Authors: Robert Merle
Faujanet also knew that starting early was like eating one’s dessert first, since at dawn the dew-covered grass was tender and accommodating, but when the sun reached its height and burned off the dew, the grass would require more strength at the very moment the cutters would have less of it, drops of sweat running from their brows
into their eyes, and down their backs between their shoulder blades. He well knew he would have to make more and longer pauses for sharpening, not because the blade required it (though the blade can never be too sharp) but because the cutters did.
To some degree his duties kept Faujanet from feeling his fatigue, but when it became too insistent, he would distract himself by listening to the “swish… swish” of the nine blades penetrating into the grass to cut it at ground level. Since they never swung exactly at the same moment, there was never an interval, but rather a series of “swish… swish… swish…” which overlapped. This was music to his ears, because it sang of an abundance of hay in the loft, of well-fed cows, but also because it sang of the world of men: you never saw a wench out ’neath the hot sun cutting for hours at a time. She might rake or pitch hay, but she’d never scythe. Or at most, she might be given an old chipped blade to cut nettles by the side of the road like the master’s little rascals.
One can be small, bow-legged, dark-eyed and dark-skinned like Faujanet, but still have brains, and Faujanet knew how to judge the quality of his hay. Moreover, as a cooper he had a higher view of things than a peasant who is caught up in his gleanings. A peasant worries about everything, even abundance, and his favourite saying is: “Year of good hay, year without pay.” Which meant that an abundance of grass portended a year of mediocre grain harvests. But thanks to his superior judgement, Faujanet knew that one couldn’t entirely trust these proverbs, and he quietly preferred the version: “Year without hay, year without pay,” as had been proved in 1557 when a terrible drought had ravaged Périgord for eight months, burning the grass, drying up wells and springs and reducing livestock and peasants to famine.
On the request of the consuls of Sarlat, the bishop had ordered prayers in all the churches of the diocese that year, and a great
procession to the chapel of the Virgin between Daglan and Saint-Pompon, under a blistering sun, behind a cross, with chants from the Litany of the Saints. They had taken great care to omit no one from this prayer, afraid of vexing the forgotten saint and causing him to continue the drought. The priests had gone hoarse reciting secret Latin prayers known to be particularly effective against drought. The faithful had gone to confession en masse and had given alms with unusual liberality, especially given how poor they were then, yet, despite all these remedies, no rains had fallen, and with winter real misery had set in, and farmers had sold or butchered their starving livestock, small sharecroppers were ruined as owners mortgaged their land away, hundreds of day labourers were dismissed and, without work, turned to wandering the roads of France, begging or eating acorns and tree bark.
So Faujanet was happy that the grass under his scythe was high, thick and succulent, for this hay, if bad weather didn’t rot it before it reached the lofts, meant fatted veal, beef and mutton, lots of milk, vigorous horses to pull the ploughs through the fallow land—in short wealth and happiness for the little people. The lords, like his masters at Mespech, always had vast reserves to keep them alive, and even profited from bad years, but the small farmers never had enough. If the Lord’s heart hardened again towards the people of Sarlat as it had in 1557—though no one could ever understand why He had it in for the Périgordians, who were not visibly more sinful than others—and if He stopped the clouds from sending rain on the province, then the poor would quickly suffer the pain and hardship of hunger.
That winter there was no end to the talk in the countryside around Taniès, Sireil and Marcuays about the wolf that Jonas had tamed. I myself couldn’t wait to see it, and Samson and I got permission from
the Brethren to accompany Jonas to his cave one Sunday evening and to spend the whole night there.
