On Monday, the 18th of August, 1572, there was a splendid festival at the Louvre.
The ordinarily gloomy windows of the ancient royal residence were brilliantly lighted, and the squares and streets adjacent, usually so solitary after Saint Germain l’Auxerrois had struck the hour of nine, were crowded with people, although it was past midnight.
The vast, threatening, eager, turbulent throng resembled, in the darkness, a black and tumbling sea, each billow of which makes a roaring breaker; this sea, flowing through the Rue des Fossés Saint Germain and the Rue de l’Astruce and covering the quay, surged against the base of the walls of the Louvre, and, in its refluent tide, against the Hôtel de Bourbon, which faced it on the other side.
In spite of the royal festival, and perhaps even because of the royal festival, there was something threatening in the appearance of the people, for no doubt was felt that this imposing ceremony which called them there as spectators, was only the prelude to another in which they would participate a week later as invited guests and amuse themselves with all their hearts.
The court was celebrating the marriage of Madame Marguerite de Valois, daughter of Henry II. and sister of King Charles IX., with Henry de Bourbon, King of Navarre. In truth, that very morning, on a stage erected at the entrance to Notre–Dame, the Cardinal de Bourbon had united the young couple with the usual ceremonial observed at the marriages of the royal daughters of France.
This marriage had astonished every one, and occasioned much surmise to certain persons who saw clearer than others. They found it difficult to understand the union of two parties who hated each other so thoroughly as did, at this moment, the Protestant party and the Catholic party; and they wondered how the young Prince de Condé could forgive the Duc d’Anjou, the King’s brother, for the death of his father, assassinated at Jarnac by Montesquiou. They asked how the young Duc de Guise could pardon Admiral de Coligny for the death of his father, assassinated at Orléans by Poltrot de Méré.
Moreover, Jeanne de Navarre, the weak Antoine de Bourbon’s courageous wife, who had conducted her son Henry to the royal marriage awaiting him, had died scarcely two months before, and singular reports had been spread abroad as to her sudden death. It was everywhere whispered, and in some places said aloud, that she had discovered some terrible secret; and that Catharine de Médicis, fearing its disclosure, had poisoned her with perfumed gloves, which had been made by a man named Réné, a Florentine deeply skilled in such matters. This report was the more widely spread and believed when, after this great queen’s death, at her son’s request, two celebrated physicians, one of whom was the famous Ambroise Paré, were instructed to open and examine the body, but not the skull. As Jeanne de Navarre had been poisoned by a perfume, only the brain could show any trace of the crime (the one part excluded from dissection). We say crime, for no one doubted that a crime had been committed.
This was not all. King Charles in particular had, with a persistency almost approaching obstinacy, urged this marriage, which not only reëstablished peace in his kingdom, but also attracted to Paris the principal Huguenots of France. As the two betrothed belonged one to the Catholic religion and the other to the reformed religion, they had been obliged to obtain a dispensation from Gregory XIII., who then filled the papal chair. The dispensation was slow in coming, and the delay had caused the late Queen of Navarre great uneasiness. She one day expressed to Charles IX. her fears lest the dispensation should not arrive; to which the King replied:
“Have no anxiety, my dear aunt. I honor you more than I do the Pope, and I love my sister more than I fear him. I am not a Huguenot, neither am I a blockhead; and if the Pope makes a fool of himself, I will myself take Margot by the hand, and have her married to your son in some Protestant meeting-house!”
This speech was soon spread from the Louvre through the city, and, while it greatly rejoiced the Huguenots, had given the Catholics something to think about; they asked one another, in a whisper, if the King was really betraying them or was only playing a comedy which some fine morning or evening might have an unexpected ending.
