness would enfold him.
"You're younger than I thought you'd be. And…"
"And not a woman?" Montparnasse said coldly.
A blush spread across Combeferre's face. "Enjolras always terrified women. And he was terrified by them in turn."
"He was never afraid of me," Montparnasse said. "Even when I—"
He bit the words off. No use talking about it now. Combeferre may have been acting civil now, but there was no need for him to know how they had first met. How Enjolras had saved him. How grateful he had been.
A shiver went through him.
Combeferre sighed. "Enjolras is glad you're here, M. Montparnasse. He might not tell you because… I suppose you know what he's like better than I do."
"For what it's worth, I'm glad you're here too. I thought we'd have more hands than this." He shrugged. It was meant to be a casual gesture, but to Montparnasse it seemed one of hopeless resignation. "There's still time."
He looked up at Montparnasse, and there was something unplaceable in his expression. "I'm relieved I had a chance to meet you."
When Montparnasse did not reply at once, Combeferre flushed and dropped his eyes modestly and slipped away.
Montparnasse stood for a long time. When he realized he was still clutching his blade in one hand, he slipped it, not without tenderness, back into his waistcoat. Nothing was any clearer to him. Nothing had been decided. He did not know where he would be at dawn the next day. He could not imagine what he would be doing in an hour.
But now, he touched the lapels of his coat, the brim of his hat, the fringe of his curls, setting everything in its place, and he went to help the men who were shoring up the barricade.
That night Montparnasse worked harder than he ever had in his life. He was soon compelled to abandon the strengthening of the barricade and aid with the removal of the dead, a task with which most of the insurgents seemed loathe to assist. That was how Montparnasse discovered Eponine's body. When he uncovered her, his first inclination was towards anger, and he clung fast to his rage, preferring it to grief.
He'd always thought she was smarter than this. But a life like the one Eponine had been living didn't afford much opportunity to recover from mistakes. It might have been a slip, a miscalculation, a moment of weakness that had led her here. It didn't matter. The trap had closed. There had been no one to save her.
Montparnasse could not shake the feeling that her cold corpse had been placed her as a warning to him, as if by some backwards god who preferred vain and unrepentant thieves to naive young girls.
But even then, he had hope.
There were a dozen dead in all, and then a thirteenth when one of the wounded men died. Montparnasse helped stack them all in the Mondetour. At first, he tried to avoid the blood but in time was forced to admit that his suit was pretty well ruined. As long as it was dark, the stains wouldn't show.
After the debris had been cleared away and the barricade fortified, Montparnasse set himself a little apart from the rest of the men and listened to them talk. He had never felt so lonely as he did then, in the company of all those men who had someone to miss them when they were gone.
He kept his mind on the exits: one into the Mondetour and the other into the Halles. They had both been shorn up with low barricades now, but he had been back to inspect the work and felt confident that he could climb either if he had to. He had noticed, too, the grating that led down into the sewer, and he thought of it often as the dawn came steadily on.
As soon as there was enough light, Enjolras crept out to assess the situation and returned with ill tidings. They were forsaken by the people of the city.
Montparnasse took no pleasure in being proven right, but he did wait for Enjolras to come to him then, so that he might lead them both to safety. But Enjolras did not waver for an instant, nor did he spare Montparnasse so much as a glance when he passed him briskly by to retrieve the Guard uniforms from within the Corinth.
Perhaps Enjolras' mind was changed at some point during the process of sending men away, or perhaps he only resolved to do something he had been planning all that long night. Regardless, once the five uniforms had been distributed, he sought Montparnasse out.
Montparnasse was near the wall of one of the houses, out of the way. He had been given a carbine, but he had no intention of using it. He would be gone before the real fighting started, one way or another. When he saw Enjolras coming towards him, he stepped forward to meet him, but when Enjolras reached out for his arm, Montparnasse flinched, expecting the bruising vindictive grip he had felt so many times before.
Enjolras only touched his sleeve gently, and in a soft voice he said, "Come with me."
He led Montparnasse around to the barricade that faced the Halles. There was a little niche on the other side of the house where they could talk without being seen.
