He did not vote in the local elections. M. Radet had procured papers for him, but his imprisonment had been translated into Paris residency, so he did not qualify to vote in the city of his birth. I went into town only to cast my own ballot, then joined Julien on the beach, where he was yet again passing the afternoon.
“Do you still swim? Or are you too much the bourgeois to dare?”
“I rarely have the company. But I could still beat you to the point.”
“Is that a challenge?”
I started stripping my clothes off. “Yes.” If I was going to regress to a sullen youth in his presence, I deserved the benefits as well as the emotional outbursts.
As I dived below the waves, I thought I heard a female shout, but when I came up for air, I saw no one on the beach. It was not a gull - I assumed it must have been Lucie, come to check on Julien. The race was unfair - I won, but I am taller and younger. And I was much the worse for the exertion, which may have meant that he let me win. The day was sweltering and even the sea was hot, but floating on my back, moving slowly inland with the waves, was far better than sitting in the stifling darkness of the house or trying to find a breeze on the beach. In the water wasn’t a time for talking but a time for simply being. And it was surprisingly comfortable.
When we made our way back to the shore, someone had brought towels and a basket with wine and water and glasses.
“Did M. Ture join you out here?”
“Not in sport. He’s a northerner.”
“Do the children come down at all?”
I shook my head. “It would not be appropriate.”
“But you still come.”
“It is best that no one knows.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Everyone is so concerned with social position, with what everyone else thinks.”
“Everything I want is something no one must know.”
“What do you want?” He was looking at the water, not at me, but there was a real seriousness in his tone and expression, as if he did, indeed, want the whole truth at last.
“In an ideal world?”
“That you would take all this away. My wife, my children, my responsibility, the estate, the house in Paris, everything. So I can have my studio and my models and not worry that I should be doing something else. And, in an ideal world, at the end of the day, Sébastien waiting for me in a café, where we sit laughing with friends long into the night before falling into bed together. And the most important worry is if my latest piece will be accepted into the next Salon or if he finds a publisher for his poems.”
“He writes poetry?” Julien asked, looking at me in some surprise.
“He used to. I used to paint. We could have been bohemians.”
“You could never have been a bohemian. I knew plenty in my time - Courfeyrac lived under a garretful - and I don’t think you were ever going to find the beauty in self-inflicted poverty.”
“Well, not purely, but Papa would have kept me on some sort of allowance. And Sébastien had money from his family until he broke with them. Which was long before my marriage, for the record.”
“So he was hiding backstairs with you, and then in the Latin Quarter, and now backstairs again.”
Hiding. “I suppose so. He didn’t make a thing of it. I don’t know what the fight was. I don’t think it was anything terribly lurid. He is the second son, too - we should have been worthless together.”
“Not worthless. You want to produce things for others. Art, literature - to sell, to publish, to make public the content of your soul. Not worthless. Of more worth than anything I aspired to.”
“How can you say that?”
“If the world is rebuilt every generation, then anything I do is only valid for a generation. Then the world moves on. In one hundred years, even had I been successful, I would be meaningless, and in one thousand years, I would be nothing, not even one name amongst hundreds. But art - the soul - lasts forever. We take our tragedies from the Greeks, our poetry from the Romans, our architecture from Egypt, our morals from the Jews of the Orient. Our souls are connected over thousands of years, our thoughts and feelings thousands of years old, but our politics are only of a generation.”
“I don’t think Dumas is going to last a thousand years.”
“I doubt the Greeks thought Aristophanes would last two thousand.”
“Have you read his latest?”
“No, Monte Cristo was painful enough.”
“You read Monte Cristo?”
“I had hoped it might provide a metaphor. Unfortunately, it provided only a rather grating romp.”
“Hélène enjoyed it. In fact, I think it is providing the metaphor you sought. She is starting to take an interest in your well being.”
“So that I might avoid spending years bringing vengeance on faceless functionaries? Alas, I haven’t a Turkish slave to assist me.”
