Charles still read. In his curiosity he seemed to devour the pages, and each page, as we have said, either because of the dampness to which it had been exposed for so long or from some other cause, adhered to the next.
With haggard eyes D’Alençon gazed at this terrible spectacle, the end of which he alone could see.
“Oh!” he murmured, “what will happen? I shall go away, into exile, and seek an imaginary throne, while at the first news of Charles’s illness Henry will return to some fortified town near the capital, and watch this prey sent us by chance, able at a single stride to reach Paris; so that before the King of Poland even hears the news of my brother’s death the dynasty will be changed. This cannot be!”
Such were the thoughts which dominated the first involuntary feeling of horror that had urged François to warn Charles. It was the never-failing fatality which seemed to preserve Henry and follow the Valois which the duke was again going to try to thwart. In an instant his whole plan with regard to Henry was altered. It was Charles and not Henry who had read the poisoned book. Henry was to have gone, and gone condemned to die. The moment fate had again saved him, Henry must remain; for Henry was less to be feared in the Bastille or as prisoner at Vincennes than as the King of Navarre at the head of thirty thousand men.
The Duc d’Alençon let Charles finish his chapter, and when the King had raised his head:
“Brother,” said the duke, “I have waited because your Majesty ordered me to do so, but I regret it, because I have something of the greatest importance to say to you.”
“Go to the devil!” said Charles, whose cheeks were slowly turning a dull red, either because he had been too much engrossed in his reading or because the poison had begun to act. “Go to the devil! If you have come to discuss that same subject again, you shall leave as did the King of Poland. I rid myself of him, and I will do the same to you without further talk about it.”
“It is not about my leaving, brother, that I want to speak to you, but about some one else who is going away. Your Majesty has touched me in my most sensitive point, my love for you as a brother, my devotion to you as a subject; and I hope to prove to you that I am no traitor.”
“Well,” said Charles, as he leaned his elbow on the book, crossed his legs, and looked at D’Alençon like a man who is trying to be patient. “Some fresh report, some accusation?”
“No, sire, a certainty, a plot, which my foolish scruples alone prevented my revealing to you before.”
“A plot?” said Charles, “well, let us hear about it.”
“Sire,” said François, “while your Majesty hawks near the river in the plain of Vesinet the King of Navarre will escape to the forest of Saint Germain, where a troop of friends will be waiting to flee with him.”
“Ah, I knew it,” said Charles, “another calumny against my poor Henry! When will you be through with him?”
“Your Majesty need not wait long at least to find out whether or not what I have just had the honor of telling you is a calumny.”
“Because this evening our brother-inlaw will be gone.”
“Listen,” said he, “I will try for the last time to believe you; but I warn you, both you and your mother, that it will be the last time.”
Then raising his voice:
“Summon the King of Navarre!” he cried.
A guard started to obey, but François stopped him with a gesture.
“This is a poor way, brother, to learn anything,” said he. “Henry will deny, will give a signal, his accomplices will be warned and will disappear. Then my mother and myself will be accused not only of being visionary but of being calumniators.”
“What do you want, then?”
“In the name of our brotherly love I ask your Majesty to listen to me, in the name of my devotion, which you will realize, I want you to do nothing hastily. Act so that the real culprit, who for two years has been betraying your Majesty in will as well as in deed, may at last be recognized as guilty by an infallible proof, and punished as he deserves.”
Charles did not answer, but going to a window raised it. The blood was rushing to his head.
Then turning round quickly:
“Well!” said he, “what would you do? Speak, François.”
“Sire,” said D’Alençon, “I would surround the forest of Saint Germain with three detachments of light horse, who at a given hour, eleven o’clock, for instance, should start out and drive every one in the forest to the Pavilion of Francis I., which I would, as if by chance, have indicated as the meeting-place. Then I would spur on, as if following my falcon, to the meeting-place, where Henry should be captured with his companions.”
“The idea is good,” said the King; “summon the captain of the guards.”
D’Alençon drew from his doublet a silver whistle, suspended from a gold chain, and raised it to his lips.
De Nancey appeared.
Charles gave him some orders in a low tone.
Meanwhile Actéon, the great greyhound, had dragged a book from the table, and was tossing it about the room, making great bounds after it.
Charles turned round and uttered a terrible oath. The book was the precious treatise on hunting, of which there existed only three copies in the world.
The punishment was proportionate to the offence.
Charles seized a whip and gave the dog three whistling blows.
Actéon uttered a howl, and fled under a table covered with a large cloth which served him as a hiding-place.
Charles picked up the book and saw with joy that only one leaf was gone, and that was not a page of the text, but an engraving. He placed the volume carefully away on a shelf where Actéon could not reach it. D’Alençon looked anxiously at him. Now that the book had fulfilled its dread mission he would have liked to see it out of Charles’s hands.
