Chapter I. The Sport of Fools.
 

The death of the Prince of Conde, which occurred in the spring of 1588, by depriving me of my only patron, reduced me to such straits that the winter of that year, which saw the King of Navarre come to spend his Christmas at St. Jean d'Angely, saw also the nadir of my fortunes. I did not know at this time--I may confess it to-day without shame--wither to turn for a gold crown or a new scabbard, and neither had nor discerned any hope of employment. The peace lately patched up at Blois between the King of France and the League persuaded many of the Huguenots that their final ruin was at hand; but it could not fill their exhausted treasury or enable them to put fresh troops into the field.

The death of the Prince had left the King of Navarre without a rival in the affections of the Huguenots; the Vicomte de Turenne, whose turbulent; ambition already began to make itself felt, and M. de Chatillon, ranking next to him. It was my ill-fortune, however, to be equally unknown to all three leaders, and as the month of December which saw me thus miserably straitened saw me reach the age of forty, which I regard, differing in that from many, as the grand climacteric of a man's life, it will be believed that I had need of all the courage which religion and a campaigner's life could supply.

I had been compelled some time before to sell all my horses except the black Sardinian with the white spot on its forehead; and I now found myself obliged to part also with my valet de chambre and groom, whom I dismissed on the same day, paying them their wages with the last links of gold chain left to me. It was not without grief and dismay that I saw myself thus stripped of the appurtenances of a man of birth, and driven to groom my own horse under cover of night. But this was not the worst. My dress, which suffered inevitably from this menial employment, began in no long time to bear witness to the change in my circumstances; so that on the day of the King of Navarre's entrance into St. Jean I dared not face the crowd, always quick to remark the poverty of those above them, but was fain to keep within doors and wear out my patience in the garret of the cutler's house in the Rue de la Coutellerie, which was all the lodging I could now afford.

Pardieu, 'tis a strange world! Strange that time seems to me; more strange compared with this. My reflections on that day, I remember, were of the most melancholy. Look at it how I would, I could not but see that my life's spring was over. The crows' feet were gathering about my eyes, and my moustachios, which seemed with each day of ill-fortune to stand out more fiercely in proportion as my face grew leaner, were already grey. I was out at elbows, with empty pockets, and a sword which peered through the sheath. The meanest ruffler who, with broken feather and tarnished lace, swaggered at the heels of Turenne, was scarcely to be distinguished from me. I had still, it is true, a rock and a few barren acres in Brittany, the last remains of the family property; but the small small sums which the peasants could afford to pay were sent annually to Paris, to my mother, who had no other dower. And this I would not touch, being minded to die a gentleman, even if I could not live in that estate.

Small as were my expectations of success, since I had no one at the king's side to push my business, nor any friend at Court, I nevertheless did all I could, in the only way that occurred to me. I drew up a petition, and lying in wait one day for M. Forget, the King of Navarre's secretary, placed it in his hand, begging him to lay it before that prince. He took it, and promised to do so, smoothly, and with as much lip-civility as I had a right to expect. But the careless manner in which he doubled up and thrust away the paper on which I had spent so much labour, no less than the covert sneer of his valet, who ran after me to get the customary present--and ran, as I still blush to remember, in vain--warned me to refrain from hope.

In this, however, having little save hope left, I failed so signally as to spend the next day and the day after in a fever of alternate confidence and despair, the cold fit following the hot with perfect regularity. At length, on the morning of the third day--I remember it lacked but three of Christmas--I heard a step on the stairs. My landlord living in his shop, and the two intervening floors being empty, I had no doubt the message was for me, and went outside the door to receive it, my first glance at the messenger confirming me in my highest hopes, as well as in all I had ever heard of the generosity of the King of Navarre. For by chance I knew the youth to be one of the royal pages; a saucy fellow who had a day or two before cried 'Old Clothes' after me in the street. I was very far from resenting this now, however, nor did he appear to recall it; so that I drew the happiest augury as to the contents of the note he bore from the politeness with which he presented it to me.

I would not, however, run the risk of a mistake, and before holding out my hand, I asked him directly and with formality if it was for me.

He answered, with the utmost respect, that it was for the Sieur de Marsac, and for me if I were he.

'There is an answer, perhaps?' I said, seeing that he lingered.

'The King of Navarre, sir,' he replied, with a low bow, 'will receive your answer in person, I believe.' And with that, replacing the hat which he had doffed out of respect to me, he turned and went down the stairs.

Returning to my room, and locking the door, I hastily opened the missive, which was sealed with a large seal, and wore every appearance of importance. I found its contents to exceed all my expectations. The King of Navarre desired me to wait on him at noon on the following day, and the letter concluded with such expressions of kindness and goodwill as left me in no doubt of the Prince's intentions. I read it, I confess, with emotions of joy and gratitude which would better have become a younger man, and then cheerfully sat down to spend the rest of the day in making such improvements in my dress as seemed possible. With a thankful heart I concluded that I had now escaped from poverty, at any rate from such poverty as is disgraceful to a gentleman; and consoled myself for the meanness of the appearance I must make at Court with the reflection that a day or two would mend both habit and fortune.

