Samuel Crockett.

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

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Henry rose from the low chair on which he had been carelessly resting his thigh.

"Why, I remember the girl" – he threw up his hands in humorous despair. "Oh, you women, a man never knows when he will have you! I thought that you, Margot, my wife, would have been at Usson flying your hawks, and gathering snails for the Friday's pot-au-feu; that Catherine, my admirable sister, had been safe at her prayers in the Castle of Pau, where I left her in good charge and keeping; and of my carefulness I had even provided that this Scots maiden, the daughter of my good friend Francis Agnew, should abide in douce tranquillity with her Professor of the Sorbonne, within ear-shot, not to say pistol-shot of a certain Anthony Arpajon, a sure henchman of mine, in the town of Blois. But here be all three of you gadding at my heels, Margaret from Auvergne, Catherine from Pau, and even the Scots maid from Blois, all blown inward like so many seagulls on the front of a westerly storm!"

"Harry," cried Margot the Queen, "your beard is frosting, and there are white hairs on my coif at thirty-eight. Yes, there are; you need not look, for, of course, I have the wit to hide them. We have not agreed well, you and I. But I like you, great lumping swash-buckler of Bearn. Even as the husband I was not allowed to choose, I like you. If you had been any one else, I might even have loved you!"

"Thanks – it is indeed quite possible!" said the King quietly.

"But since they wrote it in a catechism, learned it me by rote, made me swallow love and obedience willy-nilly before half-a-dozen cardinals and archbishops glorious, why then, of course, it was 'nilly' and not 'willy.' So things have gone crosswise with us. But there's my hand on't, Henry. In all save love, I will serve you true. Not even your beloved Rosny and dour D'Aubign? will help you better, or expect less for it than I, Margot, your Majesty's humble prisoner!"

"So be it," said the King, kissing her hand, and passing over all that was not expressed in this very sketchy view of the case; "I have found many to betray me who owed me more than you, Margot. But never you, my little Queen!"

"Thank you, Henry," quoth La Reine Margot, smiling demurely, with something of the subtle Italian irony of her mother. "Perhaps, after all, I do not help you so much because I like you, as because I love to spite some other people who are plotting against you."

"Are they seeking my life, Margot?" said the King. "Well, there is nothing new in that. I always keep a man or two on the look-out for assassins. I have quite a collection of knives – some Guisard, and some Italian, but mostly of Toledo make. There are four gates to my camp, and the men of my guard kick the varlets south if the knife smells of our brother Philip, north to cousin Guise, if 'Lorraine' is marked on the blade – and as for Italy – "

"Do not say any evil of Italy," smiled Margot; "pray remember that I am half an Italian – therefore I am fair, therefore I am cunning, therefore I am rich – at least, in expedients."

The Bearnais said nothing, for having so many war charges, he had more than once refused to pay Madame Margot's debts!

"I have come," she continued, after the King had sat some time silent on the tapestried couch beside her, looking out on the sleeping Creuse, "first of all, to see that you sign no treaty that I do not approve.

Well do I know that a woman has only to smile upon you to make you say 'Yes.' It is your weakness. The Queen, my mother, knows it also, and she has brought hither many fair women in her train. But none so fair as I, your wife – your wife Margot, whom camps, and wars, and kingdoms have made you sometime forget!"

"There is, indeed, no one so fair as you, little Margot!" said her husband. And, for the moment, he meant it.

Margot the Queen entered her tiring-room that night clapping her hands, and dancing little skipping "tarantellas" all to herself, after the Italian fashion.

"I have done this all by myself at eight-and-thirty," she cried. "I thought I was no longer Parisian, after so many years of hiding my head in Auvergne. But Henry never moved from my side all the evening, and as for D'Epernon, he was as close as might be on the other. Come in, girls! I have much to tell you."

She rose, and threw her arms about the neck of her sister-in-law, Catherine of Navarre. She had entered, flushed, walking so fast that her slight D'Albret limp was not noticeable.

"Oh, we three," cried the Queen Margot – "we three were as Juno, Minerva, and Venus. The men stood round, and gazed and listened, and listened and gazed, each like a stupid Paris with a golden apple in his hand, a prize of beauty which he wanted to give to all three at once. You, Katrin my sister, were the grey-eyed Minerva; you, Claire, must be Juno – though, my faith, you are more of the mould of Dian; but as for me – of course, that is obvious! And the defeated enemy – the maids of honour! Ha! Did you see how the Queen, my mother, called them in to heel, like so many useless hounds of the chase, to receive their whipping? How they cowered and cringed! Truly, the game was carried off by another pack – a buck – a buck royal of ten tines is the Bearnais. We had a plot indeed – but no treaty. Pricked like a wind-bladder it was. If I am a feeble house-wife, I am at least a true ambassador, and they shall not cheat my husband – not while little Margot lives, last of the Valois and half Medici though she be! To bed, girls, and get your beauty-sleep. You will need it to-morrow!"


