Jean's mother had declined considerably in the three weeks since Christmas. His father had declined, too, though M. Prouvaire's health was never in question. Mme Prouvaire's bed had been moved downstairs into the salon, the bedrooms having neither fireplaces nor stoves, and it was certain she would never get out of it again.
Jean passed the days sitting at his mother's bedside, talking or reading to her in the moments when she was awake, but often merely holding her hand as she slept fitfully. He could not remember a time when his mother had been well, but even he could tell that she was finally on the last steps of her wearying road.
His mother's bedside was a difficult enough place for a boy of his gentle temperament; his father's company made the long days seem even longer. School was terrible, particularly as the boys in the top year had decided he was pretty as a girl, therefore he ought to take that role among them, but home was worse. The vacation in September coincided with the grape harvest, when his father was busy enough to ignore him or at least engage him solely in the business aspects of their holdings. But now it was winter, when the arrondissement did not give the subprefect enough business to occupy his entire day, so M. Prouvaire was at home more often than Jean would have preferred. He spent little time with his dying wife, and she never let on to Jean what her feelings on that score may have been. Jean suspected she was relieved. He could not imagine that his gruff father had been any sort of match to his delicate mother, and now her trials were finally coming to an end.
When he had been sent to school at the age of ten, his mother had knelt before him, telling him, "Keep your head down, and do whatever they ask. Pay as much attention as you must in what passes for religious education, take communion when they permit you to, and never let on that you may profess something different. We will see what happens on the other side." At school in Avignon, he sat in catechism classes and took communion like all the Catholic boys. At home in Alais, his mother read him the Bible in French while his father complained that she was ruining the boy's prospects. The Restoration had given him the subprefecture at Alais, a complete though welcome surprise, and while a Protestant family was not legally barred from position anymore, the lines were continually fluctuating. The cantons surrounding Alais had a Protestant majority, thus M. Prouvaire's nomination, but it was not a large majority. He was in for the moment, but one breath the wrong way would send him out again. M. Prouvaire had grown up keeping his head down, just as his wife had instructed their son, going through the motions of Catholicism when necessary, trying to profess very little of anything publicly.
In private, however, M. Prouvaire professed everything, generally beginning and ending with his dissatisfaction with his son. Jean could do nothing about the fact that he took after his mother, small and delicate and, as the boys at school had noted, pretty as a girl. He did his best to pay attention to his father and do as his father wanted, but it was so much easier to let his mind wander, to drift with the clouds rather than mind the minutia of grape quality, a task rather hard for any sixteen year old, even one less dreamy than Jean. He was more interested in the people than in the produce, the hired labourers who picked the grapes and shook the olives and stripped the mulberry trees for the silkworms, the families who rented land from his grandfather and paid their rent in kind, the men he saw come to see his father seeking a passport or to register the birth of a child or the death of one. But M. Prouvaire took note of that interest, saw it mixed with cloud gazing and dreaming, and called him effeminate and a disgrace. School was supposed to toughen him up, keep him away from the unfortunate example of his weak mother. Charity was for women; business was for men.
But now his mother was dying, and Jean sat by her bedside, reading selections from the Bible or inventing stories from school that made his days there sound happier than they were. The bruise on his cheek that he had been given when he refused to acknowledge another boy's attentions had faded now, and Jean even rather wanted to return. The alternative, to stay with his father after his mother finally passed on, was unimaginable. He had learned perfectly well to keep his head down, even at home, but there was a difference between adolescent boys he would never have to see again after he sat his bac in June and his father. Occasionally he dared to recite a poem to his mother – he enjoyed writing poetry, the discipline imposed by meter soothing to his often troubled soul – but he usually lapsed into one of the Psalms instead, for fear his father would overhear. His mother preferred the Psalms anyway, being so close to meeting the Lord.
The only other life in the house were the two servants – the old cook who had been with them since Jean was a child, and Suzanne, the new housemaid. She had been hired after Jean had returned to school in October, a strange figure to him when he returned only two months later to sit at his mother's bedside. She could sometimes be heard humming or even singing as she went about her work if M. Prouvaire were out. If M. Prouvaire were in, she was silent as a mouse. It was the habit of the house to be silent when M. Prouvaire was in.
In the late winter afternoon, the rays of sun very yellow among the long purple shadows, Jean sat at the bottom of the garden. What the latest row with his father – his father's row with him, really – had been did not matter; they were all the same row. Jean was disappointed in himself, that he could not make his father happy, even if his father did not seem to understand that he was still more child than man, a schoolboy who should have been reading philosophy in Greek rather than the Bible in French these past weeks, who should not have to feel personally responsible for his dying mother, ignored by her husband of twenty years. At least on the bench at the bottom of the garden, no one wanted anything from him. His father would not come out to him, his mother was asleep for the moment, and he had no one else in the world who might care. It was calm and quiet, the only sound the wind in the ice-covered trees. The walled garden was his alone.
