To Be Sublime (With Interruption)

The dandy must aspire to be sublime, without interruption. - Baudelaire

There were affairs of honour and affairs of pride. Usually, the latter were called the former, but in this case, Courfeyrac did manage to admit the truth to himself, even as he dressed it up for public consumption. His pride demanded that much.

He was in the sad position of having not been well-fitted by nature for the current styles. He was, sadly, of no great height, and while as a child he might have been called “adorable” and retained those traits to adulthood, his features would never be considered “handsome”. Eternally puppyish, he never lacked for female attention, but his admirers would often drop him should a tall lancer with long face and ideal masculinity appear. His greatest sadness, however, was his hair. No girl was more jealous of her friends than Courfeyrac was of his. No one cared in Avignon, which was sadly behind the times compared to Paris and had not even one perfect dandy inside its walls, but Paris, the centre of fashion for the world, found him sadly deficient. The colour was not bad - indeed, one would have spoken of it very well if describing a racehorse - but it had no texture. No matter what he tried, it would simply hang limply. It simply would not curl. He could not possibly be a dandy with straight hair. It would not do. But nature did not care if he were a dandy or no; she had fitted him for Avignon, not for Paris.

Prouvaire had caught him looking longingly at Feuilly’s hair when they first met the boy. It was all Courfeyrac could do not to ask him how he managed to maintain such long, luxurious curls. Prouvaire could be sharp enough, for all his dainty airs, and told him roundly that he was not to mention a thing and to keep his eyes in his head if at all possible. It was possible, but not easy. Particularly when spending several evenings a week in the company of Feuilly or even Combeferre, who also without trying had a delicious wave to his hair that Courfeyrac was certain could be converted to the perfect dandyish curl should Combeferre ever take an interest in his appearance. Not that Combeferre ever would, or really needed to since he was usually the one whom Courfeyrac’s girls abandoned him to seek out if there were a deficiency of lancers in the room, but the possibility was there. And Courfeyrac had not the possibility.

He could not quite bring himself to the embarrassment of spending an afternoon in the barber’s back room, however. His greatest fear was to be seen leaving, to bear behind him the speculation that he had been there all afternoon to perhaps ridiculous effect. Courfeyrac had not the supreme confidence that comes of being a native of the great city and was still rather in awe of the possibilities even after a couple of years in the metropolis. One cannot go to a hairdresser when one is in awe without coming out looking like a provincial in a stage comedy.

But one day, the heavens suddenly opened.

Marie-Claude had left a curling iron in his flat after the first time she spent the night and completely crushed her hair in ways that could not be hidden by her fashionable bonnet. Courfeyrac had given up on curl papers by then - Lord Byron might swear by them, but they had never done anything for him, not for lack of trying - and she had decided she would rather not look a fright in the evening solely to leave without shame in the morning. Curl papers did not encourage passion.

After they had quarreled - and a week later he had entirely forgotten the precipitating cause - she had left a stray garter, some hairpins, and the curling iron in his flat, the abandoned progeny of their love. No message came for even the return of the most expensive hostage, rendering void his momentary plan to ransom it.

Thus Courfeyrac found himself at leisure to examine his unexpected acquisition. He knew well that more than one fashionable gentleman had recourse to such expedients when nature had not had the foresight to outfit him from birth. And unlike other men, he had had Marie-Claude to demonstrate the implement’s use. How much less embarrassing it must be to perform the task oneself, he thought.

He examined the heavy metal implement. He turned it over in his hands, he tested it whilst cold, and he determined that it could not be so difficult but he would have to wait until his hair grew a bit longer if he were to avoid accidentally burning himself.

A whole month he managed to wait before finally taking up the implement in earnest. It heated best, most evenly, in the chimney of a lamp, he had learned from Marie-Claude. And indeed, she was right - his first few tries went very well.

It was the repeated heating that caused the catastrophe, he decided later. The first few tries, he had managed to actually create curls, to his intense delight. By the fourth try, however, there was an acrid scent of burned hair and what ought to have been a curl coming away with the curling iron.

Once he recovered his composure (after dropping the accursed thing to the floor and trying not to scream), he did his best to examine the damage. It was bad. A decided hole at the crown of his head. Cringing, he took up his brushes to see how he might cover the missing locks, but it was no use.

He wished he were still a small child and might be permitted to cry over something so trivial, not that he gave in to such weakness. Certainly, he could keep his hat on, but his hair did not grow quickly. It would take months to recover, months in which he could not possibly accept any female attentions.

Perhaps it was not so bad. He would consider it again in the morning.

But in the morning - well, afternoon - it was actually worse. Not only had the first two curls completely straightened themselves within hours, but the third had been singed as well and had actually broken off in bed. There was nothing for it. The situation would have to be dealt with immediately.

It was a very downcast Courfeyrac who entered the local barbershop. “Is it possible to be seen privately?”

