Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 16.

A Dead Enemy’s Body Always Smells Sweet.

No brilliant company, however, could give any idea of this spectacle. The rich and elegant silk dresses, bequeathed as a magnificent fashion by François I. to his successors, had not yet been changed into those formal and sombre vestments which came into fashion under Henry III.; so that the costume of Charles IX., less rich, but perhaps more elegant than those of preceding reigns, displayed its perfect harmony. In our day no similar cortège could have any standard of comparison, for when we wish magnificence of display we are reduced to mere symmetry and uniform.

Pages, esquires, gentlemen of low degree, dogs and horses, following on the flanks and in the rear, formed of the royal cortège an absolute army. Behind this army came the populace, or rather the populace was everywhere.

It followed, trooped alongside, and rushed ahead; there were shouts of Noel and Haro, for there were distinguishable in the procession many Calvinists to hoot at, and the populace harbors resentment.

That morning Charles, in presence of Catharine and the Duc de Guise, had, as a perfectly natural thing spoken before Henry of Navarre of going to visit the gibbet of Montfaucon, or, rather, the admiral’s mutilated corpse which had been suspended from it. Henry’s first impulse had been to refuse to take part in this excursion. Catharine supposed he would. At the first words in which he expressed his repugnance she exchanged a glance and a smile with the Duc de Guise. Henry detected them both, understood what they meant, and suddenly recovering his presence of mind said:

“But why should I not go? I am a Catholic, and am bound to my new religion.”

Then addressing the King:

“Your Majesty may reckon on my company,” he said; “and I shall be always happy to accompany you wheresoever you may go.”

And he threw a sweeping glance around, to see whose brows might be frowning.

Perhaps of all that cortège, the person who was looked at with the greatest curiosity was that motherless son, that kingless king, that Huguenot turned Catholic. His long and marked countenance, his somewhat vulgar figure, his familiarity with his inferiors, which he carried to a degree almost derogatory to a king — a familiarity acquired by the mountaineer habits of his youth, and which he preserved till his death — marked him out to the spectators, some of whom cried:

“To mass, Harry, to mass!”

To which Henry replied:

“I attended it yesterday, today, and I shall attend it again tomorrow. Ventre saint gris! surely that is sufficient.”

Marguerite was on horseback — so lovely, so fresh, so elegant that admiration made a regular concert around her, though it must be confessed that a few notes of it were addressed to her companion, the Duchesse de Nevers, who had just joined her on a white horse so proud of his burden that he kept tossing his head.

“Well, duchess!” said the Queen of Navarre, “what is there new?”

“Why, madame,” replied the duchess, aloud, “I know of nothing.”

Then in a lower tone:

“And what has become of the Huguenot?”

“I have found him a retreat almost safe,” replied Marguerite. “And the wholesale assassin, what have you done with him?”

“He wished to take part in the festivity, and so we mounted him on Monsieur de Nevers’ war-horse, a creature as big as an elephant. He is a fearful cavalier. I allowed him to be present at the ceremony today, as I felt that your Huguenot would be prudent enough to keep his chamber and that there was no fear of their meeting.”

“Oh, faith!” replied Marguerite, smiling, “if he were here, and he is not here, I do not think a collision would take place. My Huguenot is remarkably handsome, but nothing more — a dove, and not a hawk; he coos, but does not bite. After all,” she added, with a gesture impossible to describe, and shrugging her shoulders slightly, “after all, perhaps our King thought him a Huguenot while he is only a Brahmin, and his religion forbids him to shed blood.”

“But where, pray, is the Duc d’Alençon?” inquired Henriette; “I do not see him.”

“He will join us later; his eyes troubled him this morning and he was inclined not to come, but as it is known that because he holds a different opinion from Charles and his brother Henry he inclines toward the Huguenots, he became convinced that the King might put a bad interpretation on his absence and he changed his mind. There, hark! people are gazing and shouting yonder; it must be that he is coming by the Porte Montmartre.”

“You are right; ’tis he; I recognize him. How elegant he looks today,” said Henriette. “For some time he has taken particular pains with his appearance; he must be in love. See how nice it is to be a prince of the blood, he gallops over every one, they all draw on one side.”

“Yes,” said Marguerite, laughing, “he will ride over us. For Heaven’s sake draw your attendants to one side, duchess, for there is one of them who will be killed if he does not give way.”

“It is my hero!” cried the duchess; “look, only look!”

