Mine Eye and Heart Are at a Mortal War
Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war / How to divide the conquest of thy sight / . . . mine eye’s due is thy outward part / And my heart’s right thy inward love of heart. - William Shakespeare
“The rain picked up. It’s nothing.” But Feuilly was soaked - he knew he was dripping on the threshold and didn’t dare step over only to drip on the rugs and upholstery, though he was loath to return to his flat, where the roof would begin its slow leak at any moment.
“Come in. I’ll make coffee.”
The offer was too much for his sodden nerves. “I only came up to tell you I’m not staying.”
“You’ll catch cold if you go back out there. Come in, dry off. At the very least.” Combeferre put his hand to Feuilly’s shoulder to better beckon him inside, the squelch of wet wool audible to them both. “That’s it - we’ve got to get you out of those clothes.”
“I am absolutely not staying for that,” Feuilly told him firmly.
“Don’t be a fool,” Combeferre ordered him dryly. “That isn’t what I’m asking for and you know it. But if we hang these by the stove, they might actually dry out by morning, while that would not be the case if you went home, correct?”
“And how much drying can be done in a couple of hours?”
“You could stay the night.”
“Absolutely not.” He had come for conversation, and he was not about to be manoeuvred into buggery.
“For God’s sake, will you come in and drink some coffee instead of going directly back out into a hurricane?” Combeferre finally snapped.
With a slightly embarrassed smile, Feuilly stepped squelching across the threshold. He did not particularly want to go back into the rainstorm when he could already feel the warmth of Combeferre’s stove. Combeferre took his hat from off his head and hung it for him while Feuilly bent to remove his boots before approaching the beautiful Turkish carpet that covered most of the floor.
“Let me get you a towel.”
“I’m fine,” Feuilly insisted mechanically, out of habit, though he tried to surreptitiously wring out his coat in the hall before closing the door. It was rather nice to have one sticky piece removed, but he was soaked to the skin.
Combeferre returned from the bedroom with a towel but quickly ended up pushing him in that direction. “You can borrow some clothes. It’s not as if you haven’t before.”
There was a difference between borrowing evening dress partly gleaned from Courfeyrac, who was closer to his height, and having Combeferre light a candle and start rummaging through his wardrobe, but Feuilly did not have the energy to refuse too strongly. Especially since Combeferre made no moves toward his person but merely dropped a shirt and a pair of trousers on the bed, next to the towel, and closed the door so he could change in private.
Feuilly felt ridiculous, rolling up the trouser legs so he could walk, but he was much more comfortable in dry clothes. Returning to the sitting room, he found that Combeferre had put a kettle on to boil. “Thank you. What should I do with these?” He still had his own wet clothes in one hand, the wet towel in the other, and he was afraid to come anywhere near the very nice carpet that certainly belonged to Combeferre’s rich family rather than the landlord. But Combeferre was staring at him rather than responding. “I know I’m hardly dressed, but you’ve seen me in just a shirt and trousers before. Oh, Christ, don’t make this awkward.”
“I don’t know that I ever recognised how handsome you are,” Combeferre finally replied softly. Ignoring the dripping burden, he came so close that Feuilly was suddenly afraid to breathe, fearing to break whatever moment was about to happen, and, with infinite tenderness, pushed a long wet curl out of Feuilly’s face, tucking it behind his ear but letting it flow through his fingers to the very end. Only then did Feuilly realise that he had never yet permitted Combeferre to see his hair loose. “Like an Italian archangel.”
But the setting was ludicrous, and Feuilly found himself laughing. “That’s as much as saying I look like a girl. What do I do with these?” he asked again, indicating his soggy burdens.
Combeferre flushed but helped him lay everything out to dry. “I don’t mean insipid androgynous figures. I mean Michelangelo would have loved you.” Indeed, a few years ago, it might have been tempting to get Feuilly into skirts as a lark, just to see, but the set of his jaw, not to mention his carefully trimmed whiskers, now made the very idea seem ridiculous.
“As a model, or as more?”
“I think only a model now. Ten years ago, perhaps, when you were still a beardless youth on the Greek model, then perhaps he would have had you for his David and his Jonathan.”
“David met Jonathan after he slew Goliath,” Feuilly told him, rather surprised that Combeferre of all people would need correcting.
“Of course,” Combeferre replied, his brow wrinkled in confusion.
“Ten years ago, I was still a child. How old do you think I am?” Feuilly asked, unsure if he were amused or offended.
