Authors: Robert Merle
“Well then, find me one for my present troubles: I’ve lost two men just when haying and harvest times are coming.”
“There is a time to rip and a time to sew.”
“But how can I sew when thread and cloth are lacking? How can I recruit two labourers to replace these poor fellows when famine and plague have swept away so many men that there’s not a healthy man left without work in the whole province?”
“I’ve got enough worries about this myself to bite my nails right off,” agreed my father. “We were already too few at Mespech.” I noticed nevertheless that he did not offer to help Puymartin with his haying and harvesting as he might have done for a fellow Huguenot.
Cabusse brought up the wagon to where my father was attending to the last of the wounded. Looking very heroic with a bloodstained bandage encircling his head, his eyes flashing and his moustache bristling, this man said to my father in the same semi-familiar, semi-respectful tone my father had adopted with him: “My Lord, Forcalquier, who is merely wounded, asks to speak to you in private.”
“What does this miscreant want with me?”
“I don’t know, but he’s very insistent.”
“Be careful, Mespech,” warned Puymartin. “The scoundrel may have a weapon hidden on him.”
“My boys will search him.” I followed along behind him, quite intrigued, as did Samson, but I noticed that François, as though troubled or distracted by his reverie, had pretended not to hear my father, and had gone up to Puymartin. Since this man was Diane de Fontenac’s cousin, I judged he intended to ask about her.
Forcalquier was seated, leaning against the wall of the La Valade house, covered with blood, apparently wounded in every part of his body but his vital organs. I leant over him, my pistol at his temple, and opened his doublet (for he was wearing no armour) and searched him, but found no knife. Moreover his arms hung limp at his sides. When I had finished, he fixed his bulging eyes on my father and said in a firm voice:
“My Lord, I’ve three requests to make of you.”
“Speak, traitor,” replied my father, looking coldly at him from a toise away.
“In this house I’m leaning against are hiding two monks whom I chased from their lodgings. My prayer is to have one of them brought to hear my confession.”
“You’re not yet at death’s door, though not so far from it either.”
“True enough, but that’s the point of my third request. My second
is this: that you keep your soldiers from pillaging my house and shop for the money they’d find there. This money was honestly earned while I was still an honest man. I want my widow and children to have it.”
“Granted,” said my father. “And what’s your third request?”
“My Lord, what will you do with me now, except hand me over to La Porte, who will lock me up, see to my wounds and then torture me, have me judged by the Présidial court and condemn me to death. I’ll be eviscerated alive, my shaft and balls will be cut off, then I’ll be drawn and quartered by four horses, hanged, cut down, my four members lopped off along with my head. And all this will,” he said with some irony, “not be done without a hint of cruelty.”
“You’re a fine one to talk of cruelty, you scoundrel!” said my father indignantly.
“Excuse me, My Lord, ’tis true I’ve killed people, but I never tortured anyone. The Holy Virgin forbade it.”
“Did not she forbid you to take the lives of your fellow men?”
“No, she never did,” responded the butcher-baron with tranquil aplomb. “And I’ll tell this to the monk to mitigate my crimes.”
“What are you getting at with all this nonsense?” cried my father impatiently. “And what do you want from me, you bloody fool?”
Forcalquier lowered his voice: “After my confession I want you to kill me with your dagger.”
“Absolutely not!” my father answered.
“Yes, you will!” Forcalquier replied. His black eyes twinkling with cunning, he continued, “My Lord, the city hasn’t got a sol in its treasury and already owes you 1,000 écus. It’ll never be able to compensate you for the expenses, risk and losses this expedition has cost you. But I can.”
“I’ve got a cache of 3,000 écus, stashed in the monk’s lodgings in
a place only I know about, and so cleverly hidden that you’d never find it in a hundred years without my help.”
“I’ll think about it,” replied my father abruptly and turned away. Samson and I followed him back to the wagon practically on the run to keep up with his long steps. Taking Puymartin aside, he whispered to him: “What do you think of this strange business? Obviously I don’t like the barbarous tortures inflicted by our authorities. I’m of a mind, however, to refuse.”