Coconnas had left his place to approach the Duchesse de Nevers, but just as his horse was crossing the kind of exterior boulevard which separates the street from the Faubourg Saint Denis, a cavalier of the Duc d’Alençon’s suite, trying in vain to rein in his excited horse, dashed full against Coconnas. Coconnas, shaken by the collision, reeled on his colossal mount, his hat nearly fell off; he put it on more firmly and turned round furiously.

“Heavens!” said Marguerite, in a low tone, to her friend, “Monsieur de la Mole!”

“That handsome, pale young man?” exclaimed the duchess, unable to repress her first impression.

“Yes, yes; the very one who nearly upset your Piedmontese.”

“Oh,” said the duchess, “something terrible will happen! they look at each other — recollect each other!”

Coconnas had indeed recognized La Mole, and in his surprise dropped his bridle, for he believed he had killed his old companion, or at least put him hors de combat for some time. La Mole had also recognized Coconnas, and he felt a fire mount up into his face. For some seconds, which sufficed for the expression of all the sentiments these two men harbored, they gazed at each other in a way which made the two women shudder.

After which, La Mole, having looked about him, and doubtless seeing that the place was ill chosen for an explanation, spurred his horse and rejoined the Duc d’Alençon. Coconnas remained stationary for a moment, twisting his mustache until the point almost entered his eye; then seeing La Mole dash off without a word, he did the same.

“Ah, ha!” said Marguerite, with pain and contempt, “so I was not mistaken — it is really too much;” and she bit her lips till the blood came.

“He is very handsome,” added the Duchesse de Nevers, with commiseration.

Just at this moment the Duc d’Alençon reached his place behind the King and the queen mother, so that his suite, in following him, were obliged to pass before Marguerite and the Duchesse de Nevers. La Mole, as he rode before the two princesses, raised his hat, saluted the queen, and, bowing to his horse’s neck, remained uncovered until her majesty should honor him with a look.

But Marguerite turned her head aside disdainfully.

La Mole, no doubt, comprehended the contemptuous expression of the queen’s features, and from pale he became livid, and that he might not fall from his horse was compelled to hold on by the mane.

“Oh, oh!” said Henriette to the queen; “look, cruel that you are! — he is going to faint.”

“Good,” said the queen, with a cruel smile; “that is the only thing we need. Where are your salts?”

Madame de Nevers was mistaken. La Mole, with an effort, recovered himself, and sitting erect on his horse took his place in the Duc d’Alençon’s suite.

Meantime they kept on their way and at length saw the lugubrious outline of the gibbet, erected and first used by Enguerrand de Marigny. Never before had it been so adorned.

The ushers and guards went forward and made a wide circle around the enclosure. As they drew near, the crows perched on the gibbet flew away with croakings of despair.

The gibbet erected at Montfaucon generally offered behind its posts a shelter for the dogs that gathered there attracted by frequent prey, and for philosophic bandits who came to ponder on the sad chances of fortune.

That day at Montfaucon there were apparently neither dogs nor bandits. The ushers and guards had scared away the dogs together with the crows, and the bandits had mingled with the throng so as to make some of the lucky hits which are the more cheerful vicissitudes of their profession.

The procession moved forward; the King and Catharine arrived first, then came the Duc d’Anjou, Duc d’Alençon, the King of Navarre, Monsieur de Guise, and their followers, then Madame Marguerite, the Duchesse de Nevers, and all the women who composed what was called the queen’s flying squadron; then the pages, squires, attendants, and people — in all ten thousand persons.

From the principal gibbet hung a misshapen mass, a black corpse stained with coagulated blood and mud, whitened by layers of dust. The carcass was headless, and it was hung by the legs, and the populace, ingenious as it always is, had replaced the head with a bunch of straw, to which was fastened a mask; and in the mouth of this mask some wag, knowing the admiral’s habit, had introduced a toothpick.

At once appalling and singular was the spectacle of all these elegant lords and handsome ladies like a procession painted by Goya, riding along in the midst of those blackened carcasses and gibbets, with their long lean arms.

The noisier the exultation of the spectators, the more strikingly it contrasted with the melancholy silence and cold insensibility of those corpses — objects of ridicule which made even the jesters shudder.

Many could scarcely endure this horrible spectacle, and by his pallor might be distinguished, in the centre of collected Huguenots, Henry, who, great as was his power of self-control and the degree of dissimulation conferred on him by Heaven, could no longer bear it.