Accordingly, it was with a stout heart that I left my lodgings a few minutes before noon next morning, and walked towards the castle. It was some time since I had made so public an appearance in the streets, which the visit of the King of Navarre's Court; had filled with an unusual crowd, and I could not help fancying as I passed that some of the loiterers eyed me with a covert smile; and, indeed, I was shabby enough. But finding that a frown more than sufficed to restore the gravity of these gentry, I set down the appearance to my own self- consciousness, and, stroking my moustachios, strode along boldly until I saw before me, and coming to meet me, the same page who had delivered the note.

He stopped in front of me with an air of consequence, and making me a low bow--whereat I saw the bystanders stare, for he was as gay a young spark as maid-of-honour could desire--he begged me to hasten, as the king awaited me in his closet.

'He has asked for you twice, sir,' he continued importantly, the feather of his cap almost sweeping the ground.

'I think,' I answered, quickening my steps, 'that the king's letter says noon, young sir. If I am late on such an occasion, he has indeed cause to complain of me.'

'Tut, tut!' he rejoined waving his hand with a dandified 'It is no matter. One man may steal a horse when another may not look over the wall, you know.'

A man may be gray-haired, he may be sad-complexioned, and yet he may retain some of the freshness of youth. On receiving this indication of a favour exceeding all expectation, I remember I felt the blood rise to my face, and experienced the most lively gratitude. I wondered who had spoken in my behalf, who had befriended me; and concluding at last that my part in the affair at Brouage had come to the king's ears, though I could not conceive through whom, I passed through the castle gates with an air of confidence and elation which was not unnatural, I think, under the circumstances. Thence, following my guide, I mounted the ramp and entered the courtyard.

A number of grooms and valets were lounging here, some leading horses to and fro, others exchanging jokes with the wenches who leaned from the windows, while their fellows again stamped up and down to keep their feet warm, or played ball against the wall in imitation of their masters. Such knaves are ever more insolent than their betters; but I remarked that they made way for me with respect, and with rising spirits, yet a little irony, I reminded myself as I mounted the stairs of the words, 'whom the king delighteth to honour!'

Reaching the head of the flight, where was a soldier on guard, the page opened the door of the antechamber, and standing aside bade me enter. I did so, and heard the door close behind me.

For a moment I stood still, bashful and confused. It seemed to me that there were a hundred people in the room, and that half the eyes which met mine were women's, Though I was not altogether a stranger to such state as the Prince of Conde had maintained, this crowded anteroom filled me with surprise, and even with a degree of awe, of which I was the next moment ashamed. True, the flutter of silk and gleam of jewels surpassed anything I had then seen, for my fortunes had never led me to the king's Court; but an instant's reflection reminded me that my fathers had held their own in such scenes, and with a bow regulated rather by this thought than by the shabbiness of my dress, I advanced amid a sudden silence.

'M. de Marsac!' the page announced, in a tone which sounded a little odd in my ears; so much so, that I turned quickly to look at him. He was gone, however, and when I turned again the eyes which met mine were full of smiles. A young girl who stood near me tittered. Put out of countenance by this, I looked round in embarrassment to find someone to whom I might apply.

The room was long and narrow, panelled in chestnut, with a row of windows on the one hand, and two fireplaces, now heaped with glowing logs, on the other. Between the fireplaces stood a rack of arms. Round the nearer hearth lounged a group of pages, the exact counterparts of the young blade who had brought me hither; and talking with these were as many young gentlewomen. Two great hounds lay basking in the heat, and coiled between them, with her head on the back of the larger, was a figure so strange that at another time I should have doubted my eyes. It wore the fool's motley and cap and bells, but a second glance showed me the features were a woman's. A torrent of black hair flowed loose about her neck, her eyes shone with wild merriment, and her face, keen, thin, and hectic, glared at me from the dog's back. Beyond her, round the farther fireplace, clustered more than a score of gallants and ladies, of whom one presently advanced to me.

'Sir,' he said politely--and I wished I could match his bow--'you wished to see--?'

'The King of Navarre,' I answered, doing my best.

He turned to the group behind him, and said, in a peculiarly even, placid tone, 'He wishes to see the King of Navarre.' Then in solemn silence he bowed to me again and went back to his fellows.

Upon the instant, and before I could make up my mind how to take this, a second tripped forward, and saluting me, said, 'M. de Marsac, I think?'

