The Queen’s Maries by G. J. Whyte Melville

The Queen's Maries by G. J. Whyte Melville.jpg

CHAPTER I.

‘Turn back, turn back, ye weel-fau’red May,
My heart will break in three;
And sae did mine on yon bonny hill-side,
When ye wadna let me be!’

Many a smiling plain, many a wooded slope and sequestered valley adorns the fair province of Picardy. Nor is it without reason that her Norman-looking sons and handsome daughters are proud of their birth-place; but the most prejudiced of them will hardly be found to affirm that her seaboard is either picturesque or interesting; and perhaps the strictest search would fail to discover a duller town than Calais in the whole bounds of France. With the gloom of night settling down upon the long low line of white sand which stretches westward from the harbour, and an angry surge rising on the adjacent shoal, while out to seaward darkness is brooding over the face of the deep, an unwilling traveller might, indeed, be induced to turn into the narrow ill-paved streets of the town, on the seaman-like principle of[2] running for any port in a storm; but it would be from the sheer necessity of procuring food and lodging, not from any delusive expectation of gaiety and amusement, essential ingredients in a Frenchman’s every-day life. And yet Calais has been the scene of many a thrilling incident and stirring event. Could they speak, those old houses, with their pointed gables, their overhanging roofs, and quaint diamond-paned windows, they could tell some strange tales of love and war, of French and English chivalry, of deeds of arms performed for the sake of honour, and beauty, and ambition, and gold—the four strings on which most of the tunes are played that speed the Dance of Death—of failures and successes, hopes and disappointments, the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the cross-purposes, the hide-and-seek, that constitute the game of life. In that very house, over the way yonder—with its silent courtyard, in which the grass shoots up vigorously between the stones, and from which to-day nothing more unusual issues than an old peasant woman in a clean cap, carrying a young child with a dirty face—slept, perhaps, the loveliest woman the world ever saw, a widow, while yet a bride, a queen while yet a child, on her way from one royal throne to take possession of another. Yes, here she lay the night before she quitted her dear France, never to see it again; the bright, the beautiful, the beloved, a very rose amongst all the flowers of the garden, a very gem amongst all the gold and tinsel that surrounded her, the link in a line of kings, the pride of two countries, the fairest of God’s creatures—Mary, Queen of Scots—here she lay, with life and love and hope before her, and slept, and dreamed not of Fotheringay.

It was a chill autumn night. Beyond the walls a rising breeze moaned fitfully over the dreary flats. The ebbing tide murmured as it receded, returning, and yet returning, as though loth to leave that comfortless expanse of wet level sand. A few drops of rain fell from time to time, and though a star struggled out here and there, the sky became momentarily more obscured. It was a gloomy night out at sea yonder; it was a gloomy night here on shore, dismal, foreboding, and suggestive of farewell.

But within the town, bustle and hurry, and a certain amount of confusion, not unmixed with revelry, imparted considerable[3] life and animation to the hours of darkness, scaring indeed some of the quiet householders, and rousing the echoes in the narrow streets. Horses, picketed in the market-place, stamped and snorted and shook their bridles; spurs clanked on the pavement; steel corslet and head-piece flashed in the light of torches held by bearded men-at-arms, looking doubly martial in that red glare. Here might be seen a dainty page in satin doublet, with velvet cap and feather, elbowing some sturdy groom who was bearing a cuirass home from the armourer’s, or leading a charger to its stall, and inquiring, with all a page’s freedom, for the lodging of his lord, to receive, probably, an answer neither respectful nor explanatory, but productive of a stinging retort—for in those days the pages of a great house were masters of all weapons, but especially of the tongue. There might be observed a group of peasant-women, in clean hoods and aprons, with baskets on their heads, lingering somewhat longer than was absolutely necessary to exchange with harquebusiers or spearmen those compliments in which the French imagination is so prolific, and which the French language renders with such graceful facility. Anon, a lord of high degree, easily recognised by the dignity of his bearing, and the number of his retainers thronging round him with arms and torches, passed along the streets, exciting the curiosity of the vulgar and the admiration of the softer sex; while more than one churchman, threading his way quietly homeward, dropped his ‘Benedicite’ with gentle impartiality amongst the throng. The blessing was usually received with gratitude, though an exception might occur in the person of some stalwart man-at-arms, large of limb, fresh-coloured, and fair-bearded, who returned the good man’s greeting with derision or contempt. These reprobates were invariably well armed, and extremely soldier-like in their bearing, to be distinguished, moreover, by their blue velvet surcoats, on which St Andrew’s cross was embroidered in silver, and the peculiar form of their steel-lined bonnets, which they wore with a jaunty air on one side the head. Something, also, of more than the usual assumption of a soldier might be traced in their demeanour, as is apt to be the case with the members of a corps d’élite, and such the Archers of the Scottish Body-Guard had indeed a right to be considered both by friend and[4] foe. Although in the service of His Most Catholic Majesty, many of them, including their captain, the unfortunate Earl of Arran, were staunch Protestants; and at that rancorous period, the supporters of the Reformed Church did by no means confine themselves to a silent abnegation of the errors they had renounced.

