On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realizing it was the day he must die. His heart cannoned like a billiard ball off some soft green wall of his innards. This had to be the day everyone had been waiting for - and he was terrified he would disappoint them, make a poor showing, let people down.
His mother's face, when he entered the breakfast room, was ashen. He could not bring himself to meet her big-eyed, tearbrimming gaze, though he felt it follow him to the scrambled eggs and the cold ham. She never kissed him in the mornings. In fact she never kissed him at all. Aunt Mireille had said his parents should not become too fond of'le pauvre', if they were to cope with the grief of losing him.
His name was Paul, but when he was small and people asked him, he told them it was'Pauvre'. After all, it was the name his mother had always used.'Get dressed, mon pauvre. 'Eat up, mon pauvre. 'Say goodbye, pauvre petit.' His little comrades at school were confused and called him'poivre', and their mothers asked,'Pepper? Why is the child called "Pepper"?'
It was all Aunt Mireille's fault. Unmarried Aunt Mireille lodged with her married sister. So when Madame Roux gave birth to a lovely little boy, Aunt Mireille was first to be introduced. Leaning over the cot, she sucked on her big yellow teeth and said, with a tremor in her voice,'To think he'll be dead by fourteen, le pauvre.'
'No!' exclaimed the poor mother. 'Why would you say such a thing?'
'It is the Lord's will, I'm afraid, dear,' whispered the devout Aunt Mireille.'Saint Constance told me so in a dream last night.' She dropped this bad news into the crib like a teething ring. And there it lodged - a little christening gift: Pepper would be dead before he was full-grown.
With the man of the house away at sea, the women leaned against each other and complained at the unfairness of life. In fact the two of them leaned in against Pepper's childhood like a pair of book-ends - big, ponderous women and so full of tragedy that they could barely make their corsets hook up. For his first birthday, Aunt Mireille bought'le pauvre' a charming little plot in the churchyard just the right size for a small grave.
Pepper did not question his doom, any more than he would have questioned having asthma or knock-knees. Saint Constance knew, and he accepted it. He was a sturdy, healthy boy, but his mother treated him like an invalid, feeding him calf's-foot jelly from a spoon and tea brewed from weeds in the garden. Instead of finger rhymes, his auntie taught him the Last Rites, tugging each of his tiny fingers where the responses should come. Instead of lullabies, she taught him psalms about the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The only taste he got of manliness was when his father came home fleetingly between voyages. Captain Roux served the boy glasses of neat rum (then drank them himself ), and took Pepper to see unsuitable melodramas. He brought home the seeds of exotic foreign fruits, and together father and son planted them outside the north-facing windows. The seeds (like Pepper) were not really expected to grow to any size before they died.
An expensive education seemed pointless. Besides, his mother wanted to make the most of him, so after primary school had taught him to read and write, she kept him at home, where the estate hands thought the young master must be feeble-minded and were very sorry (but not for Pepper).
He stood on tiptoe to reach down as much education as he could from his father's bookshelves, which were particularly rich in pirates, knots, and things nautical. So he brightened the dullness of his days with imaginary trips to the Roaring Forties, the Caribbees, and the Barbary Coast. His pretend ship was the family winepress. It rarely held anything but leftover wine fumes, and he climbed out, head reeling, feeling quite as sick as if he had really been to sea. But since the only people he ever met were pious, proper visitors to the house, he supposed even pirates must be pious and proper too. The ones in his imagination took tea in the afternoon.
Excerpted from The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean. Copyright © 2010 by Geraldine McCaughrean. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Children's Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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