Plus, receive recommendations and exclusive offers on all of your favorite books and authors from Simon & Schuster.
A Catherine de' Medici Novel
Table of Contents
About The Book
Back in print after twenty years, the final novel in the classic Catherine de’ Medici trilogy (that includes Madame Serpent and The Italian Woman) from the bestselling grande dame of historical fiction.
The final novel in the classic Catherine de’ Medici trilogy from Jean Plaidy, the grande dame of historical fiction.
The aging Catherine de’ Medici and her sickly son King Charles are hoping to end the violence between the feuding Catholics and Huguenots. When Catherine arranges the marriage of her beautiful Catholic daughter Margot to Huguenot king Henry of Navarre, France’s subjects hope there will finally be peace. But shortly after the wedding, when many of the most prominent Huguenots are still celebrating in Paris, King Charles gives an order that could only have come from his mother: rid France of its “pestilential Huguenots forever.” In this bloody conclusion to the Catherine de’ Medici trilogy, Jean Plaidy shows the demise of kings and skillfully exposes Catherine’s lifetime of depraved scheming.
Within the thick stone walls, Paris sweltered in the heat of the summer sun. For weeks now, from the far corners of the land of France, travelers had been passing through the city’s gates. Noblemen came with their retinues, and following in their train were the beggars, rogues, and thieves who had joined them on the road. It seemed that the whole population of France was determined to see France’s Catholic Princess married to the Huguenot King of Navarre.
Now and then a glittering figure would ride by to a flourish of trumpets and with a band of followers to announce him as a nobleman. On his way to the Louvre, he passed through the streets of tall and slender houses, whose roofs crowned them like gray peaked caps, and if he were a Catholic gentleman he would be cheered by the Catholics, and if a Huguenot, by the Huguenots.
In the winding alleys, with their filth and flies, there was tension; it hung over the streets and squares, above which, like guardians, rose the Gothic towers of the Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame, the gloomy bastions of the Bastille and the Conciergerie. The beggars sniffed the smell of cooking which seemed to be perpetually in the streets, for this was a city of restaurants, and rôtisseurs and pâtissiers flourished, patronized as they were by noblemen and even the King himself. Hungry these beggars were, but they also were alert.
Now and then a brawl would break out in the taverns. A man had been killed at the Ananas and his body quietly thrown into the Seine, it was said. He was a Huguenot, and it was not surprising that he found trouble in Catholic Paris. One Huguenot among Catholics was a dangerous challenge; but in Paris this summer there were thousands of Huguenots. They could be seen in the streets, outside the church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, strolling through the congested streets, past the hovels and the mansions; many were lodged behind the yellow walls of the Hôtel de Bourbon; others found their way to the house on the corner of the Rue de l’Arbre Sec and the Rue Béthisy which was the headquarters of the greatest of all the Protestant leaders, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny.
Away to the east in the Rue Saint Antoine was one of the largest mansions in Paris—the Hôtel de Guise—and on this summer’s day there came riding into the city a man, the sight of whom sent most Parisians wild with joy; he was their hero, their idol, the handsomest man in France before whom all others, be they Kings or Princes, looked like men of the people. This was the golden-haired, golden-bearded, twenty-two-year-old Duke, Henry of Guise.
The Parisians shouted their devotion; they waved their caps for him; they clapped their hands and leaped into the air for him; and they wept for the murder of his father, who had been another such as he. He was a romantic figure, this young Duke of Guise, particularly now when the whole city was preparing to celebrate this wedding, for Guise had been the lover of the Princess who was to be given to the Huguenot; and Paris would have rejoiced to see the Catholic Duke married to their Princess. But it was said that the sly old serpent, the Queen Mother, had caught the lovers together, and as a result the handsome Duke had been married to Catherine of Clèves, the widow of the Prince of Porcien, and gay and giddy Princess Margot had been forced to give up Catholic Henry of Guise for Huguenot Henry of Navarre. It was unnatural, but no more than Paris expected of the Italian woman, Catherine de’ Medici.
“Hurrah!” cried the Parisians. “Hurrah for the Duke of Guise!”
Graciously he acknowledged their homage, and, followed by his attendants and all the beggars who had joined them on the road, Henry, Duke of Guise, rode into the Rue Saint Antoine.
The Princess Marguerite, in her apartments of the palace of the Louvre with her sister, the Duchess Claude of Lorraine, listened to the cheers in the street and smiled happily, knowing for whom the cheers were intended. Marguerite, known throughout the country as Margot, was nineteen years old; plump already, vivacious and sensually attractive, she was reputed to be one of the most learned women in the country, and one of the most licentious. Her older and more serious sister, the wife of the Duke of Lorraine, made a striking contrast with the younger princess; Claude was a very quiet and sober young woman.
Margot’s black hair fell loosely about her shoulders, for she had just discarded the red wig she had favored that day; her black eyes sparkled, and even Claude knew that they sparkled for the handsome Duke of Guise. Margot and Guise were lovers, although they had ceased to be faithful lovers; there were too many separations, and Margot’s nature was, Claude told herself, too affectionate for constancy. The mild and gentle Claude had a happy way of seeing everyone in the best possible light. Margot had often told her sister that her life had been ruined when permission to marry the man she loved—the only man she could ever love—had been denied her. As a wife of Henry of Guise, she declared, she would have been faithful; but, being his mistress and being unable to become his wife, she had been dishonored; in desperation she had taken a lover or two, and then had been unable to get out of the habit, for she loved easily, and there were so many handsome men at court. “But,” explained Margot to her women, “I am always faithful to Monsieur de Guise when he is at court.” And now the thought of him made her eyes shine and the laughter bubble to her lips.
“Go to the window, Charlotte,” she commanded. “Tell me, can you see him? Describe him to me.”
A young woman of infinite grace rose from her stool and sauntered to the window. Charlotte de Sauves could not obey a command such as the Princess had just given, without seeming to proclaim to all who watched her that she was the most beautiful woman at court. Her long, curling hair was magnificently dressed, and her gown was almost as elaborate as those worn by Claude and Margot; she was fair, her eyes were blue, and she was two or three years older than Margot; her elderly husband occupied the great position of Secretary of State, and if his duties left him little time to bestow on his wife, there were many others ready to take over his conjugal responsibilities. Margot’s reputation was slightly tarnished, but that of Charlotte de Sauves was evil, for when Margot strayed, she loved, however briefly, and for her that love was, temporarily, “the love of her life”; Charlotte’s love affairs were less innocent.
“I see him,” said Charlotte. “How tall he is!”
“They say he is at least a head taller than most of his followers,” commented Claude.
“And how he sits his horse!” cried Charlotte. “It is not surprising that the Parisians love him.”
Margot rose and went swiftly to the window.
“There is no one like him,” she said. “Ah, I could tell you much of him. Oh, Claude, do not look so shocked. I shall not do so, for I am not as indiscreet as Charlotte and Henriette.”
“You should tell us,” said Charlotte, “or some of us may be tempted to find out for ourselves.”
Margot turned on Charlotte and, taking her ear between her finger and thumb, pinched it hard. It was a trick Margot had learned from her mother, and she knew from personal experience what pain it could inflict.
“Madame de Sauves,” she said, every bit the Princess now, “you will do well to keep your eyes from straying in the direction of Monsieur de Guise.”
Touching her ear very gently, Charlotte said: “My lady Princess, there is no need to fear. I have no doubt that Monsieur de Guise is as faithful to you as . . . you are to him.”
Margot turned away and went back to her chair; it did not take her long to forget her anger, because already she was anticipating a reunion with Henry of Guise; those about her knew her well, and they were fond of her, for, with all her faults, she was the most lovable member of the royal family. Her temper rose quickly but it fell with equal speed and she was generous and good-hearted; she could always be relied upon to help anyone in distress; she was vain and she was immoral; there had in fact been unpleasant rumors concerning her affection for her brother Henry, the Duke of Anjou; she had at one time admired him greatly; this was when he was seventeen and the hero of Jarnac and Montcontour, and Margot’s love, whether for cousin or brother, held nothing back that might be asked. But beautiful as she was, both gay and learned, so eager always to talk of herself, to make excuses for her conduct, she was an enchanting companion, a joy to be with, and greatly she was loved.
Now, because of the words of Charlotte de Sauves, she must justify herself in the eyes of her women. She shuddered and rocked herself gently to and fro. “To think,” she murmured, “that each passing minute brings me nearer to a marriage which I hate!”
They tried to comfort her.
“You will be a Queen, dearest sister,” said Claude.
Others added their balm. “It is said that Henry of Navarre, although lacking the beauty of Monsieur de Guise, is not without his attractions.”
Charlotte joined them, still tenderly fingering her ear. “You would find many women ready to testify to his attractiveness,” she murmured. “He is a little rough, they say, a little coarse; but it would be difficult to find another as affectionate and as elegant as Monsieur de Guise. Duke Henry is a king among men; and the King of Navarre, it is said, is just a man . . . among women.”
“Be silent, Charlotte,” said Margot, beginning to laugh. “Oh, but my heart bleeds. What shall I do? I declare I’ll not be married to this oaf. I hear he has a fondness for peasant girls.”
“Not more than for great ladies,” said Charlotte. “He just has a fondness for all.”
“It may be,” said Margot, “that the Pope will not send the dispensation. Then there can be no marriage. I pray each hour that the Pope will refuse to allow the marriage to take place. And then what can we do?”
Her ladies smiled. They were of the opinion that the Princess’s mother, who desired the marriage, would not allow it to be prevented by a mere Pope. But they said nothing; it was the fashion to share wholeheartedly in Margot’s fables. As for Claude, she did not wish to add to her sister’s distress.
“Then there will be no wedding,” continued Margot, “and all these men and women can go back where they belong. But it is exciting to see so many people in Paris. I must confess I like it. I like to hear the shouts of the people all through the night. They have turned night into day—all because they have gathered here to see me married to that oaf Henry of Navarre, whom I will never marry, whom I have sworn never to marry.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Enter!” cried Margot; and her face changed when she saw Madalenna, her mother’s confidential Italian attendant. Claude shivered; she invariably did when there was a prospect of her being called to her mother’s presence.
“What is it, Madalenna?” asked Margot.
“Her Majesty, the Queen Mother, desires the immediate presence of Madame de Sauves.”
All except Charlotte showed their relief, and she gave no indication of what she was feeling.
“Go at once,” said Margot lightheartedly. “You must not keep my mother waiting.”
There was silence when Charlotte had gone. After a pause Margot went on to talk of her hated marriage, but her eyes had lost their sparkle and the animation had left her face.
Charlotte de Sauves knelt before Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France, until Catherine, waving a beautiful white hand, bade the young woman rise.
Catherine was fifty-three years of age at this time; she had grown very fat in the last years, for she was very fond of good food; she was dressed in black—the mourning which she had worn since the death of her husband, Henry the Second, thirteen years before. Her face was pale, her jowls heavy, her large eyes prominent; her long black widow’s veil covered her head and fell over her shoulders. Her carmined lips were smiling, but Charlotte de Sauves shivered as many did when they were in the presence of the Queen Mother, for in spite of a certain joviality of manner, her sly secret nature could not be, after so many years, completely hidden; and it was such a short time since the death of Jeanne of Navarre, the mother of the bridegroom-to-be, who had, much against her inclination, been persuaded to come to court to discuss the marriage of her son with Catherine’s daughter. Jeanne’s death had been swift and mysterious and, as it had occurred immediately after she had done what Catherine required of her, there were many in France who connected the death of Jeanne of Navarre with Catherine de’ Medici. People talked a good deal about the strange ways of the Queen Mother, of her Italian origin, for it was recognized that the Italians were adepts in the art of poisoning; it was suspected that her perfumer and glove-maker, René the Florentine, helped her to remove her enemies as well as her wrinkles, supplied her with poisons as well as perfumes and cosmetics. There had been deaths other than that of Jeanne of Navarre—secret murders of which this widow in black had been suspected. Charlotte thought of them now as she stood facing her mistress.
But Charlotte, young, bold, and beautiful, was by no means of a timid nature. She enjoyed intrigue; she was delighted to exploit the power which was hers through her unparalleled beauty. She had found favor with Catherine because Catherine always favored those who could be useful to her; and she had her own way of using beautiful women. She did not keep a harem to satisfy her erotic tastes as her father-in-law Francis the First had done. The women of Francis’s Petite Bande had been his mistresses whose task was to amuse him with their wit and their beauty; Catherine’s women must possess the same qualities; they must be able to charm and allure, to tempt husbands from their wives and ministers of state from their duties; they must wheedle secrets from those who possessed them, and lure foreign ambassadors from their Kings. All the women of the Escadron Volant belonged to Catherine, body and soul; and none, having entered that esoteric band, dared leave it. Charlotte, like most young women who had joined it, had no wish to leave it; it offered excitement, intrigue, erotic pleasure; and there was even a certain enjoyment to be had from the more unpleasant tasks. No woman of virtue would have been invited to enroll in that band, for women of virtue were of no use to Catherine de’ Medici.
Charlotte guessed the meaning of this summons. It was, she was sure, connected with the seduction of a man. She wondered who this might be. There were many noble and eminent men in Paris at this time, but her thoughts went to the young man whom she had seen on horseback from the window of Princess Margot’s apartment. If it were Henry of Guise she would enter into her task with great delight. And it might well be. The Queen Mother might wish to curb her daughter’s scandalous behavior; and as Margot and Henry of Guise were in Paris at the same time there was bound to be scandalous behavior, although he was another woman’s husband and she a bride to be.
Catherine said: “You may sit, Madame de Sauves.” She did not go immediately to the point. “You have just left the Princess’s apartments. How did you find her?”
“Most excited by the tumult in the streets, Madame. She sent me to the window to look at the Duke of Guise as he rode by. Your Majesty knows how she always behaves when he is in Paris. She is very excited.”
Catherine nodded. “Ah well, the King of Navarre will have to look after her, will he not? He will not be hard on her for her wantonness. He himself suffers from the same weakness.” Catherine let out a loud laugh in which Charlotte obsequiously joined.
