Hear Now the Tale of a Jet Black Sunrise
The letter had come from Marseille, which was not unexpected, but the handwriting was not Henri’s. Julien tore it open in haste.
We have had our differences, but there comes a time when one must put aside personal feelings and accept responsibility and the necessity of action. Emilie Duchamp is dead, killed in an accident. Henri tried to slit his wrists the same night. Luckily, no great harm was done, but he will not speak to me. This is all your doing, and I pray that you may be able to fix it, because I cannot.
Please come if you can. I do not know what else to do.
Dead? Attempted suicide? The greater part of the story was certainly untold, but it could not be appropriate for inclusion in a letter. Julien scribbled a brief response:
I thank you for the news, if one can be grateful for such news. I put this letter into the post today, but I hope I may follow it so closely that it will not precede my arrival.
Please give Henri my most heartfelt sympathies. I will be there as soon as I can.
His affairs were not much to tidy up. There was to have been a ball that evening, but his hosts were most polite when he informed them that he had just received news of a family emergency. The staff helped him to pack, and in the morning, he was on his way to Dover, carrying sympathies from Mrs Carter and her (rather pretty) younger daughter Miss Laura in the form of a packet of sandwiches for the journey and several jars of jam for his mother. Mr Carter and M. Combeferre had somehow met during the war and had become friendly enough that Julien had spent the past seven months in their company, treated more as a visiting cousin than as a foreign guest. He had lately agreed that the original nine months be lengthened to a full year, that he might return to Paris in the spring - or perhaps even the summer - when the letter came and upset half-formed plans. What were possibilities of a few more months of the happiest family life he had ever experienced when he was needed at home? To Dover he had to go.
The weather was cold and had been dry for several days, which at least had hardened the road out of London. Unfortunately, one could see the fog grow as they approached the coast. The packet out of Dover would be delayed until the fog cleared, and all Julien could do was huddle down in an inn with the few other travelers who could not wait until finer weather to venture to the Continent. He did manage to get a room to himself, though he mostly spent his time pacing the docks, hoping to be the first to note a break in the gloom. He slept little and broke down weeping more than once, though never for long. Too much medical knowledge was a dangerous thing - he kept imagining an infection setting in. “Tried to slit his wrists” was so vague it could mean a close-run thing or that he was prevented before he was ever truly able to make contact of blade and skin. The one would be more difficult medically, but the other could be more damaging in the long run. And while Julien was certain he would be less emotional if he were actually traveling, making progress toward where he was needed, being stuck in Dover was worse than sitting in London in ignorance. He had given up a ball with Miss Laura in order to sit in Dover, given it up gladly, but to no real purpose.
Julien cursed his presumption in not waiting comfortably in London with the Carters for one of the steam packets directly out of the city. He had thought he might cross sooner by going overland to Dover, but it was five days before the weather cleared enough for the packet to dare the crossing. He paced the deck during the entire four-hour trip and pushed his way to be among the first through Customs on disembarkation. But no one was leaving Calais until the following morning, so all he could do was book a place in the diligence to Paris and sit and stew for another night.
He reached Paris on the third day and immediately hailed a cab to take his trunk to his parents’ house. He had transferred a couple shirts and other simple needs into a valise back in Dover, on the first of the interminable days of waiting, and kept that with him as he went to see if he could book a place on the mail, at least to Lyon, rather than endure all the stops of the diligence. It was impossible to leave immediately, but for the first time, he had the good luck to get one of the few seats on the mail for the next day. It would still save him two days, and in turn, that could hasten the trip down the Rhône valley.
It was not a pleasant conversation he had at home, however. His mother had visitors whom she had to leave in order to find out what was going on in her own house. “What on earth are you doing here?” she asked disapprovingly. “You were supposed to stay in England.”
“I am only here for the night on my way to Marseille.”
“And what in God’s name would take you to Marseille at this time of year?”
“Henri is ill,” Julien answered with the firmness he had learned in his years at the hospital.
“Henri is ill,” she mocked. “And if it were your own family, you would not be here at all.”
