“And, first, where are we going?” asked Marguerite; “not to the Pont des Meuniers, I suppose — I have seen enough slaughter since yesterday, my poor Henriette.”
“I have taken the liberty to conduct your majesty”—
“First and foremost, my majesty requests you to forget my majesty — you were taking me”—
“To the Hôtel de Guise, unless you decide otherwise.”
“No, no, let us go there, Henriette; the Duc de Guise is not there, your husband is not there.”
“Oh, no,” cried the duchess, her bright emerald eyes sparkling with joy; “no, neither my husband, nor my brother-inlaw, nor any one else. I am free — free as air, free as a bird — free, my queen! Do you understand the happiness there is in that word? I go, I come, I command. Ah, poor queen, you are not free — and so you sigh.”
“You go, you come, you command. Is that all? Is that all the use of liberty? You are happy with only freedom as an excuse!”
“Your majesty promised to tell me a secret.”
“Again ‘your majesty’! I shall be angry soon, Henriette. Have you forgotten our agreement?”
“No; your respectful servant in public — in private, your madcap confidante, is it not so, madame? Is it not so, Marguerite?”
“Yes, yes,” said the queen, smiling.
“No family rivalry, no treachery in love; everything fair, open, and aboveboard! An offensive and defensive alliance, for the sole purpose of finding and, if we can, catching on the fly, that ephemeral thing called happiness.”
“Just so, duchess. Let us again seal the compact with a kiss.”
And the two beautiful women, the one so pale, so full of melancholy, the other so roseate, so fair, so animated, joined their lips as they had united their thoughts.
“Tell me, what is there new?” asked the duchess, giving Marguerite an eager, inquisitive look.
“Isn’t everything new since day before yesterday?”
“Oh, I am speaking of love, not of politics. When we are as old as dame Catharine we will take part in politics; but we are only twenty, my pretty queen, and so let us talk about something else. Let me see! can it be that you are really married?”
“To whom?” asked Marguerite, laughing.
“Ah! you reassure me, truly!”
“Well, Henriette, that which reassures you, alarms me. Duchess, I must be married.”
“Oh, poor little friend! and is it necessary?”
“Mordi! as an acquaintance of mine says, this is very sad.”
“And so you know some one who says mordi?” asked Marguerite, with a smile.
“And who is this some one?”
“You keep asking me questions when I am talking to you. Finish and I will begin.”
“In two words, it is this: The King of Navarre is in love, and not with me; I am not in love, but I do not want him, yet we must both of us change, or seem to change, between now and tomorrow.”
“Well, then, you change, and be very sure he will do the same.”
“That is quite impossible, for I am less than ever inclined to change.”
“Only with respect to your husband, I hope.”
“Henriette, I have a scruple.”
“A scruple! about what?”
“A religious one. Do you make any difference between Huguenots and Catholics?”
“And in love?”
“My dear girl, we women are such heathens that we admit every kind of sect, and recognize many gods.”
“In one, eh?”
“Yes,” replied the duchess, her eyes sparkling; “he who is called Eros, Cupido, Amor. He who has a quiver on his back, wings on his shoulders, and a fillet over his eyes. Mordi, vive la dévotion!”
“You have a peculiar method of praying; you throw stones on the heads of Huguenots.”
“Let us do our duty and let people talk. Ah, Marguerite! how the finest ideas, the noblest actions, are spoilt in passing through the mouths of the vulgar!”
“The vulgar! — why, it was my brother Charles who congratulated you on your exploits, wasn’t it?”
“Your brother Charles is a mighty hunter blowing the horn all day, and that makes him very thin. I reject his compliments; besides, I gave him his answer — didn’t you hear what I said?”
“No; you spoke so low.”
“So much the better. I shall have more news to tell you. Now, then, finish your story, Marguerite.”
“I was going to say — to say”—
“I was going to say,” continued the queen, laughing, “if the stone my brother spoke of be a fact, I should resist.”
“Ah!” cried Henriette, “so you have chosen a Huguenot, have you? Well, to reassure your conscience, I promise you that I will choose one myself on the first opportunity.”
