In the light of day, however, circumspection seemed best. You know what I wrote to you at the time. Hélène’s letter to your wife used the word “curious” as if it were a verbal tic. And neither of us mentioned prison.
Julien came to me not long after, insisting that he should go. “The grape harvest has been announced for next week. I had intended to spend a couple of weeks, perhaps a month, not the entire summer.”
“But where will you go?”
“I don’t know. But you have been kind enough to see that I have money. I don’t have to return to Paris.”
“We can make arrangements if you would like to emigrate.”
“Hardly. For the first time in my life, I am able to live under a republic in my own country. And Paris will re-open eventually. If it does not, then the Republic will have been nothing more than false name and Cavaignac another Bonaparte.”
“You cannot simply open a map and point to a city and go there.”
“Why not? It is an idea.”
“You wife will be grateful when I am gone.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I muttered. “No, please. Stay through the olive harvest. Stay through Christmas the New Year, even while you are at it.”
“And keep you in the country, against your will, so you may avoid leaving me alone with your wife.”
“I think the status of the government will keep me in the country rather than anything else. I was supposed to go to Stockholm before the monarchy was overthrown, but that issue resolved itself far better than the provisional government has. It’s better that I stay for the time being. Keep an eye on the political developments. Lucie would enjoy the olive harvest.”
“You need not use Lucie’s interest to goad me to action.”
“Then stay. What would you do in, I don’t know, Strasbourg? What does a man in exile do other than dream of home?”
“Which I did for sixteen years. I am far better at dreaming of home than being at home.”
“Then it proves you need to spend more time at home.”
“Home is gone.”
“I want this to be your home.”
“And your wife?”
“Did she not call you her brother?”
“What of her family? She must have her own people without you and me.”
“She does not get on with her mother. There is an older sister who married a naval captain; he is stationed now in Brest, and her mother lives with them. Her father died many years ago. But you should ask her if you care so much. We never see anyone, and I think she is glad of it.”
“At least in that sense, you married into the appropriate family. She is no better than we are.”
“I never did tell you what happened to Vaillet, did I?”
“No. He cannot have spent sixteen years mooning over a ballerina.”
“He married her.”
“What?” Julien never gossiped about acquaintances. Cousins on our mother’s side, however, were always a different matter entirely.
“He had to flee to Milan with her, but they are married. No one realised how serious he was when he wrote home asking for permission, because he had tried it before, so of course they wrote back the refusal.”
“So he had a third refusal, in writing, to take to the hôtel de ville. When did this happen?”
“One month after he turned twenty-six. He cited your example, which of course caused a flaming row between mother and Aunt Catherine.”
“And Uncle Félix?”
“Has written a will leaving half his estate to some monastery.”
“I do not particularly respect how the Napoleonic Code requires the division of real property because it punishes the smallholding peasant as well as the great landowner, but there is justice in a system where one cannot be disinherited over matters of the heart. Do you ever hear from him?”
“Uncle Félix or Jérôme?”
“Either, I suppose.”
“The usual greetings at the New Year from Uncle Félix. Vaillet, not in a good ten years. They had two children already, last I knew, which had ended her career on the stage.”
“I’m rather proud of him.”
“So am I. At least you were not the only one of our generation to attempt to avoid misery.”
“You could have thrown it all over, too. Father was a pushover, really. He let me enroll in medical school.”
“But you had me coming along behind you.”
“I don’t know that it really concerned him.”
“It did when I was the only one left.”
“It wasn’t entirely him,” I admitted. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I were the end of the family line.”
“At least we have not come to an end in the slums of Italy. I like your wife. And I am grateful for your attentions. Can you imagine how much worse everything would have been, for both of us, if you were the famous artist, living openly with your lover?”
“Sébastien was obsessed with your memory rather than afraid of you.”
“But it would have been in all the newspapers, not just a small notice to fill space in the Journal de la Liberté, which has almost certainly ceased publication by now.”
“Oh, Christ.” I knew he was right. And in Marseille, had he been released from the Chβteau d’If, it would also have been in both the local papers. But in Paris, there are too many men of some pretension to wealth and influence for me to be anything more than anonymous. “Perhaps you’re right about the Fates having a plan.”
