Samuel Crockett.

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



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"I do not ask you to obtain my release," said John d'Albret, somewhat uneasily, "I have no claim to that; but I have on board that ship a comrade" Ц here he hesitated Ц "yes, I will tell you his name, for you are noble. It is Francis Agnew, her father, he who was left for dead on the Street of the University by the Guisards of Paris on the Day of the Barricades. He is now at the same bench as I, in the ConquistadorЦ†"

"What!" cried Valentine, "not the old man with the white tangled beard I saw by your side when Ц when Ц I saw you?"

"The same," the Abb? John answered her softly.

Then came a kind of glory over the girl's face, like the first certainty of forgiveness breaking over a redeemed soul. She drew in her breath sharply. Her hands clasped themselves on her bosom. Then she smiled, but the bitterness was gone out of the smile now.

"I must see this Claire," she said, speaking shortly and somewhat sternly to herself; "I must know whether she is worthy. For to obtain from my father (who will not of his own goodwill call me daughter) Ц from Philip the King, I mean Ц pardon for two such heretics, one of them the cousin of his chief enemy Ц I must have a great thing to offer. And such I have indeed Ц something that he would almost expend another Armada to obtain. But, before I decide, I must see Claire Agnew. I must look in her eyes, and know if she be worthy. Then I will do it. Or, perhaps, she and I together."

The last words were murmured only.

The Abb? John, who knew not of what she was speaking, judged it prudent to say nothing.

"Yes Ц I must know," she went on, still brusquely, "you will tell me where she is. I will go there. And afterwards I will return to the Escorial to see my father Ц Philip the King. Meantime I will speak to the Duke of Err, and to his mother, as well as to the Viceroy Doria. You shall abide in Pilate's House down there, where is a prison garden Ц "

"And my friend?" said John d'Albret.

The girl hesitated a little, and then held out her hand. The young man took it.

"And your friend!" she said. "There in Pilate's House you must wait, you two, till I see Ц till I know that she is worth the sacrifice."

Once again she laughed a little, seeing a wave of joy or perhaps some more complex emotion sweep over John's face.

"Ah," she cried, with a returning trace of her first bitterness, "you are certain that she is worthy. Doubtless so for you! But as the sacrifice is mine Ц I also must be certain Ц ah, very certain. For there is no back-going. It is the end of all things for Valentine la Ni?a."

She laughed little and low, like one on the verge of hysterics. A nerve twitched irregularly in her throat under her chin to the right. The pink came out brighter to her cheek. It was a terrible laugh to hear in that still place. And the mirthlessness of it Ц it struck the Abb? John cold.

"This shall be my revenge," she said, fixing him, with flame in her honey-coloured eyes; "long after, long Ц oh, so Ц so long after" Ц she waved her arm Ц "you will know! And you will see that, however much she has loved you, hers was the love which takes.

But mine Ц ah, mine is different. Mine is the love which gives Ц the only true woman's love Ц without scant, without measure, without bounds of good or evil, without thought of recompense, or hope of reward. Love net, unselfish, boundless, encompassing as the sea, and like a fountain sealed within the heart of a woman. And then Ц then you shall remember that when ye might Ц ye would not Ц ah, ye would not!"

A sob tore her throat.

"But one day, or it may be through all eternity, you shall know which is the greater love, and you shall wish Ц no, you are a man, you will be content with the lesser, the more comprehensible, the goodwife warming her feet by the fire over against yours. There is your ideal. While I Ц I Ц would have carried you beyond the stars!"

The Abb? John took a step nearer her. He had some vague notion of comforting Ц not knowing.

But she thrust her arms out furiously as if to strike him.

"Go Ц go!" she cried, "you are breaking my heart every instant you remain. Is it not enough, that which you have done? I would be quiet. They are waiting for you to take you to Pilate's House. But tell me first where to find this Ц this Claire Agnew!"

She pronounced the name with difficulty.

"Ah," Valentine continued, when John had told her how she was safe in Provence, "that is no great way. I shall go and soon return. Then to Madrid is farther, but easier. But if I suffer Ц what I must suffer Ц you can well abide here a little season. The hope Ц the future is with you. For me there is neither Ц save to do the greatest thing for you that ever woman did for man! That shall be my revenge."

CHAPTER XLV.
VALENTINE FINDS CLAIRE WORTHY

The mornings are fair Ц yes, very sweet and very clear at the Mas of the Mountain well-nigh all the year round. However hot the day, however mosquito-tormented the nights for those who do not protect themselves, the morn is ever fresh, with deep draughts of air cool as long-cellared wine, and everywhere the scent of springy, low-growing plants Ц the thyme, the romarin, the juniper Ц making an undergrowth which supports the foot of the wanderer, and carries him on league after league almost without his knowledge.