“No, I think she wants a happier ending than Dantès got. She told me that if this were a novel, you’d end up marrying the heroine - a widow of a certain age and education - and taking a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.”
“A widow of a certain age and education,” he repeated.
“I think she means a Mercédès who can keep up with you.”
“How very - ”
“Kind. It’s really a very kind thing to wish. Why a widow?”
“Why not a widow?”
“Why so carefully specified? A woman of a certain age, of course. But why a widow? A spinster wouldn’t do?”
“I suppose she thinks you need looking after.”
“As do you. And a widow would have experience in that. But her very description is suffused with death, and in a novel, there has been death enough without continuing to remind the reader.”
“But a spinster? She is the very emblem of lives not lived, and -” I caught myself.
“And there is already plenty of that,” he finished.
“I didn’t mean - ”
“I know. You needn’t apologise for putting voice to what is obvious. So. A widow of a certain age. Is this merely an idle thought, or should I worry that it will become a project?” He was amused by the whole thing, I could tell. That was why I had mentioned it, after all.
“I don’t think I know anyone who could find you an appropriate widow.”
“I’m quite certain you are safe.”
“She would not dare introduce me to anyone.”
I did not answer, because at the time, I was sure he was right.
Marlon came to fetch us for dinner. “Isn’t it a bit early?”
“Madame said you had been sea bathing. Baths are ready for you both, messieurs.”
Madame? Was it not Lucie at all, but Hélène who had witnessed us?
On the way back to the house, I asked Julien, “If I were to bring my paints back out, would you sit for me?”
Not that my paints were in any condition for use. What tubes were left were rusted, all my good brushes looked picked at, and while I had good supplies of some pigments, I hadn’t mixed my own paint in so long that the very idea sent me into a fit of apathy.
But about a week later, we were set up on the terrace so I might essay a new portrait of Julien. The underpainting was done and dry, and with perfect timing, Hélène appeared as I began to put in more detail.
“May I watch?” she asked, not quite directing the question at either Julien or me.
I looked to him for permission, and he deferred to me with a gesture. “If you like,” I replied. I was only putting in broad swathes of colour - not terribly interesting, I thought. She stood and watched in silence until I stopped to let that layer dry.
“It is good to see you with your paints again. I was afraid I had driven that out of you.”
“No, it wasn’t you at all. I swear.”
“You must let him start over,” she said to Julien in a surprisingly friendly manner. “He has you in such strict profile, one would think he were auditioning you to replace the king on the coins. What? Someone must be designing new coins, mustn’t they?” she appealed to Julien.
“Of course. I should think we should see them in circulation any day now - six months should be ample time.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak up at all. No one wants to hear my little jokes.”
“Do not trouble yourself so, madame.” He smiled. “It is a far more flattering thought than the truth.”
“A three-quarter view would still hide that,” she asserted, running a finger down her own cheek.
“What Julien meant was that the strict profile is easier, and my poor powers are not up to more.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?” she asked Julien.
“I’ve never seen Charles’ work, so his assertions on that score are not for me to judge.”
She looked at me in confusion, then back at him. “Did you never actually look at the paintings in my sitting room?”
“He’s been in your sitting room?”
“Don’t be ridiculous - he’s seen the whole house except for the nursery. But did you not pay attention to them?”
“Small genre painting in the style of the seventeenth century, Dutch if I had to guess, and a rather grey seascape with fishing boats, likely of similar vintage. Why?”
“Why cannot I tell him? They’re not originals. Charles made them.” Julien looked surprised, I felt embarrassed, and Hélène kept talking with pride. “On our honeymoon, we spent a week in Florence, every day at the Uffizi. Charles got a permission to copy, so there we were, every day at the Uffizi, drawing statues and copying paintings. Other people would come up and watch him work, and it made me so happy to tell them that he was my husband.”
“He doesn’t need to hear this.”
She ignored me. “That week in the Uffizi was the happiest time of my life. I was so proud to be married to a man of such recognisable parts. How I wish we had never moved on to Rome and Venice,” she trailed off.
