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Louise de la Valliere

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Chapter XXXIV. The Promenade by Torchlight.


Saint-Aignan, delighted with what he had just heard, and rejoiced at what the future foreshadowed for him, bent his steps towards De Guiche’s two rooms. He who, a quarter of an hour previously, would hardly yield up his own rooms for a million francs, was now ready to expend a million, if it were necessary, upon the acquisition of the two happy rooms he coveted so eagerly. But he did not meet with so many obstacles. M. de Guiche did not yet know where he was to lodge, and, besides, was still too far ill to trouble himself about his lodgings; and so Saint-Aignan obtained De Guiche’s two rooms without difficulty. As for M. Dangeau, he was so immeasurably delighted, that he did not even give himself the trouble to think whether Saint-Aignan had any particular reason for removing. Within an hour after Saint-Aignan’s new resolution, he was in possession of the two rooms; and ten minutes later Malicorne entered, followed by the upholsterers. During this time, the king asked for Saint-Aignan; the valet ran to his late apartments and found M. Dangeau there; Dangeau sent him on to De Guiche’s, and Saint-Aignan was found there; but a little delay had of course taken place, and the king had already exhibited once or twice evident signs of impatience, when Saint-Aignan entered his royal master’s presence, quite out of breath.

“You, too, abandon me, then,” said Louis XIV., in a similar tone of lamentation to that with which Caesar, eighteen hundred years previously, had pronounced the Et tu quoque.

“Sire, I am far from abandoning you, for, on the contrary, I am busily occupied in changing my lodgings.”

“What do you mean? I thought you had finished moving three days ago.”

“Yes, sire. But I don’t find myself comfortable where I am, so I am going to change to the opposite side of the building.”

“Was I not right when I said you were abandoning me?” exclaimed the king. “Oh! this exceeds all endurance. But so it is: there was only one woman for whom my heart cared at all, and all my family is leagued together to tear her from me; and my friend, to whom I confided my distress, and who helped me to bear up under it, has become wearied of my complaints and is going to leave me without even asking my permission.”

Saint-Aignan began to laugh. The king at once guessed there must be some mystery in this want of respect. “What is it?” cried the king, full of hope.

“This, sire, that the friend whom the king calumniates is going to try if he cannot restore to his sovereign the happiness he has lost.”

“Are you going to let me see La Valliere?” said Louis XIV.

“I cannot say so, positively, but I hope so.”

“How—how?—tell me that, Saint-Aignan. I wish to know what your project is, and to help you with all my power.”

“Sire,” replied Saint-Aignan, “I cannot, even myself, tell very well how I must set about attaining success; but I have every reason to believe that from to-morrow—”

“To-morrow, do you say! What happiness! But why are you changing your rooms?”

“In order to serve your majesty to better advantage.”

“How can your moving serve me?”

“Do you happen to know where the two rooms destined for De Guiche are situated?”

“Yes.”

“Well, your majesty now knows where I am going.”

“Very likely; but that does not help me.”

“What! is it possible that you do not understand, sire, that above De Guiche’s lodgings are two rooms, one of which is Mademoiselle Montalais’s, and the other—”

“La Valliere’s, is it not so, Saint-Aignan? Oh! yes, yes. It is a brilliant idea, Saint-Aignan, a true friend’s idea, a poet’s idea. By bringing me nearer her from whom the world seems to unite to separate me—you are far more than Pylades was for Orestes, or Patroclus for Achilles.”

“Sire,” said Aignan, with a smile, “I question whether, if your majesty were to know my projects in their full extent, you would continue to pronounce such a pompous eulogium upon me. Ah! sire, I know how very different are the epithets which certain Puritans of the court will not fail to apply to me when they learn of what I intend to do for your majesty.”

“Saint-Aignan, I am dying with impatience; I am in a perfect fever; I shall never be able to wait until to-morrow—to-morrow! why, to-morrow is an eternity!”

“And yet, sire, I shall require you, if you please, to go out presently and divert your impatience by a good walk.”

