From Childhood’s Hour
Chapter 10: The spirit of enjoyment and desire / Went circling, like a multitude of sounds
The letter was written and sent immediately upon Julien’s return home, without even Parker’s knowledge. In fact, it dominated discussion at the Enjolras dinner table that evening.
“Henri, what do you know about this letter?” Jean-Pierre asked firmly.
He was not angry, but Henri was uncertain just what his expression was. He reddened and thought it best to say nothing. He didn’t have to read the letter to know what it was.
“How old is Julien Combeferre? Thirteen?”
“And the two of you think he’s capable of teaching a foreign language.”
“He reads it well enough to read Shakespeare!” Henri protested.
“Is this another of your brilliant schemes, like drawing lessons last summer?”
“It was Julien’s idea.”
“Do you even want to learn English?”
“Yes.” Yesterday, if asked that question, Henri would probably have shrugged or asked if that meant he could give up Greek.
“François, what do you think of their scheme?”
“There will be little studying done, monsieur.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“I’ll study! I promise!”
“And has M. Combeferre approved this plot?”
“I don’t know. But Julien gets to do whatever he wants.”
“He gets to wander the countryside unchaperoned. And he says he doesn’t have to keep a strict schedule in the summer.”
“That is an issue for his parents to determine.”
“I’m as old has he was last summer, and I never get to go anywhere.”
“You get to go plenty of places. Just because you’ve never yet seen Paris does not mean you’ve been stuck in the house all your life.”
“Julien has gone to the fishing village by himself.”
“As I said, his parents can set whatever boundaries they like on his behavior. I would prefer you not go wandering about the countryside alone.”
“It’s not fair,” Henri muttered.
“It is perfectly fair. The Combeferres have another son, and doubtless they think of risks in a Parisian sense. Because there is less traffic and a lower concentration of bandits, they probably think this area safe. But I have only you. What would I do if I lost you?”
Henri decided it was not the time to ask if wandering the countryside in Julien’s company might be more acceptable. Jean-Pierre turned the conversation back to the original topic.
“If you want to learn English, we can certainly try that out. Bring someone in a couple of times a week to see how you like it.”
“I’d rather it be Julien.”
“If I may say something, monsieur?”
“Well,” François began, “there are two concerns, are there not? The first, what mischief we might expect over the course of these several months should the boys find themselves dissatisfied with the arrangements we make. The second, in what way any arrangements we make benefit Henri in the future. We must do our best for Henri while managing the ways in which he may injure his prospects.”
“I haven’t complained about Greek at all in months!” Henri volunteered.
“Not out loud,” his father said. “I know what you want,” he told his son. “You would most enjoy being left free to run around with your friend like a couple of wild Indians. But the noble savage gets nowhere in civilization. You must study. You must be ready for a good school placement. You must do well on your baccalauréat when the time comes. These are not just things that will make me happy but the things that will determine your future, how you will make your way in the world. I cannot afford for you to be uneducated. I cannot afford for you to learn idleness at any age. We all work for our bread, even you. Your work right now is to become educated, to learn to discipline and organize your thoughts. To learn how to consider your choices and weigh your options and think about the short term and the long term.”
“Julien says languages train the mind.”
“That is true. It is also not a reason for me to think the two of you will actually train your minds in anything except idleness. Do you indeed wish to learn English?”
“Then I will see what can be done.”
A couple days later, Jean-Pierre managed to find Richard in one of the cafés in town. “Have you seen this?”
Richard read through Julien’s letter. “That was certainly forward of him. I’d feared he was shy, but that seems not at all the case.”
“Yes, it was forward of him. What do you suggest we do?”
“Where did you grow up?”
“In a village not far from Lyon.” He was not entirely certain why Richard would care to ask, but it was not the most forward of questions.
“And what do you remember most about childhood summers?”
Jean-Pierre thought for a long moment. “Long evenings eating apricots until I thought I would be sick.” And then being scolded by his mother because some of those ought to have been dried for the winter. But the autumn was marked by the hard labour of assisting in the vendange, a secret labour that a family of his rank should not have had to perform on their own.
“For me, it was late summer figs. The blessed idleness in the heat of the day. The girls on the swing - until the tree was hit by lightning. The sense that summer was a never-ending joy. I don’t know how to teach my son those pleasures. He never wanted them until he met your boy.”
“Henri doesn’t need the help.”
“We can’t very well keep them separated, and we shouldn’t try. Have there been any ill effects from the relationship thus far?”
