“What are they whispering about?”
Enjolras nodded towards the corner of the room where Courfeyrac and Combeferre were conserving in low tones. Occasionally, Courfeyrac would look up and glance across the room towards him, forcing a warm smile that did not quite disguise the worry in his eyes.
“You, of course.”
When Joly smiled, his eyes sparkled, and dimples pinched into his cheeks. He knelt down on the floor in front of the chaise, and tapped Enjolras gently on the back of the hand.
“But hush – you’re not supposed to be talking.” Joly pressed the back of his hand to Enjolras’s forehead and hissed as he felt the heat radiating from it. “You’ve quite the fever, you know.”
“I am even further from being a doctor than I am from being a lawyer, and I could have told you that,” Bossuet said, peering around Enjolras’s left shoulder. At first, Enjolras had simply been sitting next to Bossuet. But a combination of his own exhaustion and Bossuet slipping a comradely arm around his shoulder meant that Enjolras was now leaning against him, head against his collarbone.
In a show of maturity utterly befitting a would-be member of the medical profession, Joly made a rude hand gesture at Bossuet.
“I hadn’t finished diagnosing him yet,” Joly said, pouting. Bossuet laughed, the normally welcome sound causing Enjolras to close his eyes and wince at the pain which it sent searing through his temples. Bossuet quieted his chuckles immediately.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” he whispered, rubbing Enjolras’s shoulder.
“Headache too?” Joly asked.
Enjolras nodded, opening his eyes tentatively.
“That’ll probably be from the fever, I’m afraid,” Joly added, with a sympathetic tilt of his head.
Joly stroked his fingers across Enjolras’s jawline and down his throat, the corners of his mouth twitching downwards as he did so, his expression a blend of concentration and concern.
“Ah, yes. I see what Combeferre was so concerned about. Your throat is rather swollen. I imagine that can’t feel very comfortable.” He slipped his hands down to Enjolras’s shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze. “Will you let me take a look inside?”
Enjolras rolled his eyes and frowned.
Joly raised an eyebrow.
Enjolras sighed, and then opened his mouth.
“There’s a good chap,” Joly said, catching Bossuet’s eye and grinning as he drew out a metal instrument from his doctor’s bag. “Now, I’m just going to press this on your tongue for a moment and – oh yes, dear me. Worse than I’d thought. I’m surprised you had enough voice to convince Combeferre to let you accompany him even this far.”
They were in Courfeyrac’s rooms, which had been agreed upon as the meeting point from which the Amis would set out to the Rue Champ de l’Alouette together. The meeting with the glovemakers and the tanners had been arranged weeks in advance, and had involved much careful preparation. Whilst Bahorel had introduced the two groups, Feuilly had been responsible for the majority of the liaising between them. He had worked tirelessly to convince the most influential of the leather-workers that the students’ concerns for the working man extended further than claiming the prettiest of his daughters for a mistress. Courfeyrac and Enjolras had used their contacts in the radical press to arrange for newspaper articles addressing their concerns to be printed. Today was to be the day on which the leaderships of the two groups met and addressed the tannery workers. It was to be, Enjolras had told his friends as they gathered in the backroom, the most important step the Amis had yet taken, and one which could not wait, considering King Charles’s increasingly fragile grip on power. A meeting which united those committed to the establishment of a republic, against others who would use artificial and transitory social divides to strangle the voice of the people.
Except that, yesterday, Enjolras had awoken to find his own voice being strangled by what seemed to be the start of an irritating cold. Aware of the importance of their plans, Enjolras had, for once, heeded Combeferre’s sage advice, keeping to his room and retiring early to bed. But these efforts had come to naught. Enjolras had woken that morning with his throat feeling as though it had been scoured with glass paper, and unable to speak in more than a rasping whisper. He shivered, despite the relative warmth of the May morning, and there was a hot, prickling sensation across his cheeks. Enjolras had suspected he was feverish even before Combeferre had pressed the back of his hand to his cheek. The concern in Combeferre’s eyes had been more painful, even, than swallowing the sweet tea that Combeferre had pressed on him.
Combeferre had insisted that Enjolras shouldn’t be left alone, and Enjolras was equally determined that Combeferre, of all of them, could not miss the meeting. Taking Enjolras as far as Courfeyrac’s emerged as a compromise. His rooms were, as Enjolras pointed out, only a few streets away from theirs. Once everyone had arrived, they could all reach a decision about what to do next. And perhaps, Enjolras had ventured, the fresh air would restore him a little.
Combeferre had looked more than a little sceptical at that last point, and rightly so. The walk left Enjolras exhausted, to the point that it was impossible to disguise how truly awful he felt by the time they arrived at Courfeyrac’s rooms. The broad smile with which Courfeyrac greeted them quickly shifted to a look of alarm, and Enjolras immediately found himself being bustled onto the sofa and wrapped in a blanket. Joly and Bossuet had arrived before them, and Combeferre had wasted no time in asking Joly for a second opinion.
