CHAPTER 6: THE CURIOUS DEATH OF MONSIEUR NOGARET
Months passed, and the small village of St Anne draped itself in the yellow of summer, the orange of autumn, the white of winter and the green of the new spring like a child trying on her mother’s dresses and then discarding them as she loses interest. Little changed in the village. News of the war with the English came in peaks and troughs. One day a terrible defeat, destruction imminent, the next a glorious victory, London in three weeks. But this distant war did not even cause the slightest real ripple in the still lake that was St Anne. Of notable events perhaps the greatest was the death of Doctor Toureil’s wife. The woman who he had so often berated, teased and insulted, had in her last days watched her husband work like a scourged slave to save her, toiling with bottles and jars, resorting to ever more outlandish and bizarre cures to halt the disease that he knew had no interest in ceasing its rampage through her body.
In the last few hours of her life he had simply kneeled by her bedside, her limp, wrinkled brown hand clenched in his great, red callused paw, while he whispered a full sixty decades of the Rosary, imploring God to pass her over. And when her eyes had finally turned to glass and her hand grew limp in his, he had thrown back his head and shouted to the ceiling:
“You ass! Rot your eyes!”
He had, since then, recovered his good humour, and to Marie he seemed no different from the kind-hearted, nonsense babbling medic who had nursed her in her early childhood.
But Luke, who unlike his daughter saw Toureil in the tavern many an evening, knew better. The Doctor, who had been only a moderate drinker before his wife’s death, would now sit in a corner with his friends, and with tankard after tankard of ale he would tread a long dark path into drunken stupor each night. For the first few hours he would be rambunctious and loud, but not obnoxious, and indeed made good company. It was only as the late night began to melt into the very early morning that he would become quiet, the ale would begin to drip from his mouth, and he would begin to converse with his wife in slurred and rumbling tones. That was when most of his companions preferred to down their last glasses, say their embarrassed goodbyes and leave with a mixture of shame and relief in their hearts.
The only other major change in the fortune of one of the villagers was that which occurred to the father of Bernadette-who-smelt-of-cack. Through sheer luck, no less that six of his sows gave birth to massive litters in a single year, and the windfall allowed him to buy a proper sty to keep the swine in, so that they no longer had to be kept in the house. And although she knew that she would be remembered as Bernadette-who-smelt-of-cack probably until she lay on her deathbed, that wise little girl was at least able to take comfort in the fact that it was no longer true.
Marie and her father had, as Toureil had wisely predicted, adapted.
Marie was now ten years old. Her curly red hair was now long enough to hang past the halfway point down her back, and her face had thinned and lengthened so that her eyes no longer seemed quite so huge and green. She had also, in the last three years, in fact ever since that first horrible encounter with Nogaret, begun to show signs of inheriting her father’s fiery temper. She had grown into a girl who was, if not perhaps beautiful, then certainly striking and appealing to the eye.
She had told herself that she would never be able to reconcile with what her father did for a living, but they had developed a system for dealing with it. They never discussed it. When Marie came home and found her father gone, and the black mask vanished from under his bed, she would never ask where he had been when he came home. What Luke did outside of the house was something divorced and alien, and only came into conversation during their most bitter rows, when she was so angry that she would say anything simply to hurt him. Then it would all be unleashed, all her resentment, all her shame and revulsion. Then, she would call him a killer to his face. And the result would always be the same. His face would crumble like an ancient temple, the blue eyes fading to grey and falling to the floor, as if he had heard the terrible name for the first time. But it very rarely came to that.
The reader might be under the impression that Luke was hanging criminals every day of the week, and that the tiny village of St Anne, deep in the French countryside seemed to have a rather worryingly high rate of violent crime. This, of course, was not the case. As Nogaret had so eloquently put it, finding a man to wear the black mask was a real challenge, and once the magistrates of neighbouring villages had heard that there was a man in St Anne who would do the needful, they naturally applied for his services. Nogaret, being Luke’s employer, always agreed to these requests, in return for a cut of the payment. But even with this expanded workload, it was rare that Luke would have more than one hanging a month. In the meantime he would carry on farming a small plot of land beside the meadow where his daughter loved to while away yellow summer afternoons lying on her stomach and kicking air, while her father kept up the pretence of being just another farmer. But the vegetables he grew were always eaten, and never sold, and the money that came in always had a dim sheen, coming as they did from the greasy palm of Monsieur Nogaret.
As for Monsieur Nogaret himself, how has he changed in the last two years? Not a whit.
He has always been old, cruel, filthy in mind and body and has always held the power of life and death in his filthy hands. You could ask the oldest, most decrepit native of St Anne if they could ever remember a time when Nogaret was young, or even when he was not cruel, and their kind old eyes would grow dim with confusion, their wrinkled foreheads would crease even further as they furrowed in concentration and yet they would not be able to recall a time when the Magistrate was not the reptilian wretch that they knew and despised. Was there ever a time when Nogaret was young? If you paid any attention to biologists and such people, you’d say yes, he’d have to have been young once. No one is born old and cruel. But if there was once a young man by that name, who did not take a cold, ashen delight in the enforcement of a cruel and loveless justice, he is long gone now. Now there is only Magistrate Guillaume Nogaret, the scarecrow of the law.
