Samuel Crockett.

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



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"Then this Flamand, the chief of the servitors of the Sorbonne – Holtz was his name, a huge-handed animal of monkey breed, but with cunning under that sloping skull of his – made interest to find me a place in one of the slow waggons which carry the king's artillery to the port of Calais, where the new forts are. And me he laid, tied like a parcel between two brass guns for sieging, strapped down and gagged, feeding me at nights when the convoy halted. Also he paid the chief waggoner so much. For he meant to sell me for a slave to the Duke of Parma, who at that time was gathering a great fleet of galleys to destroy England. I had heard them arguing the matter somewhat thus:

"'Better kill him and be done,' said one; 'thus we are sure of a hundred shields for him from the lads of the beef barrel.' (So they spoke of the young surgeons of the Sorbonne.)

"However, the Flamand (a vantard and a bully, but very cunning) offered to fight any man there, or any two with fists or knives or any other weapon in their choice. And when no one took up his challenge, he cried out, 'Ho, stand back there, ye pack of cowards! This man is mine. A hundred silver shields! What is a hundred shields, when for such a wiry fellow, albeit a little old, we will get a hundred gold pieces from Parma, if only we can get him as far as Nieuport.'

"And so to Parma I was given, but the galley I was first placed in met with an English ship-of-war, and she ran us so close that we could not row. Her prow scraped us, breaking the oars and tossing the dead about, many being slain with the bounding fragments. And I – I was in the place next the port-hole, and I mind me I could lay my hand on the muzzle of a shotted gun. But that is the last I remember. For at that moment the Englishman fired a broadside and swept our decks. I alone was unhurt, and after a while in the lazar-house of Vigo, I came hither in a galleasse to teach the 'comites' of the Mediterranean side the newer practice of the fleets of the North."

He chuckled a little, his well-trained ear taking in the diminuendo and crescendo of the sentinel's footsteps on the wooden platform above his head.

"But from what I saw of the English," he murmured, "I judge that before long there will be no need of galleys to fight Spain's battles."

In a moment John d'Albret knew that his companion had not yet heard of the destruction of the Great Armada. He told him.

"Glory to the God of Battles," he said, hushed and low, "to Him the praise!"

Just then all the bells of the city began to ring, slow and measured. The sound came mellowed over the water and filtered through the striped awnings of yellow and red.

"Some great man is dead," he said, "perhaps the King – Philip, I mean. Or else a day of humiliation – "

"Auto de f?!" came along the benches in a thrilling whisper, for in spite of their fatigue few of the slaves were asleep. The afternoon was too hot, the glare from the water intolerable.

"Ah, well, the sooner to peace for some poor souls," said Francis the Scot.

Then a thought seemed to strike him. "It is not possible – no, you cannot have heard. I dare not expect it. But I had a daughter, she was named Claire. They told me – that is, the Flamand Holtz, a not unkindly brute, though he had resolved to make money out of me, dead or alive – well, he told me that one of the wisest of the professors, a learned man, had taken her under his care. They escaped together to go to his mother's house with one of the students, a cousin of the Hope of Israel. You never heard – no, it is not possible. Why should I dream it?"

The Abb? John's throat became suddenly dry. He gasped for a moment, but could not speak.

"You do know – she is dead – tell me!" said Francis the Scot, shaking him roughly by the arm. And that was the single unkindness he used to the young man.

"No, no!" gasped John d'Albret. "She is well. I love her. I was that third who escaped in her company!"

"Where is she?"

"Nay, that I do not know exactly," said the Abb? John, "but it is in France, in a quiet province, with good folk who love her – though not as I love her. For I came hither for her sake!"

And he told the tale – how, in Jean-aux-Choux's secret cache behind the sheepfold on the hill, he had found a list of the articles for transport to Dame Am?lie's new abode, with directions to the carriers, and one or two objects of price, evidently set aside for Jean to carry thither himself upon his next visit. So far, therefore, he was assured that all went well.

"God is great!" said Francis the Scot aloud; and the captive Turk who rowed outside oar, catching the well-known formula, added instantly, "And Mohammed is His prophet."

But on this occasion, at least, he was mistaken. For – like many a good proselyte who knows little of his master's doctrine yet draws converts notwithstanding – not Mohammed or Another, but plain, flippant, light-hearted John d'Albret was on this occasion the Prophet of the Lord.

CHAPTER XLIII.
IN TARRAGONA BAY

Henceforth little personal was said. The two men spoke mostly of the work of the ship, the chances of escape (like all prisoners), and especially concerning the progress of the Holy War against ignorance and tyranny. But of Claire, nothing.

