Authors: Robert Merle
The severe face of Caumont broke into a sympathetic smile here as he paused in his recitation. “Nostradamus,” he continued, “finally withdrew without a word, and before taking his leave, stopping and looking at the prince’s attendants said in a grave voice: ‘
This child will inherit everything
Caumont sat down again. My father and Sauveterre seemed to be cast in bronze, and for a full minute such a pall of grave meditation fell over the room that I hardly dared breathe, fearing the noise I might make. I saw out of the corner of my eye (for I didn’t even dare turn my head) that Samson and François also appeared to be petrified. I don’t know how long this silence, immobility and the furious beating of my heart went on, but I remember quite well that it was Sauveterre whose voice first broke in on our terrible hopes for a Huguenot king. He said in a voice so raspy that it seemed to be ripped from his entrails: “My brothers, let us pray.”
And, bad leg and all, he steadied himself with a powerful hand on the back of his chair and lowered himself to his knees.
The haying of 1565 was as abundant as it was the previous year, but I stayed away from the festive dinner that followed, having no heart for the bawdy jokes since I was so troubled by little Hélix’s
health. In the year since she had been afflicted, her health had not really returned, indeed far from it. Her complexion had gradually worsened, leaving her face a pallid, sickly colour, and when she was struck from time to time with extreme pains and dizziness she would virtually go blind, lose all speech and almost all reason.
My father examined her repeatedly and, unable to make a diagnosis, called in Monsieur de Lascaux, despite the raised eyebrows of Sauveterre, who was against going to such expense over a serving girl. But my father persisted, feeling compassion for little Hélix, and even more so for Barberine, who was tormented with worry to see her daughter waste away month after month.
Monsieur de Lascaux came one Thursday in his carriage, accompanied by two aides, who seemed to serve no other function than to make him seem important. Learning that there was no fever, he had her undressed, and, with a mask over his face, felt her arms, legs and abdomen with his gloved hand. He asked Barberine if, during her infancy, she’d had smallpox, measles or mumps.
“No,” Barberine answered, tears streaming down her fat cheeks, “she’s never had any of ’em.”
“I thought not,” answered Monsieur de Lascaux. Then, withdrawing into the library with his aides, my father and me, he paced gravely back and forth, his head bowed under the weight of his heavy thoughts. However, when finally my father courteously asked if he’d like to sit down, he deigned to take a seat in one of the armchairs.
“Well, Monsieur de Lascaux, what do you think?” my father asked, impatient with this long silence.
“The case is perfectly clear,” pontificated Monsieur de Lascaux. “The source of this malady is in the mass of bad corrupted blood that never got purified in this poor girl by smallpox, mumps, measles or any of the other outlets Nature has provided for this end. Now, this great mass of blood, growing ever more infected over
the years since it was never purged, has ended up entering the entrails, the liver, the spleen, the viscera and other surrounding parts of the body. Thus, since everything has been perverted, the brain is also debilitated and has been filled with fumes, vapours and exhalations of venomous acrimony and acidity. This results in these terrible headaches and dizziness which you have observed, for the unhealthy vapours I mentioned have obscured, stifled and oppressed the sensitive nerves and meninges to the point where the animal spirit is unable to circulate and sight and language are weakened. In short, we have here a sympathetic epilepsy rather than an idiopathic one, since it’s not coming from the brain itself, which is not prey to any corruption—”
“And yet that’s where the pain is,” observed my father.
“The pain,” corrected Monsieur de Lascaux, obviously irritated at this interruption, “comes from the vitriolic vapours and exhalations which are ascending to the brain from all parts of the body.”
After a moment my father said, “It is thus your opinion, Monsieur, that it’s a case of epilepsy. And yet the patient has never fallen.”
“She will,” opined Monsieur de Lascaux.
“She displays neither stiffening nor convulsions nor any shortness of breath.”
“She will,” said Monsieur de Lascaux. There was a long and awkward silence.
“And what cure do you recommend?” Jean de Siorac asked.
“Frequent bleeding,” replied Monsieur de Lascaux, rising and making a deep bow to my father, for he knew all too well how opposed my father was to this sovereign remedy. But my father did not say a word and, rising in his turn, he politely walked Monsieur de Lascaux out to his carriage, the two aides following at a distance, their arms drooped at their sides, their minds blank and mute as portraits.
