Chapter XV. Vilain Herodes.
 

All the distaste and misliking I had expressed earlier in the day for the Court of Blois recurred with fresh force in the darkness and gloom; and though, booted and travel-stained as we were, I did not conceive it likely that we should be obtruded on the circle about the king, I felt none the less an oppressive desire to be through with our adventure, and away from the ill-omened precincts in which I found myself. The darkness prevented me seeing the faces of my companions; but on M. de Rosny, who was not quite free himself, I think, from the influences of the time and place, twitching my sleeve to enforce vigilance, I noted that the lackeys had ceased to follow us, and that we three were beginning to ascend a rough staircase cut in the rock. I gathered, though the darkness limited my view behind as well as in front to a few twinkling lights, that we were mounting the scarp from the moat; to the side wall of the castle; and I was not surprised when the marquis muttered to us to stop, and knocked softly on the wood of a door.

M. de Rosny might have spared the touch he had laid on my sleeve, for by this time I was fully and painfully sensible of the critical position in which we stood, and was very little likely to commit an indiscretion. I trusted he had not done so already! No doubt--it flashed across me while we waited--he had taken care to safeguard himself. But how often, I reflected, had all safeguards been set aside and all precautions eluded by those to whom he was committing himself! Guise had thought himself secure in this very building, which we were about to enter. Coligny had received the most absolute of safe-conducts from those to whom we were apparently bound. The end in either case had been the same --the confidence of the one proving of no more avail than the wisdom of the other. What if the King of France thought to make his peace with his Catholic subjects--offended by the murder of Guise--by a second murder of one as obnoxious to them as he was precious to their arch-enemy in the South? Rosny was sagacious indeed; but then I reflected with sudden misgiving that he was young, ambitious, and bold.

The opening of the door interrupted without putting an end to this train of apprehension. A faint light shone out; so feebly as to illumine little more than the stairs at our feet. The marquis entered at once, M. de Rosny followed, I brought up the rear; and the door was closed by a man who stood behind it. We found ourselves crowded together at the foot of a very narrow staircase, which the doorkeeper--a stolid pikeman in a grey uniform, with a small lanthorn swinging from the crosspiece of his halberd--signed to us to ascend. I said a word to him, but he only stared in answer, and M. de Rambouillet, looking back and seeing what I was about, called to me that it was useless, as the man was a Swiss and spoke no French.

This did not tend to reassure me; any more than did the chill roughness of the wall which my hand touched as I groped upwards, or the smell of bats which invaded my nostrils and suggested that the staircase was little used and belonged to a part of the castle fitted for dark and secret doings.

We stumbled in the blackness up the steps, passing one door and then a second before M. de Rambouillet whispered to us to stand, and knocked gently at a third.

The secrecy, the darkness, and above all the strange arrangements made to receive us, filled me with the wildest conjectures. But when the door opened and we passed one by one into a bare, unfurnished, draughty gallery, immediately, as I judged, under the tiles, the reality agreed with no one of my anticipations. The place was a mere garret, without a hearth, without a single stool. Three windows, of which one was roughly glazed, while the others were filled with oiled paper, were set in one wall; the others displaying the stones and mortar without disguise or ornament. Beside the door through which we had entered stood a silent figure in the grey uniform I had seen below, his lanthorn on the floor at his feet. A second door at the farther end of the gallery, which was full twenty paces long, was guarded in like manner. A couple of lanthorns stood in the middle of the floor, and that was all.

Inside the door, M. de Rambouillet with his finger on his lip stopped us, and we stood a little group of three a pace in front of the sentry, and with the empty room before us. I looked at M. de Rosny, but he was looking at Rambouillet. The marquis had his back towards me, the sentry was gazing into vacancy; so that baffled in my attempt to learn anything from the looks of the other actors in the scene, I fell back on my ears. The rain dripped outside and the moaning wind rattled the casements; but mingled with these melancholy sounds--which gained force, as such things always do, from the circumstances in which we were placed and our own silence--I fancied I caught the distant hum of voices and music and laughter. And that, I know not why, brought M. de Guise again to my mind.

