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 asked 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.