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The King's Esquires; Or, The Jewel of France

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The King's Esquires; or, The Jewel of France, by George Manville Fenn.


  This excellent book is, as always with this author, a constantsuccession of tense moments.

  Dated at the beginning of the 1500s, the action starts in the Court ofthe King of France. He is fretting because at some time in the past,when the English ruled part of France, one of the French Crown Jewels, abeautiful ruby, was taken from France and put among the English CrownJewels. So Francis, the King, decides on going to England on a visit tothe English King, the young Henry the Eighth, finding out where thejewel is, purloining it before leaving, and restoring it to its placeamong his own Crown Jewels. This all goes pretty well, except that KingHenry notices that the jewel is missing, and a chase is made after them.

  They are all brought back, but no jewel is to be found. So eventuallythey return to France, where to the amazement of all it turns out thatthey were successful in their mission, and they really did manage tobring back the famous ruby.






  His Most Christian Majesty King Francis the First had a great preferencefor his Palace of Fontainebleau among the many places of residence fromwhich he could choose, and it is interesting to glance into thatmagnificent palace on a certain afternoon in the year 151--. In aspecial apartment, from which direct access could be obtained to theguard chamber, where a detachment of the favourite musketeers of theKing of France was on duty, and which also communicated with themonarch's private apartments, a youth, nearly a man but not quite wasimpatiently striding up and down. He stopped every now and then toglance out of the low window, from which a view could be obtained overthe great Forest of Fontainebleau, where Philip Augustus in the olddays, centuries before, loved to go hunting. It seemed as though to theyoung man there was a chafing disquietude in the silence, the inaction,of the afternoon, when the inmates of the palace, like the inhabitantsof the tiny little white town, retired to rest for a time in order to beready for the evening, when life began to be lived once more.

  It was a very handsome chamber in which the young man was evidencing aspecies of disquietude, as of awaiting the coming of somebody, or asummons. As he stopped once in his feverish pacing up and down, amassive clock was heard to strike three. Rich mats lay on the polishedfloor, and the _salon_ was so lofty that high-up it seemed almost greydusk by contrast with the bars of sunshine which came through thewindow.

  From outside there came the challenging clarion note of a trumpet.

  "Changing guard," he muttered, "already!" And then he fell to thinkingof other things, for there was beneath the thud of horses' feet, thebaying of a dog and a loud shout.

  He turned away from the window at last and tapped the dark arras withwhich the walls were draped.

  He was a tall, dark-eyed, well-made lad, looking handsome enough in hisrich velvet doublet, evidently one who spent a large part of his time inthe open air, in the chase, or perhaps in sterner work still.

  "How much danger?" he murmured, and he went to one side of the room,raising the heavy folds of a curtain which concealed a door, andlistening intently a minute, before dropping the drapery and thenimpatiently springing on to a chair. The chair stood before a long,narrow, slit-like window, and from it likewise there was little to beseen but forest, all deep green and silent, and a strip of blue sky. Hesprang down again with a sigh, crossed to the other side of the chamber,lifted the curtain again, opened a door, and looked out, before closingthe door, dropping the curtain, and resuming his restless walk, as ifsaying, "What shall I do with myself?" Somehow the answer seemed tocome to that question, for he suddenly clapped his hand to its side,drew a long, thin, triangular-bladed sword from its sheath, andadmiringly and caressingly examined the beautiful chased and engravedopen-work steel hilt and guard, giving it a rub here and there with hisdark velvet sleeve. Then he crossed to the great open carvedmantelpiece, took hold of the point of the sword, passing the blade overso that the hilt rested beyond his right shoulder; and, using the keenpoint as a graver, he marked-out, breast high upon one of the supportersof the chimney-piece, which happened to be a massive half-nude figure,the shape of a heart--the figure being about four inches in diameter.Apparently satisfied with his work, he drew back a few feet, turned uphis right sleeve, and grasping his rapier by the handle, made the thinblade whistle as he waved it through the air and dropped gracefully atonce into position, as if prepared to assault or receive an enemy, theenemy being the dark oak, chipped and much rubbed, semi-classic figure,the work of some wood-carver of a hundred years before, and whose grimaspect was rendered grotesque by the want of a nose. The next minutethe polished floor gave forth sounds of softly shuffling feet, andstamps, as the lad, page or esquire, and evidently for the time guardianof the ante-chamber, began to fence and foin, parry and guard, every nowand then delivering a fierce thrust in the latest Italian fashion rightat the marked-out heart upon the grim figure's breast. It was warmwork, for the lad put plenty of spirit and life into his efforts, andbefore long his clear, broad forehead and the sides of a rather aquilinenose began to glisten with a very slight dew. But the efforts werequite unsuccessful, bringing forth softly uttered ejaculations ofimpatience as the keen point of the rapier stuck into the solid woodabove, below, to the right and left, never once within the ellipsetraced out to represent a heart. But evidently under the belief thatpractice makes perfect, and regardless of coming shortness of breath,the lad kept on thrusting away, so intent upon his work that he did notbear the faint smothered click as of a latch behind him, nor note awhite hand from one of whose fingers glistened dully the stone _encabochon_ of a big ruby ring.

