Samuel Crockett.

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





"You are noble," she said; "I knew it when I saw you at Collioure on the hillside more, a prince in your own land, near to the throne even. So am I and Philip the King himself would not deny me. He is your country's enemy. Yet at my request he would stay his hand. He must fight the English. He must subdue the Low Countries. That is his oath. But if you will if you will he would aid the Bearnais, or better still, you yourself to a throne, and give me who can say what? perhaps this very Roussillon for a dower. For I am close of kin to the King. He would acknowledge me as such. I have vowed a vow, but now it is almost paid; and if it were not I would go to the Pope himself, though I walked every step of the road to Rome!"

"I cannot I cannot " cried John d'Albret. "Thank God, I am not of the first-born of kings, whose hands are put up to the highest bidder. Where I have loved, there will I wed or not at all!"

"Ah, cruel!" cried Valentine la Ni?a, stamping her foot "cruel, not only to me, but to her whom you say you love. Think you she will be safe from the Society, from the Holy Office in France? There is no rack or torture perhaps, no Place of Eyes. But was Henry of Valois safe, who slew the Duke of Guise? From whose bosom came forth Jacques Clement? My uncle put the knife in his hand and blessed him ere he went. For me he would do more. Think this Claire of yours is condemned already. She is young. By your own telling she has many lovers. She will be happy. I know the heart of such maids. Besides, she has never promised you anything never humbled herself to you as I I, Valentine la Ni?a, who till now have been the proudest maid in Spain!"

"I am not worthy," cried the Abb? John. "I cannot; I dare not; I will not!"

"Ah," said Valentine la Ni?a, with a long rising inflection, and drawing herself back from him, "I have found it ever so with you heretics. You are willing to die to suffer. Because then you would wear the martyr's crown, and have your name commemorated in books, on tablets, and be lauded by the outcasts of Geneva. But for your own living folk you will do nothing. With all Roussillon, from Salses to the Pyrenees, for my dowry (Philip would be glad to be rid of it and perhaps also of me my friends of the Society are too strong for him), there would be an end to this prisoning and burning and torturing through the land. Teruel and Frey Tullio we would send to their own place. By a word you could save thousands. Yet you will not. You think only of one chit of a girl, who laughs at you, who cares not the snap of her finger for you!"

She stopped, panting with her own vehemence.

"Likely enough," said the Abb? John, "the more is the pity. But that cannot change my heart."

"Was her love for you like mine?" she cried; "did she love you from the first moment she saw you? NO! Has she done for you what I have done risked my all my uncle's anger the Society's that of the Holy Office even? No! No! No! She has done none of these things.

She has only graciously permitted you to serve her on your knees she, the daughter of a spy, a common go-between of your Huguenot and heretic princes! Shame on you, Jean d'Albret of Bourbon, you, a cousin of the King of France, thus to give yourself up to fanatics and haters of religion."

But by this time the Abb? John was completely master of himself. He could carry forward the interview much more successfully on these lines.

"I am no Huguenot," he said calmly, "more is the pity, indeed. I have no claim to be zealous for any religion. I have fought on the Barricades of Paris for the Guise, because I was but an idle fellow and there was much excitement and shouting. I have fought for the Bearnais, not because he is a Huguenot, but because he is my good cousin and a brave soldier none like him."

Valentine la Ni?a waved her hand in contempt.

"None like him!" she exclaimed. "Have you never heard of my cousin Alexander of Parma? To him your Bearnais is no better than a ruffler, a banditti captain, a guerilla chief. If you must fight, why, we will go to him. It is a service worth a thousand of the other. Then you will learn the art of war indeed "

"Aye, against my countrymen," said John d'Albret, with firmness. Bit by bit his courage was coming back to him. "I am but a poor idlish fellow, who have taken little thought of religion, Huguenot or Catholic. Once I had thought she would teach me, if life had been given me, and and if she had been willing. But now I must take what Fate sends, and trust that if I die untimeously, the Judge I shall chance to meet may prove less stern than He of the Genevan's creed, and less cruel than the God of Dom Teruel and the Holy Inquisition!"

"Then you refuse?" She uttered the words in a low strained voice. "You refuse what I have offered? But I shall put it once more honourable wedlock with an honourable maiden, of a house as good as your own, a province for your dower, the most Catholic King for sponsor of your vows, noble service, and it like you, with the greatest captain of the age, the safety of all your kin, free speech, free worship, the entrance of these thousands of French folk into France. Ah, and love love such as the pale daughters of the north never dreamt of "

She took a step towards him, her clasped hands pleading for her, her lips quivering, her head thrown back so far that the golden comb slipped, and a heavy drift of hair, the colour of ripe oats, fell in waves far below her shoulders.

