The Burning Chambers: New Excerpt
By Kate MosseMay 9, 2019
Inquisitional Prison, Toulouse
Saturday, 24th January
‘You are a traitor?’
‘No, my lord.’ The prisoner was not sure if he spoke out loud or answered only within his own ruined mind.
Broken teeth and shifting bone, the taste of dried blood pooled in his mouth. How long had he been here? Hours, days?
The inquisitor gave a flick of his hand. The prisoner heard the rasp of a blade being sharpened, saw the irons and pincers lying on a wooden table beside a fireplace. A squeeze of the bellows to fan the coals. He experienced an odd moment of respite, as terror of the next torture momentarily banished the agony of the raw skin on his flayed back. Fear of what was to come drowned, if only for an instant, his shame at being too weak to endure what was being done to him. He was a soldier. He had fought well and bravely on the battlefield. How was it that now he was too fragile to withstand this?
‘You are a traitor.’ The inquisitor’s voice sounded dull and flat. ‘You are disloyal to the King, and to France. We have evidence from many attesting to it. They denounce you!’ He tapped a sheaf of papers on his desk. ‘Protestants – men like you – give succour to our enemies. It is treason.’
‘No!’ the prisoner whispered, as he felt the breath of the gaoler warm upon his neck. His right eye was swollen shut from a previous beating, but he could sense his persecutor coming close. ‘No, I –’
He stopped, for what could he say in his defence? Here, in the inquisitional prison in Toulouse, he was the enemy.
Huguenots were the enemy.
‘I am loyal to the Crown. My Protestant faith does not mean –’
‘Your faith brands you a heretic. You have turned away from the one true God.’
‘It is not so. Please. This is all a mistake.’
He could hear the pleading in his own voice, and he felt ashamed. And he knew, when the pain came again, he would say whatever they wanted to hear. Truth or not, he had no strength left to resist.
There was a moment of tenderness, or so it seemed to him in his desperate state. A gentle lifting of his hand, like a lord romancing his lady. For a fleeting instant, the man remembered the wonderful things that existed in the world. Love and music, the sweetness of springtime flowers. Women, children, men walking arm-in-arm through the elegant streets of Toulouse. A place where people might argue and disagree, might put their case with passion and knowledge, but also with respect and honour. There, wine glasses were filled to overflowing and there was plenty to eat: figs and cured mountain ham and honey. There, in the world where once he had lived, the sun shone and the endless blue of the Midi sky stretched over the city like a canopy.
‘Honey,’ he murmured.
Here, in this hell below earth, time no longer existed. The oubliettes, they called them, where a man might disappear and never be seen again.
The shock of the assault, when it came, was the worse for being unheralded. A squeezing, then a pressure, then the metal teeth of the pliers splintering his skin and his muscle and his bones.
As pain embraced him in her arms, he thought he heard the voice of a fellow prisoner from a neighbouring chamber. An educated man, a man of letters, for several days they had been held in the same cell. He knew him to be a man of honour, a bookseller, who loved his three children and spoke with gentle grief of his wife who had died.
He could hear the murmuring of another inquisitor behind the dripping cell wall: his friend was being interrogated too. Then he identified the sound of the chatte de griffe slicing through the air, the thud as the talons connected with skin, and it shocked him to hear his fellow prisoner screaming. He was a man of fortitude who, until now, had borne his suffering in silence.
The prisoner heard the opening and closing of a door, and knew another man had come into the cell. His cell or the one next door? Then murmuring, the shifting of paper on paper. For a beautiful moment, he thought his ordeal might end. Then the inquisitor cleared his throat and the questioning began again.
‘What you know about the Shroud of Antioch?’
‘I know nothing of any relic.’ This was true, though the prisoner knew his words counted for nothing.
‘The Holy Relic was stolen from the Eglise Saint-Taur some five years past. There are those who claim you were one of those responsible.’
‘How could I be?’ the prisoner cried, suddenly defiant. ‘I have never set foot in Toulouse until . . . until now.’
The inquisitor pressed on. ‘If you tell us where the Shroud is being hidden, this conversation between us will stop. The Holy Mother Church will, in Her mercy, open Her arms and welcome you back into Her grace.’
