From Childhood’s Hour


Chapter 1: And all I loved, I loved alone

It was a perfectly hot June afternoon, and Julien was bored. His last tutor had been sent away that spring, when he had been ill, and the doctors had absolutely forbidden a replacement until autumn. He had spent too much time stressing his brain, it was no wonder the fever had attacked with such virulence, and he was to spend the summer recovering. To his fearful parents, that meant no tutors, no books, no paper, and no idea what to do with him. At twelve, it was ridiculous that they bring in another nurse. But with his illness, he could not possibly be around his baby brother. The discussion was carried out by letter: Cécile had taken Charles south with her the moment Julien became sick, leaving her husband in Paris to deal with the doctors and the funeral she feared was inevitable. Julien had always been a strange child, never quite sickly but never quite strong, and while everyone would certainly talk about how she had abandoned him, she would be damned if she permitted him to infect the baby it had taken so long to conceive. She had suspected Julien of mortality ever since, at the age of five, he expressed a strong desire to learn Latin immediately. He was simply too odd to live. A replacement was absolutely necessary, and it had taken six years and a miscarriage to get him. Charles was not about to be sacrificed to his elder brother’s scarlet fever solely for fear of moral opprobrium. Even now that Julien was considered perfectly well, he was to stay away from his brother. He could not possibly be considered under the care of Charles’ nurse. Since no one knew what to do with him, he was turned out of the house for much of the day and ordered to keep himself occupied.

The gardens were meticulously kept, and while the gardener had a couple of young assistants, neither spoke French and were not the sort of companions Julien would have preferred in any case. Instead, he spent every day in the woods or on the beach. Occasionally, he would walk as far as Les Goudes, but he did not like the careful attention the fishermen gave him. They knew who he was, and the women in particular would bow to him and try to feed him, chattering in Provenšal what he was certain were comments about his health. He was sick of comments about his health. And he had no money with which to repay their overdone attentions. So he kept to the woods and the beach, staring out towards the sea while drifting off into a dream world gleaned from Caesar and Suetonius and Racine and Shakespeare. Sometimes he would swim in the warm Mediterranean, though often he would be scolded for coming home sticky with salt. With nothing better to do, he would play at being shipwrecked on a deserted island like Robinson Crusoe and spend an hour patiently trying to light a fire just with the friction of wood against wood, as it was said the Indians of America did. It worked, too, though anyone would have been surprised that a twelve-year-old boy would have the patience it would take to follow through on such a task.

Therefore, he was bored, on a hot June afternoon just like the many he had already spent alone. He sat in the sand, hat off (which he knew he was not supposed to do), trousers rolled to his knees, shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, socks and shoes and waistcoat and cravat left in a pile under a tree. He stared out to sea and wondered for the millionth time why he was being punished for an illness he had not known how to avoid.

A rustling in the trees startled him, but he did not actually bother to turn around and look. It would prove a squirrel or something equally boring. Until it called out to him in French, “Who are you?”

He spun around, angered by the imperious tone of his accuser. “What should it matter to you?” The voice had come from a boy perhaps his own age, but fair and blond, not at all like the average population.

“Because this is my property. Shouldn’t you go back the village where you belong?”

That must be the Enjolras boy, Julien reminded himself. As much as he would have liked to say something about not being a fisherman’s boy to be spoken to in such a manner, he merely apologized for trespassing and collected his belongings. So much for spending the rest of the summer on the beach.

“Wait!” the blond boy called. “You don’t have to go.”

“Don’t I? You asked me to return to the village. I don’t come from the village, but I have been in the wrong and I’m trying to put it right. I won’t come onto your property again.”

He wasn’t sure what the boy wanted to say, but it certainly was not, “You don’t talk like everyone else.”

“I spend most of my time in Paris. My tutors have all been northern or foreign.”

“So have mine. My last one left last week without notice.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. He was boring. Are your tutors boring?”

“Not at all. My last one had pretensions to natural philosophy - he was very eager to come south with us.”

“But he didn’t?”

“Sacked.”

“Did he get caught kissing one of the maids?”

“That’s what happened to yours? No wonder you found him boring; he must have found you boring for not being a maid.”

“Do you mean something by that?”

“Not at all. I’m sorry.” Julien shifted his armload of belongings and nervously tried to push his hair out of his face - except there was no hair in his face. One of the maids had panicked over how long the fever had lasted and had shaved his head. He tried to change the gesture to one of wiping the sweat from his forehead. “I should go. I’m sorry for having disturbed you.”

“You don’t have to!” the blond boy spluttered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. My name is Henri. Enjolras.”

“Julien Combeferre.”

“You own the house on the hill.” Julien nodded. “Why haven’t we met before?”

“I mostly live in Paris. And if this summer were like all the other summers, I’d have a tutor and be busy enough that I would not daily be trespassing on your property out of sheer boredom.” He was not certain what had possessed him to say it, but there was a relief in telling another human being that life was not as it should be.

“You’re down here every day?”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I mean that’s brilliant. My father doesn’t know what to do with me since my tutor left. I’ve been alone for a week. It’s been awful.”

“It has. No one to talk to. The outdoor staff don’t even speak French.”

“I know. And they have to work. And they’re all older than I am, anyway, and can’t figure out if they look down on me as a child or up to me as the employer.”

“I can’t even walk to Les Goudes because all the women can’t decide if they want to mother me or bow to me. Do I still look ill or are women just very sensitive to that sort of thing?”

Henri shrugged. “You look how you look. What do you do all day?”

“Nothing. I come down here and sit on the beach and think because that’s all I’m permitted,” Julien answered bitterly. “My parents locked up all my books and I’m not to have a new tutor until autumn. There had been talk of sending me to school, but that won’t happen this year. I come down here and stay out of the way. Sometimes I swim. Usually I just sit.”

