Samuel Crockett.

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



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"A maid of Scotland, for whom I have come to ask a favour," answered Valentine la Ni?a.

"Ah," said the King, as one who all his life had had knowledge of such requests. But without further question he took Valentine la Ni?a by the hand and led her to the window, so that the grey light, half-reflected from the clay-muddy sky, and half from the snowy courtyard, might strike directly upon her face.

"Isabel Osorio's daughter Ц yes!" he said very low, "herself indeed!"

"The lawful daughter of your lawful wife," said the girl, "also an obedient daughter. For I have done ever what you wished me Ц save only in one thing. And that Ц that Ц I am now ready to do, on one condition."

"Ah," said the King again, pulling at his beard, "now aid me to sit down again, my daughter. We will talk."

"Aye," the girl answered, "we will talk Ц you and I. You and I have not talked much in my life. I have always obeyed Ц you Ц my uncle of Astorga Ц Mariana of the Ges?. For that reason I am alive Ц I am free Ц there is still a place for me in the world. But I know Ц you have told me Ц Isabel Osorio's brother himself has told me, that I too must sacrifice myself for your other and younger children, the sons and daughters of princesses. You have often asked me Ц indeed bidden me to enter a nunnery. The Jesuits have made me great promises. For what? That I might leave the way clear for others Ц I, the King's eldest-born Ц I, whom you dare not deny of blood as good as your own, a daughter of the Osorio who fought at Clavijo shoulder to shoulder with Santiago himself."

"I do not deny," said the King softly, "you have done a good work. But the Faith hath need of you. To it you consecrate your mother's beauty as I have consecrated my life Ц "

"Yes," said the girl, "but first you lived your life Ц you did not yield it up on the threshold Ц unlived."

Silently Philip crossed himself, raising his thick swollen fingers from the rosary which hung about his neck as low as his waist.

"Then why have you come," he said, again resuming the steady fingering of his beads, "when you have not thought it fitting to obey, save upon condition? One does not play the merchant with one's father."

"I have been too young Ц yes," she broke out, her voice hurrying in fear of interruption Ц "too like my mother Ц ah, even you cannot reproach me with that!†Ц to bury myself under a veil, with eternal walls shutting me in on every side. I have served you well. I have served the Society Ц I have done your will, my father Ц save only in this."

"And now," said the King drily, "you have returned to a better mind?"

"I have," said Valentine, "on conditions!"

"Again I warn you I do not bargain," said the King, "my will is my will. Refuse or submit. I make no terms."

The girl flashed into fire at the word.

"Ah, but you must," she cried. "I am no daughter of Flanders Ц no Caterina de Lainez to be shut up with the Ursulines of Brussels against my will.

I am an Osorio of the Osorios. The brother of my mother will protect me. And behind him all Astorga and Leon would rise to march upon Madrid if any harm befell me. I bargain because it is my right Ц because I can stand between your children and their princely thrones Ц because I can prove your marriage no marriage Ц because, without my consent and that of my brothers Pedro and Bernardino, you had never either been King of England nor left children to sit in the seat of Charles your father. But neither they nor I have asked for aught save life from your hands. We have effaced ourselves for the kingdom's good and yours. A king of Spain may not marry a subject, but you married my mother Ц your friend's sister. Now will you bargain or no?"

"I will listen," said Philip grimly; "place my foot-rest a little nearer me, my daughter."

The calmness of the King immediately reacted on Valentine la Ni?a.

"Listen, my father," she said, "there are in your galleys at Tarragona two men Ц one of them the father of this young Scottish girl Ц the other, her Ц her betrothed. Pardon them. Let them depart from the kingdom Ц "

"Their crime?" interrupted the King.

"They were delivered over by the fathers of the Inquisition," said Valentine, less certainly.

"Then it is heresy," said the King. "I can forgive anything but that!"

"For one and the other," said the girl, "their heresy consists in good honest fighting, outside of your Majesty's kingdom Ц against the Guisard League. They are not your subjects, and were found in your province of Roussillon only by chance."

