The King’s Stratagem by Stanley J. Weyman

In the days when Henry IV. of France was King of Navarre only, and in that little kingdom of hills and woods which occupies the southwest corner of the larger country, was with difficulty supporting the Huguenot cause against the French court and the Catholic League–in the days when every isolated castle, from the Garonne to the Pyrenees, was a bone of contention between the young king and the crafty queen-mother, Catherine de Medicis, a conference between these notable personages took place in the picturesque town of La Réole.

La Réole still rises gray, time-worn, and half-ruined on a lofty cliff above the broad green waters of the Garonne, forty odd miles from Bordeaux. But it is a small place now. In the days of which we are speaking, however, it was important, strongly fortified, and guarded by a castle which looked down on a thousand red-tiled roofs, rising in terraces from the river. As the meeting-place of the two sovereigns it was for the time as gay as Paris itself, Catherine having brought with her a bevy of fair maids of honor, in the effect of whose charms she perhaps put as much trust as in her own diplomacy. But the peaceful appearance of the town was delusive, for even while every other house in it rang with music and silvery laughter, each party was ready to fly to arms without warning, if it saw that any advantage was to be gained thereby.

On an evening shortly before the end of the conference two men sat at play in a room, the deep-embrasured window of which looked down from a considerable height upon the river. The hour was late, and the town silent. Outside, the moonlight fell bright and pure on sleeping fields and long, straight lines of poplars. Within the room a silver lamp suspended from the ceiling threw light upon the table, leaving the farther parts of the room in shadow. The walls were hung with faded tapestry. On the low bedstead in one corner lay a handsome cloak, a sword, and one of the clumsy pistols of the period. Across a chair lay another cloak and sword, and on the window seat, beside a pair of saddlebags, were strewn half a dozen such trifles as soldiers carried from camp to camp–a silver comfit-box, a jeweled dagger, a mask, and velvet cap.

The faces of the players, as they bent over the dice, were in shadow. One–a slight, dark man of middle height, with a weak chin, and a mouth as weak, but shaded by a dark mustache–seemed, from the occasional oaths which he let drop, to be losing heavily. Yet his opponent, a stouter and darker man, with a sword-cut across his left temple, and that swaggering air which has at all times marked the professional soldier, showed no signs of triumph or elation. On the contrary, though he kept silence, or spoke only a formal word or two, there was a gleam of anxiety and suppressed excitement in his eyes, and more than once he looked keenly at his companion, as if to judge of his feelings or learn whether the time had come for some experiment which he meditated. But for this, an observer looking in through the window would have taken the two for only one more instance of the hawk and pigeon.

At last the younger player threw down the caster, with a groan.

“You have the luck of the Evil One,” he said bitterly. “How much is that?”

“Two thousand crowns,” replied the other without emotion. “You will play no more?”

“No! I wish to Heaven I had never played at all!” was the answer. As he spoke the loser rose, and going to the window stood looking moodily out.

For a few moments the elder man remained seated, gazing at him furtively, but at length he too rose, and, stepping softly to his companion, touched him on the shoulder. “Your pardon a moment, M. le Vicomte,” he said. “Am I right in concluding that the loss of this sum will inconvenience you?”

“A thousand fiends!” exclaimed the young vicomte, turning on him wrathfully. “Is there any man whom the loss of two thousand crowns would not inconvenience? As for me—-“

“For you,” continued the other, smoothly filling up the pause, “shall I be wrong in saying that it means something like ruin?”

“Well, sir, and if it does?” the young man retorted, drawing himself up haughtily, his cheek a shade paler with passion. “Depend upon it you shall be paid. Do not be afraid of that!”

“Gently, gently, my friend,” the winner answered, his patience in strong contrast with the other’s violence. “I had no intention of insulting you, believe me. Those who play with the Vicomte de Lanthenon are not wont to doubt his honor. I spoke only in your own interest. It has occurred to me, vicomte, that the matter might be arranged at less cost to yourself.”

“How?” was the curt question.

“May I speak freely?” The vicomte shrugged his shoulders, and the other, taking silence for consent, proceeded: “You, vicomte, are Governor of Lusigny for the King of Navarre; I, of Créance, for the King of France. Our towns lie only three leagues apart. Could I, by any chance, say on one of these fine nights, become master of Lusigny, it would be worth more than two thousand crowns to me. Do you understand?”

