Authors: Robert Merle
“Modern-day Dumas finally crosses the channel”
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] is a hugely entertaining romp… The comparisons with Dumas seem both natural and deserved and the next 12 instalments [are] a thrilling prospect”
“Historical fiction at its very best… This fast paced and heady brew is colourfully leavened with love and sex and a great deal of humour and wit. The second instalment cannot be published too soon”
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“A vivid novel by France’s modern Dumas… [there is] plenty of evidence in the rich characterisation and vivid historical detail that a reader’s long-term commitment will be amply rewarded”
“A sprawling, earthy tale of peril, love, lust, death, dazzling philosophical debate and political intrigue… an engrossing saga”
“A master of the historical novel”
“So rich in historical detail… the characters are engaging”
“Compelling… a French epic”
“This is old-fashioned story-telling. It has swagger and vibrancy with big characters… A gripping story with humour and strength and real attention to historical detail”
“Cleverly depicts France’s epic religious wars through the intimate prism of one family’s experience. It’s beautifully written too”
“A lively adventure… anyone keen on historical fiction [should] look forward to the next instalment”
“The spectacular 13-volume evocation of 16th–17th-century France”
“The Dumas of the twentieth century”
“A wonderful, colourful, breathlessly narrated historical panorama”
“Robert Merle is one of the very few French writers who has attained both popular success and the admiration of critics. The doyen of our novelists is a happy man”
Fortunes of France
Translated from the French by
T. Jefferson Kline
HERE’S ONE THING I’M CERTAIN OF
. We’re just like the sea—tranquillity is merely a surface impression. Beneath, everything is motion, tumult and undercurrents. So a man should never consider his happiness assured or his soul in peace at last. Once we believe we’re content, we discover something else that sets our appetites on edge.
As I rode away from Monsieur de Montcalm’s chateau, glad as I was to be reunited with my father, looking so hale and happy, and as delighted as I felt that we were on our way to Sarlat, my beloved Mespech and all its dear inhabitants, my joy was far from unalloyed. Every now and again I felt a sudden stab at my heart at the thought of leaving Angelina de Montcalm behind, and of the uncertain happiness we’d vowed to each other, betokened by the pledge I wore on the little finger of my left hand: the gold ring studded with an azure stone that she’d given me in the little turret that flanked the east wall of Barbentane.
“Ha!” I thought. “I’m a Huguenot heretic and a penniless little brother with no inheritance! How dare I tempt Fortune by asking for her hand, even if it’s for her future hand? Given Monsieur de Montcalm’s obvious distaste for me, will she really consent to wait so long, especially given all the studies I must complete and the years of hard work necessary to earn a doctorate and set up practice as
a physician? I’ll never have enough bread in my basket to offer her the life to which her rank entitles her—or mine entitles me, for that matter!
“Haven of grace! How I love her! And how forbidding and horrible the idea of losing her! But however much I trust her word, shouldn’t I fear her father’s tyranny, her mother’s intrusiveness, the girl’s own apprehension about growing old while she languishes interminably, never fully certain of her future, in these precarious times, when a man’s life—especially a Huguenot’s—weighs no more in the balance than that of a chicken?”
And yet, in the midst of these worries that so knotted my throat, I derived enormous comfort from recalling her slow, languid and gracious step, the tender light in her doe’s eyes and the marvellous benevolence of her soul. “No indeed,” I mused. “Whatever may befall me, I know I’ve not made the wrong choice! Were I to search the whole world over, I’d never find a woman who joined so much heart to so much beauty.”
My father had decided that we’d go by way of the Cévennes in order to reach Périgord by the mountainous road, rather than take the easier and prettier route through Carcassonne and Toulouse. After the surprise attack on Meaux, where the leaders of the reformed religion, Condé and Coligny, had nearly seized the king himself, the war between Catholics and Huguenots had suddenly spread throughout the kingdom, and since the two cities I mentioned were now in the hands of the papists, it would have been extremely dangerous for us to stop there, no matter how well armed we were. Certainly, with my father, my two Siorac cousins, myself, my half-brother Samson, our valet Miroul, our Gascon Cabusse and our mason Jonas, we were only a party of eight—enough to defend ourselves against any ambushes by highwaymen we might encounter in the mountains, but not enough to confront a royal militia.
In Sarlat and throughout the surrounding region, we were well respected by the papists themselves (except for some of the most bloodthirsty of them) because my father was a loyalist Huguenot and had never taken up arms against his king, but also because he had supplied the city with food during the plague and then, afterwards, rid the town of the butcher-baron of la Lendrevie and his rascals. But in Carcassonne and Toulouse, no one knew us, and we knew that Huguenots were all assumed to be rebels, so that if we were taken, we’d be immediately condemned and put to the sword.