“Yes, well, I’m out of practice, now.”
“I should - I’ll send someone out. You both must be thirsty.”
“You married the wrong woman.”
“Isn’t this advice rather too late?”
“You know it as well as I do. You should never have married her in the first place - why ever did you do it?” He shook his head. “Even after everything you have done, she still wants to love you. Is it true?” he asked after a pause.
“In the daylight, everything was great. She learned how to say ’That is my husband - isn’t he wonderful?’ in three languages. But if you want to hear the truth, ask about the nights. Yes, I married the wrong girl. But mother would never have let me marry a prostitute, and only a whore could have been the right girl for those nights. That we have two children is a miracle.”
“When did you stop painting?”
I though about it. “I don’t remember,” I had to answer. “Years ago. Even with commercial paints, it just takes too much time. You have to care about it. It’s not like dabbling in watercolours.”
“So why now?”
One of the servants came out with a pitcher of something cool. When she left, I replied, “Did I ever tell you about the painting? After your death, I thought of you quite often, and after father took me to the next Salon, I conceived an inflated sense of my own abilities and started making studies for a martyrdom of the sons of Symphorosa. It was morbid enough to be found with sketches of what I thought dismemberment must look like - particularly if you recall I had no access to the dissection rooms and had never seen a human limb in anything but normal, healthy attachment to the shoulder - but mother had a fit when she found the one piece where I had attempted to put paint to canvas was you in the guise of St Julian. She burned it all, of course, and father started paying an art student to tutor me regularly in the belief that with supervision, my energies would be directed elsewhere.”
“And now you intend to finish the piece?”
“Not at all. It was never a good idea. I don’t know what I intend, but it feels surprisingly good to have a brush in my hand again.”
That evening, when I heard voices in Hélène’s sitting room, I knew it was because Julien had gone to look at my work. And I left them alone. Julien hadn’t seen any of my work. I had gone on for months about the Beaux Arts, and he hadn’t once hinted that he thought I was a deluded fool, but he had never really had sympathy. I would not have had sympathy for just anyone claiming talent, either. I would never have anything accepted in the Salon, in all likelihood, but until the advent of the daguerreotype, I know men with less ability than I made their livings with a brush. He had listened, but he had not believed me. I know because he took our sittings much more seriously after that evening.
Not that the sittings actually went anywhere. I was too out of practice to make a good job of it. But still I kept going, focusing on fixing one small section at a time.
One day, when I believe I was working on the ear, he spoke. “I wish you had not mentioned the fantasy of the widow. I thought I was doing well enough until then.”
I apologised, but only with half my brain.
“It is not your fault - how could you know there was anything in it.”
“I thought the idea would amuse you, that’s all.”
“It did. For a time. But then, here of all places, where one would think I had enough else on my mind, I began to think of her again. I’d never thought her in the guise of a widow. I wasn’t nearly so kind as your wife.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“You asked me once why I never married, and I said it was that I had never been in love. This is true. But it is not the whole truth.”
“There was a girl?” I stopped painting to look at him.
“A young lady,” he corrected. “A girl implies a grisette, a mistress, a female of no real importance to you. Of course there were grisettes, but the young lady I mean was of a vastly higher calibre. But we only met once - how could I say I was in love with her? The image has overtaken the reality until I cannot tell them apart anymore.”
There were grisettes? Julien? Julien and grisettes? Julien and a girl of a far higher calibre? Julien and women who were not political toms? He kept going, as if the dam had finally burst in this region of his soul. “She was a part of why I thought of turning back on the day we went to the barricades again. I thought of her, of finding her rather than throwing myself headlong into violence for which I had no real taste, of making promises for a different future that I perhaps could not keep, of taking her as a partner in the real struggle rather than continuing to follow the riot I found myself in. But that would have meant going to the Lauriers’ to inquire for her address, and when I thought more carefully, already in the midst of the funeral march, I was certain they would have fled to the country due to the cholera, so I pushed the thought of her aside, because I believed in the idea of what we were doing, in the protest if not the exact means, and I thought I could begin again in the autumn if the cholera spared us all.”
