He could not sleep.
The bed was as soft and comfortable as ever, and Cosette’s calm breathing was ordinarily quite soothing, but Marius found himself staring at the ceiling long past the time he would ordinarily have joined her in slumber. He had slept cold and shivering many winter nights during his years at the Gorbeau tenement and usually found the warmth of summer conducive to restfulness, but not tonight. He had been preoccupied all day, thinking of the events of two years ago, and even his dear wife with all her winsome ways had been unable to distract him from his thoughts for long. Now there was no distraction, not even a moon to illuminate her face on the pillow. Marius lay alone with his memories, and as the night wore on the sleepiness he had hoped would relieve him failed to materialize.
Presently Marius felt a change come over his mood. A quiet alertness filtered through him and an odd sensation rose in his mind, as if someone was gently calling him without words. He ignored it for a few minutes, but its insistence grew with each passing moment---an urgency without haste but inexorable. He eased himself out of bed carefully and glanced at Cosette, who continued to sleep with no sign of disturbance. Stealthily Marius moved to the door of their shared dressing room. It was dark as pitch inside, but he had rather lazily left all of his clothes lying on the chair instead of putting them away when he had gone to bed, and he did not allow anyone else but Cosette to go in there except when absolutely necessary, so he knew they would still be there. He dressed in the dark and crept out of the bedroom, carrying his shoes in his hand.
Marius paused by the front door to put his shoes on, then opened the door as quietly as he could and locked it behind him. He took out his watch and squinted at it under the streetlight. A quarter after two, it said. Marius wondered how close it was to the exact minute when he had been brought home nearly dead two years ago. No, not home, not then. His grandfather’s house had not been home, not really, until Cosette had come to stay there. It had only been the place where he had spent his childhood and most of his adolescence. Home before their marriage had been a couple of plain lodging-house rooms shared with…
But he could not linger on the doorstep. Whatever the compulsion was that called him with silent voice, he had to follow it.
Down dark and silent streets Marius walked, paying little heed to landmarks and the names on signs, as though he was drawn on by an invisible compass lodged in his breastbone. He wondered briefly why he seemed to be the only one out and about, when one would usually expect to see at least a few people who worked night shifts or who were up to no good. There were no lights in any windows either, no students burning the midnight oil and, as the general tone of the neighborhood changed, no cafes and wineshops pouring out noise and light into the night as the revelers inside partied on. Marius might have been the only living thing in Paris for all the signs of life on the streets tonight. He was thankful for the streetlights; it was the dark of the moon, and the streets were impenetrably black beyond their reach.
Marius’ footsteps finally faltered and stopped as the tugging abruptly ceased. From the time he had begun to walk, he had moved as if in a daze, but now it seemed to him that he had come fully awake again. He looked up at the building in front of which he stood, then at the area around him, and a cold finger of familiarity ran down his back. He had not been here since that fateful night, had consciously avoided the area out of, he supposed, the same instinct that caused the burnt child to shun the fire. Yet here he had been brought, tonight, and here he was.
Here, he remembered, they had given the National Guard uniforms to those selected to go home and preserve their lives; there poor Éponine had breathed her last; over there had been the corner of the barricade where he had fought until the retreat was called; over here was the spot where he had been shot and fallen unconscious, to be rescued by his future father-in-law, of whom Marius could never think now without regret. The street was completely clear tonight, and the cobblestones replaced. One would never know by the looks of the place that a desperate battle for liberty and life had been fought and lost there.
The Corinthe had clearly never been repaired. Marius wondered what had become of Madame Houcheloup and the maids. There was probably now no way for him to ever know. He tipped his head back, gazing at the window on the upper floor, a black square crossed with a couple of hastily nailed-up boards in the night-gray wall. It gave him no answers.
He became aware, standing there, that the silent call was reasserting itself. It was gentler now, almost hesitant, but it wanted him to go inside. It was a terrible idea, looked at rationally, but without applying conscious thought Marius found himself moving unhesitatingly forward. He set his hand on the door handle. It would be locked of course, would never open, but it did open after all. The streetlight shone in through the doorway; the angle was such that barely enough light reached the interior to show him that a ladder had been placed where the hacked-down staircase had once stood. Marius was dimly aware that he was behaving recklessly, but he felt no fear or apprehension as he crossed the floor, looking neither to the left nor to the right, and began to climb. The welcome beams of the streetlight greeted him again, shining across the floor from around the boards on the window, as he stepped off the ladder and into the upper room.