"She may be a witch, and the daughter of Jezebel," murmured D'Aubign? low to Rosny, "but this time, of a verity, she has snatched the chestnuts out of the fire for us!"

"I would she were safe back again in Auvergne," said Rosny; "our Henry is never himself when he gets among that crew."

The two Huguenot chiefs spoke truly. There was no doubt that the Queen of Navarre had outwitted her mother, and strengthened the warlike resolutions of the Bearnais, so that he refused all art or part in the gathering of the States-General at Blois.

Catherine, the Queen-Mother, had to depart ill-satisfied enough. The little town of Argenton dropped back again into its year-long quiet. Gallantly Henry escorted his wife part of the way to her castle of Usson, and so far, at least, husband and wife were reconciled. As for the Princess Catherine, she was sent off with a guard of gentlemen to Nerac, while once more in Blois the house of Madame Granier, close to the hostelry of Anthony Arpajon, was occupied by its trio of guests. At least, Claire and the Professor abode continually there, and took their pleasant walks in the quickly-shortening days of autumn. The willows began to drop their narrow flame-shaped leaves into the current of the Loire after every gust. And in the windless dawns, as soon as the sun struck the long alignment of ashes, these dainty trees proceeded to denude themselves of their greenery with sharp little reports like toy pistols.

As for Jean-aux-Choux, he had great business on hand. Every day he invented some new folly at the Ch?teau. He laughed with the pages, who told their masters, who in turn told their ladies. And so all the world soon knew that the Fool of the Three Henries was to be present at the meeting of Parliament. Well, so much the better. In such times they needed some diversion.

Jean came little to Anthony the Calvinist's hostel. That was too dangerous. Yet often by night he would slip through the little river-door which opened into the courtyard of Madame Granier's house, to talk a while with his dead master's daughter and her Professor – also to observe, with his small twinkling grey eyes, the lie of the land.

Indeed, it was a time in which to be mightily circumspect. The town of Blois was filled to overflowing with all the hot-heads of the League. The demagogues of Paris, the full Council of the Sixteen, led by Chapelle Marteau and Launay, cheered on the princes of Lorraine to execute their firm intention of coercing Henry III., and compelling him to deliver the crown into the hands of the Duke of Guise and his brothers – the princes of the House of Lorraine.

By permission of the Bearnais, to whom, as his cousin and chieftain, the Abb? John had now made solemn offer of his allegiance, that youth was permitted to remain as an additional pair of eyes in the Ch?teau itself – and also, he told himself, as a good sword, not too far away, in case any harm should threaten Claire in her river-side lodging.

The green robe of the Professor of Eloquence, with its fur sleeves and golden collar now wholly repaired by the clever fingers of Claire, whose care for her father's wardrobe had given her skill in needlework, passed to and fro in all the stairways and corridors of the Ch?teau. He was welcome to the King, who knew the classic orators, and had devoted much time to the cultivation of a ready and fluent mode of address. And it was, indeed, no other than our excellent Professor Anatole who prepared and set in order, with sounding words and cunning allusions, the famous opening speech of the King to his nobles on the 18th of October, 1588.

Altogether, the privileges of our friends at this time were many, and the Leaguers did not seriously incommode them. D'Epernon, who was thoroughly loyal to Henry III., and for the time being, at least, meant to keep the agreements made on his master's behalf with the Bearnais, stood ready in Angoul?me, with all the Royalists he could muster.

As far as Blois itself was concerned, however, the Guisards and the champions of the League would have swamped all, save for the threat of a strong Huguenot force hovering in the neighbourhood. This restless army was occasionally reported from Tours, again from Loches, from Limoges, so that the Leaguers, though of incomparable insolence, dared not, at that time, push the King of France directly into the arms of the Bearnais.

But we may as well hear the thing reported by eye-witnesses.

Cautiously, as was her custom, Madame Granier had peered through the thick grille of the water-door before admitting the Professor and the Abb? John. Silent as a spectre Anthony Arpajon had entered from the other side by his own private passage, locking the iron port behind him. They sat together in Dame Granier's wide kitchen, without any lighting of lamps or candles. But the wood burned red on the hearth, above which Dame Granier kept deftly shifting the pot-au-feu, so that none of its contents might be burned.

