Quentin Durward, by Walter Scott

Chapter 35

A Prize for Honour

’T is brave for Beauty when the best blade wins her.

THE COUNT PALATINE

When Quentin Durward reached Peronne, a council was sitting, in the issue of which he was interested more deeply than he could have apprehended, and which, though held by persons of a rank with whom one of his could scarce be supposed to have community of interest, had nevertheless the most extraordinary influence on his fortunes.

King Louis, who, after the interlude of De la Marck’s envoy, had omitted no opportunity to cultivate the returning interest which that circumstance had given him in the Duke’s opinion, had been engaged in consulting him, or, it might be almost said, receiving his opinion, upon the number and quality of the troops, by whom, as auxiliary to the Duke of Burgundy, he was to be attended in their joint expedition against Liege. He plainly saw the wish of Charles was to call into his camp such Frenchmen as, from their small number and high quality, might be considered rather as hostages than as auxiliaries; but, observant of Crevecoeur’s advice, he assented as readily to whatever the Duke proposed, as if it had arisen from the free impulse of his own mind.

The King failed not, however, to indemnify himself for his complaisance by the indulgence of his vindictive temper against Balue, whose counsels had led him to repose such exuberant trust in the Duke of Burgundy. Tristan, who bore the summons for moving up his auxiliary forces, had the farther commission to carry the Cardinal to the Castle of Loches, and there shut him up in one of those iron cages which he himself is said to have invented.

“Let him make proof of his own devices,” said the King; “he is a man of holy church — we may not shed his blood; but, Pasques dieu! his bishopric, for ten years to come, shall have an impregnable frontier to make up for its small extent! — And see the troops are brought up instantly.”

Perhaps, by this prompt acquiescence, Louis hoped to evade the more unpleasing condition with which the Duke had clogged their reconciliation. But if he so hoped, he greatly mistook the temper of his cousin, for never man lived more tenacious of his purpose than Charles of Burgundy, and least of all was he willing to relax any stipulation which he made in resentment, or revenge, of a supposed injury.

No sooner were the necessary expresses dispatched to summon up the forces who were selected to act as auxiliaries, than Louis was called upon by his host to give public consent to the espousals of the Duke of Orleans and Isabelle of Croye. The King complied with a heavy sigh, and presently after urged a slight expostulation, founded upon the necessity of observing the wishes of the Duke himself.

“These have not been neglected,” said the Duke of Burgundy, “Crevecoeur hath communicated with Monsieur d’Orleans, and finds him (strange to say) so dead to the honour of wedding a royal bride, that he acceded to the proposal of marrying the Countess of Croye as the kindest proposal which father could have made to him.”

“He is the more ungracious and thankless,” said Louis, “but the whole shall be as you, my cousin, will, if you can bring it about with consent of the parties themselves.”

“Fear not that,” said the Duke, and accordingly, not many minutes after, the affair had been proposed, the Duke of Orleans and the Countess of Croye, the latter attended, as on the preceding occasion, by the Countess of Crevecoeur and the Abbess of the Ursulines, were summoned to the presence of the Princes, and heard from the mouth of Charles of Burgundy, unobjected to by that of Louis, who sat in silent and moody consciousness of diminished consequence, that the union of their hands was designed by the wisdom of both Princes, to confirm the perpetual alliance which in future should take place betwixt France and Burgundy.

The Duke of Orleans had much difficulty in suppressing the joy which he felt upon the proposal, and which delicacy rendered improper in the presence of Louis; and it required his habitual awe of that monarch to enable him to rein in his delight, so much as merely to reply that his duty compelled him to place his choice at the disposal of his Sovereign.

“Fair cousin of Orleans,” said Louis with sullen gravity, “since I must speak on so unpleasant an occasion, it is needless for me to remind you that my sense of your merits had led me to propose for you a match into my own family. But since my cousin of Burgundy thinks that the disposing of your hand otherwise is the surest pledge of amity between his dominions and mine, I love both too well not to sacrifice to them my own hopes and wishes.”

The Duke of Orleans threw himself on his knees, and kissed — and, for once, with sincerity of attachment — the hand which the King, with averted countenance, extended to him. In fact he, as well as most present, saw, in the unwilling acquiescence of this accomplished dissembler, who, even with that very purpose, had suffered his reluctance to be visible, a King relinquishing his favourite project, and subjugating his paternal feelings to the necessities of state, and interest of his country. Even Burgundy was moved, and Orleans’s heart smote him for the joy which he involuntarily felt on being freed from his engagement with the Princess Joan. If he had known how deeply the King was cursing him in his soul, and what thoughts of future revenge he was agitating, it is probable his own delicacy on the occasion would not have been so much hurt.

