Authors: Robert Merle
He died on 19th August 1563, not yet thirty-three years old. My father called him “a very unusual kind of Catholic”. Like Michel de L’Hospital, La Boétie had always found the torture and imprisonment of the Protestants a senseless and harmful business. He had always hoped that the Roman Church could, through serious reforms of its “infinite abuses”, “rehabilitate itself” enough to attract the return of the Protestants. On the other hand, he did not believe it possible to maintain two religions side by side in the kingdom, having observed the crimes each side had authorized against the other. “The passions aroused in each camp,” he said, “are fed by the pernicious belief that the cause of each is so just… that every means of its advancement is justified.”
Alas, he spoke the truth, but the Council of Trent, which was convoked as he was dying, hardly fulfilled his expectations for conciliation. The Pope flatly refused every reform proposed by the French bishops. My father noted on this subject in the
Book of Reason
that when La Boétie had warned Geoffroy de Caumont against too much partisanship, he had painted a sombre picture—still true today—of the “extreme desolation” into which the kingdom would most certainly be plunged by the struggle of the two religions. To which Sauveterre penned the following: “Let us remain vigilant. The embers of civil war are still burning and will soon flame up again.”
Ever since Cabusse had gone to live at the le Breuil farm and Coulondre Iron-arm at the Gorenne mill, our Siorac cousins, having more licence to speak their minds than our servants, complained of overwork. His marvellous ears perked, Escorgol stood watch in the gatehouse. Faujanet quietly worked away in his shop, fashioning his barrels at his leisure. “Now when it comes to dressing the horses and cleaning out their stables, milking the cows, feeding the hogs, baking bread, carrying water, hoeing the vegetable garden, carting grain to the mill, gathering honey and capturing new swarms, clearing out draining ditches, harvesting walnuts and chestnuts, apples and other fruits, there are only three of us,” grumbled Michel, “Cockeyed Marsal, Benoît and me, when five would barely suffice. Now, I’m not talking about the ploughing, haying, wheat and grape harvesting, where everybody lends a hand, but of the endless daily chores here. Three men just aren’t enough, and if an armed band attacked Mespech like the Gypsies did that time there wouldn’t be enough of us to station on the walls.”
To these complaints, Sauveterre, who husbanded our reserves, turned a deaf ear. My father agreed with them, but could do nothing
to gratify them since the plague had so ravaged the countryside that it was impossible to find anyone to hire. Yet fortune intervened in an unforgettable way.
I was in the habit, as I have said, of getting up very early, disdaining my bed once I was awake, and of going down to the common room at daybreak, before la Maligou had lit the fire and boiled the milk. In truth, I liked to be the one to rekindle the fire, blowing with all my lungs on the coals, turning them bright red before throwing on the kindling. Such was my employment on 29th August, enjoying the silence of the sleeping chateau and the early-morning birdsong, when I heard a faint noise in the larder, the cool room scarcely lit by an arrow slit on its north side, in which our many slabs of salted meat hung from the rafters. Thinking it must be our old tom stalking an errant mouse, I crept up on tiptoe to the door to watch his sport. What was my surprise when, instead of cat, rat or mouse, I spied a lad of about fifteen, clothed in rags and dripping wet, sitting on our stool, a ham hock on his knees, chewing one large slice whose ends protruded greedily from both sides of his mouth, and already sawing away with his trenchant knife on the next. I stood open-mouthed and mute on the sill, scarcely believing my eyes and wondering how this fellow had managed to scale our walls, when he suddenly raised his head and saw me. He leapt to his feet like a tennis ball from a racquet and, dropping the ham, rushed at me, knife in hand.
Cabusse had taught me how to parry such a treacherous attack. I gave him a kick in the stomach and, as he bent double from the blow, I applied a second to his face. The knife fell from his hands, but not the ham from his teeth, and he fell like a sack. Looking around me for something to tie him up with, I spied a rope and grappling hook next to the stool where he’d been perched. I bound his hands behind him and, dragging him unconscious into the common room,
I leant him against one of the legs of the heavy oak table and tied him fast.
