Authors: Robert Merle
“Well, then, Petremol, I feel like I know you because I know your cousins. And where might you be headed with your cartful of skins and pulled by your red donkey? Don’t you know the Norman saying, ‘As treacherous as a red donkey’?”
“The only traitor I know,” Petremol wept, “is my own destiny, which oppresses me, and not this good beast who only wants to do my bidding. If you’d hanged my Sireil cousin last year, My Lord, I’d envy him. For I know you as well.”
“You have a very heavy heart, Petremol, and yet you’re not poor as far as I can tell, for you’ve got a donkey, a cart and lots of skins, as well as your trade, for you’re a tanner or harness-maker if I’m not mistaken.”
“I’m both at once,” Petremol replied, “and for the last year I’ve been working my trade for your cousin Geoffroy de Caumont in his Château des Milandes. But alas, with the plague ended, I’m heading back to my home at Montignac where my wife and children were
carried off by the disease, and my house was burnt by the consuls to disinfect the place.”
“Then they owe you damages.”
“Which I’ll never collect, since the city’s ruined. But what do my lodgings matter when there’s nobody to put in them, no wife, nor any of my four beautiful children not yet ten years old, as pretty as this fellow,” he said pointing to Samson, who by this time was also in tears over this story. And, indeed, on second glance, Petremol, his hair as red as his donkey’s, was a handsome enough fellow, despite his defeated manner, his unkempt beard and the suffering that lined his face.
“And where are you headed now?” my father asked.
“To hang myself, if it weren’t for my donkey who loves me and leads me where he will. He’s the one led me here, for he had a mate here once. But at Sarlat, just as at Montignac, no one needs a harness-maker any more, since all the horses got eaten during the plague. And my donkey can’t find his mate: she must have been eaten as well.”
“Well then, Petremol, tell your noble donkey to bring you to Mespech. We’ve got horses that are very much alive, an abundance of pelts that need tanning, saddles to make and harnesses to repair, and for you, if you like it, a hearth, a bowl and a bed, lots of company and even a jenny for your donkey.”
And without pausing for acceptance or thanks, my father turned bridle and rode away so quickly that I found myself at the rear of the company, side by side with Coulondre, who looked at me and cleared his throat as if he were going to say something. I was quite surprised and, trotting along with him, looked at him apprehensively, for I knew that he never opened his mouth without breaking your heart. “So,” he intoned finally in his most funereal voice, “we’ve won again. One’s left us and another’s arrived. And this one, who’s
worth his weight in gold, neither stutters nor is cross-eyed. God be praised.”
Our women greeted us with wails and lamentation when we crossed the last drawbridge into Mespech, Marsal lying dead on the wagon. The Brethren ordered la Maligou and Alazaïs to remove his armour, clothes and boots and to wash his bloodstained body and wrap him in a shroud before laying him on a bed in the room of the north-east tower where the Siorac twins had been quarantined. As was the custom, the shutters were closed and an oil lamp lit. La Maligou, who had already dined, took the first watch. But the dead man was soon visited by Faujanet, who came to measure him for a coffin. Having an ear to fill with her gossip, la Maligou complained in a hushed voice that her masters’ religion prevented her from placing a crucifix in the dead man’s hand. “A lot of good that would do him now!” hissed Faujanet between clenched teeth, la Maligou’s remark disturbing his own mourning.
For this was the second coffin he’d had to make since his arrival at Mespech (the first being for my mother). Greatly troubled inside, he began to wonder if, by virtue of the power of numbers, he wouldn’t soon be making a third. “But don’t you see? It’s still the custom,” whined la Maligou, who couldn’t imagine how Cockeyed Marsal would ever get up to heaven without a crucifix in his hands.
“What’s certain,” said Faujanet, continuing his thoughts out loud as he took his second measurements of the body, “is that if I’m the third one to go, it won’t be me who builds my coffin.” Faujanet seemed suddenly calmed by his own reasoning, and pushing his idea a bit further, found it a reassurance for his own future; turning his attention to the dead man, he began to pity his fate. “Poor Marsal, who was alive only just this morning and had such a good
appetite for his soup.” He said “poor Marsal” and not “Cockeyed Marsal” out of reverence for the dead, whose closed eyelids would never open again.