Joly removed the instrument from Enjolras’s tongue, and nodded to indicate that he could close his mouth.
“I’m done now. I’ll consult my fellow physician but I think we can find something that will help,” Joly said, tapping the bag that sat on the floor next to him. “Why don’t you lie down for a few minutes? I’m sure that after all the times that we’ve donated our floors, Bossuet will be happy to offer his lap. I can testify to its comfort as a pillow.”
“More than happy,” Bossuet said. He gently helped Enjolras to lie down, and Joly tucked the blanket over him, before joining Combeferre and Courfeyrac. Enjolras watched them whisper together for a moment. Then, he suddenly became aware of someone tracing small circles over his scalp in a rather soothing manner, and realised that Bossuet was stroking his hair. Enjolras looked up at him questioningly, and Bossuet smiled.
“Joly tells me that it helps his headaches,” he explained. “Although I couldn’t testify to its efficacy on genuine illnesses. I can stop, if you like?”
Enjolras shook his head, and closed his eyes, as Bossuet continued. Whether or not it had a palpable effect on his headache, the touch itself was comforting.
A cacophony of cheerful voices on the other side of the door signalled the arrival of the others. Courfeyrac left Joly and Combeferre to their discussions to let them in. Between them, Bahorel, Prouvaire and Feuilly were carrying a box of pamphlets, a crate of wine and a basket of bread: sustenance for minds and bodies. If Feuilly and Prouvaire looked alarmed at the scene before them, then Bahorel greeted the sight of Enjolras’s lying in Bossuet’s lap with the saviour-faire of one who had seen much of the world.
“Bossuet, you are a source of infinite wonder. Until now, I did not know it was possible to stroke another man’s hair covetously,” Bahorel said, placing down his boxes in the corner of the room. “You look as though you are concocting a way to steal Enjolras’s locks.”
Bossuet chuckled, holding up a few strands of hair. “Ah, no. I was just thinking of the locks that once were mine. They were fair too.”
“I cannot imagine you as a seraph with golden tresses,” Jehan said, placing himself at Bossuet’s feet. “Were they as angelic as Enjolras’s curls?”
“In truth, my hair resembled damp straw rather than a halo,” Bossuet confessed. “I have never been lucky.”
“You’re not well, Enjolras?” Feuilly asked. Enjolras nodded and Feuilly twisted his cap in his hands. “Ah. Hmm. Sorry to hear that.”
Courfeyrac was quick to notice Feuilly’s anxious gesture, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think it’s anything terribly serious. Joly has not yet gone into an apoplexy, which indicates that the patient should recover.”
Enjolras, however, suspected that Feuilly wasn’t so much concerned for his health as for the health of their plans. Trust was a delicate business, and it was Enjolras and Feuilly, above all, that the tannery workers trusted. The smallest thing might derail months of hard work, and Enjolras not turning up was not a small thing at all. Whatever this illness was, it had arrived at the worst possible time. His friends had a collective tendency to fuss over him at the first sign of sickness to what Enjolras deemed a quite unnecessary extent. Doubtless, they would try to convince him to stay in bed with dire warnings of the effects of overwork, and protestations about the need to look after one’s health. And yet, Enjolras felt as though it would not have taken much persuasion to get him to remain on the sofa, tucked between Bossuet and a blanket for the rest of the day.
And then Combeferre’s hand was on his shoulder. His friend was crouching next to the sofa, smiling gently, his eyes full of brotherly concern.
“Joly agrees with me that it is probably not diphtheria, but just an inflammation of the tonsils,” Combeferre said. “Accompanied by a fever. Both of which are bad enough to make you feel quite unwell, but are not usually serious, if taken care of. That means bed rest, definitely for today and probably for the rest of the week.”
Enjolras pulled himself up a little, leaning on his elbows. “I can’t stay in bed today. There’s too much at stake.”
“Your health is at stake,” Combeferre replied, wrapping his fingers around Enjolras’s wrist and pressing on his pulse.
“You ought to listen to Combeferre,” Joly called from the other side of the room. “The air around the tanneries is terrible – you’ll only make yourself worse.”
“Both of you agree it’s nothing serious,” Enjolras whispered. “And my not speaking today would be serious indeed. If I don’t turn up now, the other men will be insulted and our alliance will be ruined. It’s imperative that I go, and I’m perfectly well enough to do so. ”
Enjolras watched as his friends exchanged glances which suggested that, for once, they had little faith in his words.
“Does it fall to me to point out that you can barely whisper?” Bahorel said, not unkindly.
“Enjolras,” Courfeyrac said. “You know that we would follow you to the ends of the earth. But others might be more sceptical about pledging their colours to a mast held by a man who looks like he might collapse at any moment.”
“It’s not just that,” Feuilly added. He turned towards Joly, who was retrieving several small phials from his doctor’s bag. “Joly, is this contagious?”
“Quite probably,” Joly said blithely, measuring drops of liquid into a glass. “Most things are, I find. Even when the best textbooks suggest otherwise.”
