A gentleman of france b.., p.2
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       A Gentleman of France: Being the Memoirs of Gaston de Bonne Sieur de Marsac, p.2

           Stanley John Weyman
 

  CHAPTER II. THE KING OF NAVARRE.

  I have already referred to the danger with which the alliance betweenHenry 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 singlenight. Notwithstanding this, the Court had never shown itself morefrolicsome or more free from care than at the time of which I amspeaking; even the lack of money seemed for the moment forgotten. Oneamusement followed another, and though, without doubt, something wasdoing under the surface for the wiser of his foes held our prince inparticular dread when he seemed most deeply sunk in pleasure--to theoutward eye St. Jean d'Angely appeared to be given over to enjoymentfrom one end to the other.

  The stir and bustle of the Court reached me even in my garret, andcontributed to make that Christmas, which fell on a Sunday, a trialalmost beyond sufferance. All day long the rattle of hoofs on thepavement, and the laughter of riders bent on diversion, came up tome, making the hard stool seem harder, the bare walls more bare, andincreasing a hundredfold the solitary gloom in which I sat. For assunshine deepens the shadows which fall athwart it, and no silence islike that which follows the explosion of a mine, so sadness and povertyare never more intolerable than when hope and wealth rub elbows withthem.

  True, the great sermon which M. d'Amours preached in the market-houseon the morning of Christmas-day cheered me, as it cheered all the moresober spirits. I was present myself, sitting in an obscure corner ofthe building, and heard the famous prediction, which was so soon to befulfilled. 'Sire,' said the preacher, turning to the King of Navarre,and referring, with the boldness that ever characterised that greatman and noble Christian, to the attempt, then being made to exclude theprince from the succession--'Sire, what God at your birth gave you mancannot take away. A little while, a little patience, and you shall causeus to preach beyond the Loire! With you for our Joshua we shall crossthe Jordan, and in the Promised Land the Church shall be set up.'

  Words so brave, and so well adapted to encourage the Huguenots inthe crisis through which their affairs were then passing, charmed allhearers; save indeed, those--and they were few--who, being devoted tothe Vicomte de Turenne, disliked, though they could not controvert, thispublic acknowledgment of the King of Navarre, as the Huguenot leader.The pleasure of those present was evinced in a hundred ways, and to suchan extent that even I returned to my chamber soothed and exalted, andfound, in dreaming of the speedy triumph of the cause, some compensationfor my own ill-fortune.

  As the day wore on, however, and the evening brought no change, butpresented to me the same dreary prospect with which morning had mademe 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 selleither my remaining horse or some part of my equipment as essential;a step which I could not contemplate without feelings of the utmostdespair. In this state of mind I was adding up by the light of asolitary candle the few coins I had left, when I heard footstepsascending 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 knockedgently at my door.

  Fearing another trick, I did not at once open, the more so there wassomething stealthy and insinuating in the knock. Thereupon my visitorsheld a whispered consultation; then they knocked again. I asked loudlywho 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 doorwas strong, and I smiled grimly at the thought that this time they wouldhave their trouble for their pains.

  To my surprise, however, they did not desist, and go away, as Iexpected, but continued to knock at intervals and whisper much betweentimes. 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 havepersisted in my silence until midnight, which was not more than twohours off, had not a slight sound, as of a rat gnawing behind thewainscot, drawn my attention to the door. Raising my candle and shadingmy eyes I espied something small and bright protruding beneath it, andsprang 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 beenthrust through the crevice between the door and the floor.

  My astonishment may be conceived. I stood for full a minute staring atthe coins, the candle in my hand. Then, reflecting that the young sparksat the Court would be very unlikely to spend such a sum on a jest, Ihesitated no longer, but putting down the candle, drew the bolt of thedoor, purposing to confer with my visitors outside. In this, however, Iwas disappointed, for the moment the door was open they pushed forciblypast me and, entering the room pell-mell, bade me by signs to close thedoor again.

  I did so suspiciously, and without averting my eyes from my visitors.Great were my embarrassment and confusion, therefore, when, the doorbeing shut, they dropped their cloaks one after the other, and I sawbefore 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, thatfor a moment I thought some chance resemblance deceived me, and thathere were my jokers again. Hence while a man might count ten I stoodstaring; 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, thegentleman whom I mentioned to you.'

