The Keeper of All Mystery

Courfeyrac: Sorgues, 1822

René was home for three whole days - his father had come on Thursday evening and pulled him out of school for the Easter holiday. Three whole days with Juliette, and Gilles stayed in Avignon where he belonged.

Spring was always better at home. The walls of the school - the walls of Avignon in general - seemed to keep the winter inside, to channel the mistral but to keep the soft spring breezes out in the fields and pastures. There were gardens in Avignon, of course, the scent of almond trees in bloom occasionally wafting over the walls, overtaking the usual scents of the city, but nothing could possibly compare to Sorgues, surrounded by fields and vineyards and orchards without any trace of a wall to keep nature at bay. René was supposed to be good when he was at home, a credit to the school, and Juliette was supposed to behave rather more like a lady now that she was thirteen, but she still wanted him to push her as high as possible on the swing in the great horse chestnut tree that shadowed their garden and to run through the fallow fields, blue with scilles and yellow with cowslip.

It was a grand holiday, the spring sky bluer than the wild hyacinths, the breezes soft as a lover’s breath. No books, no Latin or Greek composition, no recitation of kings of France or anything else could trouble the peace of a fifteen year old boy on holiday, so long as he was not caught helping his sister put flowers in her hair.

“Is this how a bride should look?” she asked once. Only once.

“Don’t be an idiot. Who’d marry you?”

She poked her tongue out at him and that was that. “Boys have no sense of romance,” she complained.

But that was not entirely true, since René was still perfectly willing to join in her other playacting, to be the troubadour romancing her princess even if he were her brother. Though one could do very little playacting between Good Friday and Easter Sunday if one did not want to have another lecture from one’s father over how the neighbours tended to take it very ill when children were bellowing old Provençal love songs in arbours not their own. “We don’t have an arbour!” was not an appropriate excuse at Easter. The troubadour had to be left to Sundays less holy.

But Easter mass was brilliant enough in the village. René was not permitted to engage in the procession, no longer being considered a resident of the village now that he was away at school, but he was thrilled to watch the other village boys enact the stations of the cross. In Avignon, so much was determined by the social position of the adults and the fellowship societies that had taken the place of the old guilds wiped out by the Revolution, but Sorgues was too small to care if your father owned the tavern or was a farm labourer so long as you could hold up your end of the cross and speak your part in something approximating French.

It was during the procession that René first noticed the girl. Everyone in Avignon looked the same, their styles copied from Paris, but in Sorgues, most of the farm women and some of the men still dressed in the traditional manner for festivals, including at Easter. This girl could not have been much his senior, but there was something terribly inviting about the way she held her head high, the bright kerchief around her shoulders drawing the eye to her bosom where the ends crossed and disappeared into her waist, the yellows and reds in her kerchief a delightful contrast to the blues of her quilted skirt and the bright white pocket tied around her waist. She noticed him staring at her through the gaps in the procession, and rather than redden with embarrassment or turn up her nose at his youth, she met his eyes evenly and slowly smiled.

Something moved in the pit of his stomach, a hard knot of longing that he wanted to grip with both hands as he went to her. But the procession was in the way, and he had to keep his hands at his sides for fear Juliette would turn to him and ask if he managed to eat himself into a stomachache already. It would hardly have been the first Easter that he managed to find the sweets before breakfast and refused to share, but he had been good this year and had not gone looking for the sweets. He had only eaten his egg, a deeply dyed red one the same shade as the flowers in the girl’s kerchief.

The entire village, and the farmers from the outlying districts, collected for mass, the one day a year the church would be filled. René and Juliette were both to take communion - Juliette’s first had been the year before - and waited with their father, pretending to a semblance of Christian virtue. At least Juliette did, while René looked around for the girl.

Juliette poked him in the ribs. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

“Looking for Florian,” he lied. He never lied to his sister, but it came out so easily. And in church. On Easter Sunday. Right before taking communion. He was so going to Hell. So he did look around once more, for Florian, because then it wouldn’t be a lie, but that was when he saw the girl. She was in line for communion, too, far back, with the labourers. She had the brightest kerchief of any of them, its pattern more yellow than red, bright even in the dim church. He turned around quickly so she would not see him staring.

Juliette turned around, found Florian straight away, and pointed very obviously. “He’s right over there. You should say something to him after.”