Catherine went on: “They say he is very gallant, this gentleman of Navarre. He has been so ever since he was a child. I remember him well.” Charlotte watched the Queen Mother’s lips curl, saw the sudden lewdness flash into her eyes. Charlotte found this aspect of Catherine’s character as repelling as anything about her; as cold as a mountaintop, she had no lovers; and yet she would wish her Escadron to discuss their love affairs with her, while she remained cool, aloof, untouched by any emotion and yet seemed as though she enjoyed their adventures vicariously. “Old and young,” went on Catherine. “It mattered not what age they were. It only mattered that they were women. Tell me what the Princess Marguerite said when she sent you to the window to watch Monsieur de Guise.”
Charlotte related in detail everything that had been said. It was necessary to forget nothing, for the Queen Mother might question another who had been present and if the two accounts did not exactly tally she would be most displeased. She liked her spies to observe with complete accuracy and forget nothing.
“She is not so enamored of the handsome Duke as she once was,” said Catherine. “Why, at one time . . .” She laughed again. “No matter. An account of such adventures would doubtless seem commonplace to you, who have had adventures of your own. But those two were insatiable. A handsome pair, do you not think so, Madame de Sauves?”
“Your Majesty is right. They are very handsome.”
“And neither of them the faithful sort. Easily tempted, both of them. So my daughter was a little jealous of the effect your interest might have on the gallant Guise, eh?”
Charlotte touched her ear reminiscently, and Catherine laughed.
“I have a task for you, Charlotte.”
Charlotte smiled, thinking of the handsome figure on horseback. He was, as so many agreed, the handsomest and the most charming man in France.
“I wish to make my daughter’s life as pleasant as I can,” went on Catherine. “This wedding of hers is distasteful to her, I know, but she likes to see herself in the role of injured innocent, so she will, in some measure, enjoy playing the reluctant bride. The young King of Navarre has always been one of the few young men in whom she has not been interested; and as I wish to make life easy for her, I am going to ask you to help me do so.”
“I have one wish, and that to serve Your Majesty with all my heart.”
“Your task will be an easy one. It is well within your range, and as it involves attracting a gallant gentleman and seeking to hold his affections, I am sure you will accomplish it with ease.”
“Your Majesty may rest assured that I will do all that is possible to please you.”
“It should not be unpleasant. The lover I propose for you has a reputation as colorful as your own. I have heard it said that he is as irresistible to most women as I know you are to most men.”
Charlotte smiled. She had long desired the handsome Duke of Guise. If she had never dared to look his way it was because Margot guarded her lovers as a tigress guards her cubs; but if the Queen Mother commanded, then Margot’s anger would be of little importance.
“I see that you are excited by the proposal,” said Catherine. “Enjoy yourself, my dear. I feel sure you will. You must let me know how you progress.”
“Is it Your Majesty’s wish that I should begin at once?”
“That is not possible.” Catherine smiled slowly. “You must wait until the gentleman arrives in Paris. I should not like your courtship of him to be conducted by letter.”
“But, Madame . . .” began Charlotte, taken off her guard.
Catherine raised her eyebrows. “Yes, Madame de Sauves? What did you wish to say?”
Charlotte was silent, her eyes downcast.
“You thought I referred to a gentleman who is now in Paris . . . who has just come to Paris?”
“I . . . I thought that Your Majesty . . . had in mind . . . a gentleman who is already here.”
“I am sorry if I disappoint you.” Catherine looked at her beautiful hands, kept young and supple by René’s lotions. “I do not wish your love affair to advance too quickly. I wish that you should remember while you court this gentleman that you are a dutiful wife. You must tell him that your respect for the Baron de Sauves, my Secretary of State and your loving husband, prevents your giving what he will, ere long I doubt not, be asking for with great eloquence.”
“That is all. You may go.”
“Your Majesty has not yet told me the name of the gentleman.”
Catherine laughed aloud. “A serious omission on my part. It is, after all, most important that you should know. But have you not guessed? I refer, of course, to our bridegroom, the King of Navarre. You seem surprised. I am sorry if you had hoped for Henry of Guise. How you women love that man! There is my daughter doing her best to refuse a crown, for Monsieur de Guise; and I declare you were almost overcome by excitement when, for a moment, you thought that my orders were to take him for your lover. No, Madame, we must make life easy for our young married pair. Leave Monsieur de Guise to my daughter, and take her husband.”
Charlotte felt stunned. She was by no means virtuous, but there were times when, confronted by the designs of the Queen Mother, she felt herself to be in the control of a fiend of Hell.
Sadness brooded over the lovely old Château of Châtillon. There should not have been this sadness, for in the castle there lived one of the happiest families in all France; but for the preceding weeks, the head of the house, the man whom every member of the great family revered and loved deeply, had been restless and uneasy. He would busy himself in his gardens, where now the roses were making a magnificent show, and spend many happy hours with his gardeners discussing where they should plant the new fruit trees; he would chat with the members of his family or walk through the green alleys with his beloved wife; he would laugh and jest with his family or read aloud to them. This was a home made for happiness.
But it was precisely because there had been such happiness that the anxiety was with them now. They did not speak to one another of that dear friend, the Queen of Navarre, who had recently died so mysteriously in Paris, but they thought of her continually. Whenever the court, the King, or the Queen Mother were mentioned, Jacqueline de Coligny would cling to her husband’s arm as though, by so doing, she could keep him at her side and out of harm; he would merely press her hand and smile, though he knew he could not grant her mute request; he could not promise not to go to court when the summons came.
Gaspard de Coligny had been singularly blessed, but being beloved by the Huguenots, he must be hated by the Catholics. He was now fifty-three years of age; ever since his conversion to “The Religion,” which had come about when he had been a prisoner in Flanders, he had been entirely devoted to it; he had sacrificed everything to it as now he knew that he might be called upon to sacrifice his happiness with his family. He did not fear the sort of death which had overtaken Jeanne of Navarre, but he was perturbed at the thought that his family might be left to mourn him. That was at the root of his sadness. He lived dangerously; he had faced death many times during his lifetime and he was ready to face it many more. Only recently he had narrowly escaped being poisoned at—he guessed—the instructions of the Queen Mother. He should not trust that woman; yet if he did not trust her, how could he hope for a solution of all the problems which beset him? He knew that the mysterious deaths of his brothers, Andelot, the Colonel-in-Chief of the Infantry, and Odet, the Cardinal of Châtillon, had probably been ordered by Catherine de’ Medici. Odet had died in London; Andelot at Saintes. The spies of the Queen Mother were everywhere and she poisoned by deputy. Yet if he were called to court, he must go, for his life belonged not to him, but to his party.
As he strolled along the paths of his garden, his wife Jacqueline came to him. He watched her with great tenderness; she was pregnant—a fact which was a great joy to them both. They had not been long married and theirs had been a romantic match. Jacqueline had loved him before she had seen him; like many a Huguenot lady, she had admired him for years, and on the death of his wife she had determined to comfort him if he would let her do so. She had made the long journey from Savoy to La Rochelle, where he had been at that time, and, touched by her devotion, the lonely widower had found irresistible that comfort and adoration which she had offered. It was not long after Jacqueline’s arrival in La Rochelle that Gaspard had entered into the felicity of a second married life.
“I have come to see your roses,” she said, and she slipped her arm through his.
He knew at once that some new cause for anxiety had arisen, for he could sense her uneasiness. She was never one to hide her feelings, and now that she was carrying the child she seemed more candid than ever. The way in which her trembling fingers clung to his arm set him guessing what had happened. He did not ask what troubled her; he wished to postpone unpleasantness, just for a little while.
“Why, you saw the roses yesterday, my love.”
“But they change in a day. I wish to see them again. Come. Let us go to the rose gardens.”
Neither of them looked back at the gray walls of the Château. Gaspard put an arm about his wife.
“You are tired,” he said.
He thought: it must be a summons from the court. It is from the King or the Queen Mother. Jacqueline will weep and beg me not to go. But I must go. So much depends on my going. I must work for our people; and discussions and councils are better than civil wars.
He had long dreamed of that war which was to mean freedom for the Huguenots of France and Flanders, the war which would bring freedom of worship, that would put an end to horrible massacres like that of Vassy. If he could achieve that, he would not care what became of him—except for the sorrow his death would cause his dear ones.
His two boys, Francis and Odet, aged fifteen and seven, came out to join them. They knew the secret; Gaspard realized that at once. Francis betrayed nothing, but little Odet could not stop looking at his father with anxious eyes. It seemed sad that fear and such apprehension must be felt by one so young.
“What is it, my son?” asked Gaspard of Odet; and even as he spoke he saw the warning glances of Jaqueline and his elder son.
“Nothing, Father,” said Odet, in his shrill boy’s voice. “Nothing ails me. I am very well, thank you.”
Gaspard ruffled the dark hair and thought of that other Odet who had gone to London and never returned.
“How pleasant it is out here!” he said. “I confess I feel a reluctance to be within walls.”
He sensed their relief. Dear children! Dearly beloved wife! He almost wished that God had not given him such domestic happiness since it broke his heart to shatter it; that he had not been chosen as a leader of men, but rather that he might give himself over to the sweeter, more homely life.
His daughter Louise, with Téligny, the husband whom she had recently married, came into the garden. It was a pleasure to see those two together, for they were very much in love; and Téligny, that noble young man, was more to Gaspard than a son, for Téligny, a staunch Huguenot, had become one of the most reliable leaders of the movement, a son-in-law of whom Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France and leader of the Huguenot cause, could be proud.
Jacqueline and the boys knew that they could no longer keep the secret from Gaspard.
Téligny said: “There are summonses from court.”
“From the King?” asked Gaspard.
“From the Queen Mother.”
“The messenger has been refreshed?”
“He is eating now,” said Louise.
“My orders are to return to court as soon as possible,” said Téligny. “Yours, sir, are doubtless the same.”
“Later we will go and see,” said Gaspard. “For the time being it is pleasant here in the garden.”
But the evil moment could not long be put off, and even as he dallied in the gardens, it was obvious to Jacqueline that her husband’s thoughts were on those dispatches. She was foolish, she knew, to think that they could be canceled merely by refusing to speak of them or to look at them. Téligny had had his orders; her husband must expect similar ones.
And so it was. There was a command from the Queen Mother for him to come to court.
“Why so gloomy?” asked Gaspard, smiling at his wife. “I am invited to court. There was a time when I thought never to receive such an invitation again.”
“I wish that you never had,” said Jacqueline vehemently.
“But, my dearest, you forget that the King is my friend. He is good at heart, our young King Charles. It is my belief that he is the most benign sovereign that ever mounted the throne of the fleur-de-lys.”
“I was thinking of his mother, and so my thoughts went to our dear friend, Queen Jeanne of Navarre.”
“You should not think of the Queen Mother when you are reminded of Jeanne’s death. Jeanne was sick and she died of her sickness.”
“She died of poison and that poison was administered by . . .”
But Gaspard had laid a hand on his wife’s arm. “Let the people of Paris whisper such things, my love. We should not. From them they are gossip; from us they would be treason.”
“Then is truth treason? Jeanne went to buy gloves from the Queen Mother’s poisoner and . . . she died. That tells me all I wish to know.”
“Caution, my dearest. You think that I am in danger. That may be fancy. Do not let us make of it a real danger.”
“I will be cautious. But must you go to court?”
“My dear, I must. Think what this means to us . . . to our cause. The King has promised help to the Prince of Orange. We will overcome Spain and then those of our religion will be able to worship in peace.”
“But, Gaspard, the Queen Mother cannot be trusted. Jeanne used to say that, and she knew.”
“We are dealing with the King, my dear. The King has a good heart. He has said that the Huguenots are as much his subjects as the Catholics. I am full of hope.”
But to his son-in-law Téligny he was less optimistic. When they were alone, he said to him: “Sometimes I wonder whether some of our party are worthy of God’s help; I wonder whether they are aware of the solemnity of our mission. Do they realize that it is time for them to establish ‘The Religion’ in our land so that generations to come may be born to it? Sometimes it seems to me that the bulk of our people have no real love for ‘The Religion.’ They use it to quarrel with their enemies, and they would rather argue over dogma than lead good lives. The men of our country do not take kindly to Protestantism, my son; not as do the men of Flanders, England, and the German Provinces. Our people love gaiety and ritual; they consider it not amiss to sin, receive pardon, and sin again; as a nation, the quiet, peaceful life does not appeal to them. We must remember that. The two religions have been, to many as yet, a reason for fighting one against the other. My son, I am uneasy. There is a coldness in these summonses of ours which was not shown when I was at court. But I am determined to fulfill my promises to the Prince of Orange, and the King must be made to keep his word.”
“All that you say is true,” said Téligny. “But, my father, if the King refuses to keep his word to Orange, what can we do?”
“We can try to influence him. I feel I can do much with the King, providing I am allowed to see him alone. Failing his help, we have our followers, our soldiers, our own persons . . .”
“The help of Châtillon would seem small, when the help of France had been promised.”
“You are right, my son; but if France fails to keep her word, Châtillon must not do likewise.”
“I have had warning letters from friends at court. Father, they beg us not to go. The Guises plot against us, and the Queen Mother plots with the Guises.”
“We cannot stay away because of warning letters, my son.”
“We must take great care, sir.”
“Rest assured we will.”
At the communal meal nothing was said of the departure, but, from Jacqueline and Gaspard at the head of the table to the servants at the other end, all were thinking of it. Gaspard was greatly loved throughout the neighboring countryside, for all were aware that there was food for any who needed it at the Château de Châtillon; it was the Admiral himself who had instituted these communal meals which began with a psalm and were followed by grace.
Gaspard was now thinking, as he sat down at the long table, of the struggle which lay before him and those men who were pledged to help him. There was the young Prince of Condé, so like his gay and gallant father who had died fighting for the cause; but the young Prince, for all his valor, was scarcely a strong man. There was the young King, Henry of Navarre, who, at nineteen, was a brave enough fighter but a light liver, a man who thirsted after pleasure rather than righteousness. He could not resist the blandishments of women; he was fond of roistering, of good food and drink; he was too gay a Prince to devote himself to a religious cause. Téligny? It was not because he was so closely related that Gaspard’s hopes rested in that young man. In Téligny Gaspard recognized his own determination, his own devotion. There was also the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, dearly beloved of King Charles; but he was young yet and untried. There was the Scot, Montgomery, whose lance had accidentally killed King Henry the Second. Montgomery was the man who would probably lead the Huguenots if death overtook the Admiral, but he was no longer young, and it was among the young that they must look. In the natural course the leadership would fall to the young King of Navarre.
