Samuel Crockett.

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



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It was, indeed, the only thing concerning which Leaguers, Royalists, and Huguenots were agreed – that Jean-aux-Choux was a good, simple fool!

CHAPTER XIV.
EYES OF JADE

Claire Agnew was left alone among a world of men. But as she had known few women all her life, that made the less matter. Her dark, densely ringleted hair, something between raven-black and the colour of bog-oak, was crisped about a fine forehead, which in his hours of ease her father had been wont to call "Ailsa Craig."

"Oh, cover up Ailsa!" he would say often to tease her, "no girl can have brains enough for a brow such as that!" And so, to please him, she had trained her hair to lie low on her forehead, and then to ripple and twist away gracefully to the nape of her neck, looking, as she turned her head, like a charming young Medusa with deep green eyes of mystic jade.

Such was Claire Agnew in the year of grace 1588, when she found herself fatherless in that famous town of Blois, soon to be the terror, the joy, and the hope of the world. Not that any description can do much to make the personality of a fair woman leap from the printed page. Slowly and only in part, it must disengage itself in word and thought and deed.

Like almost all lonely girls, Claire Agnew kept, in her father's tongue, often in his very dialect, a journal of events and feelings and imaginings – her "I-book," as she used to name it to herself.

That night as she curled herself up to sleep – it was almost morning – she arranged in her mind how she would begin the very next day to write down "all that happened, as well as" (because she was a girl) "all that she hoped would happen."

The closely-packed script has come down to us, the writing fine, like Greek cursive. The paper has been preserved marvellously, but the ink is browned with time, and the letters so small and serried that they can only be made out with a magnifying-glass.

"This is my I-Book, and I mean to be more faithful with myself in writing it out; from this time forward – I shall write it every night, no matter how tired I may be. Or – at least, the next day, without the least failure. This shall have the force of a vow!"

(Poor Claire – even thus have all diaries opened, since the first Cave-man began to scratch the details of his Twelfth of August "bag" on a mammoth-tusk! What a feeble proportion of these diaries have survived even one fortnight!)

"Yes, I like him," Claire wrote, without prelude or the formality of naming the him – "I like him, but I am glad he is gone. Somehow, till I have thought and rested a while, I shall feel safer with just our excellent Doctor Long, who preaches at me much as Pastor Gras used to do at Geneva. Indeed, I see little difference, except that the pastor was older, and did not hold my hand as he talked. But no doubt he does that because I have lost my father."

Doubtless it was so; nevertheless it needs some little explanation to make it clear why, after having been committed by D'Epernon to the care of the King of Navarre, Claire and the Professor should still be in the little town of Blois, with the young girl busily writing her journal, and lifting her eyes at the end of every sentence to look across the broad blue river at the squares and oblongs of ripening vintages which went clambering irregularly over the low hills opposite.

"The Loire here in this place" (so she wrote) "is broad and calm, not swift and treacherous like the Rhone, or sleepy like the Seine, nor yet fierce like the Rhine as I saw it long ago, lashing green as sea-water about the old bridge at Basel.

I love the Loire – a wide river, still and unrippled, not a leaping fish, not a stooping bird, a water of silver flowing on and on in a dream. And though my father is dead and I greatly alone (save for old Madame Granier in her widow's crape) I cannot feel that I am very unhappy. Perhaps it is wicked to say so. I reproach myself that I lack feeling – that if I had loved my father more, surely I would now have been more unhappy. I do not know. One is as one is made.

"Yet I did love him – God knows I did! But here – it is so peaceful. Sadness falls away."

And peaceful it certainly was. The Bearnais had gone back to his camp, taking the Abb? John with him, where, in the incessant advance and retreat of the Huguenot army, there was little room for fair maids.

Before he went away, the King had had a talk with Jean-aux-Choux and with his host, Anthony Arpajon. They reminded him that for some months at least, no one would be more welcome in Blois than this learned Professor of the Sorbonne. Was not the Parliament of the King – the loyal States-General – to be gathered there in a few weeks? And, meantime, the provident Blesois were employed in making their rooms fit and proper for the reception of the rich and noble out of all France, excepting only the Leaguer provinces of the north and the Huguenot south-east from the Loire to the Pyrenees.

"I would willingly keep the maid and the Professor," said Anthony, "but it is of the nature of my business that there should be at times a bustle and a noise of rough lads coming and going. And though none of them would harm the daughter of Francis the Scot – having me to deal with, as well as wearing, for the most part, the silver cow-bell at their girdles – yet a hostelry is no place for a well-favoured Calvinist maid, and the daughter of Master Francis Agnew!"

