Authors: Robert Merle
Miroul shook his head more out of sadness than fear. “I’m not afraid of the rope, since I have no love for the life I lead. Solitude by day and villainy by night. My hunger is the only thing that keeps me going. But I’m sore troubled by my conscience, knowing that the Lord hates all abomination, and that He is great and in His power sees everything.”
At this biblical quotation, Sauveterre pricked up his ears. “Miroul, are you a Huguenot?”
“Indeed so, and my deceased family as well.”
After a pause, my father said: “Well, then, Miroul, I want you to demonstrate your skills. Untie him, Pierre.” And turning to our servants, he added, “Sauveterre, my sons and I will go alone to watch. The rest of you shall remain here and breakfast. Let no one peek outside.”
Poor Escorgol was so devastated with chagrin after he appeared in his window to hear my father’s brief account of the episode that
he was unable to say a word. Normally a ready tongue, all the poor watchman could do was to stick his little fingers in his ears and turn them like tops. “Escorgol,” said my father, “close your window, lie down on your mat and listen carefully. This rascal is going to try to repeat his exploit.”
“As you wish, My Lord,” murmured Escorgol, flushed with humiliation, his brush of hair, normally so proudly plumed, limply falling into his eyes.
On my father’s command, the group divided in two. Sauveterre, François and Samson, each armed with a pistol in his belt, accompanied Miroul outside the walls. I remained inside the enclosure with my father and the three mastiffs named, like their unfortunate predecessors who had been killed by the Gypsies, Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus, complicated mythological names that had been Périgordized by our servants into “Acha” (hatchet), “Minhard” (delicate mouth) and “Redamandard” (he who asks for seconds).
Noiselessly, muffled as it was in rags, the grappling hook landed on the top of the north rampart, at the farthest point from Escorgol’s watchtower. Miroul soon appeared, pulling his cord behind him, unhitched his hook and, running noiselessly along the top of the wall, reached a point on the eastern side from which he could toss his hook to the branch of a walnut tree a few toises away. Gripping the cord with both hands, he swung out, flying over the entire area where the traps were set and landing at the foot of the tree. Again he extricated his hook, and as our three mastiffs rushed up he fell full length on the ground, lying quite still and offering his neck, which they sniffed along with his face and whole body, and then they left off growling, stopped bristling and began wagging their tails. Miroul raised one hand and all of a sudden the dogs were competing with each other for his caress. This trick lasted for a few minutes, first while Miroul was lying down, then crouched, then on his knees and finally
standing, slowing all his movements and accompanying them with gentling sounds to each mastiff. With the dogs now quieted and even licking his hand, Miroul rewound his rope into a bandolier, which he slung over his shoulder, and headed for the moat. He slipped into the water, swam noiselessly over to our wash house and scaled one of its pillars with remarkable agility, slipping onto the roof in the twinkling of an eye and scampering up to its highest point.
Next came the hardest part of all. Looping his rope again, he tossed his grappling hook, aiming for one of the metal clips that Sauveterre had had placed at intervals in the wall, just before the Gypsies’ attack, to hold the torches in place. This was a small target and Miroul had to make several throws before succeeding in anchoring his talon. And the climb was not without its dangers and difficulties. The sconce being set nearly half a toise from the nearest crenellation, he had to hang by one hand with his feet braced in the wall, in obvious peril of losing his balance and falling into the water, then undo the hook and toss it again to the top of the curtain. Again he hit his mark.
“Let’s go and get the others,” said my father. “Miroul is already inside the chateau. And other than the dogs, I’ll warrant that Escorgol heard nothing.”
“Father,” I asked, trotting along by his side, my throat tight with worry, “after such an exploit, you’re not going to hang him are you?”
My father’s expression hardened. “I’m not overjoyed about it, but yes, I must.”
“But think of the service he’s rendered Mespech by pointing out the holes in our defences: the walnut tree, the wash house, the sconces for the torches, and the larder window.”
“That’s all quite true. And yet I must hang him. He’s a thief.”
“A very petty thief. It has cost you a mere slice of ham to learn Mespech’s weaknesses.”