“That is unfair. You would not tell me if there were something wrong in the family.”
“The staff will prepare your room. How long will you be with us?”
“A few hours only. I’ve booked a place on the mail for seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”
“You’ll catch your death.” The mail only offered outside places.
“I am in perfect health, Mother,” Julien replied tiredly. He had made the same protest for years, to no effect, but still it must be said if only because it was expected.
“You will dine with us tonight.” It was an order, not a request.
“Since you wish it.”
His trunk and valise had been brought up to his room. He asked for hot water, so he might wash up for the first time since leaving Calais. Charles came before the water did.
“Not for long.” Julien was too distracted to pay much attention to his little brother.
“Emergency. I have to go to Marseille.” The staff had begun to unpack for him, a vexing liberty that meant he had to begin all over to determine just what he would need to take with him.
“Something happened to Henri, didn’t it?” Charles asked, trying not to pout too obviously.
“Yes, and it’s very bad. Shouldn’t you have a lesson right now?”
“M. Vidal went to the kitchen for tea.”
“Then I assume he will return at any moment.” Only after Charles left did Julien regret his stiff and somber tone. But he simply had neither the time nor the energy to explain things he did not know.
Once he washed up and changed his clothes, he told the servants he would be return for dinner. The afternoon was well-advanced, the streets plunged into December gloom. For warmth, and to kill time, he sat in a café for a while, drinking coffee and pretending to read a newspaper. He needed, more than anything, to be on the road, because only in Marseille was there anything worth doing, anything even worth knowing.
He took to the streets again, the movement at least better than sitting idle and waiting for morning. He found himself gravitating towards the mixed neighbourhoods, where one could find the working class sharing the streets - and the houses - with their betters. It only made sense that after a week of bearing this tragedy alone, he was looking for a friend. Courfeyrac would try to take him out of himself; Feuilly was the sensible head he needed. He would not have pushed through his own tragedy so well without the common sense in lieu of plain sympathy.
Feuilly had once let slip where he worked, a slip that seemed to cause him more embarrassment than necessary because everyone knew he earned his own living. There were lamps lit in all the windows of the workshop, but Combeferre waited as the winter darkness increased. The street grew more crowded as other workshops shut up for the day, and eventually, the lights began to go out in the one where Feuilly worked. Soon enough, the men and women filed out. Combeferre pushed across the street to fall into step with Feuilly, who nearly jumped out of his skin when he realized who had come up next to him.
“Christ, I thought you were in England! You’ll scare a man half to death. What the hell are you doing here?” But his voice was bright and he casually punched Combeferre in the arm in a friendly gesture that made Combeferre want to weep with gratitude.
“There’s been bad news from home.”
“Shall I buy you a drink?” Feuilly asked with concern.
“Shouldn’t I buy you one?”
“Do you even have French money on you?” Feuilly took him by the elbow and pulled him into a dark and smoky café, where he had the woman at the counter bring up two glasses of brandy rather than wine. “You look like hell.”
“I feel like hell.” The burn of the cheap spirits in his throat and his stomach reminded him that he had not eaten that day. “I shouldn’t lay my sorrows on you again.”
“Didn’t we cover this before? I’m glad you came.”
“Very bad things have happened in Marseille in my absence.”
“Are you going to make me ask you how bad?”
“I don’t know how bad.” He passed M. Enjolras’ letter to Feuilly, who read it silently then passed it back.
“Very bad, indeed. Be on your guard - the cops are probably involved.”
“What? I know you are paranoid - with reason - but they are the police. How is public order served through murdering a woman? He says ‘accident’ - you can’t be right.”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong. It only matters if I’m right. I know an euphemism as well as you do, and an accident doesn’t set a man of strength to suicide.”
“And a murder does?”
“An accident is neutral. It could happen to anyone, right? That’s what makes it an accident. Bad luck, lack of intent. A murder is personal. There’s emotion in a murder. At the very least, there’s desire. A need for that particular death in that particular moment, even if nothing else. It’s intensely personal.” Combeferre was uncomfortable whenever Feuilly went on these jags, and he was never sure if it was because of the subject matter or because Feuilly had the unfortunate air of the unintended expert. “I don’t know your friend, but I know you. I don’t see you attached to a man who would hold his own life so lightly.”
“Have you ever thought about it? Suicide, I mean.”
“No. There’ve been plenty of times I didn’t much care if I lived or died, but to put an end to it all myself?” He shrugged. “Paris will do it for me sooner or later. Or His Majesty. Which is not to suggest I consider myself a man of strength, but it’s not a fear of God that stays my hand or keeps me off a bridge. How long do you have to stay in town?”
Combeferre was grateful to hear someone acknowledge that he was here only by duress. “I was lucky enough to get the last place on the mail coach tomorrow morning.”
“Thank God for small favours.” He clinked Combeferre’s glass before taking another sip of his drink.
“If it is not an accident, what do I do?” Combeferre asked softly.
“I’m not an expert on revenge.” But he rapped on the table anyway, a gesture not entirely comforting.
“But if it is the police?”
“Keep out of public view.”
“It can’t be the police,” Combeferre suddenly insisted. “It can’t be. M. Enjolras is too important. My father is too important.”
“And your friend isn’t the one who’s dead.” Combeferre shuddered. “I’m sorry. I never know when you want truth or comfort, and I always err on the side of truth. I shouldn’t say anymore.”
“If I wanted plain sympathy, I would have sought out Courfeyrac.”
“That doesn’t make my truths any easier to hear. I am profoundly sorry for what has happened. Accident or not, a woman is dead who ought to be alive, and a man you love is grieving in unimaginable ways.”
“What does your god have to say to this?”
“My God? Well, I suppose you’re right. I’ve less use for the priests with every passing year. Not everything He does seems just. The things you find in your path, that you take personally, that seem designed to test you, are rarely all about you. You can seek His favour, you can beg for His understanding, but He has a whole world, of which you are only the smallest part. You can never know your place in everything, but He has marked out a place for you if are willing to accept it. I don’t know how to explain it; I just feel it. Ignorance isn’t bad when it comes to God. That’s why it’s faith. I know that when I put myself in His hands, things go better. Not perfect, not even right half the time, I still lose jobs and worry where a meal will come from, but I don’t feel that the struggle is pointless. In the end, everything will be as it must be, not just for me but for everyone. Not everything is just, but it has its place. In the end. That’s not a consolation. It just - is.”
“You’re no more a Christian than I am.”
“When did you last take communion? You see, I am a good Christian, while the priests are not. How can they be when they are beholden to the earthly monarchy here? My salvation comes from Christ - just because I do not wait for the Last Judgment does not mean I don’t think it will come. But I do not have to confuse God and Caesar. I can take both as I must without hypocrisy. But I know that look,” Feuilly added with a half smile. “We will set God aside. What shall we discuss?”
“Anything. How are you? You’ve not written at all.”
“And what is there to write that is worth sending through Courfeyrac? He keeps you up to date on meetings.”
“But what of you?”
“There has not been anything in my life of any interest to you in the years you have known me.”
“That is not true. There must be something. The riots last month? Have there been no girls? Any further attempts with oils?”
“Neither. Though I do hope, for selfish reasons, that you are able to wind up your business in Marseille in due time. You cannot miss the Salon entirely.”
“I had completely forgotten there was to be one this year. Have you been?”
“Three times so far. Twice with Prouvaire, but I can’t do it anymore. He may be a thorough-going Romantic, but he has no sense of technique. I long for your opinion.”
“What is the overall tone this year?”
“Greeks as far as the eye can see. And plenty of attempts to suck His Royal Highness’ cock.”
“Which rather explains the great volume of Greeks.”
“The Romantics and Ultras sort of in agreement. I can only take so much of Prouvaire going into ecstasies over corpses.”
“I thought you liked carefully draped corpses.”
“Corpses are like salt - a few to bring out the flavor, but too many and you’re looking at the morgue, not an art exhibition.”
