Only a few days later, as I walked past his room one morning, I could not help noting that the door was open. I glanced in and saw him huddled in a corner of the floor, in a state I was ashamed to recognise. A rustle behind me alerted me to Lucie’s appearance with a basin of water. I attempted to address her, but she rebuffed me. “Excuse me, monsieur,” she almost snapped. Julien did not look up at the sound of our voices or at the rustle of her skirts. In her haste, she neglected to shut the door on me, so I was able to watch as she bathed his face and babbled at him like a nursemaid. Only when he seemed to shake himself awake did she note her mistake. “Forgive me, monsieur,” she apologised quietly as she shut the door in my face.
I did not dare go into town - instead, I sent a messenger to the office to bring anything important to me. Julien himself appeared in my study later that morning, looking as if he had not slept but completely calm.
“Is there something I can do for you?” I asked with what I hoped was the proper sympathy.
“I hoped I might go into town tomorrow.”
That was unexpected. “To see Fauret?” He nodded. “Whatever you like. One of the grooms can be trusted with the coupé.”
“And I thought it might be time to return to the lessons we had begun before you left Paris.” How conveniently he omitted that he had chased me out of Paris.
“I rather thought I had bored you enough with trade.”
“I thought I might be of use. I know you used to go abroad frequently and you have been kept from it these past six months and more. If it is business that keeps you here, I might be able to help. I hope I have not kept you home against your will.”
Kept me home against my will? No, I would far rather be at home rather than leave you alone with my wife, I thought. He made no mention at all of his morning fit, and I did not know precisely how to bring up the subject myself. “Let me consider it,” I told him. Hélène had put him up to it - she had to have done it. She had reproved me before for leaving her alone at length with only servants for protection. Now that she fancied him, Julien was the perfect solution, so perfect that I would be better out of the way. I already knew my answer, but it was better to let them think me still in the dark. “I will let you know in a few days.”
“Very well. Please forgive the intrusion.”
He went into town as planned the next afternoon and spent dinner telling us everything he had learned. His constant references to chemical reactions - it was a reminder that he had studied medicine at one time - were over my head, but Hélène flirted shamelessly by pretending a strong interest in his conversation.
“What was that?” I asked her after dinner, perhaps a bit sharply.
“Let go of me, Charles,” she ordered coldly. I dropped her arm. “What was what?”
“Don’t tell me you understood what he was going on about at dinner.”
“But I did. It’s terribly interesting, isn’t it, what science has led us to.”
“I don’t appreciate scenes like that in my house.”
“Scenes like what? He was eager to talk, and I was genuinely interested. And even if I were not, it would have been polite to feign interest.”
“That was not feigned.”
“That’s right,” she replied with a deliberate evenness. “I just told you. I was genuinely interested.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Then you should not have left me alone so often with only books for company.”
“This is not my fault.”
“Nothing is ever your fault, Charles,” she sighed. “Kindly explain what you mean by ’this’ today so I may take the inappropriate blame.”
If I accused her, she would deny it and possibly even laugh at me. The only thing for it was to wait and watch - and keep them from being alone together at length.
But as soon as I formed that resolve, I received a message from the office. One of our sailors had been picked up in the Indies - there had been a shipwreck, and he had just arrived in Marseille. I had to spend several days at the office, interviewing him and speaking with the insurance adjusters and minding all the minutia of failed business.
It is hard to care as much as one is expected to when the event has already passed. The vessel had wrecked weeks ago, and the survivor could give only overdue testimony. It was not even a thrilling tale. Storms had come up, the compass was hit by lightning, a fool steered directly onto a reef at the harbour opening because he could not read the chart when at last they found the harbour - the wreck itself was a tale of incompetence and stupidity, not of the power of the sea and the might of God, and it ended in most of the crew jumping ship and signing on with whalers headed for the South Sea. I cannot even expect fidelity from the men I pay. At least the captain had died in the hurricane - he and the first mate alone did not betray me.
