Chapter 7: The Taste of the Fountain
The last thing that Just remembered coherently before his vision was thinking how ironic it was that he had actually fallen so deeply ill. The consolation for being a sickly child is that you learn how to wiggle your way out of all sorts of requirements. No one who had ever seen one of them would question Just’s inability to travel during one of his headaches. It was a measure (and even Just realized this) of just how bad this particular attack was that Just was able to detach himself from the usual self-pity that gripped him and that was almost worse than the headache just long enough to realize that this time he might have deserved it, brought it on himself even. At first, he was desperate to figure out how to modify his plans now that he knew that Celi was onto him. Actually, it was imperative that he speak with Ledoux. Oh, he knew she’d never love him, would always only see him as a boy. But he could, if he could just get her to listen long enough, convince her that they could find common cause in their desire to get revenge on Jacques. He had never been as mad at Celi as when she saw through him without realizing how serious it was this time (she was still just a kid).
Only it didn’t matter, because just two days after the family had left, while Just was still laying his plans while playing at being ill, this attack hit him and he couldn’t worry about revenge anymore. At first it was mild and as long as he lay in bed with the curtains carefully drawn he could still eat and talk with the servants. It’s hard to say how many days passed in this state, but there was plenty of time for Just to imagine hundreds of different versions of his plan, and also to imagine all the fun his family was having without him and to hate them all for leaving him again.
After what must have been at least a week, his sickness intensified. That’s when Just had the moment of lucidity that I just mentioned. And then the attack hit him so badly that he was robbed of both self-pity and detached irony. Reason and emotion gave way to raw, bare suffering, and he could hardly see.
This was the state that he was in when one of the servants poked in to announce that a lady had come in to look in on him, as his parents had asked her to do. Just was about to say that he couldn’t remember them telling him about this (they’d mentioned Abelard, but that was all) when he heard the lady’s voice and realized it was Madame Ledoux.
I don’t need to tell you how happy this made him, but also how nervous that she should see him like this, that he should get his chance so fortuitously, but only while in this state. He thought maybe he should pray, but he didn’t think there was a patron saint for revenge, or for lust, or for any of the things that motivated him.
And then the illness passed.
“You’ve come to see me?” He knew he could not pull off the solicitous gallantry of Jacques, so he aimed for his father’s peremptory casualness.
“Poor boy,” she said, “I had heard that your family had left you here alone and thought someone should look to your health. Even if they are too busy elsewhere.”
“Didn’t my parents send you to look in on me?” Just asked.
Ledoux laughed, and Just realized how absurd that would have been and how silly he was to believe it. They would have thought, “Abelard and the servants, that is enough,” if they had thought to think at all. And anyway, things had always only been polite between the Marquis and the Ledouxs, on account of who Monsieur Ledoux was (had been). “Well, some of us are motivated by Christian compassion to look after those who have been left behind.”
She walked up to his bedside and put her hand on his forehead. Her knuckles felt cold and heavy, like marble. “You’re feverish,” she said. “Hasn’t your blood been let?”
“My father thinks it is illiberal.” (His father talked at length of the empirical school of medicine and said blood letting was for priests and peasants.)
“But I’ll have my physician come look after you. A boy like you needs taking care of,” she said.
Although the presence of her hand and the sting of the word “boy” were both inflaming him, Just struggled to lift himself. “No, no;” he reassured her. “My illness comes and goes.” To prove his point he would have lifted himself out of bed, until he remembered that he was wearing his bedclothes. How could the woman he loved see him like this without it being more meaningful? She was so presumptuous and, Just though briefly, cruel. “No, it’s only that she thinks you’re still a child.”
“Anyway,” he said, “it’s not my illness that kept me here. I couldn’t be with people like that. That would have made me ill.”
“And you didn’t want to meet your brother’s little bride? You’re not excited for a new sister?”
“I have enough sisters of my own.”
“But she must be quite a beauty to win someone as dashing as Jacques. You know, all the ladies around here are crazy for him. And he chose her instead of any of them. Didn’t that interest you? And she’s much closer to your age than his.”
“Not all of us are as weak as my brother. Some of us can see through empty charm.” Just said, and did his best to stare meaningfully at Ledoux.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you had such refined taste.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to work, Just thought. He had been prepared for her to reject him. He wasn’t going to try to win her over, anyway. He was ready to have to work indirectly. But this gentle, mocking irony was unbearable. (Like many clever children, Just couldn’t bring himself to believe that any adults were as clever as he). It made his head hurt, and he found himself growing confused.
