Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 61.

The Headsman’s Tower.

Night descended over the city, which still trembled at the remembrance of the execution, the details of which passed from mouth to mouth, saddening the happy supper hour in every home. In contrast to the city, which was silent and mournful, the Louvre was noisy, joyous, and illuminated. There was a grand fête at the palace, a fête ordered by Charles IX., a fête he had planned for that evening at the very time that he had ordered the execution for the morning.

The previous evening the Queen of Navarre had received word to be present, and, in the hope that La Mole and Coconnas would have escaped during the night, since every measure had been taken for their safety, she had promised her brother to comply with his wishes.

But when she had lost all hope, after the scene in the chapel, after, out of a last feeling of piety for that love, the greatest and the deepest she had ever known, she had been present at the execution, she resolved that neither prayers nor threats should force her to attend a joyous festival at the Louvre the same day on which she had witnessed so terrible a scene at the Grève.

That day King Charles had given another proof of the will power which no one perhaps carried as far as he. In bed for a fortnight, weak as a dying man, pale as a corpse, yet he rose about five o’clock and donned his most beautiful clothes, although during his toilet he fainted three times.

At eight o’clock he asked what had become of his sister, and inquired if any one had seen her and what she was doing. No one could tell him, for the queen had gone to her apartments about eleven o’clock and had absolutely refused admittance to every one.

But there was no refusal for Charles. Leaning on the arm of Monsieur de Nancey, he went to the queen’s rooms and entered unannounced by the secret corridor.

Although he had expected a melancholy sight, and had prepared himself for it in advance, that which he saw was even more distressing than he had anticipated.

Marguerite, half dead, was lying on a divan, her head buried in the cushions, neither weeping nor praying, but moaning like one in great agony; and this she had been doing ever since her return from the Grève. At the other end of the chamber Henriette de Nevers, that daring woman, lay stretched on the carpet unconscious. On coming back from the Grève her strength, like Marguerite’s, had given out, and poor Gillonne was going from one to the other, not daring to offer a word of consolation.

In the crises which follow great catastrophes one hugs one’s grief like a treasure, and any one who attempts to divert us, ever so slightly, is looked on as an enemy. Charles IX. closed the door, and leaving Nancey in the corridor entered, pale and trembling.

Neither of the women had seen him. Gillonne alone, who was trying to revive Henriette, rose on one knee, and looked in a startled way at the King.

The latter made a sign with his hand, whereupon the girl rose, courtesied, and withdrew.

Charles then approached Marguerite, looked at her a moment in silence, and in a tone of which his harsh voice was supposed to be incapable, said:

“Margot! my sister!”

The young woman started and sat up.

“Your Majesty!” said she.

“Come, sister, courage.”

Marguerite raised her eyes to Heaven.

“Yes,” said Charles, “but listen to me.”

The Queen of Navarre made a sign of assent.

“You promised me to come to the ball,” said Charles.

“I!” exclaimed Marguerite.

“Yes, and after your promise you are expected; so that if you do not come every one will wonder why.”

“Excuse me, brother,” said Marguerite, “you see that I am suffering greatly.”

“Exert yourself.”

For an instant Marguerite seemed to try to summon her courage, then suddenly she gave way and fell back among the cushions.

“No, no, I cannot go,” said she.

Charles took her hand and seating himself on the divan said:

“You have just lost a friend, I know, Margot; but look at me. Have I not lost all my friends, even my mother? You can always weep when you wish to; but I, at the moment of my greatest sorrows, am always forced to smile. You suffer; but look at me! I am dying. Come, Margot, courage! I ask it of you, sister, in the name of our honor! We bear like a cross of agony the reputation of our house; let us bear it, sister, as the Saviour bore his cross to Calvary; and if on the way we stagger, as he did, let us like him rise brave and resigned.”

“Oh, my God! my God!” cried Marguerite.

“Yes,” said Charles, answering her thought; “the sacrifice is severe, sister, but each one has his own burden, some of honor, others of life. Do you suppose that with my twenty-five years, and the most beautiful throne in the world, I do not regret dying? Look at me! My eyes, my complexion, my lips are those of a dying man, it is true; but my smile, does not my smile imply that I still hope? and in a week, a month at the most, you will be weeping for me, sister, as you now weep for him who died today.”

“Brother!” exclaimed Marguerite, throwing her arms about Charles’s neck.

“So dress yourself, dear Marguerite,” said the King, “hide your pallor and come to the ball. I have given orders for new jewels to be brought to you, and ornaments worthy of your beauty.”

“Oh! what are diamonds and dresses to me now?” said Marguerite.

“Life is long, Marguerite,” said Charles, smiling, “at least for you.”

The pages withdrew; Gillonne alone remained.

