From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 16: With an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony . . . We see into the life of things



Julien laughed and tried to pick up the pace. “I haven’t figured out yet how to trot!”

Charles kicked his heels in his best mimicry of spurs. “Faster!”

“Hold on, General.” He made his best dash on hands and knees towards the far end of the salon, Charles perched on his back, laughing gleefully, Mrs Boland shaking her head and smiling.

“Julien!” At the sound of his mother’s voice, sharp as the crack of a whip, all mirth ceased. He didn’t dare look toward the door, where he knew she must be standing with her hands on her hips, glaring at him for having forgotten himself. “What are you doing?” she asked sharply, more surprised than angry. Even Charles knew enough to slide down from his brother’s back so Julien could stand up to accept his chastisement.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he murmured once he was on his feet.

“Crawling about the floor like a simpleton at your age? And in those trousers! I expected better of you. Where is your coat?”

“On the chair. I was trying to be careful.”

“Your knees will turn shiny, and what will be the point then of your coat still being good? Get dressed. And a cravat is not a plaything. I hope that mark goes away before your father gets home.” They had been using his cravat in place of bridle and reins, creating a red crease across his forehead from the pressure. Julien had sense enough not to take it between his teeth. “Where is M. Delarive?”

“Taking tea.”

“He is rather a long time at it if you have finished yours and had time for this nonsense.” While his instinct was to take his tutor’s part, Julien decided it best to refrain from argument. “Must I catch you at this again?”

Cécile’s voice was less sharp now, more confused than angry, really, even to Julien’s ear, but Julien knew it was better not to push his luck. “No, Mother.” He knelt down to Charles’ height. He desperately wanted to tousle his baby brother’s hair, or hug him, or do something, anything more than solemnly vow he would visit again the next afternoon, but he dared do nothing else with his mother watching. One did not test Cécile’s limits.

By the time Delarive returned from the kitchen, where he had been smoking and flirting with one of the maids, Julien had dressed and installed himself in a chair in the library window, a book on his lap and only the fading red mark on his forehead and the sad expression on his face testifying to the brief mischief. Delarive said nothing then - in his not yet two months in the house, he had not yet determined if the boy was unnatural from birth or if his parents kept him so. He had never had a pupil so studious; neither had he seen such a well-behaved boy chastised for what in other families would pass for ordinary spirits.

“Would you prefer we continue with Latin or move on to your German lesson?” he asked gently.

Julien swallowed his preferred answer, that he did not really care at the moment, and elected German. He feared he would not have Delarive for much longer - someone would have to pay for his afternoon’s brief rebellion, and if it were not Delarive, he would soon go of his own accord anyway, like all the rest - so German it would have to be.

Delarive looked up partway into the lesson and saw Cécile watching from the doorway, a pensive look on her face. When she saw she had been noticed, she merely shook her head and walked away. Julien, concentrating on the conjugation of regular verbs, looked up only once she was gone.

“Is something the matter with your mother?” Delarive finally dared ask.

“I behaved poorly this afternoon, that’s all.”

Julien had “behaved poorly” a few times in Delarive’s brief term of employment, always in a manner Delarive could not believe was “poorly” at all, but it was the first time he had seen the boy’s mother follow up. Whatever she had been thinking when she saw him at work, Delarive was fairly certain she was not angry. But it was easier to return to work than to parse the motives for Cécile Combeferre’s behaviour. “Let us construct sentences using ‘spielen’.”

Julien was quite pleased with Delarive. He did not quite know why his father had selected a much younger tutor than usual - his reasoning of “he has sat the bac more recently and will be able to better prepare you for school” had seemed rather strained - but it was a pleasant change. Delarive reminded him a bit of François - eager to be liked and reluctant to exert authority - but fair with a trace of a Norman accent rather than dark and Southern. It was easy to want to impress him, even though Julien rather feared that trying too hard to impress him would probably push him out entirely. He had already overheard a couple of the maids giggling over how handsome the new tutor was, and the example of Henri’s sacked tutor was rather close for comfort. But Delarive seemed to actively like him, and to have actual sympathy, which engendered a hope that he would neither focus all his attention on the maids nor give notice precipitately. It was already understood that he would be free when Julien started school in the autumn.

