"Well, it doesn't look bad. Two rooms, very good. One never enjoys entertaining when one's guests must sit on the bed. Have you a girl installed yet?"
"Don't look so scandalised. The answer is no, I see it in your face."
"My studies take up a great deal of time," Julien tried to explain.
"Everyone's studies can take up a great deal of time. Well, friends first, girls second, I suppose. You do have friends?"
"Yes," he answered defensively. Two classmates, Laffitte from the linguistics lectures, and the two gentlemen who worshiped Byron could not be considered friends, precisely, but they would serve if necessary under further interrogation.
"Good, good. Shall I ask your uncle to look out for you? Take you somewhere, of an evening. I couldn't possibly do it – you're far too old for that."
Dear god, he was still on about girls, wasn't he? "I think I can manage it myself," Julien stammered. "The human race could not have survived for millennia if procreation were not an instinct."
"Yes, very good. Go with some of your friends, make a party of it. You'll enjoy it that much more." M. Combeferre turned to go, but added, "Your mother sends her love."
"Really?" Julien asked skeptically.
"Yes," his father answered, but without looking at him. "Well, good day to you."
There was nothing for it – he would have to endure these sorts of questions until he could state honestly that yes, he had known a woman and enjoyed it. The obvious solution was to simply stop in at one of the licensed brothels and have the thing done, but Combeferre was not certain he could further a woman's degradation merely to please his father. And what if a part of him did enjoy it? He would be lost forever. Economic relations could not be brought into it, not if he were to live with himself after. But then what was the choice? To seduce a girl at a dance hall? Or, more accurately, to allow himself to be seduced by a girl at a dance hall? How was that, in truth, any better than a girl with a pass? At least the licensed whore was honest, acknowledging her position. The grisette was perhaps worse, giving of herself in exchange for trinkets and attention, debasing herself little by little until she had no choice other than accepting a pass or ending up in la Force, before ending her days in the Salpetrière.
He tried out this line of inquiry on Courfeyrac, who had listened with interest and sympathy to other inquiries into economic relations, but on this occasion, the boy clapped him on the back and said, "Only a virgin thinks like that, and it's the only thing virginal about you. We must rectify those humours, my dear fellow. Bahorel will know just the place."
"I can manage on my own, thank you."
"If you could, you would have by now. My first was a farm girl, on Easter Sunday, after mass."
Combeferre was fairly certain it was bragging, not reminiscence, and entirely possibly untrue. There was very little of the pastoral in Courfeyrac, for all he claimed to have grown up in a village, a village! It didn't even have walls! It may not have had walls, but it almost certainly had a brothel – Combeferre was certain his father and M. de Courfeyrac would agree completely on the subject of raising sons should they ever have occasion to meet. "Yes, but your father took you out of school as often as he was permitted." And almost certainly gave you the money for the girl, he refrained from added.
"And you've been out how long now and haven't managed to catch a girl's eye?" Courfeyrac wagged his finger teasingly. "You have been keeping very poor company, indeed."
"Did you hear a word I said about degradation and exploitation and relations of the sexes as compared to relations of the bourgeois and working classes?"
"Yes, and it's fascinating, but when a girl wants to be exploited, you exploit her." He waved over Bahorel, who pulled over a chair from another table and sat backwards, leaning his arms on the rail. "Our abbé of the Supreme Being is in need of corruption."
"Of the carnal variety."
"Of course," Bahorel grinned. "The priests of the Republic cannot be celibate. Neither should they embrace such a bourgeois institution as marriage."
"Where should we take him?"
"I don't need to be taken anywhere," Combeferre protested.
"Then why did you tell us?" Combeferre didn't answer. He knew perfectly well that only from this company could the solution his father wanted come, and if pressed, he would have to admit that he ought not to enter into marriage without experience. Instinct would lead to procreation, but experience would possibly get there by a more direct route. "It'll have to be a maison de tolérance – I don't think he'd do well with a nice girl from a dance hall," Bahorel said only somewhat quietly to Courfeyrac.
"I know. Better to learn the object of wooing before one learns to woo. But where?"
"How much are you willing to spend?" Bahorel asked. Combeferre merely shrugged his shoulders.
"The high end, then – we shall set you up properly! Mère Romain's restaurant?"
"What if there's a raid?" Courfeyrac asked.