My mind wandered back to Julien and Hélène as the insurance men asked their questions. I have loyalty from neither family nor friends, and I cannot even purchase it through generous wages. The business is not what it would be if we were English. My father smuggled his way through the wars, which earned him our fortune and provided more excitement than peace ever can. Which is strange to think about, really, because my father was a man of calm thought, like Julien, not at all the pirate one thinks would amass a fortune through smuggling and then keep it by making friends with the English when the Emperor fled. But it must have been exciting. More exciting than watching your country lead the world in art and literature and science but trade with the English for cottons and tea instead of bringing in those goods under their imperious noses. We cannot even finance factories and railroads with any certainty, and our peasants, well - we still have peasants. One never thinks of the English as having peasants. My country clumps along behind the times, my employees would rather go for whalers, my wife would rather have my brother, and my brother would fill his life with my cast offs if only I would step out of the way.
“No, it won’t do,” I told him later. “You’re not suited to it. You may be bored, and you may pick up the basics easily enough, but you’d hate it once it were really in your hands. Leave business to the men who enjoy it. I do, whenever I can.”
He thanked me for my consideration. I repaid him by sending for Lucie.
“What did I see last week?” She would not look at me, and I knew she knew exactly what I meant. “Lucie?”
“I don’t know what you mean, monsieur.”
“He told me that you knew his moods. What did that mean?”
“That is for M. Julien to answer, monsieur.”
“Are you talking back to me?”
“What are his moods?” I asked firmly. “Are they fits?”
She crumpled under the pressure. “No, monsieur. I don’t know what to call them, really. It’s just like the day I found him on the beach and came to you. I don’t know where he goes. It’s like a fit, in that something sets him off and he’s dead to the world, but it isn’t dangerous. He just sits there, staring into space. He’ll stare like mad, for hours, if someone doesn’t pull him out of it. But it isn’t as if he has convulsions or anything.”
“Was he like this in Paris?”
She stopped and started so many times that I was not entirely certain of the veracity of her answer. “Not quite so badly. Well, no, well, not so strongly, but more often. Maybe. But he was worse in every other way.” She insisted with an unusual firmness, “He has been so much better here, monsieur. And maybe, when we go back, this will go away, too.”
“How often has this happened here?”
“Once or twice, maybe. No more.”
“But you don’t worry about him wandering around by himself?”
“Oh, no. I’m usually with him when he goes out, but he’s always safe in public. I think something like it was about to happen on the train, but the carriage was very full and with so many other people, he never quite went off. I think it’s a fit of memory - something catches him and off he goes. He has that look on his face, like he’s thinking of something, but he doesn’t quite come around the way a person lost in thought ought to. But with other people around, always talking and staring and making noise, who can concentrate on anything?”
“Had he been like that all night?”
“I don’t know, but he must have been. He was still dressed.”
Had Hélène set him off? What was he thinking of? Her? Isabelle Laurier? His Irish girl? Some grisette?
And then I realised - he was thinking of all of them and none of them. He had not been staring out to Africa when I found him on the beach. He had been looking much closer, at the walls of his cell. Just as when I had brought him home. If it was a fit of memory, it was that memory, the dead man remembering the coffin. Was it the memory of the memory? He had said that he was not well, that the air here was saturated with the past. If a memory snatched at him, and he remembered last remembering that thing whilst in prison, did he stay in that memory of remembering and forget where he was now? If that were the case, Paris would be no better once he truly got out and about. He should have gone into the mountains for the summer. And he should emigrate. Not to the Indies, but perhaps to one of the German states or even to America, to a place with neither memories nor language to remind him of his past.
“How was he worse in Paris if he was not having these fits with such virulence?”
“I don’t know that I should tell you, monsieur.”
“Was he ill? Is he ill? Would sending for a doctor help at all?”