“Prepare everything that is necessary for me, Gillonne,” said Marguerite.

“Sister, remember one thing: sometimes it is by stifling or rather by dissimulating our suffering that we show most honor to the dead.”

“Well, sire,” said Marguerite, shuddering, “I will go to the ball.”

A tear, which soon dried on his parched eyelid, moistened Charles’s eye.

He leaned over his sister, kissed her forehead, paused an instant before Henriette, who had neither seen nor heard him, and murmured:

“Poor woman!”

Then he went out silently.

Soon after several pages entered, bringing boxes and jewel-caskets.

Marguerite made a sign for them to set everything down.

Gillonne looked at her mistress in astonishment.

“Yes,” said Marguerite, in a tone the bitterness of which it is impossible to describe; yes, I will dress and go to the ball; I am expected. Make haste; the day will then be complete. A fête on the Grève in the morning, a fête in the Louvre in the evening.”

“And the duchess?” said Gillonne.

“She is quite happy. She may remain here; she can weep; she can suffer at her ease. She is not the daughter of a king, the wife of a king, the sister of a king. She is not a queen. Help me to dress, Gillonne.”

The young girl obeyed. The jewels were magnificent, the dress gorgeous. Marguerite had never been so beautiful.

She looked at herself in a mirror.

“My brother is right,” said she; “a human being is indeed a miserable creature.”

At that moment Gillonne returned.

“Madame,” said she, “a man is asking for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes.”

“Who is he?”

“I do not know, but he is terrible to look at; the very sight of him makes me shudder.”

“Go and ask him his name,” said Marguerite, turning pale.

Gillonne withdrew, and returned in a few moments.

“He will not give his name, madame, but he begged me to give you this.”

Gillonne handed to Marguerite the reliquary she had given to La Mole the previous evening.

“Oh! bring him in, bring him in!” said the queen quickly, growing paler and more numb than before.

A heavy step shook the floor. The echo, indignant, no doubt, at having to repeat such a sound, moaned along the wainscoting. A man stood on the threshold.

“You are”— said the queen.

“He whom you met one day near Montfaucon, madame, and who in his tumbril brought back two wounded gentlemen to the Louvre.”

“Yes, yes, I know you. You are Maître Caboche.”

“Executioner of the provostship of Paris, madame.”

These were the only words Henriette had heard for an hour. She raised her pale face from her hands and looked at the man with her sapphire eyes, from which a double flame seemed to dart.

“And you come”— said Marguerite, trembling.

“To remind you of your promise to the younger of the two gentlemen, who charged me to give you this reliquary. You remember the promise, madame?”

“Yes, yes,” exclaimed the queen, “and never has a noble soul had more satisfaction than his shall have; but where is”—

“At my house with the body.”

“At your house? Why did you not bring it?”

“I might have been stopped at the gate of the Louvre, and compelled to raise my cloak. What would they have said if they had seen a head under it?”

“That is right; keep it. I will come for it tomorrow.”

“To-morrow, madame,” said Caboche, “may perhaps be too late.”

“How so?”

“Because the queen mother wanted the heads of the first victims executed by me to be kept for her magical experiments.”

“Oh! What profanation! The heads of our well-beloved! Henriette,” cried Marguerite, turning to her friend, who had risen as if a spring had placed her on her feet, “Henriette, my angel, do you hear what this man says?”

“Yes; what must we do?”

“Go with him.”

Then uttering a cry of pain by which great sufferers return to life:

“Ah! I was so happy,” said Henriette; “I was almost dead.”

Meanwhile Marguerite had thrown a velvet cloak over her bare shoulders.

“Come,” said she, “we will go and see them once more.”

Telling Gillonne to have all the doors closed, the queen gave orders for a litter to be brought to the private entrance, and taking Henriette by the arm, she descended by the secret corridor, signing to Caboche to follow.

At the lower door was the litter; at the gate Caboche’s attendant waited with a lantern. Marguerite’s porters were trusty men, deaf and dumb, more to be depended on than if they had been beasts of burden.

They walked for about ten minutes, preceded by Caboche and his servant, carrying the lantern. Then they stopped. The hangman opened the door, while his man went ahead.

Marguerite stepped from the litter and helped out the Duchesse de Nevers. In the deep grief which bound them together it was the nervous organism which was the stronger.

The headsman’s tower rose before them like a dark, vague giant, giving out a lurid gleam from two narrow upper windows.

The attendant reappeared at the door.

“You can enter, ladies,” said Caboche; “every one is asleep in the tower.”

At the same moment the light from above was extinguished.

The two women, holding to each other, passed through the small gothic door, and reached a dark hall with damp and uneven pavement. At the end of a winding corridor they perceived a light and guided by the gruesome master of the place they set out towards it. The door closed behind them.

