The Nostradamus prophecies
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‘As it had never occurred to him to leave word behind, he was mourned over for dead till, after eight months, his first letter arrived from Talcahuano.’
From Typhoon by Joseph Conrad
‘Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.’
Robert Louis Stevenson, Complete Works, vol. 26, Reflections and Remarks on Human Life, s. 4
‘Perhaps proof of how aleatory the concept of nationality is lies in the fact that we must learn it before we can recognize it as such.’From A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel
La Place de l ’Etape, Orleans
16 June 1566
De Bale nodded and the bourreau began to haul away at the pulley mechanism. The Chevalier de la Roche Allie was in full armour, so the apparatus strained and groaned before the ratchet took and the Chevalier began to rise from the ground. The bourreau had warned de Bale about the strain and its possible consequences, but the Count would hear none of it.
‘‘I have known this man since childhood, Maitre. His family is amongst the most ancient in France. If he wants to die in his armour, such is his right.’’
The bourreau knew better than to argue – men who argued with de Bale usually ended up on the rack, or scalded with boiling spirits. De Bale had the ear of the King and the seal of the Church. In other words the bastard was untouchable. As close to terrestrial perfection as it was possible for mortal man to be.
De Bale glanced upwards. Because of the lese – majeste nature of his crimes, de la Roche Allie had been sentenced to a fifty-foot suspension. De Bale wondered if the man’s neck ligaments would withstand the strain of both the rope and the 100 pounds of plate steel his squires had strapped him into before the execution. It would not be well viewed if the man broke in two before the drawing and the quartering. Could de la Roche Allie have thought of this eventuality when he made his request? Planned the whole thing? De Bale thought not. The man was an innocent – one of the old breed.
‘He’s reached the fifty, Sir.’
‘Let him down.’
De Bale watched the sack of armour descending towards him. The man was dead. It was obvious. Most of his victims struggled and kicked at this point in the proceedings. They knew what was coming.
‘The Chevalier is dead, Sir. What do you want me to do?’
‘Keep your voice down, for a start.’ De Bale glanced over at the crowd. These people wanted blood. Huguenot blood. If they didn’t get it, they would turn on him and the executioner and tear them limb from limb. ‘Draw him anyway.’
‘I’m sorry, Sir?’
‘You heard me. Draw him anyway. And contrive that he twitches, man. Shriek through your nose if you have to. Ventriloquize. Make a big play with the entrails. The crowd have to think that they see him suffer.’
The two young squires were moving forward to unbuckle the Chevalier’s armour.
De Bale waved them back. ‘The Maitre will do it. Return to your homes. Both of you. You have done your duty by your Master. He is ours now.’
The squires backed away, white-faced.
‘Just take off the gorget, plackart and breastplate, Maitre. Leave the greaves, cuisses, helm and gauntlets in place. The horses will do the rest.’
The executioner busied himself about his business. ‘We’re ready, Sir.’
De Bale nodded and the bourreau made his first incision.
Michel de Nostredame’s House,
17 June 1566
‘De Bale is coming, Master.’
‘How could you know? It is not possible. The news was only brought in by carrier pigeon ten minutes ago.’
The old man shrugged and eased his oedema-ravaged leg until it lay more comfortably on the footstool. ‘Where is he now?’
‘He is in Orleans. In three weeks he will be here.’
‘Only three weeks?’
The manservant moved closer. He began to wring his hands. ‘What shall you do, Master? The Corpus Maleficus are questioning all those whose family were once of the Jewish faith. Marranos. Conversos. Also gypsies. Moors. Huguenots. Anyone not by birth a Catholic. Even the Queen cannot protect you down here.’
The old man waved a disparaging hand. ‘It hardly matters any more. I shall be dead before the monster arrives.’
‘No, Master. Surely not.’
‘And you, Ficelle? Would it suit you to be away from here when the Corpus come calling?’
‘I shall stay at your side, Master.’
The old man smiled. ‘You will better serve me by doing as I ask. I need you to undertake a journey for me. A long journey, fraught with obstacles. Shall you do as I ask?’
