A walk, which had begun as a docile and contemplative exercise, brought Prouvaire up to the columbarium at Père Lachaise, and abruptly he thought he was unable to go further. He would have sat down on the paving stones, but it was easier to lean against a column, half in the shade and half in sunlight. The public urns behind him were more distracting than the crowded promenade.
The Saturday parties of families paid him not the least attention. But from that cool stone library of ashes, he felt eyes pinned on his back.
He returned home as the sun began to set.
The proprietress took his arm behind the door, saying, “M. Prouvaire, a letter has arrived for you, here it is, who would write only the capital letter ‘R’? A mystery, I am sure -- and I have set out the coffee service in your room, my daughter brought yellow grapes from the market so there are some of those as well.”
“Thank you,” Prouvaire said. He regarded the letter and put it unopened into his pocket.
In his apartment, he sat at his desk, looking at the grapes which were illuminated by the sunset, the aqueous humor diffuse with trapped light. The proprietress or her daughter had arranged everything with some decorative instinct, the flashing silver putting glitter behind opacity. Thinking of Caravaggio, he became disgusted and stood.
The walls were close, the air was thick; he threw open the window. He did not have a good view; it was mostly into the next door’s fourth floor. But by the corner he could see up a part of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. The blush of sunset was fading. As he saw it he perceived an immense silence from the city. A voiceless accusation of uselessness, unchanging transience, breathed by ghosts and chorused in unconsciousness by the living.
He put his elbows on the sill and bowed his head to it, but order did not return.
Then there was someone knocking at the door.
“M. Prouvaire,” said the portress. “M. Prouvaire? Your visitor is here, where may I show him?”
Another voice interrupted her: “Inside! Show me inside. You do not want me decorating your lobby or your garden. You do not want me shouting in your halls. You do not want me even a little in this minute, but M. Prouvaire will be happy for my company and I own that he will give me some clothes. So we may all be a little closer to proper, then you will revisit your impression. ‘Who was that fellow?’ your thoughts will say without you bidding them. I am so undressed I can only cower from your eyes at the moment --”
This compelled Prouvaire to cross the room and open the door.
Grantaire gave the portress a flourishing salute of the kind favored by cavalry officers in full dress, which fell naturally into a bow, and entered Prouvaire’s apartment with his backside leading.
Besides his trousers and boots, he wore only a shirt, and that hanging open at the neck. When he stood it gaped fully off his shoulder.
“I say,” Prouvaire shut the door behind him. “I’m not sure if you look as if you’ve been robbed or are yourself a brigand. All you lack is a cap.”
Grantaire waved a hand. “I have left most of my kit behind at the studio. At this very moment Delacroix is crushing my cravat in his venerable hand with its stained fingers -- he is bringing that article gently to his face -- inhaling deeply --”
“I bet he isn’t,” said Prouvaire. “Well. Here you are, the wardrobe is before you, take something of mine.”
“I charge you with jealousy. I tell you if it had been you draped so interminably across an old packing crate with only a short shirt on and one stocking, under the hot evaluative and, I say, pleased gaze of that observant artist -- you would feel differently, sir, about your painter of the sublime. Have you received my letter?” Grantaire went to the wardrobe and began to pick through it.
“I’ve only just arrived. It’s in my coat.”
“Only just arrived, my foot. Not, as the English say, “ma foute”. It stinks of melancholy in here. You’ve been here draped on your writing desk like Chatterton in his garret. Though your work is of better quality. But then, perhaps it is the open window.”
Prouvaire turned up the palm of his hand, an indifferent answer. “Perhaps it’s the heat.”
“So speaks a man who is fully dressed! I report that this evening brings a cold wind. The windows are all gaping at M. Delacroix’s studio, and my naked legs thrown open as they were I felt the cold as never before. Like a Roman soldier in the Alps, when the wind is an updraft. I pity those poor warriors; I venerate trousers, to the point of an ode: saperlotte, j’aime ma culotte. The meter will be edited. Have you opened that letter?”
Prouvaire sat back at his desk. The window was still open, the sliver of dark sunset rested on the sill. He was sick from his own thoughts of vanity, of the uselessness of the world. The night was becoming still.
In the silence, Grantaire had done up the buttons on a gray waistcoat. He was tying a necktie in the shaving mirror.
“Don’t bother with the letter,” said Grantaire, with some calmness. “It’s illegible. I asked if you would like to join me tonight for a debauch of opium, to which the only reasonable answer should be, of course.”
Prouvaire contemplated the intangible. It rebuked him.
He contemplated a night at the writing desk. “I’ll join you,” he said.
When they left, Grantaire was outfitted with a borrowed hat, necktie, and gloves which were a poor fit. He pulled them up on his wrists and took Prouvaire’s arm by the elbow, closing in so they occupied the same space. When he exhaled Prouvaire felt it under his ear.
