And yet he continued to avoid meals for the next two days. When I asked Lucie how he did, she pulled a face and displayed an empty soup bowl. “This will be full of his skin in an hour, that’s how he does. Monsieur.” It was not an excuse for her tone with me, but it was reasonable enough to not press him to join us for dinner. When he finally did make an appearance at dinner, after nearly a week, he still looked rather sore, but his colour was predominantly Moorish instead of Indian. It was a stiff and hurried meal, Hélène and Julien afraid to look at each other.
Once he had healed somewhat, his wanderings began. Often in the company of Lucie, he would leave after breakfast, sometimes not returning until dinner. Dinner remained awkward and silent - he would not tell us where he went. I finally caught Lucie alone one morning, sitting by the window in his room, mending one of his shirts.
“Where is Julien?”
“Out, monsieur. As I told the cook, he will not return for luncheon today.”
“But where is he?”
“I don’t know, monsieur.”
“Did he take his luncheon with him? I know you have done that before.”
“Where do you think he is?”
“I don’t think I ought to say, monsieur.”
I sat down - she obviously knew something of importance, but it was going to take more than a few minutes to get it out of her without her then relaying my interrogation back to Julien. “Have you enjoyed your stay here?”
“Oh, yes, monsieur. I never saw the sea before.”
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It’s like a painting, only real,” she replied enthusiastically, her sewing forgotten for the moment.
“I’m afraid you don’t see much of it, trapped up here in the house.”
“Oh, no, monsieur. M. Julien showed me the path down to the beach, you know. I go nearly every day, even when he does not. I’ve even - I’m sorry, monsieur. I shouldn’t say.”
“It’s all right. You are not in any trouble.”
She looked down at her sewing. “I’ve gone to the fishing village alone, monsieur.”
“The fishing village? Les Goudes? That must be a good four miles!”
“But it’s so beautiful, and the wind off the sea is so lovely, and they give me water and sweet wine when they see me because they think M. Julien is my father, I think, and I don’t know how to tell them he isn’t because they don’t speak French, but they are so kind. They don’t speak French! And sometimes, the fishermen make a fire on the beach and roast the fish they’ve just caught. To think, I’ve eaten a fish that was swimming in the sea not an hour before!”
“Where else have you been?”
“I’ve said too much already, monsieur.”
“I’m not asking about Julien. I’m asking about you.”
“The beach and the village and the sanatorium are the only places I go without him.”
“You go to the sanatorium?”
“Part of the grounds isn’t fenced, and the gardens there have some different flowers than the gardens here.”
“If Julien were to stay here, would you stay?”
“But he won’t stay here. He is only hiding from the soldiers.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“We will return when the heat breaks. It is nice to be out of Paris in August - Paris is so dusty.”
“I thought I heard voices,” Hélène interrupted. “Really, Charles, I had thought the maids were safe.”
“We were just talking. I was looking for Julien.”
“He has walked into town. I thought you were going to the office today.”
“Why should she be the only person in the house to know things? He asked at breakfast if I needed anything. I offered him a carriage but he insisted on walking. You should be pleased - he is no longer hiding himself in our house, and we spoke to each other in a quite civilised manner.”
“Have you walked into town with him, Lucie?”
“I don’t think I ought to say, monsieur.”
“It isn’t a secret if he is offering to run errands for me.”
She looked at Hélène, then at me, and finally addressed her sewing. “Yes. We walk along the beach rather than the road and come in along the docks. He has stopped several times outside a blacksmith’s shop. He never speaks to anyone, just listens to the hammer on the anvil.”
“How many times have you gone?”
“Three. In the past two weeks. But I think he’s gone without me, too, because he knew where the forge was.”
“He never speaks to anyone?”
“Hélène, stay out of this.” She left in a huff.
“I shouldn’t say anything more. I shouldn’t have said anything at all.”
“You have done just as you should. He has money with him, doesn’t he?”
“He will eat?”
She visibly relaxed. “Oh, yes, monsieur. There is a workingman’s café we have stopped at before. He is much better, monsieur.” She even smiled.
I let her go back to work. Hélène was waiting for me in the hall. “What was that?”
“My brother is not really any of your business, particularly when you have accused me of corrupting his maid.”
“I don’t enjoy hearing your voice in unexpected bedrooms when I believe you to be out. Really, I think it’s romantic. Don’t make an argument over this.”
