a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Historical Nights' Entertainment (3rd Series) Author: Rafael Sabatini * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1401221h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2014 Date most recently updated: March 2014 Produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
THE KING'S CONSCIENCE
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
JANE THE QUEEN
The Lady Jane Grey
THE 'CROOKED CARCASE'
Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex
THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT
The Marriage of the Lady Arabella Stuart
THE MERCHANT'S DAUGHTER
Catherine de' Medici and the Guises
THE KING OF PARIS
The Assassination of Henri de Guise
THE TRAGEDY OF MADAME
The End of Henriette d'Angleterre
THE VAGABOND QUEEN
Christine of Sweden and the Murder of Monaldeschi
THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT
Maria-Theresa and the Elector of Bavaria
THE SECRET ADVERSARY
The Rise and Fall of Johann Frederich Struensee
Catherine of Russia and Poniatowski
THE VICTOR OF VENDÉMIAIRE
Barras' Account of Bonaparte's Courtship of La Montansier
In the historical sketches here offered I have sought to govern myself by restrictions no less rigid than those under which the sketches collected in two earlier volumes of this series were composed. Only the manner is that of fiction. The matter deals with facts, in so far at least as it is possible to arrive at facts from the surviving records of past transactions. Invention has been avoided, and imagination has been employed only with the aim of creating a sense of actuality and confined to details of those circumstances of which the suggestion is implicit in the events themselves. The only exception to this is the occasional employment of imagination to penetrate those obscure corners into which the surviving records fail to cast any light.
It has been said that history is the richest mine of romantic situations, and that these, by the unexpectedness of their development, commonly surpass all that may be conceived by the talent of the most fertile romancer.
The student of history might accept this as true if he were not commonly brought to suspect that it is precisely this talent of the most fertile romancers that has so often been engaged in the composition of the records upon which he depends.
The elements for the compilation of any history are to be sought in the writings coming down to us from contemporary chroniclers of events. But it is necessary to remember that chroniclers are commonly biased. It is in fact the bias, the strong feelings excited in these writers, the desire to present a case as they prefer to see it, the virulence of faction, that urges them to become chroniclers. The interpretation given to events in our own time by an historian of, say, a couple of centuries hence, will depend upon whether, when he comes to the mass of material left him, he prefers to follow writers of the right or of the left. Neither of these groups can be acquitted of falsifying events. The members of each are concerned to present the side with which they are in sympathy in the most favourable, and the opponent side in the most odious, light. Propaganda today is accepted as a more or less legitimate weapon of warfare between nations and between political parties, and falsehood, deliberate and calculated, is accounted by propagandists a moral poison gas of the same expediency as the physical poison gas employed on the field of battle.
This is no new thing. Isaac D'Israeli, commenting on it a hundred years ago, wrote: 'When one nation is at war with another there is no doubt that the two governments connive at, and often encourage, the most atrocious libels on each other, to madden the people to preserve their independence and contribute cheerfully to the expenses of war.' And he traces the practice back into the mists of antiquity. Elsewhere in the same essay (Political Forgeries and Fictions), the whole of which may be read with profit by the historical student, he charges political calumny with converting forgeries and fictions into historical authorities.
As it is now, as it was in Isaac D'Israeli's day, so it has always been; for in man's moral outlook no material change is discernible in historic times. And just as nation deals with nation in times of strife, so party deals with party, and individual with individual. It is no easy matter, therefore, to reach the absolute truth of any past event, upon which the evidence is commonly conflicting.
If we are so fortunate A to be able, as a preliminary, to establish the credibility of our witnesses, then the task is comparatively simple. But instances in which this is possible are the exception rather than the rule. Consequently the historical writer in his process of sifting is largely dependent upon—we might almost say, the victim of—his own instincts, predilections, and prejudices.
The history of King Henry VIII of England, touched upon here in 'The King's Conscience,' is very much a case in point. It will be seen that I adopt the view of Sir Walter Ralegh, by no means a negligible authority and one who is certainly not to be suspected of propagandism in his criticisms of that monarch. The fact remains, however, that so varied are the judgments advanced on the character of Henry VIII and on the events of his life and reign, that a modern writer will not lack for authorities to support any point of view which he happens to prefer. Arguments have been put forward to account on the loftiest grounds for his matrimonial adventures, arguments which by their ingenuity and more or less solid foundation upon contemporary evidences could not fail to carry conviction if they did not first outrage common sense.
'The Tragedy of Madame' is another instance in which the conflict of evidence brings the student to despair. Those acquainted with Saint-Simon's encyclopaedic Mémoirs and Madame de La Fayette's History of Henriette d'Angleterre will perceive the main sources from which I have drawn. These two furnish us, one with the cause and the other with the effect; and since cause and effect, being as they are the two sides of a fact, are necessary for the proper presentation of any narrative, whether of fact or of fiction, it is only by the welding of the two that we obtain a plausible view of this case. On the poisoning, Madame de La Fayette is non-committal. She reports Henrietta's own suspicions and the rumours that were current. Her real contribution is her account of the events which by exacerbating the relations between Henrietta and her husband supply a possible motive for the crime. Saint-Simon it is who, in very positive terms, denounces the poisoning. He is notoriously a scandalmonger, and he was a child at the time of the affair. But he gives as his authority Purnon, the maitre d'hôtel of Monsieur, from whom he tells us that he had the tale. No living man could be of greater authority than Purnon in this matter, and it is difficult to suppose that he should have lied, considering the extent to which his narrative incriminates himself.
Against this we have the evidence of the medical men—some English, brought in by the British Ambassador, and some French—who made the post-mortem, discovered no poison, and declared that Madame had died of cholera morbus; and we know that their finding satisfied Charles II, to whom it was reported. This, however, is to be discounted by the fact that little reliance can be placed on the findings of seventeenth-century physicians. Their denial of the presence of poison was based upon no chemical tests, but simply upon the appearance of the organs. It should be remembered also that only evidences of poisoning so overwhelming as not to leave in doubt their limited powers of detection could have silenced a judgment dictated by the most urgent political expediency.
In 'The Victor of Vendémiaire' I present, purely as an instance of the lengths to which political falsehood will go, a story that we know to be so untrue that its inclusion in this collection would be inadmissible if it were not lifted entirely from one of those sources from which history is supplied. Beyond sketching in the background and such details as I account necessary so as to lend life and movement to the tale, I merely repeat it as it comes to us in the Mémoirs of Barras, who was himself a leading actor in the little comedy.
We know that this was not at all the manner of Bonaparte's first meeting with Josephine de Beauharnais. That meeting was anterior to the events of Vendémiaire, and had taken place at the house of Madame Tallien, to which Barras had introduced him. We also have every reason to believe that the command of the Army of Italy bestowed on Bonaparte was—although Bonaparte must have been far from suspecting it—the dowry of a mistress of whom Barras had wearied. The fact is that this vain, corrupt, and dishonest member of the government, recognizing the force and genius of the young Corsican, promoted him so that he might afterwards lean upon and use him. Bonaparte's refusal to be so used, his thrusting aside of the worthless ladder by which he had climbed, engendered in Barras a rancour which expressed itself in calumnies of which this is a conspicuous example. The tale of La Montansier is only a part of the false account Barras gives of the events of Vendémiaire. In the rest of it he is concerned to glorify himself and to diminish Bonaparte's share in the suppression of the revolt, representing him as no better than an aide-de-camp. But in the matter of La Montansier, he desires to show him contemptibly venal, and, in the conclusion of it, as a ruthless, egotistical ingrate. It is a cruel, heartless little comedy, of the kind of which many that are not so easily refutable may have found an abiding place in history.
The spirit of comedy presides also, but less bitterly, over the episode I have selected from the lively career of Catherine of Russia. My choice of the Poniatowski affair is dictated by the fact that nothing in the resourceful career of the Empress shows her as more fully deserving the title of 'Madame La Ressource,' and also because the episode does not seem to me ever to have been given in her biographies the prominence which it deserves as a revelation of character.
In 'The Vagabond Queen,' I have ventured a tentative elucidation of the queer mystery surrounding the murder of Monaldeschi by that tragicomic figure, Christine of Sweden. In this account imagination has been permitted to transcend the limits elsewhere imposed upon it.
You are, of course, entitled to reject as pure invention the motive here advanced. I can only plead that a close study of all the circumstances strongly suggests it to have been something of this kind, and, so far as I am aware, no other attempt to discover a motive has ever been published. Apart from that the narrative keeps close to fact, and the circumstances of Monaldeschi's brutal end are as I present them.
The remaining sketches follow lines that are more or less accepted, each, however, presented from the angle that brings sharply into view factors which may not have been regarded as possessing the cardinal importance which I attribute to them in directing the course of the events. The greatest liberty I permit myself in this respect is in 'The Secret Adversary.' In this account of the rise and fall of Struensee I advance the theory that the directing mind was that of the crafty Queen Juliana, and I discern in Struensee himself no more than an accidental interruption of her schemes, an interruption which her astuteness ultimately turned to good account.
CLIFFORD, December, 1937
From his aspect you would never have suspected the refinements of mind and the tender susceptibilities of conscience that were his. A mountain of a man, with elephantine legs that were bowed under the weight of his hogshead of a body, and a head that must have seemed disproportionately small but for the black-bearded pendulous cheeks that made it wider at the jaws than at the brow, he looked an entirely and grossly carnal fellow. His actual countenance must have been nothing short of terrible, since even its lifeless reproductions in paint on canvas, that look down upon you from the walls of Hampton Court today, must fill the sensitive with a sense of dread and Loathing. Observe the fleshly and yet beak-like nose, with the evil wrinkle at its base, flanked by small, wide-set owlish eyes under high-arching brows. He looks predatory, cruel, repellent. Observing him, if you agree with Spenser, that
'...of the soul the body form doth take,
For soul is form and doth the body make,'
you may arrive per saltum at a wrong conclusion. You had jest remember that this superman, whom a pope magnified with the title of Defender of the Faith, was not merely the physical but also the spiritual head of a great state. It is true that Sir Walter Ralegh has said of him that he pared no man in his anger and no woman in his lust. But we have the word of King James II for it that Sir Walter was too saucy in his criticism of princes. It is also true that someone—though not in his own time—has called him the English Tiberius, and others have compared him—entirely to his own disadvantage—with Nero and Caligula. Against this, however, we are to remember that someone else has said of him that had his elder brother lived, this Henry Tudor might well have become Pope—meaning that if he had been disposed to it, his superlative mental gifts must irresistibly have swept him to Saint Peter's throne.
Even as it was, and though confined by destiny to a merely temporal sovereignty, his polemical talents were not stifled. We know his delight in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and particularly those of the great Thomas Aquinas, and we see the rich fruit of these studies in his own memorable work, A Treatise on the Seven Sacraments Against the Heresiarch Martin Luther, by the Illustrious Prince Henry VIII. It was a fulmination that should have shrivelled Martin Luther into ashes, and so it must have done had Martin Luther possessed a proper sense of the awesomeness of illustrious princes. But that irreverent iconoclast not only neglected to be shrivelled; he actually went the length of answering the unanswerable, and—from Germany, where the esteem of Henry Tudor was much less than anything Henry Tudor could have believed—he answered him in terms that comprised the use of epithets that are not commonly applied to princes, such as 'liar,' 'fool,' 'blasphemer,' and 'ass.' It was very well for Martin Luther that he was safe in Germany, or the history of European civilisation might be other than it is today.
Nor was divinity Henry's only talent. He had, for instance, a very pretty taste in music, and—and here we reach at last my most immediate concern—a very pretty and quite insatiable taste in women. He has been called, because of his many marriages, the English Bluebeard. But that is to fail utterly to do justice to his sensitive conscience and polemical mind.
That conscience of his,' in matters matrimonial, was shaken out of its slumbers one pleasant summer morning in the fair garden of Hever Castle, Sir Thomas Boleyn's Kentish residence. It was, as it were, awakened by the touch of as sweet and sprightly a lady as any to be found in England at that time.
Sir Thomas, a grandson of the Earl of Ormond and married to the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, was not only a well-born, well-connected gentleman, but an ambassador of skill who in that capacity had served his sovereign with distinction. Reason enough in this, perhaps, why the King should visit him; but not all the reason, by any means. Sir Thomas had a daughter, Mary Boleyn, who had captured the royal fancy and had yielded to the impetuous ardour of that elephantine wooer, as became a loyal loving subject.
There you have the true lodestone that had drawn him to Hever Castle.
And now, round a corner of the massive boxwood hedge on which brilliants of dew still sparkled in the morning sun, you behold him suddenly face to face with his host's younger daughter, Mistress Anne, lately home from France—a slim, tall, lively, brown-haired creature, with sparkling mischievous eyes and the reddest lips in all the world, just such a creature as by the laws of the attraction of opposites could not fail to inflame material so combustible as our Defender of the Faith.
He came to a halt with an oath of sheer amazement, his huge legs wide-planted, his arms akimbo, and stood insolently to appraise her. Was he not master of all? And she on her side stood also at gaze, a little awed by the massive bulk of him, and dazzled by his slashed and bejewelled gaudiness. His great voice rumbled.
'Come hither, child.'
It was a very proper form of fatherly address, for he was nearing forty and looked more, whilst she was but one-and-twenty and scarcely looked as much. But there was nothing fatherly in his mind.
She came, and, leering, he kissed her—one of the minor royal prerogatives this, where beauty is concerned. She laughed a little nervously, whereupon he held her from him at arm's length, and considered her again.
'Why hath Sir Thomas kept you hid—the fairest jewel, by my faith, in all his casket?' he demanded.
Sir Thomas, following at his royal master's heels, made shift to answer. But the maid forestalled him.
'Not hid, sire, but displayed. Used like the jewel that your grace conceives me for the adornment of a crown.'
'Anne!' cried her father in reproof. 'Forgive her, sire. She's but a child, and this is the forwardness they use in France.' And he explained her meaning. She had gone overseas eight years ago with the Princess Mary when the latter went to wed King Louis, and after Louis's death she had remained at the Court of France as a lady in waiting to the Queen of King Francis. But for the war she would have been there still.
'Then is she the first of the gains by which this cursed war shall make us richer,' protested the burly monarch. 'Nor shall she waste her loveliness amid your Kentish turnips, good Sir Thomas. The Court is her proper setting.'
It was a command, and whatever may have been Sir Thomas's misgivings, considering what already lay between the King and the knight's elder daughter, whatever the feelings of that elder daughter herself, obedience to Henry Tudor was not a matter over which prudent men could hesitate. So within a little while Mistress Anne Boleyn was brought to Greenwich to be a maid of honour to Queen Catherine as she had been maid of honour of two queens already. At Court her beauty, her accomplishments, and her sprightliness, which her long sojourn in France had spiced with a Gallic flavour, made her speedily the admired of all. Almost she held a court within a court, and of all the gallants who flocked to do her homage it would have been hard to say which was the most assiduous. There was the gay Sir Henry Norris, Groom of the Stole, and there was young Percy, the Earl of Northumberland's son, either of whom might have carried off this prize, but for a broad hint that the King had other views. Percy was discreet. Upon a word in season from his father, to whom the King had spoken, he effaced himself. Norris, a man of stouter fibre and more reckless humour, was removed by military duties the honour of which was suddenly thrust upon him.
Anne was nowise perturbed. Though these departed, others remained; and she was fancy-free, esteeming still the courting above the courtier.
To Wolsey the King pronounced her an angel of wit full worthy of a crown. And the arrogant prelate's mouth twitched in a smile of fullest understanding. If Queen Catherine grew uneasy at the royal devotion to her maid of honour, that was no matter for distress to the great Cardinal. He had no love for Catherine, who had openly denounced him for the cruel death of Buckingham, and whose nephew the Emperor had fooled him in the matter of the papacy, to which this swollen, ambitious, accomplished son of an Ipswich butcher was aspiring. So Wolsey looked on complacently, taking satisfaction in this humbling of the Queen by the royal wooing, open and unabashed, of the maid of honour. But for all the impetuous ardour that he used, King Henry found success receding ever in a measure as he advanced. The maid was too elusive. She laughed and jested all he would. She delighted, as it seemed, in fencing with him, but handling her weapons with a rare address saw to it that whilst he winded himself in his endeavours to pursue, overtake her he never should. It may be that her notions of virtue were narrower than her sister Mary's. It may be that her ambitions were less restrained. When his importunities grew such as to tax her beyond her powers of resistance, she used her health as a last buckler, and falling opportunely ill, withdrew from Court and went back to Hever Castle and the Kentish turnips.
Thither he wrote to her: 'My mistress and friend, I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to recommend us to your favour, and not to let absence lessen your affection for us,' with much more in the same strain, which he subscribed 'Your servant and friend.'
And now it was that his sensitive conscience, so lately awakened, began to stir with real vigour. He took stock of his married life; he looked back upon the eighteen years of it, and he was appalled to perceive at last the state of sin in which the pursuit of a headstrong youthful passion had brought him so complacently to live. Catherine of Aragon, his brother's widow, had been a handsome noblewoman of six-and-twenty when Henry, himself a lad of nineteen, had succeeded to the throne. Agreeable in her person and the daughter of the most powerful sovereigns in Europe, there had been every reason, personal and political, why he should marry her; the degree of affinity in which he stood to her had been overcome by a special bull of dispensation from the Pope. But now he remembered that Archbishop Warham, at the time, had ventured to denounce his marriage as unlawful, and in his married history he came to see evidence of the justice of that denunciation. In the first eight years of their marriage Queen Catherine had borne him four sons and two daughters. Of the four sons, two had been stillborn and two had expired within a few days of birth. Of the daughters, the Princess Mary was the only one born alive and still living. There had also been some miscarriages in between those futile births. To be left after that succession of pregnancies without a son, and with only a sickly girl to succeed him, was to be mocked. What could he see in this—now that at last his eyes were open—but a sign of Heaven's displeasure? For guidance, he went back to his studies of divinity, and overwhelmed by what he found in Leviticus, he sat down in a chastened, conscience-stricken spirit to write a book that should prove his marriage to be unlawful and incestuous.
He took counsel in the matter with his friend and mentor, the powerful minister Wolsey. The great Cardinal, seeing here a chance of superlatively avenging himself upon Queen Catherine, went to work in his crafty way to do the pleasure of his prince. Peace with France was now restored, and an alliance was concerted that should be cemented by the marriage of Henry's daughter Mary with the Dauphin. Wolsey whispered a word in the ear of the Bishop of Tarbes, and as a result of it that churchman suddenly asked a formidable question: Was the legitimacy of the Princess Mary beyond every legal and canonical doubt, having regard to the marriage of which she was the offspring?
Here was evidence for him that doubts of the canonical quality of his marriage were stirring elsewhere than in his own troubled conscience.
'This,' he cried, 'shows how blind we have been to a fact that is apparent even to strangers!'
After that, of course, measures must be taken to right that monstrous wrong. Wolsey was sent as ambassador to France upon matters concerned with the new treaty, and whilst there, considering now the divorce inevitable, he looked about him for a new queen for his royal master. Secretly he fixed upon the Princess Renée. But in the rest of the matter he practised secrecy not at all. He openly announced his quest, and went so far as to give more than a hint of the manner in which the alliance should presently be consolidated.
That astute and penetrating mind had made here the mistake of underweighing the part to be played by Anne. He returned from France to find her back at Court with the title of Marchioness of Pembroke, a powerful faction growing up about her, directed by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and her father, who had by now been created Earl of Wiltshire. It daunted the Cardinal, who had never dreamed or intended that she should be more to the King than a mistress, and it appalled him presently to hear from Henry's own lips that he had settled that Mistress Anne should be Queen Catherine's successor.
Wolsey perceived the mischief that in his absence had been wrought, and he perceived no less the danger in which he now stood, as a result of the freedom with which he had talked in France. When that should become known, he must have a more dangerous enemy in Anne Boleyn than ever in Queen Catherine. Like a gambler who, seeing half his fortune gone, risks the remaining half in the hope of recovering it, he flung himself upon his knees before the King, and pleaded with him at long and earnest and eloquent length against an alliance so unworthy of his high estate. Skilfully he played upon Henry's monstrous vanity, by means of which he had known hitherto how to lead him as he pleased. But for once he failed. Though vanity was strong in Henry, here was something that was stronger still. What Henry desired, Henry must have, at whatever cost; and since Anne was not to be had on any terms but marriage, marry her he would. There was no more to be said.
Wolsey lumbered up from his knees, received his orders to co-operate towards the desired end, and withdrew a sadly shaken man.
Henry's view was simple and direct. What Pope Julius had done, Pope Clement must undo, revoking the dispensation which should never have been granted. That was his demand. But the Pope was hardly master of his soul just then. The legions of the Emperor were in Italy, and the Emperor was Queen Catherine's nephew. Having no mind to see his aunt wronged and slighted, Charles V put his sword to Pope Clement's throat, commanding the Pontiff to remain insensible to the urgent bellowings of that English bull.
The utmost, therefore, that His Holiness would do was to order a commission to inquire into the validity of the dispensation granted by Julius, and to revoke it if it were found to have been by any means surreptitiously obtained. And so in October of 1528 there arrived in London for that purpose an aged, able ecclesiastic named Campeggio. The impatient Henry courted him, and overwhelmed him with gifts, but made no apparent impression and could gain no hint of the judgment which the impenetrable Campeggio was likely to pronounce. Followed delays that must have rent the soul of a conscientious prince eager to purge him of his sin. But at last in the following June, in the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars, the matter was brought to trial, and it ended in a declaration by the King's Counsellors that the marriage was proven unlawful, the dispensation having been obtained by false pretences and a concealment of facts. Campeggio was summoned to deliver judgment. But Campeggio on the Pope's behalf had played for time, and time had served him well. The summons came too late. A peace had been signed between the Pope and the Emperor. The commission was revoked, and Campeggio was recalled. He departed, leaving matters where they had been. From Rome, it was plain that Henry could look for no help in this matter of clearing his overburdened conscience.
His fury, directed by the Boleyn faction, vented itself upon Wolsey, and Wolsey tumbled headlong from the great heights of power to which he had climbed. His head, too, would have fallen—since Henry never did these things by halves—had not his broken health forestalled the axe.
This, however gratifying in itself, was no help towards the divorce. Time moved on, leaving Henry groaning under a load of scruples which none could lighten for him, and furiously sighing his longings for the delectable Anne, whose motto might well have been, Aut Regina, Aut Nihil.
At last the clergyman Cranmer came to his rescue with the suggestion that the learned bodies of Europe should be asked the question: 'Is it lawful for a man to marry his own brother's widow?' If—as Cranmer opined—the answer were in the negative, the Pope would be compelled to pronounce a sentence in accordance with it. Henry clutched eagerly at this plank of salvation. The universities of Europe were canvassed and gold was spent to inspire their voices. But the body of pronounced opinion nowise justified Cranmer's sanguine hopes, and matters got no further.
And then at last arose that bold genius Thomas Cromwell, whose shrewd wits had been sharpened in the service of the great Wolsey, to point out a very clear and simple course. Let the King, following the example of the Princes of Germany, throw off the yoke of Rome, and declare himself head of the Church in his own dominions.
It was a tremendous step, leading no man knew whither. But it was not Henry's way to hesitate or count the cost when it was a question of obtaining what he wanted. As Herbert has said of him, 'His character was never to look farther than the present object.' To obtain his Anne he was ready to plunge the country in war and sacrifice a thousand precious lives. That was an immediate consequence, to the probabilities of which he was not blind by any means.
Boldly, with this sword of Cromwell's forging, Henry slashed through the Gordian knot. And since thus the way was made clear, and the matter of his marriage depending upon no will but his own, he was secretly married at last to Anne at Greenwich in January of 1533. Of that marriage Elizabeth was born in the following September. But by then the secret had been fully disclosed. For in a court held at Lambeth during May, Cranmer, now Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the King's marriage with Catherine of Aragon to be null and void from the beginning, and, therefore, that the marriage contracted in January with Anne was legal, good, and valid.
Thus, at last, after five years of passionate striving, moving heaven and earth, threatening the peace of kingdoms and rending the ancient bonds of the Church that he might possess himself of Anne, the royal conscience found peace in the fair haven of those slim young arms. The ardour of the chase at first, and then for a season the intoxication of possession, had blinded him, perhaps, to certain factors which, growing later apparent, could not be reconciled with his tender conscience.
The Queen reclined on a day-bed in the embrasure of a window of Greenwich Palace, overlooking a river that was touched to silver by the pale sunshine of early spring. Beside her sat her royal husband, vast and gaudy, the evil wrinkle at the base of his nose deeper than usual, lending his great countenance a look of moodiness and discontent. But the Queen's eyes sparkled, and her lips smiled. She was happy, and with reason. There had been dark moments in the romance of her young life. There had been a time, not so long since, when she had feared that the fires of the King's passion were burning low, when he had seemed less the 'loyal and assured servant' he had subscribed himself in the romantic letters he had written as a lover, than the master who took no pleasure in his slave. But those days were overpast. Of late he had given abundant proof of the sincerity and depth of his affection in the long hours he came to spend here in her bower, sitting beside her, putting off his royal dignity and becoming again the pleasant affable fellow who had been ready to wreck half a world to win her.
Something sang joyously within her breast today. Soon now she was to be a mother for the second time, and the conviction grew in her that she would bear him at last the boy for which he longed, and thus rivet his affections irrevocably to herself. She put out her long, white, tapering hand to take his own—a great fleshly hand, with yellow crinkled skin and puffy fingers that were heavily beringed, a hand that at a little distance looked like a great jewelled toad. He let it lie, the wrinkle deepened in his nose, his little eyes momentarily flickering away from the half-dozen maids of honour in the background. Pressing that hand of his, she smiled.
'It will be a boy, Hal,' she whispered fondly. 'How should it be other? Have I not prayed that I may be so blessed? Could Heaven deny my prayer and your desire? It will be a boy. I know it.'
The heavy face lighted with eagerness. He loosed her fingers that he might pat her cheek.
'It were a treason in you to do less,' he growled good-humouredly. He rose and stretched himself. 'See to it, Anne.'
'Ah, do not leave me, Hal. Sit here awhile and—'
'Nay, nay, I must go,' he broke in. 'I have tarried here too long, and Sir Thomas and my Lord Archbishop stay for me. But I'll come soon again. Meanwhile, be thou careful, Anne.'
It was less the recommendation of a solicitous lover than the stern injunction of a king and master. He stooped and brushed her brow with his bearded lips, then rolled out of the chamber with a step that made the windows rattle. But not even his brusqueness, which after all was a normal part of him, could ruffle her glad serenity that day. She lay back upon her cushions, sighed her content, and smiled, pensively happy.
But to disturb her came odd sounds from the room beyond. A patter and shuffle of feet, a tiny half-stifled squeal of laughter, the crash of something falling—a chair, perhaps—and then silence.
'God 'a' mercy, what is that?' The Queen sat up.
None answered her. Her maids of honour remained in frozen attitudes, regarding her with oddly apprehensive faces. And suddenly she observed that where there had been six there were now but five.
'Why, where is Jane?' she inquired, intrigued. 'Who gave her leave?'
Receiving no answer beyond that curious perturbed stare from those five pairs of eyes in the scared faces of her women, the heart in her bosom that had been so warm and glad a moment since turned suddenly to ice. That which for weeks had been a matter of open gossip to the entire Court broke upon her at last as a dread suspicion. In an instant she was on her feet, white and breathless, and then the maids moved forward fluttered by a plurality of alarms.
'Oh, madame, bethink you!'
'Sir William hath said you must not walk alone!'
'Because Sir William hath said it,' she broke in, her musical voice now harsh, 'it is supposed that I am a prisoner here, and so—Out of my way.'
She swept on, staggering a little. They would have stayed her, and her favourite, Madge, who was betrothed to Sir Henry Norris, went so far as to set hands upon her. She flung her off, and considering at once her rank and her condition none dared to exert force against her. They hung dismayed about her, pleading still whilst she swept onward, and pulled wide the door.
A moment stood she staring there. Then with a faint catch in her breath she reeled forward, and pulling the door after her, to shut out her maids, she leaned against it faint with shame and anger to consider closer that which had shattered her gladsome dream.
Fond fool, she had beguiled herself with the assurance that the King's frequent and protracted visits were proofs of his reviving devotion to her. Here was their true object now revealed. Here sat the King, and on his massive knee, held fast by the great arm encircling her, the pretty, lively maid of honour, Jane.
'Ah, rogue,' she heard him say, 'would you elude your king? Would you dare be less than a loyal, loving subject?'
And then Jane, perceiving the Queen, had screamed and writhed in the arm that held her yet a moment, until he too became conscious of this witness. They broke apart on that, and Jane fled away towards the window, weeping. His grace scowled, heaved himself up, and balanced himself on wide-planted feet.
'What make you here?' he bellowed furiously. 'By what right do you walk at such a time, when you've been told—'
'And what make you here?' she interrupted him in fury.
'What make you here, whilst Sir Thomas and my Lord Archbishop stay for you? Shall I tell you what you make, you and that—'
She broke off in terror of him. He was rolling towards her, and the evil in his face robbed her of that royal courage begotten of her anger. She screamed and choked. She beat the air with her hands a moment, fighting for breath, then reeled forward swooning. He caught her as she fell, and so eased her to the ground. Then he flung wide the door of her bower, and trumpeting like an elephant gave his orders to the terrified maids of honour.
That done, and finding in all this a matter that nowise helped his royal dignity, he rolled out still bellowing and cursing.
And so the event to which she had looked for so much joy fell out prematurely and in sore affliction. Her heart had told her the truth. The child of which she was next day delivered was a boy. But it was dead.
She lay there on her bed of anguish in the darkened room through which pitiful attendants moved on tiptoe, and saw in this calamity a sign of Heaven's wrath, a punishment on him and her: on him for his infidelity and deceit, on her for what was past and done. Just as she, a maid of honour, had ousted a queen, so was she, a queen, being ousted by a maid of honour.
He came to her when he learnt the dread news, came with blundering heavy step, taking no thought for her condition, and bade them harshly unmask the windows so as to give him light. Grim, scowling, and of a yellow pallor he stood beside her bed.
By his lights there was reason for his fury. Was he still being mocked, and was even a change of wives to make no difference? Was every son he could beget still to be brought lifeless forth? In the case of Queen Catherine he had come to perceive the reason in the incestuous quality of the union. It did not occur to him—or if it did, he gave no sign of it—that the present union with the sister of a sometime mistress might be in the same case. Still less did it occur to him that the trouble might spring from the same source as the intermittently troublesome sinus in his leg. Syphilis, so lately imported from the New World, was flaming over Europe, and to the King's infection may be attributed these successive puerperal misadventures. In the existing state of medical science there was no one to enlighten him, assuming that if there had been any would have dared to suggest that the blame for the present mischance lay anywhere but in the Queen's disregard of her first duty.
'O 'sdeath!' he bellowed. 'Do you see what you have done? Do you see how you have cheated me? To rob me of my boy! To lose me the son I have so desired!'
Stung by his monstrous cruelty, the love he had known how to kindle in her, almost in defiance of the laws of nature, was reduced to ashes. She looked up out of her piteous white face, a feverish glitter in the lovely eyes, and stabbed him with her mercilessly just answer:
'Do not dare to upbraid me for what is your own guilty work—yours and that wretch Jane Seymour's. Between you, you have murdered my son.'
He fell back raging, loathly, monstrous, but too deeply stricken to make a coherent answer. If he did not kill her with his hands there and then, it must have been because he knew that he did not lack for murderers who would do his pleasure.
She made a good recovery, in body, and because her nature was light and gay, because her love for him was dead as dust, she made an equally good recovery in spirit. By early April she was again about the Court, which no longer knew Jane Seymour, gracing masque and dance as blithely as of old—or so at least it seemed. That gaiety and almost wanton lightness, implanted in her by nature and fostered by her rearing at the Court of France, had ever kept her from donning with the garments of a queen the aloofness of that lofty station. Some there were who knew her for arrogant and overbearing; but these were they who by their loosely veiled hostility provoked it. But she had ever treated as on equal terms with those who had been her friends and equals when herself she had been a maid of honour. It was her way, it had ever been, to use the officers of the royal household familiarly, and great was her friendship for Brereton and Weston, Mark Smeaton, the King's musician, and that gay accomplished knight Sir Henry Norris, who was now back at Court.
That Norris dared to love her is not to be denied. But that she was ever more than his queen to him is not to be asserted. Of late his affection may have been less hopeless.
Perhaps it had begun to soar upon pinions supplied by her own relations with the King on the one hand, and the fact that Henry was a prey just then to that dangerous ulcer in the leg which might yet slay him. The fact that Norris was betrothed to one of Anne's maids rendered it natural that he should be one of the courtiers most assiduous in frequenting her receptions.
At a masque in the second week of that fateful April, he hovered near her chair after she had pointedly neglected to command him to dance with her. She was ill-at-ease and nervous, and gently desired \him to remove himself. The reason was that Weston had hurriedly whispered a warning that the King was watching. Conscious of no evil in herself, and having nothing to conceal, it would never have entered her mind to use circumspection. But to know that conduct however innocent is being made to wear the garment of suspicion is in itself disturbing. Anne had looked at the King when Norris drew near her. Racked though Henry was by the pain of his ulcer, he would not forgo attendance at these revels. She beheld him huddled in his great chair under a cloth of state, one massive leg across a stool, and his baleful eyes upon her. They were dead as the eyes of a snake, and in them dwelt something of the evil paralysing fascination that is alleged to be a quality of the reptile's eye. She felt herself turn cold, and shivered. Then Norris came, nor would he go again when she implied that he was not welcome.
'Your grace, in what have I offended?' he asked her, genuinely aghast.
'I have been warned,' she answered him, 'that it is being said you are too often in my presence.'
Tall, lithe, and handsome stood he there beside her. His eyes flashed scorn; scorn rang in his laugh.
'When evil tongues will be at work, why they will be at work whether they have aught to work upon or not. But this! Does not all the world know that I am to marry Madge?'
'It is being asked, sir, why do you not go on with your marriage. Will you give me the answer?'
He looked at her, his lips tight-pressed. Then his glance strayed across to the sick King; very faintly he smiled.
'Why,' he answered, 'it is that I would wait awhile.'
He spoke on such a curious note that she searched his face, for confirmation of the meaning she suspected.
'You look for dead men's shoes?'
'And if I did?'
'You mean that if aught but good should come to the King, you would look to have me. That is what you would have me understand?'
He paled under his tan. 'And if I did?' he asked again.
'It is madness,' she answered breathlessly. 'Don't you see that I could undo you if I would?'
'I am not blind, your grace. I see it clearly, and what you do I shall account your answer.'
It was a gambler's throw this daring lover made, setting thus boldly his very head upon the board. She drew back a little, and in that moment caught again the King's evil, lowering glance. Henry was leaning forward, chin in palm, considering them. She shivered again.
'Go, go!' she bade him. 'In Heaven's name!' And there was such a sudden ring of terror in her voice that out of pity he obeyed her.
The Imperial Ambassador Chapuys had been accounting it his duty to his master to do what he could to avenge Queen Catherine. He had resorted to slanders of the virtue of her supplanter which at another time might have come to cost him dear. In the present season, however, it was convenient to suppose them at least deserving of investigation, and this by means of rack and cord.
It would be a week or two later, on the first of May, that Mark Smeaton, a groom of the King's chamber and a skilled lute-player to whom Anne—herself an accomplished musician—had shown much favour, was subjected in the privacy of Thomas Cromwell's house to the horrible torture of woolding. Under this the confession was torn from the unfortunate young man that he had received presents from the Queen. It was enough to make a beginning.
The Queen on that same day was bearing the King company in the gallery above the tilt-yard to witness the tournament that was the Court's contribution to the May-Day revels.
Her brother Rochford and Sir Henry Norris were to ride a course, and as Sir Henry in flashing armour, lance on thigh, spurred his charger towards the royal gallery, the Queen leaned forward upon the rail. Whether by accident or design the kerchief that she held escaped her fingers. The King at the moment was scanning a letter that had just been put into his hand. Sir Henry caught the handkerchief, bore it to his lips—which was a very ordinary, knightly devoir—and on the point of his lance returned it, standing in his stirrups. She laughed as she recovered thus her piece of cambric. And then the laugh perished on her lips. With a resounding oath the King heaved himself to his feet, and with no further word spoken stamped out of the gallery, followed by his gentlemen.
Sir Henry was summoned to accompany the King to London. He went, to discover that the object was to cajole from him a confession that should incriminate the Queen. For his bold repudiation of the suggestions he found himself under arrest and on his way to a lodging in the Tower.
As for the Queen, having stared in terror after the tempestuously departing King, she sank back to her seat. Thus she remained amidst her scarcely less terrified maids, until an officer of the household brought her the royal command to go with him, informing her that a barge was waiting.
'A barge?' she cried. 'For what a barge? Whither am I to go, then?'
'To lodgings in the Tower, may it please your grace.'
Her terror mounted. Some of her maids had fallen to weeping, and all about her the tilt-yard hummed with excitement. For a moment it seemed to her that she was living in some evil dream. Then she recovered. This was but done by the King to try her. He could not mean her harm, who herself was harmless. Obediently she went, summoning patience and fortitude to help bear this trial that the King imposed upon her.
But even as she mounted the barge she heard that her brother, Viscount Rochford, had been arrested for treason at the barriers. Her fears welled up again to whelm her last illusion. Soon she was to learn of Smeaton's fate and of the arrest of Weston, Brereton, and Sir Thomas Wyatt, all friends of hers.
Meanwhile, journeying thus in state by river to the Tower, she may have thought of that other progress she had taken thither but three years ago in this same month of May, when she had gone to be crowned. Perhaps she thought of Queen Catherine, who had died last January, and whose death had seemed to make her at last—as she, herself, had said—a queen indeed.
And meanwhile those ambitious men who looked to advance themselves by procuring for the King in defiance of justice and of pity whatsoever he desired, were already at work. Thomas Cromwell, who had cut the earlier baffling matrimonial knot, applied himself with an equal zeal and greater infamy to the severing of this one. Norris, Smeaton, Weston, and Brereton were put upon their trial for the alleged offence against the life and honour of their sovereign lord, entailed in being, as they were alleged to be, the lovers of the Queen. In default of evidence against them they must be brought to provide that evidence themselves. They were invited to confess, and to quicken them they were tortured, but all without avail. And then to each of those racked and broken men a document was brought incriminating the Queen and himself, and he was offered his pardon if he would sign it. Three refused with scorn to earn their lives by so foul a perjury. But the fourth, the musician Smeaton, tempted by the lure of life, his body tortured already to the full sum of its endurance, signed. It availed him nothing, as he might have known. He served their turn; but in serving it, he closed against himself the door of life to which they had falsely promised him that his signature should prove the key. He perished with the rest.
Norris, whom the King esteemed, they tempted insistently with the like offer.
'In my conscience,' he answered firmly, 'I believe her grace entirely guiltless. For my own part, in any case, I can accuse her of nothing, and I would sooner die a thousand deaths than calumniate an innocent woman.'
'And is it so?' said Henry, when they brought him word of that firm answer. 'Hang him up, then! Hang him up!'
Accounting that the sacrifice of those lives was not yet enough to justify the King in the eyes of his conscience for the course upon which he was set, her own brother, too, must be included in that gallery of lovers.
And so on the tenth of May at last came the great trial of Viscount Rochford and the Queen his sister on a charge of incest, overwhelmingly established to the satisfaction of the accusers by the fact that this brother had once remained for a long time alone with his sister in her room.
Brave and self-possessed, the Queen stood to answer in person the dread indictment, and by her spirited defence so utterly routed the forces arrayed against her with their trumpery charge that the rumour ran through the city that she had saved herself. They should have known better, those citizens of London; they should have known that among those five-and-twenty peers who sat to try her was none who dared run counter to the wishes of his king.
Judgment was given against her brother and herself. Her sentence was that she should be burnt or beheaded at the King's pleasure. She had no emperor for her nephew, and they might do with her as they listed without fear of provoking war with any foreign power.
Maintaining still her fortitude, she lifted up her hands to heaven and cried, in the presence of them all: 'O Father! O Creator! Thou Who art the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Thou knowest that I have not deserved this fate.'
Henry signed her death-warrant that very day, and sent the supple Cranmer to confess her. The King was in haste to wed Jane Seymour, and that fine conscience of his required that the obstacle to that sacrament should be removed as speedily as possible. It required even more, and Cranmer was charged with the business.
He found the Queen composed, and at her devotions.
'Madame,' he told her, 'I come as a messenger of hope.' And as she swayed before him, he unfolded the matter. 'The adultery for which you stand convicted were no adultery could it be shown that there had been no marriage.'
Wide-eyed she stared, her cheeks white, her bosom fluttering.
'No marriage? How, my lord?'
'His grace would deal mercifully, so that you make it possible.' He explained himself more fully. She grasped at that plank of salvation with both hands. If she had earlier boasted that no power on earth could prevent her from dying a queen, eagerly she seized this chance to live a commoner.
When Cranmer departed, her ladies found a flush on her cheeks, a sparkle in her eyes. She was not to die, she told them. She had consented to do that which should save her life, and she should be sent instead to Antwerp. On the next day to purchase the royal mercy by unwiving and dethroning herself she was privately conveyed from the Tower to Lambeth Palace. There she submitted voluntarily to a judgment that her marriage with the King had been no marriage, and was therefore null and void from the first. It was Cranmer, himself, who had examined the marriage and pronounced it valid, who pronounced it invalid now. Thus was King Henry served, for had he not said in public that if any spoke of him or his actions in terms which became them not, he would have them know that he was master, and there was no head so fine but he would have it off? Thus, then, it followed logically that the adultery of which she had been convicted was no adultery, since there can be no adultery where there has been no marriage. At the price of this dishonouring of herself and of her child she purchased life; and life the King might have accorded but for the sensitiveness of that conscience of his.
He must ask himself: What if after all the present judgment should be mistaken? Being delivered, it answered his purposes well enough. But what if, in spite of it, his marriage with Anne should be canonically good? Could he run the risk of committing bigamy? Clearly he could not.
Sentence had been passed upon her on the thirteenth of May; on the fourteenth had followed her renunciation; and now on the fifteenth, whilst she sat awaiting the order of release which she had purchased at so bitter a price, word was brought her by the Lieutenant of the Tower that she was to die on the nineteenth. She owed that delay of four days entirely to the clemency of the King, who because of what she had been to him could not bring himself to deal with her one jot more harshly than the circumstances inevitably demanded. For four days would he curb his impatience to marry Jane, so that he might show Anne the utmost mercy. As a further mark of his clemency he had ordained that she should not be burnt but beheaded, and to minimise her suffering, this tender-hearted monarch had sent to Calais for an executioner who was singularly skilled. Hence the delay.
The news almost stunned her. But she made a quick and gallant recovery. She smiled wistfully upon her dismayed and weeping ladies and upon the white-faced Lieutenant who stood there regarding her with such piteous eyes. The ready wit which the King had so admired expressed itself in wistful sarcasm now.
'Convey to his grace,' said she, 'my acknowledgement of the obligations which I owe him for thus uniformly continuing his endeavours for my advancement. From a private gentlewoman, he first made me a marchioness, and then a queen; and now, since he can raise me no higher in this world, he sends me to be a saint in heaven. Tell him that.' She caressed her neck and smiled. 'The executioner, I hear, is very expert, and my neck is very slender. It should be quickly done.'
She never faltered from her gallant gentle courage which sustained her even on the scaffold. She refused to be blindfolded, and there is a story that when that skilled practitioner from Calais, wielding a two-handed sword, approached her to do his office, he was momentarily palsied by the soft glance of those eyes regarding him from the comely young head that was pillowed on the block. Feeling himself unable to strike with those eyes upon him, he went apart, beyond her range of vision, and putting off his shoes, signed to one of his knaves to walk towards her heavily from the other side. And then whilst her glance was so drawn off him, he advanced softly on tiptoe, and shore away her head in a single sweep of his great sword.
The poor lovely body was cast into an arrow-chest made of elm, and so buried without honours within the precincts of the Tower.
On the morrow Henry married Jane Seymour. He waded to those nuptials through the blood of five gallant, innocent gentlemen and one poor lady martyred to his lust. But at least his conscience was at peace. There could be no doubt that he was free to marry.
I like to think of her as the saint in heaven that she said he made her, and Henry in the part of Dives vainly pleading for a drop of water. There are times when our sense of justice takes comfort in the belief in a material hell.
She never really took root on earth. The main concerns of her brief life were concerns of the spirit, and of a spirit very nobly endowed and very richly equipped. At the age of sixteen, when she steps upon the stage of history, we are told that she wrote Greek with fluency and was studying Hebrew, whilst of the perfection of her Latinity we are afforded evidence by her letters to the Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger.
In learning, her spirit had discovered that limitless liberty of movement denied the flesh, and such exalted joys that she could look compassionately upon those to whom hunting, hawking, dancing, and the like were necessary beguilements of the tedium of their narrow lives.
'When I am in the presence of either father or mother, whether I speak, keep silent, sit, stand, eat, drink, be sewing, dancing, playing, or doing anything whatsoever, I must do it in such weight and measure and number even so perfectly as God made the world, else I am so sharply taunted as I will not name for the honour that I bear them. But when I read, none interferes with me. I may read as I choose and what I choose. Therefore that which is accounted play is to me a toil, and that which others account a toil has become my play.'
But whilst this learning enriched her mind, it supplied little or none of the worldly wisdom which alone would have helped the little Lady Jane Grey to read the signs before her. She had become a centre of mysterious doings, which she perceived but could not understand. Perhaps she made no real effort to that end. Perhaps she was by nature submissive to the destiny which had assigned her in this tragedy a part entirely passive, even when she held the centre of the stage.
The vagueness in which she felt that she had been moving was, at last, dispelled abruptly by a command that she should marry.
Although but sixteen years of age, this was not the first time that marriage had been discussed for her.
It had been mentioned when she was no more than eleven, by the Lord High Admiral, the handsome, audacious Thomas Seymour, who had married the Queen-Dowager, Katherine Parr. The Lady Jane was then residing (and this had been another mystery to her) in the Admiral's household. His talk, however, had been vague; a possibility, no more, had been foreshadowed that she might one day wed the frail boy who was Seymour's nephew, her own cousin and King of England.
Even for so unworldly a maid there was glamour in being Queen of England, and no repugnance to the person of young Edward, whom she held in a child's innocent affection. No suspicion of ulterior motive on the part of the splendid Seymour came to cloud her mind. The project seemed the natural expression of a warm-hearted, generous uncle's desire for the happiness of two children whom he loved.
But the Lord High Admiral had lost his head four years ago upon the scaffold, and since his death the innocent dream he had encouraged in the Lady Jane had gradually been fading. What remained of it was now blotted out by this peremptory summons to marry a stranger.
Her mother, the Duchess of Suffolk, that Lady Frances who was the daughter of the late King's sister, Mary Tudor, brought her the announcement in terms that invited thanksgiving. Instead, it momentarily startled the girl out of the passivity to which the stern ruling of her life had trained her.
'Because I know, madam, that only my good is sought, I am grateful. But it is not a benefit that I desire.'
The Duchess, who had inherited with other Tudor attributes their broad, harsh-featured countenance, was formidable when she frowned. She was frowning now.
'That you desire! God a' mercy! It is a benefit that your father and I desire for you.'
'But if I do not desire it for myself, then it can be no benefit.'
Darker grew the frown of King Harry's sister. 'It is for us to judge, child.'
'But it would be for me to endure.'
'Will you be pert and forward with me, Jane?'
'God forbid, madam!' Nevertheless she ventured gently to urge her views: that she was too young for marriage, and that in any case it would be unnatural to accept for husband this Lord Guilford Dudley, who she had never seen, and of whom she knew nothing save that the Duke of Northumberland was his father. She did not add—as she might have done had she, indeed, been forward—that in her eyes this was nothing to the proposed bridegroom's credit.
'You know also,' said her mother, keeping a tight grip upon her Tudor temper, 'that he is the husband chosen for you by your father, and that should be knowledge enough to warrant a maid's obedience.'
'Surely in such a matter a maid's own choice is also to be weighed.'
'It has been weighed for you.' The Duchess tightened her obstinate mouth. 'And it has been settled.'
There was first reproach and then a blur of tears in the soft hazel eyes. Suddenly lonely and afraid, the girl ached to cast herself for comfort and protection upon the vast bosom of this mother in whom she had found little more than a taskmistress.
The Duchess reported to the Duke. Suffolk, a large man, good-natured and weak, was rarely permitted by his masterful wife to take the preferred line of least resistance.
'Wait until she has seen the lad,' he counselled. 'Jane's a woman, I suppose.'