‘My lord, I give you my word I –’
He smelt the searing of his flesh before he felt it. How quickly is a man reduced to an animal, to meat.
‘Consider your answer carefully. I shall ask you again.’
Now this pain, the worst yet, was granting him a temporary reprieve. It was pulling him down into darkness, a place where he was strong enough to withstand their questioning, and where speaking the truth would save him.
Saturday, 28th February
‘In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.’
The earth hit the lid of the coffin with a soft thud. Brown earth slipping through white fingers. Then another hand, stretching out across the open grave, then another, soil and stone pattering on the wood, like rain. A soft sobbing from a small child, shrouded in the father’s black cloak.
‘Almighty Father, into Your care we commend the spirit of Florence Joubert, beloved wife and mother and servant of Christ. May she rest in peace in the light of Your eternal grace. Amen.’
The light began to change. No longer the damp, grey air of the graveyard, but now an inky black. Instead of mud, red blood. Warm and fresh to the touch, slick on her palms. Trapped between the creases of her fingers. Minou looked down at her own bloodied hands.
‘No!’ she shouted, throwing herself awake.
For a moment Minou saw nothing. Then the chamber began to come back into focus and she realised that she had fallen asleep in her chair again. Little wonder her dreams had been troubled. Minou turned her hands over. They were clean. No soil beneath her nails, no blood on her skin.
A nightmare, nothing more. A memory of the terrible day, five years ago, when they had laid their beloved mother to rest. Memory giving way to something else. Dark imaginings created out of air.
Minou looked at the book lying open on her lap – a meditation by the English martyr, Anne Askew – and wondered if that had contributed to her unquiet dreams.
She stretched the night from her bones and smoothed her crumpled shift. The candle had burnt out and the wax had pooled on the dark wood. What hour was it? She turned to the window. Fingers of light were slipping between the cracks in the shutters, sending a criss-cross pattern across the worn floorboards. Outside, she heard the usual early-morning sounds of La Cité waking to meet the dawn. The clinker and tramp of the watch on the ramparts, trudging down and up the steep steps to the Tour de la Marquière.
She knew she should rest longer. Saturday was the busiest day in her father’s bookshop, even during Lent. Now the responsibility for the business lay upon her shoulders, she would have little time to call her own in the hours ahead. But her thoughts were spiralling like the starlings who swooped and dived over the towers of the Château Comtal in autumn.
Minou put her hand to her chest and felt the strong rhythm of her heart beating. Her dream, so vivid, had left her out of sorts. There was no reason to think their bookshop would have been targeted again – her father had done nothing wrong, he was a good Catholic – and yet she could not shake the thought that something might have happened overnight.
On the other side of the chamber, her seven-year-old sister lay lost to the world, her curls a black cloud upon the pillow. Minou touched Alis’s forehead and was relieved to find her skin cool. She was relieved, too, that the truckle where their thirteen-year-old brother sometimes passed the night, when he could not sleep, was empty. Too often recently Aimeric had
come creeping into their chamber, saying he was afraid of the dark. The sign of a guilty conscience, the priest had said. Would he say the same of her night terrors?
Minou splashed a little cold water on her face, wiped beneath her arms. She put on her skirt and fastened her kirtle, then, taking care not to disturb Alis, took up the borrowed book and tiptoed out of their attic room. Down the stairs, past the door to her father’s chamber and the tiny box room where Aimeric slept, then down again to the level of the street.
The door that separated the passageway from their large living chamber was closed, but the frame was ill fitting, so Minou could hear the rattling of pans and the jerk of the chain above the fire as their maid hung the pail of water on the hook to boil.
She sneaked the door open and reached in, hoping to be able to lift the keys from the shelf without attracting Rixende’s notice. The maid was warm-natured, but she chattered and Minou did not want to be held up this morning.
‘How now, Mademoiselle,’ Rixende said brightly. ‘I did not think to see you up so early. No one else is yet stirring. Can I fetch you something to break your fast?’
Minou held up the keys. ‘I must make haste. When my father wakes, will you say I have gone early to the Bastide to prepare the shop? To take advantage of it being market day. There is no need for him to hurry, should he intend—’
‘Why, that is wonderful news that the master intends to go . . .’