Each time she did so she thrust in underneath smaller branches, gleaned from last year's willow-pollarding. The light flared up sharply with little spitting, crackling noises, so that all in the kitchen saw each other clearly.

Now they discussed matters from the standpoint of the Ch?teau. That was the Professor, with a little assistance from John d'Albret, a poor prince of the blood some-few-times-removed. They talked it over from the point of view of the town. It was Anthony Arpajon who led, the widow Granier adding a word or two. They heard, in a low whisper, the most private states of mind of the King, seen only by those who had the right to penetrate into his cabinet. It was a red-haired, keen-eyed fanatic who spoke of this, with the accent and Biblical phraseology of Geneva – namely, one Johannus Stirling, Doctor in Theology, commonly denominated Jean-aux-Choux, the Fool of the Three Henries.

As for Claire Agnew, she gazed steadily into the fire, elbow on knee, her rounded chin set in the palm of her hand, and her dark curls pushing themselves in dusky confusion about her cheek. The Abb? John was the only person at all uneasy. Yet it was not the distant dubious sounds from the town which troubled him, nor yet the cries of the boatmen of St. Victor dropping down under the bridge of Vienne, the premier arch of which sprang immediately out by the gable of Dame Granier's house.

No, the Abb? John was uneasy because he wished to move his little three-legged stool nearer to the black oaken settle at the corner of which sat Claire Agnew.

The Leaguers might seize his person to make him a king – in default of better. Well, he would keep out of their way. His cousin, the Bearnais, would certainly give him a company in the best-ordered army in the world. His other yet more distant cousin, Philip of Spain, would, if he caught him, present him with a neat arrangement in yellow, with flames and devils painted in red all over it. Then, all for the glory of God, he would burn him alive because of consorting with the heretic.

Many careers were thus opening to the young man. But just at present, and, indeed, ever since he had looked at her across the dead man, stretched so starkly out among the themes and lectures on Professor Anatole's Sorbonne table, John d'Albret had felt that his true call in life was to minister to the happiness of Mistress Claire Agnew. And incidentally, in so doing, to his own.

Of this purpose, of course, Mistress Claire was profoundly unconscious. That was why she looked so steadily at the fire, and appeared to be revolving great problems of state. But it is certain, all the same, that no one else of all that company was deceived, not even sturdy Anthony Arpajon, who so far forgot himself, being a widower and a Calvinist, as to wink behind backs at Dame Granier when she was bringing up a new armful of dried orchard prunings to help boil the pot.

"I for one would not sleep comfortably in the Duke of Guise's bed at night," said the Professor sententiously. "I spoke to-day with that brigand D'O, whose name is as short as his sword is long, also with Guast, the man who goes about with his hand on the hilt of his dagger, familiarly, as if it were a whistle to call his scent-dogs to heel. No, I thank God I am but a poor professor of the Sorbonne – and even so, displaced. Not for ten thousand shields would I sleep in the Duke's bed."

"Perhaps that is the reason," suggested Jean-aux-Choux darkly, "why he prefers so often that of his friend Monsieur de Noirmoutier. He is afraid of seeing the curtains put suddenly back and, through the mists of his last sleep, the dark faces of the assassins and the gleaming of their daggers! Yet why should either you or he be afraid – a gurgle, a sigh, and all would be over!"

A shudder moved the shoulders of Claire as she drew nearer to the blaze, and, by consequence, further from the restless encroachments of the Abb? John's three-legged stool.

"He is a brave man, though he has done such ill," she said, sighing. "I love brave men!"

The Abb? John instantly resolved to demand the captaincy of a forlorn hope from the Bearnais, and so charge single-handed upon the ramparts of Paris.

But the Professor of the Sorbonne would listen to no praise whatsoever of the Guises. "The Duke," he averred, "spins his courage out of the weakness of others. He takes the King of France for a coward. 'He does not dare slay me,' he boasts; 'I am safe in his castle as in mine own house. If Henry of Valois slew me, he would have three-quarters of his realm about his ears in a week! And what is better, he knows it!'"

"Yes," said the Abb? John, speaking for the first time, "and I heard his sister, Madame de Montpensier, say only to-day, that she and her brother Henry were going to give the King the third of the three crowns on his scutcheon. He has been King of Poland, he is King of France, and the third crown represents the heavenly crown which will soon be his. Alternatively, she exhibits to all comers, even in the antechamber of the King, the golden scissors with which she is going to cut a tonsure for 'Brother Henry,' as she calls him – the Monk Henry of that order of the Penitents which he organised in one of his fits of piety!"

Jean-aux-Choux shook his shaggy head like a huge water-spaniel.