It was foolish to think of his own death; it was the frightened glances of his family and friends which had sent his thoughts in that direction. Even the servants threw fearful glances at him. They were all silently begging him to ignore the dispatches, to refuse to obey the command of the Queen Mother.
Only Téligny was unafraid; and Téligny knew, as the Admiral knew, that they must leave as soon as possible for the court.
Gaspard talked; he talked lightheartedly of the coming marriage, which was not merely the union of a Catholic Princess and a Protestant Prince but, he hoped, the union of all Catholics and Protestants throughout France.
“If the King and the Queen Mother were not ready to favor us, would they have wished for this marriage? Has not the King himself said that if the Pope will not give the dispensation, the Princess Marguerite and King Henry shall be married en pleine prêche? What more could he say than that? He is our friend, I say. He at least is our friend. He is young and he is surrounded by our enemies; but when I go to court I shall be able to assure him of the righteousness of our cause. He loves me; he is my dear friend. You know how I was treated when I was last at court. He consulted me on all matters. He called me Father. He wishes to do good and he wants peace in the kingdom. And, my friends, do not doubt that I will help him to attain it.”
But there were murmurings along the table. The Italian woman was at court, and how could she be trusted? The Admiral had forgotten how at one time she had set one of her spies to poison him when he was in camp. That might easily have been accomplished. The Admiral was too forgiving, too trusting. One did not forgive, nor did one trust, a serpent.
Etienne, one of the Admiral’s grooms, wept openly. “If the Admiral leaves us he will never return to us,” he prophesied.
His fellows stared at him in horror, but he persisted in his gloomy prognostications. “She will succeed in her evil plans this time; evil will triumph over good.”
He was silenced, but he sat there dropping tears into his cup.
When the cloth was removed one of the ministers—there were usually one or two at the Admiral’s table—gave the benediction. Then the Admiral and his son-in-law shut themselves up together to talk of their plans and to prepare dispatches which must be sent to court to announce their coming.
When they rode out a few days later, Etienne was in the stables. He had been waiting there since early morning, and when the Admiral mounted his horse, he flung himself on his knees and wailed like one possessed.
“Monsieur, my good master,” he implored, “do not go to your ruin, for ruin awaits you in Paris. If you go to Paris you will die there . . . and so will all who go with you.”
The Admiral dismounted and embraced the weeping man.
“My friend, you have allowed evil rumors to upset you. Look at my strong arm. Look at my followers. You must know that we can take care of ourselves. Go to the kitchens and tell them they are to give you a cup of wine. Drink my health, man, and be of good cheer.”
He was led away, but he continued to mourn; and the Admiral, riding with his son-in-law to Paris, could not dismiss the scene from his thoughts.
Having dismissed Charlotte de Sauves, Catherine de’ Medici gave herself up to reflection. She had no definite plans yet for the young King of Navarre, but she guessed that it would be well to have Charlotte working upon him as soon as he arrived; it would not be advisable for him to make a prior attachment which might prove a stronger one than that which she intended to forge. She was sure that Henry of Navarre was another such as his father, Antoine de Bourbon—a man to be ruled by women; and she was determined that the woman who ruled her prospective son-in-law should be her spy. He must not be allowed to fall in love with his bride. That was hardly likely, since Margot would be as ungracious as she could, and Henry of Navarre, who had never lacked admirers, was not likely to fall in love with a wife who spurned him. But she could not trust Margot. Margot was a schemer, an intriguer, who would work for her lover rather than for her family.
As she sat brooding, her son Henry came into the room. He came unannounced and without ceremony. He was the only person at court who would have dared to do that.
She looked up and smiled. Tenderness sat oddly on her face. The prominent eyes softened, and the faintest color shone beneath her pallid skin. This was her beloved son; and every time she looked at him she was irked by the thought that he was not her firstborn, for she longed to take the crown from his brother and place it on that dark, handsome head.
She had loved Henry her husband through years of neglect and humiliation, and she had called this son after him. It was not the name which had been given to him at his baptism; that was Edouard Alexandre; but he had become her Henri; and she was determined that one day he should be Henry the Third of France.
Francis, her firstborn, was dead; and when he had died she had wished fervently that Henry might have taken the crown instead of mad ten-year-old Charles. It was particularly irritating to reflect that there was a year between their births. Why, she had so often asked herself, had she not borne this son on that June day in 1550! If that had been so she would have been spared many an anxious moment.
“My darling,” she said, taking his hand—one of the most shapely in France and very like her own—and carrying it to her lips. She smelt the scent of musk and violet powder which he brought into the room. He seemed the most beautiful creature she had ever seen, in his exaggeratedly fashionable coat of mulberry velvet slashed to show pearl-gray satin; the border of his linen chemise was stiff with jewels of all colors; his hair was curled and stood out charmingly beneath his small jeweled cap; his long white fingers were scarcely visible for the rings which covered them; diamonds sparkled in his ears and bracelets hung on his wrists.
“Come,” she said, “sit close to me. You look disturbed, my dearest. What ails you? You look tired. Not too much lovemaking with Mademoiselle de Châteauneuf?”
He waved a hand languidly. “No, not that.”
She patted the hand. She was glad that he had at last taken a mistress; the public expected it and it pleased them. Moreover, a woman would not have the influence with him which was enjoyed by those frizzed and perfumed young men with whom he liked to surround himself. Renée de Châteauneuf was not the sort to meddle with what did not concern her and she was the kind Catherine would have chosen for her son. Yet she was a little worried about his lovemaking with Renée, because it tired him, and afterwards he would have to take to his bed for a day or two in sheer exhaustion while his young men waited on him, curling his hair, bringing to him the choicest sweetmeats in the palace, reading poetry to him, and fetching his dogs and parrots to play their tricks and amuse him.
He was a strange young man, this son of hers. Half Medici, half Valois, he was tainted in mind and body as were all the sons of Henry the Second and Catherine de’ Medici. They had had little chance from their births; the sins of the grandfathers—Catherine’s father as well as Henry’s—had fallen upon them.
People said it was strange that a young man such as this Henry, Duke of Anjou, could have been that great general which the battles of Jarnac and Montcontour seemed to have proved him to be. It seemed impossible that this fop, this languishing, effeminate young man who painted his face, curled his hair, and at twenty-one must take to his bed after making love to a young woman, had fought and beaten in battle such men as Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Condé. Catherine, the realist, must admit to herself that at Jarnac and Montcontour Henry had been blessed with a fine army and excellent advisers. Moreover, like all her sons, he matured early and declined rapidly. At twenty-one he was not the man he had been at seventeen. Witty he would always be; he would always possess an appreciation of beauty, but his love of pleasure, his perverted tastes which he petulantly indulged were robbing him of his energy. It was certainly not the general who stood before his mother now. His lips were curled sullenly and Catherine thought she understood why.
She said: “You should not concern yourself with the Queen’s pregnancy, my son. Charles’s child will never live.”
“There were times when you said he would never have a son.”
“Nor has he yet. How do we know what the sex of the child will be?”
“What matters that? If this should be a girl, it does not alter the fact that they are young and will have more children.”
Catherine played with her talisman bracelet which was made up of different colored stones. On these stones were engravings said to be devils’ and magicians’ signs; the links of the bracelet were made of parts of a human skull. This ornament inspired awe in all who saw it, as Catherine intended that it should. It had been made for her by her magicians and she believed it to have special qualities.
As he watched her fingers caress it, Anjou felt some relief. He knew that his mother would never let anyone stand in his way to the throne. Still, he thought it had been rather careless of her to let Charles marry, and he intended to let her know that he thought so.
“They will not live,” said Catherine.
“Can you be sure of that, Mother?”
She appeared to be studying her bracelet with the utmost concentration. “They will not live,” she repeated. “My son, soon you will wear the crown of France. Of that I am sure. And when you do you will not forget the gratitude due to the one who put you on the throne, will you, my darling?”
“Never, Mother,” he said. “But there is this news from Poland.”
“I confess I should like to see you a King and that without delay.”
“A King of Poland?”
She put an arm about him. “I should wish you to be King of France and Poland. If you were the King of Poland alone, and that meant you would have to leave France for that barbarous country, then I think my heart would break.”
“That is what my brother wishes.”
“I would never let you stay away from me.”
“Let us face the facts, Mother. Charles hates me.”
“He is jealous of you because you are so much more fitted to be King of France than he is.”
“He hates me most because he knows that you love me most. He would wish to see me banished from this country. He has always been my enemy.”
“Poor Charles, he is both mad and sick. We must not expect reason from him.”
“Yes. A fine state of affairs. A mad King on the throne of France.”
“But he has many to help him govern.”
They laughed together, but Henry was immediately serious. “Yet what if this child should be a boy?”
“It could not be a healthy boy. Believe me, you have nothing to fear from your brother’s sickly offspring.”
“And what if he should demand my acceptance of the Polish throne?”
“It is not yet vacant.”
“But the Queen is dead and the King dangerously ill. My brother and his friends are angry because I refused to marry the Queen of England. What if they now insist that I take the crown of Poland?”
“We must see that you are not banished from France. I would not endure that; and surely you do not believe that any such thing could happen if I did not wish it?”
“Madame, I am as sure that you rule this realm as I am that you sit here.”
“Then you have nothing to fear.”
“Yet my brother grows truculent. My lady mother, forgive me when I point out that of late there have been others about the throne whose influence with him would seem to increase.”
“They can be taken care of.”
“Yet they can be dangerous. You remember my brother’s attitude concerning the Queen of Navarre.”
Catherine remembered it very well. The King, like many people in France, had suspected that his mother had had a hand in the murder of Jeanne of Navarre, yet he had ordered an autopsy. Had poison been found, the execution of René, the Florentine poisoner and servant of the Queen Mother, would have been inevitable. Charles, believing his mother to have been involved, had not hesitated in his wish to expose her. She would not forget such treachery from her own son.
“We know who was responsible for his attitude,” said Catherine. “And once the cause is known it can be removed.”
“Coligny is too powerful,” said Anjou. “How long shall he remain so? How long will you allow him to poison the King’s mind against you . . . against us?”
She did not answer, but her smile reassured him.
“He is on his way to court,” said Anjou. “This time he should never be allowed to leave it.”
“I think that when Monsieur de Coligny comes to court, your brother may not be quite so enamored of him,” said Catherine slowly. “You talk of the Admiral’s influence with your brother, but do not forget that when the King is in any trouble it is to his mother that he has been wont to turn.”
“That was once so. Is it so now?”
“Coligny is wise. That righteousness, that stern godliness have had their effect on the King. But this happened because it did not at once occur to me that the King could be so bemused by his Huguenot friend. Now that I have learned the power of the Huguenot and the folly of Charles, I shall know how to act. I am going to see Charles now. When I leave him I think he may be a little less trustful towards his dear good friend Coligny. I think that when the mighty Admiral arrives in Paris he may find a cold reception waiting for him.”
“I will come with you and add my voice to yours.”
“No, my darling. Remember that the King is jealous of your superior powers. Let me go alone and I will tell you every word that passes between us.”
“Mother, you will not allow me to be sent to that barbarous country?”
“Did I send you to England? Have you forgotten my indulgence to you when you so ungallantly refused the Queen of England?” Catherine burst into laughter. “You insulted her and she might have gone to war with us on that account. You know what a vain old baggage she is. I shall never forget that wicked suggestion of yours that if you married the Earl of Leicester’s mistress, it would be fitting for Leicester to marry yours. You are quite mischievous and I adore you for it. How could I endure my life without you near me to make me laugh? Was it not all but intolerable when you were away at the wars? No, my darling, I shall not allow him to send you to Poland . . . or anywhere else which is away from me!”
He kissed her hand while she touched his curled hair, gently because he did not like it to be disarranged.
Charles, the King, was in that part of the Louvre where he enjoyed being—the apartments of Marie Touchet, the mistress whom he loved.
He was twenty-two, but he looked older, for his face was wrinkled and his skin pallid; he had not had eight consecutive days of health in his life; his hair was fine but scanty, and he stooped as he walked; he was, at twenty-two, like an old man. Yet his face was a striking one and at times it seemed almost beautiful. His wide-set eyes were golden brown, and very like his father’s had been; they were alert and intelligent, and when he was not suffering a bout of madness, kindly and charming; they were the eyes of a strong man, and it was their contrast with that weak, almost imbecile mouth and receding chin that made his face so unusual. Two distinct characters looked out of the King’s face; the man he might have been and the man he was; the strong and kindly humanist, and the man of tainted blood, bearing through his short life the burden which the excesses of his grandfathers had put upon him. Each week the trouble in his lungs seemed to increase; and as his body gave up its strength, it became more and more difficult for him to control his mind. The bouts of madness became more frequent as did the moods of melancholy. When, in the dead of night, he would feel that frenzy upon him, he would rise from his bed, waken his followers, put on his mask, and go to the lodgings of one of his friends; the pack would catch the young man in his bed and beat him. This was a favorite pastime of the King’s during his madness; and the friends he beat were the friends he loved best. So it was with the dogs which he adored. In his sane moments he shed bitter tears over the dogs which, in his madness, he had beaten to death.
He was in a continual state of bewilderment and fear. He was afraid of his brothers, Anjou and Alençon, but particularly of Anjou, who had his mother’s complete devotion. He was well aware that his mother wanted the throne for Henry and he was continually wondering what they plotted between them. At this time he was sure that the pregnancy of the Queen was a matter which caused those two much concern.
He was afraid also of the Guises. The handsome young Duke was one of the most ambitious men in the country; and to support him there was his uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine, that sly lecher whose tongue could wound as cruelly as a sword; there were also the Cardinal’s brothers, the Cardinal of Guise, the Duke of Aumale, the Grand Prior, and the Duke of Elboeuf. These mighty Princes of Lorraine kept ever-watchful eyes on the throne of France, and they never lost an opportunity of thrusting forward their young nephew, Henry of Guise, who, with his charm and nobility, already had the people of Paris behind him.