Rixende stopped, halted by Minou’s look.
Though it was common knowledge that her father had not left the house for weeks, it was never spoken of. Bernard Joubert had returned to Carcassonne from his winter travels a changed man. From one who smiled and had a kind word for everyone, a good neighbour and loyal friend, he was now a shadow in his own life. Grey and withdrawn, his spirit diminished, a person who no longer spoke of ideas or dreams. Minou grieved to see him brought so low and often attempted to coax him out of his black melancholy. But whenever she asked what ailed him, her father’s eyes turned to glass. He murmured about the bitterness of the season and the wind, the aches and pains of age, before falling again into silence.
Rixende coloured. ‘Pardon, Mademoiselle. I will pass on your message to the master. But, are you sure you do not need something to drink? It is cold out. To eat? There is a piece of pan de blat, or a little of yesterday’s pudding left over –’
‘Good day,’ Minou said firmly. ‘I will see you again on Monday.’
The flagstones were cold under her stockinged feet and she could see her breath, white, in the chill air. She slipped into her leather boots, took her hood and thick green woollen cloak from the stand, put the keys and the book into the purse tied around her waist. Then, holding her gloves in her hand, she slid back the heavy metal bolt and stepped out into the silent street.
A spirit girl abroad on a chill February dawn.
The first rays of the sun were beginning to warm the air, setting spirals of mist dancing above the cobbled stones. The Place du Grand Puits looked tranquil in the pink light. Minou breathed in, feeling the shock of the cold in her lungs, then set off towards the main gates which led in and out of La Cité.
At first, she saw no one. The doxies who walked the streets at night had been driven inside by the light. The card sharks and dice players who haunted the Taverne Saint-Jean were long gone to their beds. Minou held up her skirts to avoid the worst of the previous evening’s excesses: broken ale pots, a beggar slumped asleep with his arm balanced on the back of a fleabitten dog. The bishop had petitioned for all inns and taverns within La Cité to be closed during Lent. The Seneschal, mindful of the King’s empty coffers, had refused. It was common knowledge – according to Rixende, who knew every bit of tittle-tattle – that there was no love lost between the current occupant of the Episcopal Palace and the Château Comtal.
The gabled houses in the narrow street that led down to the Porte Narbonnaise seemed to lean towards one another as if drunk, their tiled roofs so close as to be almost touching. Minou was moving against the mass of carts and people coming through the gates, so it was slow going.
The scene could have been one from a hundred years before, Minou thought, two hundred, all the way back to the time of the troubadours. In La Cité, life went on the same, day after day after day.
Two men-at-arms were controlling the flow of traffic at the Porte Narbonnaise, waving some through without a second glance, yet stopping others and searching their belongings until coins changed hands. The weak sun glinted on their helmets and the blades of their halberds. The royal crest on their blue surcoats stood out brightly amongst the drab Lenten colours.
As she drew closer, Minou recognised Bérenger, one of many who had reason to be grateful to her father. Most of the local soldiers – as against those billeted to the garrison from Lyon or Paris – could not read the King’s French. Many also favoured speaking the old language of the region, Occitan, when they thought themselves unobserved. Nonetheless, they were still served with papers and issued with written orders, and then punished if they failed to fulfil their duties to the letter. Everyone suspected it was another way of raising funds and that the Seneschal condoned it. Minou’s father helped those he could from falling foul of the law by explaining what the official language meant.
At least, once he had.
Minou pulled herself up short. It did no good to brood endlessly on the change that had come over her beloved father. Or to keep picturing, in her mind’s eye, his haunted and hollow face.
‘Good morrow, Bérenger,’ she said. ‘You have quite a number here already.’
His honest, old face unfolded into a smile. ‘How now, Madomaisèla Joubert! Quite a crowd, though I cannot account for it on so bitter a day. There was a host of them waiting long before first light.’
‘Perhaps this Lent,’ she said, ‘the Seneschal has remembered his charitable duties and is giving alms to the poor. What think you of that? Is it possible?’
