Friday Night Book Club: Read the prologue and first chapter of The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Stay in and get cosy with a glass of wine and this extended excerpt from The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse, a historical novel inspired by her time at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Mosse was in South Africa this year, but last visited the Franschhoek Literary Festival in 2013. Her time in the Cape then inspired her new series, which will cover three centuries and travel the world from Carcassonne to Southern Africa.
About the book
Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties …
Carcassonne 1562: Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to get out of La Cité alive.
Toulouse: As the religious divide deepens in the Midi, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as sectarian tensions ignite across the city, the battle-lines are drawn in blood and the conspiracy darkens further. Meanwhile, as a long-hidden document threatens to resurface, the mistress of Puivert is obsessed with uncovering its secret and strengthening her power …
28th February, 1862
The woman stands alone beneath a sharp blue sky. Evergreen cypress and rough grasses bound the graveyard. The grey headstones are bleached the colour of bone by the fierce Cape sun.
Hier Rust. Here lies.
She is tall, with the distinctive eyes of the women of her family going back generations, though she does not know it. She bends forward to read the names and dates on the tomb-stone, obscured by lichen or moss. Between her high white collar and the dust-caked brim of her leather hat, the white skin on the back of her neck is already burning red. The sun is too strong for her European complexion and she has been riding across the veldt for days.
She removes her gloves, folding one inside the other. She has mislaid too many to be careless and, besides, how would she acquire another pair? There are two general stores in this hospitable frontier town but she has little left with which to barter and her inheritance is gone, spent on the long journey from Toulouse to Amsterdam, then from Amsterdam to the Cape of Good Hope. Every last franc has been spent on provisions and letters of introduction, hiring horses and a trustworthy guide to lead her through this unfamiliar land.
She drops the gloves to the ground at her feet. A powder of copper-red Cape dust puffs into a cloud, then settles. A black beetle, hard-backed and resolute, scuttles for cover.
The woman draws breath. At last, she is here.
She has followed this trail from the banks of the river Aude and the Garonne and the Amstel, over the wildest seas to where the Atlantic Sea meets the Indian Ocean, to the Cap de Bonne Espérance.
Sometimes the trail has blazed bright. The story of two families and a secret passed down from generation to generation. Her mother and grandmother, then further back to her great-grandmother and her mother before that. Their names have been lost, taken up in those of their husbands and brothers and lovers, but their spirits live in her. She knows it. Finally, her quest ends here. In Franschhoek.
Ci gît. Here lies.
The woman removes her leather riding hat and fans herself, the wide brim shifting the blistering air. There is no respite. It is as hot as an oven and her flaxen hair is dark with sweat. She cares little for her appearance. She has survived the storms, the assaults on her reputation and her person, the theft of her possessions and the loss of friendships that she had thought were built to last. All to bring her here.
To this unkempt cemetery in this frontier town.
She undoes the buckle on her saddlebag and reaches inside. Her fingers skim the small antique bible – a talisman she carries with her for luck – but it is the journal she pulls out: a soft tan leather cover, held shut by a thin cord wrapped twice around it. Tucked inside are letters and hand-drawn maps, a Will. Some pages are loose, their corners spiking out like the points of a diamond. This is the record of her family’s quest, the anatomy of a feud. If she is right, this sixteenth-century notebook is the means to claim what is rightfully hers. After more than three hundred years the fortunes and the good name of the Joubert family will, finally, be restored. Justice will be done.
If she is right.
Still, she cannot bring herself to look at the name on the gravestone. Wishing to savour this last moment of hope a little longer, she opens the journal instead. The spidery browned ink, the antique language reaching forward to her across hundreds of years, she knows every syllable like a catechism learnt in Sunday School. The first entry.
This is the day of my death.
She hears the whistling of a red-wing starling in flight and the shriek of a hadida in the scrubland at the boundary of the cemetery. It seems impossible that a month ago such sounds were exotic to her ears, and now they are commonplace. Her knuckles are white, clasped tight. What, after all, if she is wrong? What if this is an end, not a beginning?
