Samuel Crockett.

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



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"Even the Valois dagger in the back is better," said the Princess; "but this Italian woman is cunning, like all her fox-brood of Florentine money-lenders! How shall we foil her? It is useless speaking to my brother. He would only laugh, and bid me get to my sampler till he had found a goodman of my own for me to knit hose for!"

"Let me ask counsel of the Doctor of the Sorbonne who is with me," Claire urged; "he is very wise, and – "

"A Doctor of the Sorbonne!" cried Mistress Catherine – "impossible! Why, have they not cursed my brother, excommunicated him? They have even turned against their own King!"

"Ay, but," said Claire, now eager to do her friend justice, "my Doctor they have excommunicated also, because he withstood them in full Senatus. If he went back to Paris just now, they would hang him in his gown from the windows of his own class-room!"

So in this way Doctor Anatole of the Sorbonne entered into the heretic councils of the Bearnais. Indeed, his was the idea which came like a lightning-flash of illumination upon the councils of Claire and the Princess Catherine.

"What of La Reine Margot?" murmured the Professor, as if he had been speaking to himself; "is she of her husband's enemies?"

"Nay – but," began the Princess, "that would be pouring oil upon fire!"

"Where one fire has burned, there is little fuel for a second," suggested the Professor sententiously.

"It is not the highest wisdom," said the careful Princess, "I fear it would not bring a blessing."

"It is wisdom – if not the highest, my Lady Catherine," said the learned Doctor, "and if the matter succeeds – that, for your Cause, will be blessing enough!"

"Then our Cause is not yours?" Catherine demanded sharply of him. The Professor smiled.

"I am old, or you children think so. I have at least seen the vanity of persecuting any man for the thought that is in his heart. I was bred a Catholic, yet have been persecuted by my brethren for differing from them. But I agree that most honest folk of the realm are of your brother's party – the brave, the wise, the single of eye and heart. There never will be a king in France till the Bearnais reigns."

The Professor spoke with a certain antique freedom, and the Princess, moved with a sudden impulse, laid her hand on his arm.

"You are with us, then, if not of us?" she said.

"I am of this young lady's party," smiled the Professor, turning to Claire, who had been listening quietly. There was a look of great love in his eyes.

"Then I must needs make sure of her!" said the princess, putting her arm about Claire's waist. "Mistress Claire, vow that you will recruit for our army!"

"Long ago one made me vow that vow!" said Claire. "I am not likely to betray the Cause for which my father died!"

The face of the Princess Catherine grew grave. She was thinking of her own father. Anthony of Bourbon had not made so good an end.

"I vowed my vow night and morning at my mother's knee," she said.

"Thus it was she bade me promise, in these very words – 'As I hope for Christ's dear mercy, I will live and I will die in the Faith given to the fishermen of Galilee. I will cleave to it, despising all other. Every believer, rich or poor, shall be my brother or my sister – they all princes and princesses in Jesus Christ, I only a poor sinner hoping in His mercy!'"

The Professor bowed his head, crossed himself instinctively, and said, "Amen to so good a prayer! At the end, it is ever our mother's religion which is ours!"

CHAPTER XVI.
LA REINE MARGOT

The Bearnais was too wise to venture so near the wolf's den as Loches or Tours. The conference, therefore, took place in the little town of Argenton, perched along either side of the Creuse, a huddle of wooden-fronted houses cascading down to a clear blue river, every balcony filled with flowers and fluttering that day with banners.

Catherine, the Queen-Mother, was to travel from Chartres to represent her son King Henry III. of Valois, of Poland, and of France. Henry the Bearnais rode over from his entrenched camp at Beauregard with a retinue of Huguenot gentlemen, whose plain dark armour and weather-beaten features showed more acquaintance with camp than with court.

The Bearnais, as usual, proved himself gay, kindly, debonnaire. The Queen-Mother (also as usual) was ambassador for her slothful son, conscious that her last summer was waning, mostly doing her travelling in a litter. Catherine de Medici never forgot for a moment that she was the centre round which forty years of intrigue had revolved. The wife of one king of France, the mother of three others, she played her part as in her youngest days. With death grappling at her heart, she surrounded herself with the flower of the youth and beauty of Italy and France, laughing with the gayest and ready with smile and gracious word for king or knave.

The deportment of the Bearnais was in strong contrast with that of his Huguenot suite. The King of Navarre made merry with all the world. He was ever the centre of a bright and changeful group of maids-of-honour to the Queen-Mother, with whom he jested and laughed freely, till Rosny whispered behind his hand to D'Aubign?, "If this goes on, we shall make but a poor treaty of it!"

