On leaving the oratory, in which she had just informed Henry all that had occurred, Catharine found Réné in her chamber. It was the first time that the queen and the astrologer had seen each other since the visit the queen had made to his shop at the Pont Saint Michel. But the previous evening she had written him, and Réné had brought the answer to her note in person.
“Well,” said the queen, “have you seen him?”
“How is he?”
“Can he speak?”
“No, the sword traversed his larynx.”
“I told you in that case to have him write.”
“I tried. He collected all his strength, but his hand could trace only two letters. They are almost illegible. Then he fainted. The jugular vein was cut and the blood he lost has taken away all his strength.”
“Have you seen the letters?”
“Here they are.”
Réné drew a paper from his pocket and handed it to Catharine, who hastily unfolded it.
“An m and an o,” said she. “Could it have been La Mole, and was all that acting of Marguerite done to throw me off the track?”
“Madame,” said Réné, “if I dared to express my opinion in a matter about which your majesty hesitates to give yours I should say that I believe Monsieur de la Mole is too much in love to be seriously interested in politics.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, and above all too much in love with the Queen of Navarre to serve the King very devotedly; for there is no real love without jealousy.”
“You think that he is very much in love, then?”
“I am sure of it.”
“Has he been to you?”
“Did he ask you for some potion or philter?”
“No, we kept to the wax figure.”
“Pierced to the heart?”
“To the heart.”
“And this figure still exists?”
“Have you it?”
“It is in my rooms.”
“It would be strange,” said Catharine, “if these cabalistic preparations really had the power attributed to them.”
“Your majesty is a better judge of that than I.”
“Is the Queen of Navarre in love with Monsieur de la Mole?”
“She loves him enough to ruin herself for him. Yesterday she saved him from death at the risk of her honor and her life. You see, madame, and yet you still doubt.”
“Science also deceives me,” said Catharine, looking steadily at Réné, who bore her gaze without flinching.
“Oh! you know what I mean; unless, of course, it was the scholar and not science.”
“I do not know what you mean, madame,” replied the Florentine.
“Réné, have your perfumes lost their odor?”
“No, madame, not when I use them; but it is possible that in passing through the hands of others”—
Catharine smiled and shook her head.
“Your opiate has done wonders, Réné,” said she; “Madame de Sauve’s lips are fresher and rosier than ever.”
“It is not my opiate that is responsible for that, madame. The Baroness de Sauve, using the privilege of every pretty woman to be capricious, has said nothing more to me about this opiate, and after the suggestion from your majesty I thought it best to send her no more of it. So that all the boxes are still in my house just as you left them, with the exception of one which disappeared, I know not how or why.”
“That is well, Réné,” said Catharine; “perhaps later we may return to this. In the meantime, let us speak of the other matter.”
“I am all attention, madame.”
“What is necessary to gain an idea of the length of any one’s life?”
“In the first place to know the day of his birth, his age, and under what condition he first saw light.”
“To have some of his blood and a lock of his hair.”
“If I bring you some of his blood and a lock of his hair, if I tell you the circumstance connected with his birth, the time, and his present age, will you tell me the probable date of his death?”
“Yes, to within a few days.”
“Very well; I have a lock of his hair and will get some of his blood.”
“Was he born during the day or night?”
“At twenty-three minutes past five in the afternoon.”
“Be at my room at five o’clock tomorrow. The experiment must be made at the hour of his birth.”
“Very well,” said Catharine, “we will be there.”
Réné bowed, and withdrew without apparently noticing the “we will be there,” which, however, contrary to her usual habit, indicated that Catharine would not go alone.
The following morning at dawn Catharine went to her son’s apartments. At midnight she had sent to inquire after him, and had been told that Maître Ambroise Paré was with him, ready to bleed him if the nervous troubles continued.
Still starting up from his sleep, and still pale from loss of blood, Charles dozed on the shoulder of his faithful nurse, who leaning against the bed had not moved for three hours for fear of waking her dear child.
