One of Three

I knew why the tocsin of Saint-Merry rang. The news traveled more quickly than thought through the streets, but it did not have to reach me. I knew before it began that a revolution was beginning. When I heard the first proof, I crossed myself and said an Ave Maria for the poor souls caught in the tide of change, but I did not worry. My heart's own darlings were not there. They had told me when they left our rumpled bed that their friends planned to take advantage of General Lamarque's funeral, and the two of them planned to take advantage of the hospitality of a cafe in a quiet neighborhood. Joly was ill, and not inclined to any great activity, while Bossuet would never let him endanger himself.

And yet they did not come home that night, nor did the tocsin cease. My friends counseled me to get to bed early and hide there from the emeute. They shepherded me to my doorstep. My confidantes could never have forced me into bed, not when I did not know where my Lesgles and my Joly were. I took the warmest blanket from our bed and wrapped it around myself. The window looking out onto the street was cold, though it was June. The warmth of the blanket and its scent of my darling boys were all that shielded me from the night.

There were not many passerby in the street after midnight. None of them sneezed, for none were Joly. None of them tripped, then laughed, for none were Bossuet. It was hard to watch for them, not because I was tired, but because I knew that they should by all rights have been by my side. Certainly they are not always home early, but they had promised me that they would not stay out the whole night. Certainly, they would not have gone off together and left me without warning me first. My body wanted to sleep. I grew colder as the night wore on. Perhaps I slept and was roused by the thunder of the National Guards' guns when morning came. Every time I heard a gunshot, I winced.

Was the dawn beautiful the next day? I could not say. I was too cold by then to notice the fire creeping along the horizon. I did fall asleep, finally, but only halfway. I could hear men shouting, familiar voices crying out in laughter, anguish, love. Sometimes real noises would wake me partially, but the cold drew me back into my daze. I might have stayed there until my loneliness froze me to death were it not for the longing. It roused me in the late afternoon when nothing else could. I had to find them. I know not where I wandered, only that I saw no sign of those I loved.

In one street -- what street? -- a Guardsman stopped me. I asked after Joly and Lesgles. He must have thought me half-mad. He gave me a pitying look and asked where I lived. He wanted to see me home. I knew they were not there. For the hundredth time since nightfall, I wondered where they could be. One idea presented itself, and I told the guard I was going to breakfast at Le Cafe Musain. If any man alive knew where my lovers had gone, the men there would. The guard let me go, a little warily, and cautioned me to stay away from this street and that. I hardly heard him.

The front room of the cafe was empty. On any other day, there would have been men breakfasting. Not that day. I went to the back room, which I had never seen. It was like their temple, those men, sacrosanct, protected against the presence of women and the uninitiated. It was dark. Another National Guardsman sat at one of the tables. He threatened me with his gun. "Go home, mademoiselle." It sounded almost as if he were apologizing to me. "There will be no one here for the rest of the day. You will not be served."

This was not a man whose demeanor implied that he might be sympathetic to me. Indeed, what I had to know could connect me with illegal operations. All else aside, I had to ask after the men I sought. "Do you know where the men are who often meet here?"

"What do you know of them?" His sharp tone reminded me of the gun in his hands.

I tried to sound meek and foolish. "I know they are here very frequently, and that I admire a few of them." Better the intimation of harlotry than the admission of revolution.

He scoffed at that. "They aren't so pretty now, mam'selle. They were all executed today for treason against the king. Most of them were in the Rue de la Chanvrerie."

For a moment, the words made no sense. Memory flooded back, bringing with it the certainty that my beloved boys had been there, either in hiding or in support of their comrades. The room swam around me. Nothing was stable. I could not breathe around the lump in my throat, could not speak though I wanted to scream denial. I do not remember crying a single tear, not then, but he put his hand on my shoulder as if to comfort me. "You loved the wrong man. Whoever he was, he was a traitor to his country, and he has paid the price." Were these words meant to cheer me? They revolted me. Here was this man, no older than my L'aigle, telling me that whatever had been done must have been correct because the king said it was.

This man might have killed my Jolllly, my Alexandre who sneezed at the sunshine and smiled through coughing fits. No illness could have carried him off, none save the hatred borne him by his fellow man. I did not kiss him farewell that last morning because he would not allow it. He was ill. If I had known, I would have insisted. This horrid soldier might have shot my Bossuet, who laughed at anything and everything, even the worst. Did he laugh when his cruel mistress decided to gather him to her bosom at last? Haughty Fate stole him from me, gave him his last kiss as she drew him into oblivion. He cannot be laughing at that, though I would give anything to hear him laugh again.

I could not see the door of the back room, nor that of the cafe, but I found them nevertheless as I fled into the street. The soldier did not chase me, and neither did he fire. I do not know what stayed his hand. Perhaps my tears for those he scorned disgusted him as much as his scorn disgusted me.

There was nothing to be done, then. I staggered through the streets, drunk with my grief. Once there, I gathered the blankets again and fell to my knees on the floor, pleading with God to forgive them. I begged for their sins to fall on me instead, explained that I had incited far too many of them, capitulated finally to the sobs that had to be heard. I could not confess our transgressions aloud, not until I was somehow sure that they were safe.

When I could speak again, I asked to bear not only the sins of our love, though those were terrible enough to bow the shoulders of any man, but also whatever atrocities they had committed when the tide of revolution swept them away from me. Surely it could not be so unspeakable to kill in the name of a beautiful ideal.

Perhaps the tocsin went on, and I was deaf to it. I do not remember hearing any such thing. It did not matter to me. Nothing mattered.

* * *

Now I lie in my bed. I have never been so cold. I have slept alone before this night, but never in a bed so haunted. I can hear them whispering to me as I hover on the edge of sleep, words of love, words of hope. Sometimes I answer them, but that breaks the spell, and I find myself alone.

I know that when I look, I will find some boy willing to take me in his arms and help me forget the men I lost. Next month, autumn, when the rent comes due, that is soon enough. Tonight, I am here with the memories of two voices, with spectral caresses that chill as much as warm. I lie between two men who are not here. As much as that could please anyone, I am content.

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