From Childhood’s Hour
Chapter 9: I feel now / The future in the instant
While Julien wanted to simply head next door the moment the carriage pulled into the great drive, he settled for sending a note with one of the staff. It was late enough, in any case, that the family intended only to bathe after the long, dusty journey and sup briefly before going to bed. Mr Parker had not handled the journey well - one would have thought an Englishman accustomed to travel now that he made his living in a foreign land, after all, but he claimed he had always been used to the sea. The dust was what he could not abide. Unpacking could wait until the next day.
The note was delivered to Jean-Pierre, though Julien had deliberately addressed it to Henri. Jean-Pierre withheld it until he had a chance to speak with François alone to arrange how precisely they ought to manage what would be an immediate demand to see Julien. In response, Jean-Pierre sent a reply to Richard, stating that if he were agreeable, or inclined to permit a visit in any form, that it would have to be after two o’clock. François was fairly certain that he could get some teaching done in the morning if the visit were a bribe, and if Julien were not permitted to come, Henri had a tendency to waste his afternoons, anyway.
Neither of the boys were told the results of these negotiations until the next morning. Before Jean-Pierre left for town, he passed Julien’s note to Henri. “Not until this afternoon. And M. François has veto power if you don’t finish your work.”
Julien received notice in writing from his father. “Since you are so inclined, I permit you to make a visit to the Enjolras house of no more than two hours no earlier than two o’clock. Parker has been told that you have permission. Go by the main road and the front door - it is unseemly to sneak onto other people’s property, even when invited.”
Julien had hoped to get away that morning, to avoid being pulled in to help Parker unpack the school things and collection cases, but at least permission was granted. His mother spent the morning directing the unpacking, worrying that certain trinkets be put away since Charles had developed a taste for climbing. “I don’t know why that child must get into everything. You certainly never did,” she told Julien as he had to pass by with an armload of schoolbooks. The library in the Marseille house was larger than in Paris but also older: it had a greater supply of the sort of religious texts no one opened as well as a large supply of the novels his mother read. She did not read much in Paris, having more social duties to take up her time. There were only perhaps five or six other families in Marseille with whom she socialized, and even then, this was on account of her husband’s business. Still, in Marseille, she took more notice of Charles even as Julien had a wider space in which to avoid her.
After the noon meal, Julien asked if he might go for a walk. This was the signal he had arranged with Parker - they would botanise for an hour or so before happening to turn up at the Enjolras estate. Indeed, the prospect of botanising along the Mediterranean was what had prompted Parker to accept the position, a position that was otherwise rather below a man of his age and education. Once out of sight of the house, and with Parker disappointed that spring had passed them by, Julien explained his whole history with Henri, mostly in English though lapsing into French when he could not think of a word or phrase and staying there once he realized Parker was not really listening. Parker half listened, managing to note the basics as his attention was taken up by the grasses on the verge of the road. He perked up when Julien said, “And his tutor, M. François, taught me botanical drawing.”
“There is another botanist around?” he asked in his fine country English.
“Not really,” Julien replied in the same language. “I think he only dabbles.”
“Still, that’s something.”
“You’ll have to remember to speak French because Henri doesn’t know a word of English and I don’t think M. François does, either.”
“I do remember what country I’m in. Your accent has gotten much better - we’ll get the Irish out of you yet.”
Julien said nothing. Mr Parker was not Mr O’Brien, and Julien still held out hope that O’Brien would finish his family business in the Indies and come back to France. He had said he intended to, after all. Sure, he might be gone a couple of years, and that was nearly three years ago by now, but one could get delayed. He might still come back, sure, God willing.
They did find a couple of interesting grasses, though Julien found himself more interested in checking the time than in minutely examining the verge of the road. It was with difficulty that he kept himself from running off when Parker determined it was time to go to their appointment.
They were ushered in to one of the salons, which Julien had never seen - he had usually just walked through a gap in the hedge between the properties the previous summer and spent his time in the garden. While he had not been much about in Paris, he had of course seen his uncle’s house, and his grandparents’ house, and the homes of a couple of his mother’s friends. There was a distinct difference in the look of the Enjolras salon, one he could not quite put his finger on. It was not that there was too much gilt, or that all the furniture was of the style of the Empire rather than anything older - these were not out of place. The whole thing was simply off key somehow. It must be the lack of a mother, he decided. A salon without a woman was not quite right in itself. French doors led out to the terrace, and instead of obviously looking around at the room, he and Parker took in the view of the gardens.
Henri’s approach was heard before it was seen - one could not mistake the rapid clumping of a boy running down the stairs. “You came!”
“As soon as I could.” The boys embraced fervently.
“Let’s go out in the garden!”
“I should be polite.” Julien introduced Henri to Mr Parker as he had been taught. M. François made it into the room by that point and was included in the introductions before the boys took off outside through the French doors.
“Stay in the garden!” François called after them.
