Samuel Crockett.

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


Above, in the Ch?teau of Blois, there were two men waiting the coming of Henry, Duke of Guise. One was another Henry, he of Valois, King of France. He had many things to avenge his own folly and imprudence most of all, though, indeed, these never troubled him. Only the matter of Coligny, and the sombre shades of the dead upon St. Bartholomew's Eve, haunted his repose.

At the private gathering of the conspirators, the King had found many who were willing to sympathise with him in his woes, but few who would drive the steel.

"The Parliament are to make Constable of France the man who is intent on pulling down my throne. I shudder with horror (he whined) to think that the nobles of France support the Guises in this I speak not of fanatic bishops and loud-mouthed priests, who cry against me from every pulpit because I will not have more Colignys gibbering at my bed-foot, nor yet give them leave to burn Frenchmen by the score, as Philip does his Spaniards t'other side the mountains!"

The Marshal d'Aumont, D'O, and Lognac, the Captain of the Forty-Five Guardsmen, bowed respectful assent.

"What is the state of France, friends," the King cried, in a frenzy of rage, "I bid you tell me, when an alien disputes the throne of Francis First with the legitimate heir of Saint Louis? And what of Paris, my capital city, wherein I have lived like a bourgeois these many years, which receives him with shouts and caressings, but chases me without like a dog? aye, like a dog!"

The comparison seemed to strike him.

"'Without are dogs,' I have heard the priests say. Well, as to heaven, it may be so. But as to Paris, be sure that if the dogs are without within are wolves and serpents and all manner of unclean beasts! I would rather trust the Bearnais than any of them!"

There was some dismay at this. It stood out on the faces of the leaders at the council board. If His Majesty went to the King of Navarre, they knew well that their day would be over. However, they swore to do everything that the King required, but of them all, only Lognac meant to keep his word. He was a stout fighter. The killing of Guise was all in the way of business; and if the worst came to the worst, the Bearnais would not refuse a company to one who, in his time, had been Captain of the Forty-Five.

Henry of Valois had been up early that morning, called from his slumbers to bait the trap with his most secret cunning. He did not mean to take any part in the deed himself. For the soldier who had fought so well against Coligny now dodged out and in, like a rat behind the arras.

The Scots Guards were posted in the courtyard of the Ch?teau, to shut the entrances as soon as the Duke of Guise should have passed within. In the great hall were the Lords of the Council the Cardinal of Guise, the Archbishop of Lyons, that clarion of the League, the Cardinal Vend?me, the Marshal d'Aumont, D'O, the Royal favourite, together with the usual clerks and secretaries.

But within, in the ancient chamber of audience, next to the cabinet of the King himself, stood in waiting certain Gascons, ready with their daggers only half-dissembled under their cloaks.

They were men of no determined courage, and the King well knew that they might fail him at the last moment. So, by the advice of Hamilton and Larchant of the Scots Guard, he had placed nearest to the door one who would make no mistake him whom the Man in the Black Cloak had sent, even Jean-aux-Choux, the Fool of the Three Henries.

But on that mask of a face there was now no sign of folly. Stern, grey, immovable was now the countenance of him who, by his mirth, had set many courts in a roar. He could hear, as he had heard it on the night of the Bartholomew, the voice of the Duke of Guise crying, "Haste ye is the work not done yet?"

And now another "work" was to be done. The feet that had spurned Coligny were even now upon the stairs. He thanked God. Now he would perform his vow upon the man who had made him go through life hideous and a laughing-stock.

For in those days the New Law concerning the forgiveness of enemies was a dead letter. If you wished to live, you had better not forgive your enemy till after you had slain him. And the dread "Remember the Bartholomew," printed on all Huguenot hearts, was murmured behind the clenched teeth of Jean-aux-Choux. The Huguenots would be avenged. Innocent blood would no more cry unheeded from the ground. The hated League would fall with its chief. With Guise would perish the Guisards.

The princes of Lorraine had beheld their power grow through four reigns. It culminated on the day of the Barricades, when a king of France appealed to a subject to deliver him from the anger of the citizens of his own capital. So, secure in his power, Guise scorned all thought of harm to himself.

"They dare not," he repeated over and over, both to himself and to others; "the King his kingdom hangs upon a single hair, and that hair is my life!"

So he walked into the armed and defended fortress of his mortal enemy as freely as into his own house. Like perfect love, perfect contempt casteth out fear.

Yet when once he had saluted the company in the hall of audience, Guise sat him down by the fire and complained of being cold. He had, he said, lain down in his damp clothes, and had risen up hastily to obey the King's message.

