Samuel Crockett.

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



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"I do not deny it. I am by nature a man urbane. I hold with him who said that the worst peace that ever was made is better than the best war that ever was waged. I am of Paul's faction, when he counselled 'Follow peace with all men'!"

There came a sudden loud knocking at the river-gate. A hush and an awe fell upon all. Instinctively hands drew to sword-hilts. John and Anthony leaned forward, listening intently, hardly daring to breathe. But the man who flung the door wide open was the Apostle of Peace himself – even Professor Anatole Long, Doctor of the Sorbonne.

Having done so, he found himself with his sword-stick bare in one hand, and a loaded pistol in the other.

CHAPTER XIX.
DEATH WARNINGS

D'Epernon stood at the door.

The splendid favourite of the King of France was attired in a plain, close-fitting black dress, while a cloak of the like material dropped from his shoulders. A broad-brimmed hat, high-crowned, and with a sweeping black feather, was on his head. He held out both hands.

"See, my good Professor," he began, "I am at your martial mercy. I have come without arms, clothed only with my sole innocence, into this haunt of heretics. Let me enter. I am, at least, a well-wisher of the white panache, and an old friend of Monsieur Anthony Arpajon there!"

The Professor of Eloquence, though in his heart he liked not the bold favourite, knew him for a keeper of his word. He stood back and let him pass within. D'Epernon carefully barred the door behind him, and with a grand salute strode masterfully into the kitchen of Dame Granier, which seemed to shrink in size at his entrance.

"Fairer waters than those we are now crossing be to us and to France!" said the Duke, who loved a sounding phrase. There was a silence in the kitchen, all wondering what this sudden interruption might mean. "You are all strangely speechless," continued the Duke.

"We would be glad to know what is your Grace's will with us," said Jean-aux-Choux; "after that, we will speak as plain as men may!"

"You are, I take it, for the King of France so long as he may live, and for the Bearnais afterwards?"

"We are of different schools and habits of thought," said Doctor Anatole, with a certain professional sententiousness, "but you may take it that on these points we are agreed with my Lord Duke of Epernon!"

"We are all against the League!" said Jean-aux-Choux brusquely.

"I stand by my cousin Henry," said the Abb? John.

"And I keep an open hostelry and a shut mouth!" added Anthony Arpajon.

As for Claire, she said nothing, but only moved a little further into the shadow. For Dame Granier had thrown a handful of resinous chips on the fire, which blazed up brightly, at which D'Epernon muttered a curse and trampled the clear light into dim embers with the heel of his cavalier's boot.

"To be seen here does not mean much to most of you," he said, with sudden unexpected fierceness, "but with the city full of the spies of Guise, it would be death and destruction to me! In a word then – for this I have come.

The King has resolved to bear no longer the insolence of Guise and his brothers. There is to be an end. It will be a bitter day and a worse night in Blois. Women are better out of it. I have taken measures to keep safely mine own wife – though there is no braver lass in France, as the burghers of Angoul?me do know – what I have to ask is, how many of you gentlemen I can count upon?"

"There is a difference," said the Professor. "I am an advocate for peace. But then Duke Guise and the Princes of Lorraine will not leave us in peace. So, against my judgment and conscience, I am with you so far as fighting goes."

"And I," said the Abb? John eagerly; "but I will have no hand in the assassination. It smells of Saint Bartholomew!"

"It is going to smell of that," answered D'Epernon coolly; "you are of Crillon's party, my friend – and truly, I do not wonder. There are butchers enough about the King to do his killings featly. Of what use else are swaggerers like D'O, Guast, Ornano, and Lognac? For me, I am happily supposed to be in my government of Angoul?me. I am banished, disgraced, shamed, all to pleasure the League. But just the same, the King sends me daily proof of his kindness, under his own hand and seal. So I, in turn, endeavour to serve him as best I may."

"You can count on me, Duke d'Epernon," said Jean-aux-Choux suddenly, "aye, if it were to do again the deed of Ehud, which he did in the summer parlour by the quarries of Gilgal, that day when the sun was hot in the sky."

"Good," said D'Epernon, "it is a bargain. To-morrow, then, do you seek out Hamilton, a lieutenant in the Scots Guards, and say to him 'The Man in the Black Cloak sent me to you'!"

"When – at what hour?"

"At six – seven – as soon as may be, what care I?"

"Aye," said Jean-aux-Choux, "that is good speaking. Is it not written, 'What thou doest, do quickly'?"

"It is indeed so written," said the Professor of Eloquence gravely, "but not of the Duke of Guise."

