The back room of the Musain was enveloped in its usual state of scarcely controlled chaos, from which Combeferre insisted would spring the ideals of the new republic but instead gave birth to vaudeville pieces, one-act parodies of Racine, long narrative poems, short addresses to mistresses past, present and future, numerous caricatures of professors, several duels and, twice every month, an illegal newspaper. Since the press had been shut down, the members of the back room were left bereft of the towering monument of idealism that had lifted them from the thousands of other students deliberately not doing their homework, or, at least, so said Grantaire, very loudly. Bossuet, engaged in a lively debate over Volterian royalists and democratic Bonapartists, turned away from his table to Grantaire's.
"My dear fellow, you are being a little unreasonable, are you not?" Bossuet said, with a mildly censorious tone. "Just because Enjolras is out trying to file an appeal—"
"When you take away someone's voice," Grantaire began, without any clear way to end his threat.
"Yes, well, I am not trying to stifle yours; I am merely trying to quiet it a little so that others might be heard as well. Friche, you were saying?"
Friche was, like most of the Amis who passed out newspapers but were not Enjolras's chosen lieutenants, a law student with vague literary or theatrical ambitions and no real desire to practice law under a government that he did not consider to be legal. Unlike the rest of them, he was always intimidated by Grantaire's tendency to show off his classical education while drunk. Friche himself had not applied himself to his Greek as assiduously as he felt he ought, and, in fact, had forgotten almost all of the little he had struggled to learn, and lived in constant terror that someone would discover the deficiencies of his education and laugh him out of the Musain. "I was… er, yes, there is, I think, a very French fascination with a strong, centralized executive—"
"No it isn't," replied Grantaire. "Jove overthrew his father and set up his sisters and brothers to reign over various kingdoms in an astonishing display of nepotism surpassed in recent years only by Bonaparte. It's Roman, and, before that, it was Greek."
"One could argue that the Roman structure influenced the Roman Catholic Church and therefore all kingdoms under her domain," said Friche, with a valiant effort to ignore Greco-Roman mythology. The mere mention of Jove had made him profoundly uneasy and he jingled his pocketful of loose change to give him courage.
Unfortunately, the history student next to him, who was an absent-minded fellow who could read hieroglyphics but not the atmosphere of a room, added to Friche's distress by saying, "Besides, it's only after Caesar that the Greco-Roman model failed. Caesar Augustus did more harm to Roman culture and Roman literature than can ever be fixed."
"Oh spare us your endless whining about Virgil corrupting the heroic epic," said Friche, now desperate to the point of panic.
"The heroes of epics are all kings and princes anyhow," replied Grantaire. "Even Paris was a prince and not a simple goatherd."
"Ha, perhaps that is why we never can shake free of a strong central authority," replied Bossuet. "Paris may pretend to be agricultural, and slip its pastoral aphorisms into our language, but at heart it is a monarchist."
"Ha! When he chose Aphrodite? No, Paris is at heart a lover, though your Voltaires of the would try to convince us that Paris would chose Athena and leap towards progress. No, no, we follow our passions, though no object of adoration is as sure as wine!"
"You are lucky Enjolras is out and did not hear you speak of Paris as a mindless royalist masquerading as an agriculturalist," said Combeferre, wandering past their table. He adjusted his glasses, as he did when he was mildly concerned his own intellectual rambling would pass the limit of socially acceptable conversation. "Besides, you mistake mythology for history. I do not believe Napoleon; history is not a fiction, it is the triumph of gradual progress- ah, Jolllly, dear fellow, a word with you?" Combeferre made his way towards Joly, who had entered through the backdoor with several medical students gradually worsening each others' fears of either being arrested for illegal publication or catching cholera. Bossuet also waved; Joly rewarded him with a quick, cheerful smile before dropping his textbooks on a table and turning to Combeferre.
Grantaire drooped suddenly. "Enjolras hates me. I was here with Combeferre and Courfeyrac this morning and I was even drinking with Courfeyrac. He asked Courfeyrac to look over his brief and Combeferre to go with him. He said nothing to me."
"Were you drunk at the time?" asked Bossuet. "Bacchus needs his followers just as surely as Apollo, but one cannot follow both at the same time."
This inspired a six minute long rant about Apollo, Hyperion and satyrs which amused the history student and Bossuet but sent Friche, who did not understand a word of it, into hysterics. At the end of it, Friche announced, "No wonder Enjolras refuses to speak with you! You have nothing worthwhile to say and turn everything into nonsense. You cannot believe in ideals, you must tear them down and in their place set idols of caprice and cruelty! To distract us from what is really important to celebrate debauchery with the—the—"
"The enthusiasm of a bacchante?" asked Bossuet.
