The queen mother cast a marvellously rapid glance around her. The velvet slippers at the foot of the bed, Marguerite’s clothes scattered over the chairs, the way she rubbed her eyes as if to drive away her sleepiness, all convinced Catharine that she had awakened her daughter.
Then she smiled as a woman does when she has succeeded in her plans, and drawing up an easy chair, she said:
“Let us sit down, Marguerite, and talk.”
“Madame, I am listening.”
“It is time,” said Catharine, slowly shutting her eyes in the characteristic way of people who weigh each word or who deeply dissimulate, “it is time, my daughter, that you should know how ardently your brother and myself desire to see you happy.”
This exordium for one who knew Catharine was alarming.
“What can she be about to say?” thought Marguerite.
“To be sure,” continued La Florentine, “in giving you in marriage we fulfilled one of those acts of policy frequently required by important interests of those who govern; but I must confess, my poor child, that we had no expectation that the indifference manifested by the King of Navarre for one so young, so lovely, and so fascinating as yourself would be so obstinate.”
Marguerite arose, and folding her robe de chambre around her, courtesied with ceremonious respect to her mother.
“I have heard to-night only,” continued Catharine, “otherwise I should have paid you an earlier visit, that your husband is far from showing you those attentions you have a right to claim, not merely as a beautiful woman, but as a princess of France.”
Marguerite sighed, and Catharine, encouraged by this mute approval, proceeded.
“In fact, that the King of Navarre is openly cohabiting one of my maids of honor who is scandalously smitten with him, that he scorns the love of the woman graciously given to him, is an insult to which we poor powerful ones of the earth cannot apply a remedy, and yet the meanest gentleman in our kingdom would avenge it by calling out his son-inlaw or having his son do so.”
Marguerite dropped her head.
“For some time, my daughter,” Catharine went on to say, “I have seen by your reddened eyes, by your bitter sallies against La Sauve, that in spite of your efforts your heart must show external signs of its bleeding wound.”
Marguerite trembled: a slight movement had shaken the curtains; but fortunately Catharine did not notice it.
“This wound,” said she with affectionate sweetness redoubled, “this wound, my daughter, a mother’s hand must cure. Those who with the intention of securing your happiness have brought about your marriage, and who in their anxiety about you notice that every night Henry of Navarre goes to the wrong rooms; those who cannot allow a kinglet like him to insult a woman of such beauty, of such high rank, and so worthy, by scorning your person and neglecting his chances of posterity; those who see that at the first favorable wind, this wild and insolent madcap will turn against our family and expel you from his house — I say have not they the right to secure your interests by entirely dividing them from his, so that your future may be better suited to yourself and your rank?”
“And yet, madame,” replied Marguerite, “in spite of these observations so replete with maternal love, and filling me with joy and pride, I am bold enough to affirm to your majesty that the King of Navarre is my husband.”
Catharine started with rage, and drawing closer to Marguerite she said:
“He, your husband? Is it sufficient to make you husband and wife that the Church has pronounced its blessing upon you? And is the marriage consecration only in the words of the priest? He, your husband? Ah, my daughter! if you were Madame de Sauve you might give me this reply. But wholly contrary of what we expected of him since you granted Henry of Navarre the honor of calling you his wife, he has given all your rights to another woman, and at this very instant even,” said Catharine, raising her voice — “this key opens the door of Madame de Sauve’s apartment — come with me and you will see”—
“Oh, not so loud, madame, not so loud, I beseech you!” said Marguerite, “for not only are you mistaken, but”—
“Well, you will awaken my husband!”
As she said these words Marguerite arose with a perfectly voluptuous grace, her white dress fluttering loosely around her, while the large open sleeves displayed her bare and faultlessly modelled arm and truly royal hand, and taking a rose-colored taper she held it near the bed, and drawing back the curtain, and smiling significantly at her mother, pointed to the haughty profile, the black locks, and the parted lips of the King of Navarre, who, as he lay upon the disordered bed, seemed buried in profound repose.
Pale, with haggard eyes, her body thrown back as if an abyss had opened at her feet, Catharine uttered not a cry, but a hoarse bellow.
“You see, madame,” said Marguerite, “you were misinformed.”
Catharine looked first at Marguerite, then at Henry. In her active mind she combined Marguerite’s smile with the picture of that pale and dewy brow, those eyes circled by dark-colored rings, and she bit her thin lips in silent fury.
Marguerite allowed her mother for a moment to contemplate this picture, which affected her like the head of Medusa. Then she dropped the curtain and stepping on her tip-toes she came back to Catharine and sat down:
“You were saying, madame?”—
The Florentine for several seconds tried to fathom the young woman’s naïveté; but as if her keen glance had become blunted on Marguerite’s calmness, she exclaimed, “Nothing,” and hastily left the room.
