A few moments later Catharine and the Duc d’Alençon, pale with fright and trembling with rage, entered Charles’s room. As Henry had conjectured, Catharine had overheard everything and in a few words had told all to François.
Henry was standing at the head of Charles’s bed.
The King spoke his wishes:
“Madame,” said he to his mother, “had I a son, you would be regent, or in default of you it would be the King of Poland; or in default of him it would be my brother François; but I have no son, and after me the throne belongs to my brother the Duc d’Anjou, who is absent. As some day he will claim this throne I do not wish him to find in his place a man who by almost equal rights might dispute it with him, and who consequently might expose the kingdom to civil war. This is why I do not appoint you regent, madame, for you would have to choose between your two sons, which would be painful for a mother. This is why I do not choose my brother François, for he might say to his elder brother, ‘You had a throne, why did you leave it?’ No, I have chosen as regent one who can take the crown on trust, and who will keep it in his hand and not on his head. Salute this regent, madame; salute him, brother; it is the King of Navarre!”
And with a gesture of supreme authority the King himself saluted Henry.
Catharine and D’Alençon made a gesture between a nervous shudder and a salute.
“Here, my Lord Regent,” said Charles to the King of Navarre, “here is the parchment which, until the return of the King of Poland, gives you the command of the armies, the keys of the treasury, and the royal power and authority.”
Catharine devoured Henry with her eyes; François swayed so that he could scarcely stand; but this weakness of the one and strength of the other, instead of encouraging Henry, showed him the danger which threatened him.
Nevertheless he made a violent effort and overcoming his fears took the parchment from the hands of the king, raised himself to his full height, and gave Catharine and François a look which meant:
“Take care! I am your master.”
“No,” said she, “never; never shall my race bow to a foreign one; never shall a Bourbon reign in France while a Valois remains!”
“Mother,” cried Charles IX., sitting up among the crimson sheets of his bed, more frightful looking than ever, “take care, I am still King. Not for long, I well know; but it does not take long to give an order; it does not take long to punish murderers and poisoners.”
“Well! give the order, if you dare, and I will give mine! Come, François, come!”
And the queen left the room rapidly, followed by the Duc d’Alençon.
“Nancey!” cried Charles; “Nancey! come here! I order you, Nancey, to arrest my mother, and my brother, arrest”—
A stream of blood choked his utterance, just as the captain of the guards opened the door, and, almost suffocated, the King fell back on his bed. Nancey had heard only his name; the orders which followed, and which had been uttered in a less audible tone, were lost in space.
“Guard the door,” said Henry, “and let no one enter.”
Nancey bowed and withdrew.
Henry looked at the almost lifeless body, which already would have seemed like that of a corpse had not a light breath stirred the fringe of foam on the lips.
Henry looked for several moments, then, speaking to himself:
“The final moment has come!” said he; “shall I reign? shall I live?”
Just then the tapestry of the alcove was raised, a pale face appeared behind it, and a voice vibrated through the silence of death which reigned throughout the royal chamber.
“Live!” said this voice.
“Réné!” cried Henry.
“Your prediction was false, then; I shall not be king?”
“You shall be, sire; but the time has not yet come.”
“How do you know? Speak, that I may know if I may believe you.”
Henry leaned over Charles. Réné did the same. They were separated by the width of the bed alone, and even this distance was lessened by their positions. Between them, silent and motionless, lay the dying King.
“Listen,” said Réné; “placed here by the queen mother to ruin you, I prefer to serve you, for I have faith in your horoscope. By serving you I shall profit both in body and soul.”
“Did the queen mother command you to say this also?” asked Henry, full of doubt and pain.
“No,” said Réné; “but I will tell you a secret.”
He leaned still further over.
Henry did likewise, so that their heads almost touched.
This interview between two men bending over the body of a dying king was so sombre that the hair of the superstitious Florentine rose on end, and Henry’s face became covered with perspiration.
“Listen,” continued Réné, “I will tell you a secret known only to me. I will reveal it to you if you will swear over this dying man to forgive me for the death of your mother.”
“I have already promised you this,” said Henry, with darkening brow.
“You promised, but you did not swear,” said Réné, drawing back.
“I swear it,” said Henry, raising his right hand over the head of the King.