“Poor Marsal,” echoed la Maligou, “when I think how brave he was, how good a worker, how he was sober as Jesus and as little a womanizer (a fault in a living man and a virtue among the dead) as you could find. Our masters will bury him dry-eyed and puritanical like they did Madame, according to their new religion.”
“When I think,” continued Faujanet, “that poor Marsal not long ago refused flat out, as I did, to become miller down at les Beunes, because of the danger of being killed by roving bands of brigands. And here he is all stiff and cold, and Coulondre Iron-arm working at the mill, drinking his fill and every night leading his little Jacotte to the mounting blocks. Not that I envy him: I don’t hold much with women, as you know, Maligou.”
“Alas, there’s no holy water either,” moaned la Maligou, “which my masters says is idolatrous. But it’s still the best thing to keep the seventy-seven demons of hell away from the deceased.”
“If I didn’t have a gammy leg,” mused Faujanet, “instead of staying to guard the chateau with the écuyer and Alazaïs, my masters would have taken me to Sarlat, and I might be lying here, and not building your coffin, my poor Marsal. Which is proof,” he whispered to the corpse, “that it’s better to have a limp than be cockeyed.”
All the while, in a room in the south-west tower, Barberine was busy washing away the filth and blood as I sat in a steaming tub, though I’d assured her I was now man enough to wash myself. “Not on your life, my little yellow beak, for who would wash your back?” I was too sad to resist further and gave myself over to the caresses and scrubs she lavished with those large hands, which rubbed good Mespech soap over my whole body. “Sweet Jesus,” Barberine said admiringly, “look at these little rascals who’ve grown up right beside
me and I didn’t even notice it. This little Pierre whom I nursed when I was only eighteen, and now look at him! Thirteen and almost a man! Big shoulders, his chest’s all filled out, his thighs as hard as iron and hair growing everywhere and prancing like a stallion.”
“Alas,” I moaned, “I don’t much feel like prancing.”
“All the same,” said Barberine, “they tell me you did well in the battle, killing three of those rascals, two with bullets and a third with your sword.”
“Yes, but the third one,” I muttered, hanging my head, “I had to pull my sword out of him and he vomited blood all over me.”
At this, Barberine sighed, but said nothing. She poured a vat of hot water over my head and shoulders to rinse me, told me to get out of the tub and stretch out on the bed, where she began to massage me with all the cares and tenderness she’d showered on me as a child, fondling and caressing me, and with her deep singing voice, spreading a litany of sweet nothings over me: “My sweet, my pretty little rooster, God’s little pearl, my fresh little heart.”
Fresh though it may have been, my heart was still heavy with lugubrious thoughts, and in such a flood of tenderness it couldn’t contain itself any longer. I clung to Barberine and, burying my head in her beautiful breasts, burst into sobs. “There, there, my pretty!” calmed Barberine, leaning against the wall and cradling me in her bountiful arms.
But the more she cradled me with her arms and her coaxing, kissing my forehead, the more I gave in to my tears and a deep sadness. I would have gone on sobbing a lot longer had not little Hélix appeared at the door of the winding staircase—where my mother had once appeared in Barberine’s absence to bid me goodnight—her black eyes flashing in anger.
“Monsieur Pierre,” she broke in rudely, “My Lord is waiting on you for dinner.”
I stood up, dried my tears, put on the clean clothes Barberine had laid out for me from the chest, and followed little Hélix down the winding staircase. At the last step, out of her mother’s earshot, she turned, stared at me, her eyes blazing, and hissed in a low voice filled with fury:
“You big sissy, aren’t you ashamed to be crying like a baby on the bosom of an old lady!”
“An old lady!” I replied indignantly. “What a way to speak of your mother! She’s barely over thirty! And who gave you permission to call me a sissy!”
“I’ll call you what I wish! Big sissy, if I wish. Coward, if I wish. Crybaby, if I wish!”