As soon as the sound of her departing footsteps had died away down the long corridor, the bed-curtains opened a second time, and Henry, with sparkling eyes, trembling hand, and panting breath, came out and knelt at Marguerite’s feet; he was dressed only in his short-clothes and his coat of mail, so that Marguerite, seeing him in such an odd rig, could not help laughing even while she was warmly shaking hands with him.
“Ah, madame! ah, Marguerite!” he cried, “how shall I ever repay you?”
And he covered her hand with kisses which gradually strayed higher up along her arm.
“Sire,” said she, gently retreating, “can you forget that a poor woman to whom you owe your life is mourning and suffering on your account? Madame de Sauve,” added she, in a lower tone, “has forgotten her jealousy in sending you to me; and to that sacrifice she may probably have to add her life, for you know better than any one how terrible is my mother’s anger!”
Henry shuddered; and, rising, started to leave the room.
“Upon second thoughts,” said Marguerite, with admirable coquetry, “I have thought it all over and I see no cause for alarm. The key was given to you without any directions, and it will be supposed that you granted me the preference for to-night.”
“And so I do, Marguerite! Consent but to forget”—
“Not so loud, sire, not so loud!” replied the queen, employing the same words she had a few minutes before used to her mother; “any one in the adjoining closet can hear you. And as I am not yet quite free, I will ask you to speak in a lower tone.”
“Oho!” said Henry, half smiling, half gloomily, “that’s true! I was forgetting that I am probably not the one destined to play the end of this interesting scene! This closet”—
“Let me beg of your majesty to enter there,” said Marguerite; “for I am desirous of having the honor of presenting to you a worthy gentleman, wounded during the massacre while making his way to the Louvre to apprise your majesty of the danger with which you were threatened.”
The queen went toward the door, and Henry followed her. She opened it, and the king was thunderstruck at beholding a man in this cabinet, fated to reveal such continued surprises.
But La Mole was still more surprised at thus unexpectedly finding himself in the presence of Henry of Navarre. The result was that the king cast an ironical glance on Marguerite, who bore it without flinching.
“Sire,” said she, “I am in dread lest this gentleman may be murdered even here, in my very chamber; he is devoted to your majesty’s service, and for that reason I commend him to your royal protection.”
“Sire,” continued the young man, “I am the Comte Lerac de la Mole, whom your majesty was expecting; I was recommended to you by that poor Monsieur de Téligny, who was killed by my side.”
“Aha!” replied Henry; “you are right, sir. The queen gave me his letter; but have you not also a letter from the governor of Languedoc?”
“Yes, sire, and I was recommended to deliver it to your majesty as soon as I arrived.”
“Why did you not do so?”
“Sire, I hastened to the Louvre last evening, but your majesty was too much occupied to give me audience.”
“True!” answered the king; “but I should think you might have sent the letter to me?”
“I had orders from Monsieur d’Auriac to give it to no one else but your majesty, since it contained, he said, information so important that he feared to entrust it to any ordinary messenger.”
“The contents are, indeed, of a serious nature,” said the king, when he had received and read the letter; “advising my instant withdrawal from the court of France, and retirement to Béarn. M. d’Auriac, although a Catholic, was always a stanch friend of mine; and it is possible that, acting as governor of a province, he got scent of what was in the wind here. Ventre saint gris! monsieur! why was not this letter given to me three days ago, instead of now?”
“Because, as I before assured your majesty, that using all the speed and diligence in my power, it was wholly impossible to arrive before yesterday.”
“That is very unfortunate, very unfortunate,” murmured the king; “we should then have been in security, either at Rochelle or in some broad plain surrounded by two or three thousand trusty horsemen.”
“Sire, what is done is done,” said Marguerite, in a low voice, “and instead of wasting your time complaining over the past you must do the best possible with the future.”
“If you were in my place, madame,” replied Henry, with his questioning look, “you would still have hope, would you?”
“Certainly I should; I should consider myself as playing a game of three points, of which I had lost only the first.”
“Ah, madame,” whispered Henry, “if I dared but hope that you would go partners with me in the game”—
“If I had intended to side with your adversaries,” replied Marguerite, “I should scarcely have delayed so long.”
“True!” replied Henry, “and I am ungrateful; and as you say, the past may still be repaired.”
“Alas! sire,” said La Mole, “I wish your majesty every kind of good fortune; but now the admiral is no more.”
Over Henry’s face passed that sly, peasant-like smile, which was not understood at court until after he became King of France.
“But, madame,” said the king, attentively observing La Mole, “this gentleman cannot remain here without causing you considerable inconvenience, and being himself subject to very unpleasant surprises. What will you do with him?”
“Could we not remove him from the Louvre?” asked Marguerite, “for I entirely agree with you!”
“It will be difficult.”
“Then could not Monsieur de la Mole find accommodation in your majesty’s apartments?”
“Alas, madame! you speak as if I were still King of the Huguenots, and had subjects to command. You are aware that I am half converted to the Catholic faith and have no people at all.”
Any one but Marguerite would have promptly answered: “He is a Catholic.”