There was no more talk of departure. Hélène came to my study after dinner that night, however, with a rather different issue. “The grape harvest has been announced.”
“Yes. It is September. What of it?”
“The grape harvest. The Dutilleuls?”
“So we are still invited.”
“Well, it is rather awkward. You wrote to him, did you not?”
“Yes. I know you wrote to her.”
“Well, the invitation is phrased no differently to last year.”
It was phrased differently. Last year, Mme Dutilleul wrote, “Please bring the children Mathieu in particular will so enjoy it.” This year, it was a slightly more formal “We invite your family Mathieu had such a good time last year. It is a pity you haven’t renters of your own with whom to celebrate.” “What do we do?”
“Well, you certainly must go, with the children.”
“What of you?”
“I’ll stay with Julien.”
“But you adore the grape harvest. It is the only thing I have seen you sketch with any regularity for years.”
“We cannot take him with us.”
“No. But he is not precisely not invited.”
“It would be rude to leave him behind.”
“And it would be rude not to go. And possibly suspicious.”
“The whole week will be spent in interrogation.”
“It won’t be quite so bad as that.”
“No, they are more subtle, but the effect will be the same.”
“But we may as well have it out sooner rather than later. Do you want to put it off to the holiday visits?”
“No. We’ll have to take it in hand from the first opportunity. Particularly if Julien continues to be amenable to staying here. I may have convinced him to stay through the New Year.”
“That may make the holidays difficult.”
“Would you rather he return to Paris before the holidays?”
“No. He should not be alone at Christmas. He must be with us. I would think us terrible people, exiling him at Christmas. It’s the New Year visits that may become awkward.”
“No less so in Paris. I haven’t yet told our aunt and uncle that he lives.”
“I had rather hoped to slip it into the New Year letter as a curious piece of information. If no one is in Paris, then the staff will simply receive the card from their servant and that will be the end of it. If someone is in Paris, then there will have to be a visit of some sort. It isn’t as if you have told your mother.”
“I have no intention of telling my mother. She would only descend on us to find fault with the entire arrangement because it is all she ever does, even after she pushed me into marrying you. But these are blood relatives.”
“On our mother’s side. The only one he ever liked was their son, Jérôme, who decamped for Italy years ago. There’s no relationship there other than of blood.”
“But they are family.”
“I will ask him his advice for the grape harvest. We’ll take the holidays when they come.”
“No, I will ask him at dinner. It is what we began to discuss the other day. We had the philosophy, but now we come to the practice.”
So we asked him. “Don’t be absurd,” he told us. “If you wish to go, then you must go.”
“Of course Hélène and the children must go. But shouldn’t I stay?”
“Whatever for? To keep me from stealing the household silver?”
“But you are a guest,” Hélène told him. “It would be the height of bad manners to leave you alone with only the servants for company.”
“Am I a guest? Charles has suggested that I might live here.”
Hélène recovered well from her shock. “Of course. Forgive me. But that should not change things so much. It would still be rude of us to leave you.”
“Charles must do as he prefers.”
“Then it is settled. I will stay.”
“But you do so love the grape harvest.”
“Really?” Julien asked in curiosity.
“I do love the grape harvest. What better exponent is there of who we are as a people? To be French is to consume the land of your birth every day. One can take a fragment of a vine, plant it on the other side of the country, let it grow to fruit, but the vines, identical in every way, will never produce the same wine. The earth is in the wine in a way it is in nothing else that is grown. Even in the north, where they cannot sustain viticulture, the very fact that they drink cider rather than wine and calvados rather than brandy is a connection to the earth. Beer doesn’t take the earth the way wine does. To taste the land every day what can be more necessary to a nation? And to be present at the celebration of the earth’s bounty what better way to celebrate that we are Frenchmen?”
“Then why is there a conversation at all? I will be perfectly fine for the four days you would be gone. If you are so concerned that I would be alone, then I promise you I will call on M. Fauret. What could be more fair than that?”
Hélène and I exchanged looks. Finally, she was the one to mention, “You were invited as well. Possibly. We think. It’s rather circumspect.”
“The exact phrase was ’we invite your family’,” I admitted. “We don’t entirely know what it means.”
