“Ah, well, there are those in the church, and even in the mendicant orders, who must have the whiff of money forever in their nostrils. As for me, this tumbler of wine is enough, along with some thin potage and a scrap of bread.”
Brother Francis had, in fact, guzzled more than a tumbler, as had his host, Old Martin. Madame Martin rolled her eyes as she cleared the plates and scraps from the rough planks which served as a table. The potage had not been so thin before the friar arrived. There were times she could wish for a lordly visitor who might add to the family stores or leave a coin behind. Brother Francis droned on, as he always did when replete:
“You might well think with all the wealth that’s across that river in Cahors some little of it might trickle upward into our poor huts and chapels, here on these scrawny ridges of White Quercy…”
Old Martin snorted:
“Cahors? Never go there. We’ve markets aplenty this side of the river. A goose is still a goose, whether I sell it here or there.”
“Yes, although those fat citizens will pay a little more, perhaps.”
“Or perhaps not! Am I to spend a day getting to and from the city for one extra piece of copper I might get? You know, they call this place Trigodina because, in the old language, it meant late-for-dinner. That was because the farmers who had no choice, even in my father’s day, had to rush to and from Cahors to sell what they could. And you think those good, fat citizens of Cahors didn’t feed on their plight, waiting till late in the day and offering a misery? No, we have our own markets now…”
Madame Martin muttered from the fire place:
“Well, if you start early enough…like my father…”
“A springing whippet of a man, a man who hated to be home, such a shrew he was married to, as you tell me yourself!”
“All I’m saying…he left early for Cahors, knew the buyers, was never late back…It’s all I’m saying…An extra coin or two…”
Old Martin sulked a little as he poured out more inky Malbec wine for himself and the begging friar, who was, in truth, more a presuming than a begging friar.
“And with my legs, this gouty condition of mine, I could easily get caught late in the city. Then what might I do, eh? Will you have me walking across the Valentré after sunset?”
The friar blessed himself, and Madame Martin fell silent at the terrifying prospect. More drinking. Then the friar:
“When a pope himself has made a bargain with the devil, how carefully must we poor men tread.”
“Jacques Duèze. Pope John, builder of the Devil’s Bridge, the Valentré. Born right in Cahors. His family likely owned land near here, since they owned so much in the region.”
Madame Martin put in:
“Jacques Duèze! In my family we would bless ourselves for protection when someone mentioned the name. Husband, surely you’ve heard of Duèze, who built the Valentré and so many splendid things in Cahors.”
“Why should I know of him? I know that the Caorsins are gowned rogues and lavendered pimps, rich enough for the devil’s company, and that’s enough to know. And I know not to cross that bridge in darkness. Yes, that I know. But, Brother Francis, why should this Jacques have dealings with the devil, especially if he was a pope?”
“Why, for all the things that the Caorsins love! When the King of France, another Devil-dealer, wanted the pope established in Avignon rather than Rome, this Jacques Duèze, a cardinal when Pope Clement died, conspired with the king. The cardinals could not agree on a new pope. The king locked them up, left them without piss-pots and with scarcely a scrap of bread till they made up their minds. Jacques Duèze feigned sickness, so that men felt he would be dead within months: as you know, cardinals do not like young or healthy pontiffs. The cardinals voted him pope, just so that they might be released from their pestilential confinement, certain that Duèze would not see out a winter…
“Ah, but then how sprightly he became, this Jacques Duèze! He ruled the Church from Avignon, thumbing his nose at those Italians. Truly, he was one of the greatest and ablest of all popes. And the wealth that poured into Avignon overflowed into Cahors. He made merry till the age of ninety, at least…”
“Some say more. Much, much more. When a man like Duèze sells his soul, he does not sell it cheaply. Oh no! And so, Old Martin, you understand how such a bridge as the Valentré can be built. For surely no mere masons and labourers could ever construct such a marvel. That stands to reason for any man with eyes in his head.”
“No, no. I’ve always known that sorcery built the Valentré. And for all my want of learning, I know what lurks there by night…No, we have our own markets, this side of the river. A goose sold in Labastide is still a goose.”
“Of course, with all this fuss in the city over truffles…”
“Truffles?” Old Martin’s peasant instincts were suddenly stirred. He stiffened. His eyes had that special glint. His voice was a low croak, concealing his interest.