“With you—agreed; we will talk about your projects, we will talk of her.”

“Nay, sire; I remain here.”

“Whom shall I go out with, then?”

“With the queen and all the ladies of the court.”

“Nothing shall induce me to do that, Saint-Aignan.”

“And yet, sire, you must.”

“Must?—no, no—a thousand times no! I will never again expose myself to the horrible torture of being close to her, of seeing her, of touching her dress as I pass by her, and yet not be able to say a word to her. No, I renounce a torture which you suppose will bring me happiness, but which consumes and eats away my very life; to see her in the presence of strangers, and not to tell her that I love her, when my whole being reveals my affection and betrays me to every one; no! I have sworn never to do it again, and I will keep my oath.”

“Yet, sire, pray listen to me for a moment.”

“I will listen to nothing, Saint-Aignan.”

“In that case, I will continue; it is most urgent, sire—pray understand me, it is of the greatest importance—that Madame and her maids of honor should be absent for two hours from the palace.”

“I cannot understand your meaning at all, Saint-Aignan.”

“It is hard for me to give my sovereign directions what to do; but under the circumstances I do give you directions, sire; and either a hunting or a promenade party must be got up.”

“But if I were to do what you wish, it would be a caprice, a mere whim. In displaying such an impatient humor I show my whole court that I have no control over my own feelings. Do not people already say that I am dreaming of the conquest of the world, but that I ought previously to begin by achieving a conquest over myself?”

“Those who say so, sire, are as insolent as they would like to be thought facetious; but whomever they may be, if your majesty prefers to listen to them, I have nothing further to say. In such a case, that which we have fixed to take place to-morrow must be postponed indefinitely.”

“Nay, Saint-Aignan, I will go out this evening—I will go by torchlight to Saint-Germain: I will breakfast there to-morrow, and will return to Paris by three o’clock. Will that do?”

“Admirably.”

“In that case I will set out this evening at eight o’clock.”

“Your majesty has fixed upon the exact minute.”

“And you positively will tell me nothing more?”

“It is because I have nothing more to tell you. Industry counts for something in this world, sire; but still, chance plays so important a part in it that I have been accustomed to leave her the sidewalk, confident that she will manage so as to always take the street.”

“Well, I abandon myself entirely to you.”

“And you are quite right.”

Comforted in this manner, the king went immediately to Madame, to whom he announced the intended expedition. Madame fancied at the first moment that she saw in this unexpectedly arranged party a plot of the king’s to converse with La Valliere, either on the road under cover of the darkness, or in some other way, but she took especial care not to show any of her fancies to her brother-in-law, and accepted the invitation with a smile upon her lips. She gave directions aloud that her maids of honor should accompany her, secretly intending in the evening to take the most effectual steps to interfere with his majesty’s attachment. Then, when she was alone, and at the very moment the poor lover, who had issued orders for the departure, was reveling in the idea that Mademoiselle de la Valliere would form one of the party,—luxuriating in the sad happiness persecuted lovers enjoy of realizing through the sense of sight alone all the transports of possession,—Madame, who was surrounded by her maids of honor, was saying:—“Two ladies will be enough for me this evening, Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente and Mademoiselle de Montalais.”

La Valliere had anticipated her own omission, and was prepared for it: but persecution had rendered her courageous, and she did not give Madame the pleasure of seeing on her face the impression of the shock her heart received. On the contrary, smiling with that ineffable gentleness which gave an angelic expression to her features—“In that case, Madame, I shall be at liberty this evening, I suppose?” she said.

“Of course.”

“I shall be able to employ it, then, in progressing with that piece of tapestry which your highness has been good enough to notice, and which I have already had the honor of offering to you.”

And having made a respectful obeisance she withdrew to her own apartment; Mesdemoiselles de Tonnay-Charente and de Montalais did the same. The rumor of the intended promenade soon spread all over the palace; ten minutes afterwards Malicorne learned Madame’s resolution, and slipped under Montalais’s door a note, in the following terms:

“L. V. must positively pass the night the night with Madame.”