The manservant lowered his head. ‘Whatever you ask me I will do.’
The old man watched him for a few moments, seemingly weighing him up. ‘If you fail in this, Ficelle, the consequences will be more terrible than any de Bale – or the Devil he so unwittingly serves – could contrive.’ He hesitated, his hand resting on his grotesquely inflated leg. ‘I have had a vision. Of such clarity that it dwarfs the work to which I have until now dedicated my life. I have held back fifty-eight of my quatrains from publication for reasons which I shall not vouchsafe – they concern only me. Six of these quatrains have a secret purpose – I shall explain to you how to use them. No one must see you. No one must suspect. The remaining fifty-two quatrains must be hidden in a specific place that only you and I can know. I have sealed them inside this bamboo capsule.’ The old man reached down beside his chair and withdrew the packed and tamped tube. ‘You will place this capsule where I tell you and in exactly the manner I stipulate. You will not deviate from this. You will carry out my instructions to the letter. Is that understood?’
The old man lay back in his chair, exhausted by the intensity of what he was trying to communicate. ‘When you return here, after my death, you will go to see my friend and the trustee of my estate, Palamede Marc. You will tell him about your errand and assure him of its success. He will then give you a sum of money. A sum of money that will secure you and your family’s future for generations to come. Do you understand me?’
‘Will you trust to my judgement in this matter and follow my instructions to the letter?’
‘Then you will be blessed, Ficelle. By a people you will never meet and by a history neither you nor I can remotely envisage.’
‘But you know the future, Master. You are the greatest seer of all time. Even the Queen has honoured you. All France knows of your gifts.’
‘I know nothing, Ficelle. I am like this bamboo tube. Doomed to transmit things but never to understand them. All I can do is pray that there are others, coming after me, who will manage things better.’
Quartier St-Denis, Paris Present Day
Achor Bale took no real pleasure in killing. That had long since left him. He watched the gypsy almost fondly, as one might watch a chance acquaintance getting off an airplane.
The man had been late of course. One only had to look at him to see the vanity bleeding from each pore. The 1950s moustache a la Zorro. The shiny leather jacket bought for fifty euros at the Clignancourt flea market. The scarlet see-through socks. The yellow shirt with the Prince of Wales plumes and the outsized pointed collar. The fake gold medallion with the image of Sainte Sara. The man was a dandy without taste – as recognisable to one of his own as a dog is to another dog.
‘Do you have the manuscript with you?’
‘What do you think I am? A fool?’
Well, hardly that, thought Bale. A fool is rarely self-conscious. This man wears his venality like a badge of office. Bale noted the dilated pupils. The sheen of sweat on the handsome, razor-sharp features. The drumming of the fingers on the table. The tapping of the feet. A drug addict, then. Strange, for a gypsy. That must be why he needed the money so badly. ‘Are you Manouche or Rom? Gitan, perhaps?’
‘What do you care?’
‘Given your moustache, I’d say Manouche. One of Django Reinhardt’s descendants, maybe?’
‘My name is Samana. Babel Samana.’
‘Your gypsy name?’
‘That is secret.’
‘My name is Bale. No secret there.’
The gypsy’s fingers increased their beat upon the table. His eyes were everywhere now – flitting across the other drinkers, testing the doors, plumbing the dimensions of the ceiling.
‘How much do you want for it?’ Cut straight to the chase. That was the way with a man like this. Bale watched the gypsy’s tongue dart out to moisten the thin, artificially virilised mouth.
‘I want half a million euros.’
‘Just so.’ Bale felt a profound calmness descending upon him. Good. The gypsy really did have something to sell. The whole thing wasn’t just a come-on. ‘For such a sum of money, we’d need to inspect the manuscript before purchase. Ascertain its viability.’
‘And memorise it! Yes. I’ve heard of such things. This much I know. Once the contents are out into the open it’s worthless. Its value lies in its secrecy.’
‘You’re so right. I’m very glad you take that position.’
‘I’ve got someone else interested. Don’t think you’re the only fish in the sea.’