From Childhood’s Hour

Chapter 8: Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems

“I’m not sure we really ought to be parading the boy in public,” Cécile mused. “He looks barely recovered and he’s turned himself completely brown over the summer.” She went on in this vein, off and on, all through dinner. Neither she nor her husband addressed Julien directly, though he was the substance of most of her conversation, revolving around the trip to the theatre his father had promised, the trip delayed three weeks already.

Richard finally snapped, not just over her remarks tonight but because they had gone on for three weeks. “Just because you cannot see the forest for the trees does not mean everyone else is blind. No one is going to fixate on the exact shade of his skin, and you are the only person who remembers what his hair looked like before. It has grown back quite well. You only note it because you know what has happened.” Martine had shaved off ringlets during the illness, but they had come back only as a mild wave, a permanent reminder of what had happened. Julien did not particularly care about his appearance, but his mother was not at all pleased.

When at last dinner was over, Cécile retreated to the drawing room, but Richard kept Julien back. “I’ve had a letter from M. Enjolras.”

“I’m sorry,” Julien apologized quickly, not looking at his father. “I should have asked permission. From you and from M. Enjolras.”

“Your mother does not approve.”

“I know. I’m sorry. If I might write just once more, to apologise. It would be terribly rude to just stop.”

“Your mother and M. Enjolras do not get on.”

“I know. Henri told me. Mother is Mother. She behaved the way she always does, probably. I don’t blame M. Enjolras at all.”

“You should really not go behind her back on this.”

“I know. Once I start school, I shall meet plenty of suitable boys, some of whom will have titles they will inherit and look down on us for being in trade,” he recited in an annoyed sing-song. “I know.”

“Tell me about Henri,” Richard asked kindly.

Julien shook his head. “There isn’t anything to say.”

“You like him enough to write to him behind our backs, but not enough to tell me about him?”

“He’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met. There aren’t the words in French.”

“But there are in other languages?”

“I know why Catullus wanted to kiss honey-sweet Juventius,” he burst out.

“Except I don’t want to kiss Henri. But I know why Catullus wanted to.”

“Oh really? And who told you to read that particular poem?”

“No one. You let me read anything in the house.”

“I did not realize your Latin that good.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Catullus and Juventius. Why?”

“Juventius was all the world, golden and bright and shining like honey dripping from the comb. All the sunlight, all the flowers distilled into one bright shining stream, sweeter than anything because all the impurities are taken away.”

“But Juventius did not return Catullus’ affection.”

“That’s because Catullus should never have tried to kiss him. That was stupid. Men aren’t for kissing.”

“No, men aren’t for kissing,” Richard agreed. “Perhaps I should be more attentive to what you read.”

“I’ve been very bad,” Julien admitted.

“What do you mean?”

“Henri loaned me books.”

It was not unexpected: of course an eleven year old would be even more susceptible to Julien’s pleas than a tutor. “We’ll consider it an experiment.”

“The doctors were wrong. I didn’t get sick.”

“You also did not spend all day and night reading.”

“I didn’t actually miss it.”

“Because you were doing it.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean –” He paused, took a deep breath, then tried to manage his words. “It was nice to have someone to talk to, who didn’t care that I’m not like him. I wish I could be more like him. He finds it so easy to believe in the world, in people. In me. He’s better at everything that’s not in books. And I really liked doing not-book things with him. The drawing lessons mostly weren’t drawing,” Julien admitted. “We were playing games in the garden. And it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he added, his dark eyes shining with the joy he tried to keep out of his voice.

“Some people send their children away to school at the age of ten. Your mother and I thought you too delicate for that. Perhaps we were wrong.”

“I don’t think I’m going to like school.”

“Why not?”

“Most boys are more like Jérôme than like me or Henri, aren’t they?”

“There are all sorts of people in the world,” Richard answered kindly. “You’ll end up meeting them all someday.”

“Are there other people who make you feel warm and happy like the southern sun just by standing next to you?”

“Yes. Are you sure you’re not taking this a little too seriously?”

“I don’t know.”

“Honey-sweet Juventius?”

Julien pulled a face. “The idea of kissing him is disgusting. I just meant I know why Catullus would want to. Lesbia is beautiful and ought to be kissed, and she knows it, which is why she lets everyone else in town kiss her. Juventius is enthralling and makes the world seem better just because he exists in it. But if you lick the honeycomb, you might get stung, and you’ll deserve it, too. But I’m sorry. I was wrong to make friends with him because Mother considers him unsuitable. She knows what I must do socially, and I should not contradict her. I’ll write and apologise. To M. Enjolras, too, for my impertinence. If I may.”