But there were some whom the King could trust. Strangely enough, one of these was his wife. He did not love her, but his gentleness had won her heart. Poor little Elisabeth, like many another Princess sacrificed on the altar of politics, she had come from Austria to marry him; she was a timid creature who had been terrified when she had learned that she was to marry the King of France. What must that have suggested to her? Great monarchs like Charles’s grandfather, Francis the First, witty, amusing, and charming; or Henry the Second, Charles’s father, strong, stern, and silent. Elisabeth had imagined she would come to France to marry such a man as these; and instead she had found a boy with soft golden-brown eyes and a weak mouth, who had been kind to her because she was timid. She had repaid his kindness with devotion and now she had amazed France by promising to become the mother of the heir to the throne.
Charles began to tremble at the thought of his child. What would his mother do to it? Would she administer that morceau Italianizé for which she was becoming notorious? Of one thing the King was certain: she would never willingly let his child live to take the throne. He would put his old nurse Madeleine in charge of the child, for Madeleine was another whom he could trust. She would fight for his child as she had tried to fight for him through his perilous childhood. Yes, he could trust Madeleine. She had soothed him through the difficult days of his childhood, secretly doing her best to eliminate the teachings of his perverted and perverting tutors—but only secretly, because those tutors had been put in charge of him by his mother in order to aggravate his madness and to initiate him into the ways of perversion; and if Catherine had guessed that Madeleine was trying to undo their work it would have been the morceau for Madeleine. Often, after a terrifying hour with his tutors, he had awakened in the night, trembling and afraid, and had crept into the antechamber in which Madeleine slept—for he would have her as near him as possible—to seek comfort in her motherly arms. Then she would rock him and soothe him, call him her baby, her Charlot, so that he could be reassured that he was nothing but a little boy, even though he was the King of France. Madeleine was a mother to him even now that he was a man, and he insisted on her being at hand, day and night.
His sister Margot? No, he could no longer trust Margot. She had become brazen, no longer his dear little sister. She had taken Henry of Guise as her lover, and to that man she would not hesitate to betray the King’s secrets. He would never trust her absolutely again, and he could not love where he did not trust.
But there was Marie—Marie the dearest of them all. She loved him and understood him as no one else could. To her he could read his poetry; he could show her the book on hunting which he was writing. To her he was indeed a King.
And then Coligny. Coligny was his friend. He never tired of being with the Admiral; he felt safe with him, for although some said he was a traitor to France, Charles had never felt the least apprehension concerning this friend. Coligny, he was sure, would never do anything dishonorable. If Coligny intended to work against him he would at once tell him so, for Coligny had never pretended to be what he was not. He was straightforward; and if he was a Huguenot, well then Charles would say that there was much about the Huguenots that he liked. He had many friends among the Huguenots; not only Coligny, but Madeleine his nurse was a Huguenot, and so was Marie; then there was the cleverest of his surgeons, Ambroise Paré; there was his dear friend Rochefoucauld. He did wish that there need not be this trouble between Huguenots and Catholics. He himself was a Catholic, of course, but he had many friends who had accepted the new faith.
One of his pages came in to tell him that his mother was approaching, and Marie began to tremble as she always did when she contemplated an interview with the Queen Mother.
“Marie, you must not be afraid. She will not harm you. She likes you. She has said so. If she did not, I should not allow you to remain at court. I should give you a house where I could visit you. But she likes you.”
Marie, however, continued to tremble.
“Page,” called the King, “go tell the Queen, my mother, that I will see her in my own apartments.”
“There,” said the King to Marie, “does that please you? Au revoir, my darling. I will come to you later.”
Marie kissed his hands, relieved that she would not have to face the woman whom she feared, and the King went through the passages which connected his apartments with those of his mistress.
Catherine greeted him with a show of affection.
“How well you look!” she said. “I declare the prospect of becoming a father suits you.”
The King’s lips tightened. He was filled with numb terror every time his mother mentioned the child the Queen was carrying.
“And how well our dear little Queen is looking!” went on Catherine. “I have to insist on her taking great care of herself. We cannot have her running risks now.”
Charles had learned to dread that archness of hers. The Queen Mother was fond of a joke and the grimmer the joke the better she liked it. People said she would hand the poison cup to a victim with a quip, wishing him good health as she did so. This trait of hers had led some people to believe that she was of a jovial nature; they did not immediately see the cynicism behind the laughter. But Charles knew her better than most people, and he did not smile now.
Catherine was quick to notice his expression. She told herself that she would have to keep a close watch on her little King. He had strayed much further from her influence than she had intended he should.
“Have you news for me?” asked the King.
“No. I have come for a little chat with you. I am disturbed. Very soon Coligny will arrive in Paris.”
“The thought gives me pleasure,” said Charles.
Catherine laughed. “Ah, he is a wily one, that Admiral.” She put the palms of her hands together and raised her eyes piously. “So good! Such a religious man! A very clever man, I would say. He can deceive us all with his piety.”
“Deceive indeed. He talks of righteousness while he thinks of bloodshed.”
“You are mistaken. When the Admiral talks of God he thinks of God.”
“He has discovered the kindness of his King—that much is certain—and made good use of Your Majesty’s benevolence.”
“I have received nothing but benevolence from him, Madame.”
“My dear son, it is not for you to receive benevolence, but to give it.”
The King flushed; she had, as ever, the power to make him feel foolish, unkingly, a little boy who depended for all things on his mother.
“I have come to talk to you of this man,” said Catherine, “for soon he will be here to cast his spells upon you. My son, you have to think very clearly. You are no longer a boy. You are a man and King of a great country. Do you wish to plunge this country into war with Spain?”
“I hate war,” said the King vehemently.
“And yet you encourage those who would make it. You offer your kingdom, yourself, and the persons of your family to Monsieur de Coligny.”
“I do not. I want peace . . . peace . . . peace . . .”
She terrified him. When she was with him he would remember scenes from his childhood when she had talked as she had now, dismissing all his attendants; on those occasions she had described the torture chambers and all the horrors which had been done to men and women who were powerless: in the hands of the powerful. He could not shut out of his mind the thoughts of blood, of the rack, of mangled, bleeding limbs. The thought of blood always sickened him, terrified him, drove him to that madness, when, obsessed by that thought of it, he must see it flow. His mother, more easily than those Italian tutors whom she had set over him, could arouse this madness in him. When he felt it rising and while some sanity remained with him, he must fight it with all the strength he possessed.
“You want peace,” she said, “and what do you do to preserve it? You hold secret councils with a man who wishes for war.”
“No! No! No!”
“Yes. Have you not held secret meetings with the Admiral?” She had risen and stood over him; he could see nothing but her heavy face with those glittering, prominent eyes.
“I . . . I have had meetings with him,” he said.
“And you will hold more?”
“Yes. No . . . no. I won’t.” He looked down, trying to escape from those hypnotic eyes. He said sullenly: “If I wish to hold meetings with any of my subjects I shall do so.”
There spoke the King, and Catherine was secretly perturbed by this show of strength. He had made too many friends among the Huguenots. At the earliest possible moment Coligny must be killed, and Téligny would have to follow, with Condé and Rochefoucauld. But Coligny was the most dangerous.
She changed her tone and, covering her face with her hands, she spoke with sadness. “After all the trouble which I have taken to bring you up and to preserve your crown—the crown which Huguenots and Catholics alike have tried to snatch from you—after having sacrificed myself for you and run a thousand dangers, how could I ever guess that you would reward me so miserably? You hide yourself from me—from your own mother!—in order to take counsel of your enemies. If you intend to work against me, tell me so, and I will return to the land of my birth. Your brother too must escape with me, for he has spent his life in preserving yours, and you must give him time to fly from those enemies to whom you are preparing to give the land of France.” She laughed bitterly. “Huguenots who, while they talk of war with Spain, want only a war in France—the ruin of our country so that they may flourish on those ruins.”
“You would never leave France,” he said.
“What else could I do? As for you yourself, when they had you in the torture chambers, when they had left you to rot in a dungeon, or, worse still, disposed of you in the Place de Grève . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“You cannot imagine they intend to let you live?” She lifted those large eyes to her son’s face. Although he did not believe she would ever leave France, although he knew that his brother Anjou had never been devoted to anything but his own ambitions, he was hypnotized by this strange mother of his, as he had been so many times before. Realizing that her son was no longer the pliable boy, Catherine did not intend to press her point too far; at the moment she only wished to plant distrust for the Admiral in her son’s mind.
She took his hand and kissed it. “Dearest son, know this: everything I say and do is for your good. I do not ask you to exile the Admiral from court. Indeed no. Receive him here. Then it will be easier for you to discover his true nature. Ah, he has bewitched you. That is understandable. He has bewitched many before you. All I ask is that you should be wary, not too trusting. Am I right, my son, in asking that this should be so?”
The King said slowly: “As usual you are right. I promise you I will not be too trusting.”
“And if, my dear son, you discover that there are traitors about you, men who plot against you, who work for your death and destruction?”
The King was biting his lips and there were flecks of red in the whites of his eyes. “Then,” he said savagely, while his fingers pulled at his jacket, “then, Madame, rest assured that there shall be no mercy for them . . . no mercy . . . no mercy!”
His voice had risen to a shriek, and Catherine smiled, certain that she had gained her point.
The Duke of Alençon had finished a game of tennis and had retired to his apartments to brood moodily on his future.
He was a very dissatisfied young man; he could imagine no worse fate than his—to be born the fourth son of a King. There were few who could hold out any hope of his mounting the throne, and he ardently desired to do so.
He was sullen because he believed life had been unfair to him. As Hercule, the youngest of the royal children, he had been such a pretty boy, so spoilt, so pampered—except by his mother—but when he was four years old, he had caught the smallpox, and that delicate skin of his had become hideously pitted; he had not grown so tall as his brothers; he was squat, thickset, and swarthy; it was said at court that he was a true Italian, which meant that the French did not like him. But which of his brothers did they like? Sickly Francis? No, they had despised him. Did they love mad Charles? Certainly they did not. And would they love the perfumed, elegant Henry? No. They would hate him more than any. Then why should they not love Francis of Alençon? They had changed his name from Hercule to Francis when his eldest brother had died. He had been delighted at the time, Francis was a King’s name. But his mother had maliciously said, with that cynical laugh of hers, that Hercule was not a suitable name for her little son. He hated her for that; but then he hated her for so many things. Well then, why should the people of France not take another Francis for their King?
He thought of the marriage with the English Queen, which they were proposing for him, and such thoughts made him very angry. He could not bear ridicule and he knew that courtiers often smirked behind their hands when the subject of his marriage was discussed. The Queen of England was an old woman, a virago, who amused herself by playing tricks on those who came to woo her. She should play no tricks on him. And why should he, a young man of eighteen, be married to a woman of thirty-nine?
One day he would show them all what he would do. They would cease to treat him as a person of no importance then. One day they would have a surprise. He had his friends who would follow whither he led.
He looked from the window of his apartment towards the Tour de Nesle; he let his eyes wander to the three towers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He saw the people crowded together, Huguenot and Catholic. There was much roistering in the streets and many a secret council in the palace; yet he, the King’s brother, the son of Henry the Second and Catherine de’ Medici, was kept outside the excitement, because he was considered too young and of too little importance!
And as he stood there he saw a cavalcade come riding through the streets. Another great personage come to attend the wedding of his sister. He called to one of his attendants: “Who is this riding into the city?”
“It is the Admiral de Coligny, sir. He is a fool to come riding into Paris thus.”
“He has many enemies, sir.”
The Duke nodded. Yes, there were plots against the Admiral, he doubted not. His mother would have discussed that man when she was closeted with his brothers; but she never discussed her plots with him. He bit his lips until the blood came. He was treated as a child—the youngest son who could never come to the throne, little Hercule who had become Francis because Hercule was the name of a strong man; and he was not even handsome because his skin was so hideously pitted. His mistresses told him he was more handsome than his brother Henry, but that was because although he was the youngest he was still the son of a royal house. He had many mistresses; but any man in his position might have the same number. He was squat and ugly; he was of no importance; and when his mother called him “her little frog” she did not mean to be affectionate. She despised him and had no place for him in her schemes. She wanted him safely out of the way in England.
He laughed aloud at that fool of an Admiral who was riding straight into a trap. He hated the Admiral—not for political or religious reasons—but merely because he was tall and handsome and of great importance.
He saw that the Huguenots in the city had formed a procession about the Admiral and his men, marching along beside them as though to protect them. Catholics stood about sullenly; some shouted abuse. It would take very little to start a conflagration which would lay waste the entire city of Paris.
They were crazy to have arranged this marriage and, arranging it, to have brought together in the capital so many of the Huguenot faith. But . . . were they? Was this the result of some plan of his mother’s?
His brothers would know. Henry of Guise too would doubtless know. All men of importance would know. But they kept Francis of Alençon completely in the dark. It was more than a Prince of the Blood Royal could be expected to endure.
He bit his lip afresh and tried to imagine that those shouting voices called for a new King, and that that King’s name was Francis.
As soon as he was in the presence of the King, Gaspard de Coligny knew that his enemies were working against him. The King’s attitude towards him seemed to have changed completely. When the Admiral had last seen Charles, the young man had embraced him warmly, dispensing with all ceremony. “Do not call me Majesty,” Charles had said. “Do not call me Monseigneur. Call me Son and I will call you Father.” But here was a different monarch. The golden-brown eyes had lost their warmth; they were coldly suspicious. Henry of Guise and his uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine, were at court, and they were enjoying the favor of the Queen Mother. Yet, during the ceremonial greeting, Gaspard thought he caught a hint of apology in the King’s eyes; but the Queen Mother stood beside her son, and although her greeting might be warmer than that of any other present, still the Admiral trusted her less, and he was sure that the animosity which he sensed emanated from her.
The Admiral came fearlessly to the purpose of his visit: the question of aid for the Prince of Orange and war with Spain.
Catherine spoke for her son. “You have been long in coming to Paris, Monsieur l’Amiral. Had you come earlier you might have been present at the military council which I called together to settle this question of war.”
“A military council, Madame?” said Coligny, aghast. “But of what members did this council consist?”
Catherine smiled. “Of the Duke of Guise, of the Cardinal of Lorraine . . . and others. Do you wish to hear their names?”
