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Yes, I have seen changes. When I first served at court, whither I went in the year 1579--seven years after the St. Bartholomew--the King received all in his bedchamber, and there every evening played primero with his intimates, until it was time to retire; Rosny and Biron, and the great men of the day, standing, or sitting on chests round the chamber. If he would be more private he had his cabinet; or, if the matter were of prime importance, he would take his confidants to an open space in the garden--such as the white-mulberry grove, encircled by the canal at Fontainebleau; where, posting a Swiss guard who did not understand French, at the only bridge that gave access to the place, he could talk without reserve.
In those days the court rode, or if sick, went in litters. Coaches were only coming into fashion, Henry, who feared nothing else, having so invincible a distaste for them that he was wont to turn pale if the coach in which he travelled swayed more than usual. Ladies, the Queen's mother and her suite excepted, rode sideways on pads, their feet supported by a little board; and side-saddles were rare. At great banquets the fairest and noblest served the tables. We dined at ten in the country and eleven in Paris; instead of at noon, as is the custom now.
When the King lay alone, his favourite pages took it by turns to sleep at his feet; the page on duty using a low truckle bed that in the daytime fitted under the King's bed, and at night was drawn out. Not seldom, however, and more often if the times were troublous, he would invite one of his councillors to share his couch, and talk the night through with him; a course which in these days might seem undignified. Frequently he and the Queen received favourite courtiers before they left their beds; particularly on New Year's morning it was the duty of the Finance Minister to wait on them, and awaken them with a present of medals struck for the purpose.
And I recall many other changes. But one thing, which some young sparks, with a forwardness neither becoming in them nor respectful to me, have ventured to suggest, even in my presence--that we who lived in the old war time were a rougher breed and less dainty and chivalrous than the Buckinghams and Bassompierres of to-day--I roundly deny. On the contrary, I would have these to know that he who rode in the wars with Henry of Guise--or against him--had for his example not only the handsomest but the most courtly man of all times; and has nothing to learn from a set of pert fellows who, unable to acquire the stately courtesy that becomes a gentleman, are fain to air themselves in a dandified-simpering trim of their own, with nought gallant about them but their ribbons and furbelows.
That such are stouter than the men of my day, no one dare maintain. I have seen Crillon, whom veterans called the brave; and I have talked with La NouŽ of the Iron Arm; for the rest, I can tell you of one--he was a boy fourteen years old--known to me in my youth, who had it not in him to fear.
He was page, along with me, to the King of Navarre; a year my junior, and my rival. At riding, shooting and fencing he was the better; at paume and tennis he always won. But naturally, being the elder, I had the greater strength, and when the sharp sting of his wit provoked me, I could drub him, and did so more than once. No extremity of defeat, however, no, nor any severity of punishment could wring from Antoine a word of submission; prostrate, with bleeding face, he was as ready to fly at my throat as before I laid hand on him. And more, though I was the senior, he was the life and soul and joy of the ante-chamber; the first in mischief, the last in retreat; the first to cry a nick-name after a burly priest who chanced to pass us as we lounged at the gates--and the first to be whipped when it turned out that the King had a mind to please the clergy.
It followed that from the first I viewed him with a strange mixture of rivalry and affection; ready at one moment to quarrel with him and beat him for a misword, and the next to let him beat me if it pleased him. At this time the King of Navarre had his court sometimes at Montauban, sometimes at Nerac; and there were rumours of a war between him and the King of France; to be clear, it was this year, that in the hope of maintaining the peace, the latter's mother, the Queen Catherine, came with a glittering train of ladies to Nerac, and paid her court to our King, and there were ball and pageants and gay doings by day and night. But the Huguenots were not lightly taken in, and under this fair mask suspected treachery, and not without reason; for one night, during a ball, Catherine's friends seized a strong town, and but for Henry's readiness--who took horse that moment and before daylight had surprised a town of France to set against it--they would have gained the advantage. So in the event Catherine did little, no one trusting her, and in the end she returned to Paris wiser than she came; but for the time the visit lasted the court gaieties continued, and there were masques and dances, and the thought of war was seemingly far from the minds of all.
Now in the room which was then the King's Chamber at Montauban, is a window, at a great height from the ground, a very deep ravine, which is one of the main defences of the city, lying below it. In the adjoining ante-chamber is a similar window, and between the two is a projecting buttress, and outside the sill of each is a stone ledge a foot wide, which runs round the buttress. I do not know who first thought of it, but one day when the King was absent and we pages were lounging in the room--which was against the rules, since we should have been in the ante-chamber--some one challenged Antoine to walk on the ledge round the buttress, going out by the one window and returning by the other. I have said that the ledge was but a foot wide, the depth below infinite. It turned me sick only to look down and see the hawks hang and circle in the gulf. Nevertheless, before any could speak, Antoine was outside the casement poising himself on the airy ledge; a moment, and with his face turned inwards to the wall, his slight figure outlined against the sky, he began to edge his way round the buttress.
