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The King's Esquires; Or, The Jewel of France, Page 3

George Manville Fenn



  Denis glanced at the doctor, grasping his hilt tightly the while, andready to spring into position for a fresh encounter; but at the samemoment he noted the change which came over his adversary, who from beingtense, erect and active, suddenly seemed to grow limp of body, thoughhis face was more animated than ever. He hung his head till his chinrested upon his chest, his eyes literally flashed, and he gazed upthrough his bushy brows at the young courtier who had just joined them,while for answer to his request he slowly finished sheathing his rapierand then took his heavy gown from where he had thrown it upon a chair,and held it out to Denis.

  "Help me," he said. "I am growing old and stiff."

  The lad looked at him wonderingly as he recalled the marvellous activityof a few minutes earlier, and then helped his instructor to resume hisgarment.

  "What!" cried Saint Simon warmly. "You will not go on? Why, doctor, Iwant to learn."

  The doctor gave him a peculiar, double sinister look, and said, with hisunpleasant smile playing about his thin lips:

  "The time to bend and train the wand is while it is young and green.You, sir, have grown too old and tough and stubborn to learn."

  "At five and twenty?" cried the young man, flushing.

  "Yes, at five and twenty. The soil of a court makes a tree old beforeits time, and--hark! Did I not hear his Majesty ring?"

  "Yes," cried Denis quickly, and hurriedly smoothing his hair, which hungloose from his late exertions, and then, readjusting his doublet andseeing to the hang of his sword, he hurried through the arras, those whowaited hearing the click of the door latch as he passed into the King'schamber.

  "You don't like me, doctor," said Saint Simon, as soon as they werealone.

  "I don't dislike you," said the other, smiling. "Have I ever treatedyou as an enemy?"

  "No; but--"

  "Hist!" whispered the doctor, as voices were heard beyond the hangings;the door fastening clicked again, and the lad appeared, carrying himselfin stiff and formal fashion.

  "Gentlemen," he said, "enter. His Majesty will give you audience."

  "Both? Together?" said the doctor.

  "Yes. His Majesty asked who waited. I told him, and he bade me showboth in."

  "There, doctor," said Saint Simon; "it is not my doing, so don't visitthis upon my head. I daresay he will soon send me away."

  Then, following their young escort, the two men stepped into thedarkened chamber where his Majesty, heavy-eyed, as if he was hardly yetawakened from sleep, lolled back in a short fur-trimmed robe in thecorner of a couch, his left hand behind his neck, his right resting uponthe shaggy head of a huge boar-hound which glanced suspiciously at thenew-comers and uttered a deep muttering growl.

  The King's fingers closed tightly upon the animal's ear, and he gave ita jerk.

  "Quiet, Tonnerre!" he said. "Can't you see they are friends?"

  _Ugh_! grunted the dog.

  "Brute!" cried the King. "You see, gentlemen, he seeks the company ofthe wild boar so much that he has acquired his uncouth expressions.Well, Saint Simon, you want to see me?"

  "Always, your Majesty," said the young man lightly. "You told me towait upon you this afternoon."

  "Did I? Well, I don't know that I want you. But to return yourcompliment, the place seems dull when you are not here."

  The young man smiled and darted a triumphant glance at thesaturnine-looking doctor, before turning to give Denis a look, his eyessparkling with pleasure the while.

  "And you, Leoni," said the King, yawning. "Tut, tut!" he addedimpatiently. "I am hardly awake. I was tired, gentlemen. Tonnerre andhis brother here led us such a race yesterday that I feel it yet. Well,Leoni, what do you want?"

  "Your Majesty told me that I might come and continue our little debateof yesterday--"

  "To be sure, yes," said the King, yawning again. "Let me see; it was asort of historical, half prophetic discourse, very learned and hard fora hunting man to understand, about the past and the future, and thesafety of my throne, and its depending upon the recovery of a certainmystic stone carried off--carried off--let me see, Leoni, who did yousay carried it off?"

  "The enemy and invader of your country, your Majesty: Henry, the EnglishKing. But, your Majesty--" The doctor ceased speaking and turnedslowly, to let his eyes rest meaningly upon the two young men in turn.

  "Eh? What? You mean this is secret, and not for other ears?"

  The two young men made a quick movement as their eyes sought the King's,and mutely asked the question:

  Your Majesty wishes us to go?

  "My liege, what I communicated was of the gravest import to you andyours, meant for your ears alone."

  "To be sure, Leoni, but kings need very long ears indeed to take in allthat concerns them--and have them too, sometimes, my learned doctor, asI have no doubt you men of wisdom think. But to be serious; I find Icannot hear all I want for myself, and am glad to have the help of otherears that I can trust. You are suspicious, my good old friend."

  "No, your Majesty: cautious in your service. Years of experience havetaught me to trust no one in your Majesty's service but myself."

  "Ah, but you are not a king. Where should I be if I trusted none?"

  The doctor bowed.

  "There, you see, I trust you; and what is more, I trust these two boysas thoroughly as anyone at Court. You know, old friend, that there arehundreds here who will say they would die for me. Now, those two ladswould not say such a thing to save their lives."

