"Missionary again? Christ, even she's bored!"
Marius was not exactly in a position to look around at where any voice might be coming from. But the voice may have had a point – Cosette was turned away from him, her eyes closed, as he thrust into her. When he came and pulled out, she merely rolled away,wrapping the blankets around her.
"Did you hear something?" Marius asked.
"No," she murmured. "Go to sleep."
Yes, after six months of marriage, she was bored. Marius lay back and unfortunately heard the voice again. "You see? I told you so. You're bored, she's bored, and how many times do you have to be told? You only get a male heir if she orgasms, and at this rate, she might as well have stayed in the convent." It was a very familiar voice. "Convent. Yes, she'd be having much more fun in the convent. I always thought you'd found the most virginal creature imaginable, but she's adorable, and I'd gladly take her if I still had corporeal form."
Marius winced. Courfeyrac. I've gone mad, he thought. Completely around the bend. That or my grandfather is now somehow pretending to be my dead best friend. "Cosette, did you hear that?"
She groaned. "There's nothing to hear. Go to sleep."
But Marius got up and wrapped a dressing gown around himself. "I need to think." He kissed her on the cheek before leaving her alone in bed.
It was late enough that the house was asleep, and Marius could pace back and forth in the salon without interruption.
"Ah, I've got you alone now."
"Why must you haunt me?"
"I haven't the first clue. I think I'm being punished by the most boring situation possible for a ghost. Am I a ghost? I have no idea what I am. I do know I came to consciousness in your bedroom three nights ago and have been forced to watch you behave like a fumbling adolescent with your darling wife these three nights straight. I cannot take it any longer."
Marius looked around wildly. "Where are you?"
"I have no idea. Where can I be if I have no body? If I had to suggest a space, sort of near the fireplace, I guess."
There was patently no one anywhere near the fireplace, but Marius directed his attention to the general area. "This is a form of madness that could not have been predicted. You were my best friend by force of circumstance; Cosette fills that role now."
"Pontmercy, my dear chap, force of circumstance? Really? You permitted yourself no friends at all by force of circumstance. I was your only friend because I couldn't bear to let you disappear into the depths and end up dying alone. No human being deserves that, young or old, male or female. You could never entirely resist me because I never let you. Cosette is not filling that role at all."
"I have no need of you now."
"Oh, but your need continues. You never let me teach you much of anything. You never let your grandfather teach you much of anything. He has the best books! If watching you bed your wife is hell, the opportunity to rifle through your grandfather's collection is heaven."
"How can you rifle through anything if you have no body?"
"I don't know, but I can. Oh, look, I dropped this hideous vase." And indeed, a rather unattractive vase came tumbling from the mantle, untouched by any visible hands. It stopped short of crashing to the floor, hovered in midair for a moment, then came to rest gently, in an upright position, next to the fire irons.
"I have gone mad. Dear god. I have gone completely mad."
"Yes, you have. That creature in your bed upstairs, and you can only manage one position? A position in which she doesn't enjoy a thing? You have been poorly educated, my friend."
"I love my wife," Marius insisted.
"You don't show it very well. We shall start with a lesson in anatomy. Let us start with those most perfect of organs, the breasts."
Marius flushed darkly, even as he was certain it was merely his own madness.
"What else can provide so much pleasure and then be used for the nourishment of life? First, you've got to get her naked. Have you never seen her breasts?"
"She is my wife, not one of your grisettes."
"That's obviously a no. Come, how can you continue to live like this? There are two things you must remember about breasts: never squeeze them firmly like melons, and pay vast amounts of attention to the nipple."
"The nipple. There are odes written to well-formed nipples. Your grandfather has a couple. Odes, I mean – I am grateful I have not seen his nipples. I cannot imagine that your wife does not have exquisite, rosy, well-formed nipples. Your tongue is a very good instrument for this purpose."
"You are suggesting that I should lick my wife's breasts."
"Lick is not it at all. Touch, tease, caress – not lick. She will not be so bored if you lavish attention on all her good spots. Now, there are a host of things to consider between the legs."
"How can my madness be inventing anatomy to which I have never paid the least attention?"