Montalais, in pursuance of the compact she had entered into, began by burning the letter, and then sat down to reflect. Montalais was a girl full of expedients, and so she very soon arranged her plan. Towards five o’clock, which was the hour for her to repair to Madame’s apartment, she was running across the courtyard, and had reached within a dozen paces of a group of officers, when she uttered a cry, fell gracefully on one knee, rose again, with difficulty, and walked on limpingly. The gentlemen ran forward to her assistance; Montalais had sprained her foot. Faithful to the discharge of her duty, she insisted, however, notwithstanding her accident, upon going to Madame’s apartments.

“What is the matter, and why do you limp so?” she inquired; “I mistook you for La Valliere.”

Montalais related how it had happened, that in hurrying on, in order to arrive as quickly as possible, she had sprained her foot. Madame seemed to pity her, and wished to have a surgeon sent for immediately, but she, assuring her that there was nothing really serious in the accident, said: “My only regret, Madame, is, that it will preclude my attendance on you, and I should have begged Mademoiselle de la Valliere to take my place with your royal highness, but—” seeing that Madame frowned, she added—“I have not done so.”

“Why did you not do so?” inquired Madame.

“Because poor La Valliere seemed so happy to have her liberty for a whole evening and night too, that I did not feel courageous enough to ask her to take my place.”

“What, is she so delighted as that?” inquired madame, struck by these words.

“She is wild with delight; she, who is always so melancholy, was singing like a bird. Besides, your highness knows how much she detests going out, and also that her character has a spice of wildness in it.”

“So!” thought Madame, “this extreme delight hardly seems natural to me.”

“She has already made all her preparations for dining in her own room tete-a-tete with one of her favorite books. And then, as your highness has six other young ladies who would be delighted to accompany you, I did not make my proposal to La Valliere.” Madame did not say a word in reply.

“Have I acted properly?” continued Montalais, with a slight fluttering of the heart, seeing the little success that seemed to attend the ruse de guerre which she had relied upon with so much confidence that she had not thought it even necessary to try and find another. “Does Madame approve of what I have done?” she continued.

Madame was reflecting that the king could very easily leave Saint-Germain during the night, and that, as it was only four leagues and a half from Paris to Saint-Germain, he might readily be in Paris in an hour’s time. “Tell me,” she said, “whether La Valliere, when she heard of your accident, offered at least to bear you company?”

“Oh! she does not yet know of my accident; but even did she know of it, I most certainly should not ask her to do anything that might interfere with her own plans. I think she wishes this evening to realize quietly by herself that amusement of the late king, when he said to M. de Cinq-Mars, ‘Let us amuse ourselves by doing nothing, and making ourselves miserable.’”

Madame felt convinced that some mysterious love adventure lurked behind this strong desire for solitude. The secret might be Louis’s return during the night; it could not be doubted any longer La Valliere had been informed of his intended return, and that was the reason for her delight at having to remain behind at the Palais Royal. It was a plan settled and arranged beforehand.

“I will not be their dupe though,” said Madame, and she took a decisive step. “Mademoiselle de Montalais,” she said, “will you have the goodness to inform your friend, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, that I am exceedingly sorry to disarrange her projects of solitude, but that instead of becoming ennuyee by remaining behind alone as she wished, she will be good enough to accompany us to Saint-Germain and get ennuyee there.”

“Ah! poor La Valliere,” said Montalais, compassionately, but with her heart throbbing with delight; “oh, Madame, could there not be some means—”

“Enough,” said Madame; “I desire it. I prefer Mademoiselle la Baume le Blanc’s society to that of any one else. Go, and send her to me, and take care of your foot.”

Montalais did not wait for the order to be repeated; she returned to her room, almost forgetting to feign lameness, wrote an answer to Malicorne, and slipped it under the carpet. The answer simply said: “She shall.” A Spartan could not have written more laconically.

“By this means,” thought Madame, “I will look narrowly after all on the road; she shall sleep near me during the night, and his majesty must be very clever if he can exchange a single word with Mademoiselle de la Valliere.”

