Chapter XXIII. The Last Valois.
 

I stood for a few moments on the stairs, wondering what I should do in an emergency to which the Marquis's message of the afternoon attached so pressing a character. Had it not been for that I might have waited until morning, and felt tolerably certain of finding mademoiselle in a more reasonable mood then. But as it was I dared not wait. I dared not risk the delay, and I came quickly to the conclusion that the only course open to me was to go at once to M. de Rambouillet and tell him frankly how the matter stood.

Maignan had posted one of his men at the open doorway leading into the street, and fixed his own quarters on the landing at the top, whence he could overlook an intruder without being seen himself. Satisfied with the arrangement, I left Rambouillet's man to reinforce him, and took with me Simon Fleix, of whose conduct in regard to mademoiselle I entertained the gravest doubts.

The night, I found on reaching the street, was cold, the sky where it was visible between the eaves being bright with stars. A sharp wind was blowing, too, compelling us to wrap our cloaks round us and hurry on at a pace which agreed well with the excitement of my thoughts. Assured that had mademoiselle been complaisant I might have seen my mission accomplished within the hour, it was impossible I should not feel impatient with one who, to gratify a whim, played with the secrets of a kingdom as if they were counters, and risked in passing ill-humour the results of weeks of preparation. And I was impatient, and with her. But my resentment fell so far short of the occasion that I wondered uneasily at my own easiness, and felt more annoyed with myself for failing to be properly annoyed with her, than inclined to lay the blame where it was due. It was in vain I told myself contemptuously that she was a woman and that women were not accountable. I felt that the real secret and motive of my indulgence lay, not in this, but in the suspicion, which her reference to the favour given me on my departure from Rosny had converted almost into a certainty, that I was myself the cause of her sudden ill-humour.

I might have followed this train of thought farther, and to very pertinent conclusions. But on reaching M. de Rambouillet's lodging I was diverted from it by the abnormally quiet aspect of the house, on the steps of which half a dozen servants might commonly be seen lounging. Now the doors were closed, no lights shone through the windows, and the hall sounded empty and desolate when I knocked. Not a lackey hurried to receive me even then; but the slipshod tread of the old porter, as he came with a lantern to open, alone broke the silence. I waited eagerly wondering what all this could mean; and when the man at last opened, and, recognising my face, begged my pardon if he had kept me waiting I asked him impatiently what was the matter.

'And where is the Marquis?' I added, stepping inside to be out of the wind, and loosening my cloak.

'Have you not heard, sir?' the man asked, holding up his lantern to my face. He was an old, wizened, lean fellow. 'It is a break-up, sir, I am afraid, this time.'

'A break-up?' I rejoined, peevishly. 'Speak out, man! What is the matter? I hate mysteries.'

You have not heard the news, sir? That the Duke of Mercoeur and Marshal Retz, with all their people, left Blois this afternoon?'

'No?' I answered, somewhat startled. 'Whither are they gone?'

'To Paris, it is said, sir,--to join the League.'

'But do you mean that they have deserted the king?' I asked.

'For certain, sir!' he answered.

'Not the Duke of Mercoeur?' I exclaimed. 'Why, man, he is the king's brother-in-law. He owes everything to him.'

'Well, he is gone, sir,' the old man answered positively. 'The news was brought to M. le Marquis about four o'clock, or a little after. He got his people together, and started after them to try and persuade them to return. Or, so it is said.'

As quickly as I could, I reviewed the situation in my mind. If this strange news were true, and men like Mercoeur, who had every reason to stand by the king, as well as men like Retz, who had long been suspected of disaffection, were abandoning the Court, the danger must be coming close indeed. The king must feel his throne already tottering, and be eager to grasp at any means of supporting it. Under such circumstances it seemed to be my paramount duty to reach him; to gain his ear if possible, and at all risks; that I and not Bruhl, Navarre not Turenne, might profit by the first impulse of self-preservation.

Bidding the porter shut his door and keep close, I hurried to the Castle, and was presently more than confirmed in my resolution. For to my surprise I found the Court in much the same state as M. de Rambouillet's house. There were double guards indeed at the gates, who let me pass after scrutinising me narrowly; but the courtyard, which should have been at this hour ablaze with torches and crowded with lackeys and grooms, was a dark wilderness, in which half a dozen links trembled mournfully. Passing through the doors I found things within in the same state: the hall ill lit and desolate; the staircase manned only by a few whispering groups, who scanned me as I passed; the ante- chambers almost empty, or occupied by the grey uniforms of the Switzer guards. Where I had looked, to see courtiers assembling to meet their sovereign and assure him of their fidelity, I found only gloomy faces, watchful eyes, and mouths ominously closed. An air of constraint and foreboding rested on all. A single footstep sounded hollowly. The long corridors, which had so lately rung with laughter and the rattle of dice, seemed already devoted to the silence, and desolation which awaited them when the Court should depart. Where any spoke I caught the name of Guise; and I could have fancied that his mighty shadow lay upon the place and cursed it.

