From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 6: Summer’s lease hath all too short a date

“I believe I have found a suitable replacement for M. Duval,” Jean-Pierre told his son one evening. With some difficulty, Henri refrained from pulling a face. “His name is François, and he will arrive on Thursday. I have told him that your interests run more to history than to poetry,” Jean-Pierre added rather sardonically.

“Thank you, Father.”

Henri did not look at all forward to the end of his freedom, but he was grateful that he had been given a day of notice rather than be told the new tutor would arrive on the morrow.

It was a sad meeting with Julien when Henri finally made it to the beach. “I’ll never see you again.”

“Don’t say that,” Henri insisted. “I’m going to do my best. I’ll sneak books down here as often as I can.”

“But it won’t be the same. I should have known it was too good to last.”

“It won’t be the same,” Henri agreed, “but come down here as often as you can. That way I can find you. It’s my land, and I’m telling you can come down here whenever you want.” Julien nodded. “Come on, let’s go swimming. I might not get a chance the rest of the summer.”

Splashing in the surf would have been more fun if not for the feeling that each had, despite Henri’s insistence, that it was the last time, not just for swimming, but for anything. A little month the acquaintance had lasted, and Julien was certain it would not be renewed. Henri had his doubts. When they parted at last, though each said only “au revoir”, they embraced with the fervour of an “adieu”.

M. François turned out to be younger than Henri had expected, and for the first week, at least, concentrated his Latin lessons on Caesar’s Gallic Wars, not a line of verse in sight. He seemed to want Henri to like him, and his dinner conversation with Jean-Pierre was wide-ranging and agreeable once he understood that it was not a rare invitation to the master’s table but a nightly requirement. M. François was also something of an artist, it seemed, for he asked Henri if he might care for lessons in drawing.

Henri did not much care for lessons in drawing, but he said yes in order to be agreeable. If M. François was trying so hard, he might as well be nice. But during the first lesson, in drawing a cube in three dimensions, he hit upon an idea. With such fine weather, it was surely ridiculous to draw cubes indoors when one might go outside, possibly even go down to the beach to conduct drawing lessons.

It was Henri’s first attempt at intrigue. First, he expressed greater joy in drawing than he actually felt, then after another few lessons in cubes and cones, he carefully happened to praise the view of a very picturesque fishing village that one had from certain parts of the property. Of course, the geography of the point made it impossible to see Les Goudes from the part of the beach where he had met Julien, which is why Julien had chosen it as a hideout, but there was indeed a view if one went further on and rounded a strange outcropping. It was not actually a lie, even in intent - if they went on to where there was a view, they would have to pass the relevant section of beach. Well, perhaps it was a lie - Henri had no idea if the village was at all picturesque, merely that one could see it. M. François proved either very easily led or very curious about his new pupil because he followed Henri’s lead without question. Henri had no chance to alert Julien, but he was very careful with his timing when M. François finally suggested they consider the rudiments of landscape sketching.

Julien was on the beach, buried in the final scene of Macbeth, when the rustling approach of multiple footsteps startled him out of Scotland. It was impossible to leave without being caught, especially as his stockings and shoes were in one direction and his hat and coat in another. Frozen in debate over what to leave and if it might just be best to ascend one of the trees, he was relieved to hear Henri’s voice call, “There’s a very fine view from over here!” Indeed, Henri called out precisely to alert Julien, though his voice was so loud as to make his intent patently obvious to M. François.

Henri grinned broadly on seeing his friend, well-pleased with the result of his intrigue. Julien shared a small smile but recovered his manners almost immediately. There was a stranger, an adult, after all, whose presence must be respected. He bowed very politely to M. François. “Good afternoon, monsieur. My name is Julien Combeferre.” He feared he looked rather ludicrous, half dressed in the summer heat, more like the fishermen’s sons than the young gentleman he was. The only thing he could do was stand as straight as possible and be very particular about his manners.

“Can Julien join in the lesson?” Henri asked. It had seemed the perfect plan. Rather than sneak out books for his friend, why not sneak out the tutor?

“Where ought you to be?” M. François asked Julien, not unkindly, but with a certain bemusement. He was not entirely certain what he had expected, but a polite boy with a northern accent was not quite it.

“Henri has given me permission to use the beach whilst I endure my convalescence. The illness is several months gone, monsieur; there is no infection.”

“He’s not supposed to be studying because of a brain fever, but drawing would not excite the brain too much, would it?”

“I’m not sure,” M. François said in confusion. “I am not a physician.”

“I brought an extra board,” Henri insisted brightly.

“I don’t know. Your father might not approve.”

