A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter II. The King of Navarre.
I have already referred to the danger with which the alliance between Henry the Third and the League menaced us, an alliance whereof the news, it was said, had blanched the King of Navarre's moustache in a single night. Notwithstanding this, the Court had never shown itself more frolicsome or more free from care than at the time of which I am speaking; even the lack of money seemed for the moment forgotten. One amusement followed another, and though, without doubt, something was doing under the surface for the wiser of his foes held our prince in particular dread when he seemed most deeply sunk in pleasure--to the outward eye St. Jean d'Angely appeared to be given over to enjoyment from one end to the other.
The stir and bustle of the Court reached me even in my garret, and contributed to make that Christmas, which fell on a Sunday, a trial almost beyond sufferance. All day long the rattle of hoofs on the pavement, and the laughter of riders bent on diversion, came up to me, making the hard stool seem harder, the bare walls more bare, and increasing a hundredfold the solitary gloom in which I sat. For as sunshine deepens the shadows which fall athwart it, and no silence is like that which follows the explosion of a mine, so sadness and poverty are never more intolerable than when hope and wealth rub elbows with them.
True, the great sermon which M. d'Amours preached in the market- house on the morning of Christmas-day cheered me, as it cheered all the more sober spirits. I was present myself, sitting in an obscure corner of the building, and heard the famous prediction, which was so soon to be fulfilled. 'Sire,' said the preacher, turning to the King of Navarre, and referring, with the boldness that ever characterised that great man and noble Christian, to the attempt, then being made to exclude the prince from the succession--'Sire, what God at your birth gave you man cannot take away. A little while, a little patience, and you shall cause us to preach beyond the Loire! With you for our Joshua we shall cross the Jordan, and in the Promised Land the Church shall be set up.'
Words so brave, and so well adapted to encourage the Huguenots in the crisis through which their affairs were then passing, charmed all hearers; save indeed, those--and they were few--who, being devoted to the Vicomte de Turenne, disliked, though they could not controvert, this public acknowledgment of the King of Navarre, as the Huguenot leader. The pleasure of those present was evinced in a hundred ways, and to such an extent that even I returned to my chamber soothed and exalted, and found, in dreaming of the speedy triumph of the cause, some compensation for my own ill-fortune.
As the day wore on, however, and the evening brought no change, but presented to me the same dreary prospect with which morning had made me familiar, I confess without shame that my heart sank once more, particularly as I saw that I should be forced in a day or two to sell either my remaining horse or some part of my equipment as essential; a step which I could not contemplate without feelings of the utmost despair. In this state of mind I was adding up by the light of a solitary candle the few coins I had left, when I heard footsteps ascending the stairs. I made them out to be the steps of two persons, and was still lost in conjectures who they might be, when a hand knocked gently at my door.
Fearing another trick, I did not at once open, the more so there was something stealthy and insinuating in the knock. Thereupon my visitors held a whispered consultation; then they knocked again. I asked loudly who was there, but to this they did not choose to give any answer, while I, on my part, determined not to open until they did. The door was strong, and I smiled grimly at the thought that this time they would have their trouble for their pains.
To my surprise, however, they did not desist, and go away, as I expected, but continued to knock at intervals and whisper much between times. More than once they called me softly by name and bade me open, but as they steadily refrained from saying who they were, I sat still. Occasionally I heard them laugh, but under their breath as it were; and persuaded by this that they were bent on a frolic, I might have persisted in my silence until midnight, which was not more than two hours off, had not a slight sound, as of a rat gnawing behind the wainscot, drawn my attention to the door. Raising my candle and shading my eyes I espied something small and bright protruding beneath it, and sprang up, thinking they were about to prise it in. To my surprise, however, I could discover, on taking the candle to the threshold, nothing more threatening than a couple of gold livres, which had been thrust through the crevice between the door and the floor.
My astonishment may be conceived. I stood for full a minute staring at the coins, the candle in my hand. Then, reflecting that the young sparks at the Court would be very unlikely to spend such a sum on a jest, I hesitated no longer, but putting down the candle, drew the bolt of the door, purposing to confer with my visitors outside. In this, however, I was disappointed, for the moment the door was open they pushed forcibly past me and, entering the room pell-mell, bade me by signs to close the door again.
