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Authors: Ida Ashworth Taylor

Tags: #Louis XIII, King of France, 1601-1643

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A strange letter, with its gratuitous lies and pro-

fessions, to come from a man who could not have been wholly base. Was it a mere blind, a clumsy attempt to shield the writer from suspicion, the outcome perhaps of a moment's panic ? Or was it the expression of a mood of remorse ? Did the traitor still conceive it possible to retrace his steps and to recapture his past ? It is impossible to say.

Another visitor, the Comte d'Auvergne, Madame de Verneuil's brother, who shared Biron's pre-eminence in treason, was manifestly ill at ease in the presence of his intended victim. " He remained a short half-hour," says Heroard, " leaning against the balustrade, his face half covered by his cloak, and speaking to Madame de Montglat in confused and ill-chosen language.''

It may be that, in spite of the assumption of innocence implied by his presence at the chateau, he remembered uneasily that, a fortnight earlier, at Fon-tainebleau, the King had given signs that he was on his guard. As the two were riding together Auvergne had fallen behind, and Henri, noting it, had bidden him pass on in front, adding, in the ear of a companion, that no one was more capable of venturing on a vigliaccheria than the Count. Yet this man, whom Henri believed might stab him in the back, was permitted to pay his respects to the Dauphin. His visit to Saint-Germain had been made on May 21. Before more than a month had gone by he, with Biron, was lodged in the Bastille.

The decisive step was taken on June 21 ; nor was it without hesitation that even then it was resolved upon. A curious amount of sympathy appears to have

been evoked by the great soldier who had fallen into treason, the King telling Marie that, had he been certain of his life outlasting that of the Marshal, he would gladly have pardoned him and trusted to his own vigilance to ward off evil; but that he could not leave her and his children a like thorn in their foot. To himself the final determination to convict his enemies of their designs must have put an end to a condition of almost intolerable tension.

It was not only the scene with Auvergne at Fon-tainebleau which shows that he was on the watch lest a familiar associate should attempt his life. An incident recorded by the Tuscan envoy points to the same sense of possible danger. Admitted to an audience at the Tuileries, Giovannini heard the King desire all present to withdraw to a distance, so that his view of the great avenue planted by Catherine de Medicis should be unimpeded. Then, signing to the Florentine to approach, he disowned, with a laugh, the interpretation that might be placed upon his order. It was not, he said, because he was afraid, the very disclaimer showing what was in his mind. Other and more secret perils than open murder were apprehended. It had been predicted that four persons would seek to destroy the King by means of poison, and he was said to be always attended by his physician, provided with an antidote.

During April and May his usual visits to Saint-Germain had been omitted. To safeguard his son's inheritance—perhaps his life — demanded at the moment his whole thought and care ; and he had been absent jn the provinces, where his presence was needed to

s

Biron's Conspiracy 4 1

counteract the intrigues of his enemies and to frustrate their endeavours to create a spirit of discontent in the country.

At Blois, whither he was accompanied by Epernon and Bouillon, whilst refraining from making any direct or specific charge, he spoke to both in a fashion to sound them. The first, truly or falsely, succeeded in satisfying the King of his comparative innocence. Bouillon, interrogated separately, answered at length in vague and confused terms. Although not wholly convinced by his professions of loyalty, Henri for the moment gave no indication of distrust. In neither case was there definite proof of guilt, and, acting on Rosny's advice, he determined to take no present action with regard to them.

Biron had remained so far at a distance in his province of Burgundy, the reiterated and friendly summons sent him by his master notwithstanding. Would he in the end yield and report himself to the King, or would he give colour to all the dark charges against him by refusing obedience to the royal mandate ? These must have been the questions in all men's minds as they looked on and awaited the event. In spite of what was known or suspected, he still occupied the ostensible position of the King's trusted servant ; and

till Henri clung, strangely, persistently, to the hope transforming the appearance into the reality, of recapturing his old friend's former affection, and bringing him back to the path of rectitude and

onour. At Orleans he now gave him rendezvous, bidding

But the feast was over and the King had left Orleans before Biron determined on obedience ; so that, when at last he set out to join the "Court, it was towards Fontainebleau that he turned his steps. With what fears and misgivings he came none can tell. He must have become aware that resistance was impossible. Rosny had taken his measures. On the pretext of replacing old cannon by new, he had withdrawn the artillery which had been under the Marshal's charge, leaving him thus without means of defence. Bodies of men, moreover, closing up behind him as he rode towards Fontainebleau, cut off his retreat. He was caught in a snare.

Yet never had captor been in a more merciful mood than his injured master. Bent upon forgiveness, as a man of a different temper might have been bent upon revenge, Henri continued to cherish the hope of saving the culprit from the consequences of his misdeeds.

" He is an unhappy man," he told Rosny ; " I should like to pardon him, to forget all that is past, and to be as good to him as ever. I pity him ; and it goes against my heart to injure a brave man who has served me so long, and with whom I have been on such familiar terms. But I fear that, should I pardon him, he will pardon neither me, my children, nor my realm ; for he has confessed nought, and he treats me like a man who harbours ill thoughts in his heart" ; adding orders that Rosny should assure the Marshal that, if only he would make a clean breast of the past, full forgiveness awaited him.

