I could not believe it. Telegrams at the breakfast table are not unusual, due to my business, but this one was a shock. My wife certainly believed we must have gone bankrupt, for try as I could, it was impossible to remain expressionless.
“I hope this news may be welcome stop Your brother Julien Mathieu Combeferre will be released from prison in two days stop Wait at the gates of the Little Bastille at sundown and a representative of the republic will assist you and your brother stop”
It was from a M. Gilles Radet, and M. Radet had just given me the greatest shock of my life. Sixteen years ago, early in June of 1832, my family had been told that Julien was dead, killed in the uprising. Yet M. Radet seemed to be in his right mind - the telegram came to me, not to my father, who had died only in November. Julien was alive.
Hélène preferred to stay in Nice. I did not blame her - she never knew Julien, and she was uncomfortable in Paris. Here, we are at the top of the social scale because the Enjolras family no longer exists. In Paris, we are not considered so fine. As it was, Mathieu and Julie needed to have at least one parent still at home, though the nanny is quite competent. Paris did not seem like such a good idea to me, either, but I could not let the possibility of running into Sébastien get in the way of reconciliation with my brother. I miss him dreadfully, and the thought of him only makes my bed seem colder, but he made his choice. I will not let his quarrel with me prevent me from seeing my brother.
I left Nice immediately so I could prepare the house in town to receive him. Though I was supposed to leave for Sweden the next week, business would have to wait. Julien was far more important than even the most important contract. Losing Stockholm, if it happened, would be a blow, but it would not destroy the business. The trip seemed to take forever. I never realised it could be so long by rail from Nice to Paris. The house was soon aired. I had known, for some reason, to hold onto it when Father died, though we rarely come to Paris. All that I could do was wait. Perhaps the longest wait of my life. Not even when mother was on her deathbed so many years ago did the minutes tick by as if they were days.
Would he be happy to see me? Undoubtedly he would be greatly changed. Sixteen years is a long time, and time changes everyone. Prison would have changed him even more, surely. But I held out the hope that he would not be so different. Even if he still hated me, I would not be hurt terribly. I gave him ample cause for it, I am sure. When I was a child, I worshipped him, and all the missed time still hurts. When I was very young, maybe six years old, the best day of the year was when Julien would come home for Christmas. In the summer, he would always be at the Enjolras estate, but at Christmas, he was home with me. Eleven years is a massive age difference between brothers, but I do remember that when I was very young, he would play with me and read to me. But then he went off to university, and he stopped coming home. When he did come home, he and mother and father would argue, and after a while, I would see him perhaps twice a year. He started to break promises he made me - he never came for my twelfth birthday, as he had promised he would. Our parents disapproved of what he was doing - he began to despise me as the perfect one because I was in no position to act out, to do something of which our parents would disapprove. No matter what he did, though, he was still the favourite. Father wept for Julien, but not for mother. I never mattered. If I was the perfect one when he was alive, then why did I constantly hear “You should be more like your brother” after he was dead? And I was certainly far from perfect. He got himself killed for nothing; my wife caught me fucking a man. Yeah, I’m the perfect one. So much happened between us in the last few years of his life. So much hate on both sides. It was not until some time after he died that I realised I missed him.
The time finally arrived. A small crowd was waiting at the gates of the prison popularly called the Little Bastille. Even in my time in Paris, everyone knew that political prisoners were kept there. I never dreamed that Julien could be locked up in that place. There were all sorts of people waiting - aged parents looking for sons, women with children waiting for husbands, men and women coming for brothers. And then there was me. I was the youngest, except for the children, and I was the only one alone. Julien had been right in many ways - no one else was around to remember him. Even the woman to whom he left his money, the wife of one of his friends, even she likely remembered him only as a name to attach to her fortune. I am the only one.
A young man, several years younger than I, began to speak with each family, moving groups of people around. When he came to me, I learned that he was the M. Gilles Radet who had sent the telegram. He could not have been more than twenty-five years of age and was still excited by the success of his revolution. He was separating groups of people by location of the men for whom they waited. We chatted a bit, since the age difference between us was not so great. He had been a law clerk, which is why he was charged with this responsibility. He had the greatest respect for my brother, he told me, though this was accompanied by a few warnings.