I did so suspiciously, and without averting my eyes from my visitors. Great were my embarrassment and confusion, therefore, when, the door being shut, they dropped their cloaks one after the other, and I saw before me M. du Mornay and the well-known figure of the King of Navarre.
They seemed so much diverted, looking at one another and laughing, that for a moment I thought some chance resemblance deceived me, and that here were my jokers again. Hence while a man might count ten I stood staring; and the king was the first to speak. 'We have made no mistake, Du Mornay, have we?' he said, casting a laughing glance at me.
'No, sire,' Du Mornay answered. 'This is the Sieur de Marsac, the gentleman whom I mentioned to you.'
I hastened, confused, wondering, and with a hundred apologies, to pay my respects to the king. He speedily cut me short, however, saying, with an air of much kindness, 'Of Marsac, in Brittany, I think, sir?'
'The same, sire,'
'Then you are of the family of Bonne?'
'I am the last survivor of that family, sire,' I answered respectfully.
'It has played its part,' he rejoined. and therewith he took his seat on my stool with an easy grace which charmed me. 'Your motto is "Bonne foi," is it not? And Marsac, if I remember rightly, is not far from Rennes, on the Vilaine?'
I answered that it was, adding, with a full heart, that it grieved me to be compelled to receive so great a prince in so poor a lodging.
'Well, I confess,' Du Mornay struck in, looking carelessly round him, 'you have a queer taste, M. de Marsac, in the arrangement of your furniture. You--'
'Mornay!' the king cried sharply.
'Chut! your elbow is in the candle. Beware of it!'
But I well understood him. If my heart had been full before, it overflowed now. Poverty is not so shameful as the shifts to which it drives men. I had been compelled some days before, in order to make as good a show as possible--since it is the undoubted duty of a gentleman to hide his nakedness from impertinent eyes, and especially from the eyes of the canaille, who are wont to judge from externals--to remove such of my furniture and equipage as remained to that side of the room, which was visible from without when the door was open. This left the farther side of the room vacant and bare. To anyone within doors the artifice was, of course, apparent, and I am bound to say that M. de Mornay's words brought the blood to my brow.
I rejoiced, however a moment later that he had uttered them; for without them I might never have known, or known so early, the kindness of heart and singular quickness of apprehension which ever distinguished the king, my master. So, in my heart, I began to call him from that hour.
The King of Navarre was at this time thirty-five years old, his hair brown, his complexion ruddy, his moustache, on one side at least, beginning to turn grey. His features, which Nature had cast in a harsh and imperious mould, were relieved by a constant sparkle and animation such as I have never seen in any other man, but in him became ever more conspicuous in gloomy and perilous times. Inured to danger from his earliest youth, he had come to enjoy it as others a festival, hailing its advent with a reckless gaiety which astonished even brave men, and led others to think him the least prudent of mankind. Yet such he was not: nay, he was the opposite of this. Never did Marshal of France make more careful dispositions for a battle--albeit once in it he bore himself like any captain of horse--nor ever did Du Mornay himself sit down to a conference with a more accurate knowledge of affairs. His prodigious wit and the affability of his manners, while they endeared him to his servants, again and again blinded his adversaries; who, thinking that so much brilliance could arise only from a shallow nature, found when it was too late that they had been outwitted by him whom they contemptuously styled the Prince of Bearn, a man a hundredfold more astute than themselves, and master alike of pen and sword.
Much of this, which all the world now knows, I learned afterwards. At the moment I could think of little save the king's kindness; to which he added by insisting that I should sit on the bed while we talked. 'You wonder, M. de Marsac,' he said, 'what brings me here, and why I have come to you instead of sending for you? Still more, perhaps, why I have come to you at night and with such precautions? I will tell you. But first, that my coming may not fill you with false hopes, let me say frankly, that though I may relieve your present necessities, whether you fall into the plan I am going to mention, or not, I cannot take you into my service; wherein, indeed, every post is doubly filled. Du Mornay mentioned your name to me, but in fairness to others I had to answer that I could do nothing.'
