Chapter 5: The Religion of the Father (Eyes and Ears)
A week passed between Heloise’s engagement and Jacques’s return to Paris. He came back with his family, of course, her family-to-be (with most of his family anyway, the younger son had been too ill to accompany them). Heloise’s aunt arranged for the two families to have a little tête-à-tête.
Before I tell you what I’m going to tell you next, I should let you know something: The Marquis de Orleans was the spitting image of Jacques. That’s how Heloise saw it anyway. I suppose I should say, “Jacques was the spitting image of his father,” since fathers don’t resemble sons. Sons resemble fathers. Naturally, there were the years that separated them. But years and age are malleable things, easily susceptible to manipulation in the mind of a young girl.
When Heloise saw Jacques enter her aunt’s salon at his family’s head, she realized that Genevieve had been so, so right (too right really) and she so, so wrong (laughably, pathetically wrong): Jacques looked stooped and worn by years, more so than she’d remembered. But then he stood up straight, and she saw his eyes and she heard him say with a gentle, confident voice: “So let us see you then, my dear,” and she realized her mistake (a mistake any nervous young woman could make).
I forgot to mention what you’ve probably already gathered: Heloise had never had a father.
The Marquis was not big on ceremony. He glossed right over Heloise’s lack of decorum. No curtsy, no formal welcome or introduction. Just a strange, strange look to give him, a look that reminded him of why he wanted Jacques married in the first place.
It was the look he used to give his grandfather.
I forgot to mention that although the Marquis hated his father, he had loved his grandfather, a gentle old man who had managed to get himself declared unfit to rule so that he could pass the mantle of authority on to his son (he’d long since passed him the responsibilities) and devote himself to the study of his beloved classics.
Jacques only remembered his great-grandfather during the old man’s years of delirium, in the haunts of his earliest childhood (he was too young, he reminded himself, to remember his father’s filial devotion. What Jacques remembered was how this devotion came at the expense of his young family.) His grandfather (the Marquis’s father), he’d never met at all. Justice had never known either, since the patriarch had died when Jacques was just four, and Madeline a baby.
So Jacques didn’t recognize what he saw in Heloise’s eyes, when Heloise met his father. But the Marquis did, and his heart leapt.
You wouldn’t have known it, though, if you’d been in the room then, and seen him, rather then listening to me tell you about their meeting. It was not for this that the Marquis had come.
After Heloise had been introduced to the women who would be her new sisters and her new mother, the Marquis requested that they absent themselves for a while and Heloise found herself alone with this strange old man with the young eyes and with this strange, prematurely old young man. As it happens, one was seated on either side of her. It was as if Heloise were glued to the tain of a mirror, as though she were the mirror really. They both looked at her. But they were actually looking at one another. Or at themselves. I’ve forgotten which.
“The Marquise and I are so happy that you’ve agreed to marry our son,” the Marquis told her (Jacques). It should have sounded stiff (it sounds so stiff when I write it), but Heloise heard only the gentleness of the Marquis, his sincerity.
“We owe our future happiness to them,” Jacques replied (to Heloise).
“And we owe ours to you two. Children are the joy of their parents. Their joy is our joy. And, when they are of age (as you two are), it is their joyous lot to have children of their own. This is their joy. And in it, the joy of the child becomes the joy of the parent. The most wise of the ancients once said that it is through children that we seek immortality.”
“My father is anxious to have an heir.”
(Is this the same Marquis that I described before, this sentimental old man? How does he resemble the tyrant we met two weeks ago? I insist, they are one and the same. Before, I asked you to look at him. And you saw the truth. Now, I’m asking you to listen. And this is what you’ll hear. It’s true.)
“My father is anxious to have an heir.”
“But I don’t understand. He already has an heir. He has you.” This is what Heloise (the mirror) said. But mirrors can’t speak. Listen, then. Listen carefully. You can hear a mirror: when mirrors crack or when mirrors break.
Jacques squinted at his fiancé. The Marquis stared, but for just a second. He stared, and then looked away. To be precise, he looked up. He looked up at the heavens (at the ceiling) and laughed.
Was this his tender, understanding laugh or his cynical, ironic laugh? I’ll leave that to your imagination (do you imagine yourself in the place of Jacques or of his bride-to-be?)
“Oh, I have an heir, to be sure. And I have a back-up, who is at home. He’s taken ill. My dear Justice often takes ill. So did Jacques, when he was a child. It’s only fair, I suppose, to warn you that your children will no doubt often take ill. Children are a blessing. And the more you have, the more blessed you are. When they take ill, you think your world will fall apart. But they usually get better. Then, when they are older, they invent new reasons for you to worry. And you wish for their sicknesses to return, if only because you know where they are then, and where things stand. Don’t look frightened, dear. I’m not telling you this to frighten you. Why would I want to frighten such a tender little thing? You see, Jacques, this is what I mean when I tell you France must be more careful about educating her women. Here, I try to instruct this girl, to give her an honest sense of what to expect, and she falls apart. Don’t worry, my dear. Illnesses pass. The child returns to health. The child leaves, but the child returns. I can tell you that my greatest joy is knowing I’ve lived long enough to see the full circle. I’ve done my part to be a good father. Take comfort to know that you will have a fine husband. And I will take comfort in the reward of old age: watching the lives of our faithful children. Yes, I want a grandson. Just as Jacques wants a son. Isn’t that right?”