As the Lord God is my witness, here, by my own hand, do I set this down. My last Will and Testament.
The woman does not pray. She cannot. The history of the injustices done in the name of religion – to her ancestors – surely proves that there is no God. For what God would allow so many to die in agony and fear and terror in His name?
All the same, she glances up as if she might glimpse heaven. The sky here in the Cape in February is the same vivid blue as it is in Languedoc. The same fierce winds catch the dust in the hinterlands of the Cap de Bonne Espérance as they do in the Garrigue of the Midi. A kind of heat, a breath that sets the red earth swirling and scatters a veil across the eyes. It whistles through the grey and green mountain passes of the interior, tracks worn by the movement of men and of animals. Here, in this outback land they once called the Elephant’s Corner, before the French came.
Now the air is still. The air is hot. Little stirs in the heat of the noonday sun. The dogs and the farm workers have taken shelter in the shade. Black railings mark out each plot – the de Villiers family, the le Roux family, the Jourdan family – all those of the Reformed Religion who fled France in search of sanctuary. The year of Grace of the Lord sixteen hundred and eighty-eight.
Her ancestors too?
In the distance, behind the stone angels and the headstones, the Franschhoek mountains frame the picture and the woman is suddenly pierced by a memory of the Pyrenees: a sharp and desperate longing for home, like an iron band around her ribs. The mountains are white in winter, green in the spring and early summer. In autumn, the grey rocks turn to copper before the cycle begins once more. What she would give to set eyes on them again.
Then she sighs, for she is here. She is a long way from home.
From between the well-worn covers of the leather journal, she takes the map. She knows every mark, every crease and drip of ink, yet she examines it all the same. Reads again the names of the farms, of the first Huguenot settlers who found themselves here, after years of exile and wandering.
Finally, the woman crouches down and reaches out to trace the letters carved on the headstone. She is so absorbed, that she – who has learnt to be vigilant – does not hear the footsteps behind her in the dirt. She does not register the shadow blocking out the sun. She does not acknowledge the smell of sweat, of clinker and leather, of a long journey across the veldt, until the push of the muzzle of a gun is at her neck.
She tries to turn, to see his face, but the cold metal is jabbed against her skin. Slowly, she stands.
‘Give me the journal,’ he says. ‘If you do, I will not harm you.’
She knows he is lying, for this man has hunted her for too long and there is too much at stake. For three hundred years his family has tried to destroy hers. How could he let her go free?
‘Give it to me. Slowly, now.’
The coldness in her enemy’s voice is more frightening than anger and, instinctively, her grasp tightens on the journal and the precious papers it holds. After all that she has endured, she will not make it easy. But now his sharp fingers are pinching at her shoulder, driving into the muscle hard and fierce, through the white cotton of her shirt. Her grip cannot hold. The diary falls to the dirt and bursts open, scattering the Will and the deeds into the dust of the graveyard.
‘Did you follow me from Cape Town?’
There is no answer.
She has no gun, but she has a knife. When he leans down to pick up the papers, she pulls the dagger from her boot and stabs at his arm. If she can disable him, if only for a moment, she might steal the papers back and outrun him. But he has anticipated such an attack and shifts his weight sideways. Her blade only grazes his hand.
She is aware, just before it connects with the side of her head, of the downward strike of his arm. A glimpse of black hair, divided by a seam of white. Then an explosion of pain as the pistol splits open her skin. She feels the split of blood on her temple, the heat of it, and she falls.
In her last seconds of consciousness, she grieves to think this is how the story will end. In a forgotten corner of a graveyard on the other side of the world. The story of a stolen journal and an inheritance. A tale that began three hundred years ago, on the eve of the civil wars that brought France to her knees.
This is the day of my death.
IN QUISITIONAL PRISON, TOULOUSE
Saturday, 24th January
‘You are a traitor?’
‘No, my lord.’ The prisoner was not sure if he spoke out loud or answered only within his own ruined mind.
Broken teeth and shifting bone, the taste of dried blood pooled in his mouth. How long had he been here? Hours, days?
