Authors: Robert Merle
It has since often occurred to me that the doll was what I had once been for her when I was much younger and the object of such an immense tenderness from this childlike Eve—a love which later became a sin of the body, but never of the soul.
Little Sissy also came to see Hélix in her room, but she was quickly banished and I well remember why. Though she was a mere eleven years old, like my sister Catherine, she was after other kinds
of games than dolls, her flesh well developed already, full of flirtatious postures and looks, blinking her dark liquid slits of eyes at me provocatively. Despite her excessive weakness, Hélix was well aware of these tricks, and she whispered in my ear, “Pierre, get rid of that little crow. She’s hovering too close around you.”
Of course, I did her bidding, but the Gypsy’s daughter, as clever as ten serpents, suddenly resisted, wrinkling her nose and spitting fire and brimstone. When I in turn got angry, she seized me with both arms around the waist and wrapped herself around me to prevent being pushed out the door. When at last I succeeded in shoving her out and had closed the door behind her, I saw little Hélix in tears, her desperate eyes fixed on me.
Those were her last tears. The next morning, 25th April, she was once again calm and very serene. At noon, when Faujanet peeked in as usual to say hello, she said to him: “Good Faujanet, you shall soon be making my coffin.”
Hearing this, Faujanet blushed, and stood there open-mouthed, his smile frozen on his lips, very stupid and sad, not knowing what to say or how to leave.
That day, I know not how, despite her extreme feebleness, she looked very beautiful again with a radiance that was not of this world. During the evening she asked me to wash her, sprinkle perfume on her, put some rouge on her cheeks and change her shift. I asked her if I should call Barberine and Franchou.
“No,” she said, “you. Just you!”
When I’d finished, she signalled to me to sit down on her bed, and, leaning her light head on my shoulder, hugging her doll in her right hand, she slipped her left hand into my open doublet (for it was already quite hot for the season) and grasped the medallion of Mary I wore around my neck, her poor haggard eyes begging my permission. I remained still for quite some time, but my forced
immobility ended up by making me uncomfortable, and I got up quietly, believing she’d fallen asleep. Her head slipped towards me, and then her body. Feeling I was still somehow attached to her, I saw she was still holding on to the chain of the medallion with her left hand. I had some difficulty disengaging her fingers to free myself, and turning to look back I saw that her eyes were open and rolled back. I knelt trembling at her bedside and listened to her heart—something I’d often done in jest when hearing her tell me she’d had a great love-thought, and I would always answer that I would straightaway check, and woe betide her if she were lying—but on this day it was life that was lying, for her poor heart was no longer beating against her ribs.
No more than an hour had passed since little Hélix’s death when my father sent me and Samson to help with marking the spring lambs. In fact, they could have very well done without us and on my return to Mespech the next morning, I understood that it had been a pretext to get me out of the way while my father, locked away in his ground-floor room, sawed off the cranium of the dead girl to verify his diagnosis. When I returned, little Hélix was folded into a shroud and lay in her chestnut coffin, Catherine’s doll in her arms, and around her head a bandage whose purpose I understood instantly.
Faujanet had waited for me to take one last look at little Hélix before nailing on the cover which would separate her for ever from the world of the living. I made a short prayer and, walking quickly away so as not to hear the hammer blows, I went up to Catherine’s room where, as I suspected, she lay on her bed in tears both for the death of her friend and the loss of her doll. Taking her in my arms, I felt a sweet warmth from her plump little body which brought me enormous relief after what I had just seen and, mingling tears and kisses, I promised her that upon my return from Montpellier I’d bring her the biggest, most beautiful doll that a girl in Sarlat had ever had.
Before going to find my father to report on the marking of the spring lambs, I took time to dry my tears, not wanting to make a spectacle of my weakness. I found him in his library, pacing back and forth, his face quite drawn. He said with a coldness that I could see was feigned: “It was indeed an abscess, as I’d thought, grown so large that it was pressing on the meninges and the nerves and drowning them in pus.” I was terribly distressed, and not wishing to dwell on the gruesome image his words painted in my mind, I said, “Are you going to inform Monsieur de Lascaux?”
