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Louise Lamprey

The Box That Quentin Carved

How Quentin of Peronne Learned His Trade When a Boy in Amiens

A NY one who happened to be in the market-place of Amiens one sunshiny summer morning in the last quarter of the twelfth century, might have seen a slim, dark, dreamy-eyed boy wandering about with teeth set in a ripe golden apricot, looking at all there was to be seen. But the chances were that no one who was there did see him, because people were very busy with their own affairs, and there was much to look at, far more important and interesting than a boy. In fact Quentin, who had come with his father, Jean of Peronne, to town that very morning, was not important to any one except his father and himself.

They had been living in a small village of Northern France, where they had a tiny farm, but when the mother died, Jean left the two older boys to take care of the fields, and with his youngest son, who was most like the mother, started out to find work elsewhere. He was a good mason, and masons were welcome anywhere. In all French cities and many towns cathedrals, castles or churches were a-building, and no one would think of building them of anything but stone.

While Quentin speculated on life as it might be in this new and interesting place, there was a shout of warning, a cry of terror from a woman near by, a dull rumble and crash, and a crowd began to gather in the street beside the cathedral. Before the boy could reach the place, a man in the garb of an Benedictine monk detached himself from the group and came toward him.

"My boy," he said kindly, "you are Quentin, from Peronne? Yes? Do not be frightened, but I must tell you that your father has been hurt. They are taking him to a house near by, and if you will come with me, I will take care of you."

The next few days were anxious ones for Quentin. His father did not die, but it was certain that he would do no more work as a mason for years, if ever. One of the older brothers came to take him home, and it was taken for granted that Quentin would go also. But the boy had a plan in his head.

There was none too much to eat at home, as it was, and it would be a long time before he was strong enough to handle stone like his father. Brother Basil, the monk who had seen his father caught under the falling wall, helped to rescue him, and taken care that he did not lose sight of his boy, had been very kind, but he did not belong in Amiens; he was on his way to Rome. Quentin met him outside the house on the day that Pierre came in from Peronne, and gave him a questioning look. He was wondering if Brother Basil would understand.

The smile that answered his look was encouraging.

"Well, my boy," said Brother Basil in his quaintly spoken French, "what is it?"

Quentin stood very straight, cap in hand. "I do not want to go home," he said slowly. "I want to stay here—and work."

"Alone?" asked the monk.

Quentin nodded. "Marc and Pierre work all day in the fields, and I am of no use there; they said so. Pierre said it again just now. I am not strong enough yet to be of use. There is work here that I can do."

He traced the outline of an ancient bit of carving on the woodwork of the overhanging doorway with one small finger. "I can do that," he said confidently.

Brother Basil's black eyebrows lifted a trifle and his mouth twitched; the boy was such a scrap of a boy. Yet he had seen enough of the oaken choir-stalls and the carved chests and the wainscoting of Amiens to know that a French wood-carver is often born with skill in his brain and his fingers, and can do things when a mere apprentice that others must be trained to do. "What have you done?" he said gravely.

"I carved a box for the mother, and when the cousin Adele saw it she would have one too. It was made with a wreath of roses on the lid, but I would not make roses for any one but the mother; Adele's box has lilies, and a picture of herself. That she liked better."

Brother Basil was thinking. "Quentin," he said, "I know a wood-carver here, Master Gerard, who is from Peronne, and knows your talk better than I. He was a boy like you when he began to learn the work of the huchier and the wood-carver, and he might give you a place in his shop. Will your father let you stay?"

"He will if I get the chance," said Quentin. "If I ask him now, Pierre will say things."

Like many younger brothers, Quentin knew more about the older members of his family than they knew about him.

Brother Basil's smile escaped control this time. He turned and strode across the market-place to the shop of Master Gerard, beckoning Quentin to follow.

"Master," he said to the old huchier, who was planing and chipping and shaping a piece of Spanish chestnut, "here is a boy who has fallen in love with your trade."

Master Gerard glanced up in some surprise. "He likes the trade, does he?" was the gruff comment he made. "Does the trade like him?"

"That is for you to say," said Brother Basil, and turning on his heel he went out, to walk up and down in the sunshine before the door and meditate on the loves of craftsmen for their crafts.

"What can you do?" asked the old man shortly, still working at his piece of chestnut.

