The Keeper of All Mystery

Enjolras: Marseille, 1823

The August sun was high, bearing down on the hills and docks surrounding the harbour. It was near the end of the dinner hour, the labourers and foremen starting to trickle back from the low cafés near the water. Henri was balancing on a fractured crate, making a spectacle of which his friend Gérard was patently uneasy. It was not really a precarious position, nor was it such bad speech that even its originator find greater interest in checking his watch than listening to the delivery of his words, but Gérard had to be back at the Serre office up the hill far sooner than either he or Henri would like.

“And so, my brothers, we have a Charter, but what good is that to us? Neither King nor Chamber has any imagination. What can they do for you - or even for me - if they continue to see the third city in France as a backwater? We are the third city in France, growing by the day, but we might as well be the smallest fishing village. Very well, let us consider the smallest fishing village. Why are they so unworthy of attention, of respect? Marseille is no less Provenšal than our neighbours, and we are no less French than Paris. If this is how we are to be governed, am I the only man who says ’Enough’? Enough that only the established is respected and the dynamic is ignored? Where are our steamboats and mills, our canals and industry? Why is our trade, our livelihood, denigrated by protectionist tariffs that favour Lyon and Lille? If we wanted our own schools, since we have been permitted only one royal college and no university, why is it so difficult for this king and this Chamber to deem them worthy of support? It is a paper king, a paper Chamber, and I will not support either if they do not support Marseille.” Henri ripped in half the paper he had been brandishing to represent the Charter.

The gesture might have been more impressive had his audience consisted of more than five bored labourers, one of whom pointed and laughed, the commissaire de police for the district of the docks, a blind man pretending he was not begging for alms, and Gérard. Others had passed by, given him a brief glance, and moved on without even seeming to notice the CP standing in the shade, his arms folded, his eyes never moving from the boy speaking. Henri and Gérard had been at this off and on for several months, with the assistance of their friend Lemeire, and Marseille had never needed police warnings to promote indifference to their activities. At least that afternoon, only one man had bothered to laugh at them. When Henri stepped down off the crate, signaling an end to his remarks, the little audience scattered, the CP included. The speech had been given in fine rhetorical style, but it, as so many before, had won only mild ridicule.

“It was brilliant, really,” Gérard stammered, but he was checking his watch again.

“You can tell me the truth.”

An unfamiliar voice replied, “It was a beautiful speech.” An unfamiliar female voice, which was even more surprising.

Henri turned and saw a girl. He was not certain which was more unusual - that a girl have paid attention to the speech to the extent that she dare talk to him, or that she was taller than Gérard. Her dress was a simple blue cotton print, and a few locks of light brown hair were visible under the open brim of her straw bonnet. Her bonnet’s wide yellow ribbons were untied and streamed across her shoulders - broad shoulders, like a man or a laundress. Nevertheless, her features were even and, on a girl built on a smaller scale, might have been considered fine. Henri was rather taken aback by the thought she was - dare he consider it? - pretty.

It was not the first time he had noticed girls looking at him, of course. His father had sent him to a couple of parties already, horrifically boring affairs at which he was expected to learn to dance and make small talk with girls who stared at him and either grew voluble over the most trivial details or completely tongue-tied. But this girl did not look at him in the quite the way other girls did, and that was a relief.

Henri feared he was rather staring at her instead of she at him, and he quickly thanked her for the compliment. “My name is Henri Enjolras,” he introduced himself, “and this is my friend, Marc Gérard.” Gérard was checking his watch again. A pretty girl stood in front of him, and Gérard was more concerned about being late back to work. Lemeire would not have cared about work were he here today, Henri was certain.

“Emilie Duchamp,” she replied in a very friendly, straightforward manner. How nice that a girl was neither obsequious nor swooning upon hearing his name.

“Did you really like the speech?” His heart was pounding very strangely - he almost feared what she might say, if he could even hear it above the rush of blood in his ears.

“It was a beautiful speech,” she repeated. “It would have been a better speech had you not kept citing last month’s bread prices.”