In the meantime Biron's reception at the palace had not tended to allay his apprehensions. He had found

Henri in the courtyard ; and it was observed that when little Vendome would have flung himself, after his usual fashion, into the arms of his father's friend, the King checked the child, placing him behind him whilst he inclined his head in silent greeting. Mounting the staircase, he reached an uncovered corridor above the courtyard. Then, turning to Biron :

" Pass in," he said briefly, bidding the rest of the company to wait outside.

That long-deferred interview proved decisive. La Fin, the double traitor and informer, was also at Fontainebleau, and had found an opportunity to whisper in Biron's ear that nothing was known. Fortified by this assurance, the Duke persisted in his fatal assumption of injured innocence. He had nothing to tell, nothing to confess. Rosny, acting on the King's directions and striving to induce him to admit his guilt, was met by the same dogged denial of the existence of any subject-matter for confession, with the exception of the intrigues already pardoned by Henri two years earlier.

The unhappy man had sealed his fate. Hearing Rosny's report of failure, the King's long patience was exhausted ; and it was determined, at a consultation held between King, Queen, and minister, that Biron, with the other chief conspirator, Auvergne, should be arrested that night. Henri had been convinced that clemency would be a crime.

" He said to a servant of his who repeated it to me," wrote the Florentine Resident, " that he forgave all their designs against his own person ; but that it would be to fail in what he owed to himself were he not to

leave justice to deal with their machinations against the Dauphin and the realm."

It may be that he had seen br heard of the letter containing Biron's protestations of love and loyalty towards his little son, and that the thought of the unconscious victim at Saint-Germain steadied his hand to strike the final blow.

The sole question was as to the conduct of the affair. Henri would have liked to apprehend the criminals in their beds. He recoiled from the thought of a possible struggle and of bloodshed in the palace. Rosny took a different view, and in the end Rosny prevailed.

To the few who were aware of what was in contemplation the evening was an anxious one. In his small chamber apart, the minister awaited the event, with an escort ready to convey the prisoners to Paris. Midnight had come, and nothing had been done. In the outer room Henri's guests played, conversed, or slumbered. In his private apartment the King and Biron had engaged in a game. The courtiers were dispersing to their several lodgings, when it is believed that Henri made an ultimate appeal to his old comrade to save himself by speech. If so it was vain ; Biron persisted in his fatal policy of silence. Then the King bade him a last farewell.

"Adieu," he said, " Baron de Biron."

Upon the words, sinister in their brevity, curiously different interpretations have been put. To Michelet the reversion to the title under which Biron had fought by his master's side during the years of storm and stress they had faced together, represented a reminder

Biron's Arrest 45

of the past — a final call to repentance. To others the farewell, " cruel et laconique," has seemed to express the tardy harshness of a man betrayed.

It was not long before the interpretation of the King's words was supplied to Biron. As he left the royal presence Vitry, Captain of the Guard, laid his hand upon his shoulder and demanded his sword. He was a prisoner.

Auvergne, who had retired earlier to his apartment, was arrested in his bed, and the captives, taken by water to the Arsenal, were quickly lodged in the Bastille. France and its heir were delivered from the peril that had threatened them. With Biron and Auvergne, the conspiracy was deprived of its heads.

It was on a Wednesday that the stroke was dealt. To the King, vacillating long between the dictates of compassion and justice, the very fact that a decision had been taken must have brought relief. On the following Monday he snatched a few hours from graver cares to visit Saint-Germain : " The King arrives at midday, kisses [the Dauphin] and plays with him. The Queen arrives at half-past one ; finds Monseigneur the Dauphin at the foot of the grand staircase. She turns suddenly very red, and kisses im on the side of his forehead." Before the end of he week Henri was again at the chateau, when a ingular scene is recorded. There can be no doubt that the Comte d'Auvergne's sister was implicated in guilt, nor is it conceivable that the King could ucceed in altogether blinding himself to this fact. Yet on Saturday, June 22, there was a meeting at

Saint-Germain between Henri and Madame de Ver-neuil, when he was in a mood as gay and debonair as if no network of intrigue nad been escaped and apparently untroubled by the thought that the woman he loved was in league with his enemies.

Arriving alone, he found amusement in watching the child eat his broth, himself drinking what was left of it. " Should any one ask now what the King is doing," he said, " it can be answered that he is taking his broth." There was presently a second arrival. It was the Marquise, who also visited the nursery and caressed her rival's son, though, as those who looked curiously on imagined, with effort. Moreover, when, that same evening, Henri started on his return to Paris, nothing would content him but that she should take the child in his coach to the end of the courtyard, where he was surrendered to his lawful guardians.

Incapable of freeing himself from the fetters that bound him, Henri not only condoned the Marquise's offences but was not ashamed to place in her arms the child he loved, and whose ruin she would, if she could, have compassed. He was, wrote the Florentine envoy, completely enslaved by his passion. On another occasion, about this time, he went still further, and seated the Marquise next the Queen in the Queen's own carriage. It was not strange that when it further became clear that, whilst Biron was to pay the uttermost penalty for his crime, the Comte d'Auvergne was to escape, Marie de Medicis was loud in her complaints.

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