Around noon, Julien came into the study, where I was vainly attempting to do some work. He was dressed neatly in his borrowed clothing, his hair still wet from the bath I ordered be drawn for him as soon as he awakened.
“Why did no one wake me?”
I stood to speak to him. “I thought you could use the rest.”
“Sleep is for the idle. If I am to be here, I must be of use.”
“We will deal with that later. First, lunch is likely to be ready, then we must have you fitted for some new clothes, and we should do that soon, for I have only the one overcoat.”
“I have no need of it. It is as warm outside the prison as inside; indeed, with the sun, it may be warmer.”
“Yes, but you have now spent a night in a warm house. I do not want you to catch cold. You need your own things. And soon.”
He gave me the same look of resignation I had seen the previous night. It was so unlike him to just give in without a fight. But what I remembered of him was a lifetime away, and I had to remember that. No matter what, he was here, with me, home at last. I rang for lunch.
The meal was silent. I simply did not know what to say. So many years, yet so little to be said for them. Julien still did not eat, and I found my own appetite greatly diminished.
After we finally gave up on the attempt at a meal, I convinced him to put on my overcoat, then helped him into the carriage. He still refused to look at anything but his hands. The day was quite grey and threatened snow, but even the pale bit of sun let me examine him more closely. He had not seen the sun in sixteen years and was much the worse for it. In daylight, I could see that rather than white, his skin was almost yellowish - he looked quite ill. My coat was too big for him - his hands were hidden in the sleeves. One leg took a strange angle - likely it, too, had been broken.
I took him first to my barber for a proper shave and haircut. Jacques was a jovial old thing, about my father’s age, always willing to do anything.
“M. Combeferre, I didn’t expect to see you in town. What is it today? You are in need of neither shave nor haircut.”
“Jacques, I would like to introduce my older brother, Julien.”
“But I thought . . . Nevermind. A pleasure to finally meet you, monsieur.” The family had used Jacques for years - father would not stop talking about Julien if he had a captive audience, which Jacques always was.
Julien nodded politely, but was silent. That was the first time I realised how sunken his eyes had become. He squinted in the light of the shop - the sudden sunlight was perhaps not the best thing for his eyes, but today’s outing was necessary.
“So I guess I’m back to being M. Charles,” I joked. “My brother is in need of a shave and a haircut.”
“Of course. Just take your coat off and sit right down here, M. Combeferre,” Jacques ordered, friendly as always, pulling scissors and a razor out of his cabinet.
Julien gripped my forearm tightly with his good hand. “No shave,” he whispered, panicked. “No shave. Let Mlle Lucie do it.”
“Julien, what is wrong? Why won’t you let Jacques shave you?”
“No shave - no knives.” He just kept shaking his head. No knives. What had they done to him?
“Julien, shh. It’s all right. Jacques will not hurt you. And I’m right here. Nothing bad will happen. I’ll be right beside you the whole time.” That seemed to pacify him somewhat. He took my hand and refused to let it go until we left the barbershop. But I was able to get him to sit still for a proper haircut and shave in this manner.
“How short does he want it?&rldquo; Jacques asked me.
“Just even it out - I had one of our maids cut it last night, but I don’t think she understands a straight line. Leave as much length as you can, and try to keep at least somewhat close to what is in style. I guess just make it look better than this.”
“Of course, monsieur.” Under Jacques’ skillful hands, much of what was left of the worst was cut away from the back and sides so black was taking precedence over grey. “Is that all right?” he asked when he had finished. I had to admit that it was strange seeing Julien with short hair. For as far back as I could remember, he had worn his hair somewhat long - always longer than the fashion but too short to tie back, parted exactly in the centre and tucked behind his ears. Lucie had made sure that was an impossibility, and Jacques had, of course, cut it even shorter. But as strange as it seemed for me, I had to admit that it was effective. Most of the grey had been at the temples and around the back. With the back and sides cut very short and the still mostly black hair on top left longer, he looked younger, more his age.
“It looks fine to me.” I added in a whisper, “He is not an imbecile - speak to him, show him.”
“Of course, monsieur.” He pulled out a mirror for Julien. “What do you think?”
Julien stared at his reflection for a long time in silence. Finally, he nodded. “It will suffice,” he whispered.
