From Childhood’s Hour
Chapter 20: Long and strong then strike the lyre, / . . . Bid the fire of freedom blaze
Cordillot’s departure provoked no tears. Indeed, it was a relief after the four weeks of tension, of Jean-Pierre making needling comments and then sending the man to the kitchen, of Cordillot suggesting to Henri that anything was better than staying where one was not respected and that he ought to be grateful that his father had at last decided to send him to school. Henri was grateful that he was at last to start school, and at the same time as Julien - he did not need to be reminded of it.
There was no point in filling the rest of September and October with additional studies at additional expense - Cordillot’s outburst had bought Henri a full month of freedom. Julien received a fortnight of freedom as well. Delarive stated to him directly that so long as Henri had no studies, there was no reason they should not be together all day to enjoy the benefits of a true summer holiday. A vague attempt was made at presenting the idea that Delarive was somehow in charge, but that only meant that he would take a book down to the beach if they were swimming and ignore them until they started shouting too much.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Julien asked him one day, as much to be polite as anything.
“I’m perfectly fine right here.”
Julien gave him one of his intensely penetrating looks and said, “You’ve been here all summer and never once gone in the water. You can’t leave Marseille without at least wading in the Mediterranean.”
“Where I come from, the sea is too cold for it even at this time of year.”
“You’re not in Normandy anymore. Come on!”
It was pleasant to give them their little victory, even if they soon stripped off the rest of their clothes and went attacking each other playfully in the waves. Delarive retreated to the beach and pretended to read while he watched and listened to them, their voices carrying across the water, as they fought and argued and splashed each other like the children they ought to be, even if their arguments carried more of Locke and Rousseau and Paine than was perhaps appropriate.
They walked up and down the road to Cassis, watching the mail coach speed on its way between the great towns, seeing the little farm hamlets and market gardens that composed what remained of the rural economy in the extreme south. Henri never told his father that he was at last wandering, but he felt safe doing it because Delarive was always following just far enough behind that they could ignore or include him as they wanted. And Delarive was so accommodating - so greatly did he think Julien needed his freedom - that if they promised not to go in the water and just keep the beach, he would even sit at the bottom of the Combeferre garden, leaving them entirely alone for as long as they liked.
The vendange had been rung for the day before the Combeferres were to leave, and it was Julien’s idea that they spend their last day together assisting in the harvest at Les Goudes. They did not tell Delarive just what they intended, merely that they were going to the village, and off they went, penknives in their pockets.
Père Bornat permitted them to join in the cutting for a single row - hard work stooping under the hot sun, trying to keep up with the experienced men. The grapes were full and heavy, the vines had a tendency to snap back rather than slice neatly, and one had to keep the bunches from falling in the dust. The carrier baskets the strongest men slung over their backs weighed quite as much as the boys did once they were full, and each row could fill two of them. It was rather a relief when Père Bornat told them, “That’s enough for now. You’ll be much more help if you can supervise the children.”
The children were currently playing tag and welcomed the boys to join them. Julien suspected that he was rather too old be deriving so much enjoyment from being chased by children half his age, but he couldn’t really help himself. He and Henri collapsed laughing more often than they perhaps ought, but he also kept enough of an eye out that he was first to run for the water barrel when a bucket needed refilling. The children were supposed to bring watered wine to the workers so they might cool themselves and quench their thirst, but Julien preferred to do as much as possible himself, letting the children have their fun. He had been granted two weeks of idleness; the least he could do was provide the younger ones with a few hours.
Père Bornat was too old to participate in the heavy work of cutting and carrying, but he supervised all the works of the village. During a break in the rowdy game, he explained, in response to Julien’s questions, that there were two varieties of grapes: the dark syrah, for the red wine, and the pale clairette, for the white. They were picking the syrah first, it being more delicate. Once a good start had been made, the children would have to pull the grapes from the stems so they could be crushed that evening. The stems would make the wine bitter. The white wine kept the stems, however, as its stems were needed for the proper functioning the press, which had not yet been set up for the season. The syrah had to come in first.
Indeed, they spent most of the day, once Père Bornat called everyone to order, stripping the grapes. It was still hot, repetitive work, pulling the grapes off the stems and throwing them into the huge vat where they would be crushed at the end of the day. It was tedious work, but the older children led the younger ones in songs and stories that Julien and Henri could only sometimes understand. Occasionally, Père Bornat would walk by and translate the gist of song, usually something comic about husbands and wives or something intensely romantic about a princess and her lover. “The romances are probably related to the songs of the troubadours,” Julien told Henri, trying to sound as if he knew what he was talking about rather than presenting a theory.
There were ten or twelve children stripping grapes and occasionally running to refill the water buckets, but the pile of grapes was hardly diminished before one of the carriers would deposit another load. It seemed to Henri that there were more grapes than could possibly have grown on those few vines. He was desperately bored, but he kept going, trying to keep up with Julien, who had attained a reasonable efficiency by carefully observing and mimicking the oldest children. “We have to stay,” he told Henri, as if he sensed that Henri was growing bored. “We have begun the job, and it is the least we can do, isn’t it? To help relieve some of their labour, even if just for a day? How can we do anything for them in the future if we don’t have the slightest understanding of what it is they actually do, from doing it with them instead of standing in the shade and watching them?”