Combeferre reddened. “Oh dear, I never meant to imply - about you or about Michelangelo - especially not that about Michelangelo - I don’t suppose I ever thought about it, really thought rather than perceived. I suppose I rather assumed you closer in age to Bahorel than to the rest of us.”
“And what does that mean, in actual figures?”
“I don’t really know - several years, I should think. I’ll turn twenty-one in April.” It seemed more a confession than a statement of fact, as if he were ashamed of his own youth. “Prouvaire is about the same age as I; Courfeyrac a couple years younger.” The additional information was perhaps intended as a correction, or even a softening, of the unintended disclosure.
“Then we’re of an age, you and I,” Feuilly told him, as gently as he could considering he was trying not to laugh at how ludicrous the conversation had turned. “And Prouvaire? Really?”
Combeferre still seemed nervous, either because he had been setting himself up as something other than what he was, or because he was so rarely wrong in anything. “I know, one doesn’t think it. He lacks maturity in his features.”
“Not only in his features,” Feuilly added, or possibly corrected - the conversation was following no distinct thread, which began to worry him.
“When you pay attention to him, it becomes evident he is more mature in his conduct than is Courfeyrac.”
“If that were the only measure of age, you would be an old man.”
“Are you teasing me?” he asked, wrinkling his brow again.
Feuilly was rather taken aback by the question and immediately regretted his familiarity. “Yes. I’m sorry. I have the greatest respect for how you know precisely what you want in life and have set out the proper road to get it.”
But Combeferre leaned over and stroked his hair again, setting his scalp tingling in a decidedly pleasant way. “Do not apologise. I would be an old man, indeed, if I could not take a joke from a friend.” But he got up to make the coffee. “I am glad you feel you can be familiar with me. I was afraid I had ruined all that.”
Uncertain how to reply, Feuilly decided to change the subject. “Was Michelangelo of your sort?” It was not exactly the subject he had wished to return to, but it was what came out.
“Many of them were. Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo certainly. Michelangelo to the point many of his women look like men rather than the other way about. His sibyls are more masculine than many an archangel.”
“I suppose it’s common among those people - that’s why you thought it of me.”
“I do not know that it is more common among artists than among the general run of men, simply that those who have entered a more bohemian lifestyle are less likely to hide their true nature. You are not like other men, and I suppose I read what I wanted into that rather than what was wholly there. You have been terribly good about the whole thing.” He handed Feuilly a cup of coffee well-tempered with brandy.
Feuilly had no idea what to say, so he stared into his cup - he had been terribly good about the whole thing, though half the time, he still wanted to bolt. It was easier to stay silent and let Combeferre continue to toy with his hair, which he had started again, than to decide how he actually felt and then make an expression of that opinion.
“I never asked,” Combeferre continued softly, “but I’ve always been terribly curious. About the hair, I mean. I rather thought you must have been a romantic, but you aren’t in the least.”
Feuilly sipped at his coffee while formulating a reply - the brandy was very fine, he noted, far finer than anything he could afford on his own. It was smooth and warm as it slid down his throat, not the harsh burning choking he was accustomed to. “What does it even mean, to be a romantic? I wish I could be a proper artist. I think God must live in Notre Dame because what other place has ever been beautiful enough to hold his spirit on Earth? I think I worshiped the architecture before I worshiped He whom it was built to celebrate. They had to try to knock it to pieces in the Revolution because otherwise, they could not begin to destroy God. I confess to enjoying the modern drama more than the classic drama, but I can afford neither on my own. But I work for my bread and enjoy cards and dice and couldn’t care less about English letters. What does it matter to me what the English have done when I can’t read any of it? Why can’t French letters move forward without looking back twenty years at the English? And art - why could we not produce vigorous landscapes without Constable to show us the way? What scared us so much about nature that we’ve falsified it for generations? Our philosophy got there - why didn’t our art? I’m not smart enough to know that; that intelligence has not been reserved for me. No matter what else I want in life, I am first a child of the streets and then a workman - only a bourgeois can really be a romantic.” He flushed at the sudden realisation that he had begun rambling. “I suppose I could say I have sympathies with romanticism,” he tried to correct. “As for the hair, you called me a coquette yourself. That’s all it comes down to, really. I am who I am, and that has had a lot to do with female attention.”
