I tramp a perpetual journey, / My signs are a rain-proof coat and good shoes and a staff cut from the woods; . . . / I lead no man to a dinner-table or library or exchange, / But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, / My left hand hooks you round the waist, / My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road. - Walt Whitman
Spring comes earlier to the Vaucluse than to regions further north, particularly in the low-lying fields around Avignon. The cherry and almond trees have lost their blossoms by the time March begins, and under bright green plane trees, tripping over the detritus of empires past, the spring planting was finished before April opened the skies.
To the boys at the small collège in Sorgues, spring was a torture. Education at the hands of the priests was boring enough during the winter rains, but as the skies brightened and the provençal sun began to creep through the windows almost daily, Latin became beyond endurance. For two in particular, spring was a yearly trial bested only by the heat of summer.
Florian Aubanèu was the youngest son of a peasant who had come out of the Revolution very well, tripling his holdings thanks to the prudent acquisition of the national lands once belonging to the Château de la Serre. M. Aubanèu had thought the ability to send his son to school with the local notables was a grand thing; Florian did not much care. He was expected to speak French at all times, even at home, while his parents and the farm hands continued to chatter along in the local Rhodanien dialect of Occitan because the labourers did not understand the first word of the language of state. Latin was of no use on the farm, but M. Aubanèu had once had some hope that Florian would do well in his studies and move to a larger town, perhaps L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue or Orange or even the city of Avignon, and become a clerk or even, hope above hopes, a priest. The lands would already have to be split in three by the inheritance laws, but if Florian were too busy in the city, he might sell his share to his brothers and thus the next generation would at least be where M. Aubanèu had started. Florian had other plans, however, and had drawn the greatest hopes down to earth by the third time he had managed to smuggle a live crayfish onto the instructor’s chair. It took great skill to keep the crayfish alive long enough that it would still pinch the threatening bottom without getting pinched oneself and giving the game away too soon. Florian had put months of study into attaining such useful skills.
René de Courfeyrac, in contrast, was the son of the mayor. A widower for the second time, M. de Courfeyrac had come to Sorgues with the Restoration only a few years earlier, just in time to hide out during the Hundred Days, with a young son and daughter in tow. He had come most recently from Orange, second in size only to Avignon, the great city where he had been a lawyer. He had left behind in the city a son who carried on his father’s business and a daughter lately married, the products of his first marriage. The young children with him were the products of the second - he had poor luck with wives, though the second had brought as dowry good lands worked by tenants in Sorgues and thus his nomination by the royal government as mayor of that village. René was supposed to be a remarkable student, the best in the class, for how could a boy from Orange take second to these peasants of Sorgues? But René did not much care to live up to his father’s hopes any more than Florian did. Sorgues had lost its walls centuries before and was not large enough for octroi or police presence, and the sweet country air blew straight through the unencumbered village where tall plane trees grew in the gardens of the houses. It was a paradise to a boy who had spent the first seven years of his life inside the walls of Orange.
Since they took the rod in turns, it was only natural that the two boys would become friends. Indeed, the same stimulants worked on them both - while Latin plus July heat put the rest of the boys to sleep, it merely prodded René and Florian to greater heights of mischief. Even M. de Courfeyrac accepted that it was easier to let René run off to the Aubanèu farm after school, often for hours, or take his rifle out with M. Aubanèu for a hunt on a Sunday, than to attempt to force him to his studies immediately after class or keep him indoors as he had in Orange. The boys had nearly free reign of the countryside, where Florian taught René how to catch crayfish, set rabbit traps, and filch apricots from orchards that were not his. And although Florian had a noble vocabulary of Occitan he tried to teach his friend, his French grew by leaps and bounds since René could only seem to remember the most sacred of curses.
The spring of their twelfth year was somewhat advanced - the apricots were now in bloom and the rains had slowed - when René suddenly stopped lobbing stones into the pond where the crayfish lived in their thousands and turned to Florian. “I don’t want to go back to school on Monday.”
“Neither do I, but how are you going to get us out of it?”
“We need an adventure.”
“Take up as bandits on the road to Avignon?”
René thought for a moment then shook his head. “I don’t think I could be a bandit.”