Certainly it’s not every day that you get to sleep in a cave, whose entrance is closed by a large rock, like the one the Cyclops Polyphemus slept in, and which has a hole in the domed roof over your head to let the smoke from the fire escape. And it’s not an ordinary thing, when you’re going on ten years old, to sleep beside a wild-eyed wolf with feral coat, along with a goat and kids that the wolf doesn’t touch, not to mention the Herculean Jonas wrapped in his sheepskin, and in his own fur which is as thick as the wolf’s.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we got to stay up late, sitting around the fire Jonas had built on a hearth of raised stones, whose flames did battle with the cold wind that came rushing through the circular hole in the vaulted roof until they vanquished this cold breeze from above, which retreated before the smoke and the current of warm air from below. La Maligou had provisioned us with a roast chicken, wrapped in a napkin and placed in a basket, and Samson and I each ate a leg, Jonas the two breasts, and the wolf—or rather she-wolf—the carcass. It was wonderful to hear her cracking the bones in her powerful jaw, stretched out in her wild coat between Jonas and me, her head slightly askew, her eyes half-closed in the voluptuousness of the moment. For dessert there were excellent walnuts, which Jonas broke like peas between his thumb and index finger and then shelled in a trice. Throwing the shells into the fire, he planted their meat in a fresh cheese offered by his goat, who also provided us with milk for our dinner, which we drank from a pitcher Jonas passed around, the wolf even getting her share in her own bowl. You should have seen her lapping up this foaming milk as if she were a cat, then licking her chops to catch every last drop.
“Jonas,” said Samson, “isn’t your wolf going to gobble up your goat someday?”
“Why would she do that?” asked Jonas. “My goat gives her milk same as to me.”
“But does she know it’s the goat who gives it?”
“Surely she does. Don’t go thinking that animals are so dumb. I never milk my goat without having my wolf at my side, her tongue out and mouth wide open hoping for a warm stray drop from her teat. Of course she knows.”
“But wolves like meat,” I pointed out.
“So I give her enough from my hunting.” Without getting up, Jonas reached out his long muscular arm, grabbed a bulging sack and pulled out three handfuls of chestnuts, which, given the size of his hands, made a handsome pile in front of him. A little to one side of the brightly burning fire, he made a small oven of hot coals into which he slipped the chestnuts. A wonderful odour filled the cave and brought back memories of our evenings at Mespech when the first bitter frosts had come on.
“Jonas,” said Samson, “they say that your goat is going to turn into a wench someday and that you’ll marry her.”
“Who says so?”
“If God could only grant such things!” mused Jonas without so much as a smile. “For I could well use the company. But all things being equal, I’d just as soon it were the wolf that would change into a woman and not the goat.”
“Because my goat gives me milk and cheese, which a woman couldn’t. And besides,” he added, staring into the fire and speaking in a tone so serious that one would have thought the transformation was not only possible but quite imminent, “my she-wolf is a beauty. Lots of wenches would be proud to have her bright eyes and her thick hair.”
So saying, he plunged his hands into her fur and caressed the animal, and the wolf, turning her head towards him, gave out a sigh and looked at him so lovingly that I really believed that a miracle was about to be performed right there beneath my eyes as I stuffed myself with roasted chestnuts.
“Jonas,” said Samson, “how did you tame your wolf?”
“With patience and love. I found her in a foxhole that she’d enlarged, her eyes all feverish and so skinny that her ribs showed. She’d broken a paw, and to get away from her pack, who, as you know, always kill and eat their wounded, she had hidden away there. I brought her milk, then a bit of meat, and when she was strong enough to pull herself out of the den I put a hemp rope about her muzzle and splinted up her paw.”
“So you can also set bones, Jonas?” I queried, looking at him with new respect.
“Yes I can. I learnt it from my great-uncle, who was considered by his village to be a bit of a sorcerer, but for good, not evil, so much so that even the village priest respected him. Oh, if only he were still alive!” he sighed, his words trailing off as he looked dreamily at his wolf.
And conversing thus, Samson and I gradually fell asleep on the mattress of chestnut leaves prepared by Jonas, three large sheepskins piled on top of us. It was so warm that, when I awoke at dawn with the fire gone out, my face was frozen but my body toasty. I was amazed, on opening my eyes, not to find myself in the tower room at Mespech, and I was about to close them again when they encountered two yellow eyes of a wild animal staring straight at them. My hair stood on end. It was the wolf.
“Jonas!” I cried.
“What is it?” asked Jonas, standing over me at what seemed a prodigious height.
“Your wolf is staring at me.”
“Like a dog looks at a bishop,” answered Jonas. “Go to sleep, Master Pierre. It’s not time for the morning milking and the fire isn’t lit yet.”