There was great peace on the Valley of the Rhone. It was at peace even from the drive of the eternal mistral, which, from horizon to horizon, turns all things greyish-white, the trees and herbage heavy with dust, and the heavens hiding themselves away under a dry steely pall.


"Avenio ventoso,
Si non ventoso, venenoso,"

muttered the Professor, as he looked at the black mass to the north, which was the Palace of the Popes. "But I thank God it is windy, this Rhone Valley of ours, with its one great, sweeping, cleansing wind, so that no poison can lurk anywhere."

He had a book in his hand, and he was looking abroad over the wide valley between the grey ridges of the Mountain of Barbentane and the little splintered peaks of the Alpilles. As on the landscape, great peace was upon the Professor.

But all suddenly, without noise of approach, Jean-aux-Choux stood before him Ц changed, indeed, from him who had been called "The Fool of the Three Henries." The fire of a strange passion glowed in his eye. His great figure was hollowed and ghastly. His regard seemed to burn like a torch that smokes. On the back of his huge hand the muscles stood out like whipcords. His arms, bare beneath his shepherd's cape, were burned to brick colour.

"Jean-aux-Choux!" cried the Professor, clapping his hands, "come and see my mother Ц how content she will be."

The ex-fool made a sign of negation.

"No, I cannot enter," he said; "there is a woman down in the valley there who would see Claire Agnew. She hath somewhat to say to her, which it concerns her greatly to know."

"Who is the woman?" demanded the Professor.

"I will vouch for her," said Jean-aux-Choux; "her name is nothing to you or to any man."

"But Claire Agnew's name and life concern me greatly," said the Professor hotly. "Had it been otherwise, I should even now have been in my class-room with my students at the Sorbonne!"

"In your grave more like Ц with Catherine and Guise and Henry of Valois!"

"Possibly," said the Professor tranquilly, "all the same I must know!"

"I vouch for the woman. She has come with me from Collioure," said Jean-aux-Choux. "Nevertheless, do you come also, and we will stand apart and watch while these two speak the thing which is in their hearts!"

"But she may be a messenger of the Inquisition," the Professor protested, whom hard experience had rendered suspicious in these latter days. "A dagger under the cloak is easy to carry!"

"Did I not tell you I would vouch for her?" thundered Jean-aux-Choux, the face of the slayer of Guise showing for the first time; "is not that enough?"

It was enough. Notwithstanding, the Professor armed himself with his sword-cane, and prepared to be of the company. They called Claire. She came forth to them with the flour of the bread-baking on her hands, gowned in white with the cook's apron and cap, which Madame Am?lie had made for her Ц a fair, gracious, household figure.

She had no suspicions. Someone wanted to speak with her. There Ц down by the olive plant! A woman Ц a single woman Ц come from far with tidings! Well, Jean-aux-Choux was with her. Good Jean Ц dear Jean!

Then, all suddenly, there sprang a vivid red to her cheek.

Could it be? News of the Abb? John. Ah, but why this woman? Why could not Jean-aux-Choux have brought the message himself?

And Claire quickened her step down towards the olives in the valley.

The two met, the girl and the woman Ц Claire, slender and dark, but with eyes young, and with colour bright Ц Valentine la Ni?a fuller and taller, in the mid-most flower of a superb beauty. Claire, fresh from the kitchen, showed an abounding energy in every limb. Sweet, gracious, happy, born to make others happy, the Woman of the Interior went to meet her Sister of the Exterior Ц of the life without a home. Valentine la Ni?a had her plans ready. She had thought deeply over what to say and what to do before she met Claire Agnew. She must look into the depths of the girl's soul.

"I am called Valentine la Ni?a," she said, speaking with slow distinctness, yet softly, "and I have come from very far to tell you that I love the Prince Jean d'Albret. I am of his rank, and I demand that you release him from any hasty bond or promise he may have made to you!"

The colour flushed to the cheek of Claire Agnew, a deep sustained flood of crimson, which, standing a moment at the full, ebbed slowly away.

"Did he send you to ask me that question Ц to make that request?" she demanded, her voice equally low and firm.

"I have come of my own accord," Valentine la Ni?a answered, "I speak for his sake and for yours. The release, which it is not fitting that he should ask Ц I, who am a king's daughter, laying aside my dignity, may well require!"

It was curious that Claire never questioned the truth of these statements. Had not the lady come with Jean-aux-Choux? Nevertheless, when she spoke, it was clearly and to the main issue.

"Jean d'Albret has made me no promise Ц I have given none to him. True, I know that he loved me. If he loves me no more, let him come himself and tell me so!"

