Authors: Robert Merle
Of the five Protestant lords present (not counting the Brethren), Caumont and Saint-Geniès appeared to be the best informed, perhaps because they had spent the most time with the royal cavalcade and had successfully gleaned some information there. I noticed as well that everyone spoke with infinite circumspection, as if our very walls had ears, and used biblical code names which it took me a while to master: Catherine de’ Medici became
; the Duque de Alba
; Henri de Navarre
; and Admiral de Coligny
“I have it on good authority,” Caumont began, “that David heard Holofernes telling some French lords in the conference room one day that they would have to ‘get rid of five or six leaders’ of our party.”
“Did he name them?” asked my father.
“Yes. They included Elijah and his two brothers, d’Andelot and Odet de Châtillon as well as the prince himself. One of the Frenchmen pointed out to Holofernes that the mass of reformers should all be punished. To which Holofernes replied, clearly indicating Elijah: ‘A good salmon is worth a hundred frogs.’”
“Have you any idea,” my father asked, “what Holofernes wanted from Jezebel?”
“I think so,” replied Saint-Geniès. “First of all, France’s acceptance of the Council of Trent.”
“But this doesn’t depend entirely on Jezebel or even on her son,” Geoffroy de Baynac argued, “but rather on parliament and also on the French Church, which is quite hostile, as everyone knows, to this council which has given the Pope extensive powers he’d never previously enjoyed over the French Church and the French king.”
“And in the second place,” continued Saint-Geniès, “Holofernes wants the revocation of the Edict of Amboise.”
“Or what’s left of it,” mused Sauveterre bitterly, Jezebel having eaten away at it already for some time.
“And thirdly,” said Saint-Geniès, “what Caumont just said: the death of the salmon and all other fish of the same size. After these assassinations, the frogs would be given three options: convert, go into exile or risk the stake. Either of the second choices would entail confiscation of all their property.”
A lugubrious silence followed this announcement, during which each doubtless imagined the worst: being forced to leave for ever his beautiful chateau, his lands, his servants, his tenant farmers and his villages.
“And what was Jezebel’s answer to all this?” asked my father.
“The shop lady was ready to do business,” Saint-Geniès spat out bitterly. “In short: ‘Give your sister and your son to my children and we’ll give the knife to the Protestants.”’
“She’d sell us all!” cried my father. “And what did Holofernes say?”
“‘This is not an honourable trade, Madame.’”
“As indeed it is not!” said Sauveterre.
“‘The Catholic king,’ Holofernes is said to have added with his Spanish arrogance, ‘wants to know whether or not you are ready to remedy this problem of religion.’”
“I admire his way of expressing himself!” said my father. “Exterminating half of the population is called, in this bloody diplomacy, ‘remedying this problem of religion’. And how did Jezebel respond when presented with this rebuff and this ultimatum?”
“With vague and uncertain promises, coupled with protests, caresses and infinite respects for Holofernes’s master, whom she called ‘my son’, and who couldn’t even be bothered to meet her in Bayonne.”
“She’s a snake grovelling in the dust at her Spanish master’s feet,” snarled Caumont, “and yet there’s no question of any marriage between her dear little son and Doña Juana, nor between Marguerite
and Don Carlos. I’m told on good authority that Holofernes sent Jezebel a categorical refusal of any such union.”
Another long silence followed these words as the gentlemen breathed a modest sigh of relief through their anger and worry. This new mood did not escape my father’s notice, for he said, a little hastily I thought: “And yet we must be on our guard and not reassure ourselves too easily. If Holofernes’s refusal of these marriage proposals gives us some respite, this respite doesn’t remove the sword hanging over our heads. It’s still there, and can be swayed by any breeze that blows through the mind of this woman. It will hang there day and night, winter and summer and only Jezebel’s whim will determine whether the thread will be cut or no.”
He paused, and then continued gravely: “My friends, it is time to decide firmly and forthrightly to arm our allies throughout the province, to fortify our positions and to create a union among them strong enough so that no one can be attacked without the others coming to his defence.”