I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to write with tenderness about the Marquis, as a sort of apology, but I don’t know how much more I can take. This last bit he said strikes me as cruel, terribly cruel, and I can’t stomach it. I can’t swallow it, even if Jacques smiles, and says “That’s right.” (Just because he says it doesn’t mean he swallows it. He knows something his father doesn’t know. “How can a man have a son but no heir?” He also knows his father loves him. He’s been told it his whole life.
Maybe it would have been better if the Marquis had never had children. Then who would have been his heirs? Maybe he shouldn’t have ever needed heirs. Maybe he should never have been a Marquis. It’s too much responsibility. He would have liked to study Greek more with his grandfather and the stick less with his father. He was always honest about this with Jacques and with Just. He told them the truth. He was honest. He was sincere. Jacques wasn’t the first to wish for an older brother. Jacques was lucky that he didn’t have to wish for an older brother to protect him, to cushion him from the ferocity of their father. When he was younger, he told them, he loved his education so much that he thought more than once about running away to a monastery, to devote his life to God. When Jacques was a young man, he had gotten in an enormous fight with his father (he had gotten in many enormous fights, but this one was special). He had said that he wished his father had devoted his life to God and that he hadn’t stuck around to make Jacques’s life into a hell.
“Well, then, I’d never have even have had you.”
“I never asked to be born.”
“What then, of your sisters and your brother?” At this point, the Marquis gestured at Just, the mute three-year old who would stare for hours at these two strange men, his ears absorbing their quarrels, while his sisters got to play with their mother. “How dare you wish for his death, in front of him. But worse! Better to die then never to have been born.” (The Marquis was educated in the tragedies, had read Sophocles, and knew this wasn’t true).
This shut Jacques up. Jacques never bothered wishing for his father to leave. From then on, he wished to leave himself.
This meant he never got the chance to ask his father, “And what about you? Have you ever wished for this? Are you telling me the truth?” The Marquis thought about it often (after he’d lost Jacques for good, he could think about little else). He could never decide how he would have answered.
But this wasn’t because the Marquis didn’t know the truth. The truth was, he’d have become a scholar if he could have. As much as he pretended it was his (real, genuine, but ambivalent) devotion to family that had made him decide against it, he knew this wasn’t true.
There are two routes available to the aristocrat who’d like to be a scholar: 1) The faithful route: he can devote his life to God and to the ancien regime. This is a different path to service than the one of glory, but it is legitimate. 2) The faithless route: he can become one of those benighted philosophes who preach against God and king. The philosopher is free to pursue the path of glory (he can keep his title), but he will always nonetheless be illegitimate. The Marquis knew he was too weak to give up legitimacy. The faithless route was closed to him. Then why not take the faithful route?
The truth is that the Marquis hated God.
“Yes,” said Jacques. “I’d like to have my son. That’s what I want.”
He was still looking at Heloise as he started saying this. There was something uncanny in his eyes. It left his eyes and entered hers. This took just a moment. Then he turned away from her and looked at his father. Before he’d even finished talking he had locked eyes with his father. Heloise followed Jacques’s eyes. Then, his father turned his gaze towards Heloise, and something else uncanny entered her eyes from him.
I realize this sounds fantastic, and I apologize for leaving aside the realism that has marked our style up to now. I’ll return to it soon, I promise. But it was in this exchange of looks that something terrible really happened to Heloise, so there’s really no other way I can describe it.
When Jacques and the old Marquis confronted each other through the medium of this frightened young girl she became, as I said a mirror. When their eyes locked in this mirror, it unlocked something inside her. It was as though she stepped through the mirror that she was and became something else, something strange. The mirror that she was: she, this simple, frightened young girl, the medium of men’s self-regard. Something strange: I don’t know, maybe she became a man.
At any rate, after this little exchange, when the three of them went out to be reunited with the women, Heloise heard herself say, “I never really belonged with them anyway.”
While Celimene sat listening to her mother and her sisters chat with Madame Gorriot and with Genevieve, she got more and more angry at Just for abandoning her to this. When she heard that Just wouldn’t be coming, she ran up to his quarters and threw the covers off his body.
“Get up! Get up! You can’t do this to me. I’ll die of boredom if you don’t come.”
Her eyes were filled with tears, and she was sobbing. But he looked at her with cold eyes and spoke calmly.
“What choice do I have,” Just said. “I’ve got my headaches.”
“You’re lying,” she said. “You’re lying and I know it. What do you think will happen? You little baby! Do you think they’ll call round to Mme. Ledoux, ‘Oh, please! Oh, please! Please help our poor family. Our dear, little baby Just has taken ill. We think we weaned him to soon. He needs a new wet-nurse. Have you gotten any ideas? You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Be careful to keep your mouth clean and watch out for what else she packs in that milk!”
Just leapt out of bed and chased her out of the room, and down the hall as far as he dared go before someone else see him out of bed. So Celimene had proven her point. But then she hadn’t known how to say goodbye to him and the trip had been miserable when it should have been so much fun.
Her sisters and her mother were so taken with the charming Gorriots who were so gracious and so ingratiating. But Celimene saw right through it. She couldn’t help but see how closely the furniture was packed into the room, how close it all was to going out of fashion, how carefully and thoroughly everything had been washed and re-washed for years and years now, when it should have just been thrown out. She couldn’t help but notice that both women wore clothing which you might call “timeless,” not up-to-date, but never exactly out-of-date either. She couldn’t help that she had discriminating eyes.
Celimene was happy to be in Paris, but she would have liked to have met Heloise and her family in her family’s roomier quarters, closer to the river. There, she and Just could have laid a careful trap for that little bitch Genevieve. It could have been so much fun.