“We own the house on the hill. My father has done business with M. Enjolras,” Julien said more calmly than he felt. Every inclination was to apologise and go, but Henri had so obviously tried to put all this together, and he did not really want to go home at all. “And my father is looking into the possibility of hiring a drawing master for me himself.” He feared he was modeling his voice too much on his mother’s tone, but she had so often told him how to insist without bragging - to brag is ill-bred - that he was fairly certain he had threaded that very delicate needle.

“Perhaps some botanical sketching, then,” M. François suggested. There was no view to speak of, and some studies of a few leaves and a couple of flowers would perhaps keep the boys occupied. The Combeferre boy was polite and well-spoken, after all, with a northern clip to his voice, self-assured in how he spoke of his family. François did not know the names of all the great families in Marseille, and he had briefly mistaken the house on the hill, a large house of some age, in a pleasant construction, for where he would be employed. Whatever business had been conducted between M. Enjolras and M. Combeferre, it was an affair of equals rather than a favour done by the lesser man for the benefit of his superior, François felt certain.

Henri was in high spirits, higher than François had seen in his brief tenure, and the Combeferre boy appeared to take real interest in not merely the drawing of leaves and flowers but what François knew of the leaves and flowers themselves. He seemed a bit shy at first, but by the end of the long afternoon, he lost all hesitation and asked pointed questions about the subject matter. When François finally insisted that they really must bring the lesson to an end, Julien thanked him profusely, grinning with a happiness Henri had not even seen and did not fully understand. Botany was boring. But then, maybe after so many months, it was a treat to learn anything, even botany. As he and Henri walked back to the house, François had the unsettling feeling that he had taught more to the interloper than to his own pupil.

Henri was too flushed with the success of his intrigue to remember to ask M. François to say nothing to his father. François had the sense not to embarrass his pupil, but he did mange to engineer a private meeting with Jean-Pierre after dinner.

“Forgive me, monsieur, but I have little knowledge of the city.” He had been hired out of Aix, after all. “Should I know the name Combeferre?”

“Ah, you have met our neighbour. I had rather thought that after that letter, his father would keep him in.”

“In that case, monsieur, I fear I’ve done something very wrong.”

“Being hoodwinked by an eleven year old is very wrong.”

“I hope I was not hoodwinked,” François said defensively. “Your son expressed an interest in landscape drawing far greater than he has yet evinced for anything. I was curious, so I permitted him to string me along. Only so that I might most readily discover what was afoot without creating bad blood between us. A difficult atmosphere does not assist education.”

“And he strung you along to a secluded stretch of beach where you found another boy of approximately his own age.”

“Yes, monsieur, that appeared to be the plan. But the boy had such nice manners that I allowed it to go on. I permitted him to join us for a drawing lesson. That is what I fear was wrong.”

“I have no doubt his manners are good. His father made him write a letter of apology for trespassing on our land, and it was very prettily worded. Indeed, I’ve had men working for me who could not write such a letter. But I had thought that would be the end of it. I’ll speak to Combeferre. And to my son. The strategy was very poor. Now you know where they go, so he must either make an ally of you, or forgo his long term aims.”

“My loyalty is of course with your aims, monsieur.”

“Stay a moment. What did you think of the Combeferre boy?”

“Very well mannered. Well-spoken in a northern sort of way. Of more serious demeanour than your son. He explained his unencumbered presence as the result of a prolonged convalescence, and indeed, he has the look of it. What else? Fascinated by botany.”

“Botany?” Jean-Pierre asked in surprise.

“I had been played false about the view, so we did a lesson in botanical drawing instead. I am no botanist, monsieur, but I know something of stamens and pistils, and he was very eager to learn all I could teach. He seems quite intelligent. His questions were always very good, and I fear had we any more time, he would have begun to exhaust my meager capabilities in the subject. But your son did not share his interest, and I fear the lesson was of more use to the other boy. Please forgive me.”

“Say nothing of it. I’ll speak to Combeferre.”

Speak to Combeferre he did. When Richard Combeferre had appeared at his café and given him the letter, along with his own apology, they had chatted more than they had in ten years and got on rather well. It was only fair to return the visit, to find Combeferre’s preferred café and buy him a drink and finish talking out what the hell was going on.

“It’s not my place to tell you how to raise your son.”

“No, it is not, but I should like your advice, since you are determined to give it. I don’t know what to do with him,” Combeferre admitted. “To hire a nurse would be ridiculous. His health is fine, and moreover, he is twelve years old, past his first communion, and until this illness, we were seriously considering sending him to school in the autumn. I cannot send him back to infancy. But the doctors are adamant that too great an excitation of the brain will bring the fever back. Outdoor exercise and no studies. If he were a girl, he’d be in the charge of his mother, but as it is, well, you know how it is. I have a business to run. I cannot merely take a couple months holiday to take the boy riding and play games, and if I hire someone, he’ll end up in the library. I am sorry for how they met, but really, I’m damned grateful that he’s finally attached himself to another human being for a reason other than book learning.”