“Now, for a shave. Is that all right with you, monsieur?” Jacques remembered to ask Julien.
Julien nodded slightly, though he gripped my hand even more tightly.
Jacques went about his work in silence. He was never silent - the situation had thrown him. Julien was tense and watched the razor cautiously, but he was silent. When Jacques finished, he produced the mirror again. “Monsieur?”
Julien took it and examined himself again. He slowly ran a hand over his face and through his hair, which was beginning to dry in the thick waves I remembered. He nodded slightly. “Much better,” he whispered.
I paid Jacques and helped Julien on with his coat. I thought he perhaps stood a little straighter, but I could not be certain. His once ramrod-straight posture had dissolved almost into a crouch, as if he were making himself as small as possible. Either a cramped cell or the desire to hide had made this a habit not quickly broken.
I had expected the carriage ride across town to the tailor’s to be conducted in the same painful silence. Thankfully, I was wrong. Julien spoke almost as soon as the carriage started moving.
“I wish to apologise for my behaviour in there. I allowed a childish fear to get in the way of a necessary act. I must learn to control myself better in the future. I am sorry.” His voice was certainly stronger - much above the whisper he used in public, though still rather hoarse, apparently from disuse.
“Don’t worry about it. People will think what they will.”
“He thought me an imbecile.”
“Because you did not speak and you panicked over a razor. Let him think it - you will most likely never see him again.”
“You want an explanation, do you not?”
“You don’t have to tell me anything.”
He looked down at his hands again, playing with his fingers for a while, then he suddenly looked up. “Men with knives. I do not know why they tortured me, but they did. I did nothing wrong; I had no information to give them. There are scars.” He quickly looked back down at his hands.
“Julien, I’m sorry.” I reached across to put a hand on his shoulder.
“I am sorry. It changes nothing.”
I abruptly pulled back. “Of course.” I did not know what else to say.
“Why must you take me to a tailor? Something ready-made would be suitable.”
“Because my brother is not going to wear something of that poor quality. And, if you want me to be perfectly frank, nothing ready-made is going to fit you properly in your state.” I immediately cursed myself for mentioning it.
He said nothing until we arrived. He still required my help to descend from the carriage, but he took my arm and endeavoured to hold himself straighter. “I am not an imbecile. Not like the rest of them.”
The rest of them. Broken in body, broken in mind as well? I did not want to know, but I could not help remembering what M. Radet had told me - “his mind is still intact.” Meaning some men’s minds were not. I thought it best to give it no more reflection. I would rather remain ignorant of some things. Just as I turned to enter the shop, I found myself face to face with the last person I wanted to see. “Sébastien.”
“Charles. It is good to see you.” He was not as cold as I thought he would be.
“I wish I could say the same thing. What are you doing here?” I immediately cursed my pettiness - I knew my anger was obvious in my voice, but I could not seem to stop myself.
“Having the buttons on my coat replaced. I might ask you the same question, since you do not even live in Paris.”
“I am here with my brother.”
“Your brother?” The news surprised him. “But I thought - You told me - He’s supposed to be -”
“The government lied to my family. I suppose I ought to introduce you. Sébastien Ture, my brother, Julien Combeferre.”
“It is truly an honour to meet you, monsieur. Charles speaks of you often. I had often been sorry that I should never meet you. This is an unparalleled delight.” He hadn’t changed at all. As charming as ever, just as beautiful as when he left me. If anything, the light in his brilliant blue eyes was brighter. He seemed taller, perhaps, though it must have been my faulty memory. I thought he was out to spite me or something: I had been the one to convince him to grow his hair out, and now, though he almost always kept it tied back when he was with me, he was wearing his beautiful, thick blond hair down around his shoulders. It was shorter, yes - just to his shoulders - but it was obvious that he not really cut it short at any point in the eight months we had been separated. Was it possible I had forgotten how beautiful he was? I had to jerk myself back to the scene before me.
They shook hands - the first time Julien had voluntarily touched a stranger. “I feel I should apologise for my brother - discretion was never a part of his character, and he tells me you were hurt by it. I am truly sorry, monsieur, for any pain my brother has caused you.”
Sébastien’s eyes were amused, but his countenance remained serious. “Apology accepted, M. Combeferre. Since you are in town, would you do me the honour of dining with me some evening this week? After all that Charles has told me, I should very much like to pick your brain regarding the revolution.”