“No,” the young man answered slowly, “I do not.”

“Think over what I have said, then,” was the brief answer.

For a full minute there was silence in the room. The vicomte gazed out of the window with knitted brows and compressed lips, while his companion, sitting down, leaned back in his chair, with an air of affected carelessness. Outside, the rattle of arms and hum of voices told that the watch were passing through the street. The church bell struck one. Suddenly the vicomte burst into a hoarse laugh, and, turning, snatched up his cloak and sword. “The trap was very well laid, M. le Capitaine,” he said almost jovially; “but I am still sober enough to take care of myself–and of Lusigny. I wish you good-night. You shall have your money, never fear.”

“Still, I am afraid it will cost you dearly,” the captain answered, as he rose and moved toward the door to open it for his guest. His hand was already on the latch when he paused. “Look here,” he said, “what do you say to this, then? I will stake the two thousand crowns you have lost to me, and another thousand besides against your town. Fool! no one can hear us. If you win, you go off a free man with my thousand. If you lose, you put me in possession one of these fine nights. What do you say to that? A single throw to decide.”

The young man’s pale face reddened. He turned, and his eyes sought the table and the dice irresolutely. The temptation indeed came at an unfortunate moment, when the excitement of play had given way to depression, and he saw nothing before him outside the door, on which his hand was laid, but the cold reality of ruin. The temptation to return, and by a single throw set himself right with the world was too much for him. Slowly he came back to the table. “Confound you!” he said irritably. “I think you are the devil himself, captain.”

“Don’t talk child’s talk!” said the other coldly, drawing back as his victim advanced. “If you do not like the offer you need not take it.”

But the young man’s fingers had already closed on the dice. Picking them up he dropped them once, twice, thrice on the table, his eyes gleaming with the play-fever. “If I win?” he said doubtfully.

“You carry away a thousand crowns,” answered the captain quietly. “If you lose you contrive to leave one of the gates of Lusigny open for me before next full moon. That is all.”

“And what if I lose, and not pay the forfeit?” asked the vicomte, laughing weakly.

“I trust to your honor,” said the captain. And, strange as it may seem, he knew his man. The young noble of the day might betray his cause and his trust, but the debt of honor incurred at play was binding on him.

“Well,” said the vicomte, “I agree. Who is to throw first?”

“As you will,” replied the captain, masking under an appearance of indifference a real excitement which darkened his cheek, and caused the pulse in the old wound on his face to beat furiously.

“Then do you go first,” said the vicomte.

“With your permission,” assented the captain. And taking the dice up in the caster he shook them with a practiced hand, and dropped them on the board. The throw was seven.

The vicomte took up the caster and, as he tossed the dice into it, glanced at the window. The moonlight shining athwart it fell in silvery sheen on a few feet of the floor. With the light something of the silence and coolness of the night entered also, and appealed to him. For a few seconds he hesitated. He even made as if he would have replaced the box on the table. But the good instinct failed. It was too late, and with a muttered word, which his dry lips refused to articulate, he threw the dice. Seven!

Neither of the men spoke, but the captain rattled the cubes, and again flung them on the table, this time with a slight air of bravado. They rolled one over the other and lay still. Seven again.

The young vicomte’s brow was damp, and his face pale and drawn. He forced a quavering laugh, and with an unsteady hand took his turn. The dice fell far apart, and lay where they fell. Six!

The winner nodded gravely. “The luck is still with me,” he said, keeping his eyes on the table that the light of triumph which had suddenly leapt into them might not be seen. “When do you go back to your command, vicomte?”

The unhappy man stood like one stunned, gazing at the two little cubes which had cost him so dearly. “The day after to-morrow,” he muttered hoarsely, striving to collect himself.

“Then we shall say the following evening?” asked the captain.

“Very well.”

“We quite understand one another,” continued the winner, eyeing his man watchfully, and speaking with more urgency. “I may depend on you, M. le Vicomte, I presume?”

“The Lanthenons have never been wanting to their word,” the young nobleman answered, stung into sudden haughtiness. “If I live I will put Lusigny into your hands, M. le Captaine. Afterward I will do my best to recover it–in another way.”