"What, then, would you do with her?"

The brow of the King was frowning a little. After all, he thought, had the girl not followed her father, and been accustomed to the rough side of the blanket? He had not found women so nice about their accommodation when a king catered for them.

But a well-timed jest of Jean-aux-Choux concerning the young blades which the mere sight of Claire would set bickering, caused the Bearnais to smile, and with a sigh he gave way.

"Well, Anthony the Calvinist, you are an obstinate varlet. Have it as you will. I am an easy man. But tell me your plans. For, after all, the girl has been committed to my charge."

The Calvinist innkeeper had his answer ready.

"There dwells," he said, "by the water-side yonder a wise and prudent wife, whose husband was long at the wars, a sergeant in your Cevenol levies. She will care for the maid. And if there be need, Madame Granier knows a door in her back-yard by which, at all times, she can have such help or shelter as the house of Anthony Arpajon can give her."

"And the Professor of Eloquence?" said Henry, with a quick glance.

"Is he not her uncle – in a way, her guardian?" said Anthony, with an impenetrable countenance. "She could not be in safer hands. Leave us also the fool, Jean-aux-Choux, and, by my word, you shall have the first and the best intelligence of that the King and his wise Parliamenters may devise. They say my Lord of Guise is soon to be here with a thousand gentlemen, and such a tail of the commonalty as will eat up all the decent folk in Blois like a swarm of locusts!"

"Good," said the King of Navarre. "Guise has long been tickling the adder's tail; he will find what the head holds some fine day, when he least expects it!"

These were quiet days in the little white house, with only the narrow quay underneath, and the changing groups of washerwomen, bare-armed, lilac-bloused, laving and lifting in the tremulous heat-haze of the afternoon. But somehow they were very dear days to Claire Agnew, and she clung to the memory of them long afterwards.

She was near enough for safety to the hostelry of the Silver Cow-bell (presently held by Anthony Arpajon), yet far enough from it to be quite apart from its throng and bustle. All day Madame Granier gathered up the gossip of the quarter, and passing it through a kind of moral sieve, retailed it at intervals to her guest.

Furthermore, Claire had time to bethink herself. She had long, long thoughts of the Abb? John. She remembered how bright and willing he had ever been in her service, how he had respected her grief, and never breathed word her father might not have heard.

And her good Professor of Eloquence – Doctor Anatole Long? What of him? He was there close under her hand, always willing to stroll with her along the river's bank. Or in Dame Granier's little living-room, he would explain the universe to Claire Agnew to the accompaniment of Madame Granier's clattering platters and her rhyme of King Francis.

 
"Brave Francis went the devil's way,
Bold sprang the hawk, laughed maidens gay!
Yet he learned to eat from an Emperor's tray,
Sans hawk, sans hound, sans maiden gay.
A-lack-a-day! A-lack-a-day!
From Pavia's steeple struck Doomsday!"
 

After all, it was best by the river-side. You saw things there, and if the Professor were in good humour, he would talk on and on, while you could – that is, Claire could – throw stones in the water without disturbing the even flow of the big, fine words. Not too large stones, but only pebbles, else he would rise and march on, with a frown at being interrupted, but without at all perceiving the cause. For at such times Claire always looked especially demure.

"You are indeed my dear Uncle Anatole," she said one day, when they had been longer by the water-side than usual; "you were just made for it. If you had not been – I declare I should have adopted you!"

There was something teasing about Claire's accent, at once girlish and light, which fell pleasantly on the Professor's ear. But the words – he was not so sure that he liked the words.

"I am not so old," he said, the deep furrow which dinted downwards between his thick eyebrows smoothing itself out as he looked, or rather peered at her with his short-sighted blue eyes; "my mother is active still. I long for you to see her; and I have two brothers, one of whom was thinking of marrying last year, but after all it came to nothing!"

"I should think so, indeed," said Claire suddenly.

"And pray why?" The Professor swung about and faced her. "What was there to prevent it?"

"The girl, of course!" said Claire, smiling simply.

"Umph!" said the Professor, and for half a mile spoke no more.

Then he nodded his head sagely, and communed to himself without speech.

"She is right," he said; "she is warning me. What have I to do with young maids? – I who might have had maids of my own, fool that I was! Hey, what's that? Stand back there, or I will spit any two of you – dogs!"

A laughing, dancing convoy of gold-laced pages from the Ch?teau, now rapidly filling up for the momentous meeting of the States-General, swirled out of the willow-copses by the Loire side. Claire was caught into the turmoil of the dance, as a flight of wild pigeons might envelop a tame dove wandering from the Basse Cour.