Combeferre smiled and shook his head. “A sentiment with which Prouvaire is certain to disagree. Just go to the café des Variétés of a Sunday evening and join in whatever conversation interests you. There will be at least one to interest you at any time. I’ve no idea who might be there, but use my name if you think you must.”
They chatted for a while about the Salon - Feuilly’s grasp of the appropriate vocabulary had increased considerably since they first began to discuss art in the aftermath of the ’24 Salon - and it was the sort of conversation Combeferre could have without exerting much effort, perfectly designed to keep his mind off the needs of the immediate future without taxing his attention too much.
“I don’t suppose you would permit me to buy you dinner,” Feuilly asked after a long time.
Combeferre looked at his watch. “I promised my mother I would return for dinner. I’m going to be late as it is.”
“Let me walk you back.”
“Gladly.” Traffic was thick enough that hailing a cab would save little, if any, time. They spoke little in the street, but it was comforting to have Feuilly’s presence. There would be no understanding silence once he stepped inside the family home, so he held to it for as long as he could, even if it did come as they dodged carriages and other pedestrians.
“This is where you live?” Feuilly asked when they entered the square. “Which one?” Combeferre pointed it out to him. “Which floor?”
“The whole house.” He was rather amused to hear Feuilly give a low whistle of approval.
They clasped hands. “Be careful. And tell him - well - it won’t mean much, or anything, really, coming from a stranger, but I am sorry. I don’t know the half of it, but from what you’ve said, she was a hell of a dame, and I mean that in a way proper French can’t possibly express.”
“It means a great deal to me. Thank you. I’ll write when I can.”
“You won’t, but I appreciate the intent,” Feuilly said, with a hint of humour in his voice. He tipped his hat before he disappeared into the night.
The family dinner table was far less pleasing than an evening in Feuilly’s company would have been. “It may be fashionable in England to be late, but you know we dine on time,” his mother said. He spent the meal mostly fending off questions, choosing instead to quiz Charles about his studies when he could do nothing else to turn the attention away from his sudden appearance.
After dinner, he followed his father to the library. “What is all this about?” M. Combeferre finally asked.
Without his mother present, Julien felt more comfortable answering. “I don’t entirely know.” He showed his father the letter from M. Enjolras. “I had to come.”
His father sighed. “Family is more important than anything.”
“I made my excuses very politely. I should hope my departure will not reflect poorly on you.”
“You need money, I suppose.” Julien looked down. He did need money, though he hated the thought of asking for it. He had only paid through to Lyon, and Feuilly was right - he may not have able to scrape together enough out of the money he had changed to pay for his own brandy, all but a stray couple of very small coins having gone to coachmen. “When do you leave?”
“How far can you get?”
“I’ve paid through to Lyon.”
“Very good.” M. Combeferre pulled together a decent sum in coin. “You should be able to get home on this. I’ll write you a draft on the bank that you can cash in Marseille.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I don’t know why I’m encouraging this.”
“Because this is not about politics anymore.”
“Spend the evening with your mother. It will please her.”
“Father -” Julien started to protest. But there would be no point. It was better to keep the peace than to make a fuss.
In the grand salon, his mother looked at him disdainfully. “You may not have changed for dinner, but could you at least pretend you did? I have guests coming.”
It was far more tempting to retire to his bedroom and stay there, but Julien had the sensation that he had just been paid to keep his mother happy. When he returned, she kept her eyes on her needlepoint and said nothing to him. Charles slunk away into a corner and buried his nose in a book when Julien met his eye. At least he was permitted to stare into the fire until his mother’s guests arrived.
“Guests” proved to be the Lauriers and two couples Julien had not met before. The Lauriers had brought their daughter, Isabelle, who was barely sixteen and looked as if she had been pulled out of the convent that afternoon. M. Combeferre entered the salon and whispered to Julien that the draft had been left on his bedside table. Julien thanked him, and the necessary social round began in earnest.