“He wasn’t that sort of ill. We - I’m sorry, monsieur, we knew it was wrong, but it was all we could do. He wouldn’t eat unless we brought him in the kitchen with us. He would only eat if he was being watched, and the only person he would see was M. Radet, and he hardly ever went out. He only kept going to those meetings because M. Radet was there. After you left, he stayed inside, mostly, with the curtains drawn, and had me read to him when his eyes wouldn’t bear it anymore, even in May, when the weather turned beautiful and you’d think he’d go strolling in the park every day. But here - he breakfasts alone and actually eats, he spends most of his time outdoors, he talks to strangers - he is so much better that I don’t mind the fits. They aren’t dangerous.”
“If you were his nurse, would you want him to stay here always?”
She looked up at me. “I can’t tell him what to do. He says we will return when the soldiers leave.”
“But if you could?”
“I would like him to stay.”
To choose between his health and my marriage was a false dichotomy - my marriage was a tragedy before he arrived, so he had merely turned it into a farce. One might think that an improvement until one remembers that both genres require a victim.
Yet I was annoyed when he did not appear for dinner that evening. He was not actively seducing my wife, but he was also not living up to his duties as a guest. I sent for Lucie again as we sat at the dinner table, waiting to be served. “What does it mean, he is ill?”
She flushed. “It is rather embarrassing, monsieur.”
“For you or for him?”
“We were out this afternoon. The figs are ripe.”
“And now you have no desire for dinner and he has a stomachache?” Hélène asked.
“Something like that, madame.”
“I don’t know if it is childish or charming,” she said when Lucie had left. “I suppose I am rather surprised it did not happen earlier.”
“They had been spending a great deal of time at Les Goudes.”
“Exercise must fortify the appetite.”
The figs were excellent - we were brought some with the cheese at the end of the meal. But it was the next day that the full extent of the afternoon’s adventure became known. I had been to the office to finish the necessary paperwork from the wreck, and Hélène was waiting for me when I returned home.
“You need to speak with your brother,” she told me firmly.
“I do not want him near the children.”
“Yesterday somehow devolved into a family fig harvest,” she announced with a doomed grandeur I recalled from her discovery of Sébastien.
“Was anyone hurt? Was anyone scared?”
“Mathieu found it inordinately exciting.”
“The nurse was with them at all times, wasn’t she?”
“That is not the point. I’ll have to sack her. She knew she was not to allow him near the children.”
“You are overreacting.”
“I am overreacting? I asked for one thing, that he be kept away from the children. Twice now, that simple request has been ignored. The first was an accident. I did not like it, but I will let it go. One cannot control the weather, and I can see that it was good for him to meet the photographer. What I cannot abide is to be deliberately ignored by my servants.”
“All right, the nurse will have to be sacked. But there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s perfectly harmless. I thought you had come around to liking him.”
“It isn’t about that. It was better when they did not know he existed because then there were no questions I cannot answer. I don’t want him to meet any of our friends, either, for the same reason. What explanation can there be that will not reflect poorly on us? His very existence taints us. It was one thing to hear of him when he was dead. It was in the past, long before I ever knew you, and here you were to rectify the damage done to your family’s reputation. But now? Here he is, an unrepentant convict.”
“What do you want me to do? Ask him to leave? Send him away? He is ill. He is my brother!”
“He is not ill, and if he were, I don’t believe it would be catching. His health is not the point. I don’t want him teaching republicanism to my children.”
“I don’t want that, either, but there is a great difference between acknowledging his existence and teaching his beliefs. Is anyone physically hurt?”
“Of course not. Mathieu thought it the most exciting thing to happen all summer.”
“I will speak to him. And he does plan to leave. But do you really want me to send him away before he is ready to go?”
“I don’t know. But I did not want to have to explain his presence to the children. Or to the staff, to be perfectly frank. It does not need to be known all over Marseille that we have been harbouring a convict.”
“Now you are exaggerating.” The irregularities were surely already known all over Marseille.
“I neither expected nor wanted any of this. Why can I not have this one little thing?”
“They are my children, too.”
“You’re hardly around for that to matter.”
“So if it were not for the children, you’d happily trade me for Julien? Perhaps I should simply take my children - my children you never wanted in the first place - and leave you to it.”