“But these are your greatest friends, didn’t you say?”
“Yes, but you know as well as anyone that we have entered rather tricky waters.”
“I am not certain I am well enough to meet your friends. Please make my apologies, should they ask after me.”
“You are in perfectly fine health. You converse with strangers.”
“But these are not strangers,” he said. “This is precisely why it would be easier if I were out of town.”
“I would worry far less with you here on your own for four days than I would if you left town for good,” I insisted. “Here, you have your habits, you have at least one acquaintance, and the servants know you and are trustworthy. Elsewhere, you would only have Lucie.”
“You see, we are agreed. You will go, and I will stay, and no one will be the worse for it. The invitation seems carefully written to neither include nor exclude me, and that is not the sort of invitation I ought to accept. There is no dilemma. If my absence is questioned, you will make my excuses on grounds of health.”
As you recall, we went, and he stayed. I rode over, though I have never been so comfortable with horses as you, so that I might ride back if necessary. It was very good of you not to press too much, though I know I said very little. Even when you accompanied me on the second day as I went back to check on him, and I knew you were doing it largely to get a glimpse of him, you couched it in concern for me, and I am still grateful for that little lie.
I know it was stupid, since I had left him alone for two months in Paris after the argument, but I was not comfortable leaving him at home. Yes, it was ridiculous to ride back solely to see that he was all right, and I know I looked ridiculous when the staff told me he had gone to the village again. I had not entirely expected it, though I should have done, and I was both glad he was out of the house and embarrassed that I had not predicted it.
In my defence, I could hardly have predicted that “he has gone to the village” meant “he is helping with their grape harvest”. I had never seen him engage in work of any sort until we stood there, watching him, shirtsleeved and hatless in the sun, cutting grapes. Of course he stood out from the villagers, with his white shirt and flowing grey hair. I did not point her out to you, but Lucie was of course there, a handkerchief tied around her head in lieu of a bonnet, carrying a basket on her head with a poise and dexterity that surprised me. She was, like most servants in Paris, not a native of the city, but I had never thought through the implications. She moved with the villagers because she was one, even though she was the French-speaking outsider, the well-dressed “daughter” of the gentleman who had so kindly given his aid, inexpert though it was, rather than watch with noblesse as we always did. But then, these were men on their own ground; your renters harvest your land. One could say that when they divide the harvest into the agreed portions, they are not paying you for the land but paying themselves for the labour. We picnic as lords, the peasants labouring for our entertainment. Julien found himself free men and gave them his labour in return for their kindness over the summer.
Not that such thoughts interrupted my enjoyment of the next two days. He was safe, everything was pleasant, the weather was beautiful. A perfect beginning to the Mediterranean autumn. I hope our lack of answers did not discomfit you too much. I distinctly recall one conversation between Hélène and your wife.
“But what is he like?”
“He is Charles’ brother. Think of all Charles’ good points, and there you go. Well, not precisely. Charles is an artist. His brother is a scientist. But they truly have much in common.”
“That doesn’t tell me much.”
“Someday you may meet him and decide for yourself what he is like.” And then she changed the subject.
It was strange to be doing something so normal, something we had done so often for years, but with him in the background. Before his return, I had never considered the class implications of watching peasants cut grapes. Now, he did not even have to bring it up himself. I could blame the government, but it was not the government’s doing. The government could not decide if it was in retreat from or in support of the revolution that had birthed it. I had no love for the revolution, but the very fact of my brother’s existence told so much that had been wrong in the previous regime. Everything looked the same yet felt entirely different. And not wrong, exactly I did enjoy the time spent, and I did make some excellent sketches but I was suddenly aware of things, such as the class implications of our outing, that I had not seen before.
But I was glad to return home because it was so obvious that my sense of everyday life had changed. He was out when we returned, but he appeared in time for dinner. At some point between his assistance in the harvest and our return, he had gone into town he had finally gotten a haircut and looked civilised for the first time in months. Hélène greeted him with a kiss on the right cheek.
“Did you have a pleasant stay?”
“You would have hated it,” I told him. “We play the lords and make the peasants dance for our amusement.”
“Charles!” Hélène chided me.
“An exaggeration, but not wholly untrue. What did you do whilst we were gone?”
