Madame serpent, p.1

Madame Serpent, page 1


Madame Serpent

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Madame Serpent

  Madame Serpent

  Виктория Холт

  Jean Plaidy

  Madame Serpent


  AT AMBOISE, the French court was en fête. It usually was, for the King himself had said that if he would live peacefully with the French, and have them love him, he must keep them amused for two days in each week or they would find some other dangerous employment.

  The Château of Amboise was a favourite of the King’s. From its rocky eminence, imperiously and cautiously it seemed to watch the undulating country and the silver stream of the Loire which watered it. Its thick embattled walls, its great buttresses and its round towers and tall windows made of it a fortress rather than a castle. Strong and formidable was outside; but inside, with its libraries, its great banqueting halls, its ceilings decorated with the fleur-de-lys or the salamander in the midst of flames, it was a magnificent setting for the most magnificent King in Europe.

  The court had feasted, and in the great hall, which was hung with the finest tapestry and cloth of gold, the King’s sister and his favourite mistress had an entertainment to offer him. It would be witty, for these two were the wittiest women in a witty court; it would perhaps divert him from his thoughtful mood.

  He lay back in his ornamental chair, a gorgeous figure in his padded clothes, that were studded with pearls and diamonds; his sables were magnificent; on his breast and fingers sparkled diamonds and rubies; and about him hung the scent of the Russian leather cases in which his fine Flanders linen was stored.

  He had been at Amboise only four days and already thinking of the next move. He could rarely stay in one place more than a week or two at a time― even his beloved Fontainebleau could not hold him for more than a month; and then must begin the great upheaval of moving court, the carrying to another palace of his bed and all the artistic and carefully selected furnishing of his apartments which he could not bear to be without. He took a malicious delight in watching these removals― so uncomfortable for everyone but himself. He would sit in his chair, legs crossed, throwing an amorous smile at a pretty girl, making a witty observation, giving a friendly admonition. He was usually gracious, ever demanding, often sardonic; he was the most distinguished, charming man in France, born to admiration and flattery and taking them as a right; he was intellectual, ready to do a kindness provided the effort demanded was not too great; he was always ready to undertake an adventure, whether of love or war; amusing, seeking to be amused, loving artists as he loved women, he was the adored, the Sybarite, the pampered King of France.

  He was too clever not to know what was wrong with him now. He was leaving behind that glorious period of youth when everything he had desired― until that great disaster of his life had overtaken him― had seemed ready to fall into his hands. He had never been the same since that humiliating defeat had befallen him; until then, it had seemed that Fortune, as well as the women of France, had chosen him for her darling. He would never forget the Battle of Pavia, when he had been made the prisoner of Spain; only his sister Marguerite, his pearl of pearls, facing death and danger on a hazardous journey across France to Spain, with her tender nursing had saved his life.

  Now in this brilliant hall of his beloved Amboise, instead of the sparkling eyes of his own countrywomen, he was seeing those of the Spanish women who had lined the streets of Madrid to catch a glimpse of the prisoner their King had brought home from the wars. They had come to jeer, and instead they had wept.

  His charm was such that, sick at heart, defeated and humiliated as he was, those foreign women had looked upon him and loved him.

  That was past, but he had a Spanish wife as a result. He glanced now with some distaste at the heavy face of Eleonora. She was too pious to please him.

  Moreover, he had been in love with Anne d’Heilly for nearly ten years. There were hundreds of women who aroused his interest fleetingly, but to Anne remained faithful― in his way. He liked to see them bathing in his pool; he had had mirrors fixed about it that he might catch views of them at all angles. He was an artist.

  ‘The little one with red hair,’ he would say. ‘She pleases us. She is charming, that one. I remember such another when I was campaigning Provence.’ Then he would try to catch at the days of his youth in Provence with the little red-haired one. What was the use? He was getting old. He was a man who could laugh at himself as readily as he laughed at others; so he must laugh now. Once he had been like a faun, so gay, so handsome; now perhaps resembled more a satyr. Age should not come to kings. Kings should be eternally youthful.

