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- Michel and Angele [A Ladder of Swords], Volume 3. - 1/10 -
MICHEL AND ANGELE
[A Ladder of Swords]
By Gilbert Parker
It seemed an unspeakable smallness in a man of such high place in the State, whose hand had tied and untied myriad knots of political and court intrigue, that he should stoop to a game which any pettifogging hanger-on might play-and reap scorn in the playing. By insidious arts, Leicester had in his day turned the Queen's mind to his own will; had foiled the diplomacy of the Spaniard, the German and the Gaul; had by subterranean means checkmated the designs of the Medici; had traced his way through plot and counter-plot, hated by most, loved by none save, maybe, his Royal mistress to whom he was now more a custom than a cherished friend. Year upon year he had built up his influence. None had championed him save himself, and even from the consequences of rashness and folly he had risen to a still higher place in the kingdom. But such as Leicester are ever at last a sacrifice to the laborious means by which they achieve their greatest ends-means contemptible and small.
To the great intriguers every little detail, every commonplace insignificance is used--and must be used by them alone--to further their dark causes. They cannot trust their projects to brave lieutenants, to faithful subordinates. They cannot say, "Here is the end; this is the work to be done; upon your shoulders be the burden!" They must "stoop to conquer." Every miserable detail becomes of moment, until by-and-by the art of intrigue and conspiracy begins to lose proportion in their minds. The detail has ever been so important, conspiracy so much second nature, that they must needs be intriguing and conspiring when the occasion is trifling and the end negligible.
To all intriguers life has lost romance; there is no poem left in nature; no ideal, personal, public or national, detains them in its wholesome influence; no great purpose allures them; they have no causes for which to die--save themselves. They are so honeycombed with insincerity and the vice of thought, that by-and-by all colours are as one, all pathways the same; because, whichever hue of light breaks upon their world they see it through the grey-cloaked mist of falsehood; and whether the path be good or bad they would still walk in it crookedly. How many men and women Leicester had tracked or lured to their doom; over how many men and women he had stepped to his place of power, history speaks not carefully; but the traces of his deeds run through a thousand archives, and they suggest plentiful sacrifices to a subverted character.
Favourite of a Queen, he must now stoop to set a trap for the ruin of as simple a soul as ever stepped upon the soil of England; and his dark purposes had not even the excuse of necessity on the one hand, of love or passion on the other. An insane jealousy of the place the girl had won in the consideration of the Queen, of her lover who, he thought, had won a still higher place in the same influence, was his only motive for action at first. His cruelty was not redeemed even by the sensuous interest the girl might arouse in a reckless nature by her beauty and her charm.
So the great Leicester--the Gipsy, as the dead Sussex had called him--lay in wait in Greenwich Park for Angele to pass, like some orchard thief in the blossoming trees. Knowing the path by which she would come to her father's cottage from the palace, he had placed himself accordingly. He had thought he might have to wait long or come often for the perfect opportunity; but it seemed as if Fate played his game for him, and that once again the fruit he would pluck should fall into his palm. Bright- eyed, and elated from a long talk with the Duke's Daughter, who had given her a message from the Queen, Angele had abstractedly taken the wrong path in the wood. Leicester saw that it would lead her into the maze some distance off. Making a detour, he met her at the moment she discovered her mistake. The light from the royal word her friend had brought was still in her face; but it was crossed by perplexity now.
He stood still as though astonished at seeing her, a smile upon his face. So perfectly did he play his part that she thought the meeting accidental; and though in her heart she had a fear of the man and knew how bitter an enemy he was of Michel's, his urbane power, his skilful diplomacy of courtesy had its way. These complicated lives, instinct with contradiction, have the interest of forbidden knowledge. The dark experiences of life leave their mark and give such natures that touch of mystery which allures even those who have high instincts and true feelings, as one peeps over a hidden depth and wonders what lies beyond the dark. So Angele, suddenly arrested, was caught by the sense of mystery in the man, by the fascination of finesse, of dark power; and it was womanlike that all on an instant she should dream of the soul of goodness in things evil.
Thus in life we are often surprised out of long years of prejudice, and even of dislike and suspicion, by some fortuitous incident, which might have chanced to two who had every impulse towards each other, not such antagonisms as lay between Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and this Huguenot refugee. She had every cue to hate hum. Each moment of her life in England had been beset with peril because of him-peril to the man she loved, therefore peril to herself. And yet, so various is the nature of woman, that, while steering straitly by one star, she levies upon the light of other stars. Faithful and sincere, yet loving power, curious and adventurous, she must needs, without intention, without purpose, stray into perilous paths.
