The Path of the King/Chapter 7
The horseman rode down the narrow vennel which led to the St. Denis gate of Paris, holding his nose like a fine lady. Behind him the city reeked in a close August twilight. From every entry came the smell of coarse cooking and unclean humanity, and the heaps of garbage in the gutters sent up a fog of malodorous dust when they were stirred by prowling dogs or hasty passengers.
“Another week of heat and they will have the plague here,” he muttered. Oh for Eaucourt—Eaucourt by the waters! I have too delicate a stomach for this Paris.”
His thoughts ran on to the country beyond the gates, the fields about St. Denis, the Clermont downs. Soon he would be stretching his bay on good turf.
But the gates were closed, though it was not yet the hour of curfew. The lieutenant of the watch stood squarely before him with a forbidding air, while a file of arquebusiers lounged in the archway.
“There's no going out to-night,” was the answer to the impatient rider.
“Tut, man, I am the Sieur de Laval, riding north on urgent affairs. My servants left at noon. Be quick. Open!”
“The keys are at the Louvre. You must seek them there.” The fellow grinned impudently.
“Who ordered this folly?”
“The Marshal Tavannes. Go argue with him, if your mightiness has the courage.”
The horseman was too old a campaigner to waste time in wrangling. He turned his horse's head and retraced his path up the vennel. “Now what in God's name is afoot to-night?” he asked himself, and the bay tossed his dainty head, as if in the same perplexity. He was a fine animal with the deep barrel and great shoulders of the Norman breed, and no more than his master did he love this place of alarums and stenches.
Gaspard de Laval was a figure conspicuous enough even in that city of motley. For one thing he was well over two yards high, and, though somewhat lean for perfect proportions, his long arms and deep chest told of no common strength. He looked more than his thirty years, for his face was burned the colour of teak by hot suns, and a scar just under the hair wrinkled a broad low forehead. His small pointed beard was bleached by weather to the hue of pale honey. He wore a steel back and front over a doublet of dark taffeta, and his riding cloak was blue velvet lined with cherry satin. The man's habit was sombre except for the shine of steel and the occasional flutter of the gay lining. In his velvet bonnet he wore a white plume. The rich clothing became him well, and had just a hint of foreignness, as if commonly he were more roughly garbed. Which was indeed the case, for he was new back from the Western Seas, and had celebrated his home-coming with a brave suit.
As a youth he had fought under Condé in the religious wars, but had followed Jean Ribaut to Florida, and had been one of the few survivors when the Spaniards sacked St. Caroline. With de Gourgues he had sailed west again for vengeance, and had got it. Thereafter he had been with the privateers of Brest and La Rochelle, a hornet to search out and sting the weak places of Spain on the Main and among the islands. But he was not born to live continually in outland parts, loving rather to intercalate fierce adventures between spells of home-keeping. The love of his green Picardy manor drew him back with gentle hands. He had now returned like a child to his playthings, and the chief thoughts in his head were his gardens and fishponds, the spinneys he had planted and the new German dogs he had got for boar-hunting in the forest. He looked forward to days of busy idleness in his modest kingdom.
But first he must see his kinsman the Admiral about certain affairs of the New World which lay near to that great man's heart. Coligny was his godfather, from whom he was named; he was also his kinsman, for the Admiral's wife, Charlotte de Laval, was a cousin once removed. So to Châtillon Gaspard journeyed, and thence to Paris, whither the Huguenot leader had gone for the marriage fêtes of the King of Navarre. Reaching the city on the Friday evening, he was met by ill news. That morning the Admiral's life had been attempted on his way back from watching the King at tennis. Happily the wounds were slight, a broken right forefinger and a bullet through the left forearm, but the outrage had taken away men's breath. That the Admiral of France, brought to Paris for those nuptials which were to be a pledge of a new peace, should be the target of assassins shocked the decent and alarmed the timid. The commonwealth was built on the side of a volcano, and the infernal fires were muttering. Friend and foe alike set the thing down to the Guises' credit, and the door of Coligny's lodging in the Rue de Béthisy was thronged by angry Huguenot gentry, clamouring to be permitted to take order with the Italianate murderers.