The story of his death, as I had heard it from that accursed monk in the inn on the Claine, rose up in all its freshness, with all its details. I started when M. de Rambouillet coughed. I shivered when Rosny shifted his feet. The silence grew oppressive. Only the stolid men in grey seemed unmoved, unexpectant; so that I remember wondering whether it was their nightly duty to keep guard over an empty garret, the floor strewn with scraps of mortar and ends of tiles.

The interruption, when it came at last, came suddenly. The sentry at the farther end of the gallery started and fell back a pace. Instantly the door beside him opened and a man came in, and closing it quickly behind him, advanced up the room with an air of dignity, which even his strange appearance and attire could not wholly destroy.

He was of good stature and bearing, about forty years old as I judged, his wear a dress of violet velvet with black points cut in the extreme of the fashion. He carried a sword but no ruff, and had a cup and ball of ivory--a strange toy much in vogue among the idle--suspended from his wrist by a ribbon. He was lean and somewhat narrow, but so far I found little fault with him. It was only when my eye reached his face, and saw it rouged like a woman's and surmounted by a little turban, that a feeling of scarcely understood disgust seized me, and I said to myself, 'This is the stuff of which kings' minions are made!'

To my surprise, however, M. de Rambouillet went to meet him with the utmost respect, sweeping the dirty floor with his bonnet, and bowing to the very ground. The newcomer acknowledged his salute with negligent kindness. Remarking pleasantly 'You have brought a friend, I think?' he looked towards us with a smile.

'Yes, sire, he is here,' the marquis answered, stepping aside a little. And with the word I understood that this was no minion, but the king himself: Henry, the Third of the name, and the last of the great House of Valois, which had ruled France by the grace of God for two centuries and a half! I stared at him, and stared at him, scarcely believing what I saw. For the first time in my life I was in the presence of the king!

Meanwhile M. de Rosny, to whom he was, of course, no marvel, had gone forward and knelt on one knee. The king raised him graciously, and with an action which, viewed apart from his woman's face and silly turban, seemed royal and fitting. 'This is good of you, Rosny,' he said. 'But it is only what I expected of you.'

'Sire,' my companion answered, 'your Majesty has no more devoted servant than myself, unless it be the king my master.'

'By my faith,' Henry answered with energy--'and if I am not a good churchman, whatever those rascally Parisians say, I am nothing--by my faith, I think I believe you!'

'If your Majesty would believe me in that and in some other things also,' M. de Rosny answered, 'it would be very well for France.' Though he spoke courteously, he threw so much weight and independence into his words that I thought of the old proverb, 'A good master, a bold servant.'

'Well, that is what we are here to see,' the king replied. 'But one tells me one thing,' he went on fretfully, 'and one another, and which am I to believe?'

'I know nothing of others, sire,' Rosny answered with the same spirit. 'But my master has every claim to be believed. His interest in the royalty of France is second only to your Majesty's. He is also a king and a kinsman, and it erks him to see rebels beard you, as has happened of late.'

'Ay, but the chief of them?' Henry exclaimed, giving way to sudden excitement and stamping furiously on the floor. 'He will trouble me no more. Has my brother heard of that? Tell me, sir, has that news reached him?'

'He has heard it, sire.'

'And he approved? He approved, of course?'

'Beyond doubt the man was a traitor,' M. de Rosny answered delicately. 'His life was forfeit, sire. Who can question it?'

'And he has paid the forfeit,' the king rejoined, looking down at the floor and immediately falling into a moodiness as sudden as his excitement. His lips moved. He muttered something inaudible, and began to play absently with his cup and ball, his mind occupied apparently with a gloomy retrospect. 'M. de Guise, M. de Guise,' he murmured at last, with a sneer and an accent of hate which told of old humiliations long remembered. 'Well, damn him, he is dead now. He is dead. But being dead he yet troubles us. Is not that the verse, father? Ha!' with a start, 'I was forgetting. But that is the worst wrong he has done me,' he continued, looking up and growing excited again. 'He has cut me off from Mother Church. There is hardly a priest comes near me now, and presently they will excommunicate me. And, as I hope for salvation, the Church has no more faithful son than me.'

I believe he was on the point, forgetting M. de Rosny's presence there and his errand, of giving way to unmanly tears, when M. de Rambouillet, as if by accident, let the heel of his scabbard fall heavily on the floor. The king started, and passing his hand once or twice across his brow, seemed to recover himself. 'Well,' he said, 'no doubt we shall find a way out of our difficulties.'