Entering the chamber, I found matters little better there. His Majesty was not present, nor were any of the Court ladies; but half a dozen gentlemen, among whom I recognised Revol, one of the King's secretaries, stood near the alcove. They looked up on my entrance, as though expecting news, and then, seeing who it was, looked away again impatiently. The Duke of Nevers was walking moodily to and fro before one of the windows, his hands clasped behind his back: while Biron and Crillon, reconciled by the common peril, talked loudly on the hearth. I hesitated a moment, uncertain how to proceed, for I was not yet; so old at Court as to feel at home there. But, at last making up my mind, I walked boldly up to Crillon and requested his good offices to procure me an immediate audience of the king.

'An audience? Do you mean you want to see him alone?' he said, raising his eyebrows and looking whimsically at Biron.

'That is my petition, M. de Crillon,' I answered firmly, though my heart sank. 'I am here on M. de Rambouillet's business, and I need to see his Majesty forthwith,'

'Well, that is straightforward,' he replied, clapping me on the shoulder. 'And you shall see him. In coming to Crillon you have come to the right man. Revol,' he continued, turning to the secretary, 'this gentleman bears a message from M. de Rambouillet to the king. Take him to the closet without delay, my friend, and announce him. I will be answerable for him.'

But the secretary shrugged his shoulders up to his ears. 'It is quite impossible, M. de Crillon,' he said gravely. 'Quite impossible at present.'

'Impossible! Chut! I do not know the word,' Crillon retorted rudely. 'Come, take him at once, and blame me if ill comes of it. Do you hear?'

'But his Majesty--'

'Well?'

'Is at his devotions,' the secretary said stiffly.

'His Majesty's devotions be hanged!' Crillon rejoined--so loudly that there was a general titter, and M. de Nevers laughed grimly. 'Do you hear?' the Avennais continued, his face growing redder and his voice higher, 'or must I pull your ears, my friend? Take this gentleman to the closet, I say, and if his Majesty be angry, tell him it was by my order. I tell you he comes from Rambouillet.'

I do not know whether it was the threat, or the mention of M. de Rambouillet's name, which convinced the secretary. But at any rate, after a moment's hesitation, he acquiesced.

He nodded sullenly to me to follow him, and led the way to a curtain which masked the door of the closet. I followed him across the chamber, after muttering a hasty word of acknowledgment to Crillon; and I had as nearly as possible reached the door when the bustle of some one entering the chamber caught my ear. I had just time to turn and see that this was Bruhl, just time to intercept the dark look of chagrin and surprise which he fixed on me, and then Revol, holding up the curtain, signed to me to enter.

I expected to pass at once into the presence of the king, and had my reverence ready. Instead, I found myself to my surprise in a small chamber, or rather passage, curtained at both ends, and occupied by a couple of guardsmen--members, doubtless, of the Band of the Forty-Five who rose at my entrance and looked at me dubiously. Their guard-room, dimly illumined by a lamp of red glass, seemed to me, in spite of its curtains and velvet bench, and the thick tapestry which kept out every breath of wholesome air, the most sombre I could imagine. And the most ill-omened. But I had no time to make any long observation; for Revol, passing me brusquely, raised the curtain at the other end, and, with his finger on his lip, bade me by signs to enter.

I did so as silently, the heavy scent of perfumes striking me in the face as I raised a second curtain, and stopped short a pace beyond it; partly in reverence--because kings love their subjects best at a distance--and partly in surprise. For the room, or rather that portion of it in which I stood, was in darkness; only the farther end being illumined by a cold pale flood of moonlight, which, passing through a high, straight window, lay in a silvery sheet on the floor. For an instant I thought I was alone; then I saw, resting against this window, with a hand on either mullion, a tall figure, having something strange about the head. This peculiarity presently resolved itself into the turban in which I had once before seen his Majesty. The king--for he it was--was talking to himself. He had not heard me enter, and having his back to me remained unconscious of my presence.

I paused in doubt, afraid to advance, anxious to withdraw; yet uncertain whether I could move again unheard. At this moment while I stood hesitating, he raised his voice, and his words, reaching my ears, riveted my attention, so strange and eerie were both they and his tone. 'They say there is ill-luck in thirteen,' he muttered. 'Thirteen Valois and last!' He paused to laugh a wicked, mirthless laugh. 'Ay,--Thirteenth! And it is thirteen years since I entered Paris, a crowned King! There were Quelus and Maugiron and St. Megrin and I--and he, I remember. Ah, those days, those nights! I would sell my soul to live them again; had I not sold it long ago in the living them once! We were young then, and rich, and I was king; and Quelus was an Apollo! He died calling on me to save him. And Maugiron died, blaspheming God and the saints. And St. Megrin, he had thirty- four wounds. And he--he is dead too, curse him! They are all dead, all dead, and it is all over! My God! it is all over, it is all over, it is all over!'

