The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 22

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Jean-Luc's sojourn working on the bridge to Lyndesfarne lasted for a great many months which soon stretched into his second year. The great arches slowly took shape, with the carved blocks of masonry carefully fitted together and strengthened by a web of stout wrought iron bars artfully slotted into grooves and holes cut in the stonework itself.

During this time, Jean-Luc found himself living rather quietly, only infrequently visiting the public houses and drinking dens, more to listen to the stories rather than consume the ale or cider. His behaviour stood out compared with the hard-working, hard-drinking labourers which made up the bulk of the workforce, and often themselves came from other parts of Britain or from Ireland. The rough migrant workforce toiled extraordinarily diligently, hard men who priding themselves on the number of tons of earth they could load into wheelbarrows and hand-carts each day using nothing more sophisticated than hand-held shovels.

The bulk of these movements of earth and rough stone were part of a plan to make improvements to the road - presently little more than a rough farm track, which led away from the causeway towards the old Roman road, which in turn stretched from Newcastle and London in the south to Edinburgh in the North. The workers assembled stout dry-stone walls along the newly widened roadway, dug the foundations for smaller bridges that forded streams and stretched across little gullies along the route, dig ditches and drainage channels to keep the way free from water from the not-infrequent storms and winter snow-melt, and broke up thousands of tons of rocks using hammers and pickaxes into sharp-edged fragments which were packed down to form the hardwearing surface of the road itself.

Jean-Luc found himself spending as much time as he could with a quieter group, the craftsmen who precisely cut the stone blocks which would form the arches and roadway of the great bridge itself. The masonry was cut with band-saws, the iron blade held taut in a complex frame of wood and twisted leather, and pulled to and fro by two men. The final shaping was done with an iron chisel struck repeatedly by a wooden mallet, the thudding noise often being the first thing he heard when he approached the lip of the quarry where most of the cutting and shaping took place.

Jean-Luc's quiet and unassuming demeanour, and his sobriety and diligence, slowly earned him a degree of respect amongst the tightly-knit community of masons, most of whom were local men unlike the migrants who did most of the heavy and unskilled work. The craftsman's work appealed to Jean-Luc, and seemed to him to be straightforward enough, so he diffidently approached the lead mason and asked if he could take on some of the stone-cutting, even though he was already much older than any normal apprentice.

It was to Jean-Luc's good fortune that there was a distinct shortage of skilled masons available at that time. Indeed, the stone blocks could not be cut and shaped quickly enough to keep up with the rate at which they could be transported and fitted. The younger man's industrious nature, not to mention his skills with tools of all kinds, prompted the foreman to offer Jean-Luc a trial - "Just for a month, mind you" - which he gladly accepted. In fact, the Frenchman soon developed a level of proficiency in the stonecutter's arts which would - he would later understand - normally have taken a five year or longer apprenticeship to acquire.

The community of the masons also had their own tales and legends - from "over the water," they would say, nodding in the direction of the bridge - and these stories were often told over the tapping of hammers on chisels or the rasp of a stone-saw. Jean-Luc listened to these tales as he worked and noted that there seemed to be many common themes, even though they often contradicted one another in almost every detail. He bided his own council, rarely commenting on a tale or asking a question, even though he tried hard to commit each one to memory.

It was one of the older and quieter workmen, a local man he knew only as Harold, who suggested to Jean-Luc that he attend a barn-dance to be held in the nearby village of Fenwick. Jean-Luc was initially reticent, still feeling that he was a stranger, almost an outcast, in this society. The older man gently encouraged Jean-Luc to reconsider, perhaps rather sympathetic to the lonely young man's circumstances. There would be people coming from miles around, Harold explained, there would be music and dancing, and that there would be many young people in attendance, including his own son and the youngest of his daughters.

The barn-dance was indeed held in a communal barn which stood on the edge of the common land close to the centre of the village, and not far from other essentials as the church, the vicarage and the most popular of the public houses. The barn was currently empty and had been carefully swept out, awaiting the start of the harvest when it would be filled with cut and dried hay for winter forage, and straw for bedding for the animals in the colder months. A stage had been set up at one end of the space. Actually it was just an old barn door set over some cut-off barrels, intact and full versions of which could be found at the other end of the building where an impromptu bar had been created. Someone had spent some time in putting up long strings of bunting which criss-crossed the roof-beams above and which gave the whole venue a cheerfully festive appearance.

It was a warm summer evening, a month or so after the summer solstice, and the double doors of the barn were wide open to admit the soft night breeze. Rough tables had been set around outside the doors, and a few inside, and lamps and candles, as yet unlit, were already in place for when darkness fell, a time still several hours away. A hearty supper was being prepared, judging by the delicious aromas of cooking that were wafting around, and which included the roasting over charcoals of a whole pig on a spit. The roast and other meats would be accompanied, Jean-Luc correctly surmised, by masses of simply prepared but very fresh vegetables, together with an astonishing quantity of boiled new potatoes.

When Jean-Luc arrived, feeling thoroughly scrubbed and somewhat overdressed, a small band was already warming up on the stage, while the bar was already surrounded by large farmers with large voices and large beer tankards in their hands. The band members were also locals, he would soon discover, and their musical performance was best characterised by energy and enthusiasm, rather than anything resembling technical competence.