He made as his excuse the strong stench which emanated from all those human remains, and going to Charles, who, with Catharine, had stopped in front of the admiral’s dead body, he said:

“Sire, does not your Majesty find that this poor carcass smells so strong that it is impossible to remain near it any longer?”

“Do you find it so, Harry?” inquired the King, his eyes sparkling with ferocious joy.

“Yes, sire.”

“Well, then, I am not of your opinion; a dead enemy’s corpse always smells sweet.”

“Faith, sire,” said Tavannes, “since your Majesty knew that we were going to make a little call on the admiral, you should have invited Pierre Ronsard, your teacher of poetry; he would have extemporized an epitaph for the old Gaspard.”

“There is no need of him for that,” said Charles IX., after an instant’s thought:

“Ci-gît — mais c’est mal entendu,

Pour lui le mot est trop honnête —

Ici l’amiral est pendu

Par les pieds, à faute de tête.“4

4 Here lies — the term the question begs,

For him you need a word that’s stronger:

Here hangs the admiral by the legs —

Because he has a head no longer!

“Bravo! bravo!” cried the Catholic gentlemen in unison, while the collected Huguenots scowled and kept silent, and Henry, as he was talking with Marguerite and Madame de Nevers, pretended not to have heard.

“Come, come, sir!” said Catharine, who, in spite of the perfumes with which she was covered, began to be made ill by the odor. “Come, however agreeable company may be, it must be left at last; let us therefore say good-by to the admiral, and return to Paris.”

She nodded ironically as when one takes leave of a friend, and, taking the head of the column, turned to the road, while the cortège defiled before Coligny’s corpse.

The sun was sinking in the horizon.

The throng followed fast on their majesties so as to enjoy to the very end all the splendors of the procession and the details of the spectacle; the thieves followed the populace, so that in ten minutes after the King’s departure there was no person about the admiral’s mutilated carcass on which now blew the first breezes of the evening.

When we say no person, we err. A gentleman mounted on a black horse, and who, doubtless, could not contemplate at his ease the black mutilated trunk when it was honored by the presence of princes, had remained behind, and was examining, in all their details, the bolts, stone pillars, chains, and in fact the gibbet, which no doubt appeared to him (but lately arrived in Paris, and ignorant of the perfection to which things could be brought in the capital) the paragon of all that man could invent in the way of awful ugliness.

We need hardly inform our friends that this man was M. Annibal de Coconnas.

A woman’s practised eye had vainly looked for him in the cavalcade and had searched among the ranks without being able to find him.

Monsieur de Coconnas, as we have said, was standing ecstatically contemplating Enguerrand de Marigny’s work.

But this woman was not the only person who was trying to find Monsieur de Coconnas. Another gentleman, noticeable for his white satin doublet and gallant plume, after looking toward the front and on all sides, bethought him to look back, and saw Coconnas’s tall figure and the silhouette of his gigantic horse standing out strongly against the sky reddened by the last rays of the setting sun.

Then the gentleman in the white satin doublet turned out from the road taken by the majority of the company, struck into a narrow footpath, and describing a curve rode back toward the gibbet.

Almost at the same time the lady whom we have recognized as the Duchesse de Nevers, just as we recognized the tall gentleman on the black horse as Coconnas, rode alongside of Marguerite and said to her:

“We were both mistaken, Marguerite, for the Piedmontese has remained behind and Monsieur de la Mole has gone back to meet him.”

“By Heaven!” exclaimed Marguerite, laughing, “then something is going to happen. Faith, I confess I should not be sorry to revise my opinion about him.”

Marguerite then turned her horse and witnessed the manoeuvre which we have described La Mole as performing.

The two princesses left the procession; the opportunity was most favorable: they were passing by a hedge-lined footpath which led up the hill, and in doing so passed within thirty yards of the gibbet. Madame de Nevers whispered a word in her captain’s ear, Marguerite beckoned to Gillonne, and the four turned into this cross path and went and hid behind the shrubbery nearest to the place where the scene which they evidently expected to witness was to take place. It was about thirty yards, as we have already said, from the spot where Coconnas in a state of ecstasy was gesticulating before the admiral.

Marguerite dismounted, Madame de Nevers and Gillonne did the same; the captain then got down and took the bridles of the four horses. Thick green furnished the three women a seat such as princesses often seek in vain. The glade before them was so open that they would not miss the slightest detail.