"Do not let the chance go by," she said, "because you think you do not love me now. That will come in time. I know it will come. I would love you so that it could not help but come!"

"I cannot ah, I cannot!" said John d'Albret, his eyes on the floor, so that he might not see the pain he could not cure.

The girl drew herself up, clenched her hands, and with a hissing indraw of the breath, she cried, "You cannot you mean you will not, because you love the other the spy's daughter of whom I will presently make an end, as a child kills a fly on a window-pane for my pleasure!"

"No," said John d'Albret clearly, lifting his head and looking into the angry eyes, flashing murkily as the sunlight flashes in the deep water at a harbour mouth or in some estuary "no, I will not do any of the things you ask of me. And the reason is, as you have said, because I love Claire Agnew until I die. I know not at all whether she loves me or not. And to me that makes no matter "

"No, you say right," cried Valentine la Ni?a, "it will indeed make no difference. For by these words they are printed on my heart you have condemned her; the spy's daughter to the knife, and yourself "

"To the fires of the Inquisition?" demanded the Abb? John. "I am ready!"

"Nay, not so fast," said Valentine la Ni?a, "that were far too easy a death too quick. You shall go to the galleys among the lowest criminals, your feet in the rotting wash of the bilge, lingering out a slow death-in-life slow very slow, the lash on your back and no, no I cannot believe this is your answer. Here, here is yet one chance. Surely I have not humbled myself only for this?"

The Abb? John answered nothing, and after a pause the girl drew herself up to her height, and spoke to him through her clenched teeth.

"You shall go to the galleys and pray ah, you say you have never learned to pray, but you will you will on Philip's galleys. They make good theologians there; they practise. You will pray in vain for the death that will not come. And I, when I wake in the night, will turn me and sleep the sweeter on my pillow for the thought of you chained to your oar, which you will never quit alive. Ah, I will teach you, Jean d'Albret of the house of Bourbon, cousin of kings, what it is to love the spy's daughter, and to despise me me Valentine la Ni?a, a daughter of the King of Spain!"

CHAPTER XXXVII.
THE WILD ANIMAL WOMAN

Mariana the Jesuit rose, pen in hand, to embrace his "niece" as she entered his bureau. There was a laughing twinkle in his eye, and all his comfortable little pink-and-white figure shook with mirth.

"Bravo oh! bravo!" he cried, "never never did I suppose our little Valentine half so clever. Why, you turned yonder boastful cockerel outside in. Ha, they teach us something of dissimulation in our seminaries, but we are children to you, the best of us the whole Ges? might sit at your feet and take lessons. Even Philip himself were it not for semi-paternal authority! Never was the thing they call love better acted. I declare it was a great moral lesson to listen to you. You made the folly of it so apparent so abject!"

The girl was still pale. The rich glow of health, without the least colour in her cheeks, had disappeared. But the eyes of Valentine la Ni?a were dangerously bright.

The Jesuit proceeded, without taking note of these symptoms of disorder. He was so accustomed to use the girl's beauty and cleverness to bait his hooks. By her father she had been vowed from infancy to the service of the Society. Her rank was known only to a few in the realm. Save on this condition of service, Philip would never have permitted her to remain in his kingdom of the Seven Spains. And, indeed, Valentine la Ni?a deserved well of Philip and the Ges?. She had served the Society faithfully.

For these reasons she was dear as anything in flesh and blood could be to Mariana the Jesuit. He laughed again, tasting the rare flavour of the jest.

"A rich prize indeed," he chuckled. "The cousin of the Bearnais a candidate of the League for the crown of France. Ho, ho! Serving on the galleys as a Huguenot! You were right. There is no good fuel for Father Teruel's bonfires he is meat for the masters of Tullio the Neapolitan and Serra his kinsman. Was there ever such sport? You do indeed deserve a province and a dower, were it not that you are too valuable where you are, aiding the Cause and me, your poor loving 'uncle'! But what made me laugh as I listened, till the tears came into my old eyes, was to hear you you, to whom a thousand men had paid court begging for the love of that starved and terrified young braggart in his suit of silken bravery, tashed with prisons, and the fear of the Place of Eyes still white on his face!"

Then all unexpectedly Valentine la Ni?a spoke. Her tall figure seemed to overshadow that of her little, dimpling, winking kinsman, as the pouches under his eyes shook with merriment, while his mouth was one wreathed smile, and he pointed his beautiful, plump, white fingers together pyramidally, as if measuring one hand against the other.