He had never made it into the Corinthe to help make the last furious stand of the few insurgents left alive, that terrible morning. Tonight he had not seen nor paid attention to much downstairs, except to note that there was little in the way of debris left between the door and what had been the stairwell; the darkness had hidden whatever signs of struggle might have been still in evidence. The hollow, abandoned space that had once been a relatively cozy upstairs dining parlor was a different matter. There was less space for the streetlight to cover, and the room, though still more or less dark, was illuminated enough by it that Marius, his eyes adjusting to the dimness, began to take note of dark patches on the floorboards, the little round holes in the front wall where the light shone through. Up here, he guessed, must be where the final few defenders of liberty had met their ends. There was a dark splotch on the wall by the window as well. He wondered with a shiver who had died standing there.
Dragging his eyes away from the window, Marius saw a table and chair in a corner. He wandered over and lightly brushed a fingertip over the table’s dusty surface. The two items were the only furniture in the room. He supposed the rest must have been broken in the fighting, or, more likely, have gone to help make up the barricade, and wondered how it had happened that these had been spared. He wondered, too, who the last people to make merry in the Corinthe had been, before it had turned to an armory and then a charnel house. When he turned away from the table, Courfeyrac was standing by the window, looking out at the street.
For a brief moment, Marius, still engulfed in speculations, only felt mildly confused that Courfeyrac would be here when the fighting was long done, until his conscious mind caught up to his wandering thoughts. An icy wave of not-quite-terror washed over him; he drew in his breath sharply, and Courfeyrac turned from the window and looked at him. A wide grin spread across his face, warm and delighted and familiar. It awoke a tight little ache inside Marius that he had nearly but not entirely succeeded in lulling to sleep over the past two years, and with a tiny, involuntary whimper he stepped hastily away from the table; whether to go to Courfeyrac or to flee the building he was unsure, but his toe caught on a broken floorboard and he stumbled to his knees. Courfeyrac moved quickly forward, but Marius flinched away from his outstretched hand and he withdrew it, backing up a few hesitant paces, his face turned solemn. Marius kept his eyes fixed on Courfeyrac, scarcely daring to blink as he rose carefully to his feet and faced him. They stared at each other in silence.
Courfeyrac opened his mouth as if to speak, then bit his lower lip and lowered his eyes for a moment. When he raised them again it was with an expression of such mingled longing and uncertainty that Marius felt himself begin to tremble with some inexpressible emotion. He lightly clacked his teeth together, trying to collect himself, then clenched his hands at his sides and demanded, in a voice which came out smaller and shakier than he had intended, “What are you?”
They were standing between the window and the ruined stairwell; without speaking, Courfeyrac turned his face towards the latter. Marius followed his gaze. His own shadow stretched out on the stained floorboards in the streetlight’s glow. Despite the fact that Courfeyrac stood not four feet from him, there was no accompanying shadow that might have been cast by him. Marius whipped his head around again and realized, now, looking more closely, that there was no shadow on him, either; it was as though the streetlight shone equally on him from both sides. Marius could see him more clearly than anything else in the room. He pressed the top of his fist against his mouth, fighting panic.
Courfeyrac looked nearer tears than Marius had ever seen him. He opened his mouth again, closed it, then said, very quietly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” He broke off and looked around the room helplessly. “I never wanted to frighten you. I only missed you, that’s all.”
“Oh, God,” said Marius, half-choking. After the confusion and flashbacks of the first few months of his convalescence had subsided and he had begun to truly have to grapple with his grief, he had imagined a reunion dozens of times, had imagined any number of painfully temporary fantasy worlds in which his friend appeared before him magically whole and vital. Never mind the fact that the last Marius had seen of him had been his bloody body half-draped against the barricade, never mind the fact that Marius had seen him die, had been close enough to feel a light warm spatter on the side of his face, had shrieked out his grief and rage over that dear fallen head against the relentlessly advancing enemy. In all of his desperate fantasies, or bargainings with reality, or whatever they might be classed as, Courfeyrac had always appeared with a smile on his face, somehow alive and well and delighted to meet Cosette, to help Marius plan his wedding, to give his opinion on whatever Marius was reading. As Marius’ physical health had improved and Cosette had begun to spend more time with him, he had forced himself to abandon these fantasies and to push them to the back of his mind. Now it was as though someone had forcibly dragged them to the forefront again, only to make a cruel mockery. This was not Courfeyrac alive and well, and this was no happy reunion to continue into the future. Whatever it was, though, it was Courfeyrac. It was Courfeyrac’s voice which spoke in sad tones about missing him, and it was Courfeyrac who had called him here tonight. Marius felt the truth and confirmation of that deep in his soul. Whatever it might mean and whatever it might lead to, out of his body though he might be, this was Courfeyrac standing before him now, and this was the final chance he had never expected he would really get. He had best not waste it.
Marius sniffed, and gulped, and scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. For most of his life he had felt it best to refrain from expressing his feelings in speech, and although he had learned to do it to Cosette, about some things, he was still not particularly skilled at it. He struggled for a moment to find a way to explain all of the things he wished he had said before and came up completely blank.
“Everything’s all right?” he finally ventured, swallowing hard. Courfeyrac blinked several times, then smiled gently. “With me?” he said. “Yes.”
“With…” Marius had to break off for a moment. “With everyone, then?”
“Oh,” Marius said, a little shakily. “That’s…that’s good.” He could not find the fortitude to continue probing along this line, but Courfeyrac seemed to pick up on his confusion and said, “And you?” He paused, then an impish grin suddenly appeared on his face. “May I know her name now?”
A half-sob, half-chuckle hiccupped out of Marius’ throat, and he began detailing for Courfeyrac all the tale of Cosette upon which he had maintained silence before. Courfeyrac listened with every evidence of rapt attention, offering little comments or questions when he felt the tale required it.
“…And so, we were married,” Marius ended. He had become quite lively during the telling; now he sobered. “I wish you could have been there. I would have had you for my best man, you know. Instead I had my cousin, who spent all his time apart from the actual ceremony preening and flirting with whatever women crossed his path.”
“Which of course bears no resemblance whatsoever to any behavior I ever exhibited,” Courfeyrac drawled.
“Oh, well,” Marius said, flustered.
“No, I know,” Courfeyrac said, his face softening. “I wish I could have been there too.” Quickly, before Marius could fall back into melancholy or discomfort, he added, “How is married life treating you now? How are you doing with your law practice? I want to know all about the life and times of Monsieur M. Pontmercy…though I can surmise,” he added, surveying Marius thoughtfully, “that your Cosette is making her influence known in at least one aspect, for you’re dressed far more modishly than I believe I’ve ever seen you.”
Marius smiled sheepishly down at his admittedly stylish outfit. “She does take an interest,” he admitted.
Conversation flowed freely between them after that, there in the little upstairs room. Marius reveled in Courfeyrac’s company, forgetting that he was speaking to a dead man in the ruins of a wineshop turned house of death and thinking only to cling to every moment they were together. Words spilled out of him in a way they never had when Courfeyrac was alive to tease him with questions about his comings and goings, and several times his friend had to laughingly hold up his hands and ask Marius to slow down and explain more carefully. Initially Marius only spoke of happy things---Cosette’s gardening, the slow but more or less steady progress of his professional career, the fact that his grandfather only wore a slightly agonized expression these days when Marius lectured him about things political and revolutionary---but as time ticked on he found himself bringing up the subject of Cosette’s father, pouring out to Courfeyrac all his guilt and shame for the way he had treated the man to whom he had not known, until it was nearly too late, how much he owed.
“I told Cosette everything, afterwards,” he said, head hanging. “I begged her forgiveness on my knees. She told me she forgave me, and we have visited his grave with flowers once a month since the funeral, but I cannot acquit myself of the crime of having kept her and her father apart for the last few months of his life---just the thing my grandfather did to me and my own father!---when he had saved my life, too. She becomes uneasy when I bring the topic up, she would rather think of happier days, but I do not know what to do with myself sometimes.”
“You always were one to brood,” Courfeyrac said kindly. “But think, did the old man save your life only so that you could heap yourself with chastisements? It seems to me that you’d do better to use his memory as an impetus to be a better man and to remember to deal gently, respectfully, and compassionately with others---especially that sweet wife of yours!---rather than simply flagellating yourself to no practical end.”
There was wisdom in that, Marius thought. It would probably be more difficult than wallowing in guilt, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be an improvement. “I will try,” he said. Then in a rush, “I try to use your memory to inspire me to greater heights, too, you and the others. I don’t always manage, but I try.”
Courfeyrac looked slightly startled for a moment, then he tilted his head slightly and smiled fondly at Marius. “I remember the first time I saw you,” he said, “talking to Lesgle in front of the Musain like a scared little crow in your black suit.”
“I was no shorter then than I am now,” Marius said, mildly indignant, “and I wasn’t scared.”
“Practically an infant,” Courfeyrac continued, ignoring the interruption, “as lonely as the breeze and as helpless as a stray kitten. I had no choice but to scoop you up and carry you off to safety. And now look at you, married, prosperous, and fashionably dressed. I take great pride in you and in your accomplishments. I declare you a success, and command you to continue in this fashion for the rest of your life.”
“Thank you!” said Marius, electing to ignore the first part of this statement. “I daresay I would have found it much harder going without you, back then. At least, I don’t forget that you got me that job with the publishing-house. I owe you for my first bout on the professional stage, to say nothing of—” he faltered for a moment, then pressed onward resolutely—“to say nothing of the fact that I had never…had never had a real friend before I met you. I did not know how to manage a friendship quite, and apologize for what I am certain were many awkward moments that I caused.” He stopped abruptly, wondering if Courfeyrac could tell that his face was burning.
Courfeyrac laughed, but his face wore an affectionate rather than a mocking look. “You were seventeen,” he said, “and you were you. And that is that. No one held anything against you. If you thought we did, you were mistaken. You may not have belonged to les Amis de l’ABC, but you were un ami nonetheless, you know, and not only considered so by myself.”
Marius needed a moment to gather his wits to reply to this unexpected assault on his emotions. Looking around the room as he did so, he realized with a coldness in his stomach that the dimness was growing less dim---he turned his head towards the window, and beheld a pinkish rather than a dark sky. Dawn was approaching.
“Ah,” said Courfeyrac, who had also turned his gaze to the window, “I see I have not much time left. Quickly then, if you’ve anything else to say you’d best say it.”
Marius stared at him mutely, cudgeling his brain. If this was to be the last moment, he felt he ought to say something profound, something to send Courfeyrac on his way with meaning or at least with style, but he could think of nothing, nothing at all.
“It’s all right,” Courfeyrac said gently, as Marius’ inner battle for words intensified. “You came, and you stayed, and we’ve talked the night away. It’s already a fine farewell. You needn’t drive yourself crazy trying to think of the perfect goodbye.”
The light from the window was growing stronger. There were perhaps another few minutes, perhaps even only another few moments. Marius felt tears begin welling up. He stared intently at Courfeyrac, filling his eyes with him, trying to iron his image into his memory. Courfeyrac smiled at him, and began to look a little translucent as the light grew still brighter.
Marius had stood just out of arm’s length of Courfeyrac all throughout their conversation; Courfeyrac had occasionally, during the first hour or so, made as though to touch his arm or shoulder, but Marius had carefully avoided such contact, fearing to find that there would be no actual touch, that Courfeyrac’s hand would pass through or around him like smoke. But now, seeing his friend so close to vanishing, Marius felt a jolt of near-panic shoot through him. Desperately he hurled himself forward and flung his arms around Courfeyrac’s neck. Courfeyrac’s arms came up and around him immediately, and he wasn’t solid, but he wasn’t smoke either; if an embrace could have the same feeling as the resistance of water when one stroked an arm through it swimming, that was how he felt. Nothing like embracing a living person, but nothing like empty air, and Marius might have expected him to be cold, but he was warm.
“I love you,” Marius said into Courfeyrac’s semi-corporeal shoulder. He could not have imagined saying it so baldly before, but there was no time for thinking or hesitating now. “I love you. You are the dearest friend I ever will have in my life.”
“I love you,” Courfeyrac returned quietly, his hand rubbing up and down Marius’ back, barely detectable to the senses. “You won’t see me again on this side, but I love you. Live well, my dear. Love your wife, live your life, and raise a fuss about something important once in a while. Goodbye…”
A sudden merciless dazzle struck Marius’ eyes. The window faced the east; the first ray of the rising sun had shone between the buildings opposite the Corinthe and shot through the open window. Courfeyrac made no sound or struggle in his going; he was there, then quite suddenly Marius’ arms were empty and he was alone in the dilapidated room. He scarcely had time to register the fact before the brightness began to grow and expand, swelling to fill his vision till he staggered backwards blindly
throwing up his hands in a futile attempt to protect his eyes
losing all sense of spatial awareness
there was a brief sensation as of falling
he felt the bed soft and solid beneath him, and turned his head away from the glare, and opened his eyes, and saw that he was in his own room, with the light of the sunrise creeping in between the curtains and making golden stripes across the bed and the floor. Cosette was not there, but that was hardly surprising, since she had been in the habit lately of rising with or even before the sun to examine the progress of the strawberry plants, to which she was as attached as a mother.
His first emotion was frantic denial. It could not have been a dream, it could not. His heart would not stand for it. It was true that he could think of absolutely no way it could have been anything else, but he would shatter into pieces if it had all been a dream, if all that had passed had existed only within his own mind. It would be an agony even worse than the first, to have dredged up all the pain that had been put to sleep and then have the anodyne that had been applied be a lie.
Marius squeezed his eyes shut, fending off the moment where he would have to accept that which he dreaded. They were wet, he realized. He raised his right hand to rub them. Something was twisted around it, something that was not a part of the bedclothes, for it came with his hand quite easily as he lifted it. He opened his eyes, rather hazily, and examined the item. It was a crumpled linen handkerchief, soft with repeated washings, and it was certainly none of his, for it bore the initial C in bold red embroidery in the corner. It was none of Cosette’s either, for she marked all her handkerchiefs in white so that they would not clash with any outfit she cared to wear, and in any case hers were marked with EP, in some cases altered from the previous EF. No one else in the house had a C anywhere among his or her initials. Such a handkerchief had certainly not been present when Marius had gone to bed. He cast his memory back now, to a day when he had gone out to dinner with Courfeyrac, and to a play, and as they were walking in the direction of their homes after the play the breeze had sent a bit of dust spinning up the street and into Marius’ face, causing him to sneeze, and Courfeyrac had offered him a handkerchief, a handkerchief, he remembered now, that had been marked with a red C…
Marius sat up in bed, fixing his eyes on the precious piece of fabric, clutching it in both hands as though he feared it might take sudden flight. It was real, it was real and tactile and clearly present. He was not dreaming that he held this handkerchief, and there was no explanation except for one that could account for its appearance. Marius pressed the handkerchief to his chest and drew in a deep, sobbing breath.
“Good morning,” said Cosette, lightly closing the bedroom door behind her. She wore a blue print wrapper, and in her hand she carried a small earthenware bowl. “See, the plants have given their first crop---it’s not much, but we will have them with breakfast, won’t we?” She took a closer look at her husband and frowned. “Marius, what is wrong? Surely you are not crying. What has happened while I have been in the garden?”
“It’s all right,” Marius said. He smiled a bit shakily at her. “Perhaps I’ll tell you about it later. What lovely berries. You have such skill with your plants.”
“Of course I do,” Cosette said archly. “And speaking of skill, you will come and comb my hair for me when I dress, won’t you?”
“I certainly will.”
Cosette smiled, set the berry bowl down on the little table near her side of the bed, and entered the dressing room, singing to herself, “Dans les jardins de mon père, les lilas sont fleuris, tous les oiseaux du monde viennent y faire leur nid…”
It was past the season for lilacs, Marius thought, but they should bring some flowers from the garden along the next time they visited the grave of Jean Valjean, rather than buying a formal arrangement at the market. It would be less elegant, but the old man would probably greatly appreciate it if he knew that the flowers Cosette placed on his tomb had been tended by her own hands. I’ll cut them myself, he thought. That way it will be from both of us. Courfeyrac was right. His memory will be better served by my emulating his kind ways and by striving to be for others what he was for Cosette and myself, rather than by making myself miserable. Both of their memories will be better served so. And I must especially make sure to treat her with consideration, as they both would want me to.
He thought about the verses the priest had read last Sunday, about how love was just as strong as death, and how many waters could not quench love, nor rivers sweep it away.
“Elles chante pour les filles qui n’ont pas de mari,” sang Cosette. She popped her head out of the dressing room door and grinned at him. “Pour moi ne chante guère, car j’en ai un joli. And I am waiting for him to come and comb my hair for me.”
“I’m coming,” said Marius.