  "Your Majesty!" cried the two young courtiers, in the same tone ofprotest.

  "Well," said the King, smiling; "I am right. I believe you would eitherof you die to save me, and without saying word."

  The pair drew back, smiling and satisfied, each glancing at the doctoras much as to say, Do you hear that?

  "There," said the King, "I trust you all; so now go on, Leoni, and saywhat you have to say; and, boys, mind this; we are in secret conclavenow. There must be no chattering afterwards, or discussion."

  "Your Majesty commands," said the doctor gravely. "Shall I continuefrom where we left off yesterday?"

  "No; let's have it all again. My gallop yesterday through the forestgave me so much to do in managing a fiery horse and keeping him frombreaking my neck amongst the boughs as he carried me into so many realdangers, that all your imaginary notions were swept away. Let's have itall again."

  The doctor bowed.

  "It will save me," said the King, "from making only a half confidence tomy young friends here. But be brief. Put it if you can into a fewwords. You in your studies and porings over black books are convinced--of what?"

  "That your Majesty's throne and succession--"

  "Well, really, Leoni, I don't know that I care much about thesuccession. But my throne is not a safe seat unless--"

  "Unless, your Majesty, that half sacred mystic balas ruby that wascarried off by Henry of England is brought back and restored to itsplace in the French Crown."

  "Yes, that's it," said the King. "I remember all now. But do youbelieve, Leoni, as a man who has long studied the secrets of nature, andthe mysteries of life, that there can be such virtue in precious stonesthat they can influence our lives?"

  "Yes, your Majesty," said the doctor solemnly; "and everything goes toprove it the wide world through; amongst the greatest and most civiliseddown to the most savage nations these talismanic gems have beenpreserved and treasured up. Prosperity and safety of life have alwaysaccompanied their possession; misfortune and destruction their loss."

  "Well," said the King thoughtfully, "I don't think that I believe it.It sounds to me like an old woman's tale."

  "If your Majesty would read and study the history of the past--"

  "I haven't time," said the King. "But look here; do you mean to tell methat this present Henry--what is he--the Eighth?--of England believesall this?"

  "Yes, your Majesty, and proves it by treasuring up t
he ruby that byright is yours."

  "Then you think that the holding of this stone, reft from our crown, hadsomething to do with the hold of these English upon our fair domains ofFrance?"

  "Certainly, your Majesty, and moreover, I hold that it is your sovereignduty to restore it to its place."

  "How?" said the King, and his eyes rested upon those of the two youngmen, whose intent and watchful faces told how they were drinking in withintense interest the subject that was being discussed.

  "That, your Majesty," said the doctor gravely, "is what I am here tourge upon you."

  "But what do you want, man?" cried the King impatiently. "If Henry ismore wise than I, and believes in all this mystic stuff, is it likelythat he will give me back this talisman, as I suppose you would call it,that his ancestors plundered from our crown?"

  "No, your Majesty. Efforts have been made by statesmen of the past, inprevious reigns, to get the jewel back, but all in vain."

  "Very well," said the King impatiently; "and France seems to have got onvery well without it. We are at peace with England. Why should Idisturb our friendly brotherly intercourse by raking up the past? I amquite content and happy to enjoy my hunting pursuits. Do you want me togo to war, invade England, and bring the jewel back?"

  "Far from it, your Majesty."

  "Then why disturb the pleasant present?"

  "For fear of a troubled future, Sire. It is to ensure your long andprosperous reign that I speak like this. Believe me, Sire, I have noother aim."

  "Well, Leoni, I believe your words. You have a good position here atCourt, and a good master ready to give you anything in reason; andbelieve me, I want to enjoy a quiet prosperous reign. Mine is a verypleasant life. There are plenty of boars to kill, and I would ratherslay them than Englishmen. War is very attractive and very grand. Theclash of arms, the trumpets' bray, and the thunder of chargers' hoofs,all thrill me to the core; but I prefer it in the tourney, the mimiccharge, and I don't much care for blood. But you as a wise andthoughtful man, you tell me that I ought to stir in this and get theruby back?"

  "I do, Sire," said Leoni sternly.

  "Well, well, then I suppose it must be done."

  The dog gave a sharp growl and showed his teeth.

  "What, sir!" roared the King, snatching back his hand to grasp thedagger in his girdle. "Do you dare to turn upon your lord?"

  "No, no, Sire," cried Denis excitedly. "It was not his fault."

  "What do you mean, sir?" said the King angrily.

  "You were pulling his ears so hard, Sire, and dragging his head to andfro."

  "Was I?" said the King.

  "Yes, Sire. He bore it as long as he could."

  "Poor old Tonnerre!" said the King, clapping his hand upon the dog'shead again; and the dog whined with pleasure at the caress. "I wasgrowing excited, I suppose. Well, never mind the hound. Now then,Leoni; we must have this ruby back?"

  "Yes, Sire. I shall never rest till I see it safely in the ancientcrown."

  "And I suppose I must say the same," said the King. "But how is it tobe done? There: speak. You have studied all this out, I suppose? Howis it to be done?"

