From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 7: This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face

They were sitting in the salon after dinner. Henri was supposed to be studying, but he had got hold of the Herodotus translation again. François had a volume of poetry, while Jean-Pierre was theoretically reading the newspaper. When François went outside for a smoke, lounging against the French doors with a pipe in his mouth, Jean-Pierre set aside his paper.

“Henri, have you a franc?”

Henri looked at his father in confusion. No one ever gave him money. “No,” he answered warily.

“Well, then I suppose this letter is mine, since I paid the delivery.”

“A letter?” he asked excitedly.

“From Paris. Who would you know in Paris?”

“Julien wrote me!”

“But you haven’t the postage.” He started to open it.


“I shall read it when you’re done.”

“Fine,” Henri agreed, grabbing at his prize. Julien had promised he would write, and here was the proof.

Dear Henri,

I hope this letter finds you well. The trip took rather longer than planned, otherwise I would have written you sooner. We had rain in Lyon that bogged us down for days. It’s funny, but I actually rather like my mother when we are traveling. She knows the vagaries of travel and does not complain about the roads or the inns when things are less than perfect. Travel would not be so pleasant if my mother were her usual self. And travel also means I’m finally permitted to be anywhere near my baby brother. Not that Charles is in the least interesting, being only a year old, but I was even charged with holding him from time to time. It is very nice to be trusted again. Especially because I never did anything wrong in the first place.

The best part, though, is that I’m allowed into the library again. And I was right, my Latin has gone sadly downhill. I had thought I might kill two birds with one stone and write you in Latin, because I need to study and you need to study, but I can’t do it. I thank you again for the loan of the books. I’m afraid my reading would have sadly gone off, especially in English. I’m having a hard enough time getting back into Greek as it is. I wish I knew how to repay you, but I can’t really send you anything at the moment. Get M. François to take you through Thucydides. You’ll really like it, I promise. I’m so glad we have a library. My mother has already had some of her friends to visit, and I don’t think I could bear if I had to see them every time I wanted a book or if I had to keep my books in my room to avoid seeing them. They dress very nicely, and some of them are still very pretty, but they are all horrid. I’ve missed our library here. It’s above the grand salon, in the front of the house, so the tall windows let in the best light, and it’s terribly comfortable in the winter to sit in front of the fire with a book when the grey midday light comes in. Some of our books are older than my grandparents, and I’m allowed to read them all. I don’t like the ones about religion, but they’re all so dusty that I don’t think anyone in my family has opened them in longer than I’ve been alive. And the windows look out onto the square, so you can watch the neighbours and their guests come and go, which can be ever so interesting when someone is having a party.

My father says he’ll start interviewing tutors as soon as his business allows. With any luck, everything will be back to normal by the beginning of November, because my mother is planning a dinner party for then and she’ll want me safely occupied out of the way. And I’ve been promised that we’ll go to the theatre soon. Not on one of the fashionable nights, of course, and in the stalls, not a box, but the theatre! I’ve only ever been to the theatre once before. I’m to have a new suit for it, too. I like that we go back and forth between Paris and Marseille because it would be horrid to have to swim in the Seine, and we only have the public gardens here, but in Marseille, we don’t go to the theatre and sometimes I get to go on outings to the zoo and there are so many people to watch in the public gardens. My father says that when he was my age, Marseille was completely within the walls - how funny is that to think! He says that in ten more years, we’ll be practically in town. It takes longer to get across Paris, within the barrières, than it does to get from our house to the docks in Marseille. And not just because of the traffic. It’s actually farther.

My mother’s whole family is coming to dinner on Sunday, including my grandparents. I don’t look forward to it. They expect me to play with Jérôme, which is stupid, because he’s 8. We might get to go for a drive if the weather holds, but I’d rather ride, except they don’t keep a horse for me in Paris. My grandparents are old and my aunt and uncle are boring and Jérôme isn’t any fun. I wish you could be there. It would be ever so much more amusing.

I miss you. I’ll always think of you when I read Macbeth.

In friendship,

Julien Combeferre

Henri read it three times through before finally, reluctantly, handing it over to his father. “I get it back, don’t I?”