"It was true," she said point-blank, "I was not pretending. I did love him and I do!"

The dimples died out one by one on the face of the historian, Mariana of Toledo. The ripe colour faded from the cheek-bone. He glanced nervously over his shoulder with the air of a man who may be sheltering traitors under his roof-tree.

"Hush!" he whispered. "Enough now you have carried the jest far enough. It was excellent with the springald D'Albret. You played him well, like a trout on an angle. But after all we are where we are. And Teruel and Tullio are not the men to appreciate such a jest."

"I was never farther from jesting in my life," said Valentine la Ni?a; "I love him as I never thought to love man before. If he would have loved me, and forgotten that that woman I would have done for him all I said aye, and more!"

"You Valentine a king's daughter?"

"Great good that has done me," cried the girl; "I must not show my face. My father (if, indeed, he is my father) would so gladly get rid of me that he would present me to the Grand Turk if he thought the secret would hold water. As it is, he keeps me doing hateful work, lying and smiling, smiling and lying, like like a Jesuit!"

"Girl, you have taken leave of your senses of your judgment!" said her "uncle" severely. "Do you not see that you are sealing the doom of the man for whom you profess a feeling as foolish as sudden?"

"Neither foolish nor sudden," retorted the girl sullenly, her hand on the back of a chair, gripping the top bar like a weapon. For a moment the little soft man with his eternal smile might have been her victim. She could have brained him with a blow the angle of that solid oaken seat crashing down upon the shining bald head which harboured so many secrets and had worked out so many plots. Valentine la Ni?a let the moment pass, but while it lasted she might very well have done it.

"It is not foolish," she said, relaxing her grip for an instant. "I am a human creature with a heart that beats so many times a minute, and a skin that covers the same human needs and passions just as if I were a free and happy girl like like that spy's daughter whom he loves. Neither is it sudden. For I saw him more than once on the hills above Collioure, when we stayed in the house of that cruel young monster Raphael Llorient. I wandered on the wastes covered with romarin and thyme why, think you? 'A new-born passion for nature,' you said, laughing. 'To get away from our host, Don Raphael,' said Livia the countess. Neither, good people! It was, because, stretched at length on a bed of juniper and lavender, in the shadow of a rock, my eyes had seen the noblest youth the gods had put upon the earth. He was asleep."

"You are mad, girl," cried Mariana, as loudly as he dared. "These are not the words of the Valentine I knew!"

"Surely not," said the girl, her head thrown back, her breast forward, and breathing deep, "nor am I the Valentine I myself knew!"

"You dare to love this man you vowed to the Church and to the service of the Ges?, whose secrets you hold? You dare not!"

"I dare all," she answered calmly. "This is not a matter of daring. It comes! It is! I did not make it. It does not go at my bidding, nor at yours. Besides, I did not bid it go. For one blessed moment I had at least the sensation of a possible happiness!"

"Nevertheless, he shamed you, rejected you, like the meanest whining lap-dog your foot spurns aside out of your path. He has done this to you Valentine la Ni?a, called the Most Beautiful to you, the King's daughter an you liked, an Infanta of Spain! Have you thought of that?"

"Thought?" she said, tapping her little foot on the floor, and with her strong right hand swaying the chair to and fro like a feather "have I thought of it? What else have I done for many days and weeks? But whether he will love me or cast me off the die is thrown. I am his and not another's. I may take revenge for that is in my blood. I may cause him to suffer as he has made me suffer and the woman also especially the woman, the spy's daughter! But that does not alter the fact. I am his, and if he would, even when chained to the oar of the galley, a slave among slaves he could whistle me to his side like a fawning dog! For I am his slave his slave!"

The last words were spoken almost inaudibly, as if to herself.

"And to the galleys he shall go!" said the Jesuit, "you have said it, and the idea is a good one. There he will be out of mischief. Yet he can be produced, if, in the time to come, his cousin the Bearnais, arrived at the crown of France, has time to make inquiries after him!"

A knife glittered suddenly before the eyes of the Jesuit. It was in the firm white hand of the girl vowed to the Society.

"See," she hissed, letting each word drop slowly from her lips, "see, Doctor Mariana, my uncle, you are not afraid of death I know but you do not wish to die now. There are so many things unfinished so much yet to do. I know you, uncle! Now let me take my will of this young man. Afterwards I am at your service for ever for ever more faithfully than before!"

"How can I trust you?" said the Jesuit; "to-morrow you might go mad again!"