The Duchess agreed that Guilford Dudley's physical attractions might help to conquer her daughter's perversity, and Guilford, a well-grown, comely lad of seventeen, was brought by his father that same afternoon to Suffolk House.
He came, arrayed like a bridegroom, in shimmering white satin. But not the Archangel Gabriel himself could have found favour in the eyes of the Lady Jane if thus thrust upon her. And although the tall lad seemed as gentle and amiable as he was certainly handsome, it remained that he was the son of a man who had ever aroused dread and aversion in her sensitive soul.
He was standing before her now, at his son's side, this sturdy, athletic man of fifty, who was Duke of Northumberland, Master of the King's Household, Lord President of the Council, and virtually King of England. For the frail boy who lay sick at Greenwich was no more than a mask for the dominant John Dudley.
The Lady Jane stood mute and abashed under his prominent, bold eyes, without response to the pleasantries with which he sought to ingratiate both himself and the smiling boy beside him. When her mother, between jest and earnest, bade her not to play the ninny, Northumberland's deep voice was raised in her defence. Shyness on such an occasion was to be looked for in a maid, boldness to be contemned. Thus with a laugh and a heavy hand upon her shoulder, in a friendliness under which she shuddered. When the formal visit had ended and Northumberland and his son had again departed, the defiance barely repressed in their presence broke forth again. Her parents, she declared to her mother, wasted their time in concerting a marriage to which she would never be a party.
The Duchess strove with her indignation.
'Ungrateful child! Has all your studying taught you no better than to be undutiful?'
'There is,' she gently protested, 'a duty to my immortal soul, which marriage against inclination would imperil.'
This was something in which the wits of the Duchess could not keep pace with those of her daughter. A dispute began in which her grace found herself no match for the well-tutored girl. Worsted polemically, she yet prevailed physically by boxing the child's ears, and then went off in exasperation to the Duke.
His grace was annoyed. It was ever the fate of this man who was fundamentally ease-loving to be swept into strife by wills stronger than his own.
'Perhaps, if she were told what is really at issue...' he ventured, but got no further, being withered there by her grace's scorn.
'By God's Mother, that is the advice I might expect from you. Will you publish it before the proper season, and so ruin all? Go reason with your daughter. Like Satan, she may quote Scripture to her needs. She's stuffed with piety. She has every kind of it, save filial piety. Your duty is to birch her into a proper understanding of the Second Commandment.'
The flabby Suffolk went to try his hand. He was met by arguments which bewildered him and intercessions which distressed him. But he went in awe of his Duchess and Northumberland, who were set upon the match. He pulled her to him with a kindly roughness, and trod upon forbidden ground.
'My dear, great issues hang upon this union.'
'Great issues!' The distressed little countenance was raised to his. 'Great to whom?'
'To whom?' He was disconcerted. 'To whom but to you, child?'
'What great issue to me can hang upon marriage with a Dudley?'
In seeking the answer to that question Suffolk discovered that he had uttered only a half-truth. The greatness for her was but a shadow of the substance that Northumberland would grasp.
She pressed him. 'What mystery do you make with me?'
'Mystery!' The words scared him, and he was driven by fear to violence.
All was not accomplished yet to conquer a reluctance that was founded partly upon religious and partly upon romantic scruples. But in the end her parents broke it down, and not, it is said, by argument alone. Her father is accused of beating her into submission. And so, she was driven, tanquam ovis (as her scholarly cousin, the Princess Elizabeth, might have said) to the sacrificial altar, on Whitsunday of that year 1553, at Durham House, Northumberland's great palace in the Strand.
The mystery which Lady Jane had sensed in her marriage of constraint became a mystery within a mystery when at the same time her sister, Katherine, was made the wife of Lord Pembroke's heir, and Northumberland's daughter took Lord Hastings to husband.
The Lady Jane had not lived so aloof from the world that she did not perceive in these alliances a consolidation by the terrible Northumberland of his great position.
That triple marriage at Durham House rings down the curtain on the first act of the tragedy of this little maid.
It rises again on the second act, in the palace at Greenwich, a few days later.
There in a room whose embayed window overlooks the river, the sickly yellow-haired boy of sixteen who is King of England lies mortally ill. The imminence of his death, unsuspected as yet by the general, is a grave and perilous matter to many, and to none more grave and perilous than to John Dudley.
A war to end war had been fought with France in the late King's reign. But no sooner had they signed the peace that was to be everlasting, than in England men were at one another's throats on the subject of the manner in which God should be worshipped. The worst offences against the moral law became venial by comparison with errors of opinion. The Reformation had divided the country sharply into two parties; and at the head of the Protestants, feared and mistrusted though he might be, John Dudley had placed himself as masterfully as he had placed himself at the head of the State.
As matters stood, the death of the King must mean his ruin; for by the dispositions of the will of Henry VIII, confirmed by Act of Parliament, Edward would be succeeded by his sister Mary, a woman so bitterly hostile to the new forms of worship that Dudley could look for no favour or even mercy from her. But Dudley, who in war had proved himself a thunderbolt and in council was as formidable by subtlety, would not go down in ruin without a struggle. To the uttermost would he employ the power he had won, taking measures to forestall events and avert disaster. The marriage of his son to the Lady Jane Grey had been one of these measures.
He stood now, squarely built and vigorous, beside the day-bed set near the window, so that the sufferer might look out upon the river and the shipping.
'How fares your highness this morning?'
The boy smiled up at him from light-coloured eyes that were too bright. A hectic patch of colour on each cheekbone served but to stress the milky pallor on which it flamed.
'Better and stronger. Am I not, good Master Owen?'
The black-gowned doctor on his other side gravely bent his grey head. 'Indeed, sire.' He addressed the Duke: 'I have assured his highness that if he continues thus he will not tarry long at Greenwich.'
'I shall go to Windsor, where I can hunt,' the boy announced.
But Northumberland had understood that Doctor Owen alluded to a longer journey.
He expressed his satisfaction, then dismissed the doctor and the others who were in attendance.
Alone with the King, he drew up a stool, and sat down familiarly by the couch. He talked awhile of what His Majesty should do presently, when more advanced in a recovery which he knew would never take place.
'Monsieur de Noailles is asking for an audience, sire. I shall rejoice both him and his master, the King of France, with the news that very soon now—perhaps next week—your highness will be strong enough to receive him.'
From this he shifted the talk to dogs and horses, and the hunting awaiting the King at Windsor, and thence at last came tip-toeing to the real matter of his visit.
'Kings, sire, are not as other men. Their vast responsibilities do not end with life, as I have already shown your grace. Whilst we pray and believe that a long and glorious reign awaits you, yet even on the threshold as you stand of jocund life, it is your duty, sire, to your loving subjects, to provide for the time when God may call you to His mercy.'
The boy nodded. 'I have given thought to it.'
'Ah!' The Duke stroked his dark spade-beard. His prominent eyes were intently upon the solemn young face. 'Then your highness will not have failed to perceive your duty not only to England but to God. The glorious work that you have done for your subjects and for religion, the reformation of the Church in which you have so nobly and wisely carried forward the great achievements of your splendid father, may all be destroyed unless you make due provision.'
In these implications of great powers wisely exerted there was a subtle flattery that drew a transient flush to the wasted face.
'I must be mindful of the welfare of my people,' said the child. 'This English fold must not lie at the mercy of Roman wolves.'
'A brave phrase, sire. A kingly phrase. Would that your great father could have lived to hear you utter it. Would that he could be in my place here to tell you that there is no security against those Roman wolves in the succession as it now stands. The Word of God is in danger. The Church you have set up is in jeopardy. The Lady Mary's mind you know, sire. She is a capital and principal enemy of God's Word. Her devotion to Rome will lay in ruins the temple you have laboured so gloriously to build.'
Again the boy nodded, the shadow of thought upon his countenance.
'Do I not know? Has it not been a trouble to me ever since I heard of her harsh obstinacy with Master Ridley? I give thanks to God that at least there are no Roman gyves upon my sweet sister Temperance.'
'The Lady Elizabeth?' Northumberland's eyebrows arched themselves. His great eyes were wide and sad. 'Can your grace be sure? And even if so now, what if hereafter she should marry a foreign prince? You will perceive the danger to your realm in that.'
The King raised himself feebly on his elbow, so as to look squarely at the Duke. 'But if neither of my sisters, whom then can I trust?'
Northumberland rose. Majestic and compelling he stood over the dying boy, and his deep voice became vibrant with authority.
'There are those who under the will of your glorious father follow upon the Lady Mary and the Lady Elizabeth: the descendants of Your Majesty's aunt, her grace of Suffolk, whom you know to be firm and steadfast in their loyalty to God's Word. Should Your Majesty—which Heaven forefend—die childless, it were best that the crown should pass to them and their lawful issue, going over those who being by Parliament pronounced illegitimate should never have been included in the succession.'
At this, however, the boy frowned, and his voice grew haughty from displeasure.
'Do you censure my father's dispositions, my lord?'
The bold eyes of Northumberland stared him down. 'Where those dispositions are opposed to the welfare of your people and the service of the Church you have built up, I should be unworthy to advise your grace if any fear restrained my speech.' His words were those of a dutiful servant; but his tone was that of the master.
The child's defiance was subdued. He sank back wearily upon his pillows, his hands, emaciated to translucency, plucking at the rich bearskin rug that covered his legs.
'We will consider further,' he said. 'There is no haste in this.'
'In the service of God and the realm, may it please your grace, there is always haste.'
'Come to me again in a day or two, my lord,' he was answered, as if in agreement. 'Lying here I will ponder it all, God guiding me. You shall know my pleasure.'
The Duke bowed himself out.
It required some further persuasion, skilfully employed so as to dupe the boy into believing that he acted independently, before he drew up what he called a 'device' for the succession: a wordy document, which you still may read as set down in his own hand, taking for starting-points the premonstrance that 'the ladie Mary and the ladie Elizabeth' were 'illegitemate and not lawfully begotten.'
In its original form it was not at all as Northumberland would have it. To the reasons of illegitimacy he had urged for passing over the Ladies Mary and Elizabeth, the boy had added yet another reason, of his own: that no woman should reign in England, where no woman yet had reigned. Therefore his device provided that failing male issue of his own body, the crown should go to the male heirs of his aunt's descendants.
But this was not at all what Northumberland required. Frowning still, he sat down to amend the matter. When at last he departed from the presence of a sick child, worn out with argument and bewildered into agreement, the wording of the device as it applied to his son's wife had been altered from 'the Lady Jane's heirs males,' to 'the Lady Jane and her heirs males.'
As he had dominated the King, so Northumberland presently dominated the Council. Naturally there was opposition, fiercely stubborn at first, born chiefly of fear of the storm which this tampering with the succession might provoke. But with the stout support of Pembroke and Northampton, Northumberland masterfully stood his ground. When all was said, he had an argument to which there was one only answer.
'Have you weighed the alternative to yourselves?' he asked them with a touch of scorn. 'Have you considered what will happen if that Romish bigot Mary comes to the throne? Whose hands amongst you will she regard as clean? Suffer my bluntness. The rewards of your labours have come to you from the Church which you have dispossessed. Her view will be that you are gorged with sacrilegious plunder. What mercy will she show you? Consider and resolve yourselves. And make haste. The King is dying fast.'
He had made them understand that for their own sakes they must see the King's will drawn as he would have it.
But now the lawyers made a difficulty. Conducted by Northumberland to the King, they stood aghast at his command that they should embody in letters patent the device which he disclosed. There were five of them—the Lord Chief Justice Montague and another judge, the Chancellor of the Augmentations, the Attorney-General, and the Solicitor-General. Sir Edward Montague expressed the mind of all in what he said.
'May it please your grace, it is impossible. No letters patent can set aside an Act of Parliament. This would be treason.'
The boy's light eyebrows knit.
'Treason! When I will it? I, the King?'
From Northumberland, standing at the royal pillow, came a gust of angry laughter. 'Are you answered, master lawyer? Or have you not law enough to know that the only treason here is that which you have uttered?'
'That is well said, as my father would have made you feel,' piped the child. 'God of mercy! Not on your life durst you have spoken so to him. He would have had your head for less.'
Old Sir Edward stood unabashed. 'We who are the servants of the law...'
He was interrupted. 'God's death! Are you not my servants?'
'Most dutiful servants, may it please Your Majesty. And it is our duty and service to expound the law. It is set forth in the Act of Succession that any person going about interfering with the succession as therein ordained shall be guilty of high treason.'
Northumberland advanced a step, his hands clenched, his voice rough.
'Where is your law, you fool? Where your wits? "Any person," you say. Does that cover the King's majesty? The "interference" will not be your act, but the King's, to whom you are as the quills he writes with. Can the King then commit treason?'
Although he trembled before the fury of the terrible Duke, Sir Edward still avoided a direct answer.
'It remains, my lord, that whatever we do is useless against an Act of Parliament. Only another Act of Parliament can alter that.'
The boy interposed, to cut the Gordian knot, the Tudor peremptoriness aroused in him. 'Then I'll call a Parliament to ratify what I now bid you do. You have my commands. Make a book for me of this my device, and make it without delay. No more. Away!'
A fit of coughing shook and tore him. Doctor Owen and a page, who had remained at hand, ran to ease his posture and support him. Northumberland waved the lawyers out.
They departed to study the Act of Succession, but found no comfort in it. In their difficulty they leaned upon the fact that whilst the King lived there could be no treason in obeying him. But to cover them thereafter, they demanded an order under the Great Seal, signed by all the members of the Council, and when this had been obtained they complied at last.
That happened in mid-June, and some three weeks later the last Tudor king expired.
Northumberland took his measures briskly, keeping the death secret until he should have secured the person of the Lady Mary, who, at large, might stir up mischief. To Hunsdon went a message that her brother, desperately ill, was insistently asking for her. She set out at once; but at Hoddesdon she was met by word from Arundel, who secretly playing the traitor so as to make himself safe whatever happened, informed her that the King was dead. At once she perceived the trap, and took measures to avoid it.
Edward VI died on the evening of Thursday the sixth July. On the morning of the following Sunday, the Lady Jane was summoned from the Duke of Northumberland's house at Chelsea, where she was then residing, to go at once to Sion House to receive a message from the King. She obeyed eagerly, spurred by affection for her royal cousin and anxieties for his health.
In a splendid room of that splendid palace at Isleworth—yet another of the great properties wrested from the Church—Northumberland and his Duchess came to her, and with them came the Lady Jane's parents, the Earl of Pembroke, Northampton and his lady, Huntingdon, and the double-dealer Arundel. An atmosphere of portentousness overhung the assembly.
Some ten days earlier, at a ball at Durham House, the Lady Jane had discerned a subtle change towards her, a deeper deference than had ever yet been paid to her by these great nobles. That, however, did not prepare her for their present attitude of veneration. The splendid Pembroke was kneeling to kiss her hand.
Her father-in-law, after a fleeting smile for her almost scared bewilderment, gravely began the overwhelming explanation.
'The King has been called by God to His mercy.'
She cried out at this, interrupting him. 'Dead! Edward dead!' White-faced, she looked round from one to another of those grave countenances, her lip trembling, her eyes aswim in tears. 'Edward!' she repeated, and added softly, 'God rest his gentle soul!'
'Amen!' said Northumberland. 'A godly life has come to a godly end. Let that console our sorrow. To protect the realm from false opinions, to guard it from his unworthy sister, he well weighed the statute under which the Lady Mary and the Lady Elizabeth had been cut off from the succession as bastards born, and he has bequeathed the crown to his cousin the Lady Jane and to her sisters after her, should she die childless.'
Thereupon Northumberland, too, went down upon his knees; and the others, kneeling with him in homage to Jane the Queen, made solemn oath to defend her title with their lives.
The girl in sudden terror, flinging forth both hands in a repelling gesture, cried out: 'No! No!' A moment she stood shaking as with a palsy, then rustled down without further warning into a little unconscious heap.
She recovered in the arms of her mother, with the Duchess of Northumberland and Lady Northampton in close attendance. Beyond these stood the lords in a concerned semicircle. Someone had set wide a window to let air into the room, where the heat had been oppressive.
Returning consciousness of her position quickened by hearing herself addressed as 'Majesty,' she covered her face with her hands.
'No, no!' Her tone was piteous. 'That is not for me. It may not be. My head could never bear the burden of a crown.'
The Duchess of Northumberland frowned and pursed her lips. She had never forgiven, and never would forgive, the reluctance to wed her son which Jane had displayed. Was this prim girl, her head stuffed with useless learning, still further to prove a fool by a similar reluctance to accept a crown?
Cunning Northumberland, however, knew when to cajole and when to storm. He was grave of countenance and of voice.
'Your Majesty's courage may well falter. There is no person of worth but would find the burden heavy. But since it is imposed upon you by God's will, and for the welfare of the realm, we call upon Your Majesty to bear it cheerfully in the assurance that you will be supported stoutly and loyally, as we have sworn.'
When he spoke of it as God's will he was less untruthful than may appear. There are good grounds for assuming that Northumberland was his own God.
She wrung her hands in distress. 'If you love me sincerely and in good earnest, you will rather wish me a quiet fortune than this exaltation for which I am insufficient.'
Then Pembroke, on the note the Duke had struck, gently chided her.
'That is to want for faith, Your Majesty. God who has called you to this great destiny will not forsake you in it.'
She drew a hand across her brow in a gesture of helpless bewilderment.
'It comes to me in a message of affliction. It only deepens my distress at the death of the King. Let me—let me at least take thought before I decide.'
'Decide?' cried Northumberland. But at once he cast the sudden harshness from his voice. 'It is decided for Your Majesty. This is not a choice that is offered, but a sacred duty that is imposed.'
Thus they talked on until her enfeebling resistance was completely broken down, until she fell on her knees, and clasping her hands, announced her surrender in terms of prayer.
'I humbly beseech God that if what is given me is in truth legitimately mine, He will grant me grace and power to govern to His glory and service and for the good of this realm of England.'
Thus the general tension was eased at last. The lips of Northumberland's Duchess relaxed from their hard lines. Thereafter whilst those men were about the measures necessary to make all safe, her mother and her mother-in-law took charge of the child's education in what lay ahead.
At the steps of the Tower, in the sunshine of the following afternoon, Jane, her inward awe overlaid by the demure calm that was normal to her little person, was handed by Northumberland from the state barge which had brought her from Richmond.
A great crowd had gathered on the wharf, but a crowd which gaped in silence, without a welcoming cheer for the slight figure muffled in its regal trappings.
This silence, and the silence which elsewhere greeted the heralds' proclamations of Queen Jane, may have conveyed a warning to Northumberland of a factor outside his calculations: the natural sense of justice of the people.
Queen Jane, looking for no acclamations, did not find it strange that only the archers of the guard should cry, 'God save the Queen!' and that no echo of it should come from the assembled multitude.
Stepping daintily on the arm of the scarlet-cloaked Northumberland, her mother, King Harry's portly sister, bearing her ponderous train, she passed to the destiny carved for her by the ambitions of others, and the Tower gates closed behind her.
She had suffered herself to be raised to the throne as passively as to be conducted into wedlock.
That very night she was to begin to understand why both these things had happened to her. She had retired to her room, with her gentlewomen Catherine Tilney and Eleyn, and tired and listless she was about to prepare herself for bed, when the Marquis of Winchester, who was Lord Treasurer, sought her with the crown.
He had thought to gratify her by the request that she should try it on. He was shocked by her indifference. Gently he used insistence.
'Nay, nay, madam. Take it boldly, so that if it does not fit, it may be altered whilst the other crown is being made for your husband.'
He had succeeded at least in dispelling her listlessness. 'For my husband?' She was staring at him.
'Why, madam, for the King.'
'The King? There is no king in England, my lord.'
'No king, madam. But My Lord Guilford, then—'
'My Lord Guilford?' It was now that understanding came to her. She was suddenly endowed with a frosty dignity. 'My Lord Guilford was not mentioned in King Edward's will. No second crown will be required.'
Hitherto Winchester, like the others had beheld in her only timidity. This unexpected display of firmness shook him profoundly. Northumberland being absent, his lordship sought Northumberland's lady with his dismay.
With Guilford at her heels, and waiving ceremony, the Duchess invaded the Queen's apartments. She stormed in to prove that when emotion governs, a duchess is as much a woman as a fishwife.
'What's this my Lord of Winchester reports?'
The Lady Jane had never failed to stand in the presence of her mother-in-law. Jane the Queen remained seated. Conscious of the need to exert the authority which had been thrust upon her, she preserved her calm whilst the ranting Duchess invoked her son to call his wife to her duty.
'The Queen,' said Jane, 'is above the wife, and the Queen's duty above the wife's. It is not for me to make kings. That is not within my prerogative. Gladly will I make Guilford an earl or a duke if he wishes; but no more.'
This set Guilford storming, too. 'A duke! You offer me a dukedom!' In his mortification the tall lad seemed on the point of tears. 'I am your husband, Jane; and a queen's husband must be a king.'
Jane, understanding now that it was to make his son a king that Northumberland had made him her husband, was all strength and dignity in her sense of right.
'You do not know what you are saying. Only an Act of Parliament, following upon my consent, could make you King; and that consent it is my duty—as I understand it—to withhold.'
Baffled, the raging Duchess caught her son by the arm.
'Come away. Come away from a wife so ungrateful and undutiful.' And she dragged him out.
But Jane the Queen having prevailed, Jane the woman softened. Was Guilford really more than her fellow-victim? She sent for him again, and comforted the spoilt boy's chagrin. He should have at least some outward panoply of royalty. He should be styled 'your grace,' should preside at the Council, and should dine alone in royal dignity. Let the question of his future title wait.
There was more reason in that decision than was yet apparent to her who uttered it. Whilst the heralds were proclaiming Queen Jane to the silent crowds in London, Queen Mary was being proclaimed with acclamation in Norfolk. Katherine of Aragon's daughter might not be lovable or loved, and her rule might indeed bring the dangers of which preachers were thundering, but the country's sense of justice was outraged by the highhanded action of Northumberland, who was feared and hated. In the days that followed, the news of nobles flocking to Mary's standard became so alarming that Northumberland had no choice but to ride out in arms against her.
That happened on Friday. Five days later—on the afternoon of the following Wednesday—the Duke of Suffolk abruptly invaded the room where his daughter sat with her gentlewomen. His countenance was pale, his eyes were wild, his limbs trembled. He strode forward, a man whom fear had rendered mannerless, and tore away the canopy of state under which his daughter was enthroned.
'Away with these distinctions. They are not for you. It is finished. You are Queen no longer. Northumberland is a prisoner. Queen Mary is being proclaimed in Cheap-side. Her men are at the gates demanding the keys of the Tower.' Thus, in short, sharp, pregnant sentences he barked out the dreadful tidings.
She rose, not merely calm, but with the air of one from whom a burden has been lifted. Her relief, and the words in which she announced it, were fuel to his distraction. 'This news, my lord, is more welcome than that in which the crown was offered to me. I give thanks to God for His mercy. I am happy, indeed, to go hence.'
She was to learn that her thankfulness was premature: that to lay down a crown is as perilous as to take one up. It is true that on the morrow she departed to return to Sion House, after an absence of ten days during nine of which she had been Queen of England. But three days later, on the following Sunday, she was brought back to the Tower, this time as a prisoner, and with her came Guilford Dudley and his mother.
Played and lost was Northumberland's desperate game with Fate, in which he had set upon the board not only his own life but the innocent life of the Lady Jane among some others. Himself he paid that forfeit promptly on Tower Hill.
The Lady Jane and Guilford Dudley lay under a sentence of death, which it began to seem would never be enforced. Months passed, and within the precincts of the Tower the young prisoners who had disputed about a crown enjoyed a certain liberty of movement which they were given reason to hope would presently be increased. And so no doubt it would have been but that once more the hopes and aspirations of others came again to affect the passive existence of the Lady Jane.
The country was disturbed and restive under Mary's religious intolerance and at the prospect of the marriage with Philip of Spain upon which she had decided, and for which the starved soul of that old maid was filled with passionate, impatient longing. Because of disturbances, Philip postponed his coming. Because of her impatience, her intolerance increased and bred increased disturbances. They reached a climax early in the following year with the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which aimed at replacing Mary by Elizabeth. It was crushed; but it had been within an ace of succeeding; and as a result the coming of the passionately awaited Philip seemed postponed more indefinitely than ever.
Simon Renard, the Emperor's ambassador, was at Mary's elbow, to fret her with the assertion that whilst a danger of turbulence existed, Philip could not trust his precious person in England. Not until all those whose lives were a menace to the peace of the realm had been removed would Philip come; and amongst those the Emperor gave a prominent place to the Lady Jane. It was a matter of imperial misapprehension; but lest it should continue to keep the eagerly awaited husband from her arms, Mary agreed that this innocent obstacle should be removed and Guilford Dudley with her.
Of that royal decision word was brought to the Tower on Thursday the ninth February. Mary's messenger was a priest named Feckenham, her chaplain and the new Dean of Saint Paul's.
The Lady Jane sat reading by the oriel window of the room in Partridge's House in which she had been lodged. Mistress Catherine Tilney was in attendance. She closed the book on her finger when the priest entered, and greeted him with a gentle smile.
He bowed low. 'I am from the Queen, madam.'
'God save Her Majesty,' he was softly answered. She had reason to hope for the best. 'You bring a message?'
The old man looked at her long in silence, wounding his own sensitive soul with pity. Such a child she appeared, so slight and innocent and sweet, as she sat there in a patch of February sunlight.
'Alas, madam!' There were tears in his eyes.
It was enough. If she lost some colour that was all she lost. Her tranquillity was scarcely impaired. She inclined her head a little.
'God's will be done,' she said steadily. 'I will take my death patiently whenever Her Majesty desires it.' She paused before asking, When is it to be?'
He choked as he answered her: 'Tomorrow morning.' And he went on to explain that he had been chosen by her royal cousin to bear this message so that at the same time he might care for the salvation of her soul.
Quietly she shook her head. 'The time is short. Too short.'
Misunderstanding her, taking her literally, the good man hurried back to the Queen, and won for the Lady Jane a respite of three days, most of which he spent with her. His modest sincerity made it impossible for her to deny herself to him, and his learning made him a welcome companion even whilst his endeavours at conversion failed.
Sunday night she spent in writing, and a beautiful letter survives that she addressed to her father, then lying similarly under sentence.
On Monday morning, calm and passive as she had ever been, this gentle, unoffending victim of the ambitions and desires of others prepared to meet her end.
From the window of her lodging she beheld Guilford Dudley pass on his way to Tower Hill. She saw the lad's long body return in a cart, his head in a cloth, before she was herself led forth by the Lieutenant of the Tower.
To the scaffold, set up on the green in the shadow of the White Tower, the Lieutenant conducted her, followed by her weeping gentlewomen, but herself demure, dry-eyed, and passive as ever. On that scaffold she stood forth unabashed, a manual of English prayers in her hands, to address the assembled people.
'Good people, I am come hither to die, by law condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, against the Queen's majesty was unlawful and the consenting thereunto by me. But touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my half, I do wash my hands thereof in innocence before God and the face of you good Christian people this day.'
After that declaration, she invited the spectators to assist her with their prayers, and kneeling down she recited in English the Miserere. Then rising again, she handed her kerchief and gloves to Mistress Tilney, and to the Lieutenant her book, in which she had written a message for him.
With steady fingers she untied her gown. The headsman would have helped her, but she waved him back, claiming the assistance of her weeping gentlewomen. She removed her coif, letting down her hair and casting it forward over her eyes. There she bound it with the blindfolding kerchief which Mistress Tilney gave her.
She was ready.
The headsman, having knelt to beg and receive her forgiveness, desired her to stand upon the straw. There she went down upon her knees.
'I pray you dispatch me quickly,' she begged, and added the question: 'Will you take it off before I lay me down?'
'No, madam,' he answered her.
Thereupon, on her knees, blindfolded, with arms outstretched she groped before her for the block. 'What shall I do?' she asked. 'Where is it?'
An archer of the guard guided her, and so the fair little head found its last pillow, her gentle lips spoke their last words: 'Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.'
She was seventeen years of age, and had sinned against none.
A peacock of a man not so much in his plumage—he was almost careless in the matter of raiment—as in the soul of him was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex: a man of overweening vanities, intolerant of superiors, insensately jealous, something of a braggart-captain, marring what gifts he possessed by insistence upon them.
Fortune and the ageing Queen had shaped him so.
His father, Walter Devereux, dying in Ireland, had written to Her Majesty begging her protection for his children. My Lord of Leicester, who had married the elder Devereux's widow, had brought the young earl to Court. Further to recommend him there was his kinship with Her Majesty; for he was a great-grandson of Mary Boleyn, who had been Elizabeth's aunt. Then, too, there was his magnificent height and handsome virile countenance to thrust him upon the notice of this woman who loved to have fine men about her and whose infatuation it was to desire their worship. For with all her shrewdness and all her kingcraft, not content with dominion by virtue of her office, she was hungry also for dominion by virtue of her sex. It was at once her weakness and her strength, perhaps the secret of her persistence in her maidenhood. Belonging to none, she could command the adoration of all, and the service of a maiden queen was in itself an incentive to chivalrous endeavour for all upon whom she smiled as she would no longer have smiled had she been a wife. To the power so gained and held she sacrificed her muliebrity, cheating it the while with extravagant flirtations, in which her demands of fidelity and devotion were exorbitant, since they were fidelity and devotion to a simulacrum. And she had been so sung and flattered by romantics and by sycophants as to persuade her that had she not been born to sovereign estate her charms must still have rendered her sovereign amongst women. The persuasion had become so ingrained that not even age—against whose ravages she entrenched herself by every means of art—could weaken it.
She was a woman in the middle fifties when this handsome, well-grown lad of twenty-two who was Earl of Essex came to receive from her a favour even more intimate than that which she had accorded to Leicester, Ralegh, Christopher Hatton, and some others. He responded, as they had done, by worshipping the woman whilst reverencing the Queen. Leicester had schooled him, and patterns of conduct abounded, from the graceful, gifted Ralegh, the Captain of her Guard, who did not boggle at describing her now as Dian, now as Venus, and now even as Orpheus. She may have presumed a little upon the kinship to permit herself rather more licence with Essex than with any of the others. She made him almost at the outset Master of the Horse, and she would keep him at cards, or at one game or another, the whole night through, so that he did not return to his own lodging until the birds were singing in the morning. And he who in his vanity was ready enough to parade his kinship with Her Majesty was in his vanity as ready to forget it for the more flattering conviction that he owed the favours showered upon him to his irresistibility as a man. He presumed upon it early. His nature was too arrogant for the perfect courtier. He permitted himself, upon the slightest provocation, petulances and waywardnesses which, providing her with a novel experience, may merely have sharpened her desire to have him at her feet. So that his very faults enhanced him in her eyes. His troublesome explosions of jealousy she condoned as springing from a fondness so deep that it could brook no rivals.
One of his meaner displays of this was made at the expense of young Charles Blount, who had earned by a success in the tilt-yard the gift of a gold chess-queen from Her Majesty. Proud of his token, the young man came on the morrow to the privy chamber wearing it dangling from his arm.
Essex was lounging there with Greville and some others who paid court to him. He scowled upon the lad, who stood fully as tall as himself, with, moreover, a grace of deportment which nature had denied the Earl.
'Ha! Here's a new mode,' said he. 'That thing upon his arm. What is it?'
'Sh!' murmured Greville. 'It is the Queen's favour, sent him yesterday after the tilting.'
Essex laughed unpleasantly and his voice was loud. 'So! Now I perceive that every fool must have a favour.'
Blount turned and smiled. 'Just as every empty head must still have a tongue to proclaim its emptiness.'
The Earl took a quick step forward, breathing fire. Then he was checked. The door of the bedchamber had been thrown open. The scarlet yeomen of the guard who kept the threshold grew as rigid as their ordered halberts. Her Majesty was coming.
She entered, a woman of middle height, her leanness dissembled by her swelling farthingale. She came fresh from the hands of her tirewomen, the wrinkles smoothed from her thin, painted cheeks; her yellow wig entwined with pearls; the tall lace collar an effulgence of jewels. She was in white silk, sewn with pearls as large as beans, and over this was hung a black silk mantle shot with silver. In her carriage there was still, thanks to her tough vigour, the grace of youth.
The courtiers knelt.
Her advent spoilt the beginnings of a very pretty quarrel. But it did not quench the flame that had been kindled. That afternoon in Mary la Bonne Park, Charles Blount and the Earl pursued their argument, and my Lord of Essex received a sword-thrust in the thigh for his impertinence.
When next, a fortnight or so later, he came limping into the privy chamber, his young lordship was in no good humour. It had been reported to him that when the Queen heard of the encounter, instead of distress on his dear behalf and indignation against Blount, she had exclaimed:
'By God's death, it is fit that someone should take the Earl down, otherwise there would be no ruling him.'
She could not, however, be really angry with him, since her vanity was sweetly flattered to perceive that it was for her that he had fought. So presently she carried him off to her closet, there to enjoy the luxury of fondly chiding him.
'This was ill done, sir,' she deplored. 'And what is worse, the quarrel began in the palace here, and might have gone further but for my coming when I did. Will you make a bear-pit of my privy chamber?'
Behind his fair curling beard his teeth were displayed in an acid smile.
'It would be your Captain of the Guard who bore that tale.'
To sneer at Ralegh was no new thing in him. There was none who so moved his spleen as the lofty imperturbable Sir Walter. He had expressed it more than once in rudeness unpardonable, actually bidding Her Majesty to choose between them, insolently threatening to withdraw himself from her service if Ralegh were suffered to continue in it. Yet because of the adulation of the jealousy behind his humours she had forgiven the effrontery. Thus her vanity and his own were in alliance to dig a pit for his ultimate ruin.
He was being bitter now. He was presuming to reproach her. She heeded, lie complained, what every unscrupulous tongue might say behind his back. God knew what profit his enemies had made in these last two weeks. It was too great a torment for him. He would leave the court. He would go his ways and trouble her no more.
The sudden light of fear in her small, dark, piercing eyes encouraged him to go on.
Some day, if he remained, some such knave as Ralegh would so poison her mind against him that she would drive him forth in obloquy, or worse. Far better that he should go now, whilst he retained some measure, however shrunken, of that esteem that was as the very breath of his body to him.
By such arts he brought her at length to intercede with him. She coaxed him with fair words, her fingers caressing his cheek; and because he was still unyielding, she drew from one of those delicate fingers a ring set with a lozenge diamond.
'Wear this for me, Robin, and let it be a talisman. If ever such a thing should come to pass, that by any evil chance you should lose my favour, send me this ring again, and I swear to you by my soul's salvation that it shall at once restore you. Are you safe now?'
It was enough. In the moment of victory, he would be generous with the vanquished, with this fond old woman whom he perceived to be as wax for his moulding. On his knees he swore to her that he valued his life only for the service he might render her and the joy he took in that service.
Yet for all such professions, his airs were ever those of a master rather than a servant, and for ten years his jealousies and pretensions were constantly to try the patience and strain the infatuation of his sovereign.
Because not all his lordship's backbiting could prejudice her against Ralegh, he would, but for her vigorous intervention, have fought Sir Walter as he had fought young Blount. A challenge actually passed between them, but had no sequel because of the vigorous intervention of the Queen. Because Norreys was given the command of the troops for France, Essex departed the court in a fit of temper. Because the credit of the Cadiz expedition was accorded to the Lord Admiral, Lord Thomas Howard, with whom he had sailed on that adventure, he was so infuriated that he went about like a roaring captain, offering to fight any gentleman of the name of Howard. Because Lord Cobham was given the wardenship of the Cinque Ports, he again went off in a pet, and to coax him back Elizabeth made him Master of the Ordnance. As a further solatium to his temper she created him Earl Marshal, in violation of the hereditary rights of Thomas Howard.
But not all the honours and all the wealth she showered on this spoilt darling could reconcile him to her favour to others, or beget in him a proper gratitude sufficient to stifle his secret scorn of her person and even of her affection. Nor was it always secret. There were moments of irritation in which his insolence would permit it to become manifest; and once in the council chamber, under opposition, by behaving as offensively as an unbirched schoolboy, he provoked her into correcting him as if he had been just that.
'Go and be hanged,' she said, and boxed his ears.
She was a woman, she was his sovereign, and in some sort he stood to her as a lover. Yet under the blow the wayward fool must snatch at his sword-hilt, and if the Lord Admiral had not got between them and laid hands upon him, he would have drawn the weapon. Though what he would have done with it when he had drawn it, is not to be surmised. But whilst the Lord Admiral could thus restrain the fellow's hands, he could not restrain his feckless tongue.
'As God's my life,' he roared, 'I would not have taken that blow from the King your father,' which only serves to show how little he knew about the King her father. But he was encountering something now of that King Henry's spirit in the eyes of King Henry's daughter, hearing it in the harsh, mannish voice that stormed back at him, cursing him roundly. For he had roused the Tudor lioness by conduct that deeply wounded at once her affection and her pride.
'God's death, fool,' she ended her tirade, 'you'ld have it thought that you rule this realm of mine.'
He glared at her and at the shocked countenances of the five who stood there. Then he ranted: 'Let Solomon's fool laugh when he is stricken. Let those who mean to take their profit of princes show no sense of princes' injuries. As for me, this is an indignity I'll not suffer: not even from a King in petticoats.'
'Ha! A King in petticoats!' cried she. 'Why, you fishwife in breeches, get you hence with your railing. Hence, and learn to mend your manners, or by God's Son, I'll make you the most pitiful fellow in England. Hence!'
He went out with violence.
This, the worst yet by far of their lovers' quarrels, took some months to heal. Essex would heed no advice that he should sue for pardon to a Queen to whom he owed so much. For months he kept aloof in sullen resentment. He had her ring and her oath; but he would not avail himself of them. He trusted that her fondness in the end would bring her to beg of him a forgiveness which in his arrogance he would not beg of her.
It is not clear who made the first move towards a reconciliation. But five months later, towards the end of that year 1596, he was back at court, though not for long. His grasping jealousy again curtailed his sojourn there.
All Ireland was in flagrant rebellion under the able military leadership of the Earl of Tyrone, and a Lord Deputy was to be appointed to go over and reduce it to submission. Essex raised such objections to every man proposed for the office that in the end he found it thrust upon himself, and he took it only because he could not brook that it should be bestowed upon another. Yet having taken it, he lamented a fate that must banish him from the Queen's side, and by his lamentations, in which this man who loved himself so dearly, ranted of self-hatred and the desire for death, he succeeded in reawakening all her tenderness. The melancholy in which he came to kiss her hand in leave-taking was seen to move her deeply.
Apart from this, his departure was something of a triumph. Crowds assembled to see him pass in his martial glory and to acclaim him. For he was in high favour with the populace. Unlike Ralegh, who openly despised the rascal multitude, Essex had ever studied to win its regard, and in his dealings with it displayed none of the arrogance which he used towards his peers.
In the conduct of affairs in Ireland he followed his own judgment rather than obeyed instructions. He kept an almost regal state and freely bestowed the accolade of knighthood, which, whilst according with the laws of chivalry, had come to be regarded as the sole prerogative of the sovereign. Adverse criticisms of his military measures reaching him from the council merely angered a spirit impatient of criticism. Disregarding them, he held obstinately to his course, negotiating with Tyrone instead of fighting; and so he came under suspicion of treason, and was at last made aware of it by an angry letter from the Queen. A sudden fear now battled with his fury. He persuaded himself that those rascals Ralegh, Cobham, and Cecil were traducing him, poisoning the Queen's mind against him so as to achieve his ruin. He would come home, he wrote, and justify himself. Sternly ordered to remain where he was, he came nevertheless. But for Sir Christopher Blount, his present stepfather, who was with him, he would have returned in arms, with a body of troops at his heels, the better to assert himself.
In the early hours of a foul morning of late September the insubordinate gentleman reached Lambeth, and with a half-dozen companions, among whom were Blount and Harington, the Queen's godson, he rode hard for London Bridge and Nonsuch Palace, so as to take Her Majesty by surprise before anyone should prevent him.
It was striking ten when he reached the palace. In his impatience ignoring etiquette and never staying to remove the mud from his clothes, or even the splashes of it from his face, he stalked breathlessly into the privy chamber with his gentlemen. Finding that the Queen had not yet come forth, he went boldly forward under the startled eyes of the assembled courtiers. The stalwart guards dared not lower their halberts to form a barrier. For his lordship was one of a half-dozen intimates who enjoyed the rare privilege of the freedom of the bedchamber.
The Queen, in a bedgown, was about to deliver herself into the hands of her tirewomen to be made ready for the day. Turning to see who dared break in upon her so impetuously and noisily, she stiffened at sight of him, and her brows met.
'You! Who gave you leave to come here?'
Before she could say more he was on his knees at her feet.
He had caught her hands, those lovely hands of which she was so vain, and he was kissing them passionately, mumbling inarticulately the while. At last he grew coherent.
'Ah, most sweet lady, slay me if you will; but not with your frown. I must come to you, even though my head should pay for my disobedience. If I am to die, better that I should die here in the bright beams of your presence than out yonder of grief at your displeasure. For no heart was ever more true to you than mine, no soul had ever such a perception of your perfections. The fear that my enemies were leading you to believe me less than the devoted, loving slave I am, was become anguish unbearable. Here at your feet, sweet mistress, which is ever the place I seek, here, full of pain, full of sorrow, I must be importunate of death if your favour be irrevocable.'
He had well rehearsed it all; and with passion throbbing in his voice as not for years she had heard it, he stirred her tenderness for him to its depths. Her anger melted and vanished like snow under the warmth of those impassioned protests. And when he had done with words, he was stroking her hands and raining kisses on them once more, so profoundly moving her that all else was forgotten, herself, her queenship, her circumstances. She saw only, and this through a mist of tears, this handsome, stalwart fellow so humbly the plaintive lover at her feet. She released one of her hands and set it caressingly on his bowed head. Her fingers toyed with the fair curls that clustered on his brow, damp from the haste he had made.
'How shrewdly you plead, Robin,' she murmured on a sigh.
'Truth is shrewd, madam.'
'So, so.' She was very gentle. 'Go rest you now. We will talk again anon, Robin.'
Fervent lips were pressed to her hand once more. Then, enheartened, sure of his victory, he went out backwards, her dark eyes following him fondly, her lips parted in a fond smile.
When he had vanished she fetched a sigh. Absently she beckoned her tirewomen to their work, and still smiling turned to confront her mirror. What it showed her recalled her to herself and to the forgotten moment. She went stiff with horror as she looked at the sapless old woman there reflected: the ashen, wrinkled face, about which the thin grey hair hung in wispy rags; the faded eyebrows which the pencil had not yet revived; the dark teeth behind those parted lips on which the smile had frozen now into a grin; the yellow stringy neck; the pursed gullet; the withered breast which the loose bedgown all too clearly revealed.
And he had seen her thus. Thus! She closed her eyes so as to shut out that dreadful spectre of senility. But still she saw it, as he would see it ever now for as long as he had brain to hold a memory. Henceforth what could she be but loathly to that cherished lad of less than half her years? Suddenly in a royal rage the blood leapt scarlet to her cheeks, and glowed there like fire through ashes.
'Who keeps my door?' she roared. 'The devil damn them! I'll have the rascals flogged till they bleed. I'll—' Her anger choked her. She reeled, sat down abruptly, and plucking at her bedgown with her fingers—the fingers of those hands that had survived the ravage time had made of all the rest of her—she fell to mumbling and muttering under the scared eyes of her attendant women.
It was noon before she came forth to the waiting, wondering, speculating courtiers who had seen Essex depart so jauntily, and when she appeared she was more than ordinarily gorgeous. She was in red brocade with a gold embroidery of lizards. Her stomacher blazed with diamonds, as did the tall, gold-broidered collar, spread like a fan to make a background for her face and neck from which paint and cosmetics had removed a dozen years. Advancing with an unusual haughtiness in her regal port, she came face to face with her godson Harington, who had come with Essex and had remained waiting there. She checked and frowned.
'What! Did the fool bring you, too? Get back to your business.'
Then as he fell on his knees before her, she stooped and took him by the girdle, as if she would have pulled him up and flung him out with her own hands.
'By God's Son, I am no Queen,' she stormed. 'That man is above me. Who gave him command to come here and bring you with him? Get you out of my sight. Go home, before I lodge you in the fleet.'
And, says Harington, 'I did not stay to be bidden twice. If all the Irish rebels had been at my heels, I could not have made better speed.'
Word of this may have checked the newborn confidence of Essex. It was extinguished when he sought Her Majesty that evening. The tender woman of the morning had withdrawn into the stern, uncompromising queen.
On the morrow he appeared before the Council to face the charges preferred by Mr. Secretary Cecil of disobedience to Her Majesty in Ireland, of presumptuous letters to her thence, of making so many idle knights, of contempt for duty in returning without leave, and of being overbold in seeking Her Majesty's presence in her bedchamber.
However inwardly he might rage, prudence urged him to walk delicately, realizing how insecure was the ground under his feet.
He answered soberly and civilly, and was told that his words would be submitted to Her Majesty. Until she should make known her pleasure he was committed to the charge of the Lord Keeper Egerton at York House. There he took to his bed—an old ruse when he was out of favour—and wrote an impassioned plea to the Queen, in the course of which he paraded as usual his weariness of life. Receiving no answer, he grew worse: at least, he summoned no fewer than eight doctors to his bedside, and talked of making his will. By the second week in December he gave out that he was dying, and in view of this impending dissolution he sent Her Majesty his patents as Master of the Horse and Master of the Ordnance. As there was still no sign of melting from the irate but shrewd Elizabeth—who had heard him cry 'Wolf!' too often already—he had prayers offered up for himself in all the churches of London, and upon the nineteenth December there was actually a report of his death, and the bells were tolled for him.
Seeing that even this did not move her, he resuscitated himself sufficiently to write to her again, protesting that 'if mine humble letters find no access, no death could be so speedy as it shall be welcome to me.'
Her only reply to this was to have him removed to his own house as a prisoner, and some months later he was yet again writing to her, this time to explain why he had not died. It had seemed to him, he said, that he heard Her Majesty's gracious voice commanding him: 'Die not, Essex; for though I punish thine offence and humble thee for thy good, yet I will one day be served again by thee.'
From this she might have assumed that she had reached at last her avowed purpose, which was to teach him to know himself and his duty to her. But she desired to drive the lesson home. If he had discovered the decay of the woman, he should discover now, as an offset, the full vigour and majesty of the Queen. So she had him brought before the Star Chamber to answer her commissioners on the charge of treason.
After that she kept him in suspense, let him feel that his fate was at the mercy of her whim, until following August. Then, at last, his liberty was restored to him, but with an intimation that he must not attempt to approach the Queen's person or the Court. Whilst the torturing memory remained vivid of how he had beheld her on that morning at Nonsuch Palace she could not bear that his eyes should rest upon her again. Loving him for himself, she yet hated him for the vision of her which he must carry in the eyes of his mind. Torn thus, whilst showing herself bravely gay in public, she was become in private a woman of sorrows. When after a while the canker of grief began to eat away her vigour, she sought comfort in the pleading, dutiful letters she continued to receive from him. She was softening at last, yielding to her own eagerness to believe him sincere, when a letter reached her in which he begged for the renewal of his monopoly of sweet wines, worth to him the enormous sum of fifty thousand pounds a year, but suspended since the Star Chamber proceedings. It rent a veil for her. She beheld in it the reason for all the humility, affection, and dutifulness of the letters that had been its forerunners. Her heart was hardened once more. Contemptuously she sent him the answer that when horses become unmanageable it is necessary to tame them by stinting the measure of their corn.
Of a reckless extravagance, he was heavily in debt, and this refusal so enraged him that he threw off his sackcloth and ashes and at once became his own proud, arrogant, braggart self again. With characteristic rashness he heaped odious epithets upon the Queen, to whom a week or two before he had been vowing an eternal and selfless devotion. Some of his injurious phrases were carried to her, and one of these—that 'her conditions were as crooked as her carcase'—turned her to stone.
So, that was what he thought of her, the Dian, the Venus, the Gloriana of better men. Ah, but then he had seen so much more than they. In her shame and anger she wished him dead, so that the vision of his mind's eye might perish also, and in this knowledge give her peace.
Meanwhile he was not confining his rashness to mere words. He became active in his hostility. He plotted with James of Scotland on the subject of the succession. He plotted with malcontents to whom he threw open his house, and trusting to the popularity he had always cultivated with the masses, he plotted to seize the Tower and the palace, so that he might dictate to the Queen and insist upon the dismissal of those whom he conceived the enemies that intrigued against him. If this were refused, he would summon a parliament to correct disorders and redress his wrongs. He would insist upon justice.