On the Saturday morning Gaspard was admitted to audience with his kinsman, but found him so weak from Monsieur Ambrose Pare's drastic surgery that he was compelled to postpone his business. “Get you back to Eaucourt,” said Coligny, “and cultivate your garden till I send for you. France is too crooked just now for a forthright fellow like you to do her service, and I do not think that the air of Paris is healthy for our house.” Gaspard was fain to obey, judging that the Admiral spoke of some delicate state business for which he was aware he had no talent. A word with M. de Teligny reassured him as to the Admiral's safety, for according to him the King now leaned heavily against the Guises.
But lo and behold! the gates of Paris were locked to him, and he found himself interned in the sweltering city.
He did not like it. There was an ugly smack of intrigue in the air, puzzling to a plain soldier. Nor did he like the look of the streets now dim in the twilight. On his way to the gates they had been crammed like a barrel of salt fish, and in the throng there had been as many armed men as if an enemy made a leaguer beyond the walls. There had been, too, a great number of sallow southern faces, as if the Queen-mother had moved bodily thither a city of her countrymen. But now as the dark fell the streets were almost empty. The houses were packed to bursting—a blur of white faces could be seen at the windows, and every entry seemed to be alive with silent men. But in the streets there was scarcely a soul except priests, flitting from door to door, even stumbling against his horse in their preoccupation. Black, brown, and grey crows, they made Paris like Cartagena. The man's face took a very grim set as he watched these birds of ill omen. What in God's name had befallen his honest France?... He was used to danger, but this secret massing chilled even his stout heart. It was like a wood he remembered in Florida where every bush had held an Indian arrow, but without sight or sound of a bowman. There was hell brewing in this foul cauldron of a city.
He stabled his horse in the yard in the Rue du Coq, behind the glover's house where he had lain the night before. Then he set out to find supper. The first tavern served his purpose. Above the door was a wisp of red wool, which he knew for the Guise colours. Inside he looked to find a crowd, but there was but one other guest. Paris that night had business, it seemed, which did not lie in the taverns.
That other guest was a man as big as himself, clad wholly in black, save for a stiff cambric ruff worn rather fuller than the fashion. He was heavily booted, and sat sideways on a settle with his left hand tucked in his belt and a great right elbow on the board. Something in his pose, half rustic, half braggart, seemed familiar to Gaspard. The next second the two were in each other's arms.
“Gawain Champernoun!” cried Gaspard. “When I left you by the Isle of Pines I never hoped to meet you again in a Paris inn? What's your errand, man, in this den of thieves?”
“Business of state,” the Englishman laughed. “I have been with Walsingham, her Majesty's Ambassador, and looked to start home to-night. But your city is marvellous unwilling to part with her guests. What's toward, Gaspard?”
“For me, supper,” and he fell with zest to the broiled fowl he had ordered. The other sent for another flask of the wine of Anjou, observing that he had a plaguy thirst.
“I think,” said Gaspard, at last raising his eyes from his food, “that Paris will be unwholesome to-night for decent folk.”
“There's a murrain of friars about,” said Champernoun, leisurely picking his teeth.
“The place hums like a bee-hive before swarming. Better get back to your Ambassador, Gawain. There's sanctuary for you under his cloak.”
The Englishman made a pellet of bread and flicked it at the other's face. “I may have to box your ears, old friend. Since when have I taken to shirking a fracas? We were together at St. John d'Ulloa, and you should know me better.”
“Are you armed?” was Gaspard's next question.
Champernoun patted his sword. “Also there are pistols in my holsters.”
“You have a horse, then?”
“Stabled within twenty yards. My rascally groom carried a message to Sir Francis, and as he has been gone over an hour, I fear he may have come to an untimely end.”
“Then it will be well this night for us two to hold together. I know our Paris mob and there is nothing crueller out of hell. The pistolling of the Admiral de Coligny has given them a taste of blood, and they may have a fancy for killing Luteranos. Two such as you and I, guarding each other's backs, may see sport before morning, and haply rid the world of a few miscreants. What say you, camerado?”
“Good. But what account shall we give of ourselves if someone questions us?”
“Why, we are Spanish esquires in the train of King Philip's Mission. Our clothes are dark enough for the dons' fashion, and we both speak their tongue freely. Behold in me the Señor Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza, a poor knight of Castile, most earnest in the cause of Holy Church.”
“And I,” said the Englishman with the gusto of a boy in a game, “am named Rodriguez de Bobadilla. I knew the man, who is dead, and his brother owes me ten crowns.... But if we fall in with the Spanish Ambassador's gentlemen?”
