Hear Now the Tale of a Jet Black Sunrise
The salon was orange in the light of the chalendal, the yule log, blazing brightly after its consecration of oil and wine. Julien had, as a friend of the family, knelt beside M. Enjolras as he crossed himself and lit the huge olive log, murmuring the traditional prayer for blessings in the coming year. His father had often added something in Latin and in provençal, a joking acknowledgement of the pagan origins of the rite, but M. Enjolras did only as his neighbours did and as the servants would expect. One could not keep decent servants if the house were not properly protected by the remnant of the chalendal, after all. In other households, in other years, the lighting of the great fire would be the beginning of the festive season, the illumination that presaged the mass celebrating the illumination of the world by the saviour’s birth, but here, only M. Enjolras and Julien were the true participants, with the servants lingers in the shadows to see that it was done properly. Henri remained on his room.
Julien stood, brushing the dust from his knees, hoping it had gone unnoticed at least by his host that he had not joined in the prayer. “If you wish to go to mass, please go. At the very least, it is another opportunity to pray. And things will seem much less bleak to an outside observer if you appear. My presence in town is reason enough for Henri to stay with me rather than join you.”
“But is there a benefit besides perception?”
“I don’t know. But we must be aware of how we look. It must be known by now that I rode in from Avignon, which may not look very good now that I consider it. I perhaps should have waited the extra day to come by diligence instead of sneaking in.”
“I am glad you did not wait the extra day.”
“Thank you, monsieur. But now that I am certain his life is not in danger, we must attend to appearances. And appearances require that you not be seen to be in a continued panic. This has gone on too long for you not to return to your normal activities. If mass is a normal activity, then you must go. And I will do my best to get Henri into the salon when you return so that we might have réveillon together. I make no promises,” Julien warned. “It is merely a hope that the duties of the day might be deployed in your favour.”
M. Enjolras went to mass, or at least left the house with the stated intention of going to mass. “Come walk in the garden with me,” Julien ordered Henri after the carriage had gone.
“It is the middle of the night.”
“Exactly. No one could possibly see us.”
“I have never been so low as to believe in sharpshooters posted at the borders of the property.”
“Then you have no excuse to sit indoors. The clouds have fragmented enough that the moon is terribly bright. Please? It’s Christmas.”
“Give me my coat since I know you have it in your hand,” Henri relented.
The moon was at the first quarter, a bright half circle against which thin clouds rushed through the night, occasionally opening tattered bits of star-filled sky. They walked in silence, without a lantern, the only sound their boots against the gravel walks until Julien turned aside into the grass, where they disappeared into the night. It was perhaps a bit too warm, even at midnight, for Julien’s heavy coat, proof against Parisian rain and snow, but Henri wore his buttoned to the neck. Sitting in the grass, looking up at the heavens, it was almost possible to lose oneself in the infinity. It would have been easier were there fewer clouds, Julien thought.
“We were supposed to meet at mass at la Major,” Henri finally said, breaking the silence of the night. Somehow even the owls had been quiet, either scared away by the presence of the young men or deferential to the holy night. Julien waited for more, but no more came. The silence descended again, but Henri had slid a bit closer - or perhaps Julien had done unconsciously, he was unsure - so that they were shoulder to shoulder, the touch of bodies evident through the layers of fabric. Julien could not speak, even if he had wanted to - it was not his silence to break. He dared not look at Henri, but he could feel his touch, could hear his breathing, and with the scientific mind noted that the breathing was calm, the voice steady, the body not rigid in holding in emotion though not entirely relaxed, either. The breathing was too shallow for perfect health, but it was not terribly disordered.
He heard the wind in the trees before it hit their faces, damp and chill but not the frigid wetness he had endured on the journey south. He wondered idly if he would witness the famed mistral - it was an unpardonable sin that he be a southerner and yet not know the winter weather of the region. Henri shivered a bit with the wind but made no movement to rise and leave. Julien finally dared glance over - he could not tell Henri’s expression, just the glint of the blue moonlight on his pale hair and cheek. That in itself was not unusual - Henri had never quite worn his heart on his sleeve the way Courfeyrac seemed to, enthusiasm being very different to emotion - but it was not entirely encouraging.
He was surprised when Henri took his hand and pushed under his cuffs to finger the scar Julien had made himself. At one time, they had matched well enough, a slash in the left arm the remnants of childhood ritual, but Henri had mangled his badly in his suicide attempt. “How much have I ruined?”
“Far less than I have done,” Julien answered.
“You created everything,” Henri protested.
“Then without me, there would have been nothing to destroy.”
“I should have ignored my father and come to Paris. You needed me this spring.”
“Can you imagine the row that would have resulted?”
“You came from England for me.”
“I would have gone to Moscow for you, or Peking, even if I was certain I would find only your grave when I arrived at last. I have no ties as strong as our brotherhood anywhere. But I had no grief or disappointment when you did not turn up on my doorstep. You have your family here.”
“Had,” he corrected. “Your friends in Paris - do you trust them?”