"Fear not," said Jean-aux-Choux, taking the reference, "I shall meet him face to face. There shall be no Judas kiss betwixt me and Henry of Guise."

"No," murmured the Professor, "there is more likely to be a good half-dozen of your countrymen of the Scottish Guard, each with a dagger in his right hand."

As it happened, there was a round dozen, but not of the Scottish archers.

D'Epernon – than whom no one could be more courteous, in a large, deft, half-scornful way – stooped to kiss Claire's hand under the spitting anger of the Abb? John's eyes.

"A good evening and a better daybreak," said D'Epernon. "I would escort you to Angoul?me, my pretty maiden, to bide under the care of my wife, were it not that you might be worse off there. The last time my Lady Duchess went for a walk, our good Leaguers of the town held a knife to her throat under the battlements for half-a-day, bidding her call upon me to surrender the castle on pain of instant death. What, think you, said Margaret of Foix? 'Kill me if you like,' says she, 'and much good may it do you and your League. But tell Jean Louis, my husband, that if he yields one jot to such rascals as you, to save my life twenty times over – I – will never kiss him again'!"

"I should like to know your wife, my lord," said Claire; "she must be a brave woman."

"I know another!" D'Epernon answered, bowing courteously.

Then, after the great man was gone, the party about Dame Granier's fire sat silent, looking uncertainly at one another in the dull red glow, which gave the strange face of Jean-aux-Choux, bordered by its tussock of orange-saffron hair, the look of having been dipped in blood.

Then, without a word, the Fool of the Three Henries took down his wallet, stuck the long sheath of a dagger under his black-and-white baldrick, and strode out into the night.

His vow was upon him.

"I will betake me to my chamber," said the Professor of Eloquence, "and pray to be forgiven for the thought of blood which leaped up in my heart when this proud man came to the door."

"And I," said Claire, "because I am very sleepy."

She said good-night a little coldly to John d'Albret. At least, so he thought, and was indeed ill-content thereat.

"I am not permitted to fight in a good hard-stricken battle," he murmured. "I cannot bring my mind to rank assassination – for this, however my Lord of Epernon may wrap it up, means no less. And yonder vixen of a girl will not even let me hold her coloured threads when she broiders a petticoat!"

But without a doubt or a qualm Jean-aux-Choux went to find Hamilton of the Scots Guard and to perform his vow.

As for the Duke, he spent his days with the Queen-Mother, and his nights at the lodgings of Monsieur de Noirmoutiers. Catherine de Medici was ill and old, but she kept all her charm of manner, her Italian courtesy. Personally she liked Guise, and he had a soft side to the wizened old woman who had done and plotted so many things – among others the night of Saint Bartholomew. When Guise came to any town where Catherine was, he always rode directly to her quarters. There she sermonised him on his latest sins, representing how unseemly these were in the avowed champion of the Church.

"But they make the people love me," he would cry, with a careless laugh. And perhaps also, who knows, the perverse indurated heart of the ancient Queen! For the Queen-Mother, though relentless to all heretics and rebels, was kindly within doors and to those she loved – who indeed generally repaid her with the blackest ingratitude.

But at Blois Guise had a new reason for frequenting his old ally. Valentine la Ni?a had become indispensable to Catherine. She was, it seemed, far more to her than her own daughter. The Queen-Mother would spend long days of convalescence – as often, indeed, as she was fairly free from pain – in devising and arranging robes for her favourite.

And amid the flurry Guise came and went with the familiarity of a house friend. His scarred face shone with pleasure as he picked a way to his old ally's bedside. Arrived there, after steering his course through the wilderness of silks and chiffons which cumbered the chairs and made even sitting down a matter of warlike strategy, Guise would remain and watch the busy maids bending over their needlework, and especially Valentine la Ni?a seated at the other side of the great state bed, which had been specially brought from Paris for the Queen to die upon. There was a quaint delight in his eyes, not unmingled with amusement, but now and then a flush would mount to his face and the great scar on his cheek would glow scarlet.

Once he betrayed himself.

"What a queen – what a queen she would have made!"

But the sharp-witted old woman on the bed, catching the murmured words, turned them off with Italian quickness.

"Too late, my good Henry," she said, reaching out her hand; "you were born quite thirty years too late. Had you been King and I Queen – well, the world would have had news!"

She thought a little while, and then added:

"For one thing all men would have known – how stupid a man is the Fleming who calls himself King of Spain. We should have avenged Pavia, you and I, my Balafr?, and Philip's ransom would have bought the children each a gown!"