“We will outface them.”
“But if they detect the imposture?”
“Why, wring their necks. You are getting as cautious as an apple-wife, Gawain.”
“When I set out on a business I like to weigh it, that I may know how much is to be charged to my own wits and how much I must leave to God. To-night it would appear that the Almighty must hold us very tight by the hand. Well, I am ready when I have I drunk another cup of wine.” He drew his sword and lovingly fingered its edge, whistling all the while.
Gaspard went to the door and looked into the street. The city was still strangely quiet. No roysterers swaggered home along the pavements, no tramp of cuirassiers told of the passage of a great man. But again he had the sense that hot fires were glowing under these cold ashes. The mist had lifted and the stars were clear, and over the dark mass of the Louvre a great planet burned. The air was warm and stifling, and with a gesture of impatience he slammed the door. By now he ought to have been drinking the cool night on the downs beyond Oise.
The Englishman had called for another bottle, and it was served in the empty tavern by the landlord himself. As the wine was brought in the two fell to talking Spanish, at the sound of which the man visibly started. His furtive sulky face changed to a sly friendliness. “Your excellencies have come to town for the good work,” he said, sidling and bowing.
With a more than Spanish gravity Gaspard inclined his head. “When does it start?” he asked.
“Ah, that we common folk do not know. But there will be a signal. Father Antoine has promised us a signal. But messieurs have not badges. Perhaps they do not need them for their faces will be known. Nevertheless for better security it might be well....” He stopped with the air of a huckster crying his wares.
Gaspard spoke a word to Champernoun in Spanish. Then to the landlord: “We are strangers, so must bow to the custom of your city. Have you a man to send to the Hôtel de Guise?”
“Why trouble the Duke, my lord?” was the answer. “See, I will make you badges.”
He tore up a napkin, and bound two white strips crosswise on their left arms, and pinned a rag to their bonnets. “There, messieurs, you are now wearing honest colours for all to see. It is well, for presently blood will be hot and eyes blind.”
Gaspard flung him a piece of gold, and he bowed himself out. “Bonne fortune, lordships,” were his parting words. “'Twill be a great night for our Lord Christ and our Lord King.”
“And his lord the Devil,” said Champernoun. “What madness has taken your good France? These are Spanish manners, and they sicken me. Cockades and signals and such-like flummery!”
The other's face had grown sober. “For certain hell is afoot to-night. It is the Admiral they seek. The Guisards and their reiters and a pack of 'prentices maddened by sermons. I would to God he were in the Palace with the King of Navarre and the young Condé.”
“But he is well guarded. I heard that a hundred Huguenots' swords keep watch by his house.”
“Maybe. But we of the religion are too bold and too trustful. We are not match for the Guises and their Italian tricks. I think we will go to Coligny's lodgings. Mounted, for a man on a horse has an advantage if the mob are out!”
The two left the tavern, both sniffing the air as if they found it tainted. The streets were filling now, and men were running as if to a rendezvous, running hot-foot without speech and without lights. Most wore white crosses on their left sleeve. The horses waited, already saddled, in stables not a furlong apart, and it was the work of a minute to bridle and mount. The two as if by a common impulse halted their beasts at the mouth of the Rue du Coq, and listened. The city was quiet on the surface, but there was a low deep undercurrent of sound, like the soft purring of a lion before he roars. The sky was bright with stars. There was no moon, but over the Isle was a faint tremulous glow.
“It is long past midnight,” said Gaspard; “in a little it will be dawn.”
Suddenly a shot cracked out. It was so sharp a sound among the muffled noises that it stung the ear like a whip-lash. It came from the dark mass of the Louvre, from somewhere beyond the Grand Jardin. It was followed instantly by a hubbub far down the Rue St. Honore and a glare kindled where that street joined the Rue d'Arbre Sec.
“That way lies the Admiral,” Gaspard cried. “I go to him,” and he clapped spurs to his horse.
But as his beast leapt forward another sound broke out, coming apparently from above their heads. It was the clanging of a great bell.
There is no music so dominant as bells. Their voice occupies sky as well as earth, and they overwhelm the senses, so that a man's blood must keep pace with their beat. They can suit every part, jangling in wild joy, or copying the slow pace of sorrow, or pealing in ordered rhythm, blithe but with a warning of mortality in their cadence. But this bell played dance music. It summoned to an infernal jig. Blood and fever were in its broken fall, hate and madness and death.