'At your service, sir,' I rejoined. In my eagerness to escape the gaze of all those eyes, and the tittering which was audible behind me, I took a step forward to be in readiness to follow him. But he gave no sign. 'M. de Marsac to see the King of Navarre' was all he said, speaking as the other had close to those behind. And with that he too wheeled round and went back. to the fire.

I stared, a first faint suspicion of the truth aroused in my mind. Before I could act upon it, however--in such a situation it was no easy task to decide how to act--a third advanced with the same measured steps. 'By appointment I think, sir?' he said, bowing lower than the others.

'Yes,' I replied sharply, beginning to grow warm, 'by appointment at noon.'

'M. de Marsac,' he announced in a sing-song tone to those behind him, 'to see the King of Navarre by appointment at noon.' And with a second bow--while I grew scarlet with mortification he too wheeled gravely round and returned to the fireplace.

I saw another preparing to advance, but he came too late. Whether my face of anger and bewilderment was too much for them, or some among them lacked patience to see the end, a sudden uncontrollable shout of laughter, in which all the room joined, cut short the farce. God knows it hurt me: I winced, I looked this way and that, hoping here or there to find sympathy and help. But it seemed to me that the place rang with gibes, that every panel framed, however I turned myself, a cruel, sneering face. One behind me cried 'Old Clothes,' and when I turned the other hearth whispered the taunt. It added a thousandfold to my embarrassment that there was in all a certain orderliness, so that while no one moved, and none, while I looked at them, raised their voices, I seemed the more singled out, and placed as a butt in the midst.

One face amid the pyramid of countenances which hid the farther fireplace so burned itself into my recollection in that miserable moment, that I never thereafter forgot it; a small, delicate woman's face, belonging to a young girl who stood boldly in front of her companions. It was a face full of pride, and, as I saw it then, of scorn--scorn that scarcely deigned to laugh; while the girl's graceful figure, slight and maidenly, yet perfectly proportioned, seemed instinct with the same feeling of contemptuous amusement.

The play, which seemed long enough to me, might have lasted longer, seeing that no one there had pity on me, had I not, in my desperation, espied a door at the farther end of the room, and concluded, seeing no other, that it was the door of the king's bedchamber. The mortification I was suffering was so great that I did not hesitate, but advanced with boldness towards it. On the instant there was a lull in the laughter round me, and half a dozen voices called on me to stop.

'I have come to see the king,' I answered, turning on them fiercely, for I was by this time in no mood for browbeating, 'and I will see him!'

'He is out hunting,' cried all with one accord; and they signed imperiously to me to go back the way I had come.

But having the king's appointment safe in my pouch, I thought I had good reason to disbelieve them; and taking advantage of their surprise--for they had not expected so bold a step on my part--I was at the door before they could prevent me. I heard Mathurine, the fool, who had sprung to her feet, cry 'Pardieu! he will take the Kingdom of Heaven by force!' and those were the last words I heard; for, as I lifted the latch--there was no one on guard there--a sudden swift silence fell upon the room behind me.

I pushed the door gently open and went in. There were two men sitting in one of the windows, who turned and looked angrily towards me. For the rest the room was empty. The king's walking-shoes lay by his chair, and beside them the boot-hooks and jack. A dog before the fire got up slowly and growled, and one of the men, rising from the trunk on which he had been sitting, came towards me and asked me, with every sign of irritation, what I wanted there, and who had given me leave to enter.

I was beginning to explain, with some diffidence the stillness of the room sobering me--that I wished to see the king, when he who had advanced took me up sharply with, 'The king? the king? He is not here, man. He is hunting at St. Valery. Did they not tell you so outside?'

I thought I recognised the speaker, than whom I have seldom seen a man more grave and thoughtful for his years, which were something less than mine, more striking in presence, or more soberly dressed. And being desirous to evade his question, I asked him if I had not the honour to address M. du Plessis Mornay; for that wise and courtly statesman, now a pillar of Henry's counsels, it was.

'The same, sir,' he replied, abruptly, and without taking his eyes from me. 'I am Mornay. What of that?'

'I am M. de Marsac,' I explained. And there I stopped, supposing that, as he was in the king's confidence, this would make my errand clear to him.

But I was disappointed. 'Well, sir?' he said, and waited impatiently.

So cold a reception, following such treatment as I had suffered outside, would have sufficed to have dashed my spirits utterly had I not felt the king's letter in my pocket. Being pretty confident, however, that a single glance at this would alter M. du Mornay's bearing for the better, I hastened, looking on it as a kind of talisman, to draw it out and present it to him.

He took it, and looked at it, and opened it, but with so cold and immovable an aspect as made my heart sink more than all that had gone before. 'What is amiss?' I cried, unable to keep silence. ''Tis from the king, sir.'

'A king in motley!' he answered, his lip curling.

The sense of his words did not at once strike home to me, and I murmured, in great disorder, that the king had sent for me.

