Authors: Robert Merle
We reached Campagnac by trails we knew so well that we and our horses could have followed them blindfolded, but luckily the night was not so black, the moon appearing from time to time between clouds. The lord of Campagnac was in bed, prey to a high fever, but his men at least were at the ready. Now nearly tripled in strength, our band set out immediately for Sarlat, my father riding in the lead with Puymartin, a handsome Catholic nobleman who had taken part in the defence of Sarlat against Duras, not so much from religious zeal as from a desire to prevent the city from being pillaged. He admired my father greatly, and, galloping behind him, I heard him remarking what a pity it was that Mespech led such an austere and isolated life, instead of participating in the brilliant parties the Catholic nobility of Sarlat were forever putting on for each other in their chateaux.
Fearing the noise from our cartwheels and our horses’ hooves, we dismounted about a quarter of a league from Sarlat, entrusting our steeds and our rings to three men, to whom we recommended extreme vigilance. We made the rest of our way on foot, the band dividing into little groups which travelled at twenty toises from each other. Cabusse, Marsal and Coulondre marched well ahead of the others as scouts, their shiny armour hidden under black cassocks and their feet wrapped in rags. They were able to penetrate la Lendrevie and made their rounds without encountering a single sentinel, a sure sign that the butcher-baron, lulled by his negotiations with La Porte, had relaxed his guard. Cabusse came back to report this news to my father who, along with Puymartin, whispered their exhortations for the success of the enterprise, and sent men to guard each of the streets leading away from Forcalquier’s headquarters, to cut off the retreat of the scoundrels once they’d been flushed from their lair.
This lair consisted of a large house which had formerly belonged to an order of nuns who, contrary to the priests of the bishopric, had remained at Sarlat during the entire duration of the plague to bring religious comfort to those afflicted with the disease. Death had rewarded their marvellous devotion, sparing but two of their order, whom Forcalquier had shamelessly evicted in order to take possession of their convent, whose furnishings he coveted. Surrounded by all his knaves, as well as a group of trollops whom our crow had told us about, Forcalquier wallowed in drink, feasting and lechery, and a strange cult devoted to the Virgin, whom, he claimed, had spoken to him in a dream.
Day was just breaking when, with the town surrounded by these small outposts—Samson, François and I, commanding one of these in a very narrow street affording a good view of the convent—the larger part of our band quietly occupied an abandoned house opposite the butcher-baron’s lair. Miroul then crept up, his grappling hook in hand and cord around his neck, and wound in a bandolier over his shoulder some cotton packets which, as I later learnt, contained flower of sulphur. To my great astonishment, after having studied the facade of the convent, he began scaling it, using his hands and feet but no grappling hook of any kind, looking like nothing so much as a fly moving up the side of a wall. Reaching the roofing tiles, he ran in zigzag up the very steep roof until he reached one of the chimneys, caught hold of it and took out one of his cotton packets. He then struck his flint and lit the bag containing the sulphur, fanned it into a flame with his breath, then tossed it down the chimney flue. He did the same with each of the other packets whose number corresponded precisely to the number of flues, proof that my father had previously sent someone to spy out the place. This done, Miroul came down from the roof with such speed as to leave us breathless, and as soon as he had landed on the paving stones ran over to join my brothers
and me. My father had assigned him this post in view of his age, planning to shelter him from the bitterest part of the combat once his rooftop mission was accomplished. If my father had hoped to smoke the fox out of his lair with these sulphur packets, the results did not meet his expectations. For after a tense period of waiting, all the windows of the place were opened simultaneously and the cotton packets thrown burning into the street and the windows shut again before any of our men could fire on the openings. Indeed, my father’s orders had been to refrain from firing into the windows and to shoot at the brigands as they fled the smoke-filled building.
And so, in a matter of seconds, my father’s plan was destroyed, and the advantage of surprise eliminated. Now the wind, blowing the sulphurous vapours towards the place where the larger part of our troop was stationed, began to create a serious problem, since the abandoned house where they were hiding had neither windows nor vents. Luckily there were doors at the rear of the building, and my father ordered his men to withdraw through them. This was an orderly enough retreat, yet Forcalquier, who had been watching from one of the convent windows, decided to seize the advantage of this moment for a sudden sortie before my father could redeploy his troops.
