Marcellin was staring out the window, his arms folded on the windowsill, his chin resting on them. The old man was sitting at the table behind him, studying him carefully.
"I've lost you forever, I see." The old man said, "You think I'm a murderer, and the Jacobins are all the same now, don't you?"
"No," the boy said, lost in his contemplations. "I don't think that."
"Then you think I was wrong for voting against the death penalty, I suppose."
"No. You were right. It's not fair to kill anyone." He turned from the windowsill and sat back down in the rickety chair, his eyes cast down.
"Life's never fair, my boy, never. In my youth I thought it was my job to try and make it fair."
"Now? Now I find it's not my job any more. We tried as best we could, but for every spark of light in the darkness, there's ten clouds waiting to cover it up. The Revolution brought light. The Terror brought fire. Thermidor burnt those hands that set the fire. And this Buonoparte is darkness again."
"But it doesn't end like that does it?" the boy asked, suddenly full of eagerness. "We don't just stop? Someone is going to…bring the light, right?"
"We can study the past, but we can't predict the future. Right now, the nation wants to rest. It can't be bothered to work at anything, when it's done all the running it can do just to get to where it was before the Revolution."
"But someone is going to!" the boy insisted. The man nodded patiently.
"Yes, boy, eventually, someone will. Humanity has a natural instinct towards progress, especially now that we see it can be done. A republic is possible, if the men in charge are just and the people are just. Right now, France is asleep—and well she should be, she's earned her rest—but she will wake up again, and perhaps sooner than you think. No one who has tasted cakes will be happy with bread." The boy closed his eyes.
"How long will it take?" he asked.
"I don't know, I won't be around to see it. You will, perhaps." The old man smiled, "Yes, I think you will. Now, my boy, oughtn't you be getting back to your mother and 'stupid Digne?' I'm sure she's worried about you."
"Maybe." The boy said, incapable of being distracted, "But if progress is natural, then why are there so many people who try to stop it? If everyone is born free, and everyone is born a Jacobin, like you said, why are there still kings? Why aren't all countries republics? Why did that man—that Robespierre—try to kill everyone who disagreed with him? He was a good man, he wanted the best for the people, why did he do bad things?" The boy put his head on the table.
"He did bad things because he thought he was doing right. Sometimes, boy, when we are in extraordinary circumstances, we do things we never dreamed we could do before. Desperation can make—why, my boy, you aren't crying, are you?"
He was, however much he tried to hide it. The tears were running down his face faster than they ever had before, and he couldn't even figure out why. It was just a history lesson, like he had every day, no different than Charlemagne or the battles of Louis XIV. It had been bad, but worse things had happened, even in France. Why did it bother him?
"It's not fair, it wasn't fair!" the boy was mumbling through his tears, "It could have been good and it wasn't! It could have been perfect and it wasn't!" The old man tried to put his arms around the boy.
"Little patriot." He said fondly, " You don't need to cry." The boy pushed his arms away.
"Don't touch me." He said flatly.
"Fine. Your tears do you credit; I've never seen such enthusiasm in one so young. But you mustn't cry over it, really. It's over, now." The boy wiped away his tears. "There, that's better. Tears never solved anything, and I can tell that you've a mind to solve everything." The boy lifted his tearstained face. "Yes, I can see it. You're ambitious already. That's good. I don't hold much hope for your father's generation; they are the ones who are tired and bored with everything. These Buonopartists don't care about equality or liberty, just warfare. It is all a step backwards. But your generation—you, my boy—I have hope for you. A generation that has heard the tales of the Republic, and has lived through this era of darkness—surely you are the ones who will want the light. Yes, when you are grown, you'll see; great things will begin happening. A nation can't remain dormant for long." The old man was quiet after this long speech.
"Don't stop." The boy commanded, "Tell me more."
"More!" the man laughed, " I've told you everything I know!"
"But there must be more!"
"Perhaps, someday there will be." The old man rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes. Marcellin eyed him suspiciously. Was he getting tired of Marcellin and his questions? Did he want him to go away and stop bothering him? He was about to get up and leave the small hut when the man spoke.
"Marcellin," he said, using the boy's name for once, "Come here." The boy obeyed instantly, kneeling next to the man's chair.
"Would you, if I asked, do something for me?"
"Of course." Marcellin responded instantly. "What?"