“If you can wait.” So he waited, nervously drumming his fingers on the window frame, until the two other clients ahead of him were done. “All right, what did you do?” the barber asked once they were alone in the back room.

“Nothing,” Courfeyrac replied defensively. “Just a little experiment.” He took off his hat so the barber could see.

It was not the first casualty of the curling iron the barber had seen, being that his business consisted in large part of students who spent their monthly allowances in three weeks and learned thrift through trial and much error. “Christ, boy. This is why you pay a professional.”

“What can you do?”

“Nothing. You’re lucky you didn’t burn your head. I can cut out the burned sections, and if we adjust the part a bit, you might be able to avoid looking like a discharged convict. We’ll see. I make no promises.”

Courfeyrac nodded sadly. “Do what you must.”

Necessity carried the day over style. He did manage to avoid looking like a discharged convict, but at the cost of looking far more like Bonaparte than like Byron. “You come to me next time you get that idea in your head.”

Courfeyrac did not answer; he merely paid what was required and went home to sulk. He’d have to hide for months at this point. He was sulky enough that he completely forgot he had agreed to meet Prouvaire for dinner, which prompted Prouvaire’s unexpected visit.

“My allowance came in. I thought we were going to look at the girls at Tortoni’s.”

“Sorry. I can’t possibly go out looking like this.”

“What happened?” Prouvaire asked sympathetically.

“An argument with a curling iron.”

Prouvaire was the only one of his friends who would not laugh. Combeferre might not laugh out loud, but he would have some cutting witticism about vanity that would be hilarious to anyone not the victim. And indeed, Jehan made a show of sympathy, which was amusing in itself coming from someone who wore his grandfather’s tricorn hat around town, embraced every ludicrous Romantic fad, and was even now actually wearing velvet breeches. Only Prouvaire would wear velvet breeches to Tortoni’s in good faith. “Hide out if you must, I’ll make your excuses, but we will miss you. You don’t have to skip town over a bad haircut.”

“It’s that bad?” Courfeyrac asked in anguish.

“Only because you’re acting like it’s the end of the world.”

But it was that bad, he was certain when he looked again in the mirror. His face looked horribly round, he was sure, like the fat Emperor instead of the handsome young general. He couldn’t possibly be seen.

Except after a week, he was thoroughly bored, and some of the sharpness had grown out, at least, and he resolved to put the best face on it he could.

“What happened to you?” Bahorel asked, almost accusingly, though it is hard to accuse anyone with force when leaned back so far one’s chair is balanced precariously on two legs.

Courfeyrac put on his best smile, the cheekiest tone he could muster. “An affair of honour.”


“A duel.”

“Seriously?” Bahorel sat up, the two front legs of his chair hitting the floor with a resounding bang.

“The accursed one impugned my honour, so I challenged him to a test.”

“It looks more like the result of a hazing than a duel. I take it you lost.”

“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. When a lock of hair is shot off, one does either have to sacrifice the rest or accept a hole in one’s coiffure. But the accursed one is out of my life, and that is nearly as good as having won.”

“What really happened?”

“You don’t like my tale?”

“A tale it is, not a history.”

“The history, then, is for my friends.”

“And what am I? Come, Jehan, what am I?” Prouvaire had just come in, his long hair loose today and spreading over his shoulders.

“A boorish lout. You’ve decided to quit hiding,” Prouvaire addressed Courfeyrac.

“There is mortification, and then there is mortification. Better the soul than the flesh.”

“Why was he hiding?” Bahorel asked.

“He lost a fight with a curling iron.”

Bahorel laughed heartily as Courfeyrac mock-throttled Prouvaire. “A curling iron! Accursed one, indeed.”

“That’s enough out of you,” Courfeyrac protested.

“You’re all set for wrestling, at least. Nothing for your opponent to grab onto. Not like Jehan.”

“And how much wrestling do you think either of us are up for?”

“Quite a lot, depending on the gender of the challenger.”

“But then one seeks to lose,” Courfeyrac complained.

“You make a fair point.”

“Let him alone. He’s embarrassed enough.”

Bahorel did let him alone for the rest of the night. And Feuilly had the tact to say nothing a few days later when he spent an evening in their company. Combeferre rather gave him a look, but by that point, Courfeyrac had managed to tell himself that he didn’t care, and no one else was making witticisms, so there was no follow-through. Of all the stupid things Courfeyrac could have done, this was by far the least interesting.

The curling iron itself, however, the accursed instrument, had no such pleasant ending. Courfeyrac threw it into the street to await the ragpickers, rather satisfied with the splash it made in the muck. Perhaps it was sold for scrap; perhaps it was cleaned and sold to some grisette who knew better how to use it. It was thrown out into the world, like the products of another love affair, and if Courfeyrac thought of it at all, it was as Rousseau must have thought of his children - a shake of the head at his own folly in the implement having had a home at all, without any concern for what it might have come to. Because in the world, there are affairs of honour and affairs of pride, and honour never entered into this episode at all.


Fiction ~ Home