Now if the reader is curious to know why Monsieur de la Mole was not received by the King of Navarre, why Monsieur de Coconnas was not permitted to see Monsieur de Guise, and lastly, why instead of eating pheasants, partridges, and venison at the Louvre, both supped at the hotel of the Belle Étoile on an omelet, he must kindly accompany us to the old palace of kings, and follow the queen, Marguerite of Navarre, whom La Mole had lost from sight at the entrance of the grand gallery.
While Marguerite was descending the staircase, the duke, Henry de Guise, whom she had not seen since the night of her marriage, was in the King’s closet. To this staircase which Marguerite was descending there was an outlet. To the closet in which Monsieur de Guise was there was a door, and this door and this outlet both led to a corridor, which corridor led to the apartments of the queen mother, Catharine de Médicis.
Catharine de Médicis was alone, seated near a table, with her elbow leaning on a prayer-book half open, and her head leaning on a hand still remarkably beautiful — by reason of the cosmetics with which she was supplied by the Florentine Réné, who united the double duty of perfumer and poisoner to the queen mother.
The widow of Henry II. was clothed in mourning, which she had not thrown off since her husband’s death. At this period she was about fifty-two or fifty-three years of age, and owing to her stoutness and fair complexion she preserved much of her early beauty.
Her rooms, like her dress, paraded her widowhood. Everything in them bore the impress of bereavement: hangings, walls, and furniture were all in mourning. Only above a kind of dais covering a throne, where at that moment lay sleeping the little greyhound presented to the queen mother by her son-inlaw, Henry of Navarre, and bearing the mythological name of Phoebe, was a painted rainbow surrounded by that Greek motto which King François I. had given her: “Φôσ φερει ę δε και α’íθζęν;” which may be translated:
“He brings light and serenity.”
Suddenly, and at a moment when the queen mother appeared deeply plunged in some thought which brought a half-hesitating smile to her carmen-painted lips, a man opened the door, raised the tapestry, and showed his pale face, saying:
“Everything is going badly.”
Catharine raised her head and recognized the Duc de Guise.
“Why do you say ‘Everything is going badly’?” she replied. “What do you mean, Henry?”
“I mean that the King is more than ever taken with the accursed Huguenots; and if we await his leave to execute the great enterprise, we shall wait a very long time, and perhaps forever.”
“Tell me what has happened,” said Catharine, still preserving the tranquillity of countenance habitual to her, yet to which, when occasion served, she could give such different expressions.
“Why, just now, for the twentieth time, I asked his Majesty whether he would still permit all those bravadoes which the gentlemen of the reformed religion indulge in, since their admiral was wounded.”
“And what did my son reply?” asked Catharine.
“He replied, ‘Monsieur le Duc, you must necessarily be suspected by the people as the author of the attempted assassination of my second father, the admiral; defend yourself from the imputation as best you may. As to me, I will defend myself properly, if I am insulted;’ and then he turned away to feed his dogs.”
“And you made no attempt to retain him?”
“Certainly I did; but he replied to me, in that tone which you so well know, and looking at me with the gaze peculiar to him, ‘Monsieur le Duc, my dogs are hungry; and they are not men, whom I can keep waiting.’ Whereupon I came straight to you.”
“And you have done right,” said the queen mother.
“But what is now to be done?”
“Try a last effort.”
“And who will try it?”
“I will! Is the King alone?”
“No; M. de Tavannes is with him.”
“Await me here; or, rather, follow me at a distance.”
Catharine instantly rose and went to the chamber, where on Turkey carpets and velvet cushions were the King’s favorite greyhounds. On perches ranged along the wall were two or three valuable falcons and a small shrike, with which Charles IX. amused himself in bringing down the little birds in the garden of the Louvre, and that of the Tuileries, which they had just begun building.
On her way the queen mother put on a pale and anguished expression, while down her cheeks rolled a last or rather a first tear.
She noiselessly approached Charles IX. as he was giving his dogs fragments of cakes cut into equal portions.
“My son,” said the queen, with a trembling in her voice so cleverly affected that the King started.
“What is it, madame?” said Charles, turning round suddenly.
“My son,” replied Catharine, “I would ask your leave to retire to one of your châteaux, no matter which, so that it be as distant as possible from Paris.”
“And wherefore, madame?” inquired Charles IX., fixing on his mother that glassy eye which, on certain occasions, became so penetrating.
“Because every day I receive new insults from persons of the new faith; because today I hear that you have been threatened by the Protestants even in your own Louvre, and I do not desire to be present at such spectacles.”
