From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 2: Most eloquent of the descendants of Romulus

Henri was not an indifferent student, but he never seemed to advance as quickly as his tutors or his father would have liked. He questioned everything and did not trust why he was told to skip certain pages. Once Julien had told him that he had read the forbidden pages of Catullus, he lept at the opportunity to discover what precisely had been hidden.

Thus the next time they met, Julien was surprised to discover that Henri had brought more books. Surprised, because Henri had seemed more interested in less academic explorations, but gratified by what he perceived as a desire to please someone else.

“Does this have the good parts?” Henri asked eagerly, passing him a copy of Catullus.

Julien flipped through, looking for the most egregiously erotic poems he was not supposed to read. “Do you know 51? Ille mi par esse deo videtur.”

“I know that one. It’s all about love.”

“Most of Catullus is all about love. Just about different forms of love. When he isn’t angry, that is. What of poem 99? Surripui tibi, dum ludis, mellite Iuventi,/ suaviolum dulci dulcius ambrosia.”

“I don’t get it.”

“In French, ’I stole from you, while you were playing, honey-sweet Juventius, / a kiss sweeter than sweet ambrosia’.”

“I don’t know that one.”

Julien continued, translating fluently. “‘But I did not get away with it: for such a long hour
     ‘I remember being crucified on the greatest cross,
     ‘and then I apologized to you, but I was not able to relieve
     ‘with any tears even a little of your ferocity.
     ‘For at the same time it was done, you wiped clean
     ‘your lips, damp from my kiss, with all your fingers,
     ‘nor did anything remain received from my face,
     ‘just as if it were the filthy saliva of a prostitute.
     ‘Besides this, you did not hold back from making me miserable,
     ‘troubled by love, and tormented in every way,
     ‘so that to me that kiss changed from ambrosia
     ‘to a thing more bitter than bitter hellebore.
     ‘Because you put forth such a punishment for miserable love,
     ‘never will I after this steal a kiss.’”

Henri was wide-eyed. “What?” His brief experience with Catullus – two or three poems only – had been of the jealous lover of Lesbia, not the bitter man of wide-ranging experience that emerged in wider reading.

“Yes, he did kiss a man and was soundly rejected. But most of the poems are about women. Or, where is that really interesting invective? This isn’t it, but it will do:
     ‘Caelius, my Lesbia, that Lesbia,
     ‘the same Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
     ‘more than himself and more than all his own,
     ‘now loiters at the cross-roads and in the backstreets
     ‘peeling or stripping the grandsons of the brave Remus.’ It’s something fairly dirty but I can’t quite get at the exact meaning.”

“That’s Catullus?” Henri asked in awe.

“Yes. You can pick it out yourself if you like. Not all of it is terribly difficult if you’ve already read the Sapphic poems.”

“How did you know what to look for?”

“I didn’t. You just read. If your Latin is strong enough, you can read anything. I have some English books on politics that one of my tutors left me. They’re waiting until my English gets stronger because I want to fully understand what was so dangerous about some of them. A dictionary won’t help with that so much.”

“We have some English books in the house.”

“Really?” Julien asked in excitement.

Henri passed him another book. “This is Shakespeare, right?”

“Macbeth,” Julien read. “Yes. I’ve not read this one.”

“You can keep it in the tree. Will you tell me about it when you’re done?” he dared ask.

“Of course.”

“Is he really more exciting than Racine?”

“I think so.” He let it drop there, but later, when they were rather wedged high in one of the trees, a height he attained only with much direction from Henri, he started telling Henri the plot of Hamlet.

Henri was fascinated by the complexity of all the machinations, but when Julien had finished he asked, “So how was the line of succession supposed to work?”

Julien was a little surprised at the question. Yes, it was what he had wondered, why no one seemed to care that Hamlet was passed over before he had ever put on his antic disposition, but he had already learned in the few days of their acquaintance that Henri was normal, or at least less unnatural than he was. “Hamlet was out of the country. Claudius simply took over because it took Hamlet so long to get home, and he had Gertrude’s help because she couldn’t bear to be dowager rather than queen.” Most of the explanation had been his tutor’s answer, but Julien filled in the Gertrude part himself.

“But why did Polonius do nothing?”

“He must have been bought off by Claudius.”

“But why did Hamlet not go to the barracks and rally the army around him? If the army was on his side, they could have chased Claudius away and been prepared for the Norwegian attack.”

Having grown up in a house run by Cécile, Julien just shook his head. “My mother is Gertrude. If you grew up with her, you wouldn’t know where to start to think about how to go against her wishes.”

“Your mother would really marry a man who destroyed your father?”

“If it benefited her, I’m sure she would. We spend our time in Paris because she thinks she’s too good for Marseille. She calls me ‘unnatural’ to my face, nothing I’ve ever done has pleased her, and sometimes I don’t think she likes my father much better than she likes me.”

“That’s awful.”

“Gertrude pretends to love Hamlet, but she married Claudius so she would still be queen, and she doesn’t want to believe her son because what he says would destroy her reputation and make her doubt her own judgment. Her faith in herself is as important as what everyone else thinks of her. Gertrude married her husband’s murderer and tried to ignore her son, who was thoughtful and thus weak in her eyes. I have a baby brother as a replacement for when I prove completely disappointing and do my mother the favour of dying.”

“No wonder my father doesn’t like your mother.”

“She probably took one look at your mother and decided that she was either not good enough to be friends with or too good to be friends with. Too much competition, I mean to say. My mother and her friends all talk about each other behind their backs.”

“I’d never do that to you.”

“Yes, you would. You would tell your father everything. And I wouldn’t hold it against you because you wouldn’t do it to be mean but because he would ask and you would answer. I don’t want to be something to be kept secret. It would be very shabby, to think me not worth being talked about.” He was feeling very low about his own deceit in not telling at least his father where he had been going and with whom he had been spending his time. It was very like his mother to treat the neighbours as if they were below her notice.

“I wouldn’t do that at all. I swear.”

Julien promised himself he would tell his father when they went riding on Sunday. “And I won’t do the same to you.”


Chapter 1: And all I loved, I loved alone ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 3: But when the heart is full of din / And doubt beside the portal waits ~ Home