A Gentleman of France by Stanley J. Weyman
Chapter XXXV. 'Le Roi est Mort!'
It was M. d'Agen's breastpiece saved my life by warding off the point of the varlet's sword, so that the worst injury I got was the loss of my breath for five minutes, with a swimming in the head and a kind of syncope. These being past, I found myself on my back on the ground, with a man's knee on my breast and a dozen horsemen standing round me. The sky reeled dizzily before my eyes and the men's figures loomed gigantic; yet I had sense enough to know what had happened to me, and that matters might well be worse.
Resigning myself to the prospect of captivity, I prepared to ask for quarter; which I did not doubt I should receive, since they had taken me in an open skirmish, and honestly, and in the daylight. But the man whose knee already incommoded me sufficiently, seeing me about to speak, squeezed me on a sudden so fiercely, bidding me at the same time in a gruff whisper be silent, that I thought I could not do better than obey.
Accordingly I lay still, and as in a dream, for my brain was still clouded, heard someone say, 'Dead! Is he? I hoped we had come in time. Well, he deserved a better fate. Who is he, Rosny?'
'Do you know him, Maignan?' said a voice which sounded strangely familiar.
The man who knelt; upon me answered, 'No, my lord. He is a stranger to me. He has the look of a Norman.'
'Like enough!' replied a high-pitched voice I had not heard before. 'For he rode a good horse. Give me a hundred like it, and a hundred men to ride as straight, and I would not envy the King of France.'
'Much less his poor cousin of Navarre,' the first speaker rejoined in a laughing tone, 'without a whole shirt to his back or a doublet that is decently new. Come, Turenne, acknowledge that you are not so badly off after all!'
At that word the cloud which had darkened my faculties swept on a sudden aside. I saw that the men into whose hands I had fallen wore white favours, their leader a white plume; and comprehended without more that the King of Navarre had come to my rescue, and beaten off the Leaguers who had dismounted me. At the same moment the remembrance of all that had gone before, and especially of the scene I had witnessed in the king's chamber, rushed upon my mind with such overwhelming force that I fell into a fury of impatience at the thought of the time I had wasted; and rising up suddenly I threw off Maignan with all my force, crying out that I was alive--that I was alive, and had news.
The equerry did his best to restrain me, cursing me under his breath for a fool, and almost; squeezing the life out of me. But in vain, for the King of Navarre, riding nearer, saw me struggling. 'Hallo! hallo! 'tis a strange dead man,' he cried, interposing. 'What is the meaning of this? Let him go! Do you hear, sirrah? Let him go!'
The equerry obeyed and stood back sullenly, and I staggered to my feet, and looked round with eyes which still swam and watered. On the instant a cry of recognition greeted me, with a hundred exclamations of astonishment. While I heard my name uttered on every side in a dozen different tones, I remarked that M. de Rosny, upon whom my eyes first fell, alone stood silent, regarding me with a face of sorrowful surprise.
'By heavens, sir, I knew nothing of this!' I heard the King of Navarre declare, addressing himself to the Vicomte de Turenne. 'The man is here by no connivance of mine. Interrogate him yourself, if you will. Or I will. Speak, sir,' he continued, turning to me with his countenance hard and forbidding. 'You heard me yesterday, what I promised you? Why, in God's name, are you here to-day?'
I tried to answer, but Maignan had so handled me that I had not breath enough, and stood panting.
'Your Highness's clemency in this matter,' M. de Turenne said, with a sneer, 'has been so great he trusted to its continuance. And doubtless he thought to find you alone. I fear I am in the way.'
I knew him by his figure and his grand air, which in any other company would have marked him for master; and forgetting the impatience which a moment before had consumed me--doubtless I was still light-headed--I answered him. 'Yet I had once the promise of your lordship's protection,' I gasped.
'My protection, sir?' he exclaimed, his eyes gleaming angrily.
'Even so,' I answered. 'At the inn at Etampes, where M. de Crillon would have fought me.'
He was visibly taken aback. 'Are you that man?' he cried.
'I am. But I am not here to prate of myself,' I replied. And with that--the remembrance of my neglected errand flashing on me again--I staggered to the King of Navarre's side, and, falling on my knees, seized his stirrup. 'Sire, I bring you news! great news! dreadful news!' I cried, clinging to it. 'His Majesty was but a quarter of an hour ago stabbed in the body in his chamber by a villain monk. And is dying, or, it may be, dead.'