"They flatter themselves, these dogs of Guise," he said; "they fill themselves with costly wine, that the flower of life pass them not by. They hasten to crown themselves with rosebuds, ere they be withered. 'Let us leave the husks of our pleasures in every place,' they say. 'For this is our lot. We alone are the great of the earth. The earth belongeth to Lorraine, and the goodliness thereof. Before us, kings twice-born, cradled in purple, are as naught. A good man is an insult to us. Let us slay and make an end, even as we did on the Eve of Bartholomew, that we may pass in and enjoy the land' – such is their insolence – 'from Dan to Beer-sheba, and from Zidon even to the sunny slopes of Engedi – lest we be too late, lest we also pass away, as in the summer sky the trace of a cloud. For the Sea of Death is beneath – the Sea of Death is beneath!' Aha, aha! The mouth of the Lord hath spoken by Guise, even as by the mouth of Balaam his ass, in the strait-walled path betwixt the two vineyards, as thou comest unto Arnon!"

At the voice of the Fool turned Prophet, all sound ceased in the wide kitchen-place of good Dame Granier. Anthony Arpajon stood rapt, not daring to move hand or foot. For he believed that the word of the Lord had entered into Jean-aux-Choux, and that he was predicting the fall of the Guises.

"Verily, the bloody and deceitful man shall not live out half his days!" he muttered.

"It were truer, perhaps, to say," the Professor interjected, "that they who take the sword shall perish by the sword, and that those who arouse in King Henry of Valois the blackness of his gall, shall perish by the sword held under the cloak – suddenly, secretly, with none to help, and with the sins of a lifetime as lead upon their souls!"

"Amen!" cried Jean-aux-Choux; "stamp on the serpent's eggs! Cut the Guisards off, root and branch – "

"Is not that only your own Saint Bartholomew turned upside down?" demanded the Professor of Eloquence sharply. "You have read the Book of the Wisdom, I hear. I would remind you of the better way which you will find written therein. For, if prudence worketh, what is there that worketh better than she? You, who are a learned theologue, answer me that!"

"Prudence," cried the Genevan fiercely. "Have not I made myself a fool for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake? This is no time for prudence, but for fewer soft answers and more sharp swords! Ha, wait till the Bearnais comes to his own. Then there will be a day when the butchers of Paris shall cry to their shambles to fall on them and hide them. We of the Faith will track them with bloodhounds, and trap them like rats!"

"Then," retorted the Professor, "if that be so, I solemnly declare that you of the Huguenots are no whit better than the Leaguers and Guisards, who are even now seeking my life. I stand in the middle way. May God (such is your cry) give you victory or give you death. Well, I am sure that victory would be the worst present He could give you, if such were the use you would make of it."

But Jean-aux-Choux, pupil of Calvin, was not to be put down.

"Have ye never read in the Psalms," he cried, "how David said that the Lord would arise in judgment to help all the meek of the earth, and how that surely even the wrath of man God would turn to His praise?"

"I have also read in the same place," retorted the Professor of Eloquence, "that 'the remainder of the wrath He will restrain.' You Huguenots are not quite of the meek of the earth. When one cheek is smitten, doth the Bearnais turn the other? I, for one, should not like to try. Nay, not even with good Master Johannus here, Doctor in Theology, late of Geneva, commonly known as Jean-aux-Choux!"

"If, indeed, you know a better way, my good Doctor of the Sorbonne," said Jean, "pray show it forthwith! I am open to conviction, even as was my master, John Calvin!"

"That I will," quoth the Professor; "if you will have none of prudence, then seek wisdom. Ask of God. He will not refuse you. Is it not written in the Book that 'Wisdom, the worker of all things, hath taught me? For in her is the spirit of understanding – holy, only begotten, manifold, subtle, clear, undefined, loving the good and doing it, courteous, stable, sure, without care, having all power, yet circumspect in all things – and so, passing into all intellectual, pure, and subtle spirits.' So, indeed, it is written."

"Ah, that is part of your lecture on the blessings of peace," said the Abb? John, disgusted that he could arrive no nearer to the goal of his desirings. A three-legged stool makes a courser both slow and noisy.

"Eh," said the Professor, "it may be – it may be. I have often read these words with delight and, I grant you, I may have used them in another connexion."

"I have the notes of the lecture in my pocket!" said the Abb? John.

"Hum," commented Professor Anatole, looking sidelong at his pupil, "it is well to find you so attentive once in a way. At the Sorbonne the thing did not happen too often."

There was a short, uncomfortable period of silence, for the tone of the Professor of Eloquence had been somewhat rasping. He was annoyed, as perhaps John d'Albret had expected.

But he resumed again after awhile, his anger having as quickly fallen.

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