“His trips into town.”
“What is possibly romantic about this?”
“The blacksmith’s daughter. I think he was in love with her himself. He goes to the forge, and today I would bet he is laying flowers on her grave.”
“My brother’s life is not a novel, a vehicle for your romantic speculation.”
“I can’t have nice thoughts about him now?”
“I thought he was a traitor and a murderer.”
“He is also gentlemanly and looks as miserable and out of place in your life as I feel. And if his life were a novel, I would welcome any scene that eases pain because I won’t have one in my own life.” She walked off, and I did not even know if I should stop her.
Instead, I called for the carriage and went into town. I had my driver drop me at the office, but after he had left, I went to the hôtel de ville and found the records division. Unfortunately, the clerk was too young to know what I wanted, to remember what a stir there had been, so I had to go to the library to dig through stacks of old newspapers.
As it turned out, I would have asked for the wrong year had I even remembered the girl’s surname. Émilie Duchamp, 23 years old, beaten to death 6 November 1826. Her killers never found. Then I went back to the hôtel de ville, where the clerk was able to tell me she had been buried in the cimetière St-Charles.
But I went back to the office. Hélène’s speculations could hardly be true - Julien was not the sort to have allowed himself the emotion of a love triangle. If it were a triangle, his love had been for Henri Enjolras and of the purest kind. Yet I did not dare go to her grave because I was certain he would be there. He had taken his day to mourn Enjolras; it only made sense that he would take his day to mourn the girl Enjolras had so wished to marry. And I did not wanted to see it.
I did, however, want to know. So I went down there, close to closing time, and asked the gatekeeper to help me find her grave. He did not mention if anyone else had asked him for it lately, and I did not dare ask, but there was a large bouquet of wildflowers, as are found on the dunes, wilted from the heat.
“Did you have a pleasant day?” I asked him at dinner.
“Yes, the weather has been very fine.”
“A bit hot for so much walking, I should think.”
“When you have spent so many years in the cold, you would not tire so easily of the hot sun.”
“Will you stay the rest of the summer?” Hélène asked.
“Until the heat breaks. With your permission, madame.”
“Of course. Paris must be dead in August. Marseille certainly is.”
“Only the fashionable quarters are deserted. Most people cannot afford to leave.”
“Of course. Forgive me.”
“Not at all. But you are correct - nothing happens in the city in August.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you like. I am surprised you went into town today - it must have been awfully hot and dull.”
He flushed. “It was quiet, and that was my intention.”
“What did you do all day?” I asked.
“I walked into town. I dined. I walked around a bit more. I returned here. The sea breeze makes it quite comfortable to walk along the shore.”
I did not know how to ask what I wanted to know, so we resumed our now-habitual silence.
After dinner, Julien returned to his room, and I followed Hélène to the drawing room to read a little before bed. “He went to the cemetery,” I told her. Of course, she was actually reading, so I had to repeat myself.
“Did you follow him?”
“No! I never even saw him. But I went to the cemetery before they closed for the evening, and someone had placed wildflowers on her grave, so I don’t think it was her family. They’re working people, wouldn’t have the time to tramp over the dunes when you can get proper flowers from the girl at the gate for a sou.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“To apologise for this morning?”
“I thought he didn’t exist for my romantic speculation.”
“You read too much George Sand. But it’s better than acting as if you fear he’ll slit our throats one night.”
“Since he is going to stay, I have to have some way to cope with him.”
“So do I. He has become a complete stranger in the past sixteen years. But I don’t want to speculate. I want to know.”
“Following him is not the answer. Interrogating his maid is not the answer. I did not have you followed, though you deserved it. I acknowledged I could never know you. Not everyone lives for you.”
“I know. But he has been sheltered so long; someone has to keep him safe.”
“He is a grown man. And so are you. And protecting him will not make him love you. It hasn’t even made me love you.”
“What would make you love me again?”
“You want my love? I’m not foolish enough to believe that again. You betrayed me on our honeymoon - that alone proves you never cared.”
“You kept disappearing in Venice. If he did not meet you there, then you met prostitutes. I am not a fool anymore.”
“Sébastien was in Paris the whole time, and I never patronised prostitutes, in Venice or anywhere else.”
“Models, then. Did you find yourself a David?”
“Yes, models. I did some actual painting in Venice. I told you this then.”