One archer, however, a young man with nothing peculiarly striking either in face or figure, save an air of frankness and quiet determination on his sun-burnt brow, acknowledged the benediction of a passing ecclesiastic with a humility that excited the jeers of two or three comrades, to which he replied with the quiet simplicity that seemed to be a part of his character, ‘An old man’s blessing, lads, can do neither you nor me any harm,’ and proceeded on his way without further remark or explanation; while the manner in which his rebuke was received by the scorners themselves, denoted that he was at least a person of some consideration and standing in the corps. Elbowing his way through a gaudy crowd, consisting of the Marquis d’Elbœuf’s retainers, who were accompanying their master in his attendance on his royal niece, and certain satellites of the House of Guise, for the duke and duchess, with Cardinal Lorraine, had already escorted the Queen of Scotland thus far upon her journey, our archer turned into an auberge, already filled with a mixture of courtiers, soldiers, pages, men-at-arms, and other officials, and seating himself at a small deal table, coarse and clean, requested to be served, in a tone of impatience that implied a vigorous appetite and a long fast. While the host, quick, courteous and smiling, bustled up to him, with napkin, trencher, and some two feet of bread, the archer removed the bonnet from his brow, and, looking around him, nodded to one or two acquaintances with an air of considerable preoccupation, ere he subsided into a profound fit of abstraction, which, to judge by his countenance, proceeded from no agreeable theme.

He was a man of less than thirty summers, sufficiently well-built, and of ordinary stature, with no peculiar advantages of person or bearing that should distinguish him from any other gentleman-private of the Scottish Body-Guard. His arms, indeed, were scrupulously clean and of the best[5] workmanship; for when a man’s life depends daily on the quality of his blade, such details become a matter of course; and if his apparel were a thought more carefully put on, and of a more precise cut, than that of his fellows, this distinction seemed but to arise from that habitual attention to trifles which is the usual concomitant of energy and readiness for action. A sloven may be a brave man, and a capable; but if the machine is to remain in good working order, every screw should fit to a hair’s breadth, and a coat of varnish over the whole will not detract from its efficiency. Our archer, then, was well but not splendidly dressed; nor would his face more than his figure have attracted the attention of any casual observer. Nine men out of ten would have passed him by unnoticed. A woman would have been first puzzled, then interested, perhaps eventually fascinated, by the quiet repose of that stern, calm brow. It was a face of which the expression was many years older than the features. A physiognomist would have detected in it resolution, tenacity of purpose, strong feeling, repressed by habitual self-control—above all, self-denial and great power of suffering.

For the rest, his complexion, where not tanned by the weather, was fair and fresh-coloured, according well with the keen gray eye and light-brown hair of his Scottish origin.

The archer’s meditations, however, were soon put to flight by the agreeable interruption of a well-served supper (for, indeed, prior to those days, as old Froissart will bear us witness, the French excelled in cookery); and after the first cravings of appetite were appeased, he emptied a cup of red wine with a sigh of considerable satisfaction, then returned to his platter with renewed vigour, and filled his goblet once more to the brim.