Charles next turned to the young Countess, and bluntly announced the proposed match to her, as a matter which neither admitted delay nor hesitation, adding, at the same time, that it was but a too favourable consequence of her intractability on a former occasion.

“My Lord Duke and Sovereign,” said Isabelle, summoning up all her courage, “I observe your Grace’s commands, and submit to them.”

“Enough, enough,” said the Duke, interrupting her, “we will arrange the rest. — Your Majesty,” he continued, addressing King Louis, “hath had a boar’s hunt in the morning; what say you to rousing a wolf in the afternoon?”

The young Countess saw the necessity of decision.

“Your Grace mistakes my meaning,” she said, speaking, though timidly, yet loudly and decidedly enough to compel the Duke’s attention, which, from some consciousness, he would otherwise have willingly denied to her.

“My submission,” she said, “only respected those lands and estates which your Grace’s ancestors gave to mine, and which I resign to the House of Burgundy, if my Sovereign thinks my disobedience in this matter renders me unworthy to hold them.”

“Ha! Saint George!” said the Duke, stamping furiously on the ground, “does the fool know in what presence she is? — And to whom she speaks?”

“My lord,” she replied, still undismayed, “I am before my Suzerain, and, I trust, a just one. If you deprive me of my lands, you take away all that your ancestors’ generosity gave, and you break the only bonds which attach us together. You gave not this poor and persecuted form, still less the spirit which animates me. — And these it is my purpose to dedicate to Heaven in the convent of the Ursulines, under the guidance of this Holy Mother Abbess.”

The rage and astonishment of the Duke can hardly be conceived, unless we could estimate the surprise of a falcon against whom a dove should ruffle its pinions in defiance.

“Will the Holy Mother receive you without an appanage?” he said in a voice of scorn.

“If she doth her convent, in the first instance, so much wrong,” said the Lady Isabelle, “I trust there is charity enough among the noble friends of my house to make up some support for the orphan of Croye.”

“It is false!” said the Duke, “it is a base pretext to cover some secret and unworthy passion. — My Lord of Orleans, she shall be yours, if I drag her to the altar with my own hands!”

The Countess of Crevecoeur, a high spirited woman and confident in her husband’s merits and his favour with the Duke, could keep silent no longer.

“My lord,” she said, “your passions transport you into language utterly unworthy. — The hand of no gentlewoman can be disposed of by force.”

“And it is no part of the duty of a Christian Prince,” added the Abbess, “to thwart the wishes of a pious soul, who, broken with the cares and persecutions of the world, is desirous to become the bride of Heaven.”

“Neither can my cousin of Orleans,” said Dunois, “with honour accept a proposal to which the lady has thus publicly stated her objections.”

“If I were permitted,” said Orleans, on whose facile mind Isabelle’s beauty had made a deep impression, “some time to endeavour to place my pretensions before the Countess in a more favourable light —”

“My lord,” said Isabelle, whose firmness was now fully supported by the encouragement which she received from all around, “it were to no purpose — my mind is made up to decline this alliance, though far above my deserts.”

“Nor have I time,” said the Duke, “to wait till these whimsies are changed with the next change of the moon. — Monseigneur d’Orleans, she shall learn within this hour that obedience becomes matter of necessity.”

“Not in my behalf, Sire,” answered the Prince, who felt that he could not, with any show of honour, avail himself of the Duke’s obstinate disposition; “to have been once openly and positively refused is enough for a son of France. He cannot prosecute his addresses farther.”

The Duke darted one furious glance at Orleans, another at Louis, and reading in the countenance of the latter, in spite of his utmost efforts to suppress his feelings, a look of secret triumph, he became outrageous.

“Write,” he said, to the secretary, “our doom of forfeiture and imprisonment against this disobedient and insolent minion. She shall to the Zuchthaus, to the penitentiary, to herd with those whose lives have rendered them her rivals in effrontery.”

There was a general murmur.

“My Lord Duke,” said the Count of Crevecoeur, taking the word for the rest, “this must be better thought on. We, your faithful vassals, cannot suffer such a dishonour to the nobility and chivalry of Burgundy. If the Countess hath done amiss, let her be punished — but in the manner that becomes her rank, and ours, who stand connected with her house by blood and alliance.”