"Go up, bald-head!" they cried, "grey beards and young maids go not well together!"

The Professor of Eloquence, stung by the affront, lifted his only weapon, a stout oaken cudgel. And with such a pack of beardless loons, the mere threat was enough. They scattered, screaming and laughing.

"I will report you to the Provost-Marshal, to the Major-domo of the palace, and your backs shall pay for this insolence to my niece!"

"I think they meant no harm, sir," said Claire breathlessly, taking the arm of the Professor of the Sorbonne. She was astonished at his heat.

"The whipping-bench and a good dozen spare rods are what they want!" growled the Professor. "These are ill times. 'Train up a child in the way he should go,' saith the Book. But in these days the young see only evil all their days, and when they are old they depart not from that!"

CHAPTER XV.
MISTRESS CATHERINE

Upon the return of the Professor and Claire from the river-side to the little walled garden and white house of Dame Granier, they found Anthony Arpajon waiting for them. With him was a lady – no, a girl of thirty; the expression is right. For through the girlish brightness of her complexion, and in spite of the quick smile that went and came upon her lips, there pierced the sure determination and settled convictions of the adult of a strong race.

"I am Catherine d'Albret and a cousin of your friend," said the girl; "I have a number of followers – brave gentlemen all of them, who have ridden with me from the south. They are lodging with our friend Anthony here. But I am come to abide with you – if I may. We shall share the same room and, if you like me, we shall talk the moon across the sky!"

She held out both her hands, but Claire's shy Scottish blood still held off. The Professor came to their assistance.

"As my lady is a D'Albret," he said, "she must be a cousin-germain to our good Abb? John!"

The girl smiled, and gave her head a little uplift, half of amusement, half of contempt.

"Ay, truly," she said, "but we are of different religions. I love not to see a man waste his life on the benches of the Sorbonne; and all for what – only to wear a red hat when all is done, like my Uncle of Bourbon!"

The Professor sighed, and thoughtfully rubbed his brow. Then he smiled, as he answered the girl.

"Ah," he said, "it is always so with you young people. Here am I who have spent the best part of my life on these very Sorbonne benches, teaching Eloquence to a party of young jackanapes who had far better hold their tongues till they have something to say. And for me, no cardinal's hat at the end of all!"

He sighed a second time, as he added, "Indeed, I know not very well what, after all, is at the end – certainly not their monkish dreams of hell, purgatory, paradise!"

The newcomer stepped eagerly forward and laid her hand on his lips. "Hush," she said, "you have lost your way. You have wandered in your own mazes of subtlety, and arrived nowhere. Now we of the Faith will lead you in the green pastures, beside still but living waters, which your soul shall love!"

The Professor watched the maiden before him a little sadly. Her face was all aglow with enthusiasm. There was a brilliant light in her eyes.

"Yes, I shall teach you – I, Catherine of Navarre – "

There was a noise outside on the quay.

She turned towards the window to look out. At the first step, a little halt in her gait betrayed her. The Professor of Eloquence sank on one knee.

"You are Jeanne d'Albret's own daughter," he said, "her very self, as I saw her a month before the Bartholomew. Even so she spoke – even so she walked. The Bearnais hath no philosophy other than his sword and the ready quip on his tongue. He cares no more for one religion or the other than the white plume he carries in the front of battle. But not so you."

"Henry of Bourbon-Vend?me is my brother," said Catherine, "all king, all brave man. His faults are not mine – nor mine his. I am, as I said, a manifest D'Albret. But Henry holds of Bourbon!"

The two young maids mounted to their chamber. Madame Granier was already there, ordering the bed-linen for the new guest. The girls stood looking a long while into each other's faces.

"You are prettier than I," said Mistress Catherine; "but they tell me that, for all that (and it is saying much), your father made you a good daughter of the Religion!"

"He was indeed all of good and brave and in instruction wise – I fear me I have profited but little!"

"Ah," said the Princess, "that is as I would expect your father's daughter to speak. For the present, I cannot offer you much. I have a great and serious work to do. But one day you shall be my maid-of-honour!"

It is the way of princesses, even of the wisest. But the daughter of Francis the Scot was free-born. She only smiled a little, and answered, with her father's quiet dignity of manner, "Then or now, I will do anything for the daughter of Queen Jeanne!"

"By-and-by, perhaps, you will be willing to do a little for myself," said the Princess gently, putting out her arms and taking Claire's head upon her shoulder. "We shall love one another well, little one."

The "little one" was at least four inches taller than the speaker, but something must be forgiven to a princess.