“Me either. It’s all romantic in the stories, but really you’re just stealing from people, and it’s mean to steal from the only people who come down that road.”
“How far away have you ever been?”
“Nowhere. Papà won’t even take me with him to market.”
“I was thinking, maybe, if you wanted to come with me, that we could have a real adventure. By finding the source of the Sorgue.”
“Everyone knows the source is in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.”
“I didn’t mean discover it! I meant see it for ourselves.”
“How far do you think it is?”
“Your father can go to and from the market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue all within a day, right? I think you just climb into the hills after that. Out, back, three days.”
“Probably,” René answered, suddenly unsure of his reasoning. He did not really know how far beyond L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue Fontaine-de-Vaucluse lay, nor how difficult it might be to follow the river up into the mountains to the spring at its source. But the idea sounded brilliant.
“What if we leave after mass tomorrow?”
“And walk back into school on Tuesday as heros.” His eyes lit up at the thought. The priest could not dare punish them for something so audacious.
“We’ll need supplies. You’ll need to bring your own rifle because my father will kill me if I take one of the extras. I’ll snag a couple canteens, but you’ll have to bring a couple of blankets for yourself. And a loaf of bread if you can manage it.”
“I’ll manage it. After mass or after dinner?”
“After dinner. Meet in the apricot orchard?”
At the appointed time, they met under a shower of apricot blossoms as the spring breeze decided it was time to strip the trees. René carried his rifle across both shoulders, the required two blankets bouncing from their strap as he walked. Florian was already waiting, sitting against one of the trees with his hat in his hand, a residue of petals in his curly dark hair. “Did you bring the bread?”
“It’s wrapped in the blankets.” He took the earthenware canteen Florian passed him and slung it over his shoulder and around his neck so it jogged along at his side.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“Did you want to back out?” René asked, a little nervously. Now that they were about to leave, backing out did not seem like such a bad idea.
“No,” Florian answered quickly, perhaps a little too quickly. “Let’s go.”
First they had to traverse the farms to get to the banks of the Sorgue itself, for René was determined to follow the river and make no shortcuts by the ancient canal. By Florian’s reckoning, they would have approximately four hours of sunlight, though neither boy had any idea how far that would take them.
“How did you manage to get out?” Florian asked as they walked.
“I said I was going hunting with you and your father. What did you tell your father?”
“The same, that we were going hunting. That should buy us until nightfall.”
“What happens when they miss us?” René tried to ask nonchalantly, but his voice shook a little.
“I don’t know.”
They walked in silence for a long time. Within an hour or so, they passed through the village of Bédarrides. It was a simple matter to skirt the walls and keep going, stopping to rest in the shade of a plane tree once they were out of sight of the town.
“Is this the right stream?” Several branches of the Sorgue came together at Bédarrides.
“I think so.”
“We should have gone the other way. Followed it all the way to sea.”
“The Rhône takes you straight into Avignon.”
“Oh. You’re right. Bad idea.”
“With my luck, I’d manage to run smack into Gilles and end up sent back before I’d even begun.” Gilles was René’s older brother, a faint but ill-spirited presence he felt was best kept in Avignon. Gilles had been well-behaved as a child. Gilles was a lawyer. Gilles had not even bothered to torment him the few years they lived together in Orange before returning to Avignon, the place of his birth, to take up legal studies. He counted his older brother much worse than his father; he at least knew his father did not lack a sense of humour while he strongly suspected Gilles did not know what that was.
“Have you ever been to Avignon?” Florian asked nervously. The very idea of the city made him nervous.
“Once. It’s huge. People everywhere, carriages everywhere, shops full of all sorts of things. There was a shop that sold nothing but books. There was a shop, an actual shop, not a stand at the market, that sold nothing but toys. But it’s too crowded. I’d rather go back to Orange if I have to leave Sorgues.”
“Good. I didn’t think I’d like it much.”
“You’d hate it. I did. And not just because Gilles lives there.”
In the late afternoon, they passed several mills, their huge wheels stopped as no work was legally to be done on Sunday and there was little point in running the great stones illegally in the spring. They passed peasants of all ages and both genders and more than once stepped away from the road to Velleron as someone on horseback came trotting past, on his way to Monteux or even Jonquières.