“Juliette, we are in the house of God on the holiest day of the year. If it is impolite to point, then on this day, in this place, it is a sin.” Though both children could see M. de Courfeyrac was going through the motions for the neighbours; at home, he never said anything about sin. They apologised anyway. One made allowances for the neighbours.

René usually liked communion - it made him feel grown up knowing that he was supposed to take his own spiritual redemption in hand. But today, he wanted nothing more than to swallow down his wafer and sip of wine and get into the spring sunshine as quickly as possible. His spiritual redemption was far less important than seeing where the girl would go. “I’ll see you at home later.”

“He’s trying to see if Florian will talk to him,” he heard Juliette tell their father. It certainly sounded better than the truth, which was that Florian never would talk to him again. For three years, he had been trying to apologise for the lark that got them both expelled from the local collège, and for three years, Florian had refused to listen. But it was no use thinking on that when he had to keep an eye out for the girl.

The girl seemed to walk alone, strange on a feast day for someone so young. Her dark hair was covered with a white lace cap, whiter even than her muslin pocket, one black lock having fallen across her brow, bouncing as she walked on determinedly. René hurried to catch up with her. She was taller than he was - he had not yet hit the rapid growth of the other boys in his class, though he was certain it would happen any day - and she walked with the quick long strides of someone who regularly covered long distances over the fields. He had seen farm girls before, of course, and he had seen girls in town, but he was certain he had never seen a girl like this one, so young and so mature and so beautiful all at once.

“Bonjour!” he finally called out to her, reddening horrifically when she turned to see who hailed her. But she smiled - she must have recognised him from the procession, otherwise why would she smile?


Bloody hell, he thought. Of course she doesn’t speak French. Three years of boarding school had meant three years hearing the patois very little, and medieval love poetry was rather short on the courtesy of daily life. What comes next? “Cossí anatz?” Had he just accidentally used the formal version of “how are you?” He used what he thought he heard most.

But it must have been the formal, because she laughed as she answered. Laughed merrily, so that he was embarrassed but also enthralled. She let him come directly up to her. Her skin was fair in contrast to her dark hair. He wanted desperately to touch her cheek, but he knew better than to precipitately reach for an animal - even a dog would run away or lash out if a gentle touch were unexpected. Not that she was an animal at all, of course, but there was a wildness in her dark brown eyes that she shared with the deer, gentle but patently not domestic.

“My name is René,” he introduced himself. “Cossí - ?” Oh, hell, where was the rest of his brain? He could barely formulate words in French, much less in Provençal. “And you?”

“Johaneta.” She was probably in the parish register as Jeanne, René thought, which was a horrid thing to do to such a girl. The very sound of her name was magical, one could trace a direct line through Johan Esteve of Béziers. Her very beauty could make her a descendant of Johan’s bel rai. Of course the church would try to make her a bland Jeanne.

T’aimi.” He had no idea he had even said it aloud, the part of his brain still capable of thought considering asking “Please, may I kiss you?” rather than stating outright“I love you”. But she laughed and kissed him anyway, without him needing to ask. Bel rai, beautiful sunbeam, indeed, warm on his lips, lingering in a way he had never dreamed of kissing anyone, even her, and then gone just as suddenly, running away across the fields of scilles, laughing as she went. He had merely wanted to dare a peck at the lips, not the lingering caress she had so freely given.

He ran after her, knowing only that he wanted to kiss her again, that the knot in his stomach had loosened into fire from the moment her lips touched his and he wanted more, not caring if it burned all his insides away. They were hers to do with as she would - heart, stomach and all. The courtly love of the troubadours would permit no less than the dedication of his life for far less reward than the kiss already bestowed. How could he give her any less? Everything about this beautiful Johaneta demanded that sacrifice, if sacrifice such a loving donation could possibly be called. Her laughter, the way she permitted him to catch up to her, the way she twirled him around in the fields as if they were children making the world spin - he was conscious of everything about her as he had never been conscious of anything before, and yet it was all a blur, as if his mind could not retain all the sensation thrown at it. And when she pulled him down on top of her, he did not need her permission to kiss her again, or to pull off her lace cap so he could finger her tightly coiled braids.

She was the one to lift her heavy quilted skirt and spread her legs, to pull at the buttons of the fall of his trousers. He was hard as anything and conscious of that fact, too, but he had thought, if he had thought, that he would have to do something about it later. He had not even considered that she might be willing to sate him. The poems never spoke of this part. He had certainly not considered that she might take off her bright kerchief and wrap it around his shoulders, using it to pull him down on top of her, only a thin layer of muslin bodice between him and her small, firm breasts.