Friche let out something half-way between a curse and a scream and stalked out of the Café Musain.
"I had not intended that debate to end the way it did," said Bossuet, never-the-less shifting in his chair to face Grantaire. "That was…."
"Truthful?" prompted the history student.
"I was going to say harsh," said Bossuet.
"Oh, that too," said the history student, "but I must admit, Grantaire, you are the first person I would invite to a drinking party, but the last I would invite to a political salon."
Grantaire was now draped over his chair in despair, his chin resting on the top of the back and his arms limp at his sides. "Do you really… my dear eagle of words, fly the straight and narrow. I am a drunken lout good for nothing but leading the way to vinous oblivion?"
"You do it very poetically," said Bossuet. "Besides, you helped Jehan study for his classics final the other day, though why he chose to take a useless degree in letters I shall never know. Perhaps he can just afford to study what he likes and—"
The diversionary tactic had not worked. Grantaire stared hopelessly at the floor and said in a low, sad voice, "And I suppose Enjolras thinks that too."
"Enjolras may think that," hedged Bossuet, searching for some sort of loophole, "but we do not all share that opinion."
"Just most of us," said the history student. "I personally think you are the best fellow on earth to have around when the debate gets too heated over how Robespierre treated Desmoulins's views on the Terror, but you must admit, grand R, that at the start of those debates, you have nothing to contribute. Your understanding of history is good, but limited to Greece and Rome. In fact, Enjolras once said that you knew nothing but your absinthe bottle and the fairies that floated around your head because of it."
Bossuet glared at the history student. "Martin, a little tact."
"Eh? Did I say something…?"
Grantaire looked close to tears. "Absinthe does not make me hallucinate."
"You must be very lonely without the fairies, then," said the history student.
Bossuet put a comforting arm around Grantaire's slumped shoulders. "Grantaire, not everyone can have the same seriousness of purpose as Combeferre and Enjolras. It stands to reason that they, having crafted themselves so as to fulfill their ideals as best they can, cannot now understand the allure of say, eating and drinking like normal people."
"Maybe if you were sober and didn't speak like a classics professor gone mad, they might see fit to lower themselves to your level," Martin suggested helpfully.
"Martin, do you come up with these things on the spot, or are they result of previous study?"
"Previous study," replied Martin. "I model my rhetoric somewhat on Enjolras's, only I think he tends to be much more metaphoric than is strictly necessary."
"I fear for the psyches of your future students. Jolllly!" Bossuet waved at his roommate. "I found another aspect of British culture I like, punch! Join us, will you?"
Joly did, quite happily, until Martin had left and Combeferre pointed out that Joly had never answered his question.
"Euh, I didn't?" said Joly, a bit vaguely. Bossuet had not quite remembered how to mix punch and ended up putting as much alcohol as could possibly fit into the punch bowl. Joly, being rather scrawny, was feeling the effects much more than the rest of them. "I do… oh, euh… I think… what was the question?"
Combeferre took away Joly's glass. "Are you going through with the—"
"I have a fencing lesson at the Rue de Cotte," Joly said, glancing at his pocket watch. "I almost forgot. Do you have a message you'd like me to take?"
"Put the tips on the swords," said Combeferre, though he polished his glasses at Joly. "I suppose that partially answers my question, though I thought you had enough sense to keep from dueling the Russian hussar."
"Bahorel's gone to talk to the hussar's second, but Bahorel caught his mistress with a law student, and is now in a foul temper. I doubt he would have minded if it hadn't been a law student, but, as it is, he's in a foul temper. You know what that does to his debating skills. If he starts losing, he'll puch the Russian second in the face and there will be no chance of getting out of the duel. It is best to be prepared. As to the rest… honestly, Combeferre, the last time I went along with one of Courfeyrac's plans, I woke up with a cold, a handful of feathers in my pocket and absolutely no memory of why I was only wearing one boot and had lost the back section of my waistcoat. I have given up the attempt, at least."
Combeferre switched tactics. "Are you sober enough to be holding a sword?"
Joly stood and attempted to walk in a straight line. He mostly succeeded. "Euh, enough to put the rubber tips on the swords. Really, I didn't have brandy on the brain before, I just forgot the question. Anything else?"
"No, I'm still waiting for Enjolras." Combeferre sighed and shoved his glasses into place. "He's the one with contacts in the Association libre pour l'Education du Peuple and with actual knowledge of the censorship cases going to trial and, more importantly, the ones that are not. Until I know the particulars of the printing situation, how and if they might trace our newspapers and pamphlets back to us, I have no desire to blunder on and endanger not only our lives, but the lives of those only tangentially associated with us. I think the best thing, in future, would be to buy a printing press ourselves and thus eliminate the risk of the persecution of the innocent, but when we are already under suspicion…."