“He could have killed you.”
“But he didn’t try,” said I, troubled to have to repeat this lie even for a good cause. “What’s more,” I added, pricked by my conscience towards a sort of half-truth, “even if he had, who could blame him? A rat bites when he’s cornered.”
“Of course, I understand. But he will die. He’s a thief.”
“If I were fifteen, and my family had been slaughtered and I’d become an orphan without a sol, wouldn’t I become a thief as well?”
“You, perhaps, but not Samson.”
I noted, not without a tinge of secret pleasure, that my father didn’t even think to mention François. I added: “Samson, all right, Samson’s an angel. But on my sixth birthday he stole a pot of honey to nourish me. Observe, Father, the enormous difference in retribution: a lashing for a pot of honey, and the rope for a slice of ham.”
“’Tis a pity,” said my father coldly, “that you’re to study medicine. You’d make an excellent lawyer.”
“May I go on, anyway?”
“Miroul will be hanged. But you may continue.”
“My father, are we going to hang a lad who’s bold enough and agile enough to succeed in getting into the Château de Fontenac by night without striking a blow? Who can tell if one day we won’t need such talents?”
Here I hit the bull’s eye, I believe. Yet my father did not yet consent to admit it. Trying to sound as gruff as possible, he countered, “I don’t know where you get your obstinacy. Maybe from your mother.”
“No, Monsieur, begging your pardon, but from yourself. What’s more, I resemble you a lot. Everyone says so.”
Now my father knew this very well, but I knew he enjoyed hearing me say it.
“Now that’s an excellent
if I ever heard one!” he said, happy though not taken in by this appeal to the jury’s
beneficence. “But we’re nearly out of time. You must conclude.” And indeed, at that very moment, we were passing over the third drawbridge.
“Monsieur my father,” I urged, “I was the one who surprised the thief. I cornered him and I captured him. Is it not my right to ask you the favour of giving him to me for my service, as Cathau has Franchou for hers?” My father raised an eyebrow, stopped short in the middle of the drawbridge and threw me a searching glance—to which I responded with my most innocent look.
In cauda venenum!
” he laughed. “You’ve saved your poison for the last word. Really, Pierre, you’re more malicious than a woman, cat and monkey all in one!”
I turned to face him: “Well, Father, what about Miroul?”
I threw myself in his arms and, standing on tiptoe, gave him kisses on both cheeks, tears streaming down my own. He returned my embrace vigorously, then, pulling away, all smiles, a glint of sunshine in his eye—just as when he’d arisen that morning—he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me along, nearly at a run, towards the common room.
Our servants were at breakfast around the great table, but seemed quiet and withdrawn. Imagine their astonishment when my father and I went into the larder and returned with Miroul whom, only minutes previously, they’d seen accompanying us out the door. Their surprise was prodigious. La Maligou began crossing herself convulsively, but scarcely had her mouth opened for her customary ejaculations than my father closed it up tight.
“That’s enough tittle-tattle, Maligou! There’s no magic here, but wonderful skill and agility. I saw it as I see you before me. Pierre, go lock Miroul in the north-east tower. The écuyer and I shall discuss his fate.”
And so they deliberated. And Miroul, whom my father gave to Samson and me, helped out with the daily work at the chateau, much to the Siorac twins’ relief, and is, to this day, in our service, having followed Samson and me to Montpellier, where we went to study, and later to the royal court in Paris, and through many and various adventures, as you shall hear in good time.
