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The Emerald Swan, страница 1

 

The Emerald Swan
 


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The Emerald Swan


  The Emerald Swan

  Jane Feather

  CONTENTS

  Pro­lo­gue

  Chap­ter One

  Chap­ter Two

  Chap­ter Three

  Chap­ter Fo­ur

  Chap­ter Fi­ve

  Chap­ter six

  Chap­ter Se­ven

  Chap­ter Eight

  Chap­ter Ni­ne

  Chap­ter ten

  Chap­ter Ele­ven

  Chap­ter Twel­ve

  Chap­ter Thir­te­en

  Chap­ter Fo­ur­te­en

  Chap­ter Fif­te­en

  Chap­ter Six­te­en

  Chap­ter Se­ven­te­en

  Chap­ter Eig­h­te­en

  Chap­ter Ni­ne­te­en

  Chap­ter Twenty

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-One

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-two

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-th­ree

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-fo­ur

  Epi­lo­gue

  Prologue

  Pa­ris • August 24 • 1572

  The toc­sin rang at mid­night. The stre­ets, hus­hed and empty, now fil­led with men, gat­he­ring qu­i­etly at first, as if for a mo­ment awed by the en­ter­p­ri­se that drew them from the­ir ho­uses, whi­te cros­ses in the­ir hats, har­qu­ebu­ses, swords, kni­ves in the­ir hands.

  They mo­ved thro­ugh the nar­row la­nes and cob­bled stre­ets sur­ro­un­ding the grim dark ci­ta­del of the Lo­uv­re. A we­ek be­fo­re, the ci­ta­del had bla­zed with light, mu­sic po­uring from the nar­row bar­red win­dows, and crowds of drun­ken re­ve­lers had thron­ged the stre­ets of the city ce­leb­ra­ting the mar­ri­age of the French King Char­les's sis­ter Mar­gu­eri­te to the Hu­gu­enot King Henry of Na­var­re. A mar­ri­age that was in­ten­ded to uni­te the Cat­ho­lic and pro­tes­tant fac­ti­ons in Fran­ce.

  But on this Sa­int Bar­t­ho­lo­mew's night, the mar­ri­age ser­ved as the ba­it to en­t­rap and des­t­roy the Hu­gu­enots who had ar­ri­ved in the­ir tho­usands in Pa­ris to sup­port the­ir yo­ung king.

  As the toc­sin con­ti­nu­ed to pe­al, men mo­ved down the stre­ets, knoc­king on the do­ors that bo­re the whi­te cross. The in­ha­bi­tants slip­ped out to jo­in them and the hu­ge army of as­sas­sins grew, a gre­at wa­ve bil­lo­wing and sur­ging to­ward the man­si­ons of the Pro­tes­tant le­aders.

  The first shots, the first bril­li­ant scar­let fla­res, the first long-drawn-out scre­ams, we­re the sig­nals for may­hem. The mob de­ve­lo­ped as many he­ads as a hydra, plun­ging thro­ugh the city, bre­aking down do­ors to ho­uses that didn't be­ar the whi­te cross, hur­ling the in­ha­bi­tants from win­dows and bal­co­ni­es to be torn to pi­eces by the scre­aming throng in the stre­et and co­ur­t­yards be­low.

  The air re­eked of blo­od and gun­pow­der; the sky was red with the fla­mes of bur­ning ho­uses and the ga­rish fla­res of the pitch tor­c­hes se­emingly di­sem­bo­di­ed, we­aving the­ir way thro­ugh the nar­row stre­ets; the jubi­lant yells of a mob run­ning down a half-na­ked ble­eding fu­gi­ti­ve we­re li­ke the nig­h­t­ma­re shri­eks of pur­su­ing de­vils.

  The wo­man sto­od trem­b­ling, bre­at­h­less, on the cor­ner of a nar­row fe­tid la­ne run­ning up from the ri­ver. Her he­art was be­ating so fast every drag­ging bre­ath was an agony. Her ba­re fe­et we­re ble­eding, cut by the jag­ged sto­nes along the qu­ay, and her thin clo­ak clung to her back, wet with swe­at. Her ha­ir hung limp aro­und her whi­te, ter­ri­fi­ed fa­ce, and she clut­c­hed her ba­bi­es to her, one in each arm, the­ir lit­tle fa­ces bu­ri­ed aga­inst her sho­ul­ders to stif­le the­ir cri­es.

