Letters from Armorica- The Engagement (21 Novembre 33AF)

First Letter

Dear Jack,

You won't ever read this, because I don't dare send any letters and so I'm writing it in my journal—but I need to tell somebody about what happened today, and explain it to them, so that maybe I'll understand it myself. You're elected, because you're the only one of my correspondents with whom I can speak freely.

Yesterday I was asked to go to the Fabré's shop this morning and begin instructing Amelie Fabré in her letters and in the keeping of books. (Pretend that I've been able to tell you about the Fabrés and their shop, Jack, and about Amelie.) M. Fabré is very unwell, and Amelie will need the instruction to be able to manage the shop when he is gone. I have become a bit fond of Amelie, and wanted to help as best I could. But today didn't turn at all as I had expected.

I presented myself at the shop this morning, having walked the miles from Onc' Herbert's farm, prepared to do my best to begin instructing Amelie. Letters I know, Jack, and even words and sentences and paragraphs, but what I know about the keeping of books is limited to making neat entries in journal ledgers, as I learned to do in the store room at Suprenant et fils. The bookkeeping proper was of course done by the more senior clerks. I was hoping I could pick up a little from M. Fabré himself, and study how the books went together, and maybe Amelie and I could muddle through.

M. Fabré evidently had the same thought, for he was waiting at the counter with a collection of ledgers spread out before him. He looked tired and ill, and not entirely pleased to see me, but he waved me around to his side of the counter and opened one of the books to a page showing a column of names.

As he began to speak he was overcome with a fit of coughing. I pounded him on his back as gently as I could, not knowing what else to do; and then Amelie came, gave me a worried smile, and led him off to his bed. So much for learning from M. Fabré, Jack! So I leafed through the books in front of me as I waited for her to come back, trying to make sense of them.

The first thing I noticed was that the entries were written in three different hands. The earliest entries were in a rounded, stylish hand that might have graced the kinds of invitation I used to receive in Yorke. Then, midway through 28 AF, the entries began to made in a second hand, legible but crabbed and ugly, the hand of a man who did as little writing as possible. But all of the most recent entries, going back perhaps a year, were in a plain, simple hand: tidy, with no pretensions, but easy to read. I looked through all of the ledgers on the counter, which were of divers kinds; all showed the same pattern.

When Amelie emerged from her father's room, she found me seated in an easy chair in their small parlor. She stopped, and studied my face.

"You have been looking at the books, M. Tuppenny."

"Yes, I have," I said. "And I think we need to talk."

"Bon. I shall make tea." She bustled into the kitchen, and returned a few minutes later with a tray on which I found a pot of tea, a small pitcher of milk, a bowl of sugar, and two cups, all in the proper Cumbrian style. I looked up in surprise; I had not seen such a thing since I left Yorke.

She looked up at me from under her eyelashes as she poured. "You are to feel at home, non?" she said.

"Ah. Thank you."

I sat back in my chair and sipped; and if the tea wasn't quite like I would have gotten at my mother's table, it was still better than the harsh, black fluid that passed as tea at Onc' Herbert's. Amelie took her cup and waited for me to speak.

"Your father's note said that you needed to be instructed in bookkeeping and your letters," I said, baldly, "and yet I find that you have been doing all of the bookkeeping for the last year, and doubtless know more about it than I do. It is you who should be teaching me, not I you."

"C'est vrai, M. Tuppenny," she said, nodding. "And I shall—if you wish it."

"But why? Why ask me to come instruct you when you don't need instruction?"

She sipped her tea, and continued to look at her cup as she decided how to answer me. At last she looked up and studied my face for another moment.

"I think you would be happier if I spoke plainly, n'est-ce pas?" she said.

"Yes, I would."

She nodded, and took a deep breath.

"Mon pere, he is dying. I cannot run this shop on my own. It is, how would you say, a two-person task." In that moment her pretty face looked more drawn than ever. I could see the strain of her father's declining health—and the strain of this conversation, which I think wasn't going as she had expected.

And here's where you'll laugh at me, Jack. You, I know, would have swept Amelie into your arms, said all of the comforting words you could think of, made extravagant promises, some of which you might actually have meant, and used the word "lass" a great many times. But me, Jack, I don't have your experience or your easy way with the ladies; and do you know, Jack, I don't believe I want to. So I handled it my own way: business-like, as seemed appropriate to the circumstances.

"And you and your father are trying to recruit me," I said, and she looked up sharply. I smiled a little. "I've known it since I came to help with the inventory, and I'd been suspecting it for weeks before that."

She blushed, hotly, but simply said, "Oui."

"But why me? And why the foolishness about me teaching you?"

She looked surprised.

"But why? To save your pride, of course. It is one thing for you to teach me, but quite another for me to teach you."

"My pride, eh? If I were concerned about my pride I'd have stayed in Yorke." She looked a question at me. "I see I'll have to tell you about it, and sooner rather than later." She nodded. "But again, why me? I know there are many fine-looking young men here in Bas-de-Bois; I see them at the hot springs every week. Me, I'm a stranger, and I have nothing."