Quentin took from his pouch a bit of wood on which he had carved, very carefully, the figure of a monk at a reading-desk with a huge volume before him. He had done it the day before after he had been with Brother Basil to bring some books from the Bishop's house, and although the figure was too small and his knife had been too clumsy to make much of a portrait of the face, he had caught exactly the intent pose of the head and the characteristic attitude of the monk's angular figure. Master Gerard frowned.

"What sort of carving is that!" he barked. "The wood is coarse and the tools were not right. You tell me you did it?"

Quentin stood his ground. "It is my work, Master," he said. "I had only this old knife, and I know the wood is not right, but it was all that I had."

"And you want to learn my trade—eh?" said the old man a little more kindly. "You have no father?"

Quentin explained. Master Gerard looked doubtful. He had met boys before who liked to whittle, and wished to work in his shop; he had apprentices whose fathers were good workmen and wished their sons to learn more than they could teach; but very seldom did he meet a boy who would work as he himself had worked when he was a lad, never satisfied with what he did, because the vision in his mind ran ahead of the power in his fingers. He was an old man now, but he was still seeing what might be done in wood-working if a man could only have a chance to come back, after he had spent one lifetime in learning, and use what he had learned, in the strength of a new, clear-sighted youth. He had sons of his own, but they were only good business men. They could sell the work, but they had no inspirations.

"I will let you try what you can do," he said at last, "that is, if your father is willing. Tell him to come and see me before he goes home. And look you—come back when you have told him this, and copy this work of yours in the proper fashion, with tools and wood which I will give you."

Quentin bowed, thanked the old wood-carver, walked, by a great effort, steadily out of the shop and answered a question of Brother Basil's, and then flashed like a squirrel in a hurry across the square and up the narrow winding stair in the side street where his father lodged, with the news. Pierre began two or three sentences, but never finished them. Jean of Peronne knew all about Master Gerard, and was only too glad to hear of such a chance for his motherless boy. And all the happy, sunlit afternoon Quentin sat in a corner, working away with keen-edged tools that were a joy to the hand, at a smooth-grained, close-fibered bit of wood that never splintered or split.

Master Gerard was what might be called a carpenter, or cabinet-maker. He did not make doors or window-frames, or woodwork for houses, because the great houses of that day were built almost entirely of stone. Neither did he make furniture such as chairs, tables, or bureaus, because it was not yet thought of. Kings' households and great families moved about from castle to castle, and carried with them by boat, or in heavy wagons over bad roads, whatever comforts they owned. Modern furniture would have been fit for kindling-wood in a year, but ancient French luggage was built for hard travel. Master Gerard made chests of solid, well-seasoned wood, chosen with care and put together without nails, by fitting notch into notch at the corners. These were called huches, and Master Gerard was a master huchier.

These huches were longer and lower than a large modern trunk, and could be set one on another, after they were carried up narrow twisting stairways on men's shoulders. The lid might be all in one piece, but more often it was in halves, with a bar between, so that when the chest was set on its side or end the lids would form doors. Ledges at top and bottom protected the corners and edges, and there might be feet that fitted into the bottom of the chest and made it easier to move about. The larger ones were long enough to use for a bed, and in these the tapestries that covered the walls, the embroidered bed-hangings, the cushions and mattresses to make hard seats and couches more comfortable, and the magnificent robes for state occasions, could be packed for any sort of journey. Huches were needed also for silver and gold state dishes, and the spices, preserved fruits and other luxuries needed for state feasts. It was desirable to make the chests beautiful as well as strong, for they were used as furniture; there might be a state bedstead, a huge wardrobe and one or two other furnishings in the apartments used by great folk, but the table was a movable one made of boards on trestles, and the carved huches, decorated with the heraldic emblems of the owner, served innumerable purposes. When one sees the specimens that are left, it does not seem surprising that when kings and queens went anywhere in the Middle Ages they went, if possible, by water. Luggage of that kind could be carried more easily by barge than by wagon.

After the first day, when he finished the small carved figure of Brother Basil for his master to see, Quentin did almost anything but carving. He ran errands, he sharpened tools, he helped a journeyman at his work, he worked on common carpentering which required no artistic skill. The work which Master Gerard undertook was not such as an apprentice could be trusted to do. Quentin, watching as closely as he could all that was done in the shop, saw that one sort of wood was chosen for one use, and another kind for a different job; he saw how a tool was handled to get a free, bold curve or a delicate fold of drapery, and he found out more about the trade in a year than most modern carpenters ever learn.