  This hand looked thin and ghastly against the dark curtain which itgrasped and held on one side for some minutes, while its owner, hiddenby the arras, seemed to be watching the sword-play of the lad. Thiswent on vigorously as ever even when the tapestry was lightly brushedaside and a rather short, keen-looking, grizzled-bearded man appeared,in square black velvet cap and long gown, which half hid a closelyfitting black velvet doublet and silken hose. He was armed, accordingto the custom of the time, with a long rapier balanced by a stiletto athis girdle, and as he dropped the curtain, his hands moved as ifinvoluntarily to these occupants of his belt and rested there. It wasnot a pleasant face that watched the sword-play, for the wrinklestherein were not those of age, but deeply marked all the same.

  They showed, fan-like, in two sets of rays at the corners of his eyes,and curiously about the corners of his mouth and beside his nose, as ifhe were about to laugh, the sort of laugh that one would give whoenjoyed seeing a fellow-creature in pain; while his dark right eyeseemed to glow beneath the grey shaggy brow, at one moment in a strangefiery way, while the next, as its owner made some slight movement, itliterally flashed as if sending forth scintillations of light, giving tohis countenance a weird, strange aspect, emphasised by the peculiarfixed stare of his left optic, which suggested that it was doing thefixed, quiet, patient work of its master, while the other searched andflashed and sought for fresh subjects upon which its fellow might gaze.Whatever value such a pair of eyes might be to their possessor, they hadone great drawback, and that was that they caused distrust in a strangerwho met him for the first time, making him involuntarily feel that thisman must be having him at a disadvantage, for it was as if on
e eye heldhim in play and took up his attention, while that other with its strangefixed stare searched him through and through.

  His was not a pleasant smile, and there were people about the Court whosaid sinister things about Master Leoni, the King's physician, and whowould not have taken a dose of his medicine even to save their lives,for he had acquired a bad name, and Saint Simon had once half laughinglysaid:

  "He knows too much about poisons to please me."

  It was no wonder, then, that taking into consideration his quiet andunexpected approach, and the grim aspect of his face, the fencing ladshould, when he became aware of his presence, give a violent start andslightly change colour, his exercise-flushed face turning for the momentpale. It was just after one of his most vigorous attacks upon thesupporter of the great mantelpiece, one which ended in a reallysuccessful thrust delivered with a suppressed "Ha, ha!" followed by adull thud, and a tug on the lad's part to extricate the point of hissword from its new sheath, quite a couple of inches being firmly thrustinto the hard old wood right in the centre of the marked-out heart.

  "Humph! At last!" said the watcher, as the boy faced round. "You won'tkill many of the King's enemies, Master Denis, if you can't do betterwork than that."

  "What!" cried the boy, flushing. "You've been watching?"

  "Of course, I watch everything," said the other, smiling. "That's theway to learn. You must watch, too, my boy--good fencing masters--andlearn how to parry and thrust. It's of no use to carry a fine bladelike that if you don't master its use. Some day you may have to draw itto defend the King, and aim its point perhaps at an assassin's heart;and that will be a harder target to hit than that motionless mark. Youseem to have drawn upon the King's furniture to the great damage of thecarving. Denis, my lad, you ought to be able to handle a sword tobetter purpose than that. Why, even I, old man as I am, who have notheld a blade in my hand this many a year, could make a better show."

  "At binding up wounds perhaps," said the boy scornfully.

  "Ay, and making of them too.--His Majesty is not in his chamber, Isuppose?"

  "Yes, he is," said the lad shortly; "asleep."

  "Soundly, then, or the noise you made must have aroused him. Go and seeif he is yet awake. I want to see him."

  The boy frowned, and gave a tug at his weapon, which refused to leavethe wood.

  "Gently, my lad," said the doctor. "That is a very beautiful weapon,too good to spoil, and if you use it like that you will snap off thepoint, or drag the blade from the hilt."

  "But it is in so fast," cried the lad impatiently, and he pulled withall his might, his anger gathering at being dictated to and taught.

  "Let me," said the doctor, raising one hand; and the lad resented theoffer for the moment, but on second thoughts gave way.

  "Perhaps you will find it as hard as I do," he said, with a malicioussmile.

  "Perhaps I shall," said his elder; "but I should like to try.Sometimes, my boy, the _tactus eruditus_ will succeed when main forcefails."

  "I wish you wouldn't talk Latin," said the boy impatiently, and hesnatched his hand from the sword-hilt, leaving it vibrating and swayingup and down where it stuck in the wood.

  "Worse and worse," said the doctor quickly, as he caught it by theguard. "Why, Denis, you don't deserve to possess a blade like that.There," he continued, as, apparently without an effort, he drew therapier from its imprisonment and handed it back to the owner. "There;sheathe your blade, and if his Majesty is awake, tell him that I beg anaudience."

  "And if he is asleep?" said the lad.

  "Let him rest," replied the other, with a smile. "Let sleeping--kingslie. They are always better tempered, my lad, when they have restedwell. Take that as being the truth from an old philosopher, Denis, myboy, and act accordingly. You and I don't want to lose our headsthrough offending the master we serve."

  "I don't," cried the boy sharply.

  "Nor I," said the doctor, with a smile that was more unpleasant thanever. "There, go softly."

  "Yea, I'll go," said the lad; "but I am sure he's asleep."

  "If he is, make haste back and while I wait till his Majesty has endedhis afternoon nap, suppose I give you one of my prescriptions on theproper way to use a sword."

  "But will you?" cried the lad eagerly, his whole manner changing.

  "To be sure I will. There was a time when I used to fence, and hadsometimes to wound or take life to save my own. But of late years mywork has been to heal."

  The lad nodded sharply, rested his left hand upon the hilt of his nowsheathed sword, drew aside the arras to the right of the fireplace, andpassed through the door that faced him, one which closed behind him witha soft click.