"He cannot," said Valentine la Ni?a, "he is in prison. He has been on the Spanish galleys. He has suffered much Ц "

"It was for my sake, I know Ц all for my sake!" cried Claire, a burst of gladness triumphing in her voice. Valentine la Ni?a stopped and looked at her. If there had been only a light woman's satisfaction in one more proof of her power, she would never have gone on with what she came to do. But Valentine saw clearly, being one of the few who can judge their own sex. She watched Claire from under her long lashes, and the smile which hovered about the corners of her mouth was tender, sweet, and pitiful. Valentine la Ni?a was making up her mind.

"Well, let us agree that it was 'for your sake,'" she said. "Now it is your turn to do something for his. He is ill, in prison. If he is sent back to the galleys he will soon die of exposure, of torture, and of fatigue. If he, a prince of the House of France, weds with me, a daughter of the King of Spain, there will be peace. Great good will be done through all the world."

"I do not care Ц I do not care," cried Claire, "let him first come and tell me himself."

"But he cannot, I tell you," said the other quietly; "he is in the prison of Tarragona!"

"Well, then, let him write!" said Claire, "why does he not write?"

Valentine la Ni?a produced a piece of paper, and handed it to Claire without a word. It was in John d'Albret's clear, clerkly hand. Claire and he had capped verses too often together by the light of Madame Granier's pine-cones for any mistake. She knew it instantly.

"Whatever this lady says is true, and if you have any feeling in your heart for your father, or love for me, do as she bids you!

"Jean d'Albret de Bourbon."

Three times Claire read the message to make sure.

Then she spoke. "What do you wish me to do? I am ready!"

"You will give this man up to me?"

"He never was mine to give, but if he had been, he is free to go Ц because he wills it!"

"I put my life in danger for him now Ц every moment I stay here," said Valentine la Ni?a; "Jean-aux-Choux will tell you so. Will you walk to the gates of death with me to deliver him whom you love?"

"I will," said Claire, "I will obey you Ц that is, I will obey him through you!"

"This you do for the love you bear to the man whom you give up to me?"

"For what else?" cried Claire, the tears starting in her eyes. "Surely an honest girl may love a man? She may be ready even to give her life for him. But Ц she will not hold him against his will!"

"Then you will come with me to my father, the King of Spain?" Valentine persisted. "Perhaps Ц I do not know Ц he will pardon Jean d'Albret at our request Ц perhaps he will send us, all three, to the fires of the Inquisition. That also I do not know!"

"And I do not care!" cried Claire; "I will come!"

"For his sake alone?" queried Valentine, resolved to test the girl to the uttermost.

"For whose else?" cried Claire at last, exasperated; "not for yours, I suppose! Nor yet for mine own! I have been searched for by your Inquisition bloodhounds before now. He saved me from that!"

"And I Ц all of you!" said Valentine la Ni?a to herself. "But the price is somewhat heavy!"

Nevertheless, she had found Claire worthy.

CHAPTER XLVI.
KING AND KING'S DAUGHTER

Upon the high, black, slaty ledges of the Sierra of Guadarrama, winter descends early. Indeed, Pe?alara, looking down on the Escorial, keeps his snow-cap all the year. From the Dome of Philip the King, one may see in mid-August the snow-swirls greying his flanks and foot-hills almost to the limits of the convent domain.

It was now October, and along the splendid road which joins the little village of San Ildefonso to the Escorial, a sturdy cavalcade of horses and mules took its way Ц a carriers' convoy this, a muleteers' troop, not by any means a raffle of gay cavaliers.

"Ho, the Maragatos! Out of the way Ц the Maragatos!" shouted any that met them, over their shoulders. For that strange race from the flat lands of Astorga has the right of the highway Ц or rather, of the high, the low, and the middle way Ц wherever these exist in Spain. They are the carriers of all of value in the peninsula Ц assurance agents rather Ц stout-built men, curiously arrayed in leathern jerkins, belted broadly about the middle, and wearing white linen bragasЦ†a sort of cross between "breeks" and "kilt," coming a little above the knee. Even bandits think twice before meddling with one of these affiliated Maragatos. For the whole bees' byke of them would hunt down the robber band. The King's troops let them alone. The Maragatos have always had the favour of kings, and as often as not carry the King's own goods from port to capital far more safely than his own troopers. Only they do not hurry. They do not often ride their horses, which carry Ц carry Ц only carry, while their masters stride alongside, with quarter-staff, a two-foot spring-knife, and a pair of holster-pistols all ready primed for any emergency.

But in the midst of this particular cavalcade were two women riding upon mules. They were dressed, so far as the eye of the passer-by could observe, in the costume of all the Maragatas Ц dresses square-cut in the bodice, with chains and half-moons of silver tinkling on neck and forehead, while a long petticoat, padded in small diamond squares, fell to the points of their red Cordovan shoes. These Maragatas sat sideways on their mules and were completely silent.