ROM 29TH AUGUST 1563
—the date of Miroul’s magical appearance in our larder—until 28th May 1566—the day Samson and I, with Miroul as our valet, left Mespech for Montpellier—three years flowed by during which I put aside childish things and became a man. Not that I didn’t already believe I’d achieved manhood at twelve, since in my view I had all of its privileges, from the short sword that hung at my side to the use I made of my nights. But the truth is that manhood is like the horizon, always seeming to recede the closer you get to it. And so we must be thankful to parliament for having established fifteen as adulthood, an imaginary boundary to be sure, but reassuring enough as long as one didn’t look too closely. And yet some never really leave off their childhood habits, no matter how many years separate them from their nursemaids. Several years after quitting Mespech, I had the most extraordinary good fortune to find myself in a game of tennis with our sovereign, Charles IX, at the very moment they informed him of the assassination of Admiral de Coligny. To my extreme astonishment, overwhelmed as I was by the news of this odious crime, I saw the king pout, petulantly hurl his racquet to the ground and whine in the most childish tone: “Why won’t they ever leave me alone?” Rather than being terrified by such news, which boded so ill for peace in the kingdom, the king was merely annoyed at having to leave off his game. Charles IX was then twenty-two years old, and
the blood of our people, in which, goaded on by his mother, he was to revel, dirtied rather than seasoned him.
As for me, I could not afford to tarry too long, even at twelve, at being young: I was a younger brother. I knew that I would never inherit anything from Mespech, neither chateau, nor the les Beunes farm, mill, hill or vale, nor yet rich farmland or green prairie—nothing, except perhaps a plot of land big enough for my grave when I died, and God knows how little space we take up when we’ve breathed our last. I would owe my fortune and my estate only to my own efforts, and I repeated this hard truth to myself every day as I recited my Latin, my kings, my Bible and my medicine, always trying to understand the world from the place I occupied in it.
I believed then as I believe today that there is no greater maturity than that gained by the mind’s honest apprehension of what we accomplish and what we endure. Among the events, great and small, which occupied my life during these three years before my departure, there were two that inspired such reflection, such astonishment and—the second of these events especially—such melancholy, that I want to share my distress with my readers, so they will not feel so alone in their own misfortunes. For if joy is shared among loving hearts, suffering often imprisons you in yourself, cutting you off, as if mutilated, from the company of others.
It was not until May 1564 that the plague disappeared, as suddenly as it had broken out, and the seneschal, the bishop and the two consuls, who had fled the city, returned to Sarlat along with the Présidial judges, the rich merchants and the doctors. Of the four surgeons who had stayed to care for the diseased, but one had survived. This Lasbitz, as he was called, was owed 600 livres by the city, but since the municipal finances were in ruins due to the loss of two-thirds of its taxpayers, it seemed he’d never be paid.
Moreover, the revolt was at its height in the outskirts of the city. Forcalquier had not died as he himself had predicted, nor had fully half of his band—another false prophecy—who now, heavily armed, served this foolish and bloody butcher-baron in his pursuit of an endless series of excesses. And thus the town was besieged by a kind of ongoing peasant uprising which the royal officers could do little or nothing to combat, since not a single soldier had survived the plague and there weren’t a hundred sols in the town treasury to raise an army of mercenaries.
In this extremity, the city consuls sent messages to the nobility throughout the Sarlat region, begging them to raise their own militias and come to purge Sarlat of these desperadoes. Pressed by the Catholic bishop, the consuls were at first inclined to address this appeal only to the Catholic noblemen in the region, but the seneschal and La Porte were quick to point out that it was not right to exclude the loyalist Huguenots from this plea since some had already come to the aid of the city with loans and provisions of meat. Their opinion prevailed, and an appeal was addressed on the Catholic side to Fontanilles, Puymartin, Périgord, Claude des Martres and La Raymondie, and on the Calvinist side to Armand de Gontaut Saint-Geniès, Foucaud de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and the Baron de Mespech.
Not everyone responded, as you might expect, but it is not my intention here to name those who stayed quietly at home and those who gave of themselves in this combat. As life flourished anew after the terrible fear of the plague, they had to be either quite brave or quite resolute to risk their lives in a street fight against an entrenched band of brigands with nothing to gain from such an affair but unhappiness or the glory of serving the city.
Mespech set a condition for its participation: that my father be given the command of the entire army of volunteers—a rank that
was accepted without any haggling, so great was Jean de Siorac’s reputation as a general.
