Hear Now the Tale of a Jet Black Sunrise
Julien had given up on religion a long time before, possibly even before his first communion, he feared. Feared because he had a distinct sense now that he had looked upon the first communion as a test and had found it wanting. Other people found consolation in religion, a sense of their place in the world or an external arbiter for their warring emotions, but he found none of it. Feuilly had tried to explain belief, but they both learned from that experience only that belief cannot be explained. It didn’t help that by that point, he had loaned Feuilly enough books that the fanmaker could say, “Objectively, an interventionist god is ludicrous, and calling on the saints as personal intercessors even more so. That alone could allow a man to label me a Protestant, but I do believe in transubstantiation. What a tragedy, to deny it! It may be a matter of only wanting the miracle, but isn’t the miracle itself about belief? There is no miracle without belief. There may not even be a god without belief. If the classical gods existed only in the minds of their believers, then my god doesn’t exist in the objective world, either. And I’m fine with that.”
“But you’re not actually a Catholic. You don’t know for sure you’ve been baptised, I don’t even know how they let you take communion when you’ve never had catechism, and to be perfectly frank, you don’t even listen to the priests when you go to mass.”
“The priests are bureaucrats, and the government is on their side. They don’t let a child be born without baptising it. I swear they try to baptise the Jews. God isn’t in those priests. God is in the church itself, in the music of the mass and fading gilt on the altar. That is God, and He is my salvation, in this world and in the next. I’m no more crazy than you,” he had added, which was perhaps true.
But Restoration Catholicism mixed ill with a scientific mind. Julien had been fascinated by the Protestants among whom he lived in England. So much of what he had seen published in France was about religion, about faith, about the act of believing - the English pulled apart the Bible and analysed the text and talked about why a thing was so. Their faith was designed around investigation, it was a thing to be supported rather than entered into blindly. Aspects of Genesis were not holding up so well as new scientific discoveries pushed up against the boundaries of ancient belief, but even the ancients had argued over the circumference of the earth. If they continued the investigation, they seemed certain it would all fall into place. In the end, English Protestantism was interesting, but it tried to lead to the same end, an omniscient, omnipotent being who controlled all, except for the demon he had created, because he had created all. But the world was too messy for such a god, a god who seemingly left his creation in the mire and turned away when they begged for his help, yet could dole out salvation once everyone was dead. The ancients had sought solace in the idea of many gods, that of course there was chaos because the world was a battle, all these great but equal beings fighting for supremacy and we humans merely their pawns. A medieval combat of still higher order, the knights going at each other bravely and beautifully but without real harm to their well-armoured selves, while the peasants were flattened in droves beneath their hooves for their sometimes petty aims. Factions were a natural order in which he could more easily believe. It saddened him, but a man could only embrace what he felt in his heart. To make any further attempts would have seemed a mockery of those who truly believed. He would be glad to be proved wrong, or right, that there might be some justification in any view of the world, but he could not even imagine what such a proof might be.
Still, he found himself at a different church every Sunday, seeking Valland. And he had to admit that Feuilly was right, the sung mass was beautiful, even in chapels tucked away in working class neighbourhoods. It lacked the majesty of the choirs of the great cathedrals, but it was beautiful all the same, even when focused on the altar, the priest with his back to the believers. The only beauty in these people’s lives. Feuilly had put himself into a position where his work was beauty, but there came days when he would end up muttering, “If I never have to see another fucking wood nymph, it will be too soon.” If Bahorel were about, there would be some lecherous plays on words, and discussions of wood nymphs fucking, which generally considerably lightened Feuilly’s mood, but the point was that even the creation of a beautiful object was work, and when repeated, all beauty was leached from it. No girl who made silk flowers or did fine embroidery would consider her product an art, merely a living achieved with some skill. Did the priests still see the beauty in the churches where they served? Did they hear the music of the mass? Or did they, like any other worker in the luxury trades, see only the needed repetition after so many years of repetition?
A different church every Sunday. Feuilly said he had spent one spring in like manner, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about it, perhaps especially because few young people of any class spent any time in Parisian churches. The performance was the same, but the audience and theatre differed wildly. Marseille was perhaps only one-sixth the size of Paris, but it still provided enough churches to occupy Julien through Easter, and those churches enough variety that he did not find himself bored. The differences in art and architecture alone could keep his interest through a sermon, should it be dull enough to require the examination of the altar and most visible chapels in minute detail.