“Which revolution?” Julien was actually entertaining the notion! My brother and my ex-lover in a room together. And to suddenly jump to socialising with Sébastien after a night of hardly speaking to me? I was certain Julien was still trying to get to me somehow - no matter how long he was in there, he was still Julien. And his memories of me were sixteen years old and not far from the truth, I feared.
“The most recent one.”
“I have not yet had time to see much in the way of results. There are some very capable young men involved, which bodes well for the new government, but the outcome is by no means certain. After sixteen years of darkness, even this bit of sun hurts my eyes. I am not alone - all of France was with me in that darkness. It will be difficult not to seek the diminution of the light.”
“Admirably expressed. A more pragmatic view than the blind optimism I heard on the barricades. I thank you for your insight.”
“You were on the barricades then?”
“What?” I could not stop myself, so I kept going. “You were on the barricades?”
“Yes, Charles, I was,” he said evenly. Damn. He was getting angry. He turned back to Julien. “It seems foolish, I know, considering who I am, but I let myself get caught up in it. I know that in a lot of ways, the battles are for the schoolboys, then the rule is yielded to the men, but I thought that if you had done it, monsieur, perhaps I was not so wrong to participate.” This was Sébastien? He had certainly fallen in with a bad crowd on his return to Paris. He had never cared much for politics. Did he realise what he was doing? He could have been killed! Or imprisoned and tortured like my brother. I could not bear the thought of his recklessness.
I had to intervene. “We have to be going. I can’t say it was good to see you, Sébastien.”
“Don’t be petty, Charles - it’s unbecoming. Monsieur, it was a pleasure to meet you. And I do hope this shall only be au revoir.” As charming as ever. I still loved him; no matter what, I would always fall for him over and over again.
Julien, thankfully, simply bid him good day, and Sébastien walked off. I watched him go. He did look very well. I had hoped for some sign of suffering, I suppose, but that was nowhere to be found. I did miss him. But he would never come back to me.
Julien interrupted my thoughts. “The resemblance is striking.”
“Resemblance?” Of course he noticed. Anyone who knew them both would notice.
“Do not play childish games, Charles. He looks remarkably like Henri Enjolras. So that is why you tormented us so. I knew you had never told me the whole truth, but I certainly never expected that this is what you were keeping from me.”
I could feel myself reddening. “It wasn’t important. It still isn’t. A stupid, childish crush, perhaps - certainly nothing more.”
“Yet you fall in love, or claim to, with a pale reflection of him.”
“We certainly do not need to discuss this now. Let’s go inside.”
He grabbed my arm. “Is this necessary, Charles? There are - there are scars. I am sure of it. Everywhere I can reach, I feel them. No one should see that.”
Everywhere he could reach? Dear god, what had happened? But he was not so agitated as he had been at the barbershop. “Please? No one will say anything. And you need clothes. Please do it. For me?”
He looked at the ground for a while, then finally looked up to make eye contact. “Very well. It must be done.” He took a deep breath and we went inside.
André, my tailor, was not as surprised to see me as Jacques had been. It was a bit early, yes, but I often stopped in Paris for a day or so on my way out of the country, so that I could pick up the finished product when I returned. I was about a month early, but my time could range from the beginning of the season to almost Easter, most often around the middle of March. I would usually only be in town for a day, but André did not know my habits. For all his mannerisms, we had never traveled in the same circles.
“M. Combeferre! How might I help you today?” André always seemed more of a fairy than anyone I had ever slept with, and he was in rare form today, taking mincing steps towards us as he clapped his hands. In spite of his manner, he was as straight as they come, with ten children at home, at last count. One per year since he was married, I believe, but I was in no mood to explain that to Julien. Let him think whatever he liked. Sébastien had soured my mood.
“André, this is my older brother, Julien. He needs, well, everything. Suits, linen, overcoat, shoes - everything.”
He gave Julien a look that I did not like, bordering on distaste, but how could anyone refuse such a massive order? I would be spending nearly a thousand francs on clothes for Julien, and with ten children at home, André could not afford to refuse the commission. He covered himself the best he could. “Yes, of course. Come in, monsieur, come in, and let us take a look at what you would like.” I had to push Julien forward out of the doorway, but he took the next steps on his own. “Why don’t we take some measurements first, then we’ll see what to do with them, hmm?”