'Dead? The King!' Turenne cried with an oath. 'Impossible!'
Vaguely I heard others crying, some this, some that, as surprise and consternation, or anger, or incredulity moved them. But I did not answer them, for Henry, remaining silent, held me spellbound and awed by the, marvellous change which I saw fall on his face. His eyes became on a sudden suffused with blood, and seemed to retreat under his heavy brows; his cheeks turned of a brick-red colour; his half-open lips showed his teeth gleaming through his beard; while his great nose, which seemed to curve and curve until it well-nigh met his chin, gave to his mobile countenance an aspect as strange as it was terrifying. Withal he uttered for a time no word, though I saw his hand, grip the riding-whip he held in a convulsive grasp, as though his thought were ''Tis mine! Mine! Wrest it away who dares!'
'Bethink you, sir,' he said at last, fixing his piercing eyes on me, and speaking in a harsh, low tone, like the growling of a great dog, 'this is no jesting-time. Nor will you save your skin by a ruse. Tell me, on your peril, is this a trick?'
'Heaven forbid, sire!' I answered with passion. 'I was in the chamber, and saw it; with my own eyes. I mounted on the instant, and rode hither by the shortest route to warn your Highness to look to yourself. Monks are many, and the Holy Union is not apt to stop half-way.'
I saw he believed me, for his face relaxed. His breath seemed to come and go again, and for the tenth part of a second his eyes sought M. de Rosny's. Then he looked at me again.
'I thank you, sir, he said, bowing gravely and courteously, 'for your care for me--not for your tidings, which are of the sorriest. God grant my good cousin and king may be hurt only. Now tell us exactly--for these gentlemen are equally interested with myself--had a surgeon seen him?'
I replied in the negative, but added that the wound was in the groin, and bled much,
'You said a few minutes ago, "dying or already dead!"' the King of Navarre rejoined. 'Why?'
'His Majesty's face was sunken,' I stammered.
He nodded. 'You may be mistaken,' he said. 'I pray that you are. But here comes Mornay. He may know more.'
In a moment I was abandoned, even by M. de Turenne, so great was the anxiety which possessed all to learn the truth. Maignan alone, under pretence of adjusting a stirrup, remained beside me, and entreated me in a low voice to begone. 'Take this horse, M. de Marsac, if you will,' he urged, 'and ride back the way you came. You have done what you came to do. Go back, and be thankful.'
'Chut!' I said, 'there is no danger.'
'You will see,' he replied darkly, 'if you stay here. Come, come, take my advice and the horse,' he persisted, 'and begone! Believe me, it will be for the best.'
I laughed outright at his earnestness and his face of perplexity. 'I see you have M. de Rosny's orders to get rid of me,' I said. 'But I am not going, my friend. He must find some other way out of his embarrassment, for here I stay.'
'Well, your blood be on your own head,' Maignan retorted, swinging himself into the saddle with a gloomy face. 'I have done my best to save you!'
'And your master!' I answered, laughing.
For flight was the last thing I had in my mind. I had ridden this ride with a clear perception that the one thing I needed was a footing at Court. By the special kindness of Providence I had now gained this; and I was not the man to resign it because it proved to be scanty and perilous. It was something that I had spoken to the great Vicomte face to face and not been consumed, that I had given him look for look and still survived, that I had put in practice Crillon's lessons and come to no harm.
Nor was this all. I had never in the worst times blamed the King of Navarre for his denial of me, I had been foolish, indeed, seeing that it was in the bargain, had I done so; nor had I ever doubted his good-will or his readiness to reward me should occasion arise. Now, I flattered myself, I had given him that which he needed, and had hitherto lacked--an excuse, I mean, for interference in my behalf.
Whether I was right or wrong in this notion I was soon to learn, for at this moment Henry's cavalcade, which had left me a hundred paces behind, came to a stop, and while some of the number waved to me to come on, one spurred back to summon me to the king. I hastened to obey the order as fast as I could, but I saw on approaching that though all was at a standstill till I came up, neither the King of Navarre nor M. de Turenne was thinking principally of me. Every face, from Henry's to that of his least important courtier, wore an air of grave preoccupation; which I had no difficulty in ascribing to the doubt present in every mind, and outweighing every interest, whether the King of France was dead, or dying, or merely wounded.