“You really can’t go then.” Feuilly spoke slowly and cautiously, moving onward like a man who feared treading on unstable ground. “It’s not that I think you don’t know what illness means to these men, Enjolras. I know that you understand that it’s not just a question of a few days in bed, but lost wages and maybe even losing your job. But it’s more than that. There are other groups, who talk to these same men, who simply argue that all the problems can be solved by smashing a few machines and starving out foreign workers until they go home.
“And we’ve got the harder task, because it’s difficult to make some people understand that their problems have causes beyond the immediate – beyond those they can see. That they aren’t just poor and hungry because prices of bread are too high and their bosses don’t pay them enough, but because it suits one small group of people to keep large numbers of the populace poor and hungry. That’s a complex idea. What’s less complex is that the man who told them all of this was sick, and then they all got sick afterwards. If any of them fell ill, it would be the easiest way to lose their trust for good. And it would play straight into the hands of those who tell them they don’t need alliances with students, and that you and your friends are nothing but rich boys playing at politics.”
“Feuilly’s right,” Combeferre said, taking Enjolras’s hand. “You’d be doing more harm than good. Not just to yourself, but to our cause.”
Enjolras looked like he might protest, but then shook his head in defeat.
“I know,” he said softly. “You’re right, of course. Courfeyrac, you must give the speech. You’ve been there a few times; the men know you. And half of the words are yours anyway.”
“The worse half, and I shan’t be half as good as you would have been. But I shall give no quarter to the government with the quarter I have left,” Courfeyrac said warmly. “Feuilly can do most of the talking at any rate. As he’s just proved, he’s far more eloquent than I am.”
Feuilly looked rather embarrassed by this praise, but quietly proud nevertheless.
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” he said. “I’m not sure you’ve ever let anyone else do more of the talking, Courfeyrac.”
“So, that’s decided then.” The relief in Combeferre’s voice was palpable. “Feuilly, the materials for the man who wanted to start an evening school are in my bag. Do you think that you might pass them on with my apologies? Get his address and a convenient time to call, and say that I’ll see him as soon as possible.”
Now it was Enjolras’s turn to press his friend’s arm. Combeferre was not the only one who could give orders.
“You’re not staying. There isn’t any need.”
“Someone has to stay with you. Fevers can be tricky things,” Combeferre replied. “It makes sense for it to be me.” He turned to the rest of his friends “The rest of you have jobs to do, but other than discussing the plans for a school, Joly duplicates my role. He’s quite as good a doctor as I am.”
“That’s kind of you to say, Combeferre.” Joly looked up, holding a pipette in his hand. “But I’d have to be a far better doctor than either of us to handle the number of patients who’ll turn up on my own. I’ll have to turn people away, which won’t look good.”
“Besides, we promised two medical students,” Feuilly added. “And with Enjolras ill…” Feuilly hesitated, clearly trying very hard not to make Enjolras feel guilty for something that was not his fault. “Well, it’s just that we can’t afford it to seem like we don’t mean what we say.”
“I can stay.” Prouvaire offered his services shyly, as though it were a bold assumption that he might be of any use. “I’m no doctor, of course. But if it’s just a case of keeping watch…?” His voice trailed off into a question.
“No, you must go Prouvaire,” Enjolras said, wincing at the pain in his throat. “I could not wish for a kinder companion, but you must speak with the women. You are the best informed about their concerns.”
“Well, we all know that Feuilly must go and Courfeyrac is giving your speech,” Bahorel said. “So that leaves Bossuet and myself.”
“Bossuet wrote the most recent pamphlet on the need to regulate working hours,” Feuilly said. “I know some of the tanners want to talk to him about that.”
“And for goodness sake, you can’t leave me here alone with him,” Bossuet said. He looked down at Enjolras, “Forgive me, Enjolras, I mean no offence. I would gladly keep you company, but inevitably something would go awry, were I the only one to stay.”
“And I think Bahorel ought to be at the meeting,” Courfeyrac added. “He was our introduction, after all. And someone always knows him – usually because he’s got them out of some kind of scrape. It gives us an advantage when trying to make friends.”
“We have successfully ruled out all of us,” Combeferre said, with a sigh.
“I might try Marius?” Courfeyrac said. “He’s a bit dreamy, but no worse than Jehan here.” He reached over and ruffled Prouvaire’s hair. “In any case, I’m sure Marius can follow basic instructions. It’s only for a few hours.”
“It’s the best we’ve got at the moment,” Combeferre said. “Where does he live?”
“Place called the Gorbeau House; it’s in the Marche-aux-Chevaux,” Courfeyrac replied.
“That won’t work, then,” Feuilly said. “It’s too far. Whoever went to fetch him wouldn’t be back in time. In fact,” he reached over and drew Courfeyrac’s watch out of his pocket. “We have to leave in the next quarter of an hour, or we’ll be late.”
“There is someone else.” Joly was, by now, packing things back into his bag, stopping every few moments to stir the contents of the glass. “Grantaire’s rooms aren’t far. He lives two streets away, opposite the Musain.”
