From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 3: But when the heart is full of din / And doubt beside the portal waits

Julien had never really considered friendship. His family was small: his father was estranged from his sisters, and his mother had only a brother. This brother had an only child, a boy four years younger than Julien. Sunday afternoons in Paris were often spent with his mother’s family, but he took no joy in a child who preferred to set his toy soldiers in single combat rather than arrange them properly to re-fight Austerlitz and Waterloo. By the time the weather cleared enough for battledore or boules or even a walk in the Luxembourg, the Combeferres were off to Marseille and the Vaillets to their country house in the Oise. Julien had, instead of compatriots, a succession of tutors. Not until preparations for his first communion did he meet other boys his own age, and he found them little different to his young cousin. He thought he knew much of the world, for he read as widely as his father’s library allowed, and he had traveled, even if just between Paris and Marseille, but he had never really spent time with a boy of his own age until he met Henri.

Henri had not thought much about it, either. He had no family except his father, no companions except a succession of tutors, but he saw nothing else. His experience was only of his small family in their house on the outskirts of Marseille. The centre of the city was as far removed from his daily life as Paris itself. He knew what he read, and what his father and tutors told him, and what little else he could pick up from the servants. Julien had met other boys, if only for brief spells under the direction of the parish priest, but Henri had never spoken to a child of his own age. Friendship was something for the future, like university, and so when he saw the strange boy on the beach, of course that boy had to be sent away. But that boy’s clipped voice and fine clothes labeled him an equal, and the needs of the moment, the desperate loneliness of the past week, took precedence over concerns of social etiquette. Perhaps the future did not have to be so far off.

“What do you think school is like?” Henri asked one day as they sat naked on the beach, letting the sun dry them after a swim.

Julien shrugged. “I never really thought about it.” Even during his confirmation classes, he had not really considered that he might attend school with such incurious clods.

“There will be lots of boys. I suppose that means lots of friends.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why wouldn’t that be the case?”

“Perhaps no one will like you. Or me,” he added.

“You’re so gloomy.” Henri threw a handful of sand at his friend. “Why wouldn’t anyone like you? I like you.”

“Other boys have brothers and sisters. They’re probably very different to us.”

“Will you go to school in Paris or Marseille?”

“Paris. Probably next year, for fear I’ll catch something else and die this winter.” Julien rolled his eyes at the thought. “Does your father want to board you?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t talk about much of anything important to me, really.”

“Neither does mine.”

“He did ask me if I had any requirements when he was writing the advertisement for a new tutor, though.”

“Really?” Julien asked excitedly. “I wish my father would ask me. I’d ask for a natural philosopher who spoke German.”

“Because you don’t know enough languages already? I’m joking!” Henri insisted in response to Julien’s pout.

“So what did you say?”

“I said something about more history and less Latin, and he just pulled a face and said, ‘Yes, that was to be expected’.”

“But he asked you at all - that’s amazing!”

Henri shrugged. “I think he was more interested in talking than in asking. Does your tutor have dinner with your parents?”

“No. He’s a servant.”

“Mine always did. We always dined with my father when my father was at home. They’d talk completely over my head, all night long.”

“Your father is eccentric.”

“You’re eccentric.”

“I know,” Julien said sadly. That was why he was certain he did not look forward to school. There would be other boys, and though they would be his own age or older, unlike his cousin Jérôme, he feared they would have far more in common with Jérôme than with himself. Henri had more in common with Jérôme, Julien thought - seeing how high one could climb in a tree was a very Jérôme thing to attempt, completely lacking in all logic or sense. Except it was brilliant, sitting so far above the ground, completely in the arms of nature, the breeze off the sea stiffer the higher one went. But it was not something one’s mother would support or that a tutor would gladly teach. “You had toy soldiers, didn’t you?” Julien asked carefully.

“Of course.”

“Did you set them up in battalions or arrange single combat?”

Henri thought the question profoundly weird, but he had expected weird from Julien ever since he’d watched Julien embrace a book with more fervour than M. Duval had embraced the housemaid. “Battalions take up so much time,” he answered, trying not to show any opinion of the line of questioning. “And then you might as well be playing chess.”

Disappointed, Julien nodded. “Single combat.”

“No, more like squads of skirmishers. Why are you even asking?”