La Valliere received the order to set off with the same indifferent gentleness with which she had received the order to play Cinderella. But, inwardly, her delight was extreme, and she looked upon this change in the princess’s resolution as a consolation which Providence had sent her. With less penetration than Madame possessed, she attributed all to chance. While every one, with the exception of those in disgrace, of those who were ill, and those who were suffering from sprains, were being driven towards Saint-Germain, Malicorne smuggled his workman into the palace in one of M. de Saint-Aignan’s carriages, and led him into the room corresponding to La Valliere’s. The man set to work with a will, tempted by the splendid reward which had been promised him. As the very best tools and implements had been selected from the reserve stock belonging to the engineers attached to the king’s household—and among others, a saw with teeth so sharp and well tempered that it was able, under water even, to cut through oaken joists as hard as iron—the work in question advanced very rapidly, and a square portion of the ceiling, taken from between two of the joists, fell into the arms of the delighted Saint-Aignan, Malicorne, the workman, and a confidential valet, the latter being one brought into the world to see and hear everything, but to repeat nothing. In accordance with a new plan indicated by Malicorne, the opening was effected in an angle of the room—and for this reason. As there was no dressing-closet adjoining La Valliere’s room, she had solicited, and had that very morning obtained, a large screen intended to serve as a partition. The screen that had been allotted her was perfectly sufficient to conceal the opening, which would, besides, be hidden by all the artifices skilled cabinet-makers would have at their command. The opening having been made, the workman glided between the joists, and found himself in La Valliere’s room. When there, he cut a square opening in the flooring, and out of the boards he manufactured a trap so accurately fitting into the opening that the most practised eye could hardly detect the necessary interstices made by its lines of juncture with the floor. Malicorne had provided for everything: a ring and a couple of hinges which had been bought for the purpose, were affixed to the trap-door; and a small circular stair-case, packed in sections, had been bought ready made by the industrious Malicorne, who had paid two thousand francs for it. It was higher than what was required, but the carpenter reduced the number of steps, and it was found to suit exactly. This staircase, destined to receive so illustrious a burden, was merely fastened to the wall by a couple of iron clamps, and its base was fixed into the floor of the comte’s room by two iron pegs screwed down tightly, so that the king, and all his cabinet councilors too, might pass up and down the staircase without any fear. Every blow of the hammer fell upon a thick pad or cushion, and the saw was not used until the handle had been wrapped in wool, and the blade steeped in oil. The noisiest part of the work, moreover, had taken place during the night and early in the morning, that is to say, when La Valliere and Madame were both absent. When, about two o’clock in the afternoon, the court returned to the Palais Royal, La Valliere went up into her own room. Everything was in its proper place—not the smallest particle of sawdust, not the smallest chip, was left to bear witness to the violation of her domicile. Saint-Aignan, however, wishing to do his utmost in forwarding the work, had torn his fingers and his shirt too, and had expended no ordinary amount of perspiration in the king’s service. The palms of his hands were covered with blisters, occasioned by his having held the ladder for Malicorne. He had, moreover, brought up, one by one, the seven pieces of the staircase, each consisting of two steps. In fact, we can safely assert that, if the king had seen him so ardently at work, his majesty would have sworn an eternal gratitude towards his faithful attendant. As Malicorne anticipated, the workman had completely finished the job in twenty-four hours; he received twenty-four louis, and left, overwhelmed with delight, for he had gained in one day as much as six months’ hard work would have procured him. No one had the slightest suspicion of what had taken place in the room under Mademoiselle de la Valliere’s apartment. But in the evening of the second day, at the very moment La Valliere had just left Madame’s circle and returned to her own room, she heard a slight creaking sound in one corner. Astonished, she looked to see whence it proceeded, and the noise began again. “Who is there?” she said, in a tone of alarm.

“It is I, Louise,” replied the well-known voice of the king.