‘Good wine drowns care,’ said a laughing voice behind him; ‘and Cupid himself cannot fly when his wings are drenched. Ho! drawer, quick! Another flask of Burgundy, and place me a chair by my pearl of Scottish Archers, till he tells me what brings him here eighty leagues from Paris, unless it be to mingle his tears with the salt brine of the accursed Channel that bears our White Queen[1] from the shores of France.’

[1]Mary was called ‘La Reine Blanche,’ because she mourned in white for her first husband, Francis II.

[6]

An expression of pain shot rapidly over the archer’s face as he greeted the speaker with a cordial grasp of the hand; but he answered in the deep steady tones that were habitual to him.

‘A man may have despatches to carry from the constable to his son; and d’Amville is not likely to overlook a soldier’s delay on such a road as this, where there are as many horses as poplar trees. I could take the Montmorency’s orders yesterday at noon, and be here to supper to-night, without borrowing the Pegasus you ride so recklessly, my poetical friend.’

The other laughed gaily; and when he laughed, his dark eyes flashed and sparkled like diamonds.

‘My Pegasus,’ said he, ‘needs oftener the spur than the rein; but who could not write verses, and sing them too, with such a theme before him? Listen, my friend. I am to sail to-morrow with them for Scotland. Heaven’s blessing on d’Amville that he has selected me to accompany him! Nay, we are appointed to the Queen’s galley; and Mary will take at least one heart along with her, as loyal and devoted as any she can leave behind.’

He checked himself suddenly, and a sad, wistful expression crossed his handsome brow, whilst the dark eyes dimmed, and he set down untasted the Burgundy he had lifted to his lips. Something in his voice, too, seemed to have enlisted the archer’s sympathy, and he also was silent for a moment, and averted his looks from his companion’s face.

After a while he forced himself to speak.

‘I must return,’ said he, ‘in two more days. Is it true they embark without fail to-morrow? Is there no danger from the ships of England? Is Her Majesty well accompanied? Doth the household sail with her? Ladies and all?’

‘The Maries, of course,’ replied the other, answering only the last question, which he reasonably considered the most interesting to his listener;[7] ‘and right glad they seem to be to quit this merry land of France for that cold bleak country where I hear music is scarcely known, and dancing interdicted as a sin! I marvel much at their taste. To be sure, they accompany one who would inspire the wildest savages with chivalry, and make the veriest desert a paradise! Ah! when was such a garland of beauty ever trusted to the waves? The Queen and her satellites! One lovelier than another, but all paling before her. A bumper, my friend! on your knees, a bumper—a health to the letter M! nay, pledge me one for each of the four, and a fresh flask for the Queen—for the Queen!’

Again the speaker’s voice sank to a whisper, and the archer, who had ere now recovered the usual indifference of his demeanour, proceeded to do justice to a toast which could not, according to the manners of the age, have been refused, and which, in truth, for reasons of his own, he was by no means loth to pledge. The table at which they sat, however, was by this time surrounded by the different frequenters of the auberge, for the archer’s companion, no other than the poet Chastelâr, was too well-known and popular an individual in the gay circles of France to remain long unnoticed, where so many of her nobility were congregated. Young, handsome, and well-born, his romantic disposition and undoubted talents had rendered him an especial favourite with a people who, above all things, delight to be amused, and with whom enthusiasm, whether real or affected, is generally accepted as an equivalent for merit. To look on Chastelâr, with his long dark curls and his bright eyes, was to behold the poet-type in its most attractive form; and when to beauty of feature and delicacy of mind were added a graceful figure, skill in horsemanship, as in all knightly exercises, great kindliness of disposition, and gentle birth, what wonder that with the ladies of the French Court to be in love with Chastelâr, was as indispensable a fashion as to wear a pointed stomacher, or a delicate lace-edging to the ruff? And Chastelâr, with true poet-nature, sunned himself in their smiles, and enjoyed life intensely, as only such natures can, and bore about with him the while, unsuspected and incurable, a sorrow near akin to madness in his heart.

As gallant after gallant strode up to the table at which the two friends sat, the conversation became general, turning, as such conversations usually do, on the congenial themes of love and war. Again and again was mine host summoned for fresh supplies of wine, and the archer, whose recent arrival from Paris made him an object of general interest, was plied[8] with questions as to the latest news and gossip of the capital. Richly-mounted swords were laid aside on the coarse deal table, cloaks of velvet and embroidery draped the uncouth chairs, gilt spurs jingled on the humble floor, and voices that had bandied opinions with kings in council, or shouted ‘St Denis!’ in the field, were now exchanging jest and laugh and repartee under the homely roof of a common wine-shop.