As soon as the mountain roads became too steep to maintain a brisk trot, we slowed our sweating horses to a walk, and my father, pulling up alongside me, and seeing me all dreamy and lost in “malancholy” (as my poor Fontanette would say in her southern dialect), bade me tell him all about my life as a medical student in Montpellier, expanding on what I’d been able to write in my letters, and without embellishments or omissions of any kind.
“Oh, Father,” I laughed. “If you really want the unvarnished and sincere version, we’d better ride on ahead of the others. I wouldn’t want the more shameful parts of my story to be overheard by my cousins or by our men—and certainly not by my beloved Samson, whose dove-like innocence would no doubt be sullied by my account.”
At this my father burst out laughing, and immediately gave spur to his horse in order to put some distance between us and the others. And so I told him everything: my life, my labours, my loves, the incredible setbacks, joys and perils I’d experienced in Montpellier and in Nîmes—though I confess I omitted the piteous demise of my poor Fontanette, not because I wanted to hide it from him, but because I was sure, in the telling of it, to burst into tears, as I had already done at Barbentane, sitting at my Angelina’s knees.
“My son,” said my father when I’d done with my story, “you’re lively, valiant, quick to forgive and quick to anger as well. You
take many risks. You always want to right any wrongs you witness, which is a noble but perilous instinct. And though you always seem to be clear-headed in your actions, you seem not always to reflect before you act. Listen well to what I have to say: caution, prudence and patience are the teats of adventure. If you want to live a long time in this cruel century, imbibe their milk above all. Husband Fortune carefully and she will care for you.
Nosse haec omnia, salus est adolescentis
As he spoke these words, I looked at my father, overcome with tenderness that he should finish his speech, as I would have expected, with a quotation from Cicero. This hero of the battles of Ceresole and Calais was as proud of his prowess in Latin as he was of his knowledge of medicine, which was his first vocation, as you may perhaps remember, dear reader. Handsome and lithe in his physical presence, without a trace of fat, sitting straight as an “I” on his horse, his eyes a brilliant blue, his hair only slightly grey despite his more than fifty years, he had not changed a whit in all the years I had known him.
“My father,” I replied, “you’re right and I thank you for your wise counsel. I will try to correct my lack of prudence. But,” I continued with a wry smile, “would you be a baron if you hadn’t wagered everything on your first duel, which forced you to abandon your study of medicine to become a soldier?”
“Pierre de Siorac,” frowned my father, “honour dictated my actions, and honour must come first in everything we do. I doubt you could claim the same motive in all the risks that you’ve run. Firstly, isn’t it patently evident that you risk the hooligan’s knife when you frequent rich ladies of the night?”
“That rascal got the worst of it!”
“By a stroke of luck! And didn’t you break every law known to man when you went digging up two dead men in the Saint-Denis cemetery in order to dissect them?”
“So did the great Vesalius!”
“And risked his life doing so! And, by the way, was it to further the work of dissection that you fornicated with a bewitching sorceress on the tomb of the Grand Inquisitor?”
“But I absolutely
to get her away from where we were exhuming the bodies!”
“To get away from her?” replied Jean de Siorac, pretending that he had misheard what I’d said. “To get away from her by having your way with her? That’s a strange way of getting away from someone!”
Here he laughed at his little joke, and I along with him, though I was pretty certain he would have done the same thing in my place, since, to my knowledge, he’d never been able to resist a petticoat, diabolical or otherwise.
“And thirdly, my son,” he continued, still frowning, “where on earth did you get the idea that you should shoot the atheist abbot Cabassus on his gibbet?”
“I did it out of compassion. He was suffering terribly.”
“And it was your compassion, I’ll warrant, that led you to save Bishop Bernard d’Elbène of Nîmes?”
“And in that case you did the right thing: your sense of honour dictated that you save an honest enemy from vile murder. But for the grave-robbing, the arquebus shot and the fornication, no excuse. In none of that do I see any attention to the law, reason or prudence. You acted like a madman.”
I had no answer to give him on that score, though I still held my head high, humility not being one of my strong points.
“My son,” Jean de Siorac continued in the gravest tone and turning to look me in the eye, “I have decided that you may not return to Montpellier until our war with the papists has ended.”
“But Father!” I cried, with inexpressible sadness and bitterness. “What about my medical studies and all the time I have devoted to them?”
“You will work at Mespech, diligently studying your books and helping me with dissection.”
Not knowing how to answer this, I fell silent, and, though in my heart of hearts I loved life at Mespech, I couldn’t help feeling bitterly disappointed at having to remain far from Montpellier for such a long time—and, in truth, far from Barbentane as well.
“Pierre, my son,” said Jean de Siorac, who, having guessed my thoughts, considerably softened his tone, “don’t despair. Great love is but fortified by absence. If it should die from such a separation, well, then it wasn’t great enough.”