“Grantaire?” Courfeyrac said. “It’s a suggestion, I suppose.”
Combeferre’s frown suggested that he remained unconvinced.
“He’s a good sort, Combeferre,” Bossuet said. “And he’s been coming to meetings for as long as any of the rest of us. We all trust him.”
“You mean he’s been drinking at our meetings,” Bahorel said, laughing. “Actually, for what it’s worth, I agree with Bossuet and Joly. I think he’ll do a good job. Enjolras is the only person that Grantaire is keen to please.”
Wondering what Bahorel meant by the last comment, and why Prouvaire had pinched his leg for making it, Enjolras spoke rather tersely. “Is anyone going to ask me what I think about this or will you all continue talking over me as if I were a child?”
Combeferre looked chastised at this, making Enjolras feel guilty for snapping. “I’m sorry, Enjolras. Of course, we want your opinion.”
Enjolras sighed. “If it means that you all go to the rally, I would have King Charles himself stay with me. Go and fetch Grantaire.”
“I’ll go,” Bossuet offered, sitting Enjolras upright. “He’ll answer the door to me, however hungover he is.”
Courfeyrac leant down and offered his arm to Enjolras. “Come on, my friend. You can have my bed to rest in while we’re gone. It’s more comfortable than the sofa at any rate.”
Accompanied by a chorus of well wishes from his friends, Courfeyrac led Enjolras to his bedroom, apologising profusely for the clothes and books that were strewn about the place. Combeferre and Joly followed them in, the former helping Enjolras out of his jacket and boots, and the latter hovering by the bedside, holding a glass in one hand, and a bottle and a thin stick in the other.
“I wonder if we oughtn’t to rearrange the bed,” Joly mused, as Combeferre helped Enjolras under the covers. “It looks to me to be east-west rather than north-south.”
“He’s not going to be in there for more than a few hours, Joly. I’m sure the effect of the poles will be negligible,” Courfeyrac said, folding Enjolras’s jacket with a care that he clearly did not take with his own clothing.
Once Combeferre had finished tucking the blankets over Enjolras, Joly presented him with the glass, which was filled with a cloudy liquid.
“Drink this,” he said. “It should lower your fever.”
“It’s necessary?” Enjolras said, although his trembling hands as good as answered his question.
“If you don’t want us to bleed you,” Joly said, looking as though he dreaded the prospect as much as anyone. Enjolras took the glass in unsteady fingers and drained it. He grimaced as he handed the empty vessel back to Joly, who added, “Of course, we might have to bleed you anyway.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that, Joly,” Combeferre said. He smiled sympathetically at Enjolras. “Was that the taste or the pain in your throat?”
“Both,” Enjolras replied. “What’s in the bottle?”
“Silver nitrate solution, to treat the inflammation in your throat,” Joly said, handing the bottle to Combeferre. “I’ll leave this to the two of you; I’m sure the others probably need help organising the supplies.”
Joly slipped out of the room, and Combeferre and Courfeyrac perched themselves on the side of the bed.
“Perhaps it’s lucky that you fell ill today, after all,” Courfeyrac said. He was sitting at the head of the bed, and wrapped his arm around Enjolras. “It looked as though Joly had brought almost a whole pharmacy with him in preparation for running the clinic today.”
“I’m not altogether sure he doesn’t carry most of those medicines with him every day,” Combeferre added, examining the label of the bottle.
Courfeyrac followed his gaze. “Why did Joly want you to do… whatever it is that you’re going to do?”
“Oh, he’s made it sound worse that it is, of course. I have to apply the silver nitrate to your throat,” Combeferre said to Enjolras, holding up the bottle and the thin stick, which – Enjolras could now see – had some kind of gauze wrapped around one end. “It’s a little delicate, and probably shan’t be very comfortable for you, I’m afraid.”
Enjolras shrugged. His throat couldn’t feel any worse that it did.
“Courfeyrac, might you hold that oil lamp so I can see what I’m doing?”
Courfeyrac slid on to the bed a little further, so that Enjolras could sit up against him, and the arm wrapped around him becoming almost protective. In his other hand, he held the oil lamp, shifting the angle until Combeferre said it was right. Enjolras could tell that Combeferre was trying to be gentle, as he dabbed the solution on to Enjolras’s throat. Nevertheless it was still painful; even opening his mouth made his throat ache, and the touch of the gauze against it made tears spring to his eyes. His friends must have noticed, because Combeferre frowned apologetically, and Courfeyrac made soft, comforting hushing noises as he stroked his hand up and down Enjolras’s arm.
“Right, all done,” Combeferre said finally, disposing of the stick and replacing the cap on the bottle. “I’ll do the same this evening – sorry, I know it’s awful. But hopefully, it will bring the swelling down and make it easier to swallow.”
Enjolras nodded, his throat hurting too much to even think of replying properly.
“He’s shivering, Combeferre,” Courfeyrac said, peering at Enjolras anxiously. “Should I fetch more blankets?”