"Ah, in Roussillon?" said Philip thoughtfully. And picking up a long pole like the butt of a fishing-rod furnished with a pair of steel nippers like a finger-and-thumb at the top, he turned half round to an open cabinet of many pigeon-holes, where were bundles innumerable of papers all arranged and neatly tied. The pincers clicked, and the King, with a smile of triumph at his little piece of dexterity, withdrew half-a-dozen folded sheets.

"Yes, I have heard," he said, "the men you commanded my Viceroy to remove from the galleys and to place in Pilate's House at Tarragona Ц a young Sorbonnist whom once before you allowed to escape at Perpignan, and the Scottish spy Francis Agnew."

"My father," began Claire, catching the name, but only imperfectly understanding the Castilian which they were speaking Ц "my father is Ц "

But Valentine la Ni?a stopped her with an imperious gesture of the hand. It was her affair, the movement said.

The King shook his head gravely and a little indulgently.

"My daughter," he said, "you have taken too much on yourself already. And my Viceroy in Catalonia is also to blame Ц "

"Pardon me," cried Valentine la Ni?a, "and listen. This is what I came to say. There is in your city of Madrid a convent of the Carmelites, the same which Theresa reformed. It is strictly cloistered, the rule serene, austere. Those who enter there have done with life. Give these two men their liberty, escort them to France, and I promise you I will enter it of my own free will. I will take the Black Veil, and trouble neither you nor your heirs more in this world."

The King did not answer immediately, but continued to turn over the sheaf of papers in his hand.

"And why," he said at last, "will you do for this maid Ц for the lives of these two men, what no persuasion of family or Church could previously persuade you to do?"

Valentine went hastily up to the King's side who, dwelling in perpetual fear of assassination, moved a little uneasily, watching her hand. But when she bent and whispered softly, none heard her words but himself. Yet they moved him.

"Yes, I loved her Ц the wife of my youth!" he answered aloud (and as if speaking involuntarily) the whispered question.

"And she loved you?" said Valentine la Ni?a.

"She loved me Ц yes Ц God be her judge!" said the King. "She died for me!"

"Then," continued Valentine la Ni?a slowly, "you understand why for this young man's sake I am willing to accept death in life! I desire that he shall wed the woman he loves Ц whom he has chosen Ц who loves him!"

But under her breath she added, "Though not as I!"

And Valentine la Ni?a took the King's hand in hers, and motioned to Claire to come near and kiss it.

But Claire, kneeling, kissed that of Valentine la Ni?a instead.

Then, for the first time in many years, a tear lay upon the cheek of the King of Spain, wondering mightily at itself.

CHAPTER XLVII.
GREAT LOVE Ц AND GREATER

Now this is the explanation of these things.

In his hot youth, Philip, son of the great Emperor, had wedded in secret his comrade's sister, that comrade being one of the richest and most ancient nobles of his kingdom, Osorio, Marquis of Astorga. But by a miracle of abnegation, Isabel Osorio had stood aside, her brother and the full family council approving her act, in order that her husband, and the father of her three children, should add Portugal, and afterwards England, to his Spanish domains.

Therefore, from the point of view of dynasty, the Osorios of Astorga held the succession of the kingdom of Spain in their hands. At the least they could have produced a bloody war, which would have rent Spain from one end to the other, on behalf of the succession of Isabel Osorio's children. Therefore it had been the main purpose of Philip to keep them all unmarried. The sons, Pierre and Bernardino, he had severally made priors of great Flemish and Italian monasteries. Only Valentine la Ni?a he had never been able to dispose of according to his will. Now he had her word. No wonder that the King slept more soundly that night.

After all, what did it matter to him if a couple of heretics escaped Ц if only Valentine la Ni?a were once safely cloistered within the house of the Carmelites of El Parral. It cannot be denied, however, that a thought of treachery passed across the royal Ц oh, so little royal Ц mind.

"Afterwards?" he murmured "But no Ц that would not do. I must keep my word Ц a painful necessity, but a necessity. The Osorios of Astorga are too powerful. To spite me, Valentine might return to the world. And the Pope would be glad enough to embroil the succession of Spain, in the interests of the Milanais and his own Italian provinces."