“But then, madame,” replied Charles IX., with an expression full of conviction, “an attempt has been made to kill their admiral. An infamous murderer has already assassinated the brave M. de Mouy. Mort de ma vie, mother, there must be justice in a kingdom!”
“Oh, be easy on that head, my son,” said Catharine; “they will not fail justice; for if you should refuse it, they will still have it in their own way: on M. de Guise today, on me tomorrow, and yourself later.”
“Oh, madame!” said Charles, allowing a first accent of doubt to show in his voice, “do you think so?”
“Oh, my son,” replied Catharine, giving way entirely to the violence of her thoughts, “do you not see that it is no longer a question of François de Guise’s death or the admiral’s, of the Protestant religion or the Catholic religion, but simply of the substitution of Antoine de Bourbon’s son for the son of Henry the Second?”
“Come, come, mother, you are falling again into your usual exaggeration,” said the King.
“What, then, have you in mind, my son?”
“To wait, mother — to wait. All human wisdom is in this single word. The greatest, the strongest, the most skilful is he who knows how to wait.”
“You may wait, then; I will not.”
Catharine made a courtesy, and stepping towards the door, was about to return to her apartment.
Charles IX. stopped her.
“Well, then, really, what is best to be done, mother?” he asked, “for above all I am just, and I would have every one satisfied with me.”
Catharine turned toward him.
“Come, count,” she said to Tavannes, who was caressing the King’s shrike, “tell the King your opinion as to what should be done.”
“Will your Majesty permit me?” inquired the count.
“Speak, Tavannes! — speak.”
“What does your Majesty do when, in the chase, the wounded boar turns on you?”
“By Heaven! monsieur, I wait for him, with firm foot,” replied Charles, “and stab him in the throat with my boar-spear.”
“Simply that he may not hurt you,” remarked Catharine.
“And to amuse myself,” said the King, with a sigh which indicated courage easily aroused even to ferocity; “but I should not amuse myself killing my subjects; for, after all, the Huguenots are my subjects, as well as the Catholics.”
“Then, sire,” said Catharine, “your subjects, the Huguenots, will do like the wild boar who escapes the spear thrust into his throat: they will bring down the throne.”
“Nonsense! Do you really think so, madame?” said Charles IX., with an air which denoted that he did not place great faith in his mother’s predictions.
“But have you not seen M. de Mouy and his party today?”
“Yes; I have seen them, for I have just left them. But what does he ask for that is not just? He has requested that his father’s murderer and the admiral’s assassin be put to death. Did we not punish M. de Montgommery for the death of my father and your husband, although that death was a simple accident?”
“Very well, sire,” said Catharine, piqued, “let us say no more. Your majesty is under the protection of that God who gives you strength, wisdom, and confidence. But I, a poor woman whom God abandons, no doubt on account of my sins, fear and yield.”
And having said this, Catharine again courteseyed and left the room, making a sign to the Duc de Guise, who had at that moment entered, to remain in her place, and try a last effort.
Charles IX. followed his mother with his eye, but this time did not recall her. He then began to caress his dogs, whistling a hunting-air.
He suddenly paused.
“My mother,” said he, “is a royal spirit, and has scruples! Really, now, it is a cool proposal, to kill off some dozens of Huguenots because they come to demand justice! Is it not their right?”
“Some dozens!” murmured the Duc de Guise.
“Ah! are you here, sir?” said the King, pretending to see him for the first time. “Yes, some dozens. A tolerable waste of life! Ah! if any one came to me and said; ‘Sire, you shall be rid of all your enemies at once, and tomorrow there shall not remain one to reproach you with the death of the others,’ why, then, I do not say”—
“Tavannes,” said the King, “you will tire Margot; put her back on her perch. It is no reason, because she bears the name of my sister, the Queen of Navarre, that every one should caress her.”
Tavannes put the hawk on her perch, and amused himself by curling and uncurling a greyhound’s ears.
“But, sire, if any one should say to your Majesty: ‘Sire, your Majesty shall be delivered from all your enemies tomorrow’?”
“And by the intercession of what saint would this miracle be wrought?”
“Sire, today is the 24th of August, and therefore it would be by the interposition of Saint Bartholomew.”
“A worthy saint,” replied the King, “who allowed himself to be skinned alive!”
“So much the better; the more he suffered, the more he ought to have felt a desire for vengeance on his executioners.”
“And will you, my cousin,” said the King, “will you, with your pretty little gold-hilted sword, slay ten thousand Huguenots between now and tomorrow? Ha! ha! ha! mort de ma vie! you are very amusing, Monsieur de Guise!”
