It was a cold December in 1831, one of those that seeps into the bones and refuses to leave even when one sits by the fire. The Café Musain was well frequented by both the locals fleeing howling winds in the gaps in their walls and stuttering hearth embers, and the students escaping lodging of a similar quality.
Every time the doors of the café opened a biting wind barged through, letting the warmth rush into the outdoors, leading to a whole series of murderous glares for the entrant. This was how Joly found himself on this particular day when he wandered into the Musain, and wandered through to the back room.
They were a group of eight. They were young men, boys, even, and they behaved as such. With only one exception, they were students, and their names were Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Jehan Prouvaire, Bahorel, Bousset, Feuilly, Joly and Grantaire.
When Joly finally entered, a great cheer went up the room. He grinned embarrassedly- he was late, after all, after repeatedly promising not to be- and took his place at the long candlelit table, and a bottle of wine was shoved at him.
“The doctor or your mistress, Joly?”
Joly rolled his eyes at Grantaire, the speaker, and took the bottle he was being teased with. “Can it not be both? Cannot one serve as the other?”
Grantaire roared with laughter. “If you treat your mistress as your doctor, it is no wonder Master Joly should find himself so frequently indisposed.”
Joly grinned and sat down at the table with the rest of the group. It had been the doctor, not Musichetta, this time- there had been a twinge in his ankle, and all his textbooks had written that his symptoms aligned with a form of tuberculosis. One could never be too careful when it came to one might suffer from.
“Perhaps that is why Master Bousset finds himself so frequently injured.”
There was another round of laughter, and Laigle- or Bousset, as they called him, for going bald early- had the grace to look sheepish. The fact Bousset and he shared their mistress was no secret, and people tolerated it in good humour. In fact, humour may have been the only reason why it was ever spoken of at all- he could not even recall the name of Bahorel’s mistress.
Grantaire draped himself around Laigle. “Yes, our dearest Bousset suffers from the most notorious ill luck,” he proclaimed. “However, despite this, he finds himself not ill of pocket, and unlike our dearest Master Joly,” he said with devilish relish- “he has already sprung for a round.”
Cheers rose again as Joly flipped Grantaire off and wandered over to find Madame Houcheloup to order more drinks. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and he was certain there would be many more nights like this to come.
Grantaire shrugged off Bahorel off him after a playful fight over a bottle of wine and turned to Combeferre. “And who’s this then?”
Courfeyrac took notice at that- Combeferre wasn’t the type of man to bring anyone with him to any sort of gathering. Socialness wasn’t in Combeferre’s nature- that he had brought a friend with him was remarkable. To be quite candid, that Combeferre had any other friends was remarkable in itself.
Combeferre beamed and indicated to the young man beside him. “This,” he announced, “is Enjoras.”
Courfeyrac couldn’t say he was impressed. The man before him was sullen and sulky and whispered to Combeferre while looking around at the Musain disdainfully. It was a bit rich, thought Courfeyrac, that any man could cast judgement on the cafe when he kept such bad care of himself. Unwashed corn-coloured hair dripped into his wine, and his clothes had been patched. But more than that was his manner- there was a certain discontent about the man.
Grantaire took the seat next to Enjoras and began to play with the mass of yellow curls. “And what do you do, sunshine? How have you captured the heart of our beloved Combeferre?”
The young man squirmed like a wet cat at the feeling of Grantaire’s fingers in his hair. “I am a student of the people, of the rights they deserve, of our glorious nation’s truest iterations, so the world might be restored to its’ once great order!”
Courfeyrac and Grantaire looked blankly at him. Combeferre coughed.
“Enjoras is in the law school.”
The newcomer nodded. “I intend to serve the people.”
Judging by his mannerisms, Courfeyrac didn’t think the boy was fit to serve the drinks. Looking at Grantaire, it was clear he was thinking the same thing. But, Combeferre was obviously enchanted with this new friend, and it would be awful of them to discourage him from finding a social life outside of their little group.
Courfeyrac placed his hat on the table. “Alright then. I find myself curious. How does one serve the people?”