Richard did not want to be the cause of discord. He knew he ought to have that letter written and sent for his wife’s sake, possibly even for his son’s sake in future, but the warmth in Julien’s voice, the half-smile with which he talked about his friend, were the sort of thing Richard had not seen from him since Mr O’Brien left nearly two years before. If O’Brien could just come back, everything would be ideal. He was the only one who had ever seemed to completely understand the boy. O’Brien would permit the friendship to go on. What’s the harm in writing a few letters? he’d say. Even one more summer, what’s the harm? He’ll make his own choices of friends once he goes to university, and you’ll have no choice but to stay out of it. So why worry so over something that’ll end when he starts school? You respect the father; why not respect the son? Julien holds himself aloof from everyone. He’s got plenty of instincts for self-preservation. Pounce on the cracks before they close up. How do you think I got so far with him?

Yes, but you think I don’t know he slept with that book you gave him for a whole week after you left, Richard told the O’Brien of his imagination. We may keep his mother in the dark, but the staff tell me everything.

Julien was looking at the table, not daring to meet his father’s eyes now. He was already beginning to compose his apology in his head because it would take some doing, finding the right words to inflict as little hurt as possible.

Richard looked again at the letter. Neatly folded, good quality paper, the handwriting distinctly childish. “I have something for you.” Julien did not dare expect anything, even from such a statement. He looked up and was confused to see his father smile softly as he passed the letter to him. When he saw the childishly written address, his eyes widened.

“He wrote back?”

“Don’t send your mail by Martine anymore. It was a nice try, but your mother is one annoyance from ordering the girl sacked. I don’t know yet how we’re going to keep this from her, but I’ll see what can be done.”

“Thank you, Father,” Julien said solemnly, though a smile played across his lips when he looked down at his prize. He hid the letter carefully, however, and joined his mother in the salon.

“What did your father want with you?”

“Nothing important.”

“Richard, what were you doing with the boy?”

“Discussing Catullus.”

“Julien, if you’re going to read, you could do it aloud.” He had already managed to get a book open. “Something nice. It would be nice to pretend we are a family, wouldn’t it?”

Thus he spent his evening reading Wordsworth aloud, his father idly correcting his pronunciation from time to time. Richard had been in England before the revolution, had been friends with Englishmen in Paris, thus it was not a surprise when he had hired an Irish refugee to tutor his son or that he had manoeuvred the captains of the blockade very well when it appeared the Emperor would fall. Wordsworth may have been a gift from O’Brien, but it was not out of place in that household. Cécile was accustomed to poetry in languages she did not understand.

Richard read back over Jean-Pierre Enjolras’ letter as Julien read and Cécile picked at her embroidery.

That boy of yours is determined, I’ll give him that. Barely arrived back and he’s writing to my son. If I had sense, I’d put a stop to it. But I can’t bring myself to. Your son is odd, worryingly so. He actually said that he wanted to write his letter in Latin. That in itself was enough to make Henri go joyfully into the classroom to take up Latin composition, which he hates. And he is suddenly determined to learn enough Greek to read Thucydides. I assumed it a passing fling, something he would drop in a few days like every other enthusiasm that has ever taken him. It’s been two weeks and he shows no sign of abating. He wants to live up to your son.

I haven’t seen much of your boy by choice. I know you’ve not laid eyes on mine. I don’t know anymore how strongly I want to put a stop to whatever it is they’ve got going, but I do know they can’t keep it up behind our backs anymore. They literally cannot afford it now that money must change hands. I’ve enclosed a letter from my boy to yours. I’m inclined to permit a reasonable continuation, there seeming to be benefits on both sides, but the decision is yours. I just hope, for all our sakes, that your son takes after you rather than your wife.

It was not the first time Richard had wished he had married a more sympathetic woman, but those feelings had been coming more often of late, always in reference to their son. He wished he knew how to tell Julien that it was hardly appropriate that strangers recognize him as odd. He should not have to consider the advice of a complete stranger, or what a departed employee might say, when determining just how to raise his son. And he did not really want to hear that his twelve year old son had been reading those poems from Catullus and had understood them. But even watching him in the dim light as he read, Richard thought he could tell something was afoot. Julien did not let on through a glance or a touch just which pocket hid his letter, not once during the evening, but whenever he looked up at a correction his father made, his eyes shone with his contained excitement. But Richard was not certain how to tell his wife without bringing her concerns down on the boy.

It was rather late when Julien was sent to bed, though he did not mind. The delay had merely quickened his excitement. By the light of a single candle, he opened the wax seal and carefully unfolded the letter. At a quick glance, it was not so long as his had been, but there were a great many question marks. How like Henri, to have more questions than answers, he thought. He read it through once, then folded it again and slipped it inside one of his books so it would not disappear before he had a chance to reply. He slept soundly that night, better than he had slept since leaving Marseille.


Chapter 7: This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 9: I feel now / The future in the instant ~ Home