“Why would your family want you to not study?”

“Because the doctors don’t know what they are doing. I was ill in the spring, and the doctors say it was from too much study. Which has to be ridiculous - reading does not cause a fever - but the doctors say it does, and therefore, I am not permitted to study until they are quite certain I have recovered. And I am to have outdoor exercise, but since my father thinks I would manage to persuade any tutor into teaching me something rather than merely supervise me, I have no tutor and cannot do anything. I cannot take the horses out alone, and I cannot play games alone, and no one seems to care, so I just don’t say anything or do anything. I stay out of the way because that’s all they seem to want.”

“I’m not allowed to do anything by myself, either. Maybe we could do nothing together?”

“Maybe.”

“Put those down - I’m not chasing you away! I’m sorry if I scared you. I hadn’t seen you before, and you looked so natural there I thought you must have come from the village and I don’t know why I did that. Maybe we could be friends?”

Julien did not set his clothes down, but he made no further effort to go. “I’ve never had friends.”

“I haven’t either.”

“It might be worth a try.”

Henri sat down in the sand. “So. I guess we ought to get to know each other.”

Something in his eagerness permitted Julien to set aside his doubts - there had to be a reason they had not been permitted to meet before - and his armload of clothing to sit down with him. “I guess we start from the beginning? I’m twelve. I have a baby brother.” My mother thinks I’m unnatural, he considered adding but thought better of it.

“I was supposed to have a baby brother. But he died. So did my mother.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t remember her.”

“I wouldn’t mind not having a mother, I don’t think.”

“Really?”

“Mine doesn’t like me very much. She left me in Paris when I was sick.” He did not like his mother very much, either, but it had been distressing when he learned she had abandoned him, particularly as he learned it in roughly the same moment a maid let slip that everyone had been afraid he might die.

“That’s awful.”

“And every night at dinner, she spends half her time talking about me as if I weren’t even there.” It was a relief to say it to someone, perhaps most because it was a perfect stranger, someone who had never met the beautiful Cécile Combeferre and therefore might believe that for all her charm, she was not the ideal wife and mother.

They ended up talking for hours about everything and nothing. Julien talked himself hoarse - Henri had of course been in constant conversation until his tutor was found in the pantry with a housemaid’s legs wrapped around his waist, but Julien had spoken little in months. It was in large part because of this that he finally made excuses that he had to go in.

“Will you come tomorrow?” Henri asked eagerly.

“Do you want me to?” Julien asked warily.

“Of course! Do you swim?”

“Quite well.”

“Then we can go swimming!”

Julien nodded his assent, but as Henri turned to go, he decided to take the bull by the horns rather than kick himself all night for being a coward. “Wait. Do you think you could, maybe, bring a book?”

“Sure. What do you want?”

“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what subject or what language. Anything.”

“You don’t care if it’s in Latin or French?” Henri asked incredulously.

“Or English. I haven’t been permitted books in two months,” he replied desperately.

“I’ll find something.”

Find something he did. When Julien made it out to the beach the following afternoon, Henri was already there, a wide-brimmed straw hat on his head this time. “Will this do?”

It was a battered copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Julien hugged it tightly, his eyes closed, until he realised he must look like a freak. “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing. I’m not using it at the moment. I wouldn’t mind if you kept it, except I’d be in trouble for losing it.”

“You don’t like Caesar?”

“I don’t like Latin.”

“But it’s Caesar! Sure, he was wrong about everything, but his descriptions of the Gauls are terribly interesting.”

“Really?”

“Here, let me find the section.” He sat down and started translating almost fluently once he found the appropriate page.

Henri stared, open mouthed, until he realised how rude he was being. “How long have you been studying Latin?”

“Ages. Since I was five or so, I guess?”

“When did you learn to read French?”

Julien shrugged. “I can’t remember not being able to read.” He was unconsciously fondling the book as they talked.

“And you read English, too?”

“Not so well as Latin but better than Greek.”

“You’re brilliant.”

“Am I?”

Henri nodded. “That’s why they think you study too much. Because you do.”

“I do not!” he protested. But he added more quietly, “What else am I supposed to do? Tutors are hired to teach, and I have no friends, and the only cousin I know is eight years old, and my brother isn’t even a year old yet. And all the books are amazing. Have you ever heard of Shakespeare? He is the English Racine, only he mixes comedy into his tragedies and he doesn’t write in rhyme. His plays are wonderful. I don’t understand half of any of them, but I understand enough to know I adore Hamlet. And I’ve read the parts of Catullus I’m not supposed to. That’s why you have to learn Latin - you can read everything no one will point out to you.”

“I never said I didn’t want to learn Latin; I meant I was rubbish at it because it’s hard.”

“I suppose.” Julien was about to drift back into reading the book when he realised what he was doing. “I’m sorry.” He deliberately set the book aside. “You wanted to go swimming.”

“You can keep the book for a couple days, at least.”

Julien shook his head. “I’ll get caught.”

“Here.” Henri wedged it into the crook of a tree. “It’ll be there whenever you want it. I’ll even bring another one next time, if you want.”

“You would do that?”

“Why not? I said we’d be friends.”

Julien smiled properly for the first time. “Thank you. Shall we race around the point?”

Henri stripped his shirt off quickly and nearly fell over in his hurried effort to get out of his trousers. “If you’re last in the water, you’re going to lose!”

Julien was last in the water, but he won, a victory for which he apologised and attributed to his greater height. But Henri was not at all a sore loser, and Julien was never so pleased in his life as he was splashing in the waves with Henri to no real purpose.

 

Prologue: Two households, both alike in dignity ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 2: Most eloquent of the descendants of Romulus ~ Home