“The same things I do when you are here. You had your grape harvest; Lucie and I had ours.”
“The fishermen have vines?” I did not want him or Hélène to know I had spied on him.
“Everyone with some land has vines. I spent this afternoon in the company of M. Fauret, which may please you.”
“It does. It must prove far more interesting to you to converse properly than to observe Provenηal labourers.”
“Some of them do speak some French. I don’t go there for the conversation.”
He chatted with Hélène about an English photographic process with which he had assisted M. Fauret that afternoon, his English even now being in a better state than Fauret’s. It was a pleasant evening. Everyone seemed to fit into place.
That was rather shattered before the week was out, thanks to the arrival of a parcel from a bookshop in town. It came to me because no one had thought to put Julien’s Christian name on it. While I was surprised to be receiving anything from a bookshop, I was horrified when I discovered it was a pamphlet in German. The pamphlet in German. Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei.
I found him sitting on the terrace, idly flipping through a book of poetry. Dropping the pamphlet into his lap, I announced, “This came for you.”
He examined the yellow cover carefully. “Ah, very good. Should you like to read it when I have finished?”
“What do you take me for?” I snapped.
“A thinking man who wishes to know his enemy?”
I left him to it and did not tell Hélène precisely what he was suddenly reading. It was not a terribly thick pamphlet, but he looked rather done up for the next couple of days. “Your eyes are no better?” I asked in concern when I found him lying on the sofa in my study that evening.
“I had forgotten how difficult Gothic type can be. The scientific literature is usually in a Roman face.” He obviously had a headache, but he suffered through dinner as a kindness to us.
It took him two days and a dictionary to read a thirty page pamphlet. I got through the ridiculous tripe in about two hours, in his presence, solely because Gothic type is difficult and I had to keep stopping to ask “did the writer actually say this?” only to have the rubbish confirmed. To defend him, I must admit that he simply could not have known some of the words or ideas, much less their German forms, because they did not exist twenty years prior.
“In my reading, I have tried to be fair,” he admitted, “but it was perhaps a mistake to permit a man with so many grudges to write the manifesto for a party.”
“What sort of circles must this man travel in to think that the bourgeois is obsessed with seducing other men’s wives?”
“Well, we know you are not. He accuses his enemies on the left of wanting a bourgeoisie without a proletariat, but these methods would simply create a proletariat without a bourgeoisie. There are significant issues with the current distribution of property, not least in this country under the civil code, but to put all property in the hands of the state is to put every person in the thrall of the state. If the proletariat exists because the bourgeois does not permit him property or income above subsistence level, then to centralise it all in the state is to make everyone a part of the proletariat. Yes, everyone can participate in the government, but that simply means that one has even less control over one’s life than one does now. I cannot help agreeing with Locke’s assertion that man cannot delegate authority over himself that he does not have. In the current system, which cannot hold, a man at least has the opportunity to elect which crops to plant, what manner of his labour to sell, what way in which to interact with society. Under this system, these choices would be given over to a central authority. A central authority that would come very close to having the power of determination over life and death.”
“What on earth can he actually mean by ’capital is a collective product’?”
“No, that’s the part that actually makes sense according to his own definitions. To this author, capital is solely that property derived from the exploitation of wage labour. Therefore, any profit that comes from the labour of your own hands is not capital. Capital requires that one man produce something for another man to buy and a third to accept the profit. It is inherently collectively produced.”
“But then he goes on to say ’when capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.’ How is that supposed to work?”
“He’s trying to have it both ways. That capital is an abstract collective work that can, without any changes, be reassigned to the collective and is the personal property of the bourgeois. I think this may be somewhat derived from Rousseau, in that the belief in property as being the result of collective agreement and alienation of possessions to the collective will for protection is not in conflict with these statements, but I never wholly liked Rousseau for his insistence on the alienation of possessions to the collective as a definition of property rights. Perhaps I was given Locke too early, because I cannot help preferring his definitions.