Julien seized up again, but a hand on his shoulder seemed to calm him. He was tense, yes, but I could feel it lessen slightly when I laid my hand on his shoulder. “Very well.”
“Come right on back, then. M. Charles, why don’t you and my apprentice start discussing the business while I take M. Combeferre’s measurements?”
“No. I want Charles with me.” His voice was the firmest I had heard it since he came home, Julien wanted me with him. Meaning whatever there was to see, he wanted me to see, not just some stranger.
“Of course I’ll stay with you, Julien. I know it’s rather irregular, André, but we’re doing it regardless.”
“Of course, messieurs. In the back, s’il vous plaît.” Julien refused my arm for the walk to the back of the shop, which I thought was a good sign.
Once in the room André used for fitting and alterations, with the door safely locked, I helped Julien off with his coat and took a seat in front of the mirror, effectively blocking it, which I thought best. “I’m right here, Julien. Just sitting here until you need me, ok?” He nodded.
“Alright, monsieur. Whenever you are ready.”
Julien shot me a look of terror, but he slowly began to unbutton his shirt. I was afraid of what I might see. He would not be hurried, but he had a look of concentration on his face. No matter how difficult it might be, he was going to do something in an appropriate manner today. He looked up at me every so often. Finally, he got his shirt off. I was not prepared for what I saw.
I think I could pick out every one of his ribs. There was the bullet wound I had noticed earlier, and another one towards the right side of his shrunken stomach. His upper arms were both criss-crossed with a network of fine scars - I supposed those were the knives. Julien would not look at me as André quickly took the measure of his shoulders and arms, scribbling the numbers in a book around his neck.
“I will take your inseam now, monsieur. To the right or to the left?”
Julien did not answer, but he turned slightly in order to present his left side to André, allowing me to see his back. The horrid mess that was his back. The lines on his arms were not the only ones - they continued across his shoulders. His shoulderblades seemed to cut through his skin, and there was a permanent footprint in the small of his back, composed of dents the size of the American coin called a dime. There was a scar to match the one on his abdomen - one bullet had pierced him through. It was all I could do not to gasp in horror at what I saw. I had not expected anything nearly as bad or as widespread as this, even though he said he could feel the scars everywhere. There was even a brand on his left shoulder - a hollow triangle the size of a big sou. My brother was branded as a common criminal, and André had to see that. The measurements were soon completed and Julien could dress again, much more quickly than he had undressed. When he had finished and looked at me with sorrowful eyes, I went over to him and put my arm around his shoulders, whispering “I understand. I will never ask again.”
“You will never understand, because there are scars you will never see,” he whispered back.
“Well, now that we have measurements, let us look at patterns and cloth. I have just got in a new bolt of a muted red that would do nicely for a waistcoat.”
“Black. I only wear black. Simplest cut possible, average fabric. I do not need the finest. Same with linen. Simple and plain.”
“Very well, monsieur. But please, at least have a look at what I can offer you.“
“Please, Julien? Let us finish this out properly.”
With a sigh, rubbing his temples with his good hand, he gave a slight nod. I promised we would be done in a moment. The stress of the afternoon, coupled with brighter light than he had seen in many years, was giving him a migraine. Julien had suffered from terrible headaches most of his adult life, always brought on by stress, I think. The revolution only made them worse, and he likely continued to be often in great pain through the stress of imprisonment, beatings, and torture.
André gave it no notice. “Right this way, messieurs.” He took us back to the front of the shop, where his assistant had already prepared several bolts of cloth for Julien’s inspection. “Please, monsieur, feel whatever you like. I have a book of patterns which may interest you.”
Julien flipped through the book, immediately choosing the simplest coat possible, though it was about ten years out of style. The rest of his choices were equally simple, taking the worst of the cloth André presented him. I was forced to make some better choices for him myself, behind his back: a simply cut grey and a fashionable black suit, and better quality linen than he had chosen. My brother was going to dress properly for once in his life, even if it killed him to do it. I ordered that much haste be made with the order, that a suit, half the linen, and the overcoat be ready in four days’ time.
When we were finally able to leave, Julien collapsed wearily in the carriage, rubbing his temples. “I did it. He had no reason to think ill of me.” Was there perhaps a note of triumph in his voice?