I am bound to confess that this strange exordium dashed hopes which had already risen to a high pitch. Recovering myself as quickly as possible, however, I murmured that the honour of a visit from the King of Navarre was sufficient happiness for me.
'Nay, but that honour I must take from you ' he replied, smiling; 'though I see that you would make an excellent courtier--far better than Du Mornay here, who never in his life made so pretty a speech. For I must lay my commands on you to keep this visit a secret, M. de Marsac. Should but the slightest whisper of it get abroad, your usefulness, as far as I am concerned, would be gone, and gone for good!'
So remarkable a statement filled me with wonder I could scarcely disguise. It was with difficulty I found words to assure the king that his commands should be faithfully obeyed.
'Of that I am sure,' he answered with the utmost kindness. 'Where I not, and sure, too, from what I am told of your gallantry when my cousin took Brouage, that you are a man of deeds rather than words, I should not be here with the proposition I am going to lay before you. It is this. I can give you no hope of public employment, M. de Marsac, but I can offer you an adventure if adventures be to your taste--as dangerous and as thankless as any Amadis ever undertook.'
'As thankless, sire?' I stammered, doubting if I had heard aright, the expression was so strange.
'As thankless,' he answered, his keen eyes seeming to read my soul. 'I am frank with you, you see, sir,' he continued, carelessly. 'I can suggest this adventure--it is for the good of the State--I can do no more. The King of Navarre cannot appear in it, nor can he protect you. Succeed or fail in it, you stead alone. The only promise I make is, that if it ever be safe for me to acknowledge the act, I will reward the doer.'
He paused, and for a few moments I stared at him in sheer amazement. What did he mean? Were he and the other real figures, or was I dreaming?
'Do you understand?' he asked at length, with a touch of impatience.
'Yes, sire, I think I do,' I murmured, very certain in truth and reality that I did not.
'What do you say, then--yes or no?' he rejoined. 'Will you undertake the adventure, or would you hear more before you make up your mind?'
I hesitated. Had I been a younger man by ten years I should doubtless have cried assent there and then, having been all my life ready enough to embark on such enterprises as offered a chance of distinction. But something in the strangeness of the king's preface, although I had it in my heart to die for him, gave me check, and I answered, with an air of great humility, 'You will think me but a poor courtier now, sire, yet he is a fool who jumps into a ditch without measuring the depth. I would fain, if I may say it without disrespect, hear all that you can tell me.'
'Then I fear,' he answered quickly, 'if you would have more light on the matter, my friend, you must get another candle.'
I started, he spoke so abruptly; but perceiving that the candle had indeed burned down to the socket, I rose, with many apologies, and fetched another from the cupboard. It did not occur to me at the moment, though it did later, that the king had purposely sought this opportunity of consulting with his companion. I merely remarked, when I returned to my place on the bed, that they were sitting a little nearer one another, and that the king eyed me before he spoke--though he still swung one foot carelessly in the air with close attention.
'I speak to you, of course, sir,' he presently went on, 'in confidence, believing you to be an honourable as well as a brave man. That which I wish you to do is briefly, and in a word, to carry off a lady. Nay,' he added quickly, with a laughing grimace, 'have no fear! She is no sweetheart of mine, nor should I go to my grave friend here did I need assistance of that kind. Henry of Bourbon, I pray God, will always be able to free his own lady-love. This is a State affair, and a matter of quite another character, though we cannot at present entrust you with the meaning of it.'
I bowed in silence, feeling somewhat chilled and perplexed, as who would not, having such an invitation before him? I had anticipated an affair with men only--a secret assault or a petard expedition. But seeing the bareness of my room, and the honour the king was doing me, I felt I had no choice, and I answered, 'That being the case, sire, I am wholly at your service.'