“That is my wish, Madame.”
Catherine mentioned the names of several noblemen, and all of them were Catholics.
“I understand, Madame,” said Coligny. “These councillors would naturally suggest that we should not keep our promises. Such men would never support any expedition of which I was the leader.”
“We were not, Monsieur l’Amiral, considering a question of leadership; we but considered the good of France.”
The Admiral turned from the Queen Mother and knelt to the King. He took Charles’s hand and smiled up into his face.
Catherine, watching closely, saw the faint flush under Charles’s pallid and unhealthy skin; she saw the affection in his glance. Charles was only free from this man’s influence when the latter was away from court. There was real danger here. The Admiral must not, on any account, be allowed to live many more weeks. Whatever disaster followed on his death, he must die.
“Sire,” Coligny was saying, “I cannot believe that you will break your promise to the Prince of Orange.”
Charles said very quietly and in a voice of shame: “You have heard the result of the council’s deliberation, Monsieur l’Amiral. It is to them that you should address your reproaches.”
“Then,” said Coligny, “there is nothing to be said. If the opinion contrary to mine has won the day, that is the end. Oh, Your Majesty. I am as certain as I kneel here that if you follow the advice of your council you will repent it.”
Charles began to tremble. He put out a hand as though to detain the Admiral; he seemed as though he were about to speak, but his mother’s eyes were on him and he lapsed completely into her power once more.
Coligny went on: “Your Majesty must not be offended if I, having promised aid to the Prince of Orange, cannot break my word.”
Charles flinched and Coligny waited; but still the influence of Catherine was greater than that of the newly arrived Admiral, and although Charles seemed once more about to speak, no words came.
“This,” added Coligny, “will be done with my own friends, my relations and servants, and with my own person.” He turned to Catherine. “His Majesty has decided against war with Spain. God grant that he may not be involved in another from which he cannot retreat.”
Coligny bowed and took his leave.
There were letters waiting for him in his apartments. One said: “Remember the commandment which every Papist obeys: ‘Thou shalt not keep faith with a heretic.’ If you are a wise man you will leave the court at once. If you do not, you will soon be a dead one.”
“You are in acute danger,” wrote another. “Do not be deceived by the talk of marriage between the Queen of England and the Duke of Alençon. Do not be beguiled by this marriage of Marguerite and Navarre. Get away as quickly as you can from that infected sewer which is called the Court of France. Beware the poisoned fangs of the Serpent.”
“You have,” said another, “won the regard of the King. That is sufficient reason for your death.”
He read through those letters, and as the dusk crept into his apartment, he found that the least rustle of the hangings set his heart beating faster. He touched the walls gingerly with his fingers and wondered whether here, where the wood was uneven, there was a secret door. Was there a hole up there among the ornate carving of the ceiling through which an eye watched him? Any moment might be his last.
Charles was soon under the spell of the Admiral. Since Gaspard had come to court, Charles felt bolder, less afraid of his mother. He kept Gaspard with him, and there were many interviews at which none but the King and the Admiral were present. But Catherine was aware of what took place at those interviews. There was a tube from her secret chamber adjoining her apartments which was connected with the King’s, and by means of this she was able to hear most of what took place. It was enough to alarm her.
The proposed war with Spain was continually under discussion, and the King was wavering. “Rest assured, my dear Admiral,” he had said, “that I intend to satisfy you. I will not budge from Paris until I have utterly contented you.”
There must be no delay in putting the murder of the Admiral into effect, but it must be after the wedding. If the Admiral suddenly died now, there might be no wedding. Catherine found a pleasure in watching her victim; it was like fattening up a pig for the kill. There he was, puffed up with pride and confidence; he thought he only had to come to court to gain the King’s goodwill; he had only to persuade and his plans would be put into action.
Well, let him enjoy his last weeks on Earth. Let him continue to think he was a power in the land . . . for a few weeks.
The Admiral had no finesse, and like most blunt soldiers he needed lessons in statecraft and diplomacy. He rarely stopped to consider his words; he said what he thought, which, in a court such as this where artificiality was a fine art in itself, was the height of folly.
At one of the council meetings, he brought up this matter of the Polish throne.
“There are several claimants,” he said, “and there can be no doubt that very shortly it will become vacant. If that throne is to fall to France it is very necessary for the Duke of Anjou to leave for Poland at once.”
The King nodded with enthusiasm, since there was little he would like better than to see his hated brother out of the country. Catherine was furious, but she calmly appeared as though she were considering the matter. As for Anjou, his rage was almost uncontrollable; the hot color flamed in his face and the earrings quivered in his ears.
“It seems to me that Monsieur l’Amiral interferes in matters which do not concern him,” he said coldly.
“This matter of Poland is of vital concern to France, Monsieur,” answered Gaspard with his habitual frankness.
“That is true enough,” supported the King.
“And if,” went on Gaspard, “Monsieur who would have none of England by marriage will have none of Poland by election, he should say outright that he does not desire to leave France.”
The council broke up and as soon as possible Anjou sought out his mother.
“What think you of such insolence, Madame?” he demanded. “Who is this Admiral to address me thus?”
Catherine soothed her beloved son. “My darling, do not distress yourself. Do not take the words of such a man too much to heart.”
“Such a man! You know he is the close friend of the King. Who can guess what they will hatch up between them? Mother, will you let them plot against me?”
“Have patience,” said Catherine. “Wait until after the wedding and you will see.”
“The wedding! But when can this be? I know they are all here . . . all the nobles of France and their followers, but that old fool, the Cardinal of Bourbon, will never perform the ceremony without the dispensation from the Pope; and will he give it, do you think? Will he allow a marriage between our Catholic sister and the Huguenot to take place? Why, soon we shall hear that he forbids the marriage and Paris will be in an uproar.”
“You are young yet, my love, and you have not learned that there are ways of working miracles. We shall manage without Monsieur Gregory, never fear.”
“One cannot think that the Bourbon will perform the ceremony against the wishes of the Pope.”
“He will not know the wishes of the Pope, my son. I have written to the Governor of Lyons that no posts must be allowed to come from Rome until after the ceremony.”
“Then we shall wait in vain for the Pope’s dispensation.”
“Better that than that we should receive word from Rome that the wedding must not take place.”
“How will you get him to perform the ceremony without the Pope’s consent?”
“Leave that to your mother. Ere long your sister will be united to Navarre. Never fear. I can manage the old Cardinal. Have patience, my dearest. Wait . . . just wait until the wedding is over and then you shall see.”
Anjou’s dark Italian eyes gleamed as he looked askance at his mother. “You mean? . . .”
She put her fingers to her lips. “Not a word . . . even between us. Not yet. But have no fear.” She put her mouth close to his ear. “Monsieur l’Amiral has not long to live. Let him strut as much as he likes through his last hours on Earth.”
Anjou nodded, smiling.
“But,” whispered his mother, “it is necessary for us to employ the utmost caution. Planning the end of such a man is full of dangers. He is no little fish. We have our spies everywhere and they tell us that he receives warnings of what is about to happen to him. How this becomes known it is beyond my knowledge to understand. It is necessary to lay the net very carefully in order to trap the salmon, my son. Make no mistake about that.”
“My mother, I have no doubts of your powers to achieve what is necessary.”
She kissed him tenderly.
In the closet which led from her bedchamber, the Princess Marguerite entertained the Duke of Guise. She lay beside him on the couch which she had ordered should be covered in black satin as the perfect contrast to her beautiful white limbs. She smiled at him, for the moment sleepily content. No man delighted her, nor she believed ever could, as did her first lover, Henry, Duke of Guise.
“It has seemed so long,” she said. “I had forgotten how wonderful you are.”
“And you, my Princess,” he answered, “are so wonderful that I shall never forget you.”
“Ah!” sighed Margot. “If only they had let us marry! Why, then you would not be another woman’s husband and I should not be close to the most odious marriage that was ever made. Oh, Henry, my love, if you only knew how I pray each day, each night, that something will happen to prevent this marriage. Is it possible, my love? Is there something which can be done?”
“Who knows?” said Guise gloomily. “There is that in the air of Paris which makes one wonder what will happen next.” He took her face in his hands and kissed it. “There is only one thing certain in the whole world, and that is that I love you.”
She embraced him feverishly; her arms were about him, her lips warm and demanding. She never failed to astonish him, although he had known her and loved her all his life. He looked at her as she lay back, stretching out her arms to him, her black hair loose, those wonderful dark eyes glowing in her lovely, languorous face; she was already eager for their next embrace. She was irresistible and very beautiful; the heaviness of her nose which was an inheritance from her grandfather, and the thickness of her jaw which had come from her mother, were not apparent now.
“Margot,” said Guise, with passion, “there is no one like you.”
They lay content behind the locked door of the closet, happily secure. In tender reminiscence they recalled that night when they had been discovered—Margot in the fine clothes in which she had greeted her suitor, Sebastian of Portugal. They both recalled the fury of the King and the Queen Mother on that night when they had beaten Margot almost to death for her share in the adventure; as for Guise, he had narrowly escaped with his life. “Ah,” said Margot, “you emerged from that danger with a wife, but I came out of it with a broken heart.” She had said that at the time, but now she knew that hearts which broke one day were mended the next; and the wife of Henry of Guise could not prevent his being Margot’s lover. There were other men in the world, Margot had found—not so handsome nor so charming, it was true—and she could not exist without a lover.
How pleasant it was to lie in this man’s arms and to lure him to fresh frenzies of passion, and to think sadly, when passion brought temporary—a very temporary—satisfaction: ah, how different it would have been had I been allowed to marry the man whom I loved. We should have been faithful to one another and ours would have been the perfect union! This self-pitying role was Margot’s favorite one; she would indulge her desires and then she would say: “But how different I should have been if I had been allowed to marry the only man I ever loved!” She had only to tell herself that and she could, with a good conscience, indulge in any amusement.
There was a sudden knocking on the door of the closet and the voice of Charlotte de Sauves was heard. Margot smiled. Charlotte would know whom she was entertaining in her closet, and Charlotte would be just a little jealous. That was pleasing. Charlotte, because of her beauty and her importance in the Escadron, gave herself too many airs.
“Who is there?” asked Margot.
“It is I. Charlotte de Sauves.”
“And whom do you want?”
“But to ask if you have seen Monsieur de Guise. The Queen Mother is asking for him. She grows impatient.”
Margot laughed. She rose and went to the door. “When I next see Monsieur de Guise I will tell him. Have no fear, that will be very soon.”
“Thank you. I will go to Her Majesty and tell her that Monsieur de Guise is coming.”
Margot turned to her lover, who had already put on his coat and was adjusting his sword. She felt angry at his impatience to leave her.
“You seem very eager to be gone.”
“My darling, that was a summons from your mother.”
Margot put her arms about him. “Let her wait awhile.”
He kissed her, but she knew that he was thinking of the interview with the Queen Mother.
“The ambitious head of the House of Guise and Lorraine first,” she said lightly. “The lover second. Is that not so?”
“No,” he lied. “You know it is not so.”
Her black eyes flashed. There were occasions when she wanted to quarrel with him. With her, love was everything; and she could not bear to think that this was not the case with him.
“Then kiss me,” she said.
He did so.
“Kiss me as though you were thinking of me and not what you will say to my mother. Oh, Henry, five minutes more!”
“Dearest, I dare not.”
“You dare not! It is always ‘I dare not’ with you. It was ‘I dare not!’ when you let them marry you to that stupid wife of yours.”
“Margot,” he said, “I will be back.”
“Why do you think she sends for you now? It is because she knows we are together and it delights her to tease us. You do not know my mother.”
“I know that when she summons me, I must obey.”
He had turned the key in the lock, but Margot still clung to him, kissing him passionately. “When will you return?”
“As soon as it is possible to do so.”
“You promise that?”
“Then kiss me again . . . and again . . . and again.”
Catherine dismissed all her attendants; she would not even allow her dwarf to remain; she was preparing to receive the young Duke of Guise.
She watched him approach, thinking that it was not surprising that Margot found him irresistible. He was a handsome creature. Twenty-two was not very old, but in a few years he would be as wily as his father had been; and even now, since he had that old fox his uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine, at his elbow, she must be wary of this man.
When he had greeted her ceremoniously, she said: “I have much to say to you, Monsieur de Guise. We are alone, but keep your voice low when you speak to me. It is not easy to talk secretly in the palace of the Louvre.”
“I understand, Your Majesty.”
“The presence of one at this court, I feel, must anger you as much as it does me, my dear Duke. You know of whom I speak?”
“I think I do, Madame.”
“We will not mention his name. I refer to the murderer of your father.”
He was very young and unable yet completely to hide his emotion. He looked a little tired, which was no doubt due to the hour he had spent with Margot. That baggage would tire out anyone! From whom had she inherited such habits? Not from her mother; that much was certain. From her father? Indeed not. He had been a faithful man . . . faithful to the wrong woman, it was true; but Margot would never be faithful. She had had many lovers, though she was not yet twenty. It must be her grandfather, Francis I, or perhaps Catherine’s own father. They had both been insatiable, so it was said. But she had sent for this young man to discuss important affairs, not his lovemaking with her daughter.
“Yes, Madame,” he said bitterly; he had always believed that Gaspard de Coligny had murdered his father, and he would never be completely happy until he had avenged Francis of Guise.
“We cannot tolerate his presence here at court,” said Catherine. “His influence is bad for the King.”
Guise’s heart began to beat more quickly. He knew that Catherine was hinting that he should help her arrange the murder of Coligny. His fingers closed over his sword and his eyes filled with tears as he remembered how they had carried his father into the castle near Orléans. He saw afresh Duke Francis’s noble face with the scar beneath the eye, which had earned for him the name of Le Balafré; he remembered seeing that beloved face for the last time, and remembered too how he had sworn vengeance on the man who he believed had murdered his father.
“Madame,” said the Duke, “what are your instructions?”
“What?” said Catherine. “Do you need instructions to avenge your father?”
“Your Majesty doubtless had some suggestion in mind when you sent for me.”
“This man walks about the court; he commands the King; he threatens not only your family, but mine, and you ask me for instructions!”
“Madame, I promise you that he shall not live a day longer.”
