Read CHAPTER XIII. DIPLOMACY of Count Hannibal, free online book, by Stanley J. Weyman, on ReadCentral.com.

Where the old wall of Paris, of which no vestige remains, ran down on the east to the north bank of the river, the space in the angle between the Seine and the ramparts beyond the Rue St. Pol wore at this date an aspect typical of the troubles of the time. Along the waterside the gloomy old Palace of St. Pol, once the residence of the mad King Charles the Sixth and his wife, the abandoned Isabeau de Bavière sprawled its maze of mouldering courts and ruined galleries; a dreary monument of the Gothic days which were passing from France. Its spacious curtilage and dark pleasaunces covered all the ground between the river and the Rue St. Antoine; and north of this, under the shadow of the eight great towers of the Bastille, which looked, four outward to check the stranger, four inward to bridle the town, a second palace, beginning where St. Pol ended, carried the realm of decay to the city wall.

This second palace was the Hotel des Tournelles, a fantastic medley of turrets, spires, and gables, that equally with its neighbour recalled the days of the English domination; it had been the abode of the Regent Bedford. From his time it had remained for a hundred years the town residence of the kings of France; but the death of Henry II., slain in its lists by the lance of the same Montgomery who was this day fleeing for his life before Guise, had given his widow a distaste for it. Catherine de Medicis, her sons, and the Court had abandoned it; already its gardens lay a tangled wilderness, its roofs let in the rain, rats played where kings had slept; and in “our palace of the Tournelles” reigned only silence and decay. Unless, indeed, as was whispered abroad, the grim shade of the eleventh Louis sometimes walked in its desolate precincts.

In the innermost angle between the ramparts and the river, shut off from the rest of Paris by the decaying courts and enceintes of these forsaken palaces, stood the Arsenal. Destroyed in great part by the explosion of a powder-mill a few years earlier, it was in the main new; and by reason of its river frontage, which terminated at the ruined tower of Billy, and its proximity to the Bastille, it was esteemed one of the keys of Paris. It was the appanage of the Master of the Ordnance, and within its walls M. de Biron, a Huguenot in politics, if not in creed, who held the office at this time, had secured himself on the first alarm. During the day he had admitted a number of refugees, whose courage or good luck had led them to his gate; and as night fell on such a carnage as the hapless city had not beheld since the great slaughter of the Armagnacs, one hundred and fifty-four years earlier the glow of his matches through the dusk, and the sullen tramp of his watchmen as they paced the walls, indicated that there was still one place in Paris where the King’s will did not run.

In comparison of the disorder which prevailed in the city, a deadly quiet reigned here; a stillness so chill that a timid man must have stood and hesitated to approach. But a stranger who about nightfall rode down the street towards the entrance, a single footman running at his stirrup, only nodded a stern approval of the preparations. As he drew nearer he cast an attentive eye this way and that; nor stayed until a hoarse challenge brought him up when he had come within six horses’ lengths of the Arsenal gate. He reined up then, and raising his voice, asked in clear tones for M. de Biron.

“Go,” he continued boldly, “tell the Grand Master that one from the King is here, and would speak with him.”

“From the King of France?” the officer on the gate asked.

“Surely! Is there more than one king in France?”

A curse and a bitter cry of “King? King Herod!” were followed by a muttered discussion that, in the ears of one of the two who waited in the gloom below, boded little good. The two could descry figures moving to and fro before the faint red light of the smouldering matches; and presently a man on the gate kindled a torch, and held it so as to fling its light downward. The stranger’s attendant cowered behind the horse.

“Have a care, my lord!” he whispered. “They are aiming at us!”

If so the rider’s bold front and unmoved demeanour gave them pause. Presently, “I will send for the Grand Master” the man who had spoken before announced. “In whose name, monsieur?”

“No matter,” the stranger answered. “Say, one from the King.”

“You are alone?”

“I shall enter alone.”

The assurance seemed to be satisfactory, for the man answered “Good!” and after a brief delay a wicket in the gate was opened, the portcullis creaked upward, and a plank was thrust across the ditch. The horseman waited until the preparations were complete; then he slid to the ground, threw his rein to the servant, and boldly walked across. In an instant he left behind him the dark street, the river, and the sounds of outrage, which the night breeze bore from the farther bank, and found himself within the vaulted gateway, in a bright glare of light, the centre of a ring of gleaming eyes and angry faces.