He had only meant it as a conversation starter, the being of a comedic exchange that might get the man to loosen himself up, but instead he climbed onto the top of the table with righteous indignation, drawing all attention to him. Enjoras smiled down at them.
“Let me tell you what needs to be done.”
Then he began to talk.
Combeferre stared up at him in awe from the very beginning, and by the end, only Grantaire was not listening. When he finished, there was silence left in the little back room. Enjoras grinned.
“I can tell you more.”
And Courfeyrac found himself nodding along, inviting him back, and wanting to listen again.
“In this world we live in, there’s no freedom for the common man; he lies oppressed under the boot of his master, and he will only be free again once he has removed the boot and burnt it like he does his own for food. But those that oppress have made such a thing impossible, as no poor man receives the education that would pull him out of his state to overthrow the state. Only those educated in governance- the students- are equipped to remove the boot of oppression. Robespierre was a leader; yes, a great man; yes, but educated in governance he was not, which lead to the rise and oppression of the bastard Napoleon Bonaparte, who starved villages and poisoned rivers in order the finance his armies in his brutal wars. No; only those who are educated enough are qualified to lead the people of France out of the state we find ourselves in, and friends, are we not educated men?”
Grantaire took the opportunity of the pause to look around his friends. They were enraptured; they were well on the way to be won. Enjoras smiled magnanimously.
“Listen to me, and I will tell you what needs to be done, who we must be, who France must be, and you will see there is no other way.”
Grantaire scoffed. Joly shushed him.
“Let him speak!”
“About what? His glorious revolution?”
Joly rolled his eyes. “Just because he’s a lawyer, Grantaire. It doesn’t make him wrong.”
“No. It makes him persuasive.”
“Oh, shush, Grantaire. One might think you didn’t think about the world at all.”
Grantaire glanced back at Enjoras, still speaking, and at his friends, still gawping at the fervour and confidence of the young man before them. His friends looked upon Enjoras as if he were speaking only to them, giving them purpose in a world everyone feared would forget them.
He sighed. Growing up a self-proclaimed bono artist amongst a family of rabid Bonapartists taught one how to pick apart an argument and think for oneself. That was the main way he differed from the others- he had gone out of his way to distance himself from the politics that had governed his youth. The others, bless them, had never engaged with them in the first place, growing up as part of the rural peasantry like Feuilly or part of a complacent, safe middle-class. He could tell this was the first time they had ever been tempted with ideas. He drained the last of his bottle of wine- maybe the third tonight, a few months ago he’d only be partway through his first.
“One might think you weren’t thinking for yourselves at all.” He whispered to himself, nursing a fresh bottle.
“To be free.”
The young man- Marius Pontmercy- sat down, silent, at the response. He was going to have to talk to Enjoras, Combeferre thought, if Courfeyrac was going to start bringing Bonapartist boys to meetings. Or have Enjoras talk to the boy himself, see if he could be educated about things.
It was lucky Enjoras was late, or else the whole Napoleonic spiel might have grown violent. And heaven knew they didn’t want to attract the attention of the gendarme.
Courfeyrac appeared to be chastising Marius in hushed tones. At least that was something. If he was going to be irresponsible enough to have a Bonapartist as a roommate, he might as well try to keep him in line. Marius seemed to be close to tears, before wiping his eyes on his coat sleeve and shamefully wandering out of the back room into Place-Saint-Michel.
Courfeyrac crossed the room to Combeferre, shaking his head. “Lost cause.”
“Just Marius or all Bonapartists?”
He shrugged. “He’s already lost his first family for what he believes in. Starts as a monarchist, finds out his father served Napoleon, flips overnight and ends up estranged. If he finds himself changeable now, it’ll all be for nothing.”
Combeferre sighed. “A shame. Someone with such public conviction could have been useful.”
“Someone who gets cut off for their convictions is only useful to be a shield against the cannon of the National Guard. Their bluster might send ammunition back at them.”
