Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 53.

Actéon.

Charles, left alone, wondered greatly at not having seen either of his favorites, his nurse Madeleine or his greyhound Actéon.

“Nurse must have gone to chant psalms with some Huguenot of her acquaintance,” said he to himself; “and Actéon is probably still angry with me for the whipping I gave him this morning.”

Charles took a candle and went into his nurse’s room. The good woman was not there. From her chamber a door opened into the armory, it may be remembered. The King started towards this door, but as he did so he was seized with one of those spasms he had already felt, and which seemed to attack him suddenly. He felt as if his entrails were being run through with a red-hot iron, and an unquenchable thirst consumed him. Seeing a cup of milk on the table, he swallowed it at a gulp, and felt somewhat relieved.

Taking the candle he had set down, he entered the armory.

To his great astonishment Actéon did not come to meet him. Had he been shut up? If so, he would have known that his master had returned from hunting, and would have barked.

Charles called and whistled, but no animal appeared. He advanced a few steps, and as the light from the candle fell upon a corner of the room, he perceived an inert something lying there on the floor.

“Why! hello, Actéon!” cried Charles. He whistled again, but the dog did not stir. Charles hastened forward and touched him; the poor beast was stiff and cold. From his throat, contracted by pain, several drops of gall had fallen, mixed with foamy and bloody saliva. The dog had found an old cap of his master’s in the armory, and had died with his head resting on this object, which represented a friend.

At the sight, which made him forget his own pain and restored all his energy, rage boiled in Charles’s veins. He would have cried out; but, restrained as they are in their greatness, kings are not free to yield to that first impulse which every man turns to the profit of his passion or to his defence. Charles reflected that there had been some treason, and was silent.

Then he knelt down before his dog and with experienced eye examined the body. The eyes were glassy, the tongue red and covered with pustules. It was a strange disease, and one which made Charles shudder. The King put on his gloves, which he had taken off and slipped into his belt, opened the livid lips of the dog to examine his teeth, and perceived in the interstices some white-looking fragments clinging to the sharp points of the molars. He took out these pieces, and saw that they were paper. Near where the paper had been the swelling was greater, the gums were swollen, and the skin looked as if it had been eaten by vitriol.

Charles gazed carefully around him. On the carpet lay two or three bits of the paper similar to that which he had already recognized in the dog’s mouth. One of the pieces, larger than the others, showed the marks of a woodcut. Charles’s hair stood on end, for he recognized a fragment of the picture which represented a gentleman hawking, and which Actéon had torn from the treatise on hunting.

“Ah!” said he, turning pale; “the book was poisoned!”

Then, suddenly remembering:

“A thousand devils!” he exclaimed, “I touched every page with my finger, and at every page I raised my finger to my lips. These fainting-spells, these attacks of pain and vomiting! I am a dead man!”

For an instant Charles remained motionless under the weight of this terrible thought. Then, rising with a dull groan, he hastened to the door of the armory.

“Maître Réné!” he cried, “I want Maître Réné, the Florentine; send some one as quickly as possible to the Pont Saint Michel and bring him to me! He must be here within ten minutes. Let some one mount a horse and lead another that he may come more quickly. If Maître Ambroise Paré arrives have him wait.”

A guard went instantly to carry out the King’s commands.

“Oh!” murmured Charles, “if I have to put everybody to the torture, I will know who gave this book to Henriot;” and with perspiration on his brow, clenched hands, and heaving breast, he stood with his eyes fixed on the body of his dead dog.

Ten minutes later the Florentine knocked timidly and not without some anxiety at the door of the King’s apartments. There are some consciences to which the sky is never clear.

“Enter!” said Charles.

The perfumer appeared. Charles went towards him with imperious air and compressed lip.

“Your Majesty sent for me,” said Réné, trembling.

“You are a skilful chemist, are you not?”

“Sire”—

“And you know all that the cleverest doctors know?”

“Your Majesty exaggerates.”

“No; my mother has told me so. Besides, I have confidence in you, and I prefer to consult you rather than any one else. See,” he continued, pointing to the dog, “look at what this animal has between his teeth, I beg you, and tell me of what he died.”

While Réné, candle in hand, bent over the floor as much to hide his emotion as to obey the King, Charles stood up, his eyes fixed on the man, waiting with an impatience easy to understand for the reply which was to be his sentence of death or his assurance of safety.

Réné drew a kind of scalpel from his pocket, opened it, and with the point detached from the mouth of the greyhound the particles of paper which adhered to the gums; then he looked long and attentively at the humor and the blood which oozed from each wound.

“Sire,” said he, trembling, “the symptoms are very bad.”

Charles felt an icy shudder run through his veins to his very heart.

“Yes,” said he, “the dog has been poisoned, has he not?”

“I fear so, sire.”

“With what sort of poison?”

“With mineral poison, I think.”

“Can you ascertain positively that he has been poisoned?”

“Yes, certainly, by opening and examining the stomach.”

“Open it. I wish there to be no doubt.”

“I must call some one to assist me.”

“I will help you,” said Charles.

“You, sire!”

“Yes. If he has been poisoned, what symptoms shall we find?”

“Red blotches and herborizations in the stomach.”

“Come, then,” said Charles, “begin.”

With a stroke of the scalpel Réné opened the hound’s body and with his two hands removed the stomach, while Charles, one knee on the floor, held the light with clenched and trembling hand.