After all, better to keep his word! So, satiated with well-doing and well-intending, the King said a prayer, clicked his beads, and as he turned towards the slit in his bedroom through which he could see the high altar, he thanked God that he was not as other men. He could forgive. He could fulfil. Nay, he would go himself and witness the ceremony of the Black Veil Ц to make sure that his daughter really became the bride of Holy Church. And to this end he sent certain orders to Tarragona.

Philip II. had a natural eye for artistic effect. He would, indeed, have preferred to send the inconvenient Valentine willy-nilly to a convent. He would have delighted to arrange the details of the funeral pyre of these two dangerous heretics, John d'Albret and Francis the Scot. It would have cost him nothing, even, to permit the piquant young beauty of Claire Agnew to perish with the rest.

But Valentine la Ni?a had posed her conditions most carefully. The Marquis, her near kinsman, had come specially from Leon, with many gentlemen of the province in his train. For, though never insisted on, the nativity of Valentine was no secret for the grandees of her own province.

The chapel of the Convent of the Carmelites on the Parral of Madrid had been arranged by Philip's orders for a great ceremonial. He attended to the matter in person, for nothing was too great or too little for him.

A sweet sound of chanting was heard, and from behind the tall iron bars of the coro the spectators, as they assembled, could dimly see the forms of the cloistered nuns Ц of that Carmelite Order, the most austere in Spain, no one of whom would ever again look upon the face of man.

There before an altar, dressed for the occasion, and in presence of the King, Claire and John d'Albret stood hand in hand. There they exchanged their vows, with many onlookers, but with one sole maid of honour. And when it was demanded, as is customary, "Who giveth this woman?" the tall figure of Francis Agnew, bent and bearded, took his daughter's hand and placed it in that of Valentine, who, herself arrayed like another bride, all in white, with lace and veil, stood by Claire's side. Valentine la Ni?a looked once, a long, holding look, into the eyes of John d'Albret. Then she took the hand of the bride and placed it in his. The officiating priest said no word.

For, indeed, it was she who had given this woman to this man Ц more, too, she had given him her own life.

King Philip looked on, sternly smiling, from the stall which, as a canon of Leon, was his right. Now, however, he had laid aside his monk's dress, and was arrayed royally, as became the first cavalier of Spain. What the King was really waiting for came later.

Valentine la Ni?a retired to a tiring-room where, the first ceremonies accomplished, her splendid hair was cut close, and she was attired in the white and brown of the Order of the Carmelites. Then the final black veil was thrown over her head. She came forth with her sponsors Ц two cardinal-archbishops in the splendid array of their rank as princes of the Church. The chant from the choir rose high and clear. Behind the black bars the cloistered nuns, their veils about their faces, clustered closer. The wedding-party had drawn back, John d'Albret standing in the midst, with Claire on his arm, clinging close and sobbing Ц for the debt which another had paid. The procession of priests passed slowly back down the aisle. Valentine was left kneeling before the altar with only her sponsors on either side.

"Sister Maria of the Renunciation!"

The Archbishop of Toledo proclaimed the new name of this latest bride of Holy Church. Claire whispered, "What is it? Oh, what does it mean? I do not understand!"

For the Protestant and foreigner can never understand the awfulness of that sacrifice. Even now it did not seem real to Claire. Surely, oh, surely she was walking in a vain show. Soon she must awake from this dream and find Valentine by her side, as she had been for weeks past.

But, in the midst of the solemn chant, the black gratings of iron opened. The nuns could be seen kneeling on either side, their heads bowed almost to the ground. Only the abbess came forward, a tall old woman, groping and tottering, her bony hand scarce able to find its way through the dense folds of her veil.

She stretched out her hand, feeling this way and that, like a creature of the dark blinded by the light. The two cardinals delivered the new sister of the Order into her charge. This was done silently. The sound of Claire's sobs could be heard distinctly.

