Samuel Crockett.

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



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The Duke's brow darkened. He put his hand quickly to his gold-hilted rapier.

"Ah, pray do," sneered the Abb? John; "follow your inclination. Let the bright steel out. Get a man to hold our horses, and – have at you, my good Gascon!"

By this time the Duke d'Epernon's gentlemen were spurring angrily forward, but he halted them with a wave of his hand, without turning round in his saddle or taking his eyes off John's face.

"What is your name?" he demanded, his brows twitching so quickly that the eye could scarce follow their movements.

"I am John d'Albret, nephew of the Cardinal Bourbon and – "

"Cousin of the Bearnais?" sneered the Duke, his eye glittering.

"Student at the Sorbonne!" said the Abb? John firmly. "All the same, if clerk I am, I am no poor clerk, and so you will find me – if, waiving my royal blood, I consent to put my steel to yours upon the sward. Come, down with you – and fall on!"

Now the Duke d'Epernon was anything rather than a coward. He made a motion as if to dismount, and there is little doubt but that his intention was to match his long-trained skill and success as a swordsman against the Abb? John's mastery of the latest science of sword-play learned in the Paris salles.

But suddenly D'Epernon checked himself. Then he laughed.

"No," he said; "after all, why should we fight? We may need each other one day, and there is no honour in killing a bantam, even if he hath a left-hand strain of kingly blood in him!"

"Left-hand!" cried the Abb? John: "you lie in your throat. My blood is infinitely more dexter than your own, and I make a better use of it! I am no mignon, at least."

Now this was a bitter taunt indeed, and even the tanned face of the King's warlike favourite flushed.

"As to mignons," he said, "you look much more like one yourself, young cockerel. I have overly many scars on my cheeks for the trade. And this is, I presume, your sister – to judge by the resemblance?" The Duke turned to Claire, who had been looking at him with a certain involuntary admiration. "What, no? Your niece, you say, my good Sorbonnist? I am not sure but that, as a strict Catholic, I must object. The age is scarce canonical!"

"I am no priest," said Doctor Anatole, roughly, for this touched him on the raw. "I am only the Professor of Eloquence attached to the faculty of philosophy. And I have the honour to inform you that I travel with my niece, to put her under the care of my mother at her house near to Collioure, in Roussillon."

"What!" cried the Duke, "now here is another of the suspicions which awake in the mind of the most guileless of men. Here we have a Bourbon, next-of-kin to the Cardinal himself, together with a Professor of the Sorbonne (that hotbed of sedition), travelling towards the dominions of the Demon of the South – of Philip of Spain! As a good subject, how am I to know that you are not on your way to stir up another rebellion against the King my master?"

It was then that Claire spoke for the first time.

"Sir," she said quietly, but looking full at the Duke with her eyes – dark green eyes the colour of jade, with little golden flashlets floating about in them, "I vouch for my friends.

They are loyal and peaceful; I who speak am the only Huguenot. You can take and burn me if you like!"

The great Duke d'Epernon stood a moment aghast, as if the hunted hare had turned upon him in defiance. Then he slid off his helmet, and saluted, bareheaded.

"Ma belle damoselle," he said, "you may be the niece of a Doctor of the Sorbonne and at the same time a Huguenot. These are good reasons enough for carrying you to the castle of His Majesty. But be comforted – we are not as Philip of Spain, our enemy. We do not burn pretty brave maids such as you!"

It was then that Jean-aux-Choux forced himself forward on his big, blundering Spanish mare, driving between a couple of cavaliers, and sending them right and left like ninepins.

"Great Duke," he said, "you would do well to let us go on our way. You talk much of His Majesty – I ask you which. You have served the 'Bearnais' – you will serve him again. Even now you have cast an anchor to windward. It sticks firmly in the camp of the Bearnais, not far from that King's tent."

Duke d'Epernon turned on Jean-aux-Choux his fierce, dark eyes.

"It seems to me that I have seen you before, my churl of the carroty locks," he said; "were you not at the King's last fooling in the Louvre?"

"Aye," said Jean, "that I was, and in a certain window-seat behind a certain curtain I gave your Dukeship a certain letter – "

"It is enough," muttered the Duke, waving his hand hastily. "I am on my way to Angoul?me, which is my government. Come all of you with me to Blois, and there abide quietly in a house till I return to salute the King. The Estates meet in the late autumn, and if things go as it seems likely after this Day of the Barricades, we may need your blood royal, my excellent Clerk d'Albret – your best wisdom, my good and eloquent Professor – your rarest quips, my merry scarecrow – and, as for you, little lady, my newly-wed wife Marguerite will not be sorry to have a companion so frank and charming among the fading blossoms and over-ripe fruit of the court of the Queen-mother!"