“I shall be entirely at your disposal,” replied the captain, bowing lightly. And in a moment he was alone–alone with his triumph, his ambition, his hopes for the future–alone with the greatness to which his capture of Lusigny was to be the first step, and which he should enjoy not a whit the less because as yet fortune had dealt out to him more blows than caresses, and he was still at forty, after a score of years of roughest service, the governor of a paltry country town.

Meanwhile, in the darkness of the narrow streets the vicomte was making his way to his lodgings in a state of despair and unhappiness most difficult to describe. Chilled, sobered, and affrighted he looked back and saw how he had thrown for all and lost all, how he had saved the dregs of his fortune at the expense of his loyalty, how he had seen a way of escape and lost it forever! No wonder that as he trudged alone through the mud and darkness of the sleeping town his breath came quickly and his chest heaved, and he looked from side to side as a hunted animal might, uttering great sighs. Ah, if he could only have retraced the last three hours!

Worn out and exhausted, he entered his lodging, and, securing the door behind him, stumbled up the stone stairs and entered his room. The impulse to confide his misfortunes to someone was so strong upon him that he was glad to see a dark form half sitting, half lying in a chair before the dying embers of a wood fire. In those days a man’s natural confidant was his valet, the follower, half-friend, half-servant, who had been born on his estate, who lay on a pallet at the foot of his bed, who carried his billets-doux and held his cloak at the duello, who rode near his stirrup in fight and nursed him in illness, who not seldom advised him in the choice of a wife, and lied in support of his suit.

The young vicomte flung his cloak over a chair. “Get up, you rascal!” he cried impatiently. “You pig, you dog!” he continued, with increasing anger. “Sleeping there as though your master were not ruined by that scoundrel of a Breton! Bah!” he added, gazing bitterly at his follower, “you are of the canaille, and have neither honor to lose nor a town to betray!”

The sleeping man moved In his chair and half turned. The vicomte, his patience exhausted, snatched the bonnet from his head, and threw it on the ground. “Will you listen?” he said. “Or go, if you choose look for another master. I am ruined! Do you hear? Ruined, Gil! I have lost all–money, land, Lusigny itself, at the dice!”

The man, aroused at last, stooped with a lazy movement, and picking up his hat dusted it with his hand, and rose with a yawn to his feet.

“I am afraid, vicomte,” he said, his tones, quiet as they were, sounding like thunder in the vicomte’s astonished and bewildered ears, “I am afraid that if you have lost Lusigny, you have lost something which was not yours to lose!”

As he spoke he struck the embers with his foot, and the fire, blazing up, shone on his face. The vicomte saw, with unutterable confusion and dismay, that the man before him was not Gil at all, but the last person in the world to whom he should have betrayed himself. The astute smiling eyes, the aquiline nose, the high forehead, and projecting chin, which the short beard and mustache scarcely concealed, were only too well known to him. He stepped back with a cry of horror. “Sire!” he said, and then his tongue failed him. He stood silent, pale, convicted, his chin on his breast. The man to whom he had confessed his treachery was the master whom he had conspired to betray.

“I had suspected something of this,” Henry of Navarre continued, after a pause, a tinge of irony in his tone. “Rosny told me that that old fox, the Captain of Créance, was affecting your company a good deal, M. le Vicomte, and I find that, as usual, his suspicions were well founded. What with a gentleman who shall be nameless, who has bartered a ford and a castle for the favor of Mlle. de Luynes, and yourself, I am blest with some faithful followers! For shame!” he continued, seating himself with dignity, “have you nothing to say for yourself?”

The young noble stood with his head bowed, his face white. This was ruin, indeed, absolutely irremediable. “Sire,” he said at last, “your Majesty has a right to my life, not to my honor.”

“Your honor!” quoth Henry, biting contempt in his tone.

The young man started, and for a second his cheek flamed under the well-deserved reproach; but he recovered himself. “My debt to your Majesty,” he said, “I am willing to pay.”

“Since pay you must,” Henry muttered softly.

“But I claim to pay also my debt to the Captain of Créance.”

“Oh,” the king answered. “So you would have me take your worthless life, and give up Lusigny?”

“I am in your hands, sire.”

