It must have been the laziness inherent in the hot, still air. It was too hot, too sticky to engage in normal pursuits. Claude was adamant about that, and so she left me to myself for the evening. If it had not been so hot, I should never have been in that quarter at that time on that day. And it was a truly marvelous coincidence that I should have recognised him at all. He was much changed and yet not at all different, and I only looked towards the café to keep the sun out of my eyes.
It was August, and I had returned from Lyon only a week before. Claude and I had started up where we left off, which was to be expected since Paris empties of students in the summer. She had no one around with whom she might replace me. But August in Paris can be hellish, and that evening was simply too much for her to bear. The thought of heavy exertion, coupled with a warm body in bed all the rest of the night, was less than appealing, and though I put up a bit of a fight, I was compelled to agree. So I left her to herself and went wandering.
The heat had penetrated even the shadowy confines of the Quartier Latin, usually the only cool refuge in Paris, unless one felt compelled to enter a church, and I wanted none of that. The rest of my usual companions had not yet arrived, and Combeferre, polite and gentlemanly though he was, was not my idea of an entertaining evening. He was doubtless working on the revolution and writing letters to the southern cell. I would rather not be bored by politics on a hot evening, so I turned away from the bridge and headed back into the labyrinth of the student quarter. And there, heading west, I turned my head as I passed a café, just to keep the slowly sinking sun out of my eyes, and that was when I saw him.
Admittedly, my first reaction was “What a fine bohemian!” For he is. Was. Sitting at a table at the open window, staring straight ahead but not looking at a single thing, the long dark hair, the tricorne hat sitting on the sill, the pale hand below the frilled shirt sleeve all marked him as an object of curiosity, rather like the monkeys in the zoo, and as far from me as they are. I’ve been called a dandy more than once, enough perhaps to begin to believe it. And he was a fine specimen of his race, considering it was too hot to indulge in old brocade or velvet breeches or any of the other nonsense that marks their custom.
But then he turned and I was able to see his face. I caught my breath and stopped dead in the centre of the walk - another passerby careered into me, and yet the fine bohemian did not seem to notice that a thing had happened, though it all took place just across the very narrow way from him. He had a very familiar face, and it did not take me long at all to place it.
He had not been a fine bohemian when I first saw him. No, he had been, in that respect, just like all the other boys. Except he was never like all the other boys. A couple years ahead of me at school. Always delicate looking, always walking in a dream, unless the bruises were fresh. It was the first time I had ever seen that almost girlish face unmarred by dark blotches around the eye or along the jaw. I had always felt sorry for him, but he was older than I was, I was always small for my age, I was younger than even the boys in my year, and I did not know who his tormentors were. I knew his last name only, and then only because it had passed around the school as a whispered piece of gossip. I think I was glad the year we returned from Christmas to discover that he did not. No matter what had become of him, and it was rumoured that he was in perfectly acceptable health but that his father had finally removed him, it had to better than the obvious loneliness and undeserved beatings he endured while at school. Perhaps he was not a nice boy, but no one who is that pretty is deserving of the treatment he received.
He was perfectly recognisable even all those years later. The high cheekbones, narrow face, the way his nose started to turn up slightly at the tip: it was the same boy.
I stood in the street, trying to recall his name, for some time before my steps turned toward the café.
“Prouvaire!” I exclaimed once I was close to him. The exclamation had not been intended, but I only at that point recalled his name. He turned and looked at me without expression. “I thought it was you. We were at school together.” Still no reaction. I sat down in the vacant chair across from him. “You were a couple years ahead, and I wasn’t exactly making waves, I admit, but you didn’t intend to, either. Maybe the little boys pay more attention to the big ones than vice versa.” I extended my hand to him. “René Courfeyrac.”
He would not take it, forcing me to withdraw. “Jean Prouvaire.” His voice was as soft as his girlish face, but far less welcoming.
I tried again. “I was just passing by and I happened to notice you in the window. Are you waiting for someone?”
“No,” he replied softly. I waited, but no further answer was forthcoming. He seemed to have had an idea, and bent to scribble a note in the book which lay before him. The effort seemed to satisfy him, and when he turned back to me, he flushed slightly, but made no remark of his own.
“A poem. It may be nothing.”
Poetry did seem in his character. Sweet bits of nothingness, lovingly kept for years. “And it may be something.”
He flushed more deeply, but he slid the book across the table for me to see. It was only a couple stanzas, alexandrines, quite a nice flow to the words, actually, but the subject was a single rose in a cracked vase. I have never gone in for that sort of thing, so there was little I could say. I passed it back to him. “Nice.”
“You hate it.”
“I don’t hate it. It’s not the kind of stuff I usually read.”
“Philistine,” he muttered.
“I’m not that bad. I do read.”
“The newspaper, I am sure.”
“Of course. I tend to go in more for philosophy and history, if you must know.”
“Philosophy and history. You read Agrippa d’Aubigné, then?” I confess that at the time, I did not know of what he spoke, and I certainly did not expect what I later learned. “What a pity,” he replied to my apparently vacant expression.
“Come, I’ve not been impolite. Why don’t you like me?”
His face was already back in his book. “I came to this café because it would be cooler than my flat and quiet enough that I may write. You have interrupted me, and I do not know you.”
“We were at school together.”
“I dislike the memory.”
“I don’t blame you. I’m sure the Christmas you didn’t have to come back was the best of your life.”
He jerked his head up. “What do you think you know of me?”
“Only that someone seemed to use you as a punching bag and nothing was done about it. I had eyes. You did see me in the halls, though you don’t remember.”
“It was not a good Christmas. My mother was ill. I was allowed to stay at home until she died.”