La Mole had accomplished his circuit. He rode up slowly and took his stand behind Coconnas; then stretching out his hand tapped him on the shoulder.

The Piedmontese turned round.

“Oh!” said he, “so it was not a dream! You are still alive!”

“Yes, sir,” replied La Mole; “yes, I am still alive. It is no fault of yours, but I am still alive.”

“By Heaven! I know you again well enough,” replied Coconnas, “in spite of your pale face. You were redder than that the last time we met!”

“And I,” said La Mole, “I also recognize you, in spite of that yellow line across your face. You were paler than that when I made that mark for you!”

Coconnas bit his lips, but, evidently resolved on continuing the conversation in a tone of irony, he said:

“It is curious, is it not, Monsieur de la Mole, particularly for a Huguenot, to be able to look at the admiral suspended from that iron hook? And yet they say there are people extravagant enough to accuse us of killing even small Huguenots, sucklings.”

“Count,” said La Mole, bowing, “I am no longer a Huguenot; I have the happiness of being a Catholic!”

“Bah!” exclaimed Coconnas, bursting into loud laughter; “so you are a convert, sir? Oh, that was clever of you!”

“Sir,” replied La Mole, with the same seriousness and the same politeness, “I made a vow to become a convert if I escaped the massacre.”

“Count,” said the Piedmontese, “that was a very prudent vow, and I beg to congratulate you. Perhaps you made still others?”

“Yes, I made a second,” answered La Mole, patting his horse with entire coolness.

“And what might that be?” inquired Coconnas.

“To hang you up there, by that small nail which seems to await you beneath Monsieur de Coligny.”

“What, as I am now?” asked Coconnas, “alive and merry?”

“No, sir; after I have passed my sword through your body!”

Coconnas became purple, and his eyes darted flames.

“Do you mean,” said he in a bantering tone, “to that nail?”

“Yes,” replied La Mole, “to that nail.”

“You are not tall enough to do it, my little sir!”

“Then I’ll get on your horse, my great man-slayer,” replied La Mole. “Ah, you believe, my dear Monsieur Annibal de Coconnas, that one may with impunity assassinate people under the loyal and honorable excuse of being a hundred to one, forsooth! But the day comes when a man finds his man; and I believe that day has come now. I should very well like to send a bullet through your ugly head; but, bah! I might miss you, for my hand is still trembling from the traitorous wounds you inflicted upon me.”

“My ugly head!” shouted Coconnas, leaping down from his steed. “Down — down from your horse, M. le Comte, and draw!”

And he drew his sword.

“I believe your Huguenot called Monsieur de Coconnas an ‘ugly head,’” whispered the Duchesse de Nevers. “Do you think he is bad looking?”

“He is charming,” said Marguerite, laughing, “and I am compelled to acknowledge that fury renders Monsieur de La Mole unjust; but hush! let us watch!”

In fact, La Mole had dismounted from his horse with as much deliberation as Coconnas had shown of precipitation; he had taken off his cherry-colored cloak, laid it leisurely on the ground, drawn his sword, and put himself on guard.

“Aïe!” he exclaimed, as he stretched out his arm.

“Ouf!” muttered Coconnas, as he moved his — for both, as it will be remembered, had been wounded in the shoulder and it hurt them when they made any violent movement.

A burst of laughter, ill repressed, came from the clump of bushes. The princesses could not quite contain themselves at the sight of their two champions rubbing their omoplates and making up faces.

This burst of merriment reached the ears of the two gentlemen, who were ignorant that they had witnesses; turning round, they beheld their ladies.

La Mole resumed his guard as firm as an automaton, and Coconnas crossed his blade with an emphatic “By Heaven!”

“Ah ça! now they will murder each other in real earnest, if we do not interfere. There has been enough of this. Holá, gentlemen! — holá!” cried Marguerite.

“Let them be! let them be!” said Henriette, who having seen Coconnas at work, hoped in her heart that he would have as easy a victory over La Mole as he had over Mercandon’s son and two nephews.

“Oh, they are really beautiful so!” exclaimed Marguerite. “Look — they seem to breathe fire!”