Justice, however, was to be done him without this. Justice was already on his heels; for the Queen was fully informed of his plots, down, to the details which had been settled, and he received a summons to appear before the Privy Council. Instead he took to arms, and with some three hundred followers as crazy as himself rode forth into the City with the cry: 'England is sold to Spain by Cecil and Ralegh. A plot is laid for my life. To arms!'
Finding that, instead of flocking to his banner as he expected, prudent men disappeared from the streets through which he was parading, he changed his cry to: 'Citizens of London, arm for the Queen! For the Queen my mistress! For the Queen!'
But although he shouted himself hoarse and waved his sword till his arm ached, not a man was mad enough to join him.
In a black rage of disillusion he went back with his desperate following to fortify himself in Essex House against what he knew must follow upon this failure. There the arrival of a train of artillery convinced him of the futility of resistance. After some parleys, he surrendered at ten o'clock at night to the Lord Admiral, and he was sent to the Tower.
It was the end of him. Not even the Queen, without doing violence to the law, could stay his trial, in which ten days later—on the ninth February, 1601—he was convicted of the high treason of which he was so clearly guilty. But the royal prerogative of mercy was still hers, and she may have desired little in life so much as to exercise it in favour of one whom she had so dearly cherished. All that she asked now was that he should sue for it. Let him to that extent put aside the pride and arrogance by which he had so grievously sinned against her, and she would thankfully grant his prayer.
Waiting she postponed the signing of the warrant for his execution. As the days passed and no message came from him to dispel the gloom in which she moved, she took it for a sign that he had come to loathe her, preferring even death to her favour. It must be so, or he could never have used those heartless words about her 'crooked carcase,' the carcase he had seen undight that morning at Nonsuch Palace. Then mortified shame once more set her trembling. To extinguish his memory of that, was to go some way towards extinguishing the thing itself. Let him perish then in his proud, heartless obduracy. In a gust of passion she signed the warrant. But, having signed it, swaying again from hate to love, she postponed execution, still waiting, still hoping.
After all, it was so easy for him. He did not even need to write or beg. He had her ring and her royal word, given to him in a tender moment ten years and more ago. Let him but send the ring, and she must keep the oath she had sworn to restore him to her favour.
But the days flowed on, and still he made no sign.
Her melancholy deepened, and alternated with interludes of rages upon the least provocation. She grew careless even of her appearance, this woman of a hundred wigs and a thousand gowns, who hitherto had laboured so strenuously to preserve in her externals some illusion of her vanished youth and of the beauty men had sung.
Postponed and postponed again, the execution was to take place on the twenty-fifth February unless she postponed it once more.
Let it go. When the Lieutenant of the Tower should appear to summon Essex to the scaffold, perhaps he would think better of it, and on the very brink of death bend his stubborn neck at last. Yes. It needed that imminence of a doom in which perhaps, trusting to her erstwhile fondness, he would not let himself believe. Thus, then, would she subdue him. That should be her victory.
That Ash Wednesday, the twenty-fifth, dawned grey and misty, and she was afoot with that grey dawn, feverishly awaiting the messenger she was convinced must come.
The Lady Scroop and two other of her ladies were in attendance, silently watching her, as she now sat, now stood, now restlessly paced that very chamber in which a year and half ago he had surprised her disarray.
Again she beheld him kneeling there, heard his dear pleading voice, felt his kisses hot upon her hands, saw his eyes upon her—upon her 'crooked carcase.'
She shuddered, and with an oath banished the vision, and resumed her pacing.
Suddenly, at a moment or two after eight o'clock, a dull boom reverberated on the morning air.
She stood abruptly arrested at the sound. Her lips parted, her old eyes were wide and scared.
'What was that?'
She had to repeat the question. 'God's death! What was that, I say?'
Fearful, in tears, the Lady Scroop answered her: 'The Tower gun, madam.'
'No, no!' The negative broke from her in a scream. She clutched her heart, and staggered, entangling her feet in the train of her gown.
Her ladies rushed to her as she sank to the ground in a moaning, nerveless heap.
On a boisterous afternoon in the spring of 1611, a gentleman riding from Barnet to London who had lately passed the Gatehouse Tavern on the heights of Highgate was compelled to draw into the hedge so as to give passage to an imposing train that was breasting the southern slope.
There were, in all, five coaches, and to each of the two foremost of these vast machines of wood and leather four horses were harnessed. Outriders in plain liveries headed the column; a body of mounted grooms brought up the rear. With cracking whips and groaning axles the train came toiling up the hill, past our gentleman, who conceived that here, if not royalty itself, came at least some great nobleman on his travels: perhaps the all-powerful minion Rochester, or perhaps the Secretary Sir William Cecil—now my Lord Salisbury—journeying to Hatfield.
Humanly inquisitive where the great were concerned, our gentleman grew more attentive as the leading coach came abreast with him. The leather curtains were close-drawn, but the escutcheon with a mitre surmounting it that was displayed upon the panel announced to him the Bishop of Durham. Thereupon his interest was fading, when it was quickened again to behold upon the panel of the second coach the royal arms. And there was more than this to give true cause for wonder. From behind its tight-drawn curtains came the lamentations of a woman in the last abandonment of grief. Surprised and affected by the pitiful sound, the arrested horseman made so bold as presently to ask a question of one of the grooms of the escort. He was shortly answered that the afflicted traveller was the Lady Arabella Stuart, on her way, by the King's command, to Durham in my Lord Bishop's keeping.
'Poor lady!' exclaimed our gentleman, and he added with some fervour: 'God keep her!'
He continued there, upon his stationary horse, for some little time after the train had passed him, looking over his shoulder to follow it with compassionate eyes. As it reached the summit he saw it swing aside in the direction of the Bank and the fine stately mansion of Sir William Cornwallis, now tenanted by a Mr. Conyers, a house that more than once already had afforded shelter to royalty on its travels. Then he fetched a sigh. 'Poor lady!' he said again, aloud. On that he touched his horse with the spur, and rode slowly and thoughtfully down the hill.
The commiseration aroused in him by the Lady Arabella's plight was shared by every person of sensibility acquainted with her story. It was the topic of the hour and a fruitful subject for many a ballad-stringer.
Liberty had been a thing denied her almost from childhood. In the last eight years, since the accession of King James, its curtailment had been more rigorous than before. The cages in which she was kept might be gilded so brightly that they scarcely looked like cages; but cages they were, and not merely to confine her slight delicate body, but her very soul as well. And the reason of it was merely that in her veins ran the royal blood of Henry VII, and that by virtue of it her claim to the throne was by some deemed as good as, by others even better than that of King James himself. It mattered nothing that no desire to urge such claims had place in the modest dreams of a nature so gently gay and a mind so sweetly graceful as the Lady Arabella's. Her elegant ambitions were fully to be expressed by her needle and her pen, and it is greatly to be doubted if she could ever have been persuaded to barter either for a sceptre. We certainly know that she had rejected, with as much scorn as was possible to so amiable a person, the one attempt to thrust a sceptre upon her.
But that she should have no desire to press her claim did not weigh with the crapulous, jealous James against the fact that a claim she had. He could not forget the frights Elizabeth had given him, when—with the object of keeping him subservient—she had used Arabella as a bogey, threatening to appoint her to the succession. A shadow sufficed to frighten him, and like all cowards he was cruel. Moreover, to quicken his memories and his terrors there had been the conspiracy in which Brooke, Cobham, Ralegh, and Grey were implicated, which had for its avowed object to supplant him by this daughter of his father's brother. And although it was she herself who had discovered the plot to her royal cousin, by sending him Brooke's letter, yet not even so clear a proof of loyalty had weighed with James against the fact that the conspiracy had set its hopes in her.
Gloomily mistrustful, he had marked his gratitude by placing a further restraint upon her liberties.
She was comely and accomplished and she made friends easily. His own queen—to whom, so as to keep her under close surveillance, she had been appointed maid of honour—was deeply attached to her, as were his children. But there were other attachments against which she must be jealously guarded, and against none so jealously as those which aimed at marriage. He shared with Henry VIII and Elizabeth the opinion that those who were near the crown 'should be narrowly looked into for marriage.'
Arabella might be as content as she appeared with her broideries—in which, like his unfortunate mother, Mary Queen of Scots, she was exceptionally skilled—and with her verse-making in which she excelled, displaying the rare elegancies of her mind. But a husband might desire her to seek a wider field for her talents, and awaken ambitions that as yet appeared to slumber, ambitions which might imperil James and his succession. It was a danger so remote and shadowy as never to have been perceived by a prince of any magnanimity. But it so far sufficed for James that so as to make himself quite safe, he resolved that she must never marry.
Suitors there had been in plenty, and amongst them such princely ones as the King of Poland and the Duke of Guelders; but all had been denied. So long as the suits were merely political in their character, the Lady Arabella was little fretted or concerned by the fate that overtook them at the hands of James, nor was she conscious even of the bonds—light as gossamer but strong as steel—in which her liberties were captive. But there appeared at length a suitor who was altogether in different case; one who did not submit himself to royal approbation through the offices of ambassadors, but came in person, as a lover should, to prostrate himself before his mistress.
This was the spirited, handsome, flaxen-haired young William Seymour, the grandson of the Marquis of Hertford. Already Arabella and he were old friends. They had been playmates ten years ago at Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire when Seymour, a boy of thirteen, had visited the place where Arabella had her residence in those days. She had then conceived a tenderness for the straight-limbed, flaxen-haired lad, who was ten years her junior. And if the disparity in their years had been a barrier to his full reciprocation then, yet now that grown to man's estate he came to Whitehall, and found her much as he had last seen her at Sheriff Hutton, the disparity seemed to have vanished. Later in life it would, of course, appear again. Meanwhile all that he discerned was that she was desirable, sweet, and gently witty, and that her tenderness for him shone in her eyes when they rested on his well-grown comeliness. Love awakening in him in response to the call of the love he inspired, he declared himself and they were secretly betrothed.
But for all their circumspection the secret was discovered, and it threw James into the worst panic he had yet known concerning her. For just as Arabella was in royal blood but one degree inferior to James, so was Seymour but one degree inferior to Arabella. More than that: he descended from Henry VII's younger daughter; and because Henry VIII had settled the descent, in the event of failure of his own issue, upon his younger sister Mary there were some who considered Sir William's claim to the throne a better one than James's. Now, if the claim of each was in itself enough to disquiet James, consider how formidable a menace in his timid eyes must result from the merging of those two claims together.
The lovers were summoned before the Privy Council, to be hectored there and chidden like a couple of misbehaving children. It was pointed out to them that the betrothal of Princes of the Blood without the consent of their King was an offence but one degree inferior to the high treason into which their marriage would convert it. And they were given clearly to understand that only by a sincere undertaking to submit themselves to the will of His Gracious Majesty could they avert the punishment incurred.
Sir William stood forward with such dignity as in this undignified position he could summon to make answer that no other intention had ever been theirs.
'When I so boldly intruded myself into her ladyship's chamber on Candlemas Day, and she graciously entertained my hopes, yet it was with the caution that we should not proceed to any final conclusion without His Majesty's most gracious favour first obtained.'
'Which but serves to show,' he was answered by the Secretary Cecil, 'that you were full conscious of your offence.'
'By your lordship's leave, not of offence,' the young man defended himself. 'I conceived that this noble lady might, without offence, make choice of any subject within this kingdom. And what more am I?—a younger brother, unknown to the world, of mean estate, not born to challenge anything by my birthright.'
The plea, and its sincerity, disposed the Council to deal leniently, and the far-sighted Cecil would be very far from wishing to arouse for them the sympathy that might follow upon persecution. But it was only upon their promise not to push this matter further, or to seek to marry without the King's consent, that they received their pardon and liberty to depart.
How far their grave undertaking may have been sincere when given no man can say. But sincere or not, the sequel need not be surprising. Imperious love is not to be harnessed or constrained. Nor can privy councils prevail against the privier counsels of Cupid. The promise uttered under stress in February was broken beyond remedy in the following July.
The lovers, although closely watched—for James was not the man to trust to promises—yet contrived to make opportunities for secret meetings, wherein each might ease by a little the pain of their separation. And then, because love like hate grows by what it feeds on, the situation becoming intolerable to both, and also because the lady's character had somewhat suffered from the gossip that had followed that business of the Privy Council, they mutually resolved to choose the lesser evil and risk the King's displeasure. They argued, as other lovers similarly placed have argued, that once the thing were done beyond recall, it would have to be condoned. There would be storms, of course; there would be censures; and the disgrace and banishment of both from Court would no doubt follow. But of what account could be such things as these when weighed in the balance against their longings?
And so one clear summer's midnight when the Court was at Greenwich, all being prepared, Sir William slipped out of the town unobserved by any spies and made his way on foot to the palace. Admitted secretly by those whose sympathies he had enlisted and whose scruples he had bribed, he was received by Crompton, the Lady Arabella's chamberlain, and by him conducted to the apartments of the maid of honour.
He was ushered into a panelled room, faintly lighted by the tapers in a candlebranch that stood near a bowl of roses whose perfume hung upon the air like an emanation of her ladyship's own sweet spirit. Here by the table stood the Lady Arabella all in bridal white. Behind her were Mrs. Bradshaw, her waiting woman, and three other confidential servants, together with an elderly man in the black garments and white bands that announced the cleric.
Sir William cast his muffling cloak, and sped forward to do homage on the knee to his lady. Pale, and trembling a little, between delight and fear, she raised him up and beckoned the parson forward to do his office.
As the first pale sheen of the early summer dawn glimmered on the river's face, the furtive bridegroom slipped out of the palace as unobserved as he had come, and sped back to his Greenwich lodging, no whit perturbed by the thought that the lovely thing he had done was at law accounted treason.
In the weeks that followed the happiness of the twain lay in the knowledge rather than in the fact that they possessed each other. Their meetings were few and fleeting, and ever were there prying eyes to watch them and report. And then, at length, the secret that they were man and wife began to stir about the Court. It reached the King and threw him into a rage—the hideous rage that has its roots in fear. He ordered their arrest.
Seymour, for his contempt in marrying a lady of the royal family without the leave of the King, was taken to the Tower. The Lady Arabella was consigned into the keeping of Sir Thomas Parry at Lambeth.
At first they bore their duress with equanimity and without real apprehension. That which had happened was no more than they had known must happen as a prelude to their united happiness. King James could not forever hold them captive for no worse offence than theirs. Public opinion, after all, was not utterly to be flouted even by one who ruled by divine right. And since what was done could not be undone by any power on earth, His Majesty must presently accept the fact and punish it by nothing worse than banishment, which would be far from difficult to bear.
But they did not know King James, or else they must have argued otherwise. And because others did not know him, and therefore thought as they did, there were not wanting those who did what little it lay in their power to do so as to mitigate the lovers' present pain of separation. Sir Thomas Parry proved the kindliest and most considerate of gaolers. He treated the Lady Arabella as an honoured guest, and averted his eyes at awkward moments lest he should surprise evidence of the correspondence her ladyship was secretly conducting with the prisoner in the Tower.
One of those letters survives in which occurs the phrase: 'Wheresoever you be or in what state soever you are, it sufficeth me you are mine.' She has heard that he is not well, and she urges him: 'For God's sake let not your grief of mind work upon your body.' And she closes on a note of gentle wifely submission: 'I do assure you nothing the State can do with me can trouble me so much as this news of your being ill doth; and you see when I am troubled, I trouble you too with tedious kindness; for so I think you will acount so long a letter, yourself not having written to me this good while so much as how you do. But, sweet sir, I speak not this to trouble you with writing but when you please. Be well, and I shall account myself happy in being—your faithful loving wife.'
Nor were love letters, of which this is an ensample, the only letters from her fluent pen in those wintry days at Lambeth. She wrote repeatedly to the King, asserting her cause with a firm and noble dignity.
'If,' she says in one of these letters, 'it were now as convenient in a worldly respect as malice make it seem, to separate us, whom God hath joined, Your Majesty would not do evil that good might come thereof, nor make me, that have the honour to be so near Your Majesty in blood, the first precedent that ever was, though our princes may have left some as little imitable, for so good and gracious a king as Your Majesty, as David's dealing with Uriah.'
But the good and gracious King was not to be moved to compassion. The good and gracious King was over-scared on his own behalf. He was as unmoved by Arabella's eloquent petitions as by the entreaties of his queen or the representations of the Prince of Wales and the Princess Elizabeth on behalf of their sweet friend and cousin. To all, the tyrant's unvarying answer was:
'She hath eaten of the forbidden tree.'
Yet the hopes of all concerned, though languishing, did not perish until it was shown how foolishly generous had been the judgment of the King which imagined that he would deal magnanimously in the end, once his anger had been given time to cool.
One of her fond letters to her husband was intercepted, revealing in itself the extent of their correspondence. The fact that they could conduct it in spite of their imprisonment showed James how numerous and ready were their friends and sympathisers, and cast him into deeper panic and more cruel anger than before. You conceive how soundly Sir Thomas Parry was rated for his carelessness and what censures were heaped upon the Lieutenant of the Tower. Nor was this all. His Majesty determined upon measures that should be more effective. William James, the Bishop of Durham, was on the point of setting out for his see in the far North. Thither with him should go the Lady Arabella, thus rendering her separation from her husband, and from all who might be moved to importune His Majesty on her behalf, more complete and absolute.
The announcement bereft her of her last tenacious hope of clemency. Its execution plunged her into a despair so utter and so frenzied that the sounds of her anguish assailed the ears of those who passed her coach as it was proceeding to Highgate—on the first stage of that northward journey. Because of the condition to which this wild grief had reduced her, the physician travelling with the train did not deem it prudent that she should go farther for the present. He announced this opinion to my Lord Bishop, and the latter, a gentle old man of seventy who himself had been three times married, must have agreed that his charge was being made to suffer overmuch for the sin of having married once. He took it upon himself to pause at the Highgate mansion until the King should be advised of her state, and to this end he dispatched the physician to Whitehall.
James heard the tale of her prostrate condition and dull irregular pulse, betokening the exhaustion that had succeeded her active anguish. He combed the thin beard about his loose mouth as he made answer:
'She maun gang till Durham if I am King.'
The physician bowed gravely. He knew the ways of courts.
'We make no doubt of her obedience, sire,' said he.
His Majesty delivered himself oracularly: 'Obedience is that required which being performed, I will do more for her than she expecteth.'
But he, nevertheless, consented that she should remain for a month at Highgate, in confinement, to mend her health and fit her to resume her journey. Highgate was famous for its salutary air. Norden, some twenty years before in his Survey of Middlesex, had praised its health-giving qualities for those who have been 'visited with sickness not curable by physick.' The Lady Arabella was singularly within this description.
The physician returned to the house of Mr. Conyers with news of the respite gained. It revived a spark among the ashes of Lady Arabella's hopes. She was blessed with faithful friends who had urged her cause, and who would continue to urge it; and perhaps in the course of this precious month they might succeed in softening the monarch's stony heart.
One of these friends, the best and staunchest perhaps of all, her aunt the Countess of Shrewsbury descended upon her at Highgate on the second day of her confinement there.
She found her niece taking the air on an improvised couch that had been set for her in the April sunshine. From the eminence of that fair garden there was a clear view of the city of London and its neighbourhood, from Westminster on the far right to Greenwich on the farther left; whilst southward, beyond the silvery Thames, the eye might range over the Surrey hills to the hazy horizon. It is doubtful if of all this fair prospect spread before her under the cloudless sky of that day of early spring, my lady saw more than the white turrets of the grim fortress that held her lover, who in name already was her husband.
'Child!' cried the Countess, shocked by the woebegone countenance of her niece. 'How pale you are!' She folded the slight figure to her ample bosom, and in that embrace both ladies shed some tears.
In the background, Mr. Conyers—a gentleman of sensibility—considerately removed himself, taking the physician with him. The Countess watched him out of sight.
'Come now,' she said. 'You must be of better cheer. This respite shall be turned to good account. Lord! What a mercy it is that you took ill before the Bishop had you in the wilds of Durham!'
'You mean, madam, to employ the time in moving His Majesty to clemency?'
The Countess sniffed her scorn. 'Move Jamie to clemency! The only way to move his sowship to anything to which he is not naturally disposed is the way thought of by Guy Fawkes—with gunpowder. Nay, now; we'll better employ the time in trusting to our own endeavours.'
The gentle sad eyes looked up to ask a question. Lady Shrewsbury answered it.
'We must contrive to get you out of Jamie's claws—both you and Seymour—and ship you off to France.'
The colour leapt to the pale cheeks; alarm and eagerness were blended in the tender eyes.
'Oh, madam! Oh, but how? I fear it is impossible.'
'Impossible? When I am in it The scornful quality of her ladyship's confidence had an inspiriting sound. 'The means are yet to be contrived. But I'll contrive them, never doubt me.'
'And the consequences to your ladyship?'
'Consequences? Ha!' Her scorn assumed a sharper note, her confidence a firmer ring. 'Why, Jamie'll squeal and slobber, to be sure, and be more foul-mouthed than ever; but that won't daunt me. It needs more than Jamie Stuart's tantrums to daunton Mary Shrewsbury—the Lord be praised! Your sweet Seymour doesn't want for friends, and amongst them they'll bring him safely out of the Tower when the time is ripe. And as for money, that shall be my care. Meanwhile, child, it will be for you to lull their vigilance here by aping resignation. Let it be gradual, of course. That's all I ask of you now. In what's to follow I'll instruct you later.'
The Lady Arabella clasped her hands, and looked up at her aunt with eyes aswim in tears.
'Oh, madam, you bring me such hope as I had never thought to know again. I have no thanks for so much loving kindness.'
'Which is as well,' said the Countess dryly, 'for here come your gaolers back again, and my Lord Bishop with them.' She raised her voice so that it might carry to their ears. 'And I do enjoin you, child: do not let the unquiet of your spirit heap indisposition on your body. Remember and take comfort in His Majesty's gracious promise to do more for you than you expect so that you are obedient.'
'Ah, there's sound advice for your ladyship!' was the approaching Bishop's unctuous commendation. He moved forward with a gravity of tone and manner that matched his sedate and portly person.
The Lady Arabella turned to answer him. 'I so little doubt it, sir, that I mean to follow it. Therein, indeed, lies my only hope. I thank you, madam, from my heart for the comfort you have brought me in my affliction, and for the confidence you give me in His Majesty's clemency. It shall be my study to deserve it.'
The bishop, poor man, misunderstood the twinkle in Lady Shrewsbury's eyes as she replied: 'My faith! That is the proper spirit to display.'
In conducting the great lady presently to her coach—'I vow,' said he, 'that your ladyship has wrought a miracle.'
'It is nothing to the miracle I shall work before all's done. I shall probably surprise you.' She laughed, enjoying a jest in which he had no part. 'I shall come soon again.'
'We shall all be grateful, madam. None could be more welcome. Your ladyship's wisdom should bring solace to that afflicted child.'
'Solace is what I intend, my lord,' said she, and left him wondering was there a flash of irony in her parting smile.
She came again before the week was out, and very frequently thereafter as the month wore on. But their plans, meanwhile, were far from mature enough to warrant action. Thus anxiety came creeping back to cloud again the hopes that had run high. These clouds, her ladyship's ready wit dispelled. Arabella's affected resignation and submission to the royal will had been duly reported to His Majesty. Because of this he lent an ear to my Lady Shrewsbury's plea that his cousin be allowed to remain for yet another month at Highgate with Mr. Conyers, since her health was gathering such signal benefit from its salubrious air.
Even that second month was drawing to an end before all their dispositions had been completed. Already it was settled that on Tuesday the fifth June the Lady Arabella should resume at last her journey to the North, and the Bishop set out ahead on the Saturday, so as to make all ready for the reception of his charge.
Within an hour of his departure the Countess came to pay her farewell visit to her niece. She brought with her on this occasion a man in the plain garb of an unliveried servant. He followed her to the Lady Arabella's room bearing a bundle that contained—so her ladyship announced—some trifling parting gifts of clothes. In the few moments during which they were alone, the Countess presented her companion.
'This is our good friend Mr. Markham. You will take him into your service in the place of Crompton, who, together with your maid Bradshaw, since they no longer desire to be removed from London, shall go back with me in my coach.' Steps were approaching. The Countess dropped her voice, and added hurriedly: 'Markham will instruct you and escort you. All is ready. The ship is waiting for you at the Nore. It is for Monday. Sh!'
Mrs. Conyers came into the room. She curtsied deeply to the Countess, then sympathetically commended her charge:
'She bears up bravely, poor lady. But then the separation will not be for long. All will come right at the last.'
'Ah! Who can say?' quoth the Countess dramatically, whereupon the Lady Arabella incontinently burst into tears.
It was an entirely unrehearsed effect. It had needed but a word to release the pent-up emotion of that anxious surcharged heart, and by accident the word had been supplied. With compassion in her face, Mrs. Conyers ran to comfort this troubled lady, who had the power to inspire affection in all who approached her. The subtle Countess was quick to see here a chance to overcome the worst barrier to the escape. Promptly she took it.
'It is the thought of going so far from her husband without so much as a word of farewell that is her present grief.'
'Poor lady! Poor dear lady!' murmured Mrs. Conyers, visibly affected.
'If only that little crumb of comfort were accorded her, she would bear her cross with fortitude, I know. And it is so easy—and such a little thing!' her ladyship sighed.
Mrs. Conyers looked up: 'How?' she asked, between surprise and concern.
'Why should she not go in secret to see him at the Tower on Monday?'
'God save us!' ejaculated Mrs. Conyers.
'Why, what's to fear? None need ever know, and if it would bring comfort to her and to him...' She spread her hands, leaving the sentence unfinished.
But Mrs. Conyers was profoundly shocked. It would be treason, surely.'
'Treason? Such a little thing! Tchah! If it were treason be sure you'ld not find me as eager to commit it as I am.'
Here was an argument of some weight to ally the major fears of Mrs. Conyers. She stood now mumchance, balancing between compassion and her sense of duty. The Countess shrewdly observed her.
'Short of this treason you have mentioned there's nothing I wouldn't do to help her to her parting kiss, poor child. But there...God help me! Alone I cannot procure her that harmless blessing.'
Mrs. Conyers displayed her growing weakness in the desire to know more as to how this blessing could be procured. And almost before she knew it she had been persuaded by the Countess to give the Lady Arabella the opportunity to take that last farewell. A victim at once of her own merciful heart and Lady Shrewsbury's guile, that opportunity Mrs. Conyers afforded.
For the rest, the vigilance relaxed as no longer necessary in view of the Lady Arabella's resignation made things easy.
On Monday afternoon between three and four o'clock two men stepped unobserved from a side door of the High-. gate mansion, and turning their faces to the south, walked briskly away and down the hill in the direction of Saint Pancras. One of these was a well-set-up man very plainly dressed, but armed and booted. This was Mr. Markham. The other was a mere stripling, delicately built and standing no higher than Mr. Markham's shoulder; he was wrapped in a black cloak thrust up behind by the tilt of his rapier; he wore russet thigh-boots with red tops, and a broad-brimmed hat with a trailing feather. Under the hat flowed the ringlets of a full black wig that framed the delicate oval face of the Lady Arabella.
She stepped out manfully beside her companion, repressing the alarm that kept her heart fluttering in her throat to hamper her breathing, and the fatigue that from walking briskly in this state soon began to gain upon her. By the time they had covered a distance of a mile and a half, and come to an inn, where her faithful lackey Crompton was awaiting her with horses, she was on the point of sinking from exhaustion. But a pause here was unthinkable. At any moment her flight from Highgate might be discovered, Mrs. Conyers notwithstanding, and bring pursuers on their heels. She staggered forward as the horses were brought out. But when the ostler held the stirrup for her, she sank against the nag as if without strength to mount.
'Why, what ails you, sir?' quoth the ostler in concern.
She made a supreme effort. 'Nothing,' she answered shortly and hoarsely so as to dissemble her voice. She stood forth again, and this time got her foot to the stirrup. But it required a vigorous heave from the lusty young ostler to lift her to the saddle. He turned to her companions, shaking his head.
'I doubt the young gentleman will hardly hold out to London,' he warned them.
Their short vague answers conveyed they did not share his apprehension; and on that they rode off with the false young gentleman between them. As they went Crompton supplied her with the medicine she most needed and the lack of which was as responsible as anything for her weakness—news of Mr. Seymour.
'All goes well,' he told her. 'A cart went to the Tower this noon with firewood for Sir William's apartments. Under the billets there's a lout's suit with a black wig and black whiskers. Mr. Rodney's servants are the carters, and they'll bring Sir William away in the cart like one of themselves. To help matters Sir William has given out that he is sick and keeps his bed. On that pretext his servant will deny admission to anyone who should seek him there today. Mr. Rodney is in waiting at Tower wharf with a boat in which to carry Sir William to Lee where the French ship lies. Another boat stays for your ladyship at Blackwall. Mrs. Bradshaw is there with your luggage and Sir William's. So courage, my lady! You'll be on your way to France together before morning.'
Be it the news or be it the brisk pace of the horses, the colour returned now to her ladyship's cheeks and the sparkle to her eyes. They rode so well that by six o'clock they were at the Blackwall tavern, where Mrs. Bradshaw and a chambermaid awaited them, together with a servant of Mr. Rodney's. News of Sir William, however, there Was none. But since this was not altogether expected her ladyship did not permit herself to be troubled. In a room of the tavern she rid herself of her male attire and with the assistance of Mrs. Bradshaw resumed her proper habit. Then, muffling her face in a veil, she came forth to the waiting boat. She took leave of Mr. Markham, very gratefully, and then accompanied by Crompton and Mrs. Bradshaw got aboard, and started in the dusk of that summer evening for the Nore.
It was, of course, an anxious journey; and its inevitable anxieties were heightened by delays. First the watermen were for landing at Greenwich; but upon being bribed they consented to pull on to Lee. Yet at Tilbury again they called a halt, this time from very weariness. They would go no farther until they had refreshed themselves. Insistence was vain, and so the fugitives were forced to wait with what patience they could whilst the oars were drinking ashore.
Day was breaking when at last they got to Lee, and in the grey morning light they made out a ship at anchor a mile beyond them, which Crompton pronounced at once the French barque that had been hired. They boarded her, and Crompton was confirmed by the master, a sturdy bow-legged fellow who rolled forward hat in hand to pay his homage to her ladyship.
She leaned against the shallow taffrail, panting in her excitement, and marvelling that no one else came to receive her. Her feverish glance swept the ship's deck from poop to prow.
'But Sir William?' Breathlessly she got out the question. 'Where is he?'
'Milor', 'e 'ave not yet arrive', madame.'
'Not yet arrived?' Her voice was husky with sudden fear. 'Not yet arrived?' She reeled, and but for Crompton's steadying arm she might have fallen.
The French shipmaster talked volubly. Milord was late. Madame herself had been late. He had been kept waiting already longer than was safe. He explained at length his obvious grounds for apprehension, and his reluctance to stay a minute longer. Yet he would take some risk for her nobility. He would wait yet a half-hour—until sunrise. And whether Sir William Seymour should have come by then or not he would be compelled for his own safety's sake as well as hers to put to sea.
You conceive the horror of that half-hour following upon the strain of that anxious night and all the anguish that already this poor lady had been called upon to bear. It sped away on the swift wings of time, and still Sir William had not come. The bo'sun's pipe summoned the men to the windlass; the anchor was heaved to the cat-heads, and with creak of blocks the brown sails were hoisted. The wind was freshening against the tide, and the waves were running high.
It was in vain that the Lady Arabella pleaded for delay. The master dared not stay and did not fear to say so. Crompton agreed with him that it was dangerous, and strove hard to comfort her. He argued that even if Sir William had failed to win free she must not linger now. But he did not believe that Sir William could have failed. He must have been delayed. No doubt but he would follow presently, and finding that the barque had sailed without him, he would hire another vessel. He was well supplied with means. He would rejoin her within a day or two at Calais. Let her set her doubts at rest. Thus Crompton.
She strove to believe him, as she stood there on the canting deck, and watched the receding land grow ghostly and melt away in the morning mist. Had it but been clearer her romance might have ended differently. For within a quarter of an hour of their barque's setting sail, Sir William Seymour's boat came surging through the whipped-up water almost to the very spot where the French barque had ridden at anchor. His delay had been in leaving the Tower. The cart of firewood had been late in coming. Yet once it had arrived there had been no hitch. Dressed in a tawny, yokel's suit, with a black wig over his yellow hair and a false black beard to muffle his face, the young gentleman had walked boldly at the cart's tail out of the Western entrance. Thence he had proceeded by Tower Wharf, by the warders of the South Gate, and so to the Iron Gate, where Rodney waited with his oars.
It was from another French barque riding near at hand that Sir William learned that he came just too late, and that his lady was already on her way to France. If it vexed him, yet his vexation was as naught to that of the Lady Arabella. He knew the worst, and his case was by no means hopeless, provided that he could find a ship in which to follow. But she, poor soul, was tormented by imaginings of what might have befallen him.
He boarded a collier, and bargained with her master to carry him over to France for the sum of forty pounds. They set sail. Wind and weather drove the little vessel so far north that at last she was forced to put in to Ostend. There Sir William landed, and set out eagerly thence to search his bride along the coast. He searched in vain.
The master of the barque that carried Arabella had been justified of his impatience at the delay in sailing. Her flight had been discovered late on Monday by Mr. Conyers, and in terror of the consequences to himself, he had ridden hard to London and my Lord Salisbury with the news. Too late the Secretary sent orders to the Tower to set a straight guard over Sir William Seymour, for Sir William was gone already; but not too late were his simultaneous orders to the Admiral of the Narrow Seas. A fast pinnace lying in the Downs put out at once, and coming up with the Frenchman half-channel over, signalled him to lie to.
But the little bow-legged master proved as resolute now as earlier, and held to his course. Not until the pinnace had fired thirteen shots across his decks did he strike his colours, and surrender the Lady Arabella to those who came to lead her back to the captivity imposed upon her out of fear by a craven tyrant because she had 'eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree.'
This time she was sent to the Tower, and deprived of even the company of her devoted servants, robbed of all hope of happiness in this life. The only balm Fate left her for her broken heart was the knowledge that her husband, who never now would be husband to her in more than name, was at least safe in exile from the pusillanimous cruelty of Jamie Stuart. For four years she endured this last and cruelest captivity. Then Death delivered her.
A large, fair man in russet velvet, jewelled like a courtier, booted and spurred like a soldier, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, his left on a mullion of the window, the Duke of Guise, Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom and Grand-Master of the King's Household, stood a little in the background, like a symbol of the force to be employed should the persuasions of his priestly brother fail. His aquiline face, disfigured by the scar of the terrible wound taken at the siege of Calais, in the course of a campaign which had made him the idol of the soldiery, remained impassive; but his watchful eyes never left the countenance of the Queen-Mother whilst his brother was addressing her.
The Cardinal of Lorraine, nobly handsome of face, engaging of manner, and insinuating of tone, a man using high intellectual gifts to further a remorseless ambition, was mellifluously veiling threats in terms of deepest solicitude. No lover could more gently have remonstrated with his mistress than he with the Queen-Mother.
'We implore you, madame, with no interest but your own before our eyes, out of the love we bear you, to give no heed to any proposals that may reach you from these unhappy men of the new religion.'
Catherine de Medicis interrupted him without heat. Her tone was as phlegmatic as her aspect.
'You preach, sir, to the converted. Could I so neglect my duty as a true daughter of the Church as to suffer myself to be approached by men whose impiety fills me with horror? Sometimes I think that you forget that I am a Pope's niece. Be sure that I do not.'
The Cardinal's glance sharpened. Was she thus—alluding to powers which she might invoke—emulating his own subtlety, and giving him back covert threat for covert threat? Her prominent, myopic brown eyes met his own with a baffling candour. He inclined his head a little.
'Your Majesty reassures us. I am relieved of my fears for you.'
'Fears for me?'
He spread his elegant hands. 'Your own piety will show you where you might stand if even a suspicion should touch you of trafficking with these heretics.' His tone deeped in slyness. 'In Your Majesty's own interest—so as to abstract you from the danger of public execration—we might be constrained to advise your return to Florence: a calamity even greater for us who esteem you so highly than for Your Majesty's own self.'
Immobile, bolt upright in her tall chair, this woman, the depth of whose craft stood to his as the depth of a well to that of a goblet, gave no sign that she was conscious of the steel under the velvet in which he muffled it. Her heavy-lidded eyes turned slowly from one to the other of the brothers who so despotically wielded the power they had usurped. The sleepiness of her glance was pierced by no gleam of the rage within her. She even permitted herself one of her eternal yawns. Her voice droned lazily.
'It is a calamity you have no cause to apprehend.' And upon that she dismissed them, to go ask each other if there might be a hidden meaning in her words as there had certainly been in theirs.
Alone in her cabinet, her figure lost its stiff uprightness. Her body, which now in her fortieth year, as a result of continuous child-bearing and gluttonous habits, had reached, as Brantôme tells us, a rich embonpoint, sagged together; and her hands, which the same witness declares to have been of an unparalleled loveliness, clenched the arms of her chair as fiercely as\if they had been the throats of those gentlemen of the House of Guise. Despite her high courage, her soul was sick within her. The ability within herself, which she never doubted, seemed doomed to frustration by the trammels which the Cardinal of Lorraine and his brother imposed upon her. She was little better than a prisoner in their hands. Their spies observed her every moment. Queen-Mother of France, she was hobbled like a cow.
Sitting there now with the memory of the veiled threats of that interview, she felt herself almost at the end of her patience, the terrible patience with which for a quarter of a century, in the shadow, neglected and almost despised, she had awaited opportunity.
She had thought that it had come a year ago, in July of 1559, when the King, her husband, had been cut off by a death-wound accidentally taken in the tilt-yard. It is not easy to believe in the sincerity of the overwhelming grief by which the event prostrated her, or of the mourning she was to wear to the end of her days. For even in that fatal tourney, Henri II rode his courses in the black and white that were the colours of Diane de Poitiers, the mistress who had been the real queen, the woman who swayed policy and to whom court was paid by all, whilst in the background Catherine de Medicis merely bore the King's children. She had borne him ten in all, of whom seven survived, and if as a wife she was without authority, at least as a mother her empire had been absolute. It was upon this that she had counted in the hour of Henri's death. Her son François, who was then sixteen and had for a year been married to Mary Stuart, was no longer a minor—the Kings of France attained their majority at the age of fourteen—and therefore there could be no question of a regency. But of her power and skill to rule and guide him, and through him the kingdom, she had no doubt. At last she would be something more than a queen in name only, and the world should be made conscious of the ability with which she knew herself endowed.
Her eagerness made her cut short the period of seclusion prescribed in France for a widowed queen. She hastened from Paris to François at Saint Germain so as to be at her son's side. But despite this haste, which might have rendered her vulnerable to criticism, already she came too late. The feeble-minded, sickly boy, completely under the spell of the adorable Mary Stuart, had already surrendered at her bidding the helm of state to her uncles the masterful Guises.
That this was a check to her aspirations Catherine at once perceived, but not yet the extent of it. She did not yet suspect that secret ambition of these Lorrainers to possess themselves ultimately of the very throne of France, on the grounds of their descent from Charlemagne.
Their power was firmly planted in the fertile soil of religious strife which the Reformation had produced. By assuming the leadership of the Catholic party, the Guises assured for their following a majority which, properly handled, should steadily grow until nothing could stand against their might. The Duke by his military talents had won the worship of the soldiery; the Cardinal of Lorraine educated public opinion through the monastic orders that were spread over the face of France. He was blindly obeyed, by men who perceived nothing of his ambitious designs for his house, and believed him concerned only for the greater honour and glory of God.
Catherine, whilst overawed by the strength in which she found them established, was partly deceived by the protestations of duty with which they received her, and at first, in her loneliness and lack of a party of her own, she was glad enough to lean upon them. They won her confidence by supporting her demands for the comparative banishment of Diane de Poitiers and the restitution by the late King's mistress of the crown jewels and the rest of the plunder in her hands. In return she had supported them in procuring the dismissal from office, on the score of his years, of the powerful Constable, Anne de Montmorency, and in the assumption by the Duke of Guise of the vacated Grand-Mastership of the King's Household.
Disillusion followed quickly. Her authority with her son sapped by the Guises through their pliant and dutiful niece, she found herself relegated once more to the background from which she had begun to emerge. The Guises treated her, in the nothingness to which they doomed her, with a courteous pretence of deference that was a bitter mockery. She was again, as in the late King's lifetime, merely the woman who had borne the royal children; and into such contempt was she fallen that the sixteen-yearsold Mary Stuart, Queen of France and Scotland, and accounting herself also Queen of England, did not hesitate sneeringly to allude to her mother-in-law as the Florentine merchant's daughter whose marriage into the royal house of France had constituted a mésalliance. Even Catherine's compatriot, the Duchess of Guise, a daughter of the House of Este, made her feel that she was looked down upon as an upstart.
A lesser woman might have ruined herself by open revolt against these indignities, might have flung herself into reckless reprisals, which must completely have delivered her into the hands of those who to their own profit denied her all her rights. But Catherine, with that inexhaustible patience which is the stamp of genius, waited, sluggish and phlegmatic of aspect, in her funereal apparel relieved only by the ermine collar, and in her peaked cap covering the hair which, from golden that it once had been, was turning coppery with the years. Thus she moved, chill-eyed and ever yawning, a woman resigned to her negligible rôle of Queen-Mother.
But within that seemingly sleepy corpulence, her mind remained vigorously active. In casting about her for a weapon against those of her own faith by whom she was oppressed, she was beset by the temptation to employ the powerful Protestant party. She perceived how she might create just such a situation as would naturally have arisen if the degenerate, sickly son to whose uxoriousness she owed her present humiliation had not been of age.
The way had been paved for her by the revolting cruelty of the wholesale execution of Huguenots after the march on Amboise by La Renaudie and his following of armed Reformers. The Duke of Guise, who had prevailed upon the King to create him Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom, had so abused the powers of that exalted office in his ferocious anxiety to strike terror into all opponents, that he had not only hardened Huguenot hostility, but had lost the adherence of those Catholics who were clear-sighted enough to perceive that these Lorrainers employed religion as an instrument for their own worldly advancement.
Shrewdly espying her opportunity, Catherine had gone stealthily to work through some few who out of hostility to the Guises were willing enough to act as her agents.
A rumour was already abroad to the effect that the young King, who actually was suffering from eczema, had been attacked by leprosy. Logically out of this, as it seemed, came a sudden clamour for a convocation of the States General, to the end that, owing to the ill-health and feeble-mindedness of the King, a regency should be appointed.
The demand startled the Guises, representing as it did an attack upon a flank on which they were vulnerable. By the law of France regency was permissible to none but Princes of the Blood, which, for all their boasted descent from Charlemagne, the Guises were not. Indeed, they were scarcely looked upon as French, Lorraine being a fief of the German Empire. If the clamour prevailed and the Estates supported the demand, the choice of a regent must fall upon Antoine de Bourbon, the elder of the Bourbon Princes and King of Navarre, who, being of the reformed religion, was the natural head of the Huguenot party and therefore the natural opponent of the Guisards.
None suspected that the clamour had been inspired by the Queen-Mother, but to discover its source the Cardinal's network of monkish spies grew active. It transpired that amongst those who had stirred up the trouble were one or two whose relations with the Queen-Mother made it possible that they might have been acting with her consent. Now the Guises well knew that as the mother of the King, Catherine was not as negligible in the eyes of the country as in those of the court, and consequently that if she were to declare herself on the side of their opponents, the difficulties of the situation might not so easily be met.
Hence that probing interview to which they had subjected her, culminating in the covert threat of banishment should they discover in her the rashness to conspire against them.
In the days that followed, there at Amboise, she was made to feel at once their mistrust of her and their power. Whilst outwardly their manner preserved the deference due to her rank, they did not trouble to conceal how closely they watched her, or how, by a vigilance which suffered only those to approach her of whom they approved, they kept her virtually in duress.
It was only from Fontainebleau in the following spring that, at last, she so far contrived to elude their watchfulness as to send a message to the Prince of Condé. For whilst the King of Navarre might be the nominal head of the Huguenot party, his pusillanimous nature was content to leave the actual leadership to his bold soldierly brother, Condé. The message was a very guarded one, expressing on the surface no more than a desire to learn the true facts of the affair of La Renaudie, which has been described as the Tumult of Amboise. But between the lines of it was plainly to be read a hint that she might be persuaded to enter into relations with the party of Reform.
The Huguenots responded promptly. An innocent-seeming messenger, the son of her furrier Le Camus, penetrated the cordon drawn about her by the Guises. The pretext of soliciting orders for his father gained the young man admission to her cabinet, where he placed in her hands a lengthy memorial which bore for signature the borrowed name of 'Théophile.' This memorial protested in the strongest terms that the allegations that the affair of Amboise had been hostile to the King or any Prince of the Blood was a false pretext for cruelty and oppression by those who tyrannically usurped the royal power, in violation of all laws and statutes in France established. They had been constrained to meet with violence the violence of those who employed the forces of the King for their destruction. It petitioned that to avert fresh troubles a royal council be set up, not in accordance with the wishes of Messieurs de Guise, but in accordance with the ancient constitution, and it demanded for those of the reformed religion liberty to live in accordance with their own confessions of faith. To these ends the memorial humbly invoked the favour of the Queen-Mother.
She raised her heavy eyes from the document and considered the lean, alert young man in black who stood anxiously before her.
'You are aware of what is in this?'
He bowed low. 'I am empowered, madame, to receive Your Majesty's answer by word of mouth.'
She sat in thought a while. Then, at last, she fetched a sigh and showed him a countenance charged with sorrow.
'Say to those who invoke my aid that it is rather for me, who am little better than a prisoner here, to invoke theirs. Tell them that I do not forget those who serve me, and that from me they may count upon that liberty to worship after their own fashion which these tyrants have denied them. Say to them—'
'Madame!' It was a cry of warning from Le Camus. Having uttered it, he went on quickly: 'The ermines this year are costlier than ever before, for there is a scarcity of good pelts such as would be worthy of Your Majesty.'
She understood, and her heart had momentarily tightened.
She looked over her shoulder. Behind her the gilt-panelled door had softly opened. Arrested on the threshold stood a slender golden-headed girl, delicately featured, with gleaming eyes above which the brows were now sternly knit. It was the Queen.
Catherine's glance lost none of its drowsiness. It betrayed neither fear nor resentment of this unannounced intrusion.
'Give me leave yet a moment, child.'
But Mary Stuart, ignoring the dismissal, came boldly forward.
'Leave to do what, madame?' Her tone was pert. 'What is that document? And who is this young man? What is his traffic? Pelts or treason?'
Had she been less anxious to assert her shrewdness and authority, she might have led Catherine into a trap. But forewarned that too much had been overheard, the Queen-Mother on the instant resolved upon her course. It was detestable, but unavoidable. The luckless young furrier was inevitably to be sacrificed. To attempt to shield him would be merely to destroy herself with him.
Queen Mary, a little behind her, could not see her mother-in-law's eyes or the message of pain and compassion which they flashed upon Le Camus, preparing him for her answer discounting for him its ruthlessness.
'You may well ask that question. Never was a more impudent document set before the niece of a Pope. Let someone summon Monsieur de Guise and the Cardinal.'
Whilst they waited, Queen Mary read the memorial, of which she had calmly possessed herself and which had been as calmly surrendered.
Le Camus stood straight and tense and a little defiant, to meet the doom that he beheld approaching.
The Guises came quickly. Some archers followed them as far as the anteroom. And it was from the hands of his niece that the tall Duke received the compromising document. There was a bitter little smile on the lips of that fair child.
The Cardinal stood beside his brother, to read with him; and on his lips, too, there was a faint smile as he read, whereas on the Duke's brow a thundercloud was swelling.
'Who is this? Who is the coward who hides himself under the name of "Théophile?"'
The Queen-Mother shrugged her ample shoulders. 'I know as much as you do. You had better ask this messenger of treason.'
'Do you pretend, madame, that you do not know?'
'Pretend!' Her tone was sharp, for not only had the offensive word stabbed her, but the young Queen had turned the knife in the wound by laughing. Catherine seemed to swell visibly before them. 'Have you the presumption to question me, Monsieur le Duc?'
He grunted ill-humoured impatience. But the smooth Cardinal hastened to the rescue.
'Have patience with my brother, madame. As the King's Lieutenant-General he is responsible for the peace of the realm, and in matters of treason it becomes his duty to question even Your Majesty.'
'But not to affront me by ill-judged assumptions. He has the memorial and the man who brought it. God knows I have made no concealment of either.'
'Do not be hoodwinked,' cried the young Queen. 'As I entered I heard her say—'
Contemptuously Catherine interrupted her. 'Had you remained at the keyhole a little longer you would have heard me say a deal more, all with the object of extracting from this traitor the very information you now seek. That is the pity of it, messieurs. Your spy in her zeal has ruined my chances of discovering what it imports the King to know.'
