Hear Now the Tale of a Jet Black Sunrise
“Would you like to come with me?” It was rather early, and Henri was not even dressed, but Julien hoped to take the carriage into town with M. Enjolras.
Henri shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Is there any message I should take?” Julien asked gently. It was a hard thing to ask - he had no sense of what his own reception would be, much less what response a message from Henri might bring.
It was awkward breakfasting with M. Enjolras after he had explained the errand he had to make. The meal, and the drive into town, were silent. Julien was certain M. Enjolras disapproved of the errand as he had disapproved of the relationship, yet it was a social requirement that Julien pay his respects, and M. Enjolras could not disapprove of the social graces.
They parted at the sugar refinery - M. Enjolras to speak to the foreman and Julien to walk to the Duchamp forge. It was a grey day, the wind piercing to the bone with a salty dampness from the sea. At least it was more appropriate to his mood than Marseille in summer would have been.
The forge was glowing brightly when Julien arrived, M. Duchamp hard at work, hammer in hand, sparks flying, while his eldest son, a boy of sixteen, assisted. Julien watched for a long time, until Bernard noticed him. “Papa, customer.”
M. Duchamp turned to look. “That’s not a customer. Go tell your mother we’ve got a guest.” He plunged whatever he had been working on into a vat of water and closed the distance to Julien with long, firm strides. Taking him by the shoulders, he practically bellowed, “Look at you. How many years has it been? It is good of you to come.” With an arm around Julien’s shoulders, he nearly dragged him into the detached kitchen. “Look who came,” he announced to his wife.
“Oh, M. Combeferre!” Mme Duchamp dropped her sewing and greeted him. “We didn’t know if we should think to see you. It is so good of you to come.”
“Henri’s father wrote me. How could I not come?”
“She would have been glad to see you. Look at us - receiving important guests in the kitchen! Bernard, go and start a fire in the salon.” Bernard was the only one of the children at home, it seemed, since only Mme Duchamp had been in the warm kitchen.
“It is all right, really. I’m hardly an important guest.” He found the whole situation awkward - he had delayed so long, but they seemed to know none of it, and though he knew well enough that they had been on a familiar basis with Henri, having finally accepted in the last year that he truly would become their son-in-law, he had some of the benefits of familiarity but none of the privileges of familial acquaintance. They were terribly welcoming and did not seem wholly devastated this long after events. Emilie was not the first child they had lost; perhaps that was how they seemed to better deal with their grief than Henri did.
“You’ve come all the way from Paris. No, where did Henri say he was?” she asked her husband.
“London, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. How could I not, once I heard the news? Henri is my brother; Emilie was nearly my sister. How could I not come?”
“It is good of you to come,” she repeated.
They ended up sitting at the kitchen table, sipping strong coffee while Mme Duchamp tried to push slices of almond cake on them. Julien rather thought that fully half the attraction for Henri had been the family - they were well-enough off that there was cake, and Catherine Duchamp had a pleasantly round figure and and pushed food on any guest as if she were everyone’s mother. Albert was quite as liberal a father as Richard Combeferre, seeing his only daughter had the time and permission to read nearly anything she might want from the subscription library at a cost only of teaching her younger brothers. The younger boys must be in school now, Julien realised, with their teacher gone. Bernard, the eldest of the boys, had of course left off academics a couple of years ago in order to apprentice to his father. He retreated to the forge after giving Julien a suspicious glare but not before stuffing his mouth full of cake, an unexpected treat for the morning. The rings of his hammer punctuated the discussion.
At first, they talked not at all of Emilie and tried to make polite conversation about Julien’s experiences in England. The kitchen was delightfully cozy, but it was hardly right that Mme Duchamp be in black. Julien finally, with difficulty, softly admitted, “Henri has been very ill. May I ask what precisely happened? You must throw me out of the house if you think the request inappropriate,” he insisted.
Mme Duchamp started to make another pot of coffee. M. Duchamp stared at his work-hardened hands on the rough old wooden table. Julien knew in his heart that he had been wrong to ask, that a grieving family should not be made to recite their troubles for the benefit of an acquaintance. He stood to take his leave. “Please forgive me. It is not for me to know.”