Gaspard checked his plunging horse. “By God, it is from St. Germains l'Auxerrois! The Palace church. The King is in it. It is a plot against our faith. They have got the pick of us in their trap and would make an end of us.”
From every house and entry men and women and priests were pouring to swell the army that pressed roaring eastwards. No one heeded the two as they sat their horses like rocks in the middle of a torrent.
“The Admiral is gone,” said Gaspard with a sob in his voice. “Our few hundred spears cannot stand against the King's army. It remains for us to die with him.”
Champernoun was cursing steadily in a mixture of English and Spanish, good mouth-filling oaths delivered without heat. “Die we doubtless shall, but not before we have trounced this bloody rabble.”
Still Gaspard did not move. “After to-night there will be no gentlemen left in France, for we of the religion had all the breeding.” Then he laughed bitterly. “I mind Ribaut's last words, when Menendez slew him. 'We are of earth,' says he, 'and to earth we must return, and twenty years more or less can matter little!' That is our case to-night, old friend.”
“Maybe,” said the Englishman. “But why talk of dying? You and I are Spanish caballeros. Walsingham told me that the King hated that nation, and that the Queen-mother loved it not, but it would appear that now we are very popular in Paris.”
“Nay, nay, this is no time to play the Nicodemite. It is the hour for public confession. I'm off to the dead Admiral to avenge him on his assassins.”
“Softly, Gaspard. You and I are old companions in war, and we do not ride against a stone wall if there be a gate. It was not thus that Gourgues avenged Ribaut at St. John's. Let us thank God that we hold a master card in this game. We are two foxes in a flock of angry roosters, and by the Lord's grace we will take our toll of them. Cunning, my friend. A stratagem of war! We stand outside this welter and, having only the cold passion of revenge, can think coolly. God's truth, man, have we fought the Indian and the Spaniard for nothing? Wily is the word. Are we two gentlemen, who fear God, to be worsted by a rabble of Papegots and Marannes?”
It was the word “Marannes,” or, as we say, “halfcastes,” which brought conviction to Gaspard. Suddenly he saw his enemies as less formidable, as something contemptible—things of a lower breed, dupers who might themselves be duped.
“Faith, Gawain, you are the true campaigner. Let us forward, and trust to Heaven to show us a road.”
They galloped down the Rue St. Honoré, finding an open space in the cobbles of the centre, but at the turning into the Rue d'Arbre Sec they met a block. A great throng with torches was coming in on the right from the direction of the Bourbon and d'Alencon hotels. Yet by pressing their horses with whip and spur, and by that awe which the two tall dark cavaliers inspired even in a mob which had lost its wits, they managed to make their way to the entrance of the Rue de Bethisy. There they came suddenly upon quiet.
The crowd was held back by mounted men who made a ring around the gate of a high dark building. Inside its courtyard there were cries and the rumour of fighting, but out in the street there was silence. Every eye was turned to the archway, which was bright as day with the glare of fifty lanterns.
The two rode straight to the ring of soldiers.
“Make way,” Gaspard commanded, speaking with a foreign accent.
“For whom, monsieur?” one asked who seemed to be of a higher standing than the rest.
“For the Ambassador of the King of Spain.”
The man touched his bonnet and opened up a road by striking the adjacent horses with the flat of his sword, and the two rode into the ring so that they faced the archway. They could see a little way inside the courtyard, where the light gleamed on armour. The men there were no rabble, but Guise's Swiss.
A priest came out, wearing the Jacobin habit, one of those preaching friars who had been fevering the blood of Paris. The crowd behind the men-at-arms knew him, for even in its absorption it sent up shouts of greeting. He flitted like a bat towards Gaspard and Champernoun and peered up at them. His face was lean and wolfish, with cruel arrogant eyes.
“Hail, father!” said Gaspard in Spanish. “How goes the good work?”
He replied in the same tongue. “Bravely, my children. But this is but the beginning. Are you girt and ready for the harvesting?”
“We are ready,” said Gaspard. His voice shook with fury, but the Jacobin took it for enthusiasm. He held up his hand in blessing and fluttered back to the archway.