White to the lips under an insult the more intolerable because it accurately stated the unworthy part her uncles had put upon her, Mary Stuart cried out in a choking voice:
'Madame! Do you forget that I am Queen of France?'
The Queen-Mother laughed in her throat, sardonically. 'Vraidieu! And of Scotland, and of England, too. But I see little in your conduct to remind me of this triple queenship.'
'My conduct was not learnt in the market-place of Florence. You may find yourself back there presently, madame, with your merchant relatives.'
Her eyes heavy with scorn, Catherine merely shrugged for answer, whilst the Cardinal, smooth of voice, put an end to the squabble by a question.
'You do not think, madame, that "Théophile" might stand for Condé?'
'It is possible. Anything is possible. What do I know? Ask him.' And she indicated Le Camus.
The Duke undertook the interrogation. But he could extract from the young man no more than that he was the messenger. Coming to the Queen-Mother in the pursuit of his trade, he had been asked by La Roche Chandieu to bear the letter. He did not know who had written it.
He was arrested, and taken away by the archers. The Guises followed with their niece, and the Queen-Mother was left alone with her bitter secret chagrin and sense of defeat.
The detention of Le Camus, however, did not check the activities into which Condé had been goaded by the recent persecutions. Whilst issuing a call to arms on the one hand, on the other he was secretly preparing an indictment of the Guises with the intention of bringing them to trial by the Estates for lèse-majesté in their usurpation of the royal power, as well as for pillage, peculation, and conspiracy.
Of these activities and their threatening extent the Guises had at last evidence in the following August, when they captured Condé's secretary La Sague with letters upon him which showed how very diligently the armed rising was being organized.
At the time the elections to the°States General, convoked for December, were fiercely agitating the country. The Guises, massing armed forces in Orleans, where the States were to be held, had yielded to the demand because confident of controlling the issue and thus consolidating the position which their enemies dreamed of shaking.
Prompt measures became necessary if they were to curb the Condé menace, and these prompt measures the Guises took in their own high-handed fashion. From François II the King of Navarre received a summons to bring his brother Condé to answer a charge of sedition. Antoine de Bourbon was given to choose between obedience and open revolt, and warned that in the event of the latter he would be taken in the rear by Philip II of Spain with the troops of Spanish Navarre. The high-spirited Condé urged him to obey, since as a Prince of the Blood, and counting upon trial by his peers, he had no anxieties touching the issue.
In this, however, Condé reckoned without the unscrupulous and tyrannical craft of the Guises. He was arrested immediately on arrival at Orleans, and the Lieutenant-General illegally decreed that his cause be judged by a commission which the Guises themselves appointed. It was in vain that the intrepid hunchback refused to plead before a tribunal which he rightly denounced as incompetent to judge him. He was found guilty of lèse-majesté and sentenced to death.
To Catherine that sentence brought despair. It revealed how completely, through their ascendancy over the invertebrate King, the Guises held France in the grip of their mighty tentacles. It quenched all hope in her that the Huguenot party, deprived thus of its vigorous head, could be employed as an instrument for her own deliverance by dislodging the Queen's uncles from their usurpation. The very daring and ruthlessness of their action was calculated to strike terror into all who might dream of opposing them, and to show the world that who opposed them opposed the King, who had no will but theirs.
For this very reason Catherine did not even attempt to appeal to her son on Condé's behalf. For her the situation was the same as when she had allowed Le Camus to be taken. Not merely would any appeal of hers be profitless to the condemned prince, it would betray her to the vengeance of the Guises, supplying a pretext for banishing her, or worse. And her wretched son, she knew, would no more bestir himself to save her than he bestirred himself to save Condé.
She was doomed, it seemed, to the perpetuation of the humiliating nullity which she had endured ever since, twenty-five years ago, she had become Queen of France.
And then, abruptly, there fell a blow that completely changed the face of affairs.
The signs of its imminence, abundant enough, had been overlooked by all the schemers whose attention was engrossed by their own intrigues.
At Vespers in the Church of the Jacobins on Sunday the 15th November, the sickly young King fell into a syncope. On recovering consciousness in his own apartments in the Palace of the Bailliage, he complained dolefully of a violent pain in the left ear. He was in a raging fever, and whilst some doctors and surgeons diagnosed an abscess and others a tumour, all were agreed that be it one or the other, there was no hope of saving the King's life.
Momentarily the Guises stood aghast, for it seemed to them that in the doom of François they heard the doom of their own dominion. For without his royal authority to serve them for a mask their power was at an end. The Duke of Orleans would succeed to the throne; and the Duke of Orleans being but ten years old, a regency must be appointed by the Estates. Not all their power and influence could earn for either of them that position, since not being princes of the blood they were constitutionally excluded. Therefore they must build themselves a future security by the power they still held, before the death of François made it crumble in their hands. They perceived that a solution might lie in using the browbeaten Queen-Mother as a bridge across which they might convey their usurpation unimpaired from reign to reign. With this intent, and in a renewal of confidence, they sought her.
The Cardinal took the initiative. 'Madame, you will forgive this intrusion upon a mother's grief by men who share it deeply. It is scarcely the hour to consider policy. Yet our duty to the Faith demands it. You are vouchsafed an opportunity to uphold the religion you have so fervently professed. Should it now please God in His wisdom to call the King to His mercy, the country will be in grave peril of coming under the sway of a heretic regency of the King of Navarre during the minority of your second son.'
Her mother's heart was not so bowed down by sorrow as to have clouded her wits. She observed the signs of the anxiety in which they approached her, as clearly as she surmised the source of it. She was conscious of quickened heart-beats. Yet as she looked at them never had her eyes seemed more heavy and dull, never had her face with its overshot jaw seemed more vacuous. She nodded slowly.
'It is more than a peril. Constitutionally I believe it is inevitable.'
'Inevitable, indeed unless we join hands to avert it. As the mother of the future King Charles you have a natural claim to the regency, and this claim we will support with all our weight and all our strength.'
'And you will remember, madame,' the Duke added, 'that I can count upon upwards of a thousand gentlemen and their following, and all the troops that were with me in Piedmont.'
'You give me comfort in this evil hour,' she droned in her flat voice. 'You show me how the calamity may be met. But when all is said I am no more than a weak and perhaps stupid woman, ill-fitted for government. If I am to take up this burden, I shall need your close assistance, my friends.'
Her friends seemed to draw breath more freely. The dull creature was saving them trouble; they smiled upon her almost tenderly.
'You may count upon that, madame,' the Duke assured her. 'As Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom I shall not lack the power, just as I shall not lack the will loyally to uphold you.'
She nodded ponderously. Then she thrust out a lip in doubt.
'The Bourbon Princes—' she began, like one who hesitates, and left the question there.
The Duke shrugged confidently. 'They need not trouble us. Condé is under sentence of death. As for that poltroon, the King of Navarre, it should be easy to intimidate him into acquiescence. If not—' He ended on a gesture grimly significant.
She nodded slowly. 'Perhaps that might be left to me. I do not think it will be difficult to bring Antoine de Bourbon to reason. The real danger is Condé. The hunchback is not so easily curbed. And although under sentence of death, the King is no longer in case to sign the warrant for his execution, and the Chancellor, I understand, will not take the responsibility.' She sighed, and shook her head. 'It serves to show the dangers of delay. This should have been done before.'
She expressed a welcome, reassuring sentiment. The Cardinal made light of the matter. 'It means no more than a slight postponement. What King François cannot sign, Your Majesty can sign presently as regent for King Charles.'
She showed them a countenance of understanding and relief. 'Of course. You see how dull I am, and you thrust a regency upon me. But you make all clear. You must continue to do so, my friends, should my poor child succumb as the doctors—' Her voice faltered into silence. She put a handkerchief to her eyes with one hand, whilst with the other she gently waved a dismissal.
From an interview to which they had come in grave misgivings they departed in triumph, and in a contempt for the woman who had made it so easy, which was equalled only by that woman's secret contempt for them.
In the days that followed the King grew steadily worse, and lay for the most part unconscious. The scaffold that had been built for Condé's execution waited. His royal brother, the King of Navarre, waited too, wondering what the future might now hold. At last the Queen-Mother summoned him to enlightenment.
Anxious and haggard, Antoine de Bourbon came to the closet she had appropriated to herself at the Bailliage, and where she had disposed that there should be no intruders or spies upon the interview. She rose to receive him, thus, Queen though she was, paying a deference to his rank of which he had received little since coming to Orleans.
'I have sent for you, sire, in the matter of your brother, whose situation fills me with concern.'
'Messieurs de Guise,' he answered bitterly, 'are singularly thirsty for Bourbon blood. But by God's grace they may yet be disappointed. I have the Chancellor's word that he will not sign the warrant.'
'Ah, yes. Monsieur de l'Hôpital leans strongly towards the new religion.'
'And as strongly towards justice, madame.'
'Unfortunately he is not the final arbiter.' She sat down again, and carefully disposed her black velvet gown, against which her hands showed white as alabaster. 'As you have said, the Guises are thirsty for Bourbon blood; and unless we go warily they will have it; your own as well as your brother's.'
That shook him up. His good-humoured plebeian face showed a deepening agitation. For if unlike his brother, he was straight and tall, also unlike his brother, his features, framed in a sparse untidy beard, had none of the high-bred beauty of Condé's.
'If the King should die, as they say, madame...' he began impetuously, and there broke off, suddenly remembering that he spoke to the King's mother.
Her calm seemed to him unnatural. 'The King will die. Very soon. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day. But that will not profit either you or your brother if the Duke of Guise remains where he is.'
'He will not, madame.' His Majesty of Navarre was vehement. 'The Estates must uphold my right to the regency during the minority of King Charles. They cannot help themselves. It is the law.'
She smiled slowly, sadly. She spoke in the same dull, level tones.
'Don't you see what would happen to the regency of a declared Huguenot in these days of religious bitterness? It would supply the Guises with the very opportunity they'll need. Using religion as a pretext, they would raise the country against you. That is, if they did not take the shorter road of having you assassinated.'
His eyes betrayed his quaking spirit. He stammered as he spoke.
'But if not I—I or Condé—who then? There is no other Prince of the Blood. Certainly not this Lorrainer.'
'There is myself,' she answered gravely. 'Yours may be the legal right. But a mother possesses a natural right over her son during his minority. The Estates could be brought to recognise it.'
'The Estates, perhaps. But could the Duke of Guise?' He was derisive.
'Even Monsieur de Guise would be glad to do so since he cannot hold the office himself, and rather than see you in it.
That turned him thoughtful. He fingered his straggling beard.
'I see,' he said at last. 'I see. You are asking me to forgo my rights in your favour?'
'And to your own advantage, sire, and that of Monsieur de Condé. I promise you that it is the one sure way to save your brother.'
'God knows I'ld do much to accomplish that. But are we not reckoning without the host, madame? Decision rests with the Estates. Would they agree to my renunciation in your favour?'
'Could they oppose it when they perceive in it the certain way to avoid a civil war? For what I have in mind amounts to an alliance between us, an alliance between the two great parties in the State, thus ending the disorders that now distract the land.' She took up a folded paper from the table at her elbow. 'So sure am I that good sense will guide you that I have prepared a document which, if you see fit to sign it, the Chancellor de l'Hôpital will present to the Estates as soon as it may have pleased God to end the sufferings of my son François.'
He was taken aback by these assumptions that he would renounce his rights, and he hesitated a moment, frowning, before accepting the paper that she proffered. But when he had read it his expression changed; and it required little persuasion from her thereafter to bring him to call for a pen.
François II died three days later, on the fifteenth December in the forenoon. By then the old Constable de Montmorency, secretly summoned by Catherine, was in Orléans with six hundred men, and immediately, in the exercise of his office, appointed the guards at the Bailliage and elsewhere.
On the morrow of the King's death the Estates met to take order for the government of the realm during the minority of King Charles IX, and the Chancellor put forward for ratification a document in which the King of Navarre formally renounced his right to the regency in favour of the Queen-Mother. The document's further provision that Antoine de Bourbon should assume the office of Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom so as to cooperate with the regent revealed the nature of the alliance between the two great parties in the State to which Catherine had alluded. Since the measure carried, as she had said it would, a promise of internal peace, it was instantly welcomed by all but the Guisards, and ratification of the document was immediately accorded.
Upon the Duke of Guise, whom it dispossessed of his great office, and to the Cardinal of Lorraine, this measure which Catherine had kept secret until it was too late for them to intervene fell like a thunderbolt. Livid at finding himself thus stripped in favour of Antoine de Bourbon of the Lieutenant-Generalship upon which he now depended for the continuance of his power, the Duke was getting to his feet to voice his fury and challenge the appointment, when the Cardinal pulled him down and restrained him.
'In God's name!' he begged. 'Do nothing provocative. That accursed Florentine woman has tricked us. But wait. Things may not be as bad as they seem.'
In this he was unduly sanguine. How bad things were they were to learn fully when they came, after the sitting of the Estates, to the great hall of the Bailliage.
The Queen-Mother in her deep mourning, accompanied by the weedy lad in black who was now King Charles IX and closely followed by the burly old Constable, the King of Navarre, and the handsome hunchback the Prince of Condé, who had already been released, was slowly passing through the mourning throng of courtiers, when the Duke of Guise, breaking from his brother's restraint, put himself directly in her path.
As the tall, imposing soldierly figure surged before her, she checked. But it was with the ghost of a smile that her sleepy eyes were raised to that wrathful, scarred face.
'Madame,' he said, 'I am asking myself the meaning of what we come from witnessing.'
For all his anger and his habitual arrogance he kept his voice to a sullen mutter, so that only those immediately about him heard his words. Catherine's answer, however, was delivered without any such restraints.
'It means, Monsieur le Duc, that your reign is over. It has ended together with that of your niece upon whom it depended. For her there is still a kingdom—in Scotland. For you, there is what your loyalty may deserve of us.
On that she motioned him aside. And before the newfound majesty emanating from this Florentine woman who had waited five and twenty years for queenship, Monsieur de Guise, abashed, bowed low and retreated backwards.
The King of Paris. That was the title bestowed upon him in bitterness by Henri III when His Majesty found himself all but besieged in his Palace of the Louvre by the forces which rallied round the tall, blond, debonair Duke of Guise.
The massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Eve had been justified in the eyes of its organizers by the assumption that it would remove the shadow of civil strife and bring peace to a country distracted by religious war. Its ultimate effect, as might have been foreseen, was the very opposite.
After Charles IX died in his blood-sweat, haunted by visions of corpses floating in the Seine, Henri III, his brother and scarcely less crazy successor, found it impossible to bring Catholic and Protestant to lie down in peace together. It was not in the power of the indolent, decadent voluptuary, engrossed in his mignons and the adornment of his rachitic person, to supply a head to a body so refractory as that of his kingdom. His choice of the line of least resistance, his insincere attempts to be conciliatory without reassuring the Huguenots, exasperated the Catholics. When Henry of Navarre and the Duke of Anjou kindled anew the torch of war, and took to arms with the support of German mercenaries, the Catholic faction, seeing no provision from the supine monarch, took steps to provide for itself. The League came into existence, with the gallant, splendid, and undoubtedly ambitious Duke of Guise at its head.
The death of Anjou in 1584, leaving the Protestant Henry of Navarre lawful heir to the throne of France, produced a climax. The Leaguers constrained from the King an edict under which the practice of the new religion was forbidden. He gave it grudgingly, offended, not so much by the edict, which his bigotry must approve, as by the compulsion imposed upon him which brought him the humiliating understanding that whilst he might be King he was not master.
Thus was the kingdom split, not merely into two, but into three parties, of which the King's was the most impotent. Almost he came to look favourably on the Huguenots as the least formidable of his opponents.
Paris, the headquarters of the League, mistrusting him more and more, fell into a condition of revolt. It governed itself by a commission of sixteen representatives of the sixteen quarters into which the city was divided, and Henri found himself the subject of daily attacks and insults, alike from mob orators at street-corners and from preachers in the pulpit.
Most active in the inspiration of all this fury was the Duke of Guise's sister Catherine, the handsome, fiery Duchess of Montpensier. She headed processions, she subsidised poets to write lampoons, she harangued the people from the balcony of her palace, and by every means that wit could invent and zeal encompass this lovely Maenad applied spurs to the popular wrath. One of her most noteworthy pieces of propaganda was a great picture the painting of which she directed, displaying Elizabeth of England in the act of torturing her Catholic subjects. Set up in the Cemetery of Saint Séverin, it proved a great and inflammatory attraction. It was dangerous in other ways, and when the King heard of it he felt it necessary to take action. He issued his orders one night, and on the following morning the picture had disappeared, and among the tombstones in front of the space where it had stood lay a frail little tonsured fellow in the white habit and black cloak of the order of Saint Dominic with a broken, bleeding head.
Solicitous hands came at last to raise him and to bathe his wound. He revived, and told his tale. He had been in the cemetery when the Swiss sent by the King attacked the picture. He had made a futile protest against the action, and then of his body a still more futile shield. He had had his head broken for his pains by those ministers of the powers of evil.
The people about him were raising the cry of 'Sacrilege!' when the Duchess arrived. Tall, golden, commanding, in all the glory of her youth and beauty, she swept through the little crowd. Nobly impulsive, her arms enfolded the frail little hero, who at contact with her started as if scorched, and fell away muttering and mumbling, his eyes, after one terrified upward glance, intent upon the ground. Weakly he sat down upon a tombstone.
Madame de Montpensier waved the people back, and went to sit beside him.
'Little brother, this was a noble folly for which God will reward you.'
He kept his eyes upon the ground. He fetched a sigh. 'Not noble. No. Nor yet a folly, unless it be a folly to seek a martyr's crown. I did my duty. If it had pleased God that the blow that stunned me had ended my miserable life, it would have been very well. I could not die better.'
'But we want you to live, my brother. We need such lives, such heroic lives as yours, to battle for the glory of the Faith.'
He drew the cowl over his tonsured bandaged head as he answered her.
'Not heroic. No. I am not heroic. That is wrong.' He was in evident distress. 'I am a poor sinner who seeks to expiate a great sin. I will not be misunderstood or glorified for what I have suffered here. I will not.' He became fierce. The smouldering eyes bred a suspicion that he had a fever.
'I am one who but for the mercy shown me should have been stripped of the blessed habit of Saint Dominic, so heavy was my sin.' He seemed to take satisfaction in this self-denunciation. 'The penance imposed with absolution was nothing. That I have performed. But my soul knows that it can be purified only by some great sacrifice that shall redound to the honour and glory of the Faith. I thought when I fronted those men here that the chance of expiation was offered to me at last. That is all. I am not brave. I am not strong. I am weak and cowardly by nature.'
'I do not think that I have ever met a braver man, little brother,' said the Duchess tenderly, and the gaping crowd, creeping ever nearer in their curiosity, offered a murmuring chorus.
The young friar rose to his feet. 'You do not understand. You do not understand,' he complained. 'I had hoped to expiate in full. I have been cheated. It must be that I am not yet worthy.'
He staggered forward, signing with emaciated hands to be allowed to pass. The crowd, a little in awe, opened before him, and with bent head and faltering, uncertain step he took his departure.
The Duchess rose, drawing her ruby-coloured cloak about her. There were tears in her eyes. 'There goes a saint,' she said softly; and then, being an opportunist, she employed the emotions of the moment as a text for a sermon upon the heinousness of the King.
For his salvation's sake, she told her listeners, there was but one thing to be done with Henri III of France, who sent his mercenaries to break the heads of God's true servants. He must be shut up in a convent to do penance for his evil life. She displayed a pair of golden scissors, holding them aloft for all to see. These she had specially procured, she announced, so that she might tonsure the King's majesty when the time came. The crowd roared its approving laughter, but some who mingled with it bore the tale of these doings to the Louvre.
When Henri heard how Madame de Montpensier proposed to dispose of him, he was confirmed in the suspicion that her brother aimed at nothing less than making himself King of France.
Meanwhile Henry of Guise was King of Paris, and into this kingdom, where he was idolized, he daringly adventured himself when the ferment was at its height. He came with only a half-dozen attendants, muffled in a cloak, his face in the shadow of a slouched hat. But his tall inches and superb carriage betrayed him, and once the rumour of his identity was sped, the mob pressed about him, showered flowers upon him, kissed his cloak, his very boots. They compelled him to unmask, to disclose the abundant fair hair, already white at the temples although he was only in the middle thirties, and the proud face, still handsome despite the scar from a bullet that had ploughed his left cheek at Port-à-Binson, a scar which made him the more lovely in their eyes, being that of a wound taken in the saintly cause. The streets rang with their acclamations:
'Vive Guise! Vive le pilier de l'Église!'
Affable, winning, he smiled upon them, he waved to them, he shook hands with those nearest, indifferent to their quality. It could matter little to his safety that he should have disclosed himself. Thus hedged about by friends, it was inconceivable that harm could touch him.
Nevertheless it was the Queen-Mother, Catherine de Medicis, he must first visit. He trusted her shrewd sense to see that no violence was offered to him by the King. And so, with the mob for escort, he made his way to the Hôtel de Soissons, behind the Corn Market, where she was in residence.
She saw him from a window as he crossed the courtyard, an apparition so incredible that this woman who accounted herself endowed with second-sight, who mingled shrewd ability with superstition, dabbling in necromancy and the like, imagined herself at her visions.
They had been with her a good deal lately, those visions. She was a little ghost-ridden in those days, and because of this assumed now that Guise was dead and that here came his ghost walking her courtyard. The assumption persisted until he stood before her, very solid flesh.
'I am forced to seek you, madame. It is of the very greatest importance that I see the King. I implore you, madame, to employ your influence so that he may pay heed to the counsel I have to offer, for I assure you that if he is to save his crown, it is absolutely necessary that he should change his course, and at once.'
Knowing his power in Paris, her shrewdness perceived in his refraining from using it an evidence of his honesty. So the big woman of seventy, with her sleepy eyes and underhung jaw, sent word ahead to the King, and herself accompanied Guise to the Louvre.
Henri, in his private closet, tottered to a chair when her message reached him. His weak knees bent under him and he sat down in anger and panic. Like Guise, he was in the middle thirties. But in nothing did he resemble that virile gentleman. Of middle height, and very thin, especially in the legs, he was a picture of nauseating effeminacy: overdressed, scented, diamonds in his ears, his fingers crowded with gems. He was white-faced, rather than pale, and underhung like his mother, but in him the defect was partly dissembled by a little pointed brown beard. For all his feebleness, he had a resonant voice. He raised it to address Monsieur de Saint-Prix, with whom he was alone.
'I have forbidden him Paris, and he comes. He dares! If you were in my place, Saint-Prix, and you had given this order, and he had disregarded it, what should you do?'
Softly Saint-Prix asked: 'Sire, do you hold Monsieur de Guise for your friend, or your enemy?'
The King twirled nervous fingers. To Monsieur de Saint-Prix this was an answer.
'Sire, give me the honour of this charge, and I will, without further trouble to Your Majesty, lay his head at your feet. There shall be no disturbance. I pledge my life and honour on that, and place them in your hands.'
That is how courtiers talk, hoping, it must be supposed, that they will not be called upon to perform as they promise. Saint-Prix certainly was not.
The King's dark, Italian eyes gleamed; but his jewelled hands trembled.
'Wait,' he said, and issued orders for the Duke's reception.
They were of such a character that when Monsieur de Guise arrived with the Queen-Mother, he passed up the grand staircase between two files of drawn swords. In the antechamber the bows with which he greeted the startled courtiers were disregarded. He lost none of his countenance on that account, and passed majestically into the presence, piloted ever by Catherine. As he bowed low from his magnificent height, the King started up.
'Why are you here?' he snapped. 'Why have you come?' And without waiting for an answer he stepped aside and turned his back upon the Duke.
Guise straightened himself. He fingered his pointed beard. His eyes were calm as they sought Catherine, but he was thinking of the drawn swords on the staircase.
The Queen-Mother heaved herself forward, heavy-footed, to the rescue. She took her son by the arm, and drew him aside, to a window. Her voice, muffled and sounding like the drone of an insect, was busy for a moment. Then she drew aside the curtain and let Henri become aware of the rabble that, following in the wake of Guise, had come to pack the courtyard of the palace. She droned a few words more, and leaned upon the window-ledge.
The King in turning away disclosed a face of chalk. His legs were trembling. Monsieur de Guise understood that no arguments he might have employed could have been half as convincing as the thing Catherine had shown her son. He perceived no need to linger. The swords on the staircase would not be likely to hinder his departure. He bowed again.
'Madame, I leave it in your hands to make my peace with His Majesty.' His tone was so quiet that he might have been suspected of irony. He moved backwards to the door, and went out.
Three days later he came again. By then he had collected his followers, and had set up headquarters in his hotel. He brought with him now a train of four hundred gentlemen, all of them armed. It was very impressive. And the King was so impressed that after the Duke's slightly swaggering departure he sent an order that the main body of his Swiss Guards, quartered in the outskirts, should come at once to Paris.
As things stood it was a foolish order. When the news of this spread through the city it was borne of course on the wings of a rumour that the Swiss were coming to massacre the Catholics. There was to be another Saint Bartholomew's Eve. That was enough. The King's last friends among the people deserted his cause; barricades sprang up in the streets; the entire populace was under arms; and the menace grew so dreadful that in his panic the King, who had spent a night with armed guards about his royal bed, was driven to appeal to Guise, a circumstance for which it was impossible that he should ever forgive the Duke.
The Duke, debonair, smiling, deprecatory, denied all cause for royal apprehension. The people's action was a simple defensive precaution; they were good children; they meant no harm.
Majesty was not reassured, nor did Guise intend that he should be.
The people took possession 4 the Hôtel de Ville and the Arsenal. The storm raged on. Madame de Montpensier rode through the streets like a Valkyrie. The very Louvre was barricaded.
Hitherto Henri had thought of his royal dignity. Now it was time to think of his royal skin. He slipped quietly away.
From outside the walls of Paris, he cursed the perfidious and ungrateful city, and made a solemn vow that he would never return to it save through a breach in those same walls. After that he set out for Chartres, and thence, for still greater safety, removed himself to Rouen. There, brought to bay, he at last capitulated, and signed the treaty dictated by the League. It provided that the Protestant succession of Henry of Navarre should be renounced, that the Duke of Guise should be created Lieutenant-General—as once his father before him had been—and recognised as heir to the crown, and that the States General should be convoked.
This convocation took place at Blois in the following November, and the members of the League who formed part of the composition of the States came charged with reform.
As with all nations in a state of decadence, the multiplication of public offices in France had reached fabulous proportions. Their ruthless curtailment was now demanded. This and the insistence upon 'One Religion' were the chief embarrassments that troubled the King. His Majesty was in need of supplies. But the States could not meet the need. They treated him insolently. He appealed to Guise, whom he had created his Grand Master, to move the Leaguers to meet his financial necessities. Guise agreed with a laugh that was an insult, and nothing followed.
Henri raged; and he raged now more or less in secret. He no longer had the support and guidance of his shrewd mother. Himself he had discarded it. Since leaving Paris he had emancipated himself from her tutelage, and although she was with him he no longer confided in her, which filled her with dread of the blunders he might perpetrate. Guise, on the other hand, had never been more intimate with her than in those wintry days at Blois when her health was pathetically failing.
The King, with all the jealousy and suspicion of his weak, feminine nature, observed this intimacy, drew unwarranted conclusions from it, and sank more deeply into rancour. Then he played a scene that can hardly have imposed upon that astute, discerning woman.
He made a solemn declaration to the States that he was resolved to relinquish the reins of government to his mother and his cousin of Guise. He was done with the world, he declared. Henceforth he desired to take no thought but for the salvation of his soul and to do penance for his sins. Upon the Host and the Altar he swore a perfect reconcilement with the Duke of Guise and oblivion of all past quarrels.
If this seemed excessive, yet it was an excess in a neurotic from whom the world was accustomed to excesses: excesses of libertinism alternating with excesses of devotion.
He had no sooner taken that oath than, on the Sunday before the Feast of Saint Thomas, he sent for the Maréchal d'Aumale and Monsieur de Rambouillet.
'Either Guise or I must die,' he told them. 'Otherwise life becomes impossible.'
Neither of those gentlemen betrayed surprise. D'Aumale's suggestion was that they should proceed by arrest and trial. Rambouillet was for killing Guise out of hand. So was the King. He merely wanted someone else to propose it. Since this had happened, he now sent for that famous swordsman and perfect courtier, Monsieur de Crillon, and offered him the task.
'It would enchant me, sire! to have the opportunity of killing Monsieur de Guise in a duel,' said Crillon. 'But I cannot murder a man.'
'Bah! He would not take your challenge. He accounts himself royal.'
It may have been true. But it was no reason, as Crillon understood things, why he should become a bravo. So the matter was not further pressed upon him.
His Majesty had never studied caution, and the walls of old castles notoriously have ears. On the Wednesday of the Feast of Saint Thomas, King and Duke met as they came from Mass. Henri, very gracious, threaded an arm through an arm of his Grand Master, to whom he had sworn reconcilement upon the Host and the Altar and whom he had invited Monsieur de Crillon to murder. His Majesty drew him to walk in the dreary, leafless garden. He was all smirks and smiles and sweetnesses, like a coquettish woman, until the blond Duke, looking down upon him from his splendid height, put a question.
'What, I ask myself, does this affability conceal?'
'Conceal!' Majesty was shocked.
'That was my word. What do you hatch against me? To cover what purpose did you perjure your little soul so publicly?'
'You forget that I am your King.'
'That is what I wish to forget. I desire to leave your service.'
This was really alarming. It might mean departure; and the King did not desire that Guise should quit Blois just then. He attempted to be conciliatory in his smile. He achieved sickliness. 'Come, come. We grow heated where there is no need. You cannot contemplate resigning your offices.'
'If it please you, sire.'
'Then I must know your reasons. I demand to know them.'
'Seek them in your own heart, sire,' said Guise. 'Give me leave.' Without waiting for it, he swept the King a bow, and departed.
On the morrow he sent in his resignation of the offices of Lieutenant-General and Grand-Master. Nevertheless he lingered on in Blois, for two reasons: he desired to continue to attend the deliberations of the States General, and he was fast in the toils of that famous syren Madame de Sauves.
Two days later, on the twenty-second December, as he sat down to supper, he found a note in his napkin.
'The King,' an unknown hand had written, 'intends to kill you.'
He smiled, called for pen, ink, and paper, and wrote underneath: 'He would not dare.' Then he cast the note under the table, and supped with a good appetite notwithstanding that this was the fifth warning he had received that day.
After supper he sauntered off to keep his assignation with Madame de Sauves. It amused him that anyone should suppose he was to be deprived by foolish threats of enjoying her delectable society.
He rose at eight on the following morning, and dressed himself with care in a new grey satin suit. With a short cloak worn jauntily over the shoulder, he went forth to attend a meeting of the Council that should even then be assembling. It was raining outside, and the gallery along which he walked at a leisurely pace, his attendants following, was plunged in gloom. A gentleman going in the opposite direction brushed against him and left a note in his hand.
He laughed softly. 'Ah! Thank you. That will be the ninth this morning.' It was scarcely necessary for him to unfold it so as to discover what was written; nevertheless he did so, and read: 'Depart at once or you are a dead man.' He laughed again, and strolled on.
At the head of the stairs leading down to the Council Hall, the Captain of the Guard saluted him with exaggeration. If Guise noticed it, he did not heed it, nor that in coming, as if respectfully after him, with his men, the Captain had cut him off from his own followers, saving only his secretary Péricard, who entered the hall immediately upon his heels.
The gloom in the hall was deeper than it had been in the gallery; and there was, too, a gloom that was not merely of that cheerless December morning. A hush had fallen upon the assembled deputies when he entered. They were staring at him out of long faces, with eyes laden with dismay.
Whether from this, or from the cold, damp atmosphere, or from both, a chill struck through him and he shivered. His left eye, immediately above the scar, began to water, as it did with him in moments of mental or physical discomfort. He put his hand in his pocket.
'Péricard, I have come without a handkerchief. Will you be so good as to fetch me one?'
He watched Péricard out, saw the door close upon him, and shivered again. 'How cold it is.' He waved a hand towards the hearth on which the logs were piled. 'Let a fire be lighted,' he commanded, and passed on to take his seat.
There was a rustle of papers. Then again silence. The Duke looked about him. Again he put his hand in his pocket. This time he drew forth his sweetmeat-box. It was in the shape of a shell, silver-gilt. He raised the lid. The box was empty.
'My people,' he said gently, 'have not given me my necessaries this morning. But there is every excuse for them. They were too much hurried. Monsieur de Morfontaines, be so kind as to ask Monsieur de Saint-Prix to let me have a few damsons or a little preserve of roses, or some trifle from the King's cupboard.'
Monsieur de Morfontaines took the box, and went out.
A deputy who had been speaking upon the salt tax when Guise entered, and who had remained standing, now resumed his discourse, until he was again interrupted by the entrance of Monsieur de Saint-Prix with the Duke's comfit-box. This contained four Brignolles plums, one of which Guise ate whilst the deputy took up his thread once more.
Then Péricard returned. But he was not suffered to enter. The handkerchief was taken from him, and brought to the Duke. A moment later the unfortunate exponent of matters connected with the salt tax was interrupted yet again. This time it was by the sudden entrance of Monsieur Révol, the Secretary of State. His face was ghastly. He seemed to tremble, and his voice almost failed him as he addressed the Duke.
'Monsieur, the King wants you. He is in his old cabinet.
Guise stood up, perfectly calm and unconcerned. He emptied his comfit-box onto the council table. 'Gentlemen, who will have any?'
He pulled up his cloak, so as to wrap it about him, and took his hat and gloves.
'Adieu, messieurs,' he said, which in a way was considered odd. Yet his tone was unconcernedly courteous.
Calm, tall, elegant, commanding, he crossed the hall, and passed out by the door held for him by Monsieur Révol. On the threshold, the officer guarding it, one of the forty-five guardsmen, trod on his foot with a significance as unmistakable as that of his glance. Guise smiled faintly into those friendly solemn eyes, and went on.
A dozen gentlemen, all of them members of the Forty-Five, saluted him with a frigid courtesy as he passed through the antechamber.
His hand was on the tapestry, masking the door of the King's cabinet, when he paused, and, perhaps instinctively, half-turned. He was just in time to see Monsieur de Montsérine advancing upon him with dagger raised. He attempted to ward the blow with the hand that held the comfit-box. But the blade sank into his breast. Instantly four others were upon him.
'Oho, my friends!' he cried out before their daggers took him in neck and back and reins.
His sword was entangled in his cloak, his legs were seized, and he was half-choked by blood. Nevertheless by an exertion of his superb strength, bearing his assailants with him, he staggered across the room, and down the little passage that led to the King's bedroom. There, in a great voice that carried as far as the Council Hall, he cried out:
'My God! I am dead! Have mercy on me!'
On the words he crashed down at the foot of the King's bed, and on a last hoarse, rattling sigh expired.
The gentlemen of the Forty-Five picked his pockets of such money as he had upon him, and filched the jewels from his person. Someone placed a cross of straw upon his breast, and someone else derisively hailed him as 'the glorious King of Paris.'
Then His Majesty, livid of face and with trembling, jewelled fingers plucking at his beard, tiptoed in and up to the fallen Duke. Since four o'clock that morning he had been waiting in agitation for this moment. Himself he had led a train of priests to his oratory with instructions to pray for his success in an enterprise the nature of which he did not dare to tell them. His almoner was in attendance by his orders, waiting to confess him when the thing should be done. It was so easy, after all, he imagined, to cheat God.
He stood there shivering as he stared.
'How tall he is!' He spoke softly, in a hushed voice of awe. 'He seems even taller than when he was alive!' Then a note of gaiety, more horrible far than that of horror, came into his voice. 'I am the only King now.'
He turned away from the body, and sped down to his sick mother in her room on the floor below.
'Madame, how are you this morning?'
'None too well, my son,' she answered plaintively. 'But I am very well,' he crowed. 'I am King of France. I have killed the King of Paris.'
The folly of it plunged her into panic. It broke her spirit. It may well have hurried her along the path she was treading, to her death, thirteen days later.
She saw too clearly what her son had still to learn: that to be a king something more than the ability to murder is necessary. She perceived that the League which he had thought so easily to destroy would, on the contrary, be cemented into greater strength by the blood of Henry of Guise.
And so it befell. Guise's brother, the fat Duke of Mayenne, was summoned by the League to place himself at its head, and when he hesitated, being a man who loved his ease, there was his ardent irresistible sister, Madame de Montpensier, to drive him to it.
The news of the murder had been quick to reach Paris. It was there by Christmas Eve. In announcing it from the pulpits, the preachers denounced the murderer. The widowed Duchess of Guise, and, more conspicuously, Madame de Montpensier showed themselves in trailing black, and by the spectacle of their grief inflamed the people to madness. The Sorbonne, that august body of enormous ecclesiastical influence, practically excommunicated the King for his deed by declaring all Frenchmen released from their allegiance to him.
On the night of Christmas a hundred thousand men with torches went in procession through Paris. At a given signal the torches were extinguished, and out of the darkness rose the voice of the multitude: 'May God thus extinguish the House of Valois.'
When Henri heard of it and that the army of the League was in the field under Mayenne, it seemed to him that he looked into the face of doom. Drowning, he must clutch at whatever offered.
'At need,' he swore, 'I will make use of heretics, or even of Turks.'
Turks there were none available. But there was a goodly body of heretics under Henry of Navarre, and the King of France flung himself and his fortunes into their arms for safety.
In the following July, at the head of an army of forty-two thousand, Mayenne and his Leaguers having been signally defeated, Henri, master of the situation, was at Saint-Cloud, lodged in the house of the Comte de Retz, whence he could look out upon Paris, which he was besieging; the ungrateful and perfidious city, which soon now he would enter as he had vowed, through a breach in her walls.
Within that city, determined to resist to the last, there was now little hope, save in divine intervention. Madame de Montpensier, like an angel of wrath, stimulated the sixteen representatives into continued resistance, whipped up the passions of the people, led processions to Nôtre Dame and elsewhere to beseech a miracle. And, as she believed, the miracle happened.
One stifling July day as she rode across the Pont Neuf at the head of a contingent of clamouring suppliants, she espied in one of the embrasures of the bridge a slight figure in the black and white of a Dominican. Looking more closely, she recognized the abject little sinner who went in quest of expiation, the little friar who had sought to defend her picture of Queen Elizabeth's victims in the Cemetery of Saint Séverin.
She drew rein, beckoned him to her stirrup, and bending down spoke to him.
That night he waited upon her at her house. With hands meekly folded within the sleeves of his habit, with eyes downcast, lest they meet the disturbing effulgence of her beauty, he stood before her. Her voice, soft, musical, pleading, inspiring, recited a well-considered message. In silence he listened, apparently unmoved. There was a pause when she had done. It endured. So she added something.
'What an expiation would not that be! Accomplish this, and if you succeed, not only will you have won Heaven's absolution of your sin, whatever it may be, but great rewards will await you here. Even a cardinal's hat may not be beyond your deserts.'
He spoke at last, to interrupt her. The slight figure seemed to swell before her and gather strength.
'No hat. No. No hat. A crown! A martyr's crown, madame.'
Abruptly on that he turned and went, leaving her to stare after him, and wonder.
This happened on the evening of Monday the thirty-first July. On the morning of Tuesday, soon after the King had risen, he heard an altercation in his antechamber. Annoyed, he sent Monsieur de Saint-Prix to discover the meaning of it.
'It's a friar,' the first groom of the chamber came back to report. 'A friar who says that he has a letter for you from the Comte de Brienne, who is a prisoner in Paris. The guards won't let him pass.'
'Won't let him pass? And he a friar?' The King frowned. 'Ventredieu! I'll have it added to my iniquities that I withhold myself from men of God. Bid him in.'
A young Dominican, a slight frail wisp of a man, was introduced. He advanced to the King, who, half-dressed, had pulled a bedgown about him. He proffered a letter. The King took it, and broke the seal.
'I have a message also, sire,' said a gentle voice. 'But it is for your ear alone. It is of great importance, sire.'
There were several persons in attendance. The King waved them carelessly into the background. His eyes were on the letter.
'The message?' he snapped.
The little friar drew close, so as to be quite private.
'It is this,' he said, and drove a long knife to the haft into the royal bowels just below the waist.
The King reeled back. Ah, scoundrel monk!' In a spasmodic effort he wrenched the weapon from the wound, and flung it in the face of the Dominican. The point of it gashed the little man's eyebrow as it passed him. 'He has killed me! Kill him! Kill him!' He sank back, helpless, moribund, into the arms of an attendant, whilst a dozen others flung themselves upon the friar.
The young Dominican fell back before them to the wall. Against this he stood cruciform with arms outstretched, and as their steel tore his entrails, his breast, his throat, he lifted up his eyes and a joy ineffable broke upon his pallid face.
He had expiated.
Monsieur, the King's brother, bounced forward, his long full face more than ordinarily pale, his fine eyes—the only fine feature of that weak unhealthy countenance—malevolent.
'You do not rehearse today.'
It was a command; but Monsieur de Guiche preferred not to understand it. He raised his eyebrows in languid impertinence.
'Your highness is mistaken; I do. It is the more necessary since the King plays in the ballet.'
Monsieur flushed and bit his lip. Almost he seemed on the point of tears.
'At least you do not rehearse with Madame. I forbid it.
'Monsieur forbids that which the King commands! Monsieur sees that he places a poor courtier in an impossible position.'
'The fault, sir, is your own.'
'If Monsieur would condescend to say how!' begged de Guiche, imperturbable.
Monsieur writhed visibly. He swung about as if to appeal for assistance to his dear friend, the Chevalier de Lorraine.
But because the Chevalier was of those who prefer that their hands shall not be visible in the things they do, he proffered no assistance, made no response to that mute appeal. Therefore Monsieur could do no more than repeat himself.
'I have said that you do not rehearse at Madame's.'
'I heard your highness. But since that is where His Majesty desires the rehearsal to be held, I do not see how I am to rehearse elsewhere.'
'You mean that you will defy me?' The Prince's voice shrilled, he squared himself, his fists on his hips, to confront with almost hysterical truculence the man who until now had been one of his closest friends.
He was not formidable to the eye, with his powdered black wig, his painted cheeks, his foppish gaudy dress, his fluttering ribbons, his rings and bracelets, and the ridiculous heels by which he sought to add length to a short figure that already in early youth—he was barely twenty—inclined to portliness.
'I mean, your highness, that I cannot keep Madame waiting.'
'Monsieur, you are insolent.'
'Monsieur, you are fatuous!'
For an instant Monsieur de Guiche had lost his self-control, and in that instant he had answered thus. Having answered, he added to the affront by stalking out of the room without waiting to be dismissed. He left behind him a gaping Prince, and a scowling Chevalier.
As usual the Prince turned to the Chevalier for guidance in his difficulty. Tight-lipped, the Chevalier considered the case of the Prince whom he at once served and ruled. He was a handsome sinister figure this swarthy hawk-faced young Guise. Combining in his nature the haughtiness of the men of his breed with their guile and craft, he knew how to make himself feared and respected not only by the invertebrate Philip of Orleans, but even by the dominant Louis XIV. He was imbued with that greed of authority and power that was also a characteristic of his race; and his dominion over Monsieur—a mere puppet to dance as he should pipe—afforded him the means of gratifying some of his boundless ambition. Seeing this dominion threatened by Henrietta of England—the daughter of the unfortunate Charles I—whom Philip had taken to wife, Monsieur de Lorraine conceived that his interest lay in sowing discord between the pair. It was not a difficult task. The marriage was entirely a political one—the union of a Princess of the Blood of England to a Prince of the Blood of France—and affection had played no part in it. If, as Madame de Lafayette tells us, it was not reserved for any woman to inflame the heart of the absurd and epicene Philip, it certainly was not reserved for him to inflame the heart of any woman, least of all a woman of the gifts of mind and person that were the delectable Henrietta's. The King, her brother-in-law, held her in affection and esteem, not only on account of her sprightly attractiveness, but also because of her intelligent usefulness. She was the agent—the real ambassador—at the Court of France of her brother, Charles II of England, and she made herself the channel through which Louis and Charles conducted a correspondence on State matters of the utmost secrecy, from which the talkative numskull Philip was excluded.
Had anything been wanting further to embitter and alarm the Chevalier de Lorraine, that circumstance supplied it. Philip's own conception of affairs of State was that they were the family affairs of the royal house of France; this conception the Chevalier steadily fostered. The effect might have satisfied him because of the utter frigidity it introduced into marital relations that hitherto had been merely chilly. But soon there was more to serve his evil ends and render the estrangement more complete.
The Court was plunged fathoms deep into frivolity and gaiety. There was no thought for anything but masques and dances and elaborate ballets in the fairy setting of the garden-theatre beside the lake at Fontainebleau—ballets in which the Sun King himself took a leading part, and in which Madame delighted everybody by her beauty, her elegance, her sprightliness, and her histrionic talent. De Guiche was one of the foremost figures, one of the leading spirits, in that troupe of noble actors, and the Chevalier de Lorraine slyly invited Monsieur to observe that the young man's passion was too ardent to conceal itself.
When it fell to his lot to play the lover to Madame, he did so, the Chevalier opined, with an unnecessary and suspicious ardour. It was difficult to believe that this was mere acting.
Inflamed by that broad hint, Monsieur considered it due to his dignity to set a term to what suddenly appeared a scandal. You have seen the attempt he made, and how it had fared with his dignity in the matter. Shaking with anger, he besought guidance of his mentor, the Chevalier. The Chevalier counselled him to carry a plaint to the King, and away the fellow sped on his high heels to his royal brother.
He wept and screamed as he poured out his rage and jealousy—for although he may have had no love for his wife, he had a considerable amount of affection for himself, and jealousy may have—and commonly has—no other source than self-love.
The august majesty of Louis XIV listened, frowning. In itself his brother's paroxysm disgusted him. He was reluctant to deal harshly with de Guiche. For it happened that de Guiche had been aspiring to the hand of Mademoiselle de la Vallière at the time that Louis fell in love with her. De Guiche, like a dutiful subject, had retired in favour of his king. Therefore Louis had a tenderness for him. And he had also a tenderness for Madame. He perceived that she was by nature a coquette, to whom admiration and devotion were as breath to her nostrils, with the result that she offered herself to all whilst giving herself to none. Sooner or later it was inevitable that she should compromise herself in this dangerous game of dalliance, most dangerous in that loose, licentious, pleasure-seeking Court of France. And now, if he were to credit the rantings of Philip, it looked as if the inevitable were imminent, if it had not already happened.
His Majesty soothed his absurd brother by a reluctant promise that the brilliant de Guiche should be removed from the danger zone. Thereafter he passed into Madame's salon, where the noble players were already assembled, de Guiche amongst them, awaiting the advent of the royal protagonist. The gloom of the august countenance under its heavy curled black wig chilled the gaiety of that gathering. There was a portentous wrinkle between his brows, and the heavy Austrian lip which he inherited from his mother seemed thrust forward more than usual. The light chatter died down, the laughter perished.
'Sirs and ladies, we shall not rehearse today. You have leave to go.'
The natural harshness of his voice was unusually pronounced, his haughtiness was more than ever forbidding. They withdrew, wondering.
He remained closeted with his sister-in-law, so that he might read her a little homily on seemly circumspection. And despite the gentleness he brought to his ungentle theme, although he tempered his chidings by expressions of his own deep affection for her, she was in tears when at last he took his departure.
It is not to be doubted that already in these early days de Guiche had earned her regard. What we may doubt is whether it would have developed as it did but for the obstacles now thrown in its path. Love, as we all know, is not only impatient of barriers, it is challenged and stimulated by them.
Love's agent now was Mademoiselle de Montalais, one of Madame's maids of honour, a handsome, intriguing creature, to whom she was deeply attached. Her part in the affair is curious: complex in itself, it introduces another of those complexities with which this story abounds.
Among the several moths fluttering around the candle of Madame's coquettish beauty was another of Monsieur's gentlemen, the handsome, guileful, unscrupulous Count de Vardes. Now Monsieur de Vardes was secretly betrothed to Mademoiselle de Montalais, and Mademoiselle de Montalais, whose sight was quickened by jealousy, detected that which de Vardes kept sedulously concealed. With the object of definitely engaging Madame's attention elsewhere, the astute, intriguing maid of honour offered her services to de Guiche for the advancement of his desperate suit. De Guiche was on the point of departure, dismissed by the King from Fontainebleau on the ground of his having been wanting in respect to Monsieur.
As a result, on the morning after that affair of the rehearsal, you behold La Montalais closeted with Madame, telling her in moving accents the sad story of de Guiche's banishment to Paris. Madame was touched. She was but eighteen. She sighed.