“The Lauriers?” A political tom, apparently, but known to the Lauriers?
“I met her at one of their balls. She was out of place, and so was I. I never saw her again - possibly I spent too long with her and made a scene so that she was never invited again. If that is the case, the joke is on them. I cannot even remember her name.”
“If she was at the Lauriers, then she was perfectly marriageable. Why didn’t you go calling?”
“I had more on my mind. None of us thought four months later we would be dead. She knew my reputation and liked me for it - and, well, in the end, I didn’t even really think of her again until a few weeks in solitary confinement pushed me into a dream world. And yet I never thought she would marry. How I hope that she did. I always pictured her trying to keep a small school afloat. That was the future I think I had been willing to promise for us.”
“A school?” How appropriate for him, but for someone who had been invited to the Lauriers?
“She was foreign, Irish if I remember rightly, come to live with French relatives who knew the Lauriers. We spoke of my politics and women’s education, if I haven’t wholly reinvented the conversation, and I cannot remember her name. It was something harsh and English. I always think of her as Diane, but I don’t think it is actually her name. Perhaps it was Diana, but her surname is long gone.”
“I’m still on terms with the Lauriers.”
“Don’t you dare go looking for her. Real life should not always replace the images of dreams.” That was rich, coming from him. “That’s what grisettes are for, in any case, to bring the dream images of beauty and selflessness to a crashing halt in the pleasant mire of working class laps.”
“How would you know?”
“I was a student in Paris. Did you think I was a priest? I had friends who could have written a guide to the Latin Quarter and the Marais, and being neither penniless nor otherwise attracted, of course I indulged in my rights as a student.”
“You never had girls around when I sneaked out to visit you.”
“Death focuses the mind. I set aside youthful pleasure when the time came to focus solely on the revolution. You know what that is like.”
I did. I rebelled at the comparison of my mother’s illness and the violent death of that girl, but yes, death focuses the mind on responsibility, duty, adult life. But at the time, all I could focus on was how little I had ever known him. Grisettes? Bohemians? Could he really have been so profligate in his life as well as his studies? And there had been a girl. A girl who, even if she had come without a dowry, would have relieved our parents enough to consent to the marriage. A proper life for us both had been in his grasp. And he chose a riot instead.
I should have hated him for the secrets, the lies, the falseness of his entire being. But what had he really done? Kept the adult portions of his life silent from a child. I saw him so little, really, that he was more dream than real. I hated myself for being such a fool for so long. I hated him for letting me be a fool still. I hated my parents for never correcting me, though I had tried to hide my own feelings from them, so how could they have corrected what they never knew? Did they even know any better than I? Would he really have told his father about his legions of grisettes? The woman - Mme Feuilly - she had said nothing - but did she know? Or did Feuilly never tell her all of what he knew? Women should not know everything, but the working classes are different. Decent women are not seamstresses or artists’ models. Both portraits were done after that girl’s death. We had no likeness of him before - he wouldn’t sit. He had always been serious - but had he always been serious in that way? Should I have known? Were there signs? Some mysteries have no answer - we cannot go back to look for what we missed.
I hated everyone for five minutes; I hated myself all evening; but then it all dissolved into loneliness, a fracture of the world where the images that had sustained me stayed fixed while I floated on, helpless as an iceberg in the current.
A light was still on in Hélène’s room. I tapped at the door. It was not a knock. I was too unsure to knock.
Hélène was seated at her dressing table, brushing her hair. She half-turned to address me. “What is it, Charles? It’s late.”
I felt guilty for having come. “Might I sleep here tonight?”
“It is rather warm.” Already she had turned back to the mirror.
“I mean sleep.” My mood must have come through my voice because she set down her brush.