“In any case, this man’s belief in the power of the state is ludicrous, because it is the individual controllers who have created the great growth of capital and thus financed everything he does not mention. Look at us neither the individual nor the state nor both in conjunction can even finance the completion of railroads started three years ago! Putting the necessary capital in the hands of the state will not solve that problem because a government is inherently more conservative than the businessman. A government, having concern for the collective, cannot take the risks that a businessman will take out of concern for profit. The profit motive the desire to make more of something is the only power that has ever pushed humanity forward. Sadly, we are not the selfless creatures we ought to be, and there will be no utopias unless we can rid ourselves of our selfish hearts. If not even Jesus Christ can do that for his followers, how can this unknown German do it for his? Moreover, if everyone must labour for their portion, and no one is allotted more than their need, then who is going to finance art, literature, architecture, music everything that is not necessary for survival but is necessary for life? And yes, I am arguing for bourgeois culture, but do the people not have their own music and art and literature? Any music, art, or literature is not necessary for bare survival, but it is absolutely necessary for life. When silence is not enforced, there is song; but when silence is enforced, there are not mass deaths. Who will support culture? The government? You know as well as I do how difficult it is to get something interesting accepted to the Salon. No collective should ever be considered the sole arbiter of taste. Taste is intensely personal and variety is the only way we will ever have advancement in the arts.”
“So you think the whole thing ridiculous?”
“Yes, and no. I think he makes an interesting point in the first section, about history as class struggle. I have no wish to refute that. I think it a bit more complicated, but I also think it is a perfectly reasonable basic outline. It is the later sections that do not appeal to me. Or to anyone, really. If this is the best the Communist Party can do, it will be dead inside six months. It certainly has no chance at becoming the worldwide force for revolution it seeks. But this man does not care what I think I think I have been labeled a ’bourgeois socialist’ as if I were the scum on the bottom of his shoe. Because while I see the misery, I also see the benefit, that only with the increase of capital can railways be constructed, making the physical distances less important and making it easier and cheaper for goods and people to move, to take away the isolation of the country districts and make education more possible, that even as labour has been assigned a wage and often a miserable one, so many people have so much more. There are flaws in the system, yes, but the system may not be wholly bad. Is the ill-paid factory worker really worse off than the serf? Both are cold, dirty, and starving, but the wage labourer has the choice to leave and try other employment, which the serf never had. Farms are more productive than they were two centuries ago. These railways will make it easier to transport farm goods into the cities, which may lower food prices and assist the workers and the farmers if corresponding gains in productivity are made. It has been done in England; it was in process when I was there twenty years ago. Even a streetwalker in medieval Paris would have laughed had you suggested she might own a scrap of mirror, while the streetwalker today almost certainly has found one. The fact that streetwalkers exist is of enormous importance, it is a terrible reflection of what we have failed to do as a society, and yet is the destruction of private property any sort of solution?”
“So you are not a Communist.”
“Not if this is their manifesto. Though I do agree with what he says about women, and of course the need for free, compulsory, public education and the abolition of child labour. But surely we can do without the creation of vast bureaucracies enslaving us all. Bureaucracies engender incompetence; they make it possible to hide mistakes. If it were not for bureaucracy and the law, someone would have actively murdered me long ago, but because one could simply make an entry in a book, death would have taken far more effort than oblivion did. Entrust all our lives, the daily effort of living, to a bureaucracy? No, thank you.”
“Isn’t that just what your democracy would be?”
“No. I never sought straight democracy as the Athenians professed to practice, and theirs was not even true democracy because so much of the affected population was actually slaves, not citizens. The population is simply too large. But representation, the form of a republic, with universal suffrage, where any man can stand for office and every man can select his representative, that is the only possible model for free men. And we must determine a way for the working man to serve, though I cannot like the idea of paying a wage for a service that ought to be a duty to the fatherland. But there must be something to permit a labouring man to exchange service to a single master for service to the state. As it is, you have a list of bourgeois and that is it. Drawing a government from only one class cannot be sustainable, though it may be necessary for a time with the state of education as it is.”
“Yes. Come, that is not nearly so red as you feared, is it? Louis Blanc was not even in favour of the national workshops in the manner they were instituted.”
“Then why was he expelled?”