Meantime, Madame Granier had arranged all Mistress Catherine's simple linen and travelling necessities – the linen strong, white, and country-spun, smelling of far-off Navarre, bleached on the meadows by the brooks that prattle down from the snows. The brushes and combs were of plain material – no gold or silver about them anywhere. Only in a little shagreen case rested a silver spoon, a knife, and a two-pronged fork, with a gilt crown upon each. Otherwise the camp-equipment of a simple soldier of the Bearnais could not have been commoner.

When the hostess had betaken her downstairs, Mistress Catherine drew her new friend down on a low settle, and holding her hand, began to open out her heart gladly, as if she had long wished for a confidante.

"I have come to seek my brother," she said; "I expected him here in this house. There is a plot to take his life. Guise and D'Epernon both hate him. And, indeed, both have cause. He is too brave for one – too subtle for the other. You heard how, at the beginning of this war, he sent messengers to the Duke of Guise saying, 'I am first prince of the blood – you also claim the throne. Now, to prevent the spilling of much brave blood, let us two fight it out to the death!' But Guise merely answered that he had no quarrel with his cousin of Navarre, having only taken up arms to defend from heresy the Catholic faith – what a coward!"

"It seems to me," said Claire, "that no man can be a coward who ventures himself with an angry treacherous king as freely as in his own house."

"Ah" – the Princess smiled scornfully – "our cousin Guise does not lack courage of the insolent sort. Witness how on the day of the Barricades he extended his kind protection to King Henry III. of Valois in his own city of Paris, where he had dwelt fourteen years. Nay, he even rode in from Soissons that he might do it!"

"You do not love my Lord of Guise?" said Claire. "Yet my father used to call him the best Huguenot in France, and swear that neither Rosny, nor D'Aubign?, nor yet he himself did one half so much service to the Bearnais as the Duke of Guise!"

The King's sister pondered a while upon this.

"That is perhaps true," she said at last; "Guise is vain, and venturesome because he is vain. He cannot do without shouting crowds, and hands held out to him by every scavenger and pewterer's apprentice – 'Guise – the good Guise!' Pah! The man is no better than a posturer before a booth at a fair!"

"I have heard almost as much from my father," Claire answered; "he used to say that Mayenne led the armies, the priests collected the pennies, and as for Guise, he was only the big man who beat the Leaguers' drum!"

"Your father is dead, they say," murmured the Princess softly; "but in his time he must have been a man of wit."

"He taught me all I know," Claire assented, "and he died in the service of the Faith and of the King of Navarre."

"It is strange that I should never have met him," said Catherine. "I have heard say he was on mission to my brother."

"On secret mission," said Claire; "we came often to the camp by night, and were gone in the morning."

The Princess looked at her junior in great astonishment.

"Then you have seen camps, and men, and cities?" she asked eagerly.

"And you, courts!" answered Claire, on her part not a little wistfully.

A shudder traversed the slender body of the Princess. Her lip curled with disgust.

"You speak like a child," she answered hotly. "Why, I tell you, on the head of my mother, you are safer and better in a camp of German reiters than in any court in Europe. But I forgot – you, at least, can pick and choose. You were not born to be only a pawn in the chess-play. If you do not wish to marry a man, you have only to say him nay. You are not a princess. I would to God I were not!"

"What is the plot against your brother?" said Claire, willing to turn her companion from black ideas; "perhaps I can help. At least, I have with me one who, though they name him 'fool,' is yet wiser than all the men I have met, excepting only my father."

"And they name this marvel – what?" demanded the Princess.

"Jean-aux-Choux – the Fool of the Three Henries."

Mistress Catherine clapped her hands almost girlishly, forgetting her accustomed dignity.

"I have seen him," she cried; "once he came to Nerac, where he pleased the Reine Margot greatly. She is a judge of fools!"

"Our Jean is no fool, really," said Claire, "but born of my nation, and a learned man, very zealous for the Faith."

"I know – I know," said the Princess; "I have heard D'Aubign? say of him, that folly made the best cloak for unsafe wisdom. As to the design against the King, it is this. Before the Duke of Guise comes to the Parliament, the Valois will first invite my brother to a conference – not here in Blois, but nearer his own lines – at Poitiers, perhaps, or at Loches. The Queen-Mother, the Medici woman, though sick and old, has gathered many of her maids-of-honour. She will strive to work upon my easy brother with fair words and fair faces, in the hope that, like Judas, he will betray his Master with a kiss!"

"I had not thought there could be in all the world such – women!" said Claire. "After all, our Scottish way is fairer – and that is foot to foot and blade to blade!"



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