From Childhood’s Hour
Chapter 19: I see / The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee
They were sitting in the grass, open books strewn about in the August heat. Julien’s hat was in the grass rather than on his head, a receptacle for the apricots they had picked earlier.
“Ille mi par esse deo videtur, / ille, si fas est, superare divos, / qui sedens adversus identidem te / spectat et audit. This is a Sapphic stanza - three lines of eleven syllables, plus an additional line of five.” Julien tried to explain the metrical pattern in detail, but Henri was looking at a completely different book. “Henri, this is important.”
“Why does everyone write poetry?” he complained.
“Because it’s nice. Because it helps memory - the meter pushes it along, which is why all the epics are poetic. Because the metrical pattern can say as much as the words themselves. Because it makes a structure where there might not otherwise be one. Here, give me Macbeth.” He flipped through and began to read, “’If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly: if the assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here, / But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We’ld jump the life to come.’ Shakespeare writes in an unrhymed iambic pentameter - five sets of short-long. The sentence ends in the middle of a line.”
“But I like Shakespeare because I don’t hear it.”
“Because he rarely rhymes unless he’s ending a scene or making a point about other people’s plays and no one has made you identify the feet before. If you can find the feet in Catullus, you can find them in Shakespeare, in Racine, in Wordsworth when he doesn’t even rhyme. You listen for the rhyme you hate and you complain about the feet and you assume everything you like isn’t poetry.”
“This is what you call helping?”
“If you didn’t want help, why did you accept the offer?”
Henri sighed. “I need help.”
“Then let’s pick out the feet in Shakespeare. Slowly.” They picked through, then Julien turned a few pages and made Henri pick through a new passage on his own. Then they went back to Catullus, picking out which poems used Sapphic stanzas, eating apricots out of Julien’s hat the whole time.
Jean-Pierre found them still in the garden when he returned home, Julien’s fine English recitation carrying as far as the house. “I have lived long enough: my way of life / Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf; / And that which should accompany old age, / As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have; but, in their stead, / Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath, / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.” Jean-Pierre could not hide his approach, and he was rather sorry that his desire to listen more closely had set the boys scrambling to receive him.
Julien jumped to his feet. “Please forgive me, monsieur,” he apologised. “I had not realised it had grown so late. I will go.”
“I am before my time,” Jean-Pierre explained. “So you are the Combeferre boy.”
Julien’s cravat was loose, his hat in the grass, and he had been given no warning that might permit him to better present himself, but he bowed deeply with all the courtesy his mother had taught him. “Yes, monsieur. Julien Combeferre. It is a pleasure to meet you, monsieur.” Jean-Pierre was rather grateful to note that the boy took after his father and not his mother. He even had the same dark eyes, not so shrewd as Richard’s but piercing enough all the same in his otherwise boyish face.
“You read English well.”
“Thank you, monsieur.” Julien was terribly nervous and doing his best not to let on. One wrong look and they would be forbidden from seeing each other again. He had not thought to have to make any sort of case in person to M. Enjolras.
“Shakespeare, wasn’t it?”
“Ah, yes. The forest come to Dunsinane.”
Henri tried to sneak the last bite of apricot in his hand. “What are you eating?” Jean-Pierre asked, perhaps snapping a bit.
“Apricots. Should you like one, monsieur?” Julien offered, taking one out of the hat.
“Where did you get them?”
“A tree in my garden. My mother doesn’t mind.”
“Oh, no, monsieur. She pays no attention to such things.”
The apricots were at the perfect ripeness, bright and velvety and just soft enough to pull apart without soaking one’s hands. “Thank you. And thank your mother. Or perhaps I should say your gardener?”
Julien smiled. “I shall tell M. Bellan.”
“Where is M. Cordillot?” Jean-Pierre asked his son.
Henri looked around guiltily; Julien looked around in confusion. “I don’t know,” Henri had to answer.
“He and M. Delarive were here when we started,” Julien said.
“And what were you doing before I interrupted?”
“Julien is helping me with poetry.”
“Really. You like poetry?” Jean-Pierre asked Julien.
“Very much so, monsieur.”
“Whom do you prefer?”
“I very much like the English because they are so keen to try new things.”
“For drama. For pure verse, I very much enjoy Mr Wordsworth.”
“New things, indeed. And are you making progress?” he asked Henri.
“Yes,” he insisted.
“Well, go on then. But don’t spoil your dinner. And pick up all the pits.”
“Of course, Papa.”
Jean-Pierre retreated to watch from the house. The apricot was quite fine - perhaps the Combeferre’s gardener would be interested in a new position. But Jean-Pierre pushed the thought aside as really too cruel to a neighbour. One ought not to steal the staff, after all.
“Why do adults always like you?” Henri asked Julien once his father had gone.
Julien shrugged. “I’m polite? I was so afraid I’d say something wrong, and I kept thinking, ’What would my mother do?’ and then correcting myself because he hates my mother. I think it came out all right, but it’s not as if all adults naturally like me. And I don’t think anyone dislikes you at first sight.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean - you talk to him like - like your father must talk to him.”
“It’s just like a salon evening. One is polite, one answers questions in a way that is hopefully not too controversial, and then eventually the adults move on. You’re around adults all the time, too.”
“Not the way you are. No one ever comes.”
Julien was about to say something sympathetic, but Cordillot and Delarive were returning from the beach.
“Have you successfully replaced us?” Cordillot asked sardonically.
“Probably not,” Julien admitted. “You’ll have to quiz him in the morning.”
“How much studying was actually done?”
“Lots!” Henri protested.