“Now you are being ridiculous,” she said coldly. Her frigid demeanour simply angered me more.
“Do you want me to be the head of this house? Very well, then. I order that my children be allowed to see my brother whenever they want. And, if it were not that the suggestion would offend him, I would wish that he would take charge of Mathieu’s education. They are my children, he is my brother, and you legally married into my family.”
“I suppose I must do as you say,” she acknowledged witheringly.
“You may replace the nurse whenever you like.”
“Thank you, monsieur, for your generosity.” I admit I deserved her sarcasm.
Dinner should have been excruciatingly tense. As it was, Hélène made me feel ridiculous by bringing up the whole thing herself.
“Mathieu tells me you were harvesting figs yesterday,” she addressed Julien.
“Please forgive me. It was unintentional, I assure you. I and the nurse had the same idea, it seemed. There is only the one grove on the property.”
“Not at all. I should be surprised it did not happen earlier.”
“I have tried to be mindful of my position.”
“Yes, your position. We must discuss that.”
“Hélène,” I tried to warn her. I did not at all like the hint of steel in her voice. She ignored me.
“What is it you think your position is?”
“Don’t answer,” I told him. “This is a discussion between us. You are not involved.”
“But it is about me. I must be involved. Do you seek a definition or an agreement, madame?”
“What do you mean?”
He was completely calm, with a sympathetic tone to his carefully measured words. “Do you wish that I define my position in the world, or that I acknowledge how you have defined my position in this house? Or have I been using ‘or’ when I should be using ‘and’?”
Whatever anger or frustration had been driving her disappeared at that moment and something in her collapsed. “Christ,” she sobbed. I was on my feet almost instantly.
“Don’t touch me! Neither of you touch me!” She clung to the arm of her chair with both hands and would not look up. Only then did I realise that Julien was on his feet, too, alarmed and ready to comfort her in the distress he had caused. But our eyes met, and he looked as confused as I felt.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, addressing the floor. “I have spent my entire marriage lying to the world, and I knew those lies, I knew what to say, I knew what was supposed to be, what the priests and my mother had always said must be, what I wished was true and what I wished I might feel. And I am so tired of lying, and now I don’t know what lies I must tell, and now the children have been brought into it.” She finally looked me in the eye, her expression lost and vulnerable. “I never prepared for how to lie to them.”
Now I looked away. I hadn’t really thought of my son at all - what if Sébastien and I had not been caught when we had? What if we had been caught later, years from now? By him? I hadn’t cared what my fool of a wife would think, but my son? I hadn’t even thought of him at all. And now our daughter. Our daughter. What sort of life we were setting her up for? Neither of us prepared for how to lie to them.
“Our entire generation, ruined,” Julien whispered.
“What was that?” I snapped.
“Perhaps reason would have done better for us, if this is what emotion brought us.”
“This is hardly a time for philosophy.”
“Let him speak,” Hélène insisted quietly.
“The priests, our parents - the generation of reason. Marriage as a social duty, love will come in time, all husbands and wives learn to love each other. We learned these lessons at the knee of authority. But then we grew up on novels of feeling, of romance, of desire, we wanted to be swept away by Shakespeare instead of bored by Racine, we flitted from Rousseau to Hegel and back again, and all we’ve done is to make Hamlets of ourselves. Incapable of belief in the old order, incapable of rebelling against it, desperate to believe in love but unable to give it ourselves because it must hurt so much to give up one’s heart if it will merely be trampled on by the love object or life or society, it doesn’t even matter why. And so society goes round, dependent on lies and unfilled desires, because no one dares the pain of truth and possibility of rejection. It all made so much more sense when we didn’t put all our faith in the inner life of the soul.”
“We’re all broken, and there’s nothing we could have done to stop it?” she asked.
“We’re all broken,” Julien repeated.
“Are there happy marriages?”
“How would I know? Perhaps. Why not? Why must ‘perfect’ and ‘happy’ be synonyms?”
