Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 20.

The Black Hens.

It was time the two couples disappeared! Catharine was putting the key in the lock of the second door just as Coconnas and Madame de Nevers stepped out of the house by the lower entrance, and Catharine as she entered could hear the steps of the fugitives on the stairs.

She cast a searching glance around, and then fixing her suspicious eyes on Réné, who stood motionless, bowing before her, said:

“Who was that?”

“Some lovers, who are satisfied with the assurance I gave them that they are really in love.”

“Never mind them,” said Catharine, shrugging her shoulders; “is there no one else here?”

“No one but your majesty and myself.”

“Have you done what I ordered you?”

“About the two black hens?”

“Yes!”

“They are ready, madame.”

“Ah,” muttered Catharine, “if you were a Jew!”

“Why a Jew, madame?”

“Because you could then read the precious treatises which the Hebrews have written about sacrifices. I have had one of them translated, and I found that the Hebrews did not look for omens in the heart or liver as the Romans did, but in the configuration of the brain, and in the shape of the letters traced there by the all-powerful hand of destiny.”

“Yes, madame; so I have heard from an old rabbi.”

“There are,” said Catharine, “characters thus marked that reveal all the future. Only the Chaldean seers recommend”—

“Recommend — what?” asked Réné, seeing the queen hesitate.

“That the experiment shall be tried on the human brain, as more developed and more nearly sympathizing with the wishes of the consulter.”

“Alas!” said Réné, “your majesty knows it is impossible.”

“Difficult, at least,” said Catharine; “if we had known this at Saint Bartholomew’s, what a rich harvest we might have had — The first convict — but I will think of it. Meantime, let us do what we can. Is the chamber of sacrifice prepared?”

“Yes, madame.”

“Let us go there.”

Réné lighted a taper made of strange substances, the odor of which, both insidious and penetrating as well as nauseating and stupefying, betokened the introduction of many elements; holding this taper up, he preceded Catharine into the cell.

Catharine selected from amongst the sacrificial instruments a knife of blue steel, while Réné took up one of the two fowls that were huddling in one corner, with anxious, golden eyes.

“How shall we proceed?”

“We will examine the liver of the one and the brain of the other. If these two experiments lead to the same result we must be convinced, especially if these results coincide with those we got before.”

“Which shall we begin with?”

“With the liver.”

“Very well,” said Réné, and he fastened the bird down to two rings attached to the little altar, so that the creature, turned on its back, could only struggle, without stirring from the spot.

Catharine opened its breast with a single stroke of her knife; the fowl uttered three cries, and, after some convulsions, expired.

“Always three cries!” said Catharine; “three signs of death.”

She then opened the body.

“And the liver inclining to the left, always to the left — a triple death, followed by a downfall. ’T is terrible, Réné.”

“We must see, madame, whether the presages from the second will correspond with those of the first.”

Réné unfastened the body of the fowl from the altar and tossed it into a corner; then he went to the other, which, foreseeing what its fate would be by its companion’s, tried to escape by running round the cell, and finding itself pent up in a corner flew over Réné‘s head, and in its flight extinguished the magic taper Catharine held.

“You see, Réné, thus shall our race be extinguished,” said the queen; “death shall breathe upon it, and destroy it from the face of the earth! Yet three sons! three sons!” she murmured, sorrowfully.

Réné took from her the extinguished taper, and went into the adjoining room to relight it.

On his return he saw the hen hiding its head in the tunnel.

“This time,” said Catharine, “I will prevent the cries, for I will cut off the head at once.”

And accordingly, as soon as the hen was bound, Catharine, as she had said, severed the head at a single blow; but in the last agony the beak opened three times, and then closed forever.

“Do you see,” said Catharine, terrified, “instead of three cries, three sighs? Always three! — they will all three die. All these spirits before they depart count and call three. Let us now see the prognostications in the head.”

She severed the bloodless comb from the head, carefully opened the skull, and laying bare the lobes of the brain endeavored to trace a letter formed in the bloody sinuosities made by the division of the central pulp.

“Always so!” cried she, clasping her hands; “and this time clearer than ever; see here!”

Réné approached.

“What is the letter?” asked Catharine.

“An H,” replied Réné.

“How many times repeated?”

Réné counted.

“Four,” said he.

“Ay, ay! I see it! that is to say, HENRY IV. Oh,” she cried, flinging the knife from her, “I am accursed in my posterity!”

She was terrible, that woman, pale as a corpse, lighted by the dismal taper, and clasping her bloody hands.

“He will reign!” she exclaimed with a sigh of despair; “he will reign!”

“He will reign!” repeated Réné, plunged in meditation.

Nevertheless, the gloomy expression of Catharine’s face soon disappeared under the light of a thought which unfolded in the depths of her mind.

“Réné,” said she, stretching out her hand toward the perfumer without lifting her head from her breast, “Réné, is there not a terrible history of a doctor at Perugia, who killed at once, by the aid of a pomade,7 his daughter and his daughter’s lover?”

7 The original has à l’aide d’une promenade.

“Yes, madame.”

“And this lover was”—

“Was King Ladislas, madame.”

“Ah, yes!” murmured she; “have you any of the details of this story?”

“I have an old book which mentions it,” replied Réné.

“Well, let us go into the other room, and you can show it me.”

They left the cell, the door of which Réné closed after him.

“Has your majesty any other orders to give me concerning the sacrifices?”

“No, Réné, I am for the present sufficiently convinced. We will wait till we can secure the head of some criminal, and on the day of the execution you must arrange with the hangman.”

