From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 11: Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?


In their first days of freedom, they ventured little. It was an experiment, after all, and Julien suggested they would have greater success later if they were circumspect now. And, indeed, it was pleasant enough doing little, particularly in Julien’s company.

Henri quickly discovered that Julien never went anywhere without a book in his pocket, now that he was permitted his books again. He was also in the habit of leaving off his hat - and his cravat. Though he was always properly dressed when he left the house, within moments, his hat would be in his hand instead of on his head. Sometimes, he would stand on the beach, his eyes closed, and breathe deep of the wind off the sea as it ruffled his thick, wavy hair, looking oddly grown up, like a poet or gentleman explorer. Whenever Henri did not wear his hat, he paid for his audacity with a red face. Julien’s olive complexion took in the sun the way his lungs took in the sea breeze - he was in training to be a Parisian gentleman, but nature had seemingly fitted him for the Mediterranean.

The sea in June was a bit too chill for swimming, the summer mistral pushing the warmer waters further out, but they still stripped off shoes and stockings to play chicken with the breakers. And though it had been an excuse at first, Henri began to learn scraps of English They sometimes saw Parker, whose enthusiastic botanising amused Henri (mostly to see the rather portly middle aged man laden with specimens), and Julien usually spoke to his tutor in Parker’s own language. It only seemed right to ask Julien how to be polite to the odd little man, so he learned “Good afternoon” and “How do you do?” and “I am very well, thank you, sir”. Then Julien started taking him through pieces of Hamlet, and he learned a bit more. It was not at all like Greek and Latin - people actually spoke it, and he could try his knowledge on Mr Parker. But most importantly, it was more a game than a lesson - how could it be education when it was conducted from tree branches and between the waves? For his part, Julien did his best to refrain from looking smug every time Henri wanted something more. There was nothing wrong with tutors or with education so long as it aligned with one’s interests. It was hardly Julien’s fault he was interested in everything.

One cloudy afternoon, when the wind suddenly picked up the scent of rain, Julien told him, “No need to go home. My mother’s gone visiting.” So Henri was granted his first glimpse of the Combeferre house. It was much older than his house - over a hundred years old, Julien said. It also did not look like his house. Some of the furniture was as old as the house; most of it had been acquired in the intervening years. Julien pointed out a couple portraits of his ancestors in the hall and in the grand salon when he could remember their names. One in particular, a gentleman of the Castelnau line, was terribly pale, his eyes seeming to bulge out of his very small head affixed to a very wide body. Later portraits, of Combeferres before the Revolution, in silk breeches and curled wigs, were much brighter, more accurately drawn, even on occasion beautiful. The whole effect, however, was oppressive. The house was no less light and airy than his own, but the sense of history was sobering. Henri knew nothing of his family history; had he been asked, he would have said there was none, that his father must have sprung fully formed, without a family of any sort, and his mother the same. “We never spend any time in the grand salon,” Julien said. “Just thought you might like to see the paintings.”

The petit salon was, in comparison, surprisingly homey. The french doors to the garden terrace were open, since the approaching storm had freshened the air, and a woman sat knitting in the greying light while a small child knocked over a tower of blocks. “Juli!” Charles launched himself excitedly at his brother.

Julien picked him up, with a bigger grin on his face than Henri had ever seen. “You’re getting too big for me to do this.” They shared a kiss, then Julien told him, “This is my friend Henri. Do you remember your manners? Give him your hand.”

Henri felt distinctly out of his element, but he could not let a two year old show him up. He took the little hand and made the usual pleasantries, rendered comic by the child’s inability to respond. Charles wriggled down and pulled his brother over to play with his blocks.

“Oh, and this is Mrs Boland, Charles’ nurse,” Julien introduced the woman offhandedly. She merely smiled and nodded to Henri, not dropping a stitch in her knitting.

“Are all your servants English?” Henri asked, joining Julien on the floor.

“No, but there’s a fashion for English nurses just now, and Mother wouldn’t show her face in Paris if she hadn’t been able to secure one. We just got lucky that Mr Parker was available. He’s of no fashion whatever.” Henri refrained from laughing at the truth of the comment - Parker was nowhere to be seen, but it would not do to call Mrs Boland’s attention to their conversation. The crack might get back to Parker, and that would be cruel.

It proved a strange afternoon. Mrs Boland was a silent presence but to Henri, she looked just as a mother should, all round and soft with a kind face under her white cap. And Charles proved a very odd experience. He was so very small and seemingly not quite formed, his dark eyes impossibly big but lacking the depth of Julien’s, and his long straight hair so fine as to seem to belong to a fairy rather than a human child. He also had a tendency to chatter incomprehensibly in a childish babble that only occasionally had coherent elements of French. Despite, or perhaps because of, these shortcomings, he was the petty tyrant of the salon, and they built walls and towers to his specifications, only for him to knock down their works like a gleeful Nero when he no longer liked them.

Mrs Boland finally put a calm stop to the fun. “It is time for his nap,” she told Julien, her French heavily accented.

“Of course.” He spoke slowly to her, enunciating carefully as one does for a child or a foreigner. “We will be in the library.”