"You're not mad. I'm haunting you and sick to death of it. Now, between the legs. You have found the slit, but you have not found the button."
"Front and centre. Don't worry, I was appalled when I learned I had been missing it, too. I am forever grateful to the girl who first told me where attention was to be applied. There has not been a disappointed girl in my collection since. Front and centre – how could we have missed it?"
"The button. The clitoris. It is in front of – above – the vaginal opening. Touch, rub, tease – she probably frigs herself since you're incapable of finding it. It is to the woman what the head of your prick is to you. Or, perhaps, the head of my prick is – was – to me. Can you even feel anything?"
"I can," Marius replied defensively.
"There you go, then. The nipple and the clitoris. These are her keys to pleasure. Use them well. Treat them gently. If you make love to them, she will love you."
"She does love me."
"Not in bed. A girl who will not look at you when she is being fucked is a girl who is merely enduring, not enjoying the act."
Marius did not want to admit that Courfeyrac had a point, but Courfeyrac did have a point. Over the past few months, Cosette had seemed to submit to the necessary act rather than eagerly ask for it. He had merely assumed that, as for him, the novelty had worn off. Was he really such a bad husband as to not please his wife? "The nipple and the clitoris," Marius repeated.
"Exactly! Now, shall we discuss positions? Oh, how shall I do this? You would be much better off with a few publications your grandfather has, namely a thick book in Italian with the most delightfully detailed etchings. You might consider taking her from behind, or standing. Oh, a delightful one is to have her sit on your cock – if her breasts are as pert as they appear when she's dressed, that will provide a delicious view."
"I have gone mad, I have somehow encountered a very naughty, sinful, disgusting book of my grandfather's, and I am now living in it. You are not real. None of this is real."
"Your bedroom shortcomings are indeed sadly real, my friend. This is not the reaction of a friend, to tell him that he is not real and his attempts at help are madness. Come, you were nearly there. We shall do positions another time, if need be. For now, the nipple and the clitoris. Consider the mastery of these organs your first-year exam. They do not require so much attention at lecture."
"Are you comparing intimate relations to law school?"
"Yes!" the voice said brightly. "You are catching on. Not a hopeless case after all. I do miss that annoying naïveté, my dear fellow. The dead are not naïve."
"Are you well?" Marius finally dared ask.
"I'm dead!" It was easy to imagine the grin that ought to have attached to that statement, however. "I am neither well nor ill. I can see the future and the past, as well as the present, and that ought to be great fun. In about thirty years, an Englishman is going to translate a most delightful Hindoo guide to sexual positions that puts even your grandfather's classic pornography to shame. But how can one enjoy anything when everything is neither beginning nor end, just a vast middle? There are no surprises. And I have no body. Oh, yours will grow old and you'll end up stiff and bent and toothless, but even then you will have sensation. I don't know which is worse about death – the lack of feeling or the lack of surprise. I desperately want to embrace you, dear fellow, for old time's sake, and your adorable wife, but what is the point when I have no arms and the affection I can muster pales compared to what I had in life?" Marius had heard Courfeyrac occasionally capable of philosophic flights when alive, but this was wholly new, and terribly sad. What a terrible streak of madness to take the joy out of man who was nothing but joy, a joy Marius had avoided in what he was starting to think was his last fit of madness. How could he have not appreciated Courfeyrac in life?
"I'm sorry I was not a better friend."
"You are how you are." The brightness was back, a definite relief. "But do consider that your grandfather knows something other than how to worship a dead king. He keeps the Italian guidebook on the second shelf, next to his bed. It's given him very pleasant dreams for many years."
"Are you going?"
"I thought I was a figment of your madness."
"You are. But – I'm sorry. Thank you."
"Nipple and clitoris. Remember."
"I – I will."
He paced for a while. The whole thing was very, very odd, and disgusting, and sadly to the point. "Courfeyrac?" he called out after a while. But there was no response. Madness. Utter madness.
It was hard enough to have had Courfeyrac's voice in his head the previous night. But now, Cosette expected that they would continue the efforts of conceiving a child, and when Marius had confessed he would prefer to sleep alone, she had sulked. Very well, then, he would go on in his own manner out of sheer perversity.
