From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 17: Delight and liberty, the simple creed / Of Childhood


Henri missed François. That was really all there was to it. It was not that Cordillot was unkind or unintelligent, but he was a lesser man than François, Henri felt, or at least a lesser servant. Henri could not recall having actively missed a tutor before. Even his nurse, who had come down with them from Lyon and stayed for six years, he did not recall having missed. She had been replaced with a male tutor when his father determined that Henri had moved beyond counting and his alphabet, and Henri could not remember the parting at all. He could imagine a parting with tears, and a parting without, and either seemed just as plausible, though he suspected that he had not cried. Surely he would remember if he had wept bitterly at the deprivation.

It was not that he had wept for François, either, but unlike with his other tutors (with the exception of M. Duval, who had been sacked without the opportunity to say goodbye), he had hugged M. François tightly and distinctly felt that he did not want him to go. Of course he said nothing of the sort, and there were no tears, but the loss seemed the greater than even when Julien had left. Julien would write - he had promised - but François was gone forever.

François had introduced them to Cordillot. They had been at school together. It had only seemed right when giving his notice that he suggest a replacement, and Cordillot was found to be available and satisfactory.

But satisfactory was all that could really be said. Cordillot was a bit older than François and accustomed to city dwelling and the servants’ quarters, or at the very least, crowded suburbs and permission to fend for himself. It was not that Henri disliked him - indeed, he found he was proceeding very quickly with English under Cordillot’s direction - but Henri thought him not at all the sort of man to whom one could ask questions, not because they would be immediately repeated to his father but because they would not be answered at all if they were not strictly on topic.

Unlike François, very much like Duval, Cordillot guarded his time carefully. There were no looks at the maids at all, but within the first week, there was a clarification of duties that was something akin to an argument. Jean-Pierre suggested that they spend the evening in the salon; Cordillot believed himself off duty after dinner. Henri watched rather in awe as he had never seen such a polite argument. His father would snap at most of the tutors, but perhaps he felt it poor form to engage on such a level during the first week of a man’s employment. Cordillot, as the servant, said very little, but he insisted darkly on the few commonly accepted rights of servants: namely, that they were permitted the time off that was agreed to at the beginning of employment. Nothing had been said about every evening when he accepted the position, merely every dinner.

“In polite houses, when an invitation for dinner is sent, it is understood to include a retreat to the salon for discussion or reading or other pleasant pursuits,” Jean-Pierre had said condescendingly.

“Forgive me, monsieur, for looking on my employment as employment, not an invitation,” Cordillot had responded. “Dinner was among the conditions, and in my situation, I cannot permit myself to see ’dinner’ as anything more than a meal at a table in the evening. If you are to revise our agreement as you see fit, then I should warn you that I would require a higher price.”

“Or lose your situation?”

“Or lose my situation,” Cordillot insisted, impervious to the threat.

Jean-Pierre watched him for a moment, then laid out the deal. “You may have two free evenings a week.”


“A man of business knows better than to attempt to bargain when he cannot win.”

“I could have said four,” Cordillot said with a shrug. Henri was fascinated that anyone could flip between interest and indifference so quickly on such an important point.

“Two a week in addition to your fortnightly afternoon off, which may include the evening. Or you shall have to begin your negotiations with another employer.”

Cordillot bowed, thanked him, added, “I choose this as one of my evenings this week,” and retreated to his room.

“The nerve,” Jean-Pierre muttered. “If he had not been so highly recommended . . . Well, and how have you been getting on?” he asked Henri.

Henri thought the best idea was to pretend to have been doing much better with Greek than he had been, because his father would appreciate that, while promising himself that he would actually work harder at Greek so that it was not a lie, just a bit early to have made such statements.

Jean-Pierre started having dinner in town twice a week, which disappointed Henri. He understood that his father was doing it in order to make a point to M. Cordillot that two nights a week off was the prerogative of the employer, but it did mean that he spent those evenings alone. He did not complain - it did give him the opportunity to read whatever he wanted without questions and write to Julien unobserved - but he was glad when, after a month, his father returned to dining at home every night. It had not been pleasant to watch a power struggle play out when M. Cordillot could simply be sacked as M. Duval had been.

Henri had to be more conscientious about his work for Cordillot, but it had been easier to work for François. Cordillot considered his task the preparation of boys for school, and as such, he kept to the curriculum and warned of how various martinet instructors might poke holes in one’s work, though he was very kind about it, offering advice as well as correction. The external subject was English; François had been willing to consider all external subjects, from drawing to English with Julien to political philosophy, as equally important as the Latin and Greek and French and mathematics that the government deemed important. It was a great change, and not one Henri entirely liked.

When Julien’s gift arrived a few days after the New Year, Jean-Pierre looked at Henri oddly before handing it over. “It may be a book, not a letter, but I still must see what it is.”

Henri ripped the paper off and immediately opened to the first page. “Memoirs of the Hon. Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and President of the United States of America; Containing a Concise History of Those States, From the Acknowledgement of Their Independence, with a View of the Rise and Progress of French Influence and French Principles in that Country.” Julien’s letter had been tucked inside.

“My Dear Friend,

“I fear this gift has reached you later than I had intended, but I wish you all happiness in the new year, and that you may find the book terribly interesting. Mr Jefferson was a great man - a supporter of the rights of man all over the world - and these memoirs may show what Britain and France combined may achieve in the mind of a great man. I am sorry it is only the first volume, but it looked so much more interesting than anything else in the bookshop that I took it even if it was used and not very well liked by its previous owner. I hope you like it better, at least enough to cut all the pages.