As Leicester stepped suddenly into Angele's gaze, she was only, as it were, conscious of a presence in itself alluring by virtue of the history surrounding it. She was surprised out of an instinctive dislike, and the cue she had to loathe him was for the moment lost.
Unconsciously, unintentionally, she smiled at him now, then, realising, retreated, shrinking from him, her face averted. Man or woman had found in Leicester the delicate and intrepid gamester, exquisite in the choice of detail, masterful in the breadth of method. And now, as though his whole future depended on this interview, he brought to bear a life-long skill to influence her. He had determined to set the Queen against her. He did not know--not even he--that she had saved the Queen's life on that auspicious May Day when Harry Lee had fought the white knight Michel de la Foret and halved the honours of the lists with him. If he had but known that the Queen had hid from him this fact--this vital thing touching herself and England, he would have viewed his future with a vaster distrust. But there could be no surer sign of Elizabeth's growing coldness and intended breach than that she had hid from him the dreadful incident of the poisoned glove, and the swift execution of the would-be murderer, and had made Cecil her only confidant. But he did know that Elizabeth herself had commanded Michel de la Foret to the lists; and his mad jealousy impelled him to resort to a satanic cunning towards these two fugitives, who seemed to have mounted within a few short days as far as had he in thrice as many years to a high place in the regard of the Majesty of England.
To disgrace them both; to sow distrust of the girl in the Queen's mind; to make her seem the opposite of what she was; to drop in her own mind suspicion of her lover; to drive her to some rash act, some challenge of the Queen herself--that was his plan. He knew how little Elizabeth's imperious spirit would brook any challenge from this fearless girl concerning De la Foret. But to convince her that the Queen favoured Michel in some shadowed sense, that De la Foret was privy to a dark compact--so deep a plot was all worthy of a larger end. He had well inspired the Court of France through its ambassador to urge the Medici to press actively and bitterly for De la Foret's return to France and to the beheading sword that waited for him; and his task had been made light by international difficulties, which made the heart of Elizabeth's foreign policy friendship with France and an alliance against Philip of Spain. She had, therefore, opened up, even in the past few days, negotiations once again for the long-talked-of marriage with the Duke of Anjou, the brother of the King, son of the Medici. State policy was involved, and, if De la Foret might be a counter, the pledge of exchange in the game, as it were, the path would once more be clear.
He well believed that Elizabeth's notice of De la Foret was but a fancy that would pass, as a hundred times before such fancies had come and gone; but against that brighter prospect there lay the fact that never before had she shown himself such indifference. In the past she had raged against him, she had imprisoned him; she had driven him from her presence in her anger, but always her paroxysms of rage had been succeeded by paroxysms of tenderness. Now he saw a colder light in the sky, a greyer horizon met his eye. So at every corner of the compass he played for the breaking of the spell.
Yet as he now bowed low before Angele there seemed to show in his face a very candour of surprise, of pleasure, joined to a something friendly and protective in his glance and manner. His voice insinuated that bygones should be bygones; it suggested that she had misunderstood him. It pleaded against the injustice of her prejudice.
"So far from home!" he said with a smile.
"More miles from home," she replied, thinking of never-returning days in France, "than I shall ever count again."
"But no, methinks the palace is within a whisper," he responded.
"Lord Leicester knows well I am a prisoner; that I no longer abide in the palace," she answered.
He laughed lightly. "An imprisonment in a Queen's friendship. I bethink me, it is three hours since I saw you go to the palace. It is a few worthless seconds since you have got your freedom."
She nettled at his tone. "Lord Leicester takes great interest in my unimportant goings and comings. I cannot think it is because I go and come."
He chose to misunderstand her meaning. Drawing closer he bent over her shoulder. "Since your arrival here, my only diary is the tally of your coming and going." Suddenly, as though by an impulse of great frankness, he added in a low tone:
"And is it strange that I should follow you--that I should worship grace and virtue? Men call me this and that. You have no doubt been filled with dark tales of my misdeeds. Has there been one in the Court, even one, who, living by my bounty or my patronage, has said one good word of me? And why? For long years the Queen, who, maybe, might have been better counselled, chose me for her friend, adviser--because I was true to her. I have lived for the Queen, and living for her have lived for England. Could I keep--I ask you, could I keep myself blameless in the midst of flattery, intrigue, and conspiracy? I admit that I have played with fiery weapons in my day; and must needs still do so. The incorruptible cannot exist in the corrupted air of this Court. You have come here with the light of innocence and truth about you. At first I
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