Except once confronted with the prospect, he started to wonder about what Courfeyrac had said about nipples. Nipples were terribly important. Rather fearing that if he ignored all of Courfeyrac's advice, Courfeyrac would come back to haunt him for a second night, and unable to bring himself to the necessary state of arousal in any case at the thought that Courfeyrac was watching, nipples began to seem even more important than they ever had before.
"Cosette, would you consider – I mean – would it please you, if we perhaps made tonight's attempt a little different?"
"How do you mean 'different'?" she asked suspiciously.
"If you might consider – just consider – removing your shift?"
"Oh, thank god. I didn't dare ask."
"What do you mean?" he worried, now far more suspicious than she.
"It's August. It's rather hot with you on top of me." And she sat up and with a swift, graceful movement slid her shift over her head, letting it fall in a pile on the floor. Her breasts were deliciously pert, even when she lay back down to wait for him to take his marital due.
Nipples. Marius first tried touching her breasts, white and firm with youth, the rosy nipples delicately pointed, though he had to remind himself that Courfeyrac had said not to squeeze the breasts. The appropriate instrument was the tongue. Dear lord, what was he about to do?
"Marius, what are you doing?" Cosette sounded no more aroused than ever.
"I am – uhm – caressing your nipples with my tongue?"
"You're licking me like a dog."
"Whatever possessed you to do that?"
"It – it was in one of the novels I once translated," he lied. He could not very well say "my dead best friend is haunting me solely to give me advice on intimate relations".
"I'm not a German. Does that make you a German Shepherd?" She fell to giggling, which was both terribly embarrassing to Marius as the victim, and terribly sweet to him as her lover. She was meant to be laughing, not pouting in frustration.
"It was not a pastoral novel."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, darling." She was trying to get a hold of herself, but every time she looked at him, a fresh wave of giggles erupted, shaking her bare breasts delightfully. A few deep breaths later, however, she managed to say, "All right, then, shall we continue?"
The nipples were apparently not at all where it was at. Which left the clitoris. Front and centre. What did "front and centre" mean? "Above or in front of the slit"? It was too much for one night. Marius had her as usual, though even after he had finished, she looked at him and started giggling again. "I'm sorry. German shepherd!" and off she went.
Offended, he made a hasty retreat back to the salon. "Courfeyrac!" he called. No answer. "Courfeyrac!" more sharply. "Nipples are not where it is at!" Still no answer. What sort of man called himself a friend, gave poor advice on the most intimate of subjects, and then disappeared? Perhaps it was merely the greatest evidence that there was no ghost, he was not being haunted, he was simply going mad.
A week of nights expecting Courfeyrac's voice to come and yet not hearing it, and Marius was certain that it had been a passing madness, a very odd dream that must have arisen from a vague memory of one of his grandfather's books. Until, when bedding Cosette yet again, he heard the voice. "What did I tell you? Front and centre. Look at her. Bored!" Marius immediately went limp and pulled out, utterly conscious of his failure. Was his failure the cause or result of his madness? Back to the salon he went – the only thing worse would be to have bawdy conversations with himself in Cosette's hearing.
"Where have you been?" he asked, infuriated, once he was alone.
"German shepherd?" Courfeyrac laughed. "I told you, caressing with the tongue is not the same as licking."
"You've been watching this whole time? Is nothing sacred to you?"
"Sexual relations are sacred to me, which is why I cannot bear to watch you continue mucking them up."
"Why didn't you say anything when I asked for you?"
"I don't know how this haunting thing works. Sometimes, like now, I can talk and you actually hear. Sometimes, I can't. I didn't mean to leave you. If I still had a tongue, I would provide a practical demonstration."
"If you still had a tongue, I would never permit you to meet my wife."
"I didn't mean on your wife. Or on yourself; I think you'd faint if I tried it."
"How many times am I going to let you lead me wrong?"
"I have never led you wrong, dear fellow."
"Standing on a barricade against a government rather better than the previous one was not exactly the best choice I have ever made."