“No. He’s not a bad man, really, but too puffed up in his vanity like a turkey, and I’d only make an enemy of him.”
He lowered his eyes. “Escorgol has finished digging her grave next to Marsal on the north of the close. We’ll bury her at noon according to our rites. I will make a short sermon. Do you wish to be present?”
I quickly understood that my father was not asking whether I wished to be excused from appearing but instead was requesting that I contain my feelings in the presence of our servants.
“I’ll be there,” I said as stiffly as I could. And, though it was implicit, I kept my promise and remained dry-eyed while they lowered her featherweight coffin into “the cold and dark of the ground”, as little Hélix had said.
Our entire household was present, looking sad and mournful. My father gave the eulogy. I thought I understood, as I listened, why he had wanted to take over Sauveterre’s usual duty of sermonizing: for he slipped in a quotation from Calvin, chosen, I thought, to echo the conversation we’d had a few days before about little Hélix: “Those whom God calls to his salvation,” went the quote, “He receives with His bounteous mercy without regard for their station.”
I noticed that my father went out of his way during the weeks that followed to keep me busy and in constant motion, often sending me
outside Mespech, to le Breuil, to the les Beunes mill or to Sarlat. But though I accomplished these missions conscientiously, I found little interest in them, having lost all enthusiasm for life. I applied myself mournfully to everything I did, even with Samson, towards whom, only God knows why, I felt less loving, and I fell into a taciturn state that left him greatly troubled, but which I seemed unable to break, every word summoning up a terrible effort.
As I rode Accla around on various errands for my father, the tender new spring leaves reaching out to me neither caught my eye nor caused the usual delicious intake of breath and happy swelling of my chest, so sorrowful was I and as though drawn earthward. Not even Accla could give me pleasure, and as I rode her I could feel her astonishment that I loved her so little. However busy I might appear, I could do nothing but remember the past, chewing it over like a sad dog his leash, in thoughts that never ceased, even in bed, where I tossed and turned, burnt and shrivelled on the embers of my sorrow.
My melancholy had lasted a month already, when Samson and I were called into the library. I noticed immediately from my first glance at my father and Sauveterre that their heads were held much higher than at any time since the meeting with the Protestant lords at Mespech. My father, in particular, seemed himself again, rejuvenated, his chin raised, hands on his hips and voice sonorous:
“My rascals,” he said, with his old playfulness, “the affairs of the Reformation have taken a turn for the better since the Bayonne meeting at which, as you know, Jezebel very nearly sold our blood to the Spanish. Now everything has changed. You should know that about four years ago a few hundred of our Bretons established a colony in the Americas on the coast of Florida. Just here,” he said, putting his finger on a point of his globe, which Samson and I obediently leant over to study, astonished that it was so far from Sarlat. “These
Bretons,” he continued, “are good sailors, good soldiers and have done some buccaneering in the Antilles. Well, Felipe II got uneasy that the French were ‘nesting’ so near his conquests and sent a large force to Florida, which surprised our Bretons by treachery and massacred every last one of them after promising them safe conduct if they surrendered.”
“There’s no limit,” Sauveterre added, his voice shaking, “to the blood this very Catholic king has been willing to shed for his empire. If the truth is ever known about all the massacres he has perpetrated in the Americas, there’s not a Christian would not hold him in abomination.”
“But news of this particular massacre reached the French court, my rascals,” said my father, “and the Florentine is gnashing her teeth and is loudly and furiously demanding justice and reparations from her son-in-law. She won’t get them, and she’s too contemptible, of course, to go to war over this, but for the time being, at least, her so-called holy alliance with Felipe is over. And so we are safe—for the moment at least, I must stress this—and already there seems to be a lessening of assassinations of isolated Huguenots throughout the kingdom, as if the most fanatical papists were losing heart after seeing the Spanish king ill-esteemed in France.”