  Then he remembered an impatient young man who had yearned for death to overtake an old king. So it has come to this! he thought. I, Francis, shall soon be such another as old Louis― panting after young women, buying their favours with this bit of jewellery, that work of art. No wonder a gay king grows sad. They had started the play. Yes, it was amusing. He laughed; and the court waited on his laughs. But he was not fully attending. The dark one was charming, draped as she was with the flimsiest of stuff; she would look more charming ort sheets black satin. Come, come! He was not really interested. He was trying to force himself to amorous intent. In the old days, what a man he had been! The greatest lover in a country that idealized love. The greatest lover― and, did they whisper behind his back, the worst soldier?

  Now he began to wonder whether he would not have so new improvements designed for this palace. He had a passion for architecture, and it was his pleasure to invite artists to court to delight his ears and eyes as he lured women to delight his other senses. He thought of old friends― a sure sign creeping age!

  Leonardo da Vinci! Poor Leonardo!

  I honoured him with my friendship, thought Francis, but perhaps posterity will say he honoured me with his. I loved that man. I could make a king. There is my son Francis, who will be King one day. But only God can make an artist. He realized that. So he treasured these artists. Writers, painters, sculptors, designers in stone― he would have them know that there was patronage, even friendship, for them from the King of France. Many of these courtiers about him now had writhed at the writings of Francis Rabelais, and they could not understand why their King was so pleased with the quick-witted monk, for in truth the fellow showed no more respect for the King than he did for the courtiers. But, was the King’s retort, how amusing it is to see others satirized, even if one must pay for the pleasure by enduring a little slyness at one’s own expense.

  And now, because he saw old age at hand, he wished to dwell on the glories of his youth. Not yet forty, he reminded himself, but not the same wild boy who had set a bull and three lions to fight here in the moat at Amboise; no longer was he the young man who had tackled a boar single-handed and refused the aid of his attendants while his mother wrung her hands in fear, though she glowed with pride for her beloved, her King, her Caesar. Well, he was still the King, and when he was not moody as now he was the gayest man in the court. He wished that he was more like his old friend and enemy, the King of England. There was a man endowed with the precious gift of seeing himself as he wished to see himself. A great and glorious gift! sighed Francis. A stimulus in youth, a comfort in age.

  And he laughed down his long nose, thinking of Henry and his charming new wife, Anne, and wicked old Clement righteously excommunicating the pair of them.

  Thinking of Henry and Clement brought his mind back to an irritation which had been disturbing him a good deal of late. There was the boy― the object of his dissatisfaction― as one might expect, sitting moody and alone in a corner.

  What an oaf! What a graceless boor! Francis thought about offering a groom-ship of the Chamber and a pension to anyone who could make young Henry laugh out loud.

  How did I get me such a one? he a
sked himself. But I will endure his scowls and boorish ways no longer. He looked up and beckoned to him the two people whom he loved and admired more than any in the court― Anne, his mistress, and Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, his sister and beloved friend of his childhood. What a distinguishing pair! One could look at them and be proud that France had them both. Indeed, what other country could have produced them? They were both beautiful in different ways, Marguerite spirituelle, Anne voluptuous; they were both in possession of that other gift which Francis looked for, in addition to beauty of face and form, in all the women with whom it delighted him to surround himself. They were of an intelligence which, and he was not sure did not excel, his own; with them he could discuss his political cares; they had intelligence with which to advise and wit with which to amuse him. Mistresses, he had in plenty, but Anne remained his love; as for Marguerite had been a passionate devotion between them since he been old enough to talk. Mistresses could come and go but the bond between the brother and sister could only be broken by death.

  ‘I loved you before you were born,’ Marguerite had said. ‘Husband and child were as nothing compared with the love I have for you.’ She meant that.

  She had hated her husband for deserting her brother at Pavia; she had left her home and tempted death in order to go to him in Madrid. Now she sensed his mood more quickly than did Anne, for he and she were like twins― never completely content unless they were near each other, quick to sense a sorrow, ever ready to share a joy.

