An historical novel of 17th c. France and Brittany. Anna, a Breton peasant, has the gift of healing. A physician will use her for his glorification and a Jesuit will contrive to send her to a fiery death.
Learning first-hand about her healing touch, Luc de St. Connec carries her away. To conceal his motive, he creates her new identity as his cousin, raised by peasants. She becomes companion to the demoiselle Fontanges, destined to be the king's tragically short-lived mistress. Anna has a secret, which will change Luc from exploiter to protector.
Luc abjures his Huguenot religion to gain an appointment at court, and renews his friendship with English diplomat and spy John Keyes, a friendship challenged by their mutual love for Anna.
The Affair of Poisons begins and many are tried as blasphemers and poisoners (with the understanding they are witches). Many are burned at the stake. The poison investigations implicate Louis XIV’s longtime mistress, Mme de Montespan; he begins the great cover-up of French history, determined no word of La Montespan's involvement will leak out to endanger her. Anna is implicated in the affair of poisons, endangering herself and the men who love her.
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In this sweeping historical novel of 17th century France, the wrath and power of Louis XIV are felt all the way to Keltic Brittany near the Bay of the Dead.
Born into the peasant culture, a mixture of ancient pagan beliefs mixed with Catholicism, is the girl Anna, a bastard looking like no one in her parish – her mother would not tell who her father was. Taught the use of herbs by the women of her family, she also has the gift of healing – a power also attributed to French and English kings who were said to heal scrofula with their touch. This ability will cause one man, a physician, to attempt to use her for his own glorification, and another, a Jesuit, to work to send her to a fiery death.
But first, she is caught up in the Breton peasant rebellion of 1675, when a people rose up against the punishing taxes of the French king and local nobles after years of hunger and failed crops. It is the consequence of the violence and retribution by the French that set the wheels of her destiny in motion.
After learning first-hand about her healing touch, a young physician, Luc de St. Connec, purchases Anna her from her family and carries her to the chateau of a relative on the French border. To conceal his motive, he creates a new identity for her -- she is his cousin Anne de St. Nolf, stolen away by her peasant nurse as an infant and in need of being taught French and the graces that accompany her birthright. At the chateau she becomes the companion of Marie Angélique de Scoraille, the demoiselle de Fontanges, destined to become Louis XIV's last and tragically short-lived mistress. But Anne has a secret Luc has yet to discover, which will change him from her exploiter to her protector.
Paris and the court of Monsieur, brother to the King, beckon. To gain an appointment at court, St. Connec abjures his Huguenot religion and embraces Catholicism, an act of conscience he will later regret as the King, edict by edict, suppresses the freedom to practice Protestantism in France. In Paris, St. Connec renews his friendship with the English diplomat and spy John Keyes, whom he’d met in Brittany and knows of Anne’s origin. Their friendship is challenged by their growing love for Anne, a love they deny to each other and to themselves.
In 1680, the Affair of Poisons takes Paris by storm, and during a three-year period many are tried as blasphemers and poisoners (with the implicit understanding that they are also witches). Many are burned at the stake. The poison investigations implicate the King's longtime mistress, Madame de Montespan, mother of five of his children. Assisted in conspiracy by the lieutenant-general of the Paris police, Louis XIV begins one of the great cover-ups of French history, determined that no word of La Montespan's possible involvement will leak out to make him an object of ridicule or to endanger her. Anne is implicated in the affair of poisons, endangering herself and the men who love her.
The author researched and wrote this historically accurate and entertaining novel during an eight-year period. “I like to think that one can learn history from my novels, and enjoy a good yarn at the same time,” she said. “Peasants weren’t dullards. We’re all descended from peasants if we go back far enough. Theirs was an oral culture, full of colorful language, practical knowledge, myth and superstition. The aristocracy of France wasn’t above superstition itself.”
LOWER BRITTANY - AUGUST l675
Near the sea and the Bay of the Dead lay the Breton diocese of Cornouaille, called Kernev by its own people. On this day, its desperate residents were about to suffer the wrath of Louis le Grand, King of France.