“Perhaps we should have done something sooner. Forgive me, but your wife -”

“Has social prejudices I’d rather my sons not pick up too strongly. But it has been a very useful marriage in its time. We’ve both been rather unlucky, though. You grew up with siblings, didn’t you?”

“Of course. A brother and two sisters.”

“I only had sisters. Scattered, now. And the inheritance law makes me glad I’ve only got the two boys. You won’t have to worry about a split. But there’s something to be said about family life, and how do you have family life with a single child? Sure, I’ve got two now, but it’s too late for them to have anything to do with one another. I can’t imagine what school will be like for him. He’s keen enough on books, but I fear I’ve not prepared him well to be keen on other boys.”

“For Henri’s sake, perhaps I should have remarried, but then, wouldn’t a woman privilege her own children above a stepson? Especially since the estate will be split regardless of the mother? If it weren’t for your wife, I’d be willing to allow quite a lot between the boys. But I don’t think she’d approve.”

“Leave Cécile to me. Say, I’ve been thinking, if I brought in a drawing master or a music teacher a couple times a week, that would do something for the boy but keep him out of the library, wouldn’t it?”

“I’d say drawing could be done wholly outside in fine weather and thus keep him well away from the library.”

“I don’t suppose you’d know of anyone.”

“These manoeuvres are clumsy for a man of your reputation. Has Julien told you about their latest escapade or hasn’t he?”

“There’s a latest escapade?”

“Henri managed to trick his tutor into giving drawing lessons to your son.”

“I told him to stay off the beach without permission.”

“I got the whole story from the tutor. He might be interested in earning a few extra francs. Your son seems to have impressed him.”

“Yes, that is Julien’s forte,” Combeferre replied tiredly. “Impressing tutors until they learn that such knowledge and concentration come at the price of rest. Really, it’s a miracle it took twelve years before something like this happened.”

“I am sorry. At least he has recovered.”

“Thank god. It was touch and go for a while. Well, you know how that is. Are you offering your man’s services?”

“If he is agreeable. Drawing lessons a couple of times a week couldn’t hurt. Henri could use some time with another child before I send him to school. Catechism shouldn’t be the first time he meets his peers.”

“We’ll be leaving town at the end of September, at usual.”

“Perfect. By the time you come back, they’ll have completely forgotten each other.”

“He’s not his mother’s son, you know. Well, he’s of his mother born, but there’s no sympathy between them. We get on better behind Cécile’s back. I know she was rather short with your wife.”

“Henri isn’t to go over there. I don’t want him anywhere near her. No offense to you.”

“No, it’s understood.”

“That’s why I offer my man. My gardens. My house, even. If we limit it, we control it. There are two months remaining, roughly, correct? Twice a week, sixteen meetings.”

“If left to their own devices, who knows what they might try after this success. Sixteen meetings. Thirty-two hours, let us say. Cécile stays out of it. Thirty-two hours, after what they’ve already done. And we’ll know what they’re getting up to. Agreed. If your man agrees.”

“We’ve always been able to do business.”

“We’re reasonable men. My wife’s social aspirations should never get in the way of that.”

François proved willing, and thus on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, to the boys’ great delight, Julien was permitted to walk over to the Enjolras estate and be tutored in drawing. Which quickly degenerated into games of battledore and shuttlecock and anything else they might find to do in the Enjolras gardens.

Sixteen meetings. Thirty-two hours, in theory, though in practice somewhat longer. Cécile complained to her husband, but he insisted that it was the best possible preparation. Yes, M. Enjolras was a parvenu, but one did have to learn the various sorts of people in the world, and he was a good man of business. It was one summer, and the relationship was safely under control. And, knowing Julien, once he was permitted his books again, there would be no reason to worry that he might want to continue a friendship that was long over. Jean-Pierre was relieved when the Combeferres left - after all, by the time they returned, Henri would have moved on to other interests. François could be trusted not to put undo attention on the idea of what the Combeferre boy might be doing right now. By next summer, it would all blow over. There was no reason to extend the acquaintance when the boy might grow up like his mother rather than his father, after all. A potentially unfortunate conjunction of events turns to short-term benefit, fitting to the instincts of men of business.

No one expected that the boys might have a tenacity more mature than their years.


Chapter 5: At his call / Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 7: This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face ~ Home