Authors: Robert Merle
“And he hasn’t got a magic wand!” Escorgol chimed in, always quick on the uptake. Everyone laughed, and Alazaïs, disgusted by this turn of the conversation, got up from table and left without a word to anyone, her neck stiff and her back straight. As soon as the door had closed behind her, Escorgol put in:
“My friends, now that we’re alone, I’ve got a riddle for you! Cathau! Jacotte! Sarrazine! A riddle!” And he paused for effect. “What gets bigger when a woman’s hands touch it?”
“Dirty old lecher!” said la Maligou.
“You’re the lecher to think such dirty thoughts!” Escorgol replied. “Let’s see, what gets bigger when women’s hands touch it? It’s a… It’s a…” And since everyone was laughing but no one would venture a guess, Escorgol said triumphantly, “It’s a distaff!”
Everyone laughed uproariously at this riddle, and Cabusse observed amiably, “That’s a good jest our Provençal has brought us from his Provence. But, my friends, don’t laugh too loudly or we’ll wake the captains.”
“You may wake one, but not the other, I’ll wager,” whispered Cathau.
“Peace, woman, hold your tongue!” snapped Cabusse. At this everyone lowered their eyes and there was not the least smile, except perhaps secretly.
“A distaff, a distaff!” said la Maligou, putting on airs. “You can’t talk seriously with such men. Always hot in the kidneys and tight in the crotch!”
“Who are you to complain?” said Jonas, who still resented la Maligou for her evil gossip about his wife. “Sarrazine,” he added,
“since it seems you were a wolf, go bite this fat bawd on the arse and draw out some blood since she’s got too much of it.”
” cried la Maligou, genuinely scared and pulling her fat body into a ball on her stool as she rolled her eyes. We all gave a great belly laugh at her terror, but none harder than Petremol, who got tears in his eyes, though perhaps from gratitude as much as hilarity, since he was working his trade again, surrounded by good and jolly companions who already accepted him as one of their own. Poor Petremol, who tried so hard not to think of his wife or his four little ones, save that at table he always sat next to Samson. Everyone knew very well why, of course, and Samson most of all, angel of mercy that he was, who always went out of his way to talk to him and even visited his tannery during the day to ask him about his work.
Cabusse, who always played the master in the absence of the Brethren, especially now that his house had a spiral staircase which gave it a lordly look, raised his hand and said: “Friends, let Maligou speak! She wants to tell us about the rarity of red hair.”
“But redheads aren’t so rare,” objected Michel Siorac, whom we could now recognize by his scar, at least when he turned his head to the left.
“Samson’s also got red hair,” echoed Benoît.
“No, no!” cried la Maligou. “It’s not the same at all! Samson’s hair is copper-coloured. Petremol’s is red like rust. For my purposes, Samson’s no good to me!”
“And lucky he is!” joked Escorgol, and everyone laughed again. But Cabusse pulled at his moustache and said sternly: “All right everyone, let her speak!”
“Well, as you see,” la Maligou went on, “from scratching myself so much, I’ve got red marks on my eyelids, caused by the smoke from my fire, being all day bent over the pot. Now the baron told me to wash my eyes with boiled water every night, but with all due
respect, water doesn’t do them any good. And since I know another remedy, I’d like to try it, if Petremol will accommodate me, seeing as he’s a redhead.”
Surprise and some laughter greeted this announcement, but Cabusse silenced them with a gesture.
“If it won’t cost anything,” said Petremol prudently, “either to my body, my modest savings, or my health, I’ll do it.”
“It won’t cost you a sou,” la Maligou assured him, “only a bit of your excrement, collected in the morning when it’s freshly laid.”
“Sweet Jesus!” Barberine gasped. “It’s not possible you’re going to stick shit in your eye?”
“’Cause at noon or at supper time it may fall out into the pot you’re cooking,” added Escorgol.
At this another round of laughter shook our bellies that even Cabusse couldn’t silence, especially since he was laughing harder than the rest of us. When finally this hilarity began to calm down, la Maligou went on haughtily: “Ignorant barbarians that you are, you probably aren’t aware that the excrement of a redhead is the best cure for redness in the eyes and problems of vision, as well as against the film that covers your eyes in old age.”
“But,” Petremol cautioned modestly, “you know my excrement stinks.”
“Like all stools,” replied la Maligou. “You don’t think, you peon, that I’d apply it to my body just the way it comes out! No, you have to distil it, and since even when you’ve gathered its essence it smells, you’ve got to mix it with camphor and musk.”