I called to him to come back; I expected each moment to see him reel and fall; the others, too, stood staring with uneasy faces; for they had not thought that he would do it. But he did not heed; an instant, and he vanished round the buttress, and still we stood, and no one moved; no one moved, until with a shout he showed himself at the other window, and sprang down into the ante-chamber. His eyes were bright with the triumph of it; his hair waved back from his brow as if the breeze from the gulf still stirred it. He cried to me to do the feat in my turn, he pointed his finger at me, dared me, and before them all he called me "Coward! Coward!"
But I am not ashamed to confess a weakness I share with many men of undoubted courage--I could never face a great height; and though I burned with wrath and shame, and raged under his taunts, though I could have confronted any other form of death, at his instigation, or I thought I could, though I even went so far as to leap on the seat within the window and stand--and stand irresolute--I stopped there. My head turned, my skin crept. I could not do it. The victory was with Antoine; he whom I had thrashed for some impertinence only the night before, now held me up to scorn and drove me from the room with jeers and laughter.
None of the others had greater courage; none dared do the feat; but I was the eldest and the biggest, and the iron entered into my heart. Day after day for a week, whenever the chamber was empty, I crept to the window and looked down and watched the kites hover and drop, and plumbed the depth with my eyes. But only, to turn away--sick. I could not do it. Resolve as I might at night, in the morning, on the window ledge, with the giddy deep below me, I was a coward.
One evening, however, when the King was supping with M. de Roquelaure, and I believed the chamber to be deserted, I chanced to go to the window of the ante-chamber after nightfall. I stepped on the seat--that I had done often before; but this time, looking down, I found that I no longer quailed. The darkness veiled the ravine; to my astonishment I felt no qualms. Moreover, I had had supper, my heart was high; and in a moment it occurred to me that now--now in the dark I could do it, and regain my pride.
I did not give myself time to think, but went straight out to the gallery, where I found Antoine and two or three others teasing Mathurine the woman-fool. My entrance was the signal for a taunt. "Ho, Miss White Face! Come to borrow Mathurine's petticoats?" Antoine cried, standing out and confronting me. "It is you, is it?"
"Yes," I answered sharply, meeting his eyes and speaking in a tone I had not used for a week. "And if you do not mend your manners, Master Antoine----"
"Go round the buttress!" he retorted with a grimace.
"I will!" I answered. "I will! And then----"
"You dare not!"
"Come!" I said; "come, and see! And when I have done it, my friend----"
I did not finish the sentence, but led the way back to the ante-chamber; assuming a courage which, as a fact, was fast oozing from me. The cold air that met me as I approached the open window sobered me still more; but Antoine's jeers and my companions' incredulity stung me to the necessary point, and at once I stepped on the ledge, and without giving myself time to think, turned my face to the wall and began to edge myself slowly along it; my heart in my mouth, my flesh creeping, as I gradually realized where I was; every nerve in my body strung to quivering point.
Certainly in the daylight I could not have done it. Even now, when the depth over which I balanced myself was hidden by the darkness, and I had only my fancy to conquer, I trembled, my knees shook, a bat skimming by my ear almost caused me to fall; I was bathed in perspiration. The depth drew me; I dared not for my life look into it. Yet I turned the corner of the buttress in safety, and edged my way along its front, glueing myself to the wall; and came at last, breathing hard, to the second corner, and turned it, and saw with a gasp of relief the lights in the chamber. A moment--a moment more, and I should be safe.
At that instant I heard something, and cast a wary eye backwards the way I had come. I saw a shadowy form at my elbow, and I guessed that Antoine was following me. With a shudder I hastened my steps to avoid him, and I was already in the angle formed by the wall and buttress--whence I could leap down into the chamber--when he called to me.
"Hist!" he cried softly. "Stop, man! the King is there! He has been there all the time, I think."
I thought it only too likely, for I could see none of our comrades at the window; and I heard men's deeper voices in the room. To go on, therefore, and show myself was to be punished; and I paused and knelt down in the angle where the ledge was wider. I recognized the King's voice, and M. Gourdon's, and that of St. Martin, the captain of the guard; I caught even their words, and presently, in a minute or two, and against my will, I had surprised a secret--so great a secret that I trembled almost as much as I had trembled at the outmost angle of the buttress, hanging between earth and sky. For they were planning the great assault on Cahors; for the first time I heard named those points that are now household words; the walnut grove, and the three gates, and the bridge, that fame and France will never forget. I heard all--the night, the hour, the numbers to be engaged; and turned quaking to learn what Antoine thought of it. Turned, but neither saw nor addressed him; for he had gone back, and my eye, incautiously cast down, saw far, far beneath me a torch and a little group of men--at the bottom of the void. I became giddy at this sudden view of the abyss, wavered an instant, and then with a cry of fear I chose the less pressing danger, and tumbled forward into the room.