"A maison it shall be, then. Déléry?" he considered. "No, better Guinot." Then it came to him, an epiphany Combeferre did not like at all. "Paret. Mère Paret. Yes. When shall we go? We'll all go. Tonight?" Combeferre must have blanched – he certainly felt ill at the thought – because Bahorel corrected himself. "Tomorrow. We shall dine, go to the opera, and decamp for Mère Paret's."
"You see? Bahorel can sort anything."
"Where to go is but the beginning of the trouble."
"It shall be no trouble once you see the merchandise. Hell, maybe we'll find someone suitable at the theatre."
"Yes, because she'll go home with him and be disappointed, leaving us high and dry merely because we lack his good looks," Courfeyrac complained, not entirely in jest.
"You talk as if I ought to have successfully attracted and bedded a woman before now."
"Yes, you ought to have done. If someone who looks like him can," Courfeyrac said, jabbing a thumb at Bahorel, "you ought to have long before now."
"Oi! I'll have you know -"
"Handsomest man in the village, we know. Village of circus freaks." Bahorel got him into a headlock, but they were both laughing, Combeferre trying not to smile at the scene they were making. He still had no real idea why they continued to bother with him, but there were times he enjoyed their boisterous company.
The following evening was not one of those times, however. Dinner, the opera, sitting in the pit so that Bahorel could keep an eye on the ballet chorus, these were all familiar entertainments, even if Combeferre preferred to sit at the rear of the auditorium with the aficionados, out of the way of the rowdies, where one might actually see the stage and even hear some of the singing. Mère Paret's, however, was completely unknown.
When Bahorel had said he would set him up properly, and that it would cost, Combeferre had hardly expected that "properly" meant a house just off a fashionable street, the door answered by a well-dressed maidservant. After Bahorel dropped a few names, they were ushered into a dimly lit parlour, empty of people but for the lady of the house, a large dark woman who greeted them as if they were the children of old friends.
"Ah, my boys, how are you this evening? You are well? That is so good to hear. What good offices might I be able to perform for you tonight?"
Combeferre's mouth was dry, and he had no idea how to phrase what had brought him here even if he were able to speak. This was not at all the sort of place where one could state his business outright, even if it was a licensed brothel. Bahorel spoke for him. "My friend is sadly behind his time. How may we bring him up to date?"
Mère Paret examined him with all the care Combeferre might have expected if she were one of his mother's friends deciding if he be permitted to have more than one dance with her daughter. "You are quite certain? Oh, this is a tragedy. How can a youth flower when it is choked with its own emissions? You shall have your release tonight, my dear boy."
"No virgins," Bahorel told her.
"Not at all," she agreed. "No, not at all. Have you a preference, monsieur?" she asked Combeferre.
"Preference?" he managed to spit out.
"Dark, fair, tall, short, buxom, lithe? We do what we can to cater to our visitors' tastes."
"I never thought about it."
She leaned in a little. "Oh, but you have. Come, you have. You have had thoughts, fantasies, inclinations," she said insinuatingly.
It was true. "Tall and lithe," he muttered, looking at the floor. It was not the fashion, and he rather feared the ridicule of the friends who had brought him here, but they said nothing for once.
Mère Paret rang a bell and asked that Lisette be brought in. Soon enough, a tall blonde of actual beauty entered the parlour, her pale evening gown exposing a great deal of décolletage, her hair tumbling over one shoulder. She came directly to Mère Paret and, at a sign, curtsied to Combeferre. He had expected the degradation he believed in, a worn out woman who would lie back and accept his fumbling ministrations for the coin. The parlour had to be merely a setting in which the low quality of the merchandise would not be noted, as a false jeweler is careful to display gilt on velvet. The truth seemed as far from his expectations as could be. It was hard to believe this girl would merely accept anything that did not please her, yet neither was he intimidated by the thought that he could not possibly please her.
"What do you think?" Mère Paret asked.
"You lucky bastard," Bahorel whispered in his ear. "My first wasn't half so good looking."
"How beautiful she is," he said, only later realising it was aloud.
"Treat him gently, my darling," Mère Paret ordered the girl. "He is a pupil."
Lisette took his hand, and as he followed her up the stairs, Combeferre could hear the procuress turn to his friends in a far more cheerful voice. "Now, boys, how shall you pass the time?" She could read her clientele very well.