“Bless me,” Petremol exclaimed, “if my shit is going to be distilled, and mixed with musk and camphor, then I’ll give it all to you, Maligou, every single blessed day I make it!”
We laughed again, even louder, longer and more uproariously than before.
“Oh lord, I could die laughing, my stomach hurts so,” cried Sarrazine. “Maligou, I won’t sink my wolf’s teeth into your arse, I’m so amazed at you! I forgive you!”
At this, Coulondre, who hadn’t cracked a smile the entire evening, got up and, leaning his arms on the table, cleared his throat to speak. Of course, we all expected one of his lugubrious and icy remarks, but he contented himself with announcing that it was late, and that he didn’t like leaving his mill for so long with only his dogs to guard it. Jonas and Cabusse also stood up, saying that it was a long way back to le Breuil, and so ended our haying night, which we remembered for a long time at Mespech and in our villages, we had laughed so much and so hard.
One night later, as we lay in the darkness of our tower, Barberine’s lamp extinguished, her snores going full steam like a forge, little Hélix spurned our nightly games but lay quiet in my arms and said to me in a strangled voice as if she had a knot in her throat: “Pierre, I have a terrible ache in my head and such awful pain that I think I’m going to die.”
“You don’t die of a headache,” I answered. “It’s just too much meat and drink, whose vapours fill and muddle the stomach, and ascend through your veins and arteries to the brain.”
“Oh, my Pierre,” she moaned, “I know you’re very learned, but this headache is a thousand times worse than any I’ve ever had. I’m afraid of dying, being so young and so full of my sins.”
I reassured her again, and took her in my arms, where she cuddled but could not relax in the least, troubled by shudders and moans that were like to break my heart so evident was her pain. I am greatly ashamed to admit that, as worried as I was about her, I was the first to fall asleep, being so tired from the last several days in the saddle from dawn to dusk.
However, the next morning, Hélix was better, though still weak
and quite pale. Her headache was benumbed, she said, but she complained that a veil would come over her eyes from time to time, making everything vague and misshapen, as though through a mist.
On 12th July, Franchou lay down alone and without a whimper bore a son whom she called David. My father sent for Ricou, the notary, and added to the will he’d drawn up before leaving for Calais a codicil stating that, upon coming of age, the boy would receive a settlement of 2,000 écus and that he should be named David de Siorac.
I don’t know why the summer and autumn seemed to slip by so quickly that year, perhaps because we spent so much time debating the reasons for the royal cavalcade through the kingdom. Everyone at Mespech got into it, and Miroul most of all, having a mind as agile as his body. Moreover, he was learning fast under Alazaïs’s rod—and I mean rod literally, for during her lessons she was armed with a stick which she employed, at the least error, to rap her students’ knuckles.
“Poor Miroul,” I would say when he entered the stables, “I can tell where you’ve been. Just look at your fingers.”
“Oh, that’s not the worst of it,” Miroul would reply as he began brushing down Accla’s right flank while I tended to her left. “The worst,” he continued, looking at me over the pony’s rump with his strangely coloured eyes, “is that she won’t answer my questions.”
“Well, ask me then.”
“May, I, Master Pierre?”
“Of course,” I replied, for I was trying to educate him, believing it to be my duty as a Huguenot.
“I’d like to know,” Miroul said, “why Prince Henri de Navarre lives at the court of our king and not in his own kingdom with his mother.”
“He’s of our religion, like his mother Jeanne d’Albret, and since Navarre is so close to Spain, Jeanne is afraid that he would be educated by the Catholic king.”
“But could he leave the court of the king of France if he wanted to?”
“Oh no! He’s a guest of Charles IX, but also somewhat his hostage.”
“But why is he held hostage?”
“He’s a Bourbon. If Charles IX and his brothers died childless, Henri de Navarre could accede to the throne.”
“A Huguenot, king of France?” Miroul’s blue and brown eyes lit up with such deep joy that I thought I’d better temper it a bit.
“But Henri de Navarre is only eleven years old, Miroul, and it would be amazing if the three Valois princes were to die childless.”
“Still,” Miroul said.
At the end of November, Geoffroy de Caumont, whom we hadn’t seen in a long time, came to see us from Milandes, full of stories about the meeting of the two queens, Jeanne d’Albret and Catherine de’ Medici. Jeanne had been invited to join the royal cavalcade while in progress, in order to embrace her son and discuss with the king her grievances against Montluc.