"Come come, you were only there to kill yourself." Marius' jaw dropped. "The dead know all. Unfortunately. Still, you saved my life, for a few hours, and you didn't blow yourself up, so I do love you for it. Most chaps who want to off themselves just jump off a bridge. A political movement you don't wholly subscribe to is rather creative and terribly brave. And since I did not actually lead you to it, you can hardly compare it to friendly advice on how to please a woman."
Marius tried a few times to say something, anything, register that he was utterly offended that anyone know how incredibly stupid and selfish he had been, yet all that came out was, "Nipples are not where it is at."
"So we push ahead to the real thrust of the matter, in any case. Nipples are the hors d'oeuvre, a little nibble before the main course. You must, absolutely must, find the clitoris and treat it with respect. Love requires finesse, you see. It is not about taking anything. You must give. The woman is the recipient, not only of your seed, but of your love. I thought that was obvious, but apparently it is not."
"You used to go on about collecting women."
"A joke, dear fellow. They all kept parts of me and let me have very little of them. And yes, I would rather be haunting some of them, watching them with the men who replaced me, instead of watching you. I am still devoted to all of them. But I have somehow been sent to you, so I must, when I am permitted, make it worth the attention. I cannot believe I am about to reduce the most beautiful act in creation to a geometric diagram, but if you run away from your wife every time I make my presence known, I will never have live anatomy with which to work. Between her legs, you have managed to find her slit. There are three things of importance within the slit, all in a vertical line perpendicular to the bed – or the angle of entry of your prick. From bottom to top: the cunt, which you have found, then the little hole through which she can piss, then a little button of flesh. All of this is below the hood. You must focus your attention on that little button of flesh. And for the sake of all that is holy, finesse, Herr German Shepherd! Since you can't find it, she probably frigs herself, and no priest on earth will condemn her for it."
"Cosette would never commit a sin!" Marius protested. There was no response. "Courfeyrac?" Silence. "God damn you!" Courfeyrac, alive or dead, could drive anyone to blasphemy, and it was a much shorter road when he could not give a cheeky grin that made anything forgivable.
Marius was determined that he would not take advice from anyone who found it amusing to call him a German Shepherd. Including Cosette. And she was sleeping alone for the next several days as her time came.
But one evening, sitting together in the salon, alone after his grandfather and his aunt had both retreated to bed, something provoked Marius to ask, "Cosette, do you ever pleasure yourself?"
She looked up at him quickly. "What?"
He flushed darkly but asked again. "Do you ever pleasure yourself?"
"I would never commit a sin," she answered stiffly, looking straight ahead rather than at him. "Do you?"
"No," he answered. Indeed, he had no need of it with the near daily attempts at procreation.
"She frigs herself when you come down here to talk to me."
"How can you have been watching?" Marius snapped. Aloud.
"Marius?" Cosette asked, completely worried.
"Damn, your wife still can't hear me."
"I thought I heard something," Marius tried to explain.
"Should I go to bed or should I sit with you a little longer?" Cosette asked.
"I – I don't know." Marius' voice was shaky.
"Darling, something is wrong." She knelt beside his chair and looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Shall I have someone fetch the doctor?"
He looked away. How could he possibly tell her the real trouble? "A doctor is not necessary."
"If I have done something wrong . . ."
"It's not you."
"It's me," Courfeyrac said. "A third person is always in the way in a marriage. I'd ask to be introduced to your wife, but I have no lips with which to kiss her hand."
Marius tried to glare him into submission, which was difficult when Courfeyrac was merely a voice in his head.
"You know I love you, don't you?"
"Of course. And I love you."
"But I've failed you."
"As a husband."
"Must we have secrets still? Just tell me what you mean."
"I think I'm going mad," he finally admitted.
"I hear voices. No, a voice. Telling me I have failed you as a husband."
"Not entirely," Courfeyrac tried to correct. "Only in bed."
"You are not a failure in bed," Cosette told him. "You are merely a man."
"Oh ho, now she hears me! Good evening, madame. My name is Courfeyrac."
"You have done quite enough," Marius snapped.
"Are you snapping at me?" Cosette asked defensively.
"No, at him."
"At – the voice in your head?"