The garden was well-manicured and sloped gently towards the sea, hidden behind a line of cedars planted generations ago as a windbreak for the long-gone château. There were no climbing trees within the confines of the garden, so the boys sat down together on a sunny patch of lawn. It was a beautiful May afternoon, full of southern sun but without the intense heat that characterized summer. Henri could tell that there was something different about Julien. Not so much that he had grown even taller, or that his thick black hair had grown long like a poet’s, tousled by the breeze off the sea, but that he had a half smile on his face, and he lounged in the grass with a casualness he had never managed to bring off the year before. Just as the letters had changed, grown longer and even more detailed as the winter and spring went on, eagerness to please had been replaced by comfort.
“How long did it take to get here?”
“Week and a half. It takes longer getting back to Paris because you have to go up the Rhône.”
“The mail doesn’t take that long.”
“That’s because the mail is carried by a light coach that takes few passengers and little luggage and they get to change horses every couple of hours. And they change drivers, too, so that they can run all through the night. We have our own coach and we stop every night.”
“What’s it like, traveling? I’ve never been anywhere.”
“That can’t be true.”
“I’ve been to the refinery. I’ve been to the receiving office down by the docks. Papa took me to the theatre this winter. I’ve been to mass at Majeure.”
“Town doesn’t count. Neither does riding around the countryside. I can see Marseille from my house. Have you never even been to Les Goudes?”
“Where is it?”
Julien refrained from sighing. “It’s the fishing village around the point.”
Henri shook his head. “I told you. I’ve never been anywhere.”
“You can walk there in an hour. I went with my mother when I was a child and she was doing charity work.”
“Your mother does charity work?”
“I know it’s hard to believe. She’s nicer to the poor villagers than she is to me. Probably because they’re strangers. Well, maybe I should use the past tense. I haven’t gone with her in years, since the war ended. It’s condescending, isn’t it, to give people your old stuff when they used to work for you and you could employ them properly so they could earn wages and buy new stuff instead.”
“Your father employed fishermen?”
“During the war. He needed people with small boats who knew the coast intimately so he could run everything in and out under the blockade. No need for that after the Emperor lost. It’s funny - my mother’s family was in very well with that government, but my father threw in with the English.”
“Does that make him a traitor?”
“I don’t know. The Emperor lost.” He also remembered some things Mr O’Brien had said about the Emperor not being the savior of Europe he could have been, namely “Emperor, my big toe”, but politics was not a subject for polite conversation. “It is better that the war is over. The borders are open again, and that’s all to the good.”
“And no one is getting killed anymore. Did you ever see anything interesting during the war?”
“Not really. The same legless soldiers begging who do it today.”
“No Grand Army on the march?”
“I didn’t even get to see the Emperor’s return.”
“Have you seen the king?”
“No. We don’t travel in aristocratic circles. We are people of commerce, not of blood.”
“I mean have you seen his coach going by or anything.”
“Oh. Once. But that doesn’t mean he was in it.”
“Was it exciting?”
“It’s a black coach with a coat of arms on the door. There’s a hundred of them in Paris. It was not exciting - I didn’t even realize until it had passed that it was the royal seal.”
“It must be exciting in Paris, though.”
Julien shrugged. “I like it better here.”
“Really? It’s so quiet here.”
“It may be quiet, but at least here, I’m free. It’s not safe to wander in Paris. I can do what I like here. And there are no strict schedules.” Julien pushed his hair out of his face in a nervous gesture. “ And you’re here,” he admitted.
“You may not have strict schedules, but I do. I’m so glad you’re back. You have to tell me everything.”
“Everything that happened was in the letters.”
“Really? Nothing you wanted to hide from your parents?”
“My parents don’t read my letters,” Julien told him, somewhat suspiciously.
“What about your tutor? Wasn’t he correcting your Latin?”
“No. Why would he need to?”
Henri looked back at the men on the terrace. François was definitely keeping an eye out while translating the gardener’s heavier accent and occasional use of patois for Parker, who was enthralled by the outdoor care of several plants that he had only ever seen cultivated under glass.
Julien’s eyes followed Henri’s. “You have your own personal secret police. Possibly your father alerts my father to anything worrisome. I know they write to each other.”
“But he doesn’t talk to you about it?”
“What is there to talk about?”
“You can’t tell me you don’t leave anything out. You barely mention your mother. You say more about your brother.”
Julien looked away and ran a hand through his hair again. “To write something, to commit something to paper, requires that you spend time with it, spend sometimes more time in the memory than you did in the actual act. I don’t want to dwell on things that are of no interest to anyone.” He had seemed more natural, lighter, happier even in his deflections of Henri’s questions about Paris, but this statement brought back all the habitual gloom of the previous summer.