He didn’t realize that he was soon stammering out his love for her until he had already told her everything, mumbled his way through her encounter in the cabin and through Jacques’s cold words to him on his return.
He hadn’t intended that. He had wanted to be more clever, more subtle, poetry dripping with significance (that was the plan, as futile as he knew it was). He was prepared for all the subtle stratagems of unrequited love. But he wasn’t ready to watch the woman he loved weeping for the man she loved (whom he hated, still hated, couldn’t forgive, not yet.)
“You don’t understand, do you?” she asked him.
“I understand how callous and cruel my brother is.”
“You don’t understand a thing. But if we’re going to be honest (and I’m happy to be able to be honest) then I’ll be blunt. This infatuation must stop, and you know it. Don’t think I’m being cruel, dear boy.”
“I’m almost a man.”
“Well, then, good. Because I need an almost-a-man, but I need an almost-a-man who, like a man, can see clearly and who knows what’s what. Because I don’t need a love-sick boy. I need an ally. Are you strong enough for that?” she asked.
“I don’t doubt that you are.” Ledoux leaned close to him and whispered, so close to him he could feel the air moved by her lips: “I know I can trust you,” and he felt her press a hand against his chest. When she moved it away, he realized that she had given him a letter. He looked down, and saw that it bore Jacques’s name, and was sealed with wax from a seal he didn’t recognize (not Ledoux’s family seal).
“Then tell me what you’ll do.” She said.
“I’ll give this to Jacques.”
“And will you tell anyone?”
“Good, then. Be well.” She put her hand to his forehead one more time and moved it through his hair. It was the maternal gesture of a woman who had lost her son. It was the manipulative gesture of a beautiful woman. Only a feverish boy with an overactive imagination could have imagined it was anything more.
He felt the fever returning then (miracles are short) so he didn’t know what he said to her as he watched her turn and walk away.
He had the presence of mind to throw the letter beneath his bed before the headache returned, so badly that he couldn’t think anything else.
Then it was night. Just woke up and the fever was gone. Only the night was so hot that it almost felt like he was still feverish. But he couldn’t be, because he felt strong. He lifted himself out of bed and he looked at himself. He realized that he was a man now. He felt the width of his shoulders, looked down and saw muscles on his slender chest. It was so hot that night. He took off his night shirt and stepped to the open window. He touched his big hands and said, “this is me.”
That was when he realized that he was not alone in the room. Madame Ledoux was still in the room with him.
“I thought you’d left,” he said.
“I didn’t realize how much time had passed,” she said. “You are strong.” Just realized that Madame Ledoux was looking at his body.
“I am strong,” he said.
Just realized that he was back in bed and that Ledoux was in bed with him. He felt her hands in his hair, and all over his body, the man’s body he didn’t know he had. He wanted to touch her.
Just felt a sequence of sensations that he couldn’t identify, patches of touches, of hardness and softness, of heat and piercing, bright light that, if it weren’t so delicious, would have felt almost identical to one of his headaches.
He hardly knew what to say. And then he felt his body shaking and he realized that he was yelling, “My god! Jesus Christ! My god!”
Then he felt the fever return and his body shrink away.
It was still night when he returned to himself, and his fever was gone. The window was still open, and a cold wind was blowing in. It moved over his body, and he realized that he was naked and that there was a cold cloth across his eyes. He removed it.
That was when he realized that he was not alone in the room. His father was in the room with him.
“I thought you’d left,” he said.
“You didn’t realize how much time had passed,” the Marquis said. He walked over to Just and placed his hand on Just’s forehead. His father’s hands were so cold that Just thought for a second that maybe his fever had returned.
“Look after your brother.” The Marquis said.
“Why should I look after him? He is weak and I am strong. He betrayed you and he betrayed me. He is older, and he should have to look after me.”
“But I always loved him more than I loved you.”
“I know.” And Just realized he was crying.
Then it was day, or rather it was sunrise. It was the precise moment of dawn, something you can’t know if you’ve only lived in cities or valleys. But if you’ve been in the mountains or if you happen to have a window in a high room that looks eastward over a broad, flat expanse (as Just did), you may have seen the precise moment of dawn: Just knew it as a bright light, but gentle unless his headaches were going. This dawn did not come gently. Just opened his eyes, and the morning light overwhelmed him.
