From Childhood’s Hour


Chapter 14: It is bound / Ere it has life: yea, all the chains are forged / Long ere its being

 

Henri was well into the Social Contract when he heard footsteps rapidly approaching. Quickly, he thought to hide the book under the pillow that supported his injured ankle, not considering this might disturb the already painful joint. Thus, when his father burst in, Henri looked quite as wretched as could be expected.

“What happened?”

“He fell out of a tree,” François explained calmly.

“I did not! I slipped when I was coming down, that’s all.”

“Did you send for a doctor?”

“There’s no need. It’s just a sprain.”

“How do you know? Why did no one send for a doctor?”

“M. François bandaged it himself. He used to help his father.”

“A doctor is simply not necessary for such a slight injury. Any officer of health who barely passed his exam can identify and bandage a sprain.” François obviously had no good opinion of the health officers, but it was sort of injury that the peasants could treat themselves.

Jean-Pierre sat down on the arm of the sofa and Henri leaned back against his father’s leg. “My poor boy. Does it hurt very much?” Henri nodded. “I shall call in the doctor to bring you something.”

“I have never known a doctor in the habit of handing out vials of laudanum for sprained ankles.”

“He is my son!” Jean-Pierre barked. “You serve at my pleasure for his benefit. Your situation is not to contradict me.”

“Papa, I’ll be fine, really,” Henri protested. “M. François says it’ll stop hurting in a couple of days.”

“And if it doesn’t? Won’t it be a bit late to call in a doctor then?”

“Monsieur, it is a sprain. If I am wrong, then of course I will resign my position and pay the doctor’s bills myself. But it is a sprain. He should keep off it entirely for the next few days, but he will be walking almost normally in a week.”

“Papa, it feels better already,” Henri lied. Well, exaggerated. He had nearly forgotten about it while Rousseau described the effects of geography on people, but now that he was thinking about his ankle, it hurt terribly.

“My poor boy. I think we shall have to say no more tree climbing.”

“But Papa!”

“Aren’t you getting a little old for it, in any case?”

“Julien’s older than I am.”

“And you pulled him into your mischief rather than he pull you into his.”

“He doesn’t get into mischief.”

“I would rather you didn’t, either.”

“Is climbing trees really bad?”

“Falling out of them is worse. What should I do if it had been your neck rather than your ankle?”

“I didn’t fall out! I slipped a little, that’s all.” But even with the pain in his ankle, it was rather nice to curl up against his father because his father was always so pleased with any attention Henri gave him. “You don’t have to be angry at M. François,” he murmured. “He’s taking very good care of me.”

Jean-Pierre did calm the moment Henri nuzzled against him. The boy should have been in his mother’s arms, Felicité stroking his fair hair and kissing away his tears. Had there been tears? Of course there had been tears, tears he had not been able to soothe. It was a hard business, being father and mother. Jean-Pierre knew he ought to praise these signs of stoicism, but he wished Felicité were here to provide the love and comfort he could not bear to see withheld. “Very well, monsieur le docteur, what is your recommended treatment?”

“That he stay off it for a couple of days. He should be walking almost normally in a week, but there should be no running or tree climbing for at least a few weeks after that.”

“A few weeks!” Henri protested.

“Or you can stay on the sofa for a month.”

“You are certain of the diagnosis?”

“I would have called in a physician were I not certain. Children’s bodies are resilient. They are designed to get hurt from too much exploration and heal quickly so they may do it all over again.”

“Very well.”

Rather than disturb the injury too much, Henri was permitted to dine informally in the salon, and his father carried him upstairs to bed that night, a babyish gesture, perhaps, but one Henri did not complain against. So rarely was it appropriate to cling to his father, so tall and strong and usually smelling slightly of burned sugar when he returned from the refinery. Soon enough, he would be too old, and too big, to look to other people for comfort.

In the morning, the servants helped Henri to rise and dress. François came to him only when he had been settled back in bed, his ankle elevated according to François’ instructions. “The gardener has promised to have a crutch prepared for you sometime this morning. You’ll come downstairs under your own power.”

“Thank you, monsieur.” Not that Henri wanted to have lessons, but he did not want to stay in bed all day, either.

Examining the injury, François told him, “It was very kind of you to stand up to your father on my behalf.”

“But it was true. You said you were paid to look after me, and you looked after me.”

“I am paid to implement your father’s ideas of child rearing, not my own. I am not paid to show initiative that disagrees with his notions.”

“Initiative?”

“I may not do as I think appropriate until I have permission from your father.”

“But you’re right, aren’t you?”