But Valentine la Ni?a knew well of what the Duke of Guise had been thinking. She understood his words, but she gave him no chance of private speech. Nor did she send him any further warning. Once at Paris she had warned him fully, and he had chosen to disobey her. It was at his peril. And now, in Blois itself, she treated the popular idol and all-powerful captain with a chilling disdain that secretly stung him.

Only once did they exchange words. It was on the stairway, as Valentine gathered her riding-skirt in her fingers in order to mount to the Queen-Mother's room. The Duke was coming down slowly, a disappointed look on his face, but he brightened at sight of her, and taking her gloved hand quickly, he put it to his lips.

"Now I have lived to-day!" he said gently.

"If you do not get hence," she answered him with bitterness, "it is one of the last days that you will!"

"Then I would spend these last here in Blois," he said, smiling at her.

"You would do better for the Cause you pretend to serve if you took my grey alezan out there, and rode him at gallop through the North Gate. I give him to you if you will!"

"I should only bring him back by the South Gate," he said, smiling. "While you remain here, I am no better than a poor moth fluttering about the candle!"

"But the Cause?" she cried, with an angry clap of her hands.

"That for the Cause!" said Guise, snapping his fingers lightly; "a man has but one life to live, and few privileges therein. But surely he may be allowed to lay that one at a fair lady's feet!"

Without answering, Valentine la Ni?a swept up the stairs of the Queen's lodging, her heart within her like lead.

"After all," she murmured, as she shut herself in her room, "I have done my best. I have warned him time and again. I cannot save a man against his will. Paugh!" (she turned hastily from the window), "there he is again on the other side of the way, pacing the street as if it were the poop of an amiral!"

The little walled garden at Madame Granier's, with its trellised vines, the wind-swept wintry shore of the Loire, and the bleached shell-pink of the shingle, all went back to their ancient quiet. The whole world was in, at, and about the Ch?teau. Men, women, and both sorts of angels were busy around the Castle of Blois in these short grey days of mid-most winter.

Now and then, however, would come a heavenly morning, when Claire, left alone, looked out upon the clear, clean, zenith-blue sweep of the river, and on the misty opal and ultramarine ash of the distance, ridge fading behind ridge as drowsy thought fades into sleep.

"It is a Paradise of beauty, but" – here she hesitated a while – "there is no Adam, that I can see!"

In spite of the winter day she opened her window to the slightly sun-warmed air.

"I declare I am somewhat in Eve's mood to-day," she continued, smiling to herself as she laid down her embroidery; "even an affable serpent would be better than nothing."

But it could not be. For all the powers of good and evil – the Old Serpent among them – were full of business in the Ch?teau of Blois during these days of the King's last parliament. And so, while Claire read her Amyot's Plutarch and John Knox's Reformation, the single stroke which changed all history hung unseen in the blue.

CHAPTER XX.
THE BLOOD ON THE KERCHIEF

The most familiar servants of my Lord of Guise dared not awake their master. He had cast himself down on the great bed in his chamber when he came in late, or rather early – no man cared to ask which – from the lodging of Monsieur de Noirmoutier. Even his bravest gentlemen feared to disturb him, though the King's messenger had come twice to summon him to a council meeting at the Ch?teau.

"Early – very early? Well, what is that to me?" said the herald. "Bid your master come to the King!"

"The King! Who is he?" cried insolently the young De Bar. "Brother Henry the Monk may be your master – he is not ours."

"Hush!" said the aged Raincy, Guise's privileged major-domo and confidant, the only man from whom the Duke took advice, "it were wiser to send a message that my Lord of Guise is ill, but that he will be informed of the King's command and will be at the Ch?teau as soon as possible."

Guise finally awoke at eight, and looking out, shivered a little at the sight of as dismal a dawning as ever broke over green Touraine. It had been raining all night, and, indeed, when the Duke had come in from his supper-party he had thrown himself down with but little ceremony of undressing. This carelessness and his damp clothes had told upon him.

"A villain rheum," he cried, as he opened his eyes, to listen ill-humouredly enough to Raincy's grave communication of the King's demand. "And what do you tell me? A villain day? Draw aside the curtains that I may see the better. What – snow? It was rain when I came in."

He sneezed twice, on which Raincy wished him a long life.

"'Tis more than the King of all the Penitent Monks wishes me," said the Duke, shovelling notes and letters of all shapes and sizes out of his pockets. Some had been crumpled in the palm of the hand scornfully, some refolded meditatively, some twisted between the fingers into nervous spills, but by far the greater number had never been opened at all.

