Catherine de Medicis

The year 1559 is ending.  A black year for France.  King Henri II died in July, from wounds inflicted by Montgomery’s lance.  Since then, a sickly, feeble-minded child of fifteen, Francois II, reigns over the kingdom.  Dominated by a woman whose habitual arms are poison, magic and sorcery:  Catherine de Medicis, his mother.  But, for some time, the Florentine, who has left Paris to lock herself up inside her castle at Chaumont-sur-Loire, has been worried.  The religious problems which are dividing France, the growing power of the Huguenots, the palace treasons, are making her nervous.  She wants to know what the future will bring.  Her own destiny, as well as that of Francois II, the weak, pitiful King of France.

So, once again, she turns to Cosme – or Cosimo – Ruggieri, the astrologist whom she brought with her from Florence, and who never leaves her.  The wise man tells her:

“Give me a few days, Madame, and I will show you the future…”

And Ruggieri goes to the tower which dominates the Loire.  Since then, cut off from the world, he has been engaged in some sort of mysterious work.  Several times, Catherine de Medicis has come to knock on the door.  Without opening, Ruggieri says:

“I told you, Madame;  when the moon is full!”

And the Queen Mother, annoyed, goes back to her chamber.

But this evening, the moon is full when Catherine de Medicis knocks on the door.  This time Ruggieri opens it, and the Queen Mother enters a room which looks like a laboratory crossed with an alchemist’s hideaway.  In the light of the great fire that burns in the grate, she distinguishes test tubes, crucibles, stills, an astrolabe and piles of grimoires.  Ruggieri shows her an immense mirror which covers a whole wall.

“It is there, Madame, that the future is going to appear to you.”

Catherine de Medicis then understands that her astrologist is going to proceed with a magical operation called catoptromancy or cristallomancy, which consists of seeing the future in a mirror.

Ruggieri dips a small stick into a cup containing the blood of a male pigeon and traces on the wall some letters from the Hebrew alphabet.  Then, having blackened the tip of a wand in the fire, he draws a double circle on the floor, a sort of zodiac, to which he adds cabalistic figures.  When he has finished, he places on it, at the four cardinal points, a human skull, a lamp, a tibia and a cat in a state of hypnotic sleep…

“Sit down, Madame, and look!”

Catherine sits in an armchair, facing the mirror.

At first, she sees nothing.  Then a form appears.  Vague at first, then more precise, and she recognizes Francois II.  He is wearing his crown, the royal mantle and carries his sceptre.  He looks morose.  His image slides, leaves the mirror, travels around the room on the whitewashed wall, comes back to its starting point and disappears.  It is immediately replaced by that of a man in whom Catherine recognizes Charles, her second son, but an older Charles, for he is then only nine years old.  He too wears a crown, a royal mantle and carries a sceptre.  He turns fourteen times around the room and is about to start a fifteenth turn when he is seen to stop suddenly and consider with horror something invisible.  Then his hands reach out as if to push away frightening images.

Catherine wants know the meaning of these turns around the room.  Ruggieri tells her that each turn represents one year of reign.

Above the fire-place, Charles has disappeared to leave room for a third king in whom the Florentine, more and more anguished, this time recognizes Henri, her third son, who is just eight years old…  In the mirror, he is adult.  He advances, dancing.  He is wearing make-up, is effeminate, covered in jewellery, including pendant earrings.  He travels fourteen times around the room and stops for a moment.  He is seen to lean over a body lying at his feet.  Then he straightens up, makes a fifteenth turn and suddenly holds his abdomen with both hands with an expression of intense pain on his face.  After which, he disappears.

Huddled in her armchair, livid, Catherine de Medicis watches in silence.  She is scarcely breathing.  She awaits now the appearance of her fourth son, Francois, Duke d’Alencon, who is only five.  What will she learn?  How many turns will this one make before disappearing?  Will he have a life of normal length?  Or are all of Henri II’s sons cursed?

She waits.  How will her little Francois look as a man?  An image forms.  And a man appears.  A man with a hooked nose and crafty eyes, wearing a little beard.  At first, he is wearing a big hat decorated with a white panache.  Then suddenly, he is wearing the crown, like the others.

Catherine looks at him in fear.  This person cannot be Francois as a man.  But who is he?  And then a resemblance imposes itself on her.  This king has Antoine de Bourbon’s features…  Then, she understands that Francois will never reign, that he will die young and that the Bourbons, whom she hates, will mount the French throne…  This one, she is sure, is little Henri de Bourbon, who is only six years old, and whom she would like to be able to have poisoned…

In the mirror, the man with the hooked nose slides slowly.  And Catherine counts the turns.  Soon they pass those of Charles and Henri:  eighteen, nineteen, twenty…  Still another half-turn and the person disappears.  This Bourbon will therefore reign for more than twenty years!…

The Florentine is annihilated.  In spite of the great wood fire, she is shivering.  Then she straightens up and, without a word for Ruggieri, with a nasty expression on her face, she leaves to lock herself up in her chamber and curl up like a big, wounded spider…

To be continued.