Charles IX.‘s conduct toward Admiral de Coligny, who for five or six years had been so bitterly opposed to the King, appeared particularly inexplicable; after having put on his head a price of a hundred and fifty thousand golden crowns, the King now swore by him, called him his father, and declared openly that he should in future confide the conduct of the war to him alone. To such a pitch was this carried that Catharine de Médicis herself, who until then had controlled the young prince’s actions, will, and even desires, seemed to be growing really uneasy, and not without reason; for, in a moment of confidence, Charles IX. had said to the admiral, in reference to the war in Flanders,
“My father, there is one other thing against which we must be on our guard — that is, that the queen, my mother, who likes to poke her nose everywhere, as you well know, shall learn nothing of this undertaking; we must keep it so quiet that she will not have a suspicion of it, or being such a mischief-maker as I know she is, she would spoil all.”
Now, wise and experienced as he was, Coligny had not been able to keep such an absolute secret; and, though he had come to Paris with great suspicions, and albeit at his departure from Chatillon a peasant woman had thrown herself at his feet, crying, “Ah! sir, our good master, do not go to Paris, for if you do, you will die — you and all who are with you!”— these suspicions were gradually lulled in his heart, and so it was with Téligny, his son-inlaw, to whom the King was especially kind and attentive, calling him his brother, as he called the admiral his father, and addressing him with the familiar “thou,” as he did his best friends.
The Huguenots, excepting some few morose and suspicious spirits, were therefore completely reassured. The death of the Queen of Navarre passed as having been caused by pleurisy, and the spacious apartments of the Louvre were filled with all those gallant Protestants to whom the marriage of their young chief, Henry, promised an unexpected return of good fortune. Admiral Coligny, La Rochefoucault, the young Prince de Condé, Téligny — in short, all the leaders of the party — were triumphant when they saw so powerful at the Louvre and so welcome in Paris those whom, three months before, King Charles and Queen Catharine would have hanged on gibbets higher than those of assassins.
The Maréchal de Montmorency was the only one who was missing among all his brothers, for no promise could move him, no specious appearances deceive him, and he remained secluded in his château de l’Isle Adam, offering as his excuse for not appearing the grief which he still felt for his father, the Constable Anne de Montmorency, who had been killed at the battle of Saint Denis by a pistol-shot fired by Robert Stuart. But as this had taken place more than three years before, and as sensitiveness was a virtue little practised at that time, this unduly protracted mourning was interpreted just as people cared to interpret it.
However, everything seemed to show that the Maréchal de Montmorency was mistaken. The King, the Queen, the Duc d’Anjou, and the Duc d’Alençon did the honors of the royal festival with all courtesy and kindness.
The Duc d’Anjou received from the Huguenots themselves well-deserved compliments on the two battles of Jarnac and Montcontour, which he had gained before he was eighteen years of age, more precocious in that than either Cæsar or Alexander, to whom they compared him, of course placing the conquerors of Pharsalia and the Issus as inferior to the living prince. The Duc d’Alençon looked on, with his bland, false smile, while Queen Catharine, radiant with joy and overflowing with honeyed phrases, congratulated Prince Henry de Condé on his recent marriage with Marie de Clèves; even the Messieurs de Guise themselves smiled on the formidable enemies of their house, and the Duc de Mayenne discoursed with M. de Tavannes and the admiral on the impending war, which was now more than ever threatened against Philippe II.
In the midst of these groups a young man of about nineteen years of age was walking to and fro, his head a little on one side, his ear open to all that was said. He had a keen eye, black hair cut very close, thick eyebrows, a nose hooked like an eagle’s, a sneering smile, and a growing mustache and beard. This young man, who by his reckless daring had first attracted attention at the battle of Arnay-le-Duc and was the recipient of numberless compliments, was the dearly beloved pupil of Coligny and the hero of the day. Three months before — that is to say, when his mother was still living — he was called the Prince de Béarn, now he was called the King of Navarre, afterwards he was known as Henry IV.
From time to time a swift and gloomy cloud passed over his brow; unquestionably it was at the thought that scarce had two months elapsed since his mother’s death, and he, less than any one, doubted that she had been poisoned. But the cloud was transitory, and disappeared like a fleeting shadow, for they who spoke to him, they who congratulated him, they who elbowed him, were the very ones who had assassinated the brave Jeanne d’Albret.