This done, I sat down to catch my breath, dumb with astonishment. For, even with a rope and grappling hook, how could this lad have evaded Escorgol’s acute ears, scaled the surrounding wall, crossed the trap-filled meadow without harm, flown over the three drawbridges, and despite the triple locks on the lodging doors found himself in our larder calmly chewing on a slab of salt pork? In came la Maligou, who, at the sight of the thief, stopped in her tracks. “What’s this? What’s this?” she stuttered.
“I don’t know. I found him in the larder.” La Maligou, her entire fat frame shaking, threw her arms heavenward and, clucking like a terrified hen chased by the fox, cried, “Lord God! Sweet Jesus! Holy Mary and St Joseph, protect me! The Devil’s got loose in our lodgings. Or at least one of the seventy-seven demons of hell!” And, crossing herself, she ran to fetch our wooden salt cellar and began throwing pinches of salt around the thief.
“Silly goose!” I said, grabbing the box from her hands. “Throwing salt around like that! And invoking the Virgin! Shall I tell my father on you?”
“But it’s the Devil himself!” she howled, crossing herself again and so agitated and all atremble that her bonnet fell down around her neck. At this instant, the thief opened his blurry eyes, and even before completely regaining his senses began chewing the piece of ham which had stuck, unconscious that he was, in his mouth. “It’s the Devil!” howled la Maligou, retreating as though hell itself were opening up before her, and falling on her knees, her eyes turning in their sockets, her hands joined fervently, she shrieked: “Oh Holy Mother! As one woman to another, protect me from this demon!”
“That’s enough, you ninny!” I commanded sternly. “That’s not the Devil. Can’t you see he’s eating?”
“But the Devil eats, too, Master Pierre!” cried la Maligou, nearly forgetting her terror in her astonishment at my ignorance about Satan’s ways. She pulled herself to her feet, saying, “The Evil One has the same needs as man only multiplied by seven. He boozes like a curate in his parish house, stuffs himself like a smithy, pisses like a cow, burps like a king and fornicates like a rat in straw.”
“He fornicates?” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh yes!” replied la Maligou. “He’s got a shaft seven times the size of a man’s, and on Sabbath nights from midnight to daybreak he mounts seven times seven witches without stopping.”
“That would suit you, silly gossip!” I laughed. “You’ve got your quiver open to every arrow.”
“Holy Mother of God, keep me from such evil thoughts!” answered la Maligou, lowering her eyes modestly. “And if such evil thoughts get the better of me, at least don’t let it be my fault, but by force.”
“Get on with you, you corpulent bawd!” I said. “Go tell my father about our unexpected visitor. No wait,” I added, “on second thoughts, I’ll go myself.”
“Jesus!” howled la Maligou, all a-tremble like jelly. “I can’t stay here alone with this frightful demon who can fly over our ramparts and pass through our walls!”
“Go then, and inform the écuyer. And I’ll go tell my father. This devil won’t go anywhere tied as he is.” And yet, as I ran, I couldn’t be sure, and, arriving breathless at my father’s room, I knocked impatiently. No answer came. Astonished at this silence, I tried the doorknob, and partway opening the door, glanced around the room. I saw the bed unmade and the sheets all disarranged, but no Father! “The Devil,” thought I. “One appears, the other disappears! That’s strange!” Suspecting, however, that this devilishness was all too human, I quietly closed the door and then, knocking as loud as I could, I shouted, “Help! Father, come quickly!” I then rushed as
fast as my legs would carry me back to the kitchen where my thief was still sitting, tied fast to the table leg, happily chewing his bit of ham, saliva dripping from both sides of his mouth. He certainly had a good appetite for one who was to hang from the end of our baronial gibbet within the hour. Sitting down opposite him, I watched him in silence and was filled with pity. For he was a handsome lad of about my age, neither brutal nor wild-eyed at all.
He seemed to experience some difficulty swallowing our ham, since it was very hard, dry and salty, and when he’d finally managed it with several great glottal efforts I went to fill him a bowl of milk, and putting it to his lips, gave him to drink, which he did quite avidly, looking at me all the while with his different-coloured eyes, one blue the other brown, which gave him a strange look to be sure, yet his aspect was also as sweet and affectionate as a dog’s. I noticed that his head was covered with thick, short-cropped tawny hair.