'Quick, sir!' Henry said with impatience, as soon as I came within hearing. 'Do not detain me with your affairs longer than is necessary. M. de Turenne presses me to carry into effect the order I gave yesterday. But as you have placed yourself in jeopardy on my account I feel that; something is due to you. You will be good enough, therefore, to present yourself at once at M. la Varenne's lodging, and give me your parole to remain there without stirring abroad until your affair is concluded.'
Aware that I owed this respite, which at once secured my present safety and promised well for the future, to the great event that, even in M. de Turenne's mind, had overshadowed all others, I bowed in silence. Henry, however, was not content with this. 'Come, sir,' he said sharply, and with every appearance of anger, 'do you agree to that?'
I replied humbly that I thanked him for his clemency.
'There is no need of thanks,' he replied coldly. 'What I have done is without prejudice to M. de Turenne's complaint. He must have justice.'
I bowed again, and in a moment the troop were gone at a gallop towards Meudon, whence, as I afterwards learned, the King of Navarre, attended by a select body of five-and-twenty horsemen, wearing private arms, rode on at full speed to St. Cloud to present himself at his Majesty's bedside. A groom who had caught the Cid, which had escaped into the town with no other injury than a slight wound in the shoulder, by-and-by met me with the horse; and in this way I was enabled to render myself with some decency at Varenne's lodging, a small house at the foot of the hill, not far from the Castle-gate.
Here I found myself under no greater constraint than that which my own parole laid upon me; and my room having the conveniency of a window looking upon the public street, I was enabled from hour to hour to comprehend and enter into the various alarms and surprises which made that day remarkable. The manifold reports which flew from mouth to mouth on the occasion, as well as the overmastering excitement which seized all, are so well remembered, however, that I forbear to dwell upon them, though they served to distract my mind from my own position. Suffice it that at one moment we heard that His Majesty was dead, at another that the wound was skin deep, and again that we might expect him at Meudon before sunset. The rumour that the Duchess de Montpensier had taken poison was no sooner believed than we were asked to listen to the guns of Paris firing feux de joie in honour of the King's death.
The streets were so closely packed with persons telling and hearing these tales that I seemed from my window to be looking on a fair. Nor was all my amusement withoutdoors; for a number of the gentlemen of the Court, hearing that I had been at St. Cloud in the morning, and in the very chamber, a thing which made me for the moment the most desirable companion in the world, remembered on a sudden that they had a slight acquaintance with me, and honoured me by calling upon me and sitting a great part of the day with me. From which circumstance I confess I derived as much hope as they diversion; knowing that courtiers are the best weather-prophets in the world, who hate nothing so much as to be discovered in the company of those on whom the sun does not shine.
The return of the King of Navarre, which happened about the middle of the afternoon, while it dissipated the fears of some and dashed the hopes of others, put an end to this state of uncertainty by confirming, to the surprise of many, that His Majesty was in no danger. We learned with varying emotions that the first appearances, which had deceived, not myself only, but experienced leeches, had been themselves belied by subsequent conditions; and that, in a word, Paris had as much to fear, and loyal men as much to hope, as before this wicked and audacious attempt.
I had no more than stomached this surprising information, which was less welcome to me, I confess, than it should have been, when the arrival of M. d'Agen, who greeted me with the affection which he never failed to show me, distracted my thoughts for a time. Immediately on learning where I was and, the strange adventures which had befallen me he had ridden off; stopping only once, when he had nearly reached me, for the purpose of waiting on Madame de Bruhl. I asked him how she had received him.
'Like herself,' he replied with an ingenuous blush. 'More kindly than I had a right to expect, if not as warmly as I had the courage to hope.'
'That will come with time,' I said, laughing. 'And Mademoiselle de la Vire?'
'I did not see her,' he answered, 'but I heard she was well. And a hundred fathoms deeper in love,' he added, eyeing me roguishly, 'than when I saw her last.'
It was my turn to colour now, and I did so, feeling all the pleasure and delight such, a statement was calculated to afford me. Picturing mademoiselle as I had seen her last, leaning from her horse with love written so plainly on her weeping face that all who ran might read, I sank into so delicious a reverie that M. la Varenne, entering suddenly, surprised us both before another word passed on either side.