And to him D'Aubign? replied grimly, "I will wager that my Lord Duke d'Epernon looks well to that."

"No," said Rosny shortly, "the old vixen is the sly renard."

Soon the festival ran its blithest. The Queen-Mother had withdrawn herself, possibly to repose, certainly to plot. With D'Epernon and the maids-of-honour the Bearnais remained, our Abb? John by his side, laughing with the merriest. Turenne and the other Huguenot veterans brooded sullenly in the background, seeing matters go badly, but not able to help it. Afterwards – well, they had a way all their own of speaking their minds. And the brave, good-humoured king would heed them too, in nowise growing angry with their freedoms. But, alas! by that time the steed would be stolen, the treaty signed, and the Medici and her maids-of-dishonour well on the way to Chartres.

The question was, whether or not Henry III. would throw himself wholly into the hands of the League at the forthcoming Parliament of Blois, or if, by a secret compact with the Bearnais, the gentlemen of the Huguenot Gascon provinces would attend to support the royal authority.

"I shall go, if our Bearnais commands me," said Turenne; "but I wager they will dye the Loire as red as ever they did the Seine on Bartholomew's Day – aye, and fringe the Ch?teau with us, as they did at Amboise. These Guises do not forget their ancient tricks."

"And right pretty you would look, my good Lord Turenne, your frosty beard wagging in the wind and a raven perched on your bald pate!"

"If I were in your shoes, I would not talk so freely either of beards or of baldness, D'Aubign?," growled Turenne. "I mind well when a certain clever lad had no more than the beard of a rabbit, which only comes out at night for fear of the dogs!"

"It is strange," said D'Aubign?, not in the least offended with his comrade, "that he who has no fear of the swords, should grow weak at the fluttering of a kerchief or before the artful carelessness of a neck-ribbon."

"Not strange at all," said Turenne; "is he not a man and a Bearnais? Besides, being a Bourbon, he will pay those the best to whom he owes least. And we, who have loved him as we never loved father or mother, wife or child, will be sent back to the chimney-corner with our thumbs to suck!"

"Aye, because he is sure of us!" retorted D'Aubign? gloomily, unconsciously prefiguring a day when he should sit, an exile in a foreign town, eating his heart out, and writing a great book to the praise of an ungrateful, or perhaps forgetful master.

"The most curious thing of all," said Rosny, "is that we shall always love him – put down his fickleness to the account of others, cherish him as a deceived woman does the man from whom she cannot wholly tear her heart!"

"Yes," cried a new voice, as a red hassock of hair showed itself over the brown Capuchin's robe, "these things will we do – some of us in exile, all in sorrow, some in rags, and some in motley – "

He opened the robe wider, and under the stained brown the jester's motley met their eyes.

"Who is this fool who mixes so freely in the councils of his betters?" cried Turenne. "Is there never a wooden horse and a provost-marshal in this – this ball-room?"

But Rosny, whose business it was to know all things, had had dealings with Jean-aux-Choux.

"It is the Fool of the Three Henries!" he whispered, "a wise man, they say – bachelor of Geneva, a deacon at the trade of theology, and all that!"

"I see nothing for it," D'Aubign? interrupted drily, "but that we should agree to put all three Henries into motley, and set Jean-aux-Choux on the throne!"

"Speak your mind plainly, Jean-aux-Choux," cried Turenne peremptorily; "we are none of us of the Three Henries. And we will bear no fooling. What is your message to us – Sir Fool with the Death's Head? Out with it, and briefly."

Jean-aux-Choux waved his hand in the direction of the bridge of Gargilesse.

"Yonder – yonder," he said, "is your answer coming to you!"

Beyond the crowded roofs of the old town, thatched and tiled, the white track to Gargilesse and Croizant meandered amid the sparse and sunburnt vegetation of autumn. Sparks of light, stars seen at noonday, began to dance behind the little broomy knolls, where the pods were cracking open merrily in the heat of the sun.

"They are spears," cried the well-advised veterans of the south, men of the old Huguenot guard. "Who comes? None from that direction to do us any good!"

Then Rosny, who, in moments of action, could make every one afraid of him, with his fair skin and the false air of innocence on his face, in which two blue eyes strange and stern were set, rode up to the King and, bidding him leave ribbons and sashes to give his mind for a moment to sword-points, he indicated, without an unnecessary word, the cavalcade which approached from the south.

Henry of Navarre, who was never angered by a just rebuke, instantly left the ladies with whom he had been jesting, and jumping on horseback, rode right up to the top of a steep bank, which commanded the bridge by which the horsemen must cross.