“Alexandrines, sapphic, and blank verse,” Julien explained. “Would you like the last two apricots?” When his hat was empty, he put it back on his head before starting to pick up the books strewn around. “We should be going, shouldn’t we?”
“Your mother will want you to wash up before dinner, I think.”
Julien bid Henri good evening and followed Delarive through the cut between the properties. Henri followed Cordillot back to the house, where they ran straight into Jean-Pierre.
“You can take those to the library. I need to have a talk with M. Cordillot.”
Sensing the worst, Henri escaped. Cordillot was a very good teacher, even if Henri preferred to take some of his lessons from Julien, but it had always been obvious that he had not fit into the household at all the way François had done.
Jean-Pierre walked Cordillot to the bottom of the garden, where there would be no eavesdropping. “What is your opinion of Henri’s progress in the time you have been with us?”
“He is making very good progress, monsieur. His Greek could stand to be stronger, and he knows he must put more effort into the poetry, but that is what he was working on this afternoon.”
“Working on with the Combeferre boy.”
“Yes, monsieur. He does better in the lessons he dislikes when he has the Combeferre boy to provide an example.”
“Is this common, in your experience?”
“Very much so, particularly between brothers close in age. It is a competition where the younger wants to prove himself equal to the elder and the elder cannot bear to lose to the younger. It is the whole point of gathering boys together in school, monsieur. The example and competition push them in ways that solitary study will do for very few.”
“Do you suggest Henri would be better off in school?” Jean-Pierre rather thought he sensed condescension in Cordillot’s tone.
“My job, monsieur, is to prepare boys for school. Most boys ought to be in school. It is not, however, for me to declare to a boy’s father what is best for him.”
“If I were to consider the matter?”
“You’d have to decide soon. We agreed one month notice on either side.”
“We did. And if I asked you to speak freely?”
“You’d not like what I might say, therefore I shall not accept the offer.”
“The time to protect your situation, monsieur, was last year when you begged off your duties,” Jean-Pierre snapped. “I should like to replace you at the beginning of October, school or no school. That is six weeks of notice, and I will hear what you have to say.”
“Very well.” Cordillot straightened his shoulders in a show of authority he had never displayed in Jean-Pierre’s presence. “The boy should have been in school years ago. I know why the Combeferres have held off - their boy was considered sickly, and he would have to board, and it is a legitimate concern even if I think he should have started last year rather than this autumn. There are no such concerns with your son. You keep him isolated for I don’t even know what purpose, but what has it really done for him? He learns better when he has encouragement and competition from his peers, and the only peer you’ve permitted him is a neighbour who is not a neighbour half the year. He should have started as a day boy at the age of ten or eleven like everyone else. The boy almost never goes into town as it is, so how is he to understand half of what his life will have to be the moment you realise he is no longer a child and thrust him into the responsibilities of a man? We might as well be in the middle of the country instead of just outside the octroi. So far, you’ve raised him as you might a girl, and it’s not to his benefit.”
“Are you suggesting -”
“I’m suggesting that at thirteen years old, he knows half what the Combeferre boy knows at fourteen, and it is entirely due to your restrictions. You don’t let me take him anywhere. You take him nowhere yourself. His entire horizon is a house, a garden, and a slice of the Mediterranean, and you expect him to do something with that. He has manners, yes, and intelligence, but you’ve never permitted him to hear a conversation of equals. He’s been to the theatre twice in his life. You even managed to get him through his first communion through a course of private study when every other healthy child was enrolled in a class of his peers. I give my one month notice now. I can’t stay the additional two weeks when I’ve said all this.”
“You may dine in the kitchen and have this evening to yourself,” Jean-Pierre ordered.
“Thank you, monsieur.” Cordillot tipped his hat and stalked back up toward the house.
Ruining his own son. The nerve of the man to suggest it.
But Henri was interested in everything the Combeferre boy did, and perhaps if there were other boys, he would focus less on the Combeferre boy. But other boys would be always here, always in the way. They might be poor influences, unlike the studious Combeferre boy. One had to be on one’s guard. And yet, Henri was so much happier in Julien’s presence. And more productive. And better behaved. Surely not all the benefits had to be accompanied by a strange fixation on political philosophy?
At dinner, Jean-Pierre asked Henri what he had been doing with Julien. When a fairly fluid stream of explanations of poetic meter came out, Jean-Pierre had to admit that Cordillot, with his experience of other boys in other families, had a point. Henri did not ordinarily discuss these studies fluently or without pulling faces, but he seemed to grasp them tonight far better than he ever had done before.
“What would you think if I were to consider sending you to school in the autumn?”
Henri looked up, his eyes wide in eagerness. “Really?”
“Would you like it?”
“Julien shouldn’t have to go through it alone.”
“I mean here in Marseille.”
“I know. It wouldn’t be as good as going to school with Julien. But I should like to try. M. Cordillot is being sacked, isn’t he?”
“He has given his notice.”
“He’s done his best, really,” Henri insisted.
“I should have let him go much earlier.”
“I’m sorry he’s going, but I think I might like school. Julien doesn’t look forward to it at all, but I think it might be nice to know some other boys, and he might hate it less if he knows I’m doing it, too.” “Your future is not in Julien Combeferre’s hands.” “Of course. But I think I should be even more interested in meeting other boys if I didn’t know Julien at all.” “I have not made any decision. But I shall take your opinion under advisement.”
Henri thanked him, trying to hold back his excitement. It would not do to get excited only for his father to decide that another tutor might be best after all. But the possibility was suddenly there, and that was very good news, indeed.
Chapter 18: I hear you whispering there, O stars of heaven ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 20: Long and strong then strike the lyre, / . . . Bid the fire of freedom blaze ~ Home