Letters from Armorica- Reading Lessons (28 October 36 AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

Some while ago I joked that Bastien is so devoted to my safety that I wouldn't be surprised to find him sleeping across our doorway at night. I now have manifest proof that this is not what he has been doing.

I have acquired a stock of Cumbrian books from M. Fournier—not so many as I would like, but enough to share with my Amelie. I thought at first that she would like to read them to herself, but no: she wants me to read them to her, as I used to read books to her when she was first learning to read and write. And so we gather by the fire in the evenings, Amelie and I and Jacques-le-Souris and Madame Truc, and Luc and Bastien, and I read to them.

I started with Whelkie's The Sunstone, in which, as it were, the hero digs into the secrets of the past that lie beneath of the green sod of the present—a remarkable book, and unlike anything else I've read. I thought my family would find it gripping, and they did. Then I went on to Dorchester Cellars, which concerns a town in the south of Cumbria, and a struggle for control of an old and storied winery there. It is a long, slow tale—as it well might be, being typical of Thomas Becker's multitudinous works. I picked it because there is much in it about country life in Cumbria. For, you see, I don't simply read straight through: Amelie and the others often stop me and ask questions, and so I get to tell them things about my homeland that it would never have occurred to me to talk about otherwise.

Luc has been particularly attentive, which does not surprise me, for he has been eager for more to read ever since I taught him; and he has been borrowing each book as we finish it so that he can read it over again for himself. In this he is so different than Bastien, who sits on his stool by the door with no expression on his face until we are done.

I am sure I do not know when Luc finds time for reading, as I keep him busy during waking hours—or, rather, I did not know until last night.

I was wakeful, why I do not know, but I was; and I found myself pondering the theory of forming, as I so often do at such times. Rather than disturb Amelie I decided to rise and retrieve the journal in which I keep my forming notes.

I was pleased rather than otherwise to discover that Bastien was not sleeping in the hallway, as I half-feared he might be, not that I have ever caught him at it; for stepping over his large form without waking him would have been difficult. And so, by the light of a candle, I tip-toed through the house, into the shop, and then over to my work shop. Luc sleeps under the counter there, so I was prepared to open the door as quietly as I could, but as I approached a saw a line of light under the door, and a soft murmur. What was this?

I opened the door, making instead no effort at all to be quiet, and was rewarded by the sight of two shocked candlelit faces. Luc and Bastien were sitting side-by-side against the wall, a single candlestick between them; and their heads were bent over a book in Luc's lap, a volume I recognized from its binding as Dorchester Cellars.

There was a long moment. The two seemed frozen, except that their eyes turned to follow me.

I entered the room fully, and leaning against the counter I put my candlestick beside me.

"It is very late, Luc," I said. "Would you care to explain?"

Luc's mouth started to open below his wide eyes, but the voice I heard was Bastien's—deep, low, and strong.

"He is teaching me, maître," he said.

"Cumbrian?" I asked.

"To read Cumbrian," said Luc. "He already knows how to read—" And then he broke off, eyes even wider.

Now my eyes widened, my eyebrows rising to their fullest extent.

"He already knows how to read Provençese?" I said, and looked at Bastien.

"Oui, maître," he said. I stared at him, my thoughts spinning aimlessly. I had thought of Bastien as being rather like an ox, well-broken to the work of pulling a wagon—large, stolid, docile. I had not expected that he might know how to read. Indeed, most of the time I hardly expected him to even know how to speak.

"You have hidden depths, Bastien," I said after a time. He looked back at me, calmer now, his usual blank expression fixed on his face. "And why do you wish to learn to read Cumbrian?" For it seemed unlikely that he was motivated by scholarship, or even the desire to read Thomas Becker.

His next words took me wholly by surprise.

"To learn to form, maître."

I felt the first stirrings of anger swell in my chest.

"Luc," I cried, "you have not been—"

Luc sat bolt upright. "Non, non, maître! Jamais!"

"—you have not been teaching him how to form?" I finished more quietly.

"Non, maître," he said again, looking miserable.

"That is good," I said, my anger subsiding. "Only masters may teach, or journeymen under their guidance; and only apprentices may be taught. That is guild law. You are no journeyman, and Bastien is no apprentice."

"Oui, maître"

"Do not be angry, mon cher," came a soft voice from behind me. "It is all my doing, n'est-ce pas?"

Amelie entered with another candlestick, dressed in a warm robe, and came to my side. I looked at her in confusion, and she shrugged.

"You needed a strong protector, oui?" she said, and I nodded. "And you need un autre apprenti, n'est-ce pas?" I nodded again. "I looked for both, and I found him I think." She shrugged again. "Can he be a former? Je ne sais pas. Mais il est tres intelligent."

"But why—" I looked from her to Bastien, and back again. To my shock, Bastien's eyes had a sparkle I had not noticed before.

"Because you were too funny, mon cher. You thought he was un lourdad, un grand boeuf. It become our joke."

Luc was leaning back against the wall, eyes cast down so that I couldn't see them, his hand over his mouth.

I shook my head. "Very well, I have been duly misled. Bastien, you have my apology. But again, why Cumbrian?"

Luc looked up, surprise plain upon his face. "Because he must copy your grimoire, maître."

"And so you have been staying up late, teaching Bastien rather than sleeping?"

"Oui, maître."

"I encouraged them do so, mon cher," said Amelie. "It was to be a surprise for you, n'est-ce pas?"

"Well, there will be no more of that," I said. Amelie gasped, and the young men's faces fell. I paused, then continued, "You both need your rest, so you will simply have to find time during the day." Then, more gently, "But Luc, you know, don't you, that not everyone can learn to be a former? Don't you remember how I tested you, back on L'Isle de Grand-Blaireau?"

Luc shook his head. "Non, monsieur," he said in small voice.

I pondered for a moment, remembering how Bastien had been so calmly attentive while I was teaching Luc over the last months. I wondered how much he had already picked up.

"No matter," I said at last. "A desire to learn is a good sign." I turned to Bastien, who was looking blank again. "You say little, but you listen always, yes?"

"Oui, maître."

"Very well. I shall surely test you as soon as maybe—which is not tonight."

Luc beamed, and Bastien nodded somberly, and then we all went back to bed, not without a few wry glances at Amelie on my part.

And then, this morning, I administered a few simple tests. Bastien is of age; and so, tomorrow, he shall sign his indentures as an apprentice of the Armorican Former's Guild.

Next letter

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photo credit: keith ellwood candlelight via photopin (license)

2 comments

  1. I can see Armand’s father refusing to test or failing any potential apprentice he didn’t think of sufficient status to enhance the guild. And it is to a guild’s advantage that the number of formers is less than the demand.
    So I’m wondering if Armand tests a representative sample of the population, how many of them actually are potential formers.
    And could for Amelie and the boys. Keep Armand from becoming too sure of what he knows.

    1. You are exactly right about Armand’s father, though Armand hasn’t thought about that yet.

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