From inside the courtyard came the sound of something falling, and then a great shout. The mob had jumped to a conclusion. “That is the end of old Toothpick,” a voice cried, using the Admiral's nickname. There was a wild surge round the horsemen, but the ring held. A body of soldiers poured out of the gate, with blood on their bare swords. Among them was one tall fellow all in armour, with a broken plume on his bonnet. His face was torn and disfigured and he was laughing horribly. The Jacobin rushed to embrace him, and the man dropped on his knees to receive a blessing.
“Behold our hero,” the friar cried. “His good blade has rid us of the arch-heretic,” and the mob took up the shout.
Gaspard was cool now. His fury had become a cold thing like a glacier.
“I know him!” he whispered to Champernoun. “He is the Italian Petrucci. He is our first quarry.”
“The second will be that damned friar,” was the Englishman's answer.
Suddenly the ring of men-at-arms drew inward as a horseman rode out of the gate followed by half a dozen attendants. He was a tall young man, very noble to look upon, with a flushed face like a boy warm from the game of paume. His long satin coat was richly embroidered, and round his neck hung the thick gold collar of some Order. He was wiping a stain from his sleeve with a fine lawn handkerchief.
“What is that thing gilt like a chalice?” whispered Champernoun.
“Henry of Guise,” said Gaspard.
The Duke caught sight of the two men in the centre of the ring. The lanterns made the whole place bright and he could see every detail of their dress and bearing. He saluted them courteously.
“We make your Grace our compliments,” said Gaspard. “We are of the household of the Ambassador of Spain, and could not rest indoors when great deeds were being done in the city.”
The young man smiled pleasantly. There was a boyish grace in his gesture.
“You are welcome, gentlemen. I would have every good Catholic in Europe see with his own eyes the good work of this Bartholomew's day. I would ask you to ride with me, but I leave the city in pursuit of the Count of Montgomery, who is rumoured to have escaped. There will be much for you to see on this happy Sunday. But stay! You are not attended, and our streets are none too safe for strangers. Presently the Huguenots will counterfeit our white cross, and blunders may be made by the overzealous.”
He unclasped the jewel which hung at the end of his chain. It was a little Agnus of gold and enamel, surmounting a lozenge-shaped shield charged with an eagle.
“Take this,” he said, “and return it to me when the work is over. Show it if any man dares to question you. It is a passport from Henry of Guise.... And now forward,” he cried to his followers. “Forward for Montgomery and the Vidame.”
The two looked after the splendid figure. “That bird is in fine feather,” said Champernoun.
Gaspard's jaw was very grim. “Some day he will lie huddled under the assassin's knife. He will die as he has made my chief die, and his body will be cast to the dog's.... But he has given me a plan,” and he spoke in his companion's ear.
The Englishman laughed. His stolidity had been slow to quicken, but his eyes were now hot and he had altogether ceased to swear.
“First let me get back to Walsingham's lodging. I have a young kinsman there, they call him Walter Raleigh, who would dearly love this venture.”
“Tut, man, be serious. We play a desperate game, and there is no place for boys in it. We have Guise's jewel, and by the living God we will use it. My mark is Petrucci.”
“And the priest,” said Champernoun.
The crowd in the Rue de Béthisy was thinning, as bands of soldiers, each with its tail of rabble, moved off to draw other coverts. There was fighting still in many houses, and on the roof-tops as the pale dawn spread could be seen the hunt for fugitives. Torches and lanterns still flickered obscenely, and the blood in the gutters shone sometimes golden in their glare and sometimes spread drab and horrid in the waxing daylight.
The Jacobin stood at their elbow. “Follow me, my lords of Spain,” he cried. “No friends of God and the Duke dare be idle this happy morn. Follow, and I will show you wonders.”
He led them east to where a broader street ran to the river.
“Somewhere here lies Teligny,” he croaked. “Once he is dead the second head is lopped from the dragon of Babylon. Oh that God would show us where Condé and Navarre are hid, for without them our task is incomplete.”
There was a great crowd about the door of one house, and into it the Jacobin fought his way with prayers and threats. Some Huguenot—Teligny it might be—was cornered there, but in the narrow place only a few could join in the hunt, and the hunters, not to be impeded by the multitude, presently set a guard at the street door. The mob below was already drunk with blood, and found waiting intolerable; but it had no leader and foamed aimlessly about the causeway. There were women in it with flying hair like Mænads, who shrilled obscenities, and drunken butchers and watermen and grooms who had started out for loot and ended in sheer lust of slaying, and dozens of broken desperadoes and led-captains who looked on the day as their carnival. But to the mob had come one of those moments of indecision when it halted and eddied like a whirlpool.
