Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 19.

The Abode of Maître Réné, Perfumer to the Queen Mother.

At the period of this history there existed in Paris, for passing from one part of the city to another, but five bridges, some of stone and the others of wood, and they all led to the Cité; there were le Pont des Meuniers, le Pont au Change, le Pont Notre–Dame, le Petit Pont, and le Pont Saint Michel.

In other places when there was need of crossing the river there were ferries.

These five bridges were loaded with houses like the Pont Vecchio at Florence at the present time. Of these five bridges, each of which has its history, we shall now speak more particularly of the Pont Saint Michel.

The Pont Saint Michel had been built of stone in 1373; in spite of its apparent solidity, a freshet in the Seine undermined a part of it on the thirty-first of January, 1408; in 1416 it had been rebuilt of wood; but during the night of December 16, 1547, it was again carried away; about 1550, in other words twenty-two years anterior to the epoch which we have reached, it was again built of wood, and though it needed repairs it was regarded as solid enough.

In the midst of the houses which bordered the line of the bridge, facing the small islet on which the Templers had been burnt, and where at the present time the platform of the Pont Neuf rests, stood a wooden panelled house over which a large roof impended like the lid of an immense eye. At the only window, which opened on the first story, over the window and door of the ground floor, hermetically sealed, shone a reddish light, which attracted the attention of the passers-by to the low, wide façade, painted blue, with rich gold mouldings. A kind of frieze separating the ground floor from the first floor represented groups of devils in the most grotesque postures imaginable; and a wide scroll painted blue like the façade ran between the frieze and the window, with this inscription: “RÉNÉ, FLORENTIN, PERFUMER DE SA MAJESTÉ LA REINE MÈRE.”

The door of this shop was, as we have said, well bolted; but it was defended from nocturnal attacks better than by bolts by its occupant’s reputation, so redoubtable that the passengers over the bridge usually described a curve which took them to the opposite row of houses, as if they feared the very smell of the perfumes that might exhale through the walls.

More than this, the right and left hand neighbors, doubtless fearing that they might be compromised by the proximity, had, since Maître Réné‘s occupancy of the house, taken their departure one after the other so that the two houses next to Réné‘s were left empty and closed. Yet, in spite of this solitude and desertedness, belated passers-by had frequently seen, glittering through the crevices of the shutters of these empty habitations, strange rays of light, and had felt certain they heard strange noises like groans, which proved that some beings frequented these abodes, although they did not know if they belonged to this world or the other.

The result was that the tenants of the two buildings contiguous to the two empty houses from time to time queried whether it would not be wise in them to do as their neighbors had done.

It was, doubtless, owing to the privilege which the dread of him, widely circulated, had procured for him, that Maître Réné had ventured to keep up a light after the prescribed hour. No round or guard, moreover, would have dared to molest him, a man doubly dear to her majesty as her fellow-countryman and perfumer.

As we suppose that the reader, panoplied by the philosophical wisdom of this century, no longer believes in magic or magicians, we will invite him to accompany us into this dwelling which, at that epoch of superstitious faith, shed around it such a profound terror.

The shop on the ground floor is dark and deserted after eight o’clock in the evening — the hour at which it closes, not to open again until next morning; there it is that the daily sale of perfumery, unguents, and cosmetics of all kinds, such as a skilful chemist makes, takes place. Two apprentices aid him in the retail business, but do not sleep in the house; they lodge in the Rue de la Colandre.

In the evening they take their departure an instant before the shop closes; in the morning they wait at the door until it opens.

This ground-floor shop is therefore dark and deserted, as we have said.

In this shop, which is large and deep, there are two doors, each leading to a staircase. One of these staircases is in the wall itself and is lateral, and the other is exterior and visible from the quay now called the Quai des Augustins, and from the riverbank, now called the Quai des Orfévres.

Both lead to the principal room on the first floor. This room is of the same size as the ground floor, except that it is divided into two compartments by tapestry suspended in the centre and parallel to the bridge. At the end of the first compartment opens the door leading to the exterior staircase. On the side face of the second opens the door of the secret staircase. This door is invisible, being concealed by a large carved cupboard fastened to it by iron cramps, and moving with it when pushed open. Catharine alone, besides Réné, knows the secret of this door, and by it she comes and departs; and with eye or ear placed against the cupboard, in which are several small holes, she sees and hears all that occurs in the chamber.

