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By Catherine Jinks
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Catherine Jinks
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The shadow of death
When I first met Father Augustin Duese, I thought: 'That man is living in the shadow of death.' I thought this, firstly, because of his appearance, which was bloodless and attenuated, like one of the dry bones from Ezekiel's vision. He was tall and very thin, his shoulders were bowed, his skin was grey, his cheeks were hollow, his eyes were almost lost in their deep, shadowy sockets, his hair was scanty, his teeth were decayed, his step was faltering. He looked like an ambulant corpse, and this was not simply because he was so full of days. I came to feel that death was hovering near him, attacking him ceaselessly with the weapons of illness: inflammation of the joints – particularly in the hands and knees – poor digestion, failing eyesight, constipated bowels, a problem with the passing of water. Only his ears were unaffected, for his hearing was very acute. (I believe that his skill as an inquisitor stemmed from his ability to detect the note of falsehood in a person's voice.) I am also convinced that the penitential quality of his meals may have contributed to the degradation of his stomach, which was forced to digest food that St Dominic himself would have spurned, food that I would hesitate to call food, and which was consumed in very small quantities. I would even go so far as to say that, if he had been dead, he might perhaps have eaten a little more, although to eat large portions of the victuals he favoured – bone-hard bread, boiled vegetable peelings, cheese rind – would have been more difficult than swallowing a thorn hedge. Doubtless he offered up his suffering as a sacrifice to the Lord.
Myself, I believe that such a diet should be observed with a little less zeal. The Angelic Doctor told us that austerity is taken up by religious life as being necessary to mortify the flesh but, if practised without discretion, it carries with it the risk of faltering. Not that Father Augustin paraded his mortifications: his abstinence was not a vain and faithless gesture, of the kind against which Christ warns us when He condemns the hypocrites who fast with a sad countenance, and disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. Father Augustin was not like that. If he mortified the flesh, it was because he felt unworthy. But he made no friends among the priory's swineherds with his demands for mouldy turnips and bruised fruit. Scraps of that kind have always been regarded as their property – in so far as a Dominican lay brother may own even a cabbage stump. I once remarked to Father Augustin that, while he starved himself, he starved our pigs also, and a fasting pig was of no use to anyone.
He said nothing, of course. Most inquisitors know how to use silence with the most expert precision.
In any event, Father Augustin not only looked and, I am quite sure, felt like a dying man, but behaved like one as well. By this I mean that he seemed to be in a very great hurry, as if he numbered his days. And to give you an example of this strange urgency, I shall describe what happened shortly after his appearance in Lazet, not three months before his demise, in response to my request for help in the praiseworthy task of 'catching the little foxes who seek to destroy the vineyard of the Lord' – that is to say, apprehending certain enemies by which the Church is hedged about, like a lily among thorns. Doubtless you will be familiar with these enemies. Perhaps you have even encountered these purveyors of heretical doctrine, these sowers of discord, fabricators of schism, dividers of unity, who question that holy truth proclaimed by the Roman See and soil the purity of the Faith with their diversely erroneous teachings. Even the early fathers, after all, were plagued by such emissaries of Satan. (Was it not St Paul himself who assured us: 'There must be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you'?) Here in the south, we battle against many perverse dogmas, many pestiferous sects whose names and practices differ but whose poison corrupts with equally harmful effect. Here in the south, the ancient seeds of that Manichaean heresy denounced by St Augustin have become deeply rooted, and flourish still, despite the pious efforts of St Dominic's holy order.
Here, the lives of many friars are devoted to the defence of Christ's cross. When I was first appointed vicar to Jacques Vaquier, Lazet's inquisitor of heretical depravity (how long ago it seems!) the intention was not that I should spend the better part of each day pursuing those workers of iniquity, but that I should ease Father Jacques's burden whenever he found its weight overwhelming. As it happened, however, Father Jacques was easily overwhelmed. I spent a good deal more time on Holy Office matters than was my original intention. Nevertheless, Jacques Vaquier did make inquisition of many souls which, like sheep, had gone sadly astray, and when he died last winter, the volume of work that he left behind was too great for one man. That is why I appealed to Paris for a new superior. And that is why Father Augustin arrived at the priory late one summer afternoon, six days before the Feast of the Visitation (when he was actually due), unheralded, unexpected, unaccompanied save for his young scribe and assistant, Sicard, who served as his master's eyes.
Both were too weary to attend supper, or Compline. As far as I know, they went straight to bed. But at Matins the next morning I saw Father Augustin in the choir-stall opposite, and after Tierce I joined him in his cell. (For this, of course, we were given special permission.) I should explain that in the priory of Lazet, brethren appointed to serve the Holy Office are given the same privilege as that enjoyed by our lector and librarian – namely, their own cells, and permission to shut the doors of their cells. Father Augustin, however, did not shut his door.