“Pish, sir!” Henry replied in angry astonishment. “You talk like a child. Such an offer, M. de Lanthenon, is folly, and you know it. Now listen to me. It was lucky for you that I came in to-night, intending to question you. Your madness is known to me only, and I am willing to overlook it. Do you hear? Cheer up, therefore, and be a man. You are young; I forgive you. This shall be between you and me only,” the young prince continued, his eyes softening as the other’s head drooped, “and you need think no more of it until the day when I shall say to you, ‘Now, M. de Lanthenon, for France and for Henry, strike!’”

He rose as the last word passed his lips, and held out his hand. The vicomte fell on one knee, and kissed it reverently, then sprang to his feet again. “Sire,” he said, standing erect, his eyes shining, “you have punished me heavily, more heavily than was needful. There is only one way in which I can show my gratitude, and that is by ridding you of a servant who can never again look your enemies in the face.”

“What new folly is this?” said Henry sternly. “Do you not understand that I have forgiven you?”

“Therefore I cannot give up Lusigny, and I must acquit myself of my debt to the Captain of Créance in the only way which remains,” replied the young man, firmly. “Death is not so hard that I would not meet it twice over rather than again betray my trust.”

“This is midsummer madness!” said the king hotly.

“Possibly,” replied the vicomte, without emotion; “yet of a kind to which your Majesty is not altogether a stranger.”

The words appealed strongly to that love of the chivalrous which formed part of the king’s nature, and was one cause alike of his weakness and his strength, which in its more extravagant flights gave opportunity after opportunity to his enemies, in its nobler and saner expressions won victories which all his astuteness and diplomacy could not have compassed. He stood looking with half-hidden admiration at the man whom two minutes before he had despised.

“I think you are in jest,” he said presently.

“No, sire,” the young man answered gravely. “In my country they have a proverb about us. ‘The Lanthenons,’ say they, ‘have ever been bad players, but good payers.’ I will not be the first to be worse than my name!”

He spoke with so quiet a determination that the king was staggered, and for a minute or two paced the room in silence, inwardly reviling the generous obstinacy of his weak-kneed supporter, yet unable to withhold his admiration from it. At length he stopped, with a low, abrupt exclamation.

“Wait!” he cried. “I have it! Ventre Saint Gris, man, I have it!” His eyes sparkled, and, with a gentle laugh, he hit the table a sounding blow. “Ha! ha! I have it!” he repeated joyously.

The young noble gazed at him in surprise, half sullen, half incredulous. But when Henry, in low, rapid tones, had expounded his plan, the vicomte’s face underwent a change. Hope and life sprang into it. The blood flew to his cheeks. His whole aspect softened. In a moment he was on his knee, mumbling the king’s hand, his eyes full of joy and gratitude. After that the two talked long, the murmur of their voices broken more than once by the ripple of low laughter. When they at length separated, and Henry, his face hidden by the folds of his cloak, had stolen away to his lodgings, where, no doubt, more than one watcher was awaiting him with a mind full of anxious fears, the vicomte threw open his window and looked out on the night. The moon had set, but the stars still shone peacefully in the dark canopy above. He remembered on a sudden, his throat choking with silent repressed emotion, that he was looking toward his home–the stiff gray pile among the beech woods of Navarre which had been in his family since the days of St. Louis, and which he had so lightly risked. And he registered a vow in his heart that of all Henry’s servants he would henceforth be the most faithful.

Meanwhile the Captain of Créance was enjoying the sweets of coming triumph. He did not look out into the night, it is true, but pacing up and down the room he planned and calculated, considering how he might make the most of his success. He was still comparatively young. He had years of strength before him. He would rise. He would not easily be satisfied. The times were troubled, opportunities many, fools many; bold men with brains and hands few.

At the same time he knew that he could be sure of nothing until Lusigny was actually his, and he spent the next few days in considerable suspense. But no hitch occurred. The vicomte made the necessary communications to him; and men in his own pay informed him of dispositions ordered by the governor of Lusigny which left him in no doubt that the loser intended to pay his debt.

It was, therefore, with a heart already gay with anticipation that the Captain rode out of Créance two hours before midnight on an evening eight days later. The night was dark, but he knew the road well. He had with him a powerful force, composed in part of thirty of his own garrison, bold, hardy fellows, and in part of six score horsemen, lent him by the governor of Montauban. As the vicomte had undertaken to withdraw, under some pretense or other, one-half of his command, and to have one of the gates opened by a trusty hand, the captain trotted along in excellent spirits, and stopped to scan with approval the dark line of his troopers as they plodded past him, the jingle of their swords and corselets ringing sweet music in his ears. He looked for an easy victory; but it was not any slight misadventure that would rob him of his prey. As his company wound on by the riverside, their accouterments reflected in the stream, or passed into the black shadow of the olive grove which stands a mile to the east of Lusigny, he felt little doubt of the success of his enterprise.

