Death, some say the hand of a murderer, alone robbed her of the proud distinction of becoming the Queen of the great Henry of Navarre surely, the people of France could not be expected to accept as King a man thus born. These were pertinent arguments, but Henry waived them airily aside. Sully, therefore, in despair, had recourse to other arguments. The King's passion, he declared, was but a fleeting fancy; soon his love would cool, and then he would regret.
But this was feeble logic, and, as Henry must have seen, by arguing thus, Sully was acknowledging defeat. His devotion already had continued several years, and its force had not yet begun to wane, and even to the day of Gabrielle's death it remained as strong as ever. Indeed, but a short while before this great sorrow overtook him he wrote to her a letter as much inspired by love as any that he ever wrote. It is dated October 29, 1598, and is the last of his love letters to Gabrielle now extant:
"You entreat me," he wrote, "mes cheres amours, to carry away with me as much love as I left with you. Ah, how that has pleased me, for I feel so much love that I thought I must have carried all away with me, and feared that none might have remained with you. I am now about to hold communion with Morpheus, but if he shows me anyone save yourself in my dreams, I will for ever forsake his company. Good-night to myself, good-morrow to you, my dear mistress. I kiss your beautiful eyes a million times."
And Gabrielle was now no longer the lovely girl who had bewitched and then defied the King at Coeuvres. Ill-health had marred her beauty, and, although but twenty-seven years of age, she had grown very stout.
It would be idle, therefore, to regard Henry's devotion as a fleeting passion. Henry loved Gabrielle, and it was his sole desire to make her Queen of France. He could brook delay no longer. But, while he had been tarrying, his opponents had been active, and pressure had been brought to bear upon the Pope. The result was that now, when the King asked for it, the Pontiff refused to sanction the divorce.
But Henry of Navarre was not a man to be deterred by trifles. He reminded His Holiness of the action taken by an English king under circumstances of a striking similarity. This was enough for the Pope; Henry VIII. of England had set a dangerous precedent; he gave way immediately.
Accordingly, Henry arranged that the marriage should be solemnised immediately after Easter, in the year 1599, and, on March 2, he was formally betrothed to Gabrielle, giving her his coronation ring to plight the troth. Prior to the ceremony, however, the lovers agreed to a temporary separation, in order that they might both make their peace with God. Gabrielle set out for Paris; Henry for Fontainebleau.
But they parted sorrowfully; coming events had cast their shadow, and both were filled with strange misgivings. Gabrielle, moreover, was in very feeble health; she was expecting another child, and, try as she would, she could not free herself from presentiments of tragedy. A slave to superstition, she consulted soothsayers. They, however, could not comfort her; one foretold that a child would kill her hopes; another warned her that he whom she held as her best friend would do her evil.
But what happened to Gabrielle while in Paris it is impossible to say with certainty, for such of this story as remains untold is concerned with one of the great mysteries of history. The facts are these:
Gabrielle arrived in Paris on April 6; it was a Tuesday, the Tuesday before Easter. She travelled there by river, and on the evening of her arrival dined at the house of M. Zamet, an eminent financier, who was on terms of the closest friendship both with Henry and herself. After dinner she was taken ill-seriously ill; some food of which she had partaken, it would seem, had disagreed with her.
Was that food poisoned? That is the question, but it is a question which it is impossible to answer.
During the course of the following day, however, she appears to have recovered partially. At any rate, on the Thursday morning she attended Mass, but, later in the day, she was overtaken by another seizure. Realising that her condition was critical, for she was in intense pain, and was racked by thirst, she sent messengers to Henry, imploring him to come to her, to come to her for the sake of the children, for, by a death-bed marriage alone could their rights be preserved.
But there were traitors in her camp, and among them le Marquis de la Varenne, who set out after the messengers to prevent the King from coming. He met Henry at Juvisy as he was travelling hot haste to Paris, and there he told him that his coming was too late-gabrielle was dead.
And Henry, overcome with sorrow, believed the traitor's words. The news came as a cruel blow to him-terrible, awful. He was distraught with anguish. But at last he found relief; he fainted. Henry of Navarre fainted, and was carried in a coach back to Fontainebleau.
Gabrielle, however, still lived. She lived for another twenty hours. On the following afternoon her child was born-born dead. But of saving the mother's life the doctors could entertain no hope. At six o'clock, said Vernhyes, " she lost the power of speech, hearing, sight, and motion, and remained in that state until five o'clock on the morning of Saturday, when she gave up the ghost after a most frightful agony."
Henry's grief was pitiable. He had loved Gabrielle as rarely is a woman loved, and now that she was dead he made France also pay honour to her memory. But another person mourned Gabrielle truly, a person whose sorrow was second in intensity only to the King's, and he was a small boy, Cesar, the son who, on that Saturday, lost not only a mother but his birthright.