'I prefer not to speak of unholy matters in a place dedicated to God,' he explained. 'As far as possible, we shall speak of the limbs of the Antichrist only where we attack them, rather than poisoning the air of the priory with wicked thoughts and deeds. Therefore I see no need for secrecy or closed doors – not here.'
I agreed with him. Then he asked me, in formal tones, to join him in a prayer, that God might bless our efforts to cleanse the land of heretical morbidity. It was already apparent that he and Jacques Vaquier had been cast from different moulds. Father Augustin was wont to employ certain learned phrases when denoting heretics – 'the foxes in the vineyard', 'the cockle in the harvest', 'deviants from the right way', and so forth. He was also very precise in his use of those terms defined by the Council of Tarragona, last century, concerning the different degrees of culpability in heretical association: for example, he never called someone a 'concealer' of heretics who was really a 'hider' (the distinction, as you know, is a fine one), or a 'defender' who was really a 'receiver'. He always called the house or inn where heretics might congregate a 'receptacle', as the Council decreed.
Father Jacques called heretics 'pond-scum', and their houses 'pest-holes'. He was not, as St Augustin might have put it, one of those men who joined their hearts to the angels.
'I am aware that the Inquisitor General wrote to you with a full account of my history and education,' Father Augustin went on. His voice was surprisingly firm and resonant. 'Are there any questions you wish to ask me concerning my experience as an inquisitor ... my life in the order ...?'
The Inquisitor General's description had indeed been thorough, with exact dates given for all of Father Augustin's teaching posts, priorships and Papal commissions, from Cahors to Bologna. But there is more to a man than his appointments. I could have asked a great many questions about Father Augustin's health, or his parents, or his favourite authors; I could have asked him for his views on the role of the inquisitor, or on the poverty of Christ.
Instead, I asked him the question which you were doubtless wondering yourself, and which he must have answered a thousand times. 'Father,' I said, 'are you related to the Holy Father, Pope John?'
He smiled a weary smile. 'The Holy Father would not recognise me,' he rejoined obscurely, and would say nothing else on the subject, then or at any other time. I never discovered the truth. It is my opinion that, as a Duese from Cahors, he was related, but that somehow the two branches of the family had become disunited, and that as a result he did not benefit from Pope John's renowned generosity to men of his own blood. Otherwise, he would have been a cardinal by now – or at least a bishop.
Having avoided my question, Father Augustin proceeded to ask me questions in return. I had been identified as a Peyre of Prouille; had I indeed been raised in sight of St Dominic's first foundation? Had its proximity inspired me to join the Dominican order? He spoke reverently, and I was sorry to inform him that the Peyres of Prouille had been ruined long before St Dominic arrived there. Even in St Dominic's time the fort had been dismantled, and the Peyres' seigneurial rights relinquished to a family of rich peasants. I know this from reading an account of the monastery's early days, which, quite unexpectedly, reassured me on a point that had always been of some concern – for I had been most uneasy as to the exact circumstances of my family's decline. In this part of the world, fallen glory is very often the result of heretical beliefs: I was relieved to discover that my ancestral property had not been confiscated by the Holy Office, nor, indeed, by the armies of Simon de Montfort, but had simply been lost through weakness or stupidity.
I told Father Augustin that I had been raised in Carcassonne, and that my father had been a public notary and consul there. If I had any relations in Prouille, I knew nothing of them. Indeed, I had never even visited the place.
Father Augustin seemed disappointed. In a chillier tone he asked me about my progress in the order, and I quickly reviewed it for him: solemn profession at the age of nineteen, three years of philosophy at Carcassonne, teaching philosophy at Carcassonne and Lazet, five years of theology at Montpellier Studium Generale, appointment as Preacher General, definitor at various provincial chapters, Master of Students at Beziers, at Lazet, at Toulouse ...
'And back to Lazet,' Father Augustin finished. 'For how long now?'
'You are comfortable, here?'
'Comfortable. Yes.' He meant, of course, that my pace had slowed, that I appeared to be at a standstill. But as one grows old, one begins to lose the passions of youth. Besides which, there are certain men in the order who do not laugh as I do. 'The wine here is good. The weather is good. There are sufficient heretics. What more could you want?' Father Augustin looked at me for a little while. Then he began to question me about Father Jacques, about his history and habits, his tastes, his talents, his life and death. I realised very quickly that he was driving me in a particular direction, the way dogs will drive a hart towards a hunting party. The way I will drive a heretic towards the truth.
'Father, there is no need to prevaricate,' I told him, interrupting a careful inquiry about Father Jacques's friendship with some of the city's leading merchants. 'You want to know if the rumours are based on fact – if your predecessor did, indeed, secretly accept money from accused heretics.'