Suddenly in its midst appeared two tall horsemen.
“Men of Paris,” cried Gaspard with that masterful voice which is born of the deep seas. “You see this jewel. It was given me an hour back by Henry of Guise.”
A ruffian examined it. “Ay,” he murmured with reverence, “it is our Duke's. I saw it on his breast before Coligny's house.”
The mob was all ears. “I have the Duke's command,” Gaspard went on. “He pursues Montgomery and the Vidame of Chartres. Coligny is dead. Teligny in there is about to die. But where are all the others? Where is La Rochefoucault? Where is Rosny? Where is Grammont? Where, above all, are the young Condé and the King of Navarre?”
The names set the rabble howling. Every eye was on the speaker.
Gaspard commanded silence. “I will tell you. The Huguenots are cunning as foxes. They planned this very day to seize the King and make themselves masters of France. They have copied your badge,” and he glanced towards his left arm. “Thousands of them are waiting for revenge, and before it is full day they will be on you. You will not know them, you will take them for your friends, and you will have your throats cut before you find out your error.”
A crowd may be wolves one moment and chickens the next, for cruelty and fear are cousins. A shiver of apprehension went through the soberer part. One drunkard who shouted was clubbed on the head by his neighbour. Gaspard saw his chance.
“My word to you—the Duke's word—is to forestall this devilry. Follow me, and strike down every band of white-badged Huguenots. For among them be sure is the cub of Navarre.”
It was the leadership which the masterless men wanted. Fifty swords were raised, and a shout went up which shook the windows of that lodging where even now Teligny was being done to death. With the two horsemen at their head the rabble poured westwards towards the Rue d'Arbre Sec and the Louvre, for there in the vicinity of the Palace were the likeliest coverts.
“Now Heaven send us Petrucci,” said Gaspard. “Would that the Little Man had been alive and with us! This would have been a ruse after his own heart.”
“I think the great Condé would have specially misliked yon monk,” said the Englishman.
“Patience, Gawain. One foe at a time. My heart tells me that you will get your priest.”
The streets, still dim in the dawn, were thickly carpeted with dead. The mob kicked and befouled the bodies, and the bravos in sheer wantonness spiked them with their swords. There were women there, and children, lying twisted on the causeway. Once a fugitive darted out of an entry, to be brought down by a butcher's axe.
“I have never seen worse in the Indies,” and Champernoun shivered. “My stomach turns. For heaven's sake let us ride down this rabble!”
“Patience,” said Gaspard, his eyes hard as stones. “Cursed be he that putteth his hand to the plough and then turns back.”
They passed several small bodies of Catholic horse, which they greeted with cheers. That was in the Rue des Poulies; and at the corner where it abutted on the quay before the Hôtel de Bourbon, a ferret-faced man ran blindly into them. Gaspard caught him and drew him to his horse's side, for he recognised the landlord of the tavern where he had supped.
“What news, friend?” he asked.
The man was in an anguish of terror, but he recognised his former guest.
“There is a band on the quay,” he stammered. “They are mad and do not know a Catholic when they see him. They would have killed me, had not the good Father Antoine held them till I made off.”
“Who leads them?” Gaspard asked, having a premonition.
“A tall man in crimson with a broken plume.”
“Maybe a hundred, and at least half are men-at-arms.”
Gaspard turned to Champernoun.
“We have found our quarry,” he said.
Then he spoke to his following, and noted with comfort that it was now some hundred strong, and numbered many swords. “There is a Huguenot band before us,” he cried. “They wear our crosses, and this honest fellow has barely escaped from them. They are less than three score. On them, my gallant lads, before they increase their strength, and mark specially the long man in red, for he is the Devil. It may be Navarre is with them.”
The mob needed no second bidding. Their chance had come, and they swept along with a hoarse mutter more fearful than any shouting.
“Knee to knee, Gawain,” said Gaspard, “as at St. John d'Ulloa. Remember, Petrucci is for me.”
