O! It has been a week. Bertrand's father, M. Laveau, has not been seen in some days; and Bertrand himself is no longer staying with the Poquêries, but has returned to his home, to live once again with his mother and his younger siblings. It was the central topic of discussion at the hot springs this afternoon.
I felt myself to be on trial, and wondered if I should absent myself; but Marc Frontenac told me I had done nothing wrong and that I needed to be in my place. And so I sat where Onc' Herbert always used to sit, feeling more like a fraud than usual, with Marc Frontenac in his usual place on my right and with Jacques Poquêrie on my left; and Jacques sat Bertrand to his left, a most exalted place for such a young fellow. There was considerable murmuring as we took our places, for of course everyone in town had some notion, clear or otherwise, of what had happened. Usually there is a great deal of chit chat as the men enter the springs and settle down in the hot water, but today everyone was silent.
Rather than speaking myself, I took Marc's advice: when all were seated I gestured to Jacques. Marc and I are still newcomers to Bois-de-Bas, though highly regarded; Jacques was born here.
Jacques began by telling them what they already knew: that Bertrand had been sent to L'Isle de Grand-Blaireau with the other lads; that he had excelled there, becoming captain of the lookouts and contributing to the defense of the island by his leadership and vigilance; that his father had taken against me through no fault of my own; and had driven him out into the snow. He explained how we had found him, starving and nearly frozen, with Luc's help (without going into detail about the message arrows), and brought him home.
This was followed by questions. Jean Thibodeau, a close neighbor of the Laveaus, asked Bertrand to confirm Jacques' story, and to give additional details, which he did. It was hard for him. He sat bolt upright, clenching his fists, but he answered as calmly and firmly as a young fellow his age might, though with an edge to his voice. No one alluded directly to M. Laveau's more vile claims and insinuations, for which I was grateful. M. Thibodeau then asked many searching questions about the living situation on L'Isle de Grand-Blaireau, and about the time he spent with me when Bertrand joined me in Mont-Havre and at the Farm.
Then M. Thibodeau, who seemed to have tacitly appointed himself Bertrand's advocate, asked me why I'd summoned Bertrand to come to me in Mont-Havre; it was the first time I'd been asked to speak.
"Because I knew him to be reliable," I said. "He did excellent service during the war, as you have all heard. I needed someone I could trust to run errands for me, and to help me keep things running."
"And why didn't you summon Luc, your apprentice?"
I laughed. "It is a long way from Bois-de-Bas to Mont-Havre. Luc is small for his age; I knew that Bertrand could handle any trouble that arose along the way, and would arrive safely."
There were a few more questions for me, but no surprises, and with a start I realized that I was not the one on trial; M. Laveau was, though in absentia. More, I had the sense that Jean Thibodeau had no friendly feelings for M. Laveau. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and sometimes it is deserved.
Then M. Thibodeau turned to Jacques, and asked him what he knew of M. Laveau's whereabouts. Jacques was painfully blunt.
"Once we had Bertrand safe, I went to speak to M. Laveau. I told him he was un cochon, and no good father, and that he was no longer welcome in Bois-de-Bas. The next day he was gone."
"Do you know where he went?"
"Did you threaten him?"
Jacques laughed harshly. He is a brawny man, our carpenter and cabinet maker; and he crossed his corded arms and said only, "I had no need to." Heads nodded all around the spring.
"And what of his wife and children? What provision did he make for them?" This had the air of a rhetorical question, and it was. Amelie had sent Luc to them the previous day with a basket of bread, and I knew she was far from alone.
"None at all, le ver."
M. Thibodeau then turned back to Bertrand, and spoke to him sternly.
"You should have come straight to me, n'est-ce pas? I have known you all of your life, and your father longer than that. We would have taken care of things."
"Oui, monsieur," said Bertrand, nodding his head awkwardly. "I—"
But M. Thibodeau held up his hand and stopped him. "Now, are you ready to take care of your mother and your younger brother and sisters?"
"I am," he said.
M. Thibodeau turned to me. "Then, M. Tuppenny, I say that Bertrand Laveau is a man of Bois-de-bas." I quite understood the subtext: that the Thibodeaus and their other Laveau neighbors would make sure he made a success of it, and that no one truly suspected me of any misbehavior, but that I needed to leave Bertrand be.
I nodded; and Bois-de-Bas's newest citizen was forthwith subjected to a ceremonial dunking which devolved with much yelling and shouting into a water fight the likes of which I have never seen before.
He is young for it, but I think he will do very well.