Samuel Crockett.

The White Plumes of Navarre: A Romance of the Wars of Religion



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BEFORE THE CURTAIN RISES

The night was hot in Paris. Breathless heat had brooded over the city all Saturday, the 23rd of August, 1572. It was the eve of Saint Bartholomew. The bell of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois had just clashed out the signal. The Louvre was one blaze of lights. Men with lanterns and poleaxes, as if going to the shambles to kill oxen, hurried along the streets.

Only in the houses in which were lodged the great Huguenot gentlemen, come to the city for the marriage of the King's sister Marguerite to the King of Navarre, there were darkness and silence. None had warned them – or, at least, they had taken no warning. If any suspected, the word of a King, his sworn oaths and multitudinous safe-conducts, lulled them back again into security.

In one chamber, high above the courtyard, a light burned faint and steady. It was that beside the bed of the great Admiral – Coligny. He had been treacherously wounded by the arquebuse of one of the guard of the King's brother – Monsieur de France, Henry Duke of Anjou, afterwards to be known to history as Henry III., the favourite son of Catherine de Medici, the cunningest, and the most ungrateful.

There watched by that bedside many grave men, holding grave discourse with each other and with the sick man, concerning the high mysteries of the religion, pure and reformed, of the state of France, and their hopes of better days for the Faith as it had been delivered to the saints.

And at the bed-foot, with towels, bandages, and water in a silver salver ready for service, one young lad, a student of Geneva, fresh from Calvin and Beza, held his tongue and opened wide his ears.

"Pray, Merlin de Vaux," said the wounded Admiral to his aged pastor, "pray for life if such be God's will, that we may use it better – for death (the which He will give us in any case), that the messenger may not find us unprepared."

And Merlin prayed, the rest standing up, stern, grave, prepared men, with bowed and reverent heads. And the Genevan Scot thought most of his dead master Calvin, whom, in the last year of his life, he had often seen so stand, while his own power rocked under him in the city of his adoption, and the kingdoms of the earth stormed about him like hateful waves of the sea.

And somewhat thus-wise prayed good Merlin.

"Thou, O Lord, hast put down the mighty from their seats and has exalted them of low degree! Clay are all men in Thy hands – potter's clay, broken shards or vessels fit for altar-service. Yet Thou has sent us, Thy servants, into the wild, where we have seen things, and thought things, and given us many warnings, so that when Thou standest at the door and knockest, we may be ready for Thy coming!"

Then at these words, prompt as an echo, the house leaped under the heavy noise of blows delivered upon the outer door. And the Admiral of France, sitting up in his bed, yet corpse-pale from his recent wound, lifted his hand and said, "Hush, be still – my Lord standeth without! For dogs and murderers, false kings and queens forsworn, are but instruments in His hand.

It is God who calls us to His holy rest. For me, I have long been ready. I go with no more thought than if my chariot waited me at the door."

Then he turned to the Huguenot gentlemen who were grouped about his bed. This one and that other had tried to catch a glimpse of the assailants from the windows. But in vain. For the door was in a recess which hid all but the last of the guard which the King had set about the house.

"It is only Cosseins and his men," said one; "they will hold us safe. We have the King's word. He placed the guard himself."

"The hearts of Kings are unsearchable," said the Admiral. "Put not your trust in princes, but haste ye to the garret, where is a window that gives upon the roof. There is no need that young and valiant men should perish with a wounded man and an old. Go and fight for the remnant that shall be preserved. If it be the Lord's will, He shall yet take vengence by your arms!"

"Ay, go," said Merlin the pastor, casting back his white hair; "for me, I am old, and I stay. Only yester-night I saw an angel stand in the sun, crying to all souls that did fly through the midst of heaven, 'Come, gather yourselves to the Supper of the Great God.' But when, thinking myself called, I would have drawn nearer, lo! between me and the table spread, on which was the wine ready poured out, I saw the Beast, the kings of the earth, and their warriors gathered together to make war against the Lamb. And I heard a voice that said, 'Nay, but first thou must pass through the portal of death ere it be given thee to eat of the marriage supper of the Lamb.' So to me it spake. The message was not for you – ye heard not the Voice. I will stay, for I am weary, and am minded to fall on sleep – to find rest after many years."

And to this Par?, the wise and skilled surgeon, who was ever beloved by Admiral Coligny, likewise adhered, saying, "I have not heard the voice of the angel. But I hear well enough that of false Cosseins who is sent by the King to murder us. I have looked from the window, and though I saw no vision of Beast, I saw clearly my Lord Duke of Guise stand without calling to them to slay and make an end! So I also will remain for the love I bear to my lord, and because it is my duty as a good physician so to do."