"My lord," said the Professor, "I fear that I have not time to wait upon the King. I must go to visit my mother, and carry this maid with me!"

The Duke smiled.

"I am not demanding your learned preferences, most eloquent Professor," he said; "I am taking you into safe keeping in the name of the King. After all, I am not an ignorant man, and I know well that it was a certain Doctor Anatole Long who, in the full concourse of the Sorbonne, voted alone for the rights of the Valois. Give the King, therefore, a chance of voicing his thanks. Also, since the King is at Chartres and I must speed to Angoul?me, I will leave you at Blois in good and comfortable keeping with the young damsel, your niece, taking with me only this young man, that he may see some good Leaguer fighting. He hath been, I dare say, on the Barricades himself. It is permitted to his age to be foolish. But he has never yet seen a full-grown, raw-hide, unwashen Catholic Leaguer. Let him come to Angoul?me with me, and I will warrant to improve his sword-play for him! Close up, gentlemen of my guard! To Blois! Ride, accommodating your pace to mine, as I shall do mine to that of the palfrey of the new lady companion of Marguerite of Foix, whom I have the honour to love!"

He lifted his gloved hand, and from the fingers blew a kiss in the direction of the north, daintily as a girl upon a high terrace to a lover over the sea.

And so by the river-side, in the golden light of the afternoon, they rode forward to Blois.

In the rear Jean-aux-Choux continued to mutter to himself, trudging heavily along on his Flanders mare, laden with cloaks and provend, "'Tis all very well – very well – but what does his golden dukeship propose to do with me? I will not leave my little mistress alone in a strange city, and with a man who, though ten times a professor at the Sorbonne, is no more kin to her than I am to this fat-fetlocked Flemish brute."

He pondered a little, dropping gradually behind. But as soon as they had passed the gates of the city, he guided his beast into the first little alley, letting the cavalcade go on, amid much craning of necks from the windows, towards the royal pavilion where D'Epernon was to lodge.

"I will seek out Anthony Arpajon, that good man of the Faith," he said. "He has a stable down by the water-side, and being a lover of the learned, he will give me bite and sup for teaching him some scraps of Greek wherewith to puzzle the wandering Lutheran pastors. For a Calvinist stark is Anthony, and only wants a head-piece like mine to be a clever man. But he hath an arm and a purse. And for the rest, I will load him up with the best of Greek, and also teach him to read the Institutions of John Calvin, my first and greatest master!"

So through the narrow streets of Blois he made his great mare push herself lumberingly, crying out whenever there was a crowd or a busy street to cross, "Hoo! hoo! hoo! Make way for the King's fool – for Jean-aux-Choux – for the fool – the King's fool!"

CHAPTER XI.
THE BEST-KNOWN FACE IN THE WORLD

Jean-aux-Choux dismounted from his Flanders mare at the entrance of a wide courtyard, littered with coaches and carriages, the best of these being backed under a sort of penthouse, but the commoner sort set out in the yard to take the bitter weather with the sweet. Some had their "trams" pitifully uplifted to heaven in wooden protestation against such ill-treatment; some wept tears of cracked pitch because the sun had been too much with them. Leathern aprons of ancient diligences split and seamed with alternate rain and drought. Everywhere there was a musty smell of old cushion-stuffing. A keen whiff of stables wandered past. Not far off one heard the restless nosing of horses in their mangers, and from yet another side came the warm breath of kine.

For Master Anthony Arpajon was a bien man, a man of property, and so far the Leaguers of Blois had not been able to prevail against him. In the courtyard, stretched at length on sacks of chaff, their heads on their corn-bags, with which, doubtless, on the morrow they would entertain their beasts by the way, many carters and drivers of high-piled wine-chariots were asleep.

The lower part of Master Anthony's house was a sort of free hostel, like the caravanserai of the East. The upper, into which no stranger was permitted to enter on any pretext, was like a fortified town.

To the left of the entrance, a narrow oblong break in the wall made a sort of rude buffet. Sections of white-aproned, square-capped cooks could be seen moving about within. Through the gap they served the simpler hot meats, bottles of wine, bread, omelettes, and salads to the arriving guests. It was curious that each, on going first to the barrier, threw the end of his blue Pyrenean waist-band over his shoulder. A little silver cow-bell, tied like a tassel to the silk, tinkled as he did so.

For this was the chosen sign of the men of Bearn. All the warring Protestants, and especially the Calvinists of the south, had adopted it, because it was the symbol of the arms of Bearn. And wherever it was unsafe to wear the White Plume of the hero on the cap, as in the town of Blois, it was easy to tuck the silver cow-bell of King Henry under the silken sash, where its tinkling told no tales.

