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That which I am about to insert in this place may seem to some to be trifling, and on a parity with the diverting story of M. Boisrosé, which I have set down in an earlier part of my memoirs. But among the calumnies of those who have not since the death of the late King ceased to attack me, the statement that I kept from his Majesty things which should have reached his ears, has had a prominent place; though a thousand times refuted by my friends. I take in hand, therefore, to show by this episode, curious in itself, the full knowledge of affairs which the King had, and to prove that in many matters, which were never permitted to become public, he took a personal share, worthy as much of Haroun as of Alexander.
It was my custom, before I entered upon those negotiations with the Prince of Condé which terminated in the recovery of the estate of Villebon, where I now reside, to spend a part of the autumn and winter at Rosny. On these occasions, I was in the habit of moving from Paris with a considerable train, including not only my Swiss, pages, and grooms, but the maids of honour and waiting-women of the Duchess. We halted to take dinner at Poissy, and generally contrived to reach Rosny towards nightfall, so as to sup by the light of flambeaux, in a manner enjoyable enough, though devoid of that state which I have ever maintained, and enjoined upon my children, as at once the privilege and burden of rank.
At the time of which I speak, I had for my favourite charger the sorrel horse which the Duke of Mercoeur presented to me with a view to my good offices at the time of the King's entry into Paris; and which I honestly transferred to his Majesty in accordance with a principle laid down in another place. The King insisted on returning it to me, and for several years I rode it on these annual visits to Rosny. What was more remarkable was, that on each of these occasions it cast a shoe about the middle of the afternoon, and always when we were within a short league of the village of Aubergenville. Though I never had with me less than a half a score of led horses, I had such an affection for the sorrel that I preferred to wait until it was shod, rather than accommodate myself to a nag of less easy paces; and would allow my household to precede me, while I stayed behind with at most a guard or two, my valet, and a page.
The forge at Aubergenville was kept by a smith of some skill, a cheerful fellow, whom I rewarded, in view rather of my position than his services, with a gold piece. His joy at receiving what was to him the income of three months was great, and never failed to reimburse me; in addition to which I took some pleasure in unbending, and learning from this simple peasant and loyal man, what the tax-payers were saying of me and my reforms--a duty I felt I owed to the King my master.
As a man of breeding, it would ill become me to set down the homely truths I thus learned. The conversations of the vulgar are little suited to a nobleman's memoirs. But in this I distinguish between the Duke of Sully and the King's minister; and it is in the latter capacity that I relate what passed on these diverting occasions. "Ho! Simon," I would say, encouraging the poor man as he came bowing before me. "How goes it, my friend?"
"Badly," he would answer, "very badly until your lordship came this way."
"And how was that, little man?"
"Ah, it is the roads!" he always replied, shaking his bald head as he began to set about his business. "The roads since your lordship became Surveyor-General, are so good, that not one horse in a hundred leaves its shoe in a slough! And then there are so few highwaymen, that not one robber's plates do I replace in a twelvemonth! That is where it is."
At this I was highly delighted. "Still, since I began to pass this way times have not been so bad with you, Simon," I would answer.
Thereto he had one invariable reply. "No, thanks to St. Geneviéve and your Lordship, whom we call in this village the poor man's friend, I have a fowl in the pot."
This phrase so pleased me, that I repeated it to the king. It tickled his fancy also, and for many years it was a common remark of that good and great ruler, that he would fain live to see every peasant with a fowl in his pot.
"But why," I remember, I once asked this honest fellow--it was on the last occasion of the sorrel falling lame there--"do you thank St. Geneviéve?"
"She is my patron saint," he answered.
"Then you are a Parisian?"
"Your lordship is always right."
"But does her saintship do you any good?" I asked curiously.
"By your lordship's leave. My wife prays to her, and she loosens the nails in the sorrel's shoes."
"Then she pays off an old grudge," I answered. "There was a time when Paris liked me little. But hark you, Master Smith! I am not sure 'tis not an act of treason to conspire with Madame Geneviéve against the comfort of the King's minister. What think you, you rascal? Can you pass the justice-elm without a shiver?"
This threw the simple fellow into great fear, which the sight of the livre of gold converted into joy. Leaving him still staring at his fortune, I rode away. But when we had gone some little distance, the aspect of his face, when I charged him with treason, or my own unassisted discrimination, suggested a clue to the phenomenon.
"La Trape," I said to my valet--the same who was with me at Cahors--"what is the name of the innkeeper at Poissy, at whose house we are accustomed to dine?"
"Andrew, may it please your lordship."
"Ha! Ha! I thought so!" I exclaimed, smiting my thigh. "Simon and Andrew his brother! Answer, knave; and if you have permitted me to be robbed these many times, tremble for your ears! Is he not brother to the smith at Aubergenville who has just shod my horse?"
La Trape professed to be ignorant on the point. But a groom who had stayed with me, having sought my permission to speak, said it was so, adding that Master Andrew had risen in the world through dealings in hay, which he was wont to take into Paris and sell, and that he did not now acknowledge, or see anything of his brother, the smith.
On receiving this confirmation of my suspicion, my vanity as well as my love of justice led me to act with the promptitude which I have exhibited in greater emergencies. I rated La Trape for his carelessness in permitting this deception to be practised; and the main body of my attendants being now in sight, I ordered him to take two Swiss and arrest both brothers without delay. There remained three hours of daylight, and I judged that by hard riding they might reach Rosny with their prisoners before bedtime.
I spent some time, while still on the road, in considering what punishment I should inflict on the culprits, and finally laid aside the purpose I had at first conceived--of dealing severely with them--in favour of a plan that I thought might offer me some amusement. For the execution of this, I depended upon Maignan, my equerry, a man of lively imagination, and the same who had, of his own motion, arranged and carried out the triumphal procession in which I was borne to Rosny, after the battle of Ivry. Before I sat down to supper, I gave him his directions; and, as I had expected, news was brought to me, while I was at table, that the prisoners were without.
On this, I informed the Duchess and the company--for, as was usual, a number of my country neighbours had come to compliment me on my return--that there was sport of a rare kind on foot; and we adjourned, Maignan and four pages bearing lights before us, to that end of the terrace which abuts on the linden avenue. Here a score of grooms, holding aloft torches, had been arranged in a semicircle, so that they enclosed an impromptu theatre, which was as light as in the day. On a sloping bank at the end of the terrace, seats had been placed for those who had supped at my table, while the rest of the company found such places of vantage as they could, their number, indeed, amounting, with my household, to two hundred persons. In the centre of the open space a small forge-fire had been kindled, the red glow of which added much to the strangeness of the scene; and on the anvil beside it were ranged a number of horses' and donkeys' shoes, with a full complement of tools used by smiths.
All being ready, I gave the word to bring in the prisoners; and, escorted by La Trape and six of my guards, they were marched into the arena. In their pale and terrified faces, and the shaking limbs which scarce supported them, I read both the consciousness of guilt and the apprehension of immediate punishment; it was plain that they expected nothing less. I was very willing to play with their fears, and for some time looked at them in silence, while all wondered with lively curiosity what would ensue. In the end, I addressed them gravely, telling the innkeeper that I knew well he had loosened each year a shoe of my horse, in order that his brother might profit by the job of replacing it; and then I proceeded to reprove the smith for the ingratitude which had led him to return my bounty by the conception of so knavish a trick.
Upon this they confessed their guilt, and flinging themselves upon their knees, with many tears, begged for mercy. After a decent interval I permitted myself to be moved.
"Your lives shall be spared," I pronounced. "But punished you must be. I ordain that Simon the smith fit, nail, and properly secure a pair of iron shoes to Andrew's heels, and that then, Andrew, who by that time will have learned somewhat of the smith's art, do the same to Simon. So will you both be taught to avoid such tricks in the future."
It may well be imagined that a judgment so justly adapted to the offence charmed all save the culprits; and in a hundred ways the pleasure of those present was evinced: to such a degree indeed that Maignan had difficulty in restoring gravity to the assemblage. This done, however, Master Andrew was taken in hand, and his wooden shoes removed. The tools of his trade were placed before Simon, but he cast glances so piteous, first at his brother's feet, and then at the shoes, as again gave rise to an amount of merriment that surpassed all, my pages in particular well-nigh forgetting my presence, and rolling about in a manner unpardonable at another time. However, I rebuked them, and was about to order the sentence to be carried into effect, when the remembrance of the many pleasant simplicities which the smith had uttered to me, acting upon a natural disposition to mercy which the most calumnious of my enemies have never questioned, induced me to give the prisoners a chance of escape. "Listen," I said, "Simon and Andrew. Your sentence has been pronounced and will be executed, unless you can avail yourself of the condition I now offer. You shall have three minutes: if in that time either of you can make a good joke, he shall go free. If not--let a man attend to the bellows, La Trape!"
This charmed my neighbours, who were now well assured that I had not promised them a novel entertainment without good grounds; for the grimaces of the two knaves thus bidden to jest if they would save their skins were so diverting they would have made a nun laugh. The two looked at me with their eyes as wide as plates, and for the whole of the time of grace never a word could they utter save howls for mercy. "Simon," I said gravely, when the time was up, "have you a joke? No. Andrew, my friend, have you a joke? No. Then----"
I was about to order the sentence to be carried out when the innkeeper flung himself again upon his knees and cried out loudly--as much to my astonishment as to the regret of the bystanders, who were bent on seeing so strange a shoeing feat--"One word, my lord! One word! I can give you no joke! But I can do a service, a service to the King! I can disclose a plot, a wicked conspiracy against him!"
I need not say how greatly I was taken aback by this public announcement. But I had been too long in the King's employment not to have remarked how strangely things are brought to light; and on hearing the man's words, which were followed by a stricken silence, I did not fail to look sharply at the faces of such of those present as it was possible to suspect. I failed, however, to observe any sign of confusion or dismay, or anything more particular than such a statement was calculated to produce. Doubting much whether the man was not playing with me, I then addressed him sternly, warning him to beware lest in his anxiety to save his heels by falsely accusing others, he lose his head. For that, if his conspiracy should prove to be an invention of his own, I should certainly consider it my duty to hang him.
He still persisted, however, in his story, and even added desperately, "It is a plot, my lord, to assassinate you and the King on the same day."
This statement went home; for I had good reason to know that at that time the king had alienated many by his infatuation for Madame de Verneuil; while I had to reckon with all whom my pursuit of his interests injured in reality or appearance. Forthwith I directed that the prisoners should be led in to the chamber adjoining my private closet, and taking the precaution to call my guards about me, since I knew not what attempt despair might not breed, I withdrew myself, making such apologies to the company as the nature of the case permitted.