Henri looked to Gérard, but Gérard was already walking swiftly away, back to work. He relied on Gérard for these things. He had a staff of servants, Lemeire’s family kept a couple of maids, but Gérard’s father was a grocer, for heaven’s sake.

“Too low?” he asked in embarrassment.

“Yesterday hit 12 sous for the standard two kilo loaf. Rumour has it that Paris hit 14 two weeks ago.”

“I’m sorry that my mistake comes at such a cost.”

She laughed merrily, which both embarrassed him and drew him to her. Julien Combeferre was the only one who dared laugh at him, and Julien was in Paris, probably not to return before beginning medical studies in November. “Please forgive me,” she apologised. “You didn’t mean to make such an awful pun, monsieur.”

He found himself smiling a bit at that, however. He had not even realised the pun he had made. “Other than my figures, the speech pleased you?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied with great excitement. “You’ve no idea how happy it makes me to hear someone agree with my father.”

“Your father?”

“Duchamp the blacksmith?” She saw it meant nothing to him, so she explained, “Either you are new to Marseille or your people pay even less attention to our people than we thought. In the great and glorious year 1792, my uncle marched north with the volunteers of the armée du Midi to defend the Republic. My father was still a boy then, but he tried to follow. He never did get to go to war - my uncle died at Vosges. But Marseille can be such a small town at times - everyone seems to remember everything, particularly how when Bonaparte came in, it was not at all to my father’s liking. He much preferred the Republic. This government has just depressed him. But now there’s you!” she exclaimed brightly. “Perhaps our generation will get it figured out correctly.”

“Our generation?”

“To which do you object? The generation or my inclusion in it? You don’t have to say it.” Henri was unsure what she thought he was going to say, if he could say anything at all - he could not form words at the moment. “But a woman can think and write and speak. Mme de Staël. Olympe de Gouges.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” There was his tongue.

“Do you need an assistant?” It was not an eager, childish inquiry, as might be expected from a girl who fancied him, but a serious business proposition. A proposition that was indeed tempting, as Gérard had not kept up his end, and it would mean seeing this Mlle Duchamp much more often.

“I believe I could use your help, yes. We’re meeting tonight, in fact.”

“Which café?”

Only when she asked did he realise they stuck to rather rough and cheap cafés, places where the only women were the prostitutes Lemeire ogled, to Henri’s constant annoyance. But they were painted tarts, nothing like Mlle Duchamp. “Where shall you be comfortable? I will bring them to you,” he added with a gallantry he had never felt before in his life.

“Rousseau’s,” she replied, which was rather surprising. Rousseau had a mixed class clientele because he managed to get a good supply of the leftist newspapers and pamphlets from Paris, but Henri had never noticed women in there.

“Sometime after eight o’clock?”

“Very good. Until tonight, monsieur.”

“No, you mustn’t call me ‘monsieur’ if you are to join us,” Henri found himself insisting. “If we must use titles, then it can only be ‘citizen’.”

He felt very warm, not with embarrassment but with something akin to pleasure when she replied, “Very well. Until tonight, citoyen.”

Watching her walk away, he could see a grace and strength in the way she moved, a delicate force in each step. A pagan might deem her Gaia, the original mother goddess, the earth itself, and therefore Henri was certain he had found the human incarnation of Marianne. Beauty, yes, but with strength mixed in her feminine grace. How could an aristocrat in a salon, or a loose artist’s model, possibly compare to a blacksmith’s daughter, this perfect child of the people? Yet when he informed Gérard and Lemeire that they were decamping for Rousseau’s because he had found France herself, he was surprised to hear Gérard tell Lemeire, “Don’t get your hopes up. She’s Duchamp’s daughter. Looks like him, too.” They both settled down after Henri gave them a look, but he could not even identify why he felt a pall had been thrown over the evening before it had even begun.