Réné bowed in token of obedience, then holding his candle up he let the light fall on the shelves where his books stood, climbed on a chair, took one down, and handed it to the queen.

Catharine opened it.

“What is this?” she asked; “‘On the Method of Raising and Training Tercels, Falcons, and Gerfalcons to be Courageous, Valiant, and always ready for Flight.’”

“Ah! pardon me, madame, I made a mistake. That is a treatise on venery written by a scientific man of Lucca for the famous Castruccio Castracani. It stood next the other and was bound exactly like it. I took down the wrong one. However, it is a very precious volume; there are only three copies extant — one belongs to the library at Venice, the other was bought by your grandfather Lorenzo and was offered by Pietro de Médicis to King Charles VIII., when he visited Florence, and the third you have in your hands.”

“I venerate it,” said Catharine, “because of its rarity, but as I do not need it, I return it to you.”

And she held out her right hand to Réné to receive the book which she wished, while with her left hand she returned to him the one which she had first taken.

This time Réné was not mistaken; it was the volume she wished. He stepped down, turned the leaves for a moment, and gave it to her open.

Catharine went and sat down at a table. Réné placed the magic taper near her and by the light of its bluish flame she read a few lines in an undertone:

“Good!” said she, shutting the book; “that is all I wanted to know.”

She rose from her seat, leaving the book on the table, but bearing away the idea which had germinated in her mind and would ripen there.

Réné waited respectfully, taper in hand, until the queen, who seemed about to retire, should give him fresh orders or ask fresh questions.

Catharine, with her head bent and her finger on her mouth, walked up and down several times without speaking.

Then suddenly stopping before Réné, and fixing on him her eyes, round and piercing like a hawk’s:

“Confess you have made for her some love-philter,” said she.

“For whom?” asked Réné, starting.

“La Sauve.”

“I, madame?” said Réné; “never!”

“Never?”

“I swear it on my soul.”

“There must be some magic in it, however, for he is desperately in love with her, though he is not famous for his constancy.”

“Who, madame?”

“He, Henry, the accursed — he who is to succeed my three sons — he who shall one day be called Henry IV., and is yet the son of Jeanne d’Albret.”

And Catharine accompanied these words with a sigh which made Réné shudder, for he thought of the famous gloves he had prepared by Catharine’s order for the Queen of Navarre.

“So he still runs after her, does he?” said Réné.

“He does,” replied the queen.

“I thought that the King of Navarre was quite in love with his wife now.”

“A farce, Réné, a farce! I know not why, but every one is seeking to deceive me. My daughter Marguerite is leagued against me; perhaps she, too, is looking forward to the death of her brothers; perhaps she, too, hopes to be Queen of France.”

“Perhaps so,” reechoed Réné, falling back into his own reverie and echoing Catharine’s terrible suspicion.

“Ha! we shall see,” said Catharine, going to the main door, for she doubtless judged it useless to descend the secret stair, now that she was sure that they were alone.

Réné preceded her, and in a few minutes they stood in the perfumer’s shop.

“You promised me some new kind of cosmetic for my hands and lips, Réné; the winter is at hand and you know how sensitive my skin is to the cold.”

“I have already provided for this, madame; and I shall bring you some tomorrow.”

“You would not find me in before nine o’clock tomorrow evening; I shall be occupied with my devotions during the day.”

“I will be at the Louvre at nine o’clock, then, madame.”

“Madame de Sauve has beautiful hands and beautiful lips,” said Catharine in a careless tone. “What pomade does she use?”

“For her hands?”

“Yes, for her hands first.”

“Heliotrope.”

“What for her lips?”

“She is going to try a new opiate of my invention. I was going to bring your majesty a box of it at the same time.”

Catharine mused an instant.

“She is certainly a very beautiful creature,” said she, pursuing her secret thoughts; “and the passion of the Béarnais for her is not strange at all.”

“And she is so devoted to your majesty,” said Réné. “At least I should think so.”

Catharine smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

“When a woman loves, is she faithful to any one but her lover? You must have given her some philter, Réné.”

“I swear I have not, madame.”

“Well, well; we’ll say no more about it. Show me this new opiate you spoke of, that is to make her lips fresher and rosier than ever.”

Réné approached a shelf and showed Catharine six small boxes of the same shape, i.e., round silver boxes ranged side by side.

“This is the only philter she ever asked me for,” observed Réné; “it is true, as your majesty says, I composed it expressly for her, for her lips are so tender that the sun and wind affect them equally.”

Catharine opened one of the boxes; it contained a most fascinating carmine paste.

“Give me some paste for my hands, Réné,” said she; “I will take it away with me.”

Réné took the taper, and went to seek, in a private compartment, what the queen asked for. As he turned, he fancied that he saw the queen quickly conceal a box under her mantle; he was, however, too familiar with these little thefts of the queen mother to have the rudeness to seem to perceive the movement; so wrapping the cosmetic she demanded in a paper bag, ornamented with fleurs-delis:

“Here it is, madame,” he said.

“Thanks, Réné,” returned the queen; then, after a moment’s silence: “Do not give Madame de Sauve that paste for a week or ten days; I wish to make the first trial of it myself.”

And she prepared to go.

“Your majesty, do you desire me to accompany you?” asked Réné.

“Only to the end of the bridge,” replied Catharine; “my gentlemen and my litter wait for me there.”

They left the house, and at the end of the Rue de la Barillerie four gentlemen on horseback and a plain litter were waiting.

On his return Réné‘s first care was to count his boxes of opiates. One was wanting.

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