“Because this is your revolution. How can it be otherwise when only the bourgeois can stand for a seat in the National Assembly and the people have not the education to understand their own needs? Of course the country districts elected conservatives and thus the whole thing is collapsing under the necessity of the basic structural principles. I don’t have a solution to that fundamental problem other than education. But rioting so quickly against a government elected through universal suffrage strikes me as wrong, even as that government is acting perhaps against the interests of the working people. If we do not respect the will of our fellow citizens, then we, too, are tyrants. The liberty of the citizen ends where the liberty of his neighbour begins. We must respect the opinion of our neighbours and seek to change it through engagement, not violence. Violence is never the result of respect. But Louis Blanc was a scapegoat. He was expelled because he was correct. Whoever wrote this pamphlet would be welcome to stay in Paris because he is a fool. I wasted far more money than I’d like to contemplate in acquiring this piece of rubbish. What is the newest three volume novel? I feel I ought to purchase something expensive but in stock in order to make it up to the bookshop for all their trouble.”
I was not entirely soothed. The pamphlet was undoubtedly the work of a committee, cobbled together from the grudges the members had against their own failures. But if the man who had articulated that vision of history was anything close to correct, the rallying cry at the end would have its adherents. Assuming someone found a copy of this pamphlet again in twenty or thirty years, when there might actually be enough workers in the world to count. The pamphlet may have been in German, but its London publication came through in every sentence. The English are too advanced to have lessons for the rest of us in anything other than history. But that refrain, “Working men of the world unite!”, worried me more than I wished.
Nevertheless, Julien seemed to have thought rather little of the whole thing. He accompanied me into town the following week and placed an order with the bookshop for the new volume of Balzac that was anticipated to arrive any day from Paris. “It is good that M. Balzac still writes.”
“Seventeen volumes and counting. You had time for novels before?”
“One must make time for some form of leisure. I had rather more time near the end than I did in the beginning.”
“One must have a great deal of dedication to complete medical studies.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t.”
“It was not the dedication that was lacking.” He continued with a defensiveness that surprised me, “I was the youngest intern at Necker in a generation. Necker was the most prestigious of the hospitals, and I stood and passed the exam for the internat after my first year.”
“And the body is sometimes weak,” he replied bitterly, looking at his hands as if they had failed him.
I did not press further. No one had ever discussed why Julien had left the medical school. All I was ever permitted to know was that one day, he was studying to be a doctor, and the next, he was bound for London to stay with a friend of my father and learn the English methods of finance. He stayed there for seven months and we never had a single letter from him in all that time. And then the whole mess with Henri Enjolras and his girl took over.
The last day of September came more quickly than expected, a day of full sun and summer heat but with the oddly yellow light of autumn. He invited me for a final swim of the season, and I agreed.
The wind came up cooler than one would think in the sun, but the sea was still warm. We did not speak much, but sitting on the beach, letting the wind dry the salt into our skin, I found myself finally exploring the marks they had left on him. The brand was not really a complete triangle the three sides never met, so the flesh inside the outline was normal rather than scarred. He had put on weight, and the dimples of the footprint in his back did not seem so deep. Each of these wounds had a different texture as I ran my fingers over them, a different way of marking his varied sufferings.
“Charles, I am not one of your men,” he accused me darkly.
“Christ, you would think that of me?” I must have looked as disgusted as I felt at the very idea. I was interested in scar tissue, not a seduction, and I told him so.
“And since everyone else has poked and prodded me, you wish to have your turn.”
“No,” I argued, perhaps a bit defensively.
He exhaled sharply, almost like a laugh. “You’ve been patient enough, I suppose. Beyond patient, really.” He took my hand and put it to his scarred cheek. Our eyes never met as I explored the twisting, rubbery tissue that had once been smooth skin. He pushed my hand away to rub at it himself soon enough. “Sorry. You would think by now I would know the salt causes it to itch.”
I laid my head on his shoulder, and from old habit, he was soon rubbing my back. It was both entirely right and entirely wrong all at once, and he seemed to know it.
The moment was over almost as soon as it had begun. He kissed my hair and murmured, “You’re not still seven.”
“I wish I was.” That was the summer he had taught me to swim, when we had sat on the beach and I could curl next to him and Enjolras didn’t intrude.