The pair of them jumped. Enjoras moved silently, never making the slightest creak on the planks of the Musain. “Anyone foolish enough to express their innermost feelings while still dependent on the charity of others is useless. He spoke without intending to take action- if he had he would have said nothing at all- which makes him even worse than a monarchist. It makes him a politician.”
Enjoras was carrying a large violin case, which he threw down onto the café table with a thud- far too heavy for the case to contain any sort of instrument. “We have better things to do than worry about the likes of bourgeoisie boys like that.”
Courfeyrac stared, wide-eyed, at the black case. “Is that-“
Enjoras answered only by unlocking the case and throwing open the lid. There were guns in the case. Old ones. Muskets and disassembled rifles lay next to each other in an array of broken parts. There were long copper wires for shoving down gunpowder, and tiny bullets rolling loosely.
Enjoras pulled one of the whole muskets out. “An instrument of revolution.”
He must have seen Combeferre blanche. He pushed the gun into Combeferre’s chest until the man took it gingerly into his hands.
“Any true man who cares about France and her people plays the revolutionary tune.”
Bahorel wandered down the edge of the Seine, away from the Sorbonne. He paused in places, staring out over the stinking river, at the yellowing bridges and the strolling bourgeoise taking in the Parisian air.
Absences. Argumentative. Brawling. Failure to pay. Subversive politics.
It was fine. He had been a law student for seven years without the intention of becoming a lawyer. Now it was just guaranteed.
He entered into the Musain and picked up a bottle of wine from Madame Houcheloup before traipsing into the back room. He should have gotten two, really- Enjoras had forbidden the waitresses from coming into the back. They were distracting, he said, and the Les Amis’s purpose was to create a new France, not to be carnal, or vulgar, or to entertain any lasting connection-
Bahorel stopped himself. It was like their leader spoke inside his head sometimes. Like a little Enjoras had started squatting in his conscience’s quarters.
Thinking of the man, he was already in the back room when Bahorel walked in. So was Grantaire, but that wasn’t unusual. Grantaire only left the Musain on occasion now- there was no wine at home, he argued, and all his friends were already here, so what reason did he have to leave?
Enjoras looked up from his pile of letters he was burning over a candle. “Bahorel?”
Bahorel raised his bottle. “The one and the same.”
“Aren’t you expected at the Sorbonne?”
He shook his head. “No longer am I a student, except perhaps at life.”
Enjoras realised what he meant and nodded sympathetically. Only a first-year himself, he was on the verge of expulsion for much the same reasons Bahorel had been.
Bahorel took a long drink. Enjoras coughed.
“At least now you can give everything to the cause, with no promises, and no security.”
Bahorel slammed the bottle down, seeing red. He turned on Enjoras, spitting venom at him.
“What can I give now? I have nothing! I will be cut off, I have no future, no prospects beyond this revolution! Tell me, dearest leader, what can I give?”
Enjoras eyeballed him from across the room, studying him.
“In the end, what greater gift can you give France except your life?”
Musichetta handed over a coffee before joining Bousset at the table. He still had pockets full of pamphlets no-one in the café ever took. He was sure Enjoras wouldn’t resent him for taking a break during a slow hour, even if it was with Musichetta.
They were all exhausted- Enjoras was convinced Paris was teetering on the edge of a great awakening and had had then out distributing pamphlets and making speeches at all hours. There was a huge epidemic of cholera throughout the city, and the people were clamouring for medicines, for answers, and were being ignored by those that should be accountable. And now Lamarque, the speaker for the people, had fallen ill, and his doctors were not in high spirits for his recovery.
Musichetta patted his hand, shocking Bousset out of his thoughts. “You look half-dead, my love.”
Bousset shook his head. “We’re doing good work.”
She just sighed and sipped her coffee. “You run yourself ragged chasing after a man you’ve known- what? Five months? You’re dying from the inside out.”
“It’s a little sacrifice.”
“Laigle, you’re not going to solve cholera with a revolution.”
Bousset sunk inside himself, fatigued, knowing it was true and hating it. “What else can we do?”
She shrugged. “You’re a lawyer, Joly is a doctor. The others I can’t say I know, but I’m sure they have professions that could aid in some way. Make the world a little better in little places. My love, no one man can change the world. Not you, not Joly, not even Enjoras.”