“Something has happened.” If she meant it as a question, I did not know how to reply. She addressed the image of me in the mirror. “I wish you would tell me. After what I have seen, do you still think me too innocent to understand?” She turned to look at me properly, but I did not know what to answer. “Come to bed,” she said in resignation. The snuffing of the lamp left the room flooded with pale blue moonlight, and she looked quite vulnerable in it.
The linen was cool. We arranged ourselves as we believed a married couple ought to do. She has always been too small in my arms. I do not know what to do with her, and she tenses uncontrollably. But what else does one expect in a marriage such as ours?
“Talk to me,” she whispered. “I know you’ve something on your mind.”
“You talk to me.”
She thought for a moment, then chatted of something of no import. After some time, she realised I was no longer listening because she broke off, clasped my hand, and asked, “Would you please tell me what is wrong?”
The pressure of her hand meant more to me at that time than anything she could have said. “I don’t know who anyone is anymore.”
“Don’t be absurd.” But her voice was sympathetic.
“But it’s true.”
“Charles, I don’t think you’ve ever known anyone. What makes you see that now?”
“Julien isn’t what I thought.”
“Of course not. I don’t know what you were at with that Frankenstein’s monster description. He’s nothing of the sort.”
“So you do like him.”
“I don’t like what he has done, but I cannot help liking him, in a way. His solemnity and understanding of the awkwardness of the situation are endearing. Really, if it were not for his face, it would be very easy to pretend things were different.”
“And you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Don’t sound so bitter. Yes, I would. I think he would be happier.”
“He’s proud of what he did.” I think I rather snapped at her, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“But not of what was done to him.”
“How would you know?”
“The happiest I’ve seen him was after mass at Majeure. He shouldn’t be so afraid to be among people.”
“But that’s what I mean. He didn’t used to be vain.”
“He didn’t used to have half his face torn open.”
“I thought he was an intellectual, a great thinker, a martyr to his ideas, above all the petty thoughts and jealousies and alliances of everyday life. But he’s not. He never really was.”
“Of course. He’s human.”
“He was supposed to be better. He acted as if he were better. I told him about my - my - tastes because he was better.” She did not reply but she did stiffen. “This is your fault.”
“How is any of this my fault?” she snapped.
“I told him about your little idea, the widow of a certain age.”
“I thought he would be amused. And I was right, but for the wrong reasons. Turns out, there was a girl.”
“Really?” She sounded interested, excited. “Why do you sound so disappointed?”
“I thought he was above all that. He told me today that in his youth, he had been with grisettes.”
“There’s no need to be disgusted. I know you have a very low opinion of women, but thankfully, the vast majority of men are not quite like you. Why shouldn’t he have been a man and taken his due? He was certainly handsome in his youth - indeed, half his face is still enviable - and I’m sure he would have been a kind and attentive lover.”
“Why are you on his side?”
“I’m on no one’s side. You see what you want to see, not what is there. You wanted me to be a fool so there would be no shame running around behind my back. You wanted a wife who would be so grateful to be married at all that it wouldn’t matter what you did. You wanted your lover to be wholly loyal to you. You wanted your brother to be a saint. But are any of us really what you want?” Hélène sounded weary rather than angry, as if it were an old argument she had already repeated over and over, though it was certainly new to me. “If you wanted someone you could treat like that, why did you take me and not Florence? You danced with her, too. That was as much audition as you gave me. Was it because your mother would approve more of my looks? The shy one rather than the plain one?”
“Not at all. I liked you. I thought, ’Since I must get married, I would rather spend my life with this girl.’”
“It’s no use trying to flatter me now, Charles. You squandered that opportunity when you betrayed me.”
“I misjudged you. And Sébastien.”
“You never wanted to know me. Did you ever want to know him?”
“I don’t know that he ever wanted me to know him. What I know of him since he left has surprised me, but I don’t think I have the right to be surprised.”
“Then why do you feel so betrayed to discover that your brother is more ordinary than you thought when you only knew him for the same amount of time?”
“He is my own blood. My father adored him. How can I have been wrong about someone so close?”
“You never wanted anyone close.”
“Julien didn’t, either.”