A slight foam appeared from time to time on the lips of the sick man, and the nurse wiped it off with a fine embroidered linen handkerchief. On the bed lay another handkerchief covered with great spots of blood.
For an instant Catharine thought she would take possession of the handkerchief; but she feared that this blood mixed with the saliva would be weak, and would not be efficacious. She asked the nurse if the doctor had bled her son as he had said he would do. The nurse answered “Yes” and that the flow of blood had been so great that Charles had fainted twice. The queen mother, who, like all princesses in those days, had some knowledge of medicine, asked to see the blood. Nothing was easier to do, as the physician had ordered that the blood be kept in order that he might examine it. It was in a basin in an adjoining closet. Catharine went in to look at it, poured some into a small bottle which she had brought for this purpose; and then came back, hiding in her pocket her fingers, the tips of which otherwise would have betrayed her.
Just as she came back from the closet Charles opened his eyes and saw his mother. Then remembering as in a dream all his bitter thoughts:
“Ah! is it you, madame?” said he. “Well, say to your well loved son, to your Henry of Anjou, that it shall be tomorrow.”
“My dear Charles,” said Catharine, “it shall be just when you please. Be quiet now and go to sleep.”
As if yielding to this advice Charles closed his eyes; and Catharine, who had spoken to him as one does to calm a sick person or a child, left the room. But when he heard the door close Charles suddenly sat up, and in a voice still weak from suffering, said:
“My chancellor! The seals! the court! — send for them all.”
The nurse, with gentle insistence, laid the head of the King back on her shoulder, and in order to put him to sleep strove to rock him as she would have done a child.
“No, no, nurse, I cannot sleep any more. Call my attendants. I must work this morning.”
When Charles spoke in that way he was obeyed; and even the nurse, in spite of the privileges allowed her by her foster-child, dared not disobey. She sent for those whom the King wanted, and the council was planned, not for the next day, which was out of the question, but for five days from then.
At the hour agreed on, that is, at five o’clock, the queen mother and the Duc d’Anjou repaired to the rooms of Réné, who, expecting their visit, had everything ready for the mysterious seance. In the room to the right, that is, in the chamber of sacrifices, a steel blade was heating over a glowing brazier. From its fanciful arabesques this blade was intended to represent the events of the destiny about which the oracle was to be consulted. On the altar lay the Book of Fate, and during the night, which had been very clear, Réné had studied the course and the position of the stars.
Henry of Anjou entered first. He wore a wig, a mask concealed his face, and a long cloak hid his figure. His mother followed. Had she not known beforehand that the man who had preceded her was her son she never would have recognized him. Catharine removed her mask; the Duc d’Anjou kept his on.
“Did you make any observations last night?” asked Catharine.
“Yes, madame,” said Réné; “and the answer of the stars has already told me the past. The one you wish to know about, like every one born under the sign of the Cancer, has a warm heart and great pride. He is powerful. He has lived nearly a quarter of a century. He has until now had glory and wealth. Is this so, madame?”
“Possibly,” said Catharine.
“Have you a lock of his hair, and some of his blood?”
Catharine handed to the necromancer a lock of fair hair and a small bottle filled with blood.
Réné took the flask, shook it thoroughly, so that the fibrine and water would mix, and poured a large drop of it on the glowing steel. The living liquid boiled for an instant, and then spread out into fantastic figures.
“Oh, madame,” cried Réné, “I see him twisting in awful agony. Hear how he groans, how he calls for help! Do you see how everything around him becomes blood? Do you see how about his death-bed great combats are taking place? See, here are the lances; and look, there are the swords!”
“Will it be long before this happens?” asked Catharine, trembling from an indescribable emotion and laying her hand on that of Henry of Anjou, who in his eager curiosity was leaning over the brazier.