"Soon you will be hot enough upon the branders of Tophet!" muttered D'O, the royal favourite, to Revol, the King's secretary, who went and came between the inner cabinet and the chamber where the council were sitting about a great table.

The superintendent of the finances, one Petremol, was reading a report. The Archbishop of Lyons bent over to the Duke of Guise, where he sat warming him by the fire.

"Where goes our royal Penitent so early I mistrust his zeal? And specially," he added, as a furious burst of sleet battered like driven sea-spray on the leaded panes of the council room, "on such a morning; it were shame to turn out a dog."

"Oh, the dog goes of his own will into retreat, as usual!" said the Duke carelessly; "in half-an-hour we shall see him set off with a dozen silken scourges and the softest down pillows in the castle. Our reverend Henry is of the excellent order of Saint Commode!"

Presently, leaving the fireside, the Duke returned to the table where the others sat. It was observed that he was still pale. But the qualm was physical only; no shade of fear mixed with it. He asked for a handkerchief from any of his people who might have followed him. As the greatest care had been taken to exclude these, he was supplied with one from the King's own wardrobe by St. Prix, the King's valet de chambre. Then he asked for comfits to stop his cold, but all that could be found within the castle was only a paper of prunes of Brignolles, with which Guise had to content himself, instead of the Smyrna raisins and rose conserves of Savoy which he asked for.

He chatted indifferently with one and another while the routine of the council unrolled itself monotonously.

"I think brother Henry might have let us sleep in our beds, if this be all," he said. "What is the use of bringing us here at this hour, to pronounce on the fate of rascals who have done no worse than hold a few Huguenots to ransom? Wait a while, and we will give the Huguenots something that will put ransoming them out of the question!"

The Cardinal smiled at his brother shrewdly.

"Aye," he murmured, "but we will have the ransoms also. For, you know, the earth belongeth to the Lord, and He has given it to the chosen of His Church."

A hand touched the Duke's shoulder; a voice murmured in his ear. A soft voice a voice that trembled. It was that of Revol, the King's secretary, whom at first De Nambre, one of the Forty-Five on guard at the door, would not permit to pass. Whereupon the King popped his head out of the closet to give the necessary order, and seeing the young man pale, he called out, "Revol, what's the matter with you? Revol, you are as white as paper, man! Rub your cheeks, Revol. Else you will spoil all!"

Henry III. always liked handsome young men about him, and certainly the messenger of death never came in a prettier form to any than when young Revol tapped the Duke of Guise on the shoulder as he sat by the council board.

The chief of the League rose and, courteous to the last, he bowed graciously to the Cardinal Vend?me, to whom he had not yet had the opportunity of speaking that day. He threw his cloak carefully over one arm, and in the other hand he took his silver comfit-box (for he ever loved sweet things) containing the prunes of Brignolles. He entered into the little narrow passage. De Nambre shut the door behind him. The tiger was in the fox's trap.

Vaguely Guise saw stern faces about him, but as was usual with him, he paid no particular heed, only saluting them as he had done the shouting spice-merchants' 'prentices and general varletage of Paris, which followed everywhere on his heels.

The eight Gascons held back, though their hands were on their daggers. After all, the tiger was a tiger, and they were but hirelings. The curtain which hid the King's closet shook as in a gale of wind. But suddenly the terrible mask of Jean-aux-Choux surged up, so changed that the victim did not recognise the man who had often made sport before him.

"For Coligny one!" cried the tragic fool.

And at that dread word the other traitor behind the arras might well have trembled also. Then Jean struck his first blow.

"Saint Bartholomew!" cried Jean-aux-Choux, and struck the second time.

The Duke fell on his knees. The eight Gascons precipitated themselves upon the man who had been deemed, and who had deemed himself, the most invincible of the sons of men.

So strong was he that, even in death, he dragged them all after him, like hounds tearing at the flanks of a dying tiger, till, with a cry of "Oh, my friends oh, what treachery! My sins " the breath of life went from him. And he fell prone, still clutching in his agony the foot of the King's bed.

Then the turbaned, weasel face, pale and ghastly, jerked out of the royal closet, and the quavering voice of the King asked Guise's own question of sixteen years before "Have you finished the work? Is he dead?"

Being assured that his enemy was indeed dead, Henry at last came out, standing over the body of the great Leaguer, holding back the skirts of his dressing-gown with his hand.