Combeferre shook his head. “That’s the fever. I’d rather keep you cool – that is, if you can bear it?” Another nod. “Especially as I want to light the fire. But Courfeyrac, you might go and fetch some water? Then Grantaire can at least make tea for you, Enjolras, while we’re gone.”
“Of course,” Courfeyrac said, unravelling himself from Enjolras and placing a quick kiss on his forehead. “Feel better soon.”
Combeferre busied himself with arranging kindling, and Enjolras nestled down beneath the blankets.
“You are all right with Grantaire coming, aren’t you?” Combeferre asked, feeding a burning taper into the centre of the fire. “I know he’s not exactly restful company for you.”
“It’s fine,” Enjolras whispered.
“It’s not too late for me to stay.”
“I would get less rest knowing that you were not with the others,” Enjolras said, speaking nothing but the truth. Before Combeferre could reply, there was a knock at the bedroom door, and Courfeyrac came in once again, carrying a kettle and accompanied by Grantaire.
Grantaire almost looked worse than Enjolras. Perhaps it was the early hour. Grantaire usually compensated in dandyism for what he lacked in good looks. But today, he appeared as though he had been dragged from his bed, not having had the chance to occupy it for very long, and doing so in last night’s clothes. His complexion was more than usually sallow, and his unruly black curls were tangled and sticking up at odd angles. And when he caught sight of Enjolras, it took him a few seconds to school his features into their usual sardonic grin.
“So,” he said, leaning against the door frame. “It seems that marble can burn after all.”
“We’re grateful for you coming, Grantaire,” Courfeyrac said, helping Combeferre to hang the kettle over the fire. “Especially on a Sunday, at an hour when only decent people are out of their beds.”
“At first I thought I must still be dreaming,” Grantaire drawled, nodding in agreement. “It all seemed so improbable. Our Eagle of Meaux, not only out of bed before noon, but without Joly flapping his ailes alongside him, and telling me that I was required. I, who make the effort to embody our paper-age and be entirely disposable am now called upon to be leant upon, and by none other than Enjolras himself. Ought I to be flattered?”
“Necessity compelled it,” Enjolras whispered. “You alone had no other task to do.” He had meant the phrase to sound, if not forceful, then at least firm. But his swollen throat crushed in into a thick rasp, as though his mouth was no longer able to form words, and each syllable rang painfully inside his own skull.
“I see illness has robbed you of your honeyed speeches,” Grantaire said. “Plucked the golden apples of discord that you mean to toss into Paris. You must tell me – for I enjoy a good joke as much as the next fellow – has Joly diagnosed you with diphtheria, or consumption?”
“Neither, but if you’re going to make fun of my diagnoses, then I shan’t come doctoring you next time you’re beset by hypos.” Joly’s voice was stern, but when he peered around the door moments later, his eyes were twinkling. “Enjolras has an inflammation of the throat, which doubtless we shall all be sharing by tomorrow. My tongue already looks off-colour.”
“Your tongue is fine, Jolllly – although we might hope that it’s contagious, as it would be the only thing that could silence Grantaire,” Bossuet said, joining Joly. “Apologies Combeferre, Courfeyrac, but Feuilly says that we really must leave now. Come on, Joly,” he added, bustling his friend towards the staircase, both of them waving at Enjolras.
“Certainly.” Combeferre gave the fire one final jolt with the poker and stood up, brushing the ash off his jacket. “Grantaire, Enjolras needs absolute rest, which means quiet above all. If you want to be useful, you can make tea.”
“In the caddy on the mantelpiece,” Courfeyrac supplied, throwing smiles at Grantaire and Enjolras.
Combeferre continued. “The most important thing is keep a close eye on his temperature. If you have any concerns send a gamin for me at once – we’ll be at the tanneries in the Rue Champ de l’Alouette.”
Grantaire looked as though he were reaching for a clever retort to Combeferre’s short lecture, but, in the end, confined himself to a slightly sullen nod. Perhaps it was Combeferre’s tone that kept him quiet, or perhaps it was simply that teasing Combeferre was less fun than riling Enjolras.
Combeferre placed his hand on Enjolras’s forehead and frowned. Apparently whatever Joly had given Enjolras was taking its time to work.
“Go,” Enjolras whispered. He could hear the footsteps of the others heading down the stairs. “You’ll be left behind otherwise.”
“We shan’t be long,” Combeferre promised.
“You’ll be as long as it takes,” Enjolras said, wincing as his voice cracked on the final syllable.
“Of course.” This was Courfeyrac, with one hand on Combeferre’s shoulder.
Combeferre nodded. He looked as though he wanted to embrace Enjolras, but contented himself with squeezing his shoulder. Then, along with Courfeyrac, he left the room, closing the door behind them.
Their footsteps trickled down the staircase until they were no longer audible, leaving a strange silence in Courfeyrac’s rooms, and Grantaire still standing by the door.
