The little town of Pauvreville was just that: a tiny village on the outskirts of a huge forest. There was really not much to do there except get by the year and not starve. This the people did as best they could, which, considering the rest of the country after the Revolution, wasn’t that bad. For the moment, in fact, it seemed that Pauvreville had been entirely forgotten by the rest of the world. Some might have said that certain magic protected the place; others might have disagreed. At present, however, whatever the reason for their solitude, the citizens didn’t really mind much.
There was only one man in the whole place who lived anywhere near the outskirts of town: old Maurice, the inventor, a rather batty little tinker in his own way. He had no reason for alarm, since the villagers knew he and his little family were perfectly harmless. He and his wife, Clara, and their three sons lived on the edge of the village, just beside the main road leading into the forest. No one ever went too near that forest, for it was a dark, gloomy place, full of wolves and dangerous things. That was another reason the town was cut off; the only decent road led straight through that, so it was much easier (not to mention safer) to stay put. Only Maurice had ever had a mind to get through it; and that was only after he’d put his Greatest Invention together.
As said before, Maurice and Clara had three sons. The youngest, Henri, was only twelve; his most prominent duty was assisting his mother in the house. He was the most curious about things; it was he who wanted to be an inventor, like his father. Pierre, the middle son, helped mostly with the farm work, occasionally with the tinkering. He had no ambition for being anything but a farmer, which was fine with his parents.
Then, there was the eldest son, whose name was Beau. Beau’s greatest talent was reading. He loved books with a passion; he’d spent many an hour sitting under a tree, or by the fire, or on his bed, simply enjoying a good book. There were few in the village as literate as he; his favorite haunt was the town bookshop; quite a small establishment in itself, nearly fully supported by the only aristocratic family in the village, but more frequently visited by Beau. Beau had read every book that shop owned; it wouldn’t come as a grand surprise if he’d read every book in the whole town by the time he was fifteen, which he essentially had, since all the books in town were at that shop.
By the time Beau was in his early twenties, old Maurice’s Greatest Invention was nearly completed. Maurice hoped to make the greatest contribution to engineering that century: steam-powered wood chopping. That was actually the only thing the Great Invention did, really, but considering the smallness of Pauvreville, it was a fine step toward modern industry.
As the days turned cooler, Maurice spent the most of his time devoted to perfecting the Great Invention. Clara told her boys not to mind; Papa was a smart man who knew his business. Hopefully, if all went well, he would be able to win a good money’s worth, or at least sell it for a decent earning. On the precautionary side, Clara intended to make sure they could still make a living. This required one or more of her sons to get a solid job in town.
As the eldest, this put Beau first in line.
It was at dinner one night in the late fall that the subject was brought up.
“Well, my dears,” said Maurice to his family, “my Greatest Invention is essentially complete. I hope to get started out with it for the fair this week.”
“That’s wonderful, Papa,” said Henri happily. “I bet you win first prize.”
Less optimistic, Pierre shook his head. “I don’t know if we’ll win, but you’ve definitely got a good shot at it.”
“Oh, come now,” said Maurice genially. “Have some faith in your old man. It’s not as if I don’t have the know-how for a good machine.”
Beau had not been listening; he was busy reading his favorite book for the fifth time in a row. Clara noted this and gave him a nudge. “No books at the table. Eat your dinner.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Beau, reluctantly setting the book aside to take a mouthful or two of his dinner.
“And that reminds me,” said Clara in her business-manner. “Since your father is going away soon, I think it’s high time for you boys to start earning your keep.”
Henri looked up. “Mama, don’t we do that already?”
Clara snorted, ruffling her son’s hair. “Hardly. It’s as though you’ve all got feathers for brains! You’re off doing who-knows-what, playing in the dirt and damp all day, Beau’s off daydreaming the time away, and Pierre’s out befriending all the chickens and geese. I meant that it’s time you started earning some real money.”
“Oh, Mama!” cried Henri emphatically. “I’m too little for such hard work! I can’t be expected to do that now.”
“And I have enough real work to do growing our suppers,” added Pierre. “I’m needed here.”
They all looked at Beau, who had returned to his book.
