Authors: Robert Merle
These words were received with great emotion by our people—both men and women—and from their frightened silence, and the way they rolled their eyes and bit their lips, you could see that Duroy’s words had collided with a centuries-old tradition. There was not a household in all of Sarlat that had not dedicated some corner to a niche where a statue of the Virgin stood, requiring a genuflection
and a whispered “Hail Mary” of every passer-by. Every village of any importance had its saint, and the fountain of its saint, and proclaimed the miracles of that saint, to whom prayers were directed more fervent even than those directed to Jesus Christ, for He was a distant figure, like the king in the Louvre, or a lord in his chateau.
When my father, who knew these customs well, noticed the tumultuous silence provoked by Duroy’s words, he tried to drain this abscess by taking a lighthearted rather than an angry tone: “Speak up, my good friends. Speak your minds openly. We won’t punish you for it.” But our “good friends” kept quiet, terrified at the thought of contradicting the Reverend Duroy, whose pale face, deeply set features, long white beard and immobility seemed too much like the saints in the stained-glass windows at church. “Come, come,” said my father, becoming impatient, “don’t be ashamed! Speak out, good people! Tell us your feelings. I command you!”
Everyone looked at each other and finally their looks converged on Barberine as if to ask her to serve as their spokeswoman, given her secure position at Mespech as wet nurse to the Siorac children—both those present and those yet to be born. After some hesitation Barberine expressed her strong feelings on the matter: “My Lord,” she began, going pink from the roots of her hair right to her emerging and abundant breasts, “may I have your leave to speak before the men do?”
“You may, my dear Barberine,” replied my father, who grew tender just looking at all that pink colour—all the more so since she hardly seemed to pose much of a threat. And he added, “You know how much we all love you.”
“And well I thank you, My Lord,” shuddered Barberine, her breast swelling out of adoration for my father. “Surely I am but a woman, and a most ignorant woman at that, seeing our two masters and the Reverend Duroy and the Siorac twins and our soldiers who
have travelled the world over and Jonas and Faujanet who are such experts in their trades, and ’tis only by great courage on my part even to open my mouth in the presence of these gentlemen. I don’t know nothing but how to give my milk like a poor cow in the stable. But touching on the Virgin Mary, whom, if it please my masters, I love and worship, I get to thinking this way: we pray to Jesus to intercede with God, am I not right, My Lord?”
“This is true, Barberine.”
“Then,” she continued, “if we ask the Son to placate the Father, why not ask the Mother to placate the Son?”
There was a silence, and I suspect my father realized he had underestimated Barberine, for he looked ill at ease and tried to hide his embarrassment with a little laugh. But the ever vigilant Duroy leapt to his defence:
“No doubt,” he said in his gravest voice, “it is so in human affairs. But here we are dealing with God. And not just any son, but Jesus Christ—who is our Saviour. And since our Saviour is Christ and not his mother Mary, it is to Him we must pray for intercession with the Father, and not to her. Mary bore Christ, just like Barberine gives her milk: it is an act of nature and not an act of creation. The Creator is the Father. And the Saviour is the Son. Pray to the Father and pray to the Son, but do not pray to any other than these and the Holy Spirit, for you would be guilty of idolatry and pagan superstition.”
This was so clearly and forcefully stated, and in a tone of such utter tranquillity and such absolute certainty, that one would have thought the venerable Duroy had consented to put off his own celestial rewards for a few months in order to correct a few misunderstood truths for those of us here below. And yet, as impressed as our people were, they all resisted, and, strange to say, their resistance abandoned the Virgin Mary (who was, after all, only a woman) to take up positions behind the saints—who were so numerous and so obviously
beneficial (or, in some cases, harmful) that it seemed difficult if not impossible to deny their constant intervention in peoples’ lives.
Here again, the men refused to speak, and looked to Barberine as if they wanted to hide behind that ample green skirt lined with red stripes. The wet nurse, however, shook her head defiantly, refusing to open her mouth twice in defiance of her masters. So the men perforce fell back on la Maligou, although she was hardly the most effective ambassadress they could have found, given her penchant for excessive superstition—even for their taste. But he who has no horse for ploughing must content himself with an ass, and this ass needed no carrot to coax it. More dishevelled than any gorgon or maenad, at the first sign of invitation, she threw herself into the breach and mounted the assault.