  I hastened, confused, wondering, and with a hundred apologies, to pay myrespects to the king. He speedily cut me short, however, saying, with anair 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 seaton my stool with an easy grace which charmed me. 'Your motto is "BONNEFOI," is it not? And Marsac, if I remember rightly, is not far fromRennes, on the Vilaine?'

  I answered that it was, adding, with a full heart, that it grieved me tobe 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 yourfurniture. You--'

  'Mornay!' the king cried sharply.

  'Sire?'

  'Chut! your elbow is in the candle. Beware of it!'

  But I well understood him. If my heart had been full before, itoverflowed now. Poverty is not so shameful as the shifts to which itdrives men. I had been compelled some days before, in order to make asgood a show as possible--since it is the undoubted duty of a gentlemanto hide his nakedness from impertinent eyes, and especially from theeyes of the canaille, who are wont to judge from externals--to removesuch 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 thefarther side of the room vacant and bare. To anyone within doors theartifice was, of course, apparent, and I am bound to say that M. deMornay's words brought the blood to my brow.

  I rejoiced, however a moment later that he had uttered them; for withoutthem I might never have known, or known so early, the kindness of heartand singular quickness of apprehension which ever distinguished theking, 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 hairbrown, his complexion ruddy, his moustache, on one side at least,beginning to turn grey. His features, which Nature had cast in a harshand imperious mould, were relieved by a constant sparkle and animationsuch as I have never seen in any other man, but in him became ever moreconspicuous in gloomy and perilous times. Inured to danger from hisearliest youth, he had come to enjoy it as others a festival, hailingits advent with a reckless gaiety which astonished even brave men, andled others to thin
k him the least prudent of mankind. Yet such he wasnot: nay, he was the opposite of this. Never did Marshal of Francemake more careful dispositions for a battle--albeit once in it he borehimself like any captain of horse--nor ever did Du Mornay himself sitdown to a conference with a more accurate knowledge of affairs. Hisprodigious wit and the affability of his manners, while they endearedhim 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 whomthey contemptuously styled the Prince of Bearn, a man a hundredfold moreastute than themselves, and master alike of pen and sword.

  Much of this, which all the world now knows, I learned afterwards. Atthe moment I could think of little save the king's kindness; to whichhe added by insisting that I should sit on the bed while we talked. 'Youwonder, M. de Marsac,' he said, 'what brings me here, and why I havecome to you instead of sending for you? Still more, perhaps, why I havecome to you at night and with such precautions? I will tell you. Butfirst, that my coming may not fill you with false hopes, let me sayfrankly, that though I may relieve your present necessities, whether youfall into the plan I am going to mention, or not, I cannot take youinto my service; wherein, indeed, every post is doubly filled. Du Mornaymentioned your name to me, but in fairness to others I had to answerthat I could do nothing.'

  I am bound to confess that this strange exordium dashed hopes which hadalready risen to a high pitch. Recovering myself as quickly as possible,however, I murmured that the honour of a visit from the King of Navarrewas sufficient happiness for me.

  'Nay, but that honour I must take from you' he replied, smiling; 'thoughI see that you would make an excellent courtier--far better than DuMornay here, who never in his life made so pretty a speech. For I mustlay my commands on you to keep this visit a secret, M. de Marsac. Shouldbut the slightest whisper of it get abroad, your usefulness, as far as Iam concerned, would be gone, and gone for good!'

  So remarkable a statement filled me with wonder I could scarcelydisguise. It was with difficulty I found words to assure the king thathis 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 tookBrouage, that you are a man of deeds rather than words, I should not behere with the proposition I am going to lay before you. It is this. Ican give you no hope of public employment, M. de Marsac, but I can offeryou an adventure if adventures be to your taste--as dangerous and asthankless as any Amadis ever undertook.'

  'As thankless, sire?' I stammered, doubting if I had heard aright, theexpression 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 cansuggest this adventure--it is for the good of the State--I can do nomore. 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 thedoer.'

  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 realitythat I did not.

  'What do you say, then--yes or no?' he rejoined. 'Will you undertake theadventure, or would you hear more before you make up your mind?'