Some paces distant from the King of Navarre, almost as pensive, almost as gloomy as the king pretended to be joyous and open-hearted, was the young Duc de Guise, conversing with Téligny. More fortunate than the Béarnais, at two-and-twenty he had almost attained the reputation of his father, François, the great Duc de Guise. He was an elegant gentleman, very tall, with a noble and haughty look, and gifted with that natural majesty which caused it to be said that in comparison with him other princes seemed to belong to the people. Young as he was, the Catholics looked up to him as the chief of their party, as the Huguenots saw theirs in Henry of Navarre, whose portrait we have just drawn. At first he had borne the title of Prince de Joinville, and at the siege of Orléans had fought his first battle under his father, who died in his arms, denouncing Admiral Coligny as his assassin. The young duke then, like Hannibal, took a solemn oath to avenge his father’s death on the admiral and his family, and to pursue the foes to his religion without truce or respite, promising God to be his destroying angel on earth until the last heretic should be exterminated. So with deep astonishment the people saw this prince, usually so faithful to his word, offering his hand to those whom he had sworn to hold as his eternal enemies, and talking familiarly with the son-inlaw of the man whose death he had promised to his dying father.
But as we have said, this was an evening of astonishments.
Indeed, an observer privileged to be present at this festival, endowed with the knowledge of the future which is fortunately hidden from men, and with that power of reading men’s hearts which unfortunately belongs only to God, would have certainly enjoyed the strangest spectacle to be found in all the annals of the melancholy human comedy.
But this observer who was absent from the inner courts of the Louvre was to be found in the streets gazing with flashing eyes and breaking out into loud threats; this observer was the people, who, with its marvellous instinct made keener by hatred, watched from afar the shadows of its implacable enemies and translated the impressions they made with as great clearness as an inquisitive person can do before the windows of a hermetically sealed ball-room. The music intoxicates and governs the dancers, but the inquisitive person sees only the movement and laughs at the puppet jumping about without reason, because the inquisitive person hears no music.
The music that intoxicated the Huguenots was the voice of their pride.
The gleams which caught the eyes of the Parisians that midnight were the lightning flashes of their hatred illuminating the future.
And meantime everything was still festive within, and a murmur softer and more flattering than ever was at this moment pervading the Louvre, for the youthful bride, having laid aside her toilet of ceremony, her long mantle and flowing veil, had just returned to the ball-room, accompanied by the lovely Duchesse de Nevers, her most intimate friend, and led by her brother, Charles IX., who presented her to the principal guests.
The bride was the daughter of Henry II., was the pearl of the crown of France, was MARGUERITE DE VALOIS, whom in his familiar tenderness for her King Charles IX. always called “ma soeur Margot,” “my sister Margot.”
Assuredly never was any welcome, however flattering, more richly deserved than that which the new Queen of Navarre was at this moment receiving. Marguerite at this period was scarcely twenty, and she was already the object of all the poets’ eulogies, some of whom compared her to Aurora, others to Cytherea; she was, in truth, a beauty without rival in that court in which Catharine de Médicis had assembled the loveliest women she could find, to make of them her sirens.
Marguerite had black hair and a brilliant complexion; a voluptuous eye, veiled by long lashes; delicate coral lips; a slender neck; a graceful, opulent figure, and concealed in a satin slipper a tiny foot. The French, who possessed her, were proud to see such a lovely flower flourishing in their soil, and foreigners who passed through France returned home dazzled with her beauty if they had but seen her, and amazed at her knowledge if they had discoursed with her; for Marguerite was not only the loveliest, she was also the most erudite woman of her time, and every one was quoting the remark of an Italian scholar who had been presented to her, and who, after having conversed with her for an hour in Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek, had gone away saying:
“To see the court without seeing Marguerite de Valois is to see neither France nor the court.”