“Ah, so you have chosen a Catholic, have you?”
“Mordi!” replied the duchess.
“I see, I see.”
“And what is this Huguenot of yours?”
“I did not choose him. The young man is nothing and probably never will be anything to me.”
“But what sort is he? You can tell me that; you know how curious I am about these matters.”
“A poor young fellow, beautiful as Benvenuto Cellini’s Nisus — and he came and took refuge in my room.”
“Oho! — of course without any suggestion on your part?”
“Poor fellow! Do not laugh so, Henriette; at this very moment he is between life and death.”
“He is ill, is he?”
“He is grievously wounded.”
“A wounded Huguenot is very disagreeable, especially in these times; and what have you done with this wounded Huguenot, who is not and never will be anything to you?”
“He is in my closet; I am concealing him and I want to save him.”
“He is handsome! he is young! he is wounded. You hide him in your closet; you want to save him. This Huguenot of yours will be very ungrateful if he is not too grateful.”
“I am afraid he is already — much more so than I could wish.”
“And this poor young man interests you?”
“From motives of humanity — that’s all.”
“Ah, humanity! my poor queen, that is the very virtue that is the ruin of all of us women.”
“Yes; and you understand: as the King, the Duc d’Alençon, my mother, even my husband, may at any moment enter my room”—
“You want me to hide your little Huguenot as long as he is ill, on condition I send him back to you when he is cured?”
“Scoffer!” said Marguerite, “no! I do not lay my plans so far in advance; but if you could conceal the poor fellow — if you could preserve the life I have saved — I confess I should be most grateful. You are free at the Hôtel de Guise; you have neither brother-inlaw nor husband to spy on you or constrain you; besides, behind your room there is a closet like mine into which no one is entitled to enter; so lend me your closet for my Huguenot, and when he is cured open the cage and let the bird fly away.”
“There is only one difficulty, my dear queen: the cage is already occupied.”
“What, have you also saved somebody?”
“That is exactly what I answered your brother with.”
“Ah, I understand! that’s why you spoke so low that I could not hear you.”
“Listen, Marguerite: it is an admirable story — is no less poetical and romantic than yours. After I had left you six of my guards, I returned with the rest to the Hôtel de Guise, and I was watching them pillage and burn a house separated from my brother’s palace only by the Rue des Quatre Fils, when I heard the voices of men swearing and of women crying. I went out on the balcony and the first thing I saw was a sword flashing so brilliantly that it seemed to light up the whole scene. I was filled with admiration for this fiery sword. I am fond of fine things, you know! Then naturally enough I tried to distinguish the arm wielding it and then the body to which the arm belonged. Amid sword-thrusts and shouts I at last made out the man and I saw — a hero, an Ajax Telamon. I heard a voice — the voice of a Stentor. My enthusiasm awoke — I stood there panting, trembling at every blow aimed at him, at every thrust he parried! That was a quarter hour of emotion such as I had never before experienced, my queen; and never believed was possible to experience. So there I was panting, holding my breath, trembling, and voiceless, when all of a sudden my hero disappeared.”
“Struck down by a stone an old woman threw at him. Then, like Cyrus, I found my voice, and screamed, ‘Help! help!’ my guards went out, lifted him up, and bore him to the room which you want for your protégé.”
“Alas, my dear Henriette, I can better understand this story because it is so nearly my own.”
“With this difference, queen, that as I am serving my King and my religion, I have no reason to send Monsieur Annibal de Coconnas away.”
“His name is Annibal de Coconnas!” said Marguerite, laughing.
“A terrible name, is it not? Well, he who bears it is worthy of it. What a champion he is, by Heaven! and how he made the blood flow! Put on your mask, my queen, for we are now at the palace.”
“Why put on my mask?”
“Because I wish to show you my hero.”
“Is he handsome?”
“He seemed magnificent to me during the conflict. To be sure, it was at night and he was lighted up by the flames. This morning by daylight I confess he seemed to me to have lost a little.”