  She lo­oked wildly up the la­ne and saw the first flic­ker of the pur­su­ing tor­c­hes. The vo­ices of the mob ro­se in a shrill shri­ek of exul­ta­ti­on as they sur­ged to­ward the ri­ver. With a sob of an­gu­ish, she be­gan to run aga­in, along the ri­ver, clut­c­hing the ba­bi­es, who grew he­avi­er with each step. She co­uld he­ar the fo­ot­s­teps be­hind her, a thun­de­ring po­un­ding of bo­oted fe­et gro­wing clo­ser. Every bre­ath was an agony and slowly, ine­xo­rably, the des­pa­ir of re­sig­na­ti­on de­ade­ned her ter­ror. She co­uld not es­ca­pe. Not even for her ba­bi­es co­uld she run fas­ter. And the crowd be­hind her grew, aug­men­ted by ot­hers who jo­ined the cha­se simply for the ple­asu­re of it.

  With a fi­nal gasp of des­pa­ir, she tur­ned and fa­ced her pur­su­ers, the ba­bi­es still pres­sed to her bre­ast. One of them wrig­gled, trying to ra­ise her he­ad. The ot­her was still and qu­i­et as al­ways. Even at ten months, they we­re so dif­fe­rent, the­se twin da­ug­h­ters.

  She sto­od pan­ting, a hart at bay, as the crowd with the­ir mad glit­te­ring eyes sur­ro­un­ded her. Every fa­ce se­emed fil­led with hat­red, lips drawn back from ba­red te­eth, eyes red­de­ned with blo­od­lust. The­ir swords and kni­ves drip­ped blo­od, the­ir hands and clot­hes we­re sme­ared with it. And they mo­ved so clo­se to her she co­uld smell the­ir swe­at and the­ir wi­ne-so­ur bre­ath and the­ir hat­red.

  "Abj­ure… abj­ure…" The chant was pic­ked up and the words bat­te­red aga­inst her li­ke li­ving things. The mob pres­sed aga­inst her, the­ir fa­ces pus­hed in­to hers as they ta­un­ted her with a sal­va­ti­on that she knew in her he­art they wo­uld deny her. They we­re not in­te­res­ted in a con­vert, they we­re in­te­res­ted in her blo­od.

  "Abj­ure… abj­ure…"

  "I will," she gas­ped, drop­ping to her kne­es. "Don't hurt my ba­bi­es… ple­ase, I will abj­ure for my ba­bi­es. I will say the cre­do!' She be­gan to bab­ble the La­tin words of the Cat­ho­lic cre­do, her eyes ra­ised he­aven­ward so that she co­uldn't see the ha­te­ful fa­ces of the men who wo­uld mur­der her.

  The kni­fe, al­re­ady red­de­ned with Hu­gu­enot blo­od, swi­ped ac­ross her thro­at even as she stam­me­red to an end. The words we­re lost in a gur­g­le as a thin fi­ne of blo­od mar­ked the path of the kni­fe. The li­ne wi­de­ned li­ke par­ting lips. The wo­man fell for­ward to the cob­bles. A baby's thin wa­il fil­led the sud­den si­len­ce.

  “To the Lo­uv­re… to the Lo­uv­re!" A gre­at cry ca­me over the ro­of­tops and the mob with one tho­ught tur­ned and swept away, ta­king up the cla­ri­on call, "To the Lo­uv­re… to the Lo­uv­re," li­ke so many mad­de­ned she­ep.

  The black ri­ver flo­wed as slug­gishly as the wo­man's con­ge­aling blo­od. So­met­hing mo­ved be­ne­ath her. One of the ba­bi­es wrig­gled, squ­ig­gled, wa­iled as she emer­ged from the suf­fo­ca­ting warmth of her mot­her's de­ad body. With a cu­ri­o­us kind of pur­po­se the lit­tle cre­atu­re set off on hands and to­etips li­ke a spi­der, cre­eping away from the dre­ad­ful smell of blo­od.

  It to­ok ten mi­nu­tes be­fo­re Fran­cis fo­und his wi­fe. He bro­ke from the la­ne, his fa­ce whi­te in the sud­den mo­on­light. "Ele­na!" he whis­pe­red as he fell to his kne­es be­si­de the body. He snat­c­hed his wi­fe aga­inst his bre­ast, and then ga­ve a gre­at an­gu­is­hed cry that shi­ve­red the stil­lness as he saw the baby on the gro­und, ga­zing up at him with al­most va­cant eyes, her tiny ro­se­bud mo­uth pur­sed on a wa­ve­ring wa­il, her fa­ce stre­aked with her mot­her's blo­od.