Thus addresses to King Charles IX. and the Queen of Navarre were not wanting. It is well known that the Huguenots were great hands at addresses. Many allusions to the past, many hints as to the future, were adroitly slipped into these harangues; but to all such allusions and speeches the King replied, with his pale lips and artificial smiles:
“In giving my sister Margot to Henry of Navarre, I give my sister to all the Protestants of the kingdom.”
This phrase assured some and made others smile, for it had really a double sense: the one paternal, with which Charles IX. would not load his mind; the other insulting to the bride, to her husband, and also to him who said it, for it recalled some scandalous rumors with which the chroniclers of the court had already found means to smirch the nuptial robe of Marguerite de Valois.
However, M. de Guise was conversing, as we have said, with Téligny; but he did not pay to the conversation such sustained attention but that he turned away somewhat, from time to time, to cast a glance at the group of ladies, in the centre of whom glittered the Queen of Navarre. When the princess’s eye thus met that of the young duke, a cloud seemed to over-spread that lovely brow, around which stars of diamonds formed a tremulous halo, and some agitating thought might be divined in her restless and impatient manner.
The Princess Claude, Marguerite’s eldest sister, who had been for some years married to the Duc de Lorraine, had observed this uneasiness, and was going up to her to inquire the cause, when all stood aside at the approach of the queen mother, who came forward, leaning on the arm of the young Prince de Condé, and the princess was thus suddenly separated from her sister. There was a general movement, by which the Duc de Guise profited to approach Madame de Nevers, his sister-inlaw, and Marguerite.
Madame de Lorraine, who had not lost sight of her sister, then remarked, instead of the cloud which she had before observed on her forehead, a burning blush come into her cheeks. The duke approached still nearer, and when he was within two steps of Marguerite, she appeared rather to feel than see his presence, and turned round, making a violent effort over herself in order to give her features an appearance of calmness and indifference. The duke, then respectfully bowing, murmured in a low tone,
That meant: “I have brought it, or brought it myself.”
Marguerite returned the young duke’s bow, and as she straightened herself, replied, in the same tone,
“Noctu pro more.”
That meant: “To-night, as usual.”
These soft words, absorbed by the enormous collar which the princess wore, as in the bell of a speaking-trumpet, were heard only by the person to whom they were addressed; but brief as had been the conference, it doubtless composed all the young couple had to say, for after this exchange of two words for three, they separated, Marguerite more thoughtful and the duke with his brow less clouded than when they met. This little scene took place without the person most interested appearing to remark it, for the King of Navarre had eyes but for one lady, and she had around her a suite almost as numerous as that which followed Marguerite de Valois. This was the beautiful Madame de Sauve.
Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, granddaughter of the unfortunate Semblançay, and wife of Simon de Fizes, Baron de Sauve, was one of the ladies-inwaiting to Catharine de Médicis, and one of the most redoubtable auxiliaries of this queen, who poured forth to her enemies love-philtres when she dared not pour out Florentine poison. Delicately fair, and by turns sparkling with vivacity or languishing in melancholy, always ready for love and intrigue, the two great occupations which for fifty years employed the court of the three succeeding kings — a woman in every acceptation of the word and in all the charm of the idea, from the blue eye languishing or flashing with fire to the small rebellious feet arched in their velvet slippers, Madame de Sauve had already for some months taken complete possession of every faculty of the King of Navarre, then beginning his career as a lover as well as a politician; thus it was that Marguerite de Valois, a magnificent and royal beauty, had not even excited admiration in her husband’s heart; and what was more strange, and astonished all the world, even from a soul so full of darkness and mystery, Catharine de Médicis, while she prosecuted her project of union between her daughter and the King of Navarre, had not ceased to favor almost openly his amour with Madame de Sauve. But despite this powerful aid, and despite the easy manners of the age, the lovely Charlotte had hitherto resisted; and this resistance, unheard of, incredible, unprecedented, even more than the beauty and wit of her who resisted, had excited in the heart of the Béarnais a passion which, unable to satisfy itself, had destroyed in the young king’s heart all timidity, pride, and even that carelessness, half philosophic, half indolent, which formed the basis of his character.