“I failed my lover, my wife, and my children because of Hegel,” I found myself saying. “This is what we get for listening to Germans.”
Hélène giggled hysterically. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But look at us. Germans. Listening to our own people wasn’t going to get us anywhere, either. But Germans! No wonder we are wandering alone, having spent our lives listening to a people without a state.”
“You make them sound like Jews.”
“We are Jews. Looking for acceptance, settling for tolerance, and always moving on because it is so hard to find either, keeping only what we can carry on our backs because we don’t dare risk giving up more when it is time to go. But what can we do?” she asked Julien. “You understand the lie, the need for everyone to believe that you are not broken. My lie is that my husband loves me and I love him, when I am not certain any of it has ever been close to true. What is your lie?”
“I don’t know yet. I don’t know my truth yet. It’s not the first time I’ve been lost.”
“He’s letting the photographer believe he was wounded in Algeria,” I told her.
“That’s a lie about me, but it is not my lie. It is convenient, but I do not know that anyone other than M. Fauret would believe it. The real lie is the one you wish was true. For so many years, my lie was that I had believed I was spared for a reason. I tried to believe it because I did not want to believe that only by accident was I incapable of death. And then to have a young man come to me one day and tell me I was free and the whole nightmare was a ridiculous bureaucratic mess rather than a specifically deemed punishment that that government would never have made clear - I suddenly believed in it then. In that moment, it was no longer a lie but a glorious, shining truth. Because how could something so absurd be merely an accident of nature rather than a necessary plan. But then, to leave was to be thrown on family as a charity case, too ill in body to be good for anything, too disturbed in mind from the overwhelming return of the past, invisible and unheard to anyone not predisposed to listen. I spend half my days thinking I must be a ghost.”
“For days when I brought you home, I think I thought you were a ghost.”
“Perhaps I am. Untimely resurrected, unable to do anything but retrace the lines of the past, uncertain why I am even compelled to walk those routes again.”
“I’ve been walking the same routes. Little good it has done either of us, I fear, but we’re both very much alive.”
“But can I return to the world without a lie? Has anyone ever braved the world armed with just the truth? A confused and unknown truth at that? That would make us pure soul, would it not, the very definition of a ghost?”
“Let us not call it a ’lie’, then. One needs a plausible story for the world. The truth is not plausible. I cannot even go to a lawyer to determine the situation and set up the appropriate mechanisms for transfer of property to you because the situation is not plausible. But here we all are.”
Hélène spoke up. “If anyone had told me that you might be found as I discovered you in the yellow bedroom, I would not have thought it plausible. Such things between men were not to be comprehended.”
“This is what comes of leaving women completely sheltered. Such things between men are not common, but they are not unknown. The ancients spoke of these things openly. With Charles, the trouble was that he puts himself above everyone else.”
“I thought I was in love,” I defended myself. “We’re all victims of Romanticism. Chateaubriand could write of an incestuous passion and be hailed for breaking his own heart by not consummating it. But Shakespeare made us think suicide over a broken heart was better than to fail at being in love. Romeo and Juliet did far more damage than René ever could.”
“But is that love? For Chateaubriand, of course it was right to not consummate the desires, but then how can one prove it love? Does love require death when the love object dies? Or is love something worse, something even more painful, that thing that caused Othello to strangle Desdemona because her betrayal broke everything inside him?”
“He smothered her with a pillow, and I’m not sure the Moor is the best exponent of whatever theory you are trying to prove.”
“Or perhaps he is. Note how often he is called simply ’the Moor’, as if we are afraid to speak his name, as if a name means we accept him as one of us, and thus his actions, his feelings, could be ours. Romeo loved Juliet so much that he would not live without her. But Othello loved Desdemona so much that he was willing to destroy her and himself in order to save them both. So much more pain, and thus so much more depth of feeling, must be required to kill the woman you love than to kill yourself.”
“His truth was that he was never really as brilliant as everyone thought, so Iago’s trick hit home. Iago thought he planted doubt, but the doubt was always there, not because he feared, but because he knew.”