“Well,” Sauveterre said, limping into the courtyard after my father
and keeping his voice low so the servants would not hear, “what did you get from this consultation?”
“Lots of straw and little grain. A nice speech. A fallacious diagnosis. And an imbecilic cure.”
“Good money thrown away…”
“True enough! But I had to!” replied my father irritably, and, with me at his heels, he walked brusquely away towards the library.
“Father,” I said, my throat in a knot, “what is your view of this sickness?”
My father looked at me, astonished at my emotion, but careful not to say anything about it, whatever he may have thought. “My son,” he said, “the only remedy for ignorance is knowledge, not talk. Pedants, like the ravens on our tower, love to crow about things they know nothing about. But what is such vain crowing to us? We hunger for truth. If I could only open her skull without the poor thing dying, I could learn the cause of her suffering. What I do know is that the sickness is inside her head and only in her head, for the rest of her body is healthy and her vital functions still unimpaired.”
“Father, is it possible it’s the nerve alone that’s disturbed?”
I asked this question in such a strangled voice that my father stared at me, then after he’d considered me for a moment, he said, unable to hide his feelings, “In truth, I fear it is some terrible damage to the meninges. Possibly an abscess.”
“An abscess!” I cried. “But how could it ever drain since it’s covered by the skull?”
“There’s the rub,” my father said. “You’ve put your finger on it.”
“Is there no cure?” I asked, my voice trembling. My father shook his head.
“If it is what I think it is, then there is no remedy. All I will be able to do, when the poor girl’s suffering gets unbearable, is to give her some opium.”
I pretended that Cabusse was waiting for me in the fencing room, and, with a brief bow, I left as quickly as I could so that he wouldn’t see my tears. In the corridor leading to the fencing room I ran into François, who was returning from his lesson and who, as he passed me, raised his head haughtily and, without looking at me or appearing to address me, uttered between his teeth: “What a lot of trouble for that little slut.”
He was already past me, so I ran after him and, seizing his arm roughly, pulled him around to face me and, my eyes still brimming with tears, yet furious, I screamed: “What did you say, knave?”
“N-nothing,” he replied, turning pale and casting an anxious look about him, for we were alone and entirely out of earshot in a long, dark and damp vaulted passageway, lit only by small barred windows overlooking the moat.
I repeated my question, shaking him with both hands, gnashing my teeth and burning with an overwhelming desire to strike him like iron on an anvil.
“I was merely talking to myself,” he stammered, quite undone, realizing that in this lonely spot he could expect no help. I suddenly realized that, though we were the same size, and though he was not a weakling and was a good rider and swordsman, he’d never been able to get over the fear I had aroused in him when I’d beaten him up at the age of six. Fear and hatred existed side by side in him, one feeding on the other, both stewed to boiling point from such long resentment. It was clear I wouldn’t be a frequent guest at Mespech when he was baron!
“My brother,” I said with a menacing politeness, “did you not just now pronounce the word ‘slut’?”
“No indeed!” he lied, his upper lip trembling.
“Well then, be very sure not to pronounce the word, lest you incur my wrath. And now, be on your way, Monsieur!” And as he
set off without a word, I followed him silently for a few paces and then administered him a sudden kick in the arse. He spun around.
“But you’ve struck me!” he sputtered in indignation.
“No indeed!” I replied. “You didn’t pronounce the word ‘slut’, and I didn’t strike you. Let us leave it at this double mistake.”
Camped in front of him, my chin raised and my hands on my hips, I glowered at him. He gave me a nasty look and I thought for a second that he was going to light into me, but his excessive prudence (a virtue he’d inherited neither from my father nor from Isabelle) kept him at bay. He preferred to bottle up his complaint and to store it carefully away in his great chest of bitterness rather than suddenly purge it in an explosion of rage. Without a word, ashen with barely contained fury, he turned on his heels, leaving me the shreds of his honour.