Even the Marquis d’Elbœuf, the Queen’s uncle, a lord of the princely house of Guise, and Admiral of France, joined with a sailor’s frankness in the gay revel, and taking a seat between Chastelâr and the archer, questioned the latter as to his late interview with the constable, and the well-being of that distinguished veteran, a soldier of whom every man in France was proud.

‘And you made sail with the despatches the moment you were out of his sight,’ observed the marquis. ‘I’ll warrant, you made a fair wind of it all the way to Calais, for the Montmorency brooks no delay in the execution of his orders. How looked he, my friend?—and what said he? Come tell us the exact words.’

‘He looked like an old lion, as he always does,’ answered the archer, simply; ‘and he said to me in so many words, “These letters must be in my son’s hands within eight-and-forty hours. I can depend upon you Scots. May the blessing of Our Lady be upon you, my child. And now, Right—Face! and go to the devil!”’

The Marquis laughed heartily.

‘He loves your countrymen well,’ said he, ‘and with reason. I have heard him swear the bravest man he ever saw was a Scot.’

A murmur of dissent, if not disapproval, rose around the table, and many of the Frenchmen present bent their brows in manifest impatience; but the marquis, who had his own reasons for wishing to be well with the Scottish nation, and whose frank nature brooked no withdrawal or modification of his opinions, struck his hand on the board, till the cups leaped again, and repeated in loud tones—

[9]

‘A Scot!—yes, gentlemen—a Scot. And I know why he said so—for I too was present at the boldest feat-of-arms even the constable ever witnessed; and so was my modest friend here with the cross of St Andrew on his breast—only he was but a stripling then, and had hardly strength to hold his pike at the advance. A health, gentlemen! Do me reason. To the memory of Norman Leslie, Master of Rothes! one of your difficult Scotch names. Norman Leslie, the bravest of the brave!—Will you hear the story?’

‘Tell it, marquis!’ was repeated on all sides, and cups were set down empty on the board, as many an eager warlike face turned towards the Admiral of France.

‘It was at Rentz, then,’ proceeded d’Elbœuf, ‘where the old Emperor out-generalled us as completely as we outfought him, and the two armies were almost within bow-shot of each other. We resembled a couple of angry dogs that are not permitted by their masters to fight. A clear slope of some two or three hundred paces divided us, and the German light-horsemen came galloping out to skirmish, tossing their lances in the air and bantering us. There must have been, at least, a hundred of them within a pistol-shot of our lines. The blood of Frenchmen soon boils up, gentlemen; but we had no orders to engage, and I, for one, kept my men-at-arms in hand, for the king was commanding in person, and Condé, and the constable, and the Duc d’Anguien were present, and likely to visit any breach of discipline with severe reproof. Ah! they cannot thus interfere with us at sea; but I ground my teeth at intervals, and thought, if the order would only come, what short work we would make with the German dogs.

[10]

‘Norman Leslie, however, had come up after the council was over in the king’s tent, and so, I suppose, fancied himself free to act. He had but half a score men with him at most; but he formed them into line, and charged up the hill into the thick of the enemy. It was a noble sight to see him, gentlemen, in his coat of black velvet, with its broad white crosses, and his burnished armour, with a red Scotch bonnet on his head. How he drove that good gray horse of his a dozen lances’ lengths ahead of his following! He rode through and through the Germans as if they were a troop of children at play. We, in the lines, I tell you, counted five of them go down before his lance broke. Then he drew his sword, and though they shot at him with musquetoons and culverines, we could still see the red bonnet glancing to and fro, like fire among the smoke. At last they detached a company of spearmen to surround him, and then striking spurs into his horse, he came galloping back to our lines, and rode gallantly to salute the constable in the centre. As he kissed his sword-hilt, the good gray fell dead at Montmorency’s feet. Alas! his master followed him in less than a fortnight, for though the king sent his own leech to dress his wounds, brave Norman Leslie was hurt in so many places, that it was out of the power of leech-craft to save him. What say you, gentlemen? a bolder feat-of-arms than that was never attempted by a soldier, and it was executed by a Scot! What say you of a man that would ride through an armed host single-handed to fetch away a laurel leaf?’