Henri felt uneasy when they entered Rousseau’s. There was no caution in meeting at Rousseau’s - every leftist in Marseille met there under the watchful eyes of the police. But there were other women, Henri realised for the first time, and there were the newspapers, with which Mlle - Citoyenne - Duchamp was more conversant than Gérard. Henri thawed considerably in her presence. It was not merely that she quickly proved better read than either Gérard or Lemeire, with an excellent memory; she also had the sort of penetrating and analytical mind that Julien Combeferre in particular would appreciate. If the others got little from the meeting, Henri did not notice. He had eyes and ears only for Citoyenne Duchamp. When, after a full week of meetings, both with the group and the two of them alone with the newspapers at Rousseau’s, she permitted him to walk her home, he understood that he was to meet her celebrated father.

Gérard had lied - Emilie was hardly the image of her father. Her hair was straight and bordering on fair; his was dark and curly. But she did seem less out of place standing next to her tall and muscular parent. Here was her physical scale; if Antaeus had descendants, they had certainly come to ground here in Massalia, not giants anymore but people of size and force and earthbound strength. The peasants were too small to count, later additions from lesser stock. In the Duchamps, one could see the Frenchmen the little provincials ought to be. It was even a point of pride to M. Duchamp that his family spoke French at home.

M. Duchamp was intimidating, with his size and dark complexion and the huge hammer in his hand, until he suddenly grinned and set aside his tools, crushing Henri’s hand in a firm handshake. “So you’re the young man who dares to say what’s what. If I ever tried it again, they’d have me under arrest before I could say ’Down with privilege’. You have to do it when you’re young, before you’ve got a wife and children to support.” Henri considered saying that he had no plans for a wife or children, but he decided it best to hold his tongue. “How far we have fallen. We were great once. Now look at us. If I were permitted to vote, the Chamber would look very different.”

“Papa, what if he were a police spy?” Emilie joked.

“What if I were a police spy?” M. Duchamp ragged back. “If he keeps you late any more often, your mother will start to bemoan your reputation.”

“I have only the most honourable of intentions toward your daughter, monsieur,” Henri insisted defensively.

“He’s only joking,” Emilie explained. “My reputation is already awful. I’m a bluestocking and a republican - and I don’t even like to go to church,” she added in a stage whisper. “Mother expects me in the kitchen, so I shall say goodbye to you now before she thinks me ever further down the path of unmarriageability. Until tomorrow, citoyen.”

But that left Henri alone with her father, who took him by the shoulder into a corner of the smithy. “Your intentions are honourable?”

“How could they be otherwise?” Henri asked in confusion.

“If you are not a fool, monsieur, you know the game as well as I. I thought Emilie safe from it, but there’s no accounting for what your sort do when stuck in Marseille. Her reputation is my reputation, or perhaps I should say that my reputation is her reputation, but if it deteriorates, it will be on your head, and you will accept the consequences of your actions. Do I make myself clear, monsieur?”

It was not entirely clear to Henri, but he did not wish to seem a fool. “Her reputation is of the highest consideration. I should hope that all of us conduct ourselves honourably. If we succeed in making a second revolution, we cannot afford for our detractors to latch onto our faults.”

“A second revolution,” M. Duchamp mused reverently. “How I hope I shall see it. When the time comes, you may count on me. If we have Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, they’ll have a devil of a time taking the country back.”

Henri felt as if he had dodged the firing squad, that there had been something inappropriate in his attachment that he had managed to push aside. If Emilie’s father permitted her to continue to meet with the little group, then this nervousness and heightened sensation Henri sometimes felt in her presence could only be acceptable. Indeed, when Julien managed to come for three weeks at the end of September, Henri was relieved to discover that much of what he felt in Emilie’s presence was merely the warmth of friendship he had with Julien.

There was a remainder, however, that rather concerned him. Julien agreed that she had her attractions, and indeed, he quickly became rather friendly with her himself, to Henri’s annoyance. He had to tell himself daily that Julien was leaving soon enough, that once he began the term in November, there was no telling when they might see each other again. He refused to dignify this annoyance with the name of “jealousy”, but that idea gnawed at him whenever the three of them were together and Julien was holding court on some topic that he knew better from his time in the capital, Emilie hanging on his every word. Julien was even permitted to meet M. Duchamp and his wife, an honour he seemed to appreciate as he treated them with a particular courtesy that, in Henri’s experience, he usually reserved for M. Combeferre’s business acquaintances.