Two other doors, visible to all eyes, present themselves at the sides of the second compartment. One opens into a small chamber lighted from the roof, and having nothing in it but a large stove, some alembecs, retorts, and crucibles: it is the alchemist’s laboratory; the other opens into a cell more singular than the rest of the apartment, for it is not lighted at all — has neither carpet nor furniture, but only a kind of stone altar.

The floor slopes from the centre to the ends, and from the ends to the base of the wall is a kind of gutter ending in a funnel, through whose orifice may be seen the dark waters of the Seine. On nails driven into the walls are hung singular-shaped instruments, all keen or pointed with points as fine as a needle and edges as sharp as a razor; some shine like mirrors; others, on the contrary, are of a dull gray or murky blue.

In a corner are two black fowls struggling with each other and tied together by the claws. This is the soothsayer’s sanctuary.

Let us return to the middle chamber, that with two compartments.

Here the common herd of clients are introduced; here ibises from Egypt; mummies, with gilded bands; the crocodile, yawning from the ceiling; death’s-heads, with eyeless sockets and loose teeth; and old musty volumes, torn and rat-eaten, are presented to the visitor’s eye in pellmell confusion. Behind the curtain are phials, singularly shaped boxes, and weird-looking vases; all this is lighted up by two small silver lamps exactly alike, perhaps stolen from some altar of Santa Maria Novella or the Church Dei Lervi of Florence; these, supplied with perfumed oil, cast their yellow flames around the sombre vault from which each hangs by three blackened chains.

Réné, alone, his arms crossed, is pacing up and down the second compartment with long strides, and shaking his head. After a lengthened and painful musing he pauses before an hour-glass:

“Ah! ah!” says he, “I forget to turn it; and perhaps the sand has all run through a long time ago.”

Then, looking at the moon as it struggled through a heavy black cloud which seemed to hang over Notre–Dame, he said: “It is nine o’clock. If she comes, she will come, as usual, in an hour or an hour and a half; then there will be time for all.”

At this moment a noise was heard on the bridge. Réné applied his ear to the orifice of a long tube, the other end of which reached down the street, terminating in a heraldic viper-head.

“No,” he said, “it is neither she nor they; it is men’s footsteps, and they stop at my door — they are coming here.”

And three sharp knocks were heard at the door.

Réné hurried downstairs and put his ear against the door, without opening it.

The three sharp blows were repeated.

“Who’s there?” asked Maître Réné.

“Must we mention our names?” inquired a voice.

“It is indispensable,” replied Réné.

“Well, then, I am the Comte Annibal de Coconnas,” said the same voice.

“And I am the Comte Lerac de la Mole,” said another voice, which had not as yet been heard.

“Wait, wait, gentlemen, I am at your service.”

And at the same moment Réné drew the bolts and, lifting the bars, opened the door to the two young men locking it after him. Then, conducting them by the exterior staircase, he introduced them into the second compartment.

La Mole, as he entered, made the sign of the cross under his cloak. He was pale, and his hand trembled without his being able to repress this symptom of weakness.

Coconnas looked at everything, one after the other; and seeing the door of the cell, was about to open it.

“Allow me to observe, my dear young gentleman,” said Réné, in his deep voice, and placing his hand on Coconnas’s, “those that do me the honor of a visit have access only to this part of the room.”

“Oh, very well,” replied Coconnas; “besides, I feel like sitting down.” And he took a seat.

There was unbroken silence for a moment — Maître Réné was waiting for one or the other of the young men to open the conversation.

“Maître Réné,” at length said Coconnas, “you are a skilful man, and I pray you tell me if I shall always remain a sufferer from my wound — that is, always experience this shortness of breath, which prevents me from riding on horseback, using my sword, and eating larded omelettes?”

Réné put his ear to Coconnas’s chest and listened attentively to the play of the lungs.

“No, Monsieur le Comte,” he replied, “you will get well.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I assure you.”