Forcalquier’s band, divided into three groups, burst from their lair, partially hidden from view by the sulphurous smoke, and, trying to flee the town, ran directly into the small outposts my father had established. And since the brigands outnumbered and were better armed than the men at these posts blocking their way, there followed a series of confused and savage street fights—exactly the eventuality my father had hoped most fervently to avoid. The noise of blunderbusses, the clash of swords and shouts of rage or pain broke out on all sides of the town. For François, Miroul, Samson and me, posted in a passage so narrow that three men couldn’t walk it abreast, our
situation became quickly critical when we spied seven men armed with pikes rush at us on a dead run.
“Let’s hide in the doorways,” whispered François, “and let them pass.”
Whereas from Samson or Miroul this advice would have seemed reasonable enough, from my elder brother I could not accept it. “No indeed!” I hissed. “That would be too cowardly.” And taking up a position in the middle of the street, I drew the two pistols I had in my belt, fired and brought down two men. Miroul, who had but one pistol, also fired and wounded his man. But François, stunned by my bravery, remained frozen to the spot and Samson did not budge either, surely not from fear but rather from his usual laconic manner. As for the four remaining bandits, they let out ferocious shouts at seeing their comrades fall, and, looking truly immense in the narrow street, they rushed at us brandishing their pikes. I saw François draw his sword and drew my own, but as Samson stood ever immobile, no doubt forgetting his, I leapt to his side and shouted in his ear, “Your sword, Samson, your sword!” He drew it, at last, but distracted by his slowness, I failed to see the terrible pike blow aimed at me by one of our assailants. The point was stopped by my armour, but the shock was so great that I rolled to the ground, just managing to hold on to my weapon. The man, who seemed to me gigantic, was suddenly standing over me, brandishing his pike and shouting, “I’m going to kill you, little rascal!”
I rolled to one side just as the pike was planted in the unpaved alleyway. The absence of paving stones saved me, for in the time it took the man to unearth his weapon I’d leapt to my feet and given him so vigorous a thrust that the point of my sword traversed his body and entered the greeny loam of the mud wall behind him. It seemed to me that the handle of my sword tore itself from my grasp, and I just stood there unable to move, staring at this poor wretch,
whose lung was pierced, and who, as though nailed to the wall, stared back at me, blood beginning to flow from the corners of his lips. I picked up his pike, but no one seemed to require my help. I didn’t see what happened, but learnt afterwards that François, meeting his enemy’s blow with his sword, had suddenly remembered the pistol in his belt, drawn it with his left hand, cocked it and fired. Miroul, who had the advantage of being armed with a pike, had used it with such dexterity that he’d wounded his assailant, who lay nearby moaning piteously. Alone, Samson still fought on, bleeding from one arm. He was pressing his advantage, but his natural goodness prevented him from concluding his affair. His adversary, seeing this and observing that he was alone against the four of us, turned tail and fled as fast as his legs would carry him down the alley.
“Fire, Samson, fire!” I cried. But Samson looked at me astonished through his big blue eyes without even making a gesture to draw his pistol:
“Why thould I? He’th running away!”
I answered not a word. The thought had just crossed my mind that I must pull my sword from the body of my assailant, and this thought deeply horrified me. Staggering slightly, my armour dented and dirtied by the mire of the alleyway where I’d fallen and rolled, I returned to the man whom I’d pinned to the wall. His eyes were closed, but he held himself erect, his face all a grimace, yet emitting no sound whatsoever as the two rivulets of blood continued to flow from the corners of his mouth. However, as soon as he saw me, or rather as soon as he felt me take hold of my sword handle, he opened his eyes and staring at me said, in a hoarse and raspy voice: “If it please you, Monsieur, wipe the point of your sword before pulling it out of me. I wouldn’t want the dirt of the wall to enter my body.”
Though this man had tried to kill me, this supplication filled me with an inexplicable chagrin. Calling Samson, I told him to hold the
wretch by the shoulders, and going behind him I pulled him away from the wall to disengage the point of my sword. Then taking the white scarf I was wearing about my neck, carefully cleaned the point, marvelling at the delicacy of this peasant, who, even if he weren’t to die from his wound, would surely be hanged.