She hoisted Charles to her hip, ignoring his protests. “Will you say goodbye to our guest? Come, come, my dear.” He did wave, and seemed to cheer a bit when Henri waved back. He at least allowed himself to be removed in relative silence after another kiss from his brother.

Julien closed the french doors and led Henri into the library. He apologised, saying he had really meant that they spend the afternoon in the library, but he couldn’t well hide that he was practically beaming.

“You’re so lucky,” Henri told him wistfully, trying to stamp down his jealousy into a more constructive emotion.

Julien idly spun a globe to avoid looking at his friend. “He can’t even say my name properly. By the time he’s able to talk, I’ll be in boarding school, and I’ll barely see him.” It was easier to focus on the lesser elements of the situation, particularly when he knew he had rather been flaunting his family in the face of a friend who had none, regardless of how unintentional the afternoon had been. He stopped the globe, his finger on Java. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rub it in. I swear I didn’t know they were down here.”

“Rub what in?” Henri knew perfectly well what, but he wanted to hear Julien say it.

“But then, I guess it really isn’t the same at all. Because if your mother and brother hadn’t died, you were only Charles’ age, so you wouldn’t even remember him as a baby. It would have been the two of you, raised together.”

“And I probably wouldn’t have met you at all. I don’t know if I like that kind of a what-if.”

The rain started at that moment, fat drops hitting the tall windows with a splash. Both boys turned to watch the first drops. Henri realised, as he watched the rain, that of course Mrs Boland looked like a mother because she was paid to look like a mother. He had been intensely jealous over an illusion, an expensive illusion, but not even a careful one. Of course he had had a nurse - his mother was dead - but Mme Combeferre was just out for an afternoon visit. She would return in the evening, and whatever happy balance he had witnessed that afternoon would be thrown out of joint. There was really nothing to be jealous of.

“I’m sorry,” Julien apologised again, his brow now creased in worry.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Henri told him. He finally took the chance to look around properly. “No, I take it back, you are lucky and I’m terribly jealous of you. For this.” His house had a library, of course, a similar sized room to the Combeferre library, and most of his lessons were conducted at the long wooden table in the centre. But the Combeferre library was particularly impressive. The table was ornately carved in green marble, a very heavy antique style unlike the light Empire furniture of his own home. All the lower shelves were packed with books. On the upper shelves, where one expected to find trinkets in the gaps between books, a very fine collection of Chinese pottery alternated with stone carvings of greater antiquity than the table. The chairs near the fireplace were much newer and created a sense of coziness that would not seem out of place if the high shelves and fantastic collections were hidden in the dark of evening. “This is amazing.”

“We inherited most of it, but that one,” Julien pointed to a stone face with a wide headdress and missing nose, “came from the Emperor’s campaign in Egypt. My father was contracted to bring back some of the antiquities, and we got to keep this one. He’s probably a king, but we don’t know which one he is. There are symbols on the back that might be his name, but we can’t read their writing. No one can because the ancient Egyptians all died out. The people in Egypt now are Musulman invaders from Arabia.”

The other stone carvings had come from Italy on various family travels before the Revolution and might or might not be authentically Roman. The Chinese vases were among the first porcelain ever brought to France, Julien said, though he qualified it as a family story with no real proof. “We brought them from China two hundred years ago, that’s almost certain, but you can’t really prove that we, out of everyone in France who has engaged in trade, including the monarchy as a result of trade and gifts and everything, has the oldest porcelain. It’s old, and that bowl is in the portrait of Frédéri Combefère, which is dated 1614; that’s all we can really prove.” The table had been made for an Italian duke a century before the house was even built. “My father says it came when he was a boy. The workmen had a devil of a time getting it in here, and that’s without the top. The top is new. Well, new when my father was younger than we are.” It was no wonder that Julien seemed to know everything - he had grown up with everything.

They ended up playing chess - even the chess set had a history to it - while sitting on the floor, watching the rain. Henri won two out of three games, the second after Julien realised he was playing for keeps and he would have to pay attention rather than watch the rain. But Julien was a cautious player, which enabled Henri to make a couple daring moves that caught him out.

Sometime after the rain stopped, they heard a carriage on the gravel drive. “Mother’s home!” They made a dash into the garden and slid on the wet grass as they hurried to avoid catching sight of her, avoiding the drying stone paths with the deliberate ignorance of youth. From the bottom of the garden, mission successful, they walked more calmly back to the Enjolras house, where Julien bid Henri good evening.

“Have you been out in the wet?” Cécile asked when he returned home.

“I was with Henri Enjolras,” Julien replied as evenly as he could.

She exhaled sharply in that particularly Parisian manner of showing annoyance, but she said nothing, to Julien’s great relief. He had accidentally caused conflict enough for one day, and it would weigh on him all night. He had not fairly taken what must have been Henri’s feelings into account, and he would have to apologise again. It was never appropriate to show off.


Chapter 10: The spirit of enjoyment and desire / Went circling, like a multitude of sounds ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 12: Whatever is done or said returns at last to me, / And whatever I do or say I also return ~ Home