  "Swe­et Jesus, ha­ve mercy," he mur­mu­red, gat­he­ring the in­fant up in the cro­ok of one arm as he con­ti­nu­ed to hold her mot­her to his bre­ast. He lo­oked aro­und, his eyes de­men­ted with gri­ef. Whe­re was his ot­her da­ug­h­ter? Whe­re was she? Had the mur­de­ring rab­ble spit­ted her on the­ir kni­ves, as they had do­ne this night to ba­bes all over the city? But if so, whe­re was her
body? Had they ta­ken her?

  Fo­ot­s­teps so­un­ded be­hind him and he tur­ned his he­ad with a vi­olent twist, still clin­ging to the child and his de­ad wi­fe. His own pe­op­le ra­ced from the la­ne to­ward him, wild-eyed from the­ir own des­pe­ra­te es­ca­pe from the mas­sac­re.

  One of the men re­ac­hed down to ta­ke the child from the du­ke, who yi­el­ded her up wor­d­les­sly, brin­ging both arms aro­und his wi­fe, roc­king her in so­un­d­less gri­ef.

  "Mi­lord, we must ta­ke mi­lady and the child," the man with the baby sa­id in an ur­gent whis­per. "They might co­me back. We can ta­ke shel­ter in the cha­te­let if we go qu­ickly."

  Fran­cis al­lo­wed his wi­fe to fall in­to his lap, her he­ad res­ting on his knee. He clo­sed her open eyes and gently lif­ted her hand. A gold pe­arl-en­c­rus­ted bra­ce­let of stran­ge ser­pen­ti­ne de­sign en­cir­c­led the slen­der wrist. A sin­g­le eme­rald-stud­ded charm swung from the de­li­ca­te strands and his te­ars fell on­to the per­fect un­du­la­ting sha­pe of a swan. He un­c­las­ped the bra­ce­let, his bet­rot­hal gift to Ele­na, and thrust it in­to his do­ub­let aga­inst his he­art, then he ra­ised his wi­fe in his arms and stag­ge­red to his fe­et with his bur­den.

  The baby wa­iled, a long-drawn-out cry of hun­ger and dis­may, and her be­arer ho­is­ted her up aga­inst his sho­ul­der and tur­ned to fol­low the man and his mur­de­red wi­fe as they va­nis­hed in­to the dark maw of the la­ne le­ading away from the ri­ver.

  Chapter One

  Do­ver • En­g­land • 1591

  It was the most ex­t­ra­or­di­nary li­ke­ness.

  Ga­reth Har­co­urt pus­hed his way to the front of the crowd wat­c­hing the tro­upe of per­for­mers who had set up the­ir ma­kes­hift sta­ge on the qu­ay of Do­ver har­bor.

  Her eyes we­re the sa­me ce­ru­le­an blue, her com­p­le­xi­on the sa­me thick cre­am, and her ha­ir was exactly the sa­me sha­de of dar­kest brown, right down to the de­ep red­dish glints ca­ught by the sun. The­re the re­sem­b­lan­ce en­ded, ho­we­ver. For whe­re­as Ma­ude's dark ha­ir hung in a clo­ud of curls te­ased da­ily from cur­ling pa­pers and tongs, the ac­ro­bat's crow­ning glory was cut in a short stra­ig­ht-frin­ged bob that owed mo­re to a pud­ding ba­sin than the mo­re sop­his­ti­ca­ted to­ols of fe­mi­ni­ne co­if­fu­re.

  Ga­reth wat­c­hed with enj­oy­ment as the tiny fi­gu­re per­for­med on a very nar­row be­am res­ting on two po­les at so­me con­si­de­rab­le he­ight from the gro­und. She was tre­ating the six-inch width as if it we­re so­lid gro­und, tur­ning car­t­w­he­els, wal­king on her hands, flip­ping bac­k­ward in a daz­zling se­ri­es of ma­ne­uvers that drew gasps of ap­pre­ci­ati­on from the audi­en­ce.

  Ma­ude's fra­me was si­mi­larly slen­der, Ga­reth ref­lec­ted, but the­re was a dif­fe­ren­ce. Ma­ude was pa­le and thin and un­de­ve­lo­ped. The ac­ro­bat, stan­ding on her hands, her bright oran­ge skirt fal­ling over her he­ad, re­ve­aled firm mus­cu­lar cal­ves en­ca­sed for de­cency's sa­ke in skin­tight le­at­her leg­gings, and he co­uld see the strength in her arms as they sup­por­ted her slight we­ight. She re­le­ased one hand and wa­ved mer­rily, be­fo­re cat­c­hing the be­am aga­in with both hands and swin­ging si­de­ways, tum­b­ling over and over the be­am, her hands chan­ging po­si­ti­on at lig­h­t­ning spe­ed, her bright oran­ge skirt a blur of co­lor as she tur­ned her­self in­to so­met­hing re­sem­b­ling a Cat­he­ri­ne whe­el.

  At the top of the arc, she flung her­self bac­k­ward, tur­ned a ne­at so­mer­sa­ult, lan­ded on both fe­et, flip­ped bac­k­ward, her body cur­ved li­ke a bow, then stra­ig­h­te­ned, her skirt set­tling aro­und her aga­in as she swept in­to a tri­um­p­hant bow.

  Ga­reth fo­und him­self ap­pla­uding with the rest. Her fa­ce was flus­hed with exer­ti­on, her eyes alight, be­ads of per­s­pi­ra­ti­on gat­he­red on her bro­ad fo­re­he­ad, her lips par­ted on a jubi­lant grin. She put two fin­gers to her mo­uth and whis­t­led. The pi­er­cing so­und pro­du­ced out of now­he­re a small mon­key in a red jac­ket and a cap spor­ting a bright oran­ge fe­at­her.

  The ani­mal drag­ged off his hat and jum­ped pur­po­se­ful­ly in­to the crowd of spec­ta­tors, chat­te­ring in a man­ner that so­un­ded va­gu­ely ob­s­ce­ne to Ga­reth, who tos­sed a sil­ver penny in­to the out­thrust cap, re­ce­iving a si­mi­an sa­lu­te in res­pon­se.

  A small boy of may­be six or se­ven wa­ved fran­ti­cal­ly at the girl from whe­re he was sit­ting on the end of the sta­ge. He strug­gled to his fe­et and stag­ge­red to­ward her, one mis­sha­pen fo­ot drag­ging pa­in­ful­ly be­hind the ot­her. The girl im­me­di­ately swept him in­to her arms and dan­ced aro­und the sta­ge with him.

  It was ex­t­ra­or­di­nary, Ga­reth tho­ught, how she im­bu­ed the po­or lit­tle cre­atu­re with her own gra­ce and ease of mo­ve­ment so that his de­for­mity was for­got­ten and his fa­ce tran­s­for­med with ple­asu­re. She ra­di­ated an exu­be­ran­ce and energy which in­fu­sed the child in her arms un­til she set him down on a sto­ol in the cor­ner and his hun­c­hed lit­tle body on­ce mo­re lost all its li­fe, al­t­ho­ugh he was still smi­ling as the mon­key bo­un­ced back on­to the sta­ge hol­ding out his hat.

  The girl tip­ped the con­tents of the hat in­to a le­at­her po­uch at her wa­ist, blew a che­er­ful kiss to the crowd, cram­med the cap back on­to the ani­mal's he­ad, and bac­k­f­lip­ped her way off the sta­ge.

  It was the most un­can­ny re­sem­b­lan­ce, Ga­reth tho­ught aga­in. In ever­y­t­hing but per­so­na­lity, he amen­ded. Ma­ude had less energy than an­yo­ne he had ever co­me ac­ross. She spent her days lying on a cus­hi­oned set­tle re­ading re­li­gi­o­us tracts and ap­plying smel­ling salts to her small and ge­ne­ral­ly pink-tip­ped no­se. When she co­uld be per­su­aded to mo­ve, she waf­ted, tra­iling scar­ves and shawls, sur­ro­un­ded by a pun­gently me­di­ci­nal aura from the en­d­less re­me­di­es and ner­ve to­nics sup­pli­ed by her old nur­se. She spo­ke in a fa­int re­ed­li­ke vo­ice that had her lis­te­ners hol­ding on with ba­ted bre­ath in ca­se the re­ed sho­uld fa­de in­to mu­te­ness be­fo­re the sen­ten­ce was com­p­le­ted.

  Ga­reth was, ho­we­ver, awa­re that his co­usin, for all her ap­pa­rent fra­ilty, had a will of iron be­ne­ath the pal­lid ex­te­ri­or. Yo­ung Ma­ude knew per­fectly well how to turn her meg­rims to her own ac­co­unt, and what Ma­ude didn't know abo­ut emo­ti­onal blac­k­ma­il wasn't worth kno­wing. It ma­de her a worthy op­po­nent for Imo­gen… if not for him­self.