“Oh, it’s the new thing in Cahors. And it’s not just for the Caorsins. Merchants from Bordeaux are coming by river and donkey…”
“Truffles? They’re buying truffles? Pah.”
“Truffles! What does a poor friar know? They say that Parisians and other foreigners are paying a fortune to the Perigord farmers for truffles. I don’t know why. I expect they’re for eating. Now the peasants from Limogne are bringing truffles to Cahors, and selling every scrap in the winter markets. Why, in the next couple of months fortunes will change hands…”
Old Martin was suddenly unresponsive. He had retreated behind a wall of peasant shrewdness. He yawned and snorted:
“Pah. So much talk of Cahors and Caorsins and markets. And me an old man who can barely stand. I must to bed, Brother Francis.”
When Madame Martin asked him why he was leaving so early in the mornings, he would snort ironically:
“Ah well, your father was always away early…as you point out so often…”
It had taken a while to accustom the little black pig to its lead. Then he needed to find the first truffle, to give the pig the scent.
After exploring, he found the first stunted oak with the tell-tale “burn” in the soil at its base. The pig did not show interest till Martin himself began to grub in the pale scrabble. At last the pig joined in, instinctively drawn by the broken ground. Soon, something black appeared under the pig’s snout and the farmer pulled back sharply on the cord. He then drew out the truffle and let the pig smell it. It seemed almost maddened by the aroma. Rather than let the animal eat the truffle, he fed it a little grain from out of a pocket, by way of reward.
After that, it was an entire week of excited harvesting, though nobody, not even Madame Martin, was aware that Old Martin knew so much about the location and gathering of truffles. It was all thanks to time spent with his grandfather, to whom the truffle was just a survival food for the harsh winters of long ago. They would all know soon enough.
When his first supply of truffles was ready for market, he plumped the sack on the table before his bewildered wife.
“Well, what have you brought there, husband? The nutting time is over…’
“Look in the sack, woman.”
She peered in, and drew out a truffle, handling it like something which could sting.
“And this is…?”
“Well, I’m not so educated that I can tell you about Jacques Duèze…but I can show you what a truffle is. And few men on this side of Quercy have seen one, let alone harvested a whole sack full.”
“This! A truffle! Why, it smells like…like…”
“Like money! This sack is going to market tomorrow, and when those Bordelais see the size of these beauties their purses will be looser than fresh pig’s caul.”
The sack had not been too heavy, and Old Martin had found himself at the Cahors market while it was still quite early.
It may seem odd that crossing the Valentré by day caused him no unease at all, but the Valentré by day is a completely different thing to the Valentré by night. Crowds passed over it on market days without a thought, and after winter the pilgrims would also cross in droves. But once the sun had set, only a fool or someone whose soul was already forfeit to the demon would tread there. Or so Old Martin believed, as did the other peasants of White Quercy. If the Caorsins used the bridge in darkness, that was because that city was known to be a hotbed of wizardry and devil worship.
There were other vendors of truffles at market, with their produce well displayed on benches or in boxes. Strangers from the other side of the region, perhaps from the harsh causses. Old Martin had passed through there once, as Young Martin, on the sole adventure of his life: a pilgrimage to the splendid Abbey of Conques and the sanctuary of Saint Faith. He remembered seeing many stunted oaks with the familiar burn around the roots, and the evidence of wild boars having gouged the soil. Of course, in those days nobody cared about truffles, and few would have recognised the signs.
What was of special interest was that the truffles on display were no match for his plump, gleaming specimens. Old Martin knew what to do. He placed his sack on the ground, and loosened its mouth so that a few truffles were showing. He then stood nonchalantly over the sack and looked about as if waiting for somebody. From the corner of his eye he observed strangely but richly dressed men in broad hats inspecting the counters and boxes of truffles. Bordelais! Well, let them come to Martin.
Eventually he was approached by two of the strangers who, he assumed, were merchants of Bordeaux. Both were young, and Martin quickly assessed their role: sons of wealthy men who were deputising for their fathers in what was no doubt considered a minor market. Perhaps their fathers were busy right then with the Cahors wine merchants, who sold so much of their best Malbec wine beyond the region. Some said it made its way to Muscovy! What had he heard once about Bordelais? That they were a kind of half-English, and surpassed even the Caorsins in their sly ways and arrogance.