Something withheld them. A new thing was working in the heart of John d'Albret. Like many another he had been born a Catholic, and it had always seemed impossible to him to change. But the Place of Eyes, the Question Greater and Lesser in the Street of the Money, the comradeship of Rosny and D'Aubign? in the camps of the Bearnais, had shaken him. Now he listened, as often as he had time to listen, to the whispered arguments and explanations of his new friend. I do not know whether he was convinced. I am not sure even that he always heard aright. But, moved most of all by the transparent honesty of the man whose body had so suffered for that royal law of liberty which judges not by professions but by works, the Abb? John resolved no more to fight in the armies of the Huguenot Prince merely as a loyal Catholic, but to be even such a man as Francis Agnew, if it in him lay.

That it did not so lie within his compass detracts nothing from the excellence of his resolution. The flesh was weak and would ever remain so. This gay, careless spirit, bold and hardy in action, was much like that of Henry of Navarre in his earlier days. There were indeed two sorts of Huguenots in France in the days of the Wars of Religion. They divided upon the verse in James which says, "Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing."

The Puritans afterwards translated the verse, "Let him sing psalms." But the Genevan translators (whom in this book I follow in their first edition of 1560) more mercifully left out the "psalms": "Is any merry, let him sing!" say they.

Now such was the fashion of the men who fought for Henry IV. Even D'Aubign?, the greatest of all – historian, poet, and satirist – expelled from France for over-rigidity, found himself equally in danger in Geneva because of the liberty of his Muse's wing.

So, though the Abb? John became a suffering and warring Huguenot, on grounds good and sufficient to his own conscience, he remained ever the lad he was when he scuffled on the Barricades for the "Good Guise" – and the better fighting! A little added head-knowledge does not change men.

No motives are ever simple. No eye ever quite single. And I will not say what force, if any, the knowledge that Francis Agnew the Scot would never give his daughter in marriage to a Persecutor of the Brethren, had in bringing about the Abb? John's decision.

Perhaps none at all – I do not know. I am no man's judge. The weight which such an argument might have with oneself is all any man can know. And that is, after all, perhaps best left unstated.

At first John was all for revealing his name and quality; but against this Francis Agnew warned him At present he was treated as a pressed man, escaping the "hempen breakfasts of the heretic dogs" – which the captain, the young Duke d'Err, often commanded the "comite" to serve out to those condemned for their faith. Only the Turks, of whom there were a good many, captured during the Levantine wars, strong, grave, sturdy men, were better treated than he.

"If, then," said his companion, "they know that you are a cousin of the Bearnais, they will most likely send you to the Holy Bonfire, especially as you are of too light weight to row in the galley, at any rate."

The Abb? John cried out against this. He was as good as any man, in the galley or elsewhere.

"In intent, yes," said the Scot, "but your weight is as nothing to Hamal's or even mine, when it comes to pulling at fifty foot of oar on an upper deck!"

The Duke of Err was a young nobleman who had early ruined himself by evil life. The memory rankled, so that sometimes the very devil of cruelty seemed to ride him. He would order the most brutal acts for sport, and laugh afterwards as they threw the dead slaves over, hanging crucifixes, Korans, or Genevan Bibles about their necks in mockery according to their creed.

"My galley is lighter by so much carrion!" he would say on such occasions.

It chanced that in the late autumn, when the great heats were beginning to abate and the equinoctials had not yet begun to blow on that exposed eastern coast of Spain, that for a private reason the Duke-Captain desired to be at Tarragona by nightfall. So all that day the slaves were driven by the "executioners" – as the Duke invariably named his "comites" – till they prayed for death.

Although it was a known sea and a time of peace the slaves were allowed no quarter – that is, one half rowing while the other rested. All were forced most mercilessly through a long day's agony of heat and labour.

"Strike, bourreau– strike!" cried the captain incessantly; "what else are you paid the King's good money for? If we do not get to Tarragona by four o'clock this afternoon, I will have you hung from the yardarm. So you are warned. If you cannot animate, you can terrorise. Once I saw a 'comite' in the galleys of Malta cut off a slave's arm, and beat the other dogs about the head with it till they doubled their speed!"

It was in order to give a certain entertainment at Tarragona that the Duke of Err was so eager to get there. For hardly had the Conquistador anchored, before the great sail was down, the fore-rudder unshipped, the after part of the deck cleared, and a gay marquee spread, with tables set out underneath for a banquet.