But among these wine-carriers and free folk of the roads there was scarcely one who did not know Jean-aux-Choux. Yet they did not laugh as he entered, but rather greeted him respectfully, as one who plays well his part, though he came in shouting at the top of his voice, "Way for the fool of fools – the fool of three kings – and not so great a fool as any one of them!"

One man came forward, speaking the drawling speech of Burgundy, all liquid "l's" and slurred "r's," and with a clumsy salute took the Jester's beast. Many of the others rose to their feet and made their reverences according to their kind, clumsy or clever. Others whispered quietly, passing round the news of his arrival.

For the fool had come to his own. He was no more Jean-aux-Choux, the King's fool, but Master John Stirling, a Benjamin of the Benjaminites, and pupil of John Calvin himself.

The white-capped man behind the bar opened carefully a little door, and as instantly closed it behind Jean.

He pointed up a narrow stair which turned and was lost to sight in the thickness of the wall.

"You will find them at prayers," he muttered. "He is there."

"Kings are in His hand," responded Jean-aux-Choux, setting a foot on the first worn step of the narrow stair-case; "the Lord of Battles preserve him from the curs that yelp about his feet."

There came to Jean a sound of singing – sweet, far away, wistful, a singing not made for the chanting of choirs or the clamour of organs, but for folk hiding on housetops, in dens and caves of the earth – soft singing, with the enemy deadly and near at hand. The burden of their melody was that thirty-seventh Psalm which once on a time Clement Marot had risked his life to print.

 
"Wait on the Lord! Meekly thy burden bear;
Commit to Him thyself and thine affair!
In Him trust thou, and He will bring to pass
All that thou wouldst accomplish and compass.
Thy loss is gain – such is His equity,
Each of His own He guards eternally.
This lesson also learn —
He clasps thee closer as the days grow stern."
 

Jean opened the door. It was a long, black, oak-ceiled room into which he looked. There were perhaps a score of Huguenots present, all standing up, with Marot's little volume of the Trente Psaumes in their hands. A pastor in Geneva gown and bands stood at a table head, upon which a few great folios had been heaped to form a rude pulpit.

Beside him, not singing, but holding his psalter with a certain weary reverence, was a man with a face the best-known in all the world. And certainly Henry of Navarre never looked handsomer than in the days when pretty Gabrielle of the house of D'Estrees played with fire, calling her Huguenot warrior, "His Majesty of the Frosty Beard."

Such a mingling of kindliness, of humour bland and finely tolerant, of temper quick and high, of glorious angers, of swift, proud sinnings and repentances as swift, of great eternal destinies and human frailties, never was seen on any man's face save this.

It was "The Bearnais" – it was Henry of Navarre himself.

So long as the singing went on Jean-aux-Choux stood erect like the rest. Then all knelt at the prayer – the King also with them – on the hard floor under that low, black pent-roof, while the pastor prayed to the God of Sabaoth for the long-hoped-for victory of "His Own."

Beside "His Own" knelt Jean-aux-Choux, a look of infinite solemnity on his face, while the grave Genevan "cult" went quietly on, as if there had not been a Catholic or an enemy within fifty miles. The minister ceased. The King, without lingering on his knees as did the others, rose rapidly, mechanically dusting his black cloth breeches and even the rough carter's stockings which covered his shapely calves.

He sighed sadly, as his keen, quick-glancing eyes passed over the kneeling forms of the Huguenots. He did not take very kindly to the lengthy services and plain-song ritual of those whom he led as never soldiers had been led before.

"Hal Guise hath the Religion,

While I need absolution."

The Bearnais hummed one of the camp songs made against himself by his familiar Gascons, which always afforded him the most amusement – next, that is, to that celebrated one which recounted his successes on other fields than those of war. They were bold rascals, those Gascons of his, but they followed him well, and, after all, their idea of humour was his own.

"Ha, long red-man," he called out presently, when all had risen decently from their knees, "you made sport for us at Nerac, I remember, and then went to my good brother-in-law's court in the suite of Queen Marguerite. What has brought you here?"

A tall man, dark and slim, leaned over and whispered in the King's ear.

"Ah," said the Bearnais, nodding his head, "I remember the reports. They were most useful. But the fellow is a scholar, then?"

"He is of Geneva," said the man at the King's ear, "and is learned in Latin and Greek, also in Hebrew!"

"No wonder he does his business with credit" – the King smiled as he spoke; "there is no fool like a learned fool!"

With his constant good humour and easy ways with all and sundry, Henry of Navarre stepped forward and clapped Jean-aux-Choux on the shoulder.

"Go and talk to the pastor, D'Aubign?," said the King to his tall, dark companion; "I and this good fellow will chat awhile. Sit down, man. I am not Harry of Navarre to-night, but Waggoner Henri in from Coutras with some barrels of Normandy cider. Do you happen to know a customer?"