Father Augustin exhibited no manifestations of surprise or annoyance. He was too experienced an inquisitor for that. He simply watched me, and waited.
'I too have heard these tales,' I continued, 'but have been unable to confirm their truth or falsity. Father Jacques brought to the order many rich and beautiful books, which he professed to have received as gifts. He also had many well-endowed relatives in this region, but I cannot tell you whether their wealth came from him, or went to him. If he did accept illicit gifts, it cannot have occurred very often.'
Still Father Augustin remained silent, his gaze fixed on the floor. Over the years, I have learned that no one, not even an experienced inquisitor, can read the hearts and minds of men as he would read a book. For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart – and Father Augustin's outward appearance was as blank as a stone wall. Nevertheless, with a vaulting and no doubt undeserved confidence, I believed that I could follow the direction of his thoughts. I believed that he was naturally suspicious of how far I was implicated, so hastened to reassure him.
'I, on the other hand, have no rich relatives. And my wages as your vicar are transferred directly to the priory – when they are paid at all.' Seeing my superior's puzzled frown, I explained that Father Jacques, despite repeated requests made to the Royal Steward of Confiscations, had been owed three years' wages when he died. 'Confiscations are not as profitable as they used to be,' I added. 'The heretics we see now are mostly poor peasants from the mountains. Any rich heretical lords were captured and skinned long ago.'
Father Augustin grunted. 'The King is responsible for the expenses of the Holy Office,' he said. 'This is not Lombardy or Tuscany. The Inquisition of France does not depend on confiscations for its survival.'
'Perhaps not in theory,' I replied. 'But the King still owes Father Jacques four hundred and fifty livres tournois.'
'And yourself? What does the King owe you?'
Father Augustin frowned again. Then the bell rang for Prime, and we rose together.
'After Mass,' he said, 'I wish to visit the gaol, and the premises where you conduct your interrogations.'
'I shall take you there.'
'I also wish to meet this Royal Steward of Confiscations – and of course the Royal Seneschal.'
'That can be arranged.'
'Naturally, I shall inquire into the matter of wages,' he went on, and moved towards the door. It appeared that our dialogue had reached its conclusion. But as he crossed the threshold, he turned and looked at me.
'Did you say that the lost sheep in our prison are mostly poor peasants?' he inquired.
'I did, yes.'
'Then perhaps we should ask ourselves why. Are the rich all faithful Catholics? Or do they have the means of buying themselves their freedom?'
I could find within me no answer to this. So after waiting, briefly, for a response, Father Augustin once more set off for the church, leaning heavily on his staff and stopping, sometimes, to catch his breath.
Following him, I had to walk more slowly than was my custom. But I was compelled to admit that, although his body might be infirm, Father Augustin's mind was very vigorous indeed.
* * *
It occurs to me that you will not be familiar with Lazet, except in the most simple terms: you may know that it is a large city, only slightly smaller than Carcassonne; that it lies near the foothills of the Pyrenees, overlooking a fertile valley bisected by the River Agly; that it trades mostly in wine and wool, some grains, a little olive oil, and wood from the mountains. You may even know that it has been a royal possession since the death of Alphonse de Poitiers. But you will know nothing of its appearance, its important features, its prominent citizens. So I shall set down a faithful description of the city before I proceed to my account of the events which took place there, and may God lend my hand an eloquence which my tongue lacks.
Lazet is built on the crown of a low hill, and is well fortified. When you enter the northern gate, which is called the St Polycarpe gate, you soon reach the cathedral of St Polycarpe. It is an old church, rather small, and simple in its construction; the canons' cloisters beside it are more elaborately decorated, having been completed more recently. The Bishop's palace used to be the canons' guest-house, before Pope Boniface XIII created the bishoprics of Pamiers and Lazet in 1295. Since then this building has been quite transformed (or so I am told), and boasts many more rooms than even an Archbishop could possibly require. It is undoubtedly the most handsome building in Lazet.
There is an open space in front of the cathedral where five roads intersect, and here you will find the market. Many people frequent it to buy wine, cloth, sheep, wood, fish, pottery, blankets and other goods. At the centre of the market stands a stone cross, raised above a kind of sheltered, shallow pit, like a grotto, which is the property of the canons of St Polycarpe. I have heard tell that long ago, before the city was built, a pious hermit lived for fifty years in this grotto, never once emerging (or even standing up, to judge from the dimensions of the space), and that he prophesied the building of Lazet. His name was Galamus. Although he was never sanctified, his grotto has always been regarded as a holy place; for countless years people have been leaving gifts there, anonymously, for the canons – sometimes money, more often bread or vegetables, a roll of cloth, a pair of shoes. These offerings are collected every day at sundown.
Excerpted from The Inquisitor by Catherine Jinks. Copyright © 1999 Catherine Jinks. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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