'If your Majesty,' Rosny answered respectfully, 'would accept the aid my master proffers, I venture to think that they would vanish the quicker.'

'You think so,' Henry rejoined. 'Well, give me your shoulder. Let us walk a little.' And, signing to Rambouillet to leave him, he began to walk up and down with M. de Rosny, talking familiarly with him in an undertone.

Only such scraps of the conversation as fell from them when they turned at my end of the gallery now reached me. Patching these together, however, I managed to understand somewhat. At one turn I heard the king say, 'But then Turenne offers--' At the next, 'Trust him? Well, I do not know why I should not. He promises --' Then 'A Republic, Rosny? That his plan? Pooh! he dare not. He could not. France is a kingdom by the ordinance of God in my family.'

I gathered from these and other chance words, which I have since forgotten, that M. de Rosny was pressing the king to accept the help of the King of Navarre, and warning him against the insidious offers of the Vicomte de Turenne. The mention of a Republic, however, seemed to excite his Majesty's wrath rather against Rosny for presuming to refer to such a thing than against Turenne, to whom he refused to credit it. He paused near my end of the promenade.

'Prove it!' he said angrily. 'But can you prove it? Can you prove it? Mind you, I will take no hearsay evidence, sir. Now, there is Turenne's agent here--you did not know, I dare say, that he had an agent here?'

'You refer, sire, to M. de Bruhl,' Rosny answered, without hesitation. 'I know him, sire.'

'I think you are the devil,' Henry answered, looking curiously at him. 'You seem to know most things. But mind you, my friend, he speaks me fairly, and I will not take this on hearsay even from your master. Though,' he added after pausing a moment, 'I love him.'

'And he, your Majesty. He desires only to prove it.'

'Yes, I know, I know,' the king answered fretfully. 'I believes he does. I believe he does wish me well. But there will be a devil of an outcry among my people. And Turenne gives fair words too. And I do not know,' he continued, fidgeting with his cup and ball, 'that it might not suit me better to agree with him, you see.'

I saw M. de Rosny draw himself up. 'Dare I speak openly to you, sire,' he said, with less respect and more energy than he had hitherto used. 'As I should to my master?'

'Ay, say what you like,' Henry answered. But he spoke sullenly, and it seemed to me that he looked less pleasantly at his companion.

'Then I will venture to utter what is in your Majesty's mind,' my patron answered steadfastly. 'You fear, sire, lest, having accepted my master's offer and conquered your enemies, you should not be easily rid of him.'

Henry looked relieved. 'Do you call that diplomacy?' he said with a smile. 'However, what if it be so? What do you say to it? Methinks I have heard an idle tale about a horse which would hunt a stag; and for the purpose set a man upon its back.'

'This I say, sire, first,' Rosny answered very earnestly. 'That the King of Navarre is popular only with one-third of the kingdom, and is only powerful when united with you. Secondly, sire, it is his interest to support the royal power, to which he is heir. And, thirdly, it must be more to your Majesty's honour to accept help from a near kinsman than from an ordinary subject, and one who, I still maintain, sire, has no good designs in his mind.'

'The proof' Henry said sharply. 'Give me that!'

'I can give it in a week from this day.'

'It must be no idle tale, mind you,' the king continued suspiciously.

'You shall have Turenne's designs, sire, from one who had them from his own mouth.'

The king looked startled, but after a pause turned and resumed his walk. 'Well,' he said, 'if you do that, I on my part--'

The rest I lost, for the two passing to the farther end of the gallery, came to a standstill there, balking my curiosity and Rambouillet's also. The marquis, indeed, began to betray his impatience, and the great clock immediately over our heads presently striking the half-hour after ten, he started and made as if he would have approached the king. He checked the impulse, however, but still continued to fidget uneasily, losing his reserve by-and-by so far as to whisper to me that his Majesty would be missed.