And the lad John Stirling, the Scot from Geneva, the pupil of Calvin, ventured no word, being young. But, though the others would have carried him with them, he shook them off, and abode where he was. For his vision, and the purpose of it, were yet to be.

And so it came to pass that this young man from Geneva saw the killing of the great Admiral, and heard the words in which he forgave his assassins, telling them how that he was ready to die, and that at the most they had but shortened his life by some short count of days or hours!

And ever through the brief turmoil of the killing, the voice of the Duke of Guise mounted impatiently up the stairway asking if the Admiral were not yet dead, and hounding on his dogs to make an end of that noble quarry.

And even when they assured him he would not believe, but desired to look on the face of his own and his father's enemy.

"Open the window and throw him down!" he cried.

So they cast him out. But the aged prince, with the life still in his body, clutched by instinct at the sill of the window as he fell. The young Duke, first ordering up a couple of flambeaux, deliberately wiped the blood from the face of his enemy with his kerchief, and cried out, "It is even he – I know him well. So perish all the enemies of the King and of the Catholic League!"

Then, as his men still called from the window, the Duke looked up, angry to be disturbed in his gloating over his arch-foe.

"There is also a lad here," they cried, "one from Geneva, who says he is of the Admiral's opinion. What shall we do with him?"

"What is that to me?" said the Duke of Guise haughtily; "throw him after his master."

And that is the reason why a certain John Stirling, a Scot of Geneva, went through life lame, wearing a countenance twisted like a mask at a fair, and – loved not the Duke Henry of Guise.

Moreover, though he saw the Duke spurn his dead enemy with his foot, the boy felt not at the time the kicks with which the scullions imitated their master, but lay in a swoon on the body of Coligny. He came to himself, however, being cast aside as of no account, when they came to drag the Admiral's body to the gallows. After a while the spray of a fountain that played in the courtyard roused him. The lad washed his hands and crawled forth. He had lain all the terrible Sunday in the bloody court of Coligny's lodgings, under the shadow of the trembling acacias, which cast flecks of light and dark on the broad irregular stains of the pavement. But when the evening had come again, and the angry voices shouting "Kill! kill!" had died away, the lame boy hobbled painfully out. Somehow or other he passed through an unguarded gate, to find himself sustained by a fellow-countryman carrying a child, a little maid of four years. He must have been a strong man, that chance-met Scot, for he had an arm to spare for John Stirling. He spoke, also, words of hope and comfort to the boy. But these fell on deaf ears. For through the dull ache of his bones and the sharp nip of his wounds, undressed save for the blood that had dried upon them, the heart of the cripple remained with Henry of Guise.

"No," he said over and over to himself, repeating the Duke's words, "the work is not yet finished!" It had, indeed, scarce begun.

And he registered a vow.

CHAPTER I.
THE DAY OF BARRICADES

"The good Duke! The sweet Prince! The Church's pillar! Guise! The good Guise!"

Through the open window the shouts, near and far, invaded the quiet class-room of the Sorbonne. It was empty, save for the Professor of Eloquence, one Dr. Anatole Long, and a certain vagrant bluebottle which, with the native perversity of its tribe, sought out the only shut square of glass (bottle-green, by way of distinction) and buzzed loudly all over it.

The Professor thumbed the discourse of the day on "Peace as the Characteristic Virtue of the Christian Faith." It was a favourite lecture with him. He had used it as exposition, homily, exhortation; and had even on one occasion ventured to deliver it before the Venerable the Conclave of the Sorbonne itself.

Professor Anatole sighed as he listened to the ringing shouts outside, the clatter of steel on peaceful educational stairways, and when through the open windows, by which the early roses ought to have been sending up their good smell, there came a whiff of the reek of gunpowder, the excellent Anatole felt that the devil was loose indeed.

It was the great Day of Barricades, and all Paris was in arms against the King, royal, long-descended, legitimate – and worthless.

"Rebellion – rank rebellion," groaned the Professor; "no good will come of it. Balafr?, the Scarred One, will get a dagger in his throat one day. And then – then – there will be a great killing! The King is too ignorant to forgive!"

"Ah, what is that?"

A noise of guns crashed, spat, and roared beneath the window which gave on to the narrow street. Professor Anatole rose hastily and went to the casement, worried a moment with the bar-fastening (for the window on that side was never unhasped), opened it, and looked forth. Little darting, shifting groups of lads in their dingy student cloaks, were defending themselves as best they might against a detachment of the King's Royal Swiss, who, on the march from one part of the city to another, had been surprised at the head of the narrow Street of the University.