  "By a trusty mission to England, Sire."

  "Absurd! I am sure King Henry would never give anything up."

  "And I, Sire. He must be forced."

  "Send force?"

  "No, Sire. The force must be that of one strong, daring envoy who wouldseize upon the gem and bring it back."

  "What, steal?" cried the King.

  "Can one steal that which is one's own, Sire?"

  "True. No," said the King. "This is ours by right."

  "Your Majesty speaks well," said the doctor triumphantly. "This gembelongs to France's ancient crown, from which it was wrenched,plundered, stolen, carried away as spoil. And now it must berecovered."

  "Openly," said the King.

  "No, Sire. That means war. My plan is that you should send a trustedenvoy to watch his opportunity, seize the gem or gems, and bring themback."

  "Hah!" ejaculated Denis, in the excitement of the moment; and SaintSimon turned upon him sharply, and with a resentful look which wasreturned.

  "But it means a deal," said the King thoughtfully. "That ambassadorwould risk his life."

  "Hah!" ejaculated Saint Simon, giving vent to his suppressed excitementin his turn; and Denis now gave him back his resentful jealous look.

  "Yes, Sire," continued Leoni; "the envoy would risk his life, ofcourse--in the service of his King. But there are men who would do thisfor their master's sake, to ensure his long and peaceful reign."

  "And if he fails?" said the King.

  "He would not fail, Sire. He would be carried forward by the knowledgethat he was fighting in the cause of right and duty towards the masterthat he loved. Have no fear of that, Sire. He would succeed."

  "But I have fear," cried the King. "Find me such a man as that, and Ishould look upon him as a treasure whose life I would not risk."

  "There would be no risk, Sire. It would be a question not of force butguile. He would make his way to the Court of your brother of England ina way which I have planned."

  "With recommendations from me?"

  "Perhaps, Sire. I have not settled that."

  "No," said the King angrily. "Why, man, when the gems were missed, thetheft would be laid at my door. I would sooner march my people acrossEnglish ground and take them honestly by force."

  "That could not be done, Sire. Leave that to me. Your messenger mustgo, and carry out his ambassage by guile."

  "And who is to be the man?" asked the King.

  "I!" cried Denis, springing forward, to sink upon one knee beforeFrancis, and so suddenly as to rouse the dog, which leaped towards him,barking furiously.

  "You, my boy!" cried the King.

  "No, Sire," cried Saint Simon excitedly, following Denis's example, tospring to the King's feet. "I will go. It is work for a man grown, notfor a puny boy."

  "Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the King merrily. "Quiet, Tonnerre! Quiet!" Forthe great hound, roused by the excitement, was filling the chamber withhis deep-toned bay, his eyes glaring redly, and his glistening whitefangs bared, as he gazed in his master's face as if asking for orders asto whom he should seize by the throat and pin.

  "Down, sir!" cried the King again. "Quiet! There, Leoni, was I notright in letting these boys share our confidence? Who says that Francisof Valois has not followers in whom he can trust?"

  "Not I, Sire," said the doctor grimly; "but this is no work for them."

  "Not for Denis here," cried Saint Simon excitedly, "but, your Majesty,for me. I would strike, and strike now. Mine be the task to do ordie!"

  "Silence, boy!" cried the King, laying his hand on Denis's head as hedumbly looked up at him in protest, his eyes appealing the while thathis monarch's favour should be awarded to him alone. "No, no;emphatically no! Neither of you will go alone. You hear, boys? I willnot send you on this quest."

  Francis turned to Leoni as he spoke, and the doctor bowed his head inacquiescence.

  "Yours are the words of wisdom, Sire," he said. "The work is not forsuch as these--these two gallant followers of their King."

  "Who then is to follow out the task?" said Francis. "For I like itwell, and it must and shall be done. You hear me, Leoni? I have spokennow, and I will not rest, since you have roused me to this task, untilthis jewel glistens once more in its rightful place above my kinglycrown."

  "Spoken like the King of France!" cried the doctor, drawing himself up."And now, Sire, it will be done."

  "By whom?" cried Francis sternly.

  "By your servant, Sire, who has dwelt upon this for years, thought outand nurtured the plans until the fruit is ripe. By the man whopossesses the energy, the guile, and the determination to serve hismaster in this great duty to his King."

  "And who is that man?" cried Francis, rising to his feet and standingproudly before his three courtiers kneeling before him; for as he
uttered his next words Leoni sank in turn upon one knee and bent hishead, to say in a low deep tone, almost a whisper, but which seemed tofill the silence of the place:

  "I, Sire--your faithful servant. I am that man."

  The silence for the next few moments was profound, while a cloud thathad eclipsed the sun for some time past floated slowly from before theglowing orb, which poured its full beams through the gorgeous panes ofthe stained-glass windows of the chamber, and flooded the standingmonarch with its glowing light as he made reply. His words were quick,sharp, and decisive, and fell upon the listeners like a thunderbolt,stunning them for a moment with the astonishment they felt; but theywere only these:

  "Neither are you the man to carry out this quest. I will go myself."