"I shan't ask Musichetta for the list then, if she ever writes back to me, and shall only ask her to think fondly of me when my anemic blood has been spilt over the cobblestones of Paris," said Joly, tipping his hat, gathering up his books and marching determinedly out the back door.
"I know," said Grantaire, quite suddenly. "We do not have to involve Enjolras at all. We can show him that I-that we can take care of the practical particulars while he chases after his ideals. We can buy a printing press."
"Grantaire, don't you think it might look suspicious if we bought a printing press just now?" asked Combeferre. "It is the best course of action, but is one that must be delayed for the moment." He paused. "You haven't been talking to Courfeyrac, have you? His plan is… not a good one."
Grantaire waved this off as unimportant. "Bossuet, my dear fellow, you have a rich aunt coming to stay, do you not?"
"I do, but she is hardly likely to buy me a printing press, unless it is to print off a great list of things she did not say about me, my father, my mother or any other of my friends and relations."
"No, no," said Grantaire impatiently. "You were telling me earlier that she wishes to observe you in your natural habitat. Well, why not? We play up our eccentricities a la Courfeyrac and then we charm her into helping you by allowing her to reform all of us, including you, of our wastrel bohemian lifestyles. She would give you enough money to live and to buy a printing press."
"If combined with Joly's reserve, Jehan's poem on Chenier and Enjolras's allowance… depending on how generous she is, that might make one hundred and sixty five francs." Bossuet trailed off thoughtfully. He was not really an optimist; he was certain anything he had would break, get stolen or disappear just when he needed it and acted accordingly. However, 'acting accordingly' tended to mitigate any disaster and… well, who knew what would happen? It wasn't a bad plan and Joly's optimism was rubbing off on him. It could work. Bossuet could almost see Joly rubbing his nose with the knob of his cane and chirping, "One never knows the results of an experiment until after the trials, my dear fellow!"
Combeferre began polishing his glasses. "Grantaire, I respect your humanity and intelligence and therefore mean to cast no aspersions on you personally when I say that you have said many stupid things in this backroom, but none of them have reached this astonishing level of imbecility."
"No, no, let him finish," said Bossuet. "You never know when stupidity can cross the line into genius."
"Ah, here is a true eagle, spotting, with his keen eye, the work of a stratagem so brilliant Napoleon would stomp on his hat in envy!" exclaimed Grantaire, grinning. "Now, I know how we charm the old lady into letting our eagle have a nest feathered in francs. We set Courfeyrac on her."
"Even Courfeyrac has standards," Combeferre pointed out.
"Are you sure?" asked Grantaire.
Combeferre polished his glasses again.
"Right, we set Courfeyrac on her… but only after Bossuet… ah ha, I have it, only after Bossuet pretends that he acts like a bohemian because he is trying to convert us all from our sinful ways. At heart, he is a Catholic ultra so devoted to the well-being of his fellows that he has been covertly trying to cure us of that most dangerous of diseases, political radicalism. The aunt will get to lecture, as will surely please her, and we will pretend to be so stunned by the force of her rhetoric and smitten by the strength of her character we become sober members of the bourgeoisie who carry umbrellas and complain that governmental censorship has not gone far enough."
"I see only a descent into greater stupidity," Combeferre said, displeased. "What, and then have Feuilly ask to paint her likeness and Jehan ask if he can dedicate his next poem on Chenier in her honor?"
"Ah, you see how one good idea can spawn another? You can ask to name a moth after her, or… no, better idea. Joly will host a dinner for Bossuet's aunt in gratitude for her setting him on a magnetically aligned path to righteousness. Joly's a good, kind fellow, he will do it. He will invite you, because nothing is quite so impressive to a bourgeoisie as a former student of a Grande Ecole except a former student of a Grand Ecole that they have corrected, and Jehan because one could mistake his obsession for Chenier as a condemnation of republicanism and Courfeyrac because his father is a member of the nobility and can beat his peasants when he feels so inclined. Talk about Goethe—"
"Kant would be better," said Bossuet. "Or St. Augustine, actually…."
"But none of us really like St. Augustine," protested Combeferre, "and… why am I dignifying this with the compliment of a rational response? Grantaire, no, I will have no part in this. I am not about to seduce an old royalist into financing Bossuet's transformation from bohemian to bourgeois so that we can buy a printing press we will not know how to operate for an illegal republican newspaper that will not be able to distribute."
"When you put it like that," said Grantaire, "it sounds stupid."