“November. A Friday night. Henri was at some party. She was meeting with the others.” The whole story came out hollowly, detached. Julien dared not move. Mme Duchamp bowed her head when her husband began to speak and only seemed to come to consciousness when the coffee boiled over. Julien found himself concentrating on physical details, on the grain of the table top, the acrid scent of burned coffee, the shiny burn scar on M. Duchamp’s forearm, in order to not break down in tears.
Mme Duchamp finally cried out, as much a sob as a cry, to stop her husband. “Albert!” Trying to blink back tears, Julien helped her to a chair. He had seen plenty of awful ways to die and could probably diagnose what the exact injuries were that had killed her now that he had more detail, which did not at all assist his equilibrium.
“The police came?” he asked as calmly as he could.
M. Duchamp nodded. “And pretended to make an investigation.”
“What do you mean ’pretended’?”
“As if those bastard royalists were going to do anything for us.” M. Duchamp had lived quietly for most of his life, but in his youth, he had tried to follow his brother north with the great revolutionary army, which proved more exodus of radicals from Marseille than local support of the Revolution. Marseille still had some of the characteristics of a small town though it was a metropolis of over 100,000 people, and such youthful rashness was hardly forgotten. The elder Duchamp had died in the wars, leaving Albert to take over the forge from his father and care for his mother instead of following his brother to glory; Marseille had become a reactionary town after the departure of those volunteers and never recovered. Julien had to agree that little investigation into the death of the republican daughter of a republican blacksmith was likely.
“Have there been any other attacks? Someone with an interest in harming young women in general?”
“If there had been, there would have been a real investigation. How awful, that we look for consolation in the destruction of other families.”
“How awful, indeed, yet I cannot help wishing it were so.” Julien realised he still had his arm around Mme Duchamp’s shoulders. He broke away to pour her a cup of what coffee remained in the pot, and she forced a smile in thanks, though she really just clutched the warm cup. “Have you heard from any of the others?”
“We did have a letter - well, a note, really - from M. Gérard,” Mme Duchamp told him. “I’ll get it for you.”
“We heard from no one else. And he didn’t even show up for the funeral, just sent three lines instead.”
“I’m sorry I missed the funeral.”
“You would have had to be able to predict the future and fly in order to make it here for that. We don’t hold it against you that you’re a mere mortal.”
“But what of Henri?”
M. Duchamp shook his head. “I don’t know what to think. Grief takes a person in strange ways. I didn’t want to let him go that morning, for fear he’d do something, but you know you couldn’t speak sense to either of them when they got going. Either of them,” he repeated hollowly.
“He was sick in bed, otherwise he would have come,” Julien insisted. But then he decided the whole truth must come out, that only here would there be understanding, and perhaps forgiveness, for what might otherwise be seen as selfish behaviour. “Blood loss. He went home that morning and slit his wrists.”
“Christ. I knew it had to be bad that he didn’t come. He’d have done anything, I thought. Well, he did. Christ. Is he all right? No infection or anything?”
“No, he has been very lucky. His illness is all here,” Julien tapped his forehead, “if grief may be called illness.”
“I don’t blame him. It wasn’t the first party he’d gone to. Tell him. I don’t blame him. Trying to talk sense to her - to either of them. What use is wishing there were two dead?”
Mme Duchamp came back in, her eyes red with crying. “Here, the note from M. Gérard.”
To the Duchamp family:
I am so sorry for what has happened. I wish I had insisted more strongly that I walk her home that night. I cannot imagine the depth of your grief. Please forgive me.
Julien thanked her and handed back the note once he had read it. Brief, indeed, ineloquent, but not without feeling. “I must let you return to work,” he insisted. “Thank you.” He clasped hands with Mme Duchamp. M. Duchamp insisted on walking him out through the forge.
