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A Fatal Homecoming

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					     A FATAL
   HOMECOMING
            A Jean Bellimont Mystery
                by Trevor Whitton


                          Copyright 2012 Trevor Whitton


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                          Chapter 1


May 1310 - Troyes, Kingdom of France…

Hugo the Forestier shook his head sadly as he inspected yet
another dying tree. It was the fourth he'd found that morning,
to add to the dozens he'd come across over the past month.
What was decimating his forest he couldn't tell. His father
would have known at a glance - but he'd been dead for three
years, now. Hugo had done his best to learn all his secrets
before he died, but found that the old man - although a very
fine forestier - was a very poor teacher.
      ‘Its something that can't be taught,’ he'd explain
impatiently to his frustrated son. ‘You can only learn the
secrets of the trees by watching and listening to them over
many, many years.’
      ‘Listen to them? What do you mean, “listen to them”?
Don't talk such rubbish.’ - to which his father would just hang
his head and mutter to himself. Well, Hugo had tried to watch
and listen, but the trees remained stubbornly mute. In his own
way he had nevertheless managed to learn a great deal, and
was now almost as well respected amongst the community as
his father had been. In reality, he was the only person aware
of his shortcomings, but that would quickly change once people
noticed that the forest was dying. He ran his hand over the
rough bark, half hoping it would give him a hint of what was
wrong. ‘“Listen to them!” my father said. Well, if you're ever
going to speak to me, now's the time to do it. No? Then
there's little I can do to help,’ he said aloud. He shook his
head and did one more circuit of the trunk. He could identify
any one of a dozen diseases, but none that remotely resembled
this. In the end, he broke off one of the afflicted branches in
the hope that his friend in Saint Guillaume (a village some
three miles away) could shed some light on the mystery. He
tightened the rope harnessing the load of sticks on his back
before continuing his daily search for kindling and inspection of
traps.
      A light rain was falling now, and Hugo pulled the hood of
his tunic over his head to keep out the worst of the damp. It
hung down almost to his nose, restricting his vision to a small
circle just ahead of his feet, but protected his eyes from the
stream of water that was soon cascading over his face. Some
days were better than others for a forestier - but ones like this
came bottom of the pile. He stumbled over tree roots and
more than once grazed his shin against a protruding rock, but
he knew he had to clear the traps today or they'd be cleared by
poachers and foxes tonight. The Commune of Troyes only paid
him to watch and maintain the forest - they wouldn't care if he
went home and dried himself beside his fire. As long as the
trees were kept healthy (God willing, he'll be able to do
something to make sure of that) and a daily load of kindling
was supplied during the colder months to the various charitable
institutions to which the Commune was committed, then no-
one cared what hours he kept. There were no restrictions on
which animals he was allowed to hunt and trap - a great
privilege allowed only to the forestier and the local nobles, and
one on which he greatly depended. There was no alternative
but to plod on despite the rain.
      Soon he came to a denser part of the forest and his
progress became more difficult. There was a lot more kindling
to collect here, but tree roots barred the way in every direction
and were treacherously slippery in the damp conditions. It was
curiously quiet - neither bird nor animal stirred and the only
sound came from the branches above as they rocked back and
forth in the wind. He came to a particularly awkward root
buttress and placed his palm against it for balance as he tried
to climb over. Suddenly the moss covering the bark gave way
and the load on his back forced him to lose his balance and
topple sideways. At the last moment he tried to brace himself
with his foot, but by now his momentum was too great. He fell
face first into the mud, bruising his elbow and taking several
layers of skin off his hand into the bargain. He was just
beginning to think the day couldn’t get any worse, when he
lifted his face from the mud and looked directly into the dead,
staring eyes of a corpse.
      Suddenly the forest wasn't quiet any more.
                          Chapter 2.