The Italian's band, crazy with drink and easy slaying, straggled across the wide quay and had no thought of danger till the two horsemen were upon them. The songs died on their lips as they saw bearing down on them an avenging army. The scared cries of “The Huguenots!” “Montgomery!” were to Gaspard's following a confirmation of their treachery. The swords of the bravos and the axes and knives of the Parisian mob made havoc with the civilian rabble, but the men-at-arms recovered themselves and in knots fought a stout battle. But the band was broken at the start by the two grim horsemen who rode through it as through meadow grass, their blades falling terribly, and then turned and cut their way back. Yet a third time they turned, and in that last mowing they found their desire. A tall man in crimson appeared before them. Gaspard flung his reins to Champernoun and in a second was on the ground, fighting with a fury that these long hours had been stifled. Before his blade the Italian gave ground till he was pinned against the wall of the Bourbon hotel. His eyes were staring with amazement and dawning fear. “I am a friend,” he stammered in broken French and was answered in curt Spanish. Presently his guard weakened and Gaspard gave him the point in his heart. As he drooped to the ground, his conqueror bent over him. “The Admiral is avenged,” he said. “Tell your master in hell that you died at the hands of Coligny's kinsman.”
Gaspard remounted, and, since the fight had now gone eastward, they rode on to the main gate of the Louvre, where they met a company of the royal Guards coming out to discover the cause of an uproar so close to the Palace. He told his tale of the Spanish Embassy and showed Guise's jewel. “The streets are full of Huguenots badged as Catholics. His Majesty will be well advised to quiet the rabble or he will lose some trusty servants.”
In the Rue du Coq, now almost empty, the two horsemen halted.
“We had better be journeying, Gawain. Guise's jewel will open the gates. In an hour's time all Paris will be on our trail.”
“There is still that priest,” said Champernoun doggedly. He was breathing heavily, and his eyes were light and daring. Like all his countrymen, he was slow to kindle but slower to cool.
“In an hour, if we linger here, we shall be at his mercy. Let us head for the St. Antoine gate.”
The jewel made their way easy, for through that gate Henry of Guise himself had passed in the small hours. “Half an hour ago,” the lieutenant of the watch told them, “I opened to another party which bore the Duke's credentials. They were for Amiens to spread the good news.”
“Had they a priest with them?”
“Ay, a Jacobin monk, who cried on them to hasten and not spare their horses. He said there was much to do in the north.”
“I think the holy man spoke truth,” said Gaspard, and they rode into open country.
They broke their fast on black bread and a cup of wine at the first inn, where a crowd of frightened countrymen were looking in the direction of Paris. It was now about seven o'clock, and a faint haze, which promised heat, cloaked the ground. From it rose the towers and high-peaked roofs of the city, insubstantial as a dream.
“Eaucourt by the waters!” sighed Gaspard. “That the same land should hold that treasure and this foul city!”
Their horses, rested and fed, carried them well on the north road, but by ten o'clock they had overtaken no travellers, save a couple of servants, on sorry nags, who wore the Vidame of Amiens' livery. They were well beyond Oise ere they saw in the bottom of a grassy vale a little knot of men.
“I make out six,” said Champernoun, who had a falcon's eye. “Two priests and four men-at-arms. Reasonable odds, such as I love. Faith, that monk travels fast!”
“I do not think there will be much fighting,” said Gaspard.
Twenty minutes later they rode abreast of the party, which at first had wheeled round on guard, and then had resumed its course at the sight of the white armlets. It was as Champernoun had said. Four lusty arquebusiers escorted the Jacobin. But the sixth man was no priest. He was a Huguenot minister whom Gaspard remembered with Condé's army, an elderly frail man bound with cruel thongs to a horse's back and his legs tethered beneath its belly.
Recognition awoke in the Jacobin's eye. “Ah, my lords of Spain! What brings you northward?”
Gaspard was by his side, while Champernoun a pace behind was abreast the minister.
“To see the completion of the good work begun this morning.”
“You have come the right road. I go to kindle the north to a holy emulation. That heretic dog behind is a Picard, and I bring him to Amiens that he may perish there as a warning to his countrymen.”
“So?” said Gaspard, and at the word the Huguenot's horse, pricked stealthily by Champernoun's sword, leaped forward and dashed in fright up the hill, its rider sitting stiff as a doll in his bonds. The Jacobin cried out and the soldiers made as if to follow, but Gaspard's voice checked them. “Let be. The beast will not go far. I have matters of importance to discuss with this reverend father.”