I could have predicted it: my father insisted on a tactic of secrecy and surprise. To cover his plan, he got La Porte to distract Forcalquier with negotiations, including an offer of the very lucrative privilege of collecting a toll at the la Lendrevie gate. But Forcalquier wanted more. He now wore ruffles, a doublet and a feather in his cap, and held court among his beggars and whores, cutting the figure of a nobleman. In his madness, he demanded that the city request of the king that he be ennobled, and La Porte, greatly amused by the foolishness of this stuffed shirt, played his part to the hilt, leading our man through endless mischief, raising fine points such as: “Could the king ennoble Forcalquier without granting a fiefdom? What fiefdom could he be given without dispossessing its landholder? Which nobleman should be dispossessed?” “Some stinking heretic,” was Forcalquier’s noble reply, who doubtless recollected that my father had heaved a full ninety livres of beefsteak right in his face.
As La Porte lulled the butcher-baron with empty promises, my father secretly set the date, time and details of our attack. Everything was centralized at Mespech. For a day and a night Coulondre Iron-arm left his mill, Jonas his quarry and Cabusse the le Breuil farm. From within the chateau itself, he enlisted his three rascals, Miroul, the Siorac twins, Marsal and Escorgol, leaving only Sauveterre and Faujanet to guard the chateau, to whose number Alazaïs was added. (My father said laughingly, well out of his brother’s earshot, that “of the three men, she was the most agile.”)
It was only on the eve of the date he had secretly set that my father drew me aside after dinner and whispered to me that I should get to bed early, for he would awaken me the next morning at three o’clock. I went straight to bed, and once the lamp was out, joined little Hélix in hers. Cutting short our usual games to proceed
right to their concluding moment, I made ready to leave her when she grabbed me and held me tight, whispering: “So, my Pierre! Tomorrow’s the day!”
I thought about the secret that would no longer be hidden from her at three when my father came to wake Samson and me, yet I breathed not a word of it.
“Don’t go getting yourself killed, my Pierre,” little Hélix went on in a hushed voice, but without relaxing her embrace. “All the time you were quarantined in the north-east tower I had love-thoughts about you.”
“Love-thoughts, or just thoughts?” I asked, to tease her.
“Both,” she replied but without her usual punishing pinch. “Both, Pierre,” she repeated in a sad and trembling voice. “And if these brigands were to kill you, I’d die within the month.”
“And what a loss it’d be for Mespech to lose such a dawdler,” I teased, for the thought of my death unsettled me and I did not wish to sentimentalize it with women’s talk.
“Oh Pierre, don’t laugh,” she cried, wet tears moistening my cheek. “I love you with a great love, as it is written in books. When I pray to Lord Jesus, it’s you I see in my mind.”
“Then it’s an idol you worship and not God.”
“This I know not, but it’s a great and beautiful love I have for you, greater than any woman ever knew in Christian lands.”
So saying, she hugged me very tightly with both her plump little arms. I could feel that little Hélix was opening her heart to me and, overcome with tenderness, I left off teasing and said, with equal gravity, “I too love you, Hélix, with a good and faithful love, and I will never in my life let you be scorned, suffer hunger or cold, nor be clothed in rags. And though I’m but a younger brother, I shall provide as best I can for all your needs and comforts to the end of my days and yours. This I witness and swear before the Lord God, amen.”
“Oh, Pierre,” she said. “You’re good like Lord Jesus, but it’s only friendship that you bear me.”
“Indeed!” I replied with a very male abruptness. “Isn’t that already a great deal?” Little Hélix sighed deeply and, without another word, began crying softly on my cheek until it was so hot, so bitter and so wet that I pushed her gently away and whispered, “Let me go, now, sweet Hélix. I must get some sleep for tomorrow.”
She released me and I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and went to slip into my bed, where Samson was already deep in his innocent sleep. To tell the truth, I felt a pang in my heart for little Hélix, who gave so much when I returned so little. How many times since have I felt this same pang and wished I could have lied a little better to the poor dear about these love-thoughts she had for me and wanted so much for me to share with her. But alas, who can foretell the future? Man is a silly creature and believes that the iridescent and speckled bubble dancing in the air before him shall be his for ever.