"I cannot be away from my post for long," Enjolras said. "So, please, just do as I say without argument. I want you to go."
"Not without you."
Enjolras sucked in a sharp breath, as if hearing those words pained him somehow. "No."
"There's no shame in admitting you were wrong. Razumov lied to you, and you believed him. But he was a very good liar. Now swallow your pride and—"
"I already told you, don't bring up Razumov. It doesn't matter if he lied. I have always been prepared for this. It's what I want, Montparnasse."
"You want to die?"
"If I must die, then yes."
Montparnasse set his jaw. "Fine. Then I want to die too."
Enjolras sighed. "I hate it when you're like this."
"Enjolras…" Montparnasse looked up at his face, and in the growing light it seemed different than he remembered. He touched Enjolras' cheek, and passed his thumb over the dark crescent beneath his eye. "You're tired, aren't you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"You made me so many promises. Did you forget, just because they weren't convenient for you? You said you were going to teach me. That you were going to force me to do good. I'm not good yet."
"But you're here, so I know you're not bad, either."
Montparnasse shook his head. He felt he would begin to weep soon and be without the strength to stop himself. He didn't want Enjolras to see him like that.
"Montparnasse, listen…" Enjolras said. "Everything I said to you, I regret it. And everything I didn't say. I remember once you told me you wanted more than just to survive. You wanted beautiful things-"
"I'll wear rags for the rest of my days," Montparnasse said, cutting him short. "If you just…"
Enjolras looked at him curiously for a moment, and then he laughed hoarsely. "There's no need for melodrama. Save your promises for someone who knows what to make of them."
He seemed to want to say more, but instead he bent his head and kissed Montparnasse's mouth. "Saving you was the best thing I ever did."
Montparnasse was left shaken by the kiss. He reached to touch a hand to his quivering lips and he whispered, "Now who's being melodramatic?"
Enjolras reached into his coat and took out a key on a length of ribbon. Once more, he was permitted to be practical, to be attentive to detail, and it suited him better. "This is to my room. You can take anything from there that you want. I have money saved up. It's yours now."
"No," Montparnasse said. "I'm staying here. If it's a good enough death for a young girl, and a child, and an old man, then it's a good enough death for me."
When Enjolras slipped the key into his coat pocket, Montparnasse did not protest. He trembled beneath his hands. "Please, don't make me do this alone."
"I'm making you," Enjolras said. After a moment's hesitation, he reached into his coat once more and retrieved the bundle of paper that he had secreted there. "And this… I read it while I was up on the barricade. Read it there by torch light. It's so strange and private. Like seeing into another man's dreams. I can't keep it here."
Montparnasse saw his hand move without knowing that he would lift it. He hardly felt the texture of the paper beneath his fingers as he took it from Enjolras' grip. "Why are you so cruel to me?"
"I don't know," Enjolras said. He paused, as if thinking it over. "I love you."
Montparnasse's throat seized. "All right. I love you, too."
"Will you go now?"
Montparnasse tried to speak, but his voice wouldn't work. He nodded mutely and turned toward the low barricade. He was careful not to look back as he climbed up and slipped over the top. It was only in the last moment before he dropped to the ground that he dared a glance towards where Enjolras had stood.
He was already gone.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Escaping from the Rue de la Chanverie was agony. Overnight, the municipal guard had come out in force, and Montparnasse knew that he looked conspicuous. A gaunt and blood-spattered specter creeping, exhausted, through the dawn. He inched through the labyrinthine streets of the Halles, starting at every sound. The day came on quickly, and he felt scourged and exposed by it.
When he heard the first cough of canon fire, Montparnasse told himself it came from the direction of the barricade at Saint-Merry. It was none too convincing a lie, but he repeated it to himself many times as he went on.
He took side streets back to Enjolras' neighborhood, and let himself into the rooming house by the way of the garden entrance. All was quiet within. It was early enough yet that the other boarders were still abed.
Montparnasse had thought that once he was safe he would pour out all his grief and self-pity in an extravagant bout of weeping, but by the time he had locked himself securely in Enjolras' room, he was too exhausted for even a single tear. He paused only long enough to drop the papers Enjolras had given him onto the table. Bone-weary and numb, he threw himself fully clothed on Enjolras' bed. He was asleep almost at once.