“You were gone more often than what you shared with me would have required to produce.”
“I was monitoring my mother’s health. I spent more time at the post office than I ever wanted to. I never spent an evening away from you.”
“And I didn’t think anything of it, then, but I was young and naive, and when you proved adept at practising on me, many things took on a new and distressing coloration. I think your brother trusts me more than he trusts you precisely because he knows what you did to me. Why should he tell you where he goes when you interrogate his servant in his absence? He’ll tell me, and even try to be polite, because he knows I couldn’t care less what he does, so long as he is out of my house.”
“I don’t understand you. Do you like him or don’t you?”
“I don’t know! He is kinder to me than you have been since we were married, more honest, more gentlemanly. But to look at him is to remember what he did. I don’t know. I do know the only way I have been able to cope has been to think of him as a character in a novel, because his contradictions cannot be real otherwise. And if this were a novel, I would feel terribly sorry for him and want him to fall in love with the heroine and go on to have the perfect bourgeois lifestyle - and I suppose election to the Chamber of Deputies - that he deserves. But in real life, I don’t know. And when he leaves, I won’t have to know.”
“And who is the heroine in this novel?”
“If you are trying to insinuate that I see myself in the role, you are quite mistaken,” she replied coldly. “A widow of a certain age and education, perhaps. If it were a novel, you and I would not exist at all because you would try to make yourself the main character.” No longer angry, merely, confused, she asked, “Is this an apology or an argument?”
“An apology. I’m going to bed.”
“You are not coming?”
“I want to finish this chapter.”
And here you see the truth of our marriage. “I want to finish this chapter.” We have separate bedrooms, usually separate sitting rooms, and when we do come together, it is an interruption.
On Saturday, Julien asked if he might take the carriage into town. “I would like to attend mass at the Cathedral tomorrow.”
“Since when are you a Christian again?”
“It is not heresy to join the English tourists in listening to the chant, is it?”
“I don’t know. Is it?”
“I think we should all go,” Hélène insisted brightly.
“Of course. I thought you preferred your chapel, or I would have suggested it sooner.”
“I think it would make a nice change.”
So we went to mass. I kept an eye on Julien, who did precisely what he had said he wanted to do - stand at the rear with the tourists and let the tones of the plainchant flow over him. I had expected a rendez-vous of some sort, but indeed, he had come solely for the music. After, the carriage returned for us and we went home to a cold luncheon on the terrace.
“I had never thought of mass as a musical concert,” Hélène said, “but you are right - it is beautiful to listen to at Ste-Marie-Majeure.”
“I hope my request did not offend you. I have not heard music in such a long time.”
“Not at all. Thought it is curious that Charles calls you a heathen.”
“But I am. If I had not been before, I certainly would be now. Can you really believe this world is directed by a benevolent god who seeks to perfect his creation in order to bring it to eternal salvation? Slavery, war industrialisation, the continual triumph of men who seek power over men who seek salvation, and all earthly attempts at betterment rebuffed. If a god is all-knowing and all-powerful, why so many false starts? Or, why have we not all been swept away again? We deserve it far more than the people of old. To give up on earthly punishment and defer to the Last Judgment is weak.”
“You have not understood the New Testament properly.”
“It is said that the American revolutionary and president Thomas Jefferson took a Bible, excised all mentions of God or miracles, and found that what was left was a perfectly legitimate code of morality, explained by a man named Jesus, that needed no reliance on divinity because it was whole in itself. I admire that man greatly.”
“If I remember correctly, Jefferson also thought there should be a revolution every twenty years,” I reminded him.
“As I said, I admire that man,” he replied evenly.
“But what do you believe?” She ignored me when I motioned for her to stop. “You must believe something.”
“Man should be perfectible, but we have gone nowhere and perhaps never will because we are guided by our own wants rather than the needs of the multitude. I used to think the dawn would come - look at how America inched forward to understand the necessity of throwing off the colonial and monarchical yoke - and yet they still wallow in slavery. A push is needed. A bonfire destroys, but it also provides light and heat in the night. I don’t like casualties, but I have had to sacrifice for the possibility of a light before the dawn. I had thought the perfectibility of man was written in the stars, destined to be, and we all had our roles to play. But I simplified too much. The Greeks nearly had it right. We all have our parts to play, but the struggle is not between revolution and reaction. There is the party of war and the party of knowledge and the party of the farmer and the party of the artisan and the party of love - and all direct their members in their own interests, with the party of power primary but hardly directing any of the rest.”