I smiled. I was proud of him, as condescending as that sounds. After the barbershop, I realised how difficult it was going to be, but he went through it without incident. “You look worn out.”
“It is only a headache. It will pass. They always do.”
“Too much for one day, wasn’t it?”
“You felt it necessary; I thought it superfluous.” We were arguing again.
“It was necessary. You needed a proper haircut, and we had to order clothes for you. You should rest when we get home.”
“Home? That house was never my home; neither was it yours.”
“True enough. I did not intend the connotation, simply that I prefer not say ‘when we return to the house’. It sounds terrible. Regardless of how we refer to the place, when we get there, you should rest.”
Julien nodded slightly in agreement, evidently to the suggestion that he rest. We finished the ride in silence. I had to help him out of the carriage, but he was able to make it up the stairs himself, using only the banister as support, though he went very slowly. “Wake me for dinner if I happen to fall asleep,” he ordered me from the top of the stairs before disappearing into his room.
I returned to the study, more to think than to work. I found it more soothing to my mind to pull out pencil and paper to draw rather than write. I could not help sketching Julien’s face, the twisting, jagged scar unconsciously forming under my hand. Perhaps I flatter myself, but I do think I draw fairly well from memory.
Someone came to the door, but did not come in. A short time later, the butler brought me a note. I immediately recognised the hand. Sébastien. My first reaction was to throw it into the fire. But perhaps he was bending. I needed him so much. I read the short letter slowly, hoping to find a good sign of something, anything, resembling an attempt at reconciliation.“Charles,
“I was glad to run into you and your brother this afternoon. He is everything you said he was, gracious, intelligent, severe. But it must be obvious to you that the rest of the world can see something is not right with him physically. While it must pain you to explain it so often, there has been much between us, and I think I deserve to know what has happened to him. By all our love, I deserve an explanation.
“Doubtless you realise Paris, and myself, are greatly changed. Do you still worship that golden idol and disdain he who worships your sainted brother? It is not the worship of a lover, I assure you, but that of student for his teacher. All I ever saw around you was pain, except when we were alone. You drag it behind you as a cloud of death. Yet I still love you. You think I have fallen in with a miserable crowd, indeed, on my return to Paris. I could see it in your eyes. On the contrary, it is a marvelous group without expectations. They do not think it wrong of me to participate in their dreams, for I have very few of my own anymore. It is not the politics that draw me back day after day; I care as little for them as I ever did. They have hope; they give me hope, which is the one thing you could never give me. I need that hope, to savour it, to drink enough of it that I can begin to live again. The memory of all you told me of your brother propelled me forward, and you see the end result. I suppose I should thank you for your insistence, all those years ago, that I grow my hair out. The comparison to Jefferson is a running joke among my friends. And they are my friends, no matter what you may think. You need not fear my presence here. I have sought out none of our common acquaintance in the past eight months. You are as free here as I am.
“I hope we may communicate in person. My address follows this letter. Please, give my regards to your sainted brother, and tell him that the invitation to dine will forever stand. Come to me as late or as early as you like - I am desperate to know the truth. Leave your card under the door if I am not in. And please, Charles, do not come to argue. I have moved beyond anger. Your temper makes you quite ugly, especially when you are petulant.
“All my love, etc.”
I did not know what to make of it. Sébastien still loved me, that much was certain, but he had been led into ever greater worship of Julien, which had changed him. Yet he was right. When had I ever been able to give him hope? He gave me hope, but we both knew nothing could come of our relationship but scandal and shame. Regardless, I had to try. He wanted to see me alone. Perhaps reconciliation was possible, in spite of what he said. I checked my watch. Julien was likely asleep and would sleep until dinner. I had three hours before dinner. But I stopped myself. I could not allow myself to become to eager. I would argue if my head was not clear, and three hours was surely not enough time, if we did restore our relationship. No, I could not go that day. It would have been wrong. I returned to my reveries, which more and more strayed to Sébastien, my beautiful, kind Sébastien.
Just before dinner was set to be served, I knocked on Julien’s door. Receiving no answer, I tried the door and found it unlocked today. He had told me to wake him, so I thought it would not be wrong to enter.