'We shall miss him,' she said. 'Ah!—How we shall miss him! What will our parties be without him?' She sighed again, and her blue eyes grew pensive, wistful. 'Poor de Guiche!'
'You would say so, indeed, if you could have seen him. The poor fellow was in desolation.'
'Ah? Does he then love the gaiety and frivolity of Fontainebleau so much?'
La Montalais' face expressed astonishment. 'Your highness is pleased to be cruel.'
'You find me cruel? In what?'
'Does your highness need to ask? Why, then, you'll find the answer here.' And abruptly she proffered a letter.
Madame shrank back, a little scared, as if the touch of the thing must have burned her.
'Why? What is it?'
This poor de Guiche's heart, the distillation of its passion poured out for you. Take it, Madame, of your pity. I promised him you should. In his despair he would have killed himself if I had not promised.'
'Monsieur de Guiche presumes to write to me?' She frowned. 'What can Monsieur de Guiche wish to say to me?'
'Does your heart whisper nothing, Madame?'
'Oh, you are mad, Montalais! I will not touch it. Take it away. Give it back to him.'
'He has gone, Madame, gone into exile with his load of longings, cheered only by the conviction that this would reach you.'
'Then send it after him.'
'That were to kill him, Madame, this unfortunate boy who loves you to distraction. Would you rob him of the little crumb of comfort he has taken to sustain him against despair?'
'I will not touch the letter.' Madame spoke with decision, and turned away.
'Very well. Do not touch it. Do not receive it. But hear it. At least hear it.' And the impudent maid of honour broke the seal.
'What are you doing?' cried Madame, in genuine alarm.
'I will not be a party to his death.' La Montalais spread the sheet. 'Hear it, Madame.' And she began to read: 'Madame, On my knees I beseech you to heed the piteous lament of an unfortunate condemned to dwell in darkness, since to him all places are dark that are not lighted by your radiant presence.'
From that poetical beginning you surmise the rest. I need quote no more.
Madame was blushing furiously before that reading was done, and there was a moisture about eyes that had become oddly tender. She had breathed an incense that few women can, resist; and lovelessly bound as she was to a creature utterly unloving and unlovable, this incense intoxicated her a little. But for all her youth and coquetry, she had a deal of good sense and worldly wisdom, and she perceived the dangers that might await her did she go the way this passionate rhetoric beckoned. Valiantly she steeled herself against it, and so that she might not further be exposed to its allurements, she firmly refused in the days that followed to receive the further letters with which love's exile in Paris kept bombarding La Montalais.
About a fortnight later it happened that as a result of a chill that Madame had contracted in that garden theatre, her physician found her ailing. He pronounced the air of Fontainebleau unsuited, recommended that she should return to Paris.
As she was setting out, La Montalais approached her litter, tossed into her lap a bundle made up of all those unread letters that had been arriving from de Guiche, and fled before Madame could thrust them back upon her. Madame was thus left with the letters for travelling companions. The journey was long and tedious. She may have resisted awhile the temptation they offered. But in the end she read them. Their fervour and worship so went to her head that by the time she reached the Tuileries she forgot to be angry with La Montalais.
Encouraged by this, de Guiche now daily presented himself at the Tuileries. He did not succeed in seeing her because she was ill, but he continued to write, and his letters reached her through La Montalais. Distractions were devised for her by her ladies, and one day, to beguile the tedium of her confinement, a fortune-telling old woman, lean and bowed, was introduced to her apartments. In a cracked, raucous, and quavering voice the sibyl startled Madame by the tale of passion on her behalf that was slowly killing a young man, whom she described in detail. The portrait thus painted resembled beyond possibility of misapprehension Armand de Guiche.
Madame lay back on her pillows dreaming, whilst the fortune-teller was yielding to the importunities of the maids of honour, and lifting for each a corner of the veil of Fate. Madame de Valentinois had been staggered by the accuracy of the revelations made to her, and then Madame de Soissons was being similarly astounded, when suddenly there was an outcry from one of the maids of honour, and the mention of a name that made Madame tremble. She sat up in time to behold the fortune-teller in flight, no longer bent double, but erect, with petticoats raised to the knees to give freedom of action to a pair of legs too shapely and muscular for an aged sibyl. It was de Guiche, the rash, imprudent, noble actor, who had undertaken this rash travesty that he might approach the lady of his sighs.
Despite the secrecy to which Madame passionately pledged her ladies, the story got abroad, so that presently, when the Court returned to Paris, nothing else was talked of. It alarmed several persons, and none more than de Vardes, who realised that in de Guiche he had a rival whose recklessness would stop at nothing. As his friend, de Vardes approached de Guiche's father, the Marshal de Gramont. He represented to him the grave danger into which Armand's unrestrained passion was leading him, and urged the Marshal, as he loved his son, to remove him. As a consequence, the Marshal applied to the King to give de Guiche, whose valour and military talents were famous, command of the troops of Lorraine at Nancy. Thus, for safety, the young man was to be sent into the firing-line.
The King, welcoming this solution of a difficult situation, very readily granted the application. Himself, Louis informed Madame, stating, for her good as he believed, that the appointment had been granted to de Guiche as a means of gratifying his boundless military ambition.
That Madame loved de Guiche could hardly yet be said. But at least she found the flattery of his devotion very sweet, and she was capable of jealousy of any rival, not excluding military ambition. She unburdened herself to La Montalais.
'Now we know the real worth of this great devotion, this master-passion which Monsieur de Guiche's letters protest!' She smiled bitterly. 'He casts it aside very readily for military glory, too readily to convince me ever again of its sincerity. I hope that he will never presume to write to me or to approach me again.'
From this attitude La Montalais could not move her. The fact itself was more convincing far than any argument La Montalais could urge. Therefore the maid of honour sought de Guiche with the report of it, and from de Guiche returned to Madame with the young man's passionate answer.
'It is false that he solicited the command. Though at any other time he must welcome so great a chance of military distinction, at present he accounts it the greatest hardship that could befall him. The appointment has been thrust upon him at the instances of his father, to remove him from the dangers which his love for your highness are creating for him here. But he bids me say that since you regard as a desertion that which to him is the cruelest of exiles, he will inform the King that he declines an appointment which he has not requested.'
Madame started up at that in genuine alarm. 'But that would be to ruin himself!'
'So I told him,' said La Montalais. 'But he vows that he will gladly be ruined rather than have you doubt him.'
'It must not be. It must not be!'
'Will you see him, Madame, and tell him so?'
'See him?' Madame was breathless, appalled. 'How could I dare, after all that has happened? You must bring him to reason, Montalais.'
'Madame, he will listen to no persuasion but your own. You do not yet know him or the strength of his devotion.'
This brought Madame to wring her hands in distress. Finally she compromised by writing to him.
That first letter from her, written to save him from ruin, filled him at once with joy and despair, with joy that it showed her solicitude on his behalf, with despair that it desired him to retain the appointment and go to Nancy. He consented, but only with the condition that she should accord him an interview before he left.
Montalais conveyed the message. It was an indiscretion that Madame was reluctant to commit. But she was, in a sense, in check. Unless she did as he demanded he would deliberately and irrevocably ruin himself with the King, and she must have his ruin on her conscience.
And so it came to pass that one day at noon, La Monta-lais introduced the muffled de Guiche by a back stair into the Palace of the Louvre, where the Court was then in residence, and shut him up in an oratory.
Presently, dinner being at an end, and on the pretext of resting, Madame withdrew to a gallery upon which this oratory opened.
To her, leaning for support on the overmantel of the great cowled chimney above the empty fireplace, came the ardent young lover. He cast himself upon his knees so that in that becoming posture he might pour out some of the passion that for months had been consuming him.
And then, abruptly, whilst he was still at the beginnings of that tender tale, La Montalais, who had placed herself on guard, rushed in upon them with the alarming news that Monsieur was approaching.
De Guiche leapt to his feet, pale now with fear for Madame, who must be so deeply compromised. Escape was impossible. To seek concealment in the oratory was but to increase the dangers that must wait upon discovery. Madame, white to the lips, looked at him with eyes of despair.
And then in the last second, his ready wit availed him. He went up the chimney, to the havoc of the shimmering suit of ivory satin in which he had come to that assignation.
Limp and almost hysterical, Madame sank to the nearest chair as the doors opened to admit Monsieur. He came alone. He stood at gaze a moment, on the threshold, raking the gallery with his furious glance. Then, baffled, he stepped slowly forward. Madame controlled herself to regard him with inquiry.
'You are alone, Madame?'
'Not quite, Monsieur. Mademoiselle de Montalais is with me, as you perceive.'
'Ah, yes—Mademoiselle de Montalais!' The little fop almost snarled as he uttered the name of the maid of honour. 'And no one else, of course?'
'Do you perceive anyone else, Monsieur?'
Monsieur looked about him again, a frown wrinkling his brow.
'It is very odd,' he said. He took a turn in the gallery. He came to the door of the oratory, pulled it open abruptly, and peered in.
'You are seeking something, Monsieur?'
He slammed the door of the empty oratory, and turned. A mirror confronted him. Inevitably he considered himself, posturing a little.
'I am seeking your lover, Madame,' he snapped, with venom.
'You should not look in the mirror for him, Monsieur.'
He started and crimsoned under his rouge, partly because detected in self-worship, partly because of the satirical implication in the words.
'I have long been aware of it, Madame.' He came forward and stood over her chair. It was a moment or two before he spoke again. 'You are trifling with me, I think.'
'In what way, if you please, Monsieur?'
He still looked about, and even peered under the furniture. 'You had a visitor. No use to deny it. Where is he?'
By now she had made a good recovery of her self-possession. She regarded him calmly.
'I came here to rest, Monsieur. I have a slight headache. I should be glad to be spared these impertinences.'
'Ah! But you do not deny that you had a visitor?'
'You told me, I think, that it would be no use to deny.'
'Tchah!' Monsieur was becoming really angry. He swung away from her. A patch of soot lay on the bare hearth. His eye considered it.
Observing this, Madame shivered. Observing her shiver, he smiled unpleasantly.
'You are cold, Madame. You should order them to make you a fire.'
The panic of her glance must have betrayed her to a man of vision. But Monsieur was not possessed of any. The patch of soot was just a patch of soot to his dull mind. He retired baffled and savage. He knew that he had been fooled; for the information afforded by his spies admitted of no doubt.
Some of his rage he vented upon the maid of honour. It lay in his power to remove her from attendance upon Madame, and remove her he did, packing her off to a convent at Fonterrault. Then he complained furiously to the King, and procured as a result His Majesty's intervention. Louis extracted a promise from his sister-in-law that she would make an end of her relations with de Guiche, who by then had already departed for the wars.
Events conspired to help her to keep that promise—events and de Vardes. With the object of curing the young man of his infatuation, this friend wrote to inform him that Madame's coquetry had readily found for him a successor, and later he added that this successor had been sent into exile on her account. These letters came to fill de Guiche, now campaigning with distinction in Lorraine, with a fury of jealousy and disdain. In the heat of passion, and to vent his bitter feelings, he wrote back to de Vardes unforgivable things of Madame in a letter which did not reveal how these expressions had come to be provoked. That letter the intriguing de Vardes showed to Madame. Into the ready ear of the anger thus aroused, he whispered a suggestion that such a man as de Guiche was dangerous. If it should happen that he had in his possession any letters from Madame, she would be wise to take immediate steps for their recovery. In her alarm and urgent need of a friend, Madame availed herself of de Vardes' offer to recover those letters. He wrote for them in such terms that de Guiche—conceiving himself heartbroken and disillusioned—returned them instantly. If anything had been wanting to complete Madame's assurance that she had reached the end of a poetical but dangerous romance, it was this. That ready surrender of those precious letters wounded her deeply.
And now de Guiche, grown reckless of his life, distinguished himself at the war, and the court rang with the stories of his exploits. The fall of Marsal brought his work in Lorraine to a victorious end, and he might have returned home. Instead, however, driven to seek forgetfulness in action, and conceiving that life had now nothing to offer him beyond military glory, he obtained permission to go to Poland, and there engaged himself in the war with the Muscovites.
His name and a mention of his deeds arose one night at the King's supper-table, when Monsieur, Madame, de Vardes, and the Chevalier de Lorraine were of the party. It was the latter who, to indulge his hatred of Henrietta, maliciously introduced the Count's name, praising his exploits as a commencement.
'I hear,' he said, 'that there is no man so reckless of his life in all the Polish army.'
'But a charm protects him,' put in Monsieur de Vieuville, who was a friend of de Guiche's. 'That, too, is notorious. In fact, at this moment he owes his preservation to a miracle.'
'A miracle!' echoed Lorraine. 'That is a little strong.'
'Judge for yourself. In a recent engagement, he was struck over the heart by a Muscovite bullet. He was saved by a lady's portrait in a stout gold case, which covered the part it mainly affected. The portrait and the case were smashed to fragments, but de Guiche went unscathed.'
Monsieur de Lorraine sneered. 'It is not often that gallantry serves a man so well. May one ask the name of the lady to whom he may be said to owe his preservation?'
He spoke with an eye on Madame, who sat forward with parted lips and startled glance. The King interposed harshly.
'That is a question the inquisitive will ask, but no gentleman will answer.'
'I thank you, sire,' said Vieuville.
The Chevalier stifled a yawn.
'Well, well,' said he, this poor de Guiche's exploits are not likely to continue to afford us entertainment, unless another miracle occurs.' Again his glance sought Henrietta's pale face. There was the faintest smile about the corners of his lips. And then, to relieve the general suspense, he delivered his evil news. 'We have just learnt that after performing prodigies of valour, he is cut off with a portion of the Polish army, and so reduced that it is impossible he should ever save himself. They say—' He broke off, and sprang up in feigned alarm. 'Madame, you are ill!'
Ashen-faced, she had sunk back in her chair with closed eyes, her breathing momentarily suspended. Alarm at the attention drawn so maliciously to her condition stimulated her to an effort to regain control of her lapsing senses.
She looked round at those countenances—sneering, malicious, grave, concerned—beheld as through a mist, and faltered something of the stifling heat of the room.
Whether Monsieur de Lorraine had deliberately overstated the case to shock her into self-betrayal, or whether de Guiche's courage and resource were of a quality to overcome all difficulties, the fact remains that the young Count did not die in Poland. Within a few months, towards the end of that year 1664, he was back at last in Paris, safe and sound but for the loss of two fingers of his right hand. He was about the Court, but it was long before he made any attempt to see Madame. When eventually, spurred by the tale of the events at that royal supper-table, he endeavoured to do so, Madame, out of loyalty to her pledge to the King, refused to receive him.
Other reasons apart, she had cause at the moment to do nothing that should jeopardise her good relations with Louis. She enjoyed his confidence in State matters, and she was acting by now as the agent at the Court of France for her brother Charles II. She was employing her active wits to bring about between England and France an alliance desired by both sovereigns, and she made herself the channel through which Louis conducted with Charles a correspondence on secret State matters from which the talkative numskull Philip was excluded.
Had anything been wanted further to embitter the relations between herself and her contemptible husband, this circumstance supplied it. Philip's conception of affairs of State was that they were the family affairs of the royal house of France, and behind Philip to foster this conception was Philip's master, the arrogant, ambitious Chevalier de Lorraine. To find himself excluded from matters which were not merely divulged to his wife, but in which his wife was invited to discharge an important part, was more than Philip's vanity could endure without protest. Protest he did, loudly and vehemently, supported by Monsieur de Lorraine and the Queen-Mother, and as a consequence the most violent and unseemly quarrels came to trouble the harmony of the royal family.
To make an end, the exasperated and never long-suffering Louis sent Monsieur de Lorraine into exile. It was in vain that Philip screamed, wept, and finally fainted in the violence of his affliction at this separation from his dearest friend. Louis had spoken, and Lorraine must go—and go Lorraine did, to chew the cud of his rancour in Italy.
Louis soothed the grief of his brother by material gifts—as we soothe a child for the loss of one toy by the bestowal of another. In part he succeeded, and he would have succeeded entirely but for Lorraine's foresight and provision. The Chevalier had taken care to leave two of his creatures behind him in Philip's service, his equerry, d'Effiaut, and Beuvron, who held the office of Captain of Monsieur's guards.
Through these agents, the exiled Chevalier—who attached the whole blame of his banishment to Madame, and hated her the more in consequence—continued to maintain his dominion over Philip. Through them he urged Philip, when presently the project arose, to oppose his wife's going to England with Louis to negotiate the secret treaty between France and Charles II.
But by then other things had happened to widen the breach between husband and wife. Fate interfered to frustrate all Madame's intentions never again to see Monsieur de Guiche.
It happened that Madame de Vieuville gave a masked ball at Versailles, which Monsieur elected to honour with his presence, desiring Madame to bear him company. To ensure their remaining unrecognised, they went in a hired coach very plainly dressed. They found the room thronged with maskers, with whom, at Monsieur's suggestion, they indiscriminately mingled. Among these Fate had placed the masked de Guiche. Suddenly his nostrils were assailed by a faint perfume as of lilac, an unforgettable perfume that intoxicated him with the memories it aroused. He tracked it to a slight woman in a black, dissembling cloak, and in his momentary exultation he caught her hand in his. And just as the unusual perfume that she used announced to him her identity, so did his crippled hand, reminding her that de Guiche had lost two fingers in Poland, proclaim his identity to her.
There may have been more than these poor physical indications. There may have been some subtler current set in motion by that contact. Suffice it that in that moment each knew the other, and that as hand in hand they advanced together, and ascended the great staircase, they were so overcome by emotion that neither could find a word to say.
Thus at first. But presently de Guiche, now reckless, drew his masked companion to an alcove in the gallery above the stair. Explanations followed. The portrait that had preserved his life in Poland was her own.
'Better,' he cried, 'that it should not have saved me if I have only lived to find the original cruel. But then I heard that when I was accounted lost, you showed distress. I have hoped from that—hoped that we should one day come face to face as we are now, and the blessed truth should bridge the gulf that falsehood and misfortune have dug between us.'
And then, as once before, in the gallery at the Louvre, they were warned of Monsieur's approach, warned by his shrill, querulous voice. He was advancing unmasked, on his host's arm, seeking the duchess.
In her alarm, Madame swung round and sprang away. Her high heel caught in a rug at the entrance of the alcove, and she was suddenly precipitated forward. But for the promptitude of de Guiche's action she must have fallen. As it was, he caught the slender, graceful figure in his arms. Thus, fortuitously, they came by their first and last embrace, and this under the very eyes of Monsieur, who at that instant stepped round the angle of the gallery fully into view.
There are appearances which it is worse than idle to attempt to explain away. The scandal was terrible, and it made an end of even the semblance of harmony between that ill-mated pair. Philip as usual went bleating for vengeance to his omnipotent brother. Louis sought Henrietta, and reproached her with having broken the pledge she had given him. She met his reproaches with the exact account of what had happened, and was believed.
The old Marshal de Gramont, terrified by the event, made arrangements to pack off his son to Holland, and de Guiche, abed with a fever just then, yielded to his father's entreaties and consented to go so soon as he should be well enough to take the road.
Meanwhile, the King was preparing for his journey to England, and Madame was making ready to accompany him in spite of the continued opposition of Monsieur (prompted ever by the absent Chevalier de Lorraine). A few days before departure, as her carriage was entering the Louvre, it was arrested by the signal of a man who wore the livery of La Vallière. This lackey, as if to deliver a message, approached and opened the carriage door.
Surprised by this, Madame looked up, and barely repressed an outcry. The supposed lackey wore the countenance of Armand de Guiche. It was a countenance deathly pale, with dark stains about eyes aglitter with the fever that was consuming him, and in spite of which he had left his bed.
'Monsieur!' she gasped, clutching her heart, herself blenching. Yet she controlled her voice, so that her grooms should not overhear her. 'Ah, Dieu, what an imprudence! You will ruin us both!'
'Madame!' he answered her, with grave sorrow, 'it may be for the last time. You are going to England, and I am going to Holland, lest by remaining in France I should be driven in my despair to do that which might recoil to your hurt. It is possible, Madame, that we may never meet again. But I could not go without seeing you once more, without a word of farewell, without telling you that in thus exiling myself I am giving you proof of a love and devotion which is ready to make the last sacrifice for your good.'
Emotion suffocated her. She pressed his hand in silence. Tears sprang to her eyes.
'Ah, do not weep, Madame. Do not...' His senses swam. His despair and the fever so wrought upon him jointly that he reeled back, sagged together, and sank down, unconscious.
Perhaps her greatest suffering lay in that she dared not obey the impulse to step down to his assistance. She sat there in agony whilst her grooms raised him. In agony she went on, leaving him still unconscious, since to have betrayed a greater interest in this pseudo-lackey must have led to his recognition.
They never met again. A few days later, in May of that year 1670, she set out for England with her royal brother-in-law. As far as Lille they made a great train, being accompanied by the Court, and travelling through a deluge of rain. Here at Lille, Philip took his leave of her. There was in his farewell no relenting of the cold hostility that, beginning with the exile of Lorraine, had since grown steadily, nourished by the subsequent events.
'You go then in spite of all that I can say, in defiance of my wishes?' he challenged her sourly.
'Since it is the will of His Majesty, and since my going may be of advantage to both England and France. What choice have I?'
It was to stab him in his most tender spot, this reminder of the bitter fact so often stated by Lorraine, that she was of importance in State matters, in which he was of less than none. He winced, and looked her over sneering.
'You are pale,' he said. 'I don't believe your health is very good.'
'I am none too well, Monsieur.'
'Ah!' A smile broke over his painted face. 'An astrologer once told me that I shall have several wives. When I look at you, Madame, I can well believe it.'
That was the amiable tenor of their leave-taking. She was three weeks at Dover with the two kings, and it was known on her return that a treaty had been negotiated whose import, however, still remained a secret. She came back to her husband and her loveless married life at Saint-Cloud towards the end of June.
On the very evening of her arrival there she complained of pains in the stomach. In spite of them, however, she pursued her ordinary life, and on Friday the twenty-seventh June, which was very hot, she went to bathe in the river as was her custom. She was taken ill on the evening of the following Sunday, soon after drinking her usual glass of chicory water. Her ladies put her to bed in great pain, and presently Monsieur came to pay her a visit. Writhing in agony, she told him that she was poisoned—she believed by the chicory water—and implored them to give her an antidote.
Madame de Lafayette, who was present, tells us that Monsieur looked neither concerned nor embarrassed. Calmly he ordered that the water should be tried on a dog, and that oil and an antidote be administered to Madame. We do not know what happened to the dog, or whether the experiment was made. Upon Madame the suggested remedies were of no effect. Her agony continued.
The King came in alarm and grief, bringing his physicians, who found themselves completely baffled by her condition. It was seen that she was dying. Yet her brave spirit sustained her. She smiled at Louis, and permitted herself in that supreme hour a jest at the expense of the etiquette by which every act of the royal life was governed.
'I will do my best, sire, to die according to rules.'
Louis left her bedside in tears.
At three o'clock in the morning, in the very prime of life, at the early age of twenty-six, she died, declaring that her only regret in leaving this life was concerned with the pain it must cause her brother, Charles of England, whom she had so dearly loved and for whom she had unremittingly laboured.
Scarcely was the news of it carried to the afflicted Louis than he summoned Brissac, the captain of his guard, and ordered him at once and in secret to fetch Purnon, the master of Madame's household.
The trembling man was introduced to the room where the agitated King paced to and fro in long strides. Louis came to halt before him, terrible of voice and mien.
'Listen carefully, my friend. Tell me the whole truth of what I wish to know, and whatever your own part in it, you shall be forgiven, and the matter shall never be mentioned again. But conceal the least thing, and you are a dead man. Madame has been poisoned?'
Terrified on the one hand by the sternness of the royal threat, fortified on the other by the royal promise, the man answered promptly as required.
'By whom and how?'
'The Chevalier de Lorraine sent the poison to Beuvron and d'Effiaut. It was put into Madame's chicory water.'
Not a muscle moved in the King's face. But it had grown deathly pale, and there was a gleam of sweat on his brow.
'And my brother? Did he know of this?'
'No, sire. None would be fool enough to tell him. He can keep no secret. He would have ruined us all.'
It was an answer of uncommon daring, but it carried conviction as nothing less could have done. The King caught his breath audibly in inexpressible relief, like a man to whom on the point of stifling air is suddenly restored.
'Ha!' He paused, and then dismissed the fellow. 'That is all I wanted to know.'
To satisfy his desperate need to know how far his brother might be implicated, he had pledged his royal word that he would take no action. Because of this, and because also she was the sister of the king with whom the alliance sought might be rendered difficult, there could be no admission that she had been poisoned. But the rumours of it were abroad, and reached the ears of her sorrowing brother in Whitehall. They moved him to a passion expressed in such terms to the French ambassador that he feared a breach of the alliance upon which it might almost be said that the life of Charles depended. Louis sent an embassy to tranquillize him and convince him that his dearly loved Minetta had died of cholera.
Thus Henrietta remained unavenged.
In the long chamber known as the Gallery of the Stags in the Palace of Fontainebleau, two gentlemen who detested each other paced in talk. They were Monaldeschi, the equerry, and Santinelli, the chamberlain of her vagabond Majesty of Sweden. They were the chief members of a retinue pathetically shrunken to a few foreigners of small account since Queen Christina, by embracing the Catholic Faith, had alienated the Swedes of birth who at first had made up her court in exile.
Monaldeschi dissembled his hatred in amiabilities. He was naturally of a fawning and effusive manner, and the sallow aquiline face, framed in a heavy black periwig, had settled almost permanently into smiling creases. His voice was drawlingly caressing.
'To be condemned to the flat dullness of Fontainebleau at this time of year! For myself I can support it. I matter little. But I grieve for Her Majesty, dishonoured by this shabby hospitality. Oh, and I grieve for you, my dear Carlo. Dio Santo! Your brightness was never meant to rust in this provincial neglect.'
Santinelli scarcely troubled to be civil. The younger and taller of the twain, a man slenderly athletic, he carried in his narrow, handsome face the gloom of a saturnine reserve.
'You are too amiable,' he protested; but his tone was flat. 'I was always of the opinion that it was a mistake to return so soon to France.'
'How wise you always are,' fawned Monaldeschi. 'I would I had your foresight, dear Carlo.'
'I would you trusted it. Then you might have helped me to dissuade Her Majesty.'
'You have the right to reproach me.' The equerry sighed in humility. 'But who could have foreseen this contemptuous treatment, this relegation to the wilderness? I vow to God the King of France is forever shamed by it.'
The Count shrugged. 'How is the King of France concerned? It is Mazarin, the ignoble lay priest, the un-tonsured Cardinal, who puts this humiliation upon Her Majesty.'
'A low fellow,' said Monaldeschi heartily. 'An upstart vassal.'
He would have added more but for the interruption of a summons brought by a lackey in a livery of blue and yellow.
In instant obedience they passed from the gallery into a small room that was hung with sombre tapestries, and the presence of a seated person whom at first glance you might have supposed to be a man. A man's wide black hat, with a trailing red plume covered a man's black periwig, rather out of curl. A man's coat, untidily worn, of black satin with gold and silver embroidery, clothed the body to the throat, and a man's shirt displayed its full sleeves from the elbow and bulged in male fashion at the waist. Below this a short petticoat corrected the first impression and proclaimed the real sex. The face would scarcely have done so but for its plaster of pomatum and powder to overlay its gipsy tint. It was a big face, slightly pockmarked, with bold features: the mouth was wide and full-lipped, and of the nose Bachaumont has said that it was as long as her foot. The eyes, large and lustrous, alone attracted where all else repelled.
This astonishing, androgynous person was Christina of Sweden in the thirty-first year of her age.
It was four years since she had startled Europe by abdicating the splendid heritage from her great father, Gustavus Adolphus, who in collaboration with the famous Chancellor Oxenstierna had raised Sweden to the position of one of the greatest powers of Europe. The glory achieved had rendered Gustavus Adolphus the more eager for a son who might continue it. As if to cheat his disappointment during the few years by which he survived Christina's birth, he had reared her and treated her as if she had been a male. After he was killed at Lutzen, this treatment was continued from respect for what may have been conceived his wishes, and his daughter was given an education entirely masculine and subjected to a virile discipline concerned with masculine accomplishments.
Unsexed thereby, her perspective falsified, she grew up an egomaniac, with an exaggerated sense of her talents, which were by no means inconsiderable, and of her royal consequence. Her fierce jealousy of Oxenstierna's genius counterbalanced in its results the good that it was in her to perform. The difficulties she created for that great statesman, the intemperance of her spirit, and her vainglorious prodigality wrought such havoc in Sweden that her abdication, which the great Chancellor welcomed in the end, would never have been resisted by him, as at first it was, but for his mistrust of her cousin Charles Gustavus, who was next in the succession.
The avowed motive of that abdication was a desire for freedom so that she might devote herself to the arts and sciences; whilst the insatiable desire to be a focus for the eyes of the world spurred her onward in a renunciation so startling and magnificent that she conceived it must leave humanity aghast.
But whilst renouncing active sovereignty, it was no part of her intention to surrender any of its advantages. To support her royal rank abroad there was a pension from a treasury which she had all but reduced to bankruptcy. n addition, she carried off with her a shipload of plunder in the shape of pictures, bronzes, jewels, and gold and silver plate, as coolly as if this furniture of the Kings of Sweden had been her personal property. Since the coveted residence in Rome would have been uncomfortable for a heretic, she supplied Europe with yet another sensation by embracing the Catholic Faith. The step was taken with great pomp at Innsbruck. As readily would she have become a Buddhist if it could have profited her. Nor had she any illusions on the score of her attitude towards religion.
'If there is really a God it may be very awkward for me,' she is reported once to have confessed.
Meanwhile things were quite awkward enough as a result of her change of faith. Her subsidy from Sweden had immediately ceased, and as her extravagance had already dissipated the plunder she had carried off, she would have been in desperate case had not the Pope's Holiness conceived it proper to compensate her by a pension for having chosen—as her action was construed—to exchange a corruptible earthly crown for an incorruptible one hereafter.
And now, at the end of four years of wandering and after some startling vicissitudes, she sat at Fontainebleau in the chill of a November day with a bitter sense that her royal mantle, already a little threadbare, was being trailed in squalor. She had been made aware of it by a letter from Cardinal Azzolini.
The Cardinal wrote from Rome in deep concern, to warn her that the Eternal City was agog with stories of her transactions, so defamatory that they might come to raise an obstacle to her return. His eminence entered into details. One of the stories accused her of scandalous relations with Don Antonio Pimentel, who had been ambassador of Spain to Sweden, and who, after her abdication, had been constantly at her side in Brussels.
She could laugh at the absurd malice that assigned her as a lover the elderly, bald-headed, flat-faced Don Antonio, who actually had been the chief agent of her conversion to Rome and who had ensured her the friendship of the Pope.
There were other matters, however, in the letter at which she could not laugh. It did not amuse her to read that she was widely reported to be mistaking for fame the absurd notoriety she had won, and for homage the curiosity which her eccentricities everywhere excited. Nor did it amuse her to learn that a derisive story was being made of her torchlight entrance into Paris a year ago, in male attire, astride of a white horse. But there was something infinitely worse. There was matter that rubbed salt into the wound her vanity had suffered from her present reception in France, cruelly publishing a humiliation which she was most anxious should be hidden from the outer world.
The intimate accuracy of the details confirmed Cardinal Azzolini's suggestion that her defamer must be some person closely in her confidence. Closest in this, as in her favour (which was the source of the bitter rivalry between them), were Monaldeschi and Santinelli. Her soul revolted against suspecting either of them. Her attenuated following included further a half-dozen other gentlemen, all from the States of the Church, any of whom knew enough of her situation to be the author of those infamous reports. Yet in her search for the culprit she must begin with the two who enjoyed her special intimacy, with the two who dared to combine service to the Queen with ardent devotion to the woman.
Her heavy jaws were grimly set and her big handsome eyes had no smile for them as they stood now before her.
'My friends,' she said, her voice harsh and masculine, 'I have sent for you on a plaguey unsavoury matter. There is a betrayer about me, an accursed Judas who eats my bread whilst he defames me, tarnishing my glory with the infamy of the reports he is sending to Rome.'
She looked searchingly from one to the other of them. Both faces had lengthened. Monaldeschi's eternal fawning smile had vanished. He seemed even to have turned a deeper shade of yellow. But distress might be the cause of this. He was the first to speak.
'It defies belief, madame. Who is the villain?'
She showed her dark teeth in an angry smile. 'If I knew that...Mort Diable! I'ld—' She broke off to ask him:
'What would you do, Monaldeschi?'
'Kill him with my own hands.' He was gustily fierce. 'Death is the only punishment.'
Her eyes sought Santinelli's face. 'And you?'
The chamberlain shrugged. It was never easy for him to agree with Monaldeschi. 'It would be rash to pronounce before knowing the nature and extent of the betrayal.'
Enraged by the implied rebuke, Monaldeschi almost spat at him. 'Rash, do you say? Betrayal is betrayal.'
He would have pursued the theme, but her gesture checked him. She spoke coldly, frowning upon Santinelli.
'For a treason that bespatters my royal escutcheon there can be no mercy. I should not need to tell you that, Count. You'll have heard of lèse-majesté and what it entails. But since you are so nice in your judgments that you must first know the nature and extent of the thing, it has been reported to Rome that I am an unwelcome guest in France; that I have been ordered to remain here at Fontainebleau; that the King will not receive me. With this I am being held up to Roman scorn, to the mockery of the Roman rabble. That is what my betrayer has done.'
She confined herself straitly to that part of the offence which had most deeply wounded her. To the matter of Pimentel and the lesser scandals she made no allusion, deeming them by comparison of little account.
'What is your judgment now, Santinelli?'
Monaldeschi answered for him, vehemently. 'What judgment can there be, madame, but that which I have pronounced?'
Since Monaldeschi was so hot, Santinelli must perforce remain cold. 'It does not seem to follow that it must be someone in your train. This may be common gossip at the Court of France, and—'
He was violently interrupted. 'Mort Diable! Did I not mention details? There are details that leave no doubt.'
'Do they give a clue to the scandal-monger?'
'No. But I shall know how to find him. God will never suffer such a villain to escape. Meanwhile there is something even more important than discovering him. It is to slay this defamatory rumour, to cleanse myself of its stain, by showing it to be false. Cardinal Mazarin will perceive it. He must. He knows too well what is due to a Queen to permit me to lie under this shadow. You shall go to him at Compiègne at once, Santinelli, with a letter from me. To that letter you will add such arguments as you find necessary and loyalty prompts, so as to persuade him to remove all barriers and have the King receive me immediately at court.'
Santinelli was fervent. 'Madame, you may depend upon my devotion to spare no effort. His eminence shall yield to it.'
She nodded gloomily. 'Whilst you make ready, I'll prepare the letter. Go now.'
He bowed and went; and whilst her brooding glance watched his departure, Monaldeschi's glittering eyes observed in her countenance the suspicion which his rival's manner had aroused. He was emotionally voluble thereafter full of angry grief for his dear mistress. Presently she rose, a woman of middle height and ungainly build. She leaned upon his shoulder familiarly.
'Your fervour, Marquis, comforts me a little. Whilst I am writing this letter, go and help Santinelli to make ready. I shall want him to set out at once.'
With his effusive smile he answered her. Santinelli will scarcely welcome my help.'
'It is my wish that you should render it.' The peculiarity of her tone made him seek its meaning in her eyes. What he found there brought a craftiness into his smile, and he departed at once upon an errand, whose real purport he thought he understood. The Queen did not desire that Santinelli should be left alone to prepare for his departure other than by assembling the effects he would require. He must have no leisure in which to destroy any evidence that might conceivably exist if he were, indeed, the person guilty of those letters.
In quest of such evidence, armed with a little bag of keys, Christina went alone and secretly in the dead of that night to the absent Santinelli's room. A double purpose had inspired her dispatch of him upon that mission to the Court at Compiégne.
The search she made was long and thorough. Some letters in a secretaire detained her for an hour or more. In a heavy fur-edged mantle wrapped tight against the cold, she sat and read them line by line. Some were from Santinelli's mother and some, affectionately couched, from a woman in Pesaro. They answered letters of his, and they showed that in these he gave news of his life in the train of the Queen of Sweden; but nowhere could she discover an indication that the news he gave was of a kind injurious to her. Rather the contrary, indeed. Satisfied at last, she replaced the letters where she had found them, and rose. She had closed the secretaire and turned the key, when her attention was caught, by a soft patter of steps approaching along the corridor. She stood alert, listening. Discovery here, if this were someone seeking Santinelli's room, would betray her purpose, and give warning to others by whom she intended a similar investigation. Hastily taking cover behind the curtains of the great canopied bed, she extinguished her candles.
Through the loose web of the tapestry she saw light reappear in the room as the door was softly opened and then closed again. With his\ back against it stood a man in a brocaded bedgown, his head swathed in a kerchief, holding aloft a candle so as to survey the chamber. It was Monaldeschi. At that first glimpse of him a glow of gratitude and affection suffused her. She assumed his purpose to be the same as her own. Under the spur of his devotion to her he was at work to discover her betrayer. If her second thought had not been that rather, perhaps, he acted under the spur of his rivalry with Santinelli, she would at once have disclosed herself and so spared him the pains he was about to take.
To her amazement these pains, when taken, seemed utterly inadequate to his task. His searching eyes had settled immediately on the secretaire, and he had gone straight to it. As he set down his candle, she caught the sound of a little cluck of laughter. He found his task simplified by the key, which in her precipitate retreat she had left in the lock. She heard the click of it. She saw his broad back as he bent over the gaping space; she heard the rustle of his rummaging, the silken swish of an inner drawer being opened, a crackling of papers, and again that soft little cluck of laughter. Then, to her surprise, without further search, he closed and locked the secretaire again, and was departing. But he did not yet go. He checked, came back, drew the key from the lock, and after looking about him undecided for a moment, went to deposit it in the drawer of a clothes-press that stood between the windows.
Mystified, she waited until the receding sound of his steps had finally faded. Then softly she crept from her hiding-place. She was in darkness, but she still clutched her candlestick, and it was equipped with tinder-box. She struck steel against flint, and blew upon the smouldering match until it flamed. With her twin candles once more alight she recovered the key, and, back at the secretaire, she was seeking what Monaldeschi must have deposited there. She found it among those papers which once already she had so carefully sifted: three letters in a pointed, feminine hand, each superscribed to Count the Most Illustrious Santinelli, Grand Chamberlain to Her Majesty Queen Christina of Sweden, each dated from Rome, each beginning Beloved Carlo,' each bearing the signature 'Anna,' and each in fond terms that announced them for the letters of a mistress.
She spread the first of them, and as she read her breathing quickened into gusts of rage.
'I have wept with laughter over your description of the reception in France of the grotesque woman you serve. She has earned this contempt by the fanfarronading follies of her previous visit, when, as you told me, she rode into Paris by torchlight, in breeches and astride of a white horse. She will have cut as ridiculous a figure as on that other occasion when she rode a white horse here in Rome to review the Pontifical troops. Cardinal Mazarin shows himself a truly faithful guardian of the young King's dignity in denying this woman a second access to his august presence and in forbidding her the Court. All Rome is convulsed by the tale of it. Never a squib of Pasquino's has excited so much laughter.'
In the second letter that her shaking fingers unfolded, she read, after the nauseating amorousness of its opening terms: 'I marvel, dear Carlo, that you should continue in the following of this extravagant vagrant, who is royal without being noble. It is a poor service to keep you from my side. She is best left to the attendance and the gallantries of that old fool the ambassador from Spain, with whom she made so free in Brussels. You are not to suppose me jealous. You are not old and bald and ugly like Don Antonio Pimentel that you should be content to be the lover of such a humpbacked harridan.'
The third letter was even more scurrilously explicit in the allusions to her relations with Pimentel which made up a part of it.
The Queen sat back, chin' in hand, a deep furrow between her brows. She was almost physically sick from what she had read, and from the discovery so clear at first that Santinelli, to whom these vile letters were addressed, was responsible for her defamation in Rome. But as the heat of her anger cooled, the matter became less clear. It was Monaldeschi who had placed these letters where she found them. How had he come by them? Had he forestalled her in that quest, and having discovered those letters taken them away to read them? On a sudden thought she leaned forward again, scanning that pointed feminine hand as if for a key to the puzzle. Here and there upon it some grains of the pounce with which the writing had been dusted glinted in the candlelight. Now this was odd in a letter that had travelled so far and had been freely handled. Mechanically she rubbed some grains away with her finger. Then, with a catch in her breath, she held the sheet nearer to the light. There was the thin nest of black smears where her finger had passed. Under the pounce the ink had not yet been quite dry. Her quest was at an end.
Early on the following morning, which was Tuesday the sixth November of that year 1656, Father Le Bel, the gentle old Prior of the Mathurins at Fontainebleau, was haled from his convent by a command to wait upon Her Swedish Majesty.
In her man's coat and hat and wig, as she advanced upon him with a long mannish stride that partly dissembled a slight lameness, swinging an ebony cane such as captains carried, this young woman was a disconcerting sight to Father Le Bel. But he bowed low, assuring her of his humble obedience.
'You will consider this interview, Father, as under the seal of confession.'
He bowed again. He stood in proper awe of royalty, even when abdicated and so fantastically accoutred. 'Your Majesty may trust me as if I were blind and dumb.'
She handed him a sealed package. 'You will keep this for me until I send for you again, and you will observe the time and the day that it is.'
Upon that he was dismissed, and Her Majesty sought distraction. The weather being bright and crisp, she elected to ride in the park, and she took Monaldeschi for sole companion, using him with more than ordinary affection. That evening at supper he presumed upon this, and in a languishing manner became almost possessive. Her lack of resentment, the minor familiarities she permitted him, went far to assure him that at long last, and after many vicissitudes, he was establishing over her the empire that should make his fortune.
Fawning of manner, caressingly drawling of speech, with deep creases about the dark, crafty eyes that closely flanked his aquiline nose, he came to speak of the betrayal she had suffered.
She smiled. 'It has ceased to preoccupy me. The mystery is solved. I have the villain under my hand. In my own time he shall be brought to expiation.'
'You have discovered him! Now God be thanked.'
'I have returned thanks already. I was oddly guided.' He leaned across the table, towards her. 'His name, madame?'
Her smile underwent a subtle change as she looked into his eyes.
'It would startle you, Marquis, if I told you.'
'Not—?' He paused, grave-eyed. 'Ah, but no. I cannot guess.'
Beseech it though he might, she would not tell him. But he had other ways of ascertaining. Late that night he paid another visit to Santinelli's room, and when he found that the letters from 'Anna' had been taken, he knew that Her Majesty had acted precisely as he calculated.
No shadow came to trouble his blithe spirit in the next three days, and then, on the morning of Friday, Count Santinelli returned, and Monaldeschi laughed in the soul of him as he saw the young chamberlain, still with the dust of the road upon him, pass alone into the presence of Her Majesty to render his accounts. He had so performed his errand that he was confident success must follow.
His interview with the Queen was long protracted. But the Marquis Monaldeschi, pacing in the Gallery of the Stags, was without impatience.
Two of Her Majesty's gentlemen, Giasone and Gattinara, came in and joined him. They had an unusual air of gravity.
'What is afoot?' Giasone asked him uneasily. 'Do you know?'
'Afoot?' said he. He shrugged. 'Santinelli has just returned from Compiègne.'
'Yes, yes,' said Gattinara. 'But it's not on that account that we are bidden to wait here and to come armed.'
'Armed?' The equerry displayed a surprise that was purely histrionic. He perfectly understood that this would be a precaution against violence in Santinelli.
He was still in talk with the courtier when an elderly man in a cassock was ushered into the gallery. A moment later the Queen entered abruptly. She was followed by Santinelli, still under the dust of travel, booted and spurred and girt with a rapier. The Marquis, observing that his face was pale and that there were troubled lines between his brows, was amused to think that presently he would be paler still.
Her Majesty addressed the priest. 'You have brought my package? That is well.' She took it from him, tucked her ebony cane under her arm, set a foot on a chair, displaying with reckless immodesty a vigorous leg, and leaned an elbow on her knee. 'Marquis,' she called.
Monaldeschi went forward promptly. The two gentlemen fell away into the embrasure of a window. Santinelli, moving deliberately, crossed to join them.
Under her equerry's eyes the Queen broke the seals of the package. From it she drew and handed him one of the letters signed 'Anna.'
'Have you ever seen that before?'
His eyes were scanning the sheet. 'Oh, infamy!' he suddenly burst out. 'Oh, vileness!'
'Yes, yes,' said she. 'That we realise. But that is not what I asked you. Have you ever seen that letter before?' He became a little out of breath.
'How could I, madame?'
'Or this?' She handed him a second one, and whilst he was still reading it she thrust the third upon him. 'Or yet this one? Have you seen any of them before?'
'But what a question, madame! I do not understand. How should I have seen them?'
'I'll tell you that in a moment.'
His mouth fell open; in the sickly yellow of his countenance his eyes seemed to turn blacker and blacker as he stared. And now, calmly, quietly she was proffering yet a fourth sheet. 'This one, of course, you will acknowledge.'
It was a letter to Monaldeschi in a pointed feminine hand, a love-letter from a Roman woman named Gianetta, one of a score of love-letters that he kept locked in a little ebony coffer. The Queen's possession of it revealed to him that Santinelli's had not been the only room she had searched. Monaldeschi's heart was tightened by a sudden sense of peril. It required all the effort of which he was capable so as to preserve his self-command.
'Why should I deny it? It holds nothing of which I need to be ashamed. It has nothing in common with these other infamies.'
'One thing, I think. Look again. Look closely. Did not that crabbed, woman's hand supply the model for the writing?'
'The model! That is a strange fantasy.' He actually laughed, but there was a quaver in his voice. 'Your Majesty imagines Oh, but it cannot be. It is I who imagine something in Your Majesty's mind that can have no place in it.'
'Comedian!' She withered him with contempt, took her foot from the chair, with an abruptness that sent it sliding a yard across the polished floor. 'The Devil damn you for an impudent, smooth liar. I'll tell you when last you saw those letters. When you placed them in Santinelli's room for me to find them there, so that you might cover your own guilt by ruining him.'
He was trembling from head to foot, yet had the wit to make it seem that it was indignation shook him. 'Madame! Madame! Such a suspicion! It is—'
'Fool,' she broke in. 'It is no suspicion. I saw you. With these eyes I saw you, you crawling muckworm.' And she told him precisely how. For a moment it shattered what was left of his self-possession. For a moment it left him hangdog as a detected pickpocket. Then he braced himself, and looked at the matter squarely. He had made a cunning throw to destroy a detested rival, and by a mischance outside his calculations the dice had fallen against him. If his dismissal must follow, he would bear himself like a good loser. But audacity might yet save him even now.
He cloaked in a tone of great dignity the baseness of his admission. He shrugged, he spread his hands, he was supercilious.
'I freely confess a fault for which the source is to be sought in my deep devotion to Your Majesty.'
'What? Will you brazen it?'
'Ah, madame, you do not know the corrosive power of jealousy.' He sighed artistically. 'In the despair it begets, it can bring the noblest nature to stoop to baseness. In my love, madame, in my greed of your smiles, it was torture to me to see you give so much of your favour to another. If you can conceive my sufferings you will deal gently with me for the fault into which I was betrayed.'
Her smile was enigmatic. 'You keep to the offence against Santinelli. But is there no offence against me?'
'None, madame. Of that I am incapable. None, as God hears me.'
'Hush!' she said. 'Do not add perjury to the rest. You have admitted that you forged these letters. Admit now that it was you who sent to Rome those dishonouring reports of me.'
'Ah! That, no! That, never!'
'Fool! The evidence is in those forgeries. How else could you have known so exactly what is being said in Rome?'
'But from yourself, madame,' he protested. 'Your Majesty forgets that you told Santinelli and me what Cardinal Azzolini had written.'
'Did I, indeed? Did I mention the infamous scandal linking me with Don Antonio Pimentel? Did I mention the matter of the torchlight entrance into Paris? Yet these and other things find place here in your counterfeits.'
Whilst he stood wild-eyed, stricken to perceive how in his frenzy to supply full evidence against Santinelli he had supplied it against himself, she was turning to the priest. 'Father, there is a man here who is to die. Pray do your office, and prepare him to meet his Maker.'
The priest changed colour, aghast at such an order, delivered with such inhuman calm, whilst Monaldeschi, after a gasp of fearful amazement, fell on his knees.
'Madame! Madame!' Terror made him shrill. 'You cannot mean to Oh, my God, madame!'
She looked down at him, and her big eyes were cold. 'It is the sentence yourself pronounced upon the man so vile as to have betrayed my trust. I merely order its execution.'
