A Serial Novel

A literary experiment in judicial philosophy and historical fiction, inter alia.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Chapter 4: Reading Hands

Just and Celi sat on a bench at one of the foci of a series of horticultural ellipses: hedge, lawn, and stone. At the other focus, a nymph with sturdy runner’s legs and pelvis choked on water on days the family could afford it. Celi drummed their joined hands on the bench and sang to the nymph, “When Jacques is married, all the bells will ring. The third, the fourth, the seventh. But not the first, not the first, not the first.”

Just pulled his hand away.

“Stop it,” she said. “You are a rude boy.”

He said, “How can I tell your fortune, then, if you don’t give me back my hand?”

“Were you going to tell my fortune?”

“I was going to tell it in the way Jacques showed me how before he ran away.”

Celi spread her hand; the fingers arched delicately backwards. “Will I live a long time and have three husbands, or will someone kill me first? What is his name? What do I eat for breakfast when I am old? Is it ashes like the man who barks like a dog says? And will I like them?”

“I can’t tell your fortune by looking at your hand. That is what Jacques showed me.”

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“You don’t know why Jacques ran away,” said Just.

“I do. He told me.”

“He told everyone,” Just said scornfully.


Jacques was born the first son—the first son for fortune, the second (that was Just) for the army, and the third for the Church. But Jacques had a face for women to swoon over (discretely behind handkerchiefs) if only set martially above a uniform, a wit ready for the officer’s table—a spirit ready for anything—a soul on fire for directives from God, but ready to hold down the fort himself till then. He should have been born with an older brother or two—what a waste. When he ran, it was unclear whether he was giving himself to the army or God. In the end, both probably got a piece of him.

Of course, that is nonsense. Of course, fortune best suits handsome face, get-set-go wit, ready-aim soul. But with it all, Jacques had the sweetest nature, a nature that couldn’t live without tossing everything away.

Jacques planned to make his departure seem a routine run to the capital. But he told Just before he left (“between the two brothers”), then his mother (“dear Mama) and his father (“Papa, you see how it is”)—Celimene, the servants, Abelard, Madeline, Louise. “I can’t live like this,” he said. He didn’t know when he would come back. Or if.

His mother said he was insane. But his father said, “He must do what he will do.” He was proud that his words held so much sway with his son that his republican son could no longer live like this. Or he was afraid too, but ashamed of what Jacques would think of him. It was hard to tell. He gave a speech so beautiful everyone wept. Maybe he felt what he said he did in the speech.


When Jacques saw Heloise, he said to himself and the one who always stood at his left elbow, “God, I would like to fuck that baby.” But that didn’t mean he wanted to marry her. It didn’t even mean he particularly wanted to fuck her.

Why must everything take everything we say so seriously?

Once, while Jacques watched his bones cresting his skin and listened to parts of his body feed on other parts, he heard a voice saying, He must do what he will do.

He thought, Did I want this? It seemed extraordinary. I can’t have been the one who wanted this.


In the garden, Just sent Celi to collect some leaves. He would tell her fortune from those, he told her. But then the family was coming towards them, Madeline first, her arm on her father’s, next his mother and Jacques and Louise.

“Celi,” said Jacques and swung her to her shoulders. “Just,” he said.

Just was not speaking to him. He said, “Jacques, you are here. There were some of us who thought we would never see you again.”

Jacques smiled at his stiffness and significance.

“Not me,” said Just angrily, “But some.”

Five more words Just would give him, when they were alone, “You do not love her.”


The day before Jacques announced that he couldn’t keep living as he was living, he was melancholy and drunk. He told Just, “Maybe I will go away. Between us two brothers. I think I and a couple others could be happier anywhere that’s not here.” He asked Just, “What does one do when one loses one’s oldest son? Does one have another?”

“No,” said Just.

“Mama and Papa have another.” He cocked his fingers and pushed his lips towards Just. “You. But I ask myself all the time, what does one do when one loses one’s oldest son. One always has a second shot, right?”

“No,” said Just, who loved his brother beyond all reason, “They can’t lose their first.”