  I hesitated. Had I been a younger man by ten years I should doubtlesshave cried assent there and then, having been all my life ready enoughto embark on such enterprises as offered a chance of distinction. Butsomething in the strangeness of the king's preface, although I had it inmy heart to die for him, gave me check, and I answered, with an air ofgreat humility, 'You will think me but a poor courtier now, sire, yethe is a fool who jumps into a ditch without measuring the depth. I wouldfain, if I may say it without disrespect, hear all that you can tellme.'

  'Then I fear,' he answered quickly, 'if you would have more light on thematter, my friend, you must get another candle.'

  I started, he spoke so abruptly; but perceiving that the candle hadindeed burned down to the socket, I rose, with many apologies, andfetched another from the cupboard. It did not occur to me at the moment,though it did later, that the king had purposely sought this opportunityof consulting with his companion. I merely remarked, when I returned tomy 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 onefoot 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 Iwish 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 nosweetheart of mine, nor should I go to my grave friend here did I needassistance of that kind. Henry of Bourbon, I pray God, will always beable to free his own lady-love. This is a State affair, and a matter ofquite another character, though we cannot at present entrust you withthe meaning of it.'

  I bowed in silence, feeling somewhat chilled and perplexed, as who wouldnot, having such an invitation before him? I had anticipated an affairwith men only--a secret assault or a petard expedition. But seeing thebareness of my room, and the honour the king was doing me, I felt I hadno choice, and I answered, 'That being the case, sire, I am wholly atyour service.'

  'That is well,' he, answered briskly, though methought he looked at DuMornay reproachfully, as doubting his commendation of me. 'But willyou say the same,' he continued, removing his eyes to me, and speakingslowly, as though he would try me, 'when I tell you that the lady tobe carried off is the ward of the Vicomte de Turenne, whose arm iswell-nigh as long as my own, and who would fain make it longer; whonever travels, as he told me yesterday, with less than fifty gentlemen,and has a thousand arquebusiers in his pay? Is the adventure still toyour 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 bereleased; but it is equally essential that there should be no breachbetween the Vicomte and myself. Therefore the affair must be the workof an independent man, who has never been in my service, nor in any wayconnected with me. If captured, you pay the penalty without recourse tome.'

  'I fully understand, sire,' I answered.

  'Ventre Saint Gris!' he cried, breaking into a low laugh. I swear theman is more afraid of the lady than he is of the Vicomte! That is notthe way of most of our Court.'

  Du Mornay, who had been sitting nursing his knee in silence, pursed uphis lips, though it was easy to see that he was well content with theking's approbation. He now intervened. 'With your permission, sire,' hesaid, 'I will let this gentleman know the details.'

  'Do, my friend,' the king answered. 'And be short, for if we are heremuch longer I shall be missed, and in a twinkling the Court will havefound me a new mistress.'

  He spoke in jest and with a laugh, but I saw Du Mornay start atthe words, as though they were little to his liking; and I learnedafterwards that the Court was really much exercised at this time withthe question who would be the next favourite, the king's passion forthe Countess de la Guiche being evidently on the wane, and that whichhe presently evinced for Madame de Guercheville being as yet a matter ofconjecture.

  Du Mornay took no overt notice of the king's words, however, butproceeded to give me my directions. 'Chize, which you know by name,' hesaid, 'is six leagues from here. Mademoiselle de la Vire is confined inthe north-west room, on the first-floor, overlooking the park. More Icannot tell you, except that her woman's name is Fanchette, and that sheis to be trusted. The house is well guarded, and you will need four orfive men, There are plenty of cut-throats to be hired, on
ly see, M.de Marsac, that they are such as you can manage, and that Mademoiselletakes no hurt among them. Have horses in waiting, and the moment; youhave released the lady ride north with her as fast as her strength willpermit. Indeed, you must not spare her, if Turenne be on your heels. Youshould 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. 'Yourtask, be good enough to understand, is to convoy Mademoiselle de la Virewith 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 theRue de St. Denys. He will take charge of the lady, or direct you how todispose of her, and your task will then be accomplished. You follow me?'

  'Perfectly,' I answered, speaking in my turn with some dryness. 'ButMademoiselle I understand is young. What if she will not accompany me, astranger, entering her room at night, and by the window?'