"Do you hear me? You take my meaning, at least. Good evening, madame," Courfeyrac tried again.
"You did not hear him?"
"Courfeyrac. He has been trying to introduce himself. You are responding to his questions."
"Marius, only you and I are in this room."
"Courfeyrac, ask her something."
"What am I to ask her? Do you frig yourself because you married the most boring lover in existence?" Courfeyrac asked Marius sarcastically.
"Did you hear that?" Marius asked Cosette.
"Yes, I sometimes take my pleasure in my hands, what of it?" she snapped.
Marius was rather taken aback by the answer. First, that Courfeyrac was correct, and second, that Cosette seemed able to respond to questions she did not hear. "Cosette, what did I ask you?" he asked slowly.
"You asked – you – oh dear." She hid her face in her hands. "You told your phantom to ask me something, and then you asked what I heard, and the most horrible bawdy thing came out of my mouth. What is going on?"
"It wasn't at all horrible, madame," Courfeyrac tried to comfort her. Something of what he was saying was getting through. "I'm sure you'd rather your husband give you pleasure than have to take sole responsibility for it. I'm doing my best, but he is profoundly uneducated and disbelieving, and he takes instruction so poorly. I did tell him that licking was unacceptable."
"I have no idea what is going on," Marius admitted.
"He told you to lick me!" Cosette cried. "No," she corrected, "you did not listen properly, and so you licked me. You lied when you said it was from a German novel!"
"I never said it was from a German novel."
"A novel, then. So what is this? We are being haunted by what? Your grandfather's odd looks taking on supernatural form?"
"I rather like that explanation of me," Courfeyrac said.
"The ghost of my friend Courfeyrac," Marius tried to explain.
"Your so-called friend takes such interest in how I must pleasure myself? I think I am glad he is dead so I shall not have to meet him in the life."
"I was terribly charming in the life. I wouldn't want to meet me, either, if this were all I knew of me. It's depressing watching people botch pleasures you can never have again, and disgusting when one of those people was your friend."
"He was a very good friend to me," Marius tried to explain, "who would not have wanted to end up in such -"
"Such disgusting circumstances," Cosette finished. "Very well. M. Courfeyrac, if you exist, what can we do to send you on your way? I fear we are terrible hosts, and you must really prefer to be elsewhere."
"I wish I knew. Perhaps I am the fairy of good sex, and once Marius brings you to the height of pleasure, I can quit walking these thoroughly embarrassing halls." Cosette and Marius both flushed. "Sorry, please forgive me, madame, I had forgotten that you can hear or at least perceive my ill natured and deeply sarcastic thoughts. I have worn out my welcome, that I know, and if I knew how to quit this house, I would do it gladly, not because you are poor hosts but because I am the worst sort of guest."
"Is it possible for a man to bring about the heights of pleasure?"
"The poor, poor girl. Madame, you must take your husband's education into your own hands, I fear, or there will be no end to our trials."
"I had not known that there were higher pleasures for women," Marius admitted.
"Is your friend watching?" Cosette asked.
"How am I to know? I cannot see him. Courfeyrac?" he asked. No answer. "This is the best I can do. He does not answer me."
Cosette pulled a chair close to Marius and, sitting on the edge, lifted her skirt and spread her legs. "Give me your hand."
"What are you doing?"
"Taking your education into my own hands. Oh, this is odd, one moment, there!" she cried out. "Oh, there. Do you feel that? Oh, yes, there."
He fingered the little button of flesh. "This?"
"Oh, yes, yes. There, yes." Every brush at the button set off a shudder that was distinctly different from anything he had ever seen Cosette do.
"Congratulations. You have found the button."
Marius looked around wildly.
"Is he still here?" Cosette cried, looking around herself, even though she could see and hear nothing.
"I don't know. Courfeyrac?" No answer. "Courfeyrac?"
"Monsieur?" No answer.
"I must have panicked," Marius apologised.
"Take me to bed. Perhaps he will not follow us there."
Indeed, there was no need for Courfeyrac to follow, if he were, as he feared, spending his afterlife as the fairy of good sex. A little education was all Marius had ever needed for Cosette to be pleased with him in every possible way.