“It is better when he is right.”

“Do you think I have to learn Greek or does my father?” Henri asked suddenly.

François smiled. “The government thinks you ought to learn Greek. It comprises a substantial portion of the baccalauréat.”

“I wish you could show initiative there,” Henri muttered. Aloud, he added, “I won’t tell Papa about Rousseau. That was initiative, wasn’t it?”

“It was. Please forgive me.”

“Don’t be sorry. The part I read last night was brilliant.”

“And how much could you really understand?”

“‘Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’ It’s true, isn’t it? You’re poor, so you can’t do as you like, and I’m rich, so I can’t do as I like. Why does Julien seem so free?”

François sat next to him on the bed. “We can’t always see the chains that bind others or even ourselves. They are too personal, too intimate, for others to understand. But Rousseau is speaking of something much simpler the rights of man. The chains are the restrictions of society itself, not of economics or the ways in which we choose to make connections and honour duties. Rousseau means that you cannot steal from your neighbour no matter what he has and that you cannot murder him merely because you dislike him. Our associations, our thoughts, even our morality are dictated by our need to remain together in society for our mutual benefit and protection. In the state of nature, we could live separately and be eaten by wolves, or we could endure each other’s company and fend them off. To endure each other’s company is the chain Rousseau means. We leave the womb, and immediately we enter society. Our shackles, the need to consider others instead of merely ourselves, are applied the moment our mothers suggest that something they want is more important than our immediate desires, and those chains will grow until our final breath.”

“If everyone is chained the same way, then that’s fair, right?”

“It is, and that is what makes society work.”

“But we aren’t chained in the same way. There’s nothing that harms anyone else in you wanting to be a doctor, and you’re stopped from doing it. And that isn’t fair.”

“Rousseau’s chains are identical for all of us. The ones you want to talk about are the ones we, not society, forge for ourselves.”

Henri thought for a moment. “Do you really mean that you stop yourself from becoming a doctor?”

“I could not afford five years in Montpellier, but I could have done three years in Lyon. But even with Lyon’s hospitals, that would have qualified me only to bind up broken legs and prescribe purgatives in the Loire. It is necessary for the peasants, but it is not what I want.” It was the first time Henri had ever heard François speak with any sort of bitterness, and François seemed to realise it because he forced a smile and added, more hopefully, “But I have worked, and saved, and I hope soon to have funds enough to register in Montpellier.” He handed Rousseau back to Henri and left.

It was strange to think of M. François having a life and dreams outside of the house, Henri thought. He wondered if the other servants, the real servants, had ideas of what they would do if they stopped working for the family. But he found his page again in Rousseau and ended up buried in systems of law and division of government power.

He was able to limp his way downstairs for a midday meal, and later in the afternoon, when he was puzzling out a Latin translation, François disappeared. Just as Henri noted that he had been left alone, free to daydream instead of work, François returned with Julien in tow.

“Are you going to be all right?” Julien asked, his eyes wide with concern.

Henri looked to François, seeking permission even though it was obvious that they were allowed this unscheduled meeting. When François nodded yes, Henri at last replied, “M. François says so.”

“I was only bringing your shoes and everything else we had to leave yesterday.” He was speaking rapidly in the tone Henri knew was leading up to an apology. “I tried to just leave them in the kitchen, but they insisted on M. François seeing me. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Shall I bring over the chess set?” François asked.

Both boys looked at him in shock over the offer. “You mean Julien can stay, and I don’t have to study?”

“You do have to study, but I think you’ve time for a game.”

“What has come over him?” Julien asked in a rapid whisper when it proved they were to be left to their own devices.

“I don’t know. My father was angry yesterday because M. François showed initiative in not calling for a doctor, and now he keeps helping me as if he hadn’t been scolded at all.”

“He doesn’t care anymore if he gets sacked,” Julien said with the certainty and wisdom of one who had seen the departure of many tutors in his life. “Which is rather nice. I mean, not that he’s planning to leave, but because they all behave more like themselves once they intend to go. You see them as men rather than servants.”

Henri had to agree that François was nicer as a man than a servant, but he did not at all like the idea that it had all come about through a need to depart. François had been far more likable than his predecessor, possibly because he took no interest in the housemaids. And just as he was turning thoroughly nice after all, it was because he was going to leave. It did not seem at all fair to Henri.

Of course, for the moment, he could have Julien do his translation for him instead of having to puzzle it out entirely on his own, and he could lose a game of chess that ordinarily would not have taken place at all. Julien was less enthused by the idea of doing Henri’s lesson than Henri was, but he did pick out the words that caused Henri the most trouble and told him what they meant before he had to go home. Nothing was said to M. Enjolras about what had passed that afternoon.