I had been, up to this point, a silent and inactive spectator of a scene which appealed to my keenest interests and aroused my most ardent curiosity. Surprise following surprise, I had begun to doubt my own identity; so little had I expected to find myself first in the presence of the Most Christian King--and that under circumstances as strange and bizarre as could well be imagined-- and then an authorised witness at a negotiation upon which the future of all the great land of France stretching for so many hundred leagues on every side of us, depended. I say I could scarcely believe in my own identity; or that I was the same Gaston de Marsac who had slunk, shabby and out-at-elbows, about St. Jean d'Angely. I tasted the first sweetness of secret power, which men say is the sweetest of all and the last relinquished; and, the hum of distant voices and laughter still reaching me at intervals, I began to understand why we had been admitted with, so much precaution, and to comprehend the gratification of M. de Rosny when the promise of this interview first presented to him the hope of effecting so much for his master and for France.

Now I was to be drawn into the whirlpool itself. I was still travelling back over the different stages of the adventure which had brought me to this point, when I was rudely awakened by M. de Rosny calling my name in a raised voice. Seeing, somewhat late, that he was beckoning to me to approach, I went forward in a confused and hasty fashion; kneeling before the king as I had seen him kneel, and then rising to give ear to his Majesty's commands. Albeit, having expected nothing less than to be called upon, I was not in the clearest mood to receive them. Nor was my bearing such as I could have wished it to be.

M. de Rosny tells me that you desire a commission at Court, sir,' the king said quickly.

'I, sire?' I stammered, scarcely able to believe my ears. I was so completely taken aback that I could say no more, and I stopped there with my mouth open.

'There are few things I can deny M. de Rosny,' Henry continued, speaking very rapidly, 'and I am told that you are a gentleman of birth and ability. Out of kindness to him, therefore, I grant you a commission to raise twenty men for my service. Rambouillet,' he continued, raising his voice slightly, 'you will introduce this gentleman to me publicly to-morrow, that; I may carry into effect my intention on his behalf. You may go now, sir. No thanks. And M. de Rosny,' he added, turning to my companion and speaking with energy, 'have a care for my sake that you are not recognised as you go. Rambouillet must contrive something to enable you to leave without peril. I should be desolated if anything happened to you, my friend, for I could not protect you. I give you my word if Mendoza or Retz found you in Blois I could not save you from them unless you recanted.'

'I will not trouble either your Majesty or my conscience,' M. de Rosny replied, bowing low, 'if my wits can help me.'

'Well, the saints keep you,' the king answered piously, going towards the door by which he had entered; 'for your master and I have both need of you. Rambouillet, take care of him as you love me. And come early in the morning to my closet and tell me how it has fared with him.'

We all stood bowing while he withdrew, and only turned to retire when the door closed behind him. Burning with indignation and chagrin as I was at finding myself disposed of in the way I have described, and pitchforked, whether I would or no, into a service I neither fancied nor desired, I still managed for the present to restrain myself; and, permitting my companions to precede me, followed in silence, listening sullenly to their jubilations. The marquis seemed scarcely less pleased than M. de Rosny; and as the latter evinced a strong desire to lessen any jealousy the former might feel, and a generous inclination to attribute to him a full share of the credit gained, I remained the only person dissatisfied with the evening's events. We retired from the chateau with the same precautions which had marked our entrance, and parting with M. de Rambouillet at the door of our lodging-- not without many protestations of esteem on his part and of gratitude on that of M. de Rosny--mounted to the first-floor in single file and in silence, which I was determined not to be the first to break.

Doubtless M. de Rosny knew my thoughts, for, speedily dismissing Maignan and Simon, who were in waiting, he turned to me without preface. 'Come, my friend,' he said, laying his hand on my shoulder and looking me in the face in a way which all but disarmed me at once, 'do not let us misunderstand one another. You think you have cause to be angry with me. I cannot suffer that, for the King of Navarre had never greater need of your services than now.'

'You have played me an unworthy trick, sir,'I answered, thinking he would cozen me with fair speeches.

'Tut, tut!' he replied. 'You do not understand.'

'I understand well enough,' I answered, with bitterness, 'that, having done the King of Navarre's work, he would now be rid of me.'

'Have I not told you,' M. de Rosny replied, betraying for the first time some irritation, 'that he has greater need of your services than ever? Come, man, be reasonable, or, better still, listen to me.' And turning from me, he began to walk up and down the room, his hands behind him. "the King of France--I want to make it as clear to you as possible--' he said, 'cannot make head against the League without help, and, willy-nilly, must look for it to the Huguenots whom he has so long persecuted. The King of Navarre, their acknowledged leader, has offered that help; and so, to spite my master, and prevent a combination so happy for France, has M. de Turenne, who would fain raise the faction he commands to eminence, and knows well how to make his profit out of the dissensions of his country. Are you clear so far, sir?'