‘That will be the day,’ Bérenger guffawed. ‘Our noble lord and master is not much lauded for his good works!’
Minou dropped her voice. ‘Ah, what fortune would be ours if we were ruled over by a godly and pious seigneur!’
He gave another bellow of laughter, until he noticed his colleague frowning with disapproval.
‘Anyhow, that’s all as maybe,’ he said in a more formal tone. ‘What brings you out at this hour, and unaccompanied?’
‘It is at my father’s behest,’ Minou lied. ‘He has bid me open the shop for him. As it is market day, he hopes there will be plenty of customers passing through the Bastide. All of them, God willing, with full pockets and an appetite for learning.’
‘Reading? Don’t hold with it,’ Bérenger said, pulling a face. ‘But each to their own. Though would it not be right for your brother to undertake such work? It seems strange Monsieur Joubert would ask so much of a maid, when he is blessed with a son.’
Minou held her tongue, though she did not in truth resent his comment. Bérenger was a man of the Midi, raised on the old ideas and traditions. She was also aware that, at thirteen, Aimeric should have been taking over some of her father’s responsibilities. The problem was her brother had neither the inclination nor the aptitude. He was more interested in shooting sparrows with his catapult or climbing trees with the gypsy boys when they came to town than in passing his days in the confines of a bookshop.
‘Aimeric is needed at home this morning,’ she said, smiling, ‘so it falls to me. It is an honour to do what I can to assist my father.’
‘Well, of course, of course it is.’ He cleared his throat. ‘And how goes it with Sénher Joubert? I have not seen him for some while. Not even at Mass. He is unwell, perhaps?’
Since the last outbreak of plague, any question about a person’s health carried a darker strain of enquiry beneath it. Almost no family had been spared. Bérenger had lost his wife and both his children in the same epidemic that had carried away Minou’s mother. She had been gone five years, but Minou still missed her company every day and, like last evening, often dreamed of her at night.
All the same, from the tone of Bérenger’s question, and the way he did not meet her eye, Minou realised with a burdened heart that the rumours about her father’s confinement within their house had spread more widely than she had hoped. ‘He returned much fatigued from his travels in January,’ she said, with a spark of defiance, ‘but otherwise he is in excellent health. There is a great deal to do with the business that occupies him.’
Bérenger nodded. ‘Well, I am glad to hear it, I feared that . . .’ He stopped, reddening with embarrassment. ‘No matter. If you would give Sénher Joubert my regards.’
Minou smiled. ‘He will be glad of your good wishes.’
Bérenger thrust out his arm to block a large ham-faced woman with a squalling baby from passing in front of her. ‘There you go. But you take good care, Madomaisèla, going across to the Bastide on your own, è? There’s all manner of villains out there who’d stick a knife in your ribs as soon as spit.’
Minou smiled. ‘Thank you, kind Bérenger. I will.’
* * *
The grass in the moat below the drawbridge was glistening with early morning dew, shimmering white on the green shoots. Usually, Minou’s first glimpse of the world beyond La Cité lifted her spirits: the white endless sky becoming blue as the day crept in; the grey and green crags of the Montagne Noire on the horizon, the first blossoms of the apple trees in the orchards on the slopes below the citadel. But this morning the combination of her troubled night, and Bérenger’s warnings, left her feeling anxious.
Minou pulled herself up. She was not some green girl, afraid of her own shadow. Besides, she was within hailing distance of the sentries. If someone did menace her, her shouts would carry back to La Cité and Bérenger would be at her side in an instant.
An ordinary day. Nothing to fear.
All the same, she was relieved to reach the outskirts of Trivalle. It was a poor but respectable suburb, inhabited mostly by those who worked in the textile mills. Wool and cloth exported to the Levant were bringing prosperity to Carcassonne and respectable families were beginning, once more, to set up their homes on the left bank.
‘Here’s a maid come walking by . . .’
Minou jumped as a hand closed around her ankle. ‘Monsieur!’
She looked down and saw there was little to fear. Drunken fingers, too weak to hold. She shook herself free, and stepped quickly on. A young man, of perhaps one-and-twenty, was propped against the wall of one of the houses that led to the bridge. His short cloak fingered him for a gentleman, though his mustard-yellow doublet was askew and his hose stained dark with ale. Or worse.