"Ay, that do I," answered Jean-aux-Choux, fixing his eyes on the strong, soldierly face of the Bearnais, "one who has just arrived in this town, and may have some customs' dues to levy on his own liquor."

"And who may that be?" demanded the King.

"The Governor of Normandy," Jean answered – "he and no other!"

"What – D'Epernon?" cried the Bearnais, really taken by surprise this time.

"I have just left his company," said Jean; "he has with him many gentlemen, the Professor of Eloquence at the Sorbonne, the nephew of the Cardinal Bourbon – "

"What, my cousin John the pretty clerk?" laughed Henry.

"He drives a good steel point," said Jean-aux-Choux; "it were a pity to make him a holy water sprinkler. I was too ugly to be a pastor. He is too handsome for a priest!"

"We will save him," said the Bearnais; "when our poor old Uncle of the Red Hat dies, they will doubtless try to make a king of this springald."

"He vows he would much rather carry a pike in your levies," said Jean-aux-Choux. "It is a brave lad. He loves good hard knocks, and from what I have seen, also to be observed of ladies!"

The Bearnais laughed a short, self-contemptuous laugh. "I fear we shall quarrel then, Cousin John and I," he said; "one Bourbon is enough in a camp where one must ride twenty miles to wave a kerchief beneath a balcony!"

"Also," continued Jean-aux-Choux, "there is with them my dear master's daughter, Mistress Claire – "

"What, Francis Agnew's daughter?" The King's voice grew suddenly kingly.

Jean nodded.

"Then he is dead – my Scot – my friend? When? How? Out with it, man!"

"The Leaguers or the King's Swiss shot him dead the Day of the Barricades – I know not which, but one or the other!"

The fine gracious lines of the King's face hardened. The Bearnais lifted his "boina," or flat white cap, which he had resumed at the close of worship, as was his right.

"They shall pay for this one day," he said; "Valois, King, and Duke of Guise – what is it they sing? Something about

'The Cardinal and Henry and Mayenne, Mayenne!'

If I read the signs of the times aright, the King of France will do Henry of Guise's business one of these days, while I shall have Mayenne on my hands. At any rate, poor Francis Agnew shall not go unavenged, wag the world as it will."

These were not the highest ideals of the Nazarene. But they suited a warring Church, and Henry of Navarre only voiced what was the feeling of all, from D'Aubign? the warrior to the pastor who sat in a corner by himself, thumbing his little Geneva Bible. There was no truce in this war. The League or the Bearnais! Either of the two must rule France. The present king, Henry of Valois, was a merry, sulky, careless, deceitful, kindly, cruel cipher – the "man-woman," as they named him, the "gamin" – king. He laughed and jested – till he could safely thrust his dagger into his enemy's back. But as for his country, he could no more govern it than a puppet worked by strings.

"And this girl?" said the King, "is she of her father's brood, strong for the religion, and so forth?"

"She is young and innocent – and very fair!"

The eyes of the Fool of the Three Henries met those of the Bearnais boldly, and the outlooking black eyes flinched before them.

"These Scottish maids are not as ours," said the King, perhaps in order to say something, "yet I think she was with her father in my camp, and shared his dangers."

"To the last she held up his dying head!" said Jean-aux-Choux. And quite unexpectedly to himself, his eyes were moist.

"And where at this moment is Francis Agnew's daughter?" said the King. Then he added, without apparent connexion, "He was my friend!"

But his intimates understood the word, and so, though a poor fool, did Jean-aux-Choux. Instinctively he held out his hand, as he would have done to a brother-Scot of his degree.

The King clasped it heartily, and those who were nearest noticed that his eyes also had a shine in them.

"What a man!" whispered D'Aubign? to his nearest neighbour. "Sometimes we of the Faith are angry with him, and then, with a pat on the cheek, or a laugh, we are his children again. Or he is ours, I know not which! Guise shakes hands all day long to make his dukeship popular, but in spite of himself his lip curls as if he touched a loathsome thing. Valois presents his hand to be kissed as if it belonged to some one else. But our Bearnais – one would think he never had but one friend in the world, and – "

"That this Scots fool is the man!"

"Hush," whispered D'Aubign?, "he is no fool, this fellow. He was of my acquaintance at Geneva. In his youth he knew John Calvin, and learned in the school of Beza. The King does well to attach him! Listen!"

Jean-aux-Choux was certainly giving the King his money's-worth. Henry was pacing up and down, his fingers busily and unconsciously arranging his beard.

"I have not enough men to take him prisoner," he said; "this ex-mignon D'Epernon is a slippery fish. He will deal with me, and with another. But if he could sell my head to my Lord of Guise and these furious wool-staplers of Paris, he would think it better worth his while than the off-chance of the Bearnais coming out on top!"



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