“Well,” I answered hotly, “this is for all your kind wishes!” And I slapped her hard on both cheeks.
“Oh, my Pierre,” she cried, less terrified by my blows than by the coldness of my stare.
“Your Pierre isn’t yours any longer,” I said haughtily, “and tonight I won’t come you know where. Not tonight or any other night.”
Whereupon I turned coldly away and walked briskly to the common room, distracted for the moment from my sombre thoughts by my quarrel with her.
All the combatants were seated around the table, but nothing could have been further from the warm feast which that very morning before daybreak my father had foreseen for us: “Everyone can tell the others of his exploits, whose fame, I assure you, will resound for a long time in our villages.” Instead, everyone was eating, but no one made a sound, and not even the chickens roasted on the spit over a fire of vine branches, nor the selection of succulent meats, nor even Mespech’s best vintage wine could loosen our tongues or lighten our spirits. For the deceased was still with us as he had been this morning, but now he lay in the north-east tower, a gaping hole
in the middle of his body. Cabusse and Coulondre Iron-arm, who had known Cockeyed Marsal twenty-four years, since 1540 when he had entered the Norman legion as a captain, unabashedly wept as they ate, their noses in their plates. They hurried through their dinner, swallowing everything without tasting anything, and before the meal was over asked permission from the Brethren to withdraw, one to the le Breuil farm, the other to the les Beunes mill so they could reassure their wives. Permission was scarcely granted before Jonas requested the same: “Sarrazine is pregnant,” he explained, “and is worried by my absence.”
Those three having left, the mood was even darker than before. My father tried to get each of us to tell what he had done in the battle with the brigands in la Lendrevie. We obeyed him, but they were sad tales, since neither our hearts nor our pride were in it. During the conversation that followed my father’s request, little Hélix, who was serving at table, but whom I’d avoided looking at even once, sidled up to me to fill my goblet and whispered in my ear:
“My Pierre, if you won’t smile at me I’m going straightaway to throw myself down the well.”
To which I replied in a whisper: “Silly flirt, you’ll spoil our drinking water.”
Still, I smiled at her, though only on one side of my face so that she’d know that I’d only halfway pardoned her.
My father, seeing our servants’ dispiritedness, was too polite to insist further and hurried to finish his dinner, which, though conceived as a victory feast, resembled a wake—though no doubt had Marsal died of a sickness the guests would have been a good deal livelier (wine aiding, of course). But from their discomfort, their furtive glances, their persistent sadness, it was clear that what troubled them was that this death could have been avoided and that my father had advanced his own glory and secret fortune
(but how could our servants have known of it?) at the expense of his servants.
At la Lendrevie, my father had explained to Cabusse that the raping that followed the fall of a city is due to the fact that when a man takes a life he wants to make another one. Besides the fact that little Hélix had secretly learnt from la Maligou about herbs and “where to put them”, I didn’t feel much like giving her anything at all that night but asking instead for tenderness and comfort in her sweet embrace. But she didn’t see things my way, and by means of tickling and caresses finally got what she wanted, though only once. And when shortly afterwards she began again, I told her rudely to stop her carrying on and hold still, and if possible to keep silent, for my heart wasn’t into such games.
“My Pierre,” she asked (for she wasn’t able to hold her tongue for very long), “what makes you so sad?”
“Everything about our expedition,” I said, “from the beginning to the end.”
“Killing three men?”
“Yes. Especially the third, when I had to pull my sword from his body.”
She wanted to continue, but I told her to stop her questions and her sneaky movements, and to leave me to myself. Which she did, but being unaccustomed to so much silence and immobility she went straight to sleep.
Her body felt sweet and warm in my arms and wholly mine as she slept. How could I ever have told her that what made such a knot in my throat wasn’t Cockeyed Marsal, or my peasant stuck through and through, but rather the strange commerce between Forcalquier and my father, which made my hero seem less great?