“And I to accept,” answered Puymartin. “What do I care about the torture of this rascal on the public square in Sarlat? It will amuse the populace and titillate a few girls, but won’t put a sol in my coffers, which have withered quite empty in this drought. I’m not so rich as you, Huguenot.”
“It’s not so much that we’re richer,” smiled my father, “but we spend less. Nonetheless I find this bargain repugnant… If news of it gets around…”
“Who will know if the butcher’s dead? Let’s divide this cache in three unequal parts. Twelve hundred for you, 1,200 for me and 600 for Campagnac, since he didn’t come and didn’t take the same risks. Mespech, will you ever reap so much from one dagger thrust?”
My father held out for a while longer, but rather in the manner of one who wants to be convinced. In such a delicate matter his Huguenot conscience, unlike the Catholic one, needed to be converted by degrees.
“My rascals,” he said to Samson and me, pulling us to one side and putting his arms around our shoulders, “you must be silent as tombstones. Our honour is at stake.”
“Certainly,” I said, though somewhat troubled that my father had used the word “honour” for such an occasion.
“For my part,” Samson sighed, “I’m glad this poor rogue won’t be tortured the way he described to us.”
The cache revealed and our booty stashed in a safe place, my father called the two monks and requested their offices. While they confessed Forcalquier, he stood apart out of earshot but positioned so that he could observe the butcher-baron’s face. When they had finished, my father approached the elder of the two monks: “My brother, this man appears to be happy, as if at the minute of his death he were going to be borne by angels right up to Paradise and sit on the right hand of Christ.”
“And of the Holy Virgin,” said the monk, not without a touch of malice, “to whom he dedicated a fervent cult during his lifetime.”
“Yes, I know. But whence comes his certainty? If it is by works that man gains salvation, as your Church teaches, by what works has Forcalquier been judged if not by his murders?”
This white-haired, bright-eyed monk studied my father: “’Tis true. Forcalquier is poor in works, but he’s rich in faith. And as you know, My Lord, grace works in mysterious and impenetrable ways.”
“So I believe,” replied my father.
And as he said nothing further, the monk added: “Is he going to die? He looks ruddy enough despite his wounds.”
My father shrugged his shoulders. “Would it not be an act of charity to expedite these beggars to their deaths rather than save them for torture, the gallows and dismemberment?”
“Indeed so,” said the monk glancing quickly at my father, “if charity is really your purpose.”
“Charity is one of my purposes,” answered my father with an overly literal truthfulness that left me wondering whether I admired it or not.
The second monk, who, until that moment, had stood by, his eyes lowered and his hands in his sleeves in a most modest posture, now looked up and said sweetly, “And what may your other purposes be, My Lord?”
My father put his hands on his hips and laughed outright: “So, my brothers! We Huguenots don’t sanction hearing confession, didn’t you know? So great is your talent that you were going straightaway to hear a confession of my sins right out of my mouth, as if I had any…”
Then, in a more lively military tone:
“My brothers, time presses. Continue your offices to the wounded. I must tell you as I take my leave that I admire the devotion that kept you in Sarlat during the plague. Here is an expression of my admiration,” he added, placing several écus in the hand of the elder monk, “if you will take alms from a heretic.”
“No doubt,” said this worthy monk as he whisked the money into his cape, “our Holy Church considers you a heretic, but as for me, I will judge you here below by your works” (here he smiled) “and I prefer to believe,
” (again he smiled) “that you are but a Christian gone astray into a path other than mine, but that we’ll meet at the end of the road.”
“I accept this augury,” my father said gravely. And having said goodbye, he went off, his arm on my shoulder. When we were safely out of earshot, I said softly to him: “These monks were inside the La Valade house when Forcalquier made his requests to you. Maybe they heard. Is that why you greased their palms?”
one of my purposes
,” smiled my father. “The other is that they are genuinely poor, truly charitable and completely devoted, none of which is much honoured by the bishopric.”
When he arrived at the square where our wagon stood (with its funerary cargo of the four dead), my father called Cabusse.