But without Combeferre actually pressing him further, merely driving him to distraction because the last person who had enjoyed toying with his hair had been Lydie, he started to admit more of his story than he had yet to any of the students with whom he had fallen in. The brandy may also have helped loosen his tongue - he was rather unsure if it had any role in the confession. “I’ve told you I grew up on the streets. I don’t know that you ever believed it, but it’s true. I don’t remember my mother, and I don’t know that I ever had a father. I was not, however, one of these hideous Parisian children. It isn’t their fault, of course - starvation and sickness and mutilation are the daily round, the constant battles one has to survive, so of course Parisians are stunted and weak and ugly. I’ve lived it and survived it, but it’s thought that my mother brought me from the Midi, so I have stronger blood. And, in comparison to the common run of gamins, I was a beautiful child. At least, I was told I was a beautiful child,” he tried to correct, afraid of sounding too much a Narcissus. As Combeferre’s idle attentions continued to drive him deliciously mad, he began to recount a highly abbreviated version of his childhood - the care and kindness Mireille and Vivienne had taken, the material benefits he had gleaned from their interest, and his own practicality in looking after his assets rather than rebelling against motherly attentions like a hoodlum. “But I did rebel, and not like a hoodlum at all.”
The confession had been so easy until it suddenly seemed that he would have to state precisely how his rebellion was the direct opposite of rebellion, that it was deeply conservative and God-fearing and law-abiding. Feuilly broke off and drained his cup, more to give himself a moment to think, to backtrack, to do something other than end up admitting that he had decided that there had to be something better in life than picking locks for someone who did not much care if he sliced off his hand as long as it did not lead to anyone getting arrested.
“The work I had been able to do had not been strictly on the up and up, let us say,” he managed to spit out, “and I conceived a notion that I should do better on my own, trying to live my life honestly. I must have been fourteen or so by then, quite grown enough that interest was taken in me from various quarters. And with the single-mindedness and simplicity of youth, I thought that if I could simply find honest work, then I would be set. I was able to get on with one of the chemical mills. First thing I had to do was cut my hair. And I didn’t think anything of it at the time, it wasn’t a sacrifice because I was leaving everything behind and starting over. But the work was awful, hard and dirty and exhausting, and I had no time for books or the theatre, and I couldn’t even afford to eat as well as I had before, and it was just awful. But the worst was that no one noticed me, looked twice at me, cared that I even existed. I had been known and respected even at fourteen in my dark little corner of Paris, and I had thrown it all over for misery. I didn’t feel like myself anymore.” Uncertain how exactly to continue, he just stopped.
“Fourteen is the age of making ridiculous vows of absolutism,” Combeferre told him. Feuilly was uncertain if it was encouragement to speak further until Combeferre continued on his own. “At fourteen, Henri Enjolras and I went down to the beach, slit our wrists, and swore on our mixed blood that we would restore Republicanism in France.”
“That’s not ridiculous absolutism when you are still engaged in doing it.”
“Neither is yours.” He kissed Feuilly lightly, at the temple rather than on the lips, in a gesture that was decidedly more intimate than sexual.
Rather than reciprocate, or even acknowledge the gesture, for fear he might let on that, more than not minding it, he rather liked it, Feuilly continued, a little quickly and desperately, “So when a man I had known sought me out and promised me a job, I went with him and fell back into everything I had tried to set aside. Because that was who I was. Not entirely, because I hated the work, but I had time and money for my books and paints, and I had women fawning over me again, and people would acknowledge me in the street. And I determined to set aside everything that might remind me of those horrid years at the mill, so yes, I grew my hair long and dressed flash and fully enjoyed every benefit, including a beautiful mistress. We start early,” he answered Combeferre’s surprised look, “because we have less time than you do. It doesn’t matter that we can’t afford to marry young - plenty of people of advanced years have never been able to afford all the paperwork the state requires. And when you’re tired by thirty and old by forty-five, you have to begin at sixteen, otherwise you’ve had no youth at all.
“If I didn’t have a conscience, I would still be at it, or else in prison, or possibly even soon to marry Viv and run that greasy hole of her father’s. But I have a conscience, and I have my pride, so I work, and I will not be kept, by Viv or by you, but I am not the bosses’ boy, either. I am who I am, ridiculous hair and all.” He had not really intended to make confessions - they weren’t at all the conversation he had sought when he came. And now the solemnity was overbearing. “Besides,” he tried to add flippantly, “when I did cut it, it puffed all out like a dandelion head and I must have looked a fright.”
Combeferre grinned and tugged his hair more deliberately. “You are a coquette.”
Feuilly kissed him quickly, on the lips as he knew Combeferre must surely want, to avoid giving any other response.
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