A few days after the terrible scene we have just described, that is, on the 30th of May, 1574, while the court was at Vincennes, suddenly a great commotion was heard in the chamber of the King. The latter had been taken ill in the midst of the ball he had given the day of the execution of the two young men, and had been ordered by his physicians into the pure air of the country.
It was eight o’clock in the morning. A small group of courtiers were talking excitedly in the antechamber, when suddenly a cry was heard, and Charles’s nurse appeared at the door, her eyes filled with tears, calling frantically:
“Is his Majesty worse?” asked the Captain de Nancey, whom, as we know, the King had relieved from all duty to Queen Catharine in order to attach him to himself.
“Oh! Blood! Blood!” cried the nurse. “The doctors! call the doctors!”
Mozille and Ambroise Paré in turn attended the august patient, and the latter, seeing the King fall asleep, had taken advantage of the fact to withdraw for a few moments. Meanwhile a great perspiration had broken out all over the King; and as Charles suffered from a relaxation of the capillary vessels, which caused a hæmorrhage of the skin, the bloody sweat had alarmed the nurse, unaccustomed to this strange phenomenon, who, being a Protestant, kept repeating that it was a judgment for the blood of the Huguenots shed in the massacre of Saint Bartholomew.
The courtiers went in all directions in search of the doctor, who could not be far away, and whom they could not fail to meet. The antechamber, therefore, became deserted, every one being anxious to show his zeal in bringing the much-needed physician.
Just then a door opened and Catharine appeared. She passed hurriedly through the antechamber and hastily entered the apartment of her son.
Charles was stretched on his bed, his eyes closed, his breast heaving; from his body oozed a crimson sweat. His hand hung over the bed, and from the end of each finger dropped a ruby liquid. It was a horrible sight.
At the sound of his mother’s steps, as if he knew she was there, Charles sat up.
“Pardon, madame,” said he, looking at her, “but I desire to die in peace.”
“To die, my son?” said Catharine. “This is only a passing attack of your wretched trouble. Would you have us despair in this way?”
“I tell you, madame, I feel that my soul is about to pass away. I tell you, madame, that death is near me, by Heaven! I feel what I feel, and I know what I am talking about!”
“Sire,” said the queen, “your imagination is your most serious trouble. Since the well-merited punishment of those two sorcerers, those assassins, La Mole and Coconnas, your physical suffering should have diminished. The mental trouble alone continues, and if I could talk with you for just ten minutes I could prove to you”—
“Nurse,” said Charles, “watch at the door that no one may enter. Queen Catharine de Médicis wishes to speak with her well-loved son Charles IX.”
The nurse withdrew.
“Well,” continued Charles, “this interview will have to take place some day or other, and better today than tomorrow. Besides, tomorrow may be too late. But a third person must be present.”
“Because I tell you I am dying,” repeated Charles with frightful seriousness; “because at any moment death may enter this chamber, as you have done, pale, silent, and unannounced. It is, therefore, time. Last night I settled my personal affairs; this morning I will arrange those of the kingdom.”
“What person do you desire to see?” asked Catharine.
“My brother, madame. Have him summoned.”
“Sire,” said the queen, “I see with pleasure that the prejudices dictated by hatred rather than pain are leaving your mind, as they soon will fade from your heart. Nurse!” cried Catharine, “nurse!”
The woman, who was keeping watch outside, opened the door.
“Nurse,” said Catharine, “by order of my son, when Monsieur de Nancey returns say to him to summon the Duc d’Alençon.”
Charles made a sign which detained the woman.
“I said my brother, madame,” said Charles.
Catharine’s eyes dilated like those of a tigress about to show her anger. But Charles raised his hand imperatively.
“I wish to speak to my brother Henry,” said he. “Henry alone is my brother; not he who is king yonder, but he who is a prisoner here. Henry shall know my last wishes.”
“And do you think,” exclaimed the Florentine, with unusual boldness in the face of the dread will of her son, her hatred for the Béarnais being strong enough to make her forget her customary dissimulation — “do you think that if, as you say, you are near the tomb, I will yield to any one, especially a stranger, my right to be present at your last hour; my right as queen and mother?”
“Madame,” said Charles, “I am still King; and I still command. I tell you that I desire to speak to my brother Henry and yet you do not summon my captain of the guard. A thousand devils! I warn you, madame, I still have strength enough to go for him myself.”
The King made a movement as if to rise from the bed, which brought to light his body, bloody like Christ’s after the flogging.
“Sire,” cried Catharine, holding him back, “you wrong us all. You forget the insults given to our family, you repudiate our blood. A son of France alone should kneel before the death-bed of a King of France. As to me, my place is marked out; it is here by the laws of nature as well as the laws of royalty. Therefore I shall remain.”
“And by what right do you remain, madame?” demanded Charles IX.
“Because I am your mother.”
“You are no more my mother, madame, than is the Duc d’Alençon my brother.”
“You are mad, monsieur,” said Catharine; “since when is she who gives birth to a child no longer his mother?”
“From the moment, madame, when the unnatural mother takes away that which she gives,” replied Charles, wiping away a bloody sweat from his lips.
“What do you mean, Charles? I do not understand you,” murmured Catharine, gazing at her son, her eyes dilated with astonishment.
“But you will, madame.”
Charles searched under his pillow and drew out a small silver key.
“Take this, madame, and open my travelling-box. It contains certain papers which will speak for me.”
Charles pointed to a magnificent carved box, closed with a silver lock, like the key, which occupied the most conspicuous place in the room.
Catharine, dominated by the look and manner of Charles, obeyed, advanced slowly to the box, and opened it. But no sooner had she looked into it than she suddenly sprang back as if she had seen some sleeping reptile inside it.
“Well,” said Charles, who had not taken his eyes from his mother, “what is there in the box to startle you, madame?”
“Nothing,” said Catharine.
“Then put in your hand, madame, and take out a book that is there; there is one, is there not?” added Charles, with a pale smile, more terrible in him than a threat in another.
“Yes,” faltered Catharine.
“A book on hunting?”
“Take it out and bring it to me.”
In spite of her assurance Catharine turned pale, and trembled in every limb, as she extended her hand towards the box.
“Fatality!” she murmured, raising the book.
“Very good,” said Charles, “now listen; this book on hunting — I loved the chase madly, above everything else — I read this book too eagerly, do you understand, madame?”
Catharine gave a dull moan.
“It was a weakness,” continued Charles; “burn it, madame. The weakness of kings and queens must not be known!”
Catharine stepped to the glowing hearth, and dropped the book into the flames.
Then, standing motionless and silent, she watched with haggard eye the bluish light which rose from the poisoned leaves.
As the book burned a strong odor of arsenic spread through the room. Soon the volume was entirely destroyed.
“And now, madame,” said Charles, with irresistible majesty, “call my brother.”
Catharine, overcome, crushed under a multiple emotion which her profound wisdom could not analyze, and which her almost superhuman strength could not combat, took a step forward as if to speak.
The mother grew remorseful; the queen was afraid; the poisoner felt a return of hatred.
The latter sentiment dominated.
“Curse him!” she cried, rushing from the room, “he triumphs, he gains his end; curse him! curse him!”
“You understand, my brother, my brother Henry,” cried Charles, calling after his mother; “my brother Henry, with whom I wish to speak instantly regarding the regency of the kingdom!”
Almost at the same instant Maître Ambroise Paré entered through the door opposite the one by which the queen had just left, and, pausing on the threshold, noticed the peculiar odor in the room.
“Who has been burning arsenic here?” said he.
“I,” replied Charles.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07