M. de Roquelaure had his point at my throat before I could rise; and I had a vision of half a dozen men part risen, of half a dozen startled faces all glaring at me. Fortunately M. de Rosny knew me and held the other's arm. I was plucked up roughly, and set on my feet before the King, who alone had kept his seat; and amid a shower of threats I was bidden to explain my presence.
"You knave! I wish I had spitted you!" Roquelaure cried, with an oath, when I had done so. "You heard all?"
They scowled at me between wrath and chagrin. "Friend Rosny, you were a fool," M. de Roquelaure said with grimness.
"I think I was," the other answered. "But a flogging, a gag, and the black hole will keep his tongue still as long as is needful."
Henry laughed. "I think we can do better than that!" he said, with a glance of good nature. "Hark you, my lad; you are big enough to fight. We will trust you, and you shall wear sword for the first time. But if the surprise fail, if word of our coming go before us, we shall know whom to blame, and you will have to reckon with M. de Rosny."
I fell on my knees and thanked him with tears; while Rosny and M. St. Martin remonstrated. "Take my word for it, he will blurt it out!" said the one; and the other, "You had better deliver him to me, sire."
"No," Henry said kindly. "I will trust him. He comes of a good stock; if the oak bends, what tree shall we trust?"
"The oak bends fast enough, sire, when it is a sapling," Rosny retorted.
"In that case you shall apply your sapling!" the King answered, laughing. "Hark ye, my lad, will you be silent?"
I promised--with tears in my eyes; and with that, and a mind full of amazement, I was dismissed, and left the presence, a grown man; overjoyed that the greatest scrape of my life had turned out the happiest; foreseeing honour, and rewards, and already scorning the other pages as immeasurably beneath me. It was a full minute before I thought of Antoine, and the chance that he, too, before he turned back, had overheard the King's plan. Then I stood in the passage horrified--my first impulse to return and tell the King. It came too late, however, for in the mean time he and M. de Rosny had repaired to the closet, and the others had withdrawn; and while I stood hesitating, Antoine slipped out of the ante-chamber, and came to me on the stairs.
His first words went some way towards relieving me; they told me that he had overheard something but not all; enough to know that the King intended to surprise a place of strength, and a few details, but not the name of the place. As soon as I understood this, and that I had nothing to fear from him, I could not hide my triumph. When he declared his intention of going with the expedition, I laughed at him.
"You!" I said. "You don't understand. This is not child's play!"
"And you will not tell me where it is?" he asked, raging.
"No! Go to your nurse and your pap-boat, child."
He flew at me at that like a mad cat, and I had to beat him until the blood ran down his face before I could shake him off. Even then, and while I thrust him out sobbing, he begged me to tell him--only to tell him. Nor was that all. Through all the next day he haunted me and persecuted me, now with prayers and now with threats; following me everywhere with eyes of such hot longing that I marvelled at the irrepressible spirit that shone in the lad.
Of course I told him nothing. Yet I was glad when the next day came, and with it an announcement that Henry would visit M. de Gourdon and lie that night at his house, four miles from Montauban, where the court then was. Only eight gentlemen were invited to be of the party, with as many ladies; the troop with a handful of servants riding out of the city about five o'clock, and no one the wiser. No one saw anything odd in the visit, nor in my being chosen to attend the King. But I knew; and I was not surprised when we stopped at M. de Gourdon's only to sup, and then getting to horse, rode through the night and the dusky oak woods, by walled farms and hamlets, and under rustling poplars--rode many leagues, and forded many streams. The night was hot, it was the month of June; and it thundered continually, but with no rain. At this point and that bands of men joined us, mysteriously, and in silence; until from the hill with its bracken and walnut trees, we saw the lights of Cahors below us, and the glimmer of the winding Lot, and heard the bells of the city tolling midnight.