Bousset thought of their leader- the young man forged in the righteousness of revolutionary fire, standing proudly with their new-sewn red flag on the tables of the Musain, declaring the future of the new France. “You’re wrong. He could. Enjoras could take root in any man’s heart if only they had the patience to listen to him.”
Musichetta stared down at her coffee. He noticed she was sadly tracing her finger around the rim of the cup, circling round and round. She then gave a sudden, harrowed gasp, and smiled at him.
“Enough revolution for today. Tell me anything else.”
Bousset thought and thought about telling her about the farm near Toulouse where he grew up, with the sheep in the back garden and the hundreds of little stories-
But a boy ran into the shop, and shouted one sentence, leaving Bousset to run after him to the Musain and Musichetta alone, not heard a single one.
“Lamarque is dead.”
Feuilly was the only working man of the Les Amis, a fan maker, and the only Parisian. As such, he was awarded a certain respect within the group- a living symbol of the people whom they fought for.
None of that qualified him to build a barricade.
Enjoras ran up to him, dodging errant pieces of furniture thrown from the windows.
“How is it going?”
Feuilly did question what Enjoras thought made him the best man to assess that and gave a noncommittal shrug. “The larger furniture is at the bottom, but the small pieces and stray wood would be better off on our side. Throwing it over would make it easier for the National Guard the climb over.”
Enjoras nodded contemplatively. “I’ll tell the builders,” he said. “But will it hold against cannon fire?”
Feuilly blanched. “Cannon fire?”
“I’ve had word from the Radical Brotherhood in Saint-Denis that the army is bringing cannons.”
Feuilly stumbled over his words. “P-probably. It’s holding a fair few men’s weight, it should stay up under fire.”
Enjoras surveyed the barricade, satisfied with the response. He smiled. “For Poland.” He said, raising his fist.
Feuilly forced a smile, the once-familiar joke about his obsession with Poland now settling uneasily in his stomach. He repeated the gesture. “For Poland.”
Enjoras saluted and wandered back to the Musain.
Feuilly stood still, rooted to the cobbles of the Place-Saint-Michel. It had never seemed real until now. It had just felt like crazy ideas shared by friends- ideals and ideas, that was the game they thought they were playing. But now there was a barricade, and in the distance, were the squeaks of the wheels of the cannons.
All of a sudden, all of the glory had disappeared from Enjoras for Feuilly. This was no blazing firebrand, but a boy. Just a boy playing games he hadn’t read the rules for.
That was when it sunk in. There was a barricade locking them in. The National Guard was coming.
Somehow, without them even thinking, Enjoras had dragged them into a revolution. And now he’d trapped them in there with him.
The rain had let loose the mud that hid in between the cobbles in the dry weather, and Jehan could feel it soak through to the skin of his knees. He’d never dressed well, but he had liked these trousers, he had been going to a funeral after all, and even if they were starting a revolution in the middle you really should dress up for a funeral-
He didn’t want to die.
He’d only fallen off the wrong side of the barricade, the National Guard side, and they’d taken him and thrown him to the alleyway where they’d set up-
He didn’t want to die. He wondered if Bahorel was alright. They’d been the first two up the barricade, and Bahorel had run straight into a clash. The two of them had sparred while Jehan had tried to keep others from scaling the side, but as he’d fallen over Jehan had seen the little flash of a bayonet heading towards Bahorel from one sneaking up from the side-
He didn’t want to die.
He wanted to know if his little basset hound at home was all right- his name was Chaucer, after the poet- and whether he’d be sad. He wondered if Chaucer would even know, or if he’d even remember his young master. Maybe even his parents wouldn’t keep a melancholy little dog, and it was better for everyone if they all just forgot, but that was even worse-
He was only eighteen years old, and he didn’t want to die.
There were books he’d never read and flower’s he’d never smell, shops he’d never visit and an unfinished block of cheese in his lodging. There was a whole world he’d never see, and he knew it, because there were six guns in a line pointed-