"I phrased that wrong; it is not for me. It is for France."
"Of course." The boy said even faster. He would be quicker to do a favor for the old man than for France, but the two were becoming fused in his mind. "What can I do?"
"Are you a good student, boy?"
"Yes." He lied. He tended to get by with doing the bare minimum his governess would allow.
"Bring me that book, over there, on my desk. And the ink." The boy rushed to obey. With a jar of watery ink, the old man began writing on the page.
"Youth must assert itself. You are very young, but you are never too young to begin your education. You've got a natural instinct for justice, boy, as I've said, and it'd be a shame to put that instinct to waste by coupling it with ignorance. You're quick to act, as you've proved to me, but acting is only half the battle." The boy nodded soberly. The man tore the page out of his book.
"I would like to supervise your education; teach you everything I know, steer you in the right direction, but I know that's impossible. You'll be leaving Digne soon, and I don't have long to live—don't pity me, my boy, I've lived a long time and I'm very happy to die. But you need someone to guide you; you yearn for it, I can tell. So I'll give you the teachers I had. Find these books. Begin here. They may be a little difficult for one your age, but either you will rise to the occasion, or the occasion will arise on its own when you are older. Don't try to rush yourself; if you don't understand now, you will one day."
"I'll understand. I'll understand everything." The boy vowed, inspecting the page in his hand. "What are the books?"
" 'The Social Contract,' by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Have you heard of him?"
"Well, you will. Rousseau was a man we all revered in the days of the Convention. Scarcely a day passed without a mention of him, and of what he would have wanted. And if I can tell you a secret, my boy, I was often the one doing the mentioning. Rousseau is a good place to begin. After him, John Locke, though he's sometimes a bit hard to find in translation. If you can't find him, then Voltaire. Those are the three men that we spoke of the most; I suppose if they were good enough for us, they'll be good enough for you." The man laughed, "Look at me! Have I become so desperate to find someone who agrees with me that I'm giving Rousseau to a seven-year-old!"
"I'm nearly eight." The boy corrected.
"All the same, it's a bit above your head."
"I don't doubt it. But what makes either of us think you care about the Revolution? I've told you a good story and it affects you now, but you'll go home to St. Raphael, or Cahors, and you'll forget, grow out of it, like all little boys. You'll end up a bourgeois like your father—"
"I will not!" the boy thundered as best he could in his childlike voice. "I won't forget! I can't forget! How can anyone forget something like that!" he turned away and went back to staring out the window.
"And why do you suppose you care so much?"
"Because I want things to be fair." He said. He turned back to the old man. "If I'm ever in Digne again, can I come and see you?"
"Of course, my boy, I'd like that very much. If you still are interested in the Jacobin ramblings of an old man."
"You're the only grown-up who has ever told me anything worth listening to." The boy confessed. His teacher smiled.
"That may be the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long time." He picked up the ragged book that was still on the table, "Here, boy, take this with you. Read it at night before you go to sleep, as if it was a prayer book. Never forget what we did so that you might be free. Never forget what still must be done, and that it will be up to you and your children to do it." The boy put his hands behind his back.
"The Declaration is yours!" he protested, "You said yourself it was the first printing! You can't give it to me!"
"What good is it doing me? I'm an old man now, shut up in this house. Does it do any good to keep a document about the Rights of Man when the country denies these rights? You take it, Marcellin, and remember it." The boy looked as if he was going to protest again, but he did not. His mother would ask where he had got it. That was fine. She wouldn't get an answer. She never even had to see it. He could hide it in his coat for the rest of the trip if he had to. No one was taking the book.
"Now, boy, I think you should really be going back to Digne. Do you remember the way?"
"I think so." He said, "It's not a long walk, you don't have to come with me."
"I wasn't going to, even if I wanted to. My legs are not what they used to be." The man smiled, but the young boy did not. He seemed a lot sadder than when he had first walked into the hut.
"Thank you for this, Monsieur." The man laughed.
"You don't say ' Monsieur,' to me, you hear? During the Republic a man called his fellow ' Citoyen.'"
"Citoyen," the boy repeated, trying out this new form of address, "Then, thank you, Citoyen." The old man opened his mouth to bid the boy farewell but before he could, Marcellin had fled out the door, the Declaration in his hand.
"I might be going mad," the old man said to himself as he watched the boy run back to Digne, "But that little boy might be something some day."