That was when he realized that he was not alone in the room. Or rather he was, but he wouldn’t be for much longer. A strange, bright creature was riding in on the light beams. As it got closer, Just realized that it was a woman. At first he thought it must be Madame Ledoux again, but then Just realized she was gigantic. Like Ledoux, she had the soft, full body of a young mother, but her eyes were small and round, and her mouth was thin (his father, enamored of the classics, would have noticed that her eyes were flashing).
This gigantic woman rode in on the beams of dawn’s light, and Just thought she was so sexy that he was shocked when he realized that she was an angel of the Lord. He figured she must be, because she wasn’t dressed like a modern Frenchwomen, but in idealizing white robes.
“I am an angel of the Lord,” she said.
“Why are you here?” Just asked.
“I bring glad tidings of things to come! I bring news of the regime to come! I am France, her seed scattered across the Earth. Look on me and see that I am beautiful. Blessed art though, Just. Blessed indeed. Many are called, but few are chosen. Behold my beauty.”
And then Just felt her lift his body in her arms. She was strong and carried him easily out the window. They stepped out his window, and the angel carried him on the air. She grew taller, and with large steps she walked over the houses in the village that surrounded the Marquis’s estate. And Just saw the peasants waking up. For the first time in his life, he realized how beautiful they were beneath their dirt and grime. They didn’t see him; they were looking over from where he’d come, at his family’s chateau. For the first time in his life, he saw how balefully they looked at it.
She led him across the valley to Ledoux’s estate. Soon (joy of joys) they were in Ledoux’s chambers. She was already mostly dressed and was combing her hair. She was looking in a mirror, but her eyes weren’t looking back at her. Just noticed her in a way that he hadn’t last night or even before (when he had just been a lovelorn boy). He saw the wrinkles of her eyes, the first hints of grey in her hair. You might think that this was a sign of his waning crush on Ledoux, but actually it made him love her much more.This was a short visit. Soon, they were walking to Paris. The angel took whole bends of the road in a single stride, and they overtook merchants whose eyes were still sleepy and then soldiers whose long, even steps left the grass trampled on either side. They passed parties of gentlemen who were riding in the crisp morning air and who didn’t notice the peasants standing deferentially on the roadside. She would occasionally say something, some praise to the Lord, to his wisdom or to her own beauty (the beauty of France). But mostly they walked in silence. They passed many inns, and outside of one inn, when they had almost reached Paris, Just saw his family. The angel stopped several paces in front of them and it was almost as though he were regarding a painting.
This is the tableau he saw from on high. To one side, his mother and sisters were weeping, and, right in front of him, Jacques was holding their father in his arms. His family was clustered around Jacques. On the other side of Jacques, another cluster: a man of God, dressed severely and holding a young girl (three or four maybe) by the hand. He, bent over, gesturing at her: She, staring at the family, her eyes hidden by gnarled curls of thick, brown hair. She was starting to point, but the priest was gently grabbing her hand. Standing close to the girl, two young women, one dark haired and one blond. The blond, who had a look of terror, was starting to say something to the dark haired women, but she had turned away from her companions. She stood at the peripheries of this tableau. She wasn’t looking at anyone else but, nonetheless, her eyes suffused the scene with a strange calm. “Here’s someone who already knows loss,” Just thought.
The dark haired woman turned her head, and the tableau fell apart. For a moment, Just though she was looking right at him, but this was just an effect of her movement, and soon she walked over to join Jacques. Just couldn’t see what happened then or ask the angel what was happening, because she was already moving, leaving the scene far behind.
They were almost immediately in Paris. They were not in the parts of the city that Just knew. The angel slowed her pace, and she moved them slowly over the face of this great metropolis so that Just saw: carpenters and blacksmithers, grocers and printers, casinos and brothels and taverns, the whole face of the city in minute detail. They stopped and ate potato cakes from a street vendor. They followed one young man, who was probably close to Just’s age for what seemed like hours. He had a hard loaf of his bread in his pocket, and he’d occasionally take a bite from it. He darted in and out of this seedy world, before making his way to the river. There, they left him and followed a pair of ladies walking through Paris’s most elegant shops before they announced themselves at the gates of a handsome townhouse, which Just thought he could almost recognize.
When it was getting dark, Just thought to ask what they were doing. At this point, the angel had returned them through her aimless wander through the darker alleys of Paris. She stopped outside a tavern and sat Just down. She told Just to walk inside.
It was so full of dirty men and the occasional whore that it took Just a moment to notice the incongruity, as obvious as it was. Right in the middle of the room, two gentlemen shouting at one another while the dredges of Paris looked on and laughed. It took his eyes a moment to adjust enough to realize that they were Jacques and Monsieur Ledoux.
