Michel and Angele/Chapter 9

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IX

Every man, if you bring him to the right point, if you touch him in the corner where he is most sensitive, where he most lives, as it were—if you pinch his nerves with a needle of suggestion where all his passions and ambitions and sentiments are at white heat, will readily throw away the whole game of life in some mad act out of harmony with all that he has ever done. It matters little whether the needle prick him by accident or blunder or design, he will burst all bounds, and establish again the old truth that every man will prove himself a fool if given the right opportunity. Nor need the occasion of this revolution be a great one; the most trivial event may produce the great fire which burns up wisdom and common-sense and prudence and habit.

The Earl of Essex, so long counted astute, clear-headed, and well-governed, had been suddenly foisted out of balance, shaken from his imperious composure, tortured out of an assumed urbanity, by the presence in Greenwich Palace of a Huguenot exile of no seeming importance, save what the Medicis grimly gave him by desiring his head. It appeared absurd that the great Essex, whose closeness to the royal presence had made him the most feared, most notable, and by virtue of his powers the most gallant figure in England, should have sleepless nights by reason of a fugitive like Michel de la Forêt. On the surface it was preposterous that he should see in the Queen's offer of service to the refugee a clear evidence that she was ready to grant him further favors; that, on the refusal of this, her offer of safety to him on condition that he became a preacher was a proof that she meant to have him near her at all hazards.

Elizabeth had left the presence-chamber without so much as a glance at him, though she had turned and looked graciously at de la Forêt. He had hastily followed her, and for the rest of the day impatiently awaited a summons from the Queen, which never came, though he had sent a message to her Majesty that his hours were at her disposal. As he waited he saw Angèle escorted from the palace by her father and a Gentleman Pensioner; he saw Michel de la Forêt taken to his apartment; he saw the Seigneur of Rozel walking in the grounds of the palace with as much unconcern as though they were his own, his swaggering self-content speaking in every motion of his body.

Upon the instant the great Earl of Essex was incensed out of all proportion to the offence of the Seigneur's presence. He hated Lemprière only less than he hated Michel de la Forêt. As he waited irritably for a summons from Elizabeth which never came, he brooded on every word and every look the Queen had given him of late; he remembered her manner to him in the Antechapel the day before, and the admiration of her eyes as she looked at de la Forêt. In Elizabeth's glances he had seen more than mere approval of manly courage and the self-reliant bearing of the refugee, whose manner needed no ornament to make him a distinguished figure.

These were days when the soldier of fortune mounted to high places. He needed but to carry the banner of bravery and his busy sword, and his way to power was not impeded by his poverty or his estate. To be gently born was needful, and Michel de la Forêt was gently born—and he had still his sword, though he had declined to use it in Elizabeth's service. He knew it might be easier for a stranger like de la Forêt, who came with no encumbrance, to mount to place in the struggles of the court, than for an Englishman, whose enemies were on every hand plotting and undermining.

Essex began to think upon ways and means to destroy this sudden favor of the Queen to de la Forêt, made especially manifest as he waited in the antechamber, by a summons to the refugee to come to Elizabeth's presence. When the refugee came forth again he wore a sword the Queen had commanded to be given him, and a packet of Latimer's sermons under his arm. Essex was unaware that Elizabeth herself did not see de la Forêt when he was thus hastily summoned, but that her lady-in-waiting, the Duke's daughter, who figured so largely in the pictures Lemprière drew of his experiences at Greenwich Palace, brought forth the sermons and the sword, with this message from the Queen:

"The Queen says that it is but fair to the sword to be by Michel de la Forêt's side when the sermons are in his hand, that his choice have every seeming of fairness. For her Majesty says it is still his choice between the Sword and the Book—till Whitsuntide."

Essex only saw the sword at the side of the refugee and the gold-bound book under his arm as he came forth from the Queen's apartments, and in a rage he left the palace and gloomily walked under the trees, denying himself to every one, and planning the destruction of de la Forêt.

To seize him, and send him to the Medicis, and then rely on Elizabeth's favor for his pardon, or take a high hand with the Queen, as he had done in the past? That might do, but the risk to England was too great. It would be like the Queen, if her temper was up, to demand from the Medicis the return of de la Forêt, and war might be the result: two women, with two nations behind them, were not to be played lightly against each other, trusting to their sense of justice, wisdom, and humor.

As he was walking among the trees, brooding with averted eyes, he was suddenly confronted by the Seigneur of Rozel, who also was shaken from his discretion and the best interests of the two fugitives he was bound to protect, by a late offence against his own dignity. A seed of rancor had been sown in his mind which had grown to a great size and must burst in a dark flower of vengeance. He, Lemprière of Rozel, with three dove-cotes, the perquage, and the office of butler to the Queen, to be called a "farmer," to be sneered at—it was not in the blood of man, not in the towering vanity of a Lemprière, to endure it at any price computable to mortal man!

Thus there were in England on that day (there are at least as many now!) two fools, and one said:

"My Lord Essex, I crave a word with you."

"Crave on, my good fellow," responded Essex with a look of boredom, and making to pass.

"I am Lemprière, Lord of Rozel, my Lord—"

"Ah yes, I took you for a farmer," answered Essex. "Instead of that, I believe you keep doves, and wear a jerkin that fits like a king's. Dear Lord, so does greatness come with girth!"

"The King that gave me dove-cotes gave me honor, and it is not for the Earl of Essex to belittle it."

"What is your coat of arms?" said Essex with a faint smile, but in a voice of assumed and natural interest.

"A swan upon a sea of azure, two stars above, and over all a sword with a wreath around its point," answered Lemprière, unsuspecting irony, and touched by Essex's flint where he was most likely to flare up with vanity.

"Ah!" said Essex. "And the motto?"

"Mea spes supra stella—my hope is beyond the stars."

"And the wreath—is of parsley, I suppose!"

Now Lemprière understood, and he shook with fury as he roared: "Yes, by God, and to be got at the point of the sword, to put on the heads of insolent noblemen like my Lord Essex!" His face was flaming, he was like a cock strutting upon a stable-yard mound.

There was a slight pause, and then Essex said, "To-morrow at daylight, eh?"

"Now, my Lord, now!"

"We have no seconds."

"’Sblood! 'Tis not my Lord Essex's way to be particular in matters of courtesy!"

"’Tis not the custom in England to draw swords in secret, Monsieur of Rozel. Besides, I am not eager to fight."

Lemprière had already drawn his sword, and the look of his eyes was as that of a mad bull in a ring. "You won't fight with me—you don't think the Seigneur of Rozel your equal?" Lemprière's voice was high.

Essex's face had a hard, cruel look. "We cannot fight in the presence of ladies."

Lemprière followed his glance, and saw the Duke's Daughter and another lady-in-waiting in the trees near by.

Lemprière hastily put up his sword. "When, my Lord?" he asked.

"You will hear from me to-night," answered the Earl of Essex, and went forward hastily to meet the ladies, for they had come from the Queen's presence, and they had news no doubt. Lemprière turned on his heel and walked quickly away among the trees towards the quarters where Buonespoir was in durance, which merely forbade his leaving the palace-yard.