Six o’clock struck. It was time for the King to descend to the court-yard, already filled with horses richly caparisoned, and elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen. The hunters held on their wrists their hooded falcons; some outriders carried horns wound with scarfs, in case the King, as sometimes happened, grew weary of hawking, and wished to hunt a deer or a chamois.
Charles closed the door of his armory and descended. D’Alençon watched each movement closely, and saw him put the key in his pocket.
As he went down the stairs Charles stopped and raised his hand to his head.
The limbs of the Duc d’Alençon trembled no less than did those of the King.
“It seems to me,” said the duke, “that there is going to be a storm.”
“A storm in January!” said Charles; “you are mad. No, I am dizzy, my skin is dry, I am weak, that is all.”
Then in a low tone:
“They will kill me,” he murmured, “with their hatred and their plots.”
But on reaching the court the fresh morning air, the shouts of the hunters, the loud greetings of the hundred people gathered there, produced their usual effect on Charles.
He breathed freely and happily. His first thought was for Henry, who was beside Marguerite.
This excellent couple seemed to care so much for each other that they were unable to be apart.
On perceiving Charles, Henry spurred his horse, and in three bounds was beside him.
“Ah, ah!” said Charles, “you are mounted as if you were going to hunt the stag, Henriot; but you know we are going hawking today.”
Then without waiting for a reply:
“Forward, gentlemen, forward! we must be hunting by nine o’clock!” and Charles frowned and spoke in an almost threatening tone.
Catharine was watching everything from a window, behind which a curtain was drawn back, showing her pale face. She herself was dressed in black and was hidden from view.
At the order from Charles all this gilded, embroidered, perfumed crowd, with the King at its head, lengthened out to pass through the gate of the Louvre, and swept like an avalanche along the road to Saint Germain, amid the shouts of the people, who saluted the young King as he rode by, thoughtful and pensive, on his white horse.
“What did he say to you?” asked Marguerite of Henry.
“He congratulated me on the speed of my horse.”
“Was that all?”
“Then he suspects something.”
“I fear so.”
“Let us be cautious.”
Henry’s face lighted up with one of his beautiful smiles, which meant especially to Marguerite, “Be easy, my love.” As to Catharine, scarcely had the cortège left the court of the Louvre before she dropped the curtain.
But she had not failed to see one thing, namely, Henry’s pallor, his nervousness, and his low-toned conversation with Marguerite.
Henry was pale because, not having physical courage, his blood, under all circumstances in which his life was at stake, instead of rushing to his head, as is usually the case, flowed to his heart. He was nervous because the manner in which he had been received by Charles, so different from usual, had made a deep impression on him. Finally, he had conferred with Marguerite because, as we know, the husband and wife had formed, so far as politics were concerned, an alliance offensive and defensive.
But Catharine had interpreted these facts differently.
“This time,” she murmured, with her Florentine smile, “I think I may rely on my dear Henriot.”
Then to satisfy herself, having waited a quarter of an hour to give the party time to leave Paris, she went out of her room, mounted the winding staircase, and with the help of her pass-key opened the door of the apartments of the King of Navarre. She searched, but in vain, for the book. In vain she looked on every table, shelf, and in every closet; nowhere could she find it.
“D’Alençon must have taken it away,” said she, “that was wise.”
And she descended to her own chamber, quite sure this time that her plan would succeed.
The King went on towards Saint Germain, which he reached after a rapid ride of an hour and a half. They did not ascend to the old castle, which rose dark and majestic in the midst of the houses scattered over the mountain. They crossed the wooden bridge, which at that time was opposite the tree today called the “Sully Oak.” Then they signed for the boats adorned with flags which followed the hunting-party to aid the King and his suite in crossing the river. This was done. Instantly all the joyous procession, animated by such varied interests, again began to move, led by the King, over the magnificent plain which stretched from the wooded summit of Saint Germain, and which suddenly assumed the appearance of a great carpet covered with people, dotted with a thousand colors, and of which the river foaming along its banks seemed a silver fringe.
Ahead of the King, still on his white horse and holding his favorite falcon, rode the beaters, in their long green close-fitting coats and high boots, calling now and then to the half dozen great dogs, and beating, with their whips, the reeds which grew along the river banks.
At that moment the sun, until then hidden behind a cloud, suddenly burst forth and lighted with one of its rays all that procession of gold, all the ornaments, all the glowing eyes, and turned everything into a torrent of flame. Then, as if it had waited for that moment so that the sun might shine on its defeat, a heron rose from the midst of the reeds with a prolonged and plaintiff cry.
“Haw! Haw!” cried Charles, unhooding his falcon and sending it after the fugitive.
“Haw! Haw!” cried every voice to encourage the bird.
The falcon, dazzled for an instant by the light, turned, described a circle, then suddenly perceiving the heron, dashed after it.
But the heron, like a prudent bird, had risen a hundred yards before the beaters, and while the King had been unhooding his falcon, and while the latter had been growing accustomed to the light, it had gained a considerable height, so that by the time its enemy saw it, it had risen more than five hundred feet, and finding in the higher zones the air necessary for its powerful wings, continued to mount rapidly.
