THE BACK ROOM OF THE CAFE MUSAIN
One of the conversations among the young men, at which Marius was
present and in which he sometimes joined, was a veritable shock
to his mind.
This took place in the back room of the Cafe Musain. Nearly all
the Friends of the A B C had convened that evening. The argand
lamp was solemnly lighted. They talked of one thing and another,
without passion and with noise. With the exception of Enjolras
and Marius, who held their peace, all were haranguing rather at
hap-hazard. Conversations between comrades sometimes are subject
to these peaceable tumults. It was a game and an uproar as much
as a conversation. They tossed words to each other and caught
them up in turn. They were chattering in all quarters.
No woman was admitted to this back room, except Louison,
the dish-washer of the cafe, who passed through it from time to time,
to go to her washing in the "lavatory."
Grantaire, thoroughly drunk, was deafening the corner of which he
had taken possession, reasoning and contradicting at the top
of his lungs, and shouting:--
"I am thirsty. Mortals, I am dreaming: that the tun of Heidelberg
has an attack of apoplexy, and that I am one of the dozen leeches
which will be applied to it. I want a drink. I desire to forget life.
Life is a hideous invention of I know not whom. It lasts no time
at all, and is worth nothing. One breaks one's neck in living.
Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances.
Happiness is an antique reliquary painted on one side only.
Ecclesiastes says: `All is vanity.' I agree with that good man,
who never existed, perhaps. Zero not wishing to go stark naked,
clothed himself in vanity. O vanity! The patching up of everything
with big words! a kitchen is a laboratory, a dancer is a professor,
an acrobat is a gymnast, a boxer is a pugilist, an apothecary
is a chemist, a wigmaker is an artist, a hodman is an architect,
a jockey is a sportsman, a wood-louse is a pterigybranche. Vanity has
a right and a wrong side; the right side is stupid, it is the negro
with his glass beads; the wrong side is foolish, it is the philosopher
with his rags. I weep over the one and I laugh over the other.
What are called honors and dignities, and even dignity and honor,
are generally of pinchbeck. Kings make playthings of human pride.
Caligula made a horse a consul; Charles II. made a knight of
a sirloin. Wrap yourself up now, then, between Consul Incitatus
and Baronet Roastbeef. As for the intrinsic value of people,
it is no longer respectable in the least. Listen to the panegyric
which neighbor makes of neighbor. White on white is ferocious;
if the lily could speak, what a setting down it would give the dove!
A bigoted woman prating of a devout woman is more venomous
than the asp and the cobra. It is a shame that I am ignorant,
otherwise I would quote to you a mass of things; but I know nothing.
For instance, I have always been witty; when I was a pupil of Gros,
instead of daubing wretched little pictures, I passed my time
in pilfering apples; rapin is the masculine of rapine. So much
for myself; as for the rest of you, you are worth no more than I am.
I scoff at your perfections, excellencies, and qualities.
Every good quality tends towards a defect; economy borders on avarice,
the generous man is next door to the prodigal, the brave man rubs
elbows with the braggart; he who says very pious says a trifle bigoted;
there are just as many vices in virtue as there are holes
in Diogenes' cloak. Whom do you admire, the slain or the slayer,
Caesar or Brutus? Generally men are in favor of the slayer.
Long live Brutus, he has slain! There lies the virtue. Virtue, granted,
but madness also. There are queer spots on those great men.
The Brutus who killed Caesar was in love with the statue of a little boy.
This statue was from the hand of the Greek sculptor Strongylion,
who also carved that figure of an Amazon known as the Beautiful Leg,
Eucnemos, which Nero carried with him in his travels. This Strongylion
left but two statues which placed Nero and Brutus in accord.
Brutus was in love with the one, Nero with the other. All history
is nothing but wearisome repetition. One century is the plagiarist
of the other. The battle of Marengo copies the battle of Pydna;
the Tolbiac of Clovis and the Austerlitz of Napoleon are as like each
other as two drops of water. I don't attach much importance to victory.
Nothing is so stupid as to conquer; true glory lies in convincing.
But try to prove something! If you are content with success,
what mediocrity, and with conquering, what wretchedness! Alas, vanity
and cowardice everywhere. Everything obeys success, even grammar.
Si volet usus, says Horace. Therefore I disdain the human race.
Shall we descend to the party at all? Do you wish me to begin admiring
the peoples? What people, if you please? Shall it be Greece?
The Athenians, those Parisians of days gone by, slew Phocion,
as we might say Coligny, and fawned upon tyrants to such an extent
that Anacephorus said of Pisistratus: "His urine attracts the bees."
The most prominent man in Greece for fifty years was that grammarian
Philetas, who was so small and so thin that he was obliged to load
his shoes with lead in order not to be blown away by the wind.
There stood on the great square in Corinth a statue carved by Silanion
and catalogued by Pliny; this statue represented Episthates.