'That is well,' he, answered briskly, though methought he looked at Du Mornay reproachfully, as doubting his commendation of me. 'But will you say the same,' he continued, removing his eyes to me, and speaking slowly, as though he would try me, 'when I tell you that the lady to be carried off is the ward of the Vicomte de Turenne, whose arm is well-nigh as long as my own, and who would fain make it longer; who never travels, as he told me yesterday, with less than fifty gentlemen, and has a thousand arquebusiers in his pay? Is the adventure still to your liking, M. de Marsac, now that you know that?'
'It is more to my liking, sire,' I answered stoutly.
'Understand this too,' he rejoined. 'It is essential that this lady, who is at present confined in the Vicomte's house at Chize, should be released; but it is equally essential that there should be no breach between the Vicomte and myself. Therefore the affair must be the work of an independent man, who has never been in my service, nor in any way connected with me. If captured, you pay the penalty without recourse to me.'
'I fully understand, sire,' I answered.
'Ventre Saint Gris!' he cried, breaking into a low laugh. I swear the man is more afraid of the lady than he is of the Vicomte! That is not the way of most of our Court.'
Du Mornay, who had been sitting nursing his knee in silence, pursed up his lips, though it was easy to see that he was well content with the king's approbation. He now intervened. 'With your permission, sire,' he said, 'I will let this gentleman know the details.'
'Do, my friend,' the king answered. 'And be short, for if we are here much longer I shall be missed, and in a twinkling the Court will have found me a new mistress.'
He spoke in jest and with a laugh, but I saw Du Mornay start at the words, as though they were little to his liking; and I learned afterwards that the Court was really much exercised at this time with the question who would be the next favourite, the king's passion for the Countess de la Guiche being evidently on the wane, and that which he presently evinced for Madame de Guercheville being as yet a matter of conjecture.
Du Mornay took no overt notice of the king's words, however, but proceeded to give me my directions. 'Chize, which you know by name,' he said, 'is six leagues from here. Mademoiselle de la Vire is confined in the north-west room, on the first-floor, overlooking the park. More I cannot tell you, except that her woman's name is Fanchette, and that she is to be trusted. The house is well guarded, and you will need four or five men, There are plenty of cut-throats to be hired, only see, M. de Marsac, that they are such as you can manage, and that Mademoiselle takes no hurt among them. Have horses in waiting, and the moment; you have released the lady ride north with her as fast as her strength will permit. Indeed, you must not spare her, if Turenne be on your heels. You should be across the Loire in sixty hours after leaving Chize.'
'Across the Loire?' I exclaimed in astonishment.
'Yes, sir, across the Loire,' he replied, with some sternness. 'Your task, be good enough to understand, is to convoy Mademoiselle de la Vire with all speed to Blois. There, attracting as little notice as may be, you will inquire for the Baron de Rosny at the Bleeding Heart, in the Rue de St. Denys. He will take charge of the lady, or direct you how to dispose of her, and your task will then be accomplished. You follow me?'
'Perfectly,' I answered, speaking in my turn with some dryness. 'But Mademoiselle I understand is young. What if she will not accompany me, a stranger, entering her room at night, and by the window?'
'That has been thought of' was the answer. He turned to the King of Navarre, who, after a moment's search, produced a small object from his pouch. This he gave to his companion, and the latter transferred it to me. I took it with curiosity. It was the half of a gold carolus, the broken edge of the coin being rough and jagged. 'Show that to Mademoiselle, my friend,' Du Mornay continued, 'and she will accompany you. She has the other half.'
'But be careful,' Henry added eagerly, 'to make no mention, even to her, of the King of Navarre. You mark me, M. de Marsac! If you have at any time occasion to speak of me, you may have the honour of calling me your friend, and referring to me always in the same manner.'
This he said with so gracious an air that I was charmed, and thought myself happy indeed to be addressed in this wise by a prince whose name was already so glorious. Nor was my satisfaction diminished when his companion drew out a bag containing, as he told me, three hundred crowns in gold, and placed it in my hands, bidding me defray therefrom the cost of the journey. 'Be careful, however,' he added earnestly, 'to avoid, in hiring your men, any appearance of wealth, lest the adventure seem to be suggested by some outside person; instead of being dictated by the desperate state of your own fortunes. Promise rather than give, so far as that will avail. And for what you must give, let each livre seem to be the last in your pouch.'