It was not a warlike party to look at. Nevertheless, gay young cavaliers of the capital on duty at La Granja, who might have sought adventure had the ladies been protected only by guards in mail and plume, drew aside and whispered behind their hands as the Maragatas went by.

Now these women were probably the two fairest in Spain at that moment Ц being by denomination Claire Agnew and Valentine la Ni?a. In the rear a huge, vaguely misshapen giant in shepherd's dress Ц fleece-coat and cap of wolf-skin, with the ears sticking out quaintly on either side, herded the entire party. He seemed to be assuring himself that it was not followed or spied upon.

Beneath them, in the grey of the mist, as they turned a corner of the blue-black Sierra, there suddenly loomed up the snow-sprinkled roofs of a vast building Ц palace, monastery, tomb Ц what not. It was the Escorial, built by Philip of Spain to commemorate the famous victory of St. Quentain, and completed just in time to receive, as a cold water baptism, the news of the defeat of his Great Armada.

The pile of the Escorial seemed too huge to be wrought by man Ц a part of the mountain rather, hewn by giant hands into domes and doors and fantastic pinnacles. Indeed, the grey snow-showers, mere scufflings of sleet and hail, drifting low and ponderous, treated it as part of the Sierra, one moment whitening it Ц then, the sun coming out with Spanish fierceness for a few minutes, lo! vast roofs of blue slate would show through, glistening like polished steel.

And a king dwelt there Ц not discrowned, but still the mightiest on the earth. In spite of his defeats, in spite of his solitude, his broken purposes, his doubtful future, his empty exchequer, his ruined health, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death opening before him, there was nothing on earth Ц not pope nor prelate, not unscrupulous queen nor victorious fleet, not even the tempests which had blown his great Armada upon the inhospitable rocks of Ireland Ц that could subdue his stubborn will. He warred for Holy Church against the Pope. He claimed the throne of France from the son of Saint Louis. Once King of England, he held the title to the last, and in defence of it broke his power against the oaken bulwarks of that stiff-necked isle.

In his youth a man of as many marriages, secret and open, as Henry VIII. himself, he had been compelled to imprison and perhaps to suppress his son Don Carlos. The English ambassadors found him a man of domestic virtues. Yet the sole daughter who cherished him he sacrificed in a moment to his dynastic projects. And the other? Well, there is something to be said concerning that other.

Philip II. dwelt in the Escorial as in a fenced city. But Valentine la Ni?a had a master-key to unlock all doors. The next morning very early Ц for the King rose and donned his monk's robe in the twilight, stealing to his place in the stalls like any of his Jeronomite fellows Ц the two found their way along the vast corridors to the tiny royal chambers, bare of comfort as monastic cells, but loaded with petitions, reports, and letters from the four corners of the earth.

"Tell the King that Valentine la Ni?a, Countess of Astorga, would see him!"

And at that word the royal confessor, who had come to interview them, grew suddenly ashen pale in the scant light of a covered morning, as if the granite of the court in which they stood had been reflected in his face.

He made a low reverence and withdrew without a word.

At last the two girls were at the door of the King's chamber Ц a closet rather than a room. Philip was seated at his desk, his gouty foot on the eternal leg-rest, a ghastly picture of St. Lawrence over his head, and a great crucifix in ivory and silver nailed upon the wall, just where the King's eyes would rest upon it each time he lifted his head.

Claire took in the outward appearance of the mighty monarch who had been but a name to her up to this moment. He looked not at all like the "Demon of the South" of her imagination.

A little fair man, in appearance all a Flamand of the very race he despised, a Flamand of the Flamands His blue eyes were already rheumy and filmed with age, and when he wished to see anything very clearly he had a trick of covering the right eye with his hand, thrusting his head forward, and peering short-sightedly with the other. His hair, though white, retained some of the saffron bloom which once had marked him in a crowd as the white panache served the Bearnais. His beard, dirty white also, was straggling and tufted, as if in secret hours of sorrow it had been plucked out, Oriental fashion, by the roots.

"My father," said Valentine la Ni?a, looking at him straight and fearlessly, "I have come to bid you a good morning. My uncle of Astorga would have come too, but he prays in his canon's stall in the cathedral of Leon for his near and dear 'parent,' your Majesty."

The King rose slowly from his chair. His glabrous face showed no emotion.

"Aid me, my daughter," he said, "I would look in your face."

As he rose, his short-sighted eyes caught the dim silhouette of Claire standing behind. All a-tremble from head to foot, he stopped short in what he was about to say.

"And who may that be?" he demanded, in the thick, half-articulate mumble which so many ambassadors found a difficulty in understanding.



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