“So then my protégé is rejected at the Hôtel de Guise. I am sorry for it, for that is the last place where they would look for a Huguenot.”
“Oh, no, your Huguenot shall come; I will have him brought this evening: one shall sleep in the right-hand corner of the closet and the other in the left.”
“But when they recognize each other as Protestant and Catholic they will fight.”
“Oh, there is no danger. Monsieur de Coconnas has had a cut down the face that prevents him from seeing very well; your Huguenot is wounded in the chest so that he can’t move; and, besides, you have only to tell him to be silent on the subject of religion, and all will go well.”
“So be it.”
“It’s a bargain; and now let us go in.”
“Thanks,” said Marguerite, pressing her friend’s hand.
“Here, madame,” said the duchess, “you are again ‘your majesty;’ suffer me, then, to do the honors of the Hôtel de Guise fittingly for the Queen of Navarre.”
And the duchess, alighting from the litter, almost knelt on the ground in helping Marguerite to step down; then pointing to the palace door guarded by two sentinels, arquebuse in hand, she followed the queen at a respectful distance, and this humble attitude she maintained as long as she was in sight.
As soon as she reached her room, the duchess closed the door, and, calling to her waiting-woman, a thorough Sicilian, said to her in Italian,
“Mica, how is Monsieur le Comte?”
“Better and better,” replied she.
“What is he doing?”
“At this moment, madame, he is taking some refreshment.”
“It is always a good sign,” said Marguerite, “when the appetite returns.”
“Ah, that is true. I forgot you were a pupil of Ambroise Paré. Leave us, Mica.”
“Why do you send her away?”
“That she may be on the watch.”
Mica left the room.
“Now,” said the duchess, “will you go in to see him, or shall I send for him here?”
“Neither the one nor the other. I wish to see him without his seeing me.”
“What matters it? You have your mask.”
“He may recognize me by my hair, my hands, a jewel.”
“How cautious she is since she has been married, my pretty queen!”
“Well,” continued the duchess, “I see only one way.”
“What is that?”
“To look through the keyhole.”
“Very well! take me to the door.”
The duchess took Marguerite by the hand and led her to a door covered with tapestry; then bending one knee, she applied her eye to the keyhole.
“’Tis all right; he is sitting at table, with his face turned toward us; come!”
The queen took her friend’s place, and looked through the keyhole; Coconnas, as the duchess had said, was sitting at a well-served table, and, despite his wounds, was doing ample justice to the good things before him.
“Ah, great heavens!” cried Marguerite, starting back.
“What is the matter?” asked the duchess in amazement.
“Impossible! — no! — yes! — on my soul, ’tis the very man!”
“Hush,” said Marguerite, getting to her feet and seizing the duchess’s hand; “’tis the man who pursued my Huguenot into my room, and stabbed him in my arms! Oh, Henriette, how fortunate he did not see me!”
“Well, then, you have seen him fighting; was he not handsome?”
“I do not know,” said Marguerite, “for I was looking at the man he was pursuing.”
“What is his name?”
“You will not mention it before the count?”
“No, I give you my promise!”
“Lerac de la Mole.”
“And what do you think of him now?”
“Of Monsieur de la Mole?”
“No, of Monsieur de Coconnas?”
“Faith!” said Marguerite, “I confess I think”—
“Come, come,” said the duchess, “I see you are angry with him for having wounded your Huguenot.”
“Why, so far,” said Marguerite, laughing, “my Huguenot owes him nothing; the slash he gave him under his eye”—
“They are quits, then, and we can reconcile them. Send me your wounded man.”
“Not now — by and by.”
“When you have found yours another room.”
Marguerite looked meaningly at her friend, who, after a moment’s silence, laughed.
“So be it,” said the duchess; “alliance firmer than ever.”
“Friendship ever sincere!”
“And the word, in case we need each other?”
“The triple name of your triple god, ‘Eros, Cupido, Amor.’”
And the two princesses separated after one more kiss, and pressing each other’s hand for the twentieth time.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53