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,
A Catherine de' Medici Novel
A Catherine de' Medici Novel
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.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
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?
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