“As soon as our horses are brought up, Puymartin, I, my sons and Coulondre Iron-arm are going into the city to meet with the consuls, who, as you’ve noticed, still haven’t dared come out of their doors. While we’re gone, Cabusse, you are to command here.
Your first duty is to finish off all the wounded brigands, beginning with Forcalquier. This done, if Campagnac’s and Puymartin’s men want to have their way with the butcher-baron’s whores, just close your eyes to these excesses. But make sure no one from Mespech joins them. I tell you this as a Huguenot, but also as a doctor. Some of these willing wenches are infected with the Naples pox, I could see it at first glance. I realize that when men have taken a life they seem to want to make one, which is the reason for all the rape when cities are conquered. But since you’ve got a beautiful and gracious wife, Cabusse, don’t go poking around, as my late wife use to say, in places I wouldn’t touch with the end of my cane.”
“Amen,” replied Cabusse, pulling on his moustache. “It shall be done, and
done, as you have ordered.”
The consuls, who had gathered in the city hall with the seneschal and La Porte, complimented my father and Puymartin on such an admirable and bold enterprise, quickly adding, however, that as the city was financially ruined they could never adequately reward this brilliant action. Puymartin responded that the glory they’d won was enough, and my father, made a profound reverence but said nothing. La Porte enquired whether any prisoners had been taken.
“There are none,” my father answered. “Our soldiers have dispatched every one of them.”
“’Tis a pity,” mused La Porte. “If we’d had a prisoner, just one, we might have put him on the rack and forced him to tell us where we could find the treasure that the butcher-baron accumulated from the tolls he exacted at the la Lendrevie gate.”
Somewhat troubled by this speech, I glanced at my father, but he remained impassive.
“How is it,” La Porte continued, “that there’s not a single survivor from this entire heinous gang?”
My father still remained silent but Puymartin said, frowning:
“Because of our losses, our soldiers were greatly embittered against these brigands.”
“I see,” said La Porte, obviously dissatisfied.
And yet he too complimented us generously, though not so effusively as the seneschal, who, as the highest officer of the city, spoke last, assuring us that he would write to the governor of Périgord and that the governor would write to the king. After which, he embraced both my father and Puymartin, and François and Samson, but he forgot to embrace me, doubtless because I was so filthy and bloody. He was a tall gentleman, entirely clad in pale-blue satin topped by a large, exceptionally white ruff, an exquisitely trimmed beard and curly clean hair. He was so pulverized with perfume that with every gesture—and he made many—he fairly embalmed the entire group.
The two consuls spoke in Périgordian dialect, sprinkled here and there with a few French words; La Porte, as becomes a royal officer, used a French somewhat mongrelized with provincial expressions. But the seneschal, as Monsieur de L. had, spoke pure Parisian French, in a high voice, his articulation short and pinched, his mouth opening scarcely wider than the slot in a church alms box.
As Puymartin and my father were leaving the hall, the populace, who had been waiting outside, pressed up around them with shouts of acclaim. My father, all smiles, leapt nimbly into his saddle, followed by his sons and Puymartin and Coulondre Iron-arm, who with his one arm had held our horses’ reins during the meeting inside and responded not one single word to the peasants around him who were clamouring for an account of the battle. Throughout Sarlat there was great joy and relief at the realization that the butcher-baron could no longer tyrannize the city, and all the more so since many young rogues within the town had threatened to join up with him and daily made insults and jokes on the townspeople like lackeys and pages at carnival time.
Making our way through this crowd, our little troop reached the la Lendrevie gate, but just as we were passing under it, my father noticed a man who was weeping as he drove by on a little cart drawn by a red donkey. Telling Puymartin to continue on without him, my father retraced his steps, the rest of us at his heels. The red donkey stopped when it saw its way blocked by our horses, and my father said, “Good day, friend! How goes it? Not well, if I’m to judge by your tears. What’s your name?”
“I knew a Petremol from Marcuays who tried to cure his rheumatism by bathing in the ice-cold waters of the fountain of St Avit.”
“That was my cousin.”
“And I knew another Petremol from Sireil, whom I almost hanged last year for stealing a sack full of hay from my fields.”
“He’s also my cousin.”