He repeated the last four words more than a dozen times, rocking himself to and fro by his hold on the mullions. I trembled as I listened, partly through fear on my own account should I be discovered, and partly by reason of the horror of despair and remorse--no, not remorse, regret--which spoke in his monotonous voice. I guessed that some impulse had led him to draw the curtain from the window and shade the lamp; and that then, as he looked down on the moonlit country, the contrast between it and the vicious, heated atmosphere, heavy with intrigue and worse, in which he had spent his strength, had forced itself upon his mind. For he presently went on.

'France! There it lies! And what will they do with it? Will they cut it up into pieces, as it was before old Louis XI? Will Mercoeur--curse him! be the most Christian Duke of Brittany? And Mayenne, by the grace of God, Prince of Paris and the Upper Seine? Or will the little Prince of Bearn beat them, and be Henry IV., King of France and Navarre, Protector of the Churches? Curse him too! He is thirty-six. He is my age. But he is young and strong, and has all before him. While I--I--oh, my God, have mercy on me! Have mercy on me, O God in Heaven!'

With the last word he fell on his knees on the step before the window, and burst into such an agony of unmanly tears and sobbings as I had never dreamed of or imagined, and least of all in the King of France. Hardly knowing whether to be more ashamed or terrified, I turned at all risks, and stealthily lifting the curtain, crept out with infinite care; and happily with so much good fortune as to escape detection. There was space enough between the two curtains to admit my body and no more; and here I stood a short while to collect my thoughts. Then, striking my scabbard against the wall, as though by accident, and coughing loudly at the same moment, I twitched the curtain aside with some violence and re-entered, thinking that by these means I had given him warning enough.

But I had not reckoned on the darkness in which the room lay, or the excitable state in which I had left him. He heard me, indeed, but being able to see only a tall, indistinct figure approaching him, he took fright, and falling back against the moonlit window, as though he saw a ghost, thrust out his hand, gasping at the same time two words, which sounded to me like 'Ha! Guise!'

The next instant, discerning that I fell on my knee where I stood, and came no nearer, he recovered himself. with an effort, which his breathing made very apparent, he asked in an unsteady voice who it was.

'One of your Majesty's most faithful servants,' I answered, remaining on my knee, and affecting to see nothing.

Keeping his face towards me, he sidled to the lamp and strove to withdraw the shade. But his fingers trembled so violently that it was some time before he succeeded, and set free the cheerful beams, which, suddenly filling the room with radiance, disclosed to my wondering eyes, instead of darkness and the cold gleam of the moon, a profusion of riches, of red stuffs and gemmed trifles and gilded arms crowded together in reckless disorder. A monkey chained in one corner began to gibber and mow at me. A cloak of strange cut, stretched on a wooden stand, deceived me for an instant into thinking that there was a third person present; while the table, heaped with dolls and powder-puff's, dog-collars and sweet-meats, a mask, a woman's slipper, a pair of pistols, some potions, a scourge, and an immense quantity of like litter, had as melancholy an appearance in my eyes as the king himself, whose disorder the light disclosed without mercy. His turban was awry, and betrayed the premature baldness of his scalp. The paint on his cheeks was cracked and stained, and had soiled the gloves he wore. He looked fifty years old; and in his excitement he had tugged his sword to the front, whence it refused to be thrust back.

'Who sent you here?' he asked, when he had so far recovered his senses as to recognise me, which he did with great surprise.

'I am here, sire,' I answered evasively, 'to place myself at your Majesty's service.'

'Such loyalty is rare,' he answered, with a bitter sneer. 'But stand up, sir. I suppose I must be thankful for small mercies, and, losing a Mercoeur, be glad to receive a Marsac.'

'By your leave, sire,' I rejoined hardily, 'the exchange is not so adverse. Your Majesty may make another duke when you will. But honest men are not so easily come by.'

'So! so!' he answered, looking at me with a fierce light in his eyes. 'You remind me in season, I may still make and unmake! I am still King of France? That is so sirrah, is it not?'

'God forbid that it should be otherwise!' I answered earnestly. 'It is to lay before your Majesty certain means by which you may give fuller effect to your wishes that I am here. The King of Navarre desires only, sire--'

'Tut, tut!' he exclaimed impatiently, and with some displeasure, 'I know his will better than you, man. But you see,' he continued cunningly, forgetting my inferior position as quickly as he had remembered it, 'Turenne promises well, too. And Turenne--it is true he may play the Lorrainer. But if I trust Henry of Navarre, and he prove false to me--'

He did not complete the sentence, but strode to and fro a time or two, his mind, which had a natural inclination towards crooked courses, bent on some scheme by which he might play off the one party against the other. Apparently he was not very successful in finding one, however; or else the ill-luck with which he had supported the League against the Huguenots recurred to his mind. For he presently stopped, with a sigh, and came back to the point.