Clara seized the book, setting it down out of the way. “Put that down, lad! Haven’t you got any ears?”
Beau looked up, looking as if he’d been roused from a dream. “What is it?”
Clara glared at him. “You, my son, must find yourself an apprenticeship in town. Start making some decent wages, in case your papa’s grand machinery doesn’t come through.”
Maurice gave her an injured look. “Oh, come now, Mama.”
“Don’t ‘Come now’ me, you daft old bean,” said Clara, giving him a playful cuff. “I don’t doubt your ingenuity; it’s other folk who’ll be doing that. All the same, the lad’s got to get a job right enough, if you still want to buy carrots for next year.”
“If you’d quit reading fairy books, Beau, you might do well as a lawyer or a taxman,” said Pierre, trying to be helpful. “I’ll bet someone could use a secretary or a scribe.”
“I’m not giving up my books,” protested Beau. “I’m not the only person here who can read and write. I’d sooner work at the bookshop than write out tax forms.”
“A bookkeeper’s boy doesn’t make nearly as much as a taxman’s would,” said Clara. “Still, as long as it’s a job, I don’t care where you get it.”
“Well, then,” said Beau, “how about I run down this evening and ask Monsieur Lefebvre about working there?”
“It’s a start somewhere,” said Clara.
“Very well, then,” said Maurice. “In case my Great Invention proves to be a Great Flop, we’ll have some retinue available.”
Later that evening, Beau was seen walking down to the bookshop, still deep in reading. The townspeople were quite familiar with this, and all gave heed to his passing whenever he happened by. Beau was well known to have a tendency to overlook many of his surroundings when reading.
There was one particular person whom Beau interested. Hidden in a nearby alleyway between two buildings, someone was watching him as he made his way to the shop that night, taking great care to remain out of sight.
A young lady by name of Loretta happened that way on the same evening; she was on an errand to the baker’s; when she was suddenly stopped by a hissing whisper nearby. “Psst! Loretta! Over here, quick!”
Loretta was not the brightest of girls her age and glanced wildly around for the speaker. “Is someone there?” As no one was in sight, her only other option was to check her basket, but no one was in there, either. “Hello?”
“Shh, not so loud!” came the reply. Before Loretta knew what was happening, an arm shot out from the alley and dragged her down behind an empty barrel. Behind it was another girl; Georgiana, whose father was the most prominent (and also the wealthiest) man in town.
Loretta knew Georgiana well; they were good friends. “Oh, hello, Georgie. What’s the matter?”
“Hush; look.” Georgiana pointed out to the other side of the road, where Beau could be seen strolling along, his nose firmly planted in his book.
“That’s Beau, the inventor’s son,” observed Loretta knowingly. “Why are we looking at him?”
Georgiana gave a huge sigh of longing. “Isn’t he simply the finest man you’ve ever seen?”
Loretta squinted. “Sure, he’s perfectly fine, I guess. But why are we looking at him?”
“Oh, Lori!” scoffed Georgiana pointedly. “I want him, that’s why!”
Georgiana sighed again, gazing after Beau as he disappeared round the corner. Then, she got up, dusted herself off, and dragged Loretta to her feet. “Quick, let’s follow him.”
Loretta was soon out of breath as Georgiana led her sneakily after, ducking around corners and dodging this way and that. “Why… are we stalking… him?” she gasped at length.
Georgiana whipped around, planting both hands on her friend’s shoulders. “We’re not stalking him. We’re just finding out where he’s going, that’s all.”
“But why?” asked Loretta.
Georgiana gave yet another sigh, this time out of exasperation. “Because I have to know. I need to know more about him. I like him, Lori.”
“Oh,” said Loretta, understanding dawning at last. It ran away again just as quickly. “Why do you like him?”
“Because,” said Georgiana firmly, “he is the most beautiful young man anyone in Pauvreville has ever seen. Lori, everyone knows that. And I have to have him because he’s beautiful and so am I, so it just fits. You see?”
Loretta thought she could see at first, before Georgiana began explaining. As soon as she had, it didn’t make sense anymore. All she could do now was stare helplessly at her shoes.
“Really, Lori, you’re impossible.” Georgiana turned again, watching with great fervor as Beau entered the bookshop.
“Good evening, Beau,” said Monsieur Lefebvre, smiling at his regular customer. “Back so soon?” It had only been this morning when Beau had stopped by. “You haven’t finished it already, have you?”
“Not quite, but almost,” said Beau. “I just couldn’t set it down. It is my favorite, after all.”
Lefebvre chuckled. “Well, I can’t blame you for that. Anything I can help you with at the moment?”
Only once he’d reached the end of the page did Beau pause, marking his place with a red bookmark and getting down to business. “Actually, I was wondering if it would be all right to ask about taking up an apprenticeship here. Do you need an apprentice?”
This came as a delightful, if surprising, request to Lefebvre. “Well, it would certainly be a big help. I’ve got a few boxes of books that need organizing. I’d be happy to take you on. For a while, anyway,” he added uncertainly.
“I’ll do whatever you need me to do, no matter the wages,” assured Beau. “I understand if you can’t pay me very high yet; I’m sure my mother will understand, too.”
“I hope she will, lad,” said Lefebvre, nodding. “And I’m afraid you’re right; I’ve got very little to spare. Reading isn’t quite the rage for everyone as it is with you, you know. But I thank you, all the same, and I look forward to having you.”
The bell at the door jangled, acknowledging another customer. Beau turned, hoping to prove himself useful right away, and was immediately confronted by a pair of very large, starry eyes with heavy lashes batting at him. “Oh, good evening, Mademoiselle Georgiana. Fancy seeing you here.”
Georgiana pretended to be surprised. “Why, Monsieur Beau, I didn’t expect you to be here, of all places.” As Georgiana was not an avid reader herself, she rarely entered the shop at all; her only reason for doing so was if Beau might happen to be there.
Beau gave a polite shrug. “Well, it’s good to see you. Can I help you with anything?”
“Oh, I certainly hope so.” Georgiana giggled in what she assumed was a flattering way, leaning very, very close. “I’m looking for a… a book, if you must know.”
“Which one?” asked Beau, trying to get out from beneath Georgiana’s large bodice while still retaining his manners.
Georgiana glanced rapidly around, then reached up. “That one.” She made a great deal to draw her front into as much view as possible and was mildly put out when Beau carefully looked the other way.
“Oh, don’t bother; I’ll get it,” he offered, turning around and pulling the book down. “Ah, Gulliver’s Travels. An excellent choice, if I may say so.”
Georgiana tittered again, flashing him her best dazzling smile. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of it; won’t you tell me about it?”
“Oh, it’s quite good,” said Beau, proceeding to summarize the story with great enthusiasm. Not that Georgiana listened to a word he said; she was too busy paying attention to how handsome he was. “So I hope you enjoy it,” he finished, placing the book in her hands with a flourish.
“Oh, I certainly will,” sighed Georgiana. “But you know, I think I’d enjoy it even more if you were the one reading it to me.” With this, she attempted to lean in disturbingly close, as if for a kiss, but Beau managed to step out from her embrace.
“Well,” he said to Lefebvre, “I can come in first thing tomorrow, if you like.”
“That’s quite all right,” replied Lefebvre. “Take the time to eat your breakfast first; I can have you in by ten.”
“Well, thank you very much, sir,” said Beau cheerfully and headed out the door once again, buried back in his book, leaving a most perplexed Georgiana standing in the shop.
Loretta was waiting outside. As soon as Georgiana came out, she asked, “Well, how was it?”
“Trust me, he’ll come around soon enough,” growled Georgiana, digging her nails into Gulliver’s Travels with some menace.
The next day, Maurice had the Great Invention in the family wagon, all finished and ready for the Inventor’s Fair. “Take care of your mother, boys!” he called as he saddled up the horse, Philippe, and made ready to set off.
“Goodbye, Papa, and good luck!” his sons called back, waving.
“And stay out of trouble!” cried Clara passionately.
Maurice gave her an encouraging smile. “I won’t be gone long. I love you!” And with that, he flicked the reigns and was off.
But, as was yet to be seen, the plans of the Lord are somewhat different from our own…