"Because it is," Combeferre said firmly.
Grantaire scowled and raised his glass before apparently thinking better of it and putting it down again. "Do you have any other ideas? Jehan could sell his Chinese vase, but just look at him! Anyone with half-a-brain could cheat him while he was thinking up for a rhyme to 'apocalypse'."
"Grantaire," Combeferre said, taking off his glasses and polishing them, to show he was serious in his disapproval, "you are, in fact, suggesting that we prostitute ourselves for the republic."
"No, if I was, we would hire ourselves out to widows with weaknesses for handsome, idealistic young students, or go to one of the society ladies of Courfeyrac's father's circle and propose, for a small fee, to be the, ah… dance partners to any lady without someone to… show her the steps, so to speak."
"No, we shall not say that," replied Combeferre. "Nor shall we put advertisements in the government papers saying that we are a group of handsome, idealistic young students willing to hire themselves out as companions, like impoverished spinsters, because you and I both know that some old molly will ask Jehan to come out to Champagne or somewhere to see his art collection and Jehan will believe the all allusions to David and Jonathan and Orestes and Pylades are merely standards of Romantic friendship and classical allusions as opposed to investigations into the degree of Jehan's liberalism."
"I know a number of women who would gladly pay for Enjolras's company," said Bossuet.
"To… you are not suggesting—"
"No, no," Bossuet interrupted hastily, as he received glares from both Combeferre and Grantaire. "Perhaps if we were to host a ball, charge an admission fee and just let it be known that Enjolras will be there…."
"What, and have him glare all our customers into hysterics?" asked Bahorel, coming in and wandering over, drawn as much by the remaining punch as by the argument. "Of all of us, only Enjolras, Jehan and Courfeyrac have first-hand knowledge of how their mothers planned balls and none of them would have paid the slightest bit of attention, and good for them! We have no need of acting like some sort of harem for the fantasies of bored girls with too much time on their hands."
"Can you think of anything better?" demanded Grantaire.
"No," said Bahorel, "but it has always been my habit to destroy rather than to create. It is a great deal more fun."
"May you live in interesting times," said Combeferre, who had recently taken to studying Chinese culture, just out of general curiosity. "The answer to our financial difficulties will not, and I have no idea why I have to repeat this, will not involve prostitution."
"How about moral ambiguity?" asked Grantaire.
"Would you like to tell Enjolras that our newspaper to send forth the truth into a sea of journalistic non-integrity was funded by moral ambiguity?"
"Euh… no, not really. Looks like it is all up to you Bossuet, you and your aunt."
"What did I say about prostitution?" demanded Combeferre.
Grantaire drummed his fingers on the back of his chair. "Does it still count if it's Courfeyrac?"
"Does it—yes it does still count if it's Courfeyrac."
"What if…" Bossuet began, feeling hopeful, "we tried to convert her to our cause?"
"A monarchist who remained unmoved by the American republic? I cannot see how that would possibly work."
"Why, with a good deal of charm—"
"Why do I have to keep reminding you that there is no need to resort to prostitution?"
"No, no," said Bossuet, flashing a smile at Combeferre. "Not seduction, just clear, rational argument, unlocking the shackles and leading her to truth, like a prisoner from a cave."
"Plato," added Grantaire, with what he clearly thought was a winning smile.
Combeferre stared at him. "I get the feeling that you would never have come up with these ideas if Enjolras was here. If Courfeyrac was, yes, but no, let Combeferre be in charge and then everyone has prove the existence of the inalienable right of free speech in a republic, even if it it's a republic between four walls with a locked door, by abusing it. No, no, no, this is not a good idea, your aunt will not enter into the situation, Bossuet, and I will not have to tell Enjolras that we caused more social ills than we attempted to solve in printing our newspaper."
However, another hour of increasingly bad plans by Grantaire (which included opening and staring in a cabaret, starting an art gallery in Courfeyrac's apartment, writing a pornographic pamphlet with Feuilly using the Amis as nude models, opening a fish shop ("because fish has to be wrapped in newspaper, Combeferre, just like Homerian hero has be wrapped in extended metaphor!") and opening a casino in the back room of the Café Musain), Combeferre gave in and admitted that perhaps convincing Bossuet's aunt that she had converted all the Amis to conservative Catholicism was not the worst plan in the world. That he reserved for Grantaire's plan to turn the backroom into a 'living statuary', or, as Bahorel intrepreted it, a themed brothel, where everyone played the part of an Olympic god (Grantaire had even assigned a few parts before Combeferre actually cracked, such as Apollo for Enjolras, who would look good in a toga, Dionysus for Grantaire, who would very much enjoy the part, and Athena for Combeferre, because cross-dressing was a staple of any good, classically inspired drama).