He peered up at her through the snapped blue feather of his cap.
‘Mademoiselle, how about a kiss? A kiss for Philippe. It’ll cost you nothing. Not a sou, not a denier . . . which is as well, for I have nothing.’
The boy went through an elaborate pantomime of turning his purse inside out. Despite herself, Minou found herself smiling.
‘Say, do I know you, lady? I think I cannot, for I would remember if I had seen so beautiful a face. Your blue eyes . . . Or brown, ’tis both.’
‘You do not know me, Monsieur.’
‘’Tis a pity,’ he murmured. ‘A grievous pity. Would that I did know you . . .’
Minou knew she should not encourage him – and she could hear her mother’s clear voice in her head exhorting her to walk on – but he was young and his tone was wistful.
‘You should to your bed,’ she said.
‘Philippe,’ he mumbled.
‘It is morning. You will catch a chill sitting out here in the street.’
‘A maid who is as wise as she is fair. Ah, that I was a wordsmith. I would write a verse. Wise words. Beautiful and wise . . .’
‘Good day,’ Minou said.
‘Sweet lady,’ he cried after her, ‘may you be showered with blessings. May your—’
A casement was flung open and a woman leant out. ‘That’s enough!’ she shrieked. ‘Since nigh on four o’clock I’ve had to listen to your maundering and reciting, with not a moment’s peace. Well, this should stop your mouth!’
Minou watched her heave a pail over the sill. Dirty grey water cascaded down the walls and over the boy’s head. He leapt up, yelping, shaking his arms and legs like one afflicted by St Vitus’s dance. He looked both so disconsolate yet also comical that Minou forgot herself and laughed out loud.
‘I’ll catch my death!’ he cried, flinging his sodden cap to the ground. ‘If I take a chill and die, my death – my death – will be on your conscience. Then you’ll be sorry. If you but knew who I was. I am a guest of the bishop, I am—’
‘I will rejoice at your departing!’ the woman yelled. ‘Students! You’re idle wastrels, the lot of you! If any of you did but an honest day’s work, you’d not have time to freeze to death.’
As she slammed the window shut, the women on the street applauded, the men grumbled.
‘You shouldn’t let her speak to you like that,’ said a man with pockmarked skin. ‘Got no right to speak to a gentleman of your standing. Not her place.’
‘You should report her to the Seneschal,’ said another. ‘Setting about your person like that, it’s common assault.’
The oldest of the women laughed. ‘Ha! For emptying a pail of water on his head. He’s lucky it wasn’t a piss pot!’
Amused, Minou walked on, their squabbling growing fainter behind her. She drew level with the stables, where her father kept their old mare, Canigou, then approached the foot of the stone bridge over the river. The Aude was high, but there was no wind and the sails of the Moulin du Roi and the salt mills were quiet. On the far side, the Bastide looked serene in the early light. On the banks, the laundry women were already laying out the day’s first swathes of bleached fabric to dry in the sun. Minou paused to take a sou from her purse then walked the hundred paces across the bridge.
She handed the coin to the gatekeeper for the toll. He tried it between his teeth and found it to be true. Then the girl known as Minou Joubert crossed the boundary dividing the old Carcassonne from the new.
I will not allow my inheritance to be taken from me.
The years of lying beneath his vile and sweating body. The bruises and the indignities, the blows when my flowers came each month. Submitting to his grasping fingers on my breasts, between my legs. His hands twisting my hair at the roots until the blood pinked upon my head. His sour breath. Such degradation at the hands of a pig, for nothing? For the sake of a Will attested some nineteen years past, so he says. His near-death-bed confession, the wanderings of his decaying mind? Or is there some truth in what he says?
If there is a Will, where might it be? The voices are silent.
The Book of Ecclesiastes says that to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
Upon this day, with my left hand upon the Holy Catholic Bible and my right freely holding the quill, I set this down. This is my solemn vow that cannot now be broken. I swear by Almighty God that I shall not let the offspring of a Huguenot whore take from me what is rightfully mine.
I will see them dead first.
Copyright © 2019 Kate Mosse.
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