For the first time that Enjolras could remember, Grantaire - who was equally at home at the balls at Sceaux, and in the most degenerate of Paris cafes – looked entirely out of place. Grantaire must have realised what an awkward sight he made, because he jerked his shoulders and then folded himself into the chair in the corner of the room, but made no effort to bring it closer to the bed. Nevertheless, his eyes remained fixed on Enjolras.
“You don’t have to watch me like a hawk.” Enjolras’s voice scraped like a knife dragging across a ceramic plate.
“That’s not what Combeferre said,” Grantaire replied, his lip curling in a smirk.
“Combeferre is-” Enjolras stopped himself before he said something that was both uncharitable and untrue. He tried to clear his throat, which was a mistake because it hurt and when he spoke again his voice was even more strangled than before. “Combeferre worries.”
Grantaire still smirked, but his eyes were not quite so dulled with lassitude as they habitually appeared. He chewed on one of his fingernails absent-mindedly.
“I tell you, Enjolras, that you ought not to talk,” he said. “And you know that I must be sincere in my suggestions. I would never ask you were I not concerned you might ruin that voice of your for good, for I could hear you talk forever.” His voice dripped a strange cadence. It was irony, probably. Except, not quite.
“Ironic, coming from one who cannot help but speak. Does it feel strange to tell others to be silent for a change?”
The words slipped out before Enjolras had properly considered them; an instinctive repost, provoked by the confusion that Grantaire always seemed to spark in his otherwise ordered thoughts. Normally, he could keep such verbal blows in check, push whatever emotions Grantaire stirred to a compartment of his mind to be dealt with when he was calmer. But now he was feverish, and everything felt far too close to the surface, in danger of spilling over, and Combeferre was not here to gently steer him back to smoother waters.
Enjolras thought about apologising, but then saw that Grantaire was grinning broadly, revealing a set of crooked, chipped teeth.
“It’s amusing, actually, to turn the tables,” he said. “Perhaps I ought to take a vow of silence, and thus prove that our Eagle and his doctor are not the only ones who can imitate monks. And yourself, of course, with your vow of chastity – the vestal virgin who keeps alive the flame of Republican fervour, even as it consumes everything until there’s nothing left but ash.”
Enjolras felt his cheeks burning. It was the fever, he told himself, as a shiver ran through his shoulders. Surely, whatever Joly gave him ought to have taken effect by now. He pulled the blankets closer around his body, and turned over in the bed, so that he faced the wall instead of Grantaire.
“I should sleep,” he muttered into Courfeyrac’s pillow. “You need not stay in here.”
Enjolras closed his eyes, but did not hear Grantaire reply or stir. There was only the sound of the kettle gently rising to a boil. Then it whistled, screeched rather, and there were footsteps, followed by the clatter of the fireguard and the clanking of metal, and the gentler mumblings of water being poured. After that, it was quiet once more.
Sleep was not forthcoming. Enjolras’s checks prickled and burnt, whilst the rest of his body trembled with uncontrollable shivers, galvanized currents of ice that ran over his flesh no matter how tightly he hugged the blankets around himself. Every time he swallowed it was like razor blades against his throat, and his head throbbed as though his heart had somehow taken up residence in his skull and was pounding behind his eyes.
Then, there was a cool hand pressing against his forehead and Enjolras opened his eyes.
Grantaire noticed at once and sat down on the bed, not removing his hand. The weight on the mattress, the solid presence of another human body was not unwelcome. And Grantaire’s palm was soothing, although not the steady, practiced touch that Combeferre pressed upon him at the first sign of illness, or Joly’s keenly sensitive hands, or even Courfeyrac’s comforting caresses. Grantaire’s fingers quivered slightly, as though he were feverish too.
“You’re not asleep,” he said.
Enjolras shook his head.
“Can’t,” he said, voice barely more than a breath.
“That’ll be the fever. I hadn’t realised quite…” Grantaire swallowed. “I’ve made tea, if you want it. Let no one accuse me of being remiss in my duties.” He removed his hand from Enjolras’s forehead and held out the cup. “Well?”
Enjolras nodded, and sat himself up a little, before taking the cup from Grantaire, their two trembling hands meeting.
“You’re not ill too?” Enjolras asked, staring at Grantaire’s hand.
“Merely lacking,” Grantaire replied, folding Enjolras’s other hand around the cup to stop it from shaking quite so badly. “You tremble with fever because you have too much blood. Perhaps I tremble because I have too little. It makes a man craven. So I replace it with another liquid. I find courage in a wine bottle and transubstantiate my own blood from it. When one has had sufficient practice, as I have, it takes little work to achieve the desired result.”
Even more than usual, Enjolras felt that he understood only half of anything that Grantaire said. The words, of course, made perfect sense – and were logical, even, in their own strange way. But there was always something running beneath them, hidden meanings that Enjolras could only catch sight of in the very moment that they disappeared.
Grantaire stood up. “I’ve something that might help you. I’ll be a moment.”