BOUT TWO MONTHS
before our expedition against the butcher-baron in la Lendrevie, Catherine de’ Medici and Charles IX had decided that, with peace now restored (though in fact it was only half restored), they would take an extraordinary tour on horseback of the entire kingdom. This cavalcade was to last two full years, during which the regent and the young sovereign were preceded and followed by their men at arms and accompanied by so many ministers and royal officers that it seemed as if they wanted to transport the entire Louvre palace with them. Such a procession greatly impressed their subjects, who, to be sure, had never before seen so much silk nor so much gold on so many of God’s creatures. It also greatly disheartened them, for everywhere this magnificent company travelled they left behind neither meat nor egg nor grain of wheat, the valleys in their wake being so devastated that they looked like a forest after an infestation of may beetles.
In the midst of this travelling court, coloured like so many spring flowers in their bright clothes, were eighty maids of honour, chosen for their beauty, and making a radiant retinue around Catherine de’ Medici. Strangely enough they were called the “flying angels”. And yet however one might understand the word “flying”, they lifted up nothing other than young men’s hearts. And far from flying through the air like angels, they descended, when required, to the lowest favours with men in order to serve their mistress’s designs.
They could flush out an evil intention, surprise a plot, bend a will. Secret agents, state spies, Machiavellis in petticoats, their tread was not so light as it was political, and they paid for confidences with their ravishing bodies, consenting to serve as the sumptuous means to ends only the queen mother could know. One of these “angels” visited the Prince de Condé in prison after the battle of Dreux and so blinded him with her dazzling charms that he signed without reading the unfortunate Edict of Amboise, which Calvin and Huguenots of conscience so bitterly reproached him for.
Our allies, after so much torture and murder, expected only the worst and always doubted appearances, wondering about the ultimate goal and secret purpose of this splendid cavalcade over the roads of France, especially given the terrible heat of 1564, the kingdom scarcely back on its feet, despite the charming ditty of Ronsard, for whom:
The Frenchman is like the green willow tree,
The more it is cut the more we will see,
Many new branches and greeny bright leaves
Taking vigour from every new hurt that it grieves.
Beautiful verses, though somewhat dishonest and flattering, France being still badly beset with mutilations from the civil war, from famine and from the plague. Yet despite this ruin and the thousands of corpses, who were swept out of the way just in time to let the queen mother pass, Catherine insisted on showing both the kingdom to Charles IX and the young king to the subjects over whom he held sway. Or perhaps, as she went from city to city lending an ear to the Huguenots here and to the Catholics there, hearing all their reciprocal complaints, her intention was to pacify her subjects by an outward show of equality.
It was all highly suspect. Not that there weren’t any concessions to our cause. Charles IX occasionally scolded parliament and the governors for excluding Huguenots from affairs of state. He gave permission to the reformers in Bordeaux to refrain from decorating their houses for Catholic processions, and dispensed them in the courts of justice from swearing by St Anthony. And yet, as the royal cavalcade progressed from town to town, additional restrictions were tacked on to the Edict of Amboise, which was already bad enough. In June the king forbade reformed merchants from opening their shops on Catholic feast days. In that same month, he outlawed Huguenot religious services from anywhere the king happened to be. In August, he enjoined all judges from admitting to their chateaux any reformers other than their own vassals and servants.
The Brethren sought in vain any firm principle in the king’s inconstancy, which seemed dictated merely by circumstance or personal pressures. The king, who was only fourteen, yet seemed more childish than his age, had no will other than the regent’s. The niece of Pope Leo X, Catherine had inherited her uncle’s high forehead, bulging eyes and deep scepticism. Foreign to religious passion and almost to faith itself, she neither hated nor loved the Reformation: it was but a pawn on the chessboard of France which she could play according to the moment or need, saving it or sacrificing it as she wished.
In mid June the Brethren found new reasons to grieve. A courier brought news that Calvin had died on 27th May in Geneva, worn out by his great work. The Reformation had changed the face of the world. Through his enlightened writing, his often improvised yet clear and carefully chosen words, by the firmness of his doctrine and the integrity of his character, by the ardent proselytizing which inspired his many letters, which touched so many people, by the democratic organization he had given to the churches, by the inspired pastors he had taken time off from his many duties to train, he had spread
the reform from Geneva to Lausanne, on into France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Hungary and Palestine.