She lifted a hand. “Now you go too fast, my lord Duke. Would you plunge this city into bloodshed? I wish this man to attend the wedding of my daughter and the King of Navarre. After that . . . he is yours.”
The Duke bowed his head. “It shall be as Your Majesty wishes.”
“My dear Duke . . . why, you are almost a son to me. Did you not spend the greater part of your childhood with my own family? And you have grown to love them, have you not . . . some more than others? Well, that is natural. But I love you as a son, my dear boy; and it is for this reason that I wish you to have the joy of avenging your father.”
“Your Majesty is most gracious to me.”
“And would be more so. Now listen. Do nothing foolhardy. I would not have you challenge the man. Let the shot that kills him be delivered by an unknown assassin.”
“I have always believed that it is my mother who should fire the shot that kills him, Madame. That, I feel, would be justice indeed. She is a good shot and . . .”
Catherine waved a hand. “You are young, my dear Duke, and your ideas are those of a boy. If a shot were fired at the man and he were to escape, what an uproar there would be! No, let the first shot find its mark. Let us not make of this matter a bit of playacting. That man has a way of avoiding his fate. Sometimes I think some special magic preserves him.”
“It shall not preserve him from my vengeance, Madame.”
“No. I feel sure that it will not. Now keep this matter secret, but discuss with your uncle what I have said. Find some means of hiding an assassin in one of your houses, and as your father’s murderer passes along the street on his way from the Louvre, let the shot be fired. No playacting. Let us have a skilled marksman, not a nervous Duchess. This is life . . . and death, Monsieur, not a drama to be acted for the amusement of the court. Go, and when you have a plan, bring it to me. But do not forget . . . after the wedding. Is that clear?”
“It is perfectly clear, Madame.”
“Now, back to your pleasures, and not a word of this to anyone—except, of course, your worthy uncle. I know that I can trust you.”
“Your Majesty can have complete trust in me.”
He kissed her hand and retired. He was too excited to return to Margot. He sought out his uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine, to tell him of his interview with the Queen Mother.
As for Catherine, she was pleased; it suited her serpentine nature to bring about her desires by such circuitous means.
The bridegroom was riding to Paris at the head of his men, and although he was dressed in deepest mourning—for it was less than three months since his mother had died mysteriously in Paris—there was a Gascon song on his lips.
He was a young man of nineteen, not by any means tall, but of good proportions; there was an immense vitality about him; his manner was bold and frank, and there was often laughter on his lips; but his eyes were veiled and shrewd, and it was as though they belied the character which the rest of his face betrayed. In those eyes was a hint of something deep, something which was at the moment latent and which he had no intention of showing to the world. He had inherited much of his mother’s shrewdness, but little of her piety. He was a Huguenot because his mother had been a Huguenot, but on religious matters he was a skeptic. “By God,” he would say, “a man, it seems, must have a faith; and as the good God decided He would make a Huguenot of me, so let it be.” But he would yawn during sermons and at times openly snore; and on one occasion he had hidden himself behind a pillar and while eating cherries had shot the stones up into a preacher’s face.
His men were fond of him. They considered him a worthy Prince to follow. He would be coarsely familiar with them, and he was easily moved to tears and laughter, but there was little depth in his emotions. The veiled, cynical eyes belied the facile emotions, and it was felt that while he wept he had already done with tears.
His love affairs had already been so numerous that even in a land where promiscuity seemed natural enough he was remarkable. He had been brought up in a practical manner by his mother, who had discouraged him from imitating the fanciful manners of the Valois Princes. He was coarse in his manners and not overcareful about his appearance; he was as happy in a peasant’s cottage as in a royal palace, providing the peasant’s wife or daughter could amuse him during his stay.
So he came riding into Paris, seducing the women of Auvergne and Bourbonnais, Burgundy and Orléans as he came.
He was thinking of the marriage shortly to be celebrated between himself and the Princess Marguerite. He had known from his earliest childhood that such a marriage would probably take place, for it had been arranged by Margot’s father, Henry the Second, when Navarre was two years old and Margot a few months older. It was a good marriage—the best possible for him, he supposed. His mother had wanted it because it brought him nearer to the throne. Navarre shrugged his shoulders when he thought of the throne of France. There were too many between; there were Henry of Anjou and Francis of Alençon, not to mention any children they might have; and Charles’s wife was at present pregnant. Navarre doubted very much whether a King of France could enjoy life more than he did; and what he was bent on at the time was enjoying life.
Still, the marriage had been arranged and it was as good a marriage as any could be. Margot had always been antagonistic towards him, but what did he care? What did he want of a wife when he could so effortlessly find so many women to give him what he desired? He would be quite content to leave Margot to her affairs, and he would see that she left him to his.
As soon as it had become known that he was to go to Paris he had had to listen to many warnings. “Remember what happened to your mother,” he was told. “She went to Paris and never returned.” They did not understand that he was not seriously perturbed by the thought of danger, and that he looked forward with eagerness to being at that court of intrigues. His mother had died and that had shocked him; bitterly he had wept when the news was brought to him, but he had soon discovered that, even while he wept most bitterly, he was thinking of the freedom which he would consequently enjoy. His mother he had always known to be a good woman, and he was ashamed that he could not love her more. She was a saint, he supposed; and he was, at heart, a pagan. She would have been disappointed in him if she had lived, for he could never have been the pious Huguenot she had tried to make of him. And her death brought with it more than his freedom; he had become of great importance—no longer merely a Prince, but a King of Navarre. There were no longer irksome restrictions, no more sermons from his mother; he was gloriously free, his own master, and that was a good thing to be at nineteen years of age when a man was virile, full of health, and effortlessly attractive to all women.
So as he rode he sang a song of Gascony; and although now and then a friend would whisper to him a word of warning, that could only excite him the more. He was eager for adventure, eager for intrigue.
And when, with his numerous followers, he was but a short distance from Paris, King Charles himself rode out to meet him. The young King of Navarre was gratified to be embraced by the King of France, to be called brother, to receive such a show of friendship.
The Queen Mother had ridden with the royal party, and she too made much of the newcomer, embracing him, telling him how she rejoiced to see him again, tenderly touching his black sleeve, while she lowered her eyes in assumed regret for his mother.
But what delighted Navarre more than the royal welcome were the ladies who rode with the Queen Mother. He had never before seen so much beauty, for every one of these ladies, seen singly, would have dazzled him with her charms. His half-veiled eyes studied them and from one of them—it seemed to him the most beautiful of them all—he received a smile of what he considered to be definite promise. She was a beautiful creature with fair hair and blue eyes. No other woman, he realized, had the grace and the elegance of these court beauties; and what a delightful change they made after the more homely charms of his dear little friends in Béarn!
The King of France rode beside him as they made their way into the capital.
“It pleases me,” said Charles, “to think that you will soon be my brother in truth.”
“Your Majesty is gracious indeed.”
“You will find the city full of my subjects who have come from the four corners of France to see you married to my sister. Do not be afraid that we shall delay the wedding. The Cardinal of Bourbon is making difficulties. He is an old bigot. But I shall not allow him to waste much more of that time which belongs to you and my sister Margot.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
“You look well and sturdy,” said the King enviously.
“Ah, it is the life I lead. I spend much time on pleasure, so they say, but it would seem that it agrees with me.”
The King laughed. “My sister will be pleased with you.”
“I trust so, Sire.”
“I hear,” said Charles, “that you have little difficulty in pleasing women.”
“I see that rumor concerning me has reached Paris.”
“Never fear. Parisians love such as you, brother.”
Was that true? Navarre was aware of glowering faces in the crowds that surged close to the cavalcade as it went through the streets.
“Vive le Roi Charles!” cried the people. And some added: “ Vive le Roi Henri de Navarre!” But not many, and there was a hiss or two to counteract the cheers.
“There are many Guisards in the streets today,” said Navarre.
“There are all sorts,” answered the King. “The followers of the Guise and the followers of my dear friend the Admiral mingle together now that you and my sister are to marry.”
“It would seem as though the whole of France were gathered here . . . Huguenot and Catholic.”
“It would indeed seem so. I have heard that so many are in Paris that there is no room for them to sleep. The inns are full and at night they sprawl on the cobbles of the streets. It is all for love of you and Margot. My dear friend, the Admiral, will be filled with delight to see you here. He has a right good welcome waiting for you.”
Navarre smiled his pleasure while he glanced sideways at the King. Was the King, with his continual references to his dear friend the Admiral, trying to tell him that he was favoring the Huguenot cause after all? What of Catherine de’ Medici, who many believed had been responsible for the death of his mother? What did she intend for him?
He rarely concentrated on anything for long at a time, and as he saw the Louvre with its one arm stretching along the quay and the other at right angles, he looked up at its tower and narrow windows and remembered the young woman he had seen riding with the Queen Mother.
He said: “I noticed a very beautiful lady riding with Her Majesty, the Queen Mother. Her eyes were of a most dazzling blue, more blue than any eyes I have ever seen.”
The King laughed. “My sister’s eyes are black,” he said.
“The most beautiful eyes in France, so I have heard,” said the bridegroom. “Yet I wonder to whom the blue ones belonged.”
“There is a lady in my mother’s Escadron who is remarkable for the color of her eyes, and they are blue. I think, brother, that you refer to Charlotte de Sauves.”
“Charlotte de Sauves,” repeated Navarre.
“My mother’s woman, and wife to the Baron de Sauves—our Secretary of State.”
Navarre smiled happily. He hoped to see a good deal of the owner of the blue eyes in the weeks to come, and it was rather pleasant to learn that she had a husband. Unmarried ladies sometimes made difficulties which it would be trying for a young bridegroom to overcome.
And as he came into the great hall and idly gazed through the windows at the Seine flowing peacefully by, as he mounted the great staircase of Henry the Second, he thought with extreme pleasure of Madame de Sauves.
On a Turkey rug in his apartments the King lay biting his fists. He was greatly troubled and none dared approach him. Even his favorite falcons on their perches set up in this room could not delight him. His dogs slunk away from him; they, no less than his servants, detected the brooding madness in him. He was worried, and when he was worried it was usually because he was afraid. Sometimes when he stood at his window he seemed to hear a murmur of warning in the cries of the people which floated up to him. He felt that mischief was brewing and that he was threatened.
He could not trust his mother. What mischief did she plan? He watched the thickening body of his young wife with disquietude. His mother would never let the child live to stand in the way of her beloved Henry’s coming to the throne. And if she longed to see Anjou on the throne, what did she plot for her son Charles?
There were horrible silences in the streets, broken by sudden tumult. Of what did the huddled groups of people talk so earnestly? What did they mean—those skirmishes in taverns? It had been madness to bring Huguenots and Catholics into Paris; it was inviting trouble; it was preparing for bloodshed. He saw pictures of himself, a prisoner; he smelt the evil smell of dungeons; he saw his body tortured and his head severed from his body. He wanted to see blood flow then; he wanted his whips so that he could attack his dogs; and yet because some sanity remained to him he must remember the remorse which would follow such actions; he remembered the horror that was his when he looked on a beloved dog which he had beaten to death.
Someone had come into the room, and he was afraid to look up in case he should encounter his mother’s smile. They said she had secret keys to all the rooms in the palaces of France, and that often she would silently open a door and stand behind curtains, listening to state secrets, watching the women of her Escadron making love with the men she had chosen for them. In all his dreams, in all his fears, his mother played a prominent part.
“Charlot, my little love.”
He gave a sob of joy, for it was not his mother who stood close to him, but Madeleine, his old nurse.
“Madelon!” he cried, as he used to when he was a little boy.
She took him into her arms. “My little one. What ails you, then? Tell Madelon.”
He grew calmer after a while. “It is all these people in the streets, Madelon. They should not be there. Not Huguenots and Catholics together. And it is I who have brought them here. That is what frightens me.”
“It was not you. It was the others.”
He laughed. “That was what you always said when there was trouble and I was accused. ‘Oh, it was not my Charlot; it was Margot or one of his brothers.’”
“But you were never one for mischief. You were my good boy.”
“I am a King now, Nurse. How I wish I were a boy again, and that I could slip out of the Louvre, out of Paris, to some quiet spot with you and Marie and the dogs and my falcons and my little pied hawk to bring down the small birds for me. To escape from this . . . with you all. How happy I should be!”
“But you have nothing to fear, my love.”
“I do not know, Nurse. Why cannot my subjects be at peace? I care for them all, be they Huguenots or Catholics. Why, you yourself are a Huguenot.”
“I wish that you would pray with me, Charlot. There would be great comfort for you in that.”
“Perhaps I will one day, Madelon. But it is all this hate about me that frightens me. Monsieur de Guise hating my dear Admiral, and the Admiral cold and haughty with Monsieur de Guise. That is not good, Madelon. They should be friends. If those two were friends, then all the Huguenots and all the Catholics in Paris would be friends, for the Catholics follow the Duke, and the Huguenots the Admiral. That is it! That is what I must do. I must make them friends, I will insist. I will demand it. I am the King. By the good God, if they will not give each other the kiss of friendship, I will . . . I wil . . .”
Madeleine wiped the sweat from his brow. “There! You are right, my little King. You are right, my Charlot. You will insist, but now you will rest awhile.”
He touched her cheek lightly with his lips. “Why are not all the people in Paris gentle like you, dearest Nurse? Why are they not all like Marie and my wife?”
“It might be a dull world made up of such as I,” she said.
“A dull world, you say. Then it would be a happy one. No fears . . . no death . . . no blood. Go, Nurse darling, go and tell Marie to come, and I will talk to her and see what she has to say about a friendship between Monsieur de Guise and Monsieur l’Amiral.”
Catherine’s benign expression hid the cynicism she felt as she witnessed the farce which was now being enacted before her.
The kiss of peace which Henry of Guise was giving Coligny! Her mind went back to a similar scene which had taken place six years before in the château at Blois. She herself had organized that scene and with the two same actors. Of course, at that time Guise had been a boy, completely without subtlety, unable to hide the blushes which rose to his cheeks, unable to quell the fire in his eyes. Then he had said: “I could not give the kiss of friendship to a man who has been called my father’s murderer.”
How the years change us! she thought. Now this Duke—no longer a boy—was ready to take the Admiral in his arms and plant on his cheeks the kisses of friendship, even while he was plotting to kill him.