Caboche, a wax torch in hand, admitted them into a lower room filled with smoke. In the centre was a table containing the remains of a supper for three. These three were probably the hangman, his wife, and his chief assistant. In a conspicuous place on the wall a parchment was nailed, sealed with the seal of the King. It was the hangman’s license. In a corner was a long-handled sword. This was the flaming sword of justice.

Here and there were various rough drawings representing martyrs undergoing the torture.

At the door Caboche made a low bow.

“Your majesty will excuse me,” said he, “if I ventured to enter the Louvre and bring you here. But it was the last wish of the gentleman, so that I felt I”—

“You did well, Maître,” said Marguerite, “and here is a reward for you.”

Caboche looked sadly at the large purse which Marguerite laid on the table.

“Gold!” said he; “always gold! Alas! madame, if I only could buy back for gold the blood I was forced to spill today!”

“Maître,” said Marguerite, looking around with a sad hesitation, “Maître, do we have to go to some other room? I do not see”—

“No, madame, they are here; but it is a sad sight, and one which I could have spared you by wrapping up in my cloak that for which you have come.”

Marguerite and Henriette looked at each other.

“No,” said the queen, who had read in her friend’s eye the same thought as in her own; “no, show us the way and we will follow.”

Caboche took the torch and opened an oaken door at the top of a short stairway, which led to an underground chamber. At that instant a current of air blew some sparks from the torch and brought to the princesses an ill-smelling odor of dampness and blood. Henriette, white as an alabaster statue, leaned on the arm of her less agitated friend; but at the first step she swayed.

“I can never do it,” said she.

“When one loves truly, Henriette,” replied the queen, “one loves beyond death.”

It was a sight both horrible and touching presented by the two women, glowing with youth, beauty, and jewels, as they bent their heads beneath the foul, chalky ceiling, the weaker leaning on the stronger, the stronger clinging to the arm of the hangman.

They reached the final step. On the floor of the cellar lay two human forms covered with a wide cloth of black serge.

Caboche raised a corner of it, and, lowering the torch:

“See, madame,” said he.

In their black clothes lay the two young men, side by side, in the strange symmetry of death. Their heads had been placed close to their bodies, from which they seemed to be separated only by a bright red circle about the neck. Death had not disunited their hands, for either from chance or the kind care of the hangman the right hand of La Mole rested in Coconnas’s left hand.

There was a look of love under the lids of La Mole, and a smile of scorn under those of Coconnas.

Marguerite knelt down by the side of her lover, and with hands that sparkled with gems gently raised the head she had so greatly loved.

The Duchesse de Nevers leaned against the wall, unable to remove her eyes from that pale face on which so often she had gazed for pleasure and for love.

“La Mole! Dear La Mole!” murmured Marguerite.

“Annibal! Annibal!” cried the duchess, “so beautiful! so proud! so brave! Never again will you answer me!”

And her eyes filled with tears.

This woman, so scornful, so intrepid, so insolent in happiness; this woman who carried scepticism as far as absolute doubt, passion to the point of cruelty; this woman had never thought of death.

Marguerite was the first to move.

She put into a bag, embroidered with pearls and perfumed with finest essences, the head of La Mole, more beautiful than ever as it rested against the velvet and the gold, and the beauty of which was to be preserved by a special preparation, used at that time in the embalming of royal personages.

Henriette then drew near and wrapped the head of Coconnas in a fold of her cloak.

And both women, bending beneath their grief more than beneath their burdens, ascended the stairs with a last look at the remains which they left to the mercy of the hangman in that sombre abode of ordinary criminals.

“Do not fear, madame,” said Caboche, who understood their look, “the gentlemen, I promise you, shall be buried in holy ground.”

“And you will have masses said for them with this,” said Henriette, taking from her neck a magnificent necklace of rubies, and handing it to the hangman.

They returned to the Louvre by the same road by which they had gone. At the gate the queen gave her name; at the foot of her private stairway she descended and, returning to her rooms, laid her sad burden in the closet adjoining her sleeping-room, destined from that moment to become an oratory. Then, leaving Henriette in her room, paler and more beautiful than ever, she entered the great ballroom, the same room in which, two years and a half ago, the first chapter of our history opened.

All eyes were turned on her, but she bore the general gaze with a proud and almost joyous air.

She had religiously carried out the last wish of her friend.

Seeing her, Charles pushed tremblingly through the gilded crowd around her.

“Sister,” said he, aloud, “I thank you.”

Then in a low tone:

“Take care!” said he, “you have a spot of blood on your arm.”

“Ah! what difference does that make, sire,” said Marguerite, “since I have a smile on my lips?”

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