Before he could say anything to Jacques, he realized that the angel had him in her arms again. They had left Paris and were walking southwestward, following the sun that had first announced the angel’s arrival.
It was night when they reached Bordeaux. This time, the angel didn’t bother taking him to the homes of the wealthy ship-owners (Just remembered them from when his family had gone to visit his uncle’s family there). Nor did she take him through the squalor of the men who filled those ship’s hulls. She simply marched into the water.
The monotony of the blueness filled his eyes and he fell asleep.
He didn’t wake up until the next morning and he realized, except for the warmth of the angel and of his body (his fever had returned) that he ought to be freezing. They passed over small, primitive towns. He recognized the walls of Montreal from his family’s picture book of the Americas. But soon those vanished as they continued down its big river, passing furriers and Indians rowing along its banks, then silence. They passed over rivers and lakes, and the air grew warmer. Soon it was quite hot. It was near noon when they reached what Just knew was New Orleans (He thought often about New Orleans; his father’s younger brother had died there, and Jacques had often speculated he might be happier seeking his fortune there. Just had lately been imagining Monsieur Ledoux there, wondering whether word of his wife’s pregnancy had ever reached him there) He would have liked to see New Orleans (much more than he enjoyed seeing the forbidden parts of Paris), but the angel hardly stopped.
Instead she made her way back up the Mississippi River, whose wide banks Just could hardly believe. They left it where it seemed almost more a swamp than a river and the angel began following a small tributary instead. That tributary led them through bogs and hills, over forest and across long, barren plains. In a red desert, it almost disappeared. When it was hardly more than a trickle it began to climb a mountain, and Just realized that they were almost to its source.
When they arrived there (it was almost evening again --- the sun had disappeared behind mountains further to the west, although it was still light), Just was surprised to find a number of people.
They were dressed in robes not that different from those of the angels.
“They have come for the Fountain of Youth.” The angel told him.
Indeed, Just saw that they stood in a line to drink from a tiny rivulet of pure water, streaming from a rock, the origin of the tiniest trace of the mighty waters they’d seen that day. Two angels stood by the headwaters and each person would whisper something into one of their ears. Sometimes, she would nod, and take his hand. She would draw his face to the water and he would take a long draught. The other angel would lead him away, down a path that went to the right, and then bent behind a fork in the road. Sometimes, she would shake her head, and the angel would point them to a path that went to the left. Just could see that this path went as close to straight as it reasonably could down the mountain’s steep slope before it disappeared into the horizon. People were walking slowly down its long itinerary.
The Angel led Just to the front of the line. She whispered to the other angels. They nodded and Just’s angel lead Just to the headwaters.
"Drink.” She told him.
“But I don’t want to be young.” He said. “Why would anyone want to be young?” he said.
The angel’s eyes flashed. She took his head in her hands and forced it beneath the water. At first, all Just could feel was its heat, entering his nose and his lips. Then, he realized how sweet it was, sweeter even then the pure sugar he and Celi had managed to lift from the pantry once or twice. He drank until he thought his lungs would burst.
The angel led him around the corner. There were a group of children sitting in a large semi-circle hollowed into the side of the hill. They were laughing and playing a game and hardly seemed to notice when an angel came and carried one of them away.
“But I don’t understand,” Just said. “In legends, the Fountain gives you youth, but it doesn’t make you a child again. Who would want that?”
“Shh!” the angel said. “It’s not for children to understand.”
When Just came to again, he could feel the last traces of the fever making their way out of his body, the headache just the memory of a headache now. He started to run his small, weak hands over his pathetic, puny chest when he realized that he was not alone in the room.
The family physician and the family priest were both standing by Just’s bed. They were speaking with one another, so they didn’t notice at first that Just had come to. Once they did, the physician insisted on examining him thoroughly one more time and the priest insisted on giving him confession. In the family of the Marquis de Orleans, the physician came first. So it was only after he had been administered various poultices to speed his healing that he was asked to confess his sins. This gave Just time to fabricate some sins to replace the many he’d actually committed since his last confession. It was only after confession that he learned that the priest had been summoned when the physician had thought Just was going to die.
“But we knew you were saved when, in the middle of the last rites you called out the name of our Savior and of our heavenly Father. The miracle of your healing followed after this.”
The physician had ordered constant watch, so Just was not allowed to be alone for several days. When he was finally strong enough to get up from bed he asked for a few moments to himself.
He bent down on his floor to retrieve the letter Ledoux had left him.