From Childhood’s Hour
Chapter 12: Whatever is done or said returns at last to me, / And whatever I do or say I also return
July brought the temperatures up, both air and sea, so that a cooling swim was no longer a frigid one. Julien was admonished for allowing himself to turn as brown as a peasant, but no one attempted to curtail his free afternoons. Henri had learned moderation after a particularly bad sunburn kept him stiff and sore for a week. But by the second week of the month, they had settled into a pattern of afternoon swims and evenings playing games or reading in the garden. Sometimes they even stayed out until nearly dark, helping Mr Parker capture moths.
Thus it was a surprise when one afternoon, sitting in a tree debating whether or not to leave the shade for a swim, Julien announced, “That’s it. I’m taking you to Les Goudes.” “Really?”
“Why not? It’s not that far. It’s certainly something you’ve never seen.”
“We’re not going just so I can stare at them, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re fishermen, not monkeys in the zoo. I haven’t been over there in a year, and the old women like me, so I ought to make a visit, and why shouldn’t you come with me?” If the Combeferres had kept all the Castelnau lands, and if the Castelnaux had been noble rather than otherwise, it was entirely possible that the village would have belonged to them, the fishermen the descendants of serfs. Julien had always felt a sense of noblesse in how his mother took him in the carriage in order to bring blankets and old clothes and confitures to the village. She went less often after the war ended, and he had quit going altogether until the boredom of the previous summer guided his steps back that way along the beach.
“Is your mother going to be there?”
“Almost certainly not.”
“Then I’ll go.” It was not that Henri was afraid of Mme Combeferre, he would have insisted if asked; he was afraid of his father finding out if he ran into Mme Combeferre.
As they walked down the beach, Julien actually carrying his hat instead of leaving it behind with his coat, his cravat, and his shoes, he pointed out several of the plants Parker had found interesting. Henri was more interested in the fishing boats dotting the sea and the way it seemed to take forever before the white houses of the village grew any closer.
But up close, the houses were not so white as they had appeared in the glare of the sun, their tile roofs faded and worn and the walls cracked. The women were dark and wrinkled from outdoor labour, the children active enough but busy at tasks in the dry yards or heading back to the vineyards and gardens on the hill above the bay. There was no school for the village, and no church, so conversation was conducted entirely in Provençal. The village itself was merely a half circle of low pale houses, stained by the rain and bleached by the sun, each having a door and a single window through which to let in the light and fresh air. The women worked at their gardens, their once-bright kerchiefs easily visible on the hill, or sat on rough stools outside, mending nets or clothing while shouting at their brown, dirty children. There was a low odor of fish, a constant reek that never quite hit the pitch of decay but never blew away, either. The only animals in sight were an old mongrel dog sleeping in the sun and the usual wild birds. There were not even the chickens one might expect to see pecking through the dust.
Julien made a great show of civility, greeting everyone with “bonjorn” rather than “bonjour”, wearing his hat so that he might show politeness by tipping it to the shabbily dressed women. He paid particular attention to an old man with white moustaches who spoke French. “Paire Bournat helped my father organize the men of the village during the war. Paire Bournat, may I present Henri Enjolras? His father owns the sugar refinery in Marseille.” Henri was surprised to hear that Julien moderated the northern tones to his voice when in this company. He could add syllables and drag out words just like a native, and it sounded perfectly natural in his mouth, despite his Parisian upbringing.
“Ah, the sugar man.” Père Bornat nodded in such a way that Henri was rather certain he was condemning his father in a terribly polite manner.
But that was quickly forgotten as Julien coaxed a story out of the old man, who had been in the navy in his youth before he retired with enough money to buy himself a fishing boat, Julien explained later. He had learned his French aboard ship and had traveled as far as the West Indies, which provided him with stories to spare in his old age and a role as translator in his home village, the only man who had been away long enough to be fluent in French and had come home.
The women only spoke Provençal, but they must have been certain that the boys could hardly understand them and so made their good intentions known by signs as much as through words. The boys had white wine pressed on them, which Julien kept insisting be kept to “sonque un pauc” despite his many thanks. Henri had spent his entire life here, but Julien seemed to have more of the language than he did. Julien’s nurses must have come from Paris if they weren’t foreign - local girls could not have ever been fashionable - and the only nurse Henri could remember had been brought down from Lyon. He ought to have had more of the patois than Julien did, and he was not certain if he were jealous or aggrieved or merely disappointed that Julien had bested him even in this. But the women were kind, and Julien seemed to make absolutely nothing of the fact that he had a smattering of their language, and Henri could at least manage to tell them “mercès” rather than “merci”. He could not tell how old the women might be except for those who were little more than girls - none seemed young and even the children looked old when he looked into their dark eyes. There were no boys of his own age, or young men - they were all aboard the fishing boats.
As Père Bornat talked, Henri stared into the open doorway of his house until he could make out the sparse and rough furnishings inside the dim single room. If there was a floor, it was covered in dust. Everything Père Bornat wore was heavily frayed and patched - even the kerchief tied around his neck was no longer the bright red it must have been when he had bought it many years ago. But soon enough, the story of the battle was too exciting to ignore, and Henri managed to forget the strangeness of the village surroundings and even the poverty of the storyteller as the cannon roared and the enemy would have boarded the ship had not a lucky shot caused them to yaw away. Père Bornat was the sort of storyteller who might as well have been an actor, who relished the images he could create as much as the plot of his tale. The sort of storyteller that Henri had little experience with, his life being arranged for education more than for amusement.