But ere the tall iron gratings shut together, ere the interrupted chant lifted itself leisurely out of the silence, ere the groping hands of the old blind abbess could grasp hers, Valentine la Ni?a had turned once more to look her last on the world she was leaving.

Her eyes searched for and met those of John d'Albret. And if soul ever spoke to soul these were the words they said to him, "This I have done for you!"

The huge barred doors creaked and rasped their way back, shutting with a clank of jarring iron, not to be again opened till another sister entered that living tomb.

Dimly the files of phantom Carmelites could be seen receding farther and farther towards the high altar. The chant sank to a whisper. Valentine la Ni?a was no more for this world.

With a choking sob Claire fell into her husband's arms.

"God make me worthy!" she whispered, holding very close.

AFTER THE CURTAIN

In the Mas of the Mountain the olive logs were piled high. The mistral of November made rage outside. But those who gathered round were well content. Claire sat by Dame Am?lie's knee, her hand in her father's, her husband watching her proudly.

There were the three brothers, to all appearance not a day older Ц the Professor with a huge Pliny on his knee, the miller with the lines of farina-dust back again in the crow's feet about his eyes, and Don Jordy, who had taken up the succession of a notary's office in Avignon, which is a great city for matters and quarrels ecclesiastical, being Papal territory of the strictest: he also throve.

The three were telling each other for the thousandth time how glad they were to be free and bachelors. Thus they had none to consider but themselves. The world was open and easy before them. Nothing was more light than the heart of a woman Ц nothing heavier than that of a man saddled with a wife. In short, the vine having been swept clean, the grapes had become very, very sour.

All this in natural pleasantry, while Dame Am?lie interrupted them with her ever-new rejoinder.

"They are slow Ц slow, my sons," she murmured, patting the head of Claire which touched her side Ц "slow, but good lads. Only Ц they will be dead before they are married!"

Into the quietly merry circle came Jean-aux-Choux. He brought great news.

"The Bearnais has beaten Mayenne and bought the others!" he cried; "France will be a quiet land for many days Ц no place for Jean-aux-Choux. So I will hie me to the Prince of Orange, and there seek some good fighting for the Religion! Will you come with me, Francis Agnew, as in the days before the Bartholomew?"

But the worn man shook his head.

"I have been too long at the oar, Jean-aux-Choux!" he said. "Moreover, I am too old. When I see these young folk settled in that which the Bearnais hath promised them, I have a thought to win back and lay this tired tickle of bones in good Wigtonshire mould Ц somewhere within sough of the Back Shore of the Solway, where the waves will sing me to sleep at nights! Come back with me, John Stirling, and we will eat oaten cakes and tell old tales!"

"Not I," cried Jean-aux-Choux, "I go where the fighting is Ц where the weapon-work is to be done. I shall die on a battle-field Ц or on the scaffold. But on the shore of mine own land will I not set a foot, unless" Ц he paused a moment as if the more surely to launch his phrase of denunciation Ц "unless the Woman-clad-in-Scarlet, Mother of Abominations, returns thither in her power! Then and then alone will John Stirling (called Jean-aux-Choux) tread Scottish earth."

So, without a good-bye, Jean-aux-Choux went out into the night and the storm, his great piked staff thrust before him, and the firelight from the sparkling olive-roots gleaming red on the brass-bound sheath of the dagger which had been wet with the blood of Guise.

Then the Professor, looking across at the lovers, who had drawn together in the semi-obscurity, murmured to himself, "Which is better Ц to love or to go lonely? Which is happier Ц John d'Albret Ц or I? Who hath better served the Lord Ц Valentine the cloistered Carmelite, or Jean-aux-Choux the Calvinist, gone forth into the world to fight after his fashion the fight of faith?"

Then aloud he said, speaking so suddenly that every one in the comfortable kitchen started, "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth!"

Without, Jean-aux-Choux faced the storm and was happy. Within, the lovers sat hand in hand in a great peace, and were happy also. And in her narrow cell, who shall say that Valentine la Ni?a had not also some happiness? She had given her life for another.

THE END

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