It was Palm Sunday, in the medieval church of Saint-Laurent, when he finally caught up with his quarry. (He had accidentally found the father two weeks earlier at Saint-Ferréol.) Saint-Laurent was heavy, solid, with no external decoration and little internal. The nave was lighted by small windows only on the south side, and a heavy monumentality reigned. Elemental rather than beautiful, the church overlooked the port, and great families mingled with the lowest at the holiday service. By asking a few questions of an elderly woman, Julien learned that Valland had been attending services all through the penitential season. He even managed to have her point Valland out to him, which helped immensely, though Julien slipped out before the service ended.
The late March morning was glorious - the brilliant blue of the sky was reflected deep in the water of the port, where it could occasionally be glimpsed amidst all the shipping. Hints of flowers mingled with the constant smell of hemp and tar and salt. Spring was wholly arrived in Marseille, and it was a glory he had experienced only once before. The sun was warm, though the air had not quite caught up, and it was delightful to wait in the morning sun for the patrons to leave the church. It seemed more polite, since it was something of an ambush, to find Valland outside the church.
He did not have long to wait, and Valland was readily identifiable as the crowd flowed out. He was dressed rather shabbily, and Julien suddenly felt sorry for the man. Boy, really - he may actually have been younger than the rest. Of course, as the youngest and an outsider, he would be the easiest to approach if someone sought to harm the group, but at first look, there was nothing guilty or even obviously deviant about him. Julien called his name and fell into step with him when he paused to see who had hailed him.
“You don’t know me. My name is Julien Combeferre,” he began.
“Oh, God. Oh, God. He sent you. I didn’t do anything. I swear. I did not do anything to her.”
At least his name was well known. And looking at the boy, as scared as Gérard, Julien knew what everyone had been trying to tell him. He was as innocent as the rest. “No one thinks you did. I’m just trying to see what we do know about what happened. Would you take a walk with me along the docks? A friendly walk, that’s all.”
Valland followed. Sunday work was illegal, so the only activity concerned the watchmen left aboard ship calling to their friends and the local whores. “It’s sort of my fault,” Valland admitted, cringing.
“What do you mean?” It was hard to hate him once they were face to face, even with Lameire’s theory echoing in his head. He didn’t look at all like a bitter misogynist, nothing twisted or hateful in his aspect. If anything, he was more handsome than the rest, or would be if he did not look so miserable.
He held his arms tightly across his chest, his shoulders slumped, not with cold in the bright March day but likely with shame. “I didn’t like her, and I wanted her out, and then she ended up dead.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“It was in the paper. I knew the coppers were going to come for me, and my father would kill me if he found out what I’d been mixed up in. It’s not like I told any outsiders anything,” he insisted, “but I wanted her gone, and then she was gone, and that wasn’t what I wanted at all. It’s like God was mocking me. Or maybe Satan, I don’t know. There shouldn’t be girls like that. There just shouldn’t. It’s unnatural. It’s not appropriate. He only thought he was in love with her because that’s the only way he could be in love with a girl, anyway, if she wasn’t a real girl. But I didn’t want her dead!” he ended, his voice rising with panic.
“Wishing alone has never made anything happen.” Julien had not come here to comfort anyone other than himself or Henri, but Valland seemed so desperately in need of comfort. It seemed only right, looking at him, to permit him to forgive himself for something terrible men had done. Julien saw nothing the least bit terrible about the shabby boy who walked next to him.
“It wasn’t wishing. It was prayer. It was active and fervent and constant prayer. To keep us safe and to purify our cause. And now there’s blood. What was it Enjolras said? Liberty trees must be watered with blood. A woman’s blood isn’t food for a liberty tree.”
“‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’”
“That’s it! You must agree with me that a woman’s blood is not to be sacrificed in such a cause. It ruins the cause to mix our blood with the female.”
“Do you mean because women, as the representatives of home and family, must remain innocent, and thus when their blood it spilled it is an outrage? Because I agree, that the destruction of home and family are an outrage. But anyone born in France, willing to give one’s life for the freedom of all, should have not only the right, but the obligation to make that sacrifice. It was women who stormed the Bastille, and I honour them.”
“Shrieking harridans reflect poorly on a revolution.”
“I never once knew her to be a shrieking harridan. Henri had far better taste than that, don’t you think?”
“He could have done far better.”
“I’ve spoken with Gérard and Lameire already. Months ago, in fact. The police had everyone scared. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been. Everyone disappeared. Henri doesn’t blame you.” Valland looked up, and his face lit up at the very idea of forgiveness. Was this what Lameire had meant? “Any of you. Some people are very brave and terribly cool when faced with danger. I admire those people so much. Possibly because I fear I’m not like them at all.” A year ago, such a statement would have been false, designed only to elicit a response. But now, Julien rather feared there was some truth in it.
“Enjolras would have made a brilliant show for the police.” Valland obviously looked up to Henri - he was admiring a vision even as they talked.