The milk swallowed, he gave me a big, naive and friendly smile with his wide mouth full of white, pointed teeth, as though he’d already forgotten that he’d attacked me with a knife, and that I’d kicked him unconscious. As I stared at him, the common room was filling with our servants, all them quiet as mice and moving along the walls at a good distance from our visitor, their eyes wide and their breath short from excitement and curiosity. Faujanet, the Siorac twins and Marsal put up a good front, but the group of women and children were all huddled in the far corner shaking, Jacquou in Barberine’s arms, Annet pulling at her skirt, and—shame on her for all her seventeen years—little Hélix cowering, not to mention Catherine, face white as snow between her braids, and Little Sissy moaning. La Maligou muttered strange prayers with many signs of the cross, grimaces, affectations and gestures over her bodice as if she were trying to defend it from all the infernal armies. Not a sign of Franchou. I noticed it immediately.
In came my elder brother François, in truth no paler or more distant than usual (that is, since Diane’s departure), his long face pinched and proper and affecting not to see me—proof that he already knew I was the hero of the hour. Announced by the heavy tramp of her woodsman’s gait, Alazaïs appeared shortly thereafter and, scorning the women’s corner, went to join ranks with the Siorac brothers whom she towered over by a good six inches. From there, her arms crossed over her breasts, she watched the scene without batting an eye, fearing no mortal man in this transitory life, her eyes set on the Eternal.
Samson, of course, looked for me the minute he entered the room to make sure I was all right, his shining hair creating a halo around his head, then came over to me, took my hand and stared at the intruder. Having finished this inspection, incapable of fear or hatred, he smiled at our prisoner.
With Sauveterre limping at his heels, my father finally made his appearance, buttoning his doublet, holding himself very erect, and managing somehow to look both tired and dashing, though with a countenance nowhere near as angelic as Samson’s. “Where did this fellow come from?” he asked, indicating our intruder in a lighthearted way that seemed hardly to question his presence within our walls.
Rising, I quickly gave a reasonably honest though not entirely complete account of things, omitting his attack on my person since I didn’t want him charged outright. This omission was greatly appreciated by my poor captive, as I could see from his different-coloured eyes, so gratefully attached to mine.
While I spoke, my father gradually descended from the happy cloud on which he’d floated in, and by the time I’d finished he’d managed to get both feet on the ground, and found an appropriately concerned and sombre aspect. For if this young rascal could get over our walls, across our moats and through our defences into the
heart of our lodgings, others could as well, which would be much more serious.
“So, you rascal,” said my father, remaining a good distance from him, but for very different reasons than la Maligou’s, “what’s your name?”
“And where are you from?”
“A hamlet named la Malonie, near Vergt.”
“Ah,” sighed my father with relief, “from the north!” (The part of Périgord that had not yet been touched by the plague.) “Did you pass through any infected towns?”
“No. I avoided all the towns and villages. I lived and slept in the woods.”
“How did you become a thief?”
“On the 25th of last month, a band of armed brigands came by night and killed my family,” said Miroul, his colourful eyes brimming with tears. “They cut my father’s, mother’s, brothers’ and sisters’ throats and raped all the women. I hid in a haystack in the barn, and as soon as the devils were drunk I took this grappling hook and a knife and fled.”
“So you became a brigand in turn?”
“Not completely,” explained Miroul raising his head proudly. “I don’t take anything from the shepherds or the peasants. I only steal from the chateaux. And never the same one twice. And only for my food. Three nights ago it was Laussel. Night before last, Commarque. Last night, Fontenac. And tonight, Mespech.”
“Fontenac?” asked my father intrigued. “You managed to get inside the Château de Fontenac?”
“It was child’s play,” replied Miroul. “Of the four, Mespech was the hardest to get inside.”
“And how do you do it, Miroul?”
“I cover my feet with rags, and my grappling hook too, and I scale the walls just before dawn.”
“Why so late?”
“That’s the hour the watchmen always fall asleep, feeling night to be almost over.”
“What about the dogs?”
“The dogs smell me, lick me and never bark.”
“It would be miraculous, if true!”
“My Lord,” said Miroul, drawing himself up indignantly, “misfortune has made me a thief but not a liar. If you wish, I can show you how I got in, from the bottom of your surrounding wall right to your larder.”
Jean de Siorac contemplated him for a moment and then said coldly, whether in jest or not, I could not tell: “That would put you to a lot of trouble since we’re going to hang you afterwards.”