In the square of the village Kermerik, below the spire of Our Lady's church, large iron-shod hooves impatiently smacked the cobblestones. To the abject villagers watching the French king's dragoons and the restless line of huge horses snaking across the square, the ringing cobblestones were nothing less than the French army's mockery of the bell high in the belfry of the church -- their fine old bell that called to them in the fields to kneel for the Angelus at midday, brought them home in the evening, and sent them forth again in the morning. The power of the French horses mocked them as well, the peasants of Kernev. For seven weeks of this bitter summer, these peasants had sought an end to their long misery -- and had nearly succeeded.
But this year was not to be the anno mirabilis. Perhaps God had not willed it. Perhaps the devil, who they knew lived in France, had fooled the King; had told him the Bretons wanted more than simple justice. And, so, the King sent his dragoons and these giant horses, like no others they’d ever seen -- horses that could swallow whole their small Breton ponies. The peasants did not understand why their misery, so unbearable before, now would be beaten deeper into them with the abomination the French soldiers were about to commit. Their priest, who might have explained it to them, had been seized by the French and sent to the galleys. Perhaps the hour had come to cram their mouths with dirt and grass, for surely they were being shrunk for the grave.
Rain dripped from the brim of the French sergeant's leather hat and from the lash-wrapped butt of the whip he slapped against his thigh as he tramped up and down the double line of nervous horses. All was ready -- the teamsters positioned, the soldiers facing the pockets of shabby women and children herded off to the far side of the square, where they huddled staring and mumbling. The way was left open for the horses -- ten span of huge Percherons, twenty of the army's best, France's finest. The sergeant told the dragoon captain that his horses were better than mules for this job. A quick jerk and it would be finished. The mules would only grind away at it.
He squinted up at the leaden sky. Curse this rain, blown in so suddenly from the Atlantic. An hour ago, horses and men were sweating where they stood; now the rain laid dark shadows across the broad backs of his teams; the first chill of an early autumn stiffened his knees.
For two days the smiths forged and laid iron links -- the longest chains in Christendom, the sergeant overheard the captain say -- chains to rejoin the Bretons to their king.
Chains dragged rattling over cobblestone affected the horses more than cannon fire ever had. The vexed animals startled into a heavy dance, nipping at harness mates as hoisted chains collided, entwined and clanged up the side of the church to the bell tower.
A rock narrowly missed the sergeant's head, smacking the thick shoulder of his right lead horse. The horse flung up its head and reared. As he leaped for the halter, the sergeant's practiced eye caught the scrabbling, quick retreat of a young peasant down a narrow, crooked alley. His thick corded arms dragged at the great snorting head as a nearby teamster leaped forward to help. Men shouted down the line, grabbing at slick harness and dripping forelocks.
"Keep their heads down!" they shouted to one another. They soothed the horses as they had all day.
The sergeant retrieved his whip and considered his animals. Did his horses have souls? Was it fear of losing theirs this day which kept them jumpy, so that not even a soaking rain settled them down? And what of his own soul? But the sergeant believed in the might of France and the righteousness of the great Louis, who acted in accord with divine law, supported by the Church in everything he did. God's purposes and those of the kingdom of France were the same. Surely his own soul was safe and so, too, were those of his great stomping children.
Mon Dieu! How he loved these wonderful creatures! He placed his hand over the welt rising to the size of a turnip on the gelding’s shoulder and, where before he had felt nothing, anger toward the village of Kermerik began to simmer until it became the thrill of anticipation. Ten span lashed together as one team.
A fine piece of work it will be. The officers watching from the open doorway of the dingy inn across the way will enjoy it. They, who admired only their own kind, will today admire his big babies.
The sergeant splashed a few paces back and looked up at the church tower. The rain pelted his eyes and stopped up his ears, dribbled through his beard and down under his jerkin. These Breton beasts! What did they know of God! Rebels. . . not even Frenchmen . . . no different from the stinking Dutch he’d fought! He clamped the tip of his tongue between his teeth and sucked on it.
Our Lady's church was not a big church, not a quarter as large as the cathedral at Kemper. Above its double-door entrance, a broad transept supported the belfry, a square granite pile surmounted by a timbered spire covered with slate. On either side of the open gallery in which the bell hung, an age-blackened stone grotesque leaned out of a shadowy niche, peering down on the square. The two gargoyles glared at whoever looked up.