“Calvin is dead,” wrote Sauveterre in the
Book of Reason
, “but his work will live on.”
“I believe it will, too,” added my father, “and yet our fiercest ordeals are yet to come. In this strange cavalcade of the regent and the king across the kingdom, I think I can detect a gathering of clouds which, sooner or later, are going to open up over our heads.”
At the end of June, when the grass had grown tall in our fields and the summer heat threatened to dry it out too fast, my father sent me to the le Breuil farm and the quarry to seek Cabusse and Jonas to help with the haying the next day. I went alone on my black pony, Samson having sprained his ankle in a fall from his horse the day before. Not finding Jonas at his quarry, I set out to look for Cabusse, and caught sight of him, hair beginning to grow back where he’d been wounded, making a fence so that he wouldn’t always be having to watch his flock of sheep.
“An expensive project,” I laughed as I dismounted, leaving Accla to graze freely.
“Not so much expense really,” answered Cabusse, pulling on his moustache, and happy for an excuse to pause in his work. “The fence posts come from my own woods. Anyway, I’m rich again since the baron gave me thirty écus for the expedition to Sarlat.”
“Thirty écus! Were you the only one to get paid?”
“Oh no. The baron gave twenty écus to Jonas, twenty to Coulondre Iron-arm, twenty to Escorgol, twenty to Benoît and twenty-five to Michel, since Michel was wounded. But Michel said he wouldn’t take more than his brother, and returned five écus.”
“And you got thirty?”
“Five more than the others because I was wounded and five
because I was in command.” After a moment of reflection, I said, “This booty has troubled my conscience. Where did it all come from if not from the purses of the people of Sarlat who had been paying tolls to the butcher-baron?”
“Well, but who liberated the people of Sarlat from the claws of this scoundrel? Booty is a right of war. And the liberation of Sarlat was well worth this little tax on the fat burghers who stayed quietly at home in bed while we were fighting.”
“So that’s how you see it, Cabusse?” I said astonished. “And what about killing all the wounded?”
“An act of mercy for those who were caught. If I’d been one of those good-for-nothings condemned to the worst tortures, I’d have paid to be killed.”
And that’s just what Forcalquier did, I thought. But I said nothing. Cathau had just appeared in the sun at the foot of the meadow, all fresh in a red petticoat bordered in blue, her bonnet perched on her head, her feet bare in the new grass and carrying a pretty little baby in her bare arms.
“Good day, Cathau!” I cried with a playfulness I’d learnt from my father, though I felt a pang in my heart, for she’d served for so long as the chambermaid to Isabelle de Siorac that I could never see her without thinking of my mother and the medallion I wore about my neck.
“Good day, Master Pierre!” she returned. And added eagerly, and not without a hint of malice: “What news of Mespech? I hear Franchou is quite pregnant.”
“Who will ever keep a woman’s tongue from wagging?” said Cabusse unhappily.
“Well it did seem to me,” I confessed “that Franchou was indeed getting a bit stout. But as for the cause, I couldn’t say. You’d have to ask my father, who is a doctor.”
“Well said, Master Pierre!” laughed Cabusse, as Cathau turned away, confounded by my response. But she had also turned in order to nurse her baby, since, unlike Barberine, she wouldn’t show her breast in public, Cabusse being too jealous.
“Anyway,” I said, “our plan failed and we lost a man.”
“Hey, Master Pierre,” said Cabusse straightening up, a hand on his hip and the other stroking his moustache. “Plans in war are like thrusts in fencing. The best cogitated of ’em” (he favoured this word “cogitated” lately having learnt it from my father) “the best prepared and the best executed sometimes get parried.”
“But Cockeyed Marsal is dead.”
“He died in combat. It’s the best death and comes quickly. It’s a pity for us, but lucky for him never to know the sweat and suffering of a stinking sickbed.”
“Hey! Don’t talk about such things, Jéhan Cabusse!” said Cathau, turning slightly so that I just barely caught a glimpse of part of her breast. “Those are foolish and sorrowful words and they give me the shivers.”