  She said, smiling at him: ‘My dearest, you are sad today?’

  He signed to them to sit one on either side of him, and leaning towards Marguerite, took her hand and lifted it to his lips. All his movements were graceful and full of charm. ‘Sad? No!’ he said. ‘But thinking of this Italian marriage.’

  ‘I like it not,’ said Anne. ‘What is this family? Who are these Medici tradesmen to marry with the reigning house of France?’

  ‘My love,’ said the King, ‘you echo the words of my councillors. Repetition, alas! can be tedious, even from your sweet lips.’ He signed to the musicians.

  ‘Play! Play!’ he commanded, for he did not wish too much of this conversation to be overheard.

  ‘The Pope is a rogue, Sire,’ persisted Anne. ‘And if truth be tedium, then tedium must be endured.’

  ‘A rogue!’ cried Marguerite. ‘He is worse than a rogue; he is a fool.’

  ‘My dear ladies, I would tell you of the advice I have had from the boy’s god-sire. He thinks that it is a sorry matter when the son of a royal house should mate with the daughter of tradesmen. He adds, with Tudor ingenuousness, that there would have to be some great profit for a King to consider such a marriage; but he feels that if the profit were great enough, then God would bless the match.’

  They laughed. ‘Had you not mentioned that was the opinion of young Henry’s god-sire,’ said Marguerite, ‘I should have known those were the sentiments of Henry VIII of England.’

  ‘The saints preserve him!’ said Francis mockingly. ‘And may he get all his deserts with his charming new wife. I have written to him and told him that is what I wish him.’

  ‘He will thank you from the bottom of his heart,’ said Marguerite. “Now what are my deserts? he will say: What but riches, power, success and content for such a godly man as I! For if ever a man deserved these things, that man is Henry of England! He will think you had naught else in mind.’

  ‘I would poor Francis could offer the King of France one-tenth of that devotion which Henry Tudor lays at the feet of the King of England!’ sighed Francis. ‘Mind you well, I love the King of France― none better― but for his faults, where as Henry Tudor loves the King of England for his virtues. True love is blind.’

  ‘But he is right when he says there should be profit,’ said Anne. ‘Is the profit great enough?’

  ‘They are rich, these Medici. They will fill our coffers which alas! my Anne, you have helped to deplete. Therefore rejoice with me. Also, there are three very bright jewels which the little Medici will bring us. Genoa, Milan, Naples.’

  ‘Set in the promises of a Pope!’ said Marguerite.

  ‘My beloved, speak not with disrespect of the Holy Father.’

  ‘A Holy Father with an unholy habit of cheating his too trusting children!’

  ‘Leave Clement to me, my love. And enough of politics. I am disturbed and wish to unburden myself to you two wise women. It is the boy himself. By my faith, had his mother been the most virtuous woman in France, I would say he were no son of mine.’

  ‘You are perhaps hard on the little Duke, my King,’ said Anne. ‘He is but a boy yet.’

  ‘He is fourteen years old. When I was his age―’

  ‘One does not compare a candle with the sun, my beloved,’ said Marguerite.

  ‘My love, should not the children of the sun show lustre? I hate sullen, stupid children, and it would seem I have got me in that one the most sullen, the most stupid I clapped eyes on.’

  ‘It is because he is the son of your dazzling self, Sire, you look for too much.

  Give him a chance, for as your gracious sister says, he is young yet.’

  ‘You women are over-soft with him. Would to God I knew how to put some sparkle of intelligence into that dull head.’

  ‘Methinks, Francis,’ said Marguerite, ‘that the boy is less stupid when you are not present. What think you, Anne?’

  ‘I agree. Speak to him of the chase, my love, and one sees in his face your very vivacious self.’

  `The chase! He is healthy enough. Would to God the Dauphin were the same.’

  ‘Don’t blame your boys, Francis. Blame the King of Spain.’

  ‘Or,’ said Anne lightly, ‘blame yourself.’