The room was as dark as he could make it, which made it pitch black by the time I went in, around eight in the evening. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but it seemed that Julien was not in the room at all. The bed was empty, he was not in the chair, and there was no sign of anything having been disturbed, as if he had never been in the room. I was puzzled, and set to go back out, even had the door opened for the purpose, when I heard a sound in the corner. Crouched against the dark wardrobe, Julien had been effectively hidden in the darkness, the light catching his white shirt and pale skin in the same way it caught the white wall behind him.
I immediately went over to him. “Julien? Are you all right?” I knelt beside him.
He jerked his head up at once. My eyes were adjusting, and the light from the doorway helped me exceedingly. His eyes were bright with tears. “I am quite well, Charles. I must have misjudged the time.” The remains of his weeping were evident in his voice, though he tried to conceal them.
“Dinner will be ready pretty soon, I think. It should be, anyway.”
He looked at the far wall, probably at a greater distance than the walls of his cell had been. “You should not have come. You had no right to intervene in the justice the Furies have meted out.” We had been raised Catholic, but Julien had long ago ceased to be a Christian in any sense. He believed in the Fates and the Furies, and perhaps some of the ancient Greek gods, but not in Our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
“How did I not have the right? I am your brother.”
“Henri Enjolras was more of a brother to me than you ever were. Why did you bring me to this place? I never liked this house. You should have left me to finish rotting away in some dark corner of the city.”
“I always loved this house because this is the only place that ever had good memories for me. You were never around in Nice, but you were here with me when the holidays came. I was not about to let you rot away. You’re my brother, and I love you, and I want to make things right.”
He bowed his head in a singular manner, which would have hidden his face completely if his hair had still been long. He realised it was impossible to hide and looked back at the wall, running his good hand through his hair. “You wanted to make things right,” he repeated.
“Of course. You may not believe it, but I have grown up, Julien. What I wanted more than anything in coming up here was your forgiveness. I know I must have done some things that helped aggravate the already brewing conflict between us, and I am sorry for it. I never wanted to lose you.”
“It is too late. I am already lost.”
“No. I refuse to believe it.” I sat back a bit. “I was supposed to leave for Stockholm tomorrow, but I don’t think I will. I thought we’d spend some time together, here in the city, let you get used to things again before I take you to meet Hélène.”
“Whatever you wish. You have already proven that you control me.”
“Don’t let’s fight. Dinner is likely ready. Come downstairs with me.”
“I am not hungry.”
“You have to eat. Please?”
“Go on down. I will follow in a moment.”
I did as he asked. I never really disobeyed Julien. He came down a few minutes later, his hair neatly combed and his clothes straightened, no sign that he had been crying. He refused my help, but he began to eat silently. Again, the same awkward silence arose between us, as thick as the walls of the prison. “I have no plans, since I am not to go to Stockholm. I suppose we will not leave the house again for some time.”
“I have no wish to leave this house unless it is to relieve you of this burden.”
“You are not a burden, Julien. You are no more of a burden to me than Mother was to Father.”
“You contradict yourself.” Everyone knew the marriage was forced, but I never thought it was that bad before Julien died. I saw it get worse after the insurrection failed.
“I speak of before you died. It deteriorated quickly without you.”
“Mother tired of not condemning me to the entire world?”
“Mother became ill. Less than a year after your death, she removed herself to Nice, hoping the air would be better. Father refused to go. All because you were no longer there.” Damn it all! I had no wish to discuss it so soon after he came home.
“How did she die?” he asked softly, almost tenderly. He was Father’s son and always hated Mother. Their arguments were the most bitter. To hear his tone, one would think he actually did love her.
“The doctors never really knew for sure. She felt ill, and spent many years wasting away. It took nearly ten years to kill her, whatever it was. I only got married because she begged me so much. Father came down to Nice for the wedding because Mother was too weak to travel. I think planning it kept her alive a few more months, because she died two weeks later. Father had already returned to Paris, and he would not come, though we wired him.”
“Wired him?” he asked.
“Wire. I’m sorry. Things have changed greatly. The telegraph wire had just gone up between Paris and Nice when mother died. I sent Father a message over the wire, but he responded that he would not come.”
“Telegraph wire,” he repeated
“Yes. A horrid little machine, but very handy for business. Wires are going up all over France and England, and even America will soon be covered. I only use it for emergencies, as most people do, but it is quite handy for getting short messages out of town quickly.”