It was hot and uncomfortable in Amiens that summer. Life inside walls, among houses crowded and tall, was not like life in a country village, but it was not in Quentin to give up. When he felt like leaving the noisy, treeless town for the forest he would try to make a design of the flowers he remembered, or carve a knotted branch with the tools that he was allowed to use. He knew that when he should be entrusted with the carving of a chest, if that time ever came, he would have to be able to make his own design, if necessary, for that was a part of the work.

Chests were carved on the lids and ends, which showed when they were set up, and sometimes they were covered with carving. Master Gerard had a chest of his own, full of patterns which he brought out to show his patrons now and then, but which no one else ever touched. These patterns, however, were rarely followed exactly. Each great family had its own heraldic device, and the leopard, the dragon, the dolphin, the fleur-de-lis, the portcullis, or whatever it might be, must form an important part of the decoration. Some of the patterns, while their proportions were perfect, were too simple for the taste of the one who ordered the chest, and had to be varied. Some were too elaborate for a small piece of work, and had to be made simpler. The wood-carver had very little chance of success unless he was also an artist, as he usually was.

One day a great piece of carving was finished, and Master Gerard himself went to see that the workmen carried it safely; it was a chest in the form of a half-circle, for the tapestries and embroideries of the cathedral, in which the state mantle and robes of the Bishop could be laid flat with all their heavy gold-work. The youngest journeyman, Pol, who was left to mind the shop, slipped out a few minutes later, charging Quentin strictly to stay until he came back.

Quentin had no objection. He wanted to try a pattern of his own for a small huche that was finished all but the carving. He had in mind a pattern of Master Gerard's, a border simple yet beautiful. It was copied from the inner wall of a Greek temple, although he did not know that. It was a running vine with leaves and now and then a flower, not like any vine that he had ever seen. The inclosed oblong on the lid was divided into halves by a bar, in the form of a woman's figure. Quentin thought that that was rather too stately a decoration for a small chest, and he decided to use a simple rounded bar, with grooves, which he knew that he could do well.

He was not sure how the border went. Of course, he might wait until Master Gerard came back and ask to see the pattern, but he did not quite like to do that. It might seem presuming. He wondered how it would do to try apricot twigs laid stem to tip in a curving line, a ripe fruit in place of the flower of the pattern, and blossom-clusters here and there. He tried it cautiously, drawing the outline first on a corner, and it looked so well that he began to carve the twigs.

He was finishing the second when he heard a voice in the doorway.

"Does Master Gerard do his work with elves? Or have the fairies taken him and left a changeling?" The voice was musical with laughter, and the boy looked up to see a lovely and richly-robed lady standing within the door. A little behind her was a young man in the dress of a troubadour, and servingmen stood outside holding the bridles of the horses.

Quentin sprang to his feet and bowed respectfully. "Master Gerard is but absent for an hour or two," he said; "shall I run to the Cathedral and fetch him?"

"Nay," the lady answered, sinking into the high-backed chair in the corner, "it is cool here, and we will await him. Ranulph, come look at this coffret. I maintain that the fairies teach these people to work in wood as they do. Saw you ever the like?"

The troubadour bent over the just-begun carving. "This is no boy's play; this is good work," he said. "You have the right notion; the eye and the hand work together like two good comrades."

"My lord shall see this when he comes. I like the work." She touched the cheek of the apricot with a dainty finger. "Where did you get the pattern?"

Quentin looked down, rather shyly; he did not feel sure that he would be believed. "I had no pattern," he said. "I remembered one that Master Gerard made for a great house a month since—"

"And so do I!" laughed the lady. "Now I know where I saw that border. Therefore, not having the copy before you—"

"You invented this variation. Upon my word, the race of wood-carvers has not come to an end," laughed the young man. "I think that his Royal Highness will like this coffret well."


'Upon my word, the race of wood-carvers has not yet come to an end.'

All in a flash it came to Quentin who this was. Some time before he had heard that Princess Margaret, daughter of the French King, was in the city, with her husband, Prince Henry of England. It was for the Prince that Master Gerard had made that other chest. Things linked themselves together in this world, it seemed, like the apricots and blossoms of his design.

"Finish the chest," said the Princess after a pause. "I will have it for a traveling casket. Can you carve a head on the top—or two heads, facing one another, man and woman?"

"Like this?" asked Quentin, and he traced an outline on the bench. It was the lady's beautiful profile.

Master Gerard came in just then, and Pol came slinking in at the back door. The next day Quentin was promoted to Pol's place, and finished his chest in great content and happiness. It was the beginning in a long upward climb to success.