"Ah, but he is big!" he said, and spurned him with his foot. Then he put his hands on his brow, as if for a moment to hide the sight, or perhaps to commune with himself. Suddenly he thrust out an arm and called the man-slayers about him.

"Ye are my hands and arms," he said; "I shall not forget that you have done this for my sake."

"Not I!" said Jean-aux-Choux promptly. "I have done it for the sake of Coligny, whom he murdered even so. His blood my master's blood has called a long while from the ground. And so" looking straight at the King "perish all those who put their hands to the slaughter of the Bartholomew night."

Then King Henry of Valois abased his eyes, and men could hear his teeth chatter in his head. For, indeed, he and Catherine, his mother the same who now lay a-dying in the chamber below had guided, with foxy cunning and Italianate guile, that deadly conjuration.

He was, however, too much elated to be long subdued.

"At any rate," he said, "Guise is dead. I am avenged upon mine enemy. Guise is dead! But some others yet live."


The blue midland sea, the clear blue of heaven just turning to opal, and the glint of mother-of-pearl coming up with the gloaming! A beach, not flattened out and ribbed by the passage of daily tides, but with the sand and pebbles built steeply up by the lashing waves and the furious wind Euroclydon.

On different planes, far out at sea, were the sails of fishing-boats, set this way and that, for all the world like butterflies in the act of alighting. It was early spring the spring of Roussillon, where it is never winter. Already the purple flowers of the wild Proven?al mustard stood out from the white and yellow rocks, on which was perched a little town, flat-roofed and Moorish. Their leaves, grey-green like her own northern seas, of which she had all but lost the memory, drew Claire's attention. She bit absent-mindedly, and was immediately informed as to the species of the plant, without any previous knowledge of botany.

She kicked a strand of the long binding sea-grass, and then, after looking a moment resentfully at the wild mustard, she threw the plant pettishly away. Our once sedate Claire had begun to allow herself these ebullitions with the Professor. They annoyed the Abb? John so much and it was practice. Also, they made the Professor spoil her. He had never watched from so near the sweet, semi-conscious coquetry of a pretty maid. So now he studied Claire like a newly-found fragment of Demosthenes, of which the Greek text has become a little fragmentary and wilful during the centuries.

"This will serve you better, if you must take to eating grass like an ox," said the Professor of Eloquence, reaching out his hand and plucking a sprig of sweet alison, which grew everywhere about.

Claire stretched out hers also and took the honey-scented plant, on which the tiny white flowers and the shining fruit were to be found together.

"Buzz-uzz-uzz!" said half-a-dozen indignant bees, following the sprig. For at that dead season of the year, sweet alison was almost their only joy.

"Ugh!" exclaimed Claire, letting it go. She loved none of the sting-accoutred tribe unless it were the big, heavy, lurching bumble-bees, which entered a room with such blundering pomp that you had always time to get out before they made up their mind about you.

The Professor watched her with some pride. For in the quiet of Rousillon Claire had quickly recovered her peace of mind, and with it the light in the eye and the rose-flush on the cheek.

But quite suddenly she put her hands to her face and began to sob.

If it had been the Abb? John, he might have divined the reason, but the Professor was not a man advised upon such matters.

"What is it?" he said, stupidly enough; "are you ill?"

"Oh, no no!" sobbed Claire; "it is so good to be here. It is so peaceful. You are so good to me too good your mother your brothers what have I done to deserve it?"

"Very likely nothing," said the Professor, meaning to be consoling; "I have always noticed that those who deserve least, are commonly best served!"

"That is not at all a nice thing to say," cried Claire; "they did not teach you polite speeches at your school or else you have forgotten them at your dull old Sorbonne. Do you call that eloquence?"

"I only profess eloquence," said Doctor Anatole, with due meekness; "it is not required by any statute that I should also practise it!"

"Well," said Claire, "I can do without your sweet speeches. I cannot expect a Sorbonnist to have the sugared comfits of a king's mignon!"

"Who speaks so loud of sugared comfits?" said a voice from the other side of the weather-stained rock, beneath which the Professor and Claire Agnew were sitting looking out over the sea.

A tall shepherd appeared, wrapped in the cloak of the true Pyrenean herdsman, brown ochre striped with red, and fringed with the blue woollen tassels which here took the place of the silver bells of Bearn. A tiny shiver, not of distaste, but caused by some feeling of faint, instinctive aversion, ran through Claire.