It was dark when he awoke. Though it had been months since he had slept in Enjolras' bed, there was no feeling of disorientation. The sheets smelled like him; the pillow still held the indentation of his head. In the first drowsy moments, Montparnasse had the sensation of having found his way home.
He rose and groped his way around the dark apartment until he found a match and a candle. The light threw the features of Enjolras' room into sharp relief. The shelf of dusty books, the mirror on the wall, the Chinese partition that hid the bed; all these things hit him at once. Montparnasse let his eyes go out of focus, so that he was looking through them, seeing them without really seeing anything at all.
He used to do it with his customers, he remembered. A long time ago.
In one of the cupboards, Montparnasse found a loaf of bread and some cheese. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten, and he did so ravenously now.
It was sorrowfully quiet. He thought of the songbirds Enjolras had bought him to pass the lonely days of his convalescence. They were gone now. Years had passed, and canaries were not long-lived. Montparnasse wished suddenly that Enjolras had replaced them, for even the sounds of their restless and sleepy shifting in their cage would be a welcome distraction.
After he had finished the bread, Montparnasse lay down again. He did not think that he would be able to sleep. His regrets would find him now, he was sure of it. He never tried to tell himself that Enjolras could have lived. He did not have such a gifted imagination.
The next time Montparnasse opened his eyes, the sun was streaming through the curtains. He could hear the sounds of people stirring out on the street, the occasional clatter of a passing carriage.
He knew then that it was truly over.
There was water sitting out in the basin. It tasted stale and metallic when Montparnasse drank it from his cupped hands. He washed his face and wetted his wilted curls. He scrubbed at the dried blood on his clothes, loosening the stiff patches with his fingernails. His coat was dark enough to hide the stains, but his shirt and cravat were ruined. While the coat dried, he tossed them under the bed out of sight.
He found a clean shirt in Enjolras' bureau. It was too big in the shoulders, but Montparnasse felt no hesitation in slipping it on, no sense of desecration at all. He put on one of Enjolras' cravats, too. It was cut from the finest cloth, but it was practical and artless. So like the man himself, Montparnasse thought, and his hands trembled a little as they tied the knot.
When he put his coat on, it hid the way Enjolras' shirt gaped around his ribs. He looked presentable. He could go out like this, even into the harsh light of day.
Montparnasse didn't know where he was going when he locked up Enjolras' apartment and left through the garden. He felt adrift, steered by cruel currents through streets where people passed him with their eyes downcast, speaking only in whispers. He did not keep track of the streets, did not even pause to note the direction he was headed until a patrol of civil guards passed him.
He froze in his tracks, realizing that already he had wandered closer to the Rue de la Chanverie then he had ever wanted to. As if, in the end, his own body has betrayed him, and carried him back here to witness the very thing he did not need to see.
An officer eyed him suspiciously from his post across the street. Montparnasse knew that these were the suburban guard, the reserves, and they would not recognize his face, but he'd always detested uniforms. He dipped his head and went on.
Turning a corner, he came to the barricade. Where once he had fallen into the void where the paving stones had been pulled up, he merely stepped on stone, chipped here and there from rough treatment and slightly uneven from being put in with lackadaisical diligence.
It was gone, leaving no trace but chips of stone, not one bigger than the size of a child's fist. Where the men had been, where heroic speeches and the cries of camaraderie and death had echoed through the streets, was left dust and brackish clots of dried blood.
No one lingered, but for an old scaleraker scrubbing the stones, her dress worn so thin he could see the edge of her gray petticoat gaping through a yawning tear at the hem.
"Old mother." His voice broke at first, but then he cleared his throat, annoyed by the momentary weakness. "Old mother, where did they bury the bodies?"
She didn't turn her head, but kept her eyes down, focused on the dried blood as it turned pink around her hard-calloused hands.
"Old mother..." Digging in his pockets, he set a few sous down by her hand.
"Montparnasse." And he flinched as if struck. But she took no notice, scrubbing with her heavy bristled brush, occasionally dipping it in a bucket of ever-reddening water. "Montparnasse. That's where they took them. South across the Seine."