“It’s not a billet doux, I should hope.” Jean-Pierre read quickly, commenting out loud. “His penmanship is very good - you could do to take lessons from him. What’s this about loaning books?”

Henri flushed bright red. “They’re all back on the shelves.”

“You should ask permission. Bring me what you took down there - someone needs to brush the sand out.”

“We didn’t get them all sandy!” But he collected all the books and brought them to his father.

Gallic Wars. I stained this one myself, you needn’t worry. Catullus. You were studying? Macbeth. You don’t even read English.”

“But Julien does. He told me the whole story of Macbeth after he read it. And Hamlet, too.”

“He was supposed to be convalescing, not studying.”

“Reading stories isn’t studying, is it?”

“It is when they’re plays in English verse. Nothing in French?” Henri handed over the Molière. “I suppose it is light reading compared to the rest. Is that all?”

“That’s all.”

“Well, you’re right. Only Catullus is distinctly gritty. You can put the rest away.” He went back to the letter. “It is because of the traffic, you know. You can’t get anywhere in Paris in a hurry because of the traffic. If it is a greater distance across Paris than from here to the docks, it’s only because the streets curve all around and are wide enough to be stopped up with traffic.”

“You’ve been to Paris?” Henri asked in awe.

“Not since before the Revolution, but yes.”

“What’s it like?”

“Dark and gloomy. The sun isn’t the same that far north. Neither is the wind. The smoke of the city just sits there, doesn’t move on. Rains an awful lot more. Freezes in the winter. They get snow, which then melts and turns everything into a godawful muck. All the men are fortune hunters - not that there’s anything wrong with that as long as there are fortunes to get. And all the women are either, uhm, for the public or have the personality of Mme Combeferre.” It was perhaps a bit early for Henri to learn that Paris was full of whores and bitches, though that unvarished truth had been Jean-Pierre’s experience in the capital. “I don’t miss it for an instant.”

“Did you go to the theatre?”

“Yes. The theatre here in Marseille is nearly as fine. In fact, it’s smaller than the fashionable Parisian theatres, so one gets better views if one cares what goes on on the stage, which is unusual in Paris.”

“Did you meet my mother in Paris?”

“How long ago do you think the Revolution was? I met her in Lyon, many years later. She was nothing like Mme Combeferre.”

“You like M. Combeferre don’t you? Why do you think he married someone you don’t like and Julien doesn’t like?”

“Not everyone marries for love. His wife has good connections in Paris, with the previous government, I believe. There are many ways to benefit from marriage. He chose to make a powerful alliance.”

“And you?”

“Fell in love. I made my own money; I didn’t need your mother’s. I made myself worthy of her attention.”

“Do you still miss her?”

“Every single day. But I am very glad I have you. Ah, François!” The tutor had just returned. “I would appreciate if you might work on Henri’s penmanship. His little friend shows him up considerably.”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Can I write back?”

“At least now he asks for permission. I don’t know. Does Julien Combeferre have money with which to pay postage?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then you ought to ask his father, not me.” Henri’s face fell. He had no idea how to write to M. Combeferre to ask such a favour. “Write back. We’ll see what happens.”

“What happens if you don’t pay for a letter?”

“The post office takes it back and burns it.”

“That’s awful!”

“Well, you didn’t want it enough to pay for it.” Jean-Pierre handed the letter back to Henri. “I ought to make you write back in Latin, since he’s so keen on it.”

“My Latin isn’t good enough.”

“Is that my fault? Three sentences a day, shall we say?” he asked François.

“I think that can be done, monsieur.”

“Fine,” Henri sighed, though he clutched his letter as a girl clutches her first doll. He’d never had a letter before. And it was a very fine letter, too.

“Off to bed with you. I’ve some things to discuss with M. François.”

“Goodnight, Papa.”

“Don’t you dare sleep with that under your pillow.”

“I won’t.” He had to refrain from rolling his eyes. Under his pillow, indeed. He slept with it on the bedside table so he might read it again first thing in the morning. It would take a lot of doing to have as interesting a letter to write in response.


Chapter 6: Summer’s lease hath all too short a date ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 8: Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems ~ Home