Henri knew Julien was right, and the only thing to do was to keep up. If he did not keep up, if he did something wrong, it might ruin the whole batch, a whole year’s worth of wine gone because of his failure. So he kept on, pulling grape after grape, until a rest was finally called for the midday meal.
They were invited to join everyone - after all, they were working just as hard as the children, to Père Bornat’s astonishment. He had assumed a few hours of hard work would send them on their way, but there they were, doing as well as could be expected for boys who had never participated in a vendange before. There were pitchers of the strong red wine and loaves of rough brown bread, a platter of stewed octopus and roasted fish, jars of olives and garlic mashed into a spread, even a second great platter of roasted vegetables. Henri had never eaten brown bread before in his life, and he was surprised how dry bread could be. He had to be shown how to smear it with tapenade, to let the oil from the olives permeate the loaf so that one did not have to choke it down dry. The hard work had made him very hungry, but following Julien’s example, he tried not to eat too much. They were guests, after all, and it would not do to seem in the least greedy nor yet ungrateful. The word spoken most often was mercès.
Though Henri felt terribly out of place, everyone was very kind, even if they were constantly conversing volubly in Provençal. One of the men was attempting to tell a story to Julien, while a woman kept trying to refill his plate so that he was distracted between the not entirely familiar language and the need to politely refuse too much hospitality. Père Bornat finally noticed and intervened. “Nourat is saying that your father is a great man and your mother is a great woman. And that you must not think this is because your mother is kind and brings things like other ladies have done in the past.”
“In the war, she was brave,” the man finally managed to say in French.
“In the war?” Julien asked skeptically. He was accustomed to people saying nice things about his mother when they did not know her at all, because she was beautiful and could be polite, and she brought charity to the village and probably never told Antoinette Féal that she had terrible taste in men. But that was his mother’s public face, and she was no different to any other woman of her class if it came to carefully performed charity work.
“You do not know?” Père Bornat asked. “You were with her so many times, and you do not know?”
“She took me along when she brought things, medicine, blankets, I guess food. She has been very good to you, certainly, but brave?”
“The poor child, he does not know. You know your father paid us well for smuggling.”
“Of course. How else could he have survived the blockade for years on end?”
“He did not come to us. Your mother did. Sometimes we could see the English ships, they came in so close. They must have been watching. And she came to tell us the plans, no matter how close the English ships came.”
Nourat insisted on something else for Père Bornat to translate. “He wants you to know that she came many times in the rain, at night, when the plans had changed.”
Cécile never went out in the rain if she could help it. The image of his mother coming out in a downpour to warn smugglers that they might get caught was ludicrous. Yet everyone seemed to insist on it. Nourat and his wife were joined by other voices in praise of Mme Combeferre. It was too elaborate to be a joke; it was too ridiculous to be true. They had confused her with one of the servants, Julien was certain. The only thing to do was accept with grace the compliments they wished to bestow on her and, by extension, on him. But he was relieved when they were permitted to return to the work which, monotonous though it was, did not require him to think anything at all of his mother.
Henri was too fascinated by this turn of events to be completely quieted, however. “Your mother was a spy?”
Julien concentrated on the cluster of grapes in his hand. “‘Spy’ is such an unfortunate word. That makes it sound as if she were on the side of the English, which she would never do. It was probably one of the servants, that’s all. It had to be done, and it was one of the servants, and everyone was grateful for the work and for being protected from the customs authorities at the same time. It’s nothing.”
But by late afternoon, what his mother might or might not have done in the war was forgotten in the pace of work, the songs to which he was learning to hum along and the flow of the carriers. The vat was nearly full at last, and with a final burst of effort, they finished the first batch. The cutters were called in from the vineyard, and one of the women, her feet and legs freshly washed, was carried over and placed in the vat for the honour of pressing the first of the year’s wine. There were songs for the pressing, and a certain amount of flirtation on the part of the chosen presser was apparently traditional as she danced in the grapes, crushing them with her feet and occasionally splashing a little of the must towards the most forward of the men who taunted her. Julien and Henri clapped along with the singing and when the dancing spread to the rest of the village, they were even pulled in by a couple of the young girls who sought the entertainment of partnering the young gentlemen who did not know where to put their feet. Henri was embarrassed trying to keep up; Julien was laughing too hard to care.
At last, they bid goodbye Père Bornat and walked back along the beach as quickly as their tired feet could carry them. They would probably already be scolded for returning so late.
“That was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Henri insisted. “I wish you didn’t have to go.”
“I don’t want to go, but I don’t have a choice. At least I finally got to see part of the harvest.” He took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, lifting his face to the wind. “School is going to be awful.”
“It might not be so bad.”
“You won’t be there.”