“No, you don’t. Don’t you remember how awful it was to be a child? Dependent on everyone for everything but kept in the dark and reliant on servants’ gossip for any news of import. Everything done for you, to you, regardless of your own opinion or your own understanding. The isolation, the loneliness, everyone certain that they know best when they patently do not.”
He might have been talking of his own imprisonment, but the tone was too light, lacking the bitterness I had come to expect. The punishment of prison is not just the revocation of free movement but the infantilisation of the man it engenders. I had watched men learn to walk again and not fully understood what I was seeing.
“But it was easier,” I protested feebly, mostly to keep him talking.
“Only when you choose to forget. You didn’t have any friends, either. Tagging along after us could not have been so amusing.”
It wasn’t. It was rather tedious. I did not understand precisely what they were doing, and sometimes they would start conversing in Latin or English just to keep me in the dark. “But don’t you wish you could go back?”
“Not to childhood. Wasn’t it better once we began to understand one another? The biggest disservice mother ever did was to let so many years go by without childbearing. She was more concerned with the maintenance of the estate than with our spiritual well-being. Other people have families; we were only children who happened to share parents. The older you got, the better I liked you, even if we did fight. I wish I could change many things about the past, but I don’t want to live it again. Let us make the future instead.”
Hélène looked at us rather curiously when we came up to the house, arms around each other, but she said nothing.
The settlement of September lasted only another week. On 6 October, Cavaignac announced that he was lifting the state of siege. Paris was open again.
As much as I wanted to hide the paper when that news was published, I knew I would only cause a row when he discovered it for himself. I did delay my departure for town and drink coffee with him while he breakfasted in order that I might be present for his reaction.
“You have read the paper?” he asked me after it was impossible to ignore the headline.
He rang for a servant. “Bring Lucie to me immediately, if you please.” Turning back to me, he announced, “I will be leaving tomorrow.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“There is nothing absurd about it. Lucie will pack, I will say goodbye to your wife, and we will board a train for Paris in the morning.”
“Have some consideration for the staff in Paris. At least write to the housekeeper to announce your return. Write today, say you will arrive in a week.”
“Ah, Lucie. The siege has been lifted. We are going home.” It hurt that he was now calling Paris “home” when he had been so adamant before that only Marseille could have that distinction.
She did not look excited to be leaving, but she dipped a curtsy and asked, “Shall I begin packing, monsieur?”
He glanced in my direction, but then ordered, “Not yet. We will leave on Friday.”
I thanked him when she had gone.
“You are perhaps right. It would be inconsiderate to simply turn up without warning, expecting to be fed and bathed when no preparations for food or water had been made.”
“You do not have to go at all. Particularly so soon. You have a life here. You have an order coming from the bookshop!”
He shrugged. “Hélène can have it if it comes after I am gone. A parting gift, if you will.”
It was the first time he had ever referred to my wife by name. I did not like it. I especially did not like how she did not even try to hide her shock when I announced that he was leaving. She is not attractive when she sits gaping like a fish.
“I thought you were unhappy I had offered that he might live with us. That situation is now resolved.”
“I was surprised, that was all. He really intends to go? Is that wise?”
“He is a grown man and can make his own decisions.”
“It would have been rather easier if he had gone earlier. Or later.”
At dinner that night, she asked him, “You will come for the holidays, will you not?”
“We will see.”
“Please consider it. I had thought we might make an attempt at taking Mathieu to mass this year, and he would so enjoy it if you were to accompany us.”
He smiled, but he would only reply, “We will see.”
It was an awkward week as we all began to withdraw from each other in anticipation of his departure. But Friday morning, we all breakfasted together a silent meal. The children were brought down to share in the goodbyes.
“Are you coming back?” Mathieu asked him.
“There will be a present at Christmas,” Julien promised the closest thing to an acknowledgement that he would return for the holidays that he was willing to make.
Hélène insisted on accompanying us to the station, to bid her goodbyes there. We embraced; she kissed him goodbye; Lucie helped him into the carriage. Before any of it could fully register, he was gone.
We were silent in the carriage. Hélène watched out the window the entire time rather than look at me. Dinner that night, even after a week of quiet and awkward dinners, seemed peculiarly silent. Life had returned to normal.
Chapter 10 ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 12 ~ Home