The inquisitor gave a flick of his hand. The prisoner heard the rasp of a blade being sharpened, saw the irons and pincers lying on a wooden table beside a fireplace. A squeeze of the bellows to fan the coals. He experienced an odd moment of respite, as terror of the next torture momentarily banished the agony of the raw skin on his flayed back. Fear of what was to come drowned, if only for an instant, his shame at being too weak to endure what was being done to him. He was a soldier. He had fought well and bravely on the battlefield. How was it that now he was too fragile to withstand this?
‘You are a traitor.’ The inquisitor’s voice sounded dull and flat. ‘You are disloyal to the King, and to France. We have evidence from many attesting to it. They denounce you!’ He tapped a sheaf of papers on his desk. ‘Protestants – men like you – give succour to our enemies. It is treason.’
‘No!’ the prisoner whispered, as he felt the breath of the gaoler warm upon his neck. His right eye was swollen shut from a previous beating, but he could sense his persecutor coming close. ‘No, I –’
He stopped, for what could he say in his defence? Here, in the inquisitional prison in Toulouse, he was the enemy.
Huguenots were the enemy.
‘I am loyal to the Crown. My Protestant faith does not mean –’
‘Your faith brands you a heretic. You have turned away from the one true God.’
‘It is not so. Please. This is all a mistake.’
He could hear the pleading in his own voice, and he felt ashamed. And he knew, when the pain came again, he would say whatever they wanted to hear. Truth or not, he had no strength left to resist.
There was a moment of tenderness, or so it seemed to him in his desperate state. A gentle lifting of his hand, like a lord romancing his lady. For a fleeting instant, the man remembered the wonderful things that existed in the world. Love and music, the sweetness of springtime flowers. Women, children, men walking arm-in-arm through the elegant streets of Toulouse. A place where people might argue and disagree, might put their case with passion and knowledge, but also with respect and honour. There, wine glasses were filled to overflowing and there was plenty to eat: figs and cured mountain ham and honey. There, in the world where once he had lived, the sun shone and the endless blue of the Midi sky stretched over the city like a canopy.
‘Honey,’ he murmured.
Here, in this hell below earth, time no longer existed. The oubliettes, they called them, where a man might disappear and never be seen again.
The shock of the assault, when it came, was the worse for being unheralded. A squeezing, then a pressure, then the metal teeth of the pliers splintering his skin and his muscle and his bones.
As pain embraced him in her arms, he thought he heard the voice of a fellow prisoner from a neighbouring chamber. An educated man, a man of letters, for several days they had been held in the same cell. He knew him to be a man of honour, a bookseller, who loved his three children and spoke with gentle grief of his wife who had died.
He could hear the murmuring of another inquisitor behind the dripping cell wall: his friend was being interrogated too. Then he identified the sound of the chatte de griffe slicing through the air, the thud as the talons connected with skin, and it shocked him to hear his fellow prisoner screaming. He was a man of fortitude who, until now, had borne his suffering in silence.
The prisoner heard the opening and closing of a door, and knew another man had come into the cell. His cell or the one next door? Then murmuring, the shifting of paper on paper. For a beautiful moment, he thought his ordeal might end. Then the inquisitor cleared his throat and the questioning began again.
‘What you know about the Shroud of Antioch?’
‘I know nothing of any relic.’ This was true, though the prisoner knew his words counted for nothing.
‘The Holy Relic was stolen from the Eglise Saint-Taur some five years past. There are those who claim you were one of those responsible.’
‘How could I be?’ the prisoner cried, suddenly defiant. ‘I have never set foot in Toulouse until … until now.’
The inquisitor pressed on. ‘If you tell us where the Shroud is being hidden, this conversation between us will stop. The Holy Mother Church will, in Her mercy, open Her arms and welcome you back into Her grace.’
‘My lord, I give you my word I –’
He smelt the searing of his flesh before he felt it. How quickly is a man reduced to an animal, to meat.
‘Consider your answer carefully. I shall ask you again.’ Now this pain, the worst yet, was granting him a temporary reprieve. It was pulling him down into darkness, a place where he was strong enough to withstand their questioning, and where speaking the truth would save him.