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Mal du siècle

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Combeferre busied himself in disassembling the components of his stethoscope, removing the earpiece from the wooden tube and placing it back in its case. He worked slowly and deliberately, wiping each piece, so that he might delay looking at Enjolras' face for a few more moments, averting his eyes from the pale skin and protruding ribs.

"So," he said, back still turned to his friend. "You may put your shirt back on. The examination is finished."

"And your diagnosis?"

Combeferre did not answer immediately.

"Combeferre." Enjolras asked, and there was an unaccustomed gentleness in his voice. It was not fear the medical student heard there, but rather comfort and comprehension. Combeferre, at last sure of his composure, turned to his friend.

"It is as you suspected. Phthisis. Tubercular, I believe."

Enjolras' fingers did not tremble or even slow as he fastened the last of his buttons, but Combeferre was disturbed by the sight of those pronounced collar bones and the hollows beneath, over the thin chest he now knew was hidden beneath the shirt, waistcoat and bulky redingote. The blond student nodded an acknowledgement of his friend's words.

"And how long?"

Combeferre rubbed the side of his face. "I can't say. The condition is advanced. You are not coughing chronically as yet, and there is little blood in the sputum if I’m to judge from what you described to me. But you may deteriorate suddenly-" He drew a deep breath. "You may have months. Possibly longer, if you follow a strict regime. I'll see if I can find a specialist who can be more precise. But I think you should go somewhere with a more clement climate – that is what they will advise. Perhaps somewhere on the Mediterranean coast. Italy. It might at least gain you some time. There are spas in Switzerland that specialise-"

"No, Combeferre." Enjolras interrupted, laying a hand on his friend’s own where he was fiddling with the fastenings on the medical case. "I know now what the sentence is, even if I do not know the precise date it is to be executed. I will spend what time remains to me in our work."

"I wish Laennec were still alive," Combeferre said in swift frustration. "He had made great advances in understanding the condition before he passed away." He shook his head. "I should have seen it before now – you were exhibiting the symptoms. Your pallor, your thinness-"

"You did not see because I took pains to ensure that you did not." Enjolras told him. "That last year before I came to Paris, as it consumed my father, I came to be familiar with its manifestations." He smiled wanly. "I suppose I hoped if I ignored it, it would cease to be." His gaze turned absently to the window, over the grey winter tops of the trees, his voice dropping to a soft murmur that Combeferre could barely hear. "I thought that if I put it on the doorstep like an unwelcome guest, one day it would be gone."
Combeferre sat beside him on the bed and took one of his friend's long, thin hands in his own. He examined the tapering fingers, unwillingly remembering Aretaeus's classical work on the disease. Fingers slender, but joints thick…

"How can I help you, my friend?" he asked simply.

Enjolras squeezed his hand in return. "Help me marshal what strength I have so that I may do as much as I may in the time that remains to me."

"Will you tell the Amis?"

"No." He shook his head. "When I become incapacitated, it will fall to you to lead them. Until then, they do not need to know that their leader is a consumptive. They are too warm hearted, too generous – they would seek to spare me any of the rigours that accompany the work."

A thousand objections came to Combeferre, as friend and as physician, but he voiced none.

"As you wish."

In the following weeks, Combeferre noticed many things that he had been willfully blind to before. He knew now why the dervish of energy that his friend had been in his early years, the endless, questing, restless child, had become this solemn, quiet, reserved young man. If he kept to himself, it was to conserve what resources he had. Now Combeferre knew why the lilting lyricism of Enjolras' voice had taken on a harsher tone in adulthood, why he refused to pursue personal interests or relationships beyond his small circle of friends, why he was so often to be found sitting quietly in a corner out of the ebb and flow of conversation and debate, his remarks sparing and addressed to those closest to him. Why so much preparation went into those rare speeches, a preparation that went beyond the material and into a bracing of the body for the ordeal.

In the early days, after Enjolras had come to Paris a much changed man from boy Combeferre had known in childhood, Combeferre had assumed that his cousin, when they parted at the end of the day, returned to his apartment and sat up late, researching and writing. He had a clear visual image of him writing fervently by lamplight, committing his ideas to paper. Now, with Enjolras giving a frank if spare account of his symptoms and more time spent in his company during the dark hours, he knew that the student slept when he could – when not tormented by fevers and night sweats - or sat bundled up by blankets next to the stove, staring for hours into its flames. The law student wrote little, read more when not exhausted. He knew now why Enjolras had failed to sit his bar exam. Not, as so many assumed, because his political pursuits distracted him from his studies, but because what little strength he had was conserved and spent on his one cause – the one devotion his fragile body could pursue.