The priest's face sharpened with a sudden suspicion. “Your manners are somewhat peremptory, sir Spaniard. But speak and let us get on.”
“I have only the one word. I told you we had come north to see the fruition of the good work, and you approved. We do not mean the same. By good work I mean that about sunrise I slew with this sword the man Petrucci, who slew the Admiral. By its fruition I mean that I have come to settle with you.”
“You...?” the other stammered.
“I am Gaspard de Laval, a kinsman and humble follower of Goligny.”
The Jacobin was no coward. “Treason!” he cried. “A Huguenot! Cut them down, my men,” and he drew a knife from beneath his robe.
But Gaspard's eye and voice checked the troopers. He held in his hand the gold trinket. “I have no quarrel with you. This is the passport of your leader, the Duke. I show it to you, and if you are questioned about this day's work you can reply that you took your orders from him who carried Guise's jewel. Go your ways back to Paris if you would avoid trouble.”
Two of the men seemed to waver, but the maddened cry of the priest detained them. “They seek to murder me,” he screamed. “Would you desert God's Church and burn in torment for ever?” He hurled himself on Gaspard, who caught his wrist so that the knife tinkled on the high road while the man overbalanced himself and fell. The next second the mellay had begun.
It did not last long. The troopers were heavy fellows, cumbrously armed, who, even with numbers on their side, stood little chance against two swift swordsmen, who had been trained to fight together against odds. One Gaspard pulled from the saddle so that he lay senseless on the ground. One Champernoun felled with a sword cut of which no morion could break the force. The two others turned tail and fled, and the last seen of them was a dust cloud on the road to Paris.
Gaspard had not drawn his sword. They stood by the bridge of a little river, and he flung Guise's jewel far into its lilied waters.
“A useful bauble,” he smiled, “but its purpose is served.”
The priest stood in the dust, with furious eyes burning in an ashen face.
“What will you do with me?”
“This has been your day of triumph, father. I would round it off worthily by helping you to a martyr's crown. Gawain,” and he turned to his companion, “go up the road and fetch me the rope which binds the minister.”
The runaway was feeding peaceably by the highway. Champernoun cut the old man's bonds, and laid him fainting on the grass. He brought back with him a length of stout cord.
“Let the brute live,” he said. “Duck him and truss him up, but don't dirty your hands with him. I'd as lief kill a woman as a monk.”
But Gaspard's smiling face was a rock. “This is no Englishman's concern. To-day's shame is France's and a Frenchman alone can judge it. Innocent blood is on this man's hands, and it is for me to pay the first instalment of justice. The rest I leave to God.”
So when an hour later the stunned troopers recovered their senses they found a sight which sent them to their knees to patter prayers. For over the arch of the bridge dangled the corpse of the Jacobin. And on its breast it bore a paper setting forth that this deed had been done by Gaspard de Laval, and the Latin words “O si sic omnes!”
Meantime far up in the folds of the Santerre a little party was moving through the hot afternoon. The old Huguenot, shaken still by his rough handling, rode as if in a trance. Once he roused himself and asked about the monk.
“I hanged him like a mad dog,” said Gaspard.
The minister shook his head. “Violence will not cure violence.”
“Nay, but justice may follow crime. I am no Nicodemite. This day I have made public confession of my faith, and abide the consequences. From this day I am an exile from France so long as it pleases God to make His Church an anvil for the blows of His enemies.”
“I, too, am an exile,” said the old man. “If I come safe to Calais I shall take ship for Holland and find shelter with the brethren there. You have preserved my life for a few more years in my master's vineyard. You say truly, young sir, that God's Church is now an anvil, but remember for your consolation that it is an anvil which has worn out many hammers.”
Late in the evening they came over a ridge and looked down on a shallow valley all green and gold in the last light. A slender river twined by alder and willow through the meadows. Gaspard reined in his horse and gazed on the place with a hand shading his eyes.
“I have slain a man to my hurt,” he said. “See, there are my new fishponds half made, and the herb garden, and the terrace that gets the morning sun. There is the lawn which I called my quarter-deck, the place to walk of an evening. Farewell, my little grey dwelling.”
Champernoun laid a kindly hand on his shoulder.
“We will find you the mate of it in Devon, old friend,” he said.
But Gaspard was not listening. “Eaucourt by the waters,” he repeated like the refrain of a song, and his eyes were full of tears.