Neither boy said anything for a long time. Julien knew he had broken the mood, and Henri was uncertain how to properly express his sympathy. Julien’s letters had always been terribly interesting, but his family never played much of a role. Often, there would be some mention of plans, but no follow up report ever materialized. Mr Parker’s appearance on the scene dominated nearly all personal news thereafter. But Henri had not fully noted it between Julien’s descriptions of the places Parker took him and the books he read. He had once been granted a lengthy description of one of Mme Combeferre’s grand parties - a description in which Mme Combeferre played no more personal role than any of the guests. An observation of events rather than the record of a participant. Henri realized now that there were messages between the lines, that what was not said might be more important than what was said.
He did not know what to say, but he squeezed Julien’s shoulder and gave him a look of concern. Julien turned and smiled softly. “I’m glad to be home.” But he seemed to realise the horrific sentimentality of the statement, so he tried to cover his emotion, make it more manly, by nudging Henri with his elbow. Which set off a nudging war, elbows flying, until Henri fell over laughing, Julien lying on his back with a grin on his face.
“So how are we going to make this work? You have a tutor now, and I don’t want only two afternoons a week.”
“I’ve been thinking about that. How would you like to learn English?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could read Shakespeare yourself instead of having me hand the plots down secondhand. And there are brilliant political men who only wrote in English. I’ve got the books, too.”
“I don’t know that I like the looks of M. Parker.” He was middle aged and rather round and oddly excited about a potted plant, to Henri’s mind.
“I’m not talking about Mr Parker teaching you. I’m saying I would. And no poetry except Shakespeare, I promise.”
“My father hired Mr Parker because he felt I was falling behind on my English. So, this way, I practice my English, and your father might approve because it’s something M. François can’t teach you, right? And you get something more useful than Greek.”
“I am so glad to hear you say Greek is useless.”
“I didn’t say useless. I said a living language is more useful.”
“But would your father and M. Parker agree?”
“I don’t see why not. They’ve no objections to me skiving off this afternoon.”
“But one afternoon.”
“Mr Parker only took this job so he could get paid to botanise around the Mediterranean. Everyone thinks I don’t know, but I overheard him say something to the staff in Paris when we were packing to leave, and it seems true. He cares more for Linnaeus than for Virgil. I think he’s going to manage to not come back to Paris with us in the autumn, and that’s fine with me. So why not leave him to it?”
“But I have to concentrate on my education.”
“Which is why I’m proposing education. Ask your father. Or I’ll ask him. I can write a very polite letter. ‘Dear M. Enjolras, it has come to my attention that Henri has no knowledge of modern languages whatever. I think this is a pity, for would not English be of use to him and you in your international trade? I would be glad to teach him myself this summer because I think he could make a good job of it. I know you have respect for English literature because Henri loaned me your copy of Macbeth last summer. Imagine how nice it would be if he could read it to you on some windy evening when winter comes!’”
“You’re getting flowery.”
“Ok, so cut that sentence. ‘It would give me great pleasure to share such literature with your son. And for the moment, I would have recourse to my own tutor, Mr Jonathan Parker, a native of Southampton, for any assistance.’”
“Or was it Plymouth? I’ll have to ask before I write it, of course. It’s one of the big shipping centers in the south of England. ‘I would not take up too much of Henri’s time, I hope - perhaps a couple afternoons in the week and a few evenings, especially as the light lasts so long in summer.’”
“A few evenings!”
“Am I daring too much?”
“I only hope he would agree to it!”
“‘I thank you for your consideration, and I hope that my proposal is pleasing to you. Sincerely and humbly, Julien Combeferre.’ Will that serve?”
“Would you really write it?”
Julien shrugged. “If I have to. Why not?”
“It’s so very grown up.”
“Is that an objection?”
“It’s a compliment.”
“Then I thank you.”
“I think you’d better write it. It looks better coming from you. Everything looks better coming from you. If I ask, it’ll look like I’m trying to skive off Greek or something.”
“That’s why I suggest evenings. You can’t have lessons in the evenings.”
“No. Evenings are family time, when my father doesn’t have business or social arrangements in town.”
“Then I don’t see how he can refuse if he has business in town anyway.”
“Your Englishman is coming.”
Indeed, Parker was walking down to meet the boys. “I am sorry, but your father said no more than two hours.”
“And my mother will already be asking where we have been.” He scrambled up and brushed the grass from his coat and trousers. “I’ll send the letter tonight,” he told Henri.
“Would you please consider putting on your hat?” Parker asked.
Julien sighed but did as he was told. “I’ll come back as soon as I can,” he told Henri.
Henri nodded. “It was nice to meet you, monsieur,” he said to Parker, remembering his manners for perhaps the first time in his life.
“We don’t have to go back through the house. I know a shortcut.” He waved goodbye to Henri from the bottom of the garden before heading off to where he knew to cut through a break in the hedges that would take even Parker’s ample adult frame.
Henri trudged back up to the house and François. Back to his Greek lesson. Thucydides was much more interesting in translation because he could read it fluently.
Chapter 8: Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 10: The spirit of enjoyment and desire / Went circling, like a multitude of sounds ~ Home