From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 18: I hear you whispering there, O stars of heaven


It was nearly midnight, though the Mediterranean air was still rather warm. The excuse given to both fathers for the boys staying out so late had been a lesson in astronomy, for Delarive actually knew some astronomy, but after a few pointers, he sat smoking on the terrace with Cordillot while the boys lay on their backs in the garden. Cordillot did not seem to care much what was going on, but Delarive kept an ear out.

“You’re laying on me.”

“Yes, I am.”

“That can’t be comfortable.” Henri didn’t answer. “What if I sat up?”

“Then I’d have to push you back down.”

“I’d like to see you try.” Which put in train a very inept session of wrestling, leading to a victory for Julien - he was bigger, after all - and both boys collapsing in laughter.

“Christ,” Delarive said to the other tutor. “I’ve been with them seven months, and I’ve never heard the boy laugh.” Cordillot said nothing. The return of the Combeferres had changed what had been a fairly regular schedule, and he was not quite certain he enjoyed midnight smokes with a complete stranger. It was one thing to get the news from Paris; it was another thing to get it from someone who was nearly as walled off as he was.

Down on the lawn, Henri asked, “Can you see the stars like this in Paris?”

Julien shook his head, then remembered that if he could barely see Henri, Henri could barely see him. “No. The air in Paris is too thick. And it’s not nearly late enough for all the lights to be out.”

“It’s later than I’ve ever stayed out.”

“But the parties are just getting started. People don’t even arrive until eleven or think about leaving before three. The whole square in front of the house is lit up with the lamps of all the carriages arriving or leaving. Sometimes people don’t return home until dawn.”

“Do you ever get to go?” The last round of letters had included even less information on Cécile’s social round than usual, which might have meant that Julien had been dragged about more than he wanted to let on.

“Soirées aren’t for children,” Julien sniffed. “Honestly, they’re populated by my mother’s friends and their acquaintances and my father’s friends and their wives. I can’t imagine anything more boring. We sometimes have at homes, though, and those are different. Not Mother’s salon evenings, those are just her friends come after dinner instead of in the afternoon, but at homes.” Henri could hear all the points at which Julien was rolling his eyes. “Father’s friends come more often to the at homes, and their wives are not all Mother’s friends, and sometimes we have music instead of just talk or cards. And sometimes the men even talk about politics or business in ways that aren’t boring. I’m required to present myself at the at homes, but I can sneak out if they’re just going to play whist. The only good part about school is that I’ll be boarding, which means I won’t have to present myself to Mother’s satisfaction for anything. I’ll miss the music evenings, though.”

“I wish we had people here. I don’t like M. Cordillot as well as M. François,” he added in a whisper.

“This is my last summer! Is he going to ruin it for us?”

“Oh, I doubt that. But he thinks me sadly behind in poetry.” Henri pulled a face, barely visible in the blue starlight but Julien laughed anyway. “He also was not entirely happy with book you gave me.”

“Mr Jefferson is not for small minds.”

“Shh, he might hear us,” Henri warned him with a nudge.

“But what does your father think?”

“He said it can’t be wholly seditious if the man was president, therefore he’s grateful I’m so eager to learn a language at all.” Henri pulled another face. “Just because I complain about Greek. And he thinks I’m behind on Latin because I haven’t looked into Virgil at all. And I hate Racine.” François had never forced French drama on him, while Cordillot considered it his duty.

“I’ll help you through meter if you want.”

“I want no poetry at all. It’s pointless. Just say straight out what you want to say; who cares if it rhymes?”

“Shakespeare doesn’t always rhyme, but his plays are mostly written in poetry. It’s a way of imposing discipline on your thoughts. To bring structure to the metaphors.”

“Jefferson doesn’t write poetry.”

“But he studied it. That’s the point. You have to know how it’s done, even if you don’t wholly replicate it. It teaches structure, and that’s all to the good. You know, I can imagine the horrid face you’re making right now.”

“I’m not making any sort of face!” Henri protested, poking Julien in the ribs.

“That’s it,” Cordillot said over the sound of laughter. “You may keep Paris hours, but I’ve been in the country too long. The country. God, it isn’t even really the country, though you wouldn’t know it from the hours this household keeps. You may breakfast at noon, but I’m too out of practice.”

“Of course. Forgive me. Julien!” Delarive called his pupil. “Time for bed.”

Julien sighed. Henri groaned loudly, which earned him an elbow from Julien. “If you complain too much, you won’t be allowed out again.”

They walked back up to the house, arms around each other, heads bowed together laughing over an impolite comparison Julien had just quietly made between Cordillot and what Polonius must have been before marriage and children. A chink of light from the curtained windows and the dark lantern Delarive had just opened illuminated the boys in a perfect chiaroscuro, fair and dark in perfect contrast in the dim warm light. Jean-Pierre, ostensibly in bed but watching and listening from behind curtains rustling slightly from the half-open window, found it hard to complain that Henri looked so happy. Perhaps it was time to consider school if the arrival of one friend could do so much. Richard Combeferre made such damnably good points, that was the real trouble. “School can moderate many things. They learn freedom, then they learn duty, and when they have freedom again as adults, they can balance themselves out,” he had said when they met for a drink the other day. “I hope for Julien that in some way, Henri has taught him how to make friends, or at least to get along with other boys, and I am confident that some of Julien’s eccentricities will be abandoned once they are no longer indulged. How much longer can he really be interested in ’everything’? He will have to choose one or two. It will make his own life easier in years to come.” Jean-Pierre rather hoped that Henri had not learned too much of freedom, for duty would always have to be primary. But he did look so happy in Julien’s company, and it was so pleasant to hear him laugh.

“Where is your hat?” Delarive asked. Julien looked around in a vague semblance of a search, but it was not on the terrace and it was too dark to see into the depths of the garden.

“The staff will find it in the morning,” Cordillot told them. “Good night.”

They bid him and Henri goodnight, then picked their way across the gardens to the gate at the main road, which seemed the most polite way home even though Julien could find the gaps between the two properties even in the dark. But Julien paused on the main road. He liked Delarive very much, but Marseille was not Paris, and he could not bear wondering if that meant the same thing to Delarive that it meant to him. “You won’t tell Mother about tonight, will you?” he worried.

Delarive smiled calmly. “Your father is my employer.”

“That’s all right. He doesn’t mind.”

Delarive determined to do what he could to make friends with Cordillot. Julien did not need more time at his studies - indeed, Delarive rather feared what the outcome would be in the autumn once Julien had to be placed in a class because he was far too advanced for a boy of fourteen - but he sorely needed as much time as possible with his friend.

It was a pity that the Gemini were a winter constellation. Delarive was certain he had been seeing them all night.


Chapter 17: Delight and liberty, the simple creed / Of Childhood ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 19: I see / The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee ~ Home