“M. Combeferre was brought in wounded and placed among the general population as soon as he could stand, according to the prison records. After three years and several trips to the infirmary, beaten literally within an inch of his life each time, he was sent to the solitary cells below ground. I believe he was still periodically abused by the guards for some time, as all the prisoners were, but he has been practically ignored for the past eight years or so.” My brother’s history in the prison was related with a proper combination of sympathy and business. “He speaks very little, but I do not doubt that his mind is still intact. I suffer a bit from night blindness, and it was too dark for my eyes down there, but it appears that he has kept some sort of calendar on the wall of his cell. The date and year did not surprise him as they did most of the others who had spent less time in solitary confinement. Prison is designed to break men’s spirits - I am sure you will not even recognise your brother, monsieur. But seeing you, there is no doubt that these records, and not the death records are correct. I can see a physical resemblance. Your brother is alive and will come out shortly.”
I thanked him for taking so much time with me, and he moved on to the next family, a woman and her brother waiting for her husband. Prison was designed to break men. He had been physically beaten. Could this really be Julien? One look from him could freeze anyone who dared quarrel - I could never argue with him if I looked into his eyes. What could they have done to him?
I would soon find out. Julien was in the first group of prisoners. The first men who were brought out could not walk - each had two young men to support him. The fourth man could walk, though with the painfully slow gait of an eighty-year-old. He shuffled along with the help of a young man and was given to his parents. I could not help but wonder how old he was, for he seemed older than the couple who received him, though they must have been in their sixties. I watched them for some time, when suddenly a boy was at my side.
I turned, and there he was. Shorter than I, bent with age though he was only forty-two, his hand on an eighteen or nineteen-year-old boy’s shoulder for balance. “Julien?” I could not believe this could be him, but at his name, he looked up, hiding behind his long, matted grey hair, his face obscured by a thick beard. His eyes were still as deep as the last time I saw him.
“Charles,” he whispered, then looked back at the ground.
Though every instinct rebelled, was repulsed by this beggar who stood before me, I mustered my courage and put my arm around his thin shoulders. “The carriage is just past the gate. Let’s get you home.” We walked slowly and silently. He often had to grab my arm or coat to keep his balance, as if he were a baby learning to walk for the first time. In the carriage, he huddled in a corner, staring at his hands. I was at my leisure to examine him. His hair was mostly grey, but still streaked with black. I remembered that for all the time Julien spent studying, he had always been well-built. This man was a skeleton. He was dressed in rags and gave off a slight stench, like the beggars in the streets. M. Radet had told me that the prisoners could bathe only once a year, and the sheer number they found in the Little Bastille made it impossible to be sure all the prisoners had a bath and better clothes. Julien had always despised dirt - to see him like this was heartbreaking. His left hand he held stiffly, and it was horribly contorted. It was difficult to see his face, because he looked down the whole way home, but I could see a small scar cutting into his right eyebrow. The first good sign of anything was that his forehead seemed unlined and his eyebrows were still black. He was so pale, though. Our family is naturally so dark, olive-skinned like the Italians, that I did not think it possible for any of us to attain such a pallor. He was nearly as white as my shirt. I must have been exaggerating, for I examined him only by the moonlight, which makes everything seem quite pale, and the small rays of light from the carriage lamps that managed to sneak inside.
When we arrived at the house, I immediately passed him off to one of the maids, a very capable girl in her early twenties who had been with my father for a few years, with the instructions that he was to have a bath, a shave, and a haircut before he came down to dinner. She told me later that the only words he spoke were “thank you” and, when she tried to help him undress for his bath, “I can manage alone.“ Each phrase was spoken in a polite, deferential manner, whispered hoarsely rather than truly uttered aloud.
She brought him downstairs some time later, looking much more like himself. Clean shaven and with his hair cut short again, though shorter than I remember him ever wearing it when he was alive (is that the wrong term? I still do not know.), he could no longer hide his high cheekbones, more prominent now than ever, or the characteristic set of his jaw. But it was suddenly more obvious that much had happened to him. A long scar travelled down the left side of his face, and because his shirt was not buttoned all the way, I could see the trace of a bullet wound on his chest. It is a miracle that it hit neither heart nor aorta. My clothes were far too big for him, but they were the only suitable clothing in the house. His shirt sleeves and his trousers both had to be rolled up, and nothing would sit well on his emaciated frame.
He sat down carefully at the table and quietly thanked the maid for her help. We were suddenly alone for the first time in sixteen years. I could not find the words, any words, to say to him. He finally looked up, and we made eye contact across the table.
“Thank you for your kindness. I will be out of your way in a few days so that you may return to your life without me destroying your peace.”