But the queen wished Henry himself to ask her to do the very thing she was desirous of effecting; while La Mole, perceiving his protectress’s caution and not knowing where to set foot on the slippery ground of such a dangerous court as that of France, remained perfectly silent.
“But what is this the governor says in his letter?” said Henry, again casting his eyes over the missive he held in his hand. “He states that your mother was a Catholic, and from that circumstance originates the interest he felt in you.”
“And what were you telling me, Monsieur le Comte,” said Marguerite, “respecting a vow you had formed to change your religion? I confess my recollection on the subject is somewhat confused. Have the goodness to assist me, M. de la Mole. Did not your conversation refer to something of the nature the king appears to desire?”
“Alas! madame, what I did say was so coldly received by your majesty that I did not dare”—
“Simply because it in no way concerned me,” answered Marguerite. “But explain yourself to the king — explain!”
“Well, what was the vow?” asked the king.
“Sire,” said La Mole, “when pursued by assassins, myself unarmed, and almost expiring from my two wounds, I fancied I beheld my mother’s spirit holding a cross in her hands and guiding me to the Louvre. Then I vowed that if my life were preserved I would adopt the religion of my mother, who had been permitted to leave her grave to direct me to a place of safety during that horrible night. Heaven conducted me here, sire. I find myself here under the protection of a princess of France and of the King of Navarre; my life was miraculously saved, therefore I must fulfil my vow. I am ready to become a Catholic.”
Henry frowned. Sceptic that he was, he could well understand a change of religion from motives of interest, but he distrusted abjuration through faith.
“The king does not want to take charge of my protégé,” thought Marguerite.
La Mole still remained mute and awkward between the two opposing wills. He felt, without being able to define why, that he was in a ridiculous position. Marguerite’s womanly tact came to his relief.
“Sire,” said she, “we forget that the poor wounded gentleman has need of repose. I myself am half asleep. Ah, see!”
La Mole did indeed turn pale; but it was at Marguerite’s last words, which he had interpreted according to his own ideas.
“Well, madame,” answered Henry, “nothing can be simpler. Can we not leave Monsieur de la Mole to take his repose.”
The young man fixed a supplicating look on Marguerite, and, in spite of the presence of the two majesties, sunk upon a chair, overcome with fatigue and pain.
Marguerite understood all the love in his look, all the despair in his weakness.
“Sire,” said she, “your majesty is bound to confer on this young man, who imperilled his life for his king, since he received his wounds while coming hither to inform you of the admiral’s death and Téligny’s — your majesty is bound, I repeat, to confer on him an honor for which he will be grateful all his life long.”
“What is it, madame?” asked Henry. “Command me, I am ready.”
“Monsieur de la Mole must sleep to-night at your majesty’s feet, while you, sire, can sleep on this couch. With the permission of my august spouse,” added Marguerite, smiling, “I will summon Gillonne and return to bed, for I assure you I am not the least wearied of us three.”
Henry had shrewd sense and a quick perception of things; friends and enemies subsequently found fault with him for possessing too much of both. He fully admitted that she who thus banished him from the nuptial bed was well justified in so doing by the indifference he had himself manifested toward her; and then, too, she had just repaid this indifference by saving his life; he therefore allowed no self-love to dictate his answer.
“Madame,” said he, “if Monsieur de la Mole were able to come to my quarters I would give him my own bed.”
“Yes,” replied Marguerite, “but your quarters just at the present time would not be safe for either of you, and prudence dictates that your majesty should remain here until morning.”
Then without awaiting the king’s reply she summoned Gillonne, and bade her prepare the necessary cushions for the king, and to arrange a bed at the king’s feet for La Mole, who appeared so happy and contented with the honor that one would have sworn he no longer felt his wounds.
Then Marguerite, courtesing low to the king, passed into her chamber, the door of which was well furnished with bolts, and threw herself on the bed.
“One thing is certain,” said Marguerite to herself, “tomorrow Monsieur de la Mole must have a protector at the Louvre; and he who, to-night, sees and hears nothing, may change his mind tomorrow.”
Then she called Gillonne, who was waiting to receive her last orders.
Gillonne came to her.
“Gillonne,” said she in a whisper, “you must contrive to bring my brother the Duc d’Alençon here tomorrow morning before eight o’clock.”
It was just striking two at the Louvre.
La Mole for a few moments talked on political subjects with the king, who gradually grew drowsy and was soon snoring.
La Mole might have slept as well as the king, but Marguerite was not asleep; she kept turning from side to side in her bed, and the noise she made disturbed the young man’s ideas and sleep.
“He is very young,” murmured Marguerite in her wakeful mood, “he is very timid; perhaps — but we must see — perhaps it will be ridiculous. Yet he has handsome eyes — and a good figure, and he is very charming; but if he should not turn out to be brave! — He ran away! — He is renouncing his faith! It is too bad — the dream began well. However, let things take their course and entrust them to that madcap Henriette’s triple god.”
And toward daybreak Marguerite fell asleep, murmuring:
“Eros, Cupido, Amor.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53