The men seemed determined to talk politics, and Julien had proved himself unwelcome to interject his own ideas ever since he stated that Fourier made some interesting points, though at least he had always had enough sense not to speak directly against the Charter. Obviously, his presence was required so he might ingratiate himself with Isabelle Laurier, or her presence required so she might ingratiate herself with him. Such a task was not to his taste in the best of circumstances, and tonight, when he wanted nothing more than to be on the road to his best friend and mourning the loss of a woman to whom a girl like Mlle Laurier could never compare, the effect was intolerable. Miss Laura Carter would have been more understanding than a convent girl. He found himself drinking several cups of tea in quick succession, then retreating to the library to select a random volume in which he might justifiably have a burning interest. De Vigny’s poetry it would have to be.
Surprisingly, the girl released from the convent might be said to have escaped from the convent. It was not that she had read de Vigny, of course, but that she expressed an interest that seemed genuine. “Read a bit for the ladies,” his mother ordered. “We are so tired of overhearing politics.” So he did, until one of the women realized what the volume was and decided to be scandalized, though he had made his selections very carefully. But Mlle Laurier managed to whisper to him, “How I wish I could read it all!” and in pity, he said he would manage to leave it in her carriage. It gave him a reason to invent an excuse for retiring early, and he did wedge the volume into the seat cushions as he had promised. If de Vigny would buy him peace for the rest of the awful evening, he would gladly give up all the volumes of Cinq-Mars as well. He retreated to his bedroom and let his mother’s salon evening continue without further interruption.
In the morning, a servant woke him before dawn with a pot of fresh coffee. While breakfasting, he wrote a letter to his father, thanking him again for not preventing him from going and promising to write when he reached Marseille. The carriage was waiting to take him to meet the mail, and promptly at seven, huddled on the seat wrapped in oil cloth against the steady drizzle, he was on his way.
Catching snatches of sleep when he finally grew tired enough to ignore the bounce of the box and the cold wind and the other passenger’s complaints, Julien reached Lyon in two days. The weather turned absolutely frightful on his arrival, and the Rhône had ice, preventing the river coaches in any case. The diligence waited for the rain to stop, completely ignoring the scheduled three departures a day. The temperature hung near freezing and the mud could turn to ice at any moment. Another wasted day sitting in a warm inn while other travelers plied him to share in a bowl of hot punch. But he did eat heartily for the first time since setting out on the interminable trip - two days of freezing on top of the mail coach was enough to force anyone to recognize his personal needs.
He was not able to secure an inside place in the first diligence of the morning, however, so the trip continued cold and miserable. The temperature had warmed just enough to keep the roads muddy rather than slick with ice but not enough to keep the cold mountain ice out of the river. What was in spring a three day trip down the Rhône to Avignon stretched to five days over at times execrable roads. The rain stopped before Avignon, however, and south of the city, the roads were nearly dry. The temperatures at night were close to what he had experienced during the day in Lyon, which was a great mercy. Even in cloudy weather, the South was warmer and more welcoming than anywhere else.
In Avignon, he hired a horse and set out on his own. The diligence would reach Marseille on the second day, but he knew he could do it in one on horseback. He did not count on a mild drizzle settling in again as he reached the northern outskirts of the city.
Someone saw him come up the drive and a servant waited to take the horse from him. Giving the poor animal one last pat in thanks for taking an unfamiliar rider so far, he bounded into the house, nearly knocking over the maid who waited at the door. “Where is he?”
“M. Henri is in his room. Your coat, monsieur!” she called after him. He dropped his hat and coat on the stairs, unwilling to wait any longer and ignoring the mud his boots must be leaving everywhere.
The door to Henri’s room was not closed entirely. He knocked, but there was no reply. “Henri?” he called as he dared walk in. Henri was sitting in a chair, staring out the window. It took him a moment to turn to see who had called his name. He looked terribly pale and thin and haunted, but at the sight of Julien, he stood. Within moments, they were in each other’s arms, Henri weeping, Julien tearing up himself. “I came as soon as I could. You look like bloody hell, brother.”
Fiction ~ Chapter 2 ~ Home