“May I speak, My Lord?”
“Certainly, my dear Maligou,” said my father, trying to repress a smile.
“Ah, My Lord!” exclaimed la Maligou with a great sigh and rolling her dark eyes. “I would be terrified and horrified if we stopped praying to the saints at Mespech, for there are some pretty malicious ones in Périgord, especially here in the north. And what maladies we will see rain down on our chateau, on our people, on our livestock, on our harvests!”
“What?” retorted my father, raising his eyebrows and feigning surprise. “Have I lost my senses? Do the saints of Périgord bring evil?”
“And bitter evil it is, My Lord!” answered la Maligou with a terrible grimace. “St Siméon of Ligueux brings the worst of all. St Eutropius makes men infirm. St Paul of Agonac visits sickness and fear on children. St Avit afflicts your limbs with rheumatism. And the saint of Sarazac twists the legs of babes in their cradles.”
“But these are real demons, your saints, my poor Maligou,” laughed my father.
“No, My Lord, not at all,” rejoined la Maligou. “And if you want the blessed water of a saint to heal you, you must throw sols in his fountain.”
“Such miserly saints!” said my father with a smile. “And what are they doing up there in Paradise with all this money?”
“I know not. But the sols don’t stay in the fountains very long.”
“I thought not,” mused my father.
“To give you an example,” continued la Maligou, “poor Petremol, who died two years ago—”
“On 1st January,” broke in Barberine.
“Right, on 1st January. Well, as you know, St Avit had twisted him and knotted him up with terrible rheumatisms for two years. And a month before he died, he went to St Avit, had a Mass said to the saint, and right there in the middle of winter, stripped naked as a baby, rubbed his whole body with the icy water of the saint and was cured.”
“So he was cured!” replied my father. “Cured so well that a month later he died of pneumonia.”
“Ah, but he was cured of the rheumatisms, My Lord.”
“To be sure, where he has gone, I grant you, he no longer suffers from rheumatism. So St Avit gives rheumatisms and takes them away. This is wonderful!”
“Is it not right that he should undo what he has done, My Lord?” asked la Maligou. “Likewise the saint of Sarazac twists up the legs of infants, but can also straighten them again.”
“For a Mass and a few sols.”
“Well, but also you have to rub them with the water of his fountain.”
“Which is the same water as our well,” said my father. “My friends,” he continued, rising, and taking a more serious tack, “you have now heard la Maligou. And what man, on hearing this poor
hen, would not admire the ingeniousness of the priests in exploiting the credulity of the poor people? And so, instead of honouring the saints for the Christian virtues exemplified in their lives, they make them into little gods and demons just like the pagan ones. For the Romans also had their saints. In their lakes there were naiads who aided their fishing, and instead of loose change, they threw them vases, bracelets and flowers.” My father paused and glared severely at la Maligou. “Oh, Maligou,” he said, “we could write a fat book full of all your beliefs which have no other existence than in the folds of your small mind… Including your claim that Little Sissy is the daughter of a Gypsy, which is untrue.”
La Maligou’s mouth fell open at this unexpected piece of news, and Little Sissy opened wide her beautiful almond-shaped black liquid eyes and gazed at my father, but said nothing.
“It is wicked heresy,” continued my father heatedly, “to attribute to our saints the power of healing. It is stinking idolatry to make idols of them and to worship them. There is only one God and He alone can heal soul and body. And it is to Him and to Him alone that you must pray.”
La Maligou, still stung by my father’s statement about Little Sissy’s birth (for her rape by the Gypsy captain in the barn was the glory and crowning jewel of her life), sat tight-lipped, her eyes cast down and her thick greasy body hunched over.
Now that she had fallen silent, no one dared utter a peep. In truth, I do not believe that my father succeeded, in these few short minutes, in rooting out heresy and superstitious beliefs. But our people were too accustomed to obeying religious authority not to give way to that of my father, Sauveterre and Duroy, all learned and serious men who read books and knew things—especially my father, who was a great doctor and who cared for the common people without charging them a sol.
