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HOME > Classical Novels > History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin > CHAPTER II.
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(Spring, 1535.)
The ultramontanes were more zealous than ever. Many would only employ lawful arms; but there were some who were by no means scrupulous as to the means adopted to vanquish the enemies of Rome. Fanatics make a false conscience for themselves, and then look upon culpable actions as good ones. Empire was slipping from the hands of the Church; it must, at any cost, be restored to her, thought the extravagant Roman-catholics of Geneva. Canon Gruet, in particular—his famulus, Gardet the priest, and Barbier, in the service of the bishop of Maurienne, thought that, as neither duke, bishop, nor mameluke could do anything, other means must be devised to check that furious torrent which threatened to sweep away papacy, temples, priests, and images. Fanatics, whom the wise men of catholicism are unanimous in condemning, were plotting in the dark and muttering softly that as Farel, Viret, and Froment were all living in the same house, they could easily be got rid of at one blow. Some inkling of these guilty designs got abroad, and the Reformers were warned to be on their guard; but such plots did not trouble them. 'If we were all three dead,' said Froment, 'God would soon raise up others. Out of stones can He not raise up children unto Abraham?' The work of darkness began.[494]
There lived in Geneva at that time a married woman and mother of a family, Antonia Vax by name; she was of quick perception, melancholy temperament, enthusiastic imagination, weak rather than depraved. In those days poison was much used; Bonivard had often related, 'how pope Alexander VI., wishing to have the money and benefices of two or three cardinals, had drunk in mistake from the flagon in which stood the poisoned wine, and had been caught in his own trap.' Antonia had seen poison employed. When in service at Lyons, nine years before, she had remarked that one of her companions always carried with him a little box piously covered with an Agnus Dei: 'It contains sublimate,' he had told her. More than once after this, when the unfortunate woman, of dark and dreamy temperament, felt the vapors rise to her brain, she had cried out: 'How wretched I am! how I should like to be out of this world! If I only had some sublimate!' At Bourg she had seen her mistress, in complicity with a Spanish doctor, give her husband poison; and entering afterwards the household of an illustrious family, the Seigneur de Challe, nephew to the bishop of Maurienne, she had seen her master poison his mother's husband. After this Antonia came to Geneva with her husband and children.[495]
Barbier, one of the chief instigators of the plot, had known Antonia when she was in M. de Challe's service. On his return from a conference held at Thonon, he cast his eyes upon her to carry out the guilty designs formed by him and his accomplices. At Geneva, as in England, it was a woman whom the misguided priests selected to strike the blow which they hoped would destroy the Reformation. Neither of those wretched women was deprived of all moral sentiment; but the heated imaginations
of the maid of Kent and of Antonia, and their unhealthy sensibility, made them embrace enthusiastically the schemes of wicked and crafty men. Barbier accosted the woman Vax, spoke to her of the preachers, and of the ills which threatened Holy Church; and when he thought he had sufficiently prepared the ground, he represented to her the great service she would do to religion, if she freed Geneva from the heretics. 'If any suspicions should be aroused,' he added, 'you will only have to remove to Canon Gruet's, secretary to Monseigneur of Maurienne.' Antonia hesitated. Some monks of the abbey of Ambournay, in Bresse, whom she had known, and who were then at Geneva, got round her, and endeavored to persuade her that such an action would merit the glory of heaven. She appeared sensible to their persuasions, and yet the deed was repugnant to her. To decide her, Barbier took her to D'Orsière, a canon held in great esteem. 'Act, act boldly,' said the canon; 'you need not be anxious.' The unhappy woman yielded.[496]
The next step was to prepare the means: by representing her as a poor woman who fled to Geneva for the Gospel, they contrived to get her admitted into Claude Bernard's house, where Farel, Viret, and Froment lodged. Bernard's heart was touched, and he engaged Antonia to wait upon his three guests, who took their meals apart. She knew so well how to play her part, that she was in fact regarded as one of the more fervent seekers of the Gospel. To procure poison was not difficult: she had lived for some time with Michael Vallot, the apothecary, and continued to go there. One day she paid him a visit, and, at a propitious moment, caught up some poison in a box and ran away.