Nogaret abided in a large decrepit wooden house on the outskirts of town. Most of the rooms were empty, for he did not need anything beyond his study, his cold, rough cot and his grimy and sparse kitchen where the same grey bowl had served the same grey gruel day in day out for the last twenty three years. He had lived here, alone and not only unloved, but actually hated, for most of his life. Where else but here, then, could he have died?
We are now inside Nogaret’s house on a filthy cold November evening. The sun slunk red and disgusted beneath the horizon a little before five O’clock , and it is dark and freezing outside. It is even darker and colder inside. It’s that kind of house. Throughout every square inch of dark air, there is not a sound or a ripple. The house is as still and black as a midnight lagoon
Nogaret entered the front door of his house (no place so loveless would ever deserve the name of “home”) and snapped to a terrible stillness. If you had asked him at that moment what had given him pause, he would not have been able to give you a concrete reply. But for the last forty (fifty? sixty?) years he has lived in this house, it has been so. Now, this evening, it is not so. There is something different.
Some slight change in the distribution of dust. Perhaps the thinnest trace of a strange scent in the air. Perhaps nothing at all.
Uneasily, he feels his way through the darkness. He does not keep candles in the house, the warmth and light brings him no joy. His long, soft, probing fingers kiss the rough hide of the wall which leads him like a trail to his tiny loveless chamber, where his grim little bed awaits to take his old popping bones, and his great head wreathed in lank white hair.
There is moonlight shining in through the poky window over his bed, and the tiny chamber (no more than four foot across) is silver with it. The sense of unease that has been filling Nogaret’s shrunken chest ever since he entered the house has been slowly building. There is something not right here. Something not right at all. In a moment of near panic he thinks that there is someone in the house with him. Someone who wants revenge for one of the million sins he has committed in a long life that was not overly concerned with decent Christian behaviour. He imagines he can hear breathing. He spins around. Behind him there is nothing but black as dark as an eyelid. His old eyes trawl through the shadows, and a good thirty times he thinks he sees a shadow leaping for his throat, he throws his arms up over his face and croaks in panic. And each time he realises that his mind has been playing with him, pulling his wings and letting him crawl over the window sill. He calms for a few seconds, and then a fresh stab of terror. Of course, the assailant must be under the bed, waiting for him to lie down, and once he sees the bulge of Nogaret’s weight bearing down on him through the mattress, then he will plough his blade upwards until the red begins to seep through.
Nogaret’s long fingers trembled at the thought, and his green eyes stared silver in the moonlight. His mouth felt as dry as bark. Every inch of his scrawny frame trembling, the old Magistrate lowered himself slowly to the floor, to try and catch a glimpse of his fiendishly clever assailant. At the sight of a dark form skulking in readiness beneath the bed he actually screamed and covered his head, but looking up he realised that he had been fooled again, and it was nothing but the shadows against the wall. With a long breath it finally hit home to him how idiotic he was being. If anyone had seen him at this foolishness! Screeching at shadows in his own home like a five year old. A tremendous sense of embarrassment turned his old face quite pink, but the relief that he was safe quickly washed it away. Without further ado he stripped to his undergarments and clambered into bed, which felt softer than it had ever done before.
A contented smile played across the wrinkled features of Monsieur Nogaret. His eyes opened for a brief second.
He screamed loud enough to split a drum.
On the ceiling, braced between the walls with arms and legs splayed, was a lean, dark youth no older than twenty. He was as thin as a rake and his wiry frame belied strength that had allowed him to hang there, eight feet over Nogaret’s bed without any difficulty. In the split second that he had, Nogaret took in the boy’s dark hair, and a grin so wide and white that Nogaret insanely found his memory drifting back to a fox he had encountered on a country road one night long ago. The lean little dog had growled at his approach, and had flashed a razor bag of teeth that had made his face seem to stretch horribly to twice its size. Tiny sharp teeth, white as marble in sunshine. That was what Nogaret saw. But over that smile, grey eyes…
Dear God those eyes…
Nogaret’s mattress was now soaked with the old man’s urine
And something told him that the young man’s grin was no expression of joy. He was bearing his teeth at him. Just like the fox on that midnight road. Then the young man dropped like a hawk.
“Hussshhhhhhhhh now old snake…”
“Don’t speak. Do not speak. You see this knife?”
“Very sharp. Your skin is like tissue paper, isn’t it? Old, brown tissue paper. I could peel you like an onion. cut you up so…”
“Hush I said! Not going to die yet. No, the snake’s got a couple of seconds yet, time for deals…”
“Tears now? All those lives. A million broken necks, a million deaths and the only tears are for your own? Surely there were better men to weep for?”
“Ah. Stopped crying now. Good, good. Listen to me now, good and clear. I will ask you a question. If you tell me an answer, I will plough this knife through your chest…”
“Hush! If you don’t give me an answer, I will plough this knife through your chest. But I will do it very, very slowly…”
It is night on a filthy cold November.
In a small room bathed in moonlight two pairs of eyes meet in the night air.
One pair is sickly green, lurking at the bottom of great wide sockets. They are glowing with panic.
The second pair is grey, and does not seem human. The pupils are tiny points of black, even in the darkness.
They do not seem human.
The white teeth part, and the question takes form in the air.
“What is the Hangman’s name?”
The youth slowly brings his hand away from Nogaret’s mouth. The Magistrate takes a breath.
The name is spoken.
The knife flashes silver, then red.
And the house is as still and dark as a midnight lagoon.