"I cannot get out of entertaining my aunt," said Bossuet, when Combeferre had polished his glasses so hard he popped out one of the lenses. "Any good friend could come to my aid in my hour of need, but only a dedicated revolutionary and an unorthodox genius would take a look at my problem and see in it an opportunity to help out an even greater friend, the republic."
"If it will keep a roulette wheel out of the backroom and me out of a dress, fine," said Combeferre, now wearied to the point of tears. "Why is it, Grantaire, that I have to keep stressing no prostitution with you? Oh God of the innocent and the good, why have you so abandoned your children?"
"You went to the Polytechnique, before deciding you didn't like your military obligation and switching to medicine," Grantaire said kindly. "You could not have expected to get out of there sane. My father certainly did not."
"I hope Satan, encased in ice, will take his time off from masticating Brutus to gnaw on your head for betraying the moral progress of the republic," said Combeferre, though he was unused to insults and delivered it badly.
"You ought to have written that one down and slid it over to me to recite," said Bahorel. "That was worse than when Estelle, a very pretty young thing, asked Enjolras what he did for fun and, upon the response of, 'liberate the enslaved masses from the tyranny of absolute monarchy', said, 'your eyebrows are too blond'."
"They are not," Grantaire said, indignant on Enjolras's behalf. "Flaws like too-blond eyebrows are for lesser mortals than Enjolras. He may have no feelings, but he has no flaws either."
"He certainly does have feelings," said Combeferre, "and every one of them will revolt against this plot."
"Then wash your hands of us like Pontius Pilate and let us be the true messiahs of the second French republic!" exclaimed Grantaire. "This will be a brilliant plan. If I had sold my soul to Mephistopheles, it would not have been a better one!"
"If you had sold your soul to Mephistopheles," said Combeferre, "you could have just demanded he get you a printing press and we would not have to pretend to be converted to the very system of thought we have resolved to eradicate. The good must be innocent—"
"So let us dirty our hands and scrape in the mud to build the foundation for your barricade," snapped Grantaire. "As Danton said, l'audace, toujours l'audace."
"As Danton also said, 'Virtue is what I do every night with my wife.' You tell Enjolras that and see what happens." Combeferre tried to shove his glasses back on his nose, realized that he was missing a lens and let out a 'tch' of frustration. "Are you seriously going to go through with this Bossuet?"
Bossuet shrugged. "I have to impress my aunt somehow. If I enlist my Amis to impress her to the point where she gives me enough money to live, then I will, in turn, have enough money to give them a voice. Courfeyrac is already finding a church for me, and it was obvious my aunt would ask around to try and determine how and with whom I pass my day. If you are willing to enter into the fiction…?"
"Of course!" exclaimed Bahorel. "Most of us are law students. Why would we mind inventing a case?"
"Are you still even registered at the law school anymore?" demanded Combeferre.
"Eh, probably. I go to one class a semester, though I take every precaution before sitting in it."
Combeferre looked around at each of them and said, very slowly, "There is nothing I can do to convince you that this is a stupid plan doomed to failure, no pithy word to say or catchy song to convince you to stop…?"
"First of all," said Bahorel, shaking a finger at Combeferre, "none of us are Pontmercy, as in, willfully blinded by an odd mix of ignorance, innocence and idolatry. We are rational—"
"Rational?" demanded Combeferre.
"…alright, thinking adults who function along thought-patterns closer to logic. Second of all, we are not praising Bonaparte, we are engaging in practical politics to secure freedom of speech. Small steps Combeferre, small steps. Look, you ought to be glad I am even trying to build something here without completely destroying the old order before hand. I am working within the system, as shaky and collapsible as it is."
"Though I am pleased you have learned to compromise," said Combeferre, "I would have been happier to see it applied to other circumstances. Legles, are you really…?"
"Determined? Indeed I am." He was. Bossuet was absolutely confident that he would succeed. "If we are using the money Enjolras's father sends him to theoretically spend on wine, women and song, then we should have no compunction about using the money my aunt would give me to make me bourgeois. We take the raw materials given to us to transform our lives and use them to transform ourselves in ways our kindly relatives would never have imagined."
Combeferre, in some desperation, turned to a suspiciously smiling Grantaire.
"There, I have helped build your republic," said Grantaire.
"Or its tomb," said Combeferre.
"I thought you said no pithy one-liners," objected Bossuet.
"Occasionally, like Joly's philosophical outbursts, they just slip out," said Combeferre who, with a final polish of his one-lensed glasses, gathered his things and left.