The next day, Julien was permitted to return so that they might spend the agreed-upon time together. Henri still was not moving around well enough on his rough crutch for them to even go out to the garden, so they sat in the library as before, M. François going in and out on his own errands. Julien had brought Locke, and Henri showed him the copy of Rousseau he had now finished, and they set to arguing and explaining if the Frenchman or the Englishman was more correct, though they were indeed very similar.

Henri finally explained what M. François had said Rousseau meant about chains. “Well, he’s right,” Julien replied. “That’s the whole point. And once society exists widely enough to need government, the chains bind tighter on some people than on others. Not all restrictions are the fundamental ones that Rousseau is talking about here. He talks about other restrictions in other books, but here he just means what Locke means when he talks about things one gives up in order to enjoy the benefits of society. That’s all.”

“Why are you so much more free than I am?” Henri burst out.

Julien looked at him rather strangely. “What do you mean?”

“You do whatever you want, and you read whatever you want, and you don’t have to hide things, and you can talk about wanting to be a doctor, and I can’t do any of it.”

Julien looked down. “Marseille is not Paris.”

Henri was rather sorry he had brought it up, but he still wanted to know. “What does that mean?”

“My mother has certain ideas that are important in Paris but not in Marseille. And Mr Parker doesn’t really care about anything except his botanising. I expect he’ll sail out of Marseille than make the trip back to Paris. So it doesn’t matter here what I do or don’t do. No one cares.”

“M. François said we can’t always see the chains that bind other people.” He meant it to be a comfort, an apology for having prised.

Julien looked him in the eye. “You wouldn’t be friends with me in Paris. Not because my mother doesn’t let me out of the house, but because you wouldn’t like me.”

“How can you be so different in Paris that I wouldn’t like you?”

“My mother has certain ideas of our position. It is why my father married her. I must do my best to live up to those. And I don’t think they include medical school,” he added sadly. “You do not fit in to those ideas of who we are. You’ve seen the portraits. The family line goes ever so far back. My mother’s does, too, in a way. People are mixing like anything, now, and only a few of the old aristocracy doesn’t want to be seen with men of business like my father. I must figure out how to be liked by people of my mother’s set, to be an asset to our position in the world. Your father made his money himself and does not talk of his family or his past. You aren’t the sort of boy I would be permitted to make friends with in Paris, and I’m not sure that I’d care enough in Paris to go against what my mother thinks best.”

“When you go to school, does that mean I’ll never see you again?”

“I don’t know. It’s so hard to go against what is forbidden. I mean, so much is permitted that I don’t know if there’s any point to fighting the rules. I must live in society, and that means giving certain things up.”

“I don’t want to never see you again, even if you say you are different in Paris. Because I don’t believe you could ever not be nice,” Henri insisted.

“It isn’t about being nice. One must always be nice, whether it be to servants or beggars or strangers. It is about doing more than waving hello to someone in the street. It is wanting to be known to enjoy the company of someone in a different set, about being willing to be thought different and possibly be unwelcome in the right set because of that. I talk so little about Paris because I don’t like who we are in Paris,” Julien admitted. “It’s all about who is appropriate and who is not and who knows whom and who we must now shun because of ill-advised connections. I love Paris itself, and I like our house and everything we have, but I don’t like who we are or who I’m expected to be. I study all the time so I can avoid having to do anything else, but I don’t know how much longer my mother will let me. I don’t want to go to school at all, and I’ll miss you so much, and I don’t even know if I’ll be permitted to write to you. It’s going to be awful.” Julien had not spilled so much of his soul to anyone since O’Brien had left, and it came flooding out, not in tears or bitterness but in overwhelming sadness.

François had been right, that our neighbours’ chains are too personal to be visible to us, Henri understood. “I’ll never not be friends with you,” Henri promised. “Maybe things can get better in a year?”

“They’ve never been any different. And I am certain to be enrolled in a school where only suitable boys are to be found.”

“I won’t stop being friends with you,” Henri insisted. “M. François may not be permitted to show initiative, but I can. I haven’t been completely stopped from seeing you yet.”

Julien couldn’t help smiling, even if he was shaking his head more like an adult. “We will break our chains however we must?”

“We have to, don’t we? Otherwise we’ll never have anything that we want, never do what we must to help everyone else, right?”

“Of course.”

 

Chapter 13: Work he hath begun / Of fortitude, and piety, and love ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 15: Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change / To these / All things are subject but eternal Love ~ Home