Combeferre had barely sat down when the younger of the two miscreants from his previous visit appeared and sat down across from him. Whilst deciding if he ought to be annoyed or charmed, the boy grinned broadly in such a manner that it was impossible to be annoyed with his forwardness.
“I wanted to apologise again for Bahorel’s behaviour the other day. You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but he takes English poetry very seriously. Which doesn’t excuse standing on a table and shouting. He means well. I think,” Courfeyrac added a bit uncertainly.
“No offense was taken, I assure you. I am certain that, as his friend, you know his moods. I do not hold it against you.”
He pulled a wry face. “I don’t know him all that well. That sort of behaviour usually seems reserved for after dinner, but I really don’t know.”
“The hazards of café acquaintances.”
“Yes! Exactly.” Courfeyrac grinned again. “You meet amazing chaps all over, but only with time do you learn all the ways in which they can amaze you. Did you enjoy the lecture?”
“Very much,” Combeferre said cautiously. “I’m not certain it would have been to your taste.”
“I’m rubbish at alphabets - Greek was nightmare enough - but I think it’s amazing that some people are so good with them that they can figure out a dead foreign tongue and make their own primer. I’m rather sorry I didn’t go.”
“Are you?” Combeferre asked with honest curiosity. The invitation had been made only as a biting comment on how his friends were of a far higher calibre than the drunken man on the table.
“I couldn’t make up my mind to it at the time, but I was sorry after it was over. Do you ever have that problem? That you can’t decide what to do until it’s too late and then you miss everything you didn’t decide on?”
“No,” Combeferre answered evenly. “I always know what I want.”
“But everything in Paris is so exciting! The cafés, the theatre, the lectures, the gardens, the women! You know Paris better than I do, I’m sure, and so you can discriminate. You’re a native, aren’t you? I’ve only been here a few months.”
Combeferre had managed before now not to fully note Courfeyrac’s warm accent - it was wholly right in coming from Provence and wholly wrong in being in Paris. “Like you, I come from the Midi, but I was educated here. I suppose you are correct: I have never been both free and out of my element in Paris.”
“Where are you from?” Courfeyrac asked excitedly. “I was at school in Avignon but I grew up in a village between Avignon and Orange.”
“The heart of the Vaucluse. My family come from Marseille. We’re through Avignon constantly.”
“My mother insists on wintering in Paris; my father tries to maintain the business and the estate. Thus we summer in Marseille and winter in Paris, so I know Avignon well enough in passing.”
“But you know Paris far better.”
“Indeed, it has long been considered necessary to my education that I be as familiar with the cafés as with the lecture halls. But such knowledge does not stick so well as alphabets,” he admitted.
“Look, Bahorel’s a good chap, really, even if he can be thoroughly annoying sometimes, but can’t that be said about any of us? He’s been in Paris for ages, knows everything about everything, and he’s a good chap, really.”
“I see your point.”
“I’m trying not to make an ass of myself here.”
“I understand. Neither of us made a very good impression on the other.”
“I am sorry I missed the lecture,” Courfeyrac insisted as he left.
Thus, before the week was out, Combeferre found Bahorel in the same café, reading the newspaper much more quietly than when they had previously met. “I have been told that you are concerned that you disturbed me too much the other day. Please forgive me, monsieur, for it is not my place to reprove high spirits. Your taste in poetry should not be my concern.”
“Is this an apology?”
“I don’t know,” Combeferre admitted frankly. “I have, however, brought a peace offering, for though we may not share a taste for Byron, I believe we may have some tastes in common.”
“I doubt it.”
Combeferre set before Bahorel the book he was carrying. “Though I admire ’Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth is much more. So is Shelley more than ’Ozymandias’. Read the marked page, if it pleases you. I shall disturb you no more tonight.” He nodded - more of a bow, really - and retreated to the farthest table.
In curiosity, Bahorel opened to the title page. Wordsworth. Wordsworth used a great many words and rather less rhyme and talked a lot more about nature than Bahorel had ever really appreciated. But the gesture had seemed sincere rather than a joke, and the least he could do was read the poem the pompous student so desired.
“TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy of men! / Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough / Within thy hearing, or thy head be now / Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den; - / O miserable Chieftain! where and when / Wilt thou find patience?” Not a strong beginning, perhaps - patience, the virtues of forbearance likely to come next, or some sympathy with the martyr and perhaps the liberty of the higher place once death comes.
“Yet die not; do thou / Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:” Yes, exactly what one can expect, that you will be rewarded in heaven rather than on earth. A pious as well as annoying student, then, perhaps thwarted from the priesthood by familial ambition.
“Though fallen thyself, never to rise again, / Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind / Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;” But here, this is unexpected. The earth rather than the spirit, and work that will continue. The rebellion is not dead?
“There’s not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget thee; thou hast great allies; / Thy friends are exultations, agonies, / And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.”
He read it three times through to make sure he understood. Wordsworth, the man consumed in himself, who never knew action, writing in support of rebellion, encouraging the perpetual rebellion, acknowledging that rebellion is as natural as breath. And the student - not pious at all, perhaps. How was one to know when one formed an opinion from six lines taken out of context? And certainly not without taste in poetry, even if he was unable to love Byron as the poet deserved.
Bahorel hastened to the table where Combeferre waited alone. “This is Wordsworth?”
“Yes. Do you see what I mean? Byron consumes the outside world; his self-interest is destructive. Wordsworth’s self-interest is self-discovery, a means to pull the self into the world and engage with the world. To put something into the world rather than merely take from it. Byron, like some men of politics, is often described as a force of nature, but he is really a force against nature, against the liberty of all because it seeks liberty for the elect, generally himself and his friends. Liberty has great allies because it is natural.”
“Tyranny is unnatural. ’Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Those works, like the pyramids, like the sugar plantations, were built from tyranny.”
“So you do understand ’Ozymandias’. I rather feared you cited it out of interest in the collapse rather than the full meaning.”
“Should I be offended?”
“Please don’t be. Forgive me. You spoke against Shelley despite quoting him, and if you appreciate this one bit from Wordsworth, I should have you read more Shelley. How often are you here? I’ve not noticed you often, yet if you continue to frequent this café, I can easily bring the book.”
“That’s kind of you. You don’t look the type to loan books to strangers indiscriminately.”
“But I do discriminate. It is not a poem for everyone, is it?”
“Discrimination is necessary.”
“Look, I’m sorry I was an ass.”
Combeferre was rather taken aback - he had meant to apologise himself and had certainly not expected to receive an apology. “It is forgiven, monsieur. I am sorry, myself, that I let false judgments determine my behaviour. Your friend, M. Courfeyrac, tells me you were offended. It was my own prejudices at fault as much as your actions.”
Bahorel returned the book to him. “I’d appreciate the Shelley.”
“I shall bring it the next time I come.”
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