Which, however true it may have been, wasn’t much consolation.
“For me, your safety must come first,” he reflected, “and that’s why I must pull you away from the troubles in Montpellier as long as papists and Huguenots continue to cut each other’s throats in the name of Christ. François is my eldest son,” he continued, not without a hint of sadness, “and he will inherit Mespech. And François,” he added with a sigh, “is what he is and what you know him to be. But you, my younger son, shine with such valour and talent that I have no doubt that it is in your stars to add great lustre to the name you bear. On the other hand, you are impetuous, imprudent and high-handed. So, God willing, I intend to keep you alive, for you have but one life and I wouldn’t want it to be nipped in the bud, as that would turn my old age into bitterness and pain. For, my son, I shall tell you my true feelings: I value you infinitely more than all my wealth and titles.”
Although exceedingly touched by his words, I could not speak, so tight was the knot in my throat, and tears flowed down my cheeks, for my father had never before told me how much he loved me, no matter how easily he expressed his feelings—being, like me and like the person he had made me, a spontaneous man who always spoke his mind and hid nothing, except from his enemies.
Oh, reader! As used as I was to Mespech (where we arrived by forced march a mere fifteen days after leaving Barbentane), I was very happy to be there again, a prince in this chateau, loved and adored by all, masters and servants alike, and loving all of them in return, right down to the last valet, and, what’s more, rediscovering the sweet embrace of my good old nursemaid Barberine, whose arms wrapped me happily into her bosom that first night at home, while my father reviewed his correspondence. I didn’t fail to ask permission to read the dispatches arriving from the north concerning our religious troubles (for news travelled fast from Huguenot to Huguenot), and pored over them, hoping for news of the victory of our side—naturally desiring, out of love of humanity and the kingdom, an end to this bloody struggle, but also looking for news that would assure my rapid return to Montpellier and to my Angelina.
The fortunes of war seemed, at least momentarily, to smile on us. Having scarcely 2,000 soldiers, Condé and Coligny, with astonishing fearlessness, had been able to isolate in Paris—an immense city entirely won over to the papists—the 20,000 soldiers of the constable, Montmorency.
It was marvellous! The fly was putting the elephant to flight! And worse than that, was starving it to death. Pillaging the villages (except for Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen and Aubervilliers, which they were occupying), the Huguenots had emptied the barns, burnt the mills and stopped all carts trying to enter Paris. Gonesse bread no
longer reached the capital. The Saint-Cloud market was empty: neither butter nor meat could get through from Normandy.
The 300,000 Parisians, gnawed by hunger and even more by the hatred stirred up by their strident prelates, dreamt of attacking this handful of insolent reformists, who had the temerity to make fools of their enemies. But Montmorency temporized. He didn’t want to unsheathe his sword yet—not, as some suggested nastily, because he wanted to spare Condé and Coligny, who were his nephews (a perfect example of this fratricidal war!), but because, being as he was excessively cautious and lacking in nerve, he preferred to await the arrival of Spanish reinforcements before attacking.
However, the Parisians’ unruliness forced his hand, and so Montmorency, to punish their disobedience, set up as his avant-garde a ragged bunch of volunteers, hiding their fat bourgeois paunches beneath their costly, shining armour, who marched out of the city gates in front of the paid Swiss guards. Coligny and his poor meagre devils, dressed all in white, fell upon them, routed them and put them to flight. As they fled, these portly merchants ran full pelt into the Swiss, throwing their ranks into disorder—a turn of events that Montmorency, a man of limited imagination, had not foreseen.
The Turkish ambassador, watching this action from the hillside of the little village of Montmartre, was agape at the daring and courage of our white cassocks. “If His Highness had these whites,” he was reported to have said, “he could circle the entire earth, for nothing could withstand their advance!”
And, indeed, nothing could withstand Condé’s attack, who, at the head of his horsemen, pushed his assault directly at Montmorency. One of Condé’s lieutenants, the Scotsman Robert Stuart, who’d earlier been cruelly tortured by the papists, sought out Montmorency and broke his back with a single pistol shot.
The head of the royal armies now dead, our little army, too small to carry off a victory, withdrew, undefeated, to Montereau, where it sought to increase the size of its ranks, while, within the capital, the Parisians licked their Huguenot wounds, and worked to augment their own numbers. And so a sort of truce was established that lasted pretty much the entire winter, each side working to fortify itself for the decisive battle. And how interminable this winter seemed to me, isolated in my little crenellated nest! I suffered, too, from the frost and snow in Périgord, after the sweet warmth of the Montpellier skies. I wrote to my doctor-father, Chancellor Saporta, to Maître Sanche and to Fogacer. I wrote on every one of God’s days to my Angelina. And I wrote once a month to Madame de Joyeuse and to Thomassine.