Thus it was with surprise that he heard footsteps crunch across the snow and ice and felt the warm heft of a blanket across his shoulders. He looked up to see Suzanne standing over him, wrapped in her woolen cloak. "You'll catch your death out here, M. Jean."
"It doesn't matter," he said softly, looking away again, though he clutched the blanket tightly around him. It was terribly cold out.
But she sat down on the bench next to him, a gesture perhaps inappropriate in a servant, but she didn't seem to care. "I lost my mother. When I was a lot younger than you. Ain't easy, no matter how old you are."
They sat in silence for what felt to Jean an eternity before he finally decided that he approved of her presence. Particularly as, the moment he decided that he might allow himself a bit of comfort in the perfectly innocent touch of a sympathetic party, he found himself sobbing into her shoulder. He had not permitted himself to weep in so long that the emotion came in floods. She smelled of the kitchen and wool and the unmistakable scent of the female.
"Come, let's get you in where it's warm," she told him at last, but instead of sending him back to the house, she took him with her into the barn. "I was supposed to be finding eggs," she admitted.
It was dark and warm from the horses, but hardly silent as the beasts stamped their feet and the chickens who had escaped to the hayloft shuffled through the straw. Jean threw the blanket over the door of one of the stalls and climbed the ladder, following Suzanne. He never came into the barn when he needed to think – he needed the sky to counteract the pressure on his spirits. But she wasn't looking for eggs, and he sat down beside her, their legs dangling. She let him sit very close to her, and though his tears had dried as quickly as they had started, he was grateful that he was permitted the chaste touch of another living being. Even his father seemed half dead, the rows repeated as ghosts repeated their lives, unable to deviate from the path set long ago.
The barn smelled of horses, and a hint of late summer in the hay, and the slightest note of female from Suzanne. Jean wanted to thank her for the attention she was showing him, but he didn't know how. Instead, he asked, "Where are you from?"
"Up in the mountains."
"You might call it that."
"What would you call it?
She shrugged. "It's a village."
"You speak French better than any of the maids we've had before." The use of French as the language of the church had always marked the Protestant villages – many of the peasants could read in French rather than stumble through life only in the regional patois. They always had Protestant maids, but Suzanne had cleaner pronunciation in French than any of the others had had, though the patois crept in from time to time.
"Our pastor's a missionary. He talks beautiful for a foreigner."
"Is he a Methodist?" Jean asked, somewhat eagerly. He had been permitted to attend only one Methodist service since the foreign missionaries had begun to come to shake the Protestants out of their historical Calvinism, only one service with hymns and ecstatic preaching led by an Englishman, before his father decided that this was quite certainly a step too far. Which Jean thought rather harsh, considering he had been put through the paces of a Catholic upbringing his father did not even believe in, but M. Prouvaire was a true product of the Gard, less trusting of the Revolution than his fellow clandestine worshipers had been and reaping the rewards of caution. The Methodist missionaries were not cautious in the least, and their prayer meetings were terribly exciting because of their daring.
"He is. He comes from England. So he doesn't speak a bit of the patois, and neither does his wife, but they teach us beautiful French. The readings are so much nicer the way they do them."
"And the songs?"
"Ah, but the English are not so musical as we are."
"It must be amazing to have a Methodist service every week."
"It is. I miss it."
"Why did you come here?"
"A girl needs a dowry if she's going to get married, doesn't she?"
"Your father is too poor to give you one?"
"I have a sister and two brothers. I'll earn my own, I said. My father's grateful I'm in service to a good family, at least, though I do wish I didn't have to sit through services at your temple."
"I wish I could go to the Methodists, too."
It was rather strange that he feel so close to the maid, but he had been stuck among Catholics for so long, sent to Avignon where no one knew he came from a Protestant family, that it was a relief to hear from someone, anyone, about the way the community was opening up, taking chances they hadn't taken in centuries. The missionaries from Switzerland and England were spreading new ways of worship across the Midi, and Jean was missing out on it all.
"What's it like to live with the Catholics all the time?" she finally asked him. He perhaps ought to have found it improper, answering personal questions from the housemaid, but in the moment, two young people sitting in the hayloft, it was merely a natural progression of the conversation he had started.
What was it like? It was how it was. It was not too different to living with his father, keeping his head down and professing very little publicly, seeming to have his head in the clouds when really he was concentrating on something no one around him could ever understand. "I count down the days until I don't have to censor my thoughts anymore, until I can leave and be free. That's just how it is."
"I'm sorry," she told him. She sounded honestly sorry, too. Jean leaned over and kissed her cheek, then blushed scarlet. He had really only meant to thank her, not to discover that her cheek was softer than he had expected, the scent of her suddenly strong in his nostrils. Certainly not for her to lean in and kiss him full on the lips. The last time he had been kissed was the boys poking fun at him, and the contrast, the comfort, the varying forms of need which she had sated just by her calm, youthful presence, combined to bring to the fore another need.