“You! you!” cried the young girl, who for a moment fancied herself under the influence of a dream. “But where? You, sire?”

“Here,” replied the king, opening one of the folds of the screen, and appearing like a ghost at the end of the room.

La Valliere uttered a loud cry, and fell trembling into an armchair, as the king advanced respectfully towards her.






Chapter XXXV. The Apparition.


La Valliere very soon recovered from her surprise, for, owing to his respectful bearing, the king inspired her with more confidence by his presence than his sudden appearance had deprived her of. But, as he noticed that which made La Valliere most uneasy was the means by which he had effected an entrance into her room, he explained to her the system of the staircase concealed by the screen, and strongly disavowed the notion of his being a supernatural appearance.

“Oh, sire!” said La Valliere, shaking her fair head with a most engaging smile, “present or absent, you do not appear to my mind more at one time than at another.”

“Which means, Louise—”

“Oh, what you know so well, sire; that there is not one moment in which the poor girl whose secret you surprised at Fontainebleau, and whom you came to snatch from the foot of the cross itself, does not think of you.”

“Louise, you overwhelm me with joy and happiness.”

La Valliere smiled mournfully, and continued: “But, sire, have you reflected that your ingenious invention could not be of the slightest service to us?”

“Why so? Tell me,—I am waiting most anxiously.”

“Because this room may be subject to being searched at any moment of the day. Madame herself may, at any time, come here accidentally; my companions run in at any moment they please. To fasten the door on the inside, is to denounce myself as plainly as if I had written above, ‘No admittance,—the king is within!’ Even now, sire, at this very moment, there is nothing to prevent the door opening, and your majesty being seen here.”

“In that case,” said the king, laughingly, “I should indeed be taken for a phantom, for no one can tell in what way I came here. Besides, it is only spirits that can pass through brick walls, or floors and ceilings.”

“Oh, sire, reflect for a moment how terrible the scandal would be! Nothing equal to it could ever have been previously said about the maids of honor, poor creatures! whom evil report, however, hardly ever spares.”

“And your conclusion from all this, my dear Louise,—come, explain yourself.”

“Alas! it is a hard thing to say—but your majesty must suppress staircase plots, surprises and all; for the evil consequences which would result from your being found here would be far greater than our happiness in seeing each other.”

“Well, Louise,” replied the king, tenderly, “instead of removing this staircase by which I have ascended, there is a far more simple means, of which you have not thought.”

“A means—another means!”

“Yes, another. Oh, you do not love me as I love you, Louise, since my invention is quicker than yours.”

She looked at the king, who held out his hand to her, which she took and gently pressed between her own.

“You were saying,” continued the king, “that I shall be detected coming here, where any one who pleases can enter.”

“Stay, sire; at this very moment, even while you are speaking about it, I tremble with dread of your being discovered.”

“But you would not be found out, Louise, if you were to descend the staircase which leads to the room underneath.”

“Oh, sire! what do you say?” cried Louise, in alarm.

“You do not quite understand me, Louise, since you get offended at my very first word; first of all, do you know to whom the apartments underneath belong?”

“To M. de Guiche, sire, I believe.”

“Not at all; they are M. de Saint-Aignan’s.”

“Are you sure?” cried La Valliere; and this exclamation which escaped from the young girl’s joyous heart made the king’s heart throb with delight.

“Yes, to Saint-Aignan, our friend,” he said.

“But, sire,” returned La Valliere, “I cannot visit M. de Saint-Aignan’s rooms any more than I could M. de Guiche’s. It is impossible—impossible.”

“And yet, Louise, I should have thought that, under the safe-conduct of the king, you would venture anything.”

“Under the safe-conduct of the king,” she said, with a look full of tenderness.

“You have faith in my word, I hope, Louise?”

“Yes, sire, when you are not present; but when you are present,—when you speak to me,—when I look upon you, I have faith in nothing.”

“What can possibly be done to reassure you?”

“It is scarcely respectful, I know, to doubt the king, but—for me—you are not the king.”

