67. Desperate Measures

May, 1850

The maid is surprised by the visitor. Monsieur has clients from the unpleasant districts, but they are generally older than this boy. Besides that, he asks for "François," which is not a name she can immediately connect with a person. Once she realizes that one of her employers is the man requested, she curtseys, as much to apologize for the silence of several moments as to show respect to this man -- for he does not seem to deserve any, being dirty, young, and poor. He only stares at her, which indicates to her that he would not know the correct response, and perhaps would not even have taken off his hat to enter the house, except that he has been wringing his grimy cap in his hands while she made him wait.

"Who shall I say is calling?" she asks politely. All men, beggar or king, receive the same welcome at this door. So she has been taught since her arrival at this house, and so she will act, whatever her opinion of this scruffy boy.

He leaves off the abuse of his hat long enough to look her in the eye and answer, almost proudly, "Robert Tirmont." The name tells her nothing. She nods to him and walks back into the house to find the man whose presence has been requested.

Grantaire is eventually located in the library, catching up on correspondence. This he does in his typical graceless fashion, one elbow braced on the desk and his head in his hand, half-slouched in the chair.

The maid clears her throat. "M'sieur, a Robert Tirmont to see you."

Grantaire glances up in startlement, then: "Oh, for the love of-- I'll be right down." Grumbling, he puts aside the pen and pushes to his feet.

"Oui, m'sieur," she answers, and goes back to the door to inform M. Tirmont of this.

Grantaire pauses a moment to rake both hands through his hair in a futile effort at respectable guise, and follows. Arriving downstairs, he pauses in the doorway to the entry, ironical half-smile in place. "Thank you, Fabienne. --Well, boy?"

"I just wanted to see how you were doing, Uncle," Robert lies. He does not lie well; he stumbles over the words.

"Of course you did." Grantaire is not so enamored of writing letters that he won't play along with the brat, at least for the moment. "I'm quite fine. Kind of you to inquire."

"Good." That conversation over, Robert can think of little else to say. The logical next question comes out as, "And your...?" and falters there.

Grantaire waits, ever so politely.

Robert stutters. "You know." He waves a hand at the house. "How is he?"

"Friend," says Grantaire mildly, "is the usual euphemism, my delicate child. He's fine. I'll tell him you asked." He regards him, eyes unreadable.

Robert is not refined enough to do anything like blush. He scowls at the ground instead. "Thanks."

"You're quite welcome." His uncle leans on the doorframe, gracelessly, arms folded. "Spit it out, boy."

"I wanted to ask you if you'd lend me some money," comes out in a rush. Robert pauses, tries to sound anything other than desperate, and adds, "I want to be able to be a better man than my father." He has practiced that line. It comes out smooth and not at all ironic.

A snort explodes out of Grantaire, nicely covering the involuntary wrench this little plea gives him. He lapses into provincial street shorthand, as he's wont to do when dealing with teenagers. "That a fact."

Robert blinks at this slang, but then half-grins. The family resemblance is remarkable at the moment. "So will you?"

"Might. What'll you do with it?" Grantaire regards him skeptically.

"Someone'll give me classes, won't they?" He shrugs. "Lots of universities in this town."

"You," says the R slowly, "want to go improving your mind at this late date?"

Robert regards him steadily. "Why not? What's the worst that could happen?"

Grantaire resettles himself against the doorframe. "Explain to me why I shouldn't suppose you'll go out and waste it on bad liquor and sickly girls."

"You can check up on me, you know," Robert points out. "Auntie Claudette was too far off to really know what you did." This is a not-so-subtle allusion. Robert is grinning as he makes it. "I'll come and talk to you. When your 'friend' isn't around, that is."

"It's his house, you young scoundrel. Have you no sense of shame?"

Robert shrugs. "He doesn't like me either."

Grantaire shifts irritably. "He might like you better if you had the manners your mother's tried repeatedly to knock into your thick head."

"It's not worth the trouble," answers the boy who has no idea what he's talking about, and very little idea how much trouble he's causing himself in this argument.

Grantaire starts to say something; suppresses it, and says only, dryly, "That's what you think, is it?"

Robert shrugs again. He tries to use his awkwardness to his advantage. "Shows what I know, doesn't it?"

"In sharp relief." Grantaire studies him a minute, somberly.

Robert folds his arms across his chest. After a little pause, he asks, "Well?"

Grantaire regards him in silence another moment, then goes inside, leaving the door open. Returns, a minute later, with his jacket. "You and I, my lad," he says in a tone that admits of no argument, "are going for a walk."

Robert is agreeable. Walking means being away from this house, which means less chance of seeing Monsieur. That pleases him. "All right. Where are we going?"