In Lisette's room – he briefly wondered if it were her room or simply a room in which all the women took clients, until she kissed him and he completely forgot how to think – two candles were reflected in the mirror above the bed, and there was a heavy scent of perfume, as if the fire in the grate were composed of sandalwood. He thought she could kiss the life out of him, and he did not much care if that were the case. The familiar insistent pressure at the flap of his trousers was released by expert hands, the long white fingers caressing his cock as it had never been touched before.
Later, he realised her dress must have ingenious fastenings, for he had no idea how she managed to slip out of it and stand before him in a shift that barely covered her bottom, her stays covered in dark flowered silk in pleasant contrast to the nearly transparent muslin through which he could even now perceive the darker hair between her legs. She managed to strip him as expertly as she had undressed herself, possibly because he was willing to permit her anything so long as she kept his head swimming in the combination of nervous sensation from her hand on his cock and the view of that thick rope of blonde hair crossing her white breast and glinting like gold in the flicker of candlelight.
She pulled him down into the soft depths of the featherbed and spread her legs, the dark hair of the venusian mound showing a hint of pink where it ought to be pierced. "Come now, dear," she said, the first words she had spoken yet, her voice low and husky with an Eastern, almost German, accent. Her very voice was intoxicating. "Shall I guide you?"
"Please." He suddenly felt terribly young and faulty, but she helped him to find the entrance, and instinct took over. Which was for the best, as all he could see, when he could see, was the white rise of her breasts and her collarbone, just to where her neck curved up from her shoulders, and that blonde hair. Whiteness and a curve as explosions of sensation rocked his brain, his hips and hers moving in time, in perfect rhythm. He was bent over her somehow, and she ran her fingers through his hair, setting his scalp on fire, every nerve terribly, delightfully engaged. Somehow it climaxed, not at all as when he had engaged in the so-called sin of onanism but with an intensity he could hardly have imagined, and then it was all over.
Not entirely over, as the dim light and the perfume and the girl were still there, but his senses had returned. She was not so young as he had feared, definitely his senior, though well-kept, her clear complexion real and not faked with a heavy coat of powder. She permitted him to run his fingers down her cheek, to kiss her, to bury his face in that curve of neck and shoulder and breathe in her perfume and sweat and distinctly female scent. He did not care in that moment what had brought her here, why she was in Paris and in such straits as to need a pass. He cared only that she felt natural in his arms, her lips on his the only possible conjunction of bodies in space. She pushed herself into a sitting position but let him continue to explore her for as long as he liked, and he was grateful for it. There was a reciprocity, an equivalence in the two of them sitting on the bed, questioning each other through touch rather than voice, learning the parts of a woman in the life, not in the morgue.
He thanked her softly, not entirely certain that he wanted the evening to end, but knowing that he must pull away or become irrevocably lost. She helped him to dress, tying his cravat herself and smoothing his hair, giving him a final kiss before closing the door, leaving a layer of wood between them. He felt terribly alone as he walked back down the dark stairs, into the dim red parlour, where Mère Paret and Courfeyrac sat waiting.
"Ah, here is a man who has seen the mysteries," Mère Paret said.
Bahorel bounded down the stairs behind him and threw an arm around Combeferre's shoulders. "We are much in your debt, madame."
"In truth," Combeferre managed to agree. Courfeyrac made their proper goodbyes to the procuress and followed them out into the shockingly cold November night.
"Well, how do you feel?" Bahorel asked Combeferre.
Combeferre wasn't entirely certain he could answer. Cold. Worn out. Terribly small and insignificant compared to the greatness of creation as measured by the sexual instinct. "How ought I to feel?"
But he didn't feel it at all, and it was a relief to see Courfeyrac shake his head. "No. With the right woman, the power is hers. We are at their mercy. That is the intoxication, the only moment when we are completely under their power. We give in, she takes everything we have, because it is her due, she demands and we give in." He could seem terribly young at times, particularly when in the company of the much older Bahorel, but there was a fervency in his tone that transcended his youth. Enjolras could speak in such tones of the Republic to come, but somehow, Courfeyrac did not seem petty when speaking of carnal relations in that manner. This, too, was a power that could change the world.
Combeferre found himself sliding over to Courfeyrac's side, slipping an arm around Courfeyrac's shoulders and pleased that Courfeyrac slipped his arm around his waist in return. Courfeyrac could throw his arms around a complete stranger without a thought, merely out of cheerful instinct, but Combeferre could never feel so free. This was the best he could do, and Courfeyrac seemed to understand and appreciate what little he could give. "Is it always like that?"
"With the right girl, always."