In retrospect, it was a nightmare. He was somehow more conscious of her breasts than he was of her muff, the one being visible and the other not. He recalled nothing of her facial expressions during the act, possibly because his awareness was suddenly focused squarely on her breasts, on the way that the wrinkles in her bodice accentuated a single nipple. At some point, he managed to slip inside her, and she pulled him down firmly with the kerchief, her arms around him now, their hips rocking in perfect rhythm. This was the apex of life, he was certain, this conjunction of girl and breast and sunlight and wildflowers. However, that perfect rhythm lasted a very short time, and soon he was limp, a dead weight on her, and still very conscious of that nipple.

The only conscious thought he had was that he must touch that nipple, possibly with his tongue. What must her bodice taste like? But she pushed him off instead, sliding out from under him and wrapping her kerchief back around her, the tantalising nipple now hidden completely.

René felt awful. He had failed somehow in expressing his love for her. Because he did still love her, her beauty, her initiative, her daring, her good humour before his horrific mistake. “I’m sorry. Perdon,” he apologised, sitting in the grass, elbows on knees like the unfortunate schoolboy he knew he had just proved he was. She had given him a chance, despite his height, and he had proved he must be a child rather than a youth.

But she sat down next to him and handed him a bright yellow cowslip, gay as her kerchief, and she smiled, and she let him touch her cheek, which was rougher with wind and sun than he had expected but more brilliant for the difference, and kiss her again and twine scilles as blue as her skirt into her braids.

T’aimi,” he told her again. “I love you.” And she laughed, Johan’s bel rai indeed. He felt very warm, and very happy, when she took his hand and led him back to the road to Avignon. She had put her cap into her pocket, and the light breeze danced through the flowers in her hair. But after one last kiss, she pointed him up the road, back to Sorgues. “T’aimi,” he repeated. She said something he could not catch and ruffled his hair. “Adieusiatz, Johaneta,” he said to her very seriously, though he suddenly wondered if he were again accidentally using the formal. Yet considering what they had just done, perhaps it was appropriate? She may have been only a farm girl, but she had been the one teaching him, taking him by the hand to initiate him into the mysteries. How could he address her other than in the utmost respect?

Adieusiatz, René.” She seemed to cradle his name in her tongue, making it sound almost romantic. Almost. How could anything in workaday French sound romantic compared to “Johaneta”?

René was very happy as he walked home, the gay spring sunshine reflecting his mood. Until he arrived, and Juliette asked, “What kept you so long?”

“I went for a walk.”

“A walk,” M. de Courfeyrac said, looking him over. “A walk through the fields.”


“But not alone, I don’t think,” he speculated with amusement. “Juliette, go see how the cook is getting on.”


“I need to speak to your brother alone.” She pulled a face and went into the kitchen. “Some girl has a green back, doesn’t she?” René reddened. There was something very coarse in the expression, even though it was true. “I recognise the grass stains.” He clapped his son on the back. “Congratulations. This is the sort of mischief I wholly condone. Who was she?”

“A farm girl,” René admitted. He had been in enough trouble in his fifteen years to know when to withhold the truth and when to give in, and this reception, coarse though it was compared to the flights of Johan Esteve, was a time to give in.

“Ah, to be young in spring. Reproduction is in the very air, the very earth, the very water. Was she beautiful? Well, of course she was, I don’t have to ask that. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a son of mine. You’ll have something to confess next year,” he said gleefully. “On Easter Sunday. Resurrection, indeed. Don’t let the neighbours find out.”

“Dinner is ready,” Juliette interrupted.


“I don’t have to use manners at home when you’re talking to René behind my back. It’s not fair.” And she dropped into her chair, her arms crossed, determined to have an ill expression on her face. Until René gave her the cowslip Johaneta had slipped into his coat. It was a small price to pay for peace at the family table.

He couldn’t have brought a flower back to school as a keepsake, in any case - he was teased enough as it was. The true keepsake was in his heart, in the knowledge that between courtly love and green backs, there was a perfect middle way. He had glimpsed it in that brief moment of rhythmic union, and he was certain that with much practice, he could not only find it again, but extend it, embrace it, live it. Everyone should live in the blue-green joy between fields of scilles and spring Provençal skies.


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