Judith Rock

The Rhetoric of Death


JULY 5, 1686

The sun of Languedoc poured down like molten brass. As the sound of water began to murmur in the still air, the man huddled under his wide-brimmed clerical hat straightened in the saddle and sighed with relief. A few more minutes, and the Gardon River lay before him, rippling blue and green and gold beneath the Pont du Gard. “When we’re across, ma douce,” the man murmured encouragingly to his tired horse, “we’ll stop and drink.” As she plodded onto the bridge and the shade of the Roman aqueduct’s upper level swallowed them, the man looked through the wide stone arches at the river below, wondering as he did every time he crossed, how the Romans had done it. The aqueduct no longer carried springwater to the town of Nimes, now safely eleven miles behind him. But as a bridge, it looked likely to stand a second sixteen hundred years. On the far bank, he dismounted and led the horse upstream away from the road, around a stand of scrub oak and down a gentle slope to the water. As she drank, he looked up and down the river, listening intently. He was almost sure he wasn’t being followed, fairly certain he’d gone unseen that night in Nimes. That terrifying night was more than a month past now, but as things were, it was foolish to be too sure of anything.

He saw no one, heard only the river’s music and the mare sucking in water. The heat had stilled even the birdsong. He tethered the mare under a wide-canopied oak, well hidden from the road but in reach of rough grazing, and loosened the saddle. On a river-lapped rock under the tree, he stripped off his cassock and shook the white limestone road dust from it, dropped it on the rock, and set his flat-crowned black hat on top of it. Because anything white would show like flame against the shade, he also shed his long, high-collared, sweat-soaked linen shirt. Then, still in the black knee breeches he’d put on under the cassock for riding, he lay flat on his stomach to drink and splash his face. The cool water felt so good that he dipped his head under and came up shaking himself like a happy dog. With a grunt of satisfaction, he rolled over, pulled off his boots and stockings, and stretched his legs to let the river slide over his bare feet. No Jesuit should be this naked in public, but was he in public if there was no one to see him? Smiling wryly at his self-serving logic, he lay back on the rock and squinted at the hard blue sky, figuring the time. Last night’s wine-drenched family gathering had made for little sleep and a very late start. An hour’s rest out of the morning could hardly matter. He put a hand behind his head to cushion it and shut his eyes.

If a casual passerby had noticed Maitre Charles Matthieu Beuvron du Luc on his shady rock, he would have seen only a young man taking his ease without a care in the world. Though Charles’s left arm rested carefully across his middle, a war wound in the Spanish Netherlands having left him unable to lift it higher than his shoulder, he was good to look at, big and broad-shouldered and brimming with life. His straw-colored hair, long since grown over the symbolic little Jesuit tonsure given at first vows, was drying in thick, unruly curls, and his face was tanned to pale gold. More than a few women still sighed over the sad fact that Charles du Luc had chosen a cassock.

Seven years a member of the Society of Jesus, Charles had finished the two-year novitiate and taken first vows, the three traditional promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Now, in what Jesuits called the scholastic phase of his training, a long period of study and teaching, his final vows and ordination as priest were still some years off. Because he already wore the Jesuit cassock, laypeople often called him pere, or father, but his real title was maitre, meaning master or teacher, and his present work was teaching rhetoric, both Latin and French. Rhetoric was the art of communication, and because Jesuits believed that the body, too, should be eloquent, his teaching included directing the student ballets, which were part of the school dramatic productions. Charles had spent the five years since finishing his novitiate assigned to the Jesuit school in Carpentras, the same school he’d attended as a boy. Now, after a brief farewell visit to his family-minor Provencal nobility scraping a bare living from their vineyards deep in the countryside beyond Nimes-he was on his way to Paris to teach at Louis le Grand, the flagship of the Jesuit schools in France.

Or on his way into discreet exile, depending on how you looked at it, he thought, wriggling into a more comfortable hollow in the rock. Far from being at ease there beside the river, he was a hairsbreadth from being a fugitive. If his cousin the bishop changed his mind… But he wouldn’t. God send that he wouldn’t.

Six weeks ago on Charles’s twenty-eighth birthday, his mother’s most trusted servant, old Fanchot, had ridden at a gallop into the Carpentras college courtyard, reined his lathered horse to a halt in a spray of gravel, and half fallen from the saddle. Refusing to tell anyone else what he wanted, he’d bullied his way to Charles.

“Get gone, Maitre Charles.” Fanchot had gasped when they were private, and pulled a wrinkled letter from his belt. “Your girl’s in mortal danger.”

“Not mine anymore, Fanchot,” Charles had said sternly, not needing to ask what girl. But his heart had turned over. He’d given the exhausted old man into the care of the lay brothers and gone to his chamber to read the bad news in privacy, the bad news about Pernelle, his second cousin, his first love. It was very bad news, written in Mme du Luc’s native Norman dialect, which all her children had learned along with Provencal.

Dear Charles,

I write for safety in the language of my infancy. Toinot has just been with me-the cobbler’s son, fifteen now, can you believe it? He brought my red brocade shoes, but really came to tell me that the parish priest caught Pernelle and others of The Religion praying in her attic last night. No rosaries, no precautions to pass the whole thing off as new Catholic convert fervor. Stupid of them, but your cousin is as uncompromising as ever. Still, she is a du Luc and we cannot turn our backs. She is imprisoned in her house, not the jail, no doubt because of the child, who is not yet two years old. Pere Mazet is not a cruel man. But the Intendant has sent for dragoons. Toinot’s father says they cannot be here before Saturday, so if you leave the moment you get this, you can reach Nimes by Friday night. She is expecting you and means to go to David’s family in Geneva. May the Virgin forgive me, but with things at this pass, it may be just as well that her other children died. The young sister-in-law staying with her will also go. Stop first at the convent, your sister Claire has something you will need. I will pray daily to the Virgin that you may be safe-safe in every way, Charles, if you understand me.

Your loving mother

Charles had stared incredulously at the letter. Last October, King Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes, the only legal protection of French Protestants, Huguenots, as they were called. Now their religion was not just heresy, but treason, and the Huguenots themselves were outlaws. They were also forbidden to leave France, since the Revocation’s goal was their forced conversion to Catholicism. The penalty for trying to escape-and the penalty for helping them-was usually death. That or slavery in the galleys. Yet his mother was telling him to get two women and a child across France, across the Alps, and across the Swiss border. Never mind that the journey would take weeks and he had no plausible reason for such an absence. But if he refused, the dragoons would most likely kill his cousin. His mother would certainly kill him.

Of course, all this had begun long ago, more than a hundred years ago in France’s Wars of Religion. True, much had changed since then, but France was still soaked in blood. Like most French children in the century since those wars, Charles knew the terrible stories by heart: stories full of the frenzied shouts of Protestant and Catholic mobs, the clash of arms, the reek of blood, the stench of burning, the dying shrieks of the slaughtered on both sides, the laughter of the looters who cared nothing for either side. Du Lucs had fought on both sides and their clashing loyalties had left wounds in the family, but Charles’s Catholic parents, like their parents and grandparents before them, did what they could for their still-beleaguered French Protestant kin.

The king had formally forbidden using the dreaded soldiers called dragoons to force conversions, but he turned a blind eye as local officials went on billeting dragoons on Huguenot families and letting them pillage, torture, and rape, until their victims either went bruised and bleeding to Mass, or died. Nimes, where Pernelle had lived, had been a mostly Huguenot town, known far and wide as “Little Geneva.” But when its citizens heard that

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