“I’m sure he did. They only talked to him once. Which is interesting, because from what Gérard and Lameire tell me, the police wanted to frame it as a crime of passion. But they never went back to him to take another stab.”
“He’s also a little too important to be forced to confess. Not like the rest of us.”
“What about you? Your father is the director of the post office.”
Valland shrugged. “Sure, it’s a royal appointment, but it doesn’t mean anything. In some towns, they appoint women. I’m nothing. And he’s made perfectly clear that I’m not his son. His son is a priest. His son is eager to serve the king. His son is going to be an archbishop, at the very least.” He spat into the water. “Therefore, I am not his son. If I ended up arrested, he wouldn’t try to hush it up, he’d just outright disown me.”
There was the bitterness of which he had been warned, but Julien was inclined to think it reasonable. The law only provided that a child could not be disowned upon the father’s death; during his lifetime, he could make it very hard, indeed, for a young man who sought his own future. “How are you fixed up for money? Forgive the personal question, but I know you left a job without notice. It can’t have been easy.”
“I don’t need charity from my betters.”
“I only meant I could put in a word for you with my father’s firm. In the office or even aboard one of the ships, if you’d like to get out of here,” he offered. “Everyone else is leaving town.”
“Lameire is in Aix, Gérard is headed there this summer, and Henri will come to Paris with me.” There had been no agreement about Paris - Julien had not yet dared mention it - but he was certain it would happen. It had to happen, therefore they would make it happen.
“He’s leaving? Really?” Funny how the boy could look so stricken at the thought that someone he had been avoiding for months would be leaving town.
“Really. Is there anything you’d like to say to him before he goes?”
“No.” Valland closed up again.
“I know something happened between you and Henri. Lameire has theories.”
“Lameire can shove his theories. I misunderstood the situation, that’s all. I thought Enjolras could do better than that girl, I said so, and I was wrong. Because I didn’t understand the situation. I apologised. It’s over.”
“You obviously care for him. Why did you not even write him when everything happened?”
“He didn’t want to hear from me. Because I still don’t understand the situation. Would you want to hear from me upon your girl’s death after I’d made it clear I didn’t like her? Why did he send you after me? It wasn’t to say he doesn’t blame me. He does blame me, doesn’t he? I didn’t like her, and she’s dead, so it must be me.”
“He didn’t send me. I sent myself. He’s been insisting on your innocence for months.”
“Really?” That hopeful look again, Julien noted. Yes, one could see how Lameire would think he saw something, but nothing in Valland’s stance or manner of speech was tremendously effeminate. The explanations had to be perfectly innocent. Unless Lameire saw something further he would not relate.
“Yes. And I had horrifically misjudged you. You must understand the impulse to find answers. I feel certain someone must know something, and yet on a dark night, in a narrow alley, in the shadows - a carter found her and one of the marketers recognised her. Whoever had beaten her was long gone. Those men are the only ones who know what happened, and if they followed her, if they never tried to get information from any of you, tried to turn any of you into traitors, then I’ve been on a fool’s errand. Someone knows what happened, and I cannot get to him. The tree of liberty. How much more patriotic blood will we spill before it is all over?” Julien tried to clear his brain, shake the musing away. “Forgive me. I’ve been looking for you for so long, and there was really no reason.”
Valland looked rather dreamy, almost Prouvaire-like for a moment. “He can have mine.”
“He can have mine. My blood. To spill. For liberty, I mean. But -” He paused, looking out at the shipping in the port. “You could get me aboard one of the ships?”
“As something rather better than a common sailor. Sometimes we have to leave our country behind and see the world in order to focus our views. Thomas Jefferson, the brilliant American who wrote that beautiful line about the tree of liberty, came to Paris. I was in London when M. Enjolras wrote to tell me what had happened here. There’s no shame in having more to give than just your blood. To give your life to France can mean many things. Why limit it to death?”
“I’d like that. To leave Marseille. If you can.”
“Take my card, and if you wait a moment, I’ll write out a note for you.” He scribbled out a note, introducing Valland as a friend of a friend with a good accounting background who would like to see a bit of the world. “When you are ready, take my card and this note to M. Savin. Not one of the office boys; be sure you hand it to Savin himself. He runs our office here, and I promise you, he will do his best to set you up in an appropriate manner.”
Valland thanked him. He looked for a moment as if he were about to say something else, but he merely repeated his thanks and bid Julien goodbye.
Nothing obviously deviant about him, and nothing of the spy, either, Julien thought as watched Valland walk away. Just a boy, out of place somehow. Perhaps a rather eager desire for approval from Henri, but that is not the same as deviance. Lameire was seeing things.
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