By this time, what with the freshness of the sea and fear of missing a stroke occasionally – a crime always relentlessly punished – the men were so fatigued with the heat, the toil, and the bruising of their chests upon the oar-handles, that many would gladly have fallen asleep as they were – but the order came not. All were kept at their posts ready for the salute when the guests of the Duke should come on board – that is, the lifting of the huge oars out of the water all in a moment and holding them parallel and dripping, a thing which, when well performed, produces a very happy effect.

After dinner the Duke conducted his guests upon the coursier, or raised platform, to look down upon the strange and terrible spectacle beneath. It was full moon, and the guests, among them several ladies, gazed upon that mass of weary humanity as on a spectacle.

"God who made us all," murmured the Abb? John, "can woman born of woman be so cruel?"

The young Duke was laughing and talking to a lady whom he held cavalierly by the hand, to preserve her from slipping upon the narrow ledge of the coursier.

"I told you I had the secret of sleep," he said; "I will prove it. I will make three hundred and fifty men sleep with a motion of my hand."

He signed to one of the "comites," whom he was accustomed to call his "chief hangman," and the man blew a long modulated note. Instantly the whole of the men who had kept at attention dropped asleep – most of them being really so, because of their weariness. And others, like John d'Albret and Francis the Scot, only pretended to obey the order.

At the sight of the hundreds of miserable wretches beneath, crowded together, naked to the waist (for they had had no opportunity of dressing), their backs still bleeding from the blows of the bourreau, the lady shuddered and drew her arm hastily from that of the captain. But he, thinking that she was pleased, and only in fear of slipping among such a horrid gang, led her yet farther along the estrade, and continued his jesting in the same strain as before.

"My dear lady," he said, "you have now seen that I am possessed of the art of making men sleep. Now you will see that I know equally well how to awake them."

Again he signed to the "comites" to blow the reveille.

A terrible scene ensued as the men rose to resume their oars. The chains clanked and jingled. The riveted iron girdles about their waists glistened at the part where the back-pull of the oar catches it. Hardly one of the crew was fit to move. With the long strain of waiting their limbs had stiffened; their arms had become like branches of trees. Even the utmost efforts of "hangman" were hardly able to put into them a semblance of activity.

As the party looked from above upon that moving mass, the moon, which had been clouded over, began to draw clear. Above, was the white and sleeping town sprinkled with illuminated windows – beneath, many riding-lights of ships in harbour. The moon sprang from behind the cloud, sailing small and clear in the height of heaven, and Valentine la Ni?a found herself looking into a pallid, scarcely human face – that of John d'Albret, galley-slave.

He was – where she had vowed him. Her curse had held true. With a cry she slipped from the captain's arm, sprang from the coursier, and threw her arms about the neck of the worn and bleeding slave!

CHAPTER XLIV.
VALENTINE AND HER VENGEANCE

But as he watched, a strange drawn look appeared on the countenance of Francis Agnew the Scot. And there came that set look to his mouth, which had enabled him to endure so many things.

"The lad also!" he muttered, "and I had begun to love him!"

For it was not given to Francis Agnew, more than to any other son of Adam, to divine the good when the appearance is evil. And with his elbows on his knees he thought of Claire, of her hope deferred, and of the waiting of the sick heart. She believed this man faithful. And now, would even her father's return (if ever he did return) make up to her for this most foul treachery?

To John d'Albret he spoke no further word. He asked no question, as they rested side by side during the night-watches. The stammered explanation which the Abb? John began after Valentine's departure was left unanswered. Francis Agnew had learned a great secret – how to keep silence. It is an excellent gift.

The ancient, high-piled town loomed up tier above tier, white and grey and purple under the splendours of the moon. The Abb? John took it in bit by bit – the black ledges and capes with the old Moorish castles, and later corsair watch-towers, the flaring phare at the mouth of the harbour, the huge double swell of the cathedral crowning all, the long lines of the arch-episcopal palace on the slope, the vineyards and oliveyards – all stood up blanched and, as it were, blotched in pen and ink under the silver flood of light and the steady milky blue arch of the sky. Such was Tarragona upon that night of sleepless silence.

The morning brought a new order, grateful to both.

The armourer of the Conquistador came down, and with file, and rasp, and pince-monseigneur, he speedily undid the iron belt which had not yet had time to eat into the flesh. The Abb? John was commanded to go on shore. During his short time aboard he had made himself a favourite. The Turk, Ben Hamal, hugged him to his hairy chest and stammered a blessing in the name of the Prophet. Others here and there wished him good speed, and looked wistfully at him, even though after John had departed they shook their heads, and with quick upward motions of their thumbs imitated the darting flames of the bi-weekly auto de f?.