After a moment of silence, my father looked at each of us in turn and said with a kind of authoritative pomp: “My sons, your Uncle de Sauveterre and I have decided that the time is ripe to send you to Montpellier to begin your studies. You shall set out two days hence. Miroul, your valet, will accompany you.”
I was neither happy nor sorry with this decision. I simply accepted it with the indifference I felt about everything. However, I gathered together, at my father’s behest, all my worldly goods, clothing and
books, which did not amount to any great volume. Three of us would be travelling, but would take four horses, the fourth a packhorse for our belongings, as well as three blunderbusses and ammunition. In our saddlebags we would each carry two pistols, as well as a sword and dagger which should never leave our sides even when we slept. At my father’s insistence, we were to wear full armour and helmet while travelling and remove them only when bivouacked: a terrible burden in the summer’s heat, but though well armed, our troop was awfully small for such a long voyage.
I would ride Accla and Samson Albière, his white pony. And for Miroul and the packhorse he would lead, far from giving us old nags, my father provided two rapid and tough little Arabians, arguing that, if attacked by a large band of brigands, our only chance would be to flee and that we couldn’t risk losing our precious valet or our possessions.
Our journey was to take us from Sarlat to Cahors, and then Montauban. But from there my father counselled us not to take the road to Castres, which would have been shorter, but consisted of winding roads through very wild country. He preferred the longer plains route through Toulouse, Carcassone and Béziers, where the road would be more travelled.
On the eve of our departure my father and Sauveterre, remembering their days as captains of the Norman legion, inspected our equipment to the last detail: arms, harnesses, bridles, horseshoes, straps, awls and thread to repair our bridles, everything was examined.
Finally, as the day of our trip dawned, my father, greatly moved, and Sauveterre, equally so but showing it less, received us in the library when we were fully armed and helmeted.
Sauveterre spoke first, calling on us to remember to pray to God not with our lips but in our hearts; to read the Scriptures and to be mindful of them; to sing the Psalms (Miroul was bringing his viol)
morning and night; and to remember the Word of God as a constant counsel in all matters of our lives, large and small.
When he had finished, my father gave us some advice bearing more on our conduct in this life than our future in the next: “My rascals,” he said in a grave but warm voice, “you’ve scarcely got thirty years of experience between you, and yet you’re going out on the highway to face the vast world. There will be innumerable pitfalls along the way. To avoid them you will need all your resources and your weapons, but you should realize that courtesy is first among these. With rich and poor, gentleman and peasant, always keep your Périgordian amiability. Bear umbrage to no man, neither in words nor in deeds. And yet let everyone know from your demeanour that you are not men to be bearded. Be slow to quarrel, especially you, Pierre, who are so quick to anger, but if you must fight, don’t back off, but advance boldly. This is for you, Samson, who are so slow to unsheathe your sword and so long in concluding a fight. You must realize that your delay could cost your beloved brother his life, as it almost did at la Lendrevie. When you’re on the road, avoid drinking, gambling and feasting like the devils of hell, for they will quickly ruin your purse, your soul and your health. Once in Montpellier, choose your friends for qualities which will last and not simply glitter, and choose them preferably from among the Protestants of the town, who are legion, thank God. With strangers, be chary in words but not in observation. In doubtful company, do not wave your reformer’s flag, but do not hide it either, unless it is dangerous to do otherwise. Finally, at Montpellier, study diligently and follow your masters, since this is the goal of your journey and is so costly to the barony of Mespech. And try to remember as you study that the labour of your youth will be like capital from which you can draw interest for the rest of your life.”
Here he paused thoughtfully.
“Samson will be the keeper of the purse, and Pierre the commander of the little troop. Miroul will be your subject and must remember who is the master. But treat him according to his merits, which are not slight, and listen to his advice. Through the hardships he knew as a child he knows more of the world than you do.”
I thought my father had finished or that he was embarrassed to conclude. And indeed he was, but conclude he did, having things yet to say which he found especially delicate with Sauveterre at his side and his own life as an example. But he finally made up his mind, and continued despite Samson’s innocent wide eyes and Sauveterre’s grumblings and frowns, even though my father used a half-contrite tone, especially at the beginning: