1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 36

Chapter 21


If Servien had been given to lyrical prose, he might have been moved to write about the sweeping vista visible from the plateau upon which the capital of Béarn was built. Beyond the town he could see the Pyrenees, verdant and sculptured against the backdrop of a late spring sky, like the frame of a grand tapestry that held the fortified castle and settlement that surrounded it. The beauty of the place — serene and quiet, far from the bustle and grime of Paris — might have been enough, had he the temperament for it, to forget the seriousness of his mission.

As Servien paused on horseback with the scene before him, he allowed himself a grim smile. Of all the things he was, a lyrical craftsman of prose was not one of them and the mission was not far from his mind. The Pyrenees, beautiful as they were in the sunny afternoon, merely marked the boundary between his native land and its greatest potential enemy, the kingdom of Spain.

He wondered for just a moment how much Spain might be involved in this: whether Monsieur Gaston had enlisted France’s rival in order to gain the throne – and what price the Spanish would exact for their assistance.

Then he shrugged off the thought and concentrated again on the mission, following the road that led steeply down toward the river and the town for which he was bound.


When he reached the drawbridge to the Castle of Pau, which was lowered to give access to the town, he was approached by a soldier in Brassac livery. Servien had already dismounted from his horse; the soldier looked bored and disdainful, as if dealing with petty civilians from Paris was not part of his brief.

“I have business with Monsieur le Comte,” Servien said. “I would be obliged if you would direct me to him.”

The soldier smiled, showing what few teeth he had. “Business with the comte, is it? Well, then, Monsieur. You must realize that His Lordship is an extremely busy man.”

“He will receive me.”

“Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Perhaps today, perhaps next week –”

“Yes,” Servien interrupted. “And today. You may tell him that I come at the behest of Cardinal de Tremblay.”

“I do not know that name.”

“That His Lordship does not confide in you is not my concern. You may take my message to him and be rewarded; or you may be difficult and recalcitrant, and afterward be punished.”

He looked dubious, possibly weighing the possibilities of reward in view of the lack of dignity at being an errand-boy.

“Despite your stubbornness, I shall reward you as well. Now, if you please, I should like to enter.”

At last the soldier determined that it was above his pay grade to interfere, and looked over his shoulder, making a gesture to some unknown person on the nearby battlement. Then he turned and began to walk across the drawbridge, beckoning Servien to follow.

Tremblay’s name carried a particular cachet. Within a few minutes a groom had emerged to attend to Servien’s horse, and Servien himself was escorted by a gentleman — who gave the soldier a disdainful glance, but only after Servien had made sure to provide him with coin — into the castle.

It was a beautiful place, more palace than the fortification it had been centuries earlier. He was led along a wide, airy corridor covered by a paneled vault and crowned by an exquisite chandelier; on the wall he passed a large tapestry showing a royal hunting-party that his gentleman guide identified as being Francis I, king a century past. At last they came to a grand staircase and into a wide salon, which held a great table made of a slab of highly polished stone, and a set of plush armchairs drawn up before an elaborately-sculpted fireplace decorated with the quartered arms of Béarn and Brassac. Despite the sun outside it was still chilly, and a banked fire was burning, helping to cast off the chill. The gentleman bowed and left him there.

He was alone only for a few moments before a middle-aged nobleman entered from another doorway. Servien offered a gracious leg and waited to be addressed.

“I am Louis de Galard de Béarn, Sieur de Semoussac, the comte de Brassac et de Béarn,” the man said. “You have invoked a powerful name in order to be admitted to my presence, Monsieur. I am sure that you are ready to explain yourself. To whom do I speak?”

Servien looked up at the comte. He was in his mid-fifties, fit and strong but gone a trifle to overweight. He wore his clothes well, and was clearly attentive to his toilet. His glance was not hostile, but it was unwavering. Servien had not been told what Tremblay’s relationship was to this nobleman, but it was sufficiently cordial to allow Servien to be admitted to his presence.

“My name is Étienne Servien. I come at the instruction of Cardinal de Tremblay, My Lord,” Servien said. “But I serve as intendant for my Master, the cardinal de Richelieu.” He reached into his wallet and withdrew Richelieu’s signet, and walked across the salon to present it to Brassac.

The comte took the ring and examined it, paying particular attention to the inscription within and the stone without.

“This would not leave Cardinal Richelieu’s finger except in dire emergency,” he said at last, handing back the signet to Servien, who put it away at once.

“My master instructed me to take it as a surety to others that I speak on his behalf,” Servien said. “He lies in peril, having barely survived an ambush while riding. His Majesty the king was traveling with him.”

“The king?”

“The . . . late king,” Servien said, looking down at the polished floor and crossing himself. “His Majesty was killed.”

“Who could have committed such a heinous deed?”

“His murderer was his half-brother, César de Vendôme. I witnessed it with my own eyes, My Lord. But Cardinal Richelieu believes he acted on behalf of another. I am inclined to believe it as well.”

The comte de Brassac walked slowly to the great table and ran his index finger along it, following the whorls and patterns almost absently.

“The cardinal de Tremblay was wise to send you to me, Monsieur. The duc d’Orleans has some unsavory alliances and could make some injudicious choices now that the kingship is his.”

“It is his by possession, My Lord, not by right.”

“What do you mean?”

“The rightful king of France is his nephew, the son of King Louis and Queen Anne. He was born a few hours before his father was murdered.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I am sure, My Lord. It is indisputably true.”

“Does Gaston know this?”

“I do not think that he does, My Lord, and even if he did I cannot expect that his course would change.”

“And where is Monsieur now?”

“It is my understanding that he wintered with his lady mother in Tuscany, and has most recently visited his sister in Turin. If word of the king’s death has reached him — or if he has already been informed of the deed — he is most likely en route to Paris.”

“And the queen and . . . the young king?”

“They have departed the place where Her Majesty was in seclusion. I do not know their present whereabouts.”

Brassac thought for several moments, then looked directly at Servien. “Some provision will have been made. I shall have to return to the capital in due time. What are your orders, Monsieur Servien? Or your plans?”

It was Servien’s turn to think. The answer did not immediately present itself: he had followed Tremblay’s — and Richelieu’s — instructions to come to Pau and inform the comte de Brassac of the terrible events in the forest of Yvelines; he had not even had time to think past that.

His king had been murdered; his patron was dead, or near death. When he returned to Paris — if that did not prove unwise — he could contact his cousin Abel, the Marquis de Sablé . . . but for the moment he had no place to go: his duties had been discharged.