“Do you know that? Or do you think that?”
I sighed. “I think that.”
“Just because he doesn’t want you doesn’t mean he doesn’t want someone. Tell me more about his girl.”
“His girl. You said there was a girl.”
“He didn’t say much. She was foreign. Connected to the Lauriers somehow. A bluestocking.”
“Oh, how perfect!”
“He doesn’t remember her name, and he doesn’t want you to go tracking her down. If she’s even still in the country, they only met once, long ago, and it wouldn’t be some fairytale ending.”
“Life is never a fairytale ending. Let him keep his dreams, and may they stay dreamlike and perfect. For her sake as much as his own. I was once courted by a dream, a handsome young artist with soft eyes and gentle hands. At least the illusion did not last beyond our wedding night. I would not wish it on another woman.”
“Hélène.” I tried to sound comforting, but I’ve never really known what to do for her. For anyone.
“You should never have betrayed me, Charles. If you had told me the truth, I might have married you anyway. To be safe from babies, to have the protections of marriage without the most odious obligations. It is the betrayal I object to, the form rather than the tastes. That was a relief, really, that our troubles would have come to any woman you married. But I could have been free - you could have been free! - and you saddled us with deceit.”
“I need children. I cannot allow the family to die out.”
“Then I suppose we were always doomed.” She shifted a little. “Go to sleep.”
But I couldn’t sleep. Her breathing slowly became regular, but I was wide awake. Was this me? No one trusted me, but was that because I was the Judas of their lives? Could they smell some stench on me I could not? I have always been as honest as I can be. I have always believed others were straight with me. But Sébastien had never trusted me as I had trusted him. Was I ever really the handsome artist with soft eyes and gentle hands? I was the thwarted artist, the hesitant lover, the lost boy who knew he would not be found among so many strangers. Feeling sick with the lie of what I wanted, that I wanted comforting caresses from a woman I did not love who did not love me, I slipped out to return to my own room. A light showed under Julien’s door - he, too, was sleepless. Unless - I felt the sweat trickle down my side. Unless he was not alone. Such an interest he had taken in Lucie. Her welfare, her position, her appearance. Was his interest not as innocent as I had presumed? I hurried to my room rather than witness what I feared.
In the morning, I saw that Hélène had left a note at breakfast.Forgive me, it slipped my mind last night. I have made an appointment with the photographer, as you had asked. He will come Thursday afternoon at two. Your brother’s presence would be awkward, so if it could be avoided, that would be ideal.
This was hardly a time to tell Julien to bugger off. In any case, he was never about mid-afternoon if the sun permitted his worship. So I said nothing to anyone. Which was a simple enough matter, as he seemed to be avoiding me as much as I was avoiding him. I didn’t see him, and there were no messages or questions about continuing our sittings.
The photographer came at the appointed time, he set up his equipment, and we posed. But Hélène wanted a larger plate as well, and as we held the pose a second time, Julien appeared on the terrace behind the photographer, hatless but still dressed, having not been swimming at all. The children began to squirm, and in the end, they looked slightly underexposed, while Hélène and I had merely remained frozen in our distress.
“Papa, who is that?” Mathieu asked. Julie had buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.
“Please forgive the intrusion,” Julien began to apologise. But then he saw the photographer’s apparatus and his whole bearing changed. “Is this a camera for the daguerreotype? I’ve read what I can get my hands on, but I’ve never seen one.” He somehow combined his strict public uprightness with the excitement of a child and began asking about nitrates and fixatives, and I confess, I didn’t understand a word. The photographer was as animated in his explanations as Julien was in his questions. Hélène gave me a pointed look as she carried Julie into the house; Mathieu continued pulling at the skirt of my coat.
I knelt down to him. “That is your uncle Julien. My brother. He is staying with us for a bit.”
“Why is he so ugly?”
I looked at Julien, but he and the photographer were still engaged so that he hadn’t overheard. “That is a very impolite question. Many years ago, a very mean man who did not like him attacked him with a knife.”
