Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 63.

The Donjon of the Prison of Vincennes.

Henry of Navarre was strolling dreamily along the terrace of the prison. He knew the court was at the château, not a hundred feet away, and through the walls it seemed as if his piercing eye could picture Charles as he lay dying.

The weather was perfect. A broad band of sunlight lay on the distant fields, bathing in liquid gold the tops of the forest trees, proud of the richness of their first foliage. The very stones of the prison itself, gray as they were, seemed impregnated with the gentle light of heaven, and some flowers, lured by the breath of the east wind, had pushed through the crevices of the wall, and were raising their disks of red and yellow velvet to the kisses of the warm air.

But Henry’s eyes were fixed neither on the verdant plains nor on the gilded tree tops. His glance went beyond, and was fixed, full of ambition, on the capital of France, destined one day to become the capital of the world.

“Paris,” murmured the King of Navarre, “there is Paris; that is, joy, triumph, glory, power, and happiness. Paris, in which is the Louvre, and the Louvre, in which is the throne; and only one thing separates me from this Paris, for which I so long, and that something the stones at my feet, which shut me in with my enemy!”

As he glanced from Paris to Vincennes, he perceived on his left, in a valley, partly hidden by flowering almond-trees, a man, whose cuirass sparkled in the sunlight at its owner’s slightest movement.

This man rode a fiery steed and led another which seemed no less impatient.

The King of Navarre fixed his eyes on this cavalier and saw him draw his sword from his sheath, place his handkerchief on the point, and wave it like a signal.

At the same instant the signal was repeated from the opposite hill, then all around the château a belt of handkerchiefs seemed to flutter.

It was De Mouy and his Huguenots, who, knowing the King was dying, and fearing that some attempt might be made on Henry’s life, had gathered together, ready to defend or attack.

Henry, with his eyes still on the horseman he had seen first, bent over the balustrade, and shading his eyes with his hand to keep out the dazzling rays of the sun, recognized the young Huguenot.

“De Mouy!” he exclaimed, as though the latter could hear him.

And in his joy at seeing himself surrounded by friends, the king raised his hat and waved his scarf.

All the white banners were again set in motion with an energy which proved the joy of their owners.

“Alas! they are waiting for me,” said Henry, “and I cannot join them. Why did I not do so when I could? Now it is too late!”

He made a despairing gesture, to which De Mouy returned a sign which meant, “I will wait.”

Just then Henry heard steps on the stone stairs. He hastily withdrew. The Huguenots understood the cause of his sudden disappearance, and their swords were returned to their sheaths and their handkerchiefs disappeared.

Henry saw on the stairs a woman whose quick breathing showed that she had come in haste.

He recognized, not without the secret dread he always felt on seeing her, Catharine de Médicis.

Behind her were two guards who stopped at the head of the stairs.

“Oh!” thought Henry, “it must be something new and important that makes the queen mother come to seek me on the balcony of the prison of Vincennes.”

Catharine seated herself on a stone bench against the battlement to recover her breath.

Henry approached her, and with his most gracious smile:

“Are you seeking me, my good mother?”

“Yes, monsieur,” replied Catharine, “I wish to give you a final proof of my attachment. The King is dying and wishes to see you.”

“Me!” said Henry, with a start of joy.

“Yes. He has been told, I am sure, that not only do you covet the throne of Navarre but that of France as well.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Henry.

“It is not true, I know, but he believes it, and no doubt the object of the interview he wishes with you is to lay a snare for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes. Before dying Charles wants to know what there is to hope or fear from you. And on your answer to his offer, mark you, will depend his final commands, that is, your life or death.”

“But what will he offer me?”

“How do I know? Impossibilities, probably.”

“But have you no idea?”

“No; but suppose for instance”—

Catharine paused.

“What.”

“Suppose he credited you with these ambitious aims of yours he has heard about; suppose he should wish to hear these aims from your own lips; suppose he should tempt you as once they used to tempt the guilty in order to provoke a confession without torture; suppose,” continued Catharine, looking fixedly at Henry, “he were to offer you a kingdom, the regency!”

A thrill of indescribable joy pervaded Henry’s weary heart, but he guessed the snare and his strong and supple soul rebounded.

“Me?” said he; “the snare would be too palpable; offer me the regency when there is you yourself and my brother D’Alençon?”

Catharine compressed her lips to conceal her satisfaction.

“Then,” said she, quickly, “you would refuse it?”

“The King is dead,” thought Henry, “and she is laying a trap for me.”

Aloud, he said:

“I must first hear what the King of France has to say; for from your own words, madame, all this is mere supposition.”

“Doubtless,” said Catharine; “but you can tell me your intentions.”

“Why!” said Henry, innocently, “having no pretensions, I have no intentions.”

“That is no answer,” said Catharine, feeling that time was flying, and giving way to her anger; “you can give some answer.”

“I cannot answer suppositions, madame; a positive resolution is so difficult and so grave a thing to assume that I must wait for facts.”

“Listen, monsieur,” said Catharine; “there is no time to lose, and we are wasting it in vain discussion, in toying with words. Let us play our rôle of king and queen. If you accept the regency you are a dead man.”

“The King lives,” thought Henry.

Then aloud:

“Madame,” said he, firmly, “God holds the lives of men and of kings in his hands. He will inspire me. Let his Majesty be informed that I am ready to see him.”

“Reflect, monsieur.”

“During the two years in which I have been persecuted, during the month I have been a prisoner,” replied Henry, bravely, “I have had time to reflect, madame, and I have reflected. Have the goodness, therefore, to go to the King before me, and to tell him that I am following you. These two guards,” added Henry, pointing to the soldiers, “will see that I do not escape. Moreover, that is not my intention.”

There was such firmness in Henry’s tone that Catharine saw that all her attempts, under whatever disguise, would not succeed. Therefore she hastily descended.

As soon as she had disappeared Henry went to the parapet and made a sign to De Mouy, which meant: “Draw near and be ready in case of necessity.”

De Mouy, who had dismounted, sprang into the saddle, and still leading the second horse galloped to within musket-shot of the prison.

Henry thanked him by a gesture, and descended.

On the first landing he found the two soldiers who were waiting for him.

A double troop of Swiss and light-horse guarded the entrance to the court, and to enter or leave the château it was necessary to traverse a double line of halberds.

Catharine had stopped and was waiting for him.

She signed to the two soldiers to go on, and laying her hand on Henry’s arm, said:

“This court has two gates. At one, behind the apartments of the King, if you refuse the regency, a good horse and freedom await you. At the other, through which you have just passed, if you listen to the voice of ambition — What do you say?”

“I say that if the King makes me regent, madame, I, and not you, shall give orders to the soldiers. I say that if I leave the castle at night, all these pikes, halberds, and muskets shall be lowered before me.”

“Madman!” murmured Catharine, exasperated, “believe me, and do not play this terrible game of life and death with me.”

“Why not?” said Henry, looking closely at Catharine; “why not with you as well as with another, since up to this time I have won?”

“Go to the King’s apartments, monsieur, since you are unwilling to believe or listen to anything,” said Catharine, pointing to the stairway with one hand, and with the other toying with one of the two poisoned daggers she always wore in the black shagreen case, which has become historical.

“Pass before me, madame,” said Henry; “so long as I am not regent, the honor of precedence belongs to you.”

Catharine, thwarted in all her plans, did not attempt to struggle, but ascended the stairs ahead of the King of Navarre.

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