In January of 1832 Enjolras disappeared from their circles for almost a month. Combeferre had hinted, without outright saying as much, their leader had gone on a mission to strengthen their associations with the groups in Lyon. Accustomed to the secrecy necessitated by their subversive activities, none of the Amis sought to question his absence, or so it seemed. They did not know that he spent most of the time in Combeferre's rooms, attended by all the horrors of the sickroom, the scouring and the vomiting, assisted by a discreet nurse they had engaged. With the spring he rallied, but they both knew it could not last.

"Not much longer now," Enjolras told Combeferre. His eyes recalled Aretaeus' words to mind again: hollow, brilliant and glittering. Combeferre did not know whether he was referring to the Revolution or to his own mortality, and did not seek to clarify. Everywhere the medical student now looked, it seemed he saw the bleakness of disease, with his own friend's slow, wasting death before him and the cholera epidemic raging. The smell of blood and diarrhea lingered in his nostrils. He had never entertained any of the popular romantic ideas about consumption as a purifying, elevating process and a good death – that English poet Jehan translated, Byron, was a fool for thinking so – but now, watching the excruciating struggle for life before him as Enjolras was dragged inexorably and unwillingly to his death, coping with and trying to help him conceal the physical symptoms, he felt more than ever the helpless anger and grief at the waste.

Combeferre detested the sacrifice he made for his friend in aiding his haste to the tomb, even as he admired the man's steely determination to extract what he could from himself to offer on the altar of his beliefs. Enjolras was only sparing of himself in ways that might prolong his life to devote it to his cause.

By May, Enjolras had begun to cough more frequently. "An irritating cold," he told his other friends. "I suffered from bronchial conditions as a child, and they have left me prone to chest infections." Combeferre walked home with him that night, and watched silently as his friend threw the handkerchief he had held to his mouth, now stained with blood, into the stove.

"Not much longer," he repeated.

Combeferre decided to wait a few minutes while the murmuring died down after Enjolras' startling outburst of soul, the words that had poured from him on the summit of the barricade. Before Enjolras had begun to speak, Combeferre had seen him trembling. He had thought the end had arrived, and that the inevitable collapse was imminent. But then Enjolras had thrown his head back and called on them all to hearken to a future and the rays of a dawn that would illuminate their tombs.

Their leader had held them all enthralled, his voice almost as strong as Combeferre had ever heard it, as he took his followers to the peak of a mountain and let them behold the horizon that had held his vision transfixed since he was a boy.

Let him stay on those heights, soaring, for just a few moments more, thought Combeferre, meticulously rolling bandages but discreetly keeping an eye on their chief. For those few moments Enjolras had been out of himself, leaving his failing body, and was a part of that greater world to which he stretched out his wasted hands. Combeferre himself needed to return wholly to himself, to remember that the man before him, even if he seemed the blazing prophet of a new age, the embodiment of the divine justice of the revolution, was also a dying mortal.

It seemed strange that Enjolras, who had seemed so frail after their morning on their feet in the rain as they built the barricade – frail, even as he had driven a murderer to his knees with the sheer force of his will – appeared to have gained in strength. He should be reaching the utmost limits of his physical capabilities. He should have collapsed long before.

"Is this what they call Spes phthisica?" Courfeyrac said quietly, dropping down beside him. "The hope of the consumptive?"

Of course. Combeferre closed his eyes. How could they have imagined that they could fool their friends?

"You know?"

"Naturally. Do you think Joly could not distinguish between a phlegmy chest and a phthisitic cough? We knew he would be under your care, and all that could be done, would be done." He sighed, not taking his eyes off Enjolras, who had subsided into his redoubt and had his gaze fixed on the street through an aperture in the barricade. "I do wish, though, that he could realise that we would follow him anyway. And it was worse not being able to express our concern for him – to have to pretend it was nothing as we saw his moments of pallor, to tell new recruits that he wasn't emaciated, he was just naturally disinclined to eat rich food or drink alcohol out of a strong commitment to Jacobin vertu. I've watched him decline by slow degrees, and have had to hold my tongue."