I was finally able to smile at him. The voice was hoarse and quiet from disuse, but the words were his. “Julien, don’t be silly. You are family, certainly not a burden, and I want to spend more than a few days with my brother. We have a lot of catching up to do.” He said nothing, just stared at his hands. The words were certainly his, but it was only a shadow of him that sat before me. I ordered that dinner be served.
He quietly thanked the boy who served us, an old habit I had forgotten until I saw it again. No matter what had happened to him, his manners were still impeccable. If one could see only how he ate, and not his appearance, one would think Julien had spent the past sixteen years in society, not in prison. But he ate very little and said even less. I did my best to engage him in conversation.
“Isabelle Laurier became engaged three months after your revolution, was married within a year. I hear she is on her second husband by now. Mother and Father would have been furious at how quickly she moved past you, except I think they barely noticed. Your death - should I say that? - hit them very hard.”
“Death is as good a term as any other.” His voice was a bit stronger, I thought. A good sign. “What of Mother and Father? Are they in Nice? Or are they . . .” He did not have to finish. I knew I would have to tell him soon.
“I’m sorry. Mother died quite a few years ago, while I was still in school. Father passed on this past November.” I decided it was best not to tell him that Father remained in Paris while Mother was dying in Nice, or that Father died calling for Julien. I may have been the perfect one, but he was the favourite. His death destroyed their marriage, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. Changing the subject quickly, I told him, “I took your advice. School is not so bad as work and marriage, though I am sure each could be worse.” Julien had told me a long time ago to stay in school for as long as possible because it was the only way to avoid marrying and going to work for our father. “Her name is Hélène, she is supposed to be quite pretty, and our marriage was mother’s final triumph. We’ve been married seven years - two children, which is quite enough. I named them both after you.”
That got his attention. His eyes leapt from his plate to my face. “After me? But you hated me.”
“And I was fifteen. You have no idea how much I missed you once it hit me that you were really gone. Hélène doesn’t know, but I did name them for you. Mathieu is the eldest - he’s six, and Julie is two. Both of them are Combeferres - dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes, and extremely well behaved. They make being at home a little easier to bear.”
“I am surprised you had another child after your unwanted wife gave you an heir.” Our last fight was when I was forced to admit to him what I already knew in my heart - Julien knew what I was. His tone was as dry as ever: Julien was home.
“Yes, well, it would have looked wrong, you see,” I stammered out. And then I had to admit what had happened. “And, well, it just sort of happened - I didn’t think she’d actually get pregnant again, and I had to sleep with her sort of as a peace offering. She caught me. In bed. With Sébastien.” I could feel my face getting hot and red. No one likes admitting that they were cheating on their wife, much less with a man.
“Charles, I told you to be discreet.” Everything was back to normal. He was sitting straighter, glaring at me. Even the tone of voice was just as I remembered it - the only audible sign that anything had happened to him was that he whistled a bit through his broken front teeth as he spoke. I never thought I could be so happy that my brother disapproved of me.
“I thought I had been. Sébastien travelled with me as my valet. Hélène wasn’t supposed to be home when she was, and she never goes into that part of the house. I really did try, Julien.” I suddenly realised I was whining like a small child.
“Obviously you did not try hard enough. Someone found out. You promised me no one would find out.” He cared more about how it looked than he did about the fact I was gay. Which may have been a good thing - he did not condemn me for being what I was. When we fought over it, I was foolish enough to believe that while something was wrong with it outside of school, I would be safe as what I am in school because everyone else at least tries it, and lots of them like it, even if they are straight after they enter the real world. You have no choice in there, locked up like that: you’re either a fag or a monk. Julien was a monk his entire life - I was certain he would die a virgin. I didn’t want to end up alone like he did, though it happened anyway.
“I’m sorry. I’ve disappointed you again.”
“No, you have not.” Something new. “Do you love him?”
“Sébastien? I did. I think I still do. But he left me.”
“Why?” Now he was asking about my life, in the most tender tone I had ever heard from him. What was he planning?
“Because after all those years, he wanted more than I could give him. We were together for eight years. He left me last June. Said he couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted a life, and my circumstances kept him in bondage, he said.”
“Did he love you?”
“I thought he did. Before I was married, he did. And it wasn’t the marriage that caused it. He was the best man at my wedding. He stayed for six years after I married. And it must have been love. Sébastien and I attended university together. Why would a handsome young man with a university education masquerade as someone’s valet unless he was in love? I’m sure he loved me, once, but I don’t know that he does anymore.”