Madame de Sauve had been only a few minutes in the ballroom; from spite or grief she had at first resolved on not being present at her rival’s triumph, and under the pretext of an indisposition had allowed her husband, who had been for five years secretary of state, to go alone to the Louvre; but when Catharine de Médicis saw the baron without his wife, she asked the cause that kept her dear Charlotte away, and when she found that the indisposition was but slight, she wrote a few words to her, which the lady hastened to obey. Henry, sad as he had at first been at her absence, had yet breathed more freely when he saw M. de Sauve enter alone; but just as he was about to pay some court to the charming creature whom he was condemned, if not to love, at least to treat as his wife, he unexpectedly saw Madame de Sauve arise from the farther end of the gallery. He remained stationary on the spot, his eyes fastened on the Circe who enthralled him as if by magic chains, and instead of proceeding towards his wife, by a movement of hesitation which betrayed more astonishment than alarm he advanced to meet Madame de Sauve.
The courtiers, seeing the King of Navarre, whose inflammable heart they knew, approach the beautiful Charlotte, had not the courage to prevent their meeting, but drew aside complaisantly; so that at the very moment when Marguerite de Valois and Monsieur de Guise exchanged the few words in Latin which we have noted above, Henry, having approached Madame de Sauve, began, in very intelligible French, although with somewhat of a Gascon accent, a conversation by no means so mysterious.
“Ah, ma mie!” he said, “you have, then, come at the very moment when they assured me that you were ill, and I had lost all hope of seeing you.”
“Would your majesty perhaps wish me to believe that it had cost you something to lose this hope?” replied Madame de Sauve.
“By Heaven! I believe it!” replied the Béarnais; “know you not that you are my sun by day and my star by night? By my faith, I was in deepest darkness till you appeared and suddenly illumined all.”
“Then, monseigneur, I serve you a very ill turn.”
“What do you mean, ma mie?” inquired Henry.
“I mean that he who is master of the handsomest woman in France should only have one desire — that the light should disappear and give way to darkness, for happiness awaits you in the darkness.”
“You know, cruel one, that my happiness is in the hands of one woman only, and that she laughs at poor Henry.”
“Oh!” replied the baroness, “I believed, on the contrary, that it was this person who was the sport and jest of the King of Navarre.” Henry was alarmed at this hostile attitude, and yet he bethought him that it betrayed jealous spite, and that jealous spite is only the mask of love.
“Indeed, dear Charlotte, you reproach me very unjustly, and I do not comprehend how so lovely a mouth can be so cruel. Do you suppose for a moment that it is I who give myself in marriage? No, ventre saint gris, it is not I!”
“It is I, perhaps,” said the baroness, sharply — if ever the voice of the woman who loves us and reproaches us for not loving her can seem sharp.
“With your lovely eyes have you not seen farther, baroness? No, no; Henry of Navarre is not marrying Marguerite de Valois.”
“And who, pray, is?”
“Why, by Heaven! it is the reformed religion marrying the pope — that’s all.”
“No, no, I cannot be deceived by your jests. Monseigneur loves Madame Marguerite. And can I blame you? Heaven forbid! She is beautiful enough to be adored.”
Henry reflected for a moment, and, as he reflected, a meaning smile curled the corner of his lips.
“Baroness,” said he, “you seem to be seeking a quarrel with me, but you have no right to do so. What have you done to prevent me from marrying Madame Marguerite? Nothing. On the contrary, you have always driven me to despair.”
“And well for me that I have, monseigneur,” replied Madame de Sauve.
“Why, of course, because you are marrying another woman!”
“I marry her because you love me not.”
“If I had loved you, sire, I must have died in an hour.”