Richard Beauchamp couldn't understand it. His wife Marguerite
was usually such a gentle, even-tempered woman. He'd never
seen her so much as raise her voice, but for the past few days
she didn't seem to have a civilized word to say to anyone.
She'd yelled at the fruit merchant because the apples weren't
ripe (it was hardly his fault); she'd yelled at her step-son
Etienne for breaking a ceramic plate (it was an old one,
anyway); she'd yelled at Etienne's wife Beatrice for trying to
calm her down; and here she was arguing with Richard himself.
He was a tolerant man and generally didn't hold with husbands
who wouldn't allow dissent from their wives - but he was
nevertheless glad that no one else was around to see her
challenge him in this way.
      ‘Please remember I am your husband,’ he said as the
argument started to become heated. ‘I trust that I deserve
your respect.’
      ‘And please remember that Josephine is my daughter. I
have every right to object to would-be suitors.’ For a moment
Richard considered reminding his wife that Beatrice was also
his daughter - albeit stepdaughter - and that (technically,
anyway) it was he who would have the final say over whom
she would wed. He stopped himself just in time, realising that,
although this might be the legal situation, in reality Marguerite
was right.
      ‘You can’t protect her forever, you know – and she’s
already in her middle twenties. Etienne managed to have
Mathilde wedded just last year, and time is quickly running out
for Josephine.’ Mathilde was Richard’s granddaughter, and his
son and daughter-in-law had had the devil of a time convincing
her to get married.       Despite the young woman’s initial
reservations, she was now living happily with her new husband
across town in their own handsome stone house near the
Cathedral.
      ‘I know how old my daughter is,’ said Marguerite coldly.
Richard decided to try a different tack. He began scratching
absently at the faded upholstery on the arm of his chair and
tried to look nonchalant.
      ‘I don't see why you still bear a grudge against the
Bellimonts, anyway. Jean's a fine fellow, and his son Claude is
making his way very well in the world. They were once a poor
family, but Jean is Deputy Bailli in all but name these days, and
Claude is a well-regarded and talented apprentice vintner. You
need have no worries about his prospects.’ Marguerite gave
her husband a withering look - one he'd never witnessed from
her before and would never have guessed she possessed. It
was alarming. He thought he knew this woman!
      ‘That's not what I have against him, as well you know,’
she said - slowly and emphatically. She was standing over him
with her hands on her hips and an unbecoming scowl on her
face. Richard shook his head sadly. The truth was that he had
his own reasons for introspection lately – one recent event in
particularly had given him cause for deep concern. Whatever
transpired, he knew he had to keep the news from his wife at
all costs. He forced his concentration back to the argument at
hand, and tried once again to defend a family he knew to be
good.
      ‘Surely you can't still hold a grudge against Jean? That
was years ago.’ Marguerite didn't reply, but stood looking at
her husband stony-faced. The room had quickly emptied of its
inhabitants - servants and family alike - once the argument
had started. The couple now had the solar to themselves, a
small fire crackling on the hearth and the rain outside beating
against the shutters. ‘For Saint Peter’s sake,’ said Richard once
he realised he wasn't going to get a response, ‘the poor man
even undertook a pilgrimage to Compostella to atone for the
wrong he did you! What more can he do?’
      ‘I have no particular argument with Jean Bellimont - but I
do not want his son seeing my daughter. Absolutely not!’ And
with that she suddenly burst into tears and stormed from the
room, slamming the huge oak door behind her so hard that the
whole house seemed to shake. Richard shook his head once
again and chewed on his upper lip contemplatively.
      ‘There's more to this than meets the eye,’ he said aloud.
‘But for the life of me I don't know what it is.’