I went back to sleep and dreamt that an old man with a dark, terrifying look was entering the cave. He was enormous, bigger even than Jonas, and, leaning towards him, pronounced some unintelligible words and made some strange signs over his head. Then Jonas’s face turned into a muzzle and his great body was transformed into a wolf’s. He got up, yawned, showing huge pointed white teeth and then, moving over to sit next to his she-wolf, licked his chops. He looked at me intensely but I couldn’t tell whether it was with hatred or friendship.
Scarcely were we back at Mespech than Barberine, who had been waiting for us, came running out to meet us, her baby in her arms and little Hélix at her heels, making faces at us from behind her back. “Sweet Jesus, there you are! The baron and Monsieur de Sauveterre are in the library waiting for you with some very important news. But you can’t go in there like that! You stink. Go and wash your face and comb your hair.”
Which we did, changing our linen as well since Barberine complained that even after a bath we smelt “like goat, or wolf, or worse yet”. While we were each slipping on a starched shirt that smelt of lavender, la Maligou came in to sniff us. “Oh, my poor dears!” she moaned. “I smell sulphur on you.” (And she made the sign of the cross over our heads.) “It’s just as I thought, that wolf is a sorceress who has taken the form of an animal to bewitch our stonecutter and lead him straight to hell.”
“Be still, Maligou,” corrected Barberine. “The captains don’t hold with this kind of talk, especially around our young masters.” (But it was easy to see that la Maligou’s words had made a huge impression on her.)
“So tell me, Master Pierre,” said la Maligou, turning towards me with a knowing air, “does Jonas love his wolf?”
“Oh, yes!” I said. “So much so that he wishes God would turn his wolf into a woman so he could marry her.”
“Alas!” said la Maligou, her whole jelly-like body trembling with compassion. “It’s just as I thought. Our poor stonecutter is all bewitched and fooled and caught in the snares of the seventy-seven demons of hell. It’s not the Lord God who changes wolves into women, Master Pierre,” she continued authoritatively, “it’s the Devil. And when it happens, there won’t be any church wedding, but shameful carryings-on hidden in a cave with a goat to witness it. Alas, poor Jonas! There was never a prettier man in Sarlat. So tall, so strong and so hairy! But as they say: lust and lechery are the road to hell.”
“You ought to know well enough,” rejoined Barberine, much displeased by this talk, “you who sinned fourteen times in your barn with the Gypsy captain!”
“Fifteen,” sighed la Maligou, making the sign of the cross. “But I never sinned. You know very well I was forced. At least the first time. As for the rest I gave myself up to the will of God.”
The Brethren were waiting for us in the library in the company of an old man clothed entirely in black, and whose white hair, pale visage, broad shoulders and majestic bearing seemed to us the Moses of our Bible. I later learnt that his name was Raymond Duroy and that he was a minister of the reformed religion at Sarlat, though of course celebrating his services clandestinely. Sauveterre, also dressed in black, was seated with Raymond Duroy, both looking very grave and austere. But my father, dressed in green (which was my mother’s colour), paced up and down, stopped in front of the window, pivoted on his heels, walked behind Sauveterre’s armchair, seizing the back with both hands, then moved away again, returning to the window,
his expression not so much grave as tense. Obviously unable to remain in place for one minute, and, in his usual way, with his brisk step, his perfect bearing, his rapid movements, and his elegant gestures, at times placing his hands on his hips in his favourite position, he swelled out his powerful chest, lifted his chin, and turned his head from one side to the other with an impatient air.
“Well, my little rascals!” he exclaimed as we entered, his face suddenly brightening but resisting the temptation to pick us up in his arms and give us his usual kiss. “Have you seen the wolf? Is it beautiful? Are you satisfied?”
“Yes, we are,” I replied, a bit reticently after what I had just heard from la Maligou.
“Well then,” said my father, who was quite intent ever since my famous quarrel with François that peace should reign among his sons, “greet your brother and be seated.”
I stepped forward and now saw François, the back of whose chair had hidden him from view until now, and who was sitting opposite the Brethren and Raymond Duroy, cross-legged, looking very serious, the very image of virtue. I greeted him, and leaning towards us, he did me the honour of kissing me on each cheek, and did the same for Samson.