The archer smiled, and bowed low at this flattering tribute to his nation.

‘I might return your compliments, marquis,’ said he, ‘had we not a Scotch proverb which implies “Stroke me, and I will stroke thee.” And yet it is but fair to say I have known a rougher ride than even Norman Leslie’s taken for a silk handkerchief, and by a Frenchman.’

‘A silk handkerchief! a lady’s of course,’ said one. ‘A love-token!’ exclaimed another. ‘Undertaken in deliverance of a vow,’ suggested a third. ‘Done by an Englishman for a wager,’ laughed a fourth.—All had some remark to make except Chastelâr, whose colour rose visibly, and who looked distressed and ill at ease.

‘A handkerchief of the softest Cyprus silk,’ insisted the archer in his quiet expressive voice,[11] ‘and rescued by the very man to whom I this day presented his father’s letters. And yet it is no wonder that the constable’s son and a Marshal of France should be a brave man. I tell you, gentlemen, that I saw d’Amville at the head of a band of Huguenots sorely pressed, and outnumbered by his countrymen of the Catholic faith, so that he had but one chance of retreat in placing a rapid stream betwixt himself and his pursuers. As he was facing the enemy, whilst the last of his followers entered the water, a handkerchief dropped unnoticed from beneath his corslet. He discovered his loss, however, as soon as he reached the opposite bank; and dashing once more into the stream, under a murderous fire, charged through the press of men-at-arms to the spot where it lay, dismounted, picked it up, and cut his way back again to his own troop. There was blood on the handkerchief when his page unarmed him that night; but I think it was the blood of the bravest man in France.’

‘And the handkerchief?’—cried several voices. ‘Whose was it?’ ‘Who gave it to him?’ ‘Happy the lady who owned so true a knight!’

The archer smiled once more.

‘Nay, gentlemen,’ said he, ‘it was no love-token after all. But the marshal is the soul of loyalty as of honour. There was an M and a crown-royal embroidered on the margin. It belonged to the White Queen—to her whom France is to lose to-morrow for ever.’

‘What a theme for the minstrel!’ exclaimed d’Elbœuf gaily. ‘Chastelâr! canst thou hear and be silent? Awake, man! drench thy brain with Burgundy, and improvise us some stanzas!’

The poet looked up with the air of one who shakes some painful burden off his mind. He put his cup to his lips, and answered gaily enough.

‘Not on that theme, marquis, at least to-night. Is it not the eve of our departure? And can there be merriment for France when she thinks of all she is to lose on the morrow? Nay, gentlemen, if you must have a song, let it be a lament. Let France mourn the absence of one whose like she may never hope to see again.’

Seats were drawn nearer the table; the guests’ faces assumed an air of interest and expectation. Through the open doorway might be seen the humbler servants of the household crowding eagerly to listen. Chastelâr looked around him well-pleased, and sang, in a rich mellow voice, the following stanzas, after the model of his old instructor, the celebrated Ronsard:—

‘As an upland bare and sere,
In the waning of the year,
When the golden drops are wither’d off the broom;
As a picture when the pride
Of its colouring hath died,
And faded like a phantom into gloom:

[12]

‘As a night without a star,
Or a ship without a spar,
Or a mist that broods and gathers o’er the sea;
As a court without a throne,
Or a ring without a stone,
Seems the widow’d land of France bereft of thee.
‘Our darling, pearl, and pride!
Our blossom and our bride!
Wilt thou never gladden eyes of ours again?
Would the waves might rise and drown
Barren Scotland and her crown,
So thou wert back with us in fair Touraine!’

Amidst the applause which followed the notes of their favourite, cloaks and swords were assumed, reckonings were discharged, farewells exchanged, and laughing, light-hearted gallants streamed up the dark street in quest of their respective lodgings. Soon each was housed, and all was quiet ere the first streaks of dawn rose upon the sleeping town, and the cold bleak shore, and the dull waves of the brooding Channel.

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