Indeed, the combat, begun with sarcasms and mutual insults, became silent as soon as the champions had crossed their swords. Each distrusted his own strength, and each, at every quick pass, was compelled to restrain an expression of pain occasioned by his own wounds. Nevertheless, with eyes fixed and burning, mouth half open, and teeth clenched, La Mole advanced with short and firm steps toward his adversary, who, seeing in him a most skilful swordsman, retreated step by step. They both thus reached the edge of the ditch on the other side of which were the spectators; then, as if his retreat had been only a simple stratagem to draw nearer to his lady, Coconnas took his stand, and as La Mole made his guard a little too wide, he made a thrust with the quickness of lightning and instantly La Mole’s white satin doublet was stained with a spot of blood which kept growing larger.

“Courage!” cried the Duchesse de Nevers.

“Ah, poor La Mole!” exclaimed Marguerite, with a cry of distress.

La Mole heard this cry, darted at the queen one of those looks which penetrate the heart even deeper than a sword-point, and taking advantage of a false parade, thrust vigorously at his adversary.

This time the two women uttered two cries which seemed like one. The point of La Mole’s rapier had appeared, all covered with blood, behind Coconnas’s back.

Yet neither fell. Both remained erect, looking at each other with open mouth, and feeling that on the slightest movement they must lose their balance. At last the Piedmontese, more dangerously wounded than his adversary, and feeling his senses forsaking him with his blood, fell on La Mole, grasping him with one hand, while with the other he endeavored to unsheath his poniard.

La Mole roused all his strength, raised his hand, and let fall the pommel of his sword on Coconnas’s forehead. Coconnas, stupefied by the blow, fell, but in his fall drew down his adversary with him, and both rolled into the ditch.

Then Marguerite and the Duchesse de Nevers, seeing that, dying as they were, they were still struggling to destroy each other, hastened to them, followed by the captain of the guards; but before they could reach them the combatants’ hands unloosened, their eyes closed, and letting go their grasp of their weapons they stiffened in what seemed like their final agony. A wide stream of blood bubbled round them.

“Oh, brave, brave La Mole!” cried Marguerite, unable any longer to repress her admiration. “Ah! pardon me a thousand times for having a moment doubted your courage.”

And her eyes filled with tears.

“Alas! alas!” murmured the duchess, “gallant Annibal. Did you ever see two such intrepid lions, madame?”

And she sobbed aloud.

“Heavens! what ugly thrusts,” said the captain, endeavoring to stanch the streams of blood. “Holá! you, there, come here as quickly as you can — here, I say”—

He addressed a man who, seated on a kind of tumbril or cart painted red, appeared in the evening mist singing this old song, which had doubtless been suggested to him by the miracle of the Cemetery of the Innocents:

Bel aubespin fleurissant

Verdissant,

Le long de ce beau rivage,

Tu es vétu, jusqu’au bas

Des longs bras

D’une lambrusche sauvage.

Le chantre rossignolet,

Nouvelet,

Courtisant sa bien-aimée

Pour ses amours alléger

Vient logerv

Tous les ans sous ta ramée.

Or, vis, gentil aubespin

Vis sans fin;

Vis, sans que jamais tonnerre,

Ou la cognée, ou les vents

Ou le temps

Te puissent ruer par.” . . . 5

5 Hawthorn brightly blossoming,

Thou dost fling

Verdant shadows down the river;

Thou art clad from top to roots

With long shoots

On which graceful leaflets quiver.

Here the poetic nightingale

Ne’er doth fail —

Having sung his love to capture —

To repair to consecrate,

‘Neath thy verdure, hours of rapture.

Therefore live, O Hawthorn fair,

Live fore’er!

May no thunder bolt dare smite thee!

May no axe or cruel blast

Overcast!

May the tooth of time. . . .

“Holá! hé!” shouted the captain a second time, “come when you are called. Don’t you see that these gentlemen need help?”

The carter, whose repulsive exterior and coarse face formed a singular contrast with the sweet and sylvan song we have just quoted, stopped his horse, got out, and bending over the two bodies said:

“These be terrible wounds, sure enough, but I have made worse in my time.”

“Who are you, pray?” inquired Marguerite, experiencing, in spite of herself, a certain vague terror which she could not overcome.

“Madame,” replied the man, bowing down to the ground, “I am Maître Caboche, headsman to the provostry of Paris, and I have come to hang up at the gibbet some companions for Monsieur the Admiral.”

“Well! and I am the Queen of Navarre,” replied Marguerite; “cast your corpses down there, spread in your cart the housings of our horses, and bring these two gentlemen softly behind us to the Louvre.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37