'If I knew that Turenne were lying,' be muttered, 'then indeed--. But Rosny promised evidence, and he has sent me none.'

'It is at hand, sire,' I answered, my heart beginning to beat, 'Your Majesty will remember that M. de Rosny honoured me with the task of introducing it to you.'

'To be sure,' he replied, awaking as from a dream, and looking and speaking eagerly. Matters to-day have driven everything out of my head. Where is your witness, man? Convince me, and we will act promptly. We will give them Jarnac and Moncontour over again. Is he outside?'

'It is a woman, sire,' I made answer, dashed somewhat by his sudden and feverish alacrity.

'A woman, eh? You have her here?'

'No, sire,' I replied, wondering what he would say to my next piece of information. 'She is in Blois, she has arrived, but the truth is--I humbly crave your Majesty's indulgence--she refuses to come or speak. I cannot well bring her here by force, and I have sought you, sire, for the purpose of taking your commands in the matter.'

He stared at me in the utmost astonishment.

'Is she young?' he asked after a long pause.

'Yes, sire,' I answered. 'She is maid of honour to the Princess of Navarre, and a ward also of the Vicomte de Turenne.'

'Gad! then she is worth hearing, the little rebel!' he replied. 'A ward Of Turenne's is she? Ho! ho! And now she will not speak? My cousin of Navarre now would know how to bring her to her senses, but I have eschewed these vanities. I might send and have her brought, it is true; but a very little thing would cause a barricade to-night.'

'And besides, sire,' I ventured to add, 'she is known to Turenne's people here, who have once stolen her away. Were she brought to your Majesty with any degree of openness, they would learn it, and know that the game was lost.'

'Which would not suit me,' he answered, nodding and looking at me gloomily. 'They might anticipate our Jarnac; and until we have settled matters with one or the other our person is not too secure. You must go and fetch her. She is at your lodging. She must be brought, man.'

'I will do what you command, sire,' I answered. 'But I am greatly afraid that she will not come.'

He lost his temper at that. 'Then why, in the devil's name, have you troubled me with the matter?' he cried savagely. 'God knows--I don't--why Rosny employed such a man and such a woman. He might have seen from the cut of your cloak, sir, which is full six months behind the fashion, that you could not manage a woman! Was ever such damnable folly heard of in this world? But it is Navarre's loss, not mine. It is his loss. And I hope to Heaven it may be yours too!' he added fiercely.

There was so much in what he said that I bent before the storm, and accepted with humility blame which was as natural on his part as it was undeserved on mine. Indeed I could not wonder at his Majesty's anger; nor should I have wondered at it in a greater man. I knew that but for reasons, on which I did not wish to dwell, I should have shared it to the full, and spoken quite as strongly of the caprice which ruined hopes and lives for a whim.

The king continued for some time to say to me all the hard things he could think of. Wearied at last by my patience, he paused, and cried angrily. 'Well, have you nothing; to say for yourself? Can you suggest nothing?'

'I dare not mention to your Majesty,' I said humbly, 'what seems to me to be the only alternative.'

'You mean that I should go to the wench!' he answered--for he did not lack quickness. '"Se non va el otero a mahoma, vaya mahoma al otero," as Mendoza says. But the saucy quean, to force me to go to her! Did my wife guess--but there, I will go. By God I will go!' he added abruptly and fiercely. 'I will live to ruin Retz yet! Where is your lodging?'

I told him, wondering much at this flash of the old spirit, which twenty years before had won him a reputation his later life did nothing to sustain.

'Do you know,' he asked, speaking with sustained energy and clearness, 'the door by which M. de Rosny entered to talk with me? Can you find it in the dark?'

'Yes, sire,' I answered, my heart beating high.

'Then be in waiting there two hours before midnight,' he replied. 'Be well armed, but alone. I shall know how to make the girl speak. I can trust you, I suppose?' he added suddenly, stepping nearer to me and looking fixedly into my eyes.

'I will answer for your Majesty's life with my own,' I replied, sinking on one knee.

'I believe you, sir,' he answered gravely, giving me his hand to kiss, and then turning away. 'So be it. Now leave me. You have been here too long already. Not a word to any one as you value your life.'

I made fitting answer and was leaving him; but when I had my head already on the curtain, he called me back. 'In Heaven's name get a new cloak!' he said peevishly, eyeing me all over with his face puckered up. 'Get a new cloak, man, the first thing in the morning. It is worse seen from the side than the front. It would ruin the cleverest courtier of them all!'