“If Master Pierre weren’t here, I’d quickly change your shivers into frissons!” joked Cabusse with a laugh. “But I’m not interested in sorrow. And the baron did a worthy thing in telling Faujanet to make a coffin out of chestnut to bury his old soldier. That’s a lot of expense for a servant when you think about it. I know many a gentlemen in the region who has buried his mercenaries right in the ground just sewn up in sacking.”
“Thank God,” I said modestly, “the Brethren are rich.”
“But they’ve got their hearts in the right place as well,” said Cabusse. “And remember what Calvin said: ‘Gold and silver are worthy creatures when they are put to good use.’”
This quotation hardly surprised me since Cabusse had gone from a lukewarm Catholic to a fervent Huguenot, I mean deep down in
the grain of his being, though he was still the same fun-loving, joking Gascon on the surface.
“Well, I must be on my way,” I said. “Otherwise Accla will eat your whole field like a grasshopper in wheat.”
“There’s no lack of grass on my le Breuil farm,” Cabusse proclaimed proudly.
“Here, Accla!” I called. But Accla, a few steps away, her reins tied to her withers, entirely absorbed in her feast, carefully selecting the sweetest and most savoury grasses, leaving the less appealing ones to the sheep who would come after, pretended not to hear me, her eyelids batting hypocritically over her oblique eyes.
“Accla, come here!” I called more sharply, striking my boot with my whip. Pulling out a last mouthful of grass with a sigh, Accla remembered her manners and, trotting over to us with her gracious and lofty gait, head held high, her mane well brushed, she came seeking caresses from each of us, making a friendly “pfffut” and even giving a little lick to the baby.
“She’s a beauty,” said Cabusse. “Did you ever see such a gorgeous horse come out of such a wicked place?”
“Master Pierre,” Cathau said, “you should breed her. It’s time.”
“I know,” I agreed, “leaping into the saddle. “The problem is finding a stallion of her same breed and colouring. Goodbye, Cathau. See you tomorrow, Cabusse!”
“See you tomorrow! At daybreak!”
Unlike the terrible drought of 1563, when Mespech had very nearly hanged Petremol’s cousin for stealing grass from our fields, 1564 was a year of abundant hay, especially for those, like the Brethren, who were smart enough to cut it and get it in early, for there were heavy rains at the beginning of July, followed immediately by a
stifling heatwave which dried the harvests to perfection but must have seriously inconvenienced—we often joked about this—all the precious courtesans dressed in silk who were travelling the highways and byways of France with the king.
During the haying, our Petremol, leaving off his saddle and harness work, proved he was a good field hand, taking just the right cuts with his scythe, moving through his swathe in a straight line, keeping the general rhythm set by the lead cutter and moving at the same pace as his neighbours. And when it came time to pause and sharpen the blades, he put aside his sorrows and got into the spirit of the day, catching on quickly to the jokes and responding in kind, brushing off cracks about the colour of his hair with easy laughter—the kind of laughter that relaxes a man and gives him the heart to attack his work without complaint. For men are a lot like women in their work: able to get pleasure from their tongues to compensate for the pains of their labour.
In the evening of the last day of haying, the Brethren retired early because of the many long days in the saddle riding watch over the hayers. Samson and I stayed up with the servants and tenant farmers as they sat around the big table, all the windows open wide to the summer evening, and two fingers of plum brandy in their cups. When la Maligou finally sat down among us with heavy sighs and a series of “
” to indicate that, even if she hadn’t been out haying like Alazaïs, she’d been slaving like the damned over our supper, she looked over at Petremol and said with utter seriousness: “My poor Petremol, hair redder than yours I’ve never laid eyes on.”
Petremol, who thought it was another joke, just smiled and said, “Red hair I’ve got and so has my donkey, but a braver beast than him or me I’ve never laid eyes on either.” The rest of us smiled at this, but not la Maligou.
“I’m not joking,” she said gravely. “It’s a great rarity for a man to have such red hair.”
“Hey, Maligou!” called Cabusse, Cathau’s head leaning on his shoulder and their baby asleep in her arms. “Don’t go getting fooled! Petremol’s no Gypsy captain!”