"All of them?" Montparnasse said. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth. He wanted to slap his own cheeks, drive some feeling back into them.
The old woman raised her head sharply. Her bloodshot eyes regarded him with undisguised hate.
Montparnasse drew back. The apology he attempted died on his lips as he turned away. He fled down the Mondetour, the broken glass from the shattered windows of the wine shop crunching under his boots. He fell against the anonymous and impersonal wall of one of the houses, pressing his forehead against the stone, wishing it were cooler to the touch.
Even with his eyes closed, he knew that he was being watched.
He took several slow, even breaths, calming himself before he turned around. He was surprised to see a woman, and a young one at that. Her skin was dark, and her eyes and hair were black. She was disheveled, red-eyed. What Montparnasse had at first taken for a smudge of dirt on her cheek revealed itself, upon closer inspection, to be a bruise.
"Who did you come for?" she said.
Montparnasse swallowed dryly. The woman was staring at him as if there were no reason why he wouldn't reply, as if she were accustomed to people trusting her implicitly.
"M. Enjolras," he replied.
Apolline shook her head. "He's gone."
"To Montparnasse Cemetery."
"No. Back home. His father came and took the body back to Rouen."
Montparnasse's head felt light. It felt like a final and decisive blow, that, even in death, Enjolras could not be near him. The family plot on some estate a day's travel to the south might as well have been on the other shore of a vast and uncharted ocean.
"Don't," Apolline said. It was an order. Montparnasse realized with a twinge of pain that she talked of matters of the heart like Enjolras always had: as if they were to be hidden and controlled and meted out only in small doses. She reached out and Montparnasse felt the cold ring of a ten franc piece pressed into his hand.
"The time for vengeance will come," she said. "For now, go home. Clean yourself up. Your clothes smell like blood."
He said nothing. Apolline turned sharply and walked away down the Mondetour.
Montparnasse turned her words over in his mind as he watched her go. Vengeance, she had promised him. The time would come for vengeance. Until that moment, he had not thought of revenge, but it seemed to him now a clear beacon, lighting the way through his foggy and tangled thoughts.
He knew that he would never be a good man, not in the way Enjolras had hoped. For he had killed, and he had robbed; and in his heart there was vanity and greed and wrath. He could not cut out those parts of himself any more than he could have cut out one of his eyes or severed his hand. But perhaps he could turn them to better use.
If he could not be good, then let him at least be useful. If he could not be a man Enjolras could have been pleased with, let him at least be a man that would have made him proud.
Despite what Razumov had said, Montparnasse knew now that Enjolras had not lived for an empty cause. There had been a purpose, even, in his death.
Montparnasse watched Apolline until she was out of sight, and then he turned and limped off in the opposite direction. It was unbearable to be inside his own mind at the moment, and so he cast his thoughts out ahead of himself. Making plans, listing all the small and necessary arrangements he still had to make.
He would return to Enjolras' apartment, but he knew he could not stay there much longer. He would claim the money Enjolras had left him, whatever else he thought he might have some use for. Burn his bloodstained clothing in the stove so that the dead man might not be shamed further.
After that, he would have to decide where he wanted to go. He knew he couldn't stay in Paris. To go back to the Patron-Minette, to look into their faces and know what he now knew, nauseated him. It was unthinkable that he might be able to return to an old and familiar routine when all around him and through him everything felt so profoundly changed.
He had never thought that there was a life for him outside of Paris, but now, perhaps, he would have to make one.
For all his talk about the sanctity of knowledge, Enjolras had actually taught him very little about how to live now that he was gone, or how to make sense of what he had done. Even more practical skills - how to shake loose the great knot of tears that had stopped up inside Montparnasse's throat, refusing to be shed – had not entered in to Enjolras' lessons.
He'd have to figure them all out alone.
I'd like to dedicate this fic to Grayswandir, who always believed I'd get around to writing it eventually. Thanks to my pre-reader EAG, to Aunt Arctica for sharing her surprisingly vast knowledge of 19th Century miscellany, and to everyone who read and reviewed, including, but not limited to, Highly Caustic, Hesher Logic, and lesmisloony.