When the poison was in her hands, she had still (as it would appear) a moment of uneasiness; but the
wretches, whose tool she was, pressed her to deliver Geneva from heresy. Accordingly, on the 8th of March, Antonia, taking courage, prepared some spinach soup, which she made very thick, for fear the poison should be noticed, threw in the sublimate, and, entering the room where Farel, Viret, and Froment were at table, put the deadly broth before them. Farel looked at it, found it too thick for his taste, and, though he had no suspicion, asked for some household soup. Froment, less dainty than Farel, had taken the spoon, and was about to lift it to his mouth, when some one came in and informed him that his wife and children had just arrived in Geneva. He rose hastily, 'leaving everything,' and ran off to meet them. Viret was left, still pale and suffering from the sword-cut he had received from a priest near Payerne. The perfidious Antonia had told him that she would make him some soup 'good for his stomach,' and he therefore ate tranquilly the food she had 'dressed to kill him.'[497]
The crime was accomplished. If the good providence of God had miraculously saved two of the evangelists, the third was to all appearance lost. At this moment the wretched woman suddenly became agitated; her conscience reproached her with her crime; and bursting into tears, she ran hurriedly to the kitchen, where she began to moan. 'What is the matter with you?' asked her companions: but she made no answer. Unable to resist her remorse, and believing pure water to be a good antidote to the poison, she formed the resolution of saving her victim, poured some water into a glass, hurried up-stairs, and desired Viret to drink it. The latter was astonished, and wanted at least to know the reason of such a request. She refused to tell him, but did not cease begging him until he had drunk. Froment, much irritated against the woman, regarded her
emotion as 'mere crocodile's tears;' he says so in his Chronicle. We are inclined to believe them sincere.
Viret became ill, and his friends were heart-broken. 'Alas!' said Froment, 'we expect death for him, and not life.' People asked the cause of this sudden illness, and Antonia, suspected of knowing something about it, was seized with terror. She felt herself already caught and sentenced. 'I know very well that it is no sport,' she exclaimed. Her imagination was heated; she went to the house where her children lived, and, taking the youngest in her arms, leading a second by the hand, the others following her, she ran with alarm to the shore of the lake, wishing to escape, and her little ones with her. 'Take me away from the city,' she said to the boatmen. They carried her as far as Coppet, about three leagues off. Claude Bernard and one or two of his friends, who had reasons for mistrusting the woman, jumped into a boat, and, having found her, brought her back. They did not, however, charge her with anything; but her conscience accused her: her agitation kept increasing during the passage; and her haggard eyes were fixed upon her old master, his friends, and the boatmen. 'You are betraying me,' she said: 'you are playing me a trick.' At length they arrived. Antonia got out of the boat first, and while Bernard and his friends were occupied in landing the children, she slipped away lightly, plunged into a dark alley between the Molard and the Fusterie, hurried through it, climbed the Rue de la Pélisserie, and reached the house of Canon D'Orsière, who had said to her: 'Act, act boldly, you need not be anxious.'—'Save me!' she exclaimed. The canon hid her in his cellar. But some people had seen a woman pass hurriedly along: the officers of justice searched the canon's house, found Antonia crouching in a dark underground cellar, and took her away to prison, where she confessed everything.
Meanwhile Viret was in peril of death, and, as there
was no woman at Bernard's to tend him, Dame Pernette, a pious Christian, and wife of the councillor Michael Balthasard, begged that he might be removed to her house, which was done. Froment, who went to see him often, said: 'Really, Dame Pernette is doing him a great service, and showing him great kindness.' One doctor said he was poisoned, another denied it. The whole city was filled with the affair: men and women assembled and expressed their sorrow. 'Must the Church be robbed of such a pearl,' they said, 'by such a miserable creature?... Poor Viret! Poor reformers!... Sword-cuts in the back, poison in front.... Such are the rewards of those who preach the Gospel!' Viret was saved, but he felt the effects of the poison all his life.[498]
The investigation began on the............
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