And the King burst into a loud laugh, but a laugh so forced that the room echoed with its sinister sound.
“Sire, one word — and one only,” continued the duke, shuddering in spite of himself at the sound of that laugh, which had nothing human in it — “one signal, and all is ready. I have the Swiss and eleven hundred gentlemen; I have the light horse and the citizens; your Majesty has your guards, your friends, the Catholic nobility. We are twenty to one.”
“Well, then, cousin, since you are so strong, why the devil do you come to fill my ears with all this? Act without me — act”—
And the King turned again to his dogs.
Then the portière was raised, and Catharine reappeared.
“All goes well,” she said to the duke; “urge him, and he will yield.”
And the portière fell on Catharine, without Charles IX. seeing, or at least appearing to see her.
“But yet,” continued De Guise, “I must know if, in acting as I desire, I shall act agreeably to your Majesty’s views.”
“Really, cousin Henry, you put the knife to my throat! But I shall live. By Heaven! am I not the king?”
“No, not yet, sire; but, if you will, you shall be so tomorrow.”
“Ah — what!” continued Charles, “you would kill the King of Navarre, the Prince de Condé— in my Louvre — ah!”
Then he added, in a voice scarcely audible — “Without the walls, I do not say”—
“Sire,” cried the duke, “they are going out this evening to join in a revel with your brother, the Duc d’Alençon.”
“Tavannes,” said the King, with well-affected impatience, “do not you see that you are teasing the dog? Here, Actéon — come!”
And Charles IX. went out without waiting to hear more, and Tavannes and the Duc de Guise were left almost as uncertain as before.
Meantime another scene was passing in Catharine’s apartment. After she had given the Duc de Guise her counsel to remain firm, she returned to her rooms, where she found assembled the persons who were usually present when she went to bed.
Her face was now as full of joy as it had been downcast when she set out. With her most agreeable manner she dismissed her women one by one and her courtiers, and there remained only Madame Marguerite, who, seated on a coffer near the open window, was looking at the sky, absorbed in thought.
Two or three times, when she thus found herself alone with her daughter, the queen mother opened her mouth to speak, but each time a gloomy thought withheld the words ready to escape her lips.
Suddenly the portière was raised, and Henry of Navarre appeared.
The little greyhound, which was asleep on the throne, leaped up and bounded towards him.
“You here, my son!” said Catharine, starting. “Do you sup in the Louvre to-night?”
“No, madame,” replied Henry, “we are going into the city to-night, with Messieurs d’Alençon and De Condé. I almost expected to find them here paying their court to you.”
“Go, gentlemen, go — men are so fortunate in being able to go about as they please! Are they not, my daughter?”
“Yes,” replied Marguerite, “liberty is so glorious, so sweet a thing.”
“Does that imply that I restrict yours, madame?” inquired Henry, bowing to his wife.
“No, sire; I do not complain for myself, but for women in general.”
“Are you going to see the admiral, my son?” asked Catharine.
“Go, that will set a good example, and tomorrow you will give me news of him.”
“Then, madame, I will go, since you approve of this step.”
“Oh,” said Catharine, “my approval is nothing — But who goes there? Send him away, send him away.”
Henry started to go to the door to carry out Catharine’s order; but at the same instant the portière was raised and Madame de Sauve showed her blond head.
“Madame,” said she, “it is Réné, the perfumer, whom your majesty sent for.”
Catharine cast a glance as quick as lightning at Henry of Navarre.
The young prince turned slightly red and then fearfully pale. Indeed, the name of his mother’s assassin had been spoken; he felt that his face betrayed his emotion, and he went and leaned against the bar of the window.
The little greyhound growled.
At the same moment two persons entered — the one announced, and the other having no need to be so.
The first was Réné, the perfumer, who approached Catharine with all the servile obsequiousness of Florentine servants. He held in his hand a box, which he opened, and all the compartments were seen filled with powders and flasks.
The second was Madame de Lorraine, Marguerite’s eldest sister. She entered by a small secret door, which led from the King’s closet, and, all pale and trembling, and hoping not to be observed by Catharine, who was examining, with Madame de Sauve, the contents of the box brought by René, seated herself beside Marguerite, near whom the King of Navarre was standing, with his hand on his brow, like one who tries to rouse himself from some sudden shock.
At this instant Catharine turned round.
“Daughter,” she said to Marguerite, “you may retire to your room. My son, you may go and amuse yourself in the city.”
Marguerite rose, and Henry turned half round.