Bailli Henri Dubois cocked his head to one side and regarded
his clerk closely. He could tell the man wasn't happy by the
way he avoided his employer's gaze, and Henri wasn't going to
stand for it. His underling had a strong tendency to get above
himself sometimes, and it was a habit he intended to stamp
out. He leant back in his chair, put his feet on the desk, and
clasped his hands behind his head. It was a look he hoped
conveyed both authority and disapproval.           The two men
couldn’t have been less alike – Henri was tall and still strikingly
handsome despite his advancing years, and Jean was a good
two heads shorter, bald except for the tufts of hair stretching
from ear to ear around the back of his head, and presenting a
less-than-flattering physique which seemed to grow more
rotund by the day. He was also several years the other man’s
senior, although he looked considerably older.
       ‘Something wrong, Jean?’ said Henri, a challenging look in
his eye. Jean continued to write without looking up - merely
shrugging his shoulders in reply. It was a mannerism that
irritated his employer - although he could never explain why.
He tried to appear casual, but it was an effort. ‘You disagree
perhaps with my ruling on that possession dispute?’ Another
shrug was enough to tip Henri over the edge. He jumped to
his feet and walked over to his clerk's desk - hands on hips and
legs astride. ‘Well what would you have done?’
       ‘It was the old man's by right,’ said Jean, still without
looking up.
       ‘But not by law - there's a difference!’ said Henri,
thumping the table and nearly knocking over a jar of ink. The
little clerk caught it just in time to avert catastrophe, then
finally deigned to look up.
       ‘Unfortunately you're right. Too often ethical and legal
issues conflict. I'm glad I don't have your job.’ The words
were contrite enough, but they were delivered with just a hint
of insolence. Henri was nonplussed how to respond, and finally
settled for repeating his original question.
       ‘So what would you have done?’
       ‘Me? I'd have broken the law,’ said Jean, going back to
his writing. Henri continued to stand over his clerk, still unsure
what to do. This was an ongoing quandary for him – should he
correct his insufferable behaviour or learn from his wisdom?
Was the fellow a fool or a sage? The scene was finally
interrupted by the entry of the huge lieutenant, Francois.
       ‘What is it?’ snapped Henri.
       ‘A body, sir. Hugo the Forestier's found a body.’
‘Recognise him?’ asked Henri, looking down at the body on the
table a short time later.
      ‘Never seen him before,’ said Jean.
      ‘No doubt what killed him,’ said Henri, pointing to the
deep gash in the man’s head.
      ‘A sword would you say?’ The Bailli shook his head.
      ‘No – more like a club. Blunt rather than sharp is my
guess.’ The two men continued to contemplate the scene
before them in silence, until Henri finally clicked his tongue and
turned away.
      ‘What’s the matter?’ asked Jean, following close behind.
      ‘This is the part of the job I can’t stand.’ Henri had dealt
with dozens of murders in his time, and Jean wondered why
this case was any different. If it had been a child lying dead
back there or a young woman, he could understand. But why
get so upset over a total stranger? Henri must have sensed his
clerk’s bewilderment.         ‘Public display of the body for
identification,’ he explained with distaste.       Suddenly Jean
understood. Public displays brought out the worst in everyone.
People who were normally reasonable suddenly flocked to ogle
the corpse. Henri spat on the ground and turned back to look
at the poor wretch stretched out on the slab. ‘No one deserves
such humiliation. Well – some do, I suppose. But it makes me
sick. If I had my way I’d lock up the lot of them. Troyes would
be much the better for it.’ Jean was in complete sympathy.
After another rueful shake of the head, Henri bellowed for
Francois, who appeared so quickly he must have been waiting
outside expecting the summons. ‘Arrange for the Crier de Cite
to announce a public viewing of the body for tomorrow
morning, please,’ said Henri – almost regretfully.
      ‘Public identification?’ asked Francois. Henri nodded and
shrugged.
      ‘As soon as possible, please. I want this matter cleared
up before…’
      ‘Before he starts rotting, sir?’ Henri pulled a face and
nodded again.
      ‘You have a way with words, lieutenant. No doubt about
that.’
      ‘No point pissing around, sir,’ said Francois, before turning
on his heel and setting off to get things under way. For a
moment Jean was worried that Henri was going to vent his
anger on the retreating back of his trusted servant, but his face
quickly softened and he even managed an ironic smile.
     ‘At least I know I can rely on him to get the job done.
Everyone in the city will be aware of the situation before the
day’s close. Then I can look forward to all the madmen turning
up at first light tomorrow.’
     ‘Surely they won’t be here that early?’ said Jean
sceptically. There hadn’t been the need to identify a body
since he had begun working for Henri several years earlier, and
this was all a new experience for him. His employer gave him
a baleful look.
     ‘They’ll be lining up overnight!’ he said mournfully. 'In the
meantime, I'd better have a word with Hugo the Forestier.'
                          Chapter 3


