Actions

Work Header

A previous near-miss with history

Work Text:

"Until next week!" Marius called over his shoulder, as the shop door swung shut behind him. On the street, he tucked his portfolio under his arm, still marveling.

Twenty francs, and the promise to pass his name on. He curled his left hand around the coins in his pocket, still wondering at their solidity. Amazing what a difference it made, to be paid for his own words instead of those he had borrowed.

Why, he thought, with a self-conscious little flutter, perhaps one day he would have his own entry in the encyclopaedia, and some poor German or English student would have the joy of sitting in a garret somewhere and translating a sentence that began, "In 1830, M. Pontmercy began his career with the sale of his first essay."

It was a delicious thought. Marius hugged his portfolio tighter to his chest, and turned left. July was coming on unseasonably warm, and he took the long way around in order to avoid the worst of the reek that hung around the Rue de Bernardin.

The streets were especially crowded today, making the walk even hotter and less salubrious. He made an absent face of apology at a scruffy man in a smock whom he jostled, and threaded through a dense and muttering crowd clustering around a newsstand. The strip of sunlight that filtered down to the street burned miserably hot. With twenty francs he could afford to buy summer linen. But surely there were less frivolous uses for the money. He could endure wearing winter's coat in summer; surely he could wait out one heatwave.

A rock flew over his head and clattered off a shutter, and he ducked, instinctively, late.

He rounded the corner into Rue des Fossés. Here Courfeyrac, Bossuet, and another, thin-faced student whom Marius vaguely thought he ought to recognize, were standing outside a little cafe, their heads clustered closely together as they argued in tight undertones.

" -- as much powder as we can get our hands on," Bossuet was saying as Marius approached, "but our contact insists -- "

"-- can't apply to my brother." That was Courfeyrac. "I've already taken a quarter's advance, and if I ask for more he'll ask why."

"Well, our friend won't take an IOU," said the third student, "not even in the name of the rev -- "

But at that point Courfeyrac caught sight of Marius, and swung around with a smile. "Oh, Marius! Coming back from the offices, I see."

"Just so," Marius said, half-lifting his portfolio as evidence. "Hello Bossuet, hello -- " he essayed a guess -- "Saussure."

He was probably correct, because the student straightened up and said, grudgingly, "Pontmercy."

Courfeyrac asked Marius, "How's Magimel's encyclopaedia treating you? Got you on to translating English naturalists, I hear, all tropical crabs and insects and other things with far too many legs. I fear for your education, my friend, now that you are spending all of your time in the company of men who find number more stimulating than shapeliness when it comes to legs."

"Oh no, the encyclopaedia's splendid," Marius said, and then in a warm rush, "but, listen, even better than that, I've been selling essays."

"Essays!" said Courfeyrac. "Oh, my dear friend, do enlighten us. Essays about what? About tropical insects? About temperate insects? Have you turned taxonomist? I could nominate several government ministers, if you're looking for subjects for dissection. God knows any honest taxonomist would class them as cockroaches, could they only sign their names to the classification."

"About, about poetry," Marius said, conscious that he was flushing. "M. Magimel was talking about Chateaubriand, so I showed him the pages in my notebook, you know, the ones I was telling you about -- about 'Le Dernier Abencérage', and Greece -- and he liked the phrasing so much that I gave him what I've been writing about Gil Blas. He called it well-argued and said he'd pass it on to M. de Neufchateau! And, would you believe it, he purchased my Chateaubriand essay for 20 francs!"

"Courfeyrac --" Saussure started, but Bossuet slung an arm around his shoulders and said, "Now, patience; time has turned even Chateaubriand's white coat grey."

Meanwhile Courfeyrac said to Marius, "Did he so! Well, of all the dreamy fellows I know, you are the champion in your weight class, so I am not surprised you are making a living at it. Practice makes perfect! I say, you should come talk to Prouvaire about your essays, he'd love to hear all about it."

"Mmm," said Marius, with muddy, uncharitable reluctance. Prouvaire carelessly threw out in conversation the kind of lines that Marius had to stay up late at night to assemble painstakingly from pieces, and glowed with purpose besides; talking to him left Marius feeling wan and clumsy. Marius touched the coins in his pocket again, thinking, this, this is mine, I earned this with the fruit of my own thought; and said, impulsively, "But, Bossuet, Courfeyrac, forgive me, I couldn't help overhearing -- were you in need of money?"

Bossuet, caught out in a rare moment without irony, blinked. Saussure elbowed Courfeyrac in the ribs.

"Well," Courfeyrac allowed slowly, "it is true we were discussing a -- situation that has found us in some immediate need of funds."

"I can lend you some," Marius said immediately. He had lost count of how many times he had borrowed money from Courfeyrac, and it was a great pleasure to be able to stand in the other position. With grand munificence, he said, "How much do you require? I can lend you sixty."