“Well, you fill me with delight.”

There was silence once more.

“Is there nothing else you would desire to know, M. le Comte?”

“I wish to know,” said Coconnas, “if I am really in love?”

“You are,” replied Réné.

“How do you know?”

“Because you asked the question.”

“By Heaven! you are right. But with whom?”

“With her who now, on every occasion, uses the oath you have just uttered.”

“Ah!” said Coconnas, amazed; “Maître Réné, you are a clever man! Now, La Mole, it is your turn.”

La Mole reddened, and seemed embarrassed.

“I, Monsieur Réné,” he stammered, and speaking more firmly as he proceeded, “do not care to ask you if I am in love, for I know that I am, and I do not hide it from myself; but tell me, shall I be beloved in return? for, in truth, all that at first seemed propitious now turns against me.”

“Perchance you have not done all you should do.”

“What is there to do, sir, but to testify, by one’s respect and devotion to the lady of one’s thoughts, that she is really and profoundly beloved?”

“You know,” replied Réné, “that these demonstrations are frequently very meaningless.”

“Then must I despair?”

“By no means; we must have recourse to science. In human nature there are antipathies to be overcome — sympathies which may be forced. Iron is not the lodestone; but by rubbing it with a lodestone we make it, in its turn, attract iron.”

“Yes, yes,” muttered La Mole; “but I have an objection to all these sorceries.”

“Ah, then, if you have any such objections, you should not come here,” answered Réné.

“Come, come, this is child’s play!” interposed Coconnas. “Maître Réné, can you show me the devil?”

“No, Monsieur le Comte.”

“I’m sorry for that; for I had a word or two to say to him, and it might have encouraged La Mole.”

“Well, then, let it be so,” said La Mole, “let us go to the point at once. I have been told of figures modelled in wax to look like the beloved object. Is that one way?”

“An infallible one.”

“And there is nothing in the experiment likely to affect the life or health of the person beloved?”

“Nothing.”

“Let us try, then.”

“Shall I make first trial?” said Coconnas.

“No,” said La Mole, “since I have begun, I will go through to the end.”

“Is your desire mighty, ardent, imperious to know what the obstacle is, Monsieur de la Mole?”

“Oh,” exclaimed La Mole, “I am dying with anxiety.”

At this moment some one rapped lightly at the street door — so lightly that no one but Maître Réné heard the noise, doubtless because he had been expecting it.

Without any hesitation he went to the speaking-tube and put his ear to the mouthpiece, at the same time asking La Mole several idle questions. Then he added, suddenly:

“Now put all your energy into your wish, and call the person whom you love.”

La Mole knelt, as if about to address a divinity; and Réné, going into the other compartment, went out noiselessly by the exterior staircase, and an instant afterward light steps trod the floor of his shop.

When La Mole rose he beheld before him Maître Réné. The Florentine held in his hand a small wax figure, very indifferently modelled; it wore a crown and mantle.

“Do you desire to be always beloved by your royal mistress?” demanded the perfumer.

“Yes, even if it cost me my life — even if my soul should be the sacrifice!” replied La Mole.

“Very good,” said the Florentine, taking with the ends of his fingers some drops of water from a ewer and sprinkling them over the figure, at the same time muttering certain Latin words.

La Mole shuddered, believing that some sacrilege was committed.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I am christening this figure with the name of Marguerite.”

“What for?”

“To establish a sympathy.”

La Mole opened his mouth to prevent his going any further, but a mocking look from Coconnas stopped him.

Réné, who had noticed the impulse, waited. “Your absolute and undivided will is necessary,” he said.

“Go on,” said La Mole.

Réné wrote on a small strip of red paper some cabalistic characters, put it into the eye of a steel needle, and with the needle pierced the small wax model in the heart.

Strange to say, at the orifice of the wound appeared a small drop of blood; then he set fire to the paper.

The heat of the needle melted the wax around it and dried up the spot of blood.

“Thus,” said Réné, “by the power of sympathy, your love shall pierce and burn the heart of the woman whom you love.”