The sun began throwing brilliant orange rays across the fields, turning the water of the Sorgue to blazing light, not long after they passed the hamlet of Beauchamps. Pushing ahead as fast as their tired legs could carry them, they stopped well out of sight of the small cluster of houses and mill that could hardly be called a village and cocked their rifles - it was time to find a rabbit or quail for dinner. But after an hour and a bad shot from Florian, they gave up and munched on bread in the growing twilight.
“How much further do we have to go?”
René shrugged. “We haven’t even made it to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue yet. Is that bad?”
“Papà uses the road that cuts across instead of heading north. We’re heading south now - see, the sun’s over there.” He pointed at the last of the light, the sun having dipped below the horizon.
“Then we’re on the right track. We’ll be in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse by lunchtime,” René insisted.
They spread the blankets into individual bedrolls until the scream of a hawk sent René scrambling to Florian’s side. “Sure, he can find a rabbit,” Florian muttered bitterly in Occitan as they adjusted the blankets so they might sleep together. Not that he was mocking the fears of a boy from town - he had merely frozen at the scream, unable to move any closer to his friend until he realised it was a hawk. Indeed, sleeping together was the better idea, with the clouds racing across the sky, for though it did not rain, they were well-covered in dew when they woke, huddled under the double layer of wool they had nearly denied themselves.
René washed his face in the river; Florian did not bother. He busied himself wiping down the guns and shaking what dew he could out of the blankets before rolling them back into two tight bundles. They refilled their canteens and finished the rest of the bread before starting off again.
The early morning light was clean and the air cool and damp. Walking seemed easier than it had the day before, despite the distance traveled, and after no more than an hour, they could see the walls of Velleron in the distance.
“See? Nothing’s as far away as they try to make us think.”
It was just after noon when they came to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. René’s stomach growled very audibly, unhappy at having been given only bread and water since the previous day’s dinner. “I have money,” he told Florian.
“Why didn’t you tell me that earlier, you bastard!” Florian exclaimed. “Screw rabbit hunting - we’re getting a proper dinner!”
Florian had not been away from home at all, while René’s limited travels had been by carriage with his father and younger sister. He had not really taken note of why they always stopped at the walls of a town. But the customs officer at the octroi of L’Ile-sur-la-Sorgue knew why travelers always stopped at the walls of a town, and while the boys patently had no taxable merchandise to market, they were also not familiars of the market. He called to his friend the police agent, who immediately perceived the issue despite his not completely sober state.
“Can I see your passports?”
“Passports?” René asked.
“Passports. Wandering around the countryside without permission is vagrancy. I’ve put out beggars younger than the two of you before. Passports. Now.”
“We’re not beggars!” René protested. Florian decided for once that this was an authority not to be challenged and kept his mouth shut. “We’re just going walking to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, then we’re going back home. We have homes. We live in Sorgues. My father’s the mayor!” he finally blurted out, as the police agent seemed uninclined to believe the truth.
“Then he would have written you out passports before you left town,” the agent said triumphantly. “Out, both of you.”
“We’re not beggars!” René continued to protest. “I have money, look! Do we look like beggars?” While they had slept rough, and both were wearing patched trousers, they were obviously well-fed, with good coats and stout boots. “We just wanted to buy something to eat at the market.”
A crowd was starting to form, to Florian’s consternation. René was oblivious for the moment, his concentration on justice in the face of the law. One of the peasants who had come in for the market asked Florian, “Hey, aren’t you Aubanèu’s boy? Where’s your father?” Florian didn’t dare answer.
A murmur of “Runaways!” rushed through the crowd. René was still trying to explain that he didn’t need a passport, he wasn’t leaving the department, he was just taking a walk, as a man ought to have a right to do. The commissaire de police was brought at last.
“Did you or did you not run away from home?” he asked René in a voice that did not permit dissembling. He was of advanced age, old than either of their fathers, with grey hair and a stern expression.
“I did not, monsieur. I have every intention of returning once I’ve seen the source at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.”
“Your father is Pierre de Courfeyrac?”
“Yes, monsieur,” he replied, downcast. He knew the adventure was over; they were going to be sent back.
“Chabrelhat,” he addressed his agent, “take them to the mairie. Put them in the cell if it’s free.”