Jean had tried to prepare himself, but the next morning was
worse than he could ever have imagined.             As Henri had
predicted, there was a group of about twenty people waiting
outside the Baillerie as Saint Jean's bells pealed for eight
o'clock Mass. The body had been placed towards the end of
the great hall under the largest of the glazed windows – all the
better for ready identification. The crowd scrambled through
fighting for the best vantage point as Francois flung the doors
open, nearly knocking him over in the process. A man usually
quick to anger, Jean was surprised at his restraint.
      'I've seen it too often before,' he said in response to the
clerk’s questioning glance.
      The crowd came and went as the morning progressed,
and there was a constant murmur and almost a festive feel to
the proceedings which was sickening to behold. Worst of all
were those who seemed to get pleasure out of touching and
poking the corpse, momentarily scattering the ever increasing
flies in the process. Francois quickly sent them away with a
growl, rolling his eyes and shaking his head at Henri, who
watched from his office doorway at the top of the stairs.
      'I told you it was unpleasant,' he said as his clerk vented
his disgust. Jean shook his head.
      'I just can't believe some of the people who've come here.
Respected clergymen and merchants – and the women! I
wouldn't have thought a woman capable of such uncouth
behaviour. For the Good Lord’s sake – even the Dean of the
Guild was here!' Henri flinched. Paul Grossin was recently
appointed head of the town’s Council and Merchants Company
(thanks largely to the influence and support he received from
the Duke of Burgundy), and – despite being unpopular with
both his colleagues and the populace in general - had
aspirations of one day usurping the Bailli’s role in Troyes. He
and Henri were constantly at loggerheads, and he also held a
strong animosity towards Henri’s good friend Richard
Beauchamp – the most powerful and popular guildsman and
merchant in the town.
      'I’m sure he only came out of a genuine sense of civic
duty,' said Henri – fairly dripping with sarcasm.
     'Why does he persist with this ridiculous ambition of his,
anyway?' asked Jean, who never really understood how the
man thought it could be done – to overthrow the King’s
appointed Bailli. To his surprise, Henri seemed to take the
threat seriously.
     ‘It’s not unheard of. In places where the Dean of the
Guild is popular and the Bailli is not, the role wields
considerable influence. Under such circumstances it’s been
known for him to take over the judicial role – he holds the
power anyway, in fact if not in law. I don’t think you realise
just how fickle our Offices are, Jean. They are very much
subject to political expediency. Fortunately, Grossin is about
as popular here as weevils in a loaf of bread. Sadly for us all,
both are inevitable.’ Having thus unburdened himself on the
subject, Henri went back to the unpleasant pastime of watching
the crowd.

When Claire Vaillant saw her dead husband’s body lying
stretched out before her, her first reaction was one of pure
relief. It surprised her. Despite all that he had done to her,
she hadn't realised quite how much she'd come to hate him.
Upon reflection, it seemed fitting, somehow, that he should end
up this way. From the time she'd left Paris in pursuit of him
(although she hadn’t dared admit it to herself), part of her had
been half expecting something like this to happen – he was
that kind of man. Recalling all he had put her through, she
was quite content to leave his body unidentified. Let him lie in
an unmarked pauper’s grave, she thought – it was no less than
he deserved. Besides, it was clear that he had been murdered.
And to whom would suspicion fall if it were to become known
who she was? A spurned wife from a distant town would be
just the sort of person any Bailli would be willing to sacrifice
without so much as a second thought.
      Bernard had left her a week earlier. She’d awoken one
morning to find that he hadn’t returned from the alehouse the
previous night – and her intuition was already warning her that
something was seriously wrong. Her husband had his faults
(and whoring was certainly one of them), but he always came
home before dawn. Always. She went straight to his favourite
public house and spoke to the Innkeeper, who told her that he
had spoken of returning to his home town of Troyes - seeking
to escape the debts he had incurred at the local gambling
house.
      Although she still showed traces of the beauty that had
originally attracted her husband nearly twenty years ago, the
lines on her face and wrinkled, dry skin betrayed her age. Yes,
her beauty was fading, and now she had lost her husband. But
that wasn't all. No, not by a long way. She discovered that his
debts had now become her responsibility, and that he had
stolen from the church of Saint Severin where he worked as a
lay labourer. Of course she knew that such a man hardly
deserved to be pursued, but felt that she had little choice.
What was she, if not wife to her husband? The answer was as
obvious as it was distressing – nothing! She’d decided there
and then to pursue him and beg him to take her back. Perhaps
they could even begin a new life together in Troyes?
      That was nearly a week ago. The journey had been
difficult - travelling all the way from Paris on foot - but she had
persevered and survived relatively unscathed. She’d arrived
just in time to hear the announcement of the Crier de Cite, and
had come the next morning to investigate. Now, despite her
vulnerable position, she was left with little choice but to return
to Paris and throw herself on the mercy of her husband’s – now
her – debtors. She had nowhere else to go and no one to turn
to. The priest at Saint Severin had promised to help, and that
was far from insignificant.
      She took one, last look at the recumbent corpse, before
turning away to begin her long journey home.