“Well, sire,” said the Florentine, hastily, “the King of Poland will soon arrive!”
“No,” said Henry, “the messenger was stopped by King Charles.”
“King Charles intercepted only the one on the road to Château Thierry. But the queen mother wisely sent couriers by three different routes.”
“Oh! I am lost!” exclaimed Henry.
“A messenger arrived this morning from Varsovia. The king left after him without any one’s thinking of opposing him, for at Varsovia the illness of the King of France was not yet known. This courier only preceded Henry of Anjou by a few hours.”
“Oh! had I but eight days!” cried Henry.
“Yes, but you have not eight hours. Did you hear the noise of arms?”
“They are making ready to kill you. They will seek you even here in the apartment of the King.”
“The King is not yet dead.”
Réné looked closely at Charles.
“He will be in ten minutes; you have ten minutes to live, therefore; perhaps less.”
“What shall I do?”
“Flee instantly, without delaying a minute, a second.”
“But how? If they are waiting in the antechamber they will kill me as I go out.”
“Listen! I will risk everything for you. Never forget this.”
“Follow me by the secret corridor. I will lead you to the postern. Then, to gain time, I will tell the queen mother that you are coming down; you will be seen to have discovered this secret passage, and to have profited by it to escape. Flee! Flee!”
“Nurse!” murmured Charles, “nurse!”
Henry took from the bed Charles’s sword, of no further use to the dying King, put the parchment which made him regent in his breast, kissed Charles’s brow for the last time, and turning away hurried through the door, which closed behind him.
“Nurse!” cried the King, in a stronger voice, “nurse!”
The woman ran to him.
“What is it, Charlot?” she asked.
“Nurse,” said the King, his eye dilated by the terrible fixity of death, “something must have happened while I slept. I see a great light. I see God, our Master, I see Jesus, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are praying and interceding for me. The all-powerful Lord pardons me — calls to me — My God! my God! In thy mercy, receive me! My God! forget that I have been King, for I come to you without sceptre or crown. My God! forget the crimes of the King, and remember only the suffering of the man. My God, I come!”
And Charles, who as he spoke had risen more and more as if to go to the One who was calling him, after uttering these words heaved a sigh and fell back still and cold in the arms of his nurse.
Meantime, while the soldiers, commanded by Catharine, were beginning to fill the main corridor in which they expected Henry to appear, the latter, guided by Réné, passed along the secret passage and reached the postern, sprang on the horse which was waiting for him, and galloped to the place where he knew he would find De Mouy.
Hearing the sound of the horse’s hoofs, the galloping of which fell on the hard pavement, some sentinels turned and cried:
“He flees! He flees!”
“Who?” cried the queen mother, stepping to a window.
“The King of Navarre!” cried the sentinels.
“Fire on him! Fire!” cried Catharine.
The sentinels levelled their muskets, but Henry was already too far away.
“He flees!” cried the queen mother; “then he is vanquished!”
“He flees!” murmured the Duc d’Alençon; “then I am king!”
At that instant, while François and his mother were still before the window, the drawbridge thundered under horses’ hoofs and preceded by a clanking of arms and great noise a young man galloped up, his hat in his hand, shouting as he entered the court: “France!” He was followed by four gentlemen, covered like himself with perspiration, dust, and foam.
“My son!” exclaimed Catharine, extending both arms out of the window.
“Mother!” replied the young man, springing from his steed.
“My brother D’Anjou!” cried François, stepping back in amazement.
“Am I too late?” asked Henry d’Anjou.
“No, just in time, and God must have guided you, for you could not have arrived at a better moment. Look and listen!”
Monsieur de Nancey, captain of the guards, had come out upon the balcony from the chamber of the King.
All eyes were turned towards him.
Breaking a wand in two, with arms extended, he took a piece in either hand and cried three times:
“King Charles IX. is dead! King Charles IX. is dead! King Charles IX. is dead!”
Then he dropped the pieces of the wand.
“Long live King Henry III.!” shouted Catharine, making the sign of the cross. “Long live King Henry III.!”
All took up the cry except Duc François.
“Ah, she has betrayed me!” murmured he, digging his nails into his breast.
“I have won,” cried Catharine, “and that hateful Béarnais will not reign!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53