I ordered Simon the smith to be first brought before me, and in the presence of Maignan I severely examined him as to his knowledge of any conspiracy. He denied, however, that he had heard of the matters referred to by his brother, and persisted so firmly in the denial that I was inclined to believe him. In the end he was removed and Andrew was brought in. The innkeeper's demeanour was such as I have often observed in intriguers brought suddenly to book. He averred the existence of the conspiracy and that its objects were those which he had stated, and he offered to give up his associates; but he conditioned that he should do this in his own way, undertaking to conduct me and one other person--but no more, lest the alarm should be given--to a place in Paris on the following night, where we could hear the plotters state their plans and designs. In this way only, he urged, could proof positive be obtained.
I was naturally startled by this proposal, and inclined to think it a trap. But more leisurely consideration dispelled my fears. The innkeeper had held no parley with any one save his guards, since his arrest, and could neither have warned his accomplices, nor acquainted them with a design the execution of which depended on his confession to me. In the end, therefore, I accepted his terms--with a private reservation that I would have help at hand; and before daybreak next morning I left Rosny, which I had only seen by torchlight, with my prisoner and a select body of Swiss. We entered Paris in the afternoon in three parties, with as little parade as possible, and resorted to the Arsenal, whence, as soon as evening fell, I made my way to the King.
A return so sudden and unexpected, was as great a surprise to the Court as to Henry, and I was not slow to mark the discomposure which appeared on more than one face as the crowd in the chamber fell back for me to approach my master. Still, I was careful to remember that this might arise from other causes than guilt. The King received me with his wonted affection; and divining that I must have something important to communicate, he withdrew with me to the farther end of the chamber, where we were out of earshot of the Court. I related the story to his Majesty, keeping back nothing.
He shook his head, saying merely, "The fish, to escape the frying-pan, grandmaster, will jump into the fire. And human nature, save in our case, who can trust one another, is akin to the fishy."
I was touched by the compliment, but not convinced. "You have not seen the man, sire," I said. "And I have had that advantage."
"You believe him?"
"In part," I answered, with caution. "So far as to be assured that he thinks to save his skin, which he can only save if he be telling the truth. May I beg you, sire," I added, seeing the direction of his glance, "not to look so fixedly at the Duke of Epernon? He grows uneasy."
"'Conscience makes'--you know the rest."
"Nay, sire, with submission," I replied, "I will answer for him; if he be not driven by apprehension to do something reckless."
"I am taking your warranty every day!" my master said, with the grace which came so natural to him. "But now in this matter what would you have me do?"
"Double your guards, sire, for to-night. That is all. I will answer for the Bastille and the Arsenal; and holding these, we hold Paris."
But thereupon the king declared a decision, which I felt it to be my duty to combat with all my influence. He had conceived the idea of being the one to accompany me to the rendezvous. "I am tired of the dice," he complained, "and sick of tennis, at which I know everybody's strength. Madame de Verneuil is at Fontainebleau; the Queen is unwell. Oh, Sully, I would the old days were back when we had Nèrac for our Paris, and knew the saddle better than the armchair."
"The King belongs to his people."
"The fowl in the pot?" he replied. "To be sure. But time enough to think of that to-morrow." And do what I would I could not turn him. In the end, therefore, I took my leave of him as if for the night, and retired leaving him at play with the Duke of Epernon. But an hour later, towards eight o'clock, he made an excuse to withdraw to his closet, and met me outside the eastern gate of the Louvre. He was masked, and had with him only Coquet, the master of the household. I too had taken a mask and was esquired by Maignan, under whose orders were four Swiss--whom I had chosen because they spoke no French--and who had Andrew in charge. I bade Maignan follow the innkeeper's directions, and we proceeded in two parties through the streets in the direction of the Arsenal, until we reached the mouth of an obscure lane near the gardens of St. Pol, so narrow that the decrepit wooden houses shut out well-nigh all view of the sky. Here the prisoner halted and called upon me to fulfil the terms of my agreement. With misgiving I complied. I bade Maignan remain with the Swiss at a distance of fifty paces--directing him to come up only if I should whistle or give the alarm; then I myself, with the King and Andrew, proceeded onward in the deep shadow of the houses. I kept my hand on my pistol, which I had previously showed to the prisoner, intimating that on the first sign of treachery I should blow his brains out. However, in spite of this precaution, I felt uncomfortable to the last degree. I blamed myself for allowing the King to expose himself to this unnecessary danger; while the meanness of the quarter, the fetid air, the darkness of the night which was cold and stormy, and the uncertainty of the event lowered my spirits, and made every splash in the kennel, or stumble on the reeking slippery pavements--matters over which the King grew merry--seem no light troubles to me. We came at length to a house which, as far as we could judge in the darkness, seemed to be of rather greater pretensions than its fellows. Here, our guide stopped, and whispered to us to mount some steps to a raised wooden gallery, which intervened between the lane and the doorway. On this, beside the door, a couple of unglazed windows looked forth. The wooden lattice which covered one was sufficiently open to allow us to see a large bare crazy room, lighted by a couple of rushlights. Directing us to place ourselves close to this window, the innkeeper knocked at the door in a peculiar fashion, entered, and appeared at once in the lighted room, of which we had a view. Gazing through the window we were surprised to find that the only person within save Andrew, was a young woman, who, crouching over a smouldering fire, was crooning a lullaby while she attended to a large black pot.
"Good evening, mistress!" the innkeeper said, advancing to the fire. He masked well his nervousness: nevertheless, it was patent to us.
"Good evening, Master Andrew," she replied, looking up and nodding, but showing no sign of surprise at his appearance. "Martin is away, but he may return at any moment."
"Is he still of the same mind?"
"Ah! That is so, is it. And what of Sully?" he continued, somewhat hoarsely. "Is he to die also?"
"They have decided that he must," the girl answered gloomily.
On that, it may be believed that I listened; while the King by a nudge in my side, seemed to rally me on the destiny so coolly arranged for me. "Martin," the girl continued, before the chill sensation had ceased to run down my back, "Martin says it is no good killing the other, unless he goes too--they have worked so long together. But it vexes me sadly, Master Andrew," she added, with a certain break in her voice. "Sadly it vexes me. I could not sleep last night for thinking of it, and the risk Martin runs. And I shall sleep less--when it is done."
"Pooh! pooh!" said that rascally innkeeper, and stirred the fire. "Think less about it. Things will grow worse and worse, if they are let live. The King has done harm enough already. And he grows old besides. And to put off a step of this kind is dangerous. If a word got about--'tis ruin."
"That is true!" the girl answered, gazing drearily at the pot. "And no doubt the sooner the King is put out of the way the better. I do not say a word for him. He must go. But 'tis Sully troubles me. He has done nought, and though he may become as bad as the others--he may not. It is that, and the risk Martin runs trouble me. 'Twould be death for him."
"Ay," said Andrew, cutting her short; "that's so." And they both looked at the fire.
At this I took the liberty of gently touching the King; but, by a motion of his finger, he enjoined silence. We stooped still farther forward so as to better command the room. The girl was rocking herself to and fro in evident anxiety, "If We killed the King," she said, "Martin declares we should be no better off, as long as Sully lives. Both or neither, he Says. Both or neither. He grew mad about it. Both or neither! But I do not know. I cannot bear to think of it. It was a sad day When he brought the Duke here, Master Andrew, and one I fear we shall rue as long as we live!"
It was now the King's turn to be moved. He grasped my wrist so forcibly that I restrained a cry with difficulty. "The Duke!" he whispered harshly in my ear. "Then they are Epernon's tools! Where is your warranty now, Rosny?"
I confess that I trembled. I knew well that the King, particular in courtesies, never forgot to call his servants by their titles save in two cases: when he indicated by the error, as once in Marshal Biron's affair, his intention to promote or degrade; or when he was moved to the depths of his nature and fell into an old habit. I did not dare to reply, but I listened greedily for more information.
"When is it to be done?" the innkeeper asked, sinking his voice, and glancing round as if he would call especial attention to this.
"That depends upon Master La Rivière," the girl answered. "To-morrow night, I understand, if the physician can have the stuff ready."
I met the King's eyes, shining in the faint light, which, issuing from the window, fell upon him. Of all things he hated treachery, and La Rivière was his first physician. At this very time, as I well knew, he was treating his Majesty for a slight derangement, which the King had brought upon himself by his imprudence. This doctor had formerly been in the employment of the Bouillon family, who had surrendered his services to the King. Neither I nor his Majesty had trusted the Duke of Bouillon for the last year past, so that we were not surprised by this hint that he also was privy to the design.
Despite our anxiety not to miss a word, an approaching step warned us to leave the window for a moment. More than once before we had done so to escape the notice of a wayfarer passing up or down. But this time I had a difficulty in inducing the King to adopt the precaution. Yet it was well that I succeeded, for the person who came towards us did not pass, but, mounting the steps, almost within touch of me, entered the house.
"The plot thickens," the King muttered. "Who is this?"
At the moment he asked I was racking my brain to remember. I have a good eye and a trained memory for faces; and this was one I had seen several times. The features were so familiar that I suspected the man of being a courtier in disguise, for he was shabbily dressed; and I ran over the names of several persons whom I knew to be Epernon's friends or agents. But he was none of these, and, obeying the King's gesture, I bent myself anew to the task of listening.
The girl looked up at the man's entrance, but did not rise. "You are late, Martin," she said.
"A little," the new-comer answered. "How do you do, Master Andrew? What news of Aubergenville?" And then, not without a trace of affection in his tone, "What, still vexing, my girl?" he added, laying a hand on the girl's shoulder. "You have too soft a heart for this business. I always said so."
She sighed, but made no answer.
"You have made up your mind to it, I hear," said the innkeeper.
"That is it. Needs must when the devil drives!" the man replied jauntily. He had a bold, reckless, determined air; yet in his face I thought I saw still surviving some traces of a better spirit.
"The devil in this case was the Duke," quoth Andrew.
"Ay, curse him! I would I had cut the dog's liver out before he crossed my threshold," cried the man, with passion. "But there, 'tis done! It is too late to say that now. What has to be done, has to be done."
"How are you going about it? Poison, the mistress says. And it is safest."
"Yes, she will have it so; but, if I had my way," the man continued hardily, "I would out one of these nights and cut the dogs' throats without more."
"You could never escape, Martin!" the girl cried, clasping her hands and rising in excitement. "It would be hopeless. It would be throwing away your own life. And besides, you promised me."
"Well, have it so. It is to be done your way, so there is an end," the man answered wearily. "It is more expensive, that is all. Give me my supper. The devil take the King, and Sully too! He will soon have them!"
Master Andrew rose on this, and I took his movement towards the door for a signal to us to retire. He came out presently, after bidding the two good night, and closed the door behind him. He found us standing in the street waiting for him, and forthwith he fell on his knees in the mud and looked up at me, the perspiration standing thick on his white face. "My lord," he cried hoarsely, "I have earned my pardon!"
"If you go on," I said encouragingly, "as you have begun, have no fear." And I whistled up the Swiss, and bade Maignan go in with them and arrest the man and woman with as little disturbance as possible. While this was being done we waited without, keeping a sharp eye upon the informer, whose terror, I noted with suspicion, seemed to be increasing rather than diminishing. He did not try to escape, however, and Maignan presently came to tell us that he had executed the arrest without difficulty or resistance.
The importance of arriving at the truth before Epernon and the greater conspirators took the alarm was so vividly present to the minds both of the King and myself, that we decided to examine the prisoners in the house, rather than hazard the delay which the removal to a fit place must occasion. Accordingly taking the precaution to post Coquet in the street outside, and to plant a burly Swiss in the doorway, the King and I entered. I removed my mask, as I did so, being aware of the necessity of gaining the prisoners' confidence, but I begged the King to retain his. As I had expected, the man immediately recognized me, and fell on his knees. A nearer view confirmed the notion I had previously entertained that his features were familiar to me, but I could not remember his name. I thought this a good starting point for the examination; and bidding Maignan withdraw, I assumed an air of mildness, and asked the fellow his name.
"Martin only, please your lordship," he answered; adding "Once I sold you two dogs, sir, for the chase; and to your lady a lapdog called Ninette, no larger than her hand. 'Twas of three pounds weight and no more."
I remembered the knave then, as a well-known dog dealer, who had been much about the court in the reign of Henry the Third and later: and I saw at once how convenient a tool he might be made since he could be seen in converse with people of all ranks without arousing suspicion. The man's face as he spoke expressed so much fear and surprise that I determined to try what I had often found successful in the case of greater criminals; to squeeze him for a confession, while still excited by his arrest, and before he had had time to consider what his chances of support at the hands of his confederates might be. I charged him therefore to tell the whole truth as he hoped for the King's mercy. He heard me, gazing at me piteously; but his only answer, to my surprise, was that he had nothing to confess. Nothing! nothing, as he hoped for mercy.
"Come! come!" I replied. "This will avail you nothing. If you do not speak quickly, and to the point, we shall find means to compel you. Who counselled you to attempt his Majesty's life?"
He stared at me, at that, so stupidly, and cried out with so real an appearance of horror, "How? I attempt the King's life? God forbid!" that I doubted we had before us a more dangerous rascal than I had thought; and I hastened to bring him to the point.
"What then--" I cried, frowning--"of the stuff Master La Rivière is to give you? To take the King's life? To-morrow night? Oh, we know something I assure you. Bethink you quickly, and find your tongue if you would have an easy death."
I expected to see his self-control break down at this proof of our knowledge. But he only stared at me with the same look of bewilderment, and I was about to bid them bring in the informer that I might see the two front to front, when the female prisoner who had hitherto stood beside him, weeping in such distress and terror as were to be expected in a woman of that class, suddenly stopped her tears and lamentations. It occurred to me that she might make a better witness. I turned to her, but when I would have questioned her, she broke on the instant into hysterics, screaming and laughing in the wildest manner.
From that, I remember, I learned nothing, though it greatly annoyed me. But there was one present who did, and that was the King. He laid his hand on my shoulder, gripping it with a force, that I read as a command to be silent. "Where," he said to the man, "do you keep the King and Sully and The Duke, my friend?"
"The King and Sully--with his lordship's leave--" the man said quickly, but with a frightened glance at me--"are in the kennels at the back of the house; but it is not safe to go near them. The King is raving mad, and--and the other dog is sickening, I fear. The Duke we had to kill a month back. He brought the disease here, and I have had such losses through him as have nearly ruined me, please your lordship. And if the tale that we have got the madness among the dogs, goes about----"
"Get up! Get up, man!" cried the King. And tearing off his mask he stamped up and down the room, so torn by paroxysms of laughter that he choked himself whenever he attempted to speak. I too now saw the mistake, but I could not at first see it in the same light. Commanding my choler as well as I could, I ordered one of the Swiss to fetch in the innkeeper, but to admit no one else.
The knave fell on his knees as soon as he saw me, his cheeks shaking like a jelly. "Mercy! mercy!" was all he could say.
"You have dared to play with me?" I whispered. "With me? With me?"
"You bade me joke!" he sobbed. "You bade me joke!"
I was about to say that it would be his last joke in this world, for my anger was fully aroused, but the King intervened.
"Nay," he said, laying his hand on my shoulder, "it has been the most glorious jest. He has joked indeed. I would not have missed it for a kingdom! Not for a kingdom! I command you, Sully, to forgive him."
On which his Majesty strictly charged the three that they should not, on peril of their lives, tell the story; his regard for me, when he had laughed to satiety, proving strong enough to overcome his love of the diverting. Nor to the best of my belief did they do so; being so shrewdly scared when they recognized the King that I think they never afterwards so much as spoke of the affair to one another. My master further gave me his promise that he would not disclose the matter even to Madame de Verneuil, or the Queen; and upon these representations he induced me freely to forgive the innkeeper. I may seem to have dwelt longer than I should on the amusing details of this conspiracy. But alas! in twenty-one years of power, I investigated many, and this one only--and one other--can I regard with satisfaction. The rest were so many warnings and predictions of the fate which, despite all my care and fidelity, was in store for the King, my master.
* * * * * * *
Such were the reasons, which would have led me had I followed the promptings of my own sagacity to oppose the return of the Jesuits. It remains for me to add that these arguments lost their weight when set in the balance against the safety of my beloved master. To this plea the King himself for once condescended, and found those who were most strenuous to dissuade him the least able to refute it; since the less a man loved the Jesuits, the more ready he was to allow that the King's life could not be safe while the edict against them remained in force. The support which I gave to the King on this occasion exposed me to the utmost odium of my co-religionists, and was in later times ill-requited by the Order. But an incident which occurred while the matter was still in debate, and which I now for the first time make public, proved the wisdom of my conduct.
Fontainebleau was at this time in the hands of the builders, and the King had gone to spend his Easter at Chantilly, whither Mademoiselle d'Entragues had also repaired. During his absence I was seated one morning in my library at the Arsenal, when I was informed that Father Cotton, he who at Nancy had presented the petition of the Jesuits, and who was now in Paris pursuing that business under a safe conduct, craved leave to wait upon me. I was not surprised, for I had been before this of some service to him. The pages of the Court while loitering outside the Louvre, as their custom is, had insulted the father by shouting after him, "Old Wool! Old Cotton!" in imitation of the Paris street cry. For this the King at my instigation had caused them to be whipped. I supposed that the Jesuit desired to thank me for this support--given in truth out of regard to discipline rather than to him; and I bade them admit him.
His first words uttered before my secretaries retired, indicated that this was his errand; and for a few moments I listened to such statements, and myself made such answers as became our positions. Then, as he did not go, I conceived the notion that he had come with a further purpose; and his manner, which seemed strangely lacking in ease, considering that he was a man of skill and address, confirmed the notion. I waited therefore with patience, and presently he named his Majesty with some expressions of devotion to his person. "I trust," said he, "that the air of Fontainebleau agrees with him, M. de Rosny."
"You mean, good father, of Chantilly?" I answered. "He is there."
"Ay, to be sure!" he rejoined. "I had forgotten. He is, to be sure, at Chantilly."
He rose after that to depart, but was delayed by the raptures into which he fell on the subject of the fire, which the weather being cold for the time of year, I had caused to be lit. "It burns so brightly," said he, "that it must be of boxwood, M. de Rosny."
"Of boxwood?" I exclaimed, astonished.
"Ay, is it not?" he asked, looking at me with much simplicity.
"No!" I made answer rather peevishly. "Who ever heard of people burning boxwood in Paris, father? In the south, perhaps."
He apologized for his ignorance on the ground of his southern birth, and took his departure, leaving me in doubt as to the real purport of his visit. I was, indeed, more troubled by the uncertainty I felt than another less conversant with the methods of the Jesuits might have been; for I knew that it was their habit to drop a word where they dared not speak plainly, and I felt myself put on my mettle to interpret the father's hint. My perplexities were increased by the belief that he would not have intervened in a matter of small moment; hence the conviction grew upon me that while I stood idle before the hearth, the greatest interests might be at stake.
"Michel," I said at last, addressing the doyen of my secretaries, who chanced to be a Provençal "have you ever seen a boxwood fire?"
He replied respectfully, but with some show of surprise, that he had done so, but not often; adding that that wood was so valuable to the turner that few people were extravagant enough to use it for fuel. I assented, and felt the more certain that the Jesuit's remark held a meaning. The only other clue I had consisted in the mistake he had made as to the King's residence; and this might have dropped from him in inadvertence. Yet I was inclined to think it intentional; and I construed it as implying that the matter concerned the King personally. Which the more alarmed me.
I passed the day in great perplexity; but towards evening, acting on a sudden thought, I sent La Trape, my valet, a trusty fellow, who had saved my life at Villefranche, to the Three Pigeons, a large inn in the suburbs of Paris, at which travellers from north to south, who do not wish to enter the city, are accustomed to change horses. Acquitting himself of the commission with his usual adroitness, he returned with the news that a traveller of rank had passed through three days before, having sent in advance to order relays there and at Essonnes. La Trape reported that the gentleman had remained in his coach, and that none of the servants of the inn had seen his face. "But he had companions?" I said. My mind had not failed to conceive a certain suspicion.
"Only one, your grace. The rest were servants."
"And that one?"
"A man in the yard fancied that he recognized M. de la Varenne."
"Ah!" I said. My agitation was indeed so great that, before giving reins to it, I bade La Trape withdraw. I could scarcely believe that, acquainted as the King was with the plots which the Catholics were daily aiming at his life; and possessing such powerful enemies among the great Protestants as Tremonelle and Bouillon--to say nothing of Mademoiselle d'Entragues' half-brother, the Count of Auvergne, who hated him--I say, I could hardly believe that with full knowledge of these facts his Majesty had been so fool-hardy as to travel without guards to Fontainebleau. And yet I now felt a certainty that this was the case. The presence of La Varenne, the confidant of his intrigues, while it informed me of the cause of the journey, convinced me that his Majesty had given way to the sole weakness of his nature, and was bent on one of those adventures of gallantry which had been more becoming in the Prince of Béarn than in the King of France. Nor was I at a loss to guess the object of his pursuit. It had been lately whispered in the Court that the King had fallen in love with his mistress's younger sister, Susette d'Entragues; whose home at Malesherbes lay but three leagues from Fontainebleau, on the edge of the forest. This fact placed the King's imprudence in a stronger light; for he had scarcely in France a more dangerous enemy than her brother, Auvergne, nor had the immense sums which he had settled on the elder sister satisfied the avarice or conciliated the hostility of her father.
I saw that Father Cotton had known more than I had. But his motive in speaking I found less easy to divine. It might be a wish to baulk this new passion through my interference, while he exposed me to the risk of his Majesty's anger. Or it might be the single desire to avert danger from the King's person. At any rate, constant to my rule of preferring, come what might, my master's interest to his favour, I sent for Maignan, my equerry, and bade him have an equipage ready at dawn.
At that hour, next morning, attended only by La Trape, with a groom, a page, and four Swiss, I started, giving out that I was bound for Sully to inspect that demesne, which had formerly been the property of my family, and of which the refusal had just been offered to me. Under cover of this destination, I was enabled to reach La Ferté Alais unsuspected. There, pretending that the motion of the coach fatigued me, I mounted the led horse, without which I never travelled, and bidding La Trape accompany me, I gave orders to the others to follow at their leisure to Pithiviers, where I proposed to stay the night.
La Ferté Alais, on the borders of the forest, is some five leagues westward of Fontainebleau and as far north of Malesherbes, with which it is connected by a high-road. Having disclosed my intentions to La Trape, I left this road and struck into a woodland path which promised to conduct us in the right direction. But the luxuriance of the undergrowth, and the huge chaos of grey rocks which cumber that part of the forest, made it difficult to keep for any time in a straight line. After being an hour in the saddle we concluded that we had lost our way, and were confirmed in this, on reaching a clearing. In place of the chateau we saw before us a small house, which La Trape presently recognized as an inn, situate about a league and a half on the Fontainebleau side of Malesherbes.
We had still ample time to reach the Chateau by nightfall, but before proceeding farther it was necessary that our horses should have rest. Dismounting I bade La Trape see the sorrel well baited. The inn was a poor place; but having no choice, I entered it and found myself in a large room better furnished with company than accommodation. Three men, who appeared to be of those reckless blades who are commonly to be found in the inns on the outskirts of Paris, and who come not unfrequently to their ends at Montfaucon, were tippling and playing cards at a table near the door. They looked up on my entrance, but refrained from saluting me, which, as I was plainly dressed, and much travel-stained, was excusable. By the fire, partaking of a coarse meal, sat a fourth man of so singular an appearance that I must needs describe him. He was of great height and extreme leanness, resembling a maypole rather than a man. His face matched his form, for it was long and meagre, and terminated in a small peaked beard, which like his hair and moustachios was as white as snow. With all this his eyes glowed with something of the fire of youth, and his brown complexion and sinewy hands seemed to indicate robust health. He wore garments which had once been fashionable, but now bore marks of much patching, and I remarked that the point of his sword, which, as he sat, trailed on the stones behind him, had worn its way through the scabbard. Notwithstanding these signs of poverty he saluted me with the ease of a gentleman, and bade me with some stiffness share his table and the fire. Accordingly I drew up, and called for a bottle of the best wine, being minded to divert myself with him.
I was little prepared, however, for the turn his conversation took, or the tirade into which he presently broke; the object of which proved to be no other than myself! I do not know that I have ever cut so whimsical a figure as while I sat and heard my name loaded with reproaches; but being certain that he did not know me I waited patiently, and soon learned both who he was, and the grievance which he was about to lay before the King. His name was Boisrosé. He had been the leader in that gallant capture of Fécamp, which took place while I represented his Majesty in Normandy, and his grievance was, that in the face of many promises he had been deprived of the government of the place. "He leads the King by the ear!" he cried loudly, and in an accent which marked him for a Gascon. "That villain of a De Rosny! But I will shew him up! I will trounce him! If the King will not, I will!" And with that he drew the hilt of his long rapier to the front with a gesture so truculent that the three bullies who had stopped to laugh resumed their game in haste.
Notwithstanding his sentiments, I was pleased to meet with a man of so singular a temper, whom I also knew to be courageous: and I was willing to amuse myself further. "But," I said modestly, "I have had some affairs with M. de Rosny, and I have never found him cheat me."
"Do not deceive yourself!" he cried, slapping the table. "He is a rascal! There is no one he will not cheat!"
"Yet," I ventured to reply, "I have heard that in many respects he is not a bad minister."
"He is a villain!" he repeated so loudly as to drown what I would have added. "A villain, sir, a villain! Do not tell me otherwise! But rest assured! I will make the King see him in his true colours! Rest content, sir! I will trounce him! He has to do with Armand de Boisrosé!"
Seeing that he was not open to argument--for being opposed he grew warm--I asked him by what channel he intended to approach the King, and learned that here he felt a difficulty, since he had neither a friend at Court, nor money to buy one. Certain that the narrative of our rencontre and its sequel would amuse his Majesty, who loved a jest, I advised Boisrosé to go boldly to the King, and speak to him; which, thanking me as profusely as he had before reproached me, he avowed he would do. With that I rose.
At the last moment, and as I was parting from him, it occurred to me to try upon him the shibboleth which in Father Cotton's mouth had so mystified me. "This fire burns brightly," I said, kicking the logs together with my riding-boot. "It must be of boxwood."
"Of what, sir?" he asked politely.
"Of boxwood! Why not?" I replied in a louder tone.
"My certes!" he answered, staring at me. "They do not burn boxwood in this country. Those are larch trimmings, as all the world knows, neither more nor less!"
While he wondered at my ignorance, I was pleased to discover his; and so far I had lost my pains. But it did not escape me that the three gamesters had ceased to play, and were listening to our conversation. Moreover as I moved to the door they followed me with their eyes: and when I turned after riding a hundred yards I found that they had come to the door and were gaping after us.
This did not hinder me remarking that a hound which had been lying before the fire had come forth with us, and was now running in front, now gambolling about the horses' legs. I supposed that when it had accompanied us a certain way it would return; but it persisted, and presently where the road forked I had occasion to notice its movements; for choosing one of the paths it stood in the mouth of it, wagging its tail and inviting us to take that road: and this it did so pertinaciously and cheerfully that though the directions we had received at the inn would have led us to prefer the other track, we followed the dog as the more trustworthy guide.
We had gone from this point about four hundred paces forward, when La Trape showed me that the path was growing narrow, and betrayed few signs of being used. It seemed certain--though the dog still ran confidently ahead--that we were again astray; and I was about to draw rein and return when I saw that the undergrowth on the right of the path had assumed the character of a thick hedge of box--a shrub common only in a few parts of the forest. Though less prone than most men to put faith in omens, I accepted this; and, notwithstanding that it wanted but an hour of sunset, I rode on, remarking that with each turn in the woodland path, the scrub on my left also gave place more and more to the sturdy tree which had been in my mind all day. Finally, we found ourselves passing through an alley of box--which no long time before had been clipped and dressed. A final turn brought us into a cul de sac; and there we were, in a kind of small arbour carpeted with turf, and so perfectly hedged in as to afford no exit save by the entrance. Here the dog placidly stood and wagged its tail, looking up at us.
I must confess that this termination of the adventure seemed so surprising, and the evening light shining on the level walls of green about us was so full of a solemn quiet, that I was not surprised to hear La Trape mutter a prayer. For my part, assured that something more than chance had brought me hither, I dismounted and spoke encouragement to the hound. But it only leapt upon me. Then I walked round the tiny enclosure, and presently I discovered, close to the hedge, three small patches, where the grass was slightly beaten or trodden down. A second glance told me more; I saw that at these places the hedge about three feet from the ground was hacked and hollowed. I stooped, until my eyes were level with the hole thus made, and discovered that I was looking through a funnel skilfully cut in the wall of box. At my end the opening was rather larger than a man's face; at the other end not as large as the palm of the hand. The funnel rose gradually, so that I took the farther extremity of it to be about seven feet from the ground, and here it disclosed a feather dangling on a spray. From the light falling strongly on this, I judged it to be not in the hedge, but a pace or two from it on the hither side of another fence of box. On examining the remaining loopholes, I discerned that they bore upon the same feather.
My own mind was at once made up, but I bade my valet go through the same investigation, and then asked him whether he had ever seen an ambush of this kind laid for game. He replied that the shot would pass over the tallest stag, or aught but a man on horseback; and fortified by this, I mounted without saying more, and we retraced our steps. The hound, which had doubtless the habit, as some dogs have, of accompanying the first person who held out the prospect of a walk, presently left us, and without further adventure we reached the Chateau a little after sunset.
I expected to be received by the King with some displeasure, but it chanced that a catarrh had kept him within doors all day; and unable to hunt or visit his new flame, he had been at leisure, in this palace without a court, to consider the imprudence he was committing. He received me therefore with the laugh of a schoolboy detected in a petty fault, and as I hastened to relate to him some of the things which M. de Boisrosé had said of the Baron de Rosny, I soon had the gratification of perceiving that my presence was not taken amiss. His Majesty gave orders that bedding should be furnished for my pavilion, and that his household should wait on me, and himself sent me from his table a couple of chickens and a fine melon, bidding me to come to him when I had supped.
I did so, and found him alone in his closet awaiting me with impatience; he had already divined that I had not made this journey merely to reproach him. Before informing him, however, of my suspicions, I craved leave to ask him one or two questions, and in particular whether he had been in the habit of going to Malesherbes daily.
"Daily," he admitted with a grimace. "What more, Father Confessor?"
"By what road, sire?"
"I have hunted mornings, and visited Malesherbes at midday. I have returned as a rule by the bridle-path, which passes the Rock of the Serpents."
"Patience, sire, one moment," I said. "Does that path run anywhere through a plantation of box?"
"It does," he answered, without hesitation. "About half a mile on this side of the rock, it skirts Queen Catherine's maze."
Thereon I told the King without reserve all that had happened. He listened with the air of seeming carelessness which he always assumed when plots against his life were under discussion; but at the end he embraced me again with tears in his eyes. "France is beholden to you!" he said. "I have never had, nor shall have, such another servant as you, Rosny! The three ruffians at the inn," he continued, "are, of course, the tools, and the hound has been in the habit of accompanying them to the spot. Yesterday, I remember, I walked by that place with the bridle on my arm."
"By a special providence, sire," I said gravely.
"It is true," he answered, crossing himself, a thing I had never yet known him do in private. "But, now, who is the craftsman who has contrived this pretty plot? Tell me that, Grand Master."
On this point, however, though I had my suspicions, I begged leave to be excused until I had slept upon it. "Heaven forbid," I said, "that I should expose any man to your Majesty's resentment without cause. The wrath of kings is the forerunner of death."
"I have not heard," the King answered dryly, "that the Duke of Bouillon has called in a leech yet."
Before retiring, I learned that his Majesty had with him a score of light horse, whom La Varenne had requisitioned from Melun; and that some of these had each day awaited him at Malesherbes and ridden home behind him. Further, that Henry had been in the habit of wearing, when riding back in the evening, a purple cloak over his hunting-suit, a fact well known, I felt sure, to the assassins, who, unseen and in perfect safety, could fire at the exact moment when the cloak obscured the feather, and could then make their escape, secured by the stout wall of box from immediate pursuit.
I slept ill, and was aroused early by La Varenne coming to my bedside, and bidding me hasten to the King. I did so, and found him already in his boots and walking on the terrace with Coquet, his Master of the Household, Vitry, La Varenne, and a gentleman unknown to me. On seeing me he dismissed them, and while I was still a great way off, called out, chiding me for my laziness: then taking me by the hand in the most obliging manner, he made me walk up and down with him, while he told me what further thoughts he had of this affair; and hiding nothing from me even as he bade me speak to him whatever I thought without reserve, he required to know whether I suspected that the Entragues family were cognizant of this.
"I cannot say, sire," I answered prudently.
"But you suspect?"
"In your Majesty's cause I suspect all," I replied.
He sighed, and seeing that my eyes wandered to the group of gentlemen who had betaken themselves to the terrace steps, and were thence watching us, he asked me if I would answer for them. "For Vitry, who sleeps at my feet when I lie alone? For Coquet?"
"For three of them, I will, sire," I answered firmly. "The fourth I do not know."
"He is Auvergne's half-brother."
"M. Louis d'Entragues?" I muttered. "Lately returned, I think, from service in Savoy? I do not know him, sire. To-morrow I may be able to answer for him."
"And to-day? What am I to do to-day?"
I begged him to act as he had done each day since his arrival at Fontainebleau, to hunt in the morning, to take his midday meal at Malesherbes, to talk to all as if he had no suspicion: only on his return to take any road save that which passed the Rock of the Serpents.
The King turning to rejoin the others, I found that their attention was no longer directed to us, but to a singular figure which had made its appearance on the skirts of the group, and had already thrown three out of the four courtiers into a fit of laughter. The fourth, M. d'Entragues, did not seem to be equally diverted with the stranger's appearance; nor did I fail to notice, being at the moment quick to perceive the slightest point of his conduct, that while the others were nudging one another, his countenance, darkened by an Italian sun, gloomed on the new-comer with an aspect of menace. On his side M. de Boisrosé--for he it was, the grotesque fashion of his dress more conspicuous than ever--stood eyeing the group with a mixture of awkwardness and resentment; until made aware of his Majesty's approach and of my presence in intimate converse with the King he stepped joyfully forward, a look of relief displacing all others on his countenance. "Ha! well met!" quoth the King in my ear. "It is your friend of yesterday. Now we shall have sport. And 'twill cheer us. We need it." And he pinched my arm.
As the old soldier approached with many low bows, the King spoke to him graciously, and bade him say what he sought. It happened then as I had expected. Boisrosé, after telling the King his name, turned to me and humbly begged that I would explain his complaint; which I consented to do, and did as follows: "This, sire," I said gravely, "is an old and brave soldier; who formerly served your Majesty to good purpose in Normandy, but has been cheated out of the recompense which he there earned by the trickery and chicanery of one of your Majesty's counsellors, the Baron de Rosny."
I could not continue, for the courtiers, on hearing this from my mouth, and on discovering that the stranger's odd appearance was but a prelude to the real diversion, could not restrain their laughter. The King, concealing his own amusement, turned to them with an angry air and bade them be silent; and the Gascon, encouraged by this and by the bold manner in which I had stated his grievance, scowled at them famously. "He alleges, sire," I continued, with the same gravity, "that the Baron de Rosny, after promising him the government of Fécamp, bestowed it on another, being bribed to do so, and has been guilty of many base acts which make him unworthy of your Majesty's confidence. That, I think, is your complaint, M. de Boisrosé?" I concluded, turning to the soldier; whom my deep seriousness so misled that he took up the story, and pouring out his wrongs did not fail to threaten to trounce me, or to add with much fervour that I was a villain!
He might have said more, but the courtiers, perceiving that the King broke at last into a smile, lost all control over themselves, and giving vent to loud peals of laughter, clasped one another by the shoulders and reeled to and fro in an ecstasy of enjoyment. The King gave way also and laughed heartily, clapping me again and again on the back, so that in fine there were only two serious faces to be seen, that of the poor Boisrosé, who took all for lunatics, and my own. For my part I began to think that perhaps the jest had been carried far enough.
My master presently saw this, and collecting himself, turned to the amazed Gascon. "Your complaint is one," he said, "which should not be lightly made. Do you know the Baron de Rosny?"
Boisrosé, more and more out of countenance, said he did not.
"Then," said the King, "I will give you an opportunity of becoming acquainted with him. I shall refer your complaint to him, and he will decide upon it. More!" he continued, raising his hand for silence as Boisrosé, starting forward, would have appealed to him, "I will introduce you to him now. This is the Baron de Rosny."
The old soldier glared at me for a moment with starting eye-balls, and a dreadful despair seemed to settle on his face. He threw himself on his knees before the King. "Then, sire," said he in a heartrending voice, "am I ruined? My six children must starve, and my young wife die by the roadside!"
"That," answered the King, gravely, "must be for the Baron de Rosny to decide. I leave you to your audience."
He made a sign to the others, and, followed by them, walked slowly along the terrace, the while Boisrosé, who had risen to his feet, stood looking after him like one demented, muttering in a voice that went to my heart that it was a cruel jest, and that he had bled for the King, and the King made sport of him.
Presently I touched him on the arm. "Come, have you nothing to say to me, M. de Boisrosé?" I asked quietly. "You are a brave soldier and have done France service: why then need you fear? The Baron de Rosny is one man, the King's minister is another. It is the latter who speaks to you now. The office of Lieutenant Governor of Angoulême is vacant. It is worth twelve thousand livres by the year. I appoint you to it."
He murmured with a white face that I mocked him and that he was going mad; so that it was long before I could persuade him that I was in earnest. When I at last succeeded, his gratitude knew no bounds, and he thanked me again and again with the tears running down his face. "What I have done for you," I said modestly, "is the reward of your bravery. I ask only that you will not another time think that they who rule kingdoms are as those gay popinjays yonder. Whom the King, believe me, holds at their due value."
In a transport of delight he reiterated his offers of service, and feeling sure that I had gained him completely I asked him on a sudden where he had seen Louis d'Entragues before. In two words the truth came out. He had seen him once only, on the previous day at the forest inn; the courtier had halted at the door and spoken with the three bullies, whom I had remarked there. I was not surprised, nay I had expected this, D'Entragues' near kinship to the Count of Auvergne and the mingled feelings with which I knew that the family regarded Henry preparing me to imagine treachery. Moreover, the nature of the ambush was proof that its author resided in the neighbourhood and was intimately acquainted with the forest paths. I should have carried this information at once to my master; but I learned that he had already started, and thus baffled and believing that his affection for Mademoiselle d'Entragues, if not for her sister, would lead him to act with undue leniency, I conceived a plan of my own.
Two hours after noon, therefore, I set out, as if for a ride, attended by La Trape only; but at some distance from the palace we were joined by Boisrosé, whom I had bidden to be at that point well armed and mounted. Thus reinforced--for the Gascon was still strong, and in courage a very Crillon, I proceeded to Malesherbes by a circuitous route which brought me within sight of the gates about the middle of the afternoon. I then halted under cover of a little wood of chestnuts, and waited until I saw the King, attended by several ladies and gentlemen, and followed by eight troopers, issue from the chateau. His Majesty was walking, his horse being led behind him; and seeing this I rode out and approached the party as if I had that moment arrived to meet the King.
It would very ill become me to make idle reflections on the hollowness of Court life: withal, seldom have I known it better exemplified than in the scene then displayed before me. The sun was low, but its warm beams falling aslant on the gay group at the gates and on the flowered terraces and grey walls behind them seemed to present a picture at once peaceful and joyous. Yet I knew that treachery and death were lurking in the midst--even as between the parterres and the walls lay the dark sluggish moat; and it was only by an effort that, as I rode up, I could make answer to the thousand obliging things with which I was greeted and of which not the least polite were said by M. d'Entragues and his son. I took pains to observe Mademoiselle Susette, a beautiful girl still in her teens, but noways comparable as it seemed to me, in expression and vivacity to her famous sister. She was walking beside the King, her hands full of flowers, and her face flushed with shy excitement. I came, with little thought, to the conclusion that she, at least, knew nothing of what was intended by her family; who, having made the one sister the means of gratifying their avarice, were now baiting the trap of their vengeance with the other. Having obtained what they needed, they were ashamed of the means by which they had obtained it: and would fain avenge their honour, while holding to that they had got by the sale of it.
Henry parted from the maid at length, and mounted his horse amid a ripple of laughter and compliments, D'Entragues holding the stirrup, and his son the cloak. I observed that the latter, as I had expected, was prepared to accompany us, which rendered my plan more feasible. Our road lay for a league in the direction of the Rock of the Serpents, the track which passed the latter--and was a trifle shorter--presently diverging from it. For some distance we rode along in easy talk, but on approaching the point of separation, the King looked at me with a whimsical air, as though he would lay on me the burden of finding an excuse for avoiding the shorter way. I had foreseen this and looked round to ascertain the positions of our company. I found that La Varenne and D'Entragues were close behind us, while the troopers with La Trape and Boisrosé were a hundred paces farther to the rear, and Vitry and Coquet had dropped out of sight. This being so, I suddenly reined in my horse so as to back it into that of D'Entragues, and then wheeled round on the latter, taking care to be between him and the King. "M. Louis d'Entragues," I said, dropping the mask and addressing him in a low voice but with the scorn which I felt and which he deserved. "Your plot is known! If you would save your life confess to his Majesty here and now all you know, and throw yourself on his mercy!"
I confess that I had failed to take into account the pitch to which his nerves would be strung at such a time, and had expected to produce a greater effect than followed my words. His hand went indeed to his breast, but it was hard to say which seemed the more astounded, La Varenne or he. And the manner in which he flung back my accusation, lacked neither vigour nor the semblance of innocence. While Henry stood puzzled, and not a little put out, La Varenne was appalled. I saw this, that I had gone too far, or not far enough, and at once calling up unto my face and form all the sternness in my power I bade the traitor remain where he was. Then turning to his Majesty I craved leave to speak to him apart.
He hesitated, looking from me to D'Entragues with an air of displeasure which embraced us both, but in the end without permitting M. Louis to speak he complied, and going aside with me bade me with coldness speak out. As soon as I had repeated to him Boisrosé's words, his face underwent a change--for he too had remarked the discomfiture which the latter's appearance had caused D'Entragues in the morning. "The villain!" he said. "I do not now think you precipitate! Arrest him, but do him no harm!"
"If he resist, sire?" I asked.
"He will not," the King answered. "And in no case harm him! You understand me?"
I bowed, having my own thoughts on the subject, and the King without looking again at D'Entragues rode quickly away. M. Louis tried to follow and cried after him, but I thrust my horse in the way, and bade him consider himself a prisoner. At the same time I requested La Varenne, with Vitry and Coquet, who had come up and were looking on like men thunderstruck, to take four of the guards and follow the King.
"Then, sir, what do you intend to do with me?" D'Entragues asked. The defiant air with which he looked from me to the men who remained barely disguised his apprehensions.
"That depends, M. Louis," I replied, recurring to my usual tone of politeness, "on your answers to three questions."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Ask them," he said.
"Do you deny that you have laid an ambush for the King in the road which passes the Rock of the Serpents?"
"Or that you were yesterday at an inn near here in converse with three men?"
"Do you deny that there is such an ambush laid?"
"At least I know naught of it!" he repeated with scorn. "'Tis an old wife's story. I would stake my life on it."
"Enough," I answered slowly. "You have said you would stake your life on it. You shall. The evening grows cold, and, as you are my prisoner, I must have a care of you. Kindly put on this cloak, and precede me, M. d'Entragues. We return to Fontainebleau by the Rock of the Serpents."
His eyes met mine; he read my thoughts, and for a second held his breath. A cold shadow fell upon his sallow face, and then for an instant I thought that he would resist. But the stern countenances of La Trape and Boisrosé, who had ridden up to his rein and stood awaiting his answer with their swords drawn, determined him. With a forced and mirthless laugh he took the cloak. "It is new, I hope," he said, as he threw it over his shoulders.
It was not, and I apologized, adding, however, that no one but the King had worn it. On this he settled it about him; and having heard me strictly charge the two guards, who followed with their arquebuses ready, to fire on him if he tried to escape, he turned his horse's head into the path and rode slowly along it, while we, in double file, followed a few paces behind him.
The sun had set, and such light as remained fell cold between the trees. The green of the sward had that pale look it puts on with the last rays, or with the dawning. The crackling of a stick under a horse's hoof, or the ring of a spur against a scabbard, were the only sounds which broke the stillness of the wood as we proceeded. We had gone some way when M. Louis halted, and, turning in his saddle, called to me. "M. de Rosny," he said--the light had so far failed that I could scarcely see his face, "I have a meeting with the Vicomte de Matigny on Saturday about a little matter of a lady's glove. Should anything prevent my appearance----"
"I will see that a proper explanation is given," I answered.
"Or, if M. d'Entragues will permit me," exclaimed the Gascon, who was riding by my side, "I, M. de Boisrosé of St. Palais, will appear in his place and make the Viscount de Caylus swallow the glove."
"Sir," said M. Louis, with politeness, and in a steady tone, "you are a gentleman. I am obliged to you."
He waved his hand to me with a gesture which I long remembered, and, giving his horse the rein, he went forward along the path at a brisk walk. We followed, and I had just remarked that a plant of box was beginning here and there to take the place of the usual undergrowth when a sheet of flame leapt out through the dusk to meet us, and our horses reared wildly. For an instant we were in confusion; then I saw that our leader, M. Louis, had fallen headlong from his saddle, and lay on the sward without word or cry. My men would have sprung forward before the noise of the report had died away, and, having good horses, might possibly have overtaken one of the assassins; but I restrained them. Enough had been done. When La Trape dismounted and raised the fallen man the latter was dead, his breast riddled by a dozen slugs.
Such were the circumstances, now for the first time made public, which attended the discovery of this, the least known, yet one of the most dangerous of the many plots which were directed against the life of my master. The course which I adopted may be blamed by some, but it is enough for me that, after the lapse of years, it is approved by my conscience and by the course of events. For it was ever the misfortune of that great king to treat those with leniency whom no indulgence could win; and I bear with me to this day the bitter assurance that, had the fate which overtook Louis d'Entragues in the wood between Malesherbes and Fontainebleau embraced the whole of that family, the blow which, ten years later, went to the heart of France would not have been struck.
* * * * * * *
The slight indisposition from which the Queen suffered in the spring of 1602, and which was occasioned by a cold caught during her lying-in, by diverting the King's attention from state matters, had the effect of doubling the burden cast on me. Though the main threads of M. de Biron's conspiracy were in our hands as early as the month of November of the preceding year, and steps had been taken to sound the chief associates by summoning them to court, an interval necessarily followed during which we had all to fear; and this not only from the despair of the guilty, but from the timidity of the innocent, who in a court filled with cabals and rumours of intrigues might see no way to clear themselves. Even the shows and interludes which followed the Dauphin's birth, and made that Christmas remarkable, served only to amuse the idle; they could not disperse the cloud which hung over the Louvre nor divert those who on the one side or the other had aught to fear.
In connection with this period of suspense I recall an episode worthy, I think, by reason of its oddity, to be set down here; where it may serve for a preface to those more serious events attending the trial and execution of M. de Biron, which I shall have to relate.
I had occasion, about the end of the month of January, to see M. du Hallot. The weather was cold, and partly for that reason, partly out of a desire to keep my visit, which had to do with the Biron disclosures, from the general eye, I chose to go on foot. For the same reason I took with me only two servants and a confidential page, the son of my friend Arnaud. M. du Hallot, who lived at this time in a house in the Faubourg St. Germain, not far from the College of France, detained me long, and when I rose to leave insisted that I should take his coach, as snow had begun to fall, and lay an inch deep in the streets. At first I was unwilling to do this, but reflecting that such small services are highly valued by those who render them, and attach men more surely than the greatest bribes, I yielded, and, taking my place with some becoming expressions, bade young Arnaud find his way home on foot.
The coach had nearly reached the south end of the Pont au Change, when a number of youths ran past me, pelting one another with snowballs, and shouting so lustily that I was at a loss which to admire more, the silence of their feet or the loudness of their voices. Aware that lads of that age are no respecters of persons, I was not surprised to see two or three of them rush on to the bridge before us, and even continue their Parthian warfare under the feet of the horses. The result, however, was that the latter took fright at that part of the bridge where the houses encroach most on the roadway; and but for the care of the running footman, who hastened to their heads, might have done some harm either to the coach or the passers-by.
As it was, we were brought to a stop while one of the wheels was extricated from the kennel, in which it had become wedged. Smiling to think what the King--who, strangely warned by Providence, was throughout his life timid in a coach--would have said to this, I went to open the curtains, and had effected this to some extent, when one of a crowd of idlers who stood on the raised pavement deliberately lifted up his arm and flung a snowball at me.
The missile flew wide of its mark by an inch or two only. That I was amazed at such audacity goes without saying; but doubting of what it might be the preclude--for the breakdown of the coach in that narrow place, the haunt of rufflers and vagrants of every kind, might be part of a concerted plan--I fell back into my place. The coach, as it happened, moved on at that moment with a jerk; and before I had digested the matter, or had time to mark the demeanour of the crowd, we were clear of the bridge, and rolling under the Châtelet.
A smaller man might have stooped to punish, and to cook a sprat have passed all Paris through the net. But remembering the days when I myself attended the College of Burgundy, I set the freak to the credit of some young student, and, shrugging my shoulders, dismissed it from my mind. An instant later, however, observing that the fragments of the snowball were melting on the seat and wetting the leather, I raised my hand to brush them away. In doing so I discovered, to my surprise, a piece of paper lying among the débris.
"Ho, ho!" said I to myself. "A strange snowball this! I have heard that the apprentices put stones in theirs. But paper! Let me see what this means."
The morsel, though moistened by the snow, remained intact. Unfolding it with care--for already I began to discern that here was something out of the common--I found written on the inner side, in a clerkly hand, the words, "Beware of Nicholas!"
It will be remembered that Simon Nicholas was at this time secretary to the King, and so high in his favour as to be admitted to the knowledge of all but his most private affairs. Gay, and of a jovial wit, he was able to commend himself to Henry by amusing him; while his years, for he was over sixty, seemed warranty for his discretion, and at the same time gave younger sinners a feeling of worth, since they might repent and he had not done so. Often in contact with him, I had always found him equal to his duties, and though too fond of the table, and of the good things of this life, neither given to blabbing nor boasting. In a word, one for whom I had more liking than respect.
A man in his position possesses opportunities for evil so stupendous that as I read the warning I sat aghast. His office gave him at all times that ready access to the King's person which is the aim of conspirators against the lives of sovereigns; and short of the supreme treachery he was master of secrets which Biron's associates would give much to gain. When I add that I knew Nicholas to be a man of extravagant habits and careless life, and one who, if rumour did not wrong him, had lost much in that rearrangement of the finances which I had lately effected, it will be seen that those words, "Beware of Nicholas," were calculated to provoke me to the most profound thought.
Of the person who had conveyed the missive to my hands I had unfortunately seen nothing; though I believed him to be a man, and young. But the circumstances, which seemed to indicate the need of secrecy, gave me a hint as to my conduct. Accordingly, I smoothed my brow, and on the coach stopping at the Arsenal, I descended with my usual face of preoccupation.
At the foot of the staircase my maître-d'hotel met me.
"M. Nicholas, the King's secretary, is here," he said. "He has been waiting your return an hour and more, my lord."
"Lay another cover," I answered, repressing the surprise I could not but feel at a visit so strangely à propos. "Doubtless he has come to dine with me."
Staying only to remove my cloak, I went upstairs with an air as easy as possible, and, making my visitor some apologies for the inconvenience I had caused him, I insisted he should sit down with me. This he was not loth to do; though, as presently appeared, his errand was only to submit to me a paper connected with the new tax of a penny in the shilling, which it was his duty to lay before me.
I scolded him for the long period which had elapsed since his last visit, and succeeded so well in setting him at his ease that he presently began to rally me on my lack of appetite; for I could touch nothing but a little game and a glass of water. Excusing myself as well as I could, I encouraged him to continue the attack; and certainly, if appetite waits on a good conscience, I had abundant evidence in his behalf. He grew merry and talkative, and, telling me some free tales, bore himself so naturally that I had begun to deem my suspicions baseless, when a chance word gave me new grounds for entertaining them.
I was on the subject of my morning's employment. Knowing how easily confidence begets confidence, and that in his position the matter could not be long kept from him, I told him as a secret where I had been.
"I do not wish all the world to know, my friend," I said. "But you are a discreet man, and it will go no farther. I am just from Du Hallot's."
He dropped his napkin and stooped to pick it up with a gesture so hasty that it caught my attention and led me to watch him. More, although my words seemed to call for an answer, he did not speak until he had taken a deep draught of wine; and then he said only, "Indeed!" in a tone of such indifference as might at another time have deceived me, but now was patently assumed.
"Yes," I replied, affecting to be engaged with my plate: we were eating nuts. "Doubtless you will be able to guess on what subject."
"I?" he said, as quick to answer as he had before been slow. "No, I think not."
"La Fin," I said. "And his disclosures respecting M. de Biron's friends."
"Ah!" he replied, shrugging his shoulders. He had contrived to regain his composure, but I noticed that his hand shook, and I saw that he was quite unable to chew the nut he had just put into his mouth. "They tell me he accuses everybody," he continued, his eyes on his plate. "Even the King is scarcely safe from him. But I have heard no particulars."
"They will be known by-and-by," I answered prudently. And after that I did not think it wise to continue, lest I should give more than I got. But as soon as he had finished, and we had washed our hands, I led him to the closet looking on the river, where I was in the habit of working with my secretaries. I sent them away and sat down with him to his paper; but in the position in which I found myself, between suspicion and perplexity, I gathered little or nothing from it; and had I found another doing the King's service as negligently I had sent him about his business. Nevertheless, I made some show of attention, and had reached the schedule when something in the fairly written summary, which closed the account, caught my eye. I bent more closely to it, and presently making an occasion to carry the parchment into the next room, compared it with the hand-writing on the scrap of paper I had found in the snowball. A brief scrutiny proved that they were the work of the same person!
I went back to M. Nicholas, and after attesting the accounts, and making one or two notes, remarked in a careless way on the clearness of the hand. "I am badly in need of a fourth secretary," I added. "Your scribe might do for me."
It did not escape me that once again M. Nicholas looked uncomfortable. His red face took a deeper tinge and his hand went nervously to his pointed grey beard. "I do not think he would do for you," he muttered.
"What is his name?" I asked, purposely bending over the papers and avoiding his eye.
"I have dismissed him," he rejoined curtly. "I do not know where he could now be found."
"That is a pity. He writes well," I answered, as if it were nothing but a whim that led me to pursue the subject. "And good clerks are scarce. What was his name?"
"Felix," he said--reluctantly.
I had now all that I wanted. Accordingly I spoke of another matter, and shortly afterwards Nicholas withdrew. He left me in much suspicion; so that for nearly half an hour I walked up and down the room, unable to decide whether I should treat the warning of the snowball with contempt, as the work of a discharged servant; or on that very account attach the more credit to it. By-and-by I remembered that the last sheet of the roll I had audited bore date the previous day; whence it was clear that Felix had been dismissed within the last twenty-four hours, and perhaps after the delivery of his note to me. Such a coincidence, which seemed no less pertinent than strange, opened a wide field for conjecture; and the possibility that Nicholas had called on me to sound me and learn what I knew occurring to my mind, brought me to a final determination to seek out this Felix, and without the delay of an hour sift the matter to the bottom.
Doubtless I shall seem to some to have acted precipitately, and built much on small foundations. I answer that I had the life of the King my master to guard, and in that cause dared neglect no precaution, however trivial, nor any indication, however remote. Would that all my care and vigilance had longer sufficed to preserve for France the life of that great man! But God willed otherwise.
I sent word at once to La Font, my valet-de-chambre, the same who persuaded me to my first marriage, to come to me; and directing him to make secret inquiry where Felix, a clerk in the Chamber of Accounts, lodged, bade him report to me on my return from the Great Hall, where, it will be remembered, it was my custom to give audience after dinner to all who had business with me. As it happened, I was detained that day, and found him awaiting me. A man of few words, as soon as the door was shut, "At the 'Three Half Moons,'" he said, "in the Faubourg St. Honoré, my lord."
"That is near the Louvre," I answered. "Get me my cloak, and your own also; and bring your pistols. I am for a walk, and you will accompany me."
He was a good man, La Font, and devoted to my interests. "It will be night in half an hour," he answered respectfully. "You will take some of the Swiss?"
"In one word, no!" I rejoined. "We will go out by the stable entrance, and until we return, I will bid Maignan keep the door, and admit no one."
The crowd of those who daily left the Arsenal at nightfall happened to be augmented on this occasion by a troop of my clients from Mantes; tenants on the lands of Rosny, who had lingered after the hour of audience to see the courts and garden. By mingling with these we passed out unobserved; nor, once in the streets, where a thaw had set in, that filled the kennel with water, was La Font long in bringing me to the house I sought. It stood on the outskirts of the St. Honoré Faubourg, in a quarter sufficiently respectable, and a street marked neither by squalor nor ostentation--from one or other of which all desperate enterprises take their rise. The house, which was high and narrow, presented only two windows to the street, but the staircase was clean, and it was impossible to cross the threshold without feeling a prepossession in Felix's favour. Already I began to think that I had come on a fool's errand.
"Which floor?" I asked La Font.
"The highest," he answered.
I went up softly and he followed me. Under the tiles I found a door, and heard some one moving beyond it. Bidding La Font remain on guard, and come to my aid only if I called him, I knocked boldly. A gentle voice bade me enter, and I did so.
There was only one person in the room, a young woman with fair waving hair, a pale freckled face, and blue eyes; who, seeing a cloaked stranger instead of the neighbour she anticipated, stared at me in the utmost wonder and in some alarm. The room, though poorly furnished, was neat and clean; which, taken with the woman's complexion, left me in no doubt as to her province. On the floor near the fire stood a cradle; and in the window a cage with a singing bird completed the homely aspect of this interior, which was such, indeed, as I would fain multiply by thousands in every town of France.
A lamp, which the woman was in the act of lighting, enabled me to see these details, and also discovered me to her. I asked politely if I spoke to Madame Felix, the wife of M. Felix, of the Chamber of Accounts.
"I am Madame Felix," she answered, advancing slowly towards me. "My husband is late. Do you come from him? It is not--bad news, Monsieur?"
The tone of anxiety in which she uttered the last question, and the quickness with which she raised her lamp to scan my face, went to a heart already softened by the sight of this young mother in her home. I hastened to answer that I had no bad news, and wished to see her husband on business connected with his employment.
"He is very late," she said, a shade of perplexity crossing her face. "I have never known him so late before. Monsieur is unfortunate."
I replied that with her leave I would wait; on which she very readily placed a stool for me, and sat down by the cradle. I remarked that perhaps M. Nicholas had detained her husband: she answered that it might be so, but that she had never known it happen before.
"M. Felix has evening employment?" I asked, after a moment's reflection.
She looked at me in some wonder. "No," she said. "He spends his evenings with me, Monsieur. It is not much, for he is at work all day."
I bowed, and was preparing another question, when the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs reached my ears, and led me to pause. Madame heard the noise at the same moment and rose to her feet. "It is my husband," she said, looking towards the door with such a light in her eyes as betrayed the sweetheart lingering in the wife. "I was afraid--I do not know what I feared," she muttered to herself.
Proposing to have the advantage of seeing Felix before he saw me, I pushed back my stool into the shadow, contriving to do this so discreetly that the young woman noticed nothing. A moment later it appeared that I might have spared my pains; for at sight of her husband, and particularly of the lack-lustre eye and drooping head with which he entered, she sprang forward with a cry of dismay, and, forgetting my presence, appealed to him to know what was the matter.
He let himself fall on a stool, the first he reached, and, leaning his elbows on the table in an attitude of dejection, he covered his face with his hands. "What is it?" he said in a hollow tone. "We are ruined, Margot. That is what it is. I have no more work. I am dismissed."
"Dismissed?" she ejaculated.
He nodded. "Nicholas discharged me this morning," he said, almost in a whisper. He dared not speak louder, for he could not command his voice.
"Why?" she asked, as she leant over him, her hands busy about him. "What had you done?"
"Nothing!" he answered with bitterness. "He has missed a place he thought to get; and I must suffer for it."
"But did he say nothing? Did he give no reason?"
"Ay," he answered. "He said clerks were plentiful, and the King or I must starve."
Hitherto I had witnessed the scene in silence, a prey to emotions so various I will not attempt to describe them. But hearing the King's name thus prostituted I started forward with a violence which made my presence known. Felix, confounded by the sight of a stranger at his elbow, rose from his seat, and retreating before me with alarm painted on his countenance, he asked with a faltering tongue who I was.
I replied as gently as possible that I was a friend, anxious to assist him. Notwithstanding that, seeing that I kept my cloak about my face--for I was not willing to be recognized--he continued to look at me with distrust.
"What is your will?" he said, raising the lamp much as his wife had done, to see me the better.
"The answers to two or three questions," I replied. "Answer them truly, and I promise you your troubles are at an end." So saying, I drew from my pouch the scrap of paper which had come to me so strangely. "When did you write this, my friend?" I continued, placing it before him.
He drew a deep breath at sight of it, and a look of comprehension crossed his face. For a moment he hesitated. Then in a hurried manner he said that he had never seen the paper.
"Come," I rejoined sternly, "look at it again. Let there be no mistake. When did you write that, and why?"
Still he shook his head; and, though I pressed him, he continued so stubborn in his denial that, but for the look I had seen on his face when I produced the paper, and the strange coincidence of his dismissal, I might have believed him. As it was, I saw nothing for it but to have him arrested and brought to my house, where I did not doubt he would tell the truth; and I was about to retire to give the order, when something in a sidelong glance which he cast at his wife caught my eye, and furnished me with a new idea. Acting on it, I affected to be satisfied. I apologized for my intrusion on the ground of mistake; and, withdrawing to the door, I asked him at the last moment to light me downstairs.
Complying with a shaking hand, he went out before me, and had nearly reached the foot of the staircase when I touched him on the shoulder.
"Now," I said, fixing him with my eyes, "your wife is no longer listening, and you can tell me the truth. Who employed you to write those words?"
Trembling so violently that he had to lean on the balustrade for support, he told me.
"Madame Nicholas," he whispered.
"What?" I cried, recoiling. I had no doubt he was telling me the truth. "The secretary's wife, do you mean? Be careful, man."
"When?" I asked suspiciously.
"Yesterday," he answered. "She is an old cat!" he continued, with a grimace. "I hate her! But my wife is jealous, and would think all things."
"And did you throw it into a coach," I said, "on the Pont du Change to-day?"
"God forbid!" he replied, shrinking into himself again. "I wrote it for her, and she took it away. She said it was a jest that she was playing. That is all I know."
I saw that he spoke the truth, and after a few more words I dismissed him, bidding him keep silence, and remain at home in case I needed him. At the last, he plucked up spirit to ask who I was; but preferring to keep that discovery for a day to come, when I might appear as the benefactor of this little family, I told him only that I was one of the King's servants, and so left him.