  His eyes smouldered for a moment as he looked at her, but she met his gaze challengingly. She was provocative, very sure of herself, alluring; and he was still in love with her after nearly ten years. She took liberties, but he liked a woman to take liberties. He was not her god, as he was Marguerite’s. But he laughed, for he could not escape that ability to see himself clearly. She was right. He had been a bad soldier, too reckless: And the result― Pavia! He was to blame, and the fact young Henry and his elder brother the Dauphin had had to take their father’s place in the Spanish prison as hostage for his good faith, was not their fault but his.

  ‘You take liberties, my dear,’ he said with an attempt at coolness.

  ‘Alas! my love, I fear ‘tis true,’ she answered pertly. ‘But I love you for your virtues as well as your faults. That is why I tremble not when I speak truth to you.’

  Marguerite said quickly: ‘ ‘Twas an evil fate. The King had to return and the Princes to take his place. But let us face the real issue. The boys came back from Spain―’

  ‘Where young Henry had forgotten his native tongue!’ cried Francis.

  ‘Would I, a Frenchman, however long exiled from France, come back gibbering a heathen tongue?’

  ‘It was Spanish he spoke when he returned, Sire,’ said Anne. ‘And spoke it fluently, I understand.’

  ‘Indeed he spoke it fluently. He looks and thinks and acts like a Spaniard.

  More like the son of my enemy than mine own.’

  “Tis true he is a sullen boy,’ said Anne. ‘What will the Italian child think of her bridegroom, I wonder.’

  ‘She will take him most thankfully,’ said Marguerite. ‘Is he not the son of the King of France?’

  ‘I wonder,’ said Anne mischievously, ‘if she will think the sullen boy worth those three glittering jewels― Genoa, Milan and Naples.’

  ‘She will,’ said Marguerite. ‘For we do not bargain too hotly when we buy with other people’s money.’

  ‘Particularly when the bills may never be paid!’

  ‘Enough!’ said Francis with a hint of asperity. ‘Clement is a slippery rogue, but I can hold him to his promises.’

  ‘How will the child arrive?’ asked Anne.

  ‘Not without much pomp and many rich gift
s as well as the Holy Pope himself. Not only will he bring her, but he will stay for the marriage.’

  ‘What!’ cried Anne. ‘Does he not trust us to make an honest woman of her?’

  ‘Doubtless,’ put in Marguerite, ‘he thinks our Henry will rob her of her virginity and send her back.’

  ‘After filching her jewels and her dowry!’

  Francis laughed. ‘He does not know our Henry. He can rob a banquet of its gaiety, but never a maiden of her virginity. Holy Mother! I wish the boy had a bit more fire in him. I could wish he resembled his god-sire across the water, for all that fellow’s pomp and perfidy.’

  ‘I hear,’ said Anne, ‘that his Grace of England was a fine figure of a man.

  And still is, though mounting fast to middle age.’

  ‘We are of an age,’ growled Francis.

  ‘But,’ mocked Anne, ‘you are a god, my love. Gods do not grow old.’

  ‘I am thinking of the boy,’ said Marguerite. ‘Now that he is to become a bridegroom something should be done. He should have a friend, a good friend, who will show him how to lose his fear of us all and, most of all, his father; someone explain that he is awkward largely because he lacks confidence in himself, someone to explain that the only way to overcome the effects of those unhappy years in Spain is to banish them from his thoughts instead of brooding on them.’

  ‘As usual you are right, my darling,’ said Francis. ‘A friend― a dashing young man of charm and beauty, a gay young man with many fair friends.’

  ‘Dearest, it was not exactly what I had in mind. There is no man at court who would have that subtle touch necessary. Spain is branded on the boy’s brain― how deeply, none of us know; but I fear very deeply. It needs a gently hand to erase such evil memories. He must recover his dignity through a subtle, gentle influence.’

  ‘A woman, in very fact!’ said Anne.

  ‘A clever woman,’ said Marguerite. ‘Not a young and flighty creature of his own age. A woman― wise, beautiful, and above all, sympathetic.’

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