“Of course Desdemona would take up with a white man, not because women are fickle, not because she was fickle, but because one day she would wake up and realise that she could do better than a man addressed as the Moor rather than by his name.”
“But she did love him,” Hélène insisted. “The only honest person in the whole play.”
“But when everyone lives a lie, how can anyone believe in truth?”
“Isn’t that it, then? We hate the lies, but we don’t want the truth. Or, well, we hate our own lies, but we never want to hear other people’s truth. But then what do we do? What am I to tell the children?” She had finally come back around to the actual matter at hand.
“What have you told the servants?” Julien asked.
“Nothing. That you are visiting from Paris, that Lucie is your caretaker. What did you tell the servants in Paris?” she asked me.
“They had to know everything because of how I brought him home. Lucie knows the whole truth because she had to.”
“And we have not been circumstantial in our references - servants have ears. Even without Lucie to explain, they would have learned it all by now. And they will certainly have told everyone they know. At least half of Marseille knows about me by now, possibly including your friends.”
I hated that I knew he was right. “And Fauret thinks you were in Algeria.”
“If the Dutilleuls know already, we cannot continue that story.”
“We couldn’t in any case - Dutilleul thinks you were dead.”
“And if the whole truth outs, rather than simply servants’ gossip, you are ruined.”
“No,” Hélène suddenly said firmly. “How often is the adulterer actually ruined? And I do not mean in your case,” she addressed me in parentheses. “He is always still seen again. The adulteress? The only crime is when she actively runs away with her lover or if she bears a child that does not belong to her husband.” She turned to Julien. “You cannot hide anymore. The only way to preserve anything is to brazen our way through.”
“So that everyone will be ashamed for us, since we have no sense of shame ourselves.”
“But will you stop being invited places?” he asked.
“If you are really such great friends with Florence Dutilleul, we should not have to worry about them nearly as much as everyone else. Dutilleul knows about Sébastien, after all.”
“I should go. Everything will return to the abstract once I am gone.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I told him. “Lucie says you are far better off here. And Hélène is right. This government freed you and gave you papers. This government says you exist on an equal footing with everyone else. There should not be any shame attached to your existence. We are simply still trying to adapt to this government.”
“Is it my existence or my presence that is at issue?”
“Since you are supposed to be dead, it is your existence. You have been here, you exist, therefore even if you left today, your absence would resolve nothing. We needed to have this conversation in June.”
“Or in March,” he reminded me.
“My life in Marseille and my life in Paris are completely different. We had our agreement for Paris in the spring.”
“Well, things worked in the spring.”
“I only ever saw one man of your acquaintance and I never went out otherwise.”
“You were ill.”
“You cannot hide, for your own sake as much as for ours,” Hélène told him. “You were happy at Majeure. You were happy when you came home from your visit with M. Fauret.”
“It is kind of you to care for my welfare, but you have lives I do not want to disturb.”
“It’s too late for that. I made that decision in March when I came for you. And father made the decision for truth years ago, when he was willing to admit that you had died by choice, not by accident. Mother did want to say it was the cholera, but he wouldn’t allow it. We are what we are in spite of your actions, so I will simply have to hope that any further political actions you take will not be wild enough to reflect poorly on us.”
“So we blame it all on the Bourgeois King and hope for the best?”
“What else can we do?” Hélène asked. “Hiding hasn’t worked. We don’t know how to construct a lie. We must tell our closest friends of your release, but for the rest, all of us must simply live as if nothing is wrong. That is how the adulterers do it; it is how we will have to do it.”
“But what do we tell the children?” I finally had to ask. “They cannot understand that it is a bureaucratic mess.”
“They don’t have to,” Julien said. “They will believe whatever you tell them because it is what you tell them. With them, one does not even have to use the word ‘prison’.” I took heart in how he said the word with a coldness and distaste that matched Hélène’s.
“Mathieu asked me why you had not been here before. I simply told him that things were a little strange this summer.”