Grantaire shrugs, and sets off briskly down the walk.

Robert keeps pace with him.

There is quiet for a bit. Then, rounding the corner, "Gainful employment, boy. It wouldn't kill you. And don't roll your eyes at me, either."

Robert looks away to conceal the fact that he was, indeed, rolling his eyes. "I've had jobs. They just didn't last. They didn't agree with me." He tries to be crafty again. "If I knew more, I could get a better job, and earn enough money to help Maman."

This time it is Grantaire who looks skyward. "What d'you propose to study, then?"

Robert glares at the ground. "Something important. I don't know. Something that'll earn me money."

"You don't know." Grantaire blows out his breath impatiently. "Think."

"I don't know," Robert repeats. "Maybe I'll learn to write so I can do other people's letters for them. Maybe I'll learn to argue so I can work in the court. Maybe I'll learn how to stop people from sneezing." He shrugs. It seems to be his favorite gesture.

Grantaire slants a keen look at him. "I could teach you the one myself." A beat. "And Enjolras could certainly give you pointers in the other."

Robert avoids his gaze. "Merci beaucoup. I'd rather be... anything."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Roughly.

Robert looks at him as if he's started drooling. "If I let the two of you start teaching me things, they'll have to lock me in the madhouse." It isn't clear just how much he's joking.

"Oh? They haven't committed us yet." Now it's definitely a challenge, though Grantaire never breaks stride.

"No," Robert agrees, "but that's because you're not trying to be one person."

A small laugh. "That's a matter of perspective."

Robert can think of no reasonable response to that, so he is silent.

Grantaire halts, collaring his nephew not ungently. "Well?"

"Well what? I asked you a question first, and you've not answered it yet." Robert frowns at his uncle.

"Boy, if nothing else, I respected my aunt Claudette." It's said mildly, but pointedly.

Robert looks intently at the pavement. "I'm sorry."

"Sure you are," Grantaire says kindly, "now that I've made it plain to you what you have to lose. Look at me, Robin." A slight shake.

Robert obeys. Some of his earlier bravado comes back.

"Look at me, enfant. Listen to me." Grantaire rests both hands on the boy's shoulders. "I mean listen, understand me?"

Robert nods. In the most polite voice he's used yet, he answers, "I'm listening."

Grantaire studies him seriously, though he doesn't let his tone soften. "Believe it or don't, I'm trying to do right by you. I don't want you to end up like your father. Or like me. D'you know where I'd be now? Dead in a gutter, ten years gone. You hear me?"

"I hear you." Robert's voice is a little hollow.

The grip on his shoulders tightens. "I'm aware you don't care for M. Enjolras, but if it hadn't been for him, if he hadn't made me straighten out and take hold and do something with myself -- that's where I'd be. Are you hearing me, boy?"

"I'm sorry!" Robert says again, more truthfully this time. "So he's a good man, and I shouldn't have been rude. God knows I'm not the most polite person in the world."

"No, you certainly aren't." Grantaire quirks a half-grin. "Neither am I. I'm saying, Robin-- take hold. Do something with yourself. That, I'll help you do. I'm not going to help you rot away like every man in this family has done so far. Hear me?"

"That's why I came to visit you in the first place," Robert answers, edging toward exasperation.

Grantaire looks him in the eye. "How do I know that?" And now there's a note almost of pleading in his voice, an intensity.

"I told you," petulantly, "I'll come and talk to you. I'd bring you my damn' exams if it'd make you feel better."

There is a pause. The R gazes at him searchingly, as though trying to find, beneath the petulance and bravado, some core of sincerity. At last he lets him go, straightening. "Listen to me. You come over, evenings, and I'll teach you your letters. You have to be able to more'n spell out your name before you can tackle university, hear me? We'll do first things first."

"All right." Robert tries not to glance away, and has to force himself. "Thank you."

"Right then." Grantaire slings an arm around his shoulders in a rough, brief half-hug. "Don't mention it."

"I'm sorry," Robert says, for the third time. "I didn't mean to be stupid. It's just sometimes I can't really help it."

Grantaire breaks out laughing at that, and cuffs him lightly on the arm. "I know. Believe me, I know." And: "You still staying with your mother?"

"For now. I owe her, too." Robert looks a bit bleak. "She needs me to be reliable. I wish I could, for her."

Grantaire's good humor fades into a sigh. "I know," he says again. "I know." He is quiet for a moment; then, "Should be getting back."

"Both of us," Robert returns with a crooked smile. "And thanks, again."

"Welcome." Grantaire lifts a hand in brief farewell, and turns away, heading back the way they came.

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