“See, sire,” said Réné; “here are evident marks. These are the red spots I spoke of; as to these bloody veins, which seem like the roots of a plant, they are what I meant by herborizations. I find here everything I looked for.”

“So the dog was poisoned?”

“Yes, sire.”

“With mineral poison?”

“In all probability.”

“And what symptoms would a man have who had inadvertently swallowed some of the same poison?”

“Great pain in the head, internal burning as if he had swallowed hot coals, pains in the bowels, and vomiting.”

“Would he be thirsty?” asked Charles.

“Intensely thirsty.”

“That is it! that is it!” murmured the King.

“Sire, I seek in vain for the motive for all these questions.”

“Of what use to seek it? You need not know it. Answer my questions, that is all.”

“Yes, sire.”

“What is the antidote to give a man who may have swallowed the same substance as my dog?”

Réné reflected an instant.

“There are several mineral poisons,” said he; “and before answering I should like to know what you mean. Has your Majesty any idea of the way in which your dog was poisoned?”

“Yes,” said Charles; “he chewed the leaf of a book.”

“The leaf of a book?”

“Yes.”

“Has your Majesty this book?”

“Here it is,” said Charles, and, taking the volume from the shelf where he had placed it, he handed it to Réné.

The latter gave a start of surprise which did not escape the King.

“He ate a leaf of this book?” stammered Réné.

“Yes, this one,” and Charles pointed to the torn page.

“Will you allow me to tear out another, sire?”

“Do so.”

Réné tore out a leaf and held it over the candle. The paper caught fire, filling the room with a strong smell of garlic.

“He has been poisoned with a preparation of arsenic,” said he.

“You are sure?”

“As sure as if I had prepared it myself.”

“And the antidote?”

Réné shook his head.

“What!” said Charles in a hoarse voice, “you know no remedy?”

“The best and most efficacious is the white of eggs beaten in milk; but”—

“But what?”

“It must be administered at once; otherwise”—

“Otherwise?”

“Sire, it is a terrible poison,” said Réné, again.

“Yet it does not kill immediately,” said Charles.

“No, but it kills surely, no matter how long the time, though even this may sometimes be calculated.”

Charles leaned against the marble table.

“Now,” said he, putting his hand on Réné‘s shoulder, “you know this book?”

“I, sire?” said Réné, turning pale.

“Yes, you; on seeing it you betrayed yourself.”

“Sire, I swear to you”—

“Réné,” said Charles, “listen to me. You poisoned the Queen of Navarre with gloves; you poisoned the Prince of Porcion with the smoke from a lamp; you tried to poison Monsieur de Condé with a scented apple. Réné, I will have your skin removed with red-hot pincers, bit by bit, if you do not tell me to whom this book belongs.”

The Florentine saw that he could not dally with the anger of Charles IX., and resolved to be bold.

“If I tell the truth, sire, who will guarantee that I shall not be more cruelly punished than if I keep silent?”

“I will.”

“Will you give me your royal word?”

“On my honor as a gentleman your life shall be spared,” said the King.

“The book belongs to me, then,” said Réné.

“To you!” cried Charles, starting back and looking at the poisoner with haggard eyes.

“Yes, to me.”

“How did it leave your possession?”

“Her majesty the queen mother took it from my house.”

“The queen mother!” exclaimed Charles.

“Yes.”

“With what object?”

“With the intention, I think, of having it sent to the King of Navarre, who had asked the Duc d’Alençon for a book of the kind in order to study the art of hawking.”

“Ah!” cried Charles, “that is it. I see it all. The book indeed was in Henriot’s room. There is a destiny about this and I submit to it.”

At that moment Charles was seized with a violent fit of coughing, followed by fresh pain in the bowels. He gave two or three stifled cries, and fell back in his chair.

“What is the matter, sire?” asked Réné in a frightened voice.

“Nothing,” said Charles, “except that I am thirsty. Give me something to drink.”

Réné filled a glass with water and with trembling hand gave it to Charles, who swallowed it at a draught.

“Now,” said he, taking a pen and dipping it into the ink, “write in this book.”

“What must I write?”

“What I am going to dictate to you:

“‘This book on hawking was given by me to the queen mother, Catharine de Médicis.’”

Réné took the pen and wrote.

“Now sign your name.”

The Florentine obeyed.

“You promised to save my life.”

“I will keep my promise.”

“But,” said Réné, “the queen mother?”

“Oh!” said Charles, “I have nothing to do with her; if you are attacked defend yourself.”

“Sire, may I leave France, where I feel that my life is in danger?”

“I will reply to that in a fortnight.”

“But, in the meantime”—

Charles frowned and placed his finger on his livid lips.

“You need not be afraid of me, sire.”

And happy to have escaped so easily the Florentine bowed and withdrew.

Behind him the nurse appeared at the door of her room.

“What is the matter, my Charlot?” said she.

“Nurse, I have been walking in the dew, and have taken cold.”

“You are very pale, Charlot.”

“It is because I am so weak. Give me your arm, nurse, as far as my bed.”

The nurse hastily came forward.

Charles leaned on her and reached his room.

“Now,” said Charles, “I will put myself to bed.”

“If Maître Ambroise Paré comes?”

“Tell him that I am better and that I do not need him.”

“But, meanwhile, what will you take?”

“Oh! a very simple medicine,” said Charles, “the whites of eggs beaten in milk. By the way, nurse,” he continued, “my poor Actéon is dead. To-morrow morning he must be buried in a corner of the garden of the Louvre. He was one of my best friends. I will have a tomb made for him — if I have time.”

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