Whilst the Marquis, wildly incoherent, whimpered in panic, the priest, enlightened at last, was gravely intervening. 'Your Majesty cannot order a murder.'
She threw up her head, frowning. 'Sir, you are oddly bold.' Her voice was big with pride. 'Do you presume to question my royal rights? This man's crime, let me tell you, is one for which he should be broken on the wheel.' Peremptorily she added: 'Do your office, sir, and shrive him.'
But her peremptoriness did not daunt the stout heart of the old priest.
'If he is, indeed, a criminal, there is a justice in France which Your Majesty can invoke.'
This merely increased her haughty resentment. Do you forget that I am a Queen? With power of life and death over my subjects? I require no justice but my own.'
'But to put a man to death. In Heaven's name, madame, bethink you. Whatever he may have done, Your Majesty is in France, and—'
Her impatience could endure no more. She was breathing noisily. 'Is this a new thing in France? Mort Diable! Have you never heard how the great Duke of Guise was put to death at Blois by Henri III? And are there not other instances?'
Still Father Le Bel held his ground. 'What Henri III and other princes may have done, at least they did in their own country, where they were masters. Here Your Majesty is in the house of the King of France, who may well be offended by such an act.'
'You speak as if I were a refugee or a captive, instead of an honoured guest of the King of France. Am I any the less royal because I am not in my own kingdom? The power of life and death is mine by right of birth. Absolute and sovereign justice resides in me. I am a Queen, answerable for my actions to God alone. Do you be as mindful that you are a priest. Perform your duty and prepare this man for death.'
The prior could do no more. But Monaldeschi, in his frenzy of terror, forced to believe this almost unbelievable thing, this sudden doom out of all proportion to his offence, still on his knees was clawing her petticoat, and so preventing her departure.
'Mercy, madame! Mercy! You shall know all. I will confess all. And when you have heard, you will be moved to pardon.'
She paused. 'You observe, Father,' she said to the priest, 'how far I am from all impatience with this wretch.'
'Ah, hear me,' Monaldeschi desperately begged, and poured forth again the passionate plea—in which there was a deal of truth—that a rage of jealousy had made him mad. In that madness he had blindly sought to avenge the wounds she had dealt him in preferring another to himself.
He may have supposed that a plea of having sinned through love was one that no woman could withstand. What he overlooked was that Christina of Sweden was scarcely a woman, and that an egomaniac knows no mercy for injuries to vanity. When his piteous prayer was exhausted, she turned once more to the priest in a frozen calm.
'Be witness, Father, that I have denied this traitor no opportunity to justify himself. I leave you to care for his soul.'
Then the good priest, stifling indignation, himself knelt to beg her mercy for an unfortunate whose offence, whilst grave and hideous, scarcely deserved to be atoned in death. Gently but firmly she denied him.
'It is not for you to judge of that, Father.' She turned to give a sharp order to Santinelli, and having given it, shook off the clawing hands of Monaldeschi, and went striding from the gallery.
The Marquis would have gone after her but that he found his way barred by Santinelli and the other two, whom the Count had summoned to his side. They had drawn their swords, and the Count, grim of face, was presenting the point to the distraught equerry.
'Get yourself confessed,' was his stern admonition.
At the mercy now of this man whose doom little more than an hour ago he thought he had assured, Monaldeschi realized the futility of hope. He attempted to brace himself to meet an inevitable fate. He took Father Le Bel apart, and actually knelt to him and began to confess himself. Then, starting up again in revolt against death in such cold blood, he filled the place with his wild cries, protesting that he would not be assassinated, and wildly beseeching the priest again to intercede for him with the Queen. Le Bel, shocked by the events and profoundly touched by the young man's agony, sternly ordered those gentlemen to hold their hands whilst he went upon that errand.
Wrapped in the mantle of Rhadamanthus, Christina listened to his piteous intercession, to dismiss him coldly with the answer that from the judgment she had passed upon a traitor there could be no appeal.
Revolted by this inhumanity, yet in despair, Le Bel returned to the gallery. Compassionately he stood before the anguished Marquis. He spoke in a strangled voice.
'My son, it is necessary to die. Il faut mourir. Offer up your death as a penance for your sins, trusting to the infinite mercy of God.'
The rest was a scene of horror between a victim in wild rebellion against his fate and the executioners impatient to be done. Not until at the foot of the painting of the Château of Saint-Germains the Marquis lay bleeding to death was his shriving completed. Then Santinelli passed a sword through his throat to end the matter.
Christina received the report of what had been done with the same judicial lack of emotion which had horrified the priest, content in the persuasion that the assassination she had ordered was a proper exercise of the divine right to which she had been born. Her egregious vanity so magnified the offence that her conscience was easy on the score of the punishment.
It was a shock to her when Cardinal Mazarin, that supple statesman whose ways were ever obsequious, wrote to her that in view of what had happened at Fontainebleau he could not, in her own interest, open the way to Court for her, since her appearance there must certainly now be attended by humiliations. It was in vain that she essayed with him the Rhadamanthine tone. She was answered that her only hope of condonation lay in repudiating responsibility for the deed and placing it on the shoulders of the man who had been her instrument. Infuriated by this, she refused to deny an act of royal justice for which she proclaimed herself answerable to none. But Mazarin was insistent, and compelled her to abate her pride at least to the extent of sending Santinelli out of France. He rejoined her later, when, herself departing in the chagrin of a guest who has been made to realise that she is not wanted, she retraced her steps to Rome.
Years afterwards, when this vagabond Queen was weary of foreign wandering and of subsistence upon means inadequate to her pride in her royal station, and disillusioned by ridicule and humiliations where she had looked to excite wonder and enthusiasm, she repented an abdication now irrevocable. Further disillusioned by a cold repulse of her offer to return to Sweden as regent during the minority of the child of her cousin Charles Gustavus, yet seeking desperately to grasp once more the substance of royalty, she offered herself as a Queen to Poland, which just then was about to elect a sovereign. Her candidature was supported by the Pope and by Cardinal Azzolini, the Pope's Secretary of State. Stress was laid upon the virile qualities of Queen Christina, and the will of the Holy See must have prevailed had not the ghost of Monaldeschi risen up at the eleventh hour to thwart her.
Before proceeding to the election, the Diet required her to justify the murder committed at Fontainebleau.
At this questioning of her royal rights of life and death, she flung into a passion.
'I am not disposed,' she answered, 'to justify to the Polish Diet the death of an Italian in my service. I provided that he should receive the sacraments before being put to death, so that no reproach can rest upon me.'
Thus Monaldeschi from his unhonoured grave at Fontainebleau avenged himself by dooming her to the end of her days to a vagabondage of ever-decreasing lustre.
When Leopold I, Holy Roman Germanic Emperor, lay upon his death-bed, the War of the Spanish Succession was still being fought. But so persuaded was the old gentleman, who for nine and forty years had reigned as emperor, that the issue of that war must establish the rights of the House of Hapsburg to the throne of Spain, that he made his testamentary dispositions accordingly.
He divided the vast Hapsburg possessions between his two sons. To Joseph, the elder, went the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary, and some states of Italy, whilst to Charles, the younger, went the throne of Spain. Should either of the brothers die without male heir, his share in that splendid heritage should pass to the survivor. Only if both should die without male issue could the succession go to a female, and in that case the daughters of Joseph must take precedence of the daughters of Charles.
Having sown these seeds of mischief, as so often happens when men seek to control from beyond the grave the destinies of the living, the Emperor Leopold passed peacefully away in the persuasion that he had wisely provided for every emergency.
Charles duly ascended the throne of Spain, and for seven years struggled desperately to maintain himself in that uncomfortable seat. In 1711, when his brother suddenly died of smallpox, he inherited the Empire, but he was con strained by the Treaty of Utrecht to renounce the Spanish crown.
Joseph left no male issue. His only children were two girls, Maria-Josepha and Maria-Amalia. When in the fullness of time Charles was brought to the doleful recognition of his own incapacity to produce a son, his paternal affection for his splendid daughter Maria-Theresa urged him closely to review his father's testamentary dispositions and to consider the interpretations of which they might be susceptible.
He perceived quite clearly that his was a case which the circumstances had altered. The loss of the throne of Spain had been something outside his father's calculations. Moreover, in disposing for the second generation Leopold had exceeded his imperial rights, infringing as he did upon the rights of every emperor (rights now vested in Charles) to designate a successor.
In these arguments he found an abundant justification for bestowing the Hapsburg heritage upon Maria-Theresa. But he knew his world well enough to realise that something more than the expression of his will was necessary to induce others to see the matter with his own eyes. His nieces, whom it might be argued that he thus dispossessed, were married, one to the Elector of Saxony and the other to the Elector of Bavaria, either of whom might claim the heritage for his wife and the imperial crown for himself. Charles, therefore, set about bribing these and other interested parties to ratify the pragmatic sanction under which he established the precedence of his own daughter.
The worldly-wise Prince Eugène expressed his scorn to see the Emperor thus exhausting his resources.
'A standing army of two hundred thousand men,' said he, 'would be worth a deal more than all the pragmatic sanctions in the world, and would cost you less.'
But Charles VI, with that trust in human nature and faith in the word of princes which supplied his besetting weakness, continued his pursuit of ratifications.
The most expensive to obtain was, of course, that of Frederick-Augustus of Saxony, who having married Maria-Josepha, the late Emperor's elder daughter, had a clear claim under Leopold's will. He required as his price nothing less than the throne of Poland. But France had a claim to that throne, and having involved Charles VI in a ruinous war to establish it, Louis XV consented to waive it in favour of Frederick-Augustus, but only if France received in compensation the rich Duchy of Lorraine, which was a fief of the Empire.
Louis XV could have demanded nothing that the Emperor would be less willing to surrender, or the surrender of which would cost him a more bitter humiliation.
Francis of Lorraine, the reigning Duke, a courtly, travelled, accomplished young prince, educated partly at the Court of Vienna and now acting as the Emperor's representative in Hungary, was known to have inspired a romantic passion in the heart of the Archduchess Maria-Theresa, eight years his junior, and himself to entertain for that lovely, vivacious child the tenderest regard. Whatever might be the wishes of the young people, the Emperor himself was far from persuaded that the Duke of Lorraine was a suitable husband for the Archduchess. But the young Duke's ratification was necessary for that cession of Lorraine to France. Without this there would be no throne of Poland with which to bribe Frederick-Augustus of Saxony to forgo any rights to Austria which his wife might be claimed to possess.
So Bartenstein was dispatched by the Emperor to Pressburg to arrange the matter with Francis of Lorraine. A rude, blunt fellow, Bartenstein's discharge of his errand is remarkable for its lack of circumlocutions.
'It is your highness's hope, is it not, to marry the Archduchess?'
The young Duke required a moment or two to recover from the shock of that staggering question. Then, whilst still bewildered, he answered simply and seriously: 'It is my fondest hope.'
'Give me welcome, then. For I bring you word that you may realise it.' Bartenstein slapped down a document. 'Sign this, and on my return to Vienna the Emperor will announce the betrothal.'
The proud, fair face of the Duke went dark and stern as he scanned the paper.
'That never,' he said, at last, and flung it back at Bartenstein.
The corpulent minister raised his black brows. 'That means that you don't want the Archduchess.'
'It means that I will not be a party to a cession of rights which it is my duty to maintain.'
'Very fine and lofty, to be sure,' Bartenstein agreed. 'But it comes to the same thing.'
They stared at each other, the Duke breathing hard, the swarthy, corpulent minister as impassive as a clay idol.
'It is, then, a choice that is offered me?' said Francis.
'It is; and in your highness's place I should not decide hastily. You renounce a duchy; but as the husband of the Archduchess you may aspire to the imperial crown.' He coughed. 'Better sign.' And he proffered a pen.
The Duke took it from him merely to fling it across the room. Utterly unmoved, the minister picked up a second one.
'So long as you merely throw away a pen, I can offer you another. But if you throw away this chance of sovereignty and happiness, that will be irrevocable.'
Francis took time to consider, but in the end he signed, and everybody was happy: Maria-Theresa, the Emperor, the King of France, and Frederick-Augustus of Saxony.
It followed inevitably, however, that renunciation of Maria-Josepha's husband cleared the way for a claim by her sister Maria-Amalia, whose husband, the Elector of Bavaria, now reared his head. It was a loutish flaxen head with pale bovine eyes, behind whose dull phlegm none would have suspected the activity of greed and ambition.
He, too, had to be bribed to put aside his sudden dreams of empire, and to ratify the pragmatic sanction which established the succession of Maria-Theresa.
But five years later, in 1740, by when Maria-Theresa was twenty-three and had been four years a wife, the Emperor's death discovered the folly of his trust in human nature.
The Elector of Bavaria let it be known that he had so little regard for his engagement under the pragmatic sanction as to have an eye on the Hapsburg heritage.
Maria-Theresa regarded his menace with contempt until the mischief was aggravated by Frederick II of Prussia.
Little Fritz, so despised by his father for a worthless rascal, the flute-player, the poet, the friend of wits and men of letters, was suddenly beset by an itch not only for soldiering, but for downright brigandage.
His Grand-Marshal von Götter, a handsome, arrogant, swaggering fellow, appeared suddenly in Vienna as the Brandenburger's envoy-extraordinary. Because Maria-Theresa at the time was being brought to bed of the fifth of the sixteen children she was destined to bear, von Götter to his infinite regret must deliver himself to Francis of Lorraine instead. He had learnt by heart the beautiful address which Fritz, the man of letters, had so carefully composed, trusting that justice would be done to his authorship by the histrionic gifts of his Grand-Marshal.
It began by the seductively delusive assurance that the troops and resources of the King of Prussia were at the disposal of the House of Austria. It dwelt upon the power and extent of these, and then passed on to name the price desired by Fritz for an alliance which had not been solicited. It was nothing less than the cession to him of the Province of Silesia. So necessary to him was this that he was compelled in any case to enter it, and if the cession were not made, his troops and his resources would be employed to further the aims of Charles-Albert of Bavaria.
Thus, from protestations of friendship, through an offer of alliance to unblushing blackmail.
Francis of Lorraine, shocked by the impudence of both message and messenger, controlled himself with difficulty to inquire whether he was to understand that Prussian troops had already entered Silesia. Insolently von Götter announced that they had, and that whether they remained there as friends or as enemies of the House of Austria, it was for Her Majesty to decide.
In the absence of any declaration of war, this was simply an act of robbery under arms. Frederick had neglected to declare war in just the same spirit as a burglar neglects to knock at the door.
From her bed the indignant Maria-Theresa returned through her husband the only possible answer. So long as a Prussian soldier remained in Silesia, there could be no discussion of any kind, and not an inch of soil, in any event, would the House of Austria cede to Frederick.
Recourse to arms became necessary so as to drive back the Prussians, who were already advancing on Breslau. Neipperg was entrusted with the command of the Austrian forces, and at Mollwitz, where the armies met, little Frederick (later to be known as the Great) received his baptism of fire. He liked it so little that it almost made an end of his soldiering. In the clash of the first encounter, the Prussian cavalry which he commanded was scattered by Neipperg's squadrons, and Frederick, quaking to the little soul of him, galloped hell-for-leather from the field followed by an attendant troop, nor drew rein until he had reached Löwen, a dozen miles away.
There he was found by General Schwerin, on that April evening, in the room of an old mill, seated at a cold hearth, with his head in his hands and dejection in his soul, lamenting the irreparable ruin with which his rashness had overwhelmed him.
The astounded Schwerin, who had remained in command after the King's flight, could scarcely at first persuade His Majesty that, far from having suffered disaster, the Prussian army had gained a complete victory. When this startling fact at last penetrated his gloom, Frederick pulled himself together.
'So! That should be warning to young soldiers against losing hope too soon.'
To the world the defeat of mighty Austria by the hitherto insignificant little State of Prussia was matter for amazement. To Maria-Theresa it was a matter not only for bitterest chagrin, but very soon, in the sequel, for the gravest alarm.
This sequel was supplied, of course, by the bovine Elector of Bavaria. It was nothing to Charles-Albert that he had been handsomely paid to ratify the pragmatic sanction; even less that he had pledged his honour to support it. Whilst Austria reeled under the blow sustained he perceived an opportunity of which, by his lights, he would be a fool not to take advantage. He went off to invite the assistance of Louis XV; and Louis XV—or rather Cardinal Fleury, who governed France for him—perceiving the advantages of placing Charles-Albert on the imperial throne and thus creating an emperor who would be his vassal and puppet, chose similarly to ignore how handsomely he had been bribed to support Maria-Theresa.
The very rumour of this coalition was enough to strike terror into the group of elderly incompetent men who formed Maria-Theresa's ministry. With the single exception of the stout-spirited Bartenstein, all urged her in this peril to make peace with Frederick at the price of surrendering Silesia. Even Francis of Lorraine, who counted upon the imperial crown for himself, and who desired for this the suffrages of the King of Prussia, added his persuasions to the others.
There was famine in Vienna at the time, and the mutinous spirit which never fails to spring from it was intensified by the rumour that Frederick had joined the Franco-Bavarian coalition, and was preparing to invade Austria. The people were muttering against the Queen, attributing all their ills to the fact that a woman was on the throne, and already a party was growing that was actually prepared to welcome the Elector of Bavaria.
Maria-Theresa's truly royal spirit remained unshaken. She refused to be stampeded by panic. Peace with Frederick and the sacrifice of Silesia would not, as things stood, enable her to deal with this treacherous Elector of Bavaria, who aimed at dismembering Austria and Bohemia, and whom she now accounted her chief enemy.
In her present urgent need it was to her Kingdom of Hungary that she turned for help. Two factors were in her favour. There was little love lost between Hungarians and Austrians, and the fact that among her own immediate subjects Maria-Theresa was finding insubordination was enough to predispose Hungarians in her favour. That gallant seventy-year-old soldier, John Palfy, who had been her ambassador to Hungary, where he commanded the vast influence of a man universally worshipped, was loyally devoted to her.
To these factors, however, precious as they were, she had yet another infinitely more precious, upon which Palfy confidently counted when he urged her to come and throw herself into the arms of her Hungarian subjects: it was the dominant influence of her own splendid personality and radiant muliebrity. Herself, she was neither insensible to the value of these nor reticent in displaying them to the best advantage. She possessed a measure of that histrionic gift without which no leader has ever attained to greatness.
Twenty-four years of age, not merely tall, but statuesque of shape, glorious of countenance with her regular features, large luminous eyes and luxuriant tresses, innocent of powder that would have dimmed their golden lustre, never was queen endowed with a more regal aspect, never was woman more richly equipped by nature to command the worship of men. Magnificently mistress of the black stallion on which she rode up the hill at Pressburg to her coronation as Queen of Hungary, she was a figure to arouse the chivalrous enthusiasm of the noble concourse that attended her.
When the crown of Saint Stephen was placed on her head and the ragged mantle on her shoulders, the swords of the Magyars flashed from their scabbards to the resounding cry of:
'Long live our mistress and King Maria-Theresa!'
And the Queen, smiling upon them with shining eyes, answered in her resonant, musical voice:
'Hungary shall find in me a father as well as a mother.'
Of the wonder and pride in her which she had thus sown it became necessary, as the months passed and her dangers became more pressing, to harvest the fruits.
Already the armies of France and Bavaria were on Austrian soil, investing Lintz, when, in September, she appeared again before the Hungarian Diet assembled in the great hall of the Palace of Pressburg, and from the throne addressed them upon her needs.
Lip-service is one thing; to take up a burden, quite another. The admiration in which they held her was suddenly curbed by the call upon them to express it in action. Their spreading coldness chilled her to the heart. Unless she could stir them out of it, she was lost indeed. To this she addressed herself. She passed from appeal to argument. She expounded how the very existence of Hungary, with the predatory Turk upon her borders, depended upon the cohesion of the Hapsburg heritage. In fighting now for her, they would be fighting for one upon whom they could count in the hour of need, for one who hereafter would never spare herself in upholding and defending their own liberties. Whilst some were won by her advocacy, more remained aloof, and a few even broke into hostile denunciation.
To these last she was deaf. The moment had come to supply a climax, to stake all upon a single throw, in which she would engage all that there was of her and something more.
From her dear Francis of Lorraine, standing in the background at the foot of the throne, she received their infant son, the future Joseph II, now six months old. Advancing to the edge of the dais, with the babe in her arms, amid the surprised silence which that odd proceeding imposed, she held him out to them.
'Here is my son, your future King.' Her voice broke a little. The glorious eyes were suddenly filled with tears. But if the mother wept, the Queen remained swathed in majesty. Steadying itself, the rich voice rang out. 'He belongs to you as to me, and it is to you, my brave Hungarians, that I now entrust him.'
It was a challenge to their knightliness, and before the combined appeal of glorious woman, noble mother, and majestic queen, opposition was shamed and crumbled into dust. Enthusiasm awoke and soared, swelling as it ascended. Again, as on the hill of her coronation, she had conquered by the enchantment of her personality, and by her ability to exert it so as to inflame imagination. Again the swords of the Hungarian nobles flashed aloft, and this time the cry was:
'We will die for our King Maria-Theresa.'
And the emotional vow was backed by the practical measure of an immediate vote to raise an army of a hundred thousand men.
That triumph of hers at Pressburg had its repercussions in her own native Austria. It aroused a pride in her which stamped out all notion of supplanting her by Charles-Albert of Bavaria. It had its repercussions, too, in Prussia. The crafty and quite unscrupulous Frederick perceived in this arming of Hungary an unforeseen danger, as well as an opportunity, by breaking faith with his French and Bavarian allies, to make for himself an advantageous peace. And now that the circumstances had altered, Maria-Theresa was herself willing to pay the price that would enable her fully to deal with the arch-enemy Charles-Albert.
Once more it was the massively elegant von Götter, his wine-coloured dolman stiff with bullion, who came as the envoy of Frederick. This time he was not denied. Maria-Theresa received him in a room of the Hofburg that glittered with Hapsburg splendours.
Enthroned in a tall gilded chair, supported by Francis of Lorraine, by the statesman Bartenstein and by her generals von Traun and Kervenhüller, she seemed to the Prussian an incarnation of all the glory of womanhood and all the majesty of her proud house. The swaggerer was moved to reverence. As he bowed before her, his heels together, her voice seemed to fill the room with music.
'We need lose no time, sir. We will sign this treaty ceding Silesia to the King of Prussia, with one condition.'
He was deferentially deprecatory.
'Conditions, Majesty, create delays.'
'Not this one, I think. All that I ask is that for the present the treaty shall remain a secret.'
Von Götter was perplexed. 'A secret, Majesty? Your Majesty asks for secrecy when all the advantages lie in publication, when publication will give pause to your enemies, already on Austrian soil?'
'We do not wish to give them pause.'
In deepening bewilderment the flamboyant soldier looked at the grave-faced men who made a background for that calm, august figure. He hesitated a little as he spoke. 'I do not understand,' he confessed. 'A French and Bavarian army under Marshal de Belle Isle is already marching to invade Your Majesty's Kingdom of Bohemia.'
She smiled upon his bewilderment. 'It would cease to march if we were to announce this treaty of peace with Prussia.'
'Exactly, Majesty. Belle Isle advances confidently because he depends upon uniting forces with my master. The King of Prussia's withdrawal from the coalition would be to the Bavarians a signal of retreat.'
'We do not wish them to retreat. We wish them to push on, so that caught in Bohemia without the Prussian support upon which they are counting, they shall never return. Do you understand? We want to make sure that they will not come to the assistance of their Elector, now at Lintz, who may soon be sorely in need of assistance. We do not desire to see the Bavarians retreat in such good order that the Elector will be left in strength to begin again.' She uttered a grimly scornful little laugh. 'In fancy Charles-Albert of Bavaria, who in contempt of his own pledges so treacherously invades my kingdom, has already dethroned me and sits here in my place. His ally, the no less faithless King of France, abetting him in this, is pressing the electors to bestow the imperial crown upon this Bavarian marionette. That he may have if the electors so decide, but of Austrian, Hungarian, or Bohemian soil he shall have no more than he may need for a grave.
'Now, sir,' she ended, 'perhaps you understand the sentiments that move me to resign myself to the sacrifice of Silesia. If you are prepared to pledge the King of Prussia to secrecy, we sign the treaty; but not otherwise.'
Plenipotentiary though he might be, von Götter hesitated. The reverence she had earlier aroused in him was now deepened almost to awe by her grasp of the situation and the boldness of her plan. His every inclination was to accede at once. Only the fear of Frederick's disapproval restrained him. He said so frankly.
Maria-Theresa shook her golden head. 'He will not disapprove unless he is a fool, and of that I have seen no signs. If Austria is dismembered, Prussia may have France for her neighbour. What security would your master then enjoy?'
'I am entirely of Your Majesty's opinion. But I cannot pledge the King of Prussia in so grave a matter. I must consult him. In doing so Your Majesty may regard me as your advocate.'
'We thank you. Lose no time, sir. And tell your master that I require of him not only secrecy, but all the appearances of maintained hostility, so that the existence of an understanding may not even be suspected. Let him march upon Neisse, and make a pretence of besieging it.'
Von Götter departed with a vague feeling that it was to him, who had come so confidently to dictate terms, that the terms had been dictated.
When, still under the spell of that irresistible woman, he laid her plans before Frederick, the little Brandenburger brigand swore as he laughed.
'What a woman! And to think that but for the barrier of religion I might have married her. Lord God! Between us we could have ruled the world.'
It was not, however, out of any such sentimental considerations that he yielded to her demands, but entirely because it suited his own interests to contribute to the destruction of allies who if successful might come to prove dangerous to him.
Having secured his agreement to her conditions, Maria-Theresa set vigorously about completing the work in which that was the first step. The main force of Bavarians and their French allies were already besieging Prague when she dispatched thither an army of Austrians and Hungarians, some sixty thousand strong, nominally under Francis of Lorraine, but actually commanded by General von Traun. If they did not arrive too late to prevent the fall of the Bohemian capital, at least they came in time to cut off the retreat of the army under Belle Isle and to hold it desperately entrenched in Prague, vainly waiting for Frederick of Prussia to come to its relief. Of that brilliant army, some forty thousand strong, only the wreckage, amounting to some seven or eight thousand men, ever returned home.
Whilst the main Bavarian forces, facing doom in the north, were thus immobilized by von Traun, a smaller Austrian army under the briliant veteran Kervenhüller was advancing westwards, sweeping the enemy out of the country. In pursuit of them, and in accordance with the instructions of his royal mistress, the Austrian commander crossed the frontiers of Bavaria, and whilst Louis XV was exerting pressure upon the electors to bestow the imperial crown upon Charles-Albert, Charles-Albert's kingdom was steadily being conquered by Kervenhüller. At last, as a climax of irony, on the twelfth February of 1742, the very day on which the Elector of Bavaria was at last proclaimed Emperor, the Austrians established themselves in his capital of Munich, so that the mantle of the Holy Roman Germanic Emperor fell upon the shoulders of a man who, landless and destitute, was mocked by the emptiness of an honour acquired at so desperate a price.
For Maria-Theresa this was one of the great moments of her life. In an hour of black adversity she had boldly confronted an imminent and ruinous defeat. By her wit and courage she had turned it into a triumph that earned her the wonder and respect of Europe.
The broken Elector of Bavaria, now the Emperor Charles VII, had been driven to exist almost upon charity in Frankfort. The dispossessor had succeeded only in being dispossessed, and was now an object of pity to the world.
But he aroused no pity in the stern heart of the woman he had sought to ruin.
'If,' said Maria-Theresa to the ambassador of King George of England, who came to plead with her on the lackland Emperor's behalf, 'if, so as to defend myself from his unprovoked attack, I was constrained to give up Silesia, it is proper that I should compensate myself by taking possession of Bavaria. If you tell me that the Kingdom of Bavaria is worth many times the value of the province of Silesia, I answer you that that is the fortune of war, and that the Elector of Bavaria who sought this war must abide by the fortune of it.'
A very subtle gentleman was General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg. He was endowed with that superlative gift of intrigue which lies in employing others as if they were pawns upon a chessboard.
The historians generally seem to have done him less than justice. This, perhaps, because of the subtlety of his methods; for humanity will ever be mistrustful of force that displays itself otherwise than in direct action.
As a soldier he had given proof of his great attainments, and consequently, and deservedly, no man in Denmark in his time enjoyed a higher credit with the army. And it is possible that as a statesman he might, given opportunity, have proved the Danish Richelieu he seems to have believed himself to be.
He is commonly believed to have been a self-seeker. But there is really no evidence that in attempting to seize the reins of government and guide the feeble-minded, feeble-bodied young King Christian, he sought to do more than discharge the duty imposed upon him by the late King Frederick, whose trust and friendship he had enjoyed.
He was thwarted at the outset by the Queen-Dowager, Juliana of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; and if he did not realise this as soon as he should have done so, it is because Juliana was of a subtlety that matched his own, and addicted to a similar obliquity of methods.
The very generous and tolerant may spare a little sympathy for Juliana, too, when all the facts are considered. The second wife of the late King, she was the mother of a stocky lad on whose behalf maternal ambition silenced scruples. She had come to found high hopes for her offspring upon the frailty, physical and moral, of her stepson Christian, and she was of those who perceive the futility of awaiting in idleness the fruition of a hope. A natural profligacy in the degenerate King should, if properly encouraged, speed his descent of the abyss which his sickly health had already opened for him. And since that stocky son of hers, Prince Frederick, stood next in the succession, she conceived it her maternal duty to see that Christian was supplied with all the encouragement necessary.
Under her hand she had—for in her widowhood her morals do not appear to have been any better than they should have been—a group of minions who formed the nucleus of her own particular court. Of these the ablest, as he was certainly the most engaging and dissolute, was the handsome, elegant young Count von Holckt; and since in personality, tastes, and accomplishments he seemed the likeliest agent of her motherly and stepmotherly designs, she placed him in the position of mentor to the young King.
Von Holckt devoted himself with zeal to the duties of a mentorship which he perfectly understood. If as a preceptor in vice his equal could hardly have been discovered, it is certain that he could not have found a pupil more apt and enthusiastic than Christian. The results of the riotous excesses he prescribed were soon discernible in the further impairment of the royal health and the further deepening of the royal imbecility.
It began to look as if complete success must soon crown von Holckt's endeavours, when General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg perceived the necessity of applying a check unless he were prepared to relinquish the ambition which he conceived that duty imposed upon him of constituting himself the power behind the throne. He moved the Council of State to insist that the King, now nineteen years of age, should marry and ensure the succession.
This was the last measure desired by Juliana, who considered the succession sufficiently ensured by the existence of her son Frederick. At the same time it was not a measure that she dared to oppose. Nor, for that matter, was it one that need seriously perturb her. The extent to which, under von Holckt's masterly guidance, persistent excesses had by now debauched Christian's constitution, left her persuaded that it was beyond his wasted strength to achieve paternity.
So a queen was found for Christian in the seventeenyear-old Princess Matilda, the sister of King George III of England, and in the year 1767 this frail, flaxen-haired boy of eighteen received the bride chosen for him by von Rantzau, and bestowed upon him by the Council of State with the same apathy with which he discharged all the other functions of his exalted office.
Rantzau founded stout hopes upon the undeniable charms of this buxom, ruddy-haired English princess. Her fragrant freshness might well captivate the senses of the young voluptuary, and her strength of character, her rigid decorum, her insistence upon the stern etiquette in which she had been reared, might accomplish the removal of those evil forces which had fastened upon the King. Thus should Rantzau step into the place which he accounted his own at the King's side.
At first it looked as if he were justified of his hopes. Matilda's beneficent influence made itself felt not only with the King, but with the entire court to which she restored a dignity that had been well-nigh lost. So superbly did she queen it there, so completely did she win its regard and become the arbiter of its courses, that soon her will became supreme; and the plump and still comely though gooseberry-eyed Juliana found herself, before the age of forty, thrust into the background of a stage of which for a dozen years and more she had held the centre. If this was a bitter draught for such a woman, there was worse to follow. Matilda had the temerity, against every expectation, to create an obstacle to Prince Frederick's succession by bringing forth a son.
Whilst fawning upon Matilda in public, the Queen-Dowager raged in secret. But she was not the woman to resign herself, nor did she yet despair of von Holckt.
In a measure as the novelty of Queen Matilda's attractions for Christian wore itself out, the young nobleman was regaining his ascendancy. Soon there was an end to the regeneration of the King which Matilda had been accomplishing. A little later and the relations between the royal couple became strained. Christian's successive and shamelessly open infidelities, the very vulgarity of their nature, the coarseness of his habits, which included the fact that he was seldom sober, soon came to inspire his decorous young queen with a disgust she did not trouble to dissemble. Since her recriminations wearied him, he ended by utterly neglecting and ignoring her.
The watchful Juliana, plump and bland as an Eastern idol, perceived infinite possibilities in such a situation. A neglected wife not yet twenty years of age, the centre of a court in which gallantry was not unknown, was in a position of singular peril. And for all the girl's decorum, in her full lips, high cheek-bones, and rich muliebrity of frame Juliana read an ardent temperament. She could afford to wait whilst her indefatigable agent von Holckt widened the breach.
But once again Rantzau, who does not appear to have suspected that it was Juliana with whom he was striving, came to the rescue. The Council of State was again his weapon, and the Council under his direction prescribed a grand tour for the young sovereign. Christian was to visit several of the courts of Europe, and in the observation of foreign manner and the foreign conduct of affairs improve his hitherto very indifferent education in kingcraft. An attractive picture of the distractions awaiting him in the foreign capitals was submitted to His Majesty. For, after all, Christian was an absolute monarch, whose will was not to be constrained. He succumbed, and agreed to go. But Juliana parried the stroke. Von Holckt would accompany the King, and upon this—once it had been suggested to him—the King insisted.
It was now that Rantzau perceived the necessity of striking at what he supposed to be the very root of the evil. The influence of the profligate minion must be destroyed.
And that is how John Frederick Struensee, the physician, the son of a simple country clergyman, came to step from the obscurity of his station into the pages of history.
Count Rantzau had been attended by him, and had formed the highest opinion of his medical skill. Even higher was the opinion he had formed of his force of character and dominant personality. He perceived in him, too, a restlessness of ambition, which now suggested him to the Count's mind as a proper and willing instrument. He came promptly in answer to the Count's summons: a large, athletic man in the late thirties, florid of complexion, breezy of manner and of undoubted personal attraction.
To receive him the Count unbent from his habitual austerity. Rantzau was now in his sixtieth year, but very straight and spare and tall, and of a fastidious if sombre elegance in his dress. The black powder he used for his carefully clubbed hair, whilst intensifying the pallor of his lean, aquiline, deeply lined face, lent it an air of youthfulness that was obviously spurious.
Seated at his library table, one of his long delicate hands, half smothered in a foam of lace, waved the doctor to a chair. He came straight to what appeared to be the point.
'Such is my regard for your skill, Struensee, that I have requested Count von Holckt, the first gentleman of the bedchamber, to appoint you physician to His Majesty.'
The doctor was rendered breathless. Some of the high colour faded from his bold face. His blue eyes seemed to increase in prominence. His full, sensuous lips parted, but it was a moment before he could speak, and then it was only to falter expressions of his sense of the great, the unexpected honour which opened to him the door to fortune.
'I take it, then, that you accept. That is almost all that is now necessary. There is just one thing more. In mentioning your skill, I had something more in mind than your skill as a physician, although without this the rest would be naught. His Majesty, as you are aware, is in a precarious state of health. His constitution has been sadly undermined, and the attentions of a skilful physician are urgently demanded. Now I need not tell you, doctor, that a truly skilful physician sets about the cure of a disease by removing the cause. The chief cause here is Count von Holckt. It is to this gentleman that you will find it necessary to apply the cautery.'
Rantzau paused. The doctor, who had not yet recovered his colour, was steadily regarding him. 'You mean that I am to poison him?'
The Count was more shocked by the cold matter-of-fact tone of the question than by the question itself. The ghost of a smile flitted across his bleak countenance.
'It would be effective,' he admitted. 'But it had not occurred to me. And we are in Denmark, not Italy. It will not be necessary to go to such extremes. In the course of the foreign tour upon which you will accompany the King, and in the intimate association with him resulting from your position, it should not be difficult for a man of your attainments and force of character to obtain an ascendancy over a mind so enfeebled as that of His Majesty. In the sequel it should be easy for you to employ it so as to procure the disgrace and dismissal of this corrupt associate, to whom so much of His Majesty's condition is to be attributed. After that it will be your duty to replace the evil influence by a beneficent one, and restrain the King in those courses which at present are destroying his body and his soul. There is nothing in this proposal that may be said to lie outside a doctor's province. It is upon your confidence in your ability to perform the task that your appointment now rests.'
Struensee's answer was prompt. 'That confidence I certainly possess. Your lordship may account the task as good as accomplished.' Then he permitted himself a short, cynical laugh. 'And it is Count von Holckt who appoints me, you said. The situation has its ironies.'
What ironies it was to hold Rantzau was not to discover fully until some months later when His Majesty returned from that tour, completely under the tutelage of the physician, who had certainly made good his promise. Von Holckt's dismissal by the King, at Struensee's instigation, had followed within a month of their departure from Copenhagen. But having so speedily and successfully accomplished the first part of his task, the doctor paused to consider where he stood, before proceeding to the regeneration of the monarch in his care. A door had been opened to his ambition as a doctor when he had been appointed physician to the King. Now that in obedience to his instructions he had acquired such an ascendancy over his charge that Christian was become as a puppet in his hands, the creature of his will, he perceived that a door stood open also to his ambitions as a man. If he set about rebuilding the young King's burnt-out strength of body, restoring with it some vigour to his mind, Struensee would remain the royal physician. But if, instead, he were to continue the King in his present effete languor, Struensee's empire over him might be a source of almost unbounded power; such power as von Holckt had possessed, but had lacked the wit to employ. Struensee suffered from no such lack. He had a high confidence in himself in matters other than medicine, and all the contempt of the clever man of humble origins for those whom birth alone exalts. Thus he doomed the degenerate prince in his charge to a continuation of the pursuits so largely responsible for his imbecility. In these pursuits, Struensee, who under all his strength was himself something of a voluptuary, encouraged him by precept and example as vicious as had been von Holckt's. The result was that when the King came home from that foreign tour, in the course of which he had covered himself with ignominy, he was infinitely feebler than when he had set out, and he had now no will that was not the will of Struensee.
Afire with indignation, Rantzau sought his faithless agent in the splendid apartments which the doctor had appropriated to his own use in the Christianborg Palace. And for half an hour that great nobleman, General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg, was kept cooling his heels among the clients crowding Struensee's antechamber.
When at last he was admitted, it was to find himself received with affable condescension by a large man in mulberry velvet laced with gold and glittering with jewels, in whom it was not easy to discover the plain, sober downright man whom a few months ago he had appointed physician to the King. Without even rising to greet his exalted visitor, Struensee extended languidly a powerful hand.
'Ah, my friend! In what am I to have the honour of serving you
The pallor of Rantzau's face under its black-powdered hair was deathly. His eyes were points of steel. Standing stiff and straight, he ignored the extended hand.
'Friend!' he echoed. 'I do not number lackeys among my friends, Struensee. Be good enough to remember it. I am here to ask of you an account of your stewardship.'
The full red lips smiled. But the prominent blue eyes were full of malice.
'What a tone, Count! And to scorn a friendship that you may yet need! You have a grievance, I suppose. On what grounds? Have I done less than I undertook to do? Have I not removed the evil influences that were about His Majesty?'
Rantzau was at a disadvantage. 'By what have you replaced them?' was all that he could rejoin.
Struensee spread his jewelled hands. 'By an influence that will be to the advantage of Denmark, as I shall hope soon to show. A strong hand was needed here to guide the King in his government.'
The Count's stare was hard. 'You cannot have the temerity to suggest that you aspire to supply it.'
'They are wise, Count, who range themselves on my side. In my antechamber you will find some nobles as stiff-necked as yourself. Their example is one that you might profitably follow.'
Rantzau choked. 'Impudent buffoon! Do you forget that it is I who placed you' where you stand? Rascal! Do you imagine that the hand that raised you up cannot pull you down again? I shall see the King today, and—'
'You will not see the King.' Struensee's voice was as calm as it was hard. Master of the situation, he could afford to keep his temper. 'The delicate state of His Majesty's health does not permit him to grant audience at present save as may be sanctioned by his physician.'
'You insolent buffoon!' raged the quivering Rantzau.
'Ah! Now I really think you go too far.'
'I am prepared,' said Rantzau, 'to go a good deal farther, as you shall find.'
Struensee reached for a bell that stood on the small table at his elbow. A chamberlain appeared at once.
'The door!' he said in a voice of iron. 'Count von Rantzau-Aschberg to the door.'
And so, almost ignominiously, that great nobleman was thrust from the presence of the upstart doctor.
On an inspiration he sought the young Queen at once, and was graciously received by that handsome stately woman, whose clear eyes were haunted by a wistfulness the disillusions of her marriage had procured her.
He went to exhort her, with a calm under which the anger seething in him was not to be suspected, to the effort which she alone could make to break the shackles with which the King was being loaded. It was an exhortation that at first merely cast her into a deeper wistfulness. Sadly she shook her red-gold head.
'It was my hope, Count, that you came to help me. Instead, you merely urge me, who am helpless, to help myself.'
'Madame, you are not helpless. You are the mother of the heir to the throne. In this and in the love and reverence of the nation lies your strength. This villain Struensee has overreached himself in his blind conceit. He isolates His Majesty on the grounds of health. If the King is too ill to grant audience to those who have the right to approach him, it follows that he is too ill to govern. A regency must be appointed to rule until he is restored to health; and the proper regent, the regent Denmark will uphold, once this state of things is disclosed, will be Your Majesty.'
Excitement brightened her eyes and quickened the heave of her full breast in its rigid, low-cut corsage. 'You think I could accomplish that? You are not overlooking the hold which Struensee has secured?'
The Count's smile was scornfully confident. 'You need but to inform him of your intention, and you will see him shrivel. Whatever his hold upon the King, he cannot prevent you from convening the Council of State, and of the Council's support I, as one of its members, can confidently assure you.' Quietly he added: 'I trust, madame, that once the regency is in your hands, your first act will be to break this impudent adventurer. After that, the guidance of the King will be Your Majesty's care.'
Thus Rantzau showed her how the neglected wife of a King might become a Queen de facto.
To a woman in her case the prospect was uplifting. Without loss of an hour she commanded Struensee to attend her.
She received him alone in that same little boudoir so French in character, with its gilt furnishings and striped brocades, in which her interview with Rantzau had taken place. Seated at her little inlaid escritoire, the doctor in his courtly finery standing before her, she disclosed the project of establishing a regency.
In dismay he perceived that the only avenue of retreat before this attack had been blocked by his own pronouncements upon the royal health. It remained only to go boldly forward. Of his dismay no shadow came to overcast the florid, not unhandsome countenance, and there was only acquiescence in his answer.
'It is most reasonable, madame, considering His Majesty's condition. As a physician it is my duty to be frank with Your Majesty. The King's sickness is not only of the body, but also of the mind. A regent becomes, therefore, a necessity; and there is no regent, if I may presume to say so, fitter than Your Majesty.'
She considered him searchingly, unable to dissemble from her glance all the surprise with which this unexpected acquiescence filled her. Tall and athletic he stood, with submissiveness to her orders in every line of him. Rantzau, she thought, had been right to say that there would be no resistance. And yet, she wondered, had Rantzau been altogether right? Here was no cringing of defeat, no hangdog look of a villain foiled. Whilst her eyes still searched his candid countenance he spoke again.
'It is desirable, too, for the King's own sake. In the heavy task I have undertaken, it has not helped me that affairs should come to set their strain upon a mind unequal to them. I have done what I could to ease the burden. Perhaps in this, in transcending the strict limits of my physician's office, I may have done wrong, and I may have been misunderstood. I shall be glad to be delivered from such a situation. Also, once His Majesty is relieved of these cares, it may be easier for me to repair the ravages to his health and to restrain him in the regrettable excesses which may be as much the cause as the result of his condition.'
She was borne from amazement to amazement by his words. Without any apparent intent to do so, he was affording her an explanation of circumstances hitherto attributed to sinister designs of his own. She began to ask herself, as she listened to that rich persuasive voice, upon what grounds those conclusions had been reached. Finding the evidence slender and vague, she was moved to wonder whether injustice might not have been done him. When from this, she came once more to examine his attitude in the matter of the proposed regency, she was all but convinced that Struensee had been cruelly misjudged.
'I am glad, doctor, that you take this view.' She spoke slowly, quietly. 'The Council of State, too, will I am sure welcome your confirmation of the prudence of this measure.'
'The Council of State?' There was a faint note of surprise in the question. Then, almost imperceptibly he shrugged. 'The opinion of the Council of State is of less significance to me than that of Your Majesty, whom I regard as the only person really concerned.'
'The Council of State is equally concerned, since it must share the responsibilities of the regency.'
It was now, when she no longer looked for it, that she beheld dismay upon his countenance. 'The Council!' he ejaculated. 'Lord God!'
Her stare hardened. 'What is in your mind, sir?'
'Fear, madame,' he answered promptly, almost tragically. 'Fear that for all your wit and perspicacity you may become a tool in the hands of a group of self-seekers who will urge you to their own ends.'
'You are frank,' she told him, with cold displeasure. 'Something too frank, I think.'
He showed distress. He advanced a little. His fine, bold eyes, whilst pleading, yet held an oddly compelling power. 'Set it down to my reverence and regard for Your Majesty. In studying the anatomy of the body, the physician learns something of the anatomy of the soul. It is not easy to withhold such knowledge when there is an overmastering anxiety to serve.'
'I...I do not think I understand,' she said. But under his hypnotic gaze, her tone already was less distant.
He hesitated, still looking at her, with an intentness almost wistful.
'I must risk Your Majesty's reproof again. If you take the Council of State to assist your regency, you will be in danger of placing the power in hands that may unscrupulously misuse it. I am acquainted with these men.'
'You may know as much as you claim of the anatomy of the soul. But you can know little of the anatomy of government, or you would realise that a regency could be established on no other foundation.'
'Not an avowed regency. But where is the need to avow it? Since it is in Your Majesty's power to become a regent in fact, why be content with being a regent in name? You will best wield a regent's power by not actually assuming the office. The acts of government will be yours; only the signature the King's. Your influence with His Majesty will make this easy.'
'My influence with His Majesty! Do you venture to mock me?'
'God forbid, madame. None grieves more deeply or sincerely than I at the King's insensibility to the inestimable blessing which descended upon him when Your Majesty became his consort.' The booming voice gathered fervour as he proceeded. 'If his mind were less diseased he would thank God on his knees night and morning for a queen who in every sense is far above the deserts of any king in Europe. Forgive me, madame, if my tongue betrays too deep a feeling. It moves me so profoundly to sorrow and to anger to see your incomparable worth neglected, that I cannot...I cannot...' His throbbing accents faltered. He made a little gesture of despair. 'Forgive me, madame. Forgive me!'
The blue eyes that regarded him were moist. The girl's lips, full and sensuous as his own, were suddenly tremulous. 'Hush, Struensee! This...this is very nearly treason, my friend.'
The word produced an agitation in him. 'You recognise me for your friend, madame. Now God be praised that you should see so clearly. I am your friend and servant now and always and in all things.'
She made an effort to retreat before this spiritual onslaught, to entrench herself in the stiff formal dignity of the courtly etiquette upon which her training had made her ever insistent. But she only half succeeded.
'We are straying from the point, I think. We were concerned with my influence with His Majesty. Yourself, you have admitted that it does not exist.'
'But it can so easily be established. Not the influence of the wife, I admit. But the influence of the Queen, which is all that Your Majesty's aims require. Trust me to bring him to perceive that he could have no deputy more competent than Your Majesty, and to persuade him to place the reins of government in your hands. His indolent, self-indulgent inclinations will make it easy, and for Your Majesty's enactments the King's signature will be readily forthcoming. And this without any Council of State to hamper you.'
She rose from her writing-table. The Queen cast aside all the panoply of etiquette. It was the woman who approached him, aglow at the prospect of wielding such undisputed power. It was no vain boast of Struensee's that he understood the anatomy of the soul.
'How we may be mistaken!' she murmured. 'You prove yourself the first true, selfless friend I have known since I came to Denmark.'
Impulsively she held out her hand to him. As impulsively he fell on his knees. 'My Queen!' he said, and devoutly bore her fingers to his lips.
On the morrow Matilda sent for Rantzau, for the purpose of disabusing his mind on the subject of Struensee. She awaited his coming in some disquiet, fearing his opposition to the amended project under which she proposed to act without a Council. To her surprise, and perhaps to her relief, she learnt that he had suddenly left Copenhagen. She was not told that on the previous evening he had received an order bearing the King's signature, requiring him to depart the capital within twelve hours and withdraw to his estates of Aschberg in Holstein.