His look and tone were as abrupt as it was in his nature, which was soft and compliant, to make them. 'M. de Marsac,' he said, 'I am sorry to put any constraint upon you, but I am directed to forbid you to your friends. And I must request this gentleman to withdraw.'
'But all day my friends have come in and out,' I said with surprise. 'Is this a new order?'
'A written order, which reached me no farther back than two minutes ago, 'he answered plainly. 'I am also directed to remove you to a room at the back of the house, that you may not overlook the street.'
'But my parole was taken,' I cried, with a natural feeling of indignation.
He shrugged his shoulders. 'I am sorry to say that I have nothing to do with that,' he answered. 'I can only obey orders. I must ask this gentleman, therefore, to withdraw.'
Of course M. d'Agen had no option but to leave me; which he did, I could see, notwithstanding his easy and confident expressions, with a good deal of mistrust and apprehension. When he was gone, La Varenne lost no time in carrying out the remainder of his orders. As a consequence I found myself confined to a small and gloomy apartment which looked, at a distance of three paces, upon the smooth face of the rock on which the Castle stood. This change, from a window which commanded all the life of the town, and intercepted every breath of popular fancy, to a closet whither no sounds penetrated, and where the very transition from noon to evening scarcely made itself known, could not fail to depress my spirits sensibly; the more as I took it to be significant of a change in my fortunes fully as grave. Reflecting that I must now appear to the King of Navarre in the light of a bearer of false tidings, I associated the order to confine me more closely with his return from St. Cloud; and comprehending that M. de Turenne was once more at liberty to attend to my affairs, I began to look about me with forebodings which were none the less painful because the parole I had given debarred me from any attempt to escape.
Sleep and habit enabled me, nevertheless, to pass the night in comfort. Very early in the morning a great firing of guns, which made itself heard even in my quarters, led me to suppose that Paris had surrendered; but the servant who brought me my breakfast; declined in a surly fashion to give me any information. In the end, I spent the whole day alone, my thoughts divided between my mistress and my own prospects, which seemed to grow more and more gloomy as the hours succeeded one another. No one came near me, no step broke the silence of the house; and for a while I thought my guardians had forgotten even that I needed food. This omission, it is true, was made good about sunset, but still M. la Varenne did not appear, the servant seemed to be dumb, and I heard no sounds in the house.
I had finished my meal an hour or more, and the room was growing dark, when the silence was at last broken by quick steps passing along the entrance. They paused, and seemed to hesitate at the foot of the stairs, but the next moment they came on again, and stopped at my door. I rose from my seat on hearing the key turned in the lock, and my astonishment may be conceived when I saw no other than M. de Turenne enter, and close the door behind him.
He saluted me in a haughty manner as he advanced to the table, raising his cap for an instant and then replacing it. This done he stood looking at me, and I at him, in a silence which on my side was the result of pure astonishment; on his, of contempt and a kind of wonder. The evening light, which was fast failing, lent a sombre whiteness to his face, causing it to stand out from the shadows behind him in a way which was not without its influence on me.
'Well!' he said at, last, speaking slowly and with unimaginable insolence, 'I am here to look at you!'
I felt my anger rise, and gave him back look for look. 'At your will,' I said, shrugging my shoulders.
'And to solve a question,' he continued in the same tone. 'To learn whether the man who was mad enough to insult and defy me was the old penniless dullard some called him, or the dare-devil others painted him.'
'You are satisfied now?' I said.
He eyed me for a moment closely; then with sudden heat he cried, 'Curse me if I am! Nor whether I have to do with a man very deep or very shallow, a fool or a knave!'
'You may say what you please to a prisoner,' I retorted coldly.
'Turenne commonly does--to whom he pleases!' he answered. The next moment he made me start by saying, as he drew out a comfit- box and opened it, 'I am just from the little fool you have bewitched. If she were in my power I would have her whipped and put on bread and water till she came to her senses. As she is not, I must take another way. Have you any idea, may I ask,' he continued in his cynical tone, 'what is going to become of you, M. de Marsac?'
I replied, my heart inexpressibly lightened by what he had said of mademoiselle, that I placed the fullest confidence in the justice of the King of Navarre.
He repeated the name in a tone, I did not understand.
'Yes, sir, the King of Navarre,' I answered firmly.
'Well, I daresay you have good reason to do so,' he rejoined with a sneer. 'Unless I am mistaken he knew a little more of this affair than he acknowledges.'