Claire Vaillant wasn't the only visitor from Paris that day who
was acquainted with the deceased. A short time after she had
left another stranger looked down on the lifeless body, and
decided that his work was done. Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal
outcome – but it was one well within his brief, nevertheless.
His craggy features broke into a half-smile as he turned and
made his way back through the crowd. He rubbed slowly at
the small scar on his neck – a habitual action he was hardly
aware of – and shielded his eyes as he stepped out into the
harsh sunlight. He looked left and right down the busy, neatly
cobbled street (being an important market town, such expense
was well justified), momentarily unsure which way to go.
There was no need for him to stay, but he was still reluctant to
leave. It was, after all, a pleasant town as provincial towns go,
and it was particularly inviting in the warm sunshine. With a
nod and shrug to himself as he made up his mind at last, he
turned left towards the market square, where he was assured
of distractions to keep him happily diverted for the remainder
of the morning.

Towards noon a small, lightly bearded man approached the
body with nothing more than mild curiosity. He was paying
more attention to what was going on around him than to the
corpse, until he found himself at the front of the line. He
glanced down briefly, before turning back towards a
particularly pretty young woman who had taken his fancy (the
attraction was most definitely not reciprocated). Suddenly he
stopped and frowned. He looked back at the face of the dead
man, vague memories stirring at the back of his mind. On
closer inspection there was no doubting the resemblance – but
was it him? It had been many years, but the more he looked,
the more certain he became. He startled everyone by suddenly
shouting; ‘Lieutenant – lieutenant!’ Looking up from his desk
in the middle of the hall, Francois scowled across at the man,
before pushing back his chair and stomping across the room
towards him. His demeanour suggested that the interruption
had better be justified, or the consequences would be severe.
     ‘What is it?’ he demanded.
     ‘I recognise this man.’
     ‘The dead man, do you mean?’ Now it was the other’s
turn to scowl.
     ‘Of course I mean the dead man. Who else?’ Francois
didn’t reply, but continued to wait for the man to go on. ‘It’s
Bernard Vaillant,’ he said at last. After the briefest of pauses
he added – ‘He was the husband of Marguerite Beauchamp.’
Francois’ heart sank. He was not what could be described as
quick-witted, but even he could see straight away that this was
not good. It was not good at all.