I realized how wise my father had been to forbid us to wear sword or dagger within the walls of Mespech, for François’s vile insult had me beside myself with wrath and, had I possessed a weapon, I surely would have unsheathed it. After François had left, I thought about it a great deal. Master of the field, having vanquished and humiliated him, I was still uncontrollably angry, and I dreamt of blood and wounds to purge the insult he’d directed at my poor Hélix.
I leant against the wall of the arched passageway, and, when my mad fury had finally passed, I felt weak and unhappy, a knot gripping my throat, breath coming so short that I could hardly stand. And yet I did not cry, but contemplated my solitude stretching out before me as long and sad as this dark passageway and damp walls. For I was now sure that little Hélix would die slowly but surely right before my eyes over an unbearably long time.
The day after Monsieur de Lascaux’s visit, as if to give the lie to this terrible unhappiness and to my father’s hopeless diagnosis, little Hélix suddenly recovered her usual strength and gaiety, if not her
colour. Though still of pallid and unhealthy complexion, her terrible headache seemed to have subsided along with the dizzy spells and troubled vision. Barberine, rejoicing in this improvement, broadcast throughout Mespech what a great and marvellous physician Monsieur de Lascaux was, since he’d completely cured her without administering any remedy other than touching various parts of her body with his black-gloved hands.
And seeing her health returning, I pardoned my elder brother François. Meeting him alone in the vaulted passageway that led to the fencing room, I stopped and presented him with a confused apology for having struck him. He listened coldly, and just as icily told me that he regretted the language he’d used, but that I must excuse him for his worry that I was stooping too low in my attachments. The apology was, of course, almost worse than the insult, but I accepted it without raising an eyebrow, saluted my brother and went on my way. I understood that François both despised and envied me for having preferred a close and vulgar affection to his noble and inaccessible love.
On 14th June, the very day Lascaux, followed by his two attendants, had made his grandiose consultation at Mespech, Catherine de’ Medici and the king convened with their daughter and sister, Élisabeth de Valois, queen of Spain. At this meeting in Bayonne, arranged well in advance, Élisabeth was accompanied by the Duque de Alba, Felipe II’s most trusted advisor.
Huguenots throughout the kingdom reacted tumultuously to the awful and threatening news of the Bayonne meeting, all the more so since it took place in secret, without a single Huguenot among the French, who were represented by the constable, Henri de Guise (the son of the assassinated duc), the Cardinal de Bourbon, Montpensier and Bourdillon, all zealous Catholics little inclined to conciliation.
Thus was the reason—or at least the ultimate goal—of the royal cavalcade across the entire length of France finally revealed: a meeting on the Spanish frontier between the French king and the avowed enemy of our faith.
This meeting had been requested, nay insistently beseeched, of Felipe II by Catherine de’ Medici. A woman whose great energy vastly exceeded her wisdom, Catherine remained entirely wedded to her family interests, preferring them, when necessary, to the needs of the kingdom. Now it seemed that the “shop lady”, as her enemies called her, was obsessed with the desire to make princely marriages for her children. She was ready to unite her most cherished son, Henri d’Orléans (the future Henri III) to Felipe II’s recently widowed sister, Doña Juana, on condition that Felipe cede to his sister some part of his extensive empire as dowry. As for Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite de Valois, then twelve years old, the queen mother sought the hand of Felipe’s son, Don Carlos, though he was known throughout Spain as a “half-man”, unable as yet “to prove his virility”.
On 2nd August, a month after the Bayonne meetings, the principal Protestant lords of the Sarlat region, still greatly alarmed, met at Mespech. Armand de Gontaut Saint-Geniès, Foucaud de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and Geoffroy de Caumont arrived separately, under the cover of darkness and in the greatest secrecy. Our entire household had been sent off to bed and Escorgol had even been sent to the le Breuil farm on some business or other and replaced in the gatehouse by the utterly loyal Alazaïs.
François, Samson and I were permitted to attend this meeting, which took place in the library. I was deeply impressed by the sombre faces of these men who were normally so self-assured and confident of their fortunes, yet now seemed quite uneasy, wondering aloud if their fellow religionaries weren’t going to pay dearly for the secret transactions between Felipe II and the Florentine. It was well known
that Catherine had no heart and less conscience, and that Felipe had already drowned the Reformation in blood in his own kingdom and aspired only to exterminate it among his neighbours.