Jacques was seized with the desire to go hunting. “Don’t ask to come,” he told Just, “not today,” even though Just hadn’t.

Later that day, Just decided it was a perfect day for hunting. As if the forest isn’t big enough for both of us, he said to an indignant, inner audience. In testament to the justice of his words, he didn’t see a sign of Jacques the entire day. When it grew dark, he was still far from home, but near the hunting lodge. He approached the little hut, noting the glow of a lamp within. He tied his horse and walked the rest of the distance. He was embarrassed, maybe, for no real reason except that he didn’t know how he stood with his brother.

He heard Jacques’s voice and nearly called to him and then he heard a woman’s. And then he was embarrassed, but for Jacques he thought. He crept to the window and listened. He understood quite a bit, but not all of what he heard.

Jacques was systematically emptying the bullets from his weapons—the long hunting musket, the dueling pistols, the little toy pistol he carried at his side. The woman—Just knew her (he would love her) her name was Mme Ledoux—was pulling at Jacques’s hand. “What will you do?” she asked.

“Remember I love you, and read what I will do in your heart,” said Jacques.

“I don’t care about that right now,” she said. She wanted him to write it down for her what he promised he would do.

Jacques placed the musket and the pistols in his bag (the one bag he would take with him the next day) and didn’t look at her.

“I love you,” he said stubbornly and “Don’t write to me, don’t call on me, don’t ask after me. Everything will be alright.” He pushed her hand away and placed it on her stomach. The hand twitched.

“Is it moving?” Jacques asked. “Can I feel it?”
“No,” said Mme Ledoux, “How many times have I said you can’t touch it. It must look like my husband and not like you.”

“Then you stop worrying,” he said. “How many times have I said. Think about him.”

“Thinking of him is what makes me worry. He will kill me,” she moaned. “He will.”

“So many stupid things I have heard you say, so many silly little things, but this is the stupidest. The most charming little idea of yours,” He was not entirely convincing that he found this charming. “People don’t kill each other like that.”

“And if you do not love me anymore, maybe he should,” she tried. This was sometimes the only way she could get Jacques’ attention. “But you have to write down for me what you will do. And you will leave me,” she added. “You will leave me and never see me again.” She clutched at his hand.

Jacques pushed her away. He paced and started several times to say something and stopped. “Hold out your hand,” he said. “Look at it. Was this hand made for unhappiness? This little white hand on which so many of us have written many fine verses.”

“You have killed us all,” she said. “That is what I repeat every morning and every night. I am never bored. You. You will leave. I will not see you again.”

Jacques seemed uncomfortable. Melodrama was perhaps a legitimate reply to his gallantry, but she didn’t do it well, it seemed to him. He did not like the smell of fear on her. He didn’t understand what she wanted from him, and he was sick of the way she smelled like a stranger.

Jacques raised his hand and swore that her happiness was safe in his possession.


“You do not love her,” Just told Jacques when they were alone.

Jacques laughed. Just had been progressively ruder all day long, but failed to make him angry. “What do you want me say?” said Jacques. “Many happy marriages have been made based on nothing more than sense and solid affection.”

“Not the girl. Not Mlle Beaujeu.”

“I misunderstand you.”

“Mme Ledoux. She said she would never see you again, and she was right.”
“You knew about that, did you? You heard ordering me away so coldly. Not surprising considering how often she said it. She was so boring with ordering me never to see her again and with other things—Write down for me what you’ll do—I couldn’t tell what she wanted.”

Everyone knew about it,” said Just.

“No, they didn’t,” Jacques said thoughtfully, “and they don’t. And least I don’t think they do.”

“And now you promise to marry someone else,” Just didn’t like the way Jacques could twist and turn through a conversation that struck him as so single. “And so I say, you do not love Mme Ledoux.”

Jacques looked him up and down, and didn’t ask him what thirteen-years-old business it was of his. “No, I don’t think I do.”

“She’s not the only one who ever killed someone.”