The light blinded him for a few seconds; but the guards, on their side, were in no better case. For the stranger was masked; and in their ignorance who it was looked at them through the slits in the black velvet they stared, disconcerted, and at a loss. There were some there with naked weapons in their hands who would have struck him through had they known who he was; and more who would have stood aside while the deed was done. But the uncertainty that and the masked man’s tone paralyzed them. For they reflected that he might be anyone. Conde, indeed, stood too small, but Navarre, if he lived, might fill that cloak; or Guise, or Anjou, or the King himself. And while some would not have scrupled to strike the blood royal, more would have been quick to protect and avenge it. And so before the dark uncertainty of the mask, before the riddle of the smiling eyes which glittered through the slits, they stared irresolute; until a hand, the hand of one bolder than his fellows, was raised to pluck away the screen.

The unknown dealt the fellow a buffet with his fist. “Down, rascal!” he said hoarsely. “And you” to the officer “show me instantly to M. de Biron!”

But the lieutenant, who stood in fear of his men, looked at him doubtfully.

“Nay,” he said, “not so fast!” And one of the others, taking the lead, cried, “No! We may have no need of M. de Biron. Your name, monsieur, first.”

With a quick movement the stranger gripped the officer’s wrist.

“Tell your master,” he said, “that he who clasped his wrist thus on the night of Pentecost is here, and would speak with him! And say, mark you, that I will come to him, not he to me!”

The sign and the tone imposed upon the boldest. Two-thirds of the watch were Huguenots, who burned to avenge the blood of their fellows; and these, overriding their officer, had agreed to deal with the intruder, if a Papegot, without recourse to the Grand Master, whose moderation they dreaded. A knife-thrust in the ribs, and another body in the ditch why not, when such things were done outside? But even these doubted now; and M. Peridol, the lieutenant, reading in the eyes of his men the suspicions which he had himself conceived, was only anxious to obey, if they would let him. So gravely was he impressed, indeed, by the bearing of the unknown that he turned when he had withdrawn, and came back to assure himself that the men meditated no harm in his absence; nor until he had exchanged a whisper with one of them would he leave them and go.

While he was gone on his errand the envoy leaned against the wall of the gateway, and, with his chin sunk on his breast and his mind fallen into reverie, seemed unconscious of the dark glances of which he was the target. He remained in this position until the officer came back, followed by a man with a lanthorn. Their coming roused the unknown, who, invited to follow Peridol, traversed two courts without remark, and in the same silence entered a building in the extreme eastern corner of the enceinte abutting on the ruined Tour de Billy. Here, in an upper floor, the Governor of the Arsenal had established his temporary lodging.

The chamber into which the stranger was introduced betrayed the haste in which it had been prepared for its occupant. Two silver lamps which hung from the beams of the unceiled roof shed light on a medley of arms and inlaid armour, of parchments, books and steel caskets, which encumbered not the tables only, but the stools and chests that, after the fashion of that day, stood formally along the arras. In the midst of the disorder, on the bare floor, walked the man who, more than any other, had been instrumental in drawing the Huguenots to Paris and to their doom. It was no marvel that the events of the day, the surprise and horror, still rode his mind; nor wonderful that even he, who passed for a model of stiffness and reticence, betrayed for once the indignation which filled his breast. Until the officer had withdrawn and closed the door he did, indeed, keep silence; standing beside the table and eyeing his visitor with a lofty porte and a stern glance. But the moment he was assured that they were alone he spoke.

“Your Highness may unmask now,” he said, making no effort to hide his contempt. “Yet were you well advised to take the precaution, since you had hardly come at me in safety without it. Had those who keep the gate seen you, I would not have answered for your Highness’s life. The more shame,” he continued vehemently, “on the deeds of this day which have compelled the brother of a king of France to hide his face in his own capital and in his own fortress. For I dare to say, Monsieur, what no other will say, now the Admiral is dead. You have brought back the days of the Armagnacs. You have brought bloody days and an evil name on France, and I pray God that you may not pay in your turn what you have exacted. But if you continue to be advised by M. de Guise, this I will say, Monsieur” and his voice fell low and stern. “Burgundy slew Orleans, indeed; but he came in his turn to the Bridge of Montereau.”

“You take me for Monsieur?” the unknown asked. And it was plain that he smiled under his mask.

Biron’s face altered. “I take you,” he answered sharply, “for him whose sign you sent me.”

“The wisest are sometimes astray,” the other answered with a low laugh. And he took off his mask.

The Grand Master started back, his eyes sparkling with anger.

“M. de Tavannes?” he cried, and for a moment he was silent in sheer astonishment. Then, striking his hand on the table, “What means this trickery?” he asked.

“It is of the simplest,” Tavannes answered coolly. “And yet, as you just now said, I had hardly come at you without it. And I had to come at you. No, M. de Biron,” he added quickly, as Biron in a rage laid his hand on a bell which stood beside him on the table, “you cannot that way undo what is done.”