The last letter from Henri had carried news of his new tutor: M. François had left to begin medical studies, an event which pleased Julien very much. He had rather feared that M. François had been telling stories to himself, not just to Henri, but here was the proof that there was some point in hoping for things after all. M. François had been replaced by a M. Cordillot, a gentleman who could continue with English grammar and far more Greek than Henri would have preferred, if Henri’s letter was to be believed. “I do not yet know what I think of M. Cordillot,” Henri had written, “but M. François was particularly kind at the end, and I think I should miss him no matter how well I might come to like M. Cordillot.” Julien understood completely - no one had been at all the same as Mr O’Brien, though at least M. Delarive did not ask piercing questions about Julien’s reading material.

Indeed, M. Delarive was delightfully complicit, suggesting outings to bookshops as frequently as anything else. In some ways, Paris was always preferable to Marseille because outings had been reasonably frequent with all the tutors, and now they were almost constant with Delarive, to the Jardin des Plantes and the Louvre, bookshops and subscription libraries and even churches. Parker had been a botanist almost exclusively, but Delarive had occasional artistic interests, to the point he would take Julien to a random church of an afternoon and point out the architecture, how everything was put together, even an idea of what statues and carvings and windows may have been destroyed in the Revolution and not replaced or repaired poorly. Yet as soon as one might think he thought this a pity, he would turn around and say something about art and progress and how if devotion to the Supreme Being had really caught on, there would be a whole new style of cathedrals. Richard even overheard a discussion along this line, continued after they had returned home late, and added that in London, many of the great churches had been designed by one man in his ideal of what a church antithetical to “popery” should be, with huge clear windows instead of stained glass and whitewashed interiors with abstract decoration, almost like the Musulmans in the Levant had, instead of statuary and murals, because the truth of God is found in the books for a literate population. Mr Wren had created the ideal churches for the Church of England, a direct contrast to the Church of Rome.

Richard had never spoken of art in Julien’s presence, being so often much too busy and concerned with business, but he loved poetry, and it suddenly seemed to Julien that beauty of all sorts was not so far from his father’s experience as he had thought. The poetry was not an aberration at all. Delarive dared ask more about the mosques of the Levant, and Richard told what he could remember from visits made when he was a young man. Musulmans did not believe in portraits of holy men for decoration - it was a blasphemy - and so their holy buildings were decorated with text and design rather than pictures. They could write the attributes of God over everything, and incorporate the text into a pattern so that foreigners mostly saw the beautiful scribbles as being one and the same, but they could not draw a picture of any of the prophets or angels. “And you must remove your shoes and wash yourself before entering, which is a great nuisance, yet as ridiculous as their religion itself is, there’s something to be said for people with that much respect for a thing they believe in. Backward, of course, but so are the Indians of America, and it’s like looking back on what we’ve lost. A primitive beauty of the soul, if you will.”

“Still, modernity is a great thing. I wonder if the Protestants of Germany also favour clear windows for their churches.” Delarive’s great hope was that he might one day see Germany, not necessarily to sit at the feet of Hegel in Berlin or Schelling in Munich, for that would be too much to hope, but merely to see the lands that were so fractured and yet had brought about the fascinating new philosophy.

“The clear light of God, someone once said.” Richard repeated it in English for Julien’s benefit. “A nice phrase, don’t you think?”

“It is. I should like to see it someday.” Perhaps God was in the clear light of the Protestants - Julien had certainly not found Him in the fractured stained glass of the Parisian churches. But if there were ways to make his father think of beauty, God could not be too far behind, could He?

After Delarive discovered that Julien would read anything put in front of him, and seek out what was missing if an edition were labeled “expurgated”, he even discussed with him all the tales in Ovid that were ordinarily avoided as being inappropriate for young minds. Julien’s occasional comparison of the racier myths with several of the poems of Catullus he ought not to have known threw Delarive for a moment, but it soon proved merely an eagerness to connect the dots, to relate one thing to another, not to explore all the various methods of voluptuousness. The only trouble was that Julien’s religious education had been lacking - he had been right when he had feared his Greek was falling behind under Parker’s benign neglect - and the hardest work was puzzling through the New Testament in Greek. But he was permitted bits of Plato as a reward.