The Duke paused a moment, and looked full at his councillor with the stare of a bull, which, when compelled by the neat herd from the road which he wishes to go, deliberates with himself whether to obey, or to rush on his driver, and toss him into the air.

Prudence, however, prevailed over fury — he saw the sentiment was general in his council — was afraid of the advantages which Louis might derive from seeing dissension among his vassals; and probably — for he was rather of a coarse and violent, than of a malignant temper — felt ashamed of his own dishonourable proposal.

“You are right,” he said, “Crevecoeur, and I spoke hastily. Her fate shall be determined according to the rules of chivalry. Her flight to Liege hath given the signal for the Bishop’s murder. He that best avenges that deed, and brings us the head of the Wild Boar of Ardennes, shall claim her hand of us; and if she denies his right, we can at least grant him her fiefs, leaving it to his generosity to allow her what means he will to retire into a convent.”

“Nay!” said the Countess, “think I am the daughter of Count Reinold — of your father’s old, valiant, and faithful servant. Would you hold me out as a prize to the best sword player?”

“Your ancestress,” said the Duke, “was won at a tourney — you shall be fought for in real melee. Only thus far, for Count Reinold’s sake, the successful prizer shall be a gentleman, of unimpeached birth, and unstained bearings; but, be he such, and the poorest who ever drew the strap of a sword belt through the tongue of a buckle, he shall have at least the proffer of your hand. I swear it, by St. George, by my ducal crown, and by the Order that I wear! — Ha! Messires,” he added, turning to the nobles present, “this at least is, I think, in conformity with the rules of chivalry?”

Isabelle’s remonstrances were drowned in a general and jubilant assent, above which was heard the voice of old Lord Crawford, regretting the weight of years that prevented his striking for so fair a prize. The Duke was gratified by the general applause, and his temper began to flow more smoothly, like that of a swollen river when it hath subsided within its natural boundaries.

“Are we to whom fate has given dames already,” said Crevecoeur, “to be bystanders at this fair game? It does not consist with my honour to be so, for I have myself a vow to be paid at the expense of that tusked and bristled brute, De la Marck.”

“Strike boldly in, Crevecoeur,” said the Duke, “to win her, and since thou canst not wear her thyself, bestow her where thou wilt — on Count Stephen, your nephew, if you list.”

“Gramercy, my lord!” said Crevecoeur, “I will do my best in the battle; and, should I be fortunate enough to be foremost, Stephen shall try his eloquence against that of the Lady Abbess.”

“I trust,” said Dunois, “that the chivalry of France are not excluded from this fair contest?”

“Heaven forbid! brave Dunois,” answered the Duke, “were it but for the sake of seeing you do your uttermost. But,” he added, “though there be no fault in the Lady Isabelle wedding a Frenchman, it will be necessary that the Count of Croye must become a subject of Burgundy.”

“Enough,” said Dunois, “my bar sinister may never be surmounted by the coronet of Croye — I will live and die French. But, yet, though I should lose the lands, I will strike a blow for the lady.”

Le Balafre dared not speak aloud in such a presence, but he muttered to himself,

“Now, Saunders Souplejaw, hold thine own! — thou always saidst the fortune of our house was to be won by marriage, and never had you such a chance to keep your word with us.”

“No one thinks of me,” said Le Glorieux, “who am sure to carry off the prize from all of you.”

“Right, my sapient friend,” said Louis, laughing, “when a woman is in the case, the greatest fool is ever the first in favour.”

While the princes and their nobles thus jested over her fate, the Abbess and the Countess of Crevecoeur endeavoured in vain to console Isabelle, who had withdrawn with them from the council-presence. The former assured her that the Holy Virgin would frown on every attempt to withdraw a true votaress from the shrine of Saint Ursula; while the Countess of Crevecoeur whispered more temporal consolation, that no true knight, who might succeed in the enterprise proposed, would avail himself, against her inclinations, of the Duke’s award; and that perhaps the successful competitor might prove one who should find such favour in her eyes as to reconcile her to obedience. Love, like despair, catches at straws; and, faint and vague as was the hope which this insinuation conveyed, the tears of the Countess Isabelle flowed more placidly while she dwelt upon it. 226

226 Saint Ursula: the patron saint of young girls. Tradition says she was martyred by the Huns, together with her eleven thousand companions. Her history has been painted by Carpacelo and by Hans Memling.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29