Henri didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything to say, really. He wished they were going together, but they weren’t, and there was nothing to be done about it. But school wasn’t forever, and even if Julien could not come next summer, school would eventually be finished and they could work out then how to be together. He wasn’t going to forget Julien, and he couldn’t imagine that Julien would forget him. This much, at least, could be worked out, even if the entire future of France were yet to be decided.
They paused to rest under their favourite climbing tree. “Will you promise me something?” Julien asked.
“Promise me you won’t forget. That no matter what happens, how long it might be before we can see each other, how difficult the road might be, we stand together and give our lives to the restoration of the French republic.”
“I promise. We should seal it properly.”
“We should have a liberty tree.” He patted the old oak. “You’ll have to do, even if you don’t have a red bonnet.” The penknife in his pocket would serve. “Where’s your handkerchief?”
“You said properly. You don’t want to have to find it after you’re bleeding, do you?”
“Here it is.” Julien folded each handkerchief so it was ready to serve as a bandage. “What do we say?”
“In Ireland, they had a test. I only remember parts of it.”
“It’ll still work, won’t it?”
“I’m sure it will. It’s a question and answer. ‘Are you straight?’ ‘Straight as a rush.’ ‘What’s in your hand?’ ‘A branch.’ ‘What is it from?’ ‘The tree of liberty.’ ‘Where was it planted?’ ‘America.’ ‘Where did it grow?’ ‘France.’ And there’s another question that I can’t remember.”
“That’s all right. It was probably for Ireland. We have as much as we need.”
Julien smiled. “You’re right. ‘Are you straight?’”
“‘Straight as a rush.’”
Julien looked at Henri’s outstretched wrist. It had to be deep enough to draw real blood, not a mere scratch, but one had to be very careful, too - the veins looked so very blue under Henri’s fair skin. “No, the other wrist. Otherwise I can’t cut mine.” The left wrist was no better. “Are you ready?”
“That’s not one of the questions.”
“It’s one of mine.”
“Go ahead.” Julien bit his lip in concentration, stared at Henri’s wrist, and made a fair slice with his penknife. Blood started up immediately, bright red and flowing. He had no time to think, to stop, to set his aim. He sliced at his own wrist, a crooked gash. Grabbing Henri’s arm, they let the blood mingle and drip to the ground. “Our tree will grow here, where we have watered it. We go forward today as brothers in arms.”
Henri was trying not to wince with pain - it was a deeply serious ceremony, and everything Julien did was deeply beautiful and poetic and full of meaning, and he was determined not to ruin it - but pain was set aside the moment he heard the word “brothers”. “Really? Brothers in arms?”
Julien’s arm was throbbing. “Can we say brothers, full stop? I wish you were my brother for real.”
“Then we are,” Henri insisted. “Brothers.”
Julien let go at that point - he could not stand it any more. Handkerchief in hand, he started to apply pressure to his wrist, hoping that some of the pain might stop if the bleeding might stop. He hoped he had not cut too deep into the flesh. But he managed, with his teeth, to wrap his handkerchief around and tie it like a bandage and then had both hands free to do the same for Henri, who could not manage quite so much co-ordination. The late afternoon light had gone quite yellow - they could not delay for much longer.
“I’m going to miss you,” Henri admitted.
“Write to me. Even if I don’t get to write back. Just keep writing. We’ll work out a way even if it takes months.”
Julien threw his arms around Henri. The ceremony had made everything seem so final, and he was hard pressed to keep tears from invading. “I love you.”
Henri felt hollow and rather stiff in Julien’s tight embrace. “My brother. I won’t say ‘adieu’. I can’t. I don’t care what might happen. I can’t.” It was strange to see Julien crying when Henri knew Julien would never permit it to be the end.
Julien finally let him go. Wiping at his eyes quickly, to prove they were merely a bit watery, that he was not crying, he said, “I must bid you au revoir, then.” They clasped hands one last time, then Julien took off running through the woods. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye.
Delarive found him at the bottom of the garden, his eyes wet with tears. Julien permitted himself to be hugged - indeed, there was something nice in clinging to a sympathetic adult, someone who would be with him the whole miserable trip back to Paris. Delarive stroked the boy’s hair in silence. If Julien had been permitted a more natural life, he would not feel the parting so greatly, he thought. “Come,” he said kindly, pulling out his handkerchief. “We mustn’t let your mother see you like this.” Julien dried his eyes, and only then did Delarive notice the bandage on his wrist. “We’ll go in through the kitchen, so we can wrap that properly. I don’t know that your parents are so keen on blood brother rituals.”
Julien looked up at him with eyes rimmed in red. “How did you know?”
Delarive smiled. “I would have done the same.”
Early the next morning, Julien watched from the carriage window as they passed the gate to the Enjolras property. He was grateful for Delarive’s strong adult presence next to him as his arm seemed to throb with every heartbeat, each jolt of the carriage taking him further from childhood.
Chapter 19: I see / The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee ~ Fiction ~ Notes ~ Home