'My dearest! never!' he muttered; then turning hastily as he put the precious token into his bosom, he exclaimed, 'Are their women yet gone?' and being assured that they were not departed when the two friends had set out, he pushed his horse on at speed, so as to be able to send a reply by Veronique. He was barely in time: the clumsy wagon-like conveyance of the waiting-women stood at the door of the castle, in course of being packed with the Queen's wardrobe, amid the janglings of lackeys, and expostulating cries of femmes de chambre, all in the worst possible humour at being crowded up with their natural enemies, the household of the Queen-mother.
Veronique, a round-faced Angevin girl—who, like her lady, had not parted with all her rustic simplicity and honesty, and who had been necessarily taken into their confidence—was standing apart from the whirl of confusion, holding the leashes of two or three little dogs that had been confided to her care, that their keepers might with more ease throw themselves into the melee. Her face lighted up as she saw the Baron de Ribaumont arrive.
'Ah, sir, Madame will be so happy that I have seen Monsieur once more,' she exclaimed under her breath, as he approached her.
'Alas! there is not a moment to write,' he said, looking at the vehicle, already fast filling, 'but give her these flowers; they were gathered for her; give her ten thousand thanks for her token. Tell her to hold firm, and that neither king nor queen, bolt nor bar, shall keep me from her. Tell her, our watchword is HOPE.'
The sharp eyes of the duenna of the Queen's household, a rigid Spanish dame, were already searching for stray members of her flock, and Veronique had to hurry to her place, while Berenger remained to hatch new plans, each wilder than the last, and torment himself with guesses whether his project had been discovered. Indeed, there were moments when he fancied the frustration of his purpose the special object of Queen Catherine's journey, but he had the wisdom to keep any such suggestion to himself.
The King came back by supper-time, looking no longer in a state of indecision, but pale and morose. He spoke to no one as he entered, and afterwards took his place at the head of the supper-table in silence, which he did not break till the meal was nearly over. Then he said abruptly, 'Gentlemen, our party has been broken up, and I imagine that after our great hunt tomorrow, no one will have any objection to return to Paris. We shall have merrier sport at Fontainebleau when this most troublesome of weddings is over.'
There was nothing to be done but to bow acquiescence, and the King again became grimly silent. After supper he challenged Coligny to a game of chess, and not a word passed during the protracted contest, either from the combatants or any other person in the hall. It was as if the light had suddenly gone out to others besides the disappointed and anxious Berenger, and a dull shadow had fallen on the place only yesterday so lively, joyous, and hopeful.
Berenger, chained by the etiquette of the royal presence, sat like a statue, his back against the wall, his arms crossed on his breast, his eyes fixed, chewing the cud of the memories of his dream of bliss, or striving to frame the future to his will, and to decide what was the next reasonable step he could take, or whether his irrepressible longing to ride straight off to Monceaux, claim his wife, and take her on horseback behind him, were a mere impracticable vision.
The King, having been checkmated twice out of three times by the Admiral, too honest a man not truly to accept his declaration of not wanting courtly play, pushed away the board, and was attended by them all to his COUCHER, which was usually made in public; and the Queen being absent, the gentlemen were required to stand around him till he was ready to fall asleep. He did not seem disposed to talk, but begged Sidney to fetch his lute, and sing to him some English airs that had taken his fancy much when sung by Sidney and Berenger together.
Berenger felt as if they would choke him in his present turbid state of resentful uncertainty; but even as the unhappy young King spoke, it was with a heavy, restless groan, as he added, 'If you know any lullaby that will give rest to a wretch tormented beyond bearing, let us have it.'
'Alas, Sire!' said the Admiral, seeing that no perilous ears remained in the room; 'there are better and more soothing words than any mundane melody.'
'Peste! My good father,' said the King, petulantly, 'has not old Phlipote, my nurse, rocked me to the sound of your Marot's Psalms, and crooned her texts over me? I tell you I do not want to think. I want what will drive thought away—to dull—-'
'Alas! what dulls slays,' said the Admiral.
'Let it. Nothing can be worse than the present,' said the wretched Charles; then, as if wishing to break away from Coligny, he threw himself round towards Berenger, and said, 'Here; stoop down, Ribaumont; a word with you. Your matters have gone up the mountains, as the Italians say, with mine. But never fear. Keep silence, and you shall have the bird in your hand, only you must be patient. Hold! I will make you and Monsieur Sidney gentlemen of my bed-chamber, which will give you the entree of the Louvre; and if you cannot get her out of it without an eclat, then you must be a much duller fellow than half my court. Only that it is not their own wives that they abstract.
With this Berenger must needs content himself; and the certainty of the poor King's good-will did enable him to do his part with Sidney in the songs that endeavoured to soothe the torments of the evil spirit which had on that day effected a fresh lodgment in that weak, unwilling heart.
It was not till the memoirs of the secret actors in this tragedy were brought to light that the key to these doings was discovered. M. de Sauve, Charles's secretary, had disclosed his proceedings to his wife; she, flattered by the attentions of the Duke of Anjou, betrayed them to him; and the Queen-mother, terrified at the change of policy, and the loss of the power she had enjoyed for so many years, had hurried to the spot.
Her influence over her son resembled the fascination of a snake: once within her reach he was unable to resist her; and when in their tete-a-tete she reproached him with ill-faith towards her, prophesied the overthrow of the Church, the desertion of his allies, the ruin of his throne, and finally announced her intention of hiding her head in her own hereditary estates in Auvergne, begging, as a last favour, that he would give his brother time to quit France instead of involving him in his own ruin, the poor young man's whole soul was in commotion. His mother knew her strength, left the poison to work, and withdrew in displeasure to Monceaux, sure that, as in effect happened, he would not be long in following her, imploring her not to abandon him, and making an unconditional surrender of himself, his conscience, and his friends into her hands. Duplicity was so entirely the element of the court, that, even while thus yielding himself, it was as one checked, but continuing the game; he still continued his connection with the Huguenots, hoping to succeed in his aims by some future counter-intrigue; and his real hatred of the court policy, and the genuine desire to make common cause with them, served his mother's purpose completely, since his cajolery thus became sincere. Her purpose was, probably, not yet formed. It was power that she loved, and hoped to secure by the intrigues she had played off all her life; but she herself was in the hands of an infinitely more bloodthirsty and zealous faction, who could easily accomplish their ends by working on the womanly terrors of an unscrupulous mind.
CHAPTER IX. THE WEDDING WITH CRIMSON FAVOURS
And trust me not at all or all in all. —TENNYSON
So extensive was the Louvre, so widely separated the different suites of apartments, that Diane and Eustacie had not met after the pall-mall party till they sat opposite to their several queens in the coach driving through the woods, the elder cousin curiously watching the eyes of the younger, so wistfully gazing at the window, and now and then rapidly winking as though to force back a rebellious tear.
The cousins had been bred up together in the convent at Bellaise, and had only been separated by Diane's having been brought to court two years sooner than Eustacie. They had always been on very kindly, affectionate terms; Diane treating her little cousin with the patronage of an elder sister, and greatly contributing to shield her from the temptations of the court. The elder cousin was so much the more handsome, brilliant, and admired, that no notion of rivalry had crossed her mind; and Eustacie's inheritance was regarded by her as reserved for her brother, and the means of aggradizement an prosperity for herself and her father. She looked upon the child as a sort of piece of property of the family, to be guarded and watched over for her brother; and when she had first discovered the error that the young baron was making between the two daughters of the house, it was partly in kindness to Eustacie, partly to carry out her father's plans, and partly from her own pleasure in conversing with anything so candid and fresh as Berenger, that she had maintained the delusion. Her father believed himself to have placed Berenger so entirely in the background, that he would hardly be at court long enough to discover the imposition; and Diane was not devoid of a strong hope of winning his affection and bending his will so as to induce him to become her husband, and become a French courtier for her sake—a wild dream, but a better castle in the air than she had ever yet indulged in.
This arrangement was, however, disconcerted by the King's passion for Sidney's society, which brought young Ribaumont also to court; and at the time of the mischievous introduction by Madame Marguerite, Diane had perceived that the mistake would soon be found out, and that she should no longer be able to amuse herself with the fresh-coloured, open-faced boy who was unlike all her former acquaintance; but the magnetism that shows a woman when she produces an effect had been experienced by her, and she had been sure that a few efforts more would warm and mould the wax in her fingers. That he should prefer a little brown thing, whose beauty was so inferior to her own, had never crossed her mind; she did not even know that he was invited to the pall-mall party, and was greatly taken by surprise when her father sought an interview with her, accused her of betraying their interests, and told her that this foolish young fellow declared that he had been mistaken, and having now discovered his veritable wife, protested against resigning her.
By that time the whole party were gone to Montpipeau, but that the Baron was among them was not known at the Louvre until Queen Catherine, who had always treated Diane as rather a favoured, quick-witted protegee, commanded her attendance, and on her way let her know that Madame de Sauve had reported that, among all the follies that were being perpetrated at the hunting-seat, the young Queen was absolutely throwing the little Nid-de-Merle into the arms of her Huguenot husband, and that if measures were not promptly taken all the great estates in the Bocage would be lost to the young Chevalier, and be carried over to the Huguenot interest.