"When I first began working at the Necker," Combeferre found himself explaining, a relief to finally give utterance to these thoughts, "I was under Laennec. He was studying the disease, before it came to claim him as well. I've seen more sufferers than I would care to recall, from diagnosis to autopsy. In all those cases, I saw no evidence of the Spes phthisica. There was none of that rapture that is supposed to come to sufferers, no spiritual redemption. Nor did it disproportionately afflict artists and poets or others of a sensitive disposition. It takes lives indiscriminately, and is not the kinder because it lingers rather than claims as swiftly as cholera. And if we weren't about to fall here, it would claim the life of my best friend, as it took his father before him."

Courfeyrac nodded. "Mal du siècle is what Prouvaire called it. He thought it linked to the Romantic spirit of the age, and its sufferers subject to bursts of artistic genius-"

"There is nothing romantic about it," Combeferre said abruptly. "If you'd seen pulmonary lesions on the lungs, as I have on the bodies flayed open on a table before me…" he broke off at Courfeyrac's stricken expression. They sat in silence, until Courfeyrac put an arm across his friend's shoulders, warm and comforting.

"And yet…" the law student said after a few moments, "one would think there is some truth in the idea that they become more beautiful as the end approaches. Enjolras seems almost to have a touch of the divine to him now. He has always had half an existence in another world, and now it seems to shine through him as if he were crystal."

"I'd rather he were more earthbound. I do not want him to be a spiritual, suffering angel. He is my friend, and we have need of him whole and healthy."

"I know. But…it is what it is. Not what it could or should be. It is a part of that which we strive to change. Come that future he sees, and perhaps this disease – like the cholera, and the typhus, and all the social and physical maladies that inflict suffering on us…they shall retreat before the dawn."

"Wherever we go, we are going together, aren't we?" Combeferre asked, smiling suddenly.

Courfeyrac squeezed his shoulder in response, then went and sat himself close to Enjolras on the barricade, occupying himself with producing his small array of munitions from where they were tucked into his clothing and arranging them carefully on a table.

Combeferre knew that, when it was needed, even if it could not be Combeferre himself, one of them would be there to thrust a weapon into Enjolras' hands, to help him die on his feet, with a face not only turned towards those that they fought, but to the future itself.

"Here." Combeferre wiped the corner of Enjolras' mouth, removing the smear of red and then handing Enjolras the square of linen that he had torn from the shirt of one of the dead. Cloth was in short supply. "You also have blood on your sleeve" he observed.

Enjolras glanced down, surprised. He was so focused on the battle that, forgetful of his condition, he had wiped his mouth with the back of his arm.

"I suppose I should be grateful that this is one of the few circumstances under which a bloodstained shirt could pass unremarked upon." He said. Combeferre heard the echo of his humour, and remembered the charming young man who had once been. He was almost gone now, all but subsumed in this incandescent figure before him, but the ghost of that lost boy lingered yet.

"How are you bearing up?" he asked his friend. Enjolras did not try to evade the question – they were beyond such things now.

"I think I have one more good fight left in me." He laced those long, thin fingers with Combeferre's. They were cool, dry, without a tremor. "I want to thank you. I asked much of you – more, perhaps, than should be rightfully asked of any physician, let alone a friend. And I asked it of all of you."

Combeferre remembered the compassion in Prouvaire's eyes when he looked at their leader…Feuilly making sure he linked arms with Enjolras at the funeral the previous day, ostensibly in solidarity but, now he knew, in physical support…Bahorel finding pretexts for ending meetings early…Courfeyrac advocating the Corinth as the site for their barricade, recognising that Enjolras had reached the limits of his strength and could walk no more...Joly exaggerating his own ailments to distract attention from the sufferer in their midst. And Grantaire, now sunk into a stupor of grief upstairs in the Corinth, unable to face his inevitable loss no matter what the day’s outcome. Who had in March, on Enjolras’ return to their circles after his month’s absence, attempted a task far beyond his desire or ability in the desperate hope he might be of assistance. They had all been complicit.

Enjolras, reading the look in his eyes, smiled and pulled him into an embrace. There was warmth in the blue eyes, and in the smile that graced the pale lips. In that moment Combeferre fully understood. It had not just been a struggle to prevent the world from knowing that the Amis had been commanded by a sickly consumptive.

"Enjolras…" there were things that must be said, and he knew this would be the last opportunity. "You did it. You will die free."

"Thank you." Enjolras whispered in his ear.