“My dear fellow,” Grantaire said, in a quieter voice that shared the warmth of his breath. “What can be the matter? Ad fontes.”
“I have been alone with my thoughts,” said Prouvaire. “For too long.”
“As I have been without my trousers. What a virginal feeling! What exposure. What discomfort. Imagine Bernini inspecting the press of fingers in the bottom of a woman’s thighs, and there you are. I’ve endured nudity analyzed all day long; I know your thoughts. And this disgrace for only a quarter wheel of Brie cheese and a cup of bad wine. Nothing wounds that cannot be overcome by opium, this truth right out of Gilead leads us to the right at the streetlight, have you knowledge of this place? The price is moderate, as is the quality, but you will forgive me if I do not try to impress you; I have done it already.”
They opened the door and entered separately. There were stairs down to the parlor, which dripped with silk. The covered walls produced not the slightest echo.
The warm scent of the fumerie was familiar and therefore not excessively voluptuous, the sunken parlor was quiet and ordered. Prouvaire put his hat on the floor, and reclined on an orange cushion as Grantaire paid for a pair of chibouks and a lamp.
“To be a lotophage,” said Grantaire, as a toast. He heated the bowl of his pipe with concentration, shifting his hips forward to make the movement more natural.
“To Aphrodite of Mekon,” Prouvaire agreed, and watched as the first curl of vapor rose from the pipe. Its decadence seemed almost hopeful, and he thought for a moment that happiness was the heir of greatness. When he drew in the first breath, the vapor warmed his throat and he waited for it to warm his thoughts.
“So say on,” Grantaire spoke through a mouthful of the vapor, before swallowing the rest of it back. “You were telling how your lonely thoughts blew like cold wind between the trouserless legs of the mind.”
Prouvaire laughed at that, one eyebrow held aloft. “I should spend too long,” he said. “Let this be sufficient. I could stand at the top of the Panthéon and shout, ‘Qui vive?’ to the whole of everything below me, and there would be no answer, least of all from myself. Indifference roars back. What are we? We are an accusation written in chalk, gone with the brush of a sleeve. We hurl nothing into the future except this reprise, futility.”
Grantaire reached over the lamp and drew a thumb along Prouvaire’s eyebrow to flatten it. Then he made a fist under his own chin in an attitude of philosophical contemplation. “You have been too long without sleep, my friend, el sueño de la razón has produced only the expected amount of monsters, here is how you are wrong: If you cried anything at all from the top of the Panthéon I have no doubt that you would be shouted back at in chorus: first some old invalide, then a grandmother with a voice like a screech owl, and then some bourgeois would go by and without a look at you would frown in disapproval and mutter, ‘I say,’ either to himself or his companion, his shy wife. Finally, you would be arrested. Second: Your metaphor is wrong. You abuse the whole medium of chalk. A red chalk drawing is an underpainting, a sanguine -- it is the first step to permanence.”
Prouvaire thought about that, watching Grantaire rest his pipe on the tray to cool.
“No first step guarantees a second,” he decided to say. But already the opium vapor was leading him toward the serene and blessed mood. What had he heard out his open window? Only vastness. He thought that the lifting of the mind’s own oppression was a kind of step from restriction to freedom, with the same elevation.
“It does not at that,” Grantaire was saying. “But certainly you of all people are capable of arguing for grace.”
“On the subject of grace, I admit I have trouble seeing you as an artist’s model.”
“You do not approve?” Grantaire reclined more fully onto his back, tilting his head to prop it up with his palm, and drawing forward one knee. “Am I not a perfect Sardanapalus?”
“Rather more lively and with less contrast, with a waistcoat that doesn’t fit.”
“The devil,” said Grantaire. “It is practically tailored for me. As for the other thing, I’ve mentioned that there was wine and cheese. I require no further reason to take an engagement. But I’m afraid you won’t recognize me when it’s unveiled. Your M. Delacroix does not like my face and so will paint on another fellow’s. Faces are tricky.”
Prouvaire looked on with interested silence. As he breathed from his pipe the vapor, too long on the lamp, burned his throat.
Grantaire elaborated: “There are rigid ideals. Your friend Enjolras has a good face. Broad but without much profile, this makes it catch the light. That is the sort of face a painter likes; Titian’s St. John the Evangelist, or the angel bearing the ave Maria gratia plena scroll. That which is not shadow is an aureole, for men who are thus constructed. Light should melt from the brow to the shoulders and the hair. And what sort of light? Not demure, the virgin morning light of the Dutch! The medieval light which is like a fire from heaven. Thick and golden and robust, of the sort that makes heroes feared by their enemies.”
“You are confusing light with divinity,” said Prouvaire. The words, your friend Enjolras, were out of Grantaire’s typical tone, like that taut coloration that was properly in Florestan’s voice saying, in des Lebens Frühlingstagen. He remembered when they saw one another more often alone than in crowded rooms -- much had changed. Grantaire did not used to have a voice with such range.
But while Grantaire was speaking the world once again illuminated itself and revealed the proper order -- those who bore the weight of the present were once again grand, their struggle was what would make the future glorious. Prouvaire heaved in another breath and swallowed down the vapor without the patience to savor it.
“I’m trying to draw you into conversation,” said Grantaire, touching Prouvaire’s arm first with his fingers, and then hitting him more playfully with a fist. “This enterprise requires conflation, in my experience. Medieval gold is always divinity, there is no time so ancient to think light has no source.”
“Conflation -- say rather that they are not the same but are answerable to one another -- they are the final line and cannot be conquered. One is the inevitable. The other is freedom.”
“And the sad truth of it is that freedom likes my nose not a bit.”
“What a pity,” said Prouvaire.
“But if you’d like I can drape myself sideways across this cushion, remove my trousers, and have you commit the full scene to your memory so you may know me as M. Delacroix does. Nothing you’ve not seen before -- but it will be the angle that interests you, the angle will be enlightening.”
“I am not an artist. You would be wasting your precious angle.”
Grantaire shifted his hips again, in a vague motion that might have hinted at just what angle he had spent his day describing. There was silence for what could have been minutes, as Prouvaire thought, So shalt thou see and hear the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language.
When Grantaire said, “Share your thought,” he took only a breath to construct it.
“I was only thinking about poetry.”
Grantaire laughed. “I should say so! Jean Prouvaire is thinking of poetry, that is something like saying, Grantaire has drunk himself under his bottle. To each his axiom.”
The vapor was curled around them now, a cloud that drifted to the ceiling slower than smoke. Ideas that were good had become beatific.
“I was thinking that a poem is a ghost of its author, cast forward into the future to stand solemnly at a reader’s bedside, to take his arm on the street. What we write, we shout and the sound carries beyond the end of our lifetime. Something of ourselves comes with it.”
“Raca!” cried Grantaire. “Immortality through art is either a youthful notion or a Greek one.”
“What casuistry,” said Prouvaire. “Say love, then. You will not deny it is permanent. But those who sow it do not always reap it. You can speak of love and know that it profits you not at all, and is it less virtuous? Its result is its own glory, its result is a better world for having touched it. We know stories of love with familiarity when lovers are long dead.”
Grantaire put a hand on his knee, and leaned forward to put out their lamp, and from that glowing darkness and vaporous heat they emerged to find that dawn had begun.
Prouvaire’s apartment seemed a longer pair of blocks away than it had before, and while they both spoke amply they did not ever specifically agree to race up the stairs, tripping each other and probably rousing the lower floors. Inside the door, Prouvaire lit a branch of candles, and gave his friend’s trousers a yank. They caught, with a ripping sound of seams, at Grantaire’s hips.
“Is this, perhaps, why M. Staub will not have you inside his shop?” said Grantaire, undoing the buttons and looking surreptitiously for the damaged stitches.
“This is not a tailor’s shop,” said Prouvaire.
“Then what, your stately pleasure dome? Or is my stately pleasure dome rather more at issue? Are you going to rip the waistcoat as well? That, at least, is your own.”
Prouvaire shrugged, and taking a handful of the waistcoat’s front panel in his hand, he tugged down. Grantaire flinched forward, straightened up, but the waistcoat did not so much as lose a button.
“No, I’ll leave that,” Prouvaire decided, and unknotted his own necktie. The silk hissed as he tore it off.
“Let me offer, in passing,” said Grantaire, “that M. Delacroix told me only to remove the trousers and waistcoat, and the one stocking (which I did thus, I beg you to observe) and then gave me wine. You are not half the host.”
“Did M. Delacroix offer you his bed? That is gracious, and my own idea.” He put his hand, with the glove still on, between Grantaire’s legs, to end the argument.
Grantaire put his unfolded clothes on the writing desk, next to the candelabra. The light was flickering from the open window. Not the virginal morning light, he had said, the medieval light. And though a candle was a candle it was fire nonetheless, putting a gilded edge on Grantaire’s skin where he, ridiculously, had arranged himself on the bed in only a shirt and one falling blue stocking. He put his feet up on the headboard, turned his face so the big tendon in his neck reached out, and let one arm drop.
“There now,” Grantaire said. “This is my sublime posture which M. Delacroix calls for. Maybe now you will recognize it in the work. Now you do not know what the work is -- let me promise you, my dear fellow, that you are in for one of those paintings you like so well that you will weep in my arms.”
“You look ridiculous,” said Prouvaire, and elbowed Grantaire’s legs off the headboard.
As he shut the window, it reflected the candlelight illuminating the coffee service, the cluster of grapes -- the nature morte created by his landlady. He went back to Grantaire with his one stocking, posed as a reference to a scene which did not yet exist. As a poet, he needed to pursue the meaning, and as a friend, he needed to finish what he’d begun.