Bossuet said, "Why, you are out of fashion, my friend -- you make more free with the profits of your words than you do with the words themselves. To be au fait you should render it the other way around."

"Sixty francs," said Courfeyrac, and his eyebrows inched up ever so slightly. He studied Marius gravely for a moment, and Marius shifted his weight backward, suddenly concerned that he had been somehow out of order in making his offer; and then Courfeyrac grinned broadly and embraced him. "Sixty francs will make the difference. I am in your debt twice over, once for the money and twice for your friendship in lending it. Saussure, find our esteemed friend and tell him we have secured funds and will bring them presently."

Saussure took off at once, shouldering his way through the crowd with rude efficiency, and as Marius watched him go, he recollected himself enough to become alarmed about just what kind of emergencies might require an immediate source of funds. He asked hastily, "No one is taken ill, I hope?"

"Only Joly," Bossuet said, "and mostly of anticipation."

Courfeyrac's smile managed to be both secretive and disarming. "We are investing in a speculation. All perfectly moral, have no fear! And the scheme's sound as any scheme can be. But we must place our bids now if we want to turn the game. Can you wait until next quarter-day for repayment?"

Marius averred that he could, and Courfeyrac came with him to his apartment to pick up the balance of the sixty francs.

"I am obliged to you," Courfeyrac said once more, when he folded the bills into his pocket. He said it with quiet sincerity, and here in the simpler, stiller space of his quarters, Marius found it easier to simply straighten his shoulders and smile back.

"It is my true pleasure, as a friend. Would you like to meet for dinner tomorrow?"

"Marius, I am dreadfully sorry, but I have just filled my calendar for the week! Let us dine in August, and until then, stay indoors -- the city is too hot for the cut of your coat!" Courfeyrac laughed, a breathless delighted laugh that lit up his whole face, and clapped Marius' shoulder in farewell, before plunging down the stairs.

"Good luck with your speculation!" Marius called after him, but he was already gone.

But the next day there was a sudden outbreak of violence in the streets, as Marius found when he tried to go out for dinner; it went on for much of the following week, and gathered for itself the name of revolution as snowfall gathers the name of avalanche. Marius spent those days in a cocoon of uncertainty and newspapers, and filled a notebook with estates and kings and emperors considered backwards and forwards. He cooked for himself that week, and, if he thought about it, was vaguely sorry that Courfeyrac's social engagements must have fallen through, though if anyone would know which restaurants would still be open, it would be Courfeyrac. He didn't see Courfeyrac again until September, when the heat had finally broken. Marius was heading down the Rue Saint-Jacques for dinner when Courfeyrac hailed him.

"Marius! I was just coming to call on you. I have brought your sixty francs. Let us have dinner."

They settled in at Rousseau's, and after Courfeyrac had called for soup, Marius inquired, "Did your speculation succeed, then?"

"Ah," Courfeyrac said, and scratched his nose; "well, about that, it came off brilliantly. But a set of utter bastards were onto it as well, and they stepped in at the last moment and made off with everything we'd won."

"I hope you weren't too badly put out-of-pocket!"

Courfeyrac smiled sourly. "Oh, at the end of the day I came out richer by a single louis. In fact, here." He tossed a louis to Marius. "Consider it interest," he said, "and may it bring you better cheer than it brings me."

"Oh, I couldn't," Marius said immediately and tried to hand it back, but Courfeyrac waved him off.

"You can buy dinner, if you insist." Courfeyrac settled back with the kind of easy smile that meant there would be no use in arguing, and raised his arm for wine.

"Well," Marius said when their glasses were filled, "well, er, may your next speculation come off better."

"Ha. I'll drink to that," said Courfeyrac, "and to France. Cheers!"

Marius, breaking his bread in company, was suddenly conscious of how long it had been since he had last seen Courfeyrac. Courfeyrac drank off the toast, still dissatisfied, and Marius, full of fellow feeling, wanted to change the topic to something more cheerful, something to make Courfeyrac smile. He said, diffidently, "So -- so the revolution came off. You must be very pleased about that."

Courfeyrac choked on his wine. He put his glass down, coughing, and his coughs turned into laughter, of a sharp and biting kind.

"Marius," he said, when he looked up: "if I hadn't already made you pay for dinner, for that, I would make you buy all the wine tonight."

Marius, baffled, took refuge in dignity. He drew himself up, lifting his chin stiffly over the fold of his cravat. "I see I have offended you. I can assure you I had no such intent."

Courfeyrac propped his chin on his hand and gave Marius a long look that was rueful and thoughtful and terribly, infinitely, fond.

"Marius," he said, "it's been a long time since you came to the Café Musain."

"I -- well," Marius said, and blinked. "Yes?"

"Come back with me tomorrow," Courfeyrac invited, with a brilliant and disarming smile.

"Well -- if you insist -- " Marius said.

"I do," said Courfeyrac. He grinned, and called for more wine, and Marius, hesitant, drank.