Yet when Julien at last left, and they embraced as usual, it was very pleasant, if a little embarrassing, to hear Julien whisper, “Congratulations, brother. If only we all could find such perfection.”

Because when Lemeire left not long after, to begin legal studies at Aix, his goodbye was both similar in sentiment and terribly vulgar. “If you haven’t had her yet, you’d better before I come back at Easter.” The statement was accompanied by a leer and some vulgar gestures that the rational part of Henri’s brain knew Lemeire meant in fun but a trace of emotion thoroughly resented.

He had known Emilie for nearly three months, and even as lately he had known he was getting far too attached to her, particularly when he permitted her to brush his hair out of his eyes, he had never contemplated even kissing her, much less what Lemeire demonstrated with hand gestures. There was no call to treat a woman with such contempt.

Henri wrote to Julien. “It has been suggested that I ought to have bedded Citoyenne Duchamp before now. But such actions are the furthest thing from my mind when I am with her. When I see any woman. She is the incarnation of everything that is good in France, the strength and intelligence and courage and even beauty that is our country, our people. The most perfect representative of what we ought to be. How could I even contemplate sullying such purity with the most base of ordinary human desires?”

But Julien at last wrote back: “Dear brother, this is the illness for which there is no cure. You are in love, and how could you not be? Who other than the epitome of France would be a worthy partner for you? I wish you joy, and patience. There is more of love in honour than there is in lust, I am sure of it, but it is not much respected. Nine years you shall have to wait, unless we can overturn the marriage laws sooner. But what is patience when there is perfection to be had in the end? I am terribly happy for you, and perhaps even a little jealous. But there is no flaw in not taking a girl to bed. The only girls who go to bed before their wedding nights are the girls who are used poorly, considered lightly, and thrown aside when men have taken their own needs, with no thought for the girls themselves. You will be a greater man than others someday because you refuse to engage in hypocrisies. I would love you less if you had already bedded her, had used her for base desires when she is obviously worth so much more. Any girl is worth better than to be used and shoved aside, but Mlle Duchamp is worth far more than an ordinary girl. It is a pity she is a girl, but then, were she a man, she could never partner you.”

In love? But that seemed a hypocrisy, too. Henri had not bedded her, not even kissed her, not even contemplated kissing her. He had never thought about it until he had been told that he should. There was no connection between the emotional and the physical. When others at school would exchange stories of lurid dreams and intense desires, he had understood the physical response yet had never been able to share the emotional causes. He had learned from those moments that he was not like other boys; that he was not even like Julien, when it came down to it in a single nervous conversation late one summer night. Julien began to ask what other boys would ask, and Henri, unable to lie to him, shut down the entire line of thought. The body and the mind enjoyed total separation, a separation he was ordinarily proud of. In Emilie’s presence, there were times his head would seem to whirl and her voice to echo as every thought but her presence was stripped away, but these were tricks of the mind, he was certain. The body, blamed perhaps unfairly for so many other men’s emotions, had no role. And Julien had not understood at all - how could he really? - yet he had put some rather nice thoughts into Henri’s head. Not that there ought to be a wedding night, for that was merely the usage of a woman by her husband for his own pleasures, but that there ought to be a full partnership, something eternal, or at least for a lifetime. Was that love, and the other, the desire for kisses and more, merely animal lust, something base and undeserving? He had been aware enough, or lucky enough, to avoid mingling the two. Unless they were meant to be mingled, and that was why everyone else combined them? If Julien could not understand, who could?