“I used to be encouraged to play with my cousin. He had no patience for battles and would just pick out two champions and set them at one another. He’s younger than I am,” Julien tried to explain, hoping Henri wouldn’t laugh.

Henri had no intention of laughing, though there was amusement in his voice when he asked, “How many got bent?”

“My best general lost his arm from that! How did you know?”

“Mine have some missing arms, too. Sometimes there’s no replacement for a good hand-to-hand battle. And it’s rubbish they only make modern soldiers. You can’t redo Marathon properly without losing a few arms.”

“That’s because lead is so soft. See, you do so like some of what you’ve had to read.”

“That’s Greek.”

“You said Latin was hard!”

“But Herodotus is fantastic.”

“You read Herodotus with pleasure but find Caesar boring?” Julien asked incredulously.

“You can take Caesar and Cicero.”

“Have you read any of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War?”

Henri shook his head. “Is it any good?”

“It’s brilliant if you like Herodotus. How can you not have read any of Thucydides?”

“M. Duval never let me read much that was interesting. Herodotus was the best he could do.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Ok, so Herodotus was in translation,” Henri admitted. “But I can pick out words in the Greek. And that doesn’t mean I don’t like what he wrote, just because I had to read it in French.”

“We don’t keep translations in the house. I’ve been through all the books. For the classics, it’s Latin or Greek or nothing.”

Henri was incredulous. “All the books?”

“In both houses. I’m not saying I read them all! I’m just saying I’ve opened all of them and none of them are translations. I’d probably have read more if there were translations, and my Latin would be much worse. I’m losing it already from not using it in months. I’ll be awful by the time they let me study again. I won’t be able to compose a thing.”


“You don’t do composition exercises?”

“Not in Latin. I don’t have enough to be able to say anything.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s probably only because you’re older than I am,” Henri tried to cover. He was unsure if he was behind or if Julien was a genius. He suspected the latter, but he feared the former. There was only one year difference between them - how much did it mean? “When is your first communion?”

“Had it before I got sick. It’s really stupid.”


“Everyone in the parish at once, all the girls are wearing veils, they look completely ridiculous, and the wafer - you might as well just swallow a handful of flour.”

“The body of Christ?”

“Is dry and tasteless.”

“Should you be making puns on religion?”

“You brought up the body of Christ. Maybe ours were stale. And you don’t get enough wine to choke it down.”

“Do you feel different after?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. Older? Closer to God?”

“Your tongue’s dry. That’s it.”

Henri stuck out his tongue. “You’re an unbeliever.”

“I wanted to feel different,” Julien insisted. “But it didn’t happen.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I am, too,” he replied sadly. “Do you think disappointment comes because you want something too much, so whatever happens can never live up to what you’ve built in your head, or does it come from not wanting something enough, so you don’t deserve to have it?”

Henri thought for a long time. He had never really considered it before, so he wanted to answer carefully. It would never do for Julien to think him common - Julien appeared to have a low opinion of boys he thought common, and Henri was not entirely certain he disagreed. “I think it comes from not knowing exactly what you want. Because if you get what you thought you wanted, and you don’t like it, it’s because you weren’t careful enough in asking for it. When you like what you get, it’s because you know it’s what you wanted. If you don’t like it, then it’s not what you wanted, and you must have left out that one thing that would have made it perfect. It’s not about how much you want something; it’s about how well you know what you want.”

“So if one is easily pleased, it is because one wants very little so most things will fit that?”

“Yes, it must be.”

“Are you easily pleased?”

“Are you asking if I only like you because you’re the only one here?”

“No,” Julien replied defensively. “Not exactly.”

“I like you because I like you. You know everything, and you’re willing to tell me all about it without making me feel stupid. And you’ll climb trees and go swimming with me. And you’re brave as anything, going to the fishing village all by yourself. Even if there were a hundred other boys, why shouldn’t I like you?”

“Because I’m only good with books.”

“You beat me every time we race.”

“Only because I’m taller and it really isn’t fair.”

“If you weren’t a good swimmer, you could be as tall as my father and still not beat me. I like you, and you can’t make me take it back.”


Henri gave him a grin and a good-natured shove. “Really.”


Chapter 2: Most eloquent of the descendents of Romulus ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 4: Nor was this fellowship vouchsafed to me / With stinted kindness ~ Home