The villagers told the priest when he first came to them that the Holy Virgin, many years before, had vanquished two demons before the church doors. Satan had sent a pestilence and the demons were about to bring it into the church where the living sought sanctuary, but she turned the demons to stone and hurled them high up to the belfry where they still cringed, afraid to climb down. Their new priest listened and nodded, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Solemnly, he admonished them to remember that it was the Mother of God who had saved them, and that they must remain faithful to her and to her Son, and not turn back to the old spirits that lived in the giant stones scattered about the countryside. They had sincerely promised to remember, but starlit summer nights were especially trying on their ancient souls.
The sergeant was not told the story of the Virgin when he came into the village with his horses and teamsters in the wake of the dragoons. He would not have understood, anyway, for he was from Picardy and, though he had mastered the French tongue of the army, Breton was as foreign to him as the Dutch spoken by the prisoners he’d guarded during the recent war. He secretly feared these strange-tongued people of ruddy complexion. All night he lay awake, waiting for the gabbling toad's head of a woman he was billeted with to try to slit his throat. Besides, it was not the history of the church that held his attention, but the church itself and his order of the day.
He looked down the lines, making certain all was ready, and unfurled his whip. On either side of the double line of horses, his men raised their own lashes. He blessed himself and the King's business. O nom du Père, et du Fils, et du Saint-Esprit. Amen.
Earlier in the day, they’d crept from thatched dwellings and hovels up and down the crooked lanes surrounding the ancient parish church of Kermerik -- old worn-down women bent over sticks, though not as many as there would have been the previous summer, before the bad harvest left bread for only the able-bodied; and women carrying their youngest children, toddlers and infants, believing . . . hoping . . . the soldiers would not harm nursing mothers. Puzzlement and disbelief drew the first women from the relative safety of their homes. More hurried to the square as word carried along the narrow lane that led into Kermerik from the countryside, word of the terrible crime the soldiers were about to commit -- a crime that would damn the French to everlasting hellfire.
As though the French had failed to bring enough sorrow with them. The fire in their men and boys was extinguished. Afraid to come to the square with the women, they remained inside their dwellings, cowed and quiet, lest they be singled out to join the four hanging from the oak tree at the crossroads. Imagine! The French took a boy of sixteen. And Gabik ar Minouz, who could lift a barrel of cider without bending his arms. And Katrin an Inazan's husband, she with three living children. And old Menik an Goffik's son. The duc de Chaulnes, governor of Brittany, was Satan's own dog!
While they stood in sullen groups in the square, clasping their worn wooden rosaries, muttering to their neighbors and glaring at the horses and soldiers, the very air turned bilious yellow as towering brown clouds swept over the village and a rain, sudden and heavy, engulfed them all. The women lifted their eyes from the horses to the belfry and to its finger of spire carrying their appeal to heaven. God was good! The Virgin was sending a miracle! The soldiers would leave!
But the soldiers turned on them roughly, shouting orders they couldn’t understand, shoving them to one side of the square. They feared the soldiers, even those they recognized -- soldiers who had recently forced their way into their homes, snored in their box beds and devoured their meager supply of black bread. Their cruelty they knew firsthand. No French soldier is as mean as the one in your own home. Once assured that the soldiers meant only to keep them away from the horses being harnessed together, two abreast and ten deep, the women resettled themselves. They clutched at each other's arms and fiercely held their children against their thighs, spreading hempen shawls, as hens spread their wings, to protect their young from the rain. It did little good. They stood barefoot or in wooden sabots until their skirts were sodden, clinging to their legs like seaweed. Still they stayed, their mutterings now muffled by spattering rain, their beads moving urgently through cold, wet fingers.
These were proud, defiant women, the old ones ugly and shriveled, the young ones pale-skinned and fair-haired -- Keltic women, whose ancestors had crossed the channel from Cornwall in Britain after the Roman retreat. They brought their magic with them, magic now so mixed with Christianity that only a new priest could tell them the difference for a time; eventually, they would darken his vision and he, too, would forget. Now the women's prayers to the Virgin were joined by fervent prayers to ar Ankou, the bringer of death. If the Virgin could not hear them, then ar Ankou surely would.