By this time, every road adding to our numbers, we were a great company; and how we lay hidden through the early night in the walnut grove that looks down on the river all men know; but not the qualms and eagerness that by turns possessed me as I peered through the leaves at the distant lights, nor the prayer I said that I might not shame my race, nor how my heart beat when Henry, who was that day twenty-seven years old, gave the order to advance in the voice of one going to a ball. Two men with a petard--then a strange invention--led the way through the gloom, attended by ten picked soldiers. After them came fifty of the King's guards, and the King with two hundred foot; then the main body of a thousand. We had the long bridge with its three gates to pass; and beyond these obstacles, a city bitterly hostile, and occupied by a garrison far outnumbering us. Never, indeed, did men enter on a more forlorn or perilous enterprise.
I remember to this day how I felt as we advanced through the darkness, and how long it seemed while we waited, huddled and silent, at the head of the bridge, expecting the explosion of the petard, which had been fixed to the first gate. At length it burst, filling the heavens with flame; before the night closed down again on our pale faces, the leaders were through the breach and past that gate, and charging madly over the bridge, the leading companies all mingled together.
I had no fear now. If a friendly hand had not pulled me back, I should have run on to the petard which drove in the second gate. As it was, I passed through the second obstacle side by side with the King--but went no farther. The garrison was awake now, and a withering fire from fifty arquebuses swept the narrow bridge; those who were not struck stumbled over the dying; the air was filled with groans and cries; a moment and the very bravest recoiled, and sought safety behind the second gate, where we stood in shelter.
The moment was critical, for now the whole city was aroused. Shouts of triumph rose above the exploding of the guns; in every tower bells jangled noisily, and on the summit of the last gateway on the bridge, which from every loophole and window poured on us a deadly hail of slugs, a beacon-fire blazed up, turning the black water below us to blood.
I have said that the moment was critical--for France and for us. For a few seconds all hung back. Then St. Martin sprang forward, and by his side Captain Robert, who had fixed the first petard. They darted along the bridge, but only to fall and lie groaning and helpless halfway over. Henry made a movement as if to follow, but young M. de Rosny held him back by force, while half a dozen soldiers made the attempt. Of these four fell at once under the pitiless fire, and two crawled back wounded. It seemed that a man must be more than mortal to pass that space; and while one might count twenty no one moved.
Captain Robert lay scarcely fifteen paces from us, and by his side the hammer, spike, and petard he had carried. He and they were visible in the glow of ruddy light that poured down on the bridge. Suddenly, while I stood panting and irresolute, longing, yet not daring--since I saw older men hang back--suddenly a hand twitched my sleeve, and I turned to find at my elbow, his hair streaming back from his brow, Antoine! The lad's face and eyes flashed scorn at me. He waved his hand towards the bridge.
"Coward!" he cried; and he struck me lightly on the cheek with his hand. "Coward! Now follow me, if you dare!"
And, before any one could stay him, he darted from the shelter of the gateway in which we stood; and raced on to the bridge. I heard a great shout on our side, and the roar of a volley; but dully only, for, enraged by the blow and the challenge, I followed him--I and a dozen others. Some fell, but he ran on, and I after him. He snatched up the petard and the hammer, I the spike. In a moment, as it seemed to me, we were at the farther gate attaching the engine to it. I held the spike, he hammered it; the smoke and the frowning archway, to some extent, protected us from the fire of those above.
I often think of those few seconds with the pride and the garrulousness of an old man. While they lasted we stood alone, separated from our friends by the whole length of the third span of the bridge. For a few seconds only indeed; then, with a yell of triumph, the remains of Henry's "forlorn" rushed forward, and though many fell, enough came on. In a trice eager hands took the engine from us, and secured the fuse effectually and lit it, and bore us back--I was going to say, out of danger; but alas! as a deafening crash and a blaze of light proclaimed the way open and the last gate down, he who had done the deed, and opened the way, fell across me, shot from a loophole! As the rain of fragments from the gate fell hissing and splashing in the stream that flowed below, and while the foot streamed over the bridge, and pressed through the breach, Antoine gave a little gasp, and died on my knee.
The rest all men know; how through five days and nights we fought the great street-fight of Cahors; how we took no rest, save against walls and doorways, or in the courts of houses we had won; how we ate and drank with hands smirched with blood, and then to it again; how we won the city house by house, and foot by foot, until at last the white flag waved from the great tower, and France awoke with a start to know that in the young prince of pleasure, whom she had deemed a trifler, was born the shrewdest statesman and the boldest soldier of all her royal line.
And Antoine? When I went, after many hours, to seek him, the horse had crossed the bridge, and even his body was gone. How he had traced us, how managed to come to the front so opportunely, whether without him the star of Navarre would have risen so gloriously on that night of '80, never to be forgotten, I cannot say. But when I hear men talk of Crillon and courage--above all, when I hear them talk of the fops and ribboned popinjays of to-day, with their loose breeches and their bell-mouthed boots, I think of my comrade and rival who won Cahors for the King. And I smile.
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