“You think me stupid, do you not? Having to have something that seems so simple to you explained to me?”
“You’ve been outside of society for sixteen years. No one could ever consider you stupid, Julien. I have no doubt that in a week, you will be explaining to me exactly how the infernal machine functions.”
“Then you do not think me an imbecile?”
“Of course not. Certain things have come about very quickly, that is all. If you ask ten people in the street, I would wager that fewer than five would know about the telegraph. It is not the realm of the poor. Though if it starts working better, the machines break down constantly, the cost may no longer be prohibitive. There are lines only to Nice, Marseilles, Toulon, Lille, Le Havre, Lyon, and Strasbourg at the moment, which are necessary for business. When lines extend to the provinces, as they will in ten years, I am sure, then it will be strange not to know the telegraph. But certainly not now.”
“As you say, much has changed.” He was silent for a long time. “So Mother died because of me?” he finally asked quietly.
“No. What would your fates have to say to you now? If she couldn’t live to see her own grandchildren, you certainly did not kill her.”
“What happened to Father?”
“He remained in Paris, and I took the house in Nice. He stopped running the business himself long ago, and I started working after I was married. It breaks up the monotony, traveling, though I do not like it exceedingly.”
“You never tried for the Beaux-Arts, then?&rldquo;
“How could I? You left me as the only child, and a son at that. Meant I had to marry Hélène, had to study something legitimate, and could not spend my life as I had wanted.” I wondered if I sounded as bitter as the words seemed to when I thought back through them, too late to take any of it back.
Julien looked at his plate. “I am sorry.” I had sounded bitter. Perhaps I was, a bit. I might still have met Sébastien even if I studied at the Beaux-Arts, and we would have been able to have a real life together. But it was useless wishing for anything.
“I’m sorry. It probably sounded as if I cared more than I do. I didn’t exactly imagine things turning out like this, but then, who does? If it gives me a chance to make things better between us, I don’t care.”
“You are trying too hard. You make me think you want something from me, Charles.”
“Good! You’ve done this to me your whole life!” I knew I should not shout at him, but I could not stop myself in time. “You’ve always been working your way into my brain, picking around, forcing me to wonder your motives every time!”
He looked at me for a long time. I was silent, unable to speak. “Where are my clothes?”
“What?” Why was he asking after his clothes?
“The clothes I came here wearing. Where are they?”
“I had them burned. Why ask something like that? Those were not clothes; they were rags at best.”
“I do not wish to be accused of stealing. I will leave tonight, and you will not be troubled by me again.”
“When have I ever joked with you?”
He never had. Never once had we laughed, or he teased me as he should have, or any of the little things that build a family bond. We were related, but we were not a family in that sense. I only learned it from passing a summer at the home of a friend from school. “I will not let you leave.”
“Then you admit I am your prisoner?”
“No! You are free, of course!”
“Then I shall leave. You obviously have a great many words to cover up a complete lack of feeling.” He stood to go.
I could not help it. I will forever curse myself for my weakness that night, how I acted as a child or a woman. His last words cut too deeply into my already wounded soul, and I began to cry. Hard sobs came quickly, probably harder than I had ever cried over Julien in my life. Control was impossible. I looked up at him, the world blurred by tears, and he softened. I could not truly get hold of myself, not even after he closed the distance between us and put a hand on my shoulder. I seemed to have lost control forever, though it could have been only a few minutes. I quickly wiped my eyes and stood. “I’m sorry. I can control myself better, really. Please, do not go.”
Julien looked at me for a long time, as if he was unsure what to do or even what to think. Finally, he asked, “Do you truly want me to stay?”
“It is the only thing I want, that I have ever wanted.”
He nodded. “It was foolish of me to believe I could survive on the streets.”
I could not stop myself. I hugged him. We had not touched in such a manner since I was a small child, and he obviously could not react. He stood there, stiffly, slowly putting his arms around me, as if he was terrified of the touch, but afraid of doing the wrong thing as well. I pulled back as soon as the realisation came to me. “I’m sorry. Shall I have them wake you in the morning?”
“Please. No later than nine o’clock.”
“Do you need help with the stairs?”
“I can manage alone.”
Another sleepless night of tears. How many more would there be before everything became normal?
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