Treachery apart, that is; and of treachery there was no sign. The troopers had scarcely halted under the last clump of trees before a figure detached itself from one of the largest trunks, and advanced to their leader’s rein. The captain saw with surprise that it was the vicomte himself. For a second he thought something had gone wrong, but the young noble’s first words reassured him. “It is all right,” M. de Lanthenon whispered, as the captain bent down to him. “I have kept my word, and I think that there will be no resistance. The planks for crossing the moat lie opposite the gate. Knock thrice at the latter, and it will be opened. There are not fifty armed men in the place.”

“Good!” the captain answered, in the same cautious tone. “But you—-“

“I am believed, to be elsewhere, and must be gone. I have far to ride tonight. Farewell.”

“Till we meet again,” the captain answered; and with that his ally glided away and was lost in the darkness. A cautious word set the troop again in motion, and a very few minutes saw them standing on the edge of the moat, the outline of the gateway tower looming above them, a shade darker than the wrack of clouds which overhead raced silently across the sky. A moment of suspense, while one and another shivered–for there is that in a night attack which touches the nerves of the stoutest–and the planks were found, and as quietly as possible laid across the moat. This was so successfully done that it evoked no challenge, and the captain crossing quickly with some picked men stood almost in the twinkling of an eye under the shadow of the gateway. Still no sound was heard save the hurried breathing of those at his elbow or the stealthy tread of others crossing. Cautiously he knocked three times and waited. The third rap had scarcely sounded, however, before the gate rolled silently open, and he sprang in, followed by his men.

So far so good. A glance at the empty street and the porter’s pale face told him at once that the vicomte had kept his word. But he was too old a soldier to take anything for granted, and forming up his men as quickly as they entered, he allowed no one to advance until all were inside, and then, his trumpet sounding a wild note of defiance, his force sprang forward in two compact bodies and in a moment the town awoke to find itself in the hands of the enemy.

As the vicomte had promised, there was no resistance. In the small keep a score of men did indeed run to arms, but only to lay them down without striking a blow when they became aware of the force opposed to them. Their leader, sullenly acquiescing, gave up his sword and the keys of the town to the victorious captain, who, as he sat his horse in the middle of the market-place, giving his orders and sending off riders with the news, already saw himself in fancy governor of a province and Knight of the Holy Ghost.

As the red light of the torches fell on steel caps and polished hauberks, on the serried ranks of pikemen, and the circle of white-faced townsmen, the picturesque old square looked doubly picturesque. Every five minutes, with a clatter of iron on the rough pavement and a shower of sparks, a horseman sprang away to tell the news at Montauban or Cahors; and every time that this occurred, the captain, astride on his charger, felt a new sense of power and triumph.

Suddenly the low murmur of voices was broken by a new sound, the hurried clang of hoofs, not departing but arriving. There was something in the noise which made the captain prick his ears, and secured for the messenger a speedy passage through the crowd. Even at the last the man did not spare his horse, but spurring to the captain’s side, then and then only sprang to the ground. His face was pale, his eyes were bloodshot. His right arm was bound up in bloodstained cloths. With an oath of amazement, the captain recognized the officer whom he had left in charge of Créance and thundered out, “What is it?”

“They have got Créance!” the man gasped, reeling as he spoke. “They have got Créance!”

“Who?” the captain shrieked, his face purple with rage.

“The little man of Béarn! He assaulted it five hundred strong an hour after you left, and had the gate down before we could fire a dozen shots. We did what we could, but we were but one to seven. I swear, captain, we did all we could. Look at this!”

Almost black in the face, the captain swore another frightful oath. It was not only that he saw governorship and honors vanish like will-o’-the-wisps, but that he saw even more quickly that he had made himself the laughing-stock of a kingdom! And he had. To this day among the stories which the southern French love to tell of the prowess and astuteness of the great Henry, there is none more frequently told, or more frequently laughed over, than that of the famous exchange of Créance for Lusigny.

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