After the commotion in la Lendrevie, my father, sparing no expense, had chain-mail corselets made to fit each of his sons, and so it was, armed for war and fully helmeted, that we three appeared at the great table. The night was still dark and the eleven soldiers from Mespech—twelve with my father—sat down to a thick broth, all serious, quiet and a bit pale, so unlike harvest and wine-making days, when we were up before dawn all laughing and clamouring, our paunches filling with wine, soup, salt pork and wheat bread, our hearts warming to the tasks of the rather festive day to come. But today’s harvest would be human heads and its wine the blood of our enemies, in a feast which our guests attended in great danger of losing an arm or their life, for it was said that Forcalquier’s band were a resolute lot, fighting as though none expected to survive sword or bullet, ever since that plague itself had spared them.
Sensing this morose mood around the table, my father rose at the conclusion of the meal and, after a short prayer by Sauveterre, bade all of us sit down again and said: “My good people, I see worry gnawing at your spirits, wondering what may befall you in la Lendrevie. But have faith in the Lord God: He alone decides if the sparrow will drop from its branch or no. This is why, though nothing is more certain than our death, nothing is less certain than the day we shall die. Wisdom lies, then, in placing our fate in the hands of the Great Judge, and in setting our minds at rest.” He paused, and then continued in a more lively tone: “As for me, I predict a happy outcome to our project! First because of our numbers. We are twelve. At the Château de Campagnac, where we shall assemble, there are ten more. Nine soldiers will arrive from Puymartin. Add it up: that makes thirty-one in all. This is more than we need to destroy a band of twenty beggars whose only strength lies in the weakness of the unarmed burghers of Sarlat. They’ll shake like leaves in the wind when they see you, for these are but smithies, weavers and tradesmen, little practised in the arts of war. What’s more, of the three groups meeting at Campagnac—I’ll say it here because it’s true—ours from Mespech is the most awesome. Cabusse, Cockeyed Marsal, Coulondre Iron-arm,” continued my father, making their names resonate in his mouth as if he were having them trumpeted by fame, “fought for years in the legion in Normandy and again with me at Calais. My good cousins Siorac helped me in the defeat of the brigands of Fontenac at Taniès. Jonas killed three Gypsies with his infallible bow when they attacked Mespech. My boys, whom you see here, braved the angry mob at la Lendrevie without batting an eyelash. Escorgol has admittedly not yet fought, but he’s strong enough to kill a bull with his fist, good with a blunderbuss and as valiant as any Provençal. As for our Miroul—for he is ours now—I’m counting on using his marvellous agility and audacity in a way I
shan’t yet reveal,” he said with a knowing wrinkle of his brow, “but it will count for much in the success of our endeavours.”
Looking around the table, which was for this occasion adorned with our two chandeliers all shining with candles, my father arrested his gaze on each one of us in a very deliberate way, then said in a loud and sonorous voice: “My lads, I’ve ordered la Maligou to draw our best wine and to roast half a dozen of our best chickens, so that we can replenish our strength at noon when the battle is done. Then everyone can tell the others of his exploits, whose fame, I assure you, will resound for a long time in our villages.” Raising his voice even more, he said: “And now, Maligou, Barberine, Franchou, seconds on soup for everyone! Let’s mix in some wine!”
Such a rousing speech was half the battle, for our hearts were fortified by the taste of our future glory. A manly banter could now be heard around the table. The women, who had been standing fearfully in the kitchen doorway, now ran forward to serve our warriors, whose faces shone and eyes glistened from the warmth of the wine broth. My father’s able speech had stiffened our backs and squared our shoulders in our corselets, whose steel gleamed proudly in the candlelight.
For my part, I was enjoying my share of my father’s praise for having, along with Samson, “braved the angry mob at la Lendrevie without batting an eyelash”, and I maliciously thought that his “rascals” did not include my elder brother, François, since this was to be the first time he would face the cannon. This thought made the blood course in my veins all the more, since little Hélix had poured me a hefty portion of wine along with her tender glances, and the grog was now going a bit to my head. My chest inflated in my brand-new armour, I looked confidently around me, already in a hurry to be under way. Alas, I hardly imagined, caught up as I was in the intoxication of war in which my father’s words had swept us
all up, what my mood would be a few hours later, “at noon when the battle is done”.