A short time later he was standing before Henri, watching his
employer pace the floor as he knew he would.
     ‘Oh shit!’ was all he could say, over and over again.
‘The man’s sure?’ he demanded.
     ‘Ask him yourself – he’s outside,’ said Francois, sharing a
grimace of concern with Jean, who was sitting quietly in the
corner. Henri took a deep breath and made a beckoning
gesture.
     ‘Best show him in, then,’ he said resignedly. A moment
later the witness was standing before them, slightly nervous
but confident in his identification. Henri nevertheless asked
him if there was any chance that he was mistaken.
     ‘None at all,’ he replied, offended that his word could be
doubted. ‘He left Troyes more than twenty years ago, but he
hasn’t changed that much.’
     ‘You’ll swear to it before a priest if you have to?’ asked
Henri – clutching at his last straw.
     ‘No need to – just ask Marguerite Beauchamp. She knows
him alright.’ He was tempted to go on, before he remembered
the Bailli’s well-known relationship with the Beauchamps. But
Henri had already read the suspicion in the man’s face. He was
only just able to stop himself from rebuking the insinuation,
before realising that he was going to have to get used to it.
The whole town would be thinking that way soon enough -
Marguerite was a natural suspect and Henri’s friendship with
the family compromised him.
     ‘Take a seat,’ said Henri, gesturing to the chair on the
other side of his desk. ‘Jean – you’d best write all this down.’ -
then to the witness; ‘Start with your name.’
     ‘Guillaume Leclercq.’
     ‘Very well, Monsieur Leclercq.        How did you know
this…what was his name?’
     ‘Bernard Vaillant.’ The man took a moment to gather his
thoughts, trying to think back nearly twenty years. ‘He was by
no means a good man,’ he said, apologising for the dead man’s
behaviour at the outset. ‘He liked his women and he wasn’t
the most honest man who ever lived. I suppose you know that
he was a tax collector for the previous Bailli?’
     ‘I did not,’ admitted Henri. A vague memory stirred in the
deepest recesses of his mind, before gradually making its way
to the surface. He snapped his fingers as he recalled the story.
‘He was caught stealing money, wasn’t he?’ Leclercq smiled
and shook his head.
     ‘He was found out, sure, but he got away before they
could catch him. That’s why he left Troyes – left his wife
behind and all. Felt she would be too much of a burden.’ Henri
repeated his earlier question:
       ‘How did you know him?’
       ‘We were friends – drank together in the Cheval Noir most
nights.’
       ‘And what is your occupation?’
       ‘Well, back when I knew Bernard I ran errands for the
Bailli. Knew these halls quite well, I did. Of course there was
no grand office back then,’ he said, gesturing around the room
dismissively. ‘Mucked in with the crowd down below, the old
Bailli did – no offence intended.’ Henri ignored the jibe, but
Francois couldn’t resist giving him a clip around the ear.
Leclercq flinched and glared impotently at his attacker.
       ‘Show some respect,’ growled the lieutenant.
       ‘Leave it,’ said Henri curtly. ‘I suppose that’s how Vaillant
got wind that my predecessor was onto him.’ It was more of a
statement than a question, and Leclercq didn’t bother with a
reply. ‘So what do you do now?’
       ‘I sell vegetables at the market. Came into a small plot of
land a while back and decided to go into business for myself.’
       ‘I see. And did you ever see Bernard Vaillant again?’
       ‘Not ‘til this morning.’ Henri had no reason to trust the
man, but could see no purpose in him lying. He was silent for
a while as he considered his next move, then nodded to
Francois to show the man out.
       ‘What about my reward?’ demanded Leclercq as he was
herded towards the door.
       ‘The lieutenant will take care of it,’ said Henri angrily. He
was already trying to work out how he was going to handle this
mess. It was clear that under these circumstances he was
going to have difficulty fulfilling his duties without bias, and
even clearer that Paul Grossin would use this opportunity to
undermine him in order to further his own ambitions. From his
corner, Jean could tell exactly what was going through his
employer’s mind.
       ‘A pretty pickle, isn’t it?’ he observed. Henri paused in the
act of stroking his chin and looked askance in the direction of
his clerk.
       ‘Not one I’d care to eat, I must say. Unfortunately, I
might just have it shoved sideways down my throat!’
                            Chapter 4