What did Episthates do? He invented a trip. That sums up Greece
and glory. Let us pass on to others. Shall I admire England?
Shall I admire France? France? Why? Because of Paris? I have just
told you my opinion of Athens. England? Why? Because of London?
I hate Carthage. And then, London, the metropolis of luxury,
is the headquarters of wretchedness. There are a hundred deaths a year
of hunger in the parish of Charing-Cross alone. Such is Albion.
I add, as the climax, that I have seen an Englishwoman dancing
in a wreath of roses and blue spectacles. A fig then for England!
If I do not admire John Bull, shall I admire Brother Jonathan?
I have but little taste for that slave-holding brother. Take away
Time is money, what remains of England? Take away Cotton is king,
what remains of America? Germany is the lymph, Italy is the bile.
Shall we go into ecstasies over Russia? Voltaire admired it. He also
admired China. I admit that Russia has its beauties, among others,
a stout despotism; but I pity the despots. Their health is delicate.
A decapitated Alexis, a poignarded Peter, a strangled Paul,
another Paul crushed flat with kicks, divers Ivans strangled,
with their throats cut, numerous Nicholases and Basils poisoned,
all this indicates that the palace of the Emperors of Russia is
in a condition of flagrant insalubrity. All civilized peoples
offer this detail to the admiration of the thinker; war; now, war,
civilized war, exhausts and sums up all the forms of ruffianism,
from the brigandage of the Trabuceros in the gorges of Mont Jaxa
to the marauding of the Comanche Indians in the Doubtful Pass.
`Bah!' you will say to me, `but Europe is certainly better than Asia?'
I admit that Asia is a farce; but I do not precisely see what you
find to laugh at in the Grand Lama, you peoples of the west,
who have mingled with your fashions and your elegances all the
complicated filth of majesty, from the dirty chemise of Queen Isabella
to the chamber-chair of the Dauphin. Gentlemen of the human race,
I tell you, not a bit of it! It is at Brussels that the most
beer is consumed, at Stockholm the most brandy, at Madrid the
most chocolate, at Amsterdam the most gin, at London the most wine,
at Constantinople the most coffee, at Paris the most absinthe;
there are all the useful notions. Paris carries the day, in short.
In Paris, even the rag-pickers are sybarites; Diogenes would have loved
to be a rag-picker of the Place Maubert better than to be a philosopher
at the Piraeus. Learn this in addition; the wineshops of the ragpickers
are called bibines; the most celebrated are the Saucepan and The
Slaughter-House. Hence, tea-gardens, goguettes, caboulots, bouibuis,
mastroquets, bastringues, manezingues, bibines of the rag-pickers,
caravanseries of the caliphs, I certify to you, I am a voluptuary,
I eat at Richard's at forty sous a head, I must have Persian carpets
to roll naked Cleopatra in! Where is Cleopatra? Ah! So it
is you, Louison. Good day."
 The slang term for a painter's assistant.
Thus did Grantaire, more than intoxicated, launch into speech,
catching at the dish-washer in her passage, from his corner in the
back room of the Cafe Musain.
Bossuet, extending his hand towards him, tried to impose silence
on him, and Grantaire began again worse than ever:--
"Aigle de Meaux, down with your paws. You produce on me no effect
with your gesture of Hippocrates refusing Artaxerxes' bric-a-brac. I
excuse you from the task of soothing me. Moreover, I am sad.
What do you wish me to say to you? Man is evil, man is deformed;
the butterfly is a success, man is a failure. God made a mistake
with that animal. A crowd offers a choice of ugliness.
The first comer is a wretch, Femme--woman--rhymes with infame,--
infamous. Yes, I have the spleen, complicated with melancholy,
with homesickness, plus hypochondria, and I am vexed and I rage,
and I yawn, and I am bored, and I am tired to death, and I am stupid!
Let God go to the devil!"
"Silence then, capital R!" resumed Bossuet, who was discussing a
point of law behind the scenes, and who was plunged more than waist
high in a phrase of judicial slang, of which this is the conclusion:--
"--And as for me, although I am hardly a legist, and at the most,
an amateur attorney, I maintain this: that, in accordance with
the terms of the customs of Normandy, at Saint-Michel, and for
each year, an equivalent must be paid to the profit of the lord
of the manor, saving the rights of others, and by all and several,
the proprietors as well as those seized with inheritance, and that,
for all emphyteuses, leases, freeholds, contracts of domain, mortgages--"
"Echo, plaintive nymph," hummed Grantaire.
Near Grantaire, an almost silent table, a sheet of paper, an inkstand
and a pen between two glasses of brandy, announced that a vaudeville
was being sketched out.
This great affair was being discussed in a low voice, and the two
heads at work touched each other: "Let us begin by finding names.
When one has the names, one finds the subject."
"That is true. Dictate. I will write."
"An independent gentleman?"
"His daughter, Celestine."
"--tine. What next?"