“Is he hiding from that man?”
“No. He is just staying with us for the summer. He lives in Paris, but no one stays in Paris in the summer.”
“Why wasn’t he here last summer?”
Why, indeed. “Things are a little strange this year.” I thought I heard something about Algeria come from the adult conversation, but Mathieu would not let up.
“Is that why you’re home so much?”
“I like it when things are strange.” But then he clung to me, and I saw Julien had joined us.
“M. Fauret has offered to show me his studio.” He knelt down beside me, a little stiffly. “You must be Mathieu.” Mathieu clung to me just a little more tightly. “My name is Julien.” Such softness, such gentleness of tone - I wished Hélène could see how harmless he truly was.
“Papa says a man made your face like that.”
“That is true.” No embarrassment, no judgment, simply a calm acknowledgment of the fact.
“That wasn’t very nice.”
He smiled - close-lipped, but true. “No, it was not.”
“Does it hurt?”
He paused a moment before answering. “Not anymore. It happened a very long time ago, long before you were even born.” I noticed then that he had hidden his left hand in the folds of his coat.
“Can I touch it?”
“It’s all right. Yes, you can touch it.” And so my son did what I had not the courage to ask.
“It feels like my rubber ball under his skin!” he announced with pride.
“Kiss your uncle and go upstairs.” Mathieu kissed him directly on his scar and ran inside. “I’m sorry about that.”
“I rather enjoyed it. There is something to be said for directness.”
“So you are making friends with M. Fauret.”
“The vast majority of his clients have no knowledge of chemistry, nor do any of the other local photographers. He is eager to show me an experiment he is trying with an English process.”
“That would require going back into town.”
“His studio is in the heights, but he laments he has no view of the harbour. The coincidence is perfect. The marin is kicking up rather early - I would be swimming if the swells weren’t so high. The force of the wind should hit us any time now, I wouldn’t wonder. Please apologise to your wife for me.”
“You should apologise to her yourself. You know full well she doesn’t bite.”
“But she has been so careful to keep me away from the children, and I’ve botched that completely.”
“It had to happen, and I’m glad it did happen.”
“Your son is charming.”
“I’m happy you think so. I am sorry - I should have put my foot down and insisted on this. If we had spoken to him before, he wouldn’t have asked such questions. You are all right, aren’t you? It doesn’t still hurt.”
“No, the occasional pain is in the leg and the hand. The face merely itches. Merely,” he repeated thoughtfully. “No, it is perversely annoying on a bad day, but it is nothing compared to the rest in the winter damps.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t return to Paris.”
“Don’t be absurd. Why not?”
“Freedom in Paris will amply recompense for the pain. Why would I give up the intellectual centre of the world when Marseille is damp and cold enough in winter?”
“I meant that you might consider emigrating.”
“The Algeria fiasco? To be one of the oppressors or one of the oppressed? Do you suggest the same to every gout-ridden bourgeois?”
“Actually, I thought the Indies. Did I hear something about Algeria when you were chatting with Fauret?”
“He was chatting with me, if we are to be precise. Somehow he developed the notion that I was with the army in Algeria. I’m rather loath to correct him. I never agreed with the Algeria mess, I hate that the transitional government is maintaining and expanding it with this shipment of June squabblers, and yet what a lovely opposition to the truth such a belief could be. One could even talk about the unsuitability of the whole scheme from a position of perceived knowledge.”
“You must have told him something.”
“He was chattering on about my face, such an odd excitement - such texture, such detail, and in someone who can understand the worth to an artist, monsieur - I didn’t dare say anything more when he asked than that even failed revolutions leave their marks. I suppose, in the end, I am too much the gentleman to be believed caught up in any of the riots I seem to have missed these years gone.”