"See what they say, Raincy," cried the Duke. "I can dress myself – one does not need to go brave only to see the King of France playing monkey tricks in a turban and woman's dressing-gown, scented of musk and flounced in the fashion! Pah! But, Raincy, what a cold I have taken! 'Tis well enough for a man when he is young to go out supping in December, but for me, at eight-and-thirty – I am raucous as a gallows' crow! Give me my cloak, Raincy, and order my horse!"

"But, Your Grace," gasped the alarmed Raincy, "you have had no breakfast! Your Grace would not go thus to the council – you who are more powerful than the King – nay, whom all France, save a few heretics and blusterers, wish to be king indeed!"

"Aye – aye – perhaps!" said Guise, not ill-pleased, "that may be very true. But the Bearnais does not pay these rogues and blusterers of his. That is his strength. See what an army he has, and never a sou do they see from year's end to year's end! As for me" – here he took a paper out of his pocket-book, and made a rapid calculation – "to entertain a war in France, it were necessary to spend seven hundred thousand livres a month. For our Leaguers cry 'vivas' with their mouths, but they will not lift a pike unless we pay them well for it!"

He folded the paper carefully, as if for future reference.

"What money have I, Raincy?" he said, flapping his empty purse on the table; "not much, I fear. It is time I was leaving Blois, Raincy, if I wish to go with decent credit!"

Now was the valet's chance, which he had been waiting for.

"Ay, it is indeed time – and high time," said Raincy, "if these letters speak true. Let us mount and ride to Soissons – only Your Grace and I, if so it please you. But in an hour it may be too late."

The Duke of Guise laughed, and clapped his major-domo on the shoulder. "Do not you also become a croaker," he cried; "leave me at least Raincy, who sees that the League holds the King in a cleft stick. My good man, he dare not – this Henry of the Fox's Heart. I have the clergy, the Church, the people, most of the lords. The Parliament itself is filled with our people. Blois, all except the Ch?teau, is crammed with our men, as a bladder is with lard!"

"Ah, except the Ch?teau," groaned Raincy; "but that is the point. You are going to the Ch?teau, and the Fox is cunning – he has teeth as well as another!"

"But he dares not trap the lion, Raincy," laughed Guise. "Why, you are as bad as Madame de Noirmoutier, who made me promise to ride off to-day like a whipped cur – I, the Guise. There, no more, Raincy! I tell you I will dethrone the King. Then I will beat the Bearnais and take him about the land as a show in a cage, for he will be the only Huguenot left in all the realm of France. Then you, Raincy, shall be my grand almoner. Be my little one now! Quick, give me twelve golden crowns – that my purse, when I go among my foes, be not like that of my cousin of Navarre!"

As the major-domo went to seek the gold, Guise stretched his feet out to the blaze and, with a smile on his face, hummed the chorus of the Leaguers' marching-song.

"I would I were a little less balafr? on such a cold morning," grumbled the Duke; "scars honourable are all very well, but – give me a handkerchief, Raincy. That arquebusier at Ch?teau Thierry fetched me a villain thwack on the cheek-bone, and on cold days one eye still weeps in sympathy with my misfortunes!"

"Ah, my good lord," said Raincy, "pray that before sundown this day many an eye in France may not have cause to weep!"

"Silence there, old croaker," cried the Duke; "my sword – my cloak! What, have you so forgot your business in prating of France, that you will not even do your office? Carry these things downstairs! A villain's day! – a dog's day! The cold the wolf-packs bring when they come down to harry the villages! Hold the stirrup, Raincy! Steady, lass! Wey there! Thou lovest not standing in the rain, eh? Wish me luck, Raincy. I carry the hope of France, you know – King Henry of Guise, and the throats of the Protestant dogs all cut – sleep on that sentiment, good Raincy."

And Raincy watched the Duke ride away towards the Castle of Blois. The last echo of his master's voice came back to him on the gusty December wind:

 
"The Guises are good men, good men,
The Cardinal, and Henry, and Mayenne, Mayenne!
For we'll fight till all be grey —
The Valois at our feet to-day —"
 

Raincy stood awhile motionless, the tears running down his face. He was about to shut the door, when, just where the Duke had sprung upon his horse, he caught the glimpse of something white on the black drip of the eaves. He stooped and picked it up. It was the handkerchief his master had bidden him fetch. It was adorned with the arms of Guise, the Lilies of France being in the centre. But now the fleurs-de-lys were red lilies. The blood of the Guise had stained them.

And Raincy stood long, long there in the open street, the sleety snow falling upon his grey head, the kerchief in his hand, marvelling at the portent.



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