"Sainval is stale. I should say Valsin."
Beside the vaudeville aspirants, another group, which was also
taking advantage of the uproar to talk low, was discussing a duel.
An old fellow of thirty was counselling a young one of eighteen,
and explaining to him what sort of an adversary he had to deal with.
"The deuce! Look out for yourself. He is a fine swordsman. His play
is neat. He has the attack, no wasted feints, wrist, dash, lightning,
a just parade, mathematical parries, bigre! and he is left-handed."
In the angle opposite Grantaire, Joly and Bahorel were playing dominoes,
and talking of love.
"You are in luck, that you are," Joly was saying. "You have
a mistress who is always laughing."
"That is a fault of hers," returned Bahorel. "One's mistress
does wrong to laugh. That encourages one to deceive her. To see
her gay removes your remorse; if you see her sad, your conscience
"Ingrate! a woman who laughs is such a good thing! And you
"That is because of the treaty which we have made. On forming
our little Holy Alliance we assigned ourselves each our frontier,
which we never cross. What is situated on the side of winter belongs
to Vaud, on the side of the wind to Gex. Hence the peace."
"Peace is happiness digesting."
"And you, Jolllly, where do you stand in your entanglement with Mamselle--
you know whom I mean?"
"She sulks at me with cruel patience."
"Yet you are a lover to soften the heart with gauntness."
"In your place, I would let her alone."
"That is easy enough to say."
"And to do. Is not her name Musichetta?"
"Yes. Ah! my poor Bahorel, she is a superb girl, very literary,
with tiny feet, little hands, she dresses well, and is white and dimpled,
with the eyes of a fortune-teller. I am wild over her."
"My dear fellow, then in order to please her, you must be elegant,
and produce effects with your knees. Buy a good pair of trousers
of double-milled cloth at Staub's. That will assist."
"At what price?" shouted Grantaire.
The third corner was delivered up to a poetical discussion.
Pagan mythology was giving battle to Christian mythology.
The question was about Olympus, whose part was taken by Jean Prouvaire,
out of pure romanticism.
Jean Prouvaire was timid only in repose. Once excited, he burst forth,
a sort of mirth accentuated his enthusiasm, and he was at once
both laughing and lyric.
"Let us not insult the gods," said he. "The gods may not have
taken their departure. Jupiter does not impress me as dead.
The gods are dreams, you say. Well, even in nature, such as it
is to-day, after the flight of these dreams, we still find all the
grand old pagan myths. Such and such a mountain with the profile
of a citadel, like the Vignemale, for example, is still to me
the headdress of Cybele; it has not been proved to me that Pan does
not come at night to breathe into the hollow trunks of the willows,
stopping up the holes in turn with his fingers, and I have always
believed that Io had something to do with the cascade of Pissevache."
In the last corner, they were talking politics. The Charter which had
been granted was getting roughly handled. Combeferre was upholding
it weakly. Courfeyrac was energetically making a breach in it.
On the table lay an unfortunate copy of the famous Touquet Charter.
Courfeyrac had seized it, and was brandishing it, mingling with his
arguments the rattling of this sheet of paper.
"In the first place, I won't have any kings; if it were only
from an economical point of view, I don't want any; a king is
a parasite. One does not have kings gratis. Listen to this:
the dearness of kings. At the death of Francois I., the national
debt of France amounted to an income of thirty thousand livres;
at the death of Louis XIV. it was two milliards, six hundred millions,
at twenty-eight livres the mark, which was equivalent in 1760,
according to Desmarets, to four milliards, five hundred millions,
which would to-day be equivalent to twelve milliards. In the
second place, and no offence to Combeferre, a charter granted
is but a poor expedient of civilization. To save the transition,
to soften the passage, to deaden the shock, to cause the nation
to pass insensibly from the monarchy to democracy by the practice
of constitutional fictions,--what detestable reasons all those are!
No! no! let us never enlighten the people with false daylight.
Principles dwindle and pale in your constitutional cellar.
No illegitimacy, no compromise, no grant from the king to the people.
In all such grants there is an Article 14. By the side of the hand
which gives there is the claw which snatches back. I refuse your
charter point-blank. A charter is a mask; the lie lurks beneath it.
A people which accepts a charter abdicates. The law is only the law
when entire. No! no charter!"
It was winter; a couple of fagots were crackling in the fireplace.
This was tempting, and Courfeyrac could not resist. He crumpled
the poor Touquet Charter in his fist, and flung it in the fire.
The paper flashed up. Combeferre watched the masterpiece of Louis XVIII.
burn philosophically, and contented himself with saying:--
"The charter metamorphosed into flame."
And sarcasms, sallies, jests, that French thing which is called entrain,
and that English thing which is called humor, good and bad taste,
good and bad reasons, all the wild pyrotechnics of dialogue,
mounting together and crossing from all points of the room,
produced a sort of merry bombardment over their heads.