“With my life, else they would not be my friends. One false word and we are all done for.”
“You know them quite well, then.”
“I know what I must of them. A man’s character is not always found in the details of his life. But I trust none as I trust you.”
“One forgives the coward since he was born without a heroic nature. How can he be blamed for nature’s deficiency? But what does one do to the traitor who is traitor because he is a coward?”
“I knew it was Valland,” Julien spit out. Henri pulled away. “I’m sorry.”
“I do not know whom it might have been, if any of them could be so weak, but if they are not dead, and they have not written, they are cowards. And the coward may turn traitor as a result of his fear. They do not know you well.”
“Am I thus to play the spy? Could you really ask that of me?”
“No, forgive me,” Henri corrected. “The cowards will give themselves up without subterfuge. But they should know I forgive them. They cannot help their natures. I am only sorry that they were mistaken in their courage.”
“I will look into everything I can after the holidays.” Henri shivered again. “Perhaps we should go back to the house.”
“Not yet. The air is so clean.”
When they finally did return to the house, M. Enjolras had been home for some time. Julien rather expected him to say something, anything, that would end up annoying Henri, but he refrained, with visible effort, from saying anything at all and retreated to the fireside in silence.
“I wish you a joyous Christmas, monsieur,” Julien addressed him politely.
“And I, you. Would you join me in a small réveillon?”
“You are both behaving as amateur actors who are pleased to remember their script,” Henri burst out. “If you cannot pretend nothing is wrong, then do not make the attempt.” But he did drop into a chair and accept a dish of custard his father timidly offered.
Julien answered M. Enjolras’ querying look with a shrug but filled a plate and settled in next to the fire. It was perhaps the quietest réveillon of any of their lives: awkward, unpleasant, with little drinking and little cheer. The Enjolras family, consisting only of Henri and his father, must have had little of the boisterous tradition Julien had been forced through so often as a child - the table laden with cold dishes and salads and he and his cousin Jérôme forbidden to touch the sweets until they had eaten something properly, a harder task for Jérôme as Julien always got the unpleasantness out of the way as quickly as possible, regardless of the situation. But here, the table was set in the petit salon rather than the formal dining room, and it bore only three or four plates of vegetables and cold fish, a bowl of custard, and small portions of the requisite holy desserts. The only abundance was in a great pile of oranges, perhaps for decoration as much as for consumption, but then, there was abundance enough for three in grief when Julien was accustomed to a spread for eight in celebration. Henri mostly stayed to the periphery, at times pacing in the shadows, but if Julien set aside a sausage roasted over the fire, the traditional northern concession to hot food on such a day, it would soon disappear. He at least seemed to cut a large swath through the mendicant orders and much of the sweetly fragrant pompe à l’huile and white nougat. Julien forced conversation with M. Enjolras, in large part to keep him from addressing Henri. They were in a room together, possibly only for the sake of Christmas, but it was a start. He did not think Henri ready for whatever flood of apologies his father might want to make.
Henri did finally speak again when M. Enjolras offered a bottle of champagne. “This is not a celebration.”
Julien poured out three glasses, however, and raised his to the memory of Emilie Duchamp. “The world had great need of her, but it was not worthy of her. There was a brief moment when she would have been hailed; perhaps her true day is still to come. But I drink to her, and to those who ought to lift their voices so that her words and dreams were not alone or in vain.” He drank, then tossed the rest of the glass into the fire. It seemed a more natural dedication for the yule log than any traditional call upon God and Christ, if the purpose were the pagan superstition of protection and success for the family. This was the success they needed if prayers were necessary for the new year. Henri and his father both stared at him for a moment, the break with tradition so obvious Julien began to doubt his gesture, but Henri followed his lead and thanked him with a touch. M. Enjolras took an awkward sip, since both young men were now watching to see what he might do, but he was not one to waste good wine on florid sacrilege.
Henri seemed satisfied enough to at least nod to him and wish him a somewhat sarcastic “Merry Christmas” before walking out. Julien followed him halfway up the stairs, but Henri merely went straight into his bedroom and shut the door.
“What happened tonight?” M. Enjolras asked when Julien returned to the salon.
“I have no idea,” Julien answered, completely shocked by the evening’s events. He had not expected Henri to stay as long as he had, and as he examined the plates, it seemed Henri had eaten far more than usual as well, even if much of it were cake and nuts. Something beyond the necessary traditions of the day had improved, if not his spirits, than at least his physiological processes, yet he had been more directly cutting to his father than Julien had yet heard. It might have been better to spend the night out on the lawns, in the dim blue light of nature, than to have come in and endured the harsh orange of human superstition.
“Since the bottle is already open.” There was something very strange about sitting by the fire with M. Enjolras at a time of night that was usually reserved for family or sleep or the occasional mistress.
They did not really speak, just watched the fire and drank champagne and picked at the rest of the pompe without the least sign of holiday cheer. When Julien finally made his excuses and left for bed, sneaking a final piece of black nougat on the way out, M. Enjolras merely bid him goodnight. It was certainly not much of a Christmas.
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