"Mon pere, he has always wished for me to marry an educated man." She shrugged. "There are many young men here, but of educated men, none at all. Until you." She looked down, then back up at me. "Mon pere, he has taught my letters well enough to read the labels on the boxes and the names in the ledgers, and he has often read stories to me in the evenings. Mais vraiment, I should like to learn to read them for myself."

"But is that enough? You know nothing of me. I might be a cad, or worse."

"Non!" she said, emphatically. "You are a hard worker," she said. "You do the meanest jobs without complaint, though you are from a fine family in Yorke. You are of the most educated, and you are no farmer. If you are to stay here in Bois-de-Bas, you must have a place, a place better than a cot in the attic of Herbert de Neánt's farm. And you have always spoken to me with kindness."

I thought back to my interview with Onc' Herbert in the back-corner of the hot springs. Oh. Did the whole village know what was going on here? I began to think that they did.

Then she looked at me in such a frank manner that it made me blush. You know how it is at the balls in Yorke, Jack, you've been to enough of them. Both the mammas and the daughters look at us like prime beef, judging of our wealth and consequence. This was something quite different, and much more personal.

"And you are quite handsome enough," she said, and dimpled. "And I—" and here she waved a hand at herself. "Am I not pleasing to you?"

I think I blinked rapidly several times. "Oh, yes," I said and blushed even more furiously.

"And so what is so difficile? Do you not wish to remain in Bois-de-Bas?"

I looked at my tea cup. In fact, I rather thought I did wish to remain. But the whole situation was very odd, Jack.

"This is not at all how it would have been done in Yorke," I said mildly, looking up. "I'm afraid I'm a bit flustered."

"Is it that I am too business-like?" she said, voice rising. "Am I not good enough for you?"

"On the contrary, Mlle. Fabré," I said. "You misunderstand me.

In Yorke I would be attending balls and parties, and all the society mamas would be dangling their daughters in front of me, hoping to make an eligible catch. I'd meet every young lady, all of them dressed in the finest, all of them in their best looks, all of them with their eye on my family's fortune and power. And then, when they were ready, my father and mother would decide which one I'd pick. I never expected to have much of a say in it myself."

And then I looked Amelie in the eye. "Not one of those young ladies would care that I work hard, that I am no grumbler, or that I am educated. Nor would any of them speak to me so frankly." I shrugged, feeling a bit of a fool. "Well, do you know, I think I rather like it." She dimpled again.

Yes, Jack, I can hear you laughing at me. I know, Jack, I'm hopeless.

"Well, then," she said.

"But your father…he doesn't seem to like me very much."

"He likes you well enough. He knows what we are about."

"But would I make you happy?"

"Would you intend to make me happy?" she asked in return.

"I should certainly try."

"Then I think you will succeed, mon cher M. Tuppenny, for you are a hard worker." And she nodded. In that moment she reminded me of Elise speaking to Marc, and I felt a wave of something come over me.

"Let me tell about myself, then," I said, "for I doubt you have heard the full story."

"C'est bon. But for this we will need more tea, and also cakes."

We talked for the rest of the day, with Amelie rising to greet the occasional customer, and in the end it was all decided. I would continue to come every day, and in the mornings she would teach me the books and how to run the shop; and in the afternoons I would work with her to improve her reading, and also to speak Cumbrian (for we had been speaking Provençese all the day).

When I rose to leave, I said, "Now should I speak with your father?"

She shook her head. "He knows."

"Or with the priest—but you have no priest here in Bois-de-Bas. What about the bans?"

"There will be a priest here soon enough, in the spring."

"But—well, the year grows late. If I come every day, one of these days we shall get snowed in, and I shall be forced to overnight here. What about your reputation? I should seem forced to marry you then."

She came to me then, and put her hands on my shoulders, and there was a warm and wicked look in her eyes.

"Mon cher Armand, do you not yet understand? Mon pere, he wanted for me an educated man, but also a gentleman of Provençe. He has said so many times, and all the village knows it. He has refused several offers. So. You will come every day to teach me, to save your pride. And then you will be caught by the snow to save his pride, and the pride of the disappointed young men. And then, well," and she smiled shyly but with a frank promise that made me wish for snow. "And the next Sunday we will stand together in the Church, and in the spring we shall stand before the priest, but we will be married already. And all will have been done decently and in order."

"It all seems quite complicated to me."

She shrugged. "It is a village, Armand," and again I was reminded of Elise Frontenac, who had made the same observation the previous Sonnedi. But she'd said it to prevent me from sitting with Amelie in the church, because then everyone would think—oh. But of course, Elise would have been in on it. Can't have me jumping the gun, Jack, isn't that what you soldiers say?

"So what you're saying is, everyone wants and expects us to marry, but to save everyone's face it has to seem like a necessity."

"Mais oui! Have I not been saying just the same for hours? Sometimes you are very slow, mon cher."

"Things are done quite differently in Yorke," I said, enfolding her gingerly in my arms. "But I think—" and she cocked her head at me, and I kissed her for the first time. "—I think we shall be very happy."

And that, Jack, is how I finally came to be engaged at last. Do neglect to pass it along to my parents, won't you? I can hardly think they'll understand.

Your bemused but delighted cousin,

Armand

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