“None,” Jean-Pierre admitted. “But in the future -”
“Do you still see any of the boys you knew when you were their age? I grew up here and I only ever see a couple.”
“But our generation was ripped apart and scattered to the winds.”
Richard knew that well enough - he had not seen any of his sisters in years. “Julien will attend school in Paris. Not this autumn - the next. After that, I want him to spend some time on his own in Paris, probably attached to the law school. A sojourn in England at some point. I don’t envision him returning to Marseille for many years. It’s not so much that they will forget each other as that they will only think of each other in that rosy light of memory. I want him to have memories of climbing trees and eating figs until he’s sick and wandering the countryside until he drops. Just as I want him to know all the theatres in Paris and have a mistress or two before he finally settles down and marries. I want him to have the sort of life where he enjoys looking back and isn’t isolated and doesn’t relate every event to whatever book he was reading at the time. He never had an interest in it before, but I think he might now. At least in the necessities of childhood. We will come to the rest when we must.”
“Not everyone is born to have such a youth.”
“No. But our boys are. Why deny it them?”
“They’re not still children barely out of skirts.”
“Are you convincing yourself at all with this? Because it’s not convincing me.”
“Henri would be grateful if I let him run wild. But I can’t do it. How did you permit your son to range as far as he wanted, alone, last summer?”
“Why shouldn’t I trust Julien? He’s terrified of putting a foot out of line, and I have no idea why, but it does mean he’ll never do anything I would disapprove of. His idea of mischief last summer was reading books from your house. The furthest he ever went was Les Goudes, where everyone knows who he is. My wife took him there constantly whenever she went on my behalf during the war. He wouldn’t dare go into town alone. The worst thing he’s ever done in his life was trespass onto your property, and it took no prodding from either me or his mother to get him to apologise. I may worry for Julien, but his self-preservation instinct is strong enough.”
“Two afternoons a week,” Jean-Pierre relented.
“That’s a schedule.”
“And every other Sunday.”
“And any evening after dinner if the boys wish, with no adults of any sort unless the boys choose otherwise.”
“You have your wife. You cannot expect me to give up my son for months.”
“If they wish, and not on days they’ve had the afternoon together. Or on Sundays.”
“I fear you’re making a very bad bargain with me, Combeferre. Everything for your benefit and I only get quiet for mine.”
“Would you prefer more afternoons?”
“I would prefer what I proposed.”
“I don’t think it will buy you quiet.”
“I hope you’re not right. All right, a counter offer: Tuesday and Friday afternoons, Monday and Wednesday evenings, and every other Sunday, afternoon or evening as they prefer. Yes, it is a schedule, but he needs to study, and I cannot be expected to give up all my time with him.”
“And no adults unless the boys ask for them.”
Jean-Pierre sighed. “Done.” They shook hands on the deal, though he was still uneasy. But Combeferre was right - just because one had worked at hidden labour through childhood in order for the family to scrape together enough to manage a law degree did not mean that one should condemn one’s only son to a drudgery that could never really compare. If all labour now were for Henri, so that he might enjoy all the benefits of a wealthy upbringing, then idleness was one of those benefits. But it was a hard benefit to accept. “To commence on Monday. With the Sunday following being a family Sunday,” he insisted.
Nevertheless, he presented the deal to his son after dinner that night. “I have been thinking. I have also had an interesting conversation with M. Combeferre.” Henri perked up immediately, sensing good news. “I did not have an easy childhood. You have benefits I could not have dreamed of for myself. But I have perhaps been focused too much on the future, if there even is such a thing as too great a focus on the future. I don’t want you to look back and think of the classroom and nothing else. Your days will be regimented soon enough. Therefore, M. Combeferre and I have come to an understanding. You and Julien will be free to do whatever you like, together or separate, on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, Monday and Wednesday evenings, and every other Sunday. But you must earn this freedom. If you do not continue to make progress in your studies, I will have no choice but to restrict your schedule. Is that understood?”
“Yes!” Henri threw his arms around his father and hugged him tightly. “Thank you! I love you, Papa.”
“You should love me even when I don’t give you things.”
“I do!” Henri insisted, smiling. He looked even more like his mother when he smiled. “Does that mean I can see Julien tomorrow?”
“On Monday. If you study.”
“I will study, I promise.” Henri thought it was amazing how things worked out when Julien asked for them.
Chapter 9: I feel now / The future in the instant ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 11: Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream? ~ Home