“I may also tell you that we will indeed come to Marseille this summer, though we shall not stay as long as usual. I believe we shall arrive in May. Only five months until I may see you again, and I hope they shall not seem as long as the past three months have been. I shall send a proper letter later, but I think this great news.

“In friendship,

“Julien Combeferre”

“Julien’s coming next summer like usual!” Henri announced to his father as he reluctantly handed over the book and letter for Jean-Pierre to inspect.

“Jefferson,” Jean-Pierre muttered. He remembered that name, slightly - something about knocking about those damned pirates in the Mediterranean. Well, anyone who knocked about pirates was reasonable enough. The letter was a bit much, he thought - weren’t they still too young to fall for phrases like “rights of man”? Surely a man only was attracted to “rights” between the age of leaving school and roughly the age of twenty-five, when life will have kicked him around enough that he begin to understand the difference between philosophy and reality. But perhaps if Henri started early, he would grow out of it more quickly. After all, was anyone’s great interest at twelve years of age still their great interest when they became adults? Jean-Pierre rather wished someone had kicked it out of himself a bit earlier as it was. “Julien is helping your English along, is he?”

“As best he can from so far away.”

Jean-Pierre flipped through a few of the open pages. “They saw multitudes so utterly lost to all sensibility, moral feeling and shame,” he read silently, “as to make ‘THE REVOLUTIONARY TRIBUNAL OF FRANCE,’ and ‘THE MOUNTAIN,’ their favourite toasts, and to sport with humanity so far as to compose and sing in chorus songs of praise of the guillotine.” In that case, it was hardly a revolutionary book at all, even if “rise and progress of French principles” generally meant, in English, revolutionary principles, and the title page had seemed to speak of them so positively. He handed the book and letter back to Henri. “The rights of man” could have led to something much worse: even a president of America could not wholly be a radical demagogue if he had to govern that young, fragmented country and soundly knock about the Barbary pirates. Henri refrained from hugging the book, knowing it would be inappropriate to show too much emotion. But he only ever had presents from his father, and it was such an interesting present, too. A book about America! He knew very little about America, but he did know that it was founded as a republic, and it still was a republic. It had been ruled by Britain, but it threw out its king earlier than France had done, and now it was ruled by elections alone. And Mr Jefferson had many titles, all of which he hoped M. Cordillot could explain. It was in English, therefore it was one of the approved subjects. While his father turned to the rest of the mail, he started to puzzle out the introduction. Yes, he would certainly need M. Cordillot’s help with such an involved text.

Jean-Pierre let him read. He was more concerned with his own letter, from Richard, attempting to explain the gift.

“Let me present my case before you start to complain. They have to learn about the world at some point. Part of that is the generally accepted politeness of exchanging cards and gifts at New Year’s. You are completely within your rights to send the book back. It is my opinion that Julien needs to take responsibility for any consequences of his actions, and the consequences are rather up to you. I have no desire to tell him what he can or cannot purchase for a friend when that purchase physically harms no one and is within the budget I have set. Let us be completely honest - the gift is crazy. My son has terribly odd interests, and I hope school will moderate some of that through lack of access. I am sorry he is dragging your boy into it. But he must learn the consequences himself, whether that mean Henri not be so keen on spending next summer sharing recent history texts or you exert your rights as a parent and do something other than let Henri have the book. I do not argue Julien’s case, merely my own.

“We are returning to Marseille in May. I hope you don’t hold Julien’s bit of initiative against us. If life were very different, the boys would be sent out to work soon rather than to school, which I admit colours my view of the friendship. I feel that they are old enough to, in a sense, do as they like. That if a boy of their age is permitted in a smithy, they can surely be trusted as to the writing of letters and sending of gifts. I also beg that you not feel you must reciprocate the gift. If there is a concern for the etiquette, that is one thing, but you mustn’t mind the cost. The experiment, to my mind, is worth the little I put into it.

“I think we’re lucky enough to have good lads, that we’ve raised them so that they can’t go wrong. If this passion for political philosophy does not pass, it will moderate with age and experience, and while we may prefer that our personal and family business needs be sustained first, I see no great tragedy, and have decided that there may be a great good, if such interests lead to political participation. I can think of much worse things than a son in the National Assembly. You, of course, will have your own needs and preferences, and I will respect those. But do consider that it isn’t the end of the world if they have their own eccentric desires. Once they are old enough to have ‘eccentric desires’.

“I congratulate you on the news that has reached me in Paris. Buying the salt concession off Bazin made the papers. That is a coup that if you did not already have a fortune, I would say would make you one. I always thought you were a brave man for buying that sugar refinery after the Saint Domingue affair, when all the sugar colonies were endangered by the English, but it certainly put you in place to build up rapidly. Good luck with whatever venture you’ve got up your sleeve that Bazin’s salt concession is going to make happen.”

The salt concession had made the papers in Paris. Interesting. Well, of course it would, the whole point of the salt concession was that it was a royal contract. However, the acquisition meant more than the royal contract; there was of course a surplus that could be sold on the open market. Perhaps Combeferre was right, Jean-Pierre told himself. While it would be best to have Henri running everything - the refinery, the farms, the salt, and the soda mill he intended to set up to process the surplus salt as an entry to glassmaking - it would hardly be a tragedy should those business interests have personal support in the Chamber of Deputies someday. And the book was not so radical as Combeferre seemed to have thought. There could be benefits.

“You will tell me what you learn about M. Jefferson,” he told his son.

“Of course,” Henri answered absentmindedly. He thought he had understood much of the short introduction and was now moving on to the first chapter. M. Jefferson had better be worth the amount of work it would take to understand him.


Chapter 16: With an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony . . . We see into the life of things ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 18: I hear you whispering there, O stars of heaven ~ Home