“Haw! Haw! Iron Beak!” cried Charles, cheering his falcon. “Show us that you are a thoroughbred! Haw! Haw!”
As if it understood the words the noble bird rose like an arrow, described a diagonal line, then a vertical one, as the heron had done, and mounted higher as though it would soon disappear in the upper air.
“Ah! coward!” cried Charles, as if the fugitive could hear him, and, spurring his horse, he followed the flight of the birds as far as he could, his head thrown back so as not to lose sight of them for an instant. “Ah! double coward! You run! My Iron Beak is a thoroughbred; on! on! Haw, Iron Beak! Haw!”
The contest was growing exciting. The birds were beginning to approach each other, or rather the falcon was nearing the heron. The only question was which could rise the higher.
Fear had stronger wings than courage. The falcon passed under the heron, and the latter, profiting by its advantage, dealt a blow with its long beak.
The falcon, as though hit by a dagger, described three circles, apparently overcome, and for an instant it looked as if the bird would fall. But like a warrior, who when wounded rises more terrible than before, it uttered a sharp and threatening cry, and went after the heron. The latter, making the most of its advantage, had changed the direction of its flight and turned toward the forest, trying this time to gain in distance instead of in height, and so escape. But the falcon was indeed a thoroughbred, with the eye of a gerfalcon.
It repeated the same manoeuvre, rose diagonally after the heron, which gave two or three cries of distress and strove to rise perpendicularly as at first.
At the end of a few seconds the two birds seemed again about to disappear. The heron looked no larger than a lark, and the falcon was a black speck which every moment grew smaller.
Neither Charles nor his suite any longer followed the flight of the birds. Each one stopped, his eyes fixed on the clouds.
“Bravo! Bravo! Iron-beak!” cried Charles, suddenly. “See, see, gentlemen, he is uppermost! Haw! haw!”
“Faith, I can see neither of them,” said Henry.
“Nor I,” said Marguerite.
“Well, but if you cannot see them, Henry, you can hear them,” said Charles, “at least the heron. Listen! listen! he asks quarter!”
Two or three plaintive cries were heard which a practised ear alone could detect.
“Listen!” cried Charles, “and you will see them come down more quickly than they went up.”
As the King spoke, the two birds reappeared. They were still only two black dots, but from the size of the dots the falcon seemed to be uppermost.
“See! see!” cried Charles, “Iron Beak has him!”
The heron, outwitted by the bird of prey, no longer strove to defend itself. It descended rapidly, constantly struck at by the falcon, and answered only by its cries. Suddenly it folded its wings and dropped like a stone; but its adversary did the same, and when the fugitive again strove to resume its flight a last blow of the beak finished it; it continued to fall, turning over and over, and as it touched the earth the falcon swooped down and uttered a cry of victory which drowned the cry of defeat of the vanquished.
“To the falcon! the falcon!” shouted Charles, spurring his horse to the place where the birds had fallen. But suddenly he reined in his steed, uttered a cry, dropped his bridle, and grasping his horse’s mane with one hand pressed the other to his stomach as though he would tear out his very vitals.
All the courtiers hastened to him.
“It is nothing, nothing,” said Charles, with inflamed face and haggard eye; “it seemed as if a red-hot iron were passing through me just now; but forward! it is nothing.”
And Charles galloped on.
D’Alençon turned pale.
“What now?” asked Henry of Marguerite.
“I do not know,” replied she; “but did you see? My brother was purple in the face.”
“He is not usually so,” said Henry.
The courtiers glanced at one another in surprise and followed the King.
They arrived at the scene of combat. The falcon had already begun to peck at the head of the heron.
Charles sprang from his horse to obtain a nearer view; but on alighting he was obliged to seize hold of the saddle. The ground seemed to spin under him. He felt very sleepy.
“Brother! Brother!” cried Marguerite; “what is the matter?”
“I feel,” said Charles, “as Portia must have felt when she swallowed her burning coals. I am burning up and my breath seems on fire.”
Charles exhaled his breath and seemed surprised not to see fire issue from his lips.
The falcon had been caught and hooded again, and every one had gathered around the King.
“Why, what does it mean? Great Heavens! It cannot be anything, or if it is it must be the sun which is affecting my head and blinding my eyes. So on, on, to the hunt, gentlemen! There is a whole flight of herons. Unhood the falcons, all of them, by Heaven! now for some sport!”
Instantly five or six falcons were unhooded and let loose. They rose in the direction of the prey, while the entire party, the King at their head, reached the bank of the river.
“Well! what do you say, madame?” asked Henry of Marguerite.
“That the moment is favorable, and that if the King does not look back we can easily reach the forest from here.”
Henry called the attendant who was carrying the heron, and while the noisy, gilded avalanche swept along the road which today is a terrace he remained behind as if to examine the dead bird.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53