“In an hour? What do you mean? And of what death would you have died?”
“Of jealousy! — for in an hour the Queen of Navarre will send away her women, and your majesty your gentlemen.”
“Is that really the thought that is uppermost in your mind, ma mie?”
“I did not say so. I only say, that if I loved you it would be uppermost in my mind most tormentingly.”
“Very well,” said Henry, at the height of joy on hearing this confession, the first which she had made to him, “suppose the King of Navarre should not send away his gentlemen this evening?”
“Sire,” replied Madame de Sauve, looking at the king with astonishment for once unfeigned, “you say things impossible and incredible.”
“What must I do to make you believe them?”
“Give me a proof — and that proof you cannot give me.”
“Yes, baroness, yes! By Saint Henry, I will give it you!” exclaimed the king, gazing at the young woman with eyes hot with love.
“Oh, your majesty!” exclaimed the lovely Charlotte in an undertone and with downcast eyes, “I do not understand — No! no, it is impossible for you to turn your back on the happiness awaiting you.”
“There are four Henrys in this room, my adorable!” replied the king, “Henry de France, Henry de Condé, Henry de Guise, but there is only one Henry of Navarre.”
“Well; if this Henry of Navarre is with you all night”—
“Yes; will that be a certain proof to you that he is not with any other?”
“Ah! if you do that, sire,” cried Madame Sauve.
“On the honor of a gentleman I will do it!”
Madame de Sauve raised her great eyes dewy with voluptuous promises and looked at the king, whose heart was filled with an intoxicating joy.
“And then,” said Henry, “what will you say?”
“I will say,” replied Charlotte, “that your majesty really loves me.”
“Ventre saint gris! then you shall say it, baroness, for it is true.”
“But how can you manage it?” murmured Madame de Sauve.
“Oh! by Heaven! baroness, have you not about you some waiting-woman, some girl whom you can trust?”
“Yes, Dariole is so devoted to me that she would let herself be cut in pieces for me; she is a real treasure.”
“By Heaven! then say to her that I will make her fortune when I am King of France, as the astrologers prophesy.”
Charlotte smiled, for even at this period the Gascon reputation of the Béarnais was already established with respect to his promises.
“Well, then, what do you want Dariole to do?”
“Little for her, a great deal for me. Your apartment is over mine?”
“Let her wait behind the door. I will knock gently three times; she will open the door, and you will have the proof that I have promised you.”
Madame de Sauve kept silence for several seconds, and then, as if she had looked around her to observe if she were overheard, she fastened her gaze for a moment on the group clustering around the queen mother; brief as the moment was, it was sufficient for Catharine and her lady-inwaiting to exchange a look.
“Oh, if I were inclined,” said Madame de Sauve, with a siren’s accent that would have melted the wax in Ulysses’ ears, “if I were inclined to make your majesty tell a falsehood”—
“Ma mie, try”—
“Ah, ma foi! I confess I am tempted to do so.”
“Give in! Women are never so strong as after they are defeated.”
“Sire, I hold you to your promise for Dariole when you shall be King of France.”
Henry uttered an exclamation of joy.
At the precise moment when this cry escaped the lips of the Béarnais, the Queen of Navarre was replying to the Duc de Guise:
“Noctu pro more— to-night as usual.”
Then Henry turned away from Madame de Sauve as happy as the Duc de Guise had been when he left Marguerite de Valois.
An hour after the double scene we have just related, King Charles and the queen mother retired to their apartments. Almost immediately the rooms began to empty; the galleries exhibited the bases of their marble columns. The admiral and the Prince de Condé were escorted home by four hundred Huguenot gentlemen through the middle of the crowd, which hooted as they passed. Then Henry de Guise, with the Lorraine gentlemen and the Catholics, left in their turn, greeted by cries of joy and plaudits of the people.
But Marguerite de Valois, Henry de Navarre, and Madame de Sauve lived in the Louvre.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53