To Rantzau the hand of Struensee had been plain in this. He had perceived in it the defeat of his attempt to influence the Queen; and his first indignant impulse was to resist the order. Then, realising that his arrest and possible effacement must follow disobedience, he decided that he would live to fight another day, and so departed.
To Aschberg he was followed in the succeeding months by rumours of events ever more startling and incredible in the affairs of Denmark. First came word that John Frederick Struensee, the doctor, son of the simple country clergyman, had been ennobled, and then that, as Count von Struensee, he had assumed the office of First Minister of the Crown and was become the virtual ruler of Denmark, and the acknowledged lover of Queen Matilda.
To General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg this last was the most incomprehensible feature of all. He remembered the reserved Matilda he had known, so calm of eye, so stately of movement, in all things decorous and formal, and he contrasted that memory of her with the almost hoydenish reported actuality of a woman who brazenly flaunted her passion for the upstart she had helped to elevate.
After that every report reaching Aschberg from the capital told of Struensee's steadily growing power: of the revolution he was effecting in the system of government; of the offices he abolished, and the new ones he set up; of the despotism he had established jointly with Queen Matilda and in the shadow and name of a king who daily deepened in imbecility. There came, too, incredibly scandalous stories of the court over which Struensee and Matilda presided, and of the flagrant wantonness of the once rigidly decorous young Queen, who now adapted herself familiarly to the raffish company that now made up her court at Hirscholm, a court festering with all the vices of Versailles, but adorned by few of Versailles' superficial graces. It was accepted as an epitome of her degradation that when she hunted nowadays she rode impudently astride, in breeches, a garment flagrantly ill-becoming the rich muliebrity of Her Majesty's figure.
The King, too dull and feeble to realise his own shame or to resent the terrible dominance of his wife's lover, moved listlessly, an object of contempt and derision in that disreputable court.
It is in the way of upstarts to overreach themselves, and it was in thus outraging the feelings of a staid and almost puritanical people that Struensee came to render himself vulnerable by bringing into contempt with the nation a Queen upon whom he depended for his power.
General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg, the one man in whose position and influence lay the strength to take advantage of this vulnerability, and in whose ambition lay the will to do so, might, in his retirement, have overlooked the opportunity had he not been sought at Aschberg by a gentleman still young, of a surpassing elegance in all his appointments, and suavely master of himself.
'Count von Holckt!' For once Rantzau was almost out of countenance at the appearance of this unexpected visitor, in whom it was impossible for him to see a friend.
'I take you by surprise.' There was a disarming smile on the dark, clear-cut face of that notorious libertine. The smile broadened; it became a little twisted. 'You did not use me very well when you induced me to bring Struensee into the royal household. But whatever my faults—and, God forgive me, they are many—I was never a creature of resentments. And even if I were, the present would not be the season to indulge them. The times demand that gentlemen should stand together. Our supreme need of you must stifle idle resentments.'
Rantzau covered his contempt of the minion by a mechanical urbanity. He took the delicately proffered hand, he set a chair for his visitor.
'In what is it my honour to serve you?'
'It is not a question of serving me, my lord. That is something I could never presume to ask of you. It is a question of serving Denmark and the King. I am here as the agent of Queen Juliana.'
'Ah!' The fine brows were raised on that pallid face. A touch of irony was not to be excluded from his tone. 'The stepmother becomes solicitous!'
Von Holckt tossed back the laces from a fine hand in a gesture that was almost of intercession. 'Do not permit a thought of that relationship to prejudice you, my lord. You may believe in the Queen-Dowager's concern for the King without believing in her affection for him. All that you need to believe is that the Queen-Dowager's own danger is her main concern.'
'That will offer no difficulty, once I perceive the danger.'
'A knowledge of what is happening in Copenhagen will make it obvious. His Majesty's condition is deplorable.'
A little warmth crept at last into Rantzau's manner. 'I am aware of that. You are not to suppose that the tongue of scandal is not heard at Aschberg.'
'I doubt if even scandal can have made you realise all the ugly actuality. It makes credible the widespread, well-founded opinion that this scoundrel Struensee, your lordship's sometime friend, is employing his skill as a physician slowly to poison the King.'
'My God!' Rantzau was shaken from his calm. 'But to what end, sir? What more can that villain desire than he already grasps?'
In his pleasant, level modulation of voice, von Holckt explained. Struensee's clear aim was to set up a regency, composed of himself and the Queen, his mistress, to govern the kingdom during the minority of the Crown Prince, who was now three years of age.
'But how will that increase the power he already grasps?'
'It will not. But it will add security to his position. The King, however feeble, is still the King. Nothing material can be accomplished without his consent and signature. As long as the King lives there will always be the danger that what Struensee has done, another might do: obtain over His Majesty an ascendancy akin to that now held by Struensee. I admit that it would not be easy. But once the King were dead, it would be impossible.'
'I see,' said Rantzau, and he shivered a little. With his chin in the ruffles he moved slowly, thoughtfully across to the open fireplace. Mechanically he held out one of his delicate hands to the blaze of the piled logs. 'I see,' he said again, in deepest gloom. Then on a sudden thought he asked: 'But you spoke of danger to the Queen-Dowager?'
'It is not to be supposed that the Danish nobles look on complacently. Struensee is aware of it. He must ssume that the Queen-Dowager will supply, as indeed she would, a natural rallying-point for those who are hostile to the regency. Unless she forestalls him, she may have to face exile, or worse, for herself and her son.'
'Ah, yes. That becomes clear.' Rantzau set his back to the fire, and tall and straight, faced his visitor. 'But what do you seek from me?'
Deliberate, almost languid, von Holckt drew forth a gold snuffbox on the lid of which an alluring Aphrodite was enamelled. 'That you attempt,' said he, 'to undo some of the mischief you have done, now that you perceive how great the mischief is.'
For all his self-control Rantzau winced under that airy impudence. His dark eyes considered the graceful minion, who composedly and delicately helped himself to snuff.
'Having gone from Scylla to Charybdis, we are now to return to Scylla. Is that the purpose?'
Von Holckt snapped down the lid of his box. 'The purpose is to steer the ship of state safely between the two, and if there is in Denmark a man who can still accomplish it, that man is General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg.
'You give me news, sir. If I believed this, do you suppose that I should have sat idle here, bewailing my futility?'
Von Holckt raised his brows. He fetched a sigh. 'Thank God I was never troubled by modesty. You show me how it may distort a man's vision.' He rose, shaking out the whaleboned skirts of his sky-blue coat. 'Is it for me to remind you of the great influence of your name in Denmark? Must I tell you that nowhere is that influence more powerful than with the army?'
'Struensee controls the army,' Rantzau interrupted. 'I have informed myself of that.'
'Ah! Then you have not been quite idle. Your mind at least has already turned to the notion I came to arouse. That is to the good. Struensee controls the army, yes. But he controls it only because that control has never been disputed by the one man who can successfully dispute it. If General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg were to offer himself as a leader to deliver our unfortunate King from his position of ignominy and dishonour, there is not a soldier in Denmark who would not rally to him. If we have the army, Struensee will be helpless; and if we have you, my lord, we have the army.'
Rantzau looked at him in silence for a spell, and his eyes smouldered in that white, bleak face. At last: 'It is an odd thing, sir, that you should be the agent to point out to me how the King is to be saved.'
The young man shrugged. His little twisted smile reappeared.
'Fate's revenge upon you, my lord, for your rashness in appointing Struensee to supplant me.'
Humbled a little by the situation, the old nobleman had no resentments for this light impudence, or even for the circumstance that he was entering into alliance with this young profligate whom he despised.
On the morrow, with von Holckt beside him in his great travelling-carriage, followed by an almost royal train that included his chaplain, his doctor, his secretary, his chamberlain, his valet, his cook, and a posse of grooms and footmen, Rantzau rolled out of Holstein in a December mist, and descended upon Copenhagen in defiance of the ban under which he lay.
There, in her Palace of Fredensborg, whither von Holckt conducted him, Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel received him graciously and in complete oblivion of all past animosities.
She was attended by the uncouth, untidy General Eichstedt, by her secretary, Guldberg, and her son, Prince Frederick, the dull, stocky lad of eighteen, who had inherited her gooseberry eyes and muddy complexion.
She was a plump, florid woman, not yet forty, with a heavy-lipped, haughty mouth, pale, prominent eyes, and a resolute chin. Once Rantzau had sneeringly said of her that she was never more dangerous than when she was effusive. She was effusive now.
'My dear Count!' She held out both hands to him. 'Never could you be more welcome. Your coming brings us the assurance of victory: to me and to these few good, loyal friends of His Majesty's, who will not spare themselves in serving with you to thwart those wretches.'
'Struensee and his accomplice, Christian's faithless wife.'
There was an edge to her tone in that allusion to Matilda. It reminded him of this German woman's hostility to her stepdaughter-in-law from the time when there had been no just grounds for it. The gallantry for which in his younger days Rantzau had been famous, had with age been transmuted into chivalry. This glimpse of feminine hatred repelled him. Its effect was to deepen his compassion for the misguided Matilda. He expressed it frankly.
'I regard Her Majesty, madame, as a victim, not an accomplice. Any action of mine must aim as much at her deliverance as the King's.'
There was a tightening of Juliana's heavy mouth, a solemnity in the eyes of those about her. The ready-witted von Holckt suavely saved the situation.
'But, of course. That is the view of each of us. The only possible view. But concern for His Majesty must not blind us to the dangers of leaving the Queen at liberty.'
'At liberty!' Rantzau was shocked. 'Is it proposed to confine her?'
Von Holckt spread his hands, a gentle air of regret in his handsome eyes.
'Unless we do so, we leave her with power to avenge upon us the fate of the scoundrel who has abused her youth and inexperience.'
'I honour you, von Holckt, for your view of her case. But once Struensee has been pulled down, what power will the Queen retain?'
General Eichstedt cut in impatiently, roughly. 'The power which Struensee now yields. The power that lies in the impotent hands of the King. Instead of Struensee, it will be Queen Matilda who will make Christian dance like a puppet. And what tune do you suppose she will call? Answer that for yourself.'
'And there is something more,' said Juliana, from her gilded chair. 'You are not to forget that the Danes are a prudish people.' She sighed heavily. She spoke as one weighed down by sorrow. 'Perhaps it has not reached Holstein what scandalous frivolities Struensee has brought into Court life and what deep offence they have given. The people speak of Matilda as another Messalina. You may hear at any street-corner the name they have for her Palace of Hirscholm. The fear of Struensee is their only restraint. Once he is removed, the indignation may explode, and this unfortunate Matilda may have to face the violence of the mob. Could we suffer that?'
It was a reason that stifled his deep repugnance. He passed to other matters. He desired to know what plans they proposed, what measures they had considered. Guldberg, the secretary, informed him. It was proposed to proceed by arresting Struensee upon an indictment for high treason, usurpation, and abuse of power. This, once the conditions permitting it should be ripe; and Rantzau was plainly shown by the others that they depended upon him to ripen the conditions.
Erect and cold of manner, he received the flatteries with which in this respect they plied him. Before engaging himself finally, he desired to know what measures of government were to follow if the conspiracy succeeded. The Dowager answered him.
'A council, of course, will be formed, to guide His Majesty.'
'Have you determined its composition?'
Juliana's effusive smile was spread for him once more. 'We have determined only that the proper Lord President for such a council must be a nobleman of your eminence, influence, and attainments, Count.'
Any lingering doubt he may have had of their complete integrity was dismissed before an assurance such as this. He bowed to their will, consented to shoulder the task, and thereafter with quiet, indefatigable zeal set about accomplishing it.
Throwing open his splendid house in Copenhagen, he entertained almost prodigally. He renewed and widened his associations with that army of which once he had been so splendid an ornament.
It was not to have been expected that the despotism of an upstart such as Struensee could be accepted without deep resentment. The revolutionary changes he had made, the rights he had infringed, the privileges he had destroyed had rendered him detestable to every member of the Danish nobility, whilst the licentiousness of his private life and the seduction of the Queen had earned him the odium of the people. But so shrewdly had he contrived, and so strong was his grip of power, that all this hatred seethed in secret. Openly no man dared avow it for fear of betrayal by his neighbour. To obtain these avowals required all Rantzau's skill and even a certain measure of reckless self-exposure. But he obtained them so fully as to be assured that all that was needed here was a leader for the great multitude of secret malcontents.
From the moment that he offered himself in this capacity matters moved so rapidly that within three weeks of Rantzau's arrival in Copenhagen there was scarcely an officer in the capital who was not pledged to bring his men to the movement once the signal were given. And the signal must be given soon. There was no time to lose. If any rumour of these activities should reach Struensee before they were ready to deliver the blow, Ran tzau knew that his head would be lost to him.
And Struensee was not asleep. Rantzau's bold emergence from his Holstein retirement, his open house in Copenhagen, and above all the amity of his present relations with the Queen-Dowager, were matters to draw the minister's attention; for Struensee could have no illusions on the score of Rantzau's real feelings towards him. His friends, too, were vigilant, and from more than one of them he received a hint that the army might not be as well affected as he supposed.
For all his power, he hesitated to move against so influential a nobleman as General Count von Rantzau-Aschberg without some better justification than that of the old ban, for which no real reason could be supplied. That justification should be found: his spies would find it for him. Meanwhile, however, he ordered the Falkenschjold Regiment, upon every man of which he knew that he could depend, to be brought at once to Copenhagen.
Warned of this, Rantzau perceived in it the signal for action. He and his associates must strike before the Falkenschjold Regiment arrived. He spent a feverish day on his final dispositions.
That January night he showed himself at Court attending a ball at the Palace of Christianborg, whither the King and Queen had now removed from Hirscholm. Moving through the glittering, courtly throng, the spare, elegant, faintly sinister Count Rantzau came face to face with the all-powerful Struensee, a massive figure in incongruous pink and silver. He saw the florid countenance lose something of its bonhomie as their eyes met. Nevertheless, the minister hailed him airily, with a lift of the hand.
'Ah, Lord Count!'
Rantzau bowed stiffly. 'At your excellency's orders.'
The blue eyes narrowed under their reddish brows. The smile was faintly sneering. 'Here's humility.' He stood squarely before the Count. 'I wonder should I beware of that quality in you. I suspect you of avoiding me. You must come and see me, Count. We should have much to say to each other.'
'Your excellency is gracious.'
Struensee's sneer became more marked. 'No compliments between old friends. When will you come?'
'Perhaps sooner than you expect me.'
'Eh?' Suddenly stern, Struensee gripped him by the shoulder. His tone hardened to command. 'You will wait upon me tomorrow morning, if you please, Count.'
'I shall not fail, excellency.' Rantzau bowed, and passed on, followed by the suspicion-laden glance of those hard blue eyes.
Sauntering through the crowd, Rantzau came to a settle, set a little apart, on which a slight, almost boyish figure, in saffron-coloured satin, glittering with orders, was loosely sprawling. The Count bowed low over the limp hand extended to him.
'You are not merry, sire. You do not dance. Your air is weary.'
A pallid, wasted face, with deep brown stains about the dull eyes, was slowly raised. 'Ah, Rantzau! Is it you? Weary, eh? On my life, does it surprise you? Matilda imagines that this is gay; that this is life. This dressed-up pretence. Pack of play-actors! Give me men and women who are flesh and blood. No ceremony. No silly etiquette. Freedom. That's what I lack. That's why I'm pale and ill. I swoon among these stinking perfumes. My God! I stifle. I perish of weariness. And there's none to lift a finger to help me; to open a door to let a poor King out of this damned gaol.'
Rantzau bent lower; his eyes were gleaming. The mood he had stirred in this flaxen-haired half-wit who responded so readily to suggestion could not better serve his immediate need.
'There is myself, sire. It is to open just such a door that I am here.' More he dared not say. 'Let me come to you soon, sire.'
The young man's eyes lost some of their dullness. 'You can't come too soon for that, Rantzau. On my faith, you can't.'
'That is a command, sire.' Rantzau bowed low, and then, aware that the Queen and Struensee, now together, were sharply observing him he took his leave, and passed on.
Christian, who had told him that he could not come too soon, little suspected how prompt would be the Count's obedience. Three hours later, just as His Majesty had been put to bed, he was disturbed by an altercation in the antechamber. It ended in the abrupt entrance, together, of the King's valet and Count Rantzau.
The King sat up in bed. Below his swathed head, his fair pallid face looked startled in the candlelight. Rantzau thrust past the valet, who still would have restrained him. 'Your Majesty sees that I lose no time in obeying your command. And there is no time to lose. You are in gravest danger, sire.'
'In danger!' His Majesty's voice shook. 'I am the King. How can I be in danger?'
Rantzau was as emphatic as he was brief.
'Count von Struensee is destroying your kingship, your state, your honour, your very life. It is time to act, sire.' Shortly he presented arguments to penetrate those poor wits, dulled almost to extinction, ending on an appeal to vanity. 'Will you rouse yourself, and be a king? Or will you allow yourself to be destroyed by this scoundrel who has already rendered you a despised, obedient puppet?'
'A puppet!' Christian's voice was shrill with sudden fury. 'Do you dare to call me that?'
'God forbid, sire. I tell you what this villain has taught your subjects to call you.'
The lad fell into blasphemy, and after some incoherencies, 'I take God to witness,' he cried, 'I'll have his head if that is true. His head.'
Rantzau presented a paper and a pen. 'Sign, sire, and the truth of it shall be established.'
But the King shrank back. 'What is it? I am always signing. God knows what I sign. What is it?'
Rantzau thrust the pen into his hand. He became sternly dominant. 'It is an order of arrest. Sign, sire.' The King signed, grumbling foolishly the while.
'And now this.' Rantzau presented a second paper.
'What? Another? What is this?' He held it to the candlelight, and as he read the name upon it, panic leapt to his eyes. 'Lord God! Matilda! Arrest Matilda? Are you mad? Do you know how angry she would be? Do you know?' He became abject. He thrust it from him. 'No. No. Take it away. Take it away.'
For a moment Rantzau trembled. Without the warrant no officer would dare to arrest the Queen, no prison would open to receive her; and as long as she remained at liberty he knew that the arrest of Struensee was worse than idle, a mere precursor of ruin. Her dominion over Christian would constrain from him a signature that would deliver Struensee, and might even now send Rantzau and his associates to the headsman.
All the strength of his soul was in Rantzau's eyes, all the force of his will in his voice. 'I pledge my word that this is no more than a measure for Her Majesty's safety. No evil is intended her. I pledge my word. Now sign, sire.'
And the weakling, under a dominance that at least was being exerted for good, shrugged and signed.
Eichstedt, who waited in the antechamber, was dispatched by Rantzau to execute the warrant upon the Queen. Himself he went down the staircase to the mezzanine where Struensee had his apartments. In the gallery before Struensee's door he was awaited by Colonel Kohler Banner of the guards and four of his men.
The page who opened to their knock was silently overpowered. Treading softly, the six men entered the gorgeous bedchamber.
A candle burning on a bedside table showed the bulky frame of the sleeper on the opulent bed. A book that he had been reading when slumber overtook him lay on the floor where it had fallen.
Kohler Banner stepped forward, and took him by the shoulder. He started up with incoherent mutterings. Then, as his eyes caught the gleam of steel and alighted on the gold-laced white uniforms, and his awakening senses gathered some significance from this portent, he thrust a leg from the bed, gasping.
'What is it? What is it? Kohler Banner! What are you doing here? Great God, what is it?'
Through the line of white uniforms stepped a tall dark figure with a pallid deeply lined face that in the candlelight looked almost ghostly.
'It is I, doctor. I am here according to your command.'
'To wait upon you this morning. I trust that I am early enough. It has just struck four.'
Struensee scowled from a pallid, angry face. 'The jest is out of season. I'll know who admitted you, by—'
'We commanded admission in the King's name. Colonel Banner has a warrant for your arrest.'
Struensee, stricken with an unreasoning fear that shattered his high confidence, stared at him with bulging eyes. Then he rallied.
'A warrant!' He was scornful. 'You've gone mad, I think. Whose signature is on this warrant?'
'The King's.' He made a sign to Banner. 'Perform your duty, Colonel.'
But at the touch of Banner's hand upon his shoulder, Struensee bounded, bellowing, from the bed.
'What is the charge in this worthless warrant, my masters?' he demanded.
'High treason, doctor. The usurpation of powers to which you have no licit title.'
Struensee's livid face broke into a grin that displayed his teeth.
By God, Rantzau, I'll have your head for this. Banner, you fool, do you want to go the same way? Your warrant is so much waste paper. And even if it were not, the King's signature tomorrow shall make a mock of his signature tonight.'
'It might,' said Rantzau, 'if it could be procured. But who is to procure it?'
'The Queen, you fool,' was the confident answer. 'The Queen, as you shall discover to the cost of your neck.'
Rantzau sourly smiled. 'The Queen, doctor, is herself being placed under arrest at this moment.'
The big man stared a moment in sheer incredulity. Then he actually laughed.
'Has your madness really carried you so far? Quem Deus vult perdere...! You make arrests, then, without charge?'
'Oh, no, doctor. The charge is, as in your own case, high treason. For in a queen adultery is high treason. In your reckless effrontery you seem to have forgotten that. It has woven the rope for your scoundrelly neck, Struensee.'
The usurper, abruptly robbed of all the confidence he had been steadily recovering, reeled back with terror in his eyes.
'You...you will have to prove it,' he faltered foolishly.
'It will not be difficult to prove what is already notorious.' Rantzau stepped past him, past the bed, to the wall, where a tapestry hung depicting the taurine wooing of Europa. He swept it aside from the door which it masked. He opened the door, and disclosed a narrow staircase. Then he turned and looked at Struensee, who crouched as he watched him.
'Take him away, Colonel,' he commanded.
By that secret staircase Rantzau ascended to the Queen's apartments. Her voice, shrill with anger, met him as he approached.
The uncouth Eichstedt was performing his task without delicacy.
Aroused by her women, wrapped in a blue velvet cloak, her hair in disorder, her countenance inflamed, Matilda had swept into the antechamber to bombard the General with furious demands of an explanation. When he had curtly supplied it, derision became blent with her fury. She overwhelmed him with threats of physical violence which she looked robust enough to execute. Then peremptorily she clamoured for Struensee, ordered one of her women to bring him to her.
It was at this moment that Rantzau entered. 'Doctor Struensee, madame,' he coldly informed her, 'has been arrested upon a warrant from the King.'
Her fury was checked less perhaps by that calm, commanding presence than by the fact that seeing him enter from her bedroom informed her of the way by which he had come. Then in redoubled fierceness she sobbed and panted. 'You have dared!' she cried. 'My God! This will cost you your head.' She swung to Eichstedt again. 'Stand away from that door. Let me pass. I am going to the King.'
It was Rantzau who answered her. 'The King, madame, has retired. He is not to be disturbed. His wishes are expressed in the warrant General Eichstedt is here to execute. But I beg, madame, that you will not be alarmed. This arrest is a measure for your safety. Doctor Struensee has brought upon you some of the resentment which he has deserved at the hands of the people. There may be disturbances when his arrest becomes known.'
'Disturbances! My God, sir, I promise you that.'
'We desire,' he continued quietly, 'to place you in safety until peace shall have been restored.'
She would listen to no more. She raged at him. She hurled at him a costly piece of Sévres that missed his head and went to crash against the brocaded wall. Dishevelled she flung this way and that, a volcano of threats.
'Madame, I beg that you will calm yourself, and accept a situation contrived for your own good. I pledge you my word, madame, that your confinement shall be of the briefest.'
'And I pledge you mine that you shall hang for this, you scoundrel.' He bowed low, crossed the room, and passed out, leaving her to General Eichstedt.
The General was less ceremonious. 'I have a carriage waiting, madame, to take you to Kronenburg. Will you have your women dress you, or shall I order in my men to do it? I don't doubt they'ld relish the job.'
'Kronenburg!' she echoed, chilled by the name of that grim fortress. And then, commanding herself at last, she asked the pertinent question: 'Upon what grounds do you pretend to arrest me?'
Eichstedt, firmly planted on his thick, booted legs, looked her squarely in the face. His puritanical soul had abominated all her ways. 'High treason, madame,' he answered her. 'It should not surprise you. It must have been within your knowledge that in a Queen adultery is high treason.'
The splendid figure seemed to wilt before them, to shed, quivering, all its stateliness. His brutal words had brought her at last to perceive the legal reality behind what she had been regarding as merely high-handed violence. She grew afraid, and in fear there was an end of her resistance.
Had she remained in Copenhagen she must have come to see for herself that Rantzau uttered no more than the truth when he spoke of this arrest as a measure necessary for her safety. When the news of that night's happenings was out, and the awe of Struensee effaced by it, the people made mutinous holiday, parading the streets in their thousands, voicing aloud the ribaldries concerning Struensee and Matilda which hitherto they had barely dared to whisper among themselves.
The demonstration was at its height when Juliana drove through the crowded streets, to show herself to the mob, with her stodgy son, Prince Frederick, seated beside her.
Rantzau's first news of this piece of opportunism on the part of the Queen-Dowager was the sound of the acclamations greeting these usurpers of a place that in such an hour belonged to the King and his little son, the Crown Prince. He was not only indignant. He was profoundly uneasy. He felt that faith was being broken with him. And not even when, in the days that followed, he found himself, as had been promised him, presiding over the council that now held the reins of government, was his mind entirely at peace.
This council's first concern was with the indictment of Struensee. After the too ambitious physician's execution, in the following April, Rantzau gave thought to the word he had pledged to the unfortunate Matilda who still languished at Kronenburg. Popular feeling had by now died down, and her further detention was unnecessary. To insist upon her release, he came one morning to the Council Chamber in the Christianborg Palace. He found the Council already assembled when he arrived. But not until he had made his request was he informed by the Queen-Dowager that the existing Council proposed to set up a regency to govern during the minority of the Crown Prince. The fate of Queen Matilda, she added, would become the concern of the Regent.
Rantzau was aghast. 'The Regent,' he echoed. 'But we have a King in Denmark.'
'We had a King in Denmark,' she answered him, with a quiet smile, 'when you proposed a regency to Queen Matilda. What you accounted lawful then, you cannot account unlawful now.'
He was momentarily at a loss. There was this morning an unctuousness about that fair, plump German woman that awakened all his old mistrust of her.
'That,' he said, 'was so as to wrest the power from the hands of the usurper.'
Eichstedt answered him: 'Another usurper might arise. We must guard against a repetition of that.'
Rantzau began to suspect that it was himself they had in mind. He had the sense of being attacked; hard-pressed.
'And His Majesty,' Grunberg was adding, 'is known to be unfit for the responsibilities of government.'
'But it is for us, his Council of State, to guide him,' Rantzau countered.
The falsely demure Juliana sighed. 'That, my lord, can never be anything but a pretence. No Council can guide His Majesty. It can merely legislate in his name. No, no'—she firmly shook her head. 'A regent has become necessary, and the people in the streets of Copenhagen today have as good as elected him by their acclamations. It is fortunate that by birth he should be the proper person to fill the office and govern in the place of his unfortunate brother.'
An approving murmur ran the length of the board. But not on that account did Rantzau mince his terms.
'I see. We substitute for a King who is unfit to govern, a boy who is equally unfit. Prince Frederick to be regent for King Christian, and Your Majesty to be the regent of Prince Frederick. I see. And you expect my concurrence?'
'We hope for it, Count.' Her eyes were malicious. 'We hope for it, for your own sake.'
He pushed back his chair, and rose. 'The hope, madame, is an insult. When I risked my life to break the shameful bondage of the King, it was not to replace one usurpation by another.'
There was an explosion of anger about the table. Colonel Banner and von Holckt came to their feet to give more pointed effect to their indignation. By a gesture, Juliana restrained them.
'After that, Count von Rantzau, there is no more to be said; and no place for you here.'
Thus dismissed, he stood looking at them for a long moment in silence, and in that moment, although he remained erect and unshaken, the signs of age seemed to sharpen in his long pale face. Then he bowed to them, without another word, and departed as he was bidden.
At their invitation he had used all his credit and influence to organise and execute, confronting all its dangers, the coup d'état which had overthrown Struensee, merely so as to render possible this further coup d'état which gave the royal power to Juliana. He should have remembered, he told himself, the character traditionally borne by stepmothers. He should have known that no real goodwill to Christian actuated her. But he would not yet own defeat. What had been done by his credit and influence, his credit and influence might yet undo.
Juliana, however, was as fully aware of this as he was, and Juliana had not yet played her last card. That followed next day, after the Regency had been proclaimed; and it was the elegant Count von Holckt who was sent to play it on the Queen-Dowager's behalf. As the emissary of the Regency, he bore to Count von Rantzau an order of perpetual banishment, to be instantly obeyed.
Seated at his library table, Rantzau read the order bearing the signature of the puppet-regent whose authority he had made possible. He was given six hours in which to quit Copenhagen, a week in which to depart from Denmark.
His glance, laden with an infinite weariness, was levelled upon von Holckt.
'I suppose none doubts that I shall obey?' he said.
'I could not wrong your perspicacity by such a doubt. You will realise that the alternative would be a prison. This because at large you could be very dangerous. Risings against established authority do not happen spontaneously, whatever the feeling, as we have seen in the case of Struensee. They need to be organised; and Her Majesty the Queen-Dowager accounts it prudent that so skilful an organiser as your lordship should not remain amongst us.'
Rantzau's sombre eyes continued steadily to regard him. 'Do you know, sir, that I find the message less surprising than the messenger?'
'Is it possible that you bear malice, Count? Surely you see that I do no more than discharge a debt. Your employment by me to pull down Struensee makes us quits for your employment of Struensee to supplant me. I bear you this message, merely so that I may seize the opportunity of taking my leave of you now that the end is reached.'
'The end!' Rantzau received a sudden illumination. 'But where was the beginning? Shall we place it in the time when, chosen by Queen Juliana for your mastery of vice and profligacy to be Christian's minion, you first initiated him into the excesses which have consumed the little wit he had, and accomplished his ruin?
'Then, as now, you were the vile agent of that German woman. That was the beginning to which this supplies the end, as you say. And there was more. It was in the design that Queen Matilda should be ruined, too. The excesses, the drunkenness, the lechery in which you so ably engaged Christian were so to disgust her that she would be ready to fall into the arms of the first adventurer bold enough to become her lover. It has all happened as you plotted. Both the King and the Queen have been removed from the path of Madame Juliana. The word I pledged to Queen Matilda is dishonoured. And you, who in all this have been the agent of that German woman, come here to leer in pride. That is because you, who have the soul of a lackey, are too contemptible to know how contemptible you are.'
Livid under the insult, tortured by that unmasking, despite his shamelessness, von Holckt's suavity left him. But he had no answer. He could only snarl as he departed:
'An escort of Falkenschjold's dragoons will be here at six this evening, to conduct you to Holstein. A pleasant journey, Count von Rantzau.'
A shadow detached itself from the deeper shadows about the little doorway to a back staircase that led to the apartments of the Grand Duchess at Oranienbaum, and vanished among the pines that rendered fragrant the tepid summer night. Above the silken rustle of the sea came a sound of swift feet and then a raucous voice.
'Who goes there?'
'The Grand Duke's tailor.'
Six tall Holsteiners closed about the shadow. It was wrapped in a long Venetian cloak and covered by a wide hat. When presently in the light of the hall cloak and hat were unceremoniously pulled away there emerged from this black chrysalis a young gentleman in blue satin and silver, whose golden hair was elegantly clubbed.
The German sergeant was sardonic. 'Righteous Lord God! You look like a tailor.' Then they dragged him off to General Brockdorff's quarters, and the sergeant, stiff upon his gaitered legs, made his report.
The General listened, startled eyes upon the handsome figure. At the end he peremptorily waved a hand. 'That will do. You can go.'
He thrust back his chair, and rose as the door closed upon the soldiers. 'Monsieur Poniatowski, what does it mean? What are you doing here?'
Save that he was breathing a little faster than usual, the young gentleman showed no distress. As a member of the corps diplomatique (he had come to St. Petersburg in the train of the British ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams) he was protected by privilege. Nevertheless, when after a moment he answered, his air of mild defiance was enough to betray his uneasiness.
'I was taking the air.'
'At Oranienbaum! At two o'clock in the morning? Twenty versts from St. Petersburg? You came a long way to take the air, sir.'
'Account it an eccentricity.'
'It's not for me to account it anything, but for you to explain it. And to the Grand Duke, if you please. Come along, sir.'
With despair in his heart, but composure on his features, he suffered himself to be conducted to a vast room, amid the gloom of which there was a gay island of light. Here, at a table sparkling with silver and glass and bright with the colours of fruit and flowers, sat a man and a woman. There were no servants present.
At the opening of the door, the man turned his head in peevish wrath.
'In the name of hell...' He broke off. Brockdorff! What the devil do you want? And who's this bantam?'
He got up, so untidily and unsteadily that his chair crashed over. He was short and slight, and below powdered hair displayed a face, flushed now with wine and annoyance. It was an ill-natured face, of an insignificant natural ugliness aggravated by the scars of smallpox. Of little chin and less brow, it formed in profile a rectangle with its apex at the nose. A star of diamonds gleamed on the breast of his yellow coat. His gold-embroidered waistcoat was unbuttoned. Prominent red-rimmed eyes glared malice at the intruders.
Brockdorff explained, and drew his companion forward so that the light more completely revealed him.
'Oh, to be sure. I recognise him now.' The Grand Duke's speech was slurred. He hiccoughed loudly. 'And what may you be doing here, Monsieur Poniatowski?'
Poniatowski answered him as he had answered the General. 'I was taking the air, highness.'
The woman, who had remained seated, facing them, her elbows on the table, laughed. A short lumpy girl, whose flat, coarse face, like the Grand Duke's, was pockmarked, she was the niece of the Vice-Chancellor Vorontsoff; but despite her birth and the splendour of her gown and jewels, she had the air of a dressed-up peasant.
'You hear?' growled his highness. 'The freiline laughs at you; but I don't laugh, I. By God, you are insolent to answer me so. Taking the air, you fool! Pish! I know more than you suppose, my cockerel. Very little happens that I don't know. Very little. Among other things, you have the impudence to be too friendly with my wife. But that's no matter. It's your other attachments that matter to me; the other interests you serve. Ah! That startles you, jackanapes. You think I see nothing.' He strutted forward on his spidery legs. 'Let me tell you that little escapes me. I know all about you. You're a man of Austrian sympathies. An enemy of Prussia. And who is the enemy of Prussia is my enemy. My enemy!' He shrank back on the thought and the implications it brought into his addled brain. 'Righteous God! How do I know that you have no designs against me? Against me?' He moistened his lips. He screwed up his mean eyes. 'Why are you prowling round Oranienbaum at two o'clock in the morning? Eh? Were you lying in wait for me? Answer, by God!'
Poniatowski actually showed relief. 'Highness, the thought is monstrous.'
'Monstrous? Why do you grin? Damn you! You'll have pocket pistols.'
'But what a suspicion, highness!'
'Search him, Brockdorff.'
Poniatowski drew himself up. The course the Grand Duke's suspicions were taking gave him ease of mind and a full courage. 'Highness! That would be an outrage. I am an accredited ambassador.'
'Accredited to cut my throat, maybe. Search him, I tell you.
Brockdorff was aghast. 'Highness!' he protested. 'Search him, devil take you!'
Brockdorff looked almost imploringly at the young man. 'Your excellency permits?'
Poniatowski laughed and submitted. He was without weapons. 'You see, highness. And your other suspicions are just as unwarranted. I am associated with the English ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, and England has made alliance with Prussia. How can I be supposed attached to Austrian interests?'
His highness was pulling foolishly at his nether lip. The woman spoke.
'Peterkin, you're a blunderer. Here.' She beckoned him ungracefully, and obediently he went, for the empire over him of this his latest mistress was already firmly established. She took him playfully by the ear and drew it down to the level of her lips. She whispered into it at length. Knowing her malice, Poniatowski watched in dread. Knowing the Grand Duke's malice, the fellow's grin as he broke away from her increased his fears.
Arms akimbo, with feet planted wide, the Grand Duke stood again before him and leered into his face.
'Aren't you a great fool not to take me into your confidence? Thousand devils, man! Did you think I'ld play the jealous husband? Do you think that is why I set a guard? Numskull, those precautions are for the security of my own person.'
Miraculously Poniatowski kept his wits. He played on the fool's notorious vanity. 'Whatever their object, highness, the dispositions bear witness to high military talent.'
'Aha!' The Grand Duke purred under the gross flattery. He threw a chest. 'I am a soldier, my friend, not a trifler.' Smiling, he took Poniatowski by the arm. 'He stays with us, Brockdorff. Be\off.' He drew the young man forward to the table. The Vorontsoff's coarse vivid lips were smiling broadly. 'Now that we understand each other, now that we're good friends, you shall stay to supper. We'll make a party. Wait.'
He rolled out of the room with a cackle of imbecile laughter. With another cackle he came to the bedside of the Grand Duchess. She was peacefully slumbering, her cheek upon her softly rounded arm. He pulled the arm away. She opened her eyes, and as consciousness grew in them so grew dread.
'Get up,' he ordered. 'You're wanted. Get up.'
It was not the first time she had been aroused to witness some buffoonery, to be cursed in obscene barrack-room terms, to be cuffed, even, if she displayed reluctance. Mistrustful of this joviality, she rose at once, a woman of middle height, still beautifully shaped, although by now, in this her twenty-eighth year, inclining to plumpness. Her skin was of a dazzling whiteness, and her face with its aquiline nose and lofty brow, from which the luxuriant chestnut hair was now drawn back, was irresistibly attractive. Intelligence and power dwelt in her fine dark eyes.
She had drawn a Batavian bedgown over her shoulders, and was seeking her stockings when Peter lost patience.
'Come, come. What the devil! Leave the rest. We're friends together. You'll do very well.' He caught her wrist in his rough red paw, and dragged her forth.
She suffered the indignity so that she might be spared worse; but not in any fear. That emotion was no longer hers. But it was aroused again when in that island of light about the gleaming table she beheld her lover standing straight and tense.
The Grand Duke slyly watched her stupefaction, then exploded into malicious laughter.
'To table, madame. To table. Here we are all friends.'
Only then, as she came forward like a somnambulist, did she become aware of the presence of the Vorontsoff, who, for all her insolence, would have risen, but that the Grand Duke waved her down.
'No ceremonies. No pestilent etiquette. All friends together.'
Then Catherine thought she understood. A cynical bargain was being forced upon her. She was to bend her proud neck and sit at table with the Vorontsoff, whom hitherto she had refused to tolerate, in exchange for a complacency that made Poniatowski safe. For her dear lover's sake she must accept; and so for an hour and more, like an automaton, she played her part in that queer supper-party, her face a smooth mask upon her inward rage.
Poniatowski, too, was smoothly master of himself. He accepted the situation at its face value, ascribing its queerness to the drunken eccentricity of his host.
At last, as the daylight was beginning to filter through the curtains, the Grand Duke rose, drawing the Vorontsoff with him. Blear-eyed he contemplated the Grand Duchess and the young Pole.
'Well, well, my children, it's clear you have no need of us. Nor we of you.'
He reeled out, giggling, on the arm of his mistress. The door slammed so that the windows rattled. Then there was silence. Catherine and Poniatowski were alone. They looked at each other in the light of the guttering candles. A smile broke on the fair, handsome face of the young Pole. He leaned towards her, a hand extended.
'What the gods send—'
But there he checked. For she shrank quickly from the intended caress, her dark eyes dilating with a fear that she no longer troubled to dissemble. She lifted a finger in warning, her ears straining to listen. She knew the malice of Peter, and suspected here a trap. After a moment's silence she quietly rose, and swept barefooted to the door. Perhaps it was no more than her alarmed fancy that created a patter of retreating footsteps beyond it. She flung it wide, and called. She had to call again before a sleepy lackey shambled forward. She asked for General Brockdorff, and remained in the open doorway until he came, no word passing between herself and Poniatowski.
'His highness has retired,' she informed the general with the gracious dignity she used. 'I beg that you will see our guest upon his way.'
Thus tamely ended the last of Poniatowski's secret visits to Oranienbaum during the remainder of her highness's sojourn there that summer. But not on that account was it the end of his clandestine relations with her, relations which were not only those of a lover, but also of a political associate. Indeed, it was on state matters that Poniatowski had first sought her highness, and it was in the course of those meetings that the intimacy had sprung up between them.
She was, when he came into her life, a woman who had suffered bitterly, whose nature had been moulded and hardened by this suffering as steel is tempered in fire. She was no longer the gentle, awed little German princess of the insignificant house of Zerbst-Anhalt, whom the Empress Elizabeth had summoned to Russia so that she might become the bride of her nephew and heir, that other German, of the House of Holstein. She owed her destiny to the sentimentality of the Empress, who had been robbed by death of a betrothed she never ceased to lament in the person of the brother of Catherine's mother.
Coming from a house that had no place in history, the daughter of a father who had to work as a soldier for his living, the great prospect opened out to her was dazzling until she made the acquaintance of the crapulous degenerate she was to marry. Yet it was only after marriage that she fully discovered his loathsomeness. Coarse in manners as in appearance, addicted to low company, rarely sober, obscene in speech and habits, he inspired her with horror.
Vicious by nature, he ill-treated her for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain. He hated her for an intelligence which made him recognise her superiority; yet in doubt or difficulty he would fly to her whimpering for advice. Her shrewd wit had led him to nickname her Madame la Ressource—Madam Resourceful.
Meanwhile Catherine had been educating herself. She read deeply and widely; she worked hard to learn Russian; and she learnt other things that went to enrich her mind and increase her self-confidence.
Her fresh young beauty and her ready wit made life possible by creating for her a court within the court; and in a society whose morals were the most lax in Europe there was no lack of enterprising young gallants, like Soltykoff and Narychkine, to pursue her with their ardours. Had she been weak, it still remained that she was too closely spied upon and guarded to have yielded to her weakness.
The Empress was kind to her, but rendered impatient by Catherine's failure to perform her obvious duty and produce an heir to the throne of Russia. At last, however, in the autumn of 1754, nine years after her marriage, it did come to pass that the Grand Duchess was delivered of a son, and all was well.
Thereafter she resumed with an increased assurance her place at Court. And there were greater things in store. A slight stroke of apoplexy suffered by the Empress reminded the all-powerful Chancellor, Bestucheff, that since his mistress was not immortal he must be looking to his future. The vicious imbecilities of the Grand Duke made it impossible to contemplate him as a master. Bestucheff entered into secret relations with the Grand Duchess. He would contrive that before the Empress died Her Majesty should set her signature to a deed bestowing the throne jointly upon Peter and Catherine. The deed should be slipped among other documents for signature at a time of vagueness in the imperial mind.
Things had been in this pass when Stanislas Poniatowski made his first appearance at St. Petersburg with Sir Charles Williams. He was twenty-two at the time, a nephew of the Czartoryskis, the most powerful house in Poland. He was handsome, travelled, accomplished, enriched in nature by the Italian and the Jewish blood in his veins. The fine correctness of his conduct lent him a particular distinction in a court where so much coarseness was discernible once the eyes ceased to be dazzled by the superficial glitter.
Williams entrusted Poniatowski with the task of winning the Grand Duchess to their policy. England had now joined hands with Prussia and it was desired to bring Russia into the alliance.
Thus began the relations between the wife of the apelike heir to the throne and the handsome young Pole who captivated her by elegancies of mind, expressed in the language of Voltaire, that matched the elegance of his person. Understanding ripened between them imperceptibly. Opportunities for protracted meetings were created. For as a result of her understanding with Bestucheff she was delivered from the vigilance that had hampered her movements in the past.
As their intimacy grew she contrived secret excursions with Poniatowski on the water or through the woods on horseback, when she rode in male attire. All that she had suffered here in Russia seemed but a little price to pay for the happiness of those days. To all she appeared radiant, gay, and sparkling as never before. If the Court guessed the cause, yet there was no flagrant scandal until the tale came to be told of that night scene at Oranienbaum. After that the lovers were doomed to starve in the greater circumspection into which, for love's sake, they had been scared. She vowed, nevertheless, that in her this love should perish only with life itself.
She vowed it at a time when he was passionately urging her to fly with him from a misery that had endured too long already. But to a woman in her station the step was unthinkable, and the consequences might fall terribly upon him.
These he pronounced himself ready to defy.
'I'll gladly take the chances which your fears exaggerate, my Catherine. Come with me to France. There we shall be safe. Put an end to the indignities you have been suffering for years from this evil, drunken toad. Will you drive me mad with the thought of your bearing these infamies until you die?'
A curious smile took shape on her lips. 'That will not happen.'
'Not happen? If he is what he is whilst awe of the Empress restrains him, what will he become when he is Emperor and holds the whip? And that will happen soon.'
'I have provided.' Something in her calm and in the inscrutability of her smile almost made him tremble. 'It is a great secret, Stanislas. I tell you of it so as to quiet your fears.' And she told him of the secret understanding with Bestucheff. 'So you see, my dear,' she ended wistfully, 'I must remain to pour the wine that has been poured for me.'
That wine was becoming less bitter than it had been, as a result now of the completeness of her estrangement from the Grand Duke. Engrossed in the Vorontsoff, in whom he found a companion entirely to his taste; a woman who spat and swore like a dragoon, and who was even willing to get drunk with him, Peter pursued his indifferent way. In the following spring, when the Grand Duchess was delivered of a daughter of whom all the world believed Poniatowski to be the father, the Grand Duke set the court rocking with laughter at his seriocomic lament.
'I can't think where my wife finds all her pregnancies.' Then, abruptly, jests and quips were silenced, attention deflected from the lovers.
Bestucheff, the powerful Chancellor, was arrested on a charge of having been bought by the King of Prussia. He was blamed for the treacherous retreat of General Apraksine when Frederick the Great, beaten to his knees at Gross Jaegersdorff, lay at Russia's mercy.
The arrest sowed dismay throughout the Court, and terror in the heart of Catherine. It was no trumped up charge, as she well knew, for she had been an active party to the intrigue. So much had Poniatowski accomplished. And there was that other intrigue, touching the future joint sovereignty, by which Madam Resourceful was safeguarding her future. Letters had passed between her and Bestucheff. If any were now discovered that would be the end of her. A grim mirage of Siberia loomed before her. Yet she kept her courage, raddled her pale cheeks, carried her head high, and showed herself to the Court serene as ever. Thus for some days. Then one evening whilst she sat at faro, Poniatowski came to stand beside her as if to watch the game. As he bowed low over the hand he bore to his lips, she felt a folded paper pressed into her palm. It went into her white bosom, and stayed there until she had retired for the night.
It contained but two lines: 'Fear nothing, madame. I have burnt everything.' It bore no unnecessary signature. It was from Bestucheff. She breathed freely again. The old fox had espied the hunt whilst it was still afar, and he had taken his measures. Something did come to be found, it is true, among his papers; but not enough seriously to compromise her.
If, however, the tragedy she had feared was averted, a tragedy scarcely less black was to overwhelm her. Poniatowski had been able to bring her that note because he was in communication with Bestucheff. In this he continued until it came in the end to be discovered: a foreign diplomat in relations with a man charged with high treason. The offence was grave. Poniatowski had abused his office.
He was given his passports and ordered to leave Russia instantly. He was to take no farewells, to hold intercourse with none, and he should be thankful that no worse befell him.
When Catherine heard of it, he had already gone. He exhibited his desolation in a note which Sir Charles, taking pity on his despair, consented to deliver to her.
Her spirit broke completely. Sir Charles witnessed the beginnings of a paroxysm in which she called for death as the only anodyne. Her soul was rent by anguish. It was the end of the world for her. Nothing could ever again arouse her interest. What was ambition, what was power, what was anything that existence could offer, when love was ravished from it She likened now her life to a corpse tricked out with glittering jewels. In her despairing sorrow, in her widowhood, as she regarded it, she kept her apartments, took to her bed, gave out that she was ill. The Court had no illusions on the nature of her indisposition.
Only after some days did she begin to master her grief. She read again and again the pathetic little note which protested an undying love, the writing all besmeared by the tears that had fallen on it, and gradually she began to lean upon the confidence it breathed that some day they must be reunited, and so take comfort. Destiny could never have the cruelty to ordain otherwise. And so she wrote to him from the depths of her poor, broken heart that she would wait for him to the grave and beyond it. Having procured a courier and dispatched her letter, she found her courage greatly increased. She would face life again, since she must live for that reunion.