“How good it is,” murmured Catherine, “when old enemies become friends!”
Madame de Sauves, who happened to be near her, whispered: “Indeed yes, Madame.”
Catherine allowed herself to smile graciously on the woman. She was playing her part well with the bridegroom, playing both the seductress and the virtuous wife. Catherine had said: “The Baron de Sauves would be proud of his wife if he could see the way in which she repulses that young rake of Navarre.” At which the woman had smiled demurely and lifted those wonderful blue eyes of hers to the face of the Queen Mother, as though asking for fresh instructions. But there were no further instructions . . . yet.
Catherine was seriously worried. That old fool, the Cardinal of Bourbon, was hedging. He could not, he declared, perform the ceremony until he had the Pope’s consent. And how could he receive word from the Pope when Catherine herself had arranged that no mail should come from Rome! She and Charles would have seriously to threaten the old man if he held out much longer.
He could be coerced, she was sure. He was getting old now, and, after all, he was a Bourbon. His brothers had not been noted for their strength. Both Antoine de Bourbon and Louis de Condé, brothers of the Cardinal, had been successfully tempted from the path of duty by members of Catherine’s Escadron. Not that the Cardinal could be seduced in that way; but there were other methods.
And when he had consented, it would be necessary to let the people of Paris believe that the Pope had agreed to allow the marriage to take place. That would be simple.
But still she was worried. The gray shadow which haunted her life seemed more ominous than ever—that man who had been her son-in-law. In his gloomy Escorial he would be aware of all that was happening in France, and if he did not like what happened he would blame the Queen Mother. His ambassadors were spies and she was well aware that they sent long accounts of her activities to their master.
Alva had sent a special agent to inquire into her intentions. She admitted that in Spain’s eyes she must appear as an enemy. There was an alliance with England, recently signed; she was trying hard to bring about the marriage of her son Alençon with Elizabeth of England; there were signs that Coligny had almost persuaded the King to keep his word and support the Netherlands against Spain and now there was the marriage of the Princess of France with the Huguenot Navarre. She doubted not that Philip of Spain was thinking of war . . . war with France; and a war, with Spain’s powerful armies and mighty armadas, was the bogey which haunted Catherine’s days and nights. She saw in it disaster—disaster to herself and her sons, and that which she dreaded more than anything on Earth, the fall of the House of Valois. To keep her sons on the throne she had followed a devious policy, twisting this way and that in order to seize every advantage, never sure today which way she would go tomorrow, supporting Catholics, favoring Huguenots, so that with good reason they likened her to a snake, with poisonous fangs, since, when she schemed for the sake of the House of Valois, she did not hesitate to kill.
She remembered a conversation which she had had at Bayonne, whither she had gone in great state to meet her daughter, the Queen of Spain; but more important than her encounter with her daughter had been that with the Duke of Alva, deputy for Philip, with whom she had had that important conversation.
Then it had been necessary to make promises, to declare herself a staunch Catholic, and she had begged Alva not to be misled when for purposes of policy she appeared to support their enemies. She had offered Alva the heads of all the Huguenot chiefs—but at the right moment. “It must happen,” she had said, “as though by accident, when they are gathered in Paris; for what reason, as yet we cannot say.”
She wanted this marriage between the King of Navarre and her daughter because she knew that any power she enjoyed in France must come to her through her children. In the event of a civil war, resulting in a victory for the Huguenots, the crown of France might be placed on the head of the Bourbon King of Navarre; the daughter of Catherine de’ Medici would then be the Queen of France. Catherine need not, therefore, lose her position as Queen Mother. She would, naturally, do all in her power to prevent such a calamity overtaking the House of Valois; she would not hesitate to use assassins or the deadly morceaux. But it was well to consider all eventualities. Margot would not be so easy to control as Charles had been and as she hoped her beloved Henry would be; but she would still be Catherine’s daughter. This marriage then was an insurance against possible future mishap, for Catherine had seen great Huguenot victories in her time; and the sight of all those followers of Coligny—Téligny, Rochefoucauld, Condé, and young Navarre—confirmed her opinion that she was wise in changing her course as it suited her.
The marriage must take place soon, although afterwards it would be imperative and urgent to pacify Philip of Spain; and if she were fortunate it might be that the murder of Coligny, whose death His Most Catholic Majesty had long desired, would be sufficient to satisfy him. And if not? Vividly there came to her memories of that conversation with Alva at Bayonne. “. . . the right moment . . . when all the Huguenots are gathered in Paris on some pretext or other . . .”
Was this the pretext? Was this the right moment?
The King was being dressed for the wedding, and there was a certain dismay among his friends and attendants, for his mouth was working in a way which all had seen before, and the whites of his eyes were shot with red. What would be the result of this wedding which was the talk of Paris, the talk of France?
“This wedding will be blood-red,” said the people of Paris. And the King knew that they whispered those words.
The Cardinal of Bourbon had been persuaded to perform the ceremony; he had been shown that he would find extreme disfavor in the eyes of the King and, what was more serious, in those of the Queen Mother if he did not comply with their wishes. Charles and his mother had had the news spread through Paris that the Pope’s dispensation was in their hands. So there was nothing now to delay the ceremony.
So the King trembled, and as he was dressed in the most magnificent garments yet seen—for his clothes, with his jeweled cap and dagger, alone cost six hundred thousand crowns—those about him wondered how long he would be able to smother his smoldering madness and whether it would break out before the wedding was a fait accompli.
Busy as she was, Catherine found time to admire her darling. How beautiful he was! More beautiful than any, and more magnificent than the King himself. His dark beauty was set off by a hundred sparkling jewels; and he was as delighted with himself as his mother was.
Catherine admired the cap with its thirty pearls, each one weighing twelve carats. How soft the pearls looked in contrast with the sapphires and rubies and the hard glitter of diamonds—and how they became her darling!
She kissed him tenderly.
“If I could have one wish granted, my dear,” she whispered, “it would be that you were King of France this day. To think that you were born one year too late hurts me deeply.”
“But one day, Mother . . .” he murmured, his long eyes alight with ambition.
“One day, my darling. Your brother looks sickly today,” she added.
“He has looked sickly for so long.”
“Have no fear, my darling. All will be well.”
She smiled, but, in spite of outward calm, she was uneasy. She felt like one who, imagining herself to be a goddess, had stirred up a troublous sea, only to find that she was no goddess, but merely a frail human being in a flimsy craft. She was determined to steer to safety. Let them get the wedding over and then, as compensation, Philip should be offered Coligny.
“The marriage at least was not of my making,” she would say, as though to imply: “And that other deed was. I did it to show you that I am your friend.” That would satisfy Philip. But would it? Fanatic he might be, but he certainly was no fool.
She was never one to think more than a move or two ahead, and today she must think only of the wedding and Coligny. After that? . . . There were gathered here in Paris a mighty force of Huguenots and Catholics. She had said: “When the time comes, I shall know what to do.” And she would know. She had no doubt of that. So much for the present.
The bride was haughty, pale-faced, and sullen. She stormed at her women.
“I have prayed all these nights and days. I have begged the Virgin and the saints to help me. Is it all of no avail? It must be that this is so, for here is this most hateful day, the day of my wedding. I have spent my nights in weeping . . .”
Her women soothed her. They knew that her nights had been spent in lovemaking with the Duke of Guise, but Margot often managed to convince others as she convinced herself. Now she saw herself as the reluctant bride, the tool of her brother and her mother, forced to marry a man whom she hated. Did she hate Henry of Navarre? He was not without his attraction. She had felt mildly interested when he had cocked a shrewd eye at her and winked in an extremely vulgar and provincial manner. Perhaps she did not exactly hate him; but it was far more dramatic to hate than to feel mildly indifferent, therefore she must declare she hated Henry of Navarre.
For all her misery she could not help but delight in her own appearance. She touched the crown on her head. How well it became her! By this marriage she would be a Queen, and even her beloved Henry of Guise could not have made her a Queen; yet this coarse fellow whom she hated was a King. She put on her cape of ermine; then she stood still admiring herself while the blue cape glittering with the crown jewels was put about her. She looked over her shoulder at the long train which would need three to carry it—and they must be Princesses. Nothing else would be suitable for a Queen. She laughed with pleasure, and then remembered that she was a most reluctant bride.
The 18th of August, she thought, and my wedding day . . . the day I shall become the Queen of Navarre. She had left behind her that girl who had thought her heart was broken when they took her lover from her and married him to Catherine of Clèves. She thought fleetingly of that girl—only a little younger than the bride of today, but how different, how innocent! She wept a real tear for that girl, for now she recalled something of that desolation which had come to her when she had known that the dream of her childhood, that dream of marriage with the most handsome man in France, was ended. That girl was a charming, tragic ghost who watched the women preparing her for a wedding which would make her a Queen.
“Your Majesty, we must go,” whispered one of her women.
The ghost retired and the actress was there in her place. “You are premature,” she said coldly. “I am not yet a Queen to be addressed thus.”
The girl’s eyes filled with tears and Margot kissed her.
“There, let there be no more tears. Those I have already shed will suffice.”
As she walked along the platform which was draped with cloth of gold and which led from the Bishop’s Palace to Notre Dame, she held her head high. She could see the masses of people below, and she knew that many were dying of suffocation in that crowd, and that before the ceremony was over many would be trampled to death. And all for a glimpse of a royal wedding, and in particular for a bride who was noted not only for her beauty, but her profligacy. She knew what they would be saying about her, and yet they would not be unkindly. They knew of her love affair with their hero, and the Catholic population would murmur together because she was being married, not to Catholic Henry of Guise, but to Huguenot Henry of Navarre. There would be coarse jests about her. She could imagine their saying:
“Oh, it was not only Monsieur de Guise, you know. There was Monsieur d’Entragues and a gentleman of the King’s bodyguard, Monsieur de Charry. Some say there was also the Prince de Martigues.”
It seemed impossible to keep one’s affairs from the public. Were the walls of the châteaux no protection at all?
Ah well, she would amuse them; and the people of Paris loved those who amused them—although they might not be pleased with her infidelity to their beloved Duke.
Yes, Margot had no doubt that she was providing gossip for the streets and markets of Paris today.
They did not enter the church, because it had been agreed that the bridegroom should neither hear Mass nor cross the threshold of Notre Dame for the ceremony; the crowd murmured loudly at this and there were jeers and cries of “Heretic!” But it was soon seen that it was more interesting to have the ceremony performed outside the church than inside, since it could be seen by more people. So, before the western door of the church, Margot knelt by the side of Henry of Navarre.
The bridegroom looked handsome enough, magnificently attired as he was, but his bride was quick to notice the lack of elegance to which she was accustomed in the gentlemen of the court and which even cloth of gold and jewels could not give. He wore his hair en brosse, à la Béarnais; no delicate perfume hung about the man; and yet with his lazy smile and his cynical eyes he was not altogether unattractive.
But as she knelt beside him, Margot caught sight of her lover, and it seemed to her that never had he looked so handsome as he did today. She knew that the shouts of enthusiasm which she had heard as they walked along the platform had not been so much for her and her bridegroom as for her lover. In his ducal robes he was magnificent. He towered above those about him, and the August sunshine turned his hair and beard to a ruddy gold. Memories came back to Margot and she was once more a brokenhearted girl. Oh, why had they not married her to the man of her choice? If they had let me marry Henry of Guise, she thought, there would have been none but he. D’Entragues and de Charry and even the Prince of Martigues—what did I care for them? It was only because my heart was broken and they had taken my true love away that I turned to them.
How distasteful was this man beside her! She would not marry him. She belonged to the golden giant, the beloved of the Parisians. He had been her first love and he would be her last.
The ceremony had begun. Henry of Navarre had taken her hand.
I will not. I will not! she thought. Why should I not marry whom I choose? Why should I be forced to a marriage with this oaf? I will have Henry of Guise. I will have none of Henry of Navarre.
They were waiting for her responses and she felt the silence all about her. She must say that she agreed to marry the man beside her. But mischief had caught her; her love of drama overcame everything else. The whole of Paris should know that at the very last moment she had refused to marry the man they had tried to force on her.
The Cardinal was repeating his questions. Margot’s lips were tightly pressed together. I will not. I will not! she thought.
Then from behind she felt a hand on her head.
“Speak!” said the savage voice of the King in her ear, and defiantly she shook her head.
“Fool!” went on Charles. “Bend your head or I will kill you.” He roughly forced her head forward; and she heard him mutter to the Cardinal: “That’s good enough. The nod will do. Our bride is too shy to speak. The nod means that she agrees.”
But many had seen what had happened, and they marveled at the courage of the Princess; and so the ceremony proceeded while the bridegroom turned his cynical smile upon his bride.
Now for the rejoicing, the feasting, the balls and the masques.
Coligny longed for the quiet of his home at Châtillon. How he wished that he might join his family, even while he knew he must stay in Paris! He reproached himself, reminding himself that he should be grateful that his influence with the King had been rekindled.
As soon as was possible he escaped from the tumult and the lavish shows to his apartment, there to write a letter to Jacqueline.
Dearest and well-beloved Wife, today was completed the marriage of the King’s sister with the King of Navarre. The next three days will be passed in pleasure, in banqueting, masques, ballets, and tourneys; after which the King, so he assures me, will give up several days to the hearing of divers complaints which arise in many parts of his kingdom. I am therefore constrained to labor to the utmost of my power; and although I have the greatest wish to see you, I think we should both of us feel a strong remorse if I failed in my duty. But I shall get leave to go forth from the city next week. I would far rather be with you than sojourn at the court, but we must think of our people before our private happiness. I shall have other things to tell you when I see you, the which joy I desire night and day.
And now dearest and well beloved, I pray God to have you in His keeping.
Written at Paris this 18th day of August, 1572. Rest assured that amid all these feastings and gaiety, I shall not give offense to any—least of all to God.
As he sat alone, he could hear the music from the palace, the laughter and the singing. From the streets he could hear the sounds of the roistering of the people, and the air seemed full of their shouting.
Catherine noticed the absence of Coligny. Our revels give such a pious man little delight, she thought. She knew that he was in his apartments writing—doubtless to his equally pious wife. That matter should be discovered later. It would be amusing to read the love letters of such a man. Well, let him write as long a letter as he pleased and as full of passion as he could manage. With luck it would be the last he would write.