Well, let them try their skills on a doddering peasant of White Quercy, one who had never been far from the Lot.
After the young merchants had peered down at the sack, one of them, fancying himself a bargainer, questioned Martin:
“Monsieur, do you keep the better ones underneath?”
“That I cannot say. Nobody who knows truffles would ever ask, but would see instantly that this is a sack of the White Quercy Beauties. The rest you see about this market are truffles of the causses, little better than lumps of goat shit. Our pigs of White Quercy would spit them. But has either of you two young gentleman seen a man, an older man, wearing a heavy chain of gold? He has a hat like yours, only much broader.”
“Why, no. Why do you seek such a fellow.”
“He it is who is to buy my sack. He told me he might come late, but this delay is annoying. In future I will let these merchants come to me. My wife was only saying as much last night. If there is such a clamour for White Quercy Beauties, let them come to our door. Of course, what my wife does not understand is that sometimes a man needs an excursion away from even the best wife. Two travelled gentlemen like yourselves will understand…But where is this merchant? Why does he make me wait so?”
“Perhaps…if you would like to consider…”
“Eh? Consider what?”
“Well, we are merchants ourselves, and from Bordeaux…”
“And what of that? Will that help your older countryman to hurry when he ought? Perhaps if he was poorer he would have a lighter chain, and move more briskly…”
Not only had Old Martin made the bargain of his life with the two young merchants, but he had agreed to come in a fortnight with more truffles, all for them if the price stayed right. (He could only hope their seniors did not become involved. On the other hand, if he could best the sons, why not the fathers?)
Martin was eager to get back home, just to see his wife’s expression when he carelessly tossed the precious coins on to the table. And he knew that every time one of them spoke the words Bordeaux and Bordelais in the coming weeks, there would be an exchange of sly chuckles and knowing looks. A peasant of White Quercy lives for such moments!
Of course, he would restrain his joy till he got home. As long as he was on the Cahors side of the river he knew he would need to stay in the role of a hapless bumpkin. The Caorsins can smell money through a wall of lead!
As he shuffled toward the river and the bridge, looking like a broken beggar, someone cried out his name. He turned and saw Brother Francis, flush faced, with a mess of crumbs down his cassock.
“Good day, Brother Francis.”
“Why, Old Martin, I thought you never came to the city!”
“Oh, I’m thinking – just thinking, mind you! – of buying some new sackcloth for the nutting season next year. Ah, but with the prices these cloth makers charge…”
“What would you say to some wine? I have a flask full of Bordeaux wine, given to me by one of these merchants today. The idiot brought it to Cahors to sell. Imagine the Caorsins paying money for such cat’s piddle from far away when they have Malbec of the Lot!”
“Is it so bad, this wine of Bordeaux?”
“Bad enough to give away, I’m afraid. I’ve already tasted some. One can understand why they sell it to the English. Justice, I say. They sent their Black Prince to ravage France, we send Bordeaux wine into England. Still, when one is poor and thirsty…”
“Poor is what I certainly am. Well, perhaps a draught or two. But then I must be off home. Mark you, I have not a sou upon me, Brother Francis!”
“Well, you have entertained me often enough in the past. Let me regale you. We’ll sit by the river in case we need water to allay the taste. It is very sharp wine, as you will find.”
The two men sat by the river and began to drink from the flask, pulling faces as they did so. Yet soon they drank more freely, and forgot the rasping and the sharpness and the sawdust odour of Bordeaux wine.
And soon Old Martin was dozing blissfully.
“Old Martin! Old Martin!”
Brother Francis was shaking him awake. The sky above was quite dark.
“Old Martin, we have slept too long. I must be off to the cathedral before I beg dinner. The night is coming on fast. You must cross the bridge now or not at all. My respects to Madame Martin.”
The Friar hurried off back to town, almost tripping inside his billowing cassock which he had not yet tightened at the waist. For a moment, Martin was bewildered; then he became aware of the situation. Should he hurry to the bridge, and hope to beat the darkness? Should he seek accommodation in the city, with so many visiting merchants inflating the prices? Now, what might not an innkeeper charge, knowing Martin was stranded in Cahors and had no choice? The season was too cool for sleeping out…
And what might his wife think if he failed to return? That he had lodged with a trollop or been waylaid by a street gang?