Coconnas, true to his repute as a bold thinker, laughed in his mustache, and in a low tone jested; but La Mole, desperately in love and full of superstition, felt a cold perspiration start from the roots of his hair.

“And now,” continued Réné, “press your lips to the lips of the figure, and say: ‘Marguerite, I love thee! Come, Marguerite!’”

La Mole obeyed.

At this moment the door of the second chamber was heard to open, and light steps approached. Coconnas, curious and incredulous, drew his poniard, and fearing that if he raised the tapestry Réné would repeat what he said about the door, he cut a hole in the thick curtain, and applying his eye to the hole, uttered a cry of astonishment, to which two women’s voices responded.

“What is it?” exclaimed La Mole, nearly dropping the waxen figure, which Réné caught from his hands.

“Why,” replied Coconnas, “the Duchesse de Nevers and Madame Marguerite are there!”

“There, now, you unbelievers!” replied Réné, with an austere smile; “do you still doubt the force of sympathy?”

La Mole was petrified on seeing the queen; Coconnas was amazed at beholding Madame de Nevers. One believed that Réné‘s sorceries had evoked the phantom Marguerite; the other, seeing the door half open, by which the lovely phantoms had entered, gave at once a worldly and substantial explanation to the mystery.

While La Mole was crossing himself and sighing enough to split a rock, Coconnas, who had taken time to indulge in philosophical questionings and to drive away the foul fiend with the aid of that holy water sprinkler called scepticism, having observed, through the hole in the curtain, the astonishment shown by Madame de Nevers and Marguerite’s somewhat caustic smile, judged the moment to be decisive, and understanding that a man may say in behalf of a friend what he cannot say for himself, instead of going to Madame de Nevers, went straight to Marguerite, and bending his knee, after the fashion of the great Artaxerxes as represented in the farces of the day, cried, in a voice to which the whistling of his wound added a peculiar accent not without some power:

“Madame, this very moment, at the demand of my friend the Comte de la Mole, Maître Réné was evoking your spirit; and to my great astonishment, your spirit is accompanied with a body most dear to me, and which I recommend to my friend. Shade of her majesty the Queen of Navarre, will you desire the body of your companion to come to the other side of the curtain?”

Marguerite began to laugh, and made a sign to Henriette, who passed to the other side of the curtain.

“La Mole, my friend,” continued Coconnas, “be as eloquent as Demosthenes, as Cicero, as the Chancellor de l’Hôpital! and be assured that my life will be imperilled if you do not persuade the body of Madame de Nevers that I am her most devoted, most obedient, and most faithful servant.”

“But”— stammered La Mole.

“Do as I say! And you, Maître Réné, watch that we are not interrupted.”

Réné did as Coconnas asked.

“By Heaven, monsieur,” said Marguerite, “you are a clever man. I am listening to you. What have you to say?”

“I have to say to you, madame, that the shadow of my friend — for he is a shadow, and he proves it by not uttering a single little word — I say, that this shadow begs me to use the faculty which material bodies possess of speaking so as to be understood, and to say to you: Lovely shadow, the gentleman thus disembodied has lost his whole body and all his breath by the cruelty of your eyes. If this were really you, I should ask Maître Réné to plunge me in some sulphurous pit rather than use such language to the daughter of King Henry II., to the sister of King Charles IX., to the wife of the King of Navarre. But shades are freed from all earthly pride and they are never angry when men love them. Therefore, pray your body, madame, to love the soul of this poor La Mole a little — a soul in trouble, if ever there was one; a soul first persecuted by friendship, which three times thrust into him several inches of cold steel; a soul burnt by the fire of your eyes — fire a thousand times more consuming than all the flames of hell. So have pity on this poor soul! Love a little what was the handsome La Mole; and if you no longer possess speech, ah! bestow a gesture, bestow a smile upon him. My friend’s soul is a very intelligent soul, and will comprehend everything. Be kind to him, then; or, by Heaven! I will run my sword through Réné‘s body in order that, by virtue of the power which he possesses over spirits, he may force yours, which he has already so opportunely evoked, to do all a shade so amiably disposed as yours appears to be should do.”