An old man had somehow been knocked down. His companion, a slim youth in a long, black cape, knelt and tried to hold up the failing head. The white beard, streaked with dark stains, lay across his knees. Now the Professor of Eloquence, though he lectured by preference concerning the virtues of peace, thought that there were limits even to these; so, grasping his staff, which had a sword concealed in the handle, of cunning Venice work, ran downstairs, and so found himself out on the street.

In that short period all was changed. The Royal Swiss had moved on. The battling clerks had also vanished. The narrow Street of the University was blank save for the old man who lay there wounded on the little, knobbed cobble-stones, and the slim, cloaked youth bending over him.

Professor Anatole does not remember clearly what followed. Certain it is that he and the lad must have carried the wounded man up the narrow stair. For when Anatole came a little to himself they were, all the three of them, in his wide, bare attiring-chamber, from which it was his custom to issue forth, gowned and solemn, in the midst of an admiring hush, with the roll of his daily lecture clasped in his right hand, while he upheld the long and troublesome academic skirts with the other.

But now, all suddenly, among these familiar cupboards and books of reference, he found himself with a dying man – or rather, as it seemed, a man already dead. And, what troubled him far more, with a lad whose long hair, becoming loosened, floated down upon his shoulders, while he wept long and continuously, "Oh – oh – oh – my father!" sobbing from the top of his throat.

Now Professor Anatole was a wise man, a philosopher even. It was the day of mignons. The word was invented then. King Henry III. had always half-a-dozen or so, not counting D'Epernon and La Joyeuse. That might account for the long hair. But even a mignon would not have cried "Ah – ah – ah!" in quick, rending sobs from the chest and diaphragm.

He, Anatole Long, Professor of Eloquence at the Sorbonne, was in presence of a great difficulty – the greatest of his life. There was a dead man in his robing-room, and a girl with long hair, who wept in tremulous contralto.

What if some of his students were minded to come back! A terrible thought! But there was small fear of that. The rascals were all out shouting for the Duke of Guise and helping to build the great barricades which shut in the Swiss like rats in a trap. They were Leaguers to a man, these Sorbonne students – for fun, however, not from devotion.

Yet when he went back to the big empty class-room to bethink himself a little (it was a good twenty years since he had been accustomed to this sort of thing), lo! there were two young fellows rooting about among the coats and cloaks, from the midst of which he had taken his sword-cane when he ran downstairs.

"What are you doing there?" he cried, with a sudden quick anger, as if students of eloquence had no right in the class-room of their own Professor. "Answer me, you, Guy Launay, and you, John d'Albret!"

"We are looking for – " began Guy Launay, the son of the ex-provost of the merchants, a dour, dark clod of a lad, with the fingers of a swordsman and the muscles of a wrestler. He was going to say (what was the truth) that they had come up to look for the Professor's sword-cane, which they judged might be useful against the King's folk, when, of instinct far more fine, his companion, called the Abb? John, nephew of the great Leaguer Cardinal, stopped him with a swift sidelong drive of the elbow in the ribs, which winded him completely.

"We have come to listen to your lecture, master!" he said, bowing low. "We are sorry indeed to be a little late. But getting entangled in the press, it was impossible for us to arrive sooner. We ask your pardon, dear master!"

Under his breath the Abb? John confided to his companion, "Evidently old Blessings-of-Peace has carried that sword-stick off into his retiring-room for safety. Let him begin his lecture. Then in five minutes he will forget about everything else, and you or I will sneak in and bag it!"

"You – you mean," said Launay; "I should move about as silently as a bullock on a pontoon bridge!"

With his eye ever on the carefully-shut door of his private chamber, and his ear cocked for the sound of sobbing, the Professor moved slowly to his reading-desk. For the first time in his life he regretted the presence of students in the class-room. Why – why could they not have stayed away and dethroned anointed kings, and set up most Catholic princes, and fought for the Holy League and the pleasure of clouting heads? That was what students of the Sorbonne seemed to be for in these latter days. But to come here, at the proper hour, to take notes of a lecture on the Blessings of Peace, with the gun-shots popping outside, and dead men – no, somehow he did not care to think of dead men, nor of weeping girls either! So at this point he walked solemnly across the uneven floor and turned the key in the door of his robing-room.

Instantly the elbow of Guy Launay sought the side of the Abb? John, called alternatively the Spaniard, and made him gasp.