René’s jaw dropped, and Florian tried not to burst into tears. Jail! Runaways! The adventure was turning out to be more adventurous than they had bargained for. All they could do was follow the police agent to the mairie and sit on the stone flags behind the iron barred door until the commissaire de police returned.
Chabrelhat returned first, however, with bread, cheese, and a couple hard boiled eggs, which he passed to them through the bars. “I’m not taking you two brats all the way back to Sorgues on empty stomachs.”
They tore into everything hungrily. “You don’t have to take us back, monsieur,” René insisted between bites. “We’ll go. We promise.”
“Foucard says you’re going back, so you’re going back. He’s borrowing horses as we speak.”
The boys looked at each other. Horses. The police. They were being sent home as quickly and publicly as possible after having been put in jail as beggars. “My father is going to kill me,” René whispered.
“Mine, too. This was the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
“I know.” René felt too low to even think of a snappy comeback. It was true. This was the worst idea he had ever had.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Chabrelhat said with a grin, showing several missing teeth. “You’re old enough to take the strap you deserve. Foucard ain’t putting it on the books, and if it goes to the prefect, your names won’t. Here, don’t tell him this.” He passed a somewhat dingy handkerchief to them. Wrapped inside were two slightly smashed squares of quince paste.
They swallowed the sweets at once. “Thank you, monsieur!” The unexpected gift was just in time, too, because M. Foucard walked in and unlocked the cell.
“Chabrelhat is going to take you home. Can you sit a horse? Good. And this,” he handed a sealed letter to Chabrelhat, “is for M. de Courfeyrac.”
“Let’s go. I ain’t getting back until after dark as it is.”
“Viech d’ase,” René cursed as they followed Chabrelhat on the borrowed horses, which earned him a glare from the agent, who of course spoke the local dialect. He and Florian had one to themselves, but the saddles were tied together so there was no escaping, and Chabrelhat held their rifles hostage.
They were back in Sorgues in less time than it had taken them to walk from north of Velleron to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue - the river ran north then south, while the road simply ran from east to west. M. de Courfeyrac came running up to the horses and pulled his son off before the boys could dismount. “Where in God’s name have you been?” he scolded, holding René tightly by the shoulder. Florian tried to slip down unnoticed in the hope he could sneak off home.
“I picked them up in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Commissaire Foucard said to give you this.” He handed over the letter.
“Give Foucard my thanks. Oh, and for yourself.” He gave the agent a couple five franc pieces. “I’m sure you’ll want to refresh yourself before you ride back.” Chabrelhat thanked him and led the horses back towards the cheap tavern to drink away his reward.
Florian thought it the ideal moment to slip away, having retrieved the rifles while Chabrelhat was talking to M. de Courfeyrac. But the mayor had other ideas. “Both of you, in the house, now. René, you are to go straight to your room and stay there until I give you permission to leave. Florian, you will sit in the petit salon until your father comes to get you.”
Neither boy was in a position to complain about the punishment they knew they deserved. Upstairs, with the door shut, René lay on the bed to stare at the ceiling and wait. He heard when M. Aubanèu arrived because the shouts could be heard all through the house. It was during M. Aubanèu’s raving that a note was slipped under his door.
“What did you do? Everyone is very angry. They were so worried last night. I was afraid you would not come home. Papa says I can’t talk to you because you were so naughty.” His younger sister, Juliette, was apparently under orders to leave him alone, but even at ten years of age, she knew just when she could take things very literally in order to break the rules. He crumpled the paper into a ball and started tossing it up and down for lack of anything better to do. His bedroom had been stripped of all toys in deference to his advancing age, and he was in no mood to turn to his books as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
It soon proved that he was not to be released for school the next morning. Or for any reason the next morning. “Monsieur says you’re to stay here,” the maid who brought his wash water in the morning told him. Then she committed the utter indignity of locking him in. He thought about climbing out the window - he had done it before - but he could not climb back in the window, and now was not the time to anger his father further.
His incarceration lasted four days. On Friday evening, he was ordered to appear before his father downstairs in the grand salon. Juliette was watching from a dark corner.
“How long had you planned to run away from home.”