She came forth a rather wistful figure, with a haunting sadness in those great dark eyes that seemed now bereft of their magnetic power. But in the following spring they settled on a young officer lately returned from the Prussian campaign, in which he had covered himself with glory, and some of the wistfulness was observed to fade from them, some of their magnetism to be recovered. The officer's name was Gregory Orloff, and the tale of his deeds at Zorndorf, where he had taken three wounds, made him now the hero of the hour. For the rest, with the blond head of an angel on the body of a Hercules, he was certainly a man to hold the eye. He was one of five brothers, all of them officers in the Guards; all of them tall, powerful fellows; all of them handsome, saving that the beauty of Alexis had been marred by a scar; all of them worshipped in their regiments for their physical perfections and their prowess.
When he was presented to Catherine, she found him as dull as he was handsome. Of poor intellect and no education, he was a man whom nothing could ever startle, because to his simple unimaginative nature nothing held any implications. He saw what he saw, but never what it meant. He was reputed a hard drinker, a reckless gamester, and of as boundless an audacity in affairs of gallantry as in all else.
In all things he was the very opposite of the courtly, polished, poetical Poniatowski; and it may have been this very contrast which came to lend him interest in her eyes. He promised such very different experiences. His influence with the Guards, too, was not to be overlooked by an intelligent woman whose ambitions Bestucheff's intriguing had vaguely aroused. Whatever the future might hold for her, nothing would be lost by attaching this young giant to her person. And as for the present might he not supply a balm for her poor lacerated heart? Might he not fill the empty, aching place, and help her to bear with fortitude her desolation? And did she not owe fortitude to Poniatowski as well as to herself? You conceive her arguing thus.
Audacious in gallantry though he might be, he would hardly have ventured to plunge into the arms of the Grand Duchess if she had not very clearly invited him to do so. The spiritual companionship which she craved and which Orloff could not supply, she found at about this time in the young Princess Dashkoff, that other niece of the Vice-Chancellor Vorontsoff. She was far from suspecting that these two—Gregory Orloff and the Dashkoff—were the tools by which her destiny was to be shaped.
This destiny, however, did not begin to emerge until the following year, when the Empress Elizabeth died. And its chief architect, when all is said, was Peter himself. He lost no time.
As he strutted behind the hearse, in his tight Prussian gaiters, he disgusted the populace by his imbecile levities. After that he offended the clergy by decreeing the secularisation of Church property, and he scandalised all orthodox Russians by announcing his intention of returning to the Lutheran religion. Lastly, this worshipper of Frederick the Great enraged the Guards by putting them into uniforms of Prussian design and subjecting them to an iron Prussian discipline with its dreadful floggings.
Whilst he was making enemies and arousing contempt on every hand, Catherine, never more prepossessing than now, in her thirty-third year, was winning the respect of all by her gentle dignity, her affability, and her displays of quick intelligence.
From Peter her estrangement was now complete. They occupied apartments at different ends of the palace, and neither crossed the threshold of the other. This was fortunate, because she was again about to become a mother, and only by agonies of tight lacing did she succeed in dissembling the fact in public. So well did she contrive that when she was delivered of a son, her intimate Princess Dashkoff was as far from suspecting it as she was from suspecting the extent of Catherine's relations with Orloff. And yet between these two—the eager, vivacious little princess and the handsome, stolid guardsman—there was a sort of collaboration. They were engaged in tempting the young Empress to make herself mistress of the situation. The little Dashkoff's notion was a revolution that should dethrone Peter in favour of the Tsarevitch Paul, now eight years old, with his mother Catherine as regent. This project the astute Panine, the new Chancellor, was prepared to support. Orloff, more simple and direct, took no account of the Tsarevitch.
Catherine listened to them, dreamed, and postponed. It might come to be necessary to do something. But not yet. They, however, were already at work: the Princess in court circles, Orloff and his brothers with the already disaffected Guards.
But Catherine herself hung back, in spite of abundant provocation from the Emperor, in spite even of rumours of sinister intentions concerning herself. Thus until she was sharply spurred by an intolerable public insult.
It happened in June of 1762, at a splendid banquet spread in Peter's new palace to celebrate the treaty of peace with Prussia.
At the head of the great table, the Emperor gave the toast of the Imperial Family. When the brave company of four hundred guests rose to honour it, Catherine alone remained seated. Peter's ape-like face empurpled. His eyes bulged at her. As the company rustled down again, she found the aide-de-camp Godovitch at her elbow. The Emperor desired to be informed why Her Imperial Majesty had not risen.
There was a hush, a sense of evil in the air. Catherine commanded herself. She was calm and smiling.
'The Imperial Family being composed only of the Emperor, myself, and our son, I did not account the homage necessary.'
Godovitch bore the message, and was sent back to tell the Empress that she was an imbecile and should have known that the two princes of the House of Holstein who were present, and were the Emperor's uncles, formed part of the Imperial Family. Lest Godovitch, lacking audacity to deliver the message precisely in those terms, might suppress the word 'imbecile,' Peter leaned forward, fixing her with his evil eyes, and hurled at her the insulting word for all to hear.
Hers in that moment was the only face that still smiled, although tears stood in her eyes. She turned to Strogonoff at her elbow.
'You are mute, sir. Tell me something to amuse me.'
But there was still more to follow. When the Emperor rose from table, mouthing and grimacing in rage, he was heard to order Prince Bariatinsky to place the Empress under arrest. Only the firm intervention of Prince George of Holstein averted so scandalous a conclusion to the feast.
Back in her own apartments, with Skourine, her faithful, confidential servant, on guard, she sat deeply pensive, whilst the plump black-haired little Dashkoff, quivering with anger, stimulated her to action.
'Will you strike whilst you are free? That may not be long. Tonight you have had a very near escape. Elizabeth Vorontsoff will see that you don't escape again. She has her heel on the Emperor's neck. It is she who commands. And she is determined to be Empress.'
Catherine sat up sharply. 'What do you mean? Do you seek to drive me by fear? Or have you gone mad?'
'She is to be Empress.' The Princess repeated her words slowly. 'Empress. It is already common talk. The Emperor is to divorce you, shut you up in a nunnery, marry the Vorontsoff, and send the Tsarevitch to Kronstadt.'
Catherine was still rejecting belief in anything so monstrous, when Skourine ushered in the two Orloffs, Gregory and Alexis. With them came the elegant, frivolous, but devoted Narychkine.
Ahead of his companions, Gregory, resplendent in a guardsman's uniform that was plastered with bullion, cherubic of head and countenance, stood stolidly before her.
'Who is the father of the Tsarevitch?' he asked, with the same abrupt indifference in which he might have asked: 'Who made that gown?'
Whilst the Princess gasped in horror, Catherine merely laughed at a question so incredible.
'I have thought that it might be the Emperor,' she said. Orloff explained himself. 'If that is so, then His Imperial Majesty is a liar as well as an idiot.'
Narychkine chortled. 'Whether he's a father or not, he's certainly everything else that you say.'
Orloff went on without heeding him. 'I overheard him swear to Prince George that before he packs you off to a cloister and sends the Tsarevitch to rot in Koenigsberg, he'll have you paraded through the streets with a placard on your breast—"Mother of the Bastard."'
She laughed no longer. She was on her feet, pale and tense, her every breath a sob. Her hands were clenched, her dark eyes blazed, her nostrils were quivering. 'Is that his mind? And not only myself, but my son is to feel his cruelty! So! I have been too patient. We must cross the Rubicon.' She flung wide her arms in a gesture of appeal. 'I am in your hands, my friends.'
The Princess uttered an ejaculation of relief. Narychkine prayed God that it might not be too late already, and swore roundly that Her Majesty should have made up her mind a month ago. But the Orloffs had no misgivings, having no imagination. That was their strength: a stupid courage that supplied their complete lack of all the other qualities necessary to guide so dangerous an enterprise.
'A week,' Gregory assured them, 'is all we need. The train is laid.'
Fortunately, whilst Orloff had exaggerated nothing of the Emperor's avowed intentions, His Majesty was not prompt to execute them. There was another banquet on the morrow, followed by fireworks, and yet another on the morrow of that. And on the next day, the twenty-fourth June, Peter went off with the Vorontsoff to his summer residence at Oranienbaum, ordering Catherine to Peterhof, which was midway between Oranienbaum and St. Petersburg. She obeyed him to the extent of going, but she left the conspirators very active.
One great advantage at such a moment Gregory Orloff derived from the fact that he was paymaster of the Guards. He plunged his hands deeply into the regimental cash-box and scattered lavish bribes among the men. Of the officers, in the main, he had made sure already.
The conspirators were still at their preparations when the betrayal that must inevitably wait upon their blundering lack of caution came to take them by surprise. Any but the Orloffs would have decamped at once, accounting themselves lost. Instead, they resolved to strike the iron, although it was still cold. The burly Alexis drove away in the dawn to Peterhof. He reached the palace at five o'clock in the morning. Without ceremony, thrusting aside attendants, he marched into Her Majesty's bedroom, and tore apart the curtains of her massive, gilded bed.
'It's time to get up. We shall have to proclaim you at once.'
That is all that he thought it necessary to say. He was even less loquacious than his brother.
The Empress, thus rudely aroused, sat up startled, drawing the lace of a flimsy night-rail over her lovely breast.
'Proclaimed? At once? But—'
He interrupted her. He remembered something. 'Pas-sek has betrayed himself. He's been arrested. There is no time to lose. We must go.' He displayed no more excitement than if he had been summoning her to breakfast, and from this stolidity she may have gathered courage.
She rose, dressed hurriedly, and then, in the carriage that had brought Alexis, they set out at the gallop for St. Petersburg. With them Her Majesty took her waiting-woman and her French hairdresser Michel, who arrived just as they were leaving.
It is twenty miles from St. Petersburg to Peterhof, and the horses, with which Alexis had covered the journey once already, were at the point of foundering when, at three miles from the capital, they were met by Gregory and Bariatinsky. The Empress and her little following transferred themselves to Gregory's carriage, and thus, between seven and eight o'clock in the morning, having set out at the bidding of a subaltern, driven by her lover and escorted by her waiting-woman and her hairdresser, Catherine entered St. Petersburg to take possession of the greatest empire in the world.
They drove into the courtyard of the Ismailofski Barracks, and at Gregory's order the drums were set at once to beat the assembly. The guardsmen came tumbling out half-dressed and half-asleep, to be ordered to shout, 'Long live the Empress!'
Bethinking them of the gold received and of a probable distribution of vodka to come, they shouted lustily. A priest was found and dragged forth in panic. He, too, did as Orloff bade him. He raised a cross aloft and administered to the regiment an oath in terms which proclaimed Catherine sole Empress and autocrat of all the Russias. Smiling, fresh, rosy, sparkling of eye, she proved an intoxication to the men. They pressed about her to kiss her hands, her feet, her dress, and at last set out to bear her to the Church of Our Lady of Kazan.
On the way they were joined by the Sieminofski Regiment, by the Horse Guards, who had placed their Colonel, Prince George of Holstein, under arrest, and at the last by the Fourth Regiment of Guards, the Preobrajenski, which momentarily had hesitated.
To the ringing of bells and the cheering of the uncomprehending but excited populace, Catherine entered the Church of Our Lady of Kazan to receive the oaths of fidelity of her subjects. Thence, amid ever-growing excitement, she passed to the Winter Palace, which had been the scene of so many humiliations, but whither the nobles, the Senate, the Synod, and even the new and masterful Chancellor, Panine, hastened in that rash hour to do her homage.
Thus in a fever of emotion the long summer day which had seen the miracle of this bloodless, crazy, revolution sped to its close. In the cool of eventide the ardours also cooled. It was remembered that they had yet to hear from Peter. He had with him at Oranienbaum his fifteen hundred Holsteiners. He had with him and devoted to him the foremost Russian soldier of the day, Marshal Munich; and in Pomerania he had an army which there were no handsome Orloffs to corrupt.
The Emperor had gone that day to Peterhof. There, at three o'clock, he received the shock of the news. He bestirred himself. He commanded manifestoes to be edited. He ordered his Holsteiners to join him. He remembered that he was a soldier, not a trifler. He dressed himself in his Prussian uniform: big boots, spurs, sword, and decorations. He would open the campaign by seizing Kronstadt, across the water. In the dusk he went aboard a galley with his courtly attendance, which included more than a dozen ladies, and they set out, as if for a water-party. They were gay. Peter had recovered his spirits by now. He strutted and swaggered in his Prussian uniform. He was conscious that militarism was in his blood, and he was intoxicated by this chance to play the soldier in earnest; to handle soldiers who were living men, and display the military talents perfected with tin soldiers and cardboard castles which even in manhood had been his constant playthings.
The great fortress loomedgrim and vast in the moonlight. From the ramparts a sentry challenged the approaching galleys.
'Who goes there?'
But Catherine's emissaries had forestalled him.
'There is no longer an Emperor. Pass on.'
At Peter's elbow, by the companion-head, old Munich shook with anger.
'Nevertheless, we land, sire,' he announced firmly.
'They will never dare to fire upon you. At the worst—'
But Peter was no longer at the Marshal's side. At the suggestion that they might be fired upon, he had gone down the companion with a terrific clatter of sword and spurs, to seek shelter in the bowels of the galley. There his livid panic set the ladies screaming.
The vessel was ordered about, and Munich spent most of the night in urging the obvious upon his palsied master. Let him embark in a ship of war, go to place himself at the head of his army in Pomerania, and return to crush this mutiny. But the momentary contact with the actualities of conflict had scattered Peter's dreams of soldiering. He was not to be persuaded. In this, at least, he displayed great firmness. He would go back to Oranienbaum, and open negotiations.
He got there in time to learn that the four regiments of the Guards were preparing to march upon him and his Holsteiners.
The Guards had no love for these Holsteiners. They set out eagerly at daybreak to prove it. They had cast off the detested Prussian livery lately imposed upon them, and had resumed the old uniforms of Peter the Great.
At their head, riding astride, in a uniform borrowed from an officer of the Sieminofski Regiment, went the Empress, a crown of oak leaves entwined about her sable cap, her chestnut hair streaming loose in the breeze, her face alight and eager. At her side, similarly accoutred, rode the plump little Dashkoff.
Presently they were met by Prince Galitzine with a proposal from Peter which amounted to a capitulation. He offered to share the imperial power with Catherine. She pushed on without troubling to answer.
They were reaching Peterhof when a second envoy met them. This one bore the Emperor's abdication. There was, then, no need to go farther. Catherine dismounted and entered the palace.
There, to Peterhof, later in the day Peter was brought to her. The evil little wretch, who for years had terrorized her, insulted her, and beaten her, and who had been proposing to make an infamous show of her before dispatching her to a nunnery or to Siberia, came now in a slobber of tears, pitiful, abject, to kiss her hands and mumble intercessions that at least he might not be separated from his mistress. He begged also for his pet monkey and his fiddle. And the insolent Vorontsoff, responsible for so much, who had schemed so remorselessly in her lust of empire, crawled on her knees to sue for the mercy of being allowed to continue with her lover.
They were separated, for all their whimperings. Elizabeth Vorontsoff was sent to Moscow, Peter to a house at Ropcha, pending the preparation of quarters for him in the fortress of Schlüsselburg. His pet monkey and his fiddle, however, were conceded him.
The strain was over. The revolution so crazily undertaken was incredibly accomplished. Catherine could repose at last.
The Princess Dashkoff, proudly excited by her share in these glorious events, invaded the privacy of Her Imperial Majesty. In the imperial antechamber she found Gregory Orloff stretched booted upon a divan, as much at his ease as if he were in a taproom. Scandalised, she pursed her full lips.
'Her Imperial Majesty?'
The blond giant grinned. 'In there.' With a careless jerk of the thumb he indicated the open door of a farther room. 'Taking off her breeches.'
The Dashkoff gasped. Then she saw what he was at, and gasped again. At his elbow there was a table, and on this a pile of letters whose appearance proclaimed their official nature. Nonchalantly he was breaking the seals.
'What are you doing?' she cried in horror. 'Those are State papers. No one may touch them but the Empress or those she appoints.'
'Just so,' said the languid Orloff. 'She told me to run through them.'
Thus the Princess reached understanding of what was presently to be understood by all. If she was shocked, nevertheless she stayed to supper with them.
One evening later in that fateful week, by when Catherine's capable hands had taken a firm grasp of the reins of government, Her Majesty was disturbed at her toilet by the entrance of Alexis Orloff. He was as abrupt and unceremonious as on that morning when he had torn her from her bed. He showed signs of wear. His disordered clothes were covered with dust, his scarred face glistened with sweat. He went down on one knee to make his announcement.
'I am from Ropcha. It is finished, matouchka. He is dead.'
Very slowly she set down the mirror she was holding, and turned so that she might face him squarely. Her long, dark eyebrows were raised on that lofty brow, her dark eyes were wide.
'Dead?' Her voice came almost in a whisper. 'Dead?' Then abruptly, leaning over him, sharply she asked: 'How did he die?'
'Of a colic,' said the terse Alexis.
Her eyes searched the impassive face. 'You are sure?'
'Sure. Of a colic.'
She sank to a stool before her mirror. Mechanically she took up a silver comb. She issued an order to him. 'Not a word of this tonight. Not a word. I' will make the announcement tomorrow.'
What tears she had to shed were shed officially next day in public, after the Senate had proclaimed the event. On the night that the news reached her, she appeared serene and radiant to the Court, and the handsome Gregory Orloff towered beside her in a possessiveness not to be mistaken.
In those days of her intoxication she even entertained a thought of marrying her guardsman, and broached the matter to Panine.
The spare, dry Chancellor bowed with the utmost respect. 'The Empress of Russia may do as she pleases. But Madame Orloff will never be Empress of Russia.'
She was not distressed. She perceived that it was better so. To take a husband was to surrender something of her vast power, to concede to another a measure of dominion over her. As things stood, this lover, as her subject, would belong to her, not she to him. But at least she need not stint her favour to this young soldier whom she had used to distract her from anguished thoughts of her lost love, and who had played no inconsiderable part in the events that had placed her where she stood.
'And I'll repay you, Gregory. My favour shall make you glorious. Ask what you will of me.'
'Huh, matouchka!' said the laconic Gregory, and enfolded her in his massive arms.
Her delicate body thrilled in that bear-hug. The tender, courtly Poniatowski had been but a pale ghost of a lover compared with this vigorous young giant. During those summer days she wore him openly and proudly as her lover, and she was content.
Then, like a thunderbolt upon her serenity came a letter from Poniatowski. The ardent fidelity of that romantic soul expressed itself lyrically. \The man announced himself as about to set out for St. Petersburg, so that now that all was changed, now that she was no longer a wife, now that no obstacle stood between them, they might reap together the reward of their constancy, and repay each other for the starved years of separation.
In a panic she dispatched a courier to Warsaw with her answer that began: 'I cannot tell you what obstacles there are to your coming.' So much, at least, was true. She could not tell him. Therefore she did not make the attempt.
His frenzy was merely increased. He wrote again, and yet again. He would not be denied; he could not read between the lines of her chilly letters. His fond persistence drove her to despair.
In the bitter dread aroused by this complication she turned to the Dashkoff, who possessed so much of her confidence.
'The fool'—thus, in her exasperation, she alluded to the erstwhile object of a worship she had sworn should be eternal—the fool will not understand that he is inconvenient; that he belongs to the past; that this romance is dead and buried.'
'If you were to write and explain that to him—' the Dashkoff was beginning.
'Explain it thundered Majesty, white and shaking. 'That would merely bring him the more surely. This man presumes to think that he has claims upon me. If he comes, as he threatens, I know how he will behave. It will be ruinous. Ruinous!'
The Princess shook her head. 'Surely Your Majesty exaggerates the danger. After all, you are Empress. There is no limit to your power.'
'No limit?' Catherine was derisive. But even as she sneered, her countenance lighted with sudden inspiration. There were, indeed, no limits to the power she wielded, and not only in Russia. This vast power reached beyond her frontiers, into Poland, where, too, her will was law. And the throne of that elective kingdom just then stood vacant.
'Pardi!' she cried out. 'I have it!' She laughed, and clapped her hands together. 'I have it! I'll make him King of Poland.'
The Dashkoff stared in a round-eyed amazement that grew to horror. 'Poniatowski! King of Poland! But he is of no account; he has no faintest claim. It is ludicrous, madame. The nobles will never accept him.'
'Will they not?' Her smile was almost savage. 'They shall choose between having him for their King and me for their enemy. I'll send instructions today to my ambassador in Warsaw.' She sat down, and laughed in her relief. 'So that is settled.'
Overwhelmed by that stupendous gift, which deflected his mind from its inconvenient amorous longings, Stanislas Poniatowski returned thanks from the depths of his amazed soul, conceiving this to be an earnest of the great love she bore him. He never suspected that Madam Resourceful tossed him a throne as a keepsake merely because she could discern no other way of compelling him to remain in Poland.
In one way and another she had lost, through the Revolution, considerably over a million francs, and would of a certainty have lost her life as well had not the events of Thermidor come sharp and suddenly to ring down the curtain on the Terror.
Her offence lay not only in the vast wealth which she had known how to amass in theatrical and other enterprises—and to be inordinately wealthy, unless you happened to be a peculative member of the government, was in itself an advertisement of civic shortcomings—but further in the fact that her theatre in the Palais Royal had brought her in the old days into relations with despots, aristocrats, and such-like brigands that were far too intimate for a patriotic-minded woman. The ci-devant ladies of the ci-devant court of the now happily decapitated despots had flocked to that theatre of hers, there to study the fashions in which they would squander the nation's wealth whilst good patriots went in want of bread. Grave as was the offence, could it be conceived that it had ended there? Was it to be imagined that Mademoiselle Montansier who set the fashion in clothes—worn by the distinguished actress La Contat, and interpreted to the Court by the Queen's dressmaker, La Bertin—did not also set the fashion in many other even more infamous luxuries?
Thus the Argus-eyed Robespierrists.
It was in vain that now that the civil old régime had been happily swept away, La Montansier had renamed her playhouse Le Théâtre de la Montagne—the Theatre of the Mountain—in honour of the party of the Mountain which included all the truly progressive deputies, whose prophet was Robespierre himself. That was but dust in the eyes of Argus. And Argus has too many eyes to be easily reduced to total blindness, even by so effective a dust as that of flattery.
So it was resolved that the Citoyenne Montansier should go the way of those to whom she had set the fashion. She was to follow for once the fashion they had set for her. And of a certainty she would have sneezed into the sack but that the Mountain that doomed her was itself doomed, and its end came about abruptly, before it had time to encompass her own.
Barras, the handsome, sybaritic Provençal nobleman who had thrown in his lot with the Revolutionaries and had become a man of consequence in the Convention—though never of such consequence as in those days of Thermidor—went in person to deliver his old friend from the prison of the Conciergerie and restore her to her considerable property in the Palais Royal, which in addition to her theatre comprised a number of shops and dwelling suites in the Arcade. Her gratitude was such as you would bestow upon one whom you considered the preserver of your life, particularly if you loved your life as the Citoyenne Montansier loved hers, despite the seventy years it counted. To look at her you would never have suspected her age to be above fifty, so well-preserved and graceful still was her plump figure, and so attractive her countenance—in which the resources of Thespian art, no doubt, were enlisted to dissemble the ravages of nature. With this apparent youthfulness of body, the alertness of her mind, the vivacity of her manners, and the fresh tenderness of heart and soul combined to make up a personality of unusual charm.
Casting about her for means to express her consuming gratitude to the citizen-representative, and having discovered that he was but indifferently lodged in a house in the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs, she placed at his disposal one of the handsome suites of rooms in her arcade in the Palais Royal, and thither Barras—a man of ever-increasing importance in these days of Thermidorean reaction—presently transferred himself.
Thither in quest of the august representative came one day early in the following year—by when France had grown accustomed again to breathing freely, the shadow of the red horror no longer oppressing her—a slight brown-skinned, lantern-jawed wisp of a young man in an extremely soiled and shabby uniform, whose badges, however, proclaimed him a brigadier-general.
Barras received him with the suave affability that became your true republican. Great sombre, glowing eyes considered the representative out of that gaunt boyish face.
'It is not possible that you should remember me,' said he, his voice harsh, almost fierce, with a contempt that seemed to take himself and the citizen-representative and, indeed, all the world, into its embrace. 'Two years ago—'
The suavely smiling citizen-representative interrupted him.
'On the contrary. I remember you perfectly. You are my little artillery captain of Toulon. How can I serve you, General Bonaparte?' And he offered the shabby soldier a chair. The soldier ignored the offer.
'I have been in prison,' he answered with increasing fierceness, and added: 'I am hungry.' It was as if he made Barras personally responsible for these misfortunes. 'My family depends upon me, and my family is without bread. I have ability; none knows better than you that I have ability. That is why I come to you. I have ability; yet I have no bread. That was a common enough state of things under the despots. But a revolution makes equal chances for all—otherwise what is the good of a revolution?'
The representative considered him through narrowing eyes, drawing his breath sharply. 'You have ability...' he agreed slowly, musingly. His mind had carried him back to the siege of Toulon two years ago, when he had gone there as the people's representative to superintend the operations.
He had asked one day for the services of an artillery subaltern to carry out certain notions of his own with regard to the emplacement of a battery. They had sent him this young Corsican, shabby and out-at-elbows then as now, but alive with energy and intelligence. So well had he carried out Barras' wishes and so masterly was the report he presented that the citizen-representative had made him a captain on the spot. Further he had continued to keep an eye on him to such good purpose that this young man of twenty-four stepping quickly to commander, and colonel had gone back to the Army of Italy a few months later with the rank of brigadier-general.
Barras, who knew his world, knew that if only you oblige a man enough you persuade him that he may look to you for further obligations. It did not therefore surprise him that this unemployed young artilleryman should turn to him in his present extremity. But there were certain things about him that Barras did not like. His air of intractable fierceness, his harsh tone that was almost one of reproach, should be softened.
'You have ability,' he repeated. 'I admit it; but you lack discretion. You are still the terrorist, even now when the Terror is out of fashion. That does not help people to forget your ultra-revolutionary incendiarism, your fire-breathing pamphlets, your "Souper de Beaucaire," your support of the younger Robespierre. Instead of inveighing against the fact that you were cast into prison, be thankful that you have escaped the guillotine. It still operates, you know, for men who insist upon disturbing the world with Robespierrist notions. I say this as your friend, my general.'
My general's blue-grey eyes lost some of their glowing fierceness, his manner became less intractable. At last he remembered that Barras had offered him a chair, and he sat down, placing a shabby hat across the knees of his soiled and shabby breeches of leather that once had been white. He passed a hand across his massive brow, brushing aside the wisps of his black hair, that hung straight and lank.
'If it were for myself alone...' he muttered, and seemed to apologise for his earlier manner. 'But there is my family. I want work, citizen-representative. I have told you that I am hungry.'
'You shall stay to breakfast,' said Barras. 'And we'll see what can be done. I have some friends coming who may be able to help us.'
Bonaparte stayed, and thereafter it became a habit of his to drop in daily upon Barras to inquire whether the citizen-representative had anything yet to offer him. Usually he came at breakfast-time. Usually, too, he would accept the genial Barras' invitation to return to dinner. Yet beyond these very opportune meals, days grew into weeks and Bonaparte derived no profit from his assiduous attendance at the Palais Royal. And this notwithstanding that at Barras' hospitable table, he met many men of influence in the Convention; for Barras kept open house in that garçonnière of his, and seldom sat down to table without company. But Bonaparte made no friends amongst them. They found him taciturn and gauche. He presented an odd combination of mistrustfulness, shyness, and ferocity that rendered him now unpleasantly caustic, now almost as unpleasantly servile.
Meanwhile the year dragged on into summer; to the threshold of Vendémiaire, when first were heard the mutterings of the sections in revolt against the Convention, and preparing a revolution of their own.
By now Bonaparte's fund of patience, never very deep, was exhausted and his importunities grew more insistent. Yet Barras bore them with an equable indolent good-humour based upon his liking for the Corsican.
'But what can I do, my friend?' he cried. 'I have done as you wished. I have recommended and presented you to the Committee of Public Safety. Unfortunately their knowledge of your antecedents outweighs their regard for my recommendation. Nevertheless, Aubry is willing to appoint you to a regiment of the line.'
The Corsican snorted fury and impatience. 'The line!' he exclaimed in affronted horror. 'Oh, it is the end! There is nothing to be done with these fools—nothing! I am going.'
'Where?' quoth Barras.
'Where people have sense; where they know a man. I shall offer myself as an artilleryman at Constantinople. They'll make me welcome there.'
'Come, come, my general,' the representative soothed him. 'You have talent, ability, courage, and patriotism—'
'There is no employment in France for a man with those qualities.'
'You are wrong. You are too impatient and violent. Sooner or later you will find and take your proper place. Patience, then; patience!'
'Patience!' He hurled the word back at Barras. Then, rendered inarticulate by fury, he thrust his great black hat down upon his brow and stalked out. But he came back to dinner that evening.
The notion of Constantinople, however, persisted. More calmly some days later he told Barras that he was resolved; that life offered him no alternative, since short of seizing that opportunity he must submit to utter destitution. In changing the young Corsican's mind on that subject, Barras was not to guess that he was changing the very destinies of the world.
'You are wrong to say there is no alternative. There is,' said Barras. 'There is marriage.'
Bonaparte stared at him. 'You think that starving in company is more amusing than starving alone?'
'Not at all. I am speaking of a marriage of convenience, of the kind that was regularly contracted under the old regime. Your ruined gentleman, or your gentleman who having come into the world without fortune had never had the chance of ruining himself, knew how to make himself snug with the daughter of some wealthy bourgeois—banker, merchant, or financier. Since you are so impatient—'
'And where shall I find this accommodating nabob's daughter who will relieve my neediness and set me on the road to fortune?' The soldier was sneering.
'They exist—in plenty,' the representative assured him. 'Of course you must not be too exigent on the score of other attributes so long as the endowment is satisfactory. Let me look round for you. I may be able to help you better in this than in other ways.'
Bonaparte shrugged contempt of the notion. Perhaps he attached no importance to it, accounting it merely an idle subterfuge to turn his mind from the spoor it so obstinately and importunately followed. And then the door of the elegant salon was opened by Barras' servant, and Mademoiselle Montansier stepped across the threshold and into Bonaparte's life.
Her friendship with Barras was such that all ceremony was set aside between them, and she was in the habit of walking in upon him at all hours. She checked now in the doorway, perceiving that he was not alone; and she would have withdrawn again but that he sprang forward to welcome her and lead her forward. Thereafter he presented to her his little artillery general, who thanks to the representative's generosity was no longer quite the tatterdemalion of a little while before. His blue coat was now tolerably fresh; his white leather breeches were tolerably clean.
She was very elegant in a rich déshabille gown of rose brocade; she came straight from the hands of her hairdresser, elaborately coiffed and not without more than a suspicion of powder, which left one in doubt as to the actual degree of greyness of her hair. She curtsied in response to the Corsican's bow with all the grace acquired by years of studied deportment across the footlights, and the charm of her personality went forth to dispel still further the impression that she was an old woman.
In her hand she carried a copy of the Moniteur fresh from the press. The grave news contained in it was the reason of this matutinal visit.
'My friend, have you seen?' she cried, her voice rich still and musical. 'But it is terrifying. This revolt of the sections grows and grows; thousands are rallying to them daily. We are threatened with another revolution—another Terror.'
He soothed her. These gazettes lived by sensations. They magnified all things that they might magnify their own sales. Let her not give heed. The Convention, acting through General Menou, in command of the Army of the Interior, would know how to stamp out these last smouldering embers of insubordination.
She sighed, but half-convinced, as she took the chair that Barras was proffering.
'You are men and soldiers,' said she. 'You naturally look lightly on the peril. For you there is glory or death. But for us—for a poor woman living alone, with no one to lean upon—what is there? Pillage and all manner of evils. We are the property of the conqueror always. Ah, citizens, I have endured; I have seen; I know. It is sad to be a woman and alone.'
'Madame has no husband?' said Bonaparte, with such deep concern of tone and glance that Barras perceived him to be touched by the charm of this lovable septuagenarian.
'Of course not, since she is a spinster,' said the representative.
'At least,' added the Corsican, 'mademoiselle cannot lack friends who will defend her.'
'Ah, that is true. I am very fortunate in the friendship of Monsieur Barras. I was in prison, and he delivered me. But for him—but for his ridding us of that monster Robespierre—I must have perished.'
The soldier bowed, his great solemn eyes considering her. 'Mademoiselle, who would not count himself honoured in defending you? There are not wanting those who will gladly follow the Citizen Barras' example.' His tone implied that he was to be counted amongst them.
Flattered surprise and pleasure crossed her gentle face.
'Ah, but that is not to be refused, monsieur,' she cried. 'I rejoice that Monsieur Barras' friends should be mine. I am reassured by the knowledge that I may rely upon them.' And playfully, with the familiarity to which her years entitled her towards one who in age might have been her grandson, she tapped his brown cheek caressingly with two fingers of her exquisite hand.
Association with the Court had given her courtliness; she carried with her an air of that charmed world that was but a name to Bonaparte; and so she was to him a phenomenon in human nature before whose apparent superiority to his own kind he bowed—terrorist that he had been and still was at heart—without being conscious of the true reason of his submission.
When on the morrow Barras, reverting to the matter of a marriage of convenience, asked him what he thought of Mademoiselle Montansier, the young Corsican was taken aback. Reflection, however, absorbed the shock.
'Of course,' he said slowly, 'one would never really give her the age she has; she is gay and amiable, and no doubt talented.' He considered further. 'That she is good and obliging can be seen at a glance...' He fell to musing, staring through the window, shoulders hunched and brows furrowed in thought.
Barras spoke of her fortune, informing his protégé that despite her losses she was still mistress of at least a million and a quarter.
'To come to facts—frankly now—would you wish to marry her?'
Bonaparte wheeled to face him. 'Would she marry me?' he asked, on a note of doubt.
'That is to ascertain—after you have answered my question.'
Back into his musings went the Corsican, muttering the while:
'This requires thought, citizen.' He began to pace to and fro. 'There is nothing to be said against her personal appearance—no. There is this disproportion in our ages. But after all, it is like so many things one has no time to notice in revolutionary times. And then her fortune—'
He broke off, and pondered silently, pacing ever. At last he stopped before his patron, who reclined at his ease upon a couch.
'Marriage,' he delivered himself with the air of having made a profound discovery, 'is a very serious thing.'
'Maybe,' said Barras, 'but frankly I don't know much about it. I married in a hurry, and left my wife in a still greater hurry two days later, since when I haven't seen her. That was many years ago.'
But Bonaparte either didn't hear or didn't heed him, engrossed in his own problem, weighing those ideal things which youth has the right to demand of marriage against the ponderously real things of which marriage with this old lady would undoubtedly make him master. At last he turned away again.
'It becomes easier for a man to go about his military duties once he has properly settled his affairs,' he said presently, and Barras took this for an expression of acquiescence.
He rose. 'Then leave this now to me. I will proceed in an orderly way. I will first ascertain if Mademoiselle Montansier is disposed to marry; and then, if she is disposed to marry you.'
Very humbly, very chastened this morning, Bonaparte thanked him, and departed leaving Barras to act as he proposed.
The citizen-representative waited that day upon the lady, and tactfully broached the subject of marriage to her.
'I should ask nothing better,' she answered him with the perfect frankness that was one of her many charms. 'In these times a woman sorely needs a protector—particularly a woman no longer enjoying the activity of youth. And there, my friend—alas!—is the difficulty. Time is woman's most relentless enemy.'
'Then Time for once has succumbed in his contest with you. Look now'—and he took her hand—'what you need is a soldier.'
'Truly—a soldier, yes, a soldier.' And she pressed his hand.
'Then, if you wish it, the matter is as good as settled.'
It took her breath away. 'I...I don't understand,' and there was a shadow of alarm in her kindly old eyes. 'What do you mean? Whom have you in mind?'
'The young soldier you met in my salon. Did you not observe how greatly he noticed you, with what devotion he addressed you? That devotion he now asks the chance to prove.'
She dropped his hand, and fell back a pace.
'But he is a boy,' she exclaimed. 'He can't be thirty.'
'True. But what, after all, have years to do with age? He carries an old head on his shoulders. At Toulon he revealed his quality; and given the opportunity, he will be sure to distinguish himself. I answer for him.'
Beginning thus, Barras came at last to persude her to give favourable consideration to his protégé. To explain his success in this he says in his memoirs: 'Little eloquence is needed, when the question of disproportion between the ages is set aside, to interest in a young man the heart of a sensitive woman who has already reached the maturity of old age. One's last love is no less ardent and sincere than one's first one. We feel that it is all that remains to us, and that we must cherish it. Were we to lose it where should we find another?'
It may be as Barras says. But I prefer to think that he does Mademoiselle Montansier something less than justice. I prefer to think that touched by the spontaneous and immediate devotion manifested for her by the young brigadier at their one meeting, and touched also by the magnetism of his compelling personality, it was to a maternal rather than to a lover's instinct that this lady responded in consenting to consider him as a husband. He would bring her the companionship, the protection, perhaps even the tenderness that she craved, as all human beings crave it—as none crave it more ardently than the aged; and in return she would give him tenderness and the power of her wealth to help him upwards. He would be as a son to her; he would give her life a new interest; in his youth she would renew her own that was now departed. Since marriage was the only link by which a relationship that she found so desirable could be permanently established and legalized, she would consent to marriage.
It but remained to bring the couple together, and so Barras asked them both to dinner. The tinge of mutual embarrassment that marked this meeting, and the interest of a more searching kind with which each now considered the other, were for the citizen-representative sources of secret entertainment. To him this meeting was amusing and nothing more. Like all easy-going voluptuaries he had never plumbed the mysterious depths of the human heart. Love to him was a shallow, unvarying, physical phenomenon easily comprehended.
But he observed the etiquette. He placed Mademoiselle on his right, and her suitor opposite, whence he could glower upon her out of those fierce, hungry Corsican eyes. After dinner he discreetly left them to improve their acquaintance.
How well they improved it we are to gather by what passed when at length the little brigadier took his leave.
'I hope, mademoiselle, very soon to have the honour of making you acquainted with my family. My mother, mademoiselle, will not fail to appreciate a lady so distinguished as yourself.'
She answered him becomingly, visibly affected. Then taking Barras into their confidence, as was surely his due: 'We may go to live in Corsica,' she told him.
'A delightful climate,' said Barras.
And very healthy,' Bonaparte added. 'People live to a good old age there.' It was not perhaps the most tactful of remarks. But he swept on to other matters. 'It is a new country where, given a little capital, fortunes can quickly be made and doubled.' From which the citizen-representative gathered that his protégé was considering abandoning the military career that had already all but abandoned him, and devoting his undoubted talents to other enterprises.
As a matchmaker Barras had every reason for self-satisfaction. Further meetings followed between the betrothed—they were no less by now. The good understanding between them, their esteem for each other, steadily increased. Mademoiselle, rejuvenated, more soignée than ever in those days of exaltation, spoke of Bonaparte quite frankly as her future husband.
And now at last, quite unexpectedly, Barras was able to override the Committee of Public Safety's prejudices against General Bonaparte. They were in Vendémiaire, and the tide of revolt in the sections—led on by some returned émigrés and other counter-revolutionary fanatics—was rising so rapidly and powerfully that it threatened to overwhelm the Convention and sweep it utterly away. The Lepelletier Section took the lead and the other sec-. tions were arming to follow, in all some forty thousand strong, to which the Convention could oppose but some five thousand bayonets. General Menou, commanding the Army of the Interior, proved unequal to the task of disbanding these rebels, wherefore the Convention deprived him of his command, and in its terror sent for Barras, the man of Thermidor.
Barras hastened to the Tuileries, and there condescended to make the attempt to save the imperilled nation. He knew, he told them, the very man to replace the spineless Menou.
'His name! His name!' roared the assembly.
'Brigadier-General Bonaparte, lately of the Army of Italy, a man of energy and resource who greatly distinguished himself at Toulon,' says Barras.
Had Barras named the devil himself, the Convention in this extremity would have accepted him. True, there are certain deputies who seem to have heard this name before. Wasn't Bonaparte the intriguing Robespierrist, deprived of his command and arrested soon after Thermidor? Well, well, the moment isn't one for objections upon matters that are over and done with. Let Bonaparte get them out of this mess, and they on their side will let bygones be bygones.
So on that twelfth Vendémiaire (fourth October, style esclave) Barras departs to headquarters in the Carrousel, which is already being put into a state to withstand a siege from the insurgents, and sends for Bonaparte. It takes hours to find him. He is not at his lodgings, nor at any of the cafés he usually frequents. Barras is not to guess that his young friend is at the headquarters of the Lepelletier Section, whither—impervious to any sentiments but those of egoism and ambition—this Corsican opportunist has gone to see upon what terms the insurgents will acquire his services. The value he sets upon these services is higher than that at which the sections rate them. Because of this he fails to make a bargain. And so at nine o'clock that night he presents himself at last to the exasperated and fretted Barras at the Carrousel.
'Where have you been?' the representative explodes at sight of him.
'Waiting for orders,' is the cool answer, and not to give the representative time for more awkward questions, Bonaparte sweeps truculently on: 'And, anyway, what have you to offer me?'
Above all time is of value, too precious to be frittered away in recriminations or in questions upon matters that no longer signify. So Barras tells him. Barras, nominally Commander-in-Chief of the Interior, is empowered by the Convention to appoint Bonaparte his aide-de-camp, his executive arm, as it were. Bonaparte understands perfectly. He nods his acceptance, and gets to business. What forces have they? He is told in detail.
'Well, well! We shall be one against ten. No matter.' He sits down. 'They will attack,' he says, 'at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon—'
'How the devil do you know that?' cries Barras.
The Corsican looks at him inscrutably. 'How? Ha! I have been busy,' he explains, which is true enough, and he goes on: 'That gives us time to make dispositions. What artillery have we?'
'None?' He is on his feet, the expression of his face entirely changed. Artillery is, above all, the thing he understands. He knows how it can neutralise odds, and here the odds require very urgently to be neutralised. Almost he wonders has he been rash in breaking off negotiations with the Sections. Barras is explaining.
'I have just seen Menou. He informs me that the guns are at the camp at Sablons.'
'At Sablons!' It is an expression of amazement and vexation. 'Dieu de Dieu! How many?'
'Are they guarded, at least?'
'By fifteen men—so Menou reports.'
The little Corsican wheels about, snarling. Has he walked into a rat-trap? His smouldering eyes fall upon a stalwart, handsome major of chasseurs in the little group of attendant officers.
'You!' he calls him crisply. 'Take three hundred men and ride to Sablons for these guns. Fetch them here as fast as you can gallop. Allons! Ride for your life, man.'
What he really meant was: Ride for my life.' The major of chasseurs, Murat by name—later to achieve fame as the beau sabreur, and later still to rise to royal dignity—salutes and departs briskly.
By six o'clock next morning—the thirteenth Vendémiaire—he was back in the courtyard of the Tuileries with the fortyy guns, and Bonaparte could get to work in earnest.
The details of the attack and its particular topography are matters of history. When the insurgent columns, forty thousand strong, rolled threateningly down upon those five thousand defenders of the Convention, Bonaparte sought his orders from Barras, the Government's representative on the field.
'A discharge of grape in the air should suffice to frighten them,' said Barras. They are but Pompey's dandies afraid of getting their faces scratched.'
Bonaparte went back to his post in a ruined building of the Rue du Bac. Along the Quai des Théatins rolled the insurgent flood, firing desultorily now as they advanced. That was enough. Bonaparte unmasked his guns, the gunners standing by with lighted fuse.
Tight-lipped, grim-eyed, he looked a moment. Then he spoke.
Volley of grape followed volley of grape, tearing red gashes in those serried ranks. The insurgent mass, taken aback by this hot reception, wavered a moment, then broke and retreated in a precipitate confusion of sheer panic.
By six o'clock that evening the revolt was, at least temporarily, quelled, and the attack upon the Convention had been abandoned by the sectionaries. Bonaparte reported to Barras in the Carrousel.
Barras was out of humour. 'I told you to fire over their heads,' he reproved him.
The Corsican shrugged. 'That would have meant a useless waste of life.'
The war was carried into the Sections to prevent their factious members from re-forming, and on the morrow began the work of systematically depriving them of arms, so as to ensure their future good behaviour. That evening, when the work was done, Barras carried Bonaparte off to the Palais Royal to dine with Mademoiselle Montansier by her invitation.
She received him effusively, entirely without reserve now, displaying pride in him, for his name was today on the lips of Paris, and congratulating him upon his achievement in so swiftly stamping out so threatening a revolt. Barras had recommended to a grateful Convention that it should permanently confirm Bonaparte's appointment to the Army of the Interior, left vacant by the failure of Menou, and a grateful Convention had shown itself eager to secure the future services of so able a defender of its existence.
Thus the Bonaparte who sat down to table that evening was by no means the Bonaparte who had last dined in La Montansier's company. Then he had been an out-of-work soldier of fortune rendered desperate by the threat of utter destitution. Now he was a man made; the reins of power were in his hands. And it may have been to these altered circumstances rather than to the fatigue occasioned by his Herculean exertions that was due the reserve, amounting almost to taciturnity, in which he sat enveloped.
When issuing her invitation that day, Mademoiselle had asked Barras how soon he thought her marriage could take place, and Barras had urged that she'should without more ado put the question to her betrothed himself. It was with this intent that she had invited him tonight to dinner. But his frigid mood scarcely seemed to encourage her, although she had done her best both in the decking of her own person and in the dinner she had provided to urge him into a frame of mind proper to the subject to be discussed. Barras tells us that the dinner was magnificently and splendidly served, and the epicurean representative was something of a judge in these matters. Yet Bonaparte's compliments to his hostess upon this were of the most perfunctory. Nor did he thaw to any great extent when, raising her glass at dessert, she beamed upon him and toasted him as 'the Victor of Vendémiaire.' She could but assign his gloom and reticence to the fatigue occasioned by his Herculean exertions.
They were still at table when Junot, an aide-de-camp of Bonaparte's, was announced. The General went to see him in the anteroom. Junot reported a fresh outbreak of trouble with the sectionaries, demanding the General's instant presence at his post. Without hesitation Bonaparte went to make his excuses to his hostess, and then, pressed by Barras, promised to return as soon as he should have made the necessary dispositions.
Those dispositions were quickly completed, and, assured that everything was in order, Bonaparte was on the point of quitting the Carrousel again, to return to Mademoiselle Montansier's table, when Junot detained him with the announcement that 'a lady accompanied by a young boy was asking to see him immediately. Impatiently he consented to receive her. She came in, followed by a slender lad of thirteen or thereabouts. But it is doubtful if Bonaparte so much as saw her companion. His great eyes considering this woman saw nothing else.
She was perhaps some three years older than himself, tall and beautifully proportioned; and she bore herself with almost regal dignity. Had not a future-telling negress in far-off Martinique prophesied for her that she should be 'more than queen'? Olive-skinned, with dark, liquid eyes and luxuriant brown hair, she was to Bonaparte—and not to him alone—the loveliest woman that he had ever seen. Spellbound, in silence, utterly mannerless, he stared and stared, standing beside his table, and making no attempt to break the silence by inviting her to speak. In the end she spoke unbidden.
'General, I come to make a plaint.'
Still those staring eyes considered her, aglow, and still he said nothing. She continued, therefore—though now a little abashed by that discomposing silence and still more discomposing stare.
'I am Josephine Beauharnais—widow of General Beauharnais. This is my son. Your men today, in the course of disarming the section in which we reside, invaded my house and took thence my late husband's sword. General Beauharnais' son comes, General, to beg you to repair an error committed in the general confusion, and to restore to him that honoured blade.'
It was some seconds after she had finished speaking before he shook himself out of his trance to consider the meaning of the words he had but subconsciously heard. Then he bowed very low.
'Madame,' he said, 'to serve you were the highest honour. The sword shall be returned.' And without drawing breath he continued, oddly emphatic: 'Myself I'll bring it to you. Where do you live, did you say, madame?'
He snatched up pencil and paper, and scrawled hastily the address she gave. Then he escorted her to the door, and there bowed low again.
When she had gone, it seemed as if he had been suddenly reduced by the loss of some vital part of him. He paced slowly back to his table, and sat down, a man bemused.
There Barras found him two hours later when at last he came.
'Why did you not return?' the representative reproved him.
Bonaparte raised a vacant face.
'Eh? Return? Where? Oh! Ah...I was busy.' The firm lips snapped tightly.
'Mademoiselle,' Barras informed him, 'was deeply disappointed. She has a delicate question to ask. But it will keep until tomorrow. You are to dine with her again.'
Bonaparte looked at him inscrutably. 'Tomorrow?'
'I can't, tomorrow.'
'I will tell her, then, to restrain her impatience until the next day.'
'Nor the next day,' said Bonaparte.
'When, then?' demanded Barras, in sharp surprise.
'Never,' said the Victor of Vendémiaire, who had found his destiny.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia