Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 49.

The Treatise on Hunting.

Three days had elapsed since the events we have just related. Day was beginning to dawn, but every one was already up and awake at the Louvre as usual on hunting days, when the Duc d’Alençon entered the apartments of the queen mother in answer to the invitation he had received. Catharine was not in her bedroom; but she had left orders that if her son came he was to wait for her.

At the end of a few minutes she came out of a private closet, to which no one but herself had admission, and in which she carried on her experiments in chemistry. As Catharine entered the room there came either from the closet or from her clothes the penetrating odor of some acrid perfume, and through the open door D’Alençon perceived a thick vapor, as of some burnt aromatic substance, floating in the laboratory like a white cloud.

The duke could not repress a glance of curiosity.

“Yes,” said Catharine de Médicis, “I have been burning several old parchments which gave out such an offensive smell that I put some juniper into the brazier, hence this odor.”

D’Alençon bowed.

“Well,” said the queen, concealing under the wide sleeves of her dressing-gown her hands, which here and there were stained with reddish spots, “is there anything new since yesterday?”

“Nothing, mother.”

“Have you seen Henry?”

“Yes.”

“Does he still refuse to leave?”

“Absolutely.”

“The knave!”

“What do you say, madame?”

“I say that he will go.”

“You think so?”

“I am sure of it.”

“Then he will escape us?”

“Yes,” said Catharine.

“And shall you let him go?”

“Not only that, but I tell you he must go.”

“I do not understand, mother.”

“Listen well to what I am about to tell you, François. A very skilful physician, the one who let me take the book on hunting which you are to give him, has told me that the King of Navarre is on the point of being attacked with consumption, one of those incurable diseases for which science has no remedy. Now, you understand that if he has to die from such a cruel malady it would be better for him to die away from us than among us here at court.”

“In fact,” said the duke, “that would cause us too much pain.”

“Especially your brother Charles,” said Catharine; “whereas, if he dies after having betrayed him the King will regard his death as a punishment from Heaven.”

“You are right, mother,” said François in admiration, “he must leave. But are you sure that he will?”

“All his plans are made. The meeting-place is in the forest of Saint Germain. Fifty Huguenots are to escort him as far as Fontainebleau, where five hundred others will await him.”

“And,” said D’Alençon, with a slight hesitation and visible pallor, “will my sister Margot accompany him?”

“Yes,” replied Catharine, “that is agreed on. But at Henry’s death Margot is to return to court a widow and free.”

“And Henry will die, madame? Are you sure of this?”

“The physician who gave me the book assured me of it.”

“Where is this book, madame?”

Catharine went slowly towards the mysterious closet, opened the door, entered, and a moment later appeared with the book in her hand.

“Here it is,” said she.

D’Alençon looked at the volume with a certain feeling of terror.

“What is this book, madame?” he asked, shuddering.

“I have already told you, my son. It is a treatise on the art of raising and training falcons, gerfalcons, and hawks, written by a very learned scholar for Lord Castruccio Castracani, tyrant of Lucca.”

“What must I do with it?”

“Take it to your good friend Henriot, who you told me had asked you for a treatise on the art of hunting. As he is going hawking today with the King he will not fail to read some of it, in order to prove to Charles that he has followed his advice and taken a lesson or two. The main thing is to give it into Henry’s own hands.”

“Oh! I do not dare!” said D’Alençon, shuddering.

“Why not?” asked Catharine; “it is a book like any other except that it has been packed away for so long that the leaves stick together. Do not attempt to read it, François, for it can be read only by wetting the finger and turning over each leaf, and this takes time and trouble.”

“So that only a man who is very anxious to be instructed in the sport of hawking would waste his time and go to this trouble?” asked D’Alençon.

“Exactly, my son; you understand.”

“Oh!” said D’Alençon; “there is Henriot in the court-yard. Give me the book, madame. I will take advantage of his absence and go to his room with it. On his return he will find it.”

“I should prefer you to give it to him yourself, François, that would be surer.”

“I have already said that I do not dare, madame,” replied the duke.

“Very well; but at least put it where he can see it.”

“Open? Is there any reason why it should not be open?”

“None.”

“Then give it to me.”

D’Alençon tremblingly took the book, which Catharine with a firm hand held out to him.

“Take it,” said the queen, “there is no danger — I touch it; besides, you have gloves on.”

This precaution was not enough for D’Alençon, who wrapped the volume in his cloak.

“Make haste,” said Catharine; “Henry may return at any moment.”

“You are right, madame. I will go at once.”

The duke went out, trembling with fright.

We have often introduced the reader into the apartments of the King of Navarre, and he has been present at the events which have taken place in them, events bright or gloomy, according to the smile or frown of the protecting genius of the future king of France.

But perhaps never had these walls, stained with the blood of murders, sprinkled with the wine of orgies, scented with the perfumes of love — perhaps never had this corner of the Louvre seen a paler face than that of the Duc d’Alençon, as with book in hand he opened the door of the bedchamber of the King of Navarre. And no one, as the duke had expected, was in the room to question with curious or anxious glances what he was about to do. The first rays of the morning sun alone were lighting up the vacant chamber.

On the wall in readiness hung the sword which Monsieur de Mouy had advised Henry to take with him. Some links of a coat of mail were scattered on the floor. A well-filled purse and a small dagger lay on a table, and some light ashes in the fireplace, joined to the other evidence, clearly showed D’Alençon that the King of Navarre had put on the shirt of mail, collected some money from his treasurer, and burned all papers that might compromise him.

“My mother was not mistaken,” said D’Alençon “the knave would have betrayed me.”

Doubtless this conviction gave added strength to the young man. He sounded the corners of the room at a glance, raised the portieres, and realizing from the loud noise in the court-yard below and the dense silence in the apartments that no one was there to spy on him, he drew the book from under his cloak, hastily laid it on the table, near the purse, propping it up against a desk of sculptured oak; then drawing back, he reached out his arm, and, with a hesitation which betrayed his fears, with his gloved hand he opened the volume to an engraving of a hunt. This done, D’Alençon again stepped back, and drawing off his glove threw it into the still warm fire, which had just consumed the papers. The supple leather crackled over the coals, twisted and flattened itself out like the body of a great reptile, leaving nothing but a burned and blackened lump.

D’Alençon waited until the flame had consumed the glove, then rolling up the cloak which had been wrapped around the book, he put it under his arm, and hastily returned to his own apartments. As he entered with beating heart, he heard steps on the winding stairs, and not doubting but that it was Henry he quickly closed his door. Then he stepped to the window, but he could see only a part of the court-yard of the Louvre. Henry was not there, however, and he felt convinced that it was the King of Navarre who had just returned.

The duke sat down, opened a book, and tried to read. It was a history of France from Pharamond to Henry II., for which, a few days after his accession to the throne, Henry had given a license.

But the duke’s thoughts were not on what he was reading; the fever of expectation burned in his veins. His temples throbbed clear to his brain, and as in a dream or some magnetic trance, it seemed to François that he could see through the walls. His eyes appeared to probe into Henry’s chamber, in spite of the obstacles between.

In order to drive away the terrible object before his mind’s eye the duke strove to fix his attention on something besides the terrible book opened on the oak desk; but in vain he looked at his weapons, his ornaments; in vain he gazed a hundred times at the same spot on the floor; every detail of the picture at which he had merely glanced remained graven on his memory. It consisted of a gentleman on horseback fulfilling the duties of a beater of hawking, throwing the bait, calling to the falcon, and galloping through the deep grass of a swamp. Strong as was the duke’s will, his memory triumphed over it.

Then it was not only the book he saw, but the King of Navarre approaching it, looking at the picture, trying to turn the pages, finally wetting his thumb and forcing the leaves apart. At this sight, fictitious and imaginary as it was, D’Alençon staggered and was forced to lean one hand against a table, while with the other he covered his eyes, as if by so doing he did not see more clearly than before the vision he wished to escape. This vision was in his own thoughts.

Suddenly D’Alençon saw Henry cross the court; he stopped a few moments before the men who were loading two mules with the provisions for the chase — none other than the money and other things he wished to take with him; then, having given his orders, he crossed the court diagonally and advanced towards the door.

D’Alençon stood motionless. It was not Henry, then, who had mounted the secret staircase. All the agony he had undergone during the last quarter of an hour had been useless. What he thought was over or almost over was only beginning.

François opened the door of his chamber, then holding it so he listened. This time he could not be mistaken, it was Henry himself; he recognized his step and the peculiar jingle of his spurs.

Henry’s door opened and closed.

D’Alençon returned to his room and sank into an armchair.

“Good!” said he, “this is what is now taking place: he has passed through the antechamber, the first room, the sleeping-room; then he glances to see if his sword, his purse, his dagger are there; at last he finds the book open on his table.

“‘What book is this?’ he asks himself. ‘Who has brought it?’

“Then he draws nearer, sees the picture of the horseman calling his falcon, wants to read, tries to turn the leaves.”

A cold perspiration started to the brow of François.

“Will he call? Is the effect of the poison sudden? No, no, for my mother said he would die of slow consumption.”

This thought somewhat reassured him.

Ten minutes passed thus, a century of agony, dragging by second after second, each supplying all that the imagination could invent in the way of maddening terror, a world of visions.

D’Alençon could stand it no longer. He rose and crossed the antechamber, which was beginning to fill with gentlemen.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” said he, “I am going to the King.”

And to distract his consuming anxiety, and perhaps to prepare an alibi, D’Alençon descended to his brother’s apartments. Why did he go there? He did not know. What had he to say? Nothing! It was not Charles he sought — it was Henry he fled.

He took the winding staircase and found the door of the King’s apartments half opened. The guards let the duke enter without opposition. On hunting days there was neither etiquette nor orders.

François traversed successively the antechamber, the salon, and the bedroom without meeting any one. He thought Charles must be in the armory and opened the door leading thither.

The King was seated before a table, in a deep carved armchair. He had his back to the door, and appeared to be absorbed in what he was doing.

The duke approached on tiptoe; Charles was reading.

“By Heaven!” cried he, suddenly, “this is a fine book. I had heard of it, but I did not know it could be had in France.”

D’Alençon listened and advanced a step.

“Cursed leaves!” said the King, wetting his thumb and applying it to the pages; “it looks as though they had been stuck together on purpose to conceal the wonders they contain from the eyes of man.”

D’Alençon bounded forward. The book over which Charles was bending was the one he had left in Henry’s room. A dull cry broke from him.

“Ah, is it you, François?” said Charles, “you are welcome; come and see the finest book on hunting which ever came from the pen of man.”

D’Alençon’s first impulse was to snatch the volume from the hands of his brother; but an infernal thought restrained him; a frightful smile passed over his pallid lips, and he rubbed his hand across his eyes like a man dazed. Then recovering himself by degrees, but without moving:

“Sire,” he asked, “how did this book come into your Majesty’s possession?”

“I went into Henriot’s room this morning to see if he was ready; he was not there, he was probably strolling about the kennels or the stables; at any rate, instead of him I found this treasure, which I brought here to read at my leisure.”

And the King again moistened his thumb, and again turned over an obstinate page.

“Sire,” stammered D’Alençon, whose hair stood on end, and whose whole body was seized with a terrible agony. “Sire, I came to tell you”—

“Let me finish this chapter, François,” said Charles, “and then you shall tell me anything you wish. I have read or rather devoured fifty pages.”

“He has tasted the poison twenty-five times,” murmured François; “my brother is a dead man!”

Then the thought came to him that there was a God in heaven who perhaps after all was not chance.

With trembling hand the duke wiped away the cold perspiration which stood in drops on his brow, and waited in silence, as his brother had bade him do, until the chapter was finished.

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