“I wasn’t running away,” René protested. “We were just following the Sorgue to its source, and then we were going to come straight back. I swear.”
“This was hardly a project for the two of you to undertake alone, on a Sunday afternoon. Do you realise how many prisoners out of Toulon come north along these roads? You could have gotten yourselves killed!”
“We had our rifles.”
“As if either of you could shoot a man. I don’t want you in a position where you have to. What about the respect you owe your teacher? You were expected in school on Monday. What about the respect you owe your parents? You lied to me. You told me you were with M. Aubanèu. What was I supposed to think when he came to me late on Sunday night asking if I had seen his son?”
René hung his head. Neither of them had really thought that part through. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“Sorry. You should be sorry. I should cut a switch to make you sorry. But I don’t think you’ll forget what you’ve done, will you?”
“Go back to your room.”
This time he was not locked in, but he had no intention of leaving. His father was disappointed more than he was angry, and that was a sickening feeling.
He was not permitted out for mass, but another note from Juliette told him the gossip he had missed. “Florian’s been expelled. They won’t take him back at school at all,” was all the note said, hastily scribbled and poorly folded, as she had been in a rush not to get caught. If Florian had been expelled, was that why he, René, was still in his room? Was his father bargaining for his return? What if it were not granted? No wonder his father was so disappointed. What could he do in life if he had been kicked out of school?
He was shocked when not two days later, his father walked in without knocking and dropped a valise on the floor. “Pack your things. We leave for Avignon in an hour.” M. de Courfeyrac was very stern, and René decided it was best not to ask why they were going to the city or for how long they might stay.
He packed a few clothes, but Juliette came sneaking in. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but you’re being sent away.”
His jaw dropped. “What?”
“He got a letter from Avignon this morning. We’re all going but you’re not coming back.”
“I have to live with Gilles?” he complained in shock.
“I think you’re going to boarding school. You’d better pack for real.”
With a sigh, he pulled out his winter clothes to cram into the bag. Boarding school. He had been expelled from the local collège, just like Florian, and now he was being sent away completely. And his father had let Juliette explain it to him rather than say the words himself. And less than an hour was no time to try to write to Florian to apologise for getting him expelled and never seeing him again.
It was a very awkward drive to Avignon, two hours in the carriage with Juliette staring at him and his father staring out the window. They pulled up in front of a large building in the centre of the city, where Gilles was waiting with a small trunk. His father and brother embraced, while René stared at the pavement rather than at what he knew was his new prison. Gilles towered over him, making disappointed sounds. “René, really.”
“Gilles will look after you. He has permission to take you out on Sundays and holidays.” That was as much punishment as boarding school was to René.
Juliette flung her arms around him and kissed his cheeks. “I’m going to miss you!” They had never been playmates, but he supposed the house would be strangely quiet with only a girl left.
“Tell Florian I’m sorry,” he asked her softly, hoping his father would not overhear. She nodded rapidly, eager to take on the commission.
“I expect better reports from M. Genevoix than I ever got from Father Guilhaume.”
“The trunk has your uniform and anything else they require. Take your bag - you’ll want your personal things.”
“Au revoir,” he replied hollowly. He watched the carriage move off into traffic before following his brother inside. Punishment he deserved, and punishment he was certainly about to have.
In later years, René was never certain it was punishment. The lycée Saint-Joseph was the finest school in Avignon, and had it not been for his wretched misbehaviour, he might have remained at the small collège in Sorgues. He would never have passed the baccalauréat with that kind of preparation; he would never have proved he could handle the freedoms of Paris because he would have had no reason to stay out of trouble in Sorgues. But he never dared ask his father if he had always intended that he should go to Avignon. He did not want to force his father to say that he had been kept too long at home merely from affection. They were not that sort of family. The frequent Sunday visits and holiday reprieves from captivity had proved to René that he had concluded rightly; an awkward confession from his father could prove nothing more. Instead, the crime was not that he had been captive to education, but that he had been punished with a finer education earlier than perhaps had been intended, while Florian had lost his only chance at education and was put to work on the farm. The boy who ought to have been punished most had instead reaped rewards he knew he did not deserve. M. de Courfeyrac was right; René never forgot what he had done. He needed no thrashing to sear injustice into his memory.
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