Poor Delarive had never had a pupil who felt that Plato was a reward for translating the Acts of the Apostles, but Julien was a terrifically easy pupil. His only mischief was in taking some time each day to play with or read to his brother; otherwise, he would do anything asked the moment it was asked and fall to reading when his work was done. It was a joy to take him out of the house a several times a week because outside, he had questions and interests and desires that were not wholly calculated to please his exacting mother. And when Delarive soon discovered that the quickest key to Julien’s nature was to express an understanding of political philosophy, it was not so much that the gates flew open as that they disappeared entirely. By Christmas, Julien looked at him differently, almost as if they shared a secret from Cécile.

Nothing was secret from Richard, however, for when Julien expressed his intention to send a book to his friend Henri as a New Year’s present, permission had to be obtained.

“He may do what he likes,” Richard said. “Keep it to ten francs or less, I’ll pay what it costs and the postage. But do let me know what he selects, so I might warn the boy’s father.”

“If M. Enjolras has distinct opinions, should I not be prepared to direct Julien’s preferences in that direction?”

“I’m more curious if the book will be sent back, myself. They’ve not attempted exchanging presents before. The consequences must be on Julien’s head, otherwise how is he to learn? I can only prepare the way so much. Let him do as he likes.”

Julien took the project very seriously, asking Delarive if it were possible that he knew of a bookshop that dealt in English books, then carefully going through books one at a time, peeking between the uncut pages at times to verify what, indeed, he would be buying when a title was unfamiliar. Delarive suggested that a copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar might not go amiss - after all, when he was at school, it was a set text for one year of the English classes, so M. Enjolras could hardly disapprove. Julien was sighing longingly over an edition of Paradise Lost. “I wish he liked poetry better. It would be so nice to talk about it with someone, and this one looks so interesting.” But Milton was put back on the shelf. Instead, the bookshop dealing in secondhand as well as new volumes, a memoir of Thomas Jefferson was selected, it consisting only of the first volume, its pages sporadically cut.

Richard flipped through it, laughed, and handed it back to Delarive. “Well, they know what they want.”

“I am not certain it was the best idea, monsieur.”

“No one shall be losing heads over it - the man was president, after all, and governing will moderate any but the truest fanatic. If you wish to know why he bought it, read the last open page.”

“‘Declaration and Constitution of the American Society of United Irishmen’. What has this to do with Jefferson?”

“The author must have his reasons for its inclusion. I cannot imagine it has earned him additional sales from starry-eyed boys.”

“This is Julien’s interest in political philosophy?”

“It comes from one of your predecessors. Anyone leaving Ireland for France in those days was a believer, but he was not a fanatic. No one who brought his brand new copy of Wordsworth and Coleridge with him into exile could have been in the least a fanatic. I suppose there were stories told. There were other books, too, and I should have seen this coming. Julien’s of an age now where he can begin to understand what was left for him, so now he’s reading it. And sharing it. Either he’ll grow out of it, or he’ll go in the Assembly, and I can’t say either outcome would be the worst. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’d mind him going into the Assembly, as long as our interests are properly understood. He’s a good boy; odd interests should be the least of your worries.”

“Speaking of odd interests, if I may, monsieur. He might appreciate an edition of Paradise Lost should it be a consideration at the holidays.” Odd interests were the least of Delarive’s worries for his pupil. Richard’s occasional notice of his son - an always friendly and interested notice but never long-lasting - was typical of the families for which Delarive had worked, but Cécile appeared at times to fill the role of exacting father more than of mother. Chastisements and worry over appearances never came from Richard, who left social matters to his wife. Cécile concentrated all the necessary direction of their sons’ lives with no room left for expressions of tenderness. Even little Charles received his affection from his English nurse rather than from his mother. Delarive hoped that some notice of the boy’s wants might go very far in maintaining a good humour from him rather than the general acquiescence he mostly noted in Julien’s interactions with his parents.

Paradise Lost,” Richard mused. “Thank you.”

When Julien unwrapped the volumes on New Year’s Day - books were always for the New Year in the Combeferre household - he was pleased all day in a way Delarive wished were more habitual for him. He was a delightful boy when he behaved more like a boy than a man.


Chapter 15: Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change / To these / All things are subject but eternal Love ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 17: Delight and liberty, the simple creed / Of Childhood ~ Home