'Indeed? The King of Navarre?' I said, staring stolidly at him.
'Yes, indeed, indeed, the King of Navarre!' he retorted, mimicking me, with a nearer approach to anger than I had yet witnessed in him. 'But let him be a moment, sirrah!' he continued, 'and do you listen to me. Or first look at that. Seeing is believing.'
He drew out as he spoke a paper, or, to speak more correctly, a parchment, which he thrust with a kind of savage scorn into my hand. Repressing for the moment the surprise I felt, I took it to the window, and reading it with difficulty, found it to be a royal patent drawn, as far as I could judge, in due form, and appointing some person unknown--for the name was left blank--to the post of Lieutenant-Governor of the Armagnac, with a salary of twelve thousand livres a year!
'Well, sir?' he said impatiently.
'Well?' I answered mechanically. For my brain reeled; the exhibition of such a paper in such a way raised extraordinary thoughts in my mind.
'Can you read it?' he asked.
'Certainly,' I answered, telling myself that he would fain play a trick on me.
'Very well,' he replied, 'then listen. I am going to condescend; to make you an offer, M. de Marsac. I will procure you your freedom, and fill up the blank, which you see there, with your name--upon one condition.'
I stared at him with all the astonishment it was natural for me to feel in the face, of such a proposition. 'You will confer this office on me?' I muttered incredulously.
'The king having placed it at my disposal,' he answered, 'I will. But first let me remind you,' he went on proudly, 'that the affair has another side. On the one hand I offer you such employment, M. de Marsac, as should satisfy your highest ambition. On the other, I warn you that my power to avenge myself is no less to-day than it was yesterday; and that if I condescend to buy you, it is because that course commends itself to me for reasons, not because it is the only one open.'
I bowed. 'The condition, M. le Vicomte?' I said huskily, beginning to understand him.
'That you give up all claim and suit to the hand of my kinswoman,' he answered lightly. 'That is all. It is a simple and easy condition.'
I looked at him in renewed astonishment, in wonder, in stupefaction; asking myself a hundred questions. Why did he stoop to bargain, who could command? Why did he condescend to treat, who held me at his mercy? Why did he gravely discuss my aspirations, to whom they must seem the rankest presumption? Why?--but I could not follow it. I stood looking at him in silence; in perplexity as great as if he had offered me the Crown of France; in amazement and doubt and suspicion that knew no bounds.
'Well!' he said at last, misreading the emotion which appeared in my face. 'You consent, sir?'
'Never!' I answered firmly.
He started. 'I think I cannot have heard you aright,' he said, speaking slowly and almost courteously. 'I offer you a great place and my patronage, M. de Marsac. Do I understand that you prefer a prison and my enmity?'
'On those conditions,' I answered.
'Think, think!' he said harshly.
'I have thought,' I answered.
'Ay, but have you thought where you are?' he retorted. 'Have you thought how many obstacles lie between you and this little fool? How many persons you must win over, how many friends you must gain? Have you thought what it will be to have me against you in this, or which of us is more likely to win in the end?'
'I have thought,' I rejoined.
But my voice shook, my lips were dry. The room had grown dark. The rock outside, intercepting the light, gave it already the air of a dungeon. Though I did not dream of yielding to him, though I even felt that in this interview he had descended to my level, and I had had the better of him, I felt my heart sink. For I remembered how men immured in prisons drag out their lives always petitioning, always forgotten; how wearily the days go, that to free men are bright with hope and ambition. And I saw in a flash what it would be to remain here, or in some such place; never to cross horse again, or breathe the free air of Heaven, never to hear the clink of sword against stirrup, or the rich tones of M. d'Agen's voice calling for his friend!
I expected M. de Turenne to go when I had made my answer, or else to fall into such a rage as opposition is apt to cause in those who seldom encounter it. To my surprise, however, he restrained himself. 'Come,' he said, with patience which fairly astonished me, and so much the more as chagrin was clearly marked in his voice, 'I know where you put your trust. You think the King of Navarre will protect you. Well, I pledge you the honour of Turenne that he will not; that the King of Navarre will do nothing to save you. Now, what do you say?'
'As I said before,' I answered doggedly.
He took up the parchment from the table with a grim laugh. 'So much the worse for you then!' he said, shrugging his shoulders. 'So much the worse for you! I took you for a rogue! It seems you are a fool!'