“I can at least deliver you,” the Grand Master answered, in heat, “to those who will deal with you as you have dealt with us and ours.”

“It will avail you nothing,” Count Hannibal replied soberly. “For see here, Grand Master, I come from the King. If you are at war with him, and hold his fortress in his teeth, I am his ambassador and sacrosanct. If you are at peace with him and hold it at his will, I am his servant, and safe also.”

“At peace and safe?” Biron cried, his voice trembling with indignation. “And are those safe or at peace who came here trusting to his word, who lay in his palace and slept in his beds? Where are they, and how have they fared, that you dare appeal to the law of nations, or he to the loyalty of Biron? And for you to beard me, whose brother to-day hounded the dogs of this vile city on the noblest in France, who have leagued yourself with a crew of foreigners to do a deed which will make our country stink in the nostrils of the world when we are dust! You, to come here and talk of peace and safety! M. de Tavannes” and he struck his hand on the table “you are a bold man. I know why the King had a will to send you, but I know not why you had the will to come.”

“That I will tell you later,” Count Hannibal answered coolly. “For the King, first. My message is brief, M. de Biron. Have you a mind to hold the scales in France?”

“Between?” Biron asked contemptuously.

“Between the Lorrainers and the Huguenots.”

The Grand Master scowled fiercely. “I have played the go-between once too often,” he growled.

“It is no question of going between, it is a question of holding between,” Tavannes answered coolly. “It is a question but, in a word, have you a mind, M. de Biron, to be Governor of Rochelle? The King, having dealt the blow that has been struck to-day, looks to follow up severity, as a wise ruler should, with indulgence. And to quiet the minds of the Rochellois he would set over them a ruler at once acceptable to them or war must come of it and faithful to his Majesty. Such a man, M. de Biron, will in such a post be Master of the Kingdom; for he will hold the doors of Janus, and as he bridles his sea-dogs, or unchains them, there will be peace or war in France.”

“Is all that from the King’s mouth?” Biron asked with sarcasm. But his passion had died down. He was grown thoughtful, suspicious; he eyed the other intently as if he would read his heart.

“The offer is his, and the reflections are mine,” Tavannes answered dryly. “Let me add one more. The Admiral is dead. The King of Navarre and the Prince of Conde are prisoners. Who is now to balance the Italians and the Guises? The Grand Master if he be wise and content to give the law to France from the citadel of Rochelle.”

Biron stared at the speaker in astonishment at his frankness.

“You are a bold man,” he cried at last. “But timeo Danaos et dona ferentes ,” he continued bitterly. “You offer, sir, too much.”

“The offer is the King’s.”

“And the conditions? The price?”

“That you remain quiet, M. de Biron.”

“In the Arsenal?”

“In the Arsenal. And do not too openly counteract the King’s will. That is all.”

The Grand Master looked puzzled. “I will give up no one,” he said. “No one! Let that be understood.”

“The King requires no one.”

A pause. Then, “Does M. de Guise know of the offer?” Biron inquired; and his eye grew bright. He hated the Guises and was hated by them. It was there he was a Huguenot.

“He has gone far to-day,” Count Hannibal answered dryly. “And if no worse come of it should be content. Madame Catherine knows of it.”

The Grand Master was aware that Marshal Tavannes depended on the Queen-mother; and he shrugged his shoulders.

“Ay, ’tis like her policy,” he muttered. “’Tis like her!” And pointing his guest to a cushioned chest which stood against the wall, he sat down in a chair beside the table and thought awhile, his brow wrinkled, his eyes dreaming. By-and-by he laughed sourly. “You have lighted the fire,” he said, “and would fain I put it out.”

“We would have you hinder it spreading.”

“You have done the deed and are loth to pay the blood-money. That is it, is it?

“We prefer to pay it to M. de Biron,” Count Hannibal answered civilly.

Again the Grand Master was silent awhile. At length he looked up and fixed Tavannes with eyes keen as steel.

“What is behind?” he growled. “Say, man, what is it? What is behind?”

“If there be aught behind, I do not know it,” Tavannes answered steadfastly.

M. de Biron relaxed the fixity of his gaze. “But you said that you had an object?” he returned.

“I had in being the bearer of the message.”

“What was it?”

“My object? To learn two things.”

“The first, if it please you?” The Grand Master’s chin stuck out a little, as he spoke.

“Have you in the Arsenal a M. de Tignonville, a gentleman of Poitou?”

“I have not,” Biron answered curtly. “The second?”

“Have you here a Huguenot minister?”

“I have not. And if I had I should not give him up,” he added firmly.