Jean-Luc had taken some care over his appearance, having retrieved and very carefully laundered his best shirt and trousers from the bottom of the pack he had brought all the way from France. The tightly-fitting black trousers and the blousy white shirt of fine cotton that he had donned were in complete contrast to the home-spun shirts and woollen trousers worn by the other young men.

Heads turned and the volume of conversation fell when Jean-Luc appeared at the barn door, but soon resumed at a slightly higher volume. Some of it, he knew for a certainty, was gossip aimed at the mysterious Frenchie who had appeared so suddenly in their midst. Harold the stonemason waved Jean-Luc over and introduced him to his family. His wife was a quiet mousy woman with an instantly forgettable appearance, who had little to say and who deferred to her husband in every respect.

After bowing politely to the goodwife, Jean-Luc was introduced to Harold's son John, who was already apprenticed to the local blacksmith. He was a big lad, already towering over his father, and equipped with the gentle and essentially placid disposition that meant that everyone was his friend. In John's case, that friendship was immediate cemented when Jean-Luc, at a loss as to how to open a conversation, explained that the first part of his name also meant "John" in his native tongue, and that they were therefore more closely related, perhaps even brothers.

Finally Jean-Luc was introduced to the daughter of the family. She was pink and plump and blonde, and seemed to be sheltering between the bulk of her brother and her mother. Momentarily flustered by the proximity of a member of the opposite sex, Jean-Luc gallantly offered to dance with the young woman, whose name he missed at the introduction and would never learn. She murmured something indistinct which might have been "perhaps later", looking rather giggly and nervous, and indicated that she would prefer to stay by her mother's side.

Jean-Luc would not, as it turned out, have the opportunity. In the company of his new friend John, he was soon surrounded by people, most from the younger rather than the older generation, who were curious to know more about "that Frenchie". He answered a great many questions to the best of his ability, sometimes pressed to the edge of his competence with the language, but nevertheless with good humour and a degree of wit he had not known he possessed.

Several of the more forward girls made their interest in the young Frenchman discreetly known, even under the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents. They were clearly attracted by his slender litheness and quick wit which contrasted with the taciturn and heavy-set farmers' sons which made up the bulk of the young male population hereabouts. Jean-Luc maintained his aloof pose, preferring to avoid the attention of the adult chaperones who carefully watched the goings-on in the fashion that Jean-Luc was entirely familiar with from similar rural events in the villages back home in France.

As Jean-Luc chatted, he had a sudden sense of being watched from across the room. He spun around suddenly and caught the eye of a pretty dark-haired girl who swiftly turned away when he looked in her direction, accompanied by a certain amount of giggling from the four or five girls who clustered together on the far side of the barn. He immediately spoke to John and asked who was the beautiful raven-haired lass. John seemed confused for a moment, presumably at the concept of a girl who he had probably known since they were both toddlers being described as either "beautiful" or "raven-haired".

Jean-Luc begged an introduction and trailed across the room after John's lumbering gait. Her name, as it turned out, was Milly - a short form of Millicent - and she was the daughter of a local family, a pillar of the farming community. Her family had been in this area for generations, and her mother was a stalwart of the local village. He rapidly learned that Milly was the youngest of three sisters and widely regarded as the most sensible of the three. The older girls were already married, and one was already a mother-to-be, a prospect that she apparently regarded with a mixture of morbid fascination and excitement.

Demurely, Milly asked about his family, back in France. Jean-Luc explained that his father had died in some kind of freak Act of God, struck down by lightening from a clear sky as he worked in the fields, an accident which had happened while he was little more than a babe in arms. He related how, on becoming a young widow, his mother had at first taught in the local dame school, providing a church-charity basic education for those too poor to be in receipt anything better. After many years, Maman had apprenticed him to the Grand Maison, the makers of the finest Champagne vintages, and returned to domestic service in the great house where she herself had first been employed after her leaving her parents home.

Milly and her friends listened with careful interest but all seemed uncertain on how to continue the conversation. To fill a silence, Jean-Luc explained about the growing of grapes for the making of wine - a drink mostly reserved for the upper classes in this time and place - on the dry hillsides in his native lands. Recalling a story often related in the fields, he recounted how the best vines seemed to thrive on the most desiccated of fields and how their roots were reputed to go down to Hell.

This tale seemed to appeal to the young farmers - and future farmers' wives - and especially to Milly, who regarded Jean-Luc with rapt and wide-eyed attention. Taking the not-so-subtle hint, he executed an exquisite formal bow, as he had been carefully taught by Maman all those years ago, and asked if the charming Mademoiselle would care to dance. To the astonishment of her friends, she assented to become his partner in the next of the formal and highly structured dances which were the fashion of the time. This could have been an embarrassing disaster, of course, but Jean-Luc had been watching carefully earlier in the evening, and by now he had a very good idea of the steps and movements required.

The gossips would later say the she was swept off her feet by the dashing Frenchman, how her young head was turned by a Devil-may-care attitude and foreign ways. This way not actually true; in reality, she was immediately attracted to the serious-minded and capable young man. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and his outwardly dashing appearance, Jean-Luc's essentially staid nature shone through. He would, she considered privately, when back at home and dressing for bed, make good husband material.

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