There he remained for a long while, none daring to speak further to him. For again, in a moment, he had become the war-captain. Though not very tall when on foot, the Bearnais sat his horse like a centaur, and it was said of him, that the fiercer the fray, the closer Henry gripped his knees, and the looser the rein with which he rode into the smother.

"Why," he cried, setting his gloved hands on either hip, "it is Margot – my wife Margot, with another retinue of silks and furbelows!"

And the Bearnais laughed aloud.

"Check and checkmate for the old apothecary's daughter," he chuckled. "After all, our little Margot is spirituelle, though she and I do not get on together."

And setting spurs to his charger, he rode on far ahead of all his gentlemen to welcome the Queen of Navarre at the bridge-head of Argenton. There he dismounted, and throwing the reins to the nearest groom, he walked to the bridle of a lady, who, fair, fresh, and smiling, came ambling easily up on a white Arab.

It was Marguerite of Valois, his wife, who five years ago had possessed herself of the strong castle of Usson in Auvergne. Sole daughter of one king of France, sole sister of three others, and wife of the King of Navarre, Marguerite of Valois had been a spoiled beauty from her earliest years. The division of blame is no easy matter, but certainly the Bearnais was not the right man to tame and keep a butterfly-spirit like that of "La Reine Margot."

The marriage had been made and finished in the terrible days which preceded the Saint Bartholomew. The two Queens of France and Navarre had the business in hand. It had been baptised in torrents of Protestant blood on that fatal night when the Guise ladies watched at their windows, while beneath the Leaguers silently bound the white crosses on their brows. Indeed, from the side of Catherine de Medici, the marriage of Henry of Navarre and Marguerite of Valois had been arranged with the single proper intent of bringing Coligny, Cond?, and the other great Huguenots to the shambles prepared for them.

It served its purpose well; but when her mother, Catherine de Medici, and her royal brothers would gladly have broken off the marriage, Margot's will was the firmest of any. But though there was little of good in the life of the Queen Margot, there was ever something good in her heart.

She refused to be separated from her husband, merely to serve the intrigues of the Queen-Mother and the Guises.

"Once already I have been sacrificed to your plots," she said. "Because of that, I have a husband who will never love me. A night of blood stands between us. Yet will I do nothing against him, because he is my husband. Nor yet for you, my kinsfolk, because ye paid me away like the thirty pieces of silver which Judas scattered in the potter's field. I was the price of blood," so she taunted her mother, "and for that my husband will never love me!"

No, it was not for that, as history and legend tell all too plainly; but she was a woman, and had the woman's right to explain the matter so.

Rather, it was the root-difference of all lack of common interest and mutual love. Two young people, with different upbringings, with mothers wide apart as the heaven of Jeanne d'Albret and the inferno of the Medici, were suddenly thrown together with no bond save that of years to unite them. Each went a several way – neither the right way – and there is small wonder that the result of such a marriage was only unhappiness.

Said Henry of Navarre to Rosny, his best confidant, when there was question of his own wedding:

"Seven things are needed in the woman I ought to marry."

"Seven is a great number, Your Majesty," answered the Right Hand of the Bearnais; "but tell them to me, and I will at least cause search to be made. I will make proclamation for the lady who can put her foot into seven glass slippers, each one smaller than the other!"

"First, then," said the King of Navarre, posing a forefinger on the palm of his other hand, and speaking sagely, as a master setting out the steps of a proposition, "she must have beauty of person!"

"Good," said Rosny; "Your Majesty has doubtless satisfied himself that there are such to be found in the land – once or twice!"

"Wait, Rosny – let me finish!" said the King. And so continued his enumeration of wifely necessities, as they appeared to a great prince of the sixteenth century.

"Item, she must be modest in her life, of a happy humour, vivid in spirit, ready in affection, eminent in extraction, and possessed of great estates in her own right!"

For all answer Rosny held up his hands.

"I know – I know," smiled the Bearnais, "you would say to me that this marvel of womankind has been dead some time. I would rather say to you that she has never been born!"

So it came about that Marguerite, the pretty, foolish butterfly of the Valois courts, and her Bearnais husband, rough, soldierly, far-seeing, politic, had not seen each other for five years. Marguerite had shut herself up in the castle of Usson, one of the dread prison fortresses built by "that fox," Louis the Eleventh.

Though sent almost as a prisoner there, or at least under observation, she had speedily possessed herself of castle and castellan, guard and officers, kitchen scullions and gardener varlets. For she had the open hand, especially when the money was not her own, the ready wit, and above all, the charming smile, though even that meant nothing. At least, Margot the Queen was not malicious; and so it was without any fear, but rather with the sort of silent amusement with which we applaud a child's new trick, that the King dismounted, kissed his wife's hand, answered her gay greetings, and even cast a critic's eye on the array of beauties who followed in her train.