They stopped in the yard, M. Duchamp’s big hand grasping his shoulder. “You’ll have children of your own one day. And you’ll think you know what’s best. But you don’t. Ideals are meant to be tested, it seems. The priests will say it was because I mocked God, that I did this to my own daughter. But God, He tests ideals, you see? Job was a righteous man. You have these ideas, and you think you are right. It made so much sense to me. ’He created them male and female.’ Citoyen and citoyenne. We were all citizens, with rights and responsibilities. It couldn’t be enough that a girl merely learn to sign her name on the marriage license and do sums so she wouldn’t be cheated by the grocer. It couldn’t be enough that she be able to pick out the words in a newspaper. You cannot have rights without responsibilities, and you cannot have responsibilities if you cannot think. And that is where we went wrong, don’t you see? Because once you teach a person to think, you cannot control what they think about. But I could do nothing less. A woman is passed from her father to her husband, and that is supposed to be good enough. But look at the widows, the orphans? How can we continue to permit the mothers of our sons to be incapable of raising these children should the worst happen? Men die daily, and until we can defeat death, we cannot leave so great a portion of the living in thrall to it. How could I do less? Is the lesson that I ought to have kept her chained, her mind asleep? Could I have lived with myself should the worst have happened? Or should I have treated her like a girl, circumscribed her thoughts, told her ‘no’ when my heart wanted to shout ‘yes’? She is dead in the ground, but God help me, if I could do it all over, I could change nothing.”
Julien did not know what to say. There was no comfort to give, certainly not in the notion that he must have had the same ideals had he bothered to think so far ahead, and he feared he might not have the strength not to play the hypocrite. “She had a finer mind than many men I know. For it to have been destroyed by false notions of womanhood would have been a crime nearly as great as that which stamped it out entirely.”
“Many men you know?” M. Duchamp asked defensively. “I should think she was better than most.”
“I travel in intellectual circles as much as I can,” Julien apologised. “Indeed, she was a far better thinker than nearly any boy I was at school with. That was the real disappointment of school. They did not want you to think, merely to remember. A translation was not a show of understanding but merely of regurgitation.”
“She should have been a boy. There would have been honour in what happened if she were a man.”
“Saint Joan. Saint Catherine. Saint Cecelia. Her name belongs with theirs. Not with the virgins like Saint Barbara, but with women who threatened kingdoms and empires.”
M. Duchamp shook his head. “I’ve been told you don’t even believe in it.”
“I don’t believe in miracles the way they’re so often told. I believe in belief. It was not Jesus Christ himself that changed the world through magic tricks and poorly reported history. It was the belief in him that threatened the Roman Empire, that eventually was made to stand for beauty rather than ignorance, that could still stand for charity and mercy but doesn’t have to stand against rights and duties and obligations. If we are all capable of salvation, then we must all be capable of citizenship. Man and woman. And if we are all capable of the fight, then we must all be capable of the martyrdom. If I cannot bring justice to those who did this, then I have no choice but to share her fate.”
“Does that mean you’re investigating what the police won’t?”
“Someone must look into it.”
“You’ll get yourself killed, you know that, right?”
“I know. Someone must look into it,” Julien repeated firmly.
M. Duchamp shook his head. “Do you think I want that on my head, too?”
“My life or death is only the least I can do for my role in the entire business.”
“My daughter is dead because of my political opinions and my indulgence. Her fiancé tried to kill himself. You go poking your nose in people’s business, I’ve no doubt the same will happen to you, and it will be on my head. Henri may think it his fault, that if he were with her, she would not have been attacked, but I am certain it would have ended in them both dead. I’m not blind, and I know what my girl could do. She would have been too much trouble for one man. And with a crowd, what does another victim matter? Particularly when it is someone as republican as your friend.”
“I know how to be careful. How could I have survived so long in Paris without the police on my back?”
“I can’t talk you out of it, can I?”
“No, monsieur. I’m sorry. At the very least, I must speak to the other young men, and if someone knows something, I cannot promise I will not follow the trail.”
“Be as careful as you can. There has been death enough.”
“Has there? If I found a name, I would gladly share it with you and join in what must be done.”
“That is my duty, as her father. Vengeance is not for schoolboys.”
“No, it is not,” Julien was forced to agree. M. Duchamp had more right than he did. “But I will do what I can. Thank you, monsieur.”
They shook hands. Julien left through the forge, earning another glare from Bernard for daring to politely tip his hat and tell him good day.
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