Lightning shot down far out in the bay and thunder rolled across the square. The soldiers looked uncomfortably about, but when they saw the sergeant still intent on the work at hand, they shifted and slumped, tucking in their chins against the rain.
Rain washed the morning's blackberry stains from mouths of children sobbing and tugging at their mothers' skirts; the women ignored them in the throb of frenzied, hushed prayer. Wrapping thin arms about the women's knees, they shielded their faces against hard, sinewy legs. Some sank into small heaps on puddled cobblestones, whimpering and sucking on their mothers’ soggy hems, turning big-eyed faces only when the teamsters finally shouted and lashed the horses.
The ground shook. Huge hooves smote the cobblestones with the horses' efforts, while chains scraped and clanged heavily over the uneven stones before rising and pulling taut.
The women exclaimed and blessed themselves, and blessed the miracle they still believed would intervene. En hanô ar Tad, hag ar Mab, har ar Spéred Santel.
The din of the lunging team and their own hoarse shouts deafened the teamsters as they urged the animals forward. The horses rushed, and then recoiled, scrabbling on the slippery cobbles as the chains encircling the belfry held. They were backed up and once more whipped into using their brute strength to undo in moments what stone masons, joiners, and carvers, three centuries earlier, had worked a year or more to erect. The horses lowered heads, bulged great chests, and obeyed the lash until they snorted blood and rain, staining hairy white hooves. They skidded, plunged and floundered with pained grunts, rocking back on strained haunches to find footing, digging up cobbles, sending them clattering.
The bell between the leering demons rang an arrhythmic requiem as the belfry creaked, then groaned. The spire swayed, imperceptibly at first, then gently, and then with growing agitation as the belfry's granite blocks grated loudly against one another, the sound as hollow as that of a huge stone cover being pried off a deep cistern.
The women despaired and wailed when the first stones broke off, dropped and bounced on the square below. "Holy Virgin! Holy Virgin!" they screamed, turning rain-slicked faces toward the abomination of more stones and mortar hurtling toward the profane earth.
The bee-wife's lame, rawboned daughter, who spent every spare moment praying in the church over tribulations only she and the Virgin Mother understood, shoved her way through the women and ran lopsidedly into the square. She flung up thin arms to shield her head, nearly reaching the steps as the bell tower tipped and plunged.
Never in Kermerik had there been a sound like the thundering crash of the belfry as it came down. The ground abruptly shook, once, twice, while stone chips and dust hurtled in all directions. Flying debris shredded clothes and flesh. Women and children yelped and ran. The bee-wife's daughter disappeared. A cloud of dust rose from the square. The women slowed headlong flight to look back with dumb awe at the havoc the French had wrought.
The spire, tethered by chains to a place on the slate roof directly over the altar, had toppled backward onto the roof, the point broken off and lodged against a buttress.
The horses had reached the far edge of the square when the tower crashed to the ground. Having rushed on in terror, they now stood heaving and steamy, many visibly trembling, far out on the road where the teamsters finally halted them. Blood dripped into the mud from gashed hind quarters.
The wonderful bell lay crushed, buried under the rubble with the bee-wife's daughter.
When the rain settled the dust, the sergeant walked among the frightened, dumbstruck women, who scrabbled to unearth the dead girl from beneath the mountain of rock.
A woman hefted up a stone, shrieked and threw it down. The others ran over, jabbering and pointing at the shattered piece, and then backed away, blessing themselves. The sergeant sauntered over and prodded the object with the toe of his boot until he fully exposed the hideous, grinning face of a stone demon. He studied its conspiratorial leer while he wound his whip. Then he turned and walked through the rain and down the road toward his horses.
Excerpt of a letter from the duc de Chaulnes, governor of Brittany, to the marquis de Louvois, minister of war for France:
Port-Louis, 26 August l675
. . . We have executed at Quimper and surrounding towns some of the most seditious persons in this region, and the trees are beginning to bend along the main roads with the weight we have hung upon them . . . The bells that raised the alarm have been removed. In a small number of parishes it was necessary to raze the bell towers to make an example of the insolent rabble who defied His Majesty's edicts . . .
This calamity which befell the people of Kermerik is not the end of this story, and not its beginning.