Chapter Eight - I finish the book
"Do you know what you did tonight?" asked the squire's son, in a slow, quiet voice.
I turned my head, hearing Jules say, "Fogg, there's no need--"
But the squire's son held up his hand toward Jules to stop him and I found myself back under the intense scrutiny of those eyes, even as he clasped his hands behind him again.
"And what did you do?"
I swallowed - no lying, he knew the truth after all. "We built a barricade on the bridge, sir, to keep you from turning Jules out of his cottage. It was my fault, really, sir, none of the others are to be blamed. I thought you was the cause, sir, and I got it wrong. It was my idea to try and stop you." I managed to tear my gaze away for a second, to glance at Jules, who looked surprised, before finishing weakly, "I thought you were making Jules go away."
I ran out of words; all of a sudden, it was like there was no more air. My lips closed on the emptiness and I stared back at the squire's son. There was a dull ache in my left hand, but it dissolved into insignificance when I met his gaze. I now knew what the pastor meant now when he talked about the day of almighty judgment and the gaze of God upon the sins of the wicked.
"And what do you think will happen now?"
I had been very wicked.
"You'll turn us out of our cottages."
My voice had been barely a whisper. Even as Jules said, "Fogg, no--," I found the words again, enough to say, "But it wasn't their fault, none of it. It was mine, sir. Send me away, but not mama and papa and Em, or Henry, and Cherry Louise, and the others. Send me to the workhouse, sir, but don't make them leave. It's mid-harvest, and you'll be needing the workmen, you see. And my Papa and Peter's 'da and Henry's 'da know Shillingworth land better than any, sir. You'd not do better with others. Truly, sir. It was my fault and I'm to blame."
Jules was sputtering angrily, half-sentences and words. He made to move toward me again and the squire's son raised his hand to stop him. "Hold your peace, Verne. I'm not quite through." The squire's son looked down at me and placed his hand on my left shoulder. I nearly jumped at the touch, even through the blanket. His grip was gentler than I'd expected - I'd seen him handle the reins of the horse in the middle of a storm, after all. And I had committed heresy.
"You knew what would happen," he said, in that same, steady voice. "You knew that you'd endanger your life here, and the life of your family and friends--"
"Oh, no, sir, it was me--"
"You knew," he repeated, with the certitude of God himself and any hope of protest fled me, "so . . . why did you do it?"
It seemed so very, very foolish, now that I knew better. But when I'd started this, I hadn't known the truth. There was no shame in it. And if the warmth in my cheeks meant they were red, I'd rather it be with anger.
"With his being hurt and all, sir, it wasn't right for Jules to be turned out, not after he'd been so kind to us and all. I thought you'd meant to turn him out and drive him off, sir. And you'd no right to do that to Jules, no right at all."
The squire's son then did something that surprised me completely - he winked at me.
While I stared at him, open-mouthed, he straightened - his expression stern once again - and half-turned to Jules. "You can't stop yourself from caring for the welfare of others, Verne, just as you can't stop others from caring about your well-being - those are the two flaws in your plan. There's not a place in the world you could go without getting involved, short of Utopia . . . and I'd wager even odds you'd have the populace building barricades out of the gold paving stones by sundown."
Once again, I was at a loss. I looked at Jules and found he wasn't much better off. He sat down in his chair, nearly falling from it, as he wasn't really watching where he was going, and that was because he was staring at me. "You built the barricade . . . to stop Fogg from turning me out?"
I looked to the squire's son and his ever-so-slight nod gave me nerve enough to speak. "It wasn't me, alone . . . it were all of us, together. We didn't know you'd wanted to leave, Jules. You'd told me that you didn't and I wasn't to know otherwise, was I?" Oddly enough, I found my mad coming back. "You didn't have to lie. If you'd not wanted to stay with us, you could have said so and we'd not have built the barricade to keep away the squire's son."
"Verne's already built a barricade to keep me away," said the squire's son. "And Passepartout. And Rebecca. And anyone else who values his friendship. Even you and your friends, Polly. He might have been better served to have read you 'Robinson Crusoe.'"
His words didn't make much sense to me, as I'd not seen another barricade anywhere near Shillingworth, but Jules ducked his head as if someone had slapped him. "You and Passepartout were nearly killed, and then Rebecca--"
"'Nearly,' being the operative word. You had a bad scare, we all did. And I'm not the less guilty for not having foreseen the League trying this tactic." Jules half-rose from his chair, sputtering a protest, but the squire's son waved him back to his seat. "No, Rebecca feels much the same. But to cut yourself off from the world, to hide . . . that will protect no one. It's not an answer, Verne, it's a form of surrender."
"Then what is the answer?" asked Jules, carefully watching the squire's son.
"To fight for your beliefs and to cherish your allies." The squire's son gestured toward me. "But you already know that - that's what you taught the children."
Jules stared at the squire's son, then at me, then at the floor, one hand on the back of the chair and the other rubbing his chin. "I . . . have been behaving like . . . an utter ass," he announced, after a long moment. He rose from the chair and walked toward the squire's son, his hand out-stretched. "I owe you an apology, my friend."
The squire's son took Jules' hand and shook it firmly, then dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Accepted. Although when you make amends with Rebecca, I'll expect you to endure her displeasure - and a possible black-eye - with good grace."
I thought Jules' shame-faced smile seemed to fade for a second, and then he smiled. "And I owe Passepartout an apology as well. He's taken excellent care of me, Fogg. I don't know how you did without him."
"Neither do I," answered the squire's son. "Although, in self-defense I have been learning to brew a tolerable cup of coffee. Rebecca's is execrable."
Jules had apologized, but I didn't know why or what for, and the squire's son seemed too happy to be daunting to me now. But I saw what this meant and somewhere deep inside, my heart sank to my toes. When I coughed, they both looked at me in surprise, as if they'd forgotten I was there.
"Does this mean you're going away?" I asked Jules.
Jules dropped down to one knee in front of me and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Yes, I am. Paris is my home." Then he looked up at the squire's son and smiled. "But I'll be back, if Fogg and Rebecca don't mind a guest from time to time."
"We'd be delighted," said the squire's son. "You've always had an open invitation to visit as often as you wished."
"There. You see?"
I smiled a little bit, because I was happy that he'd be back. Not that I was any too certain that me and my friends and our families would still be there. I took a deep breath and forced myself to face the squire's son, "Will we be turned out, sir?"
The squire's son coughed into his hand and turned his head away, as if considering the question . . . although I was half-certain he was hiding a smile. "Well, it is harvest, as you've said--"
"You're heartless, Fogg," said Jules, with a laugh. He touched a hand to my cheek and promised very seriously, "No one's getting turned out of their cottage at Shillingworth Magna, no matter what Fogg says. If he ever gives you any trouble about that, you get word to Miss Rebecca."
"Thank you, Verne, for upsetting long-standing English landlord-tenant practices in place since, oh, say . . . the signing of the Magna Carta."
I looked up at the squire's son's words, but he was smiling as he spoke. Jules rose to his feet and gave a mock bow toward the squire's son. "Happy to be of service."
It was then that I heard a sound like wash flapping on the line on a windy day - softer, perhaps at first, but growing louder. They heard it as well, because Jules ran toward the door, calling, "I'll signal Passepartout."
"Good man," said the squire's son. He stood for a moment, watching until Jules left the cottage and disappeared into the darkness, then said softly, "The doctor said he might never walk without a cane." Then he turned to me and added, "I suppose we have you and your friends to thank for that. You must have kept Jules hopping."
"Em takes a lot of looking-after," I agreed, remembering the horse rearing back as she darted back and forth beneath its legs. "But you kind of saw that."
"Indeed I did." His expression became somewhat grim again and I turned my attention toward the doorway, wondering if it might be better if I went to look for Jules and Passepartout. "Polly?"
I swallowed and looked back at him. "Yes, sir?"
"You put yourself, and your friends and family, not to mention Verne and myself, in grave danger . . . all based on a misunderstanding."
"That being said, you showed uncommon bravery in trying to save the life of your young sister, as well as Verne. I don't doubt your parents will find some suitable punishment for your actions and I won't be moved to interfere, but I want you to know I've no intention in turning any of the crofters out of their cottages, now or in the future. I'm a man of my word and will stand by that pledge, if you can promise me one thing."
I'd somehow felt a little taller at his words, but now my heart was in my throat. "Yes, sir?"
The squire's son leaned lower and said sternly, "No more barricades. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Good." He held out his hand and I shook it - it was as if I were a grownup and we'd just made a deal. Then he released my hand . . . and I was suddenly a little crofter's girl again, covered by a blanket and nursing a broken hand, facing the squire's son. "Shouldn't you be abed, until the doctor arrives?"
Again, I nearly curtseyed and just stopped myself. "Yes, sir." I turned and walked toward the red silk screen.
"Polly?" I turned when he called my name and saw that he had picked up holding the book that Jules had tried to give me earlier, 'A Tale of Two Cities.' "This is the book you were reading with Jules?"
The squire's son opened it at the marked page. "It seems you're quite near the end. It would be a shame not to finish it before Verne returned to Paris." He looked up at me, the book still open in his hand. "I'll be glad to help you finish it, if you'd like." When I didn't answer at once, he added quickly, "Unless you're too tired--?"
"No, sir. Not at all, sir." I moved my towel-bound hand beyond the blanket to show him. "But I can't hold the book, sir."
"I think I could be of assistance. I've been told I was quite a page-turner, in my time." He smiled, as if he'd said something funny, and then pulled Jules' chair away from the table and gestured down at it. "Sit here, by the light."
It seemed a hundred miles stretched between the chair and me. I walked slowly, still not certain what to think about the squire's son. But I remembered the promise he'd made, that he'd treated me like a grownup, and it seemed less odd that he pushed the chair in for me when I sat down - like I was a lady - and poured a cup of tea, which he placed at my right hand. He carefully set the book down before me, adjusted the towel-sling that held my left hand against my chest, and waited.
I began to read.
It had been a fortnight since Henry had told us of the Frenchman in the orchard and I had read aloud, with Jules' help, for many of those days. I could not help my voice being soft at first, having the reminder of his shadow on the book as he followed at my shoulder, but grew bolder with each page. He didn't correct me too often or at all harshly and there were times when his words made more sense than Jules, who was, after all a Frenchman who didn't always speak English the way it should be said.
The squire's son turned the pages and helped me when I stumbled over a word. I continued reading even as Jules, Passepartout, and the village doctor arrived. The squire's son chided me to concentrate on the words when the doctor bathed my fingers, dried them, and bound them to sticks. When the doctor pressed on my fingers and I couldn't see for the tears in my eyes, the squire's son wiped them away with his handkerchief and told me to keep reading.
I read while the doctor was there and after he'd gone. I read as the candle sputtered and died and Passepartout opened the window shutters to let in the first rays of sunlight. I read of the trip in the tumbrel and of the end of Sydney Carton and the squire's son wiped my tears again with his handkerchief, even though there were no more words left to read.
At that, the book was done and with its ending passed the adventure of the Frenchman, and the barricade, and my ninth summer at Shillingworth Magna.