I was greatly troubled by my father’s words, for, as long as I’d had any understanding of these matters, I knew him to be a Huguenot loyalist, who had refused during the civil wars to join Condé’s camp. Now he was proposing to his peers to “arm and fortify themselves” against royal power. And thinking more about it as I lay in bed that night beside the sleeping Samson, I realized with trepidation that the danger threatening our people must be immense and quite imminent for my father to have changed his position to such a degree.
On the fifteenth day of March 1566, a few days before my fifteenth birthday, little Hélix’s suffering became unbearable, just as my father had predicted, and he administered small doses of opium to her. Still, her moans and cries increased in intensity and frequency, and
we installed her in a small room on the ground floor. We also put in a bed for Barberine, but in fact I was the one to occupy it, justifying my presence there by my future profession and by the fact that since Barberine slept so soundly that a cannon blast wouldn’t wake her, her presence at night was of but little help.
My poor Hélix had grown excessively thin and had fallen into such an extreme state of cachexia that she weighed no more than a shadow. I felt this especially when I took her in my arms to carry her into the common room when her sickness gave her some respite. It seemed that everything was going at once, her flesh, her musculature, her nerves and the vital elements that circulated in them. For she grew weaker as she grew thinner, and daily seemed more detached from life, requesting less and less frequently to be carried in to be with the others. This came almost as a relief, since every time I picked her up I was devastated by how much lighter she felt in my arms and I could scarcely hide my anguish in her presence. Worse still, when she was settled in a chair, covered to her neck (her emaciation and running fever having made her quite susceptible to cold), I noticed, in contrast to the ruddy faces, loud voices and vigorous gestures of those around her, how pale and angular her face had become, how weak her voice and how languid her poor skeletal arms.
I spent as much time with her as I could. Until the fateful day that death shall take me, I shall never forget the marvellous love that would suddenly illuminate her mournful eye when I would appear in the doorway. But it was but a flash, for she was too weakened to maintain this light. She seemed comfortable in this little room, especially when she was first moved there and still spoke of getting well and cared about her body. “Oh Pierre, when I shall be on my feet again, you won’t care about me any more. I’ll be too ugly. I’ll have a neck like a chicken, hollow shoulders and breasts as flat as my hand.”
“You’ll fatten up, Hélix. As soon as your pain stops, flesh will grow back under your skin, all beautiful and firm again, just like Franchou, whom you envy so.”
“But when, when, when?” she said so plaintively that my heart was like to break. “I’m so tired by this long and painful convalescence. It’s nearly two years since I’ve run about the courtyard in Mespech. And I think that if I ever get well, it’ll be too late and you’ll have already left to become a doctor in Montpellier.”
I thought she was going to weep, but she no longer seemed to have the strength for tears. Her thin little hand made a little movement in the hollow of mine, and, succumbing to the opium my father had given her, she slipped into a deep slumber.
One April morning she asked me, “Are those birds I hear?”
“Yes indeed! And there are hundreds of them!”
“Oh Pierre, there are leaves on the trees in the close around the moat. The new grass is all tender, and the wheat is already up. And next year I’ll be in the cold dark ground.”
“Silly goose,” I comforted. “Next year you’ll be right here at Mespech in my arms, just like today.”
She answered “no” with a look, no longer having the strength to contradict me, and fell asleep, her poor head on my shoulder weighing no more than a dead bird. I fell into a deep meditation, which only made me sadder the more I thought, yet I could not escape it. In the evening of that same day, I was alone with my father in the library and asked, “Father, can you clarify something for me, please? When Christ was before Lazarus’s tomb, it says in the Gospel according to St John, “And Jesus wept.”
“Is this what’s bothering you?”
“Yes. I don’t understand His tears. Why does Christ cry about the death of Lazarus when He has come to his tomb to resuscitate him?”
“Your question, my son, shows how carefully you have read the Scriptures. The answer to your question is that Jesus does not mourn Lazarus as the Jews who are watching him think. His tears are for the ineluctable separation of the living and the dead.”