At this burst of eloquence delivered by Coconnas as he stood in front of the queen like Æneas descending into Hades, Marguerite could not refrain from a hearty burst of laughter, yet, preserving the silence which on such an occasion may be the supposed characteristic of a royal shade, she presented her hand to Coconnas. He took it daintily in his, and, calling to La Mole, said:

“Shade of my friend, come hither instantly!”

La Mole, amazed, overcome, silently obeyed.

“’T is well,” said Coconnas, taking him by the back of the head; “and now bring the shadow of your handsome brown countenance into contact with the white and vaporous hand before you.”

And Coconnas, suiting the action to the word, raised the delicate hand to La Mole’s lips, and kept them for a moment respectfully united, without the hand seeking to withdraw itself from the gentle pressure.

Marguerite had not ceased to smile, but Madame de Nevers did not smile at all; she was still trembling at the unexpected appearance of the two gentlemen. She was conscious that her awkwardness was increased by all the fever of a growing jealousy, for it seemed to her that Coconnas ought not thus to forget her affairs for those of others.

La Mole saw her eyebrows contracted, detected the flashing threat of her eyes, and in spite of the intoxicating fever to which his delight was insensibly urging him to succumb he realized the danger which his friend was running and perceived what he should try to do to rescue him.

So rising and leaving Marguerite’s hand in Coconnas’s, he grasped the Duchesse de Nevers’s, and bending his knee he said:

“O loveliest — O most adorable of women — I speak of living women, and not of shades!” and he turned a look and a smile to Marguerite; “allow a soul released from its mortal envelope to repair the absence of a body fully absorbed by material friendship. Monsieur de Coconnas, whom you see, is only a man — a man of bold and hardy frame, of flesh handsome to gaze upon perchance, but perishable, like all flesh. Omnis caro fenum. Although this gentleman keeps on from morning to night pouring into my ears the most touching litanies about you, though you have seen him distribute as heavy blows as were ever seen in wide France — this champion, so full of eloquence in presence of a spirit, dares not address a woman. That is why he has addressed the shade of the queen, charging me to speak to your lovely body, and to tell you that he lays at your feet his soul and heart; that he entreats from your divine eyes a look in pity, from your rosy fingers a beckoning sign, and from your musical and heavenly voice those words which men can never forget; if not, he has supplicated another thing, and that is, in case he should not soften you, you will run my sword — which is a real blade, for swords have no shadows except in the sunshine — run my sword right through his body for the second time, for he can live no longer if you do not authorize him to live exclusively for you.” All the verve and comical exaggeration which Coconnas had put into his speech found their counterpart in the tenderness, the intoxicating vigor, and the mock humility which La Mole introduced into his supplication.

Henriette’s eyes turned from La Mole, to whom she had listened till he ended, and rested on Coconnas, to see if the expression of that gentleman’s countenance harmonized with his friend’s ardent address. It seemed that she was satisfied, for blushing, breathless, conquered, she said to Coconnas, with a smile which disclosed a double row of pearls enclosed in coral:

“Is this true?”

“By Heaven!” exclaimed Coconnas, fascinated by her look, “it is true, indeed. Oh, yes, madame, it is true — true on your life — true on my death!”

“Come with me, then,” said Henriette, extending to him her hand, while her eyes proclaimed the feelings of her heart.

Coconnas flung his velvet cap into the air and with one stride was at the young woman’s side, while La Mole, recalled to Marguerite by a gesture, executed at the same time an amorous chassez with his friend.

Réné appeared at the door in the background.

“Silence!” he exclaimed, in a voice which at once damped all the ardor of the lovers; “silence!”

And they heard in the solid wall the sound of a key in a lock, and of a door grating on its hinges.

“But,” said Marguerite, haughtily, “I should think that no one has the right to enter whilst we are here!”

“Not even the queen mother?” whispered Réné in her ear.

Marguerite instantly rushed out by the exterior staircase, leading La Mole after her; Henriette and Coconnas almost arm-inarm followed them, all four taking flight, as fly at the first noise the birds seen engaged in loving parley on the boughs of a flowering shrub.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dumas/alexandre_pere/marguerite-de-valois/chapter19.html

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