I never claimed that I was inflexible. It takes great dexterity to have one’s foot in one’s mouth as often as I seem to. “I’m sorry.”
“I finished my education closer to home. Then I came here. Have you no one else to bother?”
“At the moment, no.”
“What a shame. I do not need your pity, monsieur.”
“Why do you think I stopped out of pity? I’m bored senseless, it’s too hot to even think, and my mistress quite rightly says that there is no purpose in spending the evening together.”
“You do not talk to her as much as you do to me, then? A pretty pair you must make.”
“We’re both in for the same thing. It’s too hot to consider sleeping, much less anything that requires exertion. Therefore, what is there to talk about?”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“What’s your definition of the state?”
“That the world would end were she no longer in it.”
He closed his book and finally looked at me again. “You waste my time.”
“Isn’t that was summer nights are for?”
“We only have a finite number of minutes on this earth. You care so little that you would waste them?”
“What do you consider a waste?”
“You create nothing. You feel nothing. Why do you continue to breathe if you do not bother to live?”
I told you he was a fine bohemian. “I live. And I feel. And I’m working on that creation part, too. Just because I’m not in love with my mistress doesn’t mean that we don’t provide mutual pleasure, and just because I’m bored tonight doesn’t mean I do nothing. If I were accustomed to doing nothing, I would not be bored.”
He sniffed. He sniffed at me. “Then what is it that you feel?”
“I have friends. I feel love. Just because I don’t write good poetry about bad subjects doesn’t mean I don’t love anyone or anything. You talk about creation, but what do you create? Poems about flowers? Some of us are engaged in far more important pursuits that you wouldn’t understand!”
“Such as working your way through all the shop girls and seamstresses in the Marais.”
“Such as overthrowing the fucking government!” He had never raised his voice to me, but I cannot take cutting little jabs. Unfortunately, he said nothing further, and every eye in the café focused on me. “It’s a joke! Good lord, how paranoid are all of you?”
And in his quiet way, he jabbed me again. “So you joke of matters of such importance.”
“It’s not necessarily overthrowing the government,” I muttered. Which was a lie, because it was always about overthrowing the government, but if we were partially successful, I suppose I wasn’t adverse to a compromise that would allow the idiot to keep his throne as a symbol of state, provided he was well hemmed in with laws that prevented him from doing anything. That changed in ’30, but at the time, well, maybe it was sort of true in that it was the government, but not necessarily the king. “Look, I said something I shouldn’t have. It doesn’t make it true or untrue, it just means it shouldn’t have been said in public.”
“You must read Agrippa d’Aubigné.” Then he walked out on me.
So I followed him. “So you do care. Is this a warning or assistance?”
“It is whatever you wish it to be once you have read his Tragiques. When a person leaves without issuing an invitation, it means he does not want to be accompanied.”
“Are you meeting someone? A girl?”
“That is my own business.”
“Is this why someone beat the shit out of you a regular basis?” He stopped dead. I cringed at what I had actually said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t even have thought that. No one deserves to be treated the way you must have been. Everyone in school knew, but we didn’t really know anything. We never knew who or why. I stopped tonight because I recognised you from school. I’ve never seen you with anyone. So I stopped to talk because I thought you maybe needed to talk, to just have a real conversation. It wasn’t pity. Curiosity, maybe. My foot is usually in my mouth. I’m sorry.”
We were silent for a moment, then he laid his hand on my arm. You know how impossible it seems that anyone exists who is smaller than I am, but there he is. “These days, I call myself Jehan. And you must read Les Tragiques. They are a warning, yes, but not for you.”
“I’m an ass.”
He actually smiled. “I don’t deny it. But I was wrong, and you do have a heart. I am meeting someone tonight, but I spend a great deal of time at that café. If you do not understand Agrippa d’Aubigné, I may be able to help you.” And then he left.
And I went on my way. But a few days later, with nothing better to do, I went looking for a copy of Les Tragiques, by Agrippa d’Aubigné. I thought what the hell. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Once I forced myself to ignore the rhymed couplets - I hate rhymed couplets - I discovered that no fine bohemian should be reading that book. Apocalyptic imagery, the nation torn apart, the vices of the monarchy, and celestial vindication culminate in the Last Judgment. Théodore-Agrippa d’Aubigné was a Huguenot, and he witnessed the religious wars first hand.
Prouvaire, the little boy who had been mocked and beaten, took his revenge in reading d’Aubigné. He has no physical strength, but my god, his preferred reading material is bloody. It deals with punishments the strong earn by subjugating the weak. I learned more because after Les Tragiques, I had to go back and talk to the boy.
And then I introduced him to Combeferre. Jehan needed friends. He got on so well with Feuilly, too, once he joined us, because they both knew what it meant to be at the bottom. I can imagine, but I don’t really know. It was a long time ago that I even approached it, and people generally like me. I don’t know what it is to get blows of hate. I’ve been in fights, but that’s anger. I’ve never known what it is to be hated and stamped out. It’s terrible that anyone does know what means.
Why do I even bother telling you this? You’re asleep. When you are awake, you mock him. You mock us all. But it hurts him more than it hurts me, don’t you see? He isn’t as strong as we are. Wasn’t. I have to die here. You don’t, maybe, but I have to. I brought him here. I’ve killed that little flower in the cracked vase. If I’d known him better from the start, I don’t know what I would have done. Lay off him. He had so much to give the world, and now, nothing is left. What did I ever have? A grin and a joke? He taught me more about revolution than I taught him. I’ll pay for my crime. In the morning, when they decide to attack again. I’ll pay then.
I don’t blame the executioners. They did not know who they had captured. And I don’t blame him. Whatever he had tried to do would have been very brave if he had succeeded. I blame myself. Perhaps I should blame Claude. I blame it on the summer night.
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