When he returned, Enjolras was lying down again with his eyes closed, an almost full mug of tea on the bedside table. He sipped at the tea, but it hurt to swallow, the warm liquid catching on his throat so that each mouthful felt like he might choke. And it seemed as though anything other than lying still made his head pound awfully.
Grantaire moved so quietly across the room that Enjolras only knew he was present when the familiar weight rested again on the mattress, and something cold and damp was gently lowered onto his forehead, covering his closed eyes and blocking out the last of the light. Then there was a scent, darkly spiced but oddly familiar. He bit his lip, trying to trace it.
“Clove oil.” Grantaire’s voice was soft and, for once, without its sardonic lilt.
“Where did you find…?”
“I brought it. L’Aigle was clucking about your symptoms whilst he waited for me to dress, and I thought that it might help. Joly gave it to me when I had toothache, and then spent an hour lecturing me on all its other uses – taking advantage, no doubt, of my inability to tell him to shut up. It is supposed to lower fevers, and I find that it aids sleep.” He paused for a moment, oddly uncertain, as though he had said more than he meant to. “I can’t promise it will work.”
“Thank you, in any case.”
“Is there anything else I can do?” Grantaire asked.
Enjolras hesitated. There was something that he wanted; some favour Grantaire could perform. But it seemed a childish request – although one which Enjolras would have had no qualms about making of Combeferre, Courfeyrac, or any of the others. Grantaire, however, had a way of twisting Enjolras’s words, and draining the life from them, like sprinkling salt on freshly tilled fields. And yet, Grantaire was not unfeeling or uncaring. He was rude to women, admittedly, but generous with his friends. He had kept the secrets of the ABC thus far.
And though it was not, Enjolras thought, a rational request, neither was it rational to deny oneself something which would be beneficial through pride alone.
Grantaire must have noticed his indecision, because he laughed dryly, before saying, “You want me to leave. Well, I can’t do that. I shall not abandon my post, however much you desire it. Were you to burn so brightly that you lit your own funeral pyre, your lieutenants would offer me no mercy. I would not want to face their wrath. And as I said, I am craven. I lack blood.”
“No, I don’t want you to leave.” Enjolras swallowed, grimacing at the pain.
“You desire my company? You astound me.”
“That is, your presence does not upset me.”
“Ah, of course.” There might have been something bitter in Grantaire’s reply, but Enjolras could not see his face to be sure. Perhaps he had misheard.
“What is it that you want, Enjolras?” Grantaire asked, again. “I would help you in any way I can.”
“Earlier, Bossuet, he…” There was no delicate way to put this, no subtle euphemism. In fact, there were no words at all. Enjolras pushed the cloth back from his eyes, and reached for Grantaire’s hand, burying Grantaire’s fingers within his own golden curls. “It dulls the pain.”
He felt Grantaire’s hand tense, and for a moment Enjolras thought he was going to refuse. But then there it was; the gentle pressure of trembling fingers tracing light circles across his scalp. Enjolras exhaled.
Grantaire was quiet for a moment, then he began to speak once more.
“You do not frequent the Café Racine, I think. It smells like a plague pit, and is full of wastrels, and drunks – and so I find myself in good company whenever I go there. You would find it tiresome, having slim patience for insouciance and intoxication, except in those you love and those whose hearts you know to be true to your cause, and for them you would forgive anything – but I drift from my subject, like the loafer I am. The Café Racine. There is a group of students who meet there on a Friday and discuss Fourier when they pretend to be discussing fashion. The rest of the customers are stupid and don’t notice, but I am stupid and do notice. There are five of them, I think, and last week…”
Almost without realising, Enjolras’s leant his head into Grantaire’s lap. His voice was soft and low, and seemed to stroke against Enjolras’s aching head, soothing where every other sound bruised it. Grantaire spoke in strange rhythms, which dulled his senses like laudanum or a lullaby, so that the bed seemed to rock beneath Enjolras. The solidity of the mattress seemed to fade from beneath him, replaced by that sublime sense of falling – of plunging down into an abyss that always came just as Enjolras was drifting towards sleep.
“… you don’t want to go yourself, of course. Bahorel is probably the man for this. He would not look out of place amongst its brawlers; they are made of the same clay as him…”
Normally, Enjolras’s body would fight it the sensation of falling, jerk itself awake and reaffirm that something permanent was beneath it. But with Grantaire’s hand steadying him, reminding him that he had not fallen off the edge of the world – not yet – Enjolras fell asleep.
Enjolras woke with Grantaire’s name on his lips and the vague thought that he needed to send Bahorel to the Café Racine. But, when his eyes blinked open, it was Combeferre who was peering back at him, sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed with a book folded in his lap. And he was lying on top of someone else. Not Grantaire, he realised as he glanced upwards, but Courfeyrac.
“Sleeping beauty wakes,” Courfeyrac said, smiling. “How are you feeling?”
“A little better.” Enjolras’s voice actually sounded worse – from having been asleep, no doubt – and the words still cut like blunt blades across his throat. But his cheeks were no longer burning, and his headache had dulled.