Réné approached the altar and repeated a cabalistic prayer, putting such energy and conviction into the act that the veins of his temples swelled, and caused the prophetic convulsions and nervous twinges from which the ancient priestesses suffered before their tripods, and even on their death-beds.
At length he rose and announced that everything was ready, took the flask, still three-quarters full, in one hand, and in the other the lock of hair. Then telling Catharine to open the book at random, and to read the first words she looked at, he poured the rest of the blood on the steel blade, and threw the hair into the brazier, pronouncing a cabalistic sentence composed of Hebrew words which he himself did not understand.
Instantly the Duc d’Anjou and Catharine saw a white figure appear on the sword like that of a corpse wrapped in his shroud. Another figure, which seemed that of a woman, was leaning over the first.
At the same time the hair caught fire and threw out a single flame, clear, swift, and barbed like a fiery tongue.
“One year,” cried Réné, “scarcely one year, and this man shall die. A woman alone shall weep for him. But no, there at the end of the sword is another woman, with a child in her arms.”
Catharine looked at her son, and, mother though she was, seemed to ask him who these two women were.
But Réné had scarcely finished speaking before the steel became white and everything gradually disappeared from its surface. Then Catharine opened the book and read the following lines in a voice which, in spite of her effort at control, she could not keep from shaking:
“‘Ains a peri cil que l’on redoutoit,
Plus tôt, trop tôt, si prudence n’etoit.‘”14
14 “Thus had perished one who was feared,
Sooner, too soon, would he have died, had it not been for prudence.”
A deep silence reigned for some moments.
“For the one whom you know,” asked Catharine, “what are the signs for this month?”
“As favorable as ever, madame; unless Providence interferes with his destiny he will be fortunate. And yet”—
“And yet what?”
“One of the stars in his pleiad was covered with a black cloud while I made my observations.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Catharine, “a black cloud — there is some hope, then?”
“Of whom are you speaking, madame?” asked the Duc d’Anjou.
Catharine drew her son away from the light of the brazier and spoke to him in a low tone.
Meanwhile Réné knelt down, and in the glow of the flame poured into his hand the last drop of blood which had remained in the bottom of the flask.
“Strange contradiction,” said he, “which proves how little to be depended on is the evidence of simple science practised by ordinary men! To any one but myself, a physician, a scholar, even for Maître Ambroise Paré, this blood would seem so pure, so healthy, so full of life and animal spirits, that it would promise long years of life; and yet all this vigor will soon disappear, all this life will be extinct within a year!”
Catharine and Henry of Anjou had turned round and were listening.
The eyes of the prince glowed through his mask.
“Ah!” continued Réné, “the present alone is known to ordinary mortals; while to us the past and the future are known.”
“So,” continued Catharine, “you still think he will die within the year?”
“As surely as we are three living persons who some day will rest in our coffins.”
“Yet you said that the blood was pure and healthy, and that it indicated a long life.”
“Yes, if things followed their natural course. But might not an accident”—
“Ah, yes, do you hear?” said Catharine to Henry, “an accident”—
“Alas!” said the latter, “all the more reason for my staying.”
“Oh, think no more about that: it is not possible.”
Then turning to Réné:
“Thanks,” said the young man, disguising his voice, “thanks; take this purse.”
“Come, count,” said Catharine, intentionally giving her son this title to throw Réné off the track.
“Oh, mother, you see,” said Henry, “an accident — and if an accident should happen, I shall not be on hand; I shall be four hundred leagues from you”—
“Four hundred leagues are accomplished in eight days, my son.”
“Yes; but how do I know whether those Poles will let me come back? If I could only wait, mother!”
“Who knows?” said Catharine; “might not this accident of which Réné speaks be the one which since yesterday has laid the King on a bed of pain? Listen, return by yourself, my child. I shall go back by the private door of the monastery of the Augustines. My suite is waiting for me in this convent. Go, now, Henry, go, and keep from irritating your brother in case you see him.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53