His wife! How he yearned for the moment – rehearsed constantly in his mind this past week – when he would toss those coins on the table as if they were worthless pebbles. No doubt his wife would dance her delight then raid the pantry for a little extra flour to prepare honey cakes. He would open a flask of his best Malbec, so black a candle could not shine through it. No, he could not delay homecoming. He would risk the bridge.
Perhaps there would still be sufficient light. He raced as he had not raced for years, though securing the purse which was tied inside his trousers by keeping his hand pressed to it.
When he came to the bridge entrance he hesitated. It was so dark now…No! Forward!
As he advanced under the first tower he remembered to utter a quick prayer to Saint Faith, who, though only a child, is more turbulent than any demon, with a bottomless supply of tricks and pranks. Faith would tell him what to say and do in the event…
A dark figure came sweeping up from under the near arch, its bat-like wings fanning the cold air of evening into Martin’s face. It was, of course, quite a terrifying thing, what with its furry bits and pointy bits; fanged teeth flashed white against a murk-coloured visage, part rodent and part serpent. The demon stood before him, arms folded, with a scroll in one hand.
“So, a visitor! And what might you be? A beggar’s underling, by the look of you!”
“Monsieur, you must excuse me, but I have a dinner engagement on the other side…”
“Certainly, certainly. There is just the matter of your soul. If you would care to add your name to the list on this scroll, you can be on your way instantly. Otherwise, back to town with you!”
Now Martin could see that this demon had quite youthful features, and, as with the young Bordeaux merchants, there was a hint of uncertainty, of inexperience, in his manner.
“That list of the damned again? How many times must a man sell his soul?”
“You mean, your name is already here?”
“Since long ago. I’m told demons see well in the dark. Look for my name: Jacques Duèze. It must be there.”
“Duèze…Duèze…one moment please, while I check…Duèze…”
“Or it may be there under, say, John.”
“John? Come now, we have many Johns.”
“No, no, young demon, it’s Pope John twenty-something. Twenty-two, twenty-three…something in the low twenties.”
“You are a pope? You look like a beggar.”
Martin produced his purse and opened it.
“More a penitent, surely. The richer we get the plainer we look. Such is the fashion with us popes. Is this the purse of a beggar?”
“Hmmm, that is rather a lot…”
The demon, puzzled, returned to his list.
“Pope John…Pope John…Ah! I have it! Pope John XXII, formerly Jacques Duèze! We seem to have had you on this list a long time. Too long for any human lifespan…”
“And when you are talking with colleagues, my young demon, ask them whether Jacques Duèze has ever sold himself or his interests or his soul cheaply.”
“In fact, I do seem to recall talk of such a French pope in the old days…But with all the attention on these Borgias and Della Roveres…Well, you may pass on. My apologies for any confusion.”
“Not at all, not at all, my young friend. And a very good evening to you.”
As he made his way joyously into the hills toward home, Old Martin could scarcely stop patting the purse. God’s ways were so strange. That he should become rich through what his forbears regarded as little better than dung for staying alive!
He would have to make his promise to Saint Faith carefully, since it was known that such a promise would have to be kept. Nobody cheated Saint Faith of a grain of incense or the smallest coin, so terrible a young girl she was: almost a holy demon, some said. At last he decided on some candles for their little chapel of Saint Roch. He would ask Roch to convey the piety on to Saint Faith. And he would leave a candle just for Roch, for his trouble.
He ached to tell his wife how he tricked the demon upon the bridge, but knew that this would bring her more terror than mirth.
That night, after they had laughed, danced, drunk, eaten and fondled like two newlyweds, Old Martin and his wife sat clasped by the fire.
“Well, my wealthy husband, what else did you see or do in Cahors this day?”
“Wife, to tell the truth, I witnessed a great horror. Nay, I was a party to this devilish business. It’s true!”
“And what was this devilry?”
“A thing fouler than that Styx River, beyond which they say Satan dwells with the lost souls…
“Today I drank wine of Bordeaux!”