Madame de Lorraine seized Marguerite’s hand.
“Sister,” she whispered, with great quickness, “in the name of the Duc de Guise, who now saves you, as you saved him, do not go from here — do not go to your apartments.”
“Eh! what say you, Claude?” inquired Catharine, turning round.
“You were whispering to Marguerite.”
“Simply to wish her good-night, and convey a greeting to her from the Duchesse de Nevers.”
“And where is that fair duchess?”
“At her brother-inlaw’s, M. de Guise’s.”
Catharine looked suspiciously at the women and frowning:
“Come here, Claude,” said the queen mother.
Claude obeyed, and the queen seized her hand.
“What did you say to her, indiscreet girl that you are?” she murmured, squeezing her daughter’s wrist until she nearly shrieked with pain.
“Madame,” said Henry to his wife, having lost nothing of the movements of the queen, Claude, or Marguerite — “madame, will you allow me the honor of kissing your hand?”
Marguerite extended her trembling hand.
“What did she say to you?” whispered Henry, as he stooped to imprint a kiss on her hand.
“Not to go out. In the name of Heaven, do not you go out either!”
This was like a flash; but by its light, swift as it was, Henry at once detected a complete plot.
“This is not all,” added Marguerite; “here is a letter, which a country gentleman brought.”
“Monsieur de la Mole?”
“Thank you,” he said, taking the letter and putting it under his doublet; and, passing in front of his bewildered wife, he placed his hand on the shoulder of the Florentine.
“Well, Maître Réné!” he said, “and how go commercial affairs?”
“Pretty well, monseigneur — pretty well,” replied the poisoner, with his perfidious smile.
“I should think so,” said Henry, “with men who, like you, supply all the crowned heads at home and abroad.”
“Except the King of Navarre,” replied the Florentine, impudently.
“Ventre saint gris, Maître Réné,” replied the king, “you are right; and yet my poor mother, who also bought of you, recommended you to me with her dying breath. Come to me tomorrow, Maître Réné, or day after tomorrow, and bring your best perfumes.”
“That would not be a bad notion,” said Catharine, smiling; “for it is said”—
“That I need some perfumery,” interrupted Henry, laughing; “who told you that, mother? Was it Margot?”
“No, my son,” replied Catharine, “it was Madame de Sauve.”
At this moment the Duchesse de Lorraine, who in spite of all her efforts could no longer contain herself, burst into loud sobs.
Henry did not even turn toward her.
“Sister, what is the matter?” cried Marguerite, darting toward Claude.
“Nothing,” said Catharine, passing between the two young women, “nothing; she has those nervous attacks, for which Mazille prescribes aromatic preparations.”
And again, and with still more force than before, she pressed her eldest daughter’s arm; then, turning toward the youngest:
“There, Margot,” she said, “did you not hear me request you to retire to your room? If that is not sufficient, I command you.”
“Excuse me, madame,” replied Marguerite, trembling and pale; “I wish your majesty good-night.”
“I hope your wishes may be heard. Good-night — good-night!”
Marguerite withdrew, staggering, and in vain seeking to meet her husband’s eyes, but he did not even turn toward her.
There was a moment’s silence, during which Catharine remained with her eyes fastened on the Duchess of Lorraine, who, without speaking, looked at her mother with clasped hands.
Henry’s back was still turned, but he was watching the scene in a mirror, while seeming to curl his mustache with a pomade which Réné had just given to him.
“And you, Henry,” said Catharine, “are you still intending to go out?”
“Yes, that’s true,” exclaimed the king. “Faith, I was forgetting that the Duc d’Alençon and the Prince de Condé are waiting for me! These are admirable perfumes; they quite overpower one, and destroy one’s memory. Good evening, madame.”
“Good evening! To-morrow you will perhaps bring me tidings of the admiral.”
“Without fail — Well, Phoebe, what is it?”
“Phoebe!” said the queen mother, impatiently.
“Call her, madame,” said the Béarnais, “for she will not allow me to go out.”
The queen mother rose, took the little greyhound by the collar, and held her while Henry left the apartment, with his features as calm and smiling as if he did not feel in his heart that his life was in imminent peril.
Behind him the little dog, set free by Catharine de Médicis, rushed to try and overtake him, but the door was closed, and Phoebe could only put her long nose under the tapestry and give a long and mournful howl.
“Now, Charlotte,” said Catharine to Madame de Sauve, “go and find Messieurs de Guise and Tavannes, who are in my oratory, and return with them; then remain with the Duchess of Lorraine, who has the vapors.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53