Claude Bellimont led his bewildered and impatient employer to
the top corner of the vineyard. He’d brought a stoneware jug
and a mug with him, and now began pouring.
      ‘Firstly, I must explain that I deliberately left this patch in
the corner of the vineyard to the vagaries of the weather last
season – giving it no water at all. The rest I irrigated as
normal.       I think you’ll agree that the result has been
interesting.’      Giles Monchet was a competent and well-
respected wine maker, and he didn’t take kindly to being told
his trade by a novice. His face began to turn red with rage.
      ‘Are you telling me that you deliberately neglected your
duties in order to follow some hare-brained scheme – without
consulting me first?’ Claude should have seen this coming, but
had been blinded by his enthusiasm. He’d had the devil of a
time keeping it all a secret, and only now realised the flaw in
his plan. He just couldn’t have faced the prospect of his ideas
being rejected before he’d had the opportunity to present
physical proof of what he could achieve.
      ‘If you’ll just let me explain…’
      ‘What’s to explain? I gave you explicit instructions and
you ignored them. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t
dismiss you straight away.’
      ‘But I only experimented on this one short row - it’s
normally reserved for our own consumption, anyway.’
      ‘Nevertheless…’ Monchet was notorious for his occasional
irrational bouts of bad temper, and Claude realised that he was
in real danger of losing his position. Desperate to regain
favour, he held out one of the mugs he had poured with a
pleading look in his eyes.
      ‘Just try it and tell me what you think.’ The vintner
regarded him closely, trying to decide whether he could really
afford to let the young man go. He knew that, left with a
choice between his other two workers, he stood little chance of
leaving his land in charge of someone he could trust. In his
mid-forties and without a family, he was fast approaching the
end of his working life and had no one else to whom he could
pass on his business. His land was allodial, or freehold, not
unusual for the area but none the less precious for that. It was
common knowledge that he worried constantly about the future
of the vineyard he and his father and his grandfather before
him had devoted their entire lives to, and that he dreaded
watching it run to ruin in his old age. His sun-dried, olive
brown skin made him look older than he was, and people were
surprised that he had continued working as long as he had.
Being without an heir, he could leave his land to whomever he
wished – as long as such a bequest was properly witnessed.
Now the time was fast approaching for him to decide who that
would be, and Claude had been doing all he could to
demonstrate that it should be him. It was a fine line he had to
tread between initiative and arrogance. The old wine maker
wouldn’t take kindly to someone promising to introduce too
radical a change, and to watch his precious legacy produce
poor wine would be as bad as watching it run to weed. He was
taking a long time deciding just how angry he was, but
eventually he came to the conclusion that Claude was probably
right – at the end of the day this one small plot mattered very
little. He was still furious that it had all been done behind his
back, but had some regard for Claude’s skills and was
interested to find out just what the lad had achieved. He took
the proffered mug, sniffed at its contents, and pulled a face.
       ‘It smells disgusting.’
       ‘It’s still too young – you’ll need to make allowances,’ said
Claude anxiously. Monchet took a small sip and swallowed.
       ‘It needs another year at least,’ he said, but Claude could
see that his interest had been piqued. He took a second sip
and forced himself to hold it in his mouth a little longer. There
was a long silence as he regarded first the mug of wine, then
his apprentice.
       ‘Well?’ He took a long time to answer, and Claude could
hardly stand the tension.
       ‘Interesting,’ he said at last. ‘It’s very sweet. I haven’t
ever come across anything remotely like it before – even from
my grandfather’s days.’
       ‘Do you like it?’
       ‘It’s still too early to tell. But it has promise, I’ll give that
to you.’ He took another sip, followed by another, and then
drained the cup. ‘You used these vines, then?’ he said at last,
indicating the last row.
      ‘Like I said, they usually produce an inferior wine,
anyway,’ replied Claude, trying to keep his excitement in
check. Monchet stood staring at the plants in question for a
long time, before pouring himself another half-mug.
      ‘It’s sweeter. Much, much sweeter. It may even evolve
into an excellent wine, given favourable circumstances.’ He
waited again, trying to assess what he had tasted. ‘And the
flavour lingers in your mouth.’
      ‘It seems to get better with each sip, doesn’t it?’
      ‘Yes it does. And this was achieved simply by starving the
vines of water?’
      ‘Only during summer. I also thinned out the bunches so
the flavour was concentrated in what was left and didn’t place
too much stress on the roots.’ Giles Monchet shook his head in
wonder.
      ‘What made you try this? How did you know what would
happen?’
      ‘I was speaking to a wine maker from the south. He told
me that they have to know how to make the most from their
grapes during dry seasons, or they’d go every other year
without a decent harvest.’
      ‘Ah, but they use different grapes – make different wines.
That’s no guarantee that their method would work here.’
      ‘Which is why no-one has tried it before, and why I
decided to test the result on one small patch of vines.’
      ‘How did you meet this Provençal winemaker, then?’
Claude blushed and hesitated noticeably before responding.
      ‘I met him at Monsieur Beauchamp’s one evening.’
Monchet noted the young man’s discomfort and smiled to
himself. He was sure he knew the reason for it.
      ‘She’s a pretty girl, that Josephine Beauchamp,’ he said.
There was no mistaking Claude’s embarrassment now, and he
began to inspect the ground a little more closely than was
absolutely necessary.      ‘No need for shame,’ said Monchet
pleasantly. ‘She’d be an excellent match, and I’m sure she
feels the same way about you.’ Claude felt a desperate need
to change the subject.
      ‘I thought that if we were to reserve just this small patch
at the top of the hill, we could continue to use it for
experimentation without risking the entire crop.’ His employer
took the hint and moved away from the delicate subject of
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posted:11/4/2012
language:English
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