But it was not just that - it was his own success in the past couple of months. Enough Mediterranean sun that he looked as if he had been working in it for years. Instead of shunning the visitor, as he might have done at his arrival, his wanderings and whatever he was doing in Les Goudes had steeled him for strangers so that he could resume his erect bearing and charge in, defying Fauret to treat him with anything other than the esteem he deserved. Which is probably how he had tried to appear to Radet, in his dark and filthy cell, though with greater success in this more congenial environment, with better preparation. The vanity did not even surprise me now, though in other circumstances I knew he would chafe at the idea of being thought the type of conservative who would join the army and go happily oppressing the world. But there is sympathy when Arabs claw your face, not when the perpetrator is a thief with whom you share a cell.
“Everyone stares,” he went on, “even you at times, as if you are caught out by the reality when you expect the memory. Even Lucie on occasion. But to be examined instead of stared at, to have interest instead of fear, genuine curiosity in the thing itself more than in the circumstances in which you came by it - all the embarrassment of the truth will come out in the end, of course, but it is pleasant to see such innocence now. I think he cared more to know what instrument did it than what man, to tell the truth. I don’t know that I’ll correct his beliefs until it becomes wholly necessary.”
“You can have the carriage any time you need.”
“Speaking of Lucie,” I began tentatively.
“Everything is - she is not - servants must be inviolate, Julien.”
“I had assumed she was safe, even when you sought to give her more money, dress her up, spend all your time with her. I hope my confidence was not misplaced.”
It was hard enough to spit the words out, and when he just looked at me, I feared I had been right, that something would have to be done about the grotesque situation. But then he started to laugh - really, to laugh - and I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment.
“The staff - including Lucie - are sacred, I assure you. Is this why you’ve avoided me all week? You don’t want to walk in on a scene as your wife did.” But he concluded gravely, “She is useful to me, and not in that way. In public, she appears to be my daughter, and that in itself makes her more useful than any male servant could be. Her presence gives me legitimacy, even if it is only in my own mind, and I need that. I need to feel that I am permitted in the places I wish to go, to do the things I wish to do. A gentleman and his daughter, no matter how rough he may look, have a different expectation than does a battered single man. She has learned my moods, and I wish to keep her. And if I can do for her half as much as she is doing for me, then I will be a happy man.”
So he knew, and probably encouraged, what Lucie believed the fishermen thought. And he was probably right, that an invalid father and his daughter were more welcome, not only in Les Goudes but in Paris and Marseille, than he would be alone or in servile male company. Hélène had said he was happy at Majeure - his crutch was not there, but we were, and we were as legitimate as could be, particularly in the dull colours of half-mourning Hélène will not take off until November. The perfect bourgeois couple. Legitimacy I was happy to give him, however he might achieve it.
After dinner that evening, I took a turn on the terrace. Hélène was in her sitting room, and without intending to eavesdrop, I strode past and glanced in as Julien was making his apology. I was not silent, but neither of them seemed to remark my even paces across the flagstones. On my second or third pass, I saw why he had laughed at the very idea he even consider Lucie an object of that sort of conquest. I saw Julien on his knees before my wife, a hand on the arm of her chair, as she looked into his eyes and caressed his scarred cheek. He had taken my instructions to heart.
What right had I to be angry? I had betrayed her, so I did not deserve fidelity. I wanted to be rid of her, and she knew she should never have married me. She had even insisted that Julien would be a kind and attentive lover, the very sort of man I could never be to a woman. But wasn’t that just like a woman, to think what was good for the gander was good for the goose? All women are trollops when given a chance.
I was angry because I wanted to be rid of her. Because I had told him to take her. Because the last time she, or anyone, for that matter, had looked at me that way had been on our wedding night. The last moment before my first betrayal turned everything to shit. Because even then, I had believed I wanted to do what I was doing, I wanted to do what I was supposed to do. I wanted to marry her, I wanted to try to love her, I wanted to father children with my pretty wife and have that perfectly respectable life. But I couldn’t do any of it, and now she repaid me in adultery, as I had repaid her. She hadn’t been avoiding him out of hate but out of temptation. And now, there they were, leaving me out in the dark.
Chapter 8 ~ Fiction ~ Chapter 10 ~ Home