"Oh, dear. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He could feel his prick hardening, and all he could think of was sin, how he had to pull away, slide back into the depths and, without stepping on any hidden eggs, commit the lesser sin rather than the greater.
But Suzanne wouldn't let him go. She took him by the hand, saw what was the matter, and opened his trousers herself.
"You're going to go to Hell."
"As the apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men, I have longed for his shadow and sat myself in it, and his fruit was sweet on my tongue." Jean was on his back, somewhat panicked; she took his prick in her hand and started stroking it so that he no longer knew what he was thinking. "He has led me into the festival hall and the standard he raises to me cries: LOVE. Refresh me with grapes, strengthen me with apples, for I am faint with love. May his left hand be under my head, and may his right embrace me."
It was not an order – it was a breathless recitation of the Song of Songs, a passage he knew well – but he did find himself reaching up with his right hand to embrace her. But soon enough it was all over, his seed spraying over her hand. He felt horribly warm, as if he must be blushing down to his prick, and Suzanne was kneeling beside him, wiping her hand in the hay. They were assuredly going to burn in Hell. Onanism was bad enough, the wasting of seed even worse, and through the conjunction of an unmarried couple – they would burn for eternity. Jean buttoned his trousers, and knelt to pray.
Suzanne made a quick grab near his knee, and he looked daggers at her. "Sorry. Egg." She held it up to show him.
"We're going to Hell," he admitted.
She shrugged. "You look a sight better than when I found you. Help me find more – they're for a custard for your mother."
It was easier to look for eggs than to think about his failure. It was easier to look for eggs than to notice how Suzanne bent over, her hips and buttocks almost asking to be caressed. He was going to Hell. "It's a metaphor," he said, running his hands through the hay, feeling for a hard roundness, trying not to think of the firm roundness he knew was just behind his back.
"The Song of Songs. It's a metaphor. For the love of God."
"That's what the pastor says."
"Then why did you sully it?"
"I just did what it was about. It can be about Heaven and earth."
He passed her another egg he had found, their fingers momentarily brushing as she took it from him to hold in her apron. "It's not right."
She met his eyes. "No, it's not right. You're my master, not my beloved. I've got my own young man at home."
"How can you marry him after what you just did?"
"I've done more with him than I have with you."
"You're evil. A temptress."
"No," he had to admit. She had nothing in common with the painted ladies of Avignon or Nîmes and certainly nothing in common with the lower whores who had been noted in the streets of Alais. "You have given me nothing I did not need. 'During the nights on my couch, I looked for the one my soul loved; I looked for him, but I never found him. I will get up now, and make a tour of the city, of the streets and squares; I will look for the one who loves my soul. I looked, but I did not find him,'" he recited with a desperate fervour he always held in check when reading to his mother. "It isn't about God, is it?" She shook her head. "God is everywhere I look, and He loves all His creation, He loves my soul. He is not who I can't find. I want to meet your pastor. I think he knows more than the priests I always see in Avignon."
"How can a priest know anything, never living in the world as it is? Go down first – I've got to watch out for the eggs." She didn't need his help to descend the ladder, but he felt rather chivalrous, being there to catch her should she slip. "Go on back to your mother," she told him. "You know the Desert as well as any of us. You wait and you pray, and soon enough you'll be a man and be able to walk out of the Desert into the truth, whatever your truth is." She kissed him on the forehead – they were very much of a height – and left him standing in the barn.
Out of the Desert and into truth. How wonderful that would be. M. Prouvaire did not like hearing tales of the old Camisards, though Jean had always loved them. Resist. Not merely believe, but act. If he could only sneak away to the Methodists, perhaps something would calm his soul, the music or the openness or even just the great difference between the glory of the temple and the stagnation of home.
His mother was awake when he returned to her bedside. "Your cheeks are red," she said weakly. "Have you been outside?"
"Just for a bit of air."
"Yes, one shouldn't overheat the child. I'm sorry." She touched the Bible that lay on the table beside her bed. "Would you read something?"
"What shall I read?" he asked quietly, calmly. The deathwatch tone of the salon did not permit frustration, merely the calm of half-life.
He opened to what he thought was a random page. "'Sing to the Eternal a new song; because he has done marvelous things: his right hand and his holy arm have delivered them. The Eternal has made his salvation known; he has revealed his justice to the eyes of nations.'"
Mme Prouvaire fell back into a doze. Jean felt the wonder of God bring peace to his heart. May all the rivers clap their hands and all the mountains sing with joy before the Eternal. Because he comes to judge the earth; he will judge the world with justice, and the peoples with equity.