“I was among the 300 knights who escorted Jeanne d’Albret on her departure from Pau on 2nd April,” Caumont announced proudly. “The extraordinary thing is that the queen of Navarre has been travelling north, gracing our reformed churches with her favour and her wealth, while the queen mother and the king have been heading south making new laws against us… Did you know that in Limoges, where she is vicomtesse, Jeanne d’Albret forced the canons of Saint-Martial to carry the cathedra from the altar out onto the public square, where she sat for two hours, with the wind in her hair, gesticulating and preaching the reformed religion to the populace? Would you believe it? After she left, the canons took their
revenge by spreading around a nasty lampoon they’d composed: ‘Indoctrination’s but a joke, / When the sermon’s by a lady spoke.’”
“This is base verse and basely thought!” said my father.
“Of course,” agreed Caumont. “By its poison do we know the snake.”
“Have the consuls of Bergerac told you about the school that Antoine de Poynet wants to establish for our religion?” asked Sauveterre, who took this project much to heart.
“Yes indeed! And she is going to broach it to the king. You know, my cousin,” added Caumont, his black eyes afire under his bushy eyebrows, “the best part of all was the meeting of these two retinues at Macon. Monsieur de Sauveterre,” he continued, turning courteously to my uncle, “and you my cousin, I urge you to try to imagine the astonishment of the Florentine’s eighty perfumed and gold-brocaded whores when the queen of Navarre appeared without a jewel, not one pearl, entirely dressed in black, surrounded by eight Huguenot ministers and followed by 300 Gascon horsemen, dressed in leather, not in silk, all booted and dirty, perfumed with garlic and sweat not musk. Well, my cousin, there’s not one France but two! The northern one is rich, proud, powerful and spoilt rotten with vice. The southern one is worth twice as much as the other.”
My father laughed at this joke, but Sauveterre gave a brief smile and said gravely: “There are not two Frances, Caumont, just one, and someday that one will, I hope, be Huguenot.”
“Amen!” said Caumont.
“Did you see Henri de Navarre?” my father asked.
“Certainly, and more than once. And I was able to observe him at my leisure. He’s a handsome little prince who though so young seemed to display all the qualities of a mature man. He knows very well who he is, and when he converses with his courtiers, he says exactly what he is supposed to.”
“Ah,” mused Sauveterre, “if only the court weren’t such a den of corruption, I’d say that the dangers and intrigues surrounding him would sharpen his mind…”
“…and he’s got a very lively one, Monsieur! As well as an easy manner of speaking, much courage mixed with great prudence, and a sharp eye which is a good judge of men.”
Listening to these praises, I became a bit jealous of this prince, who, though only two years my senior, seemed so superior to me in so many things. At the same time, I was taking careful notes of Caumont’s portrait of him so that I could repeat it all word for word to Miroul.
“May God dry up these Valois with sterility,” said my father gravely, “as Christ did the ungrateful fig tree. And may the Crown of France land on Henri de Navarre’s brow!”
“Would you believe it?” said Caumont, so moved by his enthusiasm that he got up from his chair and paced excitedly about the library. “The great Nostradamus has prophesied it!”
“Humph!” my father grumbled, raising an eyebrow. “A physician who makes prophecies!”
“And why not, if they are right?” cried Caumont. “Are you forgetting, my cousin, that Nostradamus predicted the fatal wounding of Henri II during his joust against Montgomery, right down to the last details?”
And Caumont straightaway began to recite the verses that all of France had repeated at that time: “The young lion the old shall overcome, / On bellicose field, in singular duel…” He got no further, for Sauveterre interrupted him: “We know those verses,” he said, a little impatiently, “and don’t doubt the marvellous clairvoyance of their author. Please, Caumont, go on.”
“Listen,” Caumont said. And in a loud voice, his eyes shining, he recited: “On the seventeenth day of the month of October 1564,
the royal retinue was staying at Salon and Michel de Nostre-Dame most insistently requested Catherine de’ Medici to allow him to observe Henri de Navarre alone and at his leisure. On the queen mother’s order, he was taken to the prince’s rooms where he found the prince naked, waiting to be clothed in his shirt. Nostradamus quietly ordered that he be left in this condition, wishing to observe him naked. Indeed, he watched him so long that Henri, not knowing who he was, wondered if he’d been kept naked because they were planning to whip him for some mischief or other.”