“No, she isn’t.” Jacques gripped Just tightly above the elbow, and Just thought to be frightened. Like Heloise he noticed Jacques’s smoldering, dying eyes. (Just and Heloise were very young. I would call Jacques’s eyes simply unhappy. You’ve seen unhappy eyes. You know what they look like.) He looked pointedly at the hand and Jacques removed it. He puffed his cheeks and released the air and said. “It’s even possible she’s not the first to kill someone either.”

Just said, “You killed her husband.”

“One bullet I left in all those guns. Does it seem likely it would end up in someone’s body?”

“Yes,” said Just, who was too eager to know to wonder what he would do with this knowledge.

“It was too ridiculous,” said Jacques.


Blogger Phoebe said...

It’s true, we are being rather cruel to Just. I don’t know if he deserves it. First, we invent a hero, cast in the classical mold of heroes. And then we cast him back in time to a time in one’s life when no one is a hero. Early puberty is of necessity the stuff of anti-heroes. You’d think that self-absorption was the point of onanism, but then you read Joyce and you think: enough already!

But writers can’t have enough of it, can they? I’ll admit it, I’m taking a certain pleasure in emasculating Just’s naiveté (Can you emasculate someone before they’ve been masculated?) I think I’ll give Just a rest today.

In your last comment, you ask an important question: “I'm more frustrated with Just--contempt for Jacques? who knows what Jacques does or what he wants, but I think he might be a great guy and probably not worth contempt.” Then in your post, you suggest (in a roundabout, Art-like way), the answer. Well, you don’t tell us what he wants. But you give us a pretty good idea of what he does, some of which sounds pretty contemptible to me.

Fast forward two years, to when we were fifteen, and got Mom to take us to the Morrissey concert (this was before your musical taste coalesced with hers, and with Dad’s). “I crack the whip and you skip, but you deserve it, deserve it, deserve it. And when in the scullery room, who will swallow whom? You handsome devil.” (Thank God he still had the rights to play from the Smiths’ playlist!) And thus was born from your head the character Jacques, who you would write about sixteen years later, when Jacques was interested in (if not in love with, if not lusting after) a sixteen year old. Who else came with us that night? But I invented Heloise.

Would Jacques have returned if the baby had not died? Would Ledoux have rolled over if she hadn’t been tossing and turning from missing Jacques? Also, does the old Marquis know about Ledoux? I don’t think he does. This might make him an indifferent father; it might make him callously neglectful, but it will give his cruelty an ironic cushion.

I do think, though, that the marriage with Heloise has everything to do with babies, and with heirs. Which brings us back to the father. Who wants the heir, Jacques or Jacques’s father? If Jacques wants it for his father, whose want is it? If his father wants it, because he wants what he thinks Jacques wants, whose want is it? Which of them first fabricated this need for an Heloise?

I’m very curious about the character of Heloise. She obviously grows up to be quite strong, but we’ve invented someone who seems so lost, frightened and passive. First, there’s her mother. And then Genevieve. And no, we’re about ready to throw her into a pot that includes at least three men (Jacques, Father Fulbert and the Marquis), not to mention Abelard and Justice, who we know are waiting in the wings. There’s more to her than we’re seeing so far.

And now, with these textual matters aside, I’ll bite. Who is this woman you’re talking about, and what incident could be so unpleasant, you’d be reticent to talk about it? Most importantly, why haven’t I heard about her (since when was “really dating” the threshold for you to talk)? If you’ve been worried about how I’d take it, after Dave, you needn’t. I’m not lying when I say I’m happy to have left him (even though, it’s true, I maybe never would have without last month’s revelations.) We’re old enough now to abandon the old “Don’t-Kiss-and-Tell-When-the-Other-Isn’t-Kissing” policy aren’t we?

And no, I’ve never doubted that you have a nurturing side. Sometimes I think you’re the one who really doubts it. It’s just that fathers can be such comical things, never sure if they are fathers or dads. I think that perhaps the elder Marquis was caught in this trap. My hunch is that he was pathetically bad at resolving it. And that’s why I’m so down on him, for now at least.

I’m sorry if some of what I’ve written sounds like I’m criticizing you. I’m not. It’s just that there are some things from our “formative years” that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. As a way of apologizing if I’ve sounded rude, I’ll write a psychology of the old Marquis.

10:25 PM  

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