“You are lucky, Charles.”
“Me? Lucky? My wife caught me fucking a man!”
“You have known love. You have been in love and had that love returned. I would give almost anything to have had that.”
“You’re not exactly old, Julien - don’t start sounding like an old man.”
“You will never understand. Though I may be forty-two years old, I feel much older. You would only understand if you had been there with me.”
I remembered the man who seemed older than his aged parents. “I’m sorry. I do understand what happened in there. But if you changed so much, why do you still berate me? Do you know how scared I was when I got that telegram? How frightened I became at the prison gates, waiting and knowing nothing? Seeing what had happened to all those other men? I was afraid of what might have happened to you. I’m not a naive fifteen-year-old anymore, Julien. And my greatest fear was that I would not be getting my brother back. You have no idea how happy it makes me to have your disapproval, for it means you haven’t changed. I always did love you. When I was a child, I worshipped you; when I was a boy, I loved you; and when I grew up into a man, I missed you dreadfully. So did Mother and Father. No matter how much we fought, I always had something I wanted to share with you, and it hurt every time I remembered you were gone. You should be glad Mother isn’t here - I remember how much you hate a fuss. If she were here, you know what would happen: the event of the season for your homecoming.” It was not much of a joke, but I laughed anyway. I think I may have caught a trace of a smile on his lips, though he said nothing. Mother’s “event of the season” never fully materialised - every new party was grander than the last, but always someone would out-do her. My wedding was the closest she came. Planning it kept her alive the last few months. That’s why I went through with it - I couldn’t bear the thought of her dying. Someday I would have to tell him, but not that night.
It finally dawned on me that he must have been exhausted. “I think the staff has your bed ready. In your old room. I can’t even bring myself to sleep in Father’s room. He changed nothing about the house in sixteen years, in case you couldn’t tell.”
He suddenly looked back down at his hands. “Thank you,” he whispered in the same tone he had used with the servants. I sighed. We were back to the beginning.
I pitied him, being in this state, and I hated myself for it. Pity was never an emotion that Julien had accepted in any form, for himself or for others. But I did feel pity. “I’ll help you upstairs,” I smiled at him. He looked up at me, confused, but took my arm to steady himself as he stood up from the table. I was on his left side, so I could see how angry his scar really was, jagged and twisting, not at all well-healed, and he was forced to use his bad hand to grasp my arm. I had not been thinking, otherwise I would never have made him use that hand. Yet he was able to grasp my arm, not just touch it, but put his fingers around it. The fingers were horribly twisted, but they still functioned. “What happened?” I asked, half to myself.
“A guard stepped on it. I had to set it myself without proper bandages because they would not let me go to the infirmary again.” He recited the short narrative as if it belonged to another person.
“Does it hurt?” I immediately cursed myself for asking such a foolish question.
“It has healed. There is very little pain,” he answered in a monotone. Very little pain. Meaning it still gave him trouble.
“How long ago did it happen?”
He thought for a long time. “About nine years ago,” he finally replied in the same tone, or lack of tone, rather. Nine years, and it still hurt. It had healed, yes, but not properly.
“A doctor should look at that.”
“A doctor should look at many things, but it is too late for him to be of any use.” He was right, as always. The only cure would be to systematically break all the bones again and set them properly, hoping the ligaments, which had likely changed over time, could alter once more, back to a normal state. It was imbecilic of me to even bring it up.
“You need to get some rest. Tomorrow, I’ll take you to get some better clothes, something that actually fits.” I suddenly noticed something else. “And a better haircut. Lucie may be good at some things, but I don’t think I’ll let her cut hair again. Crooked is an understatement.” I tried to make light of it, but it was impossible.
His grip on my arm tightened and he bowed his head. “I don’t want to, Charles,” he pleaded in a child-like voice I had never heard from him before.
“Nonsense. It is necessary. You will feel infinitely better once you are civilised again.”
“If you think it best,” he said resignedly. We went up the stairs in silence, Julien struggling with each stair. When we reached his room, he did not even say goodnight, simply locked the door behind him without a word. Lucie later told me that he had apparently slept in his clothes on, not in, his bed. I went to my room and cried myself to sleep, something I had done before only when I realised he was dead. The mix of pity, hate, and fear was boiling too hot to keep inside.
Fiction ~ Chapter 2 ~ Home