“Do you then believe in all the old gods and goddesses?”
“As types, personifications, yes. But not as actual deities. Nothing so romantic.”
“But then where do we come from?”
“What does it matter? From dust we come and to dust we shall return. I suppose we must have been created in the beginning, but no one has paid us a bit of attention since, unless it is pull us this way or that. There is no all-knowing guiding hand.”
“How very sad the world is to you.” She actually sounded sympathetic.
“And your revolutions every generation?” I asked.
“A necessity for the parties to discover the way in which they might live together in that time and place. Jefferson was more flippant with human life than I could ever be - when one lives in a debating chamber instead of on the battlefields of a revolution, one can see blood as a hypothesis - but he was not wrong. Look at us - absolute monarchy, Republic, Terror - because the Republic was not so rational - the Convention, Bonaparte and war, restoration, constitutional monarchy, and now we try a republic over again, but with the bourgeoisie to guard against excess. Something will happen next - there is no end stage in which the future world will remain a perfect constant until the end of time. Either this republic will collapse as the first did and the next generation will try something else, or it will last its generation and the next generation will feel oppressed and we will begin again.”
“You’re even gloomier than I remembered.”
“I have reason. And I always feared perhaps the Greeks had it right after all, that we grew progressively worse. I’m certain of that now. All the beautiful words seem to mean less, and if the Greeks thought they could not compete with their Homerian selves in honour and glory, what chance does the modern world have? There is more freedom, now, to choose one’s own path in so many more cases, and that is a great advance for society. But it is not real freedom, and there is less community, and I don’t know if this movement is up or down.”
He excused himself then, but Hélène asked me to stay. “He has always been like this? None of this is new?”
“He may have just wanted to be shocking at first, but I think in the end he started to believe in his own nonsense. And then, well, the criminal classes are as heathen as any Africans. Even the Mohammedans believe in a god and a book, little good though it does them. But it is no use discussing it. He lives to shock, but I don’t think he intends to overthrow the Pope. He thinks everyone - even me - is on this earth with a purpose, and everything we do is in service to that purpose. The fates have drawn it all out, and we are powerless to deviate from their course.”
“And yet he does not believe in God.”
“He doesn’t need a god. You heard him - he needs several to direct his opposing factions. I suppose they tell the fates what to make all us human puppets do.”
“How awful. How freeing and yet how awful. But if I had no choice but to marry you, and you had no choice but to be with that man in the yellow bedroom, how can he be angry with you when you were powerless to stop it?”
“And now you see why there is no use encouraging him. His morality and judgments are safely Christian. I think he truly does believe in purpose but doesn’t much like religion, so when he was a child, he latched onto the Greeks as a way to shock everyone by professing something ridiculous. But that was in our youth. I fear he may actually believe what he told us today, in the realm of metaphor, but he won’t admit that God has to be behind it.”
“I’ve never heard such curious conversation. I rather enjoyed it, in a way. If he set out to shock me, he succeeded, though in an entertaining fashion.”
“Then I believe he failed.”
But it had been pleasant - he went out in public by choice, we all had a reasonably adult conversation, and no one fought. I decided he should do civilised things more often.
That determination lasted a week. Lucie came to excuse him from dinner. In her concern, she let slip that he had been injured in town. I found him in the kitchen, holding a fresh beefsteak over his left eye.
“Were you robbed or did you see the blacksmith?”
“Have you been following me?”
“If I had, I wouldn’t have had to ask. Really, a man of your age. Does it hurt?”
“The embarrassment and the swelling are far worse than the pain.”
“I hope it was not her father. The picture would be ludicrous.”
“It was her brother, and it makes the picture no better. Her father was happy to see me. He feels the events of February were the vindication of his daughter’s sacrifice that Lafayette’s actions denied him in 1830. He was always a true believer. Unfortunately, he took me home, and his son is a reactionary.” I told the cook I would not be home for dinner.
“What are you going to do? Make the situation even more idiotic?”
“He attacked an invalid.”
“I am not an invalid. I walked into town and back.”
“You are quite patently not well.”
He slumped over the table, beefsteak still firmly pressed to his eye, a thin trickle of its blood running along his chin. “Melancholy arising from displacement has no cure. Don’t you find this place vomits memories upon you with every breath?”