In the end, it was Emilie herself who understood. Just after Christmas, in the midst of a two day mistral that had her holding her bonnet onto her head, her cloak gathered about her as tightly as the frigid wind would allow, she burst into Rousseau’s, her red cheeks dimpled slightly as she laughed at the wind that tried to blow her away. “It’s a horrid night out there. My hands are frozen!” She permitted him to attempt to warm her hands in his, but he suddenly realised that he was behaving with all the hypocrisy of the lover but in the other direction. He dropped her hands as swiftly as he had taken them in the first place.

She did not let on if she minded. “Has he got in the latest Constitutionnel?”

“Mademoiselle,” Henri began, not really looking at her. He had put it off too long, he knew.

“Oh, you are serious. Go on.”

“It has come to my attention that some people believe me in love with you.” It was very strange to say the words aloud.

“Are you?”

“I don’t know,” he found himself answering, which was perhaps more honest than the straight denial he had intended to give.

“Well, you’re not. You have known me coming up on six months, and you haven’t once tried to kiss me.”

“Did you want me to?”

“I don’t expect you to. My father’s a blacksmith, and I’m plain as anything. Why should I want something so ridiculous as a kiss from the rich and very handsome Henri Enjolras?” The familiar teasing note in her voice was there when she complimented him, but her words seemed very serious.

“Why should it be so ridiculous?”

“Because it is not who you are,” she began, but then she corrected, “no, it is not in your nature. You don’t look at me as if you’d like to take me to bed, and really, who would? Certainly none of the chaps who’ve tried to practise on me, sweating bullets and almost afraid I’ll take them up on the offer. You don’t even look at me the way they do, practising on the plain girl what they haven’t the courage to try with the pretty ones. Who has been saying such things, anyway?”

“It doesn’t matter. I have the greatest respect for you, mademoiselle, and I would hope that I would never conduct myself in such a manner that our relations be put into question.”

“Oh, but they will be,” she said frankly. “Perhaps that will send my share price up, some sense that you find something of worth in me. No one else has done.”

“What a terrible thing to say.”

“But it is true.”

“Then I shall have to kiss you, to prove it false.”

He had not intended it as a joke - it was a serious declaration of intent - but she laughed. “I don’t need pity. You look at me as you look at M. Combeferre. And I must say I enjoy being taken seriously. But you are not in love with either one of us.”

“I feel something more for you than I feel for Julien,” he admitted. His heart was beating terribly fast, but then, the heart was not the only organ in the body. His palms were moist, but one could easily attribute that to the fear brought on by the entire conversation being held in a crowded café. These were hardly the signs that accompanied boys’ fantastical descriptions of shapely female ankles and damp bodices. A physical response, perhaps, but not the physical response expected even from the truth he had just admitted.

With a serious expression, she took his hand in both of hers. “I fear I care more for you than I ought, and I should think after twenty years of life, I should know what is permitted my sort of people and your sort of people. I hope for great things in your future, that you ought to be a great man someday. And the greatest pleasure of my life would be, not that you tried to make love to me, but that you took me seriously. The one would be out of pity, and we both know it, but the other is out of the deepest respect, taking into consideration all of our differences, male and female, bourgeois and working class.”

“I know I care for you more than I ought,” he admitted.

“And that is respect. I’m more grateful for it than I can say. But don’t let’s confuse it with love. Shouldn’t love carry with it the desire for something more than sitting across a table, sharing the latest news from Paris? Respect, partnership, understanding - the things that can be between men and so often are overlooked between men and women. Let us promise each other these alone and not bring physical attraction and therefore inappropriate and unkind thoughts of love into it.”

“I do think you beautiful. There could be no more perfect symbol of France than you.”

But then she laughed, breaking the spell which had grown more and more tense as they went on. “Well, there you are. How could you possibly have fallen in love with me when your heart belongs to France? I want only what you can give, and I ask for no more. We should respect each other less were anything else the case. Has Rousseau got the new issue of the Constitutionnel?”

That night, alone in bed, Henri realised a weight had been lifted. To be thought in love, when one was not certain of what love was or if one was even capable of love, had been a terrible strain. But respect, partnership, and understanding - these he understood, in these he did not feel himself deficient, and these he could give gladly to someone as worthy as Emilie Duchamp.

 

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