Combeferre put down his book and clambered forward on the bed, long limbs ungainly in the confined space and on the shifting blankets. He placed his hand on Enjolras’s forehead.
“Not quite so warm,” he pronounced, looking more than a little relieved. “I’ll take you home once you’re a little more awake.”
Enjolras nodded. “How was the meeting?”
Combeferre rolled his eyes, as if to say that was the last thing that Enjolras should be worrying about, and Courfeyrac began to laugh.
“I told you he would ask,” he said to Combeferre, shaking his head.
“It was a great success,” Combeferre said. “Feuilly and Prouvaire are still there now, discussing plans for setting up a dame school with one of the women who can read and write. And Bossuet is having lunch with the leader of the tannery workers’ labour organization who is considering how they might put pressure on their contractors for better working conditions… ”
“No, I didn’t know about this either,” Courfeyrac added, seeing Enjolras’s surprised face “Labour unions are highly illegal, of course and that they trusted us enough to tell us says something. Oh, and Bahorel is still there too, although I can’t tell you what he’s up to, only that it involved a lot of cheering and what sounded like someone running a book, from which all profits were to go towards establishing a journal for the workers.”
“Aside from treating the usual complaints, Joly and I gave small pox vaccines to the children,” Combeferre continued. “And examined several expectant mothers. And more than half the leather-workers came to listen to the speeches, and some of their wives too. Courfeyrac spoke magnificently.”
“Feuilly did most of it,” Courfeyrac said. “Most importantly, everyone was very concerned about you. Verron, is it? Glovemaker - tall man, red beard, claims to have been there when Desmoulins jumped on the table outside the Café du Foy?” Enjolras nodded. “He was convinced you must be at death’s door, and implored us to make sure that you guarded your health, because the people of Paris needed you around for many years to come.”
Enjolras smiled, then added. “Is Grantaire still here? I ought to thank him for staying so long.”
Courfeyrac shook his head. “Joly is buying him dinner as a show of gratitude. You can thank him at the next meeting – when your voice is restored enough to speak to him properly. Oh, and he said to give you this.” Courfeyrac reached over to fetch something from the bedside table; a very small bottle, half-full with an ochre-coloured liquid.
“What’s that?” Combeferre took the bottle from Courfeyrac, opened its lid and smelt the contents. “Clove oil. Quite clever, really. I wonder how Grantaire knew – Ah, well, it’s mentioned in medieval texts, and for all he claims not to be, he’s as well read as any of us.”
“He said -” Enjolras began, before thinking better of it. Some things were not meant to be shared. “It helped my headache,” he said.
“Apparently, we all underestimated Grantaire’s nursing abilities,” Courfeyrac said lightly. “You were a little restless when we came back, and he suggested that I tried massaging your head. It did the trick straight away – but he wouldn’t say how he knew.”
“He wasn’t here when you came in?” Enjolras asked, confused.
“What an odd question – of course he was here, in that chair.” Courfeyrac pointed to the chair by the desk. “Reading one of my novels, and he’s moved my bookmark, the devil, and so I’ve lost my place. Anyway, you’re quite the demanding patient you know. I tried to stop petting you and you would insist on stirring so. Combeferre and I had to take turns to make sure you didn’t wake up. At least now we know how to pacify you when your temper gets too much. One of us should stand behind you at all times in our meetings, to play with your curls.”
Enjolras felt himself blushing, and was grateful when Combeferre intervened.
“Don’t tease him, Courfeyrac,” he said. “I’m only glad Grantaire managed to get you to sleep. I would put up with his endless rambling for a decade in return for that. Now, feeling awake enough to try the journey home?”
Two days later, Enjolras finally convinced Combeferre that he could be left unsupervised, promising to do nothing more strenuous that read the newspapers whilst lying in bed.
He allowed two minutes after Combeferre left, just to be perfectly sure Combeferre wasn’t loitering outside with an ear to the door, before getting out of bed, seating himself at his desk and unscrewing the lid of his inkwell.
Enjolras stopped writing. For what, exactly, was he thanking Grantaire? For the information on the Café Racine, which Bahorel was, indeed, visiting that very Friday? For leading Enjolras towards sleep? Or for not saying a word about it afterwards? And if it was the latter – if he was thanking Grantaire for keeping silent – it would hardly do to write it down where anyone else might read it. But how, then, to say what he meant?
Enjolras scanned the room, looking for inspiration, his eyes resting at last on the bookshelf – although he was not sure why. Until, finally, they caught sight of one particular volume; a commentary on Fourier’s Treatise on Agriculture that was still waiting to be read.
It would be enough to say, I listened and I am grateful.
Enjolras looked back at the note, and added one more line.
From one who has been learning the value of silence.
Enjolras slipped the note inside the cover of the book. Then he wrapped the whole thing in a sheet of old newspaper, and scribbled a name and address on the exterior. Then, putting his overcoat on over his nightshirt, he descended to the street, where he pressed twenty sous into the hand of the first gamin that passed, and asked him to deliver the package to the building opposite the Café Musain.