Tavannes shrugged his shoulders. “I have a use for one,” he said carelessly. “But it need not harm him.”

“For what, then, do you need him?”

“To marry me.”

The other stared. “But you are a Catholic,” he said.

“But she is a Huguenot,” Tavannes answered.

The Grand Master did not attempt to hide his astonishment.

“And she sticks on that?” he exclaimed. “To-day?”

“She sticks on that. To-day.”

“To-day? Nom de Dieu ! To-day! Well,” brushing the matter aside after a pause of bewilderment, “any way, I cannot help her. I have no minister here. If there be aught else I can do for her ”

“Nothing, I thank you,” Tavannes answered. “Then it only remains for me to take your answer to the King?” And he rose politely, and taking his mask from the table prepared to assume it.

M. de Biron gazed at him a moment without speaking, as if he pondered on the answer he should give. At length he nodded, and rang the bell which stood beside him.

“The mask!” he muttered in a low voice as footsteps sounded without. And, obedient to the hint, Tavannes disguised himself. A second later the officer who had introduced him opened the door and entered.

“Peridol,” M. de Biron said he had risen to his feet “I have received a message which needs confirmation; and to obtain this I must leave the Arsenal. I am going to the house you will remember this of Marshal Tavannes, who will be responsible for my person; in the mean time this gentleman will remain under strict guard in the south chamber upstairs. You will treat him as a hostage, with all respect, and will allow him to preserve his incognito . But if I do not return by noon to-morrow, you will deliver him to the men below, who will know how to deal with him.”

Count Hannibal made no attempt to interrupt him, nor did he betray the discomfiture which he undoubtedly felt. But as the Grand Master paused

“M. de Biron,” he said, in a voice harsh and low, “you will answer to me for this!” And his eyes glittered through the slits in the mask.

“Possibly, but not to-day or to-morrow!” Biron replied, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously. “Peridol! see the gentleman bestowed as I have ordered, and then return to me. Monsieur,” with a bow, half courteous, half ironical, “let me commend to you the advantages of silence and your mask.” And he waved his hand in the direction of the door.

A moment Count Hannibal hesitated. He was in the heart of a hostile fortress where the resistance of a single man armed to the teeth must have been futile; and he was unarmed, save for a poniard. Nevertheless, for a moment the impulse to spring on Biron, and with the dagger at his throat to make his life the price of a safe passage, was strong. Then for with the warp of a harsh and passionate character were interwrought an odd shrewdness and some things little suspected he resigned himself. Bowing gravely, he turned with dignity, and in silence followed the officer from the room.

Peridol had two men in waiting at the door. From one of these the lieutenant took a lanthorn, and, with an air at once sullen and deferential, led the way up the stone staircase to the floor over that in which M. de Biron had his lodging. Tavannes followed; the two guards came last, carrying a second lanthorn. At the head of the staircase, whence a bare passage ran, north and south, the procession turned right-handed, and, passing two doors, halted before the third and last, which faced them at the end of the passage. The lieutenant unlocked it with a key which he took from a hook beside the doorpost. Then, holding up his light, he invited his charge to enter.

The room was not small, but it was low in the roof, and prison-like, it had bare walls and smoke-marks on the ceiling. The window, set in a deep recess, the floor of which rose a foot above that of the room, was unglazed; and through the gloomy orifice the night wind blew in, laden even on that August evening with the dank mist of the river flats. A table, two stools, and a truckle bed without straw or covering made up the furniture; but Peridol, after glancing round, ordered one of the men to fetch a truss of straw and the other to bring up a pitcher of wine. While they were gone Tavannes and he stood silently waiting, until, observing that the captive’s eyes sought the window, the lieutenant laughed.

“No bars?” he said. “No, Monsieur, and no need of them. You will not go by that road, bars or no bars.”

“What is below?” Count Hannibal asked carelessly. “The river?”

“Yes, Monsieur,” with a grin; “but not water. Mud, and six feet of it, soft as Christmas porridge, but not so sweet. I’ve known two puppies thrown in under this window that did not weigh more than a fat pullet apiece. One was gone before you could count fifty, and the other did not live thrice as long nor would have lasted that time, but that it fell on the first and clung to it.”

Tavannes dismissed the matter with a shrug, and, drawing his cloak about him, set a stool against the wall and sat down. The men who brought in the wine and the bundle of straw were inquisitive, and would have loitered, scanning him stealthily; but Peridol hurried them away. The lieutenant himself stayed only to cast a glance round the room, and to mutter that he would return when his lord returned; then, with a “Good night” which said more for his manners than his good will, he followed them out. A moment later the grating of the key in the lock and the sound of the bolts as they sped home told Tavannes that he was a prisoner.