Work Header

A Digression on Selling Souls

Work Text:

"Consider the problem of spirifers," said Enjolras, shoving his hands into his hair. He was working himself up into the agitation in which he made his best speeches. "How easy it is to twist a soul out of a body! Two years ago we debated hotly if the soul even existed; today we quarrel over how much it is worth in brass."

"Some of us still debate whether souls exist," Grantaire said. He re-seated himself more comfortably against the wall, heedless of the slime left by an incontinent Rubbery Man. "When you think about it, what luck! What a noble experiment! Combeferre claims that those without souls live just as the rest of us do – that is to say, hollow-eyed lives, shuffling from bed to bar and back again, tasting neither joy nor despair. Prouvaire argues that to lose one's soul is to lose the ineffable substance of God's creation, that marvellous bit of immaterial matter - well, you might say, so he would, for more than any of us Jean is in the business of souls. I mentioned the subject to Marius once; his distress was both beautiful and true, and that is all ye on earth, or below it, need to know. Do you suppose - "

"I suppose that you said it to Marius to shock him, but I am made of sterner stuff," Enjolras replied. "I will quote you a price for a soul that will surprise you: it is beyond venom-rubies; beyond never-cold brass and beyond happiness. To put it in terms you should understand: it is worth as much as truth, and integrity, and hope for the future."

Grantaire laughed too loudly, but he couldn't help himself. "What is there that you of all people expect me to understand? I am no Keats; my art has always been devoted to eliding that which is true in pursuit of that which is beautiful."

"I judge few men by what they do to keep themselves fed," Enjolras said, his shoulders straight and his head thrown back so that he might look down his nose at Grantaire, his superior in height by four inches. "If you need money so badly as to sell – ! You say Jehan is in the business of souls, very well. I am in the business of bodies."

"A lie and a damned one, at that," said Grantaire. "I never knew anyone less concerned with it. Your flesh has never been warmed by desire, my dear David, my favourite Galateus. You might be a tomb-colonist, with your fingers and toes and balls dropping off, for all you fuck."

"It's not the trade in flesh I meant," said Enjolras, who had gone furiously red. This was his usual practice when Grantaire brought it up. From Bossuet or Courfeyrac, he knew it was kindly teasing; from strangers it was unworthy of notice and gave him no good opinion of them. With Grantaire, he seemed to hear something more than was meant, or, perhaps, less. "The welfare of the human race is my affair, and yours too."

"It grieves me to correct you, Enjolras," said Grantaire. "You have no affairs, and certainly none with me."

"Ah," said Enjolras, regaining with some effort his icy disdain. "You begrudge me your four sous."

"I begrudge you the apology I had to make to the girl," said Grantaire.

"I had no need of her labour, I told her so." Enjolras dismissed all of this with an angry wave of his hand. "You insulted both of us."

"Neither of you," said Grantaire, "and never you at all."

"Speaking of lies," said Enjolras. "Perhaps you don't recall your mockery; you were well into your cups by then. How do men drink your vile concoction and live?"

Grantaire, to do him justice, appeared genuinely startled by this. "I don't - I am used to it, I suppose. Once you have drunk them all separately, together they seem almost smooth. Anyway," he added, for only Enjolras was capable of forcing him to keep to a single topic, "there is not a shred of mendacity in me. I am thoroughly sober, so that I need not defend myself later when you accuse me of selling my soul to the devil absinthe first."

"I care not whether you drink or thirst," said Enjolras, implausibly. "I care only that you not waste further your potential - the potential that lies in every man, woman and child. Each one of us strives, but we cannot do it alone."

"Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno!" murmured Grantaire. Enjolras scowled.

"Tell me, Grantaire, what you find so amusing. You claim you love friendship for friendship's sake, not merely as a tool in the hand of one who would unify - "

"Friendship for friendship's sake! No, my dear fellow, for Joly's sake, for Courfeyrac's, and even, in the last gasp, for yours, if you could tolerate my presence so long. But you consider truth a better friend than Plato, and so I am denied."

"A better friend than Plato, perhaps," said Enjolras, "who trusts no man less clever than himself, but not a better friend than Combeferre." He looked at Grantaire for a long moment, and then added: "Or even you, when you're not nose-deep in drink."

"Hmmm," said Grantaire, who was rather pleased but also rather nettled by this: it was more than he had ever hoped for, and, as was often the case, so much less than he had wanted. "Now, do you mean that you would lie to me if the occasion called for it?"

"When does real brotherhood call for falsehood? It means I would lie for you, did the occasion call for it," said Enjolras without blinking. "It is the same as lying to professors for Bossuet and to the police for Bahorel."

"Oh, we all lie to the police for Bahorel," said Grantaire. "I could hope that you lied to me about - well, it doesn't matter."

"And I could hope that you lied to me about how drunk you were the night they stole the river," replied Enjolras coolly, "but it doesn't matter."

"Why would I have lied?" said Grantaire with great confusion. "What man would want to remember that night? I saw the Masters lining the Pont au Change, huge and cloaked and looming over Paris – "

"Did you count them?" Enjolras asked eagerly, for the number of Masters was known only to be very vague. "I only know M. Feux and M. Fer, but Gavroche once said they were at least ten."

"No, I did not," said Grantaire immediately. "Hang me for it, if you must, but I came away to Corinthe, that I might bathe a while in the waters of Lethe, thereby exchanging one river for another."

"Damn you," said Enjolras, "I know you came to Corinthe, for I was there. A riddle for you, if you will: how is it you claim affection for me; that is to say, camaraderie, and yet you thwart our plans whenever I give you wind of them, you demoralise our ranks through dissipation, and seek to lure me from my task?"

"I have never sought to lure you from your task," said Grantaire. "What have I done to make you think I would fight a losing battle?"

Enjolras looked away, and was silent.

"Besides," Grantaire said, "it is because I have affection, not to say camaraderie, for you – I don't claim it, by the way, I haven't the presumption – and Combeferre knows it well enough, why don't you ask him?" Enjolras made no reply. "Unless you did, of course, and he referred you hence."

"That is correct," said Enjolras, clipped.

"Well, then, I am pinned," said Grantaire, "backed into a corner, with no way out and no words left with which to defend myself."

"Impossible," said Enjolras.

"Thank you, Harmodius," Grantaire said. "I will be truthful then: you have said I am a better friend than the truth, and so I will endeavour to prove it. Remember, you are mortal. Since no other man will say it, let it be me who whispers it in your ear."

"Am I mortal, then?" said Enjolras, not without justice. "I have died; I have died three times. Each time I awoke on a boat floating downstream, and played endless games of dominoes against the captain. Each time it has only served to remind me what it is that I keep living for."

"Yes," said Grantaire, "but – "

"I think the river is the Seine," said Enjolras, staring hard into Grantaire's face. Grantaire flinched at the forbidden name, which Enjolras had said loudly, with neither fear nor interest in the one who stood a little apart from them, listening. "I think it is the Seine, and I tell you I will do anything to restore her to her rightful place."

"I know you will," said Grantaire in flat despair.

"They stole Paris! What Buonaparte couldn't do, and which Louis-Philippe never even tried. He only stole her revolution; the Masters have stolen her soul. And you know, you know that, and still you would sell yours? As if it were worth nothing, as if Paris's soul were worth nothing?"

Grantaire tried to say: "You credit me with too much," but Enjolras made a harsh gesture and he closed his mouth.

"Therefore, death is nothing to me." Enjolras's gaze was fixed on him; Grantaire couldn't turn his eyes away. "Since you're so fond of your Latin tags, have another: old age should be feared before death."

"Juvenal lived to a crabbed age, the old hypocrite," said Grantaire. "Let me ask you, if I ask you nothing else in my whole life – "

"A consummation devoutly to be wished," said Enjolras, bowing.

"What will happen, when you restore Paris? Will those who have held life cheaply down here be restored, too? Alive or dead?"

Enjolras was quiet, thinking about it. "I have much discussed this matter with Combeferre."

"And you concluded that it doesn't matter," said Grantaire. "I know; I am not such a fool as you think."

"I don't think you a fool," said Enjolras with some surprise. "If you were I should not speak to you."

"But you only speak to me sharply," Grantaire said. "How am I to know the difference?"

"Why would I bother at all, were you not worthy of some consideration?"

Grantaire stared at him blankly. He said, "And yet, you have no consideration for my drunkenness the night the river was stolen? All of Paris drowned themselves in riotous sorrow. It was like something out of Villon."

"None at all."

"What could I possibly have said or done to annoy you more than usual?"

Enjolras did not answer. He turned to look at the wall, where some greater fool than Grantaire had scrawled a letter from the Correspondence, and Combeferre had scratched out half an important serif, blindfolded three times over. He seemed to be deep in thought. Eventually, he lifted his head.

"Actually," he said coolly, "you kissed me."

Grantaire drew a long breath in lieu of speech that wouldn't come.

"I wasn't expecting it," said Enjolras unnecessarily. "I supposed it to be some excess of intemperance, but it troubled me greatly, even the next day and beyond; all the more so because you did not have the grace to remember your trespass. Very well, you know my secret."

"I am sorry," said Grantaire. His stomach was cold and heavy, but, with the quick thinking of one who often made reparations, it occurred to him that it would be simple to twist it into a joke. Enjolras was used to it, after all; he would frown at him for a day or two and then forgive with lofty virtue. "I sinned against your purity, Hippolytus. Don't have me trampled by your grandfather's horses, I beg."

"The only sin was against my pride," said Enjolras. "I must bear that weight, not you."

"Your pride?" said Grantaire. "I had thought nothing could crumple it."

"It was very commonplace, in the end," said Enjolras. "Having often been desired, and denied the would-be lover, when I came to take the active part, the wheel spun and I was denied in turn. So it usually happens, I am told. Courfeyrac certainly laughed hard enough, when I spoke of it to him." For half a breath he looked his age, and slightly petulant to boot.

Grantaire reached out and grasped him, but the arm in his grip was warm and hard; flesh and sinew. "I don't understand."

"What is there to understand?" said Enjolras, shifting as if to tug himself out of Grantaire's hand, but not really putting enough effort in.

"You wanted me," said Grantaire.

"I did make myself clear, then," said Enjolras, "if not clear enough. What would you have of me, if you will not let me go?"

"You want me," said Grantaire.

Enjolras, always able to prioritise even when his face was burning, and always willing to seize even the most obscure advantage in an argument, said: "Are you proud of yourself, then? Enough to forgo this devil here a while longer, at least?"

"Enjolras," said Grantaire, and pulled him in close. Enjolras's mouth was softer than all his hard lines made it look; his other arm came up around Grantaire's neck and he kissed back without finesse, without gentleness and without reserve. His hand curled into Grantaire's hair, so tight it hurt, and neither of them cared.

Enjolras broke away suddenly. "Have I proven my point?" he demanded.

"Yes, yes, quite," Grantaire said, for the first time in his life utterly uninterested in talking, and closed his mouth over Enjolras's again.

The disgruntled devil, whose name was Montparnasse, and whose natural optimism had sustained him throughout all this interminable nonsense, finally gave up the ghost. He detached himself from the wall, sneered at the pitiful attempt at erasing the Correspondence, and bethought him to investigate the bourgeois girl who was studying the tableau with some startlement.

"Oh, no, I'm very sorry," she said, as he kissed her hand with steaming breath. "I don't wish to waste your time, sir. My papa wouldn't like me to visit the Brass Embassy; it would worry him dreadfully."

The devil represented the advantages of the scheme to her: the freedom from her burdens, the lightness of being, the liberty to do as she liked with the small payment in lieu of something which was, after all, intangible.

"I'm afraid he would take exception," said the girl. "I don't like to see him angry."

She curtsied to him, picked up her basket and called to the driver of a fiacre to take her home. The unfortunate devil considered following her, but the fiacre splashed his fine ratskin suit with mud. Halfway down the street, an urchin called out to him - one of the famous urchins of the Paris streets, who had drunk their fill from the Pierian Spring and who made Fallen Paris such a blessed irritating place to live - and the devil was forced to remain on his dignity. When, finally, he robbed an old man who proved to have nothing - nothing! - in his threadbare pockets, it was the last straw.

He went home to brood upon tomorrow. It was his yearly performance review.