"These things do not happen twice in a lifetime," said Valentine la Ni?a, "and as for Jean d'Albret, I shall put him beyond the reach of any second chance!"

Her uncle nodded his head. He knew when a woman has the bit between her teeth, and though he had a remedy even for such cases, he judged that the present was not the time to use it.

So Valentine la Ni?a went out, the knife still in her hand.

The Jesuit of Toledo threw himself back on his writing-chair and wiped his brow with a handkerchief.

"Ouff!" he cried, emptying his chest with a gust of relief, "this is what it is to have to do with that wild animal, Woman! In Madrid they tame the tiger, till it takes victual from its keeper's very hand. He is its master, almost its lover; I have seen the tiger arch its back like a cat under the caress. It sleeps with the arm of the keeper about its neck! Till one day one day the tiger that was tamed falls upon the tamer, the master, the lover, the friend! So with a woman. Have I not trained and nurtured, pruned and cared for this soul as for mine own. She was tame. She knew no will but mine. Clack! In a moment, at sight of a comely youth in a court suit asleep, as Endymion on some Latmian steep, she is wild again. Better to let her go than perish, keeping her."

Mariana listened a while, but the chamber of his work was as far from the lugubrious noises of the den of Dom Teruel as if it had been the Place of Eyes itself. Neither could he hear any sound from the little summer parlour which had been put at the service of his niece.

The old worldly-wise smile came back upon his lips.

"It is none of my business, of course," he murmured, "but it strikes me that the youth D'Albret had better say his prayers such, that is, as he can remember. I, for one, would not care twice to anger Valentine la Ni?a!"

He thought a while, and then with a grave air he added, "If I were a man of the world I would wager ten golden ounces to one, that within five minutes Master D'Albret knows more about eternity than the Holy Father himself and all his College of Cardinals. Well, better so! Then she will come back to us. She has served us well, Valentine la Ni?a, and now, having drunk the cup now she will serve us better than ever, or I know nothing of womankind!"

But Mariana, though he stood long with his ear glued to the crack of the door, could distinguish no sound within the summer parlour which Valentine la Ni?a had entered to look for the Abb? John.

CHAPTER XXXVIII.
THE VENGEANCE OF VALENTINE LA NI?A

When Valentine la Ni?a left him in the summer parlour where their interview had taken place, the Abb? John made no attempt to free himself. He seemed still half-unconscious, and, indeed, proceeded without rhyme or reason to make some repairs in the once gay court suit, exactly as if he had been seated in his tent in the camp of the Bearnais.

As yet he had no thought of escape. He was in the fortress of the Inquisition. The influence of the Place of Eyes was on him still. To escape appeared an impossibility to his weakened mind. Indeed, he thought only of the strange girl who had just talked with him. Was she indeed a king's daughter, with provinces to bring in dower, or No, she could not lie. He was sure of that. She did not lie, certainly, decided the Abb? John, with natural masculine favour towards a beautiful woman. A girl like that could not have lied. Mad perhaps, yes, a little but to lie, impossible.

So in that quiet place, he watched the slow wheeling of the long checkered bars of the window grille, and the shadows made by the branches of the Judas tree in the courtyard move regularly across the carpet. One of the leaves boarded his foot as he looked, climbed up the instep, and made a pretty shifting pattern upon the silken toe.

The Abb? John had resumed his customary position of easy self-possession one ankle perched upon the opposing knee, his head thrown far back, his dark hair in some disorder, but curling naturally and densely, none the less picturesque because of that when Valentine la Ni?a re-entered.

He rose at once, and in some surprise. She held a knife in her hand, and her face carried something about it of wild and dangerous, a kind of storm-sunshine, as it seemed.

"Hum," thought the Abb? John, as he looked at her, "I had better have stayed in the Place of Eyes! I see not why all this should happen to me. I am an easy man, and have always done what I could to content a lady. But this one asks too much. And then, after all, now there is Claire! I told her so. It is very tiresome!"

Nevertheless he smiled his sweet, careless smile, and swept back his curls with his hand.

"If I am to die, a fellow may as well do it with some grace," he murmured; "I wish I had been more fit if only Claire had had the time to make me a better man!"

Yet it is to be feared that even in that moment the Abb? John thought more of the process (as outlined in his mind with Claire as instructress) than of the very desirable result.

What the thoughts of Valentine la Ni?a were when she left the presence of her uncle could hardly be defined even to her own mind. But seeing this young man so easy, so debonair in spite of his dishevelled appearance, the girl only held out her left hand. A faint smile, like the sun breaking momentarily through the thunder-clouds, appeared on her lips.





: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25