Jean-aux-Choux did not notice. His eyes were far out on the sea, where, as in a vision, he seemed to see strange things. His countenance, once twisted and comical, now appeared somehow ennobled. A stern glory, as of an angry ocean seen in the twilight, gloating over the destruction it has wrought during the day, illumined his face. His bent back seemed somehow straighter. And, though he still halted in his gait, he could take the hills in his stride with any man. And none could better "wear the sheep" or call an erring ewe to heel than Jean-aux-Choux. For in these semi-eastern lands the sheep still follow the shepherd and are known of him.

"Who speaks of sugared comfits?" demanded Jean-aux-Choux for the second time.

"I did," said Claire, a little tremulously. "I only wished I had some, Jean, to while away the time. For this law-learned Professor will say nothing but rude things to me!"

Jean looked from one to the other, to make sure that the girl was jesting. His brow cleared. Then again a gleam of fierce joy passed momently over his face.

"He had comfits in his hand in a silver box," he said, "jeweller's work of a cunning artificer. And he entered among us like the Lord of All. But it was given to me to me, Jean-aux-Choux, to bring low the haughty head. 'Guise, the good Guise!' Ha! ha! But I sent him to Hattil, the place of an howling for sin he that had thought to walk in Ahara, the sweet savouring meadows!"

"I hated Guise and all his works," said the Professor, looking at the ex-fool boldly, "yet will I never call his death aught but a murder most foul."

"It may be it may be," said Jean-aux-Choux indifferently; "I did my Lord's work for an unworthy master. I would as soon have set the steel to the throat of Henry of Valois himself. He and that mother of his, now also gone to the Place of Howling to hob-nob with her friend of Guise they planned the killing. I did it. I give thanks! Mich?iah who is like the Lord? Jedaiah the hand of the Lord hath wrought it. Jehoash-Ber?k the fire of the Lord falls in the thunderbolt! Amen!"

The Professor started to his feet.

"What is that you say? The Queen-Mother dead? And you ?"

He looked at the long dagger Jean-aux-Choux carried at his side, which, every time he shifted his cloak, drew the unwilling gaze of Claire Agnew like a fascination.

"The Mother of Witchcrafts is indeed dead," said Jean-aux-Choux. "But that the world owes not to me. The hand of God, and not mine, sent her to her own place. Yet I saw in a vision the Woman drunken with the blood of saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus."

Then he, who had once been called the King's fool, became, as it were, transported. His eyes, directed at something unseen across the blue and sleeping sea, were terrible to behold. Faint greyish flecks of foam appeared on his lips. He cast his cloak on the ground and trod upon it, crying, "Even thus is it to-day with Great Babylon, the mystery, the mother of the abominations of the earth."

After a moment's pause he took up his prophecy.

"There was One who came and bade me listen, and I gave him no heed, for he blessed when I would have cursed; he cried 'Preserve' when I cried 'Cut off'; he cried 'Plant' when I would have burned up, root and branch. But when I heard that Catherine of the Medici was indeed dead, I shouted for joy; I said, 'She was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and gilded with gold and precious stones and pearls! I saw her glory. But now Babylon the Great is fallen is fallen. And they that worshipped her throw dust on their heads all they that have thriven on the abundance of her pleasures. For in one hour her judgment is come!'"

Then, all in a moment, he came down from the height of his vision. The light of satisfied vengeance faded from his face.

"But I forget I must go to the herd. It is my duty till the God, whose arm of flesh I am, finds fitter work for me to do. Then will I do it. I care not whether the reward be heaven or hell, so that the work be done. The cripple and the fool is not like other men. He is not holden by human laws or codes of honour, nor by the lust of land, nor wealth, nor power, nor the love of woman. He is free free free as Ber?k, the lightning of God is free to strike where he wills to fall where he is sent!"

The two watched him, and listened, marvelling.

And the Professor muttered to himself, "Before I lecture again, I must read that Genevan book of his. Our poor Vulgate is to that torrent as the waters of Siloah that flow softly!"

The voice of Jean-aux-Choux had ceased. That is, his lips moved without words. But presently he turned to Claire and said, almost in his old tones, "I am a fool. I fright you, that are but a child. I do great wrong. But now I will go to the flock. They await me. I am, you say, a careless shepherd to have left them so long. Not so! I have a dog in a thousand To?h the dart. And, indeed, I myself am no hireling no Iscariot. For your good cousin, Don Raphael Llorient, of Collioure, hath as yet paid me no wages neither gold Ferdinand nor silver Philip of the Indies. A good day to you, Professor! Sleep in peace, little Claire Agnew! For the sake of one Francis, late my master, we will watch over you even I, Ber?k the lightning, and To?h my dog!"

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