Many gallant gentlemen of the south also accompanied her. Raimonds and Castellanes were there, Princes of Baux and Seigneurs de la Tour – all willing at once to visit the camp of the Bearnais, and to testify their loyalty to the Court of France. For in the south, the League and the Guises had made but little progress.

"Why, Margot, what brings you hither?" said the Bearnais, as he paced along by his wife's side, while the suite had dropped far enough behind for them to speak freely.

"Well, husband mine," said the Queen Margot, "you have been a bad boy to me, and if I had not been mine own sweet self, you and my brother (peace to his ashes, as soon as he is dead!) would have shut me up in a big, dull castle to do needlework alone with a cat and a duenna. But I was too clever for you. And, after that, they poisoned your mind against little Margot – oh, I know. So I do not blame you greatly, Henry. Also, I have a temper that is trying at short range – I admit it. So I am come to make up – at least, if you will. And further, if by chance my good, simple mother and that gallant, crafty Epernon lad have any tricks to try upon you – why, then I have brought a bag of them too, and can play them, trick for trick, till we win – you and I, Harry!"

Margot the Queen waved her hand to the covey of beauties who rode behind her.

"I would say that they are all queens of beauty," she said, smiling down at him; "but do you know (I am speaking humbly because I know well that you do not agree) I am the only really pretty queen in the world?"

"As to that I do most heartily take oath," said the Bearnais.

"Ah, but," said Margot, touching him gently on the cheek with the lash of her riding-whip, "I mind well how you swore you would wed the Queen of England, provided she brought you that rich land – aye, though she had as many wrinkles on her brow as the sea that surrounds her isle, or even the Infanta of Spain, old and wizened as a last year's pippin, if only she brought you in dower the Low Countries!"

"Ah, Margot," said Henry, smiling up at his wife, "and I thought it was your sole boast that you never cast up old stories! You always found new ones – or made them!"

"I did but tease," she said; "but indeed, for all my mother is so ill, this is no time for jesting. I have come to see that you get fair play among them all, my little friend Henry. Though you love me not greatly, and I did sometimes throw the table-equipage at your head, yet Margot of France and Navarre is not the woman to see her husband wronged – least of all by her own mother and that good, excellent, mignon-loving brother of mine, the King-titular of some small remnant of France."

CHAPTER XVII.
MATE AND CHECKMATE

At this moment, the litter of Catherine de Medici was seen approaching. D'Epernon had hastened to tell her of the unexpected arrival of her daughter, the Queen of Navarre.

"No, it cannot be – she is safe at Usson, entertaining all the Jackass-erie of Auvergne!" cried the Queen-Mother, hastily wrapping herself in a bundle of dark cloaks, with the ermine sleeves and sable collars, which the thinness of her blood caused her to wear even in the heat of the dog-days. Scoffers declared she was getting ready for the hereafter by accustoming herself gradually to the climate. But those who knew better were aware that the vital heat was at long and last slowly oozing from that once tireless body, though the brain above remained clear and subtle to the end.

D'Epernon helped the Queen-Mother into the litter of ebony and gold in which she journeyed. She called for her maids-of-honour, but was informed that they were all busied with welcoming the new arrivals.

Then the face of Catherine took on a hard and bitter expression.

"This is not the first, nor the second time that Margot has outwitted me" – she almost hissed the words, yet not so low but D'Epernon caught them. "Has ever a woman who has given all, done all for her family, been cursed with sons who will do nothing even to save themselves, and a daughter whose pleasure it is to thwart the mother who bore her? But – patience, all is not yet lost! Wait a while. Little Margot of the Large Heart may not be so clever as she thinks!"

Yet so artful was the dissimulation of both women, that when at last they approached each other, Margot, the Queen of Navarre, threw herself into her mother's arms, and hid her face (possibly, also, her emotion) on her shoulder, while Catherine wept real, visible, globular tears over her one daughter, whom she embraced after so many years.

Only D'Epernon knew that they were tears of rage and mortification.

It was when husband and wife were left alone on the broad balcony of the Mansion of the Palmer, by the southern river-front of Argenton – the Creuse, sweetest and daintiest of streams in a land all given over to such, slipping dreamily by – that Margot told the Bearnais why she had come.

"Do not thank me," she said; "you have that Huguenot sister of yours to thank – a good, brave girl, too good to be married as I was (and as you were, my poor Henry!) for politics' sake, and a few more acres of land. Also, you owe it to the good counsels of yonder Scottish maid, called Claire Agnew, who – "



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