I assented. I was becoming absorbed in spite of myself.

'Very well,' he resumed. 'This evening--never did anything fall out more happily than Rambouillet's meeting with me--he is a good man!--I have brought the king to this: that if proof of the selfish nature of Turenne's designs be laid before him he will hesitate no longer. That proof exists. A fortnight ago it was here; but it is not here now.'

'That is unlucky!' I exclaimed. I was so much interested in his story, as well as flattered by the confidence he was placing in me, that my ill-humour vanished. I went and stood with my shoulder against the mantelpiece, and he, passing to and fro between me and the light, continued his tale.

'A word about this proof,' he said. 'It came into the King of Navarre's hands before its full value was known to us, for that only accrued to it on M. de Guise's death. A month ago it--this piece of evidence I mean--was at Chize. A fortnight or so ago it was here in Blois. It is now, 'M. de Marsac,' he continued, facing me suddenly as he came opposite me, 'in my house at Rosny.'

I started. 'You mean Mademoiselle de la Vire?' I cried.

'I mean Mademoiselle de la Vire!' he answered, 'who, some month or two ago, overheard M. de Turenne's plans, and contrived to communicate with the King of Navarre. Before the latter could arrange a private interview, however, M. de Turenne got wind of her dangerous knowledge, and swept her off to Chize. The rest you know, M. de Marsac, if any man knows it.'

'But what will you do?' I asked. 'She is at Rosny.'

'Maignan, whom I trust implicitly, as far as his lights go, will start to fetch her to-morrow. At the same hour I start southwards. You, M. de Marsac, will remain here as my agent, to watch over my interests, to receive Mademoiselle on her arrival, to secure for her a secret interview with the king, to guard her while she remains here. Do you understand?'

Did I understand? I could not find words in which to thank him. My remorse and gratitude, my sense of the wrong I had done him, and of the honour he was doing me, were such that I stood mute before him as I had stood before the king. 'You accept, then?' he said, smiling. 'You do not deem the adventure beneath you, my friend?'

'I deserve your confidence so little, sir,' I answered, stricken to the ground, 'that I beg you to speak, while I listen. By attending exactly to your instructions I may prove worthy of the trust reposed in me. And only so.'

He embraced me again and again, with a, kindness which moved me almost to tears. 'You are a man after my own heart,' he said, 'and if God wills I will make your fortune. Now listen, my friend. To-morrow at Court, as a stranger and a man introduced by Rambouillet, you will be the cynosure of all eyes. Bear yourself bravely. Pay court to the women, but attach yourself to no one in particular. Keep aloof from Retz and the Spanish faction, but beware especially of Bruhl. He alone will have your secret, and may suspect your design. Mademoiselle should be here in a week; while she is with you, and until she has seen the king, trust no one, suspect everyone, fear all things. Consider the battle won only when the king says, "I am satisfied."'

Much more he told me, which served its purpose and has been forgotten. Finally he honoured me by bidding me share his pallet with him, that we might talk without restraint, and that if anything occurred to him in the night he might communicate it to me.

'But will not Bruhl denounce me as a Huguenot?' I asked him.

'He will not dare to do so,' M. de Rosny answered, 'both as a Huguenot himself, and as his master's representative; and, further, because it would displease the king. No, but whatever secret harm one man can do another, that you have to fear. Maignan, when he returns with mademoiselle, will leave two men with you; until they come I should borrow a couple of stout fellows from Rambouillet. Do not go out alone after dark, and beware of doorways, especially your own.'

A little later, when I thought him asleep, I heard him chuckle; and rising on my elbow I asked him what it was. 'Oh, it is your affair,' he answered, still laughing silently, so that I felt the mattress shake under him. 'I don't envy you one part of your task, my friend.'

'What is that?' I said suspiciously.

'Mademoiselle,' he answered, stifling with difficulty a burst of laughter. And after that he would not say another word, bad, good, or indifferent, though I felt the bed shake more than once, and knew that he was digesting his pleasantry.