When the old man had finished, Julien took his hand and asked him very seriously, “Is there anything you need, Paire Bournat?”
“Not me, not me, my son.”
“Touneto. Her husband died this spring.”
“I will tell my mother,” he vowed. “Who else?”
“Everyone. No one. It was better during the war.”
“Yes, when the English paid much gold for information along with their fish.”
“Your father paid more.”
“Perhaps the English will make our peace very difficult.”
“That would be nice.”
They made their goodbyes, though Julien endured being fussed over a bit more by several women to whom he could give nothing but a kiss of the hand. At last, they made their escape. When they were far enough away not to be easily seen, Julien removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair in an encouragement to the sea breeze. He breathed deeply of the salt air, trying to get the fish out of his nose and the depression out of his heart. While he had originally stopped going not because the poverty depressed him but because he felt like a baby being dragged around by his mother, it was the sense of need that kept drawing him back all of last summer, even as the futility of his visits saddened him. He felt guilty over the delay this year, but it had been in some ways easier to live with that guilt than with the guilt he felt now for how meaningless such visits really were. Henri felt as if he had left his stomach somewhere else, oddly hollow, as if the cup of wine had drained him instead.
“People really live like that?” he asked softly, looking at the sand under his feet rather than at Julien.
“Yes. It isn’t right, is it, that they can look only to charity to improve their lot?”
“What can your mother do for that woman?”
“See that she is fed, see that her children are clothed. We shouldn’t have to kill the rest of France to create a way for one village to live better. Everything has gotten much worse in the past few years. The roofs were better patched when I was younger. They probably bought the tiles in the first place on the proceeds of the war.”
“It must be awful to have to take charity.”
“Père Bornat refuses it for himself.” Julien had dropped his Provençal inflections the moment they left the village, as if he had been addressing the fishermen in a foreign language. “We’ve told him that we’d pay for him to teach the children to speak proper French, that we could find employment for them if they had more than just the patois, but he won’t do it. We can’t support a real schoolmaster because who would watch him while we’re gone? And they’re all wedded to the sea. They don’t see that there are other ways to earn a living, ways that don’t involve drowning. A man, or even a woman, who speaks French can go anywhere; but if he only speaks his patois, he’ll never survive outside his village. And they aren’t surviving because the ones taken for the Navy never come back, except for Père Bornat, and the ones who stayed got used to higher prices during the war.”
“But they couldn’t have had better houses during the war.”
“They hardly spend any time inside most of the year.”
“Does Père Bornat even have a floor?”
“No. They’re all dirt.”
Henri kicked at the sand on the beach as they walked along. “It’s not right.”
“No, it’s not right. Do you know what today is?”
“14 July. Twenty-nine years ago today, the mob overran the Bastille.” He pointed back toward the village. “That is why. They didn’t even know it, but that is why they did it. The poverty. The ignorance. The despair. They blamed the monarchy. But the republic was too concerned with destroying its enemies.”
“And the Emperor?” Henri asked.
“Saved France from itself and set it to destroying Europe instead. One village did better in the war, playing each side off the other and profiting from both. My father did, too. But what did it get anyone in the end? Bonaparte could have done so much, but look at us. Look at them. Nothing. In good times, they tiled the roofs of their hovels but now they have no money to repair them. The Revolution tried to destroy the church, and that lessens the number of people who must have fish every Friday. Bonaparte took the peasant into the army, taught him that there is such a thing as France, but then threw him back into his narrow little village with no hope of anything. And no one did anything for the women, so many of whom were widowed in the wars.” Julien’s eyes were shining with excitement, his voice suddenly as mature as his ideas. “Our fathers look at their self interest, because they survived the war. But we know better, because we can look at all of France, we can see the work that was left undone. We can fix everything if only we are willing to try. They didn’t try before. It wasn’t that they failed, but that they didn’t try.”
“And we can?”
“Can’t we?” There was a hint of desperation in the question, as if Julien were not even entirely certain of what he thought he knew.
It suddenly dawned on Henri. “Politics. Liberals. Ultras. We have to join in, otherwise our fathers will keep running everything selfishly. But how can we start?”
“We start by learning. In America, everyone is permitted to vote. Anyone is permitted to be elected to the national parliament, no matter how much or how little land he owns.”
“But we tried that, and the revolution failed.”
“Because it was too busy eating itself. A single-minded fixation on destroying an unfair system.” Julien had obviously been reading some very interesting books, indeed, with what he had been repeating. He sounded to Henri just like M. Enjolras ranting about the newspapers, but with an excitement M. Enjolras had never had.
“And it’s for us to build the new one in its place, since no one else has,” Henri thought aloud. “What do you need me to read?” Julien couldn’t do it alone, therefore he would have to help. People had no floors and broken roofs, so it was not a choice of if he would help but rather in what way Julien needed him to help.
Julien listed off the authors he knew, the authors O’Brien had left for him and the men they had referenced. “I’ll give you a proper written list tomorrow.”
“No, I don’t need one. I’ll remember.” Henri did not quite want his father to know where he had been, what he had seen. The village was so close, but it had been kept hidden from him. Best to keep certain things hidden, at least for now, he thought. He was not quite certain, in any case, how to explain that what he had seen made him hollow but what Julien had said, the prospect of doing something for not just that village but every village like it in France, had filled him up again.
Chapter 11: Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream? ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 13: Work he hath begun / Of fortitude, and piety, and love ~ Home