  A trio of mu­si­ci­ans had just ta­ken the sta­ge, with flu­te, ha­ut­boy, and lu­te, and he was abo­ut to turn away when he saw the girl aga­in. She was sid­ling aro­und from be­hind the mu­si­ci­ans, so­met­hing in her hand.

  The mon­key was per­c­hed on her sho­ul­der and se­emed to be im­par­ting news of gra­ve im­por­tan­ce in­to her ear.

  Ga­reth pa­used. The girl's air of mis­c­hi­ef was ir­re­sis­tib­le. The mu­si­ci­ans pla­yed a few no­tes to es­tab­lish pitch, then set­tled in­to a li­vely jig. The mon­key le­aped from the girl's sho­ul­der and be­gan to dan­ce to the mu­sic. The crowd la­ug­hed and we­re so­on tap­ping fe­et and clap­ping in rhythm.

  Ga­reth wat­c­hed the girl unob­t­ru­si­vely po­si­ti­on her­self just be­low the mu­si­ci­ans. She ga­zed up at them and put so­met­hing to her mo­uth. It to­ok him a mi­nu­te to re­ali­ze what it was. Then he grin­ned. The imp of Sa­tan! She was suc­king a le­mon, her eyes fi­xed on the fla­utist. Ga­reth's ga­ze flic­ked to the small boy still on his sto­ol. The child's eyes we­re brim­ming with la­ug­h­ter and Ga­reth re­ali­zed that this lit­tle per­for­man­ce was for the boy's be­ne­fit.

  Ga­reth wa­ited in al­most dre­ad­
ful fas­ci­na­ti­on for what he knew was go­ing to hap­pen. The flu­te pla­yer's no­tes be­gan to dry up as his mo­uth puc­ke­red, his sa­li­va dri­ed, in res­pon­se to the girl's vi­go­ro­us suc­king of the le­mon. The wat­c­hing child con­vul­sed with la­ug­h­ter.

  With a sud­den bel­low, the fla­utist le­aped for­ward, cat­c­hing the girl an al­mighty buf­fet ac­ross the ear. She fell si­de­ways, promptly tur­ning her fall in­to a car­t­w­he­el with all the ex­per­ti­se of a pro­fes­si­onal en­ter­ta­iner, so that the crowd la­ug­hed, be­li­eving the en­ti­re byplay to be part of the amu­se­ment. But when she fet­c­hed up at Ga­reth's fe­et, rig­h­ting her­self ne­atly, she had te­ars in her eyes.

  She rub­bed her rin­ging ear ru­eful­ly with one hand and das­hed the ot­her ac­ross her eyes.

  "Not qu­ite qu­ick eno­ugh," Ga­reth ob­ser­ved.

  She sho­ok her he­ad, gi­ving him a rat­her wa­tery grin.

  "I usu­al­ly am. I was just ma­king Rob­bie la­ugh and I can usu­al­ly run rings aro­und Bert, but I was dis­t­rac­ted for a mi­nu­te by Chip."

  "Chip?"

  "My mon­key." She put her fin­gers to her mo­uth aga­in and whis­t­led. The mon­key aban­do­ned his dan­ce and le­aped on­to her sho­ul­der.

  She had a most unu­su­al vo­ice, Ga­reth ref­lec­ted, re­gar­ding her with frank in­te­rest as she con­ti­nu­ed to stand be­si­de him, cri­ti­cal­ly wat­c­hing a gro­up of jug­glers who had jo­ined the mu­si­ci­ans. It was an ama­zingly de­ep vo­ice to emer­ge from such a da­inty fra­me and had a lo­vely me­lo­di­o­us rip­ple to it that he fo­und very ap­pe­aling. She spo­ke En­g­lish with a slight ac­cent so fa­int as to be dif­fi­cult to iden­tify.

  The mon­key sud­denly be­gan a fran­tic dan­ce on her sho­ul­der, jab­be­ring all the whi­le li­ke so­me de­men­ted bed­la­mi­te, po­in­ting with a scrawny fin­ger to­ward the sta­ge.

  "Oh, swe­et Lord, I knew I sho­uld ha­ve ma­de myself scar­ce," the girl mut­te­red as an ex­ce­edingly lar­ge wo­man ho­ve in­to vi­ew. She was we­aring a gown of an as­to­nis­hing bright pu­ce shot thro­ugh with scar­let thre­ad; her he­ad se­emed to ri­de atop a mas­si­ve car­t­w­he­el ruff; the who­le was crow­ned with a wi­de vel­vet hat ti­ed be­ne­ath se­ve­ral chins with silk rib­bons, gold plu­mes flut­te­ring ga­ily in the sea bre­eze.

 
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