“I told him that you had not been able to visit, that you had been very busy in Paris, and then I had to tell him to stop asking ’why’, that it was rude to prise so much into other people’s lives,” Hélène told us. “And just that much felt so much like a lie, I couldn’t bear to go on.”
“Elision of the truth will be necessary. It is almost certainly best to allow others to believe I was wounded on the barricade. Including the children. It is simpler, even if it is not true.”
“When we were young, there were more old soldiers. No one would have thought anything of you.”
“They would have thought me a Bonapartist - isn’t that worse?”
“Only you would think so.” Despite the desperate tone of the conversation, I could not help being amused. Only Julien would still care so much, and with such seriousness, about his perceived political orientation.
“My family were Bonapartists,” Hélène said, slightly hurt.
“So was our father, until the tide turned,” I explained. “Then he was a Royalist.”
“He was never truly one or the other,” Julien said. “He loved the English too much, even before it was fashionable. We always had that much in common. It was why I had an Irish tutor once in the first place.”
“You always had the best tutors. I never had anyone nearly as interesting as the ones you told me about.”
“You did get the Orientalist. I was jealous of you for that.”
“You were in medical school by then. And it isn’t as if he taught me anything - he was only around for two months before his funding came through and he went off to Baghdad. Basra? Somewhere full of Arabs. You were sent to London.”
“That was only because a change of scenery as well as a change of study was deemed appropriate after certain events. I loved London. One could buy newspapers on the street, uncensored. Debates in the House of Lords were reported just as those in the House of Commons. The Paris newspapers seemed so backward when I returned.”
“Notice he talks only of newspapers,” I instructed Hélène. “Art, literature, science, even the public parks cannot compare.”
“Only because the great English poets were dead or in exile by then. No one could compare to Byron. But free men, with a free press - it was sublime. And now it has become daily life at home.”
“Not anymore - the previous restrictions were re-instituted last month, thank God.”
“This is your revolution,” he replied bitterly.
“My revolution? Cavaignac only put the restrictions back on because of the mess your friends caused. I was rather enjoying the flurry of publication.”
“They were not my friends. They are no longer Radet’s friends. If you appreciated that fleeting attempt at a free press, you are not as much a conservative as you otherwise claim.”
I preferred to move back to the previous subject rather than continue in that vein. “Would you move back to London?”
“Not at all. The food was abominable, and the wine was worse.”
“Oh, dear,” Hélène exclaimed. “Dinner.” Our cold and abandoned plates suddenly seemed to accuse us for our descent into philosophy. “I am so sorry.”
“There is no need to apologise, madame. Our souls were in far greater need of nourishment.”
“My soul says that as you are Charles’ brother, you are my brother. You need not address me as ‘madame’.”
I rang for a servant to come and clear everything away. I rather hoped the movement would break up whatever feelings she had returned to after her little fit. But, bidding him goodnight, she took my arm, not his, and mounted the stairs with me. Pausing outside her bedroom, rather than simply let me bid her goodnight, she kissed me. Not the brief goodnight kiss that I expected, but the sort of open lingering one expects from a lover, the sort of kiss I expected to see her one day give to Julien. And it was nice - kisses are generally nice - her lips soft and breath warm - but nothing more.
“Do you feel anything?” she asked softly.
“Embarrassed,” I murmured.
She looked away. “For me?”
She embraced me, standing on tiptoe so that we stood cheek to cheek, the softness of her skin and the scent of her hair as evident as the boning of her corset. When a moment later, she had bid me goodnight and was gone, and I found myself standing outside her closed door, I came as close to loving her as I did on our wedding day.
She should have had Julien. He would understand her, appreciate her, far more than I ever could. We had all just spent an evening in truth without recriminations. He had shown himself to best advantage - and she had shown her understanding to be more worthy of respect than I had yet realised. I was the impossible husband, the man who, after that kiss from his beautiful wife, could arouse no feelings but shame but who could not refrain from fantasizing over a handsome workman in the street. My existence, not Julien’s, was the farce.
But still she chose me.
Chapter 9 ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 11 ~ Home