  'That has been thought of' was the answer. He turned to the King ofNavarre, who, after a moment's search, produced a small object from hispouch. This he gave to his companion, and the latter transferred it tome. 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 toMademoiselle, my friend,' Du Mornay continued, 'and she will accompanyyou. 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 anytime occasion to speak of me, you may have the honour of calling me YOURFRIEND, and referring to me always in the same manner.'

  This he said with so gracious an air that I was charmed, and thoughtmyself happy indeed to be addressed in this wise by a prince whose namewas already so glorious. Nor was my satisfaction diminished when hiscompanion drew out a bag containing, as he told me, three hundred crownsin gold, and placed it in my hands, bidding me defray therefrom the costof the journey. 'Be careful, however,' he added earnestly, 'to avoid, inhiring your men, any appearance of wealth, lest the adventure seem tobe suggested by some outside person; instead of being dictated by thedesperate state of your own fortunes. Promise rather than give, so faras that will avail. And for what you must give, let each livre seem tobe the last in your pouch.'

  Henry nodded assent. 'Excellent advice!' he muttered, rising anddrawing on his cloak, 'such as you ever give me, Mornay, and I as seldomtake--more's the pity! But, after all, of little avail without this.' Helifted my sword from the table as he spoke, and weighed it in his hand.'A pretty tool,' he continued, turning suddenly and looking me veryclosely in the face. 'A very pretty tool. Were I in your place, M. deMarsac, 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 coldand hard as steel. 'Use it to the last, for if you fall into Turenne'shands, God help you! I cannot!'

  'If I am taken, sire,' I answered, trembling, but not with fear, 'myfate be on my own head.'

  I saw the king's eyes soften, at that, and his face change so swiftlythat I scarce knew him for the same man. He let the weapon drop witha clash on the table. 'Ventre Saint Gris!' he exclaimed with a strangethrill of yearning in his tone. 'I swear by God, I would I were in yourshoes, sir. To strike a blow or two with no care what came of it. Totake the road with a good horse and a good sword, and see what fortunewould send. To be rid of all this statecraft and protocolling, and neverto issue another declaration in this world, but just to be for once aGentleman of France, with all to win and nothing to lose save the loveof my lady! Ah! Mornay, would it not be sweet to leave all this fret andfume, and ride away to the green woods by Coarraze?'

  'Certainly, if you prefer them to the Louvre, sire,' Du Mornay answereddrily; while I stood, silent and amazed, before this strange man, whocould so suddenly change from grave to gay, and one moment spoke sosagely, and the next like any wild lad in his teens. 'Certainly,' heanswered, 'if that be your choice, sire; and if you think that eventhere 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 electedProtector of the Churches. Nay, sire, for shame!' Du Mornay continuedalmost with sternness. 'Would you leave France, which at odd times Ihave heard you say you loved, to shift for herself? Would you depriveher of the only man who does love her for her own sake?'

  'Well, well, but she is such a fickle sweetheart, my friend,' the kinganswered, laughing, the side glance of his eye on me. 'Never was one socoy 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 Italianto boot! I would he and all the brood of them were sunk a hundredfathoms deep in the sea. But, meantime, I would send him a text todigest.'

  '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 abrown 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 Mornayexchanged a few words with me, to assure himself that I understood whatI had to do, and then, with many kind expressions, which I did not failto treasure up and con over in the times that were coming, hasteneddownstairs after his master.

  My joy when I found myself alone may be conceived. Yet was it noecstasy, but a sober exhilaration; such as stirred my pulses indeed, andbade 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 anydazzling prospect. The longer I dwelt on the interview, the more clearlyI saw the truth. As the glamour which Henry's presence and singularkindness had cast over me began to lose some of its power, I recognisedmore and more surely why he had come to me. It was not out of anyspecial favour for one whom he knew by report only, if at all byname; but because he had need of a man poor, and therefore reckless,middle-aged (of which comes discretion), obscure--therefore a safeinstrument; to crown all, a gentleman, seeing that both a secret and awomen were in question.

  Withal I wondered too. Looking from the bag of money on the table tothe broken coin in my hand, I scarcely knew which to admire more: theconfidence which entrusted the one to a man broken and beggared, or thecourage of the gentlewoman who should accompany me on the faith of theother.

 
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