'The king knows nothing of it,' was his blunt answer, bluntly given. And he thrust the paper back into my hands. 'It is a trick,' he continued, speaking with the same abruptness, 'for which you have doubtless to thank some of those idle young rascals without. You had sent an application to the king, I suppose? Just so. No doubt they got hold of it, and this is the result. They ought to be whipped.'

It was not possible for me to doubt any longer that what he said was true. I saw in a moment all my hopes vanish, all my plans flung to the winds; and in the first shock of the discovery I could neither find voice to answer him nor strength to withdraw. In a kind of vision I seemed to see my own lean, haggard face looking at me as in a glass, and, reading despair in my eyes, could have pitied myself.

My disorder was so great that M. du Mornay observed it. Looking more closely at me, he two or three times muttered my name, and at last said, 'M. de Marsac? Ha! I remember. You were in the affair of Brouage, were you not?'

I nodded my head in token of assent, being unable at the moment to speak, and so shaken that perforce I leaned against the wall, my head sunk on my breast. The memory of my age, my forty years, and my poverty, pressed hard upon me, filling me with despair and bitterness. I could have wept, but no tears came.

M. du Mornay, averting his eyes from me, took two or three short, impatient turns up and down the chamber. When he addressed me again his tone was full of respect, mingled with such petulance as one brave man might feel, seeing another so hard pressed. 'M. de Marsac,' he said, 'you have my sympathy. It is a shame that men who have served the cause should be reduced to such. straits. Were it, possible for me, to increase my own train at present, I should consider it an honour to have you with me. But I am hard put to it myself, and so are we all, and the King of Navarre not least among us. He has lived for a month upon a wood which M. de Rosny has cut down. I will mention your name to him, but I should be cruel rather than kind were I not to warn you that nothing can come of it.'

With that he offered me his hand, and, cheered as much by this mark of consideration as by the kindness of his expressions, I rallied my spirits. True, I wanted comfort more substantial, but it was not to be had. I thanked him therefore as becomingly as I could, and seeing there was no help for it, took my leave of him, and slowly and sorrowfully withdrew from the room.

Alas! to escape I had to face the outside world, for which his kind words were an ill preparation. I had to run the gauntlet of the antechamber. The moment I appeared, or rather the moment the door closed behind me, I was hailed with a shout of derision. While one cried, 'Way! way for the gentleman who has seen the king!' another hailed me uproariously as Governor of Guyenne, and a third requested a commission in my regiment.

I heard these taunts with a heart full almost to bursting. It seemed to me an unworthy thing that, merely by reason of my poverty, I should be derided by youths who had still all their battles before them; but to stop or reproach them would only, as I well knew, make matters worse, and, moreover, I was so sore stricken that I had little spirit left even to speak. Accordingly, I made my way through them with what speed I might, my head bent, and my countenance heavy with shame and depression. In this way--I wonder there were not among them some generous enough to pity me--I had nearly gained the door, and was beginning to breathe, when I found my path stopped by that particular young lady of the Court whom I have described above. Something had for the moment diverted her attention from me, and it required a word from her companions to apprise her of my near neighbourhood. She turned then, as one taken by surprise, and finding me so close to her that my feet all but touched her gown, she stepped quickly aside, and with a glance as cruel as her act, drew her skirts away from contact with me.

The insult stung me, I know not why, more than all the gibes which were being flung at me from every side, and moved by a sudden impulse I stopped, and in the bitterness of my heart spoke to her. 'Mademoiselle,' I said, bowing low--for, as I have stated, she was small, and more like a fairy than a woman, though her face expressed both pride and self-will--'Mademoiselle,' I said sternly, 'such as I am, I have fought for France! Some day you may learn that there are viler things in the world--and have to bear them--than a poor gentleman!'

The words were scarcely out of my mouth before I repented of them, for Mathurine, the fool, who was at my elbow, was quick to turn them into ridicule. Raising her hands above our heads, as in act to bless us, she cried out that Monsieur, having gained so rich an office, desired a bride to grace it; and this, bringing down upon us a coarse shout of laughter and some coarser gibes, I saw the young girl's face flush hotly.

The next moment a voice in the crowd cried roughly 'Out upon his wedding suit!' and with that a sweetmeat struck me in the face. Another and another followed, covering me with flour and comfits. This was the last straw. For a moment, forgetting where I was, I turned upon them, red and furious, every hair in my moustachios bristling. The next, the full sense of my impotence and of the folly of resentment prevailed with me, and, dropping my head upon my breast, I rushed from the room.

I believe that the younger among them followed me, and that the cry of 'Old Clothes!' pursued me even to the door of my lodgings in the Rue de la Coutellerie. But in the misery of the moment, and my strong desire to be within doors and alone, I barely noticed this, and am not certain whether it was so or not.