It will be believed that I found the information I had received little to my mind. The longer I dwelt on it, the more serious seemed the matter. While I could not imagine circumstances in which a woman would be likely to inform against her husband without cause, I could recall more than one conspiracy which had been frustrated by informers of that class--sometimes out of regard for the persons against whom they informed. Viewed in this light, the warning seemed to my mind sufficiently alarming; but when I came also to consider the secrecy with which Madame Nicholas had both prepared it and conveyed it to me, the aspect of the case grew yet more formidable. In the result, I had not passed through two streets before my mind was made up to lay the case before the King, and be guided by the sagacity which was never wanting to my gracious master.
An unexpected meeting which awaited me on my return to the Arsenal confirmed me in this resolution and enabled me to carry it into effect. We entered without difficulty, and duly found Maignan on guard at the door of my apartments. But a glance at his face sufficed to show that something was wrong; nor did it need the look of penitence which he assumed on seeing us--a look so piteous that at another time it must have diverted me--to convince me that he had infringed my orders.
"How now, sirrah?" I said, without waiting for him to speak. "What have you been doing?"
"They would take no refusal, my lord," he answered plaintively, waving his hand towards the door.
"What!" I cried sternly; for this was an instance of such direct disobedience as I could scarce understand. "Did I not give you the strictest orders to deny me to everybody?"
"They would take no refusal, my lord," he answered penitently, edging away from me as he spoke.
"Who are they?" I asked, leaving the question of his punishment for another season. "Speak, rascal, though it shall not save you."
"There are M. le Marquis de la Varenne, and M. de Vitry," he said slowly, "and M. de Vic, and M. Erard the engineer, and M. de Fontange, and----"
"Pardieu!" I cried, cutting him short in a rage; for he was going on counting on his fingers in a manner the most provoking. "Have you let in all Paris, dolt? Grace! that I should be served by a fool! Open the door, and let me see them."
With that I was about to enter; when the door, which I had not perceived to be ajar, was thrown widely open, and a laughing face thrust out. It was the King's.
"Ha, ha! Grandmaster!" he cried, diverted by the success of his jest and the change which doubtless came over my countenance. "Never was such hospitality, I'll be sworn! But come, pardon this varlet. And now embrace me, and tell me where you have been playing truant."
Saying these words with the charm which never failed him, and in his time won more foes than his sword ever conquered, the King drew me into my room, where I found De Vic, Vitry, Roquelaure, and the rest. They all laughed heartily at my surprise; nor was Maignan, who was the author, it will be remembered, of that whimsical procession to Rosny after the battle of Ivry, which I have elsewhere described, far behind them; the rascal knowing well that the King's presence covered all, and that in my gratification at the honour paid me I should be certain to overlook his impertinence.
Perceiving that this impromptu visit had no other object than to divert Henry--though he was kind enough to say that he felt uneasy when he did not see me often--I begged to know if he would honour me by staying to sup; but this he would not do, though he consented to drink a cup of my Arbois wine, and praised it highly. By-and-by I thought I saw that he was willing to be alone with me; and as I had reason to desire this myself, I made an opportunity. Sending for Arnaud and some of my gentlemen, I committed my other guests to their care, and led the King into my closet, where, after requesting his leave to speak on business, I proceeded to unfold to him the adventure of the snowball, with all the particulars which I have set down.
He listened attentively, drumming on the table with his fingers; nor did he move or speak when I had done, but still continued in the same attitude of thought. At last: "Grandmaster," he said, touching with his hand the mark of the wound on his lip, "how long is it since Chastel's attempt--when I got this?"
"Seven years last Christmas, sire," I answered, after a moment's thought.
"That was the year before. Avenius' plot was that year too."
"And the Italian's from Milan, of whom the Capuchin Honorio warned us?"
"That was two years ago, sire."
"And how many more attempts have there been against my person?" he continued, in a tone of extreme sadness. "Rosny, my friend, they must succeed at last. No man can fight against his fate. The end is sure, notwithstanding your fidelity and vigilance, and the love you bear me, for which I love you, too. But Nicholas? Nicholas? And yet he has been careless and distraught of late. I have noticed it; and a month back I refused to give him an appointment, of which he wished to have the sale."
I did not dare to speak, and for a time Henry too remained silent. At length he rose with an air of resolution.
"We will clear up this matter within an hour!" he said. "I will send my people back to the Louvre, and do you, Grandmaster, order half a dozen Swiss to be ready to conduct us to this woman's house. When we have heard her we shall know what to do."
I tried my utmost to dissuade him, pleading that his presence could not be necessary, and might prove a hindrance; besides exposing his person to a certain amount of risk. But he would not listen. When I saw, therefore, that his mind was made up, and that as his spirits rose he was inclined to welcome this expedition as a relief from the ennui which at times troubled him, I reluctantly withdrew my opposition and gave the necessary orders. The King dismissed his suite with a few words, and in a short space we were on our way, under cover of darkness, to the secretary's house.
He lived at this time in a court off the Rue St. Jacques, not far from the church of that name; and the house being remote from the eyes and observation of the street, seemed not unfit for secret and desperate uses. Although we noted lights shining behind several of the barred windows, the wintry night, the darkness of the court, and perhaps the errand on which we came, imparted so gloomy an aspect to the place that the King hitched forward his sword, and I begged him to permit the Swiss to go on with us. This, however, he would not allow, and they were left at the entrance to the court with orders to follow at a given signal.
On the steps the King, who, to disguise himself the better, had borrowed one of my cloaks, stumbled and almost fell. This threw him into a fit of laughter; for no sooner was he engaged in an adventure which promised peril, than his spirits rose to such a degree as to make him the most charming companion in danger man ever had. He was still shaking, and pulling me to and fro in one of those boyish frolics which at times swayed him, when a loud outcry inside the house startled us into sobriety, and reminded us of the business which brought us thither.
Wondering what it might mean, I was for rapping on the door with my hilt. But the King put me aside, and, by a happy instinct, tried the latch. The door yielded to his hand, and gave us admittance.
We found ourselves in a gloomy hall, ill-lit, and hung with patched arras. In one corner stood a group of servants. Of these some looked scared and some amused, but all were so much taken up with the movements of a harsh-faced woman, who was pacing the opposite side of the hall, that they did not heed our entrance. A glance showed me that the woman was Madame Nicholas; but I was still at a loss to guess what she was doing or what was happening in the house.
I stood a moment, and then finding that in her excitement she took no notice of us, I beckoned to one of the servants, and bade him tell his mistress that a gentleman would speak with her. The man went with the message; but she sent him off with a flea in his ear, and screamed at him so violently that for a moment I thought she was mad. Then it appeared that the object of her attention was a door at that side of the hall; for, stopping suddenly in her walk, she went up to it, and struck on it passionately and repeatedly with her hands.
"Come out!" she cried. "Come out, you villain! Your friends shall not save you!"
Restraining the King, I went forward myself, and, saluting her, begged a word with her apart, thinking that she would recognize me.
Her answer showed that she did not. "No!" she cried, waving me off, in the utmost excitement. "No; you will not get me away! You will not! I know your tricks. You are as bad one as the other, and shield one another come what will!" Then turning again to the door, she continued, "Come out! Do you hear! Come out! I will have no more of your intrigues and your Hallots!"
I pricked up my ears at the name. "But, Madame," I said, "one moment."
"Begone!" she retorted, turning on me so wrathfully that I fairly recoiled before her. "I shall stay here till I drop; but I will have him out and expose him. There shall be an end of his precious plots and his Hallots if I have to go to the King!"
Words so curiously à propos could not but recall to my mind the confusion into which the mention of Du Hallot had thrown the secretary earlier in the day. And since they seemed also to be consistent with the warning conveyed to me, they should have corroborated my suspicions. But a sense of something unreal and fantastic, with which I could not grapple, continued to puzzle me in the presence of this angry woman; and it was with no great assurance that I said, "Do I understand then, madame, that M. du Hallot is in that room?"
"Monsieur du Hallot?" she replied, in a tone that was almost a scream. "No: but Madame du Hallot is, and he would be if he had taken the hint I sent him! He would be! But I will have no more secrecy, and no more plots. I have suffered enough, and now Madame shall suffer if she has not forgotten how to blush. Are you coming out there?" she continued, once more applying herself to the door, her face inflamed with passion. "I shall stay! Oh, I shall stay, I assure you, until you do come. Until morning if necessary!"
"But, Madame," I said, beginning to see daylight, and finding words with difficulty--for already I heard in fancy the King's laughter, and conjured up the quips and cranks with which he would pursue me--"your warning did not perhaps reach M. du Hallot?"
"It reached his coach, at any rate," the scold retorted. "But another time I will have no half measures. As for that," she continued, turning on me suddenly with her arms akimbo, and the fiercest of airs, "I would like to know what business it is of yours, Monsieur, whether it reached him or not! I know you,--you are in league with my husband! You are here to shelter him, and this Madame du Hallot who is within here! And with whom he has been carrying on these three months! But----"
At that moment the door at last opened; and M. Nicholas, wearing an aspect so meek and crestfallen that I hardly knew him, came out. He was followed by a young woman plainly dressed, and looking almost as much frightened as himself; in whom I had no difficulty in recognizing Felix's wife.
"Why!" Madame Nicholas cried, her face falling. "This is not--who is this? Who--" with increased vehemence--"is this baggage, I would like to know? This shameless creature, that----"
"My dear," the secretary protested, spreading out his hands--fortunately he had eyes only for his wife and did not see us--"this is one of your ridiculous mistakes! It is, I assure you. This is the wife of a clerk whom I dismissed to-day, and she has been with me begging me to reinstate her husband. That is all. That is all, my dear, in truth it is. You have made this dreadful outcry for nothing. I assure you----"
I heard no more, for, taking advantage of the obscurity of the hall, and the preoccupation of the couple, I made for the door, and passing out into the darkness, found myself in the embrace of the King; who, seizing me about the neck, laughed on my shoulder until he cried, continually adjuring me to laugh also, and ejaculating between the paroxysms, "Poor du Hallot! Poor du Hallot!" With many things of the same nature, which any one acquainted with court life may supply for himself.
I confess I did not on my part find it so easy to laugh: partly because I am not of so gay a disposition as that great prince, and partly because I cannot see the ludicrous side of events in which I myself take part. But on the King assuring me that he would not betray the secret even to La Varenne, I took comfort, and gradually reconciled myself to an episode which, unlike the more serious events it now becomes my duty to relate, had only one result, and that unimportant. I mean the introduction to my service of the clerk Felix; who, proving worthy of confidence, remained with me after the lamentable death of the King my master, and is to-day one of those to whom I entrust the preparation of these Memoirs.
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