She watched the ballet. Margot was dancing with the Duke of Guise, and Henry of Navarre with Charlotte de Sauves. Catherine could not help smiling cynically as she surveyed those four. Well, one thing was certain: neither bride nor bridegroom was in a position to blame the other for infidelity. The cynical pair! It was perfectly obvious that they were both considering the violation of their marriage vows on the very night of their wedding! It was a situation worthy of the pen of Boccaccio or of Margot’s namesake, that other Queen of Navarre.
For a few days she could rest content. The marriage was effected. In the remote possibility of a Huguenot ascendancy over Catholics and a suppression of the House of Valois by that of Bourbon, she would have a daughter who was Queen of France. She had managed to get a foot in both camps—she would be the Queen Mother whether Catholic Valois or Huguenot Bourbon sat on the throne of France.
As for Philip, he must have Coligny. The Governor of Lyons had been instructed not only to let no mail into France, but to let no mail out. Philip and the Pope should not know that the wedding had taken place until she could also send the news of the Huguenot leader’s death.
Imperceptibly, she lifted her eyebrows, for Coligny had entered the great hall.
Catherine made her way to him.
“Dear Admiral, how delighted I am to see you join our foolish revels. They are gay and a little silly, are they not? But I doubt not that you were amused by such things when you were the age of these young people—just as I was. It is pleasing to see our young pair so fond—so charming, is it not? And, Admiral”—she laid her delicate white hand on his arm—“Admiral, I know you pray with me that this marriage will bring to an end the strife in our land.”
“Amen, Madame,” said Coligny.
“I rejoice to see the influence you have with my son. His Majesty, I know, consults you in all things. Ah, my dear Admiral, you have a mother’s gratitude. Promise me you will stay with us . . . stay long and use your benign influence to bring peace to our land.”
She looked up into the noble face, at the widely set eyes, the fine high brow, the firm lips, and the clearly molded features. It was, she thought lightly, his nobility of countenance which made the Admiral such a handsome man. I will send his head to Rome. It should arrive almost as soon as the news of the wedding.
They had been put to bed in royal state—the cynical groom and the indifferent bride. His Huguenot gentlemen had now retired; so had her Catholic ladies; and they were alone.
The candlelight flattered him, Margot thought; but she did not believe she could endure him near her. She did not wish those thick hands to touch her; the coarse hair reminded her of the soft natural curls of Henry of Guise by their very contrast. Why did he not use some perfume as he did not appear to be overparticular with his toilet?
He was watching her, determined to match her indifference with his own.
“Well, you see,” he said at length, “the marriage did take place. I remember long ago, when we rode to Bayonne together, you pulled my hair and swore that you would die rather than marry me.”
“I am not sure,” she answered with a touch of melancholy, “that I would not rather be dead than here at this moment.”
He laughed aloud, “You . . . dead! And before the ceremonies are over!”
She laughed suddenly. “Well, perhaps I should have said immediately after.”
Some understanding seemed to be established between them at that moment. She betrayed a humor which matched his, a humor so strong that she had been unable to suppress it and to play the role which she had planned for herself.
“I never saw one less melancholy than you in the dance this night.”
“I have learned to play many a part which has been forced upon me. Your pursuit of Madame de Sauves was disgraceful. It was noted, I assure you, by many. That is not a seemly manner in which to behave on your wedding night, Monsieur. At least not in Paris. Perhaps in your remote state of Béarn . . .”
“Which is now your state, Madame.”
“Perhaps in our remote state of Béarn, courtesy, elegance, and the manners of a courtier do not count; but here in Paris, I would have you treat me with respect. I have become your wife.”
“Most reluctantly,” he reminded her.
“And Queen of Navarre.”
“Less reluctantly,” he put in, and she permitted herself to smile.
“I would have you know that this marriage ceremony of ours was, as far as I am concerned, performed but to please the King and my mother, and it is my wish that it should be a marriage of state only . . . by which I mean . . .”
“Your meaning is perfectly clear to me,” he said, resting on his elbow to look at her.
“I trust that you will respect my wishes.”
“Have no fear on that score, Madame. May I wish you good night?”
“Good night,” she said.
She was angry with him. He might at least have shown some sign of regret, even if he had made no attempt at persuasion; he had no manners; he was an oaf, a provincial. It was an insult to have married her to such a man even though he was a King.
She looked at the ornate curtains of the bed while she trembled with anger.
He said, after a pause: “I perceive your inability to remain still, Madame. Should I attribute this to anger at my unworthiness to occupy this place in the bed, or may I put it down to your desire for me?”
“You may certainly not put it down to the latter,” she said sharply; but she was glad he had started to talk again.
“Do not be too harsh with me, I beg of you,” he pleaded. “We of royal blood cannot choose our wives and husbands, and it is well to make the best of what are chosen for us.”
“Make the best! What do you mean?”
“To smile instead of fume. To enjoy friendship, since love is out of the question.”
“So you feel friendship for me?”
“If you will but extend the hand of friendship, I shall not refuse it.”
“That,” she agreed, “would, I suppose, be better than being enemies. But is friendship possible between us? We are of different faiths.”
He lay back on his satin pillow and folded his arms behind his head. “Faith?” he said with a laugh. “What has faith to do with us?”
She sat up startled. “I do not understand you, Monsieur. You are a Huguenot, are you not?”
“I am a Huguenot,” he said.
“Then you know what I mean by faith.”
“I am a Huguenot,” he continued, “because I am my mother’s son. My dear Marguerite, had you been her daughter, you would have been a Huguenot. Had I been your father’s son I should have been a Catholic. It is as simple as that.”
“No,” she said, “some change their faiths. Your mother did. Why, even Gaspard de Coligny was a Catholic once.”
“These fanatics may change their faiths; but, my dear wife, such as you and I were not meant to be fanatics. We are not unlike in our love of life. We mean to enjoy it, and faith can stand in the way of enjoyment. So our faith is a little thing. You are a Catholic; I am a Huguenot. What of it? You know what you want from life and you get it. I am the same. Our faiths are not our lives, Marguerite. They are things apart.”
“I have never in the whole of my life heard any talk thus!” she declared. “Is this the Huguenot way?”
He laughed. “You know better than that. Why, they are more fanatical than the Catholics, if that be possible. It is just my way . . . and perhaps yours.”
“But I had thought you . . . as the son of your mother . . .”
“I am many men, Marguerite. I am one man to the King, another to your mother, and yet another to Monsieur de Coligny; and ready to be yet another to you, my friendly wife. You see, when I was a baby I had eight different nurses and was reared on eight different kinds of milk. There are eight different men inside this body, which alas! does not find favor in your sight. I am sorry for your sake that I am not as tall and handsome as Monsieur de Guise.”
“And I am sorry I do not possess the blue eyes and golden hair of Madame de Sauves.”
“It is true yours are black,” he said with mock regret. “Yet,” he added maliciously, “they are not unattractive. But we stray from the point. We talk of lovers and I would speak of friends.”
“You are suggesting that as I cannot love you as a husband I might as a friend?”
“I am suggesting that it would be folly for us to work against each other. I am the King of Navarre; you are the Queen. We should be allies. You, as a good wife, should watch my interests; as a wise wife you should do this, because, my dear Margot, my interests happen to be yours from this day on.”
“Oh, come! You know we live in a web of intrigue. Why have your brothers and mother brought me here?”
“In order that you might marry me.”
“And why should they wish for this marriage?”
“Surely you know . . . to unite Huguenots and Catholics.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“I know of no other.”
“And if you did, would you tell me?”
“That would depend.”
“Yes. It would depend on whether it was to another’s interest that I should be told. But your interest is my interest now, my Queen. If I lose my kingdom, you lose yours.”
“That is true.”
“Then you will help me to preserve that which you share with me?”
“Well,” she said, “I think I might.”
“You will find me a lenient husband. It is necessary, of course, that we should stay together this night—the etiquette of your royal house demands it—or, in my leniency I should leave you. But it is only one night in our married life. You understand me?”
“You mean that I shall not interfere with you nor you with me. That seems sound enough.”
“Ha,” said the King of Navarre, “if all people were as sensible there would be many more happy marriages in the land. I will make no attempt to stop your friendship with Monsieur de Guise, but you, while so fondly admiring his handsome person, his charming manners, and his elegance, will remember, will you not, that the gentleman, while the friend of the Princess Marguerite, might well be the enemy of the Queen of Navarre?”
She answered coldly: “Madame de Sauves has beautiful eyes; she has charming golden hair; but you know, do you not, that she is my mother’s chief and most trusted spy?”
He took her hand and pressed it. “I see that we understand each other, my dear wife.”
The candles guttered as she murmured: “That is a great consolation.”
He answered: “There might be other consolations.”
She was silent and he leaned over her to kiss her.
“I would rather you did not,” she said.
“Believe me, it was merely a matter of etiquette.”
Margot laughed. “Some of the candles have gone out,” she said. “In the dimmer light you seem different.”
“And you, my love,” he told her.
They were silent for a while and he moved closer.
“On my part,” she told him, “it would merely be because we are a King and Queen and etiquette makes its demands upon us.”
“And for mine,” he replied, “it would be because I find it so ungallant to be in bed with a lady and resist . . . the demands of gallantry, you understand?”
She moved away, but he had caught her.
He whispered: “The gallantry of Béarn and the etiquette of France . . . together, my love, they are irresistible.”
Reading Group Guide
Get a FREE ebook by joining our mailing list today! Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
The aging Catherine de’ Medici and her sickly son King Charles are hoping to cease the violence between feuding religions: the Catholics and the Huguenots. When Catherine arranges the marriage of her beautiful Catholic daughter Margot to Huguenot King Henry of Navarre, the kingdom’s subjects hope there will finally be peace.
But shortly after the wedding, when many of the most prominent Huguenots are still celebrating in Paris, King Charles gives an order that could only have come from his mother: rid France of its “pestilential Huguenots forever.”
In this bloody conclusion to the Catherine de’Medici trilogy, Jean Plaidy shows the demise of kings and skillfully exposes Catherine’s lifetime of depraved scheming.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What did you find most remarkable about the conduct of the royal family and the other ladies and lords of the Valois court? What did you find most appealing? Were you surprised by the indiscretions of Princess Margot and the other royals?
2. When the Admiral Coligny is summoned to Paris, he declares that he is willing to risk his life for the Huguenot cause. How does Coligny’s death affect the outcome of the religious struggle in France during the course of the novel? Was Coligny’s death necessary to aid the Huguenot cause, in your opinion?
3. Catherine de’ Medici is a formidable figure in European history. How does the author’s incarnation of Catherine de’ Medici measure against what you know about the historical figure?
4. Henry of Navarre is remembered as one of the most loved kings in France’s history. His statue still stands today on the Pont Neuf in Paris. Which Henry (Henry III, Henry de Guise, or Henry of Navarre) did you find to possess the best leadership skills? Why do you think the author chose to end Queen Jezebel before the reign of Henry of Navarre (later, Henry IV of France)?
5. The struggle to achieve and retain power is a central theme in Queen Jezebel. How does Catherine maintain her power over the Valois court and the state affairs of France? Why do Catherine’s children defer to her, particularly King Charles IX and King Henry III, when she is so unpopular outside of the court? How is power for the women things would have been different for her, and for France as a whole, had she married Henry de Guise when she had the chance. Why does her former relationship with Guise plague her? How would things have been different if she had married him?
6. Discuss the different marriages and other relationships throughout the book. What motivates these unions? Love, money, power, sex? In your opinion, which relationship functioned the best? Why? How do the various relationships evolve throughout the actions of the novel?
7. “By God… a man, it seems, must have a faith; and as the good God decided He would make a Huguenot of me, so let it be,” says Henry of Navarre (ms p. 55). Were you surprised at all by Henry’s blasé stance on religion? How central are the differences between the Catholics and Huguenots to the conflicts of the so-called “Religious Wars” depicted in Queen Jezebel?
8. Which character did you sympathize with the most? Which characters surprised you the most? Which character grew or changed the most throughout the novel? 9. As the Admiral Coligny is on his death bed, he warns King Charles, “She is your evil genius, my son. You must escape from her” (ms p. 103). How do Coligny’s words affect the way that Charles rules? How do his words resonate for the rest of the House of Valois?
10. Discuss the differences between the royal court at Paris, at Krakow in Poland, at Blois, and the court at Nérac in Navarre. How do the customs and attitude of each court shape the actions of the characters there?
11. The people of Paris play an important role throughout Queen Jezebel as a voice of protest against the actions of the royal court. How does the public opinion influence the actions of each of the characters? How would the novel have been different if the court was not subjected to this public opinion?
12. Discuss the effect of the title, Queen Jezebel, on your reading of the novel. Do you think the title is fitting? Is Jezebel a fitting epithet for Catherine de’ Medici? Is Catherine, the Italian Woman, the main character of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Dress in your finest court style for your next book club meeting. Drape yourself in pearls and jewels (real or costume), silk, satin, velvet, or lace in a style that would make King Henry III and his mignons proud. Host your own fashion show royale.
2. Lineage and family connections are very important to the characters in Queen Jezebel. Create a genealogy chart of your own family similar to the chart that appears in the beginning of the novel. To get started, visit www.familysearch.org.
3. Read the first and second books in the Catherine de’ Medici trilogy by Jean Plaidy if you haven’t already: Madame Serpent, which first introduces Catherine as a fourteen-year-old Italian princess, and The Italian Woman in which Catherine advances along her unholy road as the ambitious mother of princes.
- Publisher: Atria Books (March 12, 2013)
- Length: 464 pages
- ISBN13: 9781451686548
Browse Related Books
Raves and Reviews
"As usual, Jean Plaidy’s amazing portrayals of historical figures made this yet another riveting novel."
– Romance Reviews Today
Resources and Downloads
You may also like: Our Favorite Literary Queens
You may also like: Thriller and Mystery Staff Picks
More to Explore
Our Summer Reading Recommendations
Red-hot romances, poolside fiction, and blockbuster picks, oh my! Start reading the hottest books of the summer.
This Month's New Releases
From heart-pounding thrillers to poignant memoirs and everything in between, check out what's new this month.