“Of course. It’s home.”
“I do what I can. I walk and I swim for my health and try not to think of those who once walked and swum beside me. I visit the places of the past and pay my respects to the survivors of my folly in the hope that some of the voices will stay where they belong and not intrude on a perfectly innocuous day at Les Goudes. It is not right that Pontmercy pay his respects to me and I not do the same for M. Duchamp. But my existence does for others what this entire city does for me, and while I do not enjoy a black eye, I have had much worse that I deserved far less.”
“Would you like to go into the mountains?”
He shook his head and finally put the beefsteak down. “That would be worse, like an exile. You need not worry - I won’t be going back into town until I must leave. If the sight of the Chateau d’If weren’t enough, now there is talk of sending those who were involved in this latest spat with the government into forcibly colonising Algeria. Is it a colony or a political prison - it can’t long be both, for no legitimate colonists will ever go if they are to be surrounded by revolutionaries and rebellious Arabs. They will embark from here. They’ll have to. Brought down on the railroad, much more secure against escape attempts, then directly led aboard ship and goodbye to civilisation. I wouldn’t be able to look at them. There has been no good news in months, and in the summer, all one hears in town is news, and I don’t particularly want to be in the way of it if everything else is going to be so damned raw. But I can’t leave without feeling a failure. But my one duty in this place is done, with as much pleasure as Pontmercy’s brought him.”
“Shall I send for a doctor?”
“I can see perfectly well. I would appreciate if you could make my excuses to your wife. I think it best she not know the truth of this absence just as she is beginning to speak to me without fear or condescension.”
I smiled. “Of course.” He went up the servants’ stairs to his room; I told the cook I would be late for dinner, then sent the boy to have Lantes prepare the carriage.
I believe I thought I was going to chastise a blacksmith for attacking an invalid gentleman. The situation was already ridiculous, and my indignation did not make it more so.
Except Bernard Duchamp was a reasonable - and reasonably handsome - man. He apologised the moment he saw me, offered me a drink, and tried to explain himself.
“There is no excuse. It was a stupid, childish thing to have done. But you can understand. Like a ghost out of the past. You don’t expect to walk into your kitchen and see a man you last saw twenty years ago and assume to be dead. I mean, he had to be dead if the Enjolras boy was dead - the Enjolras boy is dead, isn’t he? He must be, the government sold his big house for the consumptives. But he is dead, isn’t he? No more unhappy surprises in my kitchen courtesy of this revolution? I can’t think of his name without remembering that month, and the police, and the funeral, and him coming and dragging it all up again. And his face - he got it as bad as Émilie, if the hand happened at the same time, but she died, and he lived, and giving him a reminder seemed to be the thing to do in the moment. Which is awful. Look at us! Our age, kids of our own, and I’m starting a back alley brawl more appropriate to a fourteen year old boy, which is what I was when it all happened in the first place. How best can I apologise?”
“By never mentioning his visit to anyone. It won’t be repeated. All this dwelling on the past is not good for a man in his condition.”
“It’s not good for any of us, particularly as this new government wants to pretend there is no past. With your permission, monsieur, as might make up for this afternoon’s folly, may I ask your advice on a political matter?”
I told him to go ahead, though I was focused more on the lovely way his arms rippled under his rolled shirt sleeves than on anything he might have to say about politics.
“The local elections are in two weeks, and I don’t know what to do. I never wanted this revolution. I never thought I deserved to have a vote - what would I do with a vote? Men who do bigger things than I do, who have educations, deserve the vote. Men like you, monsieur, who already had that privilege under the previous government. Universal suffrage can only be a mistake, but I can’t put the country back to rights. So I’ve got a vote, and I don’t know what to do with it, and as a gentleman who deserves more of a say than I do, I’d like you to tell me what to do. If I go down there and vote for a conservative, I’ll be supporting a state of affairs I don’t agree with at all, but he doesn’t agree with it, either. But he won’t particularly want my sort of people voting for him because we agree I don’t deserve to vote at all. But if I stay home, as I ought to do, then I won’t have done anything about the mob voting for those démo-soc radicals.”
“Vote for the conservative. What is done is done, but we must stop it from going further.”
“Thank you, monsieur. I’ll do just as you say.”
All told, a satisfying visit. If Julien had to pick arguments - and it seemed he had no choice - it was best he stick to attractive strangers.
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