“Well then,” said my father. “You have heard enough to know which abuses and errors we intend to correct. Will you follow your masters in the reformed religion?”
As no one wanted to be first to reply, a prolonged silence followed, and the longer it continued the more thoroughly embarrassed the Brethren became. Luckily, Annet, whom little Hélix was cradling in her arms and who had been quiet until that moment, suddenly burst out crying to wake the dead. Little Hélix passed him to Barberine who, unlacing her red bodice, brought out a large, firm and sumptuous breast, which the little bawler quickly latched onto. His little hands clutching her white flesh, he closed his eyes and quieted down into his happy lot. This was a spectacle which normally I could not get enough of, and I noticed that I was not alone in this pleasure: Barberine’s swollen, snow-white breast attracted everyone’s attention, even my father’s, who smiled as he gazed at it. Only Sauveterre and the Reverend Duroy averted their eyes and conversed quietly with each other. Now that I was a strapping lad I would have blushed to catch myself dreaming of taking the suckling babe’s place at Barberine’s breast, and yet I could almost taste the sweet warm milk flow into my throat, and I envied little Annet his freedom to caress that beautiful round, full breast; for I had discovered this pleasure during my intimate nights with little Hélix, whose advantages unfortunately could not be compared to her mother’s.
Reflecting back on this moment, I felt quite confused to have evoked such sins in my own mind before such an assembly, a thing I had never yet managed to do in confession to Father Pincers, fearing that he would tell my mother, who would put an end to the sleeping arrangements that made them possible. Thank God, now that I was a Huguenot I would not have to go to confession any more, which lifted an immense weight from my chest, so abject was my fear of my sessions with the insatiably curious Pincers.
I am certain that none among those assembled dared think that the scene of Barberine nursing her baby could have served as a model for a statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, but that’s exactly what was going through my head, however Huguenot I had become. But I didn’t breathe a word of it, for I wouldn’t have wanted to vex my father, who, waiting patiently for the nursing to end to rephrase his solemn question, said to Barberine, half joking, half serious: “My dear Barberine, I am sorely tempted to take away your agate necklace just to prove to you that it has no effect on your milk.”
“Ah, My Lord,” wailed Barberine, who in the face of this threat felt her milk practically recede towards its source, “you wouldn’t do that to me! You’d dry me right up! And my little Annet would waste away!”
“No, no,” laughed my father, “I won’t do it, my poor woman. Keep your agates, they’re so pretty on your white skin!” (Here Sauveterre frowned, of course.) “And who knows whether your imagination wouldn’t be enough, with the agates gone, to dry up your milk! A good nurse shouldn’t be vexed, anyone can tell you that.”
As he spoke, little Annet suddenly let go his prey, and, satiated, fell asleep. Barberine placed him back in little Hélix’s arms and her breast back in her blouse, which seemed to have the effect of casting a pall over the assembly.
“Well, my good people,” said my father, restoring the gravity of the situation, “back to business. Who among you will stand for the reform? Speak, Michel Siorac!”
“I will,” said Michel and Benoît Siorac in one voice.
My father then turned to the women, whose “I wills” were spoken with much less assurance—at least those of Barberine, Cathau and la Maligou, for in the eyes of little Hélix (thirteen and a half) and Little Sissy (six) it was only a good joke on Pincers.
Little Sissy having declared her faith, my father realized that he had not asked Catherine, who, as his daughter, should have come first, even before the Siorac twins. Catherine had noticed this omission and, believing herself banished from her father’s love, pale and her blue eyes brimming with tears, she hung her head, her golden locks hanging mournfully about her cheeks. “Well Catherine, my girl,” said my father with a big smile, “I seem to have forgotten you. But you heard my question: will you embrace the reformed religion of your father?”
“I will,” sobbed Catherine in a trembling voice, and burst into tears.
My father, who was not unaware that these tears had something to do with my mother, grew sombre, and, getting up, said abruptly: “Barberine, it’s bedtime for these children. They’ve been kept up too late.”