This woefully beautiful answer entered me like an arrow that cut the thread between Hélix and me, and, to my confusion and shame, uncontrollable tears burst from my eyes. Seeing this, my father rose and hugged me to his chest and whispered to me with immense tenderness: “You were nursed and raised with little Hélix and naturally you love her dearly. Your tears do not surprise me. Don’t be ashamed of your sorrow, nor afraid of how long it will last. Suffering takes a very long time.”
I felt I might drown in my father’s delicate kindness, yet at the same time I was so strengthened by it that I dared to ask my father a question that had been troubling me deeply ever since I’d known little Hélix was failing. “Father, will she be saved?”
“Oh, Pierre! Who can answer your question except the Maker of all things? And yet,” he continued after a thoughtful silence, “if there is an ounce of value in the frailty of my human judgement, I will say that I hope and believe it. She is so young to be called to her Maker.”
Whenever he knew I was there, Samson would come to visit little Hélix, and sitting modestly by, illuminating the room with his copper-coloured hair, he would remain there smiling at the patient without moving or talking. Miroul also came to visit her with his viol. The instrument had been my mother’s and had been given to our valet at Sauveterre’s insistence, who appreciated the boy’s beautiful voice. As Uncle de Sauveterre expected, Miroul had taught himself to play, having a heaven-sent gift of music. On Sundays, when we celebrated Communion at Mespech, he sang the Psalms of David,
holding his viol on his knees and sweetly plucking its strings. That Sauveterre had arranged this astonished me at first. I had grown up believing that music, even religious music, was very voluptuous. But I saw that Calvin himself believed otherwise when later I read from his pen that “it had a wondrous and vigorous power to inflame men’s hearts to praise God with an ever greater zeal.”
Hélix’s poor little face lit up when she heard Miroul, and every time he appeared she sang in a sweet, low voice: “Miroul’s got bright eyes! Oh yes, but / One is blue, and the other’s chestnut…”
If her head did not ache too badly, she would ask him for a psalm, always the same, the one beginning “Bless our paths, O Lord…”. Miroul sang it in a most arresting voice, his viol on his knees. This psalm must have pleased Hélix because it was a song of hope and because she believed she was at the end of her voyage and gave herself over to the Lord to guide her—but she also loved it because it sang of paths and routes and because she had for so long been confined to her bed by her extreme frailty.
“Pierre, my love,” she said one day, her voice so tenuous now that I could hardly hear her, “I have only to hear this psalm sung to remember the time I rode behind you on your horse on the way to the le Breuil farm three years ago.”
When she was first settled in the little room on the ground floor, Barberine came to see her often, but all she could do was cry bitterly for hours at a time, which troubled little Hélix so much that my father urged her mother to make her visits shorter and less frequent. The rest of our household was urged to greet her from the door without coming into the room, especially la Maligou, who didn’t cry so much, but rather tired the patient out with her endless gossip.
My little sister Catherine, her blonde braids hanging sadly about her face and a doll on her arm, came in one day to see Hélix when she was in one of her periods of remission. She asked for the doll,
and hugged it and cradled it in her arms despite her age, as if it were her own little baby smiling happily all the time. Seeing this, Catherine said to her, “Hélix, I want to give her to you. She’s yours!”
Whereupon, she ran off, and went to her room to cry her heart out over the loss of her favourite doll whom she loved tenderly. I went to find her as soon as I could, suspecting how aggrieved she was. She now occupied my mother’s majestic room, the largest and most beautiful in Mespech, with purple and gold curtains framing its arched windows, and a richly ornamented four-poster bed. It was in this bed, so enormous for her little body, that I found her sobbing and succeeded in consoling her.
From that day on, the doll never left little Hélix’s arms, who seemed ever smaller, being so thin and frail. Remembering how, one night when she was still healthy and happy, she’d awakened me to confide in me her terror of hell because of her “great sin”, I worried that she might once again be feeling this fear along with the apprehension of her death. But both during her remissions and her crises, with her doll hugged tightly to her, she seemed quite serene and almost gay.
During the day, one or another of our servants would pop their heads in at the door and greet her: “Good morning, Hélix, how are you?” She could make no response when she was in one of her crises, but otherwise, she would smile sweetly and answer in a sing-song voice as she hugged her doll: “Better, better, much better!”