Then, standing in front of the man, I told Samson to hold him up and, seizing my sword by the blade, pulled it vigorously towards me. The man let out a piercing cry, and, despite Samson’s help, went limp. I tried to hold him up with the flat of my hand, but he vomited out such a flood of blood on my hand and arm that I instinctively retreated at the feel of this hot, viscous liquid, and, despite Samson’s efforts, he fell, large and heavy, to the ground. Lying there, he made not a peep, but kept his eyes fixed on me.
The only sounds we could hear now were, in the distance, from various points in the town, muffled blunderbuss shots. My father burst into the alleyway on the run, his blood-soaked sword in hand, followed by Cabusse and Coulondre. “Well, my rascals,” he called as soon as he spied us, “everyone healthy and happy?” And as we were slow to respond, all four too stunned by this carnage to speak, he caught sight of the dents in my armour and the blood on my arm and scarf and cried out in an anguished voice that went straight to my heart: “My little rascal, are you wounded?”
“No, father, this is the blood of my adversary. I am all right, but Samson is wounded, I think.”
“Ith jutht a thratch,” lisped Samson.
Without a word, my father seized his dagger, split his sleeve open and looked at the cut. “A slash,” he reported, “but not very deep. It’ll heal within a fortnight. All the same, when we get back to the wagon I’ll wash it and bind it. So,” he continued, but not quite with his usual gaiety, “you did good work, my boys.” We could manage no other response than a mournful silence, and my father said in a
much-changed voice, “Alas, we’ve defeated them, but we paid more dearly for it than I’d wanted. Campagnac lost a man, Puymartin two and there are a few wounded as well.”
At this very moment, Jonas appeared at the end of the alley, running towards us. “My Lord!” he cried, “One of our men is gravely wounded from an ambush.”
My father paled and, sword in hand, set off at a run, his three sons at his heels. Opposite what had been the butcher-baron’s hideout, the Mespech wagon was drawn up and stretched out on its bed, livid, his eyes shut, his corselet shredded and bloody, lay Cockeyed Marsal. My father leant over him and, as he tried to turn him so he could unlace the thongs of his corselet, Marsal opened his eyes and spoke in a weak voice, but for the first and last time in his life without any stutter whatsoever, a whole sentence which years later none of our servants could recall without a knot in their throat and tears in their eyes: “If it please you, My Lord, don’t touch me—it’s no good, I’m going to die.”
So saying, Cockeyed Marsal opened his mouth three times, prey to a terrible convulsion, and expired.
“I’ll go to look to the wounded,” said my father, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Our troops reported ten wounded in all, three of them from Mespech: Samson, his arm cut by a pike; Cabusse, his scalp grazed by a bullet which pierced his helmet and caused him to bleed like a bull; and one of the Siorac twins, his cheek slashed by a sword. Having given each a drink of a few drops of brandy, my father cleaned their wounds and bound them, trying, despite his own heavy heart, to cheer them up with his banter. “And which one are you?” he asked Siorac.
“I’m the brother of the other one.”
“I know. Michel or Benoît?”
“Well, then, Michel, you’re going to have a nice scar on your left cheek, just like the late Duc de Guise and me. From now on, thanks to this mark, we’ll be able to distinguish you from your brother.”
“But I don’t want to be distinguished from my brother,” moaned Michel tearfully, and Benoît wrapped his arm around his shoulders to console him.
Handsome Puymartin came up with a sad gait and sadder mien, to ask my father if he could place his two dead soldiers on our wagon. The slain man from Campagnac was added as well, while my father was finishing his attentions to the wounded, Puymartin standing by watching him pensively. “Don’t you find it strange, My Lord, that you’re as good at healing men as giving them your sword?”
“There’s a time for everything under this heaven,” replied my father. “A time to kill and a time to heal.”
“I don’t know that proverb.”
, verse three.”
“Huguenot,” smiled Puymartin, “do you have a biblical quotation ready for every act of your life?”
“Of course. Isn’t that the Word of God?”