Henry nodded assent. 'Excellent advice!' he muttered, rising and drawing on his cloak, 'such as you ever give me, Mornay, and I as seldom take--more's the pity! But, after all, of little avail without this.' He lifted my sword from the table as he spoke, and weighed it in his hand. 'A pretty tool,' he continued, turning suddenly and looking me very closely in the face. 'A very pretty tool. Were I in your place, M. de Marsac, I would see that it hung loose in the scabbard. Ay, and more, man, use it!' he added, sinking his voice and sticking out his chin, while his grey eyes, looking ever closer into mine, seemed to grow cold and hard as steel. 'Use it to the last, for if you fall into Turenne's hands, God help you! I cannot!'
'If I am taken, sire,' I answered, trembling, but not with fear, 'my fate be on my own head.'
I saw the king's eyes soften, at that, and his face change so swiftly that I scarce knew him for the same man. He let the weapon drop with a clash on the table. 'Ventre Saint Gris!' he exclaimed with a strange thrill of yearning in his tone. 'I swear by God, I would I were in your shoes, sir. To strike a blow or two with no care what came of it. To take the road with a good horse and a good sword, and see what fortune would send. To be rid of all this statecraft and protocolling, and never to issue another declaration in this world, but just to be for once a Gentleman of France, with all to win and nothing to lose save the love of my lady! Ah! Mornay, would it not be sweet to leave all this fret and fume, and ride away to the green woods by Coarraze?'
'Certainly, if you prefer them to the Louvre, sire,' Du Mornay answered drily; while I stood, silent and amazed, before this strange man, who could so suddenly change from grave to gay, and one moment spoke so sagely, and the next like any wild lad in his teens. 'Certainly,' he answered, 'if that be your choice, sire; and if you think that even there the Duke of Guise will leave you in peace. Turenne, I am sure, will be glad to hear of your decision. Doubtless he will be elected Protector of the Churches. Nay, sire, for shame!' Du Mornay continued almost with sternness. 'Would you leave France, which at odd times I have heard you say you loved, to shift for herself? Would you deprive her of the only man who does love her for her own sake?'
'Well, well, but she is such a fickle sweetheart, my friend,' the king answered, laughing, the side glance of his eye on me. 'Never was one so coy or so hard to clip! And, besides, has not the Pope divorced us?'
'The Pope! A fig for the Pope!' Du Mornay rejoined with impatient heat. 'What has he to do with France? An impertinent meddler, and an Italian to boot! I would he and all the brood of them were sunk a hundred fathoms deep in the sea. But, meantime, I would send him a text to digest.'
'Exemplum?' said the king.
'Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder.'
'Amen! quoth Henry softly. 'And France is a fair and comely bride.'
After that he kept such a silence, falling as it seemed to me into a brown study, that he went away without so much as bidding me farewell, or being conscious, as far as I could tell, of my presence. Du Mornay exchanged a few words with me, to assure himself that I understood what I had to do, and then, with many kind expressions, which I did not fail to treasure up and con over in the times that were coming, hastened downstairs after his master.
My joy when I found myself alone may be conceived. Yet was it no ecstasy, but a sober exhilaration; such as stirred my pulses indeed, and bade me once more face the world with a firm eye and an assured brow, but was far from holding out before me a troubadour's palace or any dazzling prospect. The longer I dwelt on the interview, the more clearly I saw the truth. As the glamour which Henry's presence and singular kindness had cast over me began to lose some of its power, I recognised more and more surely why he had come to me. It was not out of any special favour for one whom he knew by report only, if at all by name; but because he had need of a man poor, and therefore reckless, middle-aged (of which comes discretion), obscure--therefore a safe instrument; to crown all, a gentleman, seeing that both a secret and a women were in question.
Withal I wondered too. Looking from the bag of money on the table to the broken coin in my hand, I scarcely knew which to admire more: the confidence which entrusted the one to a man broken and beggared, or the courage of the gentlewoman who should accompany me on the faith of the other.