Still Diane could not believe that it was so much a matter of love as that the young had begun to relish court favour and to value the inheritance, and she could quite believe her little cousin had been flattered by a few attentions that had no meaning in them. She was not prepared to find that Eustacie shrank from her, and tried to avoid a private interview. In truth, the poor child had received such injunctions from the Queen, and so stern a warning look from the King, that she durst not utter a syllable of the evening that had sealed her lot, and was so happy with her secret, so used to tell everything to Diane, so longing to talk of her husband, that she was afraid of betraying herself if once they were alone together. Yet Diane, knowing that her father trusted to her to learn how far things had gone, and piqued at seeing the transparent little creature, now glowing and smiling with inward bliss, now pale, pensive, sighing, and anxious, and scorning her as too childish for the love that she seemed to affect, was resolved on obtaining confidence from her.
And when the whole female court had sat down to the silk embroidery in which Catherine de Medicis excelled, Diane seated herself in the recess of a window and beckoned her cousin to her side, so that it was not possible to disobey.
'Little one,' she said, 'why have you cast off your poor cousin? There, sit down'—for Eustacie stood, with her silk in her hand, as if meaning instantly to return to her former place; and now, her cheeks in a flame, she answered in an indignant whisper, 'You know, Diane! How could you try to keep him from me?'
'Because it was better for thee, my child, than to be pestered with an adventurer,' she said, smiling, though bitterly.
'My husband!' returned Eustacie proudly.
'Bah! You know better than that!' Then, as Eustacie was about to speak, but checked herself, Diane added, 'Yes, my poor friend, he has a something engaging about him, and we all would have hindered you from the pain and embarrassment of a meeting with him.'
Eustacie smiled a little saucy smile, as though infinitely superior to them all.
'Pauvre petite,' said Diane, nettled; 'she actually believes in his love.'
'I will not hear a word against my husband!' said Eustacie, stepping back, as if to return to her place, but Diane rose and laid her hand on hers. 'My dear,' she said, 'we must no part thus. I only wish to know what touches my darling so nearly. I thought she loved and clung to us; why should she have turned from me for the sake of one who forgot her for half his life? What can he have done to master this silly little heart?'
'I cannot tell you, Diane,' said Eustacie, simply; and though she looked down, the colour on her face was more of a happy glow than a conscious blush. 'I love him too much; only we understand each other now, and it is of no use to try to separate us.'
'Ah, poor little thing, so she thinks,' said Diane; and as Eustacie again smiled as one incapable of being shaken in her conviction, she added, 'And how do you know that he loves you?'
Diane was startled by the bright eyes that flashed on her and the bright colour that made Eustacie perfectly beautiful, as she answered, 'Because I am his wife! That is enough!' Then, before her cousin could speak again, 'But, Diane, I promised not to speak of it. I know he would despise me if I broke my word, so I will not talk to you till I have leave to tell you all, and I am going back to help Gabrielle de Limeuil with her shepherdess.'
Mademoiselle de Ribaumont felt her attempt most unsatisfactory, but she knew of old that Eustacie was very determined—all Bellaise know that to oppose the tiny Baronne was to make her headstrong in her resolution; and if she suspected that she was coaxed, she only became more obstinate. To make any discoveries, Diane must take the line of most cautious caresses, such as to throw her cousin off her guard; and this she was forced to confess to her father when he sought an interview with her on the day of her return to Paris. He shook his head. She must be on the watch, he said, and get quickly into the silly girl's confidence. What! had she not found out that the young villain had been on the point of eloping with her? If such a thing as that should succeed, the whole family was lost, and she was the only person who could prevent it. He trusted to her.
The Chevalier had evidently come to regard his niece as his son's lawful property, and the Baron as the troublesome meddler; and Diane had much the same feeling, enhanced by sore jealousy at Eustacie's triumph over her, and curiosity as to whether it could be indeed well founded. She had an opportunity of judging the same evening—mere habit always caused Eustacie to keep under her wing, if she could not be near the Queen, whenever there was a reception, and to that reception of course Berenger came, armed with his right as gentleman of the bedchamber. Eustacie was colouring and fluttering, as if by the instinct of his presence, even before the tall fair head became visible, moving forward as well as the crowd would permit, and seeking about with anxious eyes. The glances of the blue and the black eyes met at last, and a satisfied radiance illuminated each young face; then the young man steered his way through the throng, but was caught midway by Coligny, and led up to be presented to a hook-nosed, dark-haired, lively-looking young man, in a suit of black richly laced with silver. It was the King of Navarre, the royal bridegroom, who had entered Paris in state that afternoon. Eustacie tried to be proud of the preferment, but oh! she thought it mistimed, and was gratified to mark certain wandering of the eye even while the gracious King was speaking. Then the Admiral said something that brought the girlish rosy flush up to the very roots of the short curls of flaxen hair, and made the young King's white teeth flash out in a mirthful, good-natured laugh, and thereupon the way opened, and Berenger was beside the two ladies, kissing Eustacie's hand, but merely bowing to Diane.
She was ready to take the initiative.
'My cousins deem me unpardonable,' she said; 'yet I am going to purchase their pardon. See this cabinet of porcelain a le Reine, and Italian vases and gems, behind this curtain. There is all the siege of Troy, which M. le Baron will not doubt explain to Mademoiselle, while I shall sit on this cushion, and endure the siege of St. Quentin from the bon Sieur de Selinville.'
Monsieur de Selinville was the court bore, who had been in every battle from Pavia to Montcontour, and gave as full memoirs of each as did Blaise de Monluc, only viva voce instead of in writing. Diane was rather a favourite of his; she knew her way through all his adventures. So soon as she had heard the description of the King of Navarre's entry into Paris that afternoon, and the old gentleman's lamentation that his own two nephews were among the three hundred Huguenot gentleman who had formed the escort, she had only to observe whether his reminiscences had gone to Italy or to Flanders in order to be able to put in the appropriate remarks at each pause, while she listened all the while to the murmurs behind the curtain. Yet it was not easy, with all her court breeding, to appear indifferent, and solely absorbed in hearing of the bad lodgings that had fallen to the share of the royal troops at Brescia, when such sounds were reaching her. It was not so much the actual words she heard, though these were the phrases—'mon ange, my heart, my love;' those were common, and Diane had lived in the Queen-mother's squadron long enough to despise those who uttered them only less than those who believed them. It was the full depth of tenderness and earnestness, in the subdued tones of the voice, that gave her a sense of quiet force and reality beyond all she had ever known. She had heard and overheard men pour out frantic ravings of passion, but never had listened to anything like the sweet protecting tenderness of voice that seemed to embrace and shelter its object. Diane had no doubts now; he had never so spoken to her; nay, perhaps he had had no such cadences in his voice before. It was quite certain that Eustacie was everything to him, she herself nothing; she who might have had any gallant in the court at her feet, but had never seen one whom she could believe in, whose sense of esteem had been first awakened by this stranger lad who despised her. Surely he was loving this foolish child simply as his duty; his belonging, as his right he might struggle hard for her, and if he gained her, be greatly disappointed; for how could Eustacie appreciate him, little empty-headed, silly thing, who would be amused and satisfied by any court flatterer?
However, Diane held out and played her part, caught scraps of the conversation, and pieced them together, yet avoided all appearance of inattention to M. de Selinville, and finally dismissed him, and manoeuvred first Eustacie, and after a safe interval Berenger, out of the cabinet. The latter bowed as he bade her good night, and said, with the most open and cordial of smiles, 'Cousin, I thank you with all my heart.'
The bright look seemed to her another shaft. 'What happiness!' said she to herself. 'Can I overthrow it? Bah! it will crumble of its own accord, even if I did nothing! And my father and brother!'
Communication with her father and brother was not always easy to Diane, for she lived among the Queen-mother's ladies. Her brother was quartered in a sort of barrack among the gentlemen of Monsieur's suite, and the old Chevalier was living in the room Berenger had taken for him at the Croix de Lorraine, and it was only on the most public days that they attended at the palace. Such a day, however, there was on the ensuing Sunday, when Henry of Navarre and Marguerite of France were to be wedded. Their dispensation was come, but, to the great relief of Eustacie, there was no answer with it to the application for the CASSATION of her marriage. In fact, this dispensation had never emanated from the Pope at all. Rome would not sanction the union of a daughter of France with a Huguenot prince; and Charles had forged the document, probably with his mother's knowledge, in the hope of spreading her toils more completely round her prey, while he trusted that the victims might prove too strong for her, and destroy her web, and in breaking forth might release himself.
Strange was the pageant of that wedding on Sunday, the 17th of August, 1572. The outward seeming was magnificent, when all that was princely in France stood on the splendidly decked platform in front of Notre-Dame, around the bridegroom in the bright promise of his kingly endowments, and the bride in her peerless beauty. Brave, noble-hearted, and devoted were the gallant following of the one, splendid and highly gifted the attendants of the other; and their union seemed to promise peace to a long distracted kingdom.
Yet what an abyss lay beneath those trappings! The bridegroom and his comrades were as lions in the toils of the hunter, and the lure that had enticed them thither was the bride, herself so unwilling a victim that her lips refused to utter the espousal vows, and her head as force forward by her brother into a sign of consent; while the favoured lover of her whole lifetime agreed to the sacrifice in order to purchase the vengeance for which he thirsted, and her mother, the corrupter of her own children, looked complacently on at her ready-dug pit of treachery and bloodshed.
Among the many who played unconscious on the surface of that gulf of destruction, were the young creatures whose chief thought in the pageant was the glance and smile from the gallery of the Queen's ladies to the long procession of the English ambassador's train, as they tried to remember their own marriage there; Berenger with clear recollection of his father's grave, anxious face, and Eustacie chiefly remembering her own white satin and turquoise dress, which indeed she had seen on every great festival-day as the best raiment of the image of Notre Dame de Bellaise. She remained in the choir during mass, but Berenger accompanied the rest of the Protestants with the bridegroom at their head into the nave, where Coligny beguiled the time with walking about, looking at the banners that had been taken from himself and Conde at Montcontour and Jarnac, saying that he hoped soon to see them taken down and replaced by Spanish banners. Berenger had followed because he felt the need of doing as Walsingham and Sidney thought right, but he had not been in London long enough to become hardened to the desecration of churches by frequenting 'Paul's Walk.' He remained bareheaded, and stood as near as he could to the choir, listening to the notes that floated from the priests and acolytes at the high altar, longing from the time when he and Eustacie should be one in their prayers, and lost in a reverie, till a grave old nobleman passing near him reproved him for dallying with the worship of Rimmon. But his listening attitude had not passed unobserved by others besides Huguenot observers.
The wedding was followed by a ball at the Louvre, from which, however, all the stricter Huguenots absented themselves out of respect to Sunday, and among them the family and guests of the English Ambassador, who were in the meantime attending the divine service that had been postponed on account of the morning's ceremony. Neither was the Duke of Guise present at the entertainment; for though he had some months previously been piqued and entrapped into a marriage with Catherine of Cleves, yet his passion for Marguerite was still so strong that he could not bear to join in the festivities of her wedding with another. The absence of so many distinguished persons caused the admission of many less constantly privileged, and thus it was that Diane there met both her father and brother, who eagerly drew her into a window, and demanded what she had to tell them, laughing too at the simplicity of the youth, who had left for the Chevalier a formal announcement that he had dispatched his protest to Rome, and considered himself as free to obtain his wife by any means in his power.
'Where is la petite?' Narcisse demanded. Behind her Queen, as usual?'
'The young Queen keeps her room to-night,' returned Diane. 'Nor do I advise you, brother, to thrust yourself in the way of la petite entetee just at present.'
'What, is she so besotted with the peach face? He shall pay for it!'
'Brother, no duel. Father, remind him that she would never forgive him.'
'Fear not, daughter,' said the Chevalier; 'this folly can be ended by much quieter modes, only you must first give us information.'
'She tells me nothing,' said Diane; 'she is in one of her own humours—high and mighty.'
'Peste! where is your vaunt of winding the little one round your finger?'
'With time, I said,' replied Diane. Curiously enough, she had no compunction in worming secrets from Eustacie and betraying them, but she could not bear to think of the trap she had set for the unsuspecting youth, and how ingenuously he had thanked her, little knowing how she had listened to his inmost secrets.
'Time is everything,' said her father; 'delay will be our ruin. Your inheritance will slip through your fingers, my son. The youth will soon win favour by abjuring his heresy; he will play the same game with the King as his father did with King Henri. You will have nothing but your sword, and for you, my poor girl, there is nothing but to throw yourself on the kindness of your aunt at Bellaise, if she can receive the vows of a dowerless maiden.'
'It will never be,' said Narcisse. 'My rapier will soon dispose of a big rustic like that, who knows just enough of fencing to make him an easy prey. What! I verily believe the great of entreaty. 'And yet the fine fellow was willing enough to break the marriage when he took her for the bride.'
'Nay, my son,' argued the Chevalier, will apparently to spare his daughter from the sting of mortification, 'as I said, all can be done without danger of bloodshed on either side, were we but aware of any renewed project of elopement. The pretty pair would be easily waylaid, the girl safely lodged at Bellaise, the boy sent off to digest his pride in England.'
'Unhurt?' murmured Diane.
Her father checked Narcisse's mockery at her solicitude, as he added, 'Unhurt? Yes. He is a liberal-hearted, gracious, fine young man, whom I should much grieve to harm; but if you know of any plan of elopement and conceal it, my daughter, then upon you will lie either the ruin and disgrace of your family, or the death of one or both of the youths.'
Diane saw that her question had betrayed her knowledge. She spoke faintly. 'Something I did overhear, but I know not how to utter a treason.'
'There is no treason where there is no trust, daughter,' said the Chevalier, in the tone of a moral sage. 'Speak!'
Diane never disobeyed her father, and faltered, 'Wednesday; it is for Wednesday. They mean to leave the palace in the midst of the masque; there is a market-boat from Leurre to meet them on the river; his servants will be in it.'
'On Wednesday!' Father and son looked at each other.
'That shall be remedied,' said Narcisse.
'Child,' added her father, turning kindly to Diane, 'you have saved our fortunes. There is put one thing more that you must do. Make her obtain the pearls from him.'
'Ah!' sighed Diane, half shocked, half revengeful, as she thought how he had withheld them from her.
'It is necessary,' said the Chevalier. 'The heirloom of our house must not be risked. Secure the pearls, child, and you will have done good service, and earned the marriage that shall reward you.'
When he was gone, Diane pressed her hands together with a strange sense of misery. He, who had shrunk from the memory of little Diane's untruthfulness, what would he think of the present Diane's treachery? Yet it was to save his life and that of her brother—and for the assertion of her victory over the little robber, Eustacie.
CHAPTER X. MONSIEUR'S BALLET.
The Styx had fast bound her Nine times around her. —POPE, ODE ON ST.CECILIA'S DAY
Early on Monday morning came a message to Mademoiselle Nid de Merle that she was to prepare to act the part of a nymph of Paradise in the King's masque on Wednesday night, and must dress at once to rehearse her part in the ballet specially designed by Monsieur.
Her first impulse was to hurry to her own Queen, whom she entreated to find some mode of exempting her. But Elisabeth, who was still in bed, looked distressed and frightened, made signs of caution, and when the weeping girl was on the point of telling her of the project that would thus be ruined, silenced her by saying, 'Hush! my poor child, I have but meddled too much already. Our Lady grant that I have not done you more harm than good! Tell me no more.'
'Ah! Madame, I will be discreet, I will tell you nothing; but if you would only interfere to spare me from this ballet! It is Monsieur's contrivance! Ah! Madame, could you but speak to the King!'
'Impossible, child,' said the Queen. 'Things are not her as they were at happy Montpipeau.'
And the poor young Queen turned her face in to her pillow, and wept.
Every one who was not in a dream of bliss like poor little Eustacie knew that the King had been in so savage a mood ever since his return that no one durst ask anything from him a little while since, he had laughed at his gentle wife for letting herself, and Emperor's daughter, be trampled on where his brother Francis's Queen, from her trumpery, beggarly realm, had held up her head, and put down la belle Mere; he had amused himself with Elisabeth's pretty little patronage of the young Ribaumonts as a promising commencement in intriguing like other people; but now he was absolutely violent at any endeavour to make him withstand his mother, and had driven his wife back into that cold, listless, indifferent shell of apathy from which affection and hope had begun to rouse her. She knew it would only make it the worse for her little Nid de Merle for her to interpose when Monsieur had made the choice.
And Eustacie was more afraid of Monsieur than even of Narcisse, and her Berenger could not be there to protect her. However, there was protection in numbers. With twelve nymphs, and cavaliers to match, even the Duke of Anjou could not accomplish the being very insulting. Eustacie—light, agile, and fairy-like—gained considerable credit for ready comprehension and graceful evolutions. She had never been so much complimented before, and was much cheered by praise. Diane showed herself highly pleased with her little cousin's success, embraced her, and told her she was finding her true level at court. She would be the prettiest of all the nymphs, who were all small, since fairies rather than Amazons were wanted in their position. 'And, Eustacie,' she added, 'you should wear the pearls.'
'The pearls!' said Eustacie. 'Ah! but HE always wears them. I like to see them on his bonnet—they are hardly whiter than his forehead.'
'Foolish little thing!' said Diane, 'I shall think little of his love if he cares to see himself in them more than you.'
The shaft seemed carelessly shot, but Diane knew that it would work, and so it did. Eustacie wanted to prove her husband's love, not to herself, but to her cousin.
He made his way to her in the gardens of the Louvre that evening, greatly dismayed at the report that had reached him that she was to figure as a nymph of Elysium. She would thus be in sight as a prominent figure the whole evening, even till an hour so late that the market boat which Osbert had arranged for their escape could not wait for them without exciting suspicion, and besides, his delicate English feelings were revolted at the notion of her forming a part of such a spectacle. She could not understand his displeasure. If they could not go on Wednesday, they could go on Saturday; and as to her acting, half the noblest ladies in the court would be in piece, and if English husbands did not like it, they must be the tyrants she had always heard of.
'To be a gazing-stock—-' began Berenger.
'Hush! Monsieur, I will hear no more, or I shall take care how I put myself in your power.'
'That has been done for you, sweetheart,' he said, smiling with perhaps a shade too much superiority; 'you are mine entirely now.'
'That is not kind,' she pouted, almost crying—for between flattery, excitement, and disappointment she was not like herself that day, and she was too proud to like to be reminded that she was in any one's power.
'I thought,' said Berenger, with the gentleness that always made him manly in dealing with her, 'I thought you like to own yourself mine.'
'Yes, sir, when you are good, and do not try to hector me for what I cannot avoid.'
Berenger was candid enough to recollect that royal commands did not brook disobedience, and, being thoroughly enamoured besides of his little wife, he hastened to make his peace by saying, 'True, ma mie, this cannot be helped. I was a wretch to find fault. Think of it no more.'
'You forgive me?' she said, softened instantly.
'Forgive you? What for, pretty one? For my forgetting that you are still a slave to a hateful Court?'
'Ah! then, if you forgive me, let me wear the pearls.'
'The poor pearls,' said Berenger, taken aback for a moment, 'the meed of our forefather's valour, to form part of the pageant and mummery? But never mind, sweetheart,' for he could not bear to vex her again: 'you shall have them to-night: only take care of them. My mother would look back on me if she knew I had let them out of my care, but you and I are one after all.'
Berenger could not bear to leave his wife near the Duke of Anjou and Narcisse, and he offered himself to the King as an actor in the masque, much as he detested all he heard of its subject. The King nodded comprehension, and told him it was open to him either to be a demon in a tight suit of black cloth, with cloven-hoof shoes, a long tail, and a trident; or one of the Huguenots who were to be repulsed from Paradise for the edification of the spectators. As these last were to wear suits of knightly armour, Berenger much preferred making one of them in spite of their doom.
The masque was given at the hall of the Hotel de Bourbon, where a noble gallery accommodated the audience, and left full space beneath for the actors. Down the centre of the stage flowed a stream, broad enough to contain a boat, which was plied by the Abbe de Mericour—transformed by a gray beard and hair and dismal mask into Charon.
But so unused to navigation was he, so crazy and ill-trimmed his craft, that his first performance would have been his submersion in the Styx had not Berenger, better accustomed to boats than any of the dramatis personoe, caught him by the arms as he was about to step in, pointed out the perils, weighted the frail vessel, and given him a lesson in paddling it to and fro, with such a masterly hand, that, had there been time for a change of dress, the part of Charon would have been unanimously transferred to him; but the delay could not be suffered, and poor Mericour, in fear of a ducking, or worse, of ridicule, balanced himself, pole in hand, in the midst of the river. To the right of the river was Elysium—a circular island revolving on a wheel which was an absolute orrery, representing in concentric circles the skies, with the sun, moon, the seven planets, twelve signs, and the fixed stars, all illuminated with small lamps. The island itself was covered with verdure, in which, among bowers woven of gay flowers, reposed twelve nymphs of Paradise, of whom Eustacie was one.
On the other side of the stream was another wheel, whose grisly emblems were reminders of Dante's infernal circles, and were lighted by lurid flames, while little bells were hung round so as to make a harsh jangling sound, and all of the court who had any turn for buffoonery were leaping and dancing about as demons beneath it, and uttering wild shouts.
King Charles and his two brothers stood on the margin of the Elysian lake. King Henry, the Prince of Conde, and a selection of the younger and gayer Huguenots, were the assailants,—storming Paradise to gain possession of the nymphs. It was a very illusive armour that they wore, thin scales of gold or silver as cuirasses over their satin doublets, and the swords and lances of festive combat in that court had been of the bluntest foil ever since the father of these princes had died beneath Montgomery's spear. And when the King and his brothers, one of them a puny crooked boy, were the champions, the battle must needs be the merest show, though there were lookers-on who thought that, judging by appearances, the assailants ought to have the best chance of victory, both literal and allegorical.
However, these three guardian angels had choice allies in the shape of the infernal company, who, as fast as the Huguenots crossed swords or shivered lances with their royal opponents, encircled them with their long black arms, and dragged them struggling away to Tartarus. Henry of Navarre yielded himself with a good-will to the horse-play with which this was performed, resisting just enough to give his demoniacal captors a good deal of trouble, while yielding all the time, and taking them by surprise by agile efforts, that showed that if he were excluded from Paradise it was only by his own consent, and that he heartily enjoyed the merriment. Most of his comrades, in especial the young Count de Rochefoucauld, entered into the sport with the same heartiness, but the Prince of Conde submitted to his fate with a gloomy, disgusted countenance, that added much to the general mirth; and Berenger, with Eustacie before his eyes, looking pale, distressed, and ill at ease, was a great deal too much in earnest. He had so veritable an impulse to leap forward and snatch her from that giddy revolving prison, that he struck against the sword of Monsieur with a hearty good-will. His silvered lath snapped in his hand, and at that moment he was seized round the waist, and, when his furious struggle was felt to be in earnest, he was pulled over on his back, while yells and shouts of discordant laughter rang round him, as demons pinioned him hand and foot.
He thought he heard a faint cry from Eustacie, and, with a sudden, unexpected struggle, started into a sitting posture; but a derisive voice, that well he knew, cried, 'Ha, the deadly sin of pride! Monsieur thinks his painted face pleases the ladies. To the depths with him—' and therewith one imp pulled him backwards again, while others danced a war-dance round him, pointing their forks at him; and the prime tormentor, whom he perfectly recognized, not only leapt over him, but spurned at his face with a cloven foot, giving a blow, not of gay French malice, but of malignity. It was too much for the boy's forbearance. He struggled free, dashing his adversaries aside fiercely, and as they again gathered about him, with the leader shouting, 'Rage, too, rage! To the prey, imps—' he clenched his fist, and dealt the foremost foe such a blow in the chest as to level him at once with the ground.
'Monsieur forgets,' said a voice, friendly yet reproachful, 'that this is but sport.
It was Henry of Navarre himself who spoke, and bent to give a hand to the fallen imp. A flush of shame rushed over Berenger's face, already red with passion. He felt that he had done wrong to use his strength at such a moment, and that, though there had been spite in is assailant, he had not been therefore justified. He was glad to see Narcisse rise lightly to his feet, evidently unhurt, and, with the frankness with which he had often made it up with Philip Thistlewood or his other English comrades after a sharp tussle, he held out his hand, saying, 'Good demon, your pardon. You roused my spirit, and I forgot myself.'
'Demons forget not,' was the reply. 'At him, imps!' And a whole circle of hobgoblins closed upon with their tridents, forks, and other horrible implements, to drive him back within two tall barred gates, which, illuminated by red flames, were to form the ghastly prison of the vanquished. Perhaps fresh indignities would have been attempted, had not the King of Navarre thrown himself on his side, shared with him the brunt of all the grotesque weapons, and battled them off with infinite spirit and address, shielding him as it were from their rude insults by his own dexterity and inviolability, though retreating all the time till the infernal gates were closed on both.
Then Henry of Navarre, who never forgot a face, held out his hand, saying, 'Tartarus is no region of good omen for friendships, M. de Ribaumont, but, for lack of yonder devil's claw, here is mine. I like to meet a comrade who can strike a hearty blow, and ask a hearty pardon.'
'I was too hot, Sire,' confessed Berenger, with one of his ingenuous blushes, 'but he enraged me.'
'He means mischief.' said Henry. 'Remember, if you are molested respecting this matter, that you have here a witness that you did the part of a gentleman.'
Berenger bowed his thanks, and began something about the honour, but his eye anxiously followed the circuit on which Eustacie was carried and the glance was quickly remarked.
'How? Your heart is spinning in that Mahometan paradise, and that is what put such force into your fists. Which of the houris is it? The little one with the wistful eyes, who looked so deadly white, and shrieked out when the devilry overturned you? Eh! Monsieur, you are a happy man.'
'I should be, Sire;' and Berenger was on the point of confiding the situation of his affairs to this most engaging of princes, when a fresh supply of prisoners, chased with wild antics and fiendish yells by the devils, came headlong in on them; and immediately, completing, as Henry said, the galimatias of mythology, a pasteboard cloud was propelled on the stage, and disclosed the deities Mercury and Cupid, who made a complimentary address to the three princely brothers, inciting them to claim the nymphs whom their valour had defended, and lead them through the mazes of a choric celestial dance.
This dance had been the special device of Monsieur and the ballet-master, and during the last three days the houris had been almost danced off their legs with rehearsing it morning, noon, and night, but one at least of them was scarcely in a condition for its performance. Eustacie, dizzied at the first minute by the whirl of her Elysian merry-go-round, had immediately after become conscious of that which she had been too childish to estimate merely in prospect, the exposure to universal gaze. Strange staring eyes, glaring lights, frightful imps seemed to wheel round her in an intolerable delirious succession. Her only refuge was in closing her eyes, but even this could not long be persevered in, so necessary a part of the pageant was she; and besides, she had Berenger to look for, Berenger, whom she had foolishly laughed at for knowing how dreadful it would be. But of course the endeavour to seek for one object with her eyes made the dizziness even more dreadful; and when, at length, she beheld him dragged down by the demoniacal creatures, whose horrors were magnified by her confused senses, and the next moment she was twirled out of sight, her cry of distracted alarm was irrepressible. Carried round again and again, on a wheel that to her was far more like Ixion's than that of the spheres, she never cleared her perceptions as to where he was, and only was half-maddened by the fantastic whirl of incongruous imagery, while she barely sat out Mercury's lengthy harangue; and when her wheel stood still, and she was released, she could not stand, and was indebted to Charon and one of her fellow-nymphs for supporting her to a chair in the back of the scene. Kind Charon hurried to bring her wine, the lady revived her with essences, and the ballet-master clamoured for his performers.
Ill or well, royal ballets must be danced. One long sob, one gaze round at the refreshing sight of a room no longer in motion, one wistful look at the gates of Tartarus, and the misery of the throbbing, aching head must be disregarded. The ballet-master touched the white cheeks with rouge, and she stepped forward just in time, for Monsieur himself was coming angrily forward to learn the cause of the delay.
Spectators said the windings of that dance were exquisitely graceful. It was well that Eustacie's drilling had been so complete, for she moved through it blindly, senselessly, and when it was over was led back between the two Demoiselles de Limeuil to the apartment that served as a green-room, drooping and almost fainting. They seated her in a chair, and consulted round her, and her cousin Narcisse was among the first to approach; but no sooner had she caught sight of his devilish trim than with a little shriek she shut her eyes, and flung herself to the other side of the chair.
'My fair cousin,' he said, opening his black vizard, 'do you not see me? I am no demon, remember! I am your cousin.'
'That makes it no better,' said Eustacie, too much disordered and confused to be on her guard, and hiding her face with her hands. 'Go, go, I entreat.'
In fact he had already done this, and the ladies added their counsel; for indeed the poor child could scarcely hold up her head, but she said, 'I should like to stay, if I could: a little, a little longer. Will they not open those dreadful bars?' she added, presently.
'They are even now opening them,' said Mdlle. de Limeuil. 'Hark! they are going to fight en melle. Mdlle. de Nid de Merle is better now?'
'Oh yes; let not detain you.'
Eustacie would have risen, but the two sisters had fluttered back, impatient to lose nothing of the sports; and her cousin in his grim disguise stood full before her. 'No haste, cousin,' he said; 'you are not fit to move.'
'Oh, then go,' said Eustacie, suffering too much not to be petulant. 'You make me worse.'
'And why? It was not always thus,' began Narcisse, so eager to seize an opportunity as to have little consideration for her condition; but she was unable to bear any more, and broke out: 'Yes, it was; I always detested you more than ever, since you deceived me so cruelly. Oh, do but leave me!'
'You scorn me, then! You prefer to me—who have loved you so long—that childish new-comer, who was ready enough to cast you off.'
'Prefer! He is my husband! It is an insult for any one else to speak to me thus!' said Eustacie, drawing herself up, and rising to her feet; but she was forced to hold by the back of her chair, and Diane and her father appearing at that moment, she tottered towards the former, and becoming quite passive under the influence of violent dizziness and headache, made no objection to being half led, half carried, through galleries that connected the Hotel de Bourbon with the Louvre.
And thus it was that when Berenger had fought out his part in the melle of the prisoners released, and had maintained the honours of the rose-coloured token in his helmet, he found that his lady-love had been obliged by indisposition to return home; and while he stood, folding his arms to restrain their strong inclination to take Narcisse by the throat and demand whether this were another of his deceptions, a train of fireworks suddenly exploded in the middle of the Styx—a last surprise, especially contrived by King Charles, and so effectual that half the ladies were shrieking, and imagining that they and the whole hall had blown up together.
A long supper, full of revelry, succeeded, and at length Sidney ad Ribaumont walked home together in the midst of their armed servants bearing torches. All the way home Berenger was bitter in vituperation of the hateful pageant and all its details.
'Yea, truly,' replied Sidney; 'methought that it betokens disease in the mind of a nation when their festive revelry is thus ghastly, rendering the most awful secrets made known by our God in order to warm man from sin into a mere antic laughing-stock. Laughter should be moved by what is fair and laughter-worthy—even like such sports as our own "Midsummer Night's Dream." I have read that the bloody temper of Rome fed itself in gladiator shows, and verily, what we beheld to-night betokens something at once grisly and light-minded in the mood of this country.'
Sidney thought so the more when on the second ensuing morning the Admiral de Coligny was shot through both hands by an assassin generally known to have been posted by the Duke of Guise, yet often called by the sinister sobriquet of Le Tueur de Roi.
CHAPTER XI. THE KING'S TRAGEDY.
The night is come, no fears disturb The sleep of innocence They trust in kingly faith, and kingly oath. They sleep, alas! they sleep Go to the palace, wouldst thou know How hideous night can be; Eye is not closed in those accursed walls, Nor heart is quiet there! —Southey, BARTHOLOMEW'S EVE
'Young gentlemen,' said Sir Francis Walsingham, as he rose from dinner on the Saturday, 'are you bound for the palace this evening?'
'I am, so please your Excellency,' returned Berenger.
'I would have you both to understand that you must have a care of yourselves,' said the Ambassador. 'The Admiral's wound has justly caused much alarm, and I hear that the Protestants are going vapouring about in so noisy and incautious a manner, crying out for justice, that it is but too likely that the party of the Queen-mother and the Guise will be moved to strong measures.'
'They will never dare lay a finger upon us!' said Sidney.
'In a terror-stricken fray men are no respecters of persons,' replied Sir Francis. 'This house is, of course, inviolable; and, whatever the madness of the people, we have stout hearts enough here to enforce respect thereto; but I cannot answer even for an Englishman's life beyond its precincts; and you, Ribaumont, whom I cannot even claim as my Queen's subject—I greatly fear to trust you beyond its bounds.'
'I cannot help it, sir. Nay, with the most grateful thanks for all your goodness to me, I must pray you not to take either alarm or offence if I return not this night.'
'No more, my friend,' said Walsingham, quickly; 'let me know nothing of your purposes, but take care of yourself. I would you were safe at home again, though the desire may seem inhospitable. The sooner the better with whatever you have to do.'
'Is the danger so imminent?' asked Sidney.
'I know nothing, Philip. All I can tell is that, as I have read that dogs and cattle scent an earthquake in the air, so man and women seem to breathe a sense of danger in this city. And to me the graciousness with which the Huguenots have been of late treated wears a strangely suspicious air. Sudden and secret is the blow like to be, and we cannot be too much on our guard. Therefore remember, my young friends both, that your danger or death would fall heavily on those ye love and honour at home.'
So saying, he left the two youths, unwilling to seek further confidence, and Berenger held his last consultation with Sidney, to whom he gave directions for making full explanation to Walsingham in his absence, and expediting Mr. Adderley's return to England. Osbert alone was to go to the Louvre with him, after having seen the five English grooms on board the little decked market-vessel on the Seine, which was to await the fugitives. Berenger was to present himself in the palace as in his ordinary court attendance, and, contriving to elude notice among the throng who were there lodged, was to take up his station at the foot of the stairs leading to the apartments of ladies, whence Eustacie was to descend at about eleven o'clock, with her maid Veronique. Landry Osbert was to join them from the lackey's hall below, where he had a friend, and the connivance of the porter at the postern opening towards the Seine had been secured.
Sidney wished much to accompany him to the palace, if his presence could be any aid or protection, but on consideration it was decided that his being at the Louvre was likely to attract notice to Ribaumont's delaying there. The two young men therefore shook hands and parted, as youths who trusted that they had begun a lifelong friendship, with mutual promises to write to one another—the one, the adventures of his flight; the other, the astonishment it would excite. And auguries were exchanged of merry meetings in London, and of the admiration the lovely little wife would excite at Queen Elizabeth's court.
Then, with an embrace such as English friends then gave, they separated at the gate; and Sidney stood watching, as Berenger walked free and bold down the street, his sword at his side, his cloak over one shoulder, his feathered cap on one side, showing his bright curling hair, a sunshiny picture of a victorious bridegroom—such a picture as sent Philip Sidney's wits back to Arcadia.
It was not a day of special state, but the palace was greatly crowded. The Huguenots were in an excited mood, inclined to rally round Henry of Navarre, whose royal title made him be looked on as is a manner their monarch, though his kingdom had been swallowed by Spain, and he was no more than a French duke distantly related to royalty in the male line, and more nearly through his grandmother and bride. The eight hundred gentlemen he had brought with him swarmed about his apartments, making their lodging on staircases and in passages; and to Berenger it seemed as if the King's guards and Monsieur's gentlemen must have come in in equal numbers to balance them. Narcisse was there, and Berenger kept cautiously amid his Huguenot acquaintance, resolved not to have a quarrel thrust on him which he could not honourably desert. It was late before he could work his way to the young Queen's reception-room, where he found Eustacie. She looked almost as white as at the masque; but there was a graver, less childish expression in her face than he had ever seen before, and her eyes glanced confidence when they met his.
Behind the Queen's chair a few words could be spoken.
'Ma mie, art thou well again? Canst bear this journey now?'
'Quite well, now! quite ready. Oh that we may never have masques in England!'
He smiled—'Never such as this!'
'Ah! thou knowest best. I am glad I am thine already; I am so silly, thou wouldest never have chosen me! But thou wilt teach me, and I will strive to be very good! And oh! let me but give one farewell to Diane.'
'It is too hard to deny thee aught to-night, sweetheart, but judge for thyself. Think of the perils, and decide.'
Before Eustacie could answer, a rough voice came near, the King making noisy sport with the Count de Rochefoucauld and others. He was louder and ruder than Berenger had ever yet seen him, almost giving the notion of intoxication; but neither he nor his brother Henry ever tasted wine, though both had a strange pleasure in being present at the orgies of their companions: the King, it was generally said, from love of the self-forgetfulness of excitement—the Duke of Anjou, because his cool brain there collected men's secrets to serve afterwards for his spiteful diversion.
Berenger would willingly have escaped notice, but his bright face and sunny hair always made him conspicuous, and the King suddenly strode up to him: 'You here, sir? I thought you would have managed your affairs so as to be gone long ago!' then before Berenger could reply, 'However, since here you are, come along with me to my bedchamber! We are to have a carouse there to-night that will ring through all Paris! Yes, and shake Rochefoucauld out of his bed at midnight! You will be one of us, Ribaumont? I command it!'
And without waiting for reply he turned away with an arm round Rochefoucauld's neck, and boisterously addressed another of the company, almost as wildly as if he were in the mood that Scots call 'fey.'
'Royalty seems determined to frustrate our plans,' said Berenger, as soon as the King was out of hearing.
'But you will not go! His comrades drink till—oh! two, three in the morning. We should never get away.'
'No, I must risk his displeasure. We shall soon be beyond his reach. But at least I may make his invitation a reason for remaining in the Louvre. People are departing! Soon wilt thou be my own.'
'As soon as the Queen's COUCHER is over! I have but to change to a traveling dress.'
'At the foot of the winding stair. Sweetest be brave!'
'I fear nothing with thee to guard me. See, the Queen is rising.'
Elizabeth was in effect rising to make her respectful progress to the rooms of the Queen-mother, to bid her good night; and Eustacie must follow. Would Diane be there? Oh that the command to judge between her heart and her caution had not been given! Cruel kindness!
Diane was there, straight as a poplar, cold as marble, with fixed eyes. Eustacie stole up to her, and touched her. She turned with a start. 'Cousin, you have been very good to me!' Diane started again, as if stung. You will love me still, whatever you hear?'
'Is this meant for farewell?' said Diane, grasping her wrist.
'Do not ask me, Diane. I may not.'
'Where there is no trust there is no treason,' said Diane, dreamily. 'No, answer me not, little one, there will be time for that another day. Where is he?'
'In the oeil-de-boeuf, between the King's and Queen's suites of rooms. I must go. There is the Queen going. Diane, one loving word.'
'Silly child, you shall have plenty another time,' said Diane, breaking away. 'Follow thy Queen now!'
Catherine, who sat between her daughters Claude and Marguerite, looked pre-occupied, and summarily dismissed her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, whom Eustacie was obliged to follow to her own state-room. There all the forms of the COUCHER were tediously gone through; every pin had its own ceremony, and even when her Majesty was safely deposited under her blue satin coverlet the ladies still stood round till she felt disposed to fall asleep. Elisabeth was both a sleepy and a considerate person, so that this was not so protracted a vigil as was sometimes exacted by the more wakeful princesses; but Eustacie could not escape from it till it was already almost midnight, the period for her tryst.
Her heart was very full. It was not the usual flutter and terror of an eloping girl. Eustacie was a fearless little being, and her conscience had no alarms; her affections were wholly with Berenger, and her transient glimpses of him had been as of something come out of a region higher, tenderer, stronger, purer, more trustworthy than that where she had dwelt. She was proud of belonging to him. She had felt upheld by the consciousness through years of waiting, and now he more than realized her hopes, and she could have wept for exulting joy. Yet it was a strange, stealthy break with all she had to leave behind. The light to which he belonged seemed strange, chill, dazzling light, and she shivered at the thought of it, as if the new world, new ideas, and new requirements could only be endured with him to shield her and help her on. And withal, there seemed to her a shudder over the whole place on that night. The King's eyes looked wild and startled, the Queen-mother's calm was strained, the Duchess of Lorraine was evidently in a state of strong nervous excitement; there were strange sounds, strange people moving about, a weight on everything, as if they were under the shadow of a thunder-cloud. 'Could it be only her own fancy?' she said to herself, because this was to be the great event of her life, for surely all these great people could not know or heed that little Eustacie de Ribaumont was to make her escape that night!
The trains of royalty were not sumptuously lodged. France never has cared so much for comfort as for display. The waiting-lady of the bedchamber slept in the ante-room of her mistress; the others, however high their rank, were closely herded together up a winding stair leading to a small passage, with tiny, cell-like recesses, wherein the demoiselles slept, often with their maids, and then dressed themselves in the space afforded by the passage. Eustacie's cell was nearly at the end of the gallery, and exchanging 'good-nights' with her companions, she proceeded to her recess, where she expected to find Veronique ready to adjust her dress. Veronique, however, was missing; but anxious to lose no time, she had taken off her delicate white satin farthingale to change it for an unobtrusive dark woolen kirtle, when, to her surprise and dismay, a loud creaking, growling sound made itself heard outside the door at the other end. Half-a-dozen heads came out of their cells; half-a-dozen voices asked and answered the question, 'What is it?' 'They are bolting our door outside.' But only Eustacie sped like lightning along the passage, pulled at the door, and cried, 'Open! Open, I say!' No answer, but the other bolt creaked.
'You mistake, CONCIERGE! We are never bolted in! My maid is shut out.'
No answer, but the step retreated. Eustacie clasped her hands with a cry that she could hardly have repressed, but which she regretted the next moment.
Gabrielle de Limeuil laughed. 'What, Mademoiselle, are you afraid they will not let us out to-morrow?'
'My maid!' murmured Eustacie, recollecting that she must give a colour to her distress.
'Ah! perhaps she will summon old Pierre to open for us.'
This suggestion somewhat consoled Eustacie, and she stood intently listening for Veronique's step, wishing that her companions would hold their peace; but the adventure amused them, and they discussed whether it were a blunder of the CONCIERGE, or a piece of prudery of Madame la Comtesse, or, after all, a precaution. The palace so full of strange people, who could say what might happen? And there was a talk of a conspiracy of the Huguenots. At any rate, every one was too much frightened to go to sleep, and, some sitting on the floor, some on a chest, some on a bed, the girls huddled together in Gabrielle de Limeuil's recess, the nearest to the door, and one after another related horrible tales of blood, murder, and vengeance—then, alas! Only too frequent occurrences in their unhappy land—each bringing some frightful contribution from her own province, each enhancing upon the last-told story, and ever and anon pausing with bated breath at some fancied sound, or supposed start of one of the others; then clinging close together, and renewing the ghastly anecdote, at first in a hushed voice that grew louder with the interest of the story. Eustacie alone would not join the cluster. Her cloak round her shoulders, she stood with her back against the door, ready to profit by the slightest indication outside of a step that might lead to her release, or at least enable her to communicate with Veronique; longing ardently that her companions would go to bed, yet unable to avoid listening with the like dreadful fascination to each of the terrible histories, which added each moment to the nervous horror of the whole party. Only one, a dull and composed girl, felt the influence of weariness, and dozed with her head in her companion's lap; but she was awakened by one general shudder and suppressed cry when the hoarse clang of a bell struck on the ears of the already terrified, excited maidens.
'The tocsin! The bell of St. Germain! Fire! No, a Huguenot rising! Fire! Oh, let us out! Let us out! The window! Where is the fire? Nowhere! See the lights! Hark, that was a shot! It was in the palace! A heretic rising! Ah! there was to be a slaughter of the heretics! I heard it whispered. Oh, let us out! Open the door!'
But nobody heard: nobody opened. There was one who stood without word or cry, close to the door—her eyes dilated, her cheek colourless, her whole person, soul and body alike, concentrated in that one impulse to spring forward the first moment the bolt should be drawn. But still the door remained fast shut!
CHAPTER XII. THE PALACE OF SLAUGHTER
A human shambles with blood-reeking floor. MISS SWANWICK, Esch. Agamemnon
The door was opened at last, but not till full daylight. It found Eustacie as ready to rush forth, past all resistance, as she had been the night before, and she was already in the doorway when her maid Veronique, her face swollen with weeping, caught her by the hands and implored her to turn back and listen.
And words about a rising of the Huguenots, a general destruction, corpses lying in the court, were already passing between the other maidens and the CONCIERGE. Eustacie turned upon her servant: 'Veronique, what means it? Where is he?'
'Alas! alas! Ah! Mademoiselle, do but lie down! Woe is me! I saw it all! Lie down, and I will tell you.'
'Tell! I will not move till you have told me where my husband is,' said Eustacie, gazing with eyes that seemed to Veronique turned to stone.
'Ah! my lady—my dear lady! I was on the turn of the stairs, and saw all. The traitor—the Chevalier Narcisse—came on him, cloaked like you—and—shot him dead—with, oh, such cruel words of mockery! Oh! woe the day! Stay, stay, dear lady, the place is all blood—they are slaying them all—all the Huguenots! Will no one stop her?—Mademoiselle—ma'm'selle!—'
For Eustacie no sooner gathered the sense of Veronique's words than she darted suddenly forwards, and was in a few seconds more at the foot of the stairs. There, indeed, lay a pool of dark gore, and almost in it Berenger's black velvet cap, with the heron plume. Eustacie, with a low cry, snatched it up, continued her headlong course along the corridor, swiftly as a bird, Veronique following, and vainly shrieking to her to stop. Diane, appearing at the other end of the gallery, saw but for a moment the little figure, with the cloak gathered round her neck, and floating behind her, understood Veronique's cry and joined in the chase across hall and gallery, where more stains were to be seen, even down to the marble stairs, every step slippery with blood. Others there were who saw and stood aghast, not understanding the apparition that flitted on so swiftly, never pausing till at the great door at the foot of the stairs she encountered a gigantic Scottish archer, armed to the teeth. She touched his arm, and standing with folder arms, looked up and said, 'Good soldier, kill me! I am a Huguenots!'
'Stop her! bring her back!' cried Diane from behind. 'It is Mdlle. De Nil-de-Merle!'
'No, no! My husband is Huguenot! I am a Huguenot! Let them kill me, I say!'—struggling with Diane, who had now come up with her, and was trying to draw her back.
'Puir lassie!' muttered the stout Scotsman to himself, 'this fearsome night has driven her demented.'
But, like a true sentinel, he moved neither hand nor foot to interfere, as shaking herself loose from Diane, she was springing down the steps into the court, when at that moment the young Abbe de Mericour was seen advancing, pale, breathless, horrorstruck, and to him Diane shrieked to arrest the headlong course. He obeyed, seeing the wild distraction of the white face and widely glaring eyes, took her by both hands, and held her in a firm grasp, saying, 'Alas, lady, you cannot go out. It is no sight for any one.'
'They are killing the Protestants,' she said; 'I am one! Let me find them and die.'
A strong effort to free herself ensued, but it was so suddenly succeeded by a swoon that the Abbe could scarcely save her from dropping on the steps. Diane begged him to carry her in, since they were in full view of men-at-arms in the court, and, frightful to say, of some of the ladies of the palace, who, in the frenzy of that dreadful time, had actually come down to examine the half-stripped corpses of the men with whom they had jested not twelve hours before.
'Ah! it is no wonder,' said the youthful Abbe, as he tenderly lifted the inanimate figure. 'This has been a night of horrors. I was coming in haste to know whether the King knows of this frightful plot of M. de Guise, and the bloody work that is passing in Paris.'
'The King!' exclaimed Diane. 'M. l'Abbe, do you know where he is now? In the balcony overlooking the river, taking aim at the fugitives! Take care! Even your soutane would not save you if M. d'O and his crew heard you. But I must pray you to aid me with this poor child! I dread that her wild cries should be heard.'
The Abbe, struck dumb with horror, silently obeyed Mdlle. De Ribaumont, and brought the still insensible Eustacie to the chamber, now deserted by all the young ladies. He laid her on her bed, and finding he could do no more, left her to her cousin and her maid.
The poor child had been unwell and feverish ever since the masque, and the suspense of these few days with the tension of that horrible night had prostrated her. She only awoke from her swoon to turn her head from the light and refuse to be spoken to.
'But, Eustacie, child, listen; this is all in vain—he lives,' said Diane.
'Weary me not with falsehoods,' faintly said Eustacie.
'No! no! no! They meant to hinder your flight, but—-'
'They knew of it?' cried Eustacie, sitting up suddenly. 'Then you told them. Go—go; let me never see you more! You have been his death!'
'Listen! I am sure he lives! What! would they injure one whom my father loved? I heard my father say he would not have him hurt. Depend upon it, he is safe on his way to England.'
Eustacie gave a short but frightful hysterical laugh, and pointed to Veronique. 'She saw it,' she said; 'ask her.'
'Saw what?' said Diane, turning fiercely on Veronique. 'What vile deceit have you half killed your lady with?'
'Alas! Mademoiselle, I did but tell her what I had seen,' sighed Veronique, trembling.
'Tell me!' said Diane, passionately.
'Yes, everything,' said Eustacie, sitting up.
'Ah! Mademoiselle, it will make you ill again.'
'I WILL be ill—I WILL die! Heaven's slaying is better than man's. Tell her how you saw Narcisse.'
'False girl!' burst out Diane.
'No, no,' cried Veronique. 'Oh, pardon me, Mademoiselle, I could not help it.'
In spite of her reluctance, she was forced to tell that she had found herself locked out of her mistress's room, and after losing much time in searching for the CONCIERGE, learnt that the ladies were locked up by order of the Queen-mother, and was strongly advised not to be running about the passages. After a time, however, while sitting with the CONCIERGE'S wife, she heard such frightful whispers from men with white badges, who were admitted one by one by the porter, and all led silently to a small lower room, that she resolved on seeking out the Baron's servant, and sending him to warn his master, while she would take up her station at her lady's door. She found Osbert, and with him was ascending a narrow spiral leading from the offices—she, unfortunately, the foremost. As she came to the top, a scuffle was going on—four men had thrown themselves upon one, and a torch distinctly showed her the younger Chevalier holding a pistol to the cheek of the fallen man, and she heard the worlds, 'Le baiser d'Eustacie! Jet e barbouillerai ce chien de visage,' and at the same moment the pistol was discharged. She sprang back, oversetting, as she believed, Osbert, and fled shrieking to the room of the CONCIERGE, who shut her in till morning.
'And how—how,' stammered Diane, 'should you know it was the Baron?'
Eustacie, with a death-like look, showed for a moment what even in her swoon she had held clenched to her bosom, the velvet cap soaked with blood.
'Besides,' added Veronique, resolved to defend her assertion, 'whom else would the words suit? Besides, are not all the heretic gentlemen dead? Why, as I sat there in the porter's room, I heard M. d'O call each one of them by name, one after the other, into the court, and there the white-sleeves cut them down or pistolled them like sheep for the slaughter. They lie all out there on the terrace like so many carcases at market ready for winter salting.'
'All slain?' said Eustacie, dreamily.
'All, except those that the King called into his own garde robe.'
'Then, I slew him!' Eustacie sank back.
'I tell you, child,' said Diane, almost angrily, 'he lives. Not a hair of his head was to be hurt! The girl deceives you.'
But Eustacie had again become insensible, and awoke delirious, entreating to have the door opened, and fancying herself still on the revolving elysium, 'Oh, demons, have pity!' was her cry.
Diane's soothings were like speaking to the winds; and at last she saw the necessity of calling in further aid; but afraid of the scandal that the poor girl's raving accusations might create, she would not send for the Huguenots surgeon, Ambroise Pare, whom the King had carefully secured in his own apartments, but employed one of the barber valets of the Queen-mother's household. Poor Eustacie was well pleased to see her blood flowing, and sank back on her pillow murmuring that she had confessed her husband's faith, and would soon be one with him, and Diane feared for a moment lest the swoon should indeed be death.
The bleeding was so far effectual that it diminished the fever, and Eustacie became rational again when she had dozed and wakened, but she was little able or willing to speak, and would not so much as listen to Diane's asseverations that Veronique had made a frightful error, and that the Baron would prove to be alive. Whether it were that the admission that Diane had known of the project for preventing the elopement that invalidated her words, or whether the sufferer's instinct made her believe Veronique's testimony rather than her cousin's assurances, it was all 'cramming words into her ear against the stomach of her sense,' and she turned away from them with a piteous, petulant hopelessness: 'Could they not even let her alone to die in peace!'
Diane was almost angered at this little silly child being in such an agony of sorrow—she, who could never have known how to love him. And after all this persistent grief was willfully thrown away. For Diane spoke in perfect sincerity when she taxed Veronique with an injurious, barbarous mistake. She knew her father's strong aversion to violence, and the real predilection that Berenger's good mien, respectful manners, and liberal usage had won from him, and she believed he had much rather the youth lived, provided he were inoffensive. No doubt a little force had been necessary to kidnap one so tall, active, and determined, and Veronique had made up her horrible tale after the usual custom of waiting-maids.
Nothing else SHOULD be true. Did she think otherwise, she should be even more frantic than Eustacie! Why, it would be her own doing! She had betrayed the day of the escape—she had held aloof from warning. There was pleasure in securing Nid-de-Merle for her brother, pleasure in balking the foolish child who had won the heart that disregarded her. Nay, there might have been even pleasure in the destruction of the scorner of her charms—the foe of her house—there might have been pride in receiving Queen Catherine's dexterous hint that she had been an apt pupil, if the young Baron had only been something different—something less fair, gracious, bright, and pure. One bright angel seemed to have flitted across her path, and nothing should induce her to believe she had destroyed him.
The stripped corpses of the murdered Huguenots of the palace had been laid in a line on the terrace, and the ladies who had laughed with them the night before went to inspect them in death. A few remnants of Soeur Monique's influence would have withheld Diane, but that a frenzy of suspense was growing on her. She must see for herself. If it were so, she must secure a fragment of the shining flaxen hair, if only as a token that anything so pure and bright had walked the earth.
She went on the horrible quest, shrinking where others stared. For it was a pitiless time, and the squadron of the Queen-mother were as lost to womanhood as the fishwomen of two centuries later. But Diane saw no corpse at once so tall, so young, and so fair, though blond Normans and blue-blooded Franks, lads scarce sixteen and stalwart warriors, lay in one melancholy rank. She at least bore away the certainly that the English Ribaumont was not there; and if not, he MUST be safe! She could obtain no further certainty, for she knew that she must not expect to see either her father or brother. There was a panic throughout the city. All Paris imagined that the Huguenots were on the point of rising and slaying all the Catholics, and, with the savagery of alarmed cowardice, the citizens and the mob were assisting the armed bands of the Dukes of Anjou and Guise to complete the slaughter, dragging their lodgers from their hiding-places, and denouncing all whom they suspected of reluctance to mass and confession. But on the Monday, Diane was able to send an urgent message to her father that he must come to speak with her, for Mdlle. De Nid-de-Merle was extremely ill. She would meet him in the garden after morning mass.
There accordingly, when she stepped forth pale, rigid, but stately, with her large fan in her hand to serve as a parasol, she met both him and her brother. She was for a moment sorry, for she had much power over her father, while she was afraid of her brother's sarcastic tongue and eye; she knew he never scrupled to sting her wherever she was most sensitive, and she would have been able to extract much more from her father in his absence. France has never been without a tendency to produce the tiger-monkey, or ferocious fop; and the GENUS was in its full ascendancy under the sons of Catherine de Medicis, when the dregs of Francois the First's PSEUDO-chivalry were not extinct—when horrible, retaliating civil wars of extermination had made life cheap; nefarious persecutions had hardened the heart and steeled the eye, and the licentiousness promoted by the shifty Queen as one of her instruments of government had darkened the whole understanding. The most hateful heights of perfidy, effeminacy, and hypocrisy were not reached till poor Charles IX., who only committed crimes on compulsion, was in his grave, and Henry III. on the throne; but Narcisse de Ribaumont was one of the choice companions of the latter, and after the night and day of murder now stood before his sister with scented hair and handkerchief—the last, laced, delicately held by a hand in an embroidered glove—emerald pendants in his ears, a moustache twisted into sharp points and turned up like an eternal sardonic smile, and he led a little white poodle by a rose-coloured ribbon.
'Well, sister,' he said, as he went, through the motions of kissing her hand, and she embraced her father; 'so you don't know how to deal with megrims and transports?'
'Father,' said Diane, not vouchsafing any attention, 'unless you can send her some assurance of his life, I will not answer for the consequences.'
Narcisse laughed: 'Take her this dog, with my compliments. That is the way to deal with such a child as that.'
'You do not know what you say, brother,' answered Diane with dignity. 'It goes deeper than that.'
'The deeper it goes, child,' said the elder Chevalier, 'the better it is that she should be undeceived as soon as possible. She will recover, and be amenable the sooner.'
'Then he lives, father?' exclaimed Diane. 'He lives, though she is not to hear it—say——'
'What know I?' said the old man, evasively. 'On a night of confusion many mischances are sure to occur! Lurking in the palace at the very moment when there was a search for the conspirators, it would have been a miracle had the poor young man escaped.'
Diane turned still whiter. 'Then,' she said, 'that was why you made Monsieur put Eustacie into the ballet, that they might not go on Wednesday!'
'It was well hinted by you, daughter. We could not have effectually stopped them on Wednesday without making a scandal.'
'Once more,' said Diane, gasping, though still resolute; 'is not the story told by Eustacie's woman false—that she saw him—pistolled—by you, brother?'
'Peste!' cried Narcisse. 'Was the prying wench there? I thought the little one might be satisfied that he had neighbour's fare. No matter; what is done for one's beaux yeux is easily pardoned—and if not, why, I have her all the same!'
'Nevertheless, daughter,' said the Chevalier, gravely, 'the woman must be silenced. Either she must be sent home, or taught so to swear to having been mistaken, that la petite may acquit your brother! But what now, my daughter?'
'She is livid!' exclaimed Narcisse, with his sneer. 'What, sir, did not you know she was smitten with the peach on the top of a pole?'
'Enough, brother,' said Diane, recovering herself enough to speak hoarsely, but with hard dignity. 'You have slain—you need not insult, one whom you have lost the power of understanding!'
'Shallow schoolboys certainly form no part of my study, save to kick them down-stairs when they grow impudent,' said Narcisse, coolly. 'It is only women who think what is long must be grand.'
'Come, children, no disputes,' said the Chevalier. 'Of course we regret that so fine a youth mixed himself up with the enemies of the kingdom, like the stork among the sparrows. Both Diane and I are sorry for the necessity; but remember, child, that when he was interfering between your brother and his just right of inheritance and destined wife, he could not but draw such a fate on himself. Now all is smooth, the estates will be united in their true head, and you—you too, my child, will be provided for as suits your name. All that is needed is to soothe the little one, so as to hinder her from making an outcry—and silence the maid; my child will do her best for her father's sake, and that of her family.'
Diane was less demonstrative than most of her countrywomen. She had had time to recollect the uselessness of giving vent to her indignant anguish, and her brother's derisive look held her back. The family tactics, from force of habit, recurred to her; she made no further objection to her father's commands; but when her father and brother parted with her, she tottered into the now empty chapel, threw herself down, with her burning forehead on the stone step, and so lay for hours. It was not in prayer. It was because it was the only place where she could be alone. To her, heaven above and earth below seemed alike full of despair, darkness, and cruel habitations, and she lay like one sick with misery and repugnance to the life and world that lay before her—the hard world that had quenched that one fair light and mocked her pity. It was a misery of solitude, and yet no thought crossed her of going to weep and sympathize with the other sufferer. No; rivalry and jealousy came in there! Eustacie viewed herself as his wife, and the very thought that she had been deliberately preferred and had enjoyed her triumph hardened Diane's heart against her. Nay, the open violence and abandonment of her grief seemed to the more restrained and concentrated nature of her elder a sign of shallowness and want of durability; and in a certain contemptuous envy at her professing a right to mourn, Diane never even reconsidered her own resolution to play out her father's game, consign Eustacie to her husband's murdered, and leave her to console herself with bridal splendours and a choice of admirers from all the court.
However, for the present Diane would rather stay away as much as possible from the sick-bed of the poor girl; and when an approaching step forced her to rouse herself and hurry away by the other door of the chapel, she did indeed mount to the ladies' bed-chamber, but only to beckon Veronique out of hearing and ask for her mistress.
Just the same still, only sleeping to have feverish dreams of the revolving wheel or the demons grappling her husband, refusing all food but a little drink, and lying silent except for a few moans, heedless who spoke or looked at her.
Diane explained that in that case it was needless to come to her, but added, with the vraisemblance of falsehood in which she had graduated in Catherine's school, 'Veronique, as I told you, you were mistaken.'
'Ah, Mademoiselle, if M. le Baron lives, she will be cured at once.'
'Silly girl,' said Diane, giving relief to her pent-up feeling by asperity of manner, 'how could he live when you and your intrigues got him into the palace on such a night? Dead he is, OF COURSE; but it was your own treacherous, mischievous fancy that laid it on my brother. He was far away with M. de Guise at the attack on the Admiral. It was some of Monsieur's grooms you saw. You remember she had brought him into a scrape with Monsieur, and it was sure to be remembered. And look you, if you repeat the other tale, and do not drive it out of her head, you need not look to be long with her—no, nor at home. My father will have no one there to cause a scandal by an evil tongue.'
That threat convinced Veronique that she had been right; but she, too, had learnt lessons at the Louvre, and she was too diplomatic not to ask pardon for her blunder, promise to contradict it when her mistress could listen, and express her satisfaction that it was not the Chevalier Narcisse—for such things were not pleasant, as she justly observed, in families.
About noon on the Tuesday the Louvre was unusually tranquil. All the world had gone forth to a procession to Notre Dame, headed by the King and all the royal family, to offer thanksgiving for the deliverance of the country from the atrocious conspiracy of the Huguenots. Eustacie's chamber was freed from the bustle of all the maids of honour arraying themselves, and adjusting curls, feathers, ruffs and jewels; and such relief as she was capable of experiencing she felt in the quiet.
Veronique hoped she would sleep, and watched like a dragon to guard against any disturbance, springing out with upraised finger when a soft gliding step and rustling of brocade was heard. 'Does she sleep?' said a low voice; and Veronique, in the pale thin face with tear-swollen eyes and light yellow hair, recognized the young Queen. 'My good girl,' said Elisabeth, with almost a beseeching gesture, 'let me see her. I do not know when again I may be able.'
Veronique stood aside, with the lowest possible of curtseys, just as her mistress with a feeble, weary voice murmured, 'Oh, make them let me alone!'
'My poor, poor child,' said the Queen, bending over Eustacie, while her brimming eyes let the tears fall fast, 'I will not disturb you long, but I could not help it.'
'Her Majesty!' exclaimed Eustacie, opening wide her eyes in amazement.
'My dear, suffer me here a little moment,' said the meek Elisabeth, seating herself so as to bring her face near to Eustacie's; 'I could not rest till I had seen how it was with you and wept with you.'
'Ah, Madame, you can weep,' said Eustacie slowly, looking at the Queen's heavy tearful eyes almost with wonder; 'but I do not weep because I am dying, and that is better.'
'My dear, my dear, do not so speak!' exclaimed the gentle but rather dull Queen.
'Is it wrong? Nay, so much the better—then I shall be with HIM,' said Eustacie in the same feeble dreamy manner, as if she did not understand herself, but a little roused by seeing she had shocked her visitor. 'I would not be wicked. He was all bright goodness and truth: but his does not seem to be goodness that brings to heaven, and I do not want to be in the heaven of these cruel false men—I think it would go round and round.' She shut her eyes as if to steady herself, and that moment seemed to give her more self-recollection, for looking at the weeping, troubled visitor, she exclaimed, with more energy, 'Oh! Madame, it must be a dreadful fancy! Good men like him cannot be shut into those fiery gates with the torturing devils.'
'Heaven forbid!' exclaimed the Queen. 'My poor, poor child, grieve not yourself thus. At my home, my Austrian home, we do not speak in this dreadful way. My father loves and honours his loyal Protestants, and he trusts that the good God accepts their holy lives in His unseen Church, even though outwardly they are separate from us. My German confessor ever said so. Oh! Child, it would be too frightful if we deemed that all those souls as well as bodies perished in these frightful days. Myself, I believe that they have their reward for their truth and constancy.'
Eustacie caught the Queen's hand, and fondled it with delight, as though those words had veritably opened the gates of heaven to her husband. The Queen went on in her slow gentle manner, the very tone of which was inexpressibly soothing and sympathetic: 'Yes, and all will be clear there. No more violence. At home our good men think so, and the King will think the same when these cruel counselors will leave him to himself; and I pray, I pray day and night, that God will not lay this sin to his account, but open his eyes to repent. Forgive him, Eustacie, and pray for him too.'