"D'ye see that?" whispered Guy, "the old rascal has locked the door. He suspects. Come, we may as well trip it. We shan't get either the sword-cane nor yet the pistols and bullets on the top of the guard-robe. My milk-brother, Stephen, saw them there when he took his week of chamber-valeting Old Peace-with-Honour!"

"Screw up your mouth – tight!" said the Abb? John politely; "a deal of nonsense will get spread about otherwise. I will attend to everything in the room of Old Blessings-of-Peace!"

"You!"

"Yes, I – wait and see. Get out your tablets and take notes – spread your elbows, man! Do as I do, and the blessing of Saint Nicholas of Padua be upon all thieves and rascals – of whom we are two choice specimens!"

"Speak for yourself, Spaniard!" spluttered the other, having accidentally sucked the wrong end of his pen; "my uncle is not a cardinal, and as to my father – "

"He sells hanks of yarn, and cheats in the measurement!"

"I dare you to say so, you left-hand prince, you grease-spot on the cardinal's purple – you – "

"That will do," said the Abb? John calmly; "to-morrow I will give you thwacks when and where you like. But now listen, mark, learn, and in any case keep our good Master Anatole from so frequently glancing at that door. One would think he had the devil shut up within!"

"Impossible – quite impossible; he is loose and exceedingly busy outside there! Listen to the shots," said Guy, inclining an ear to the window.

Crack – crack! Bang!

The windows rattled.

"Hurrah for the People's Duke! Down with the King! Death to the Huguenots! – to the Barbets! – to the English! Death! Death! Death!"

"Lively down there – I wish we were up and away!" mourned the son of the ex-provost of the merchants, "but without arms and ammunition, what can fellows do?"

"As sayeth the Wise Man" – the voice of the Professor of Eloquence began to quicken into its stride – "'all her main roads are pleasant roads; and her very by-paths, her sentiers, lead to peace!'"

"If we could only get at those pistols and things!" murmured Guy Launay. "I wager you a groat that the old man is mistaken! Oh, just hearken to them outside there, will you? Peace is a chafing-dish. War is the great sport!"

"Down with the King! Bring along those chains for the barricade! Students to the rescue!"

Then came up to their ears the blithe marching song, the time strongly marked:

 
"The Guises are good men, good men,
The Cardinal, and Henry, and Mayenne, Mayenne!
And we'll fight till all be grey —
The Valois at our feet to-day,
And in his grave the Bearnais —
Our chief has come – the Balafr?!"
 

"Keys of Sainted Peter!" moaned Guy Launay, "I cannot stand this. I am going down, though I have no better weapon than a barrel-stave."

And he hummed, rapping on the inscribed and whittled bench with his fingers, the refrain of the famous League song:

 
"For we'll fight till all be grey —
The Valois at our feet to-day,
In his deep grave the Bearnais —
Our chief has come – the Balafr?!"
 

But Professor Anatole did not hear. He was in the whirl of his exposition of the blessings of universal peace. The Church had always brought a sword, and would to the end. But Philosophy, Divine Philosophy, which was what Solomon meant – peace was within her walls, prosperity, etc.

And by this time the Spaniard, otherwise the Abb? John, was crawling stealthily towards the locked door. Guy Launay, on the contrary, was breathing hard, rustling leaves, taking notes for two, both elbows working. The Master was in the full rush of his discourse. He saw nothing, knew nothing. He had forgotten the robing-room in the affirmation that, "In the midst of turmoil, the truly philosophic may, and often does, preserve the true peace – the truest of all, peace of mind, peace of conscience."

Bang!

There was a tremendous explosion immediately under the window.

"The King's men blowing up a barricade!" thought the Abb? John, with his hand on the great flat key, but drawing back a little. "If that does not wake him up, nothing will."

But the gentle, even voice went on, triumphing – the periods so familiar to the lecturer ringing out more clearly than ever. "Wars shall cease only when Wisdom, which is God, shall prevail. Philosophy is at one with Religion. The Thousand Years shall come a thousand times over and on the earth shall reign – "

The key gritted in the lock. The Abb? John disappeared behind the heavy curtain which hid the door of the robing-room.

The next moment he found himself in the presence of a man, lying rigidly on the Professor's table, all among the books and papers, and of the fairest young girl the Abb? John had ever seen, gently closing eyes which would never more look out upon the world.

Within, the Professor's voice droned on, discoursing of peace, righteousness, and eternal law. The great Day of the Barricades rattled and thundered without. Acrid blasts of sulphurous reek drove into the quiet room, and the Abb? John, speechless with amazement, looked into the wet eyes of this wonderful vision – the purest, the loveliest, the most forlorn maid in France.



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