They understood why he was sent for – and envied him.

Only Francis Agnew the Scot said no word, bade no adieu, wished no wish, gazing steadily at a post on the shore, which to his distorted imagination took on the shape of a woman dressed in white waiting for John d'Albret.

Had he only thought, he would have known that to be impossible. But he did not think – except of Claire, his daughter. And – as he had said – he had begun to love the lad. So much the worse for him and for all.

It was not upon the shore, but high in the city that the Abb? John found Valentine la Ni?a. She awaited him in that secular annex to the palace of the Archbishop which the great Ter?s Doria now occupied as Viceroy of Catalonia. The Archbishop-Governor had put his private cabinet at her service. One does not say no to the daughters of reigning sovereigns, when one has served both father and grandfather.

Doria had ordered his valet, a layman with mere servitor's vows to give him a standing, to assist John d'Albret in his toilet. So before long the Abb? John found himself in a suit of black velvet, severe and unbroidered, which fitted him better than it could ever have done the stouter Don Jacques Casas, for whom it had been made. A sword hung at his side – a feeble blade and blunt, as John d'Albret ascertained as soon as he was left a moment alone, but sheathed in a scabbard of price. He sat still and let the good valet perfume and lave, and comb out his love-locks, without thinking much of what was coming. His mind was benumbed and curiously oppressed. Fate planned above his head, shadowy but unseen. And somehow he was afraid – he knew not why.

Finally all was done. Even Jacques Casas was satisfied, and smiled. The galley-slave had become a man again.

The cabinet of the Cardinal-Viceroy of Catalonia looked over the city wall, very nearly at its highest seaward angle, in the place where now they have pierced a gate, where red-kerchiefed gipsies sit about on steps, and vagabonds in mauve caps sell snails by measure. But then a little vice-regal garden fronted the windows, and the ancient walls of Tarragona, older than the Romans or the Greeks, older than Carthage – older even than the galleys of Tyre – fell away beneath towards the sea verges, so solid that to the eye there was little difference between them and the living rock on which they were founded. The giants who were in the times before the flood built them, so the townsmen said. And as no one knows anything about the matter, that opinion is as good as any other.

The two young people stood regarding each other, silent. The blonde masses of the girl's hair seemed less full of living gold and fire than of yore. Perhaps there was a thread or two of grey mingling with the graciousness of those thick coils and curves. But the great eyes, coloured like clover-honey dropped from the comb, were moist and glorious as ever. They had manifestly gained in directness and nobility.

The Abb? John bowed low. Valentine la Ni?a did not respond. There was, however, a slight colour on her cheeks of clear ivory. Man born of woman had never seen that before.

"I have sent for you," said Valentine la Ni?a, in a low and thrilling contralto, "I would speak with you! Yet this one time more!"

She put her hand rapidly to her throat, as if something there impeded her utterance.

"Yes," she continued, swallowing down her emotion with difficulty, "I would speak with you – it may be for the last time."

After this she was silent a while, as if making up her mind what to say. Then with a single instinctive mechanical gesture she twitched her long robe of white and creamy lace behind her. It seemed as if she wanted all space wide and clear before her for what she had to say and do. Her eyes devoured those of John d'Albret.

"You – still – love her?" she said, forcing the words slowly from her lips.

"I love her!" John answered simply. He had nothing to add to that. It had been said before. Any apology would be an insult to Claire. Sympathy a deeper insult to the woman before him.

The carmine flush deepened on her cheek. But it was not anger. The girl was singularly mistress of herself – calm, resolved, clear-seeing.

"Ah," said Valentine la Ni?a softly, "I expected no other answer. But still, have you remembered that I once gave you your liberty? How you lost it a second time, I do not know. Now I am putting all my cards on the table. I play – hearts only. If I and my love are not worthy of yours, will you tell me why another, who has done nothing for you, is preferred to me, who has risked, and am willing to risk everything for you – life, death, the world, position, freedom, honour, all! Tell me! Answer me!"

"I loved her first!" said the Abb? John.

"Ah, that too you said before," she cried, with a kind of sigh, "and you have nothing more to say – I – nothing more to offer. Yet I cannot tell why it should be so. It seems, in all dispassion, that if I were a man, I should choose Valentine la Ni?a. Men – many men – ah, how many men, have craved for that which I have begged you to accept – not for your vague princedom, not for your vague hopes, not for your soldier's courage, which is no rare virtue. But for you – yourself! Because you are you – and have drawn me, I know not how – I see not where – "



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