“Thank Heaven!—I, at least, hope so most devoutly; you see how anxiously I am trying to find or invent a means of removing all difficulty. Stay; would the presence of a third person reassure you?”

“The presence of M. de Saint-Aignan would, certainly.”

“Really, Louise, you wound me by your suspicions.”

Louise did not answer, she merely looked steadfastly at him with that clear, piercing gaze which penetrates the very heart, and said softly to herself, “Alas! alas! it is not you of whom I am afraid,—it is not you upon whom my doubts would fall.”

“Well,” said the king, sighing, “I agree; and M. de Saint-Aignan, who enjoys the inestimable privilege of reassuring you, shall always be present at our interviews, I promise you.”

“You promise that, sire?”

“Upon my honor as a gentleman; and you, on your side—”

“Oh, wait, sire, that is not all yet; for such conversations ought, at least, to have a reasonable motive of some kind for M. de Saint-Aignan.”

“Dear Louise, every shade of delicacy of feeling is yours, and my only study is to equal you on that point. It shall be just as you wish: therefore our conversations shall have a reasonable motive, and I have already hit upon one; so that from to-morrow, if you like—”

“To-morrow?”

“Do you meant that that is not soon enough?” exclaimed the king, caressing La Valliere’s hand between his own.

At this moment the sound of steps was heard in the corridor.

“Sire! sire!” cried La Valliere, “some one is coming; do you hear? Oh, fly! fly! I implore you.”

The king made but one bound from the chair where he was sitting to his hiding-place behind the screen. He had barely time; for as he drew one of the folds before him, the handle of the door was turned, and Montalais appeared at the threshold. As a matter of course she entered quite naturally, and without any ceremony, for she knew perfectly well that to knock at the door beforehand would be showing a suspicion towards La Valliere which would be displeasing to her. She accordingly entered, and after a rapid glance round the room, in the brief course of which she observed two chairs very close to each other, she was so long in shutting the door, which seemed to be difficult to close, one can hardly tell how or why, that the king had ample time to raise the trap-door, and to descend again to Saint-Aignan’s room.

“Louise,” she said to her, “I want to talk to you, and seriously, too.”

“Good heavens! my dear Aure, what is the matter now?”

“The matter is, that Madame suspects everything.”

“Explain yourself.”

“Is there any occasion for us to enter into explanations, and do you not understand what I mean? Come, you must have noticed the fluctuations in Madame’s humor during several days past; you must have noticed how she first kept you close beside her, then dismissed you, and then sent for you again.”

“Yes, I have noticed it, of course.”

“Well, it seems Madame has now succeeded in obtaining sufficient information, for she has now gone straight to the point, as there is nothing further left in France to withstand the torrent which sweeps away all obstacles before it; you know what I mean by the torrent?”

La Valliere hid her face in her hands.

“I mean,” continued Montalais, pitilessly, “that torrent which burst through the gates of the Carmelites of Chaillot, and overthrew all the prejudices of the court, as well at Fontainebleau as at Paris.”

“Alas! alas!” murmured La Valliere, her face still covered by her hands, and her tears streaming through her fingers.

“Oh, don’t distress yourself in that manner, or you have only heard half of your troubles.”

“In Heaven’s name,” exclaimed the young girl, in great anxiety, “what is the matter?”

“Well, then, this is how the matter stands: Madame, who can no longer rely upon any further assistance in France; for she has, one after the other, made use of the two queens, of Monsieur, and the whole court, too, now bethinks herself of a certain person who has certain pretended rights over you.”

La Valliere became as white as a marble statue.

“This person,” continued Madame, “is not in Paris at this moment; but, if I am not mistaken, is, just now, in England.”

“Yes, yes,” breathed La Valliere, almost overwhelmed with terror.

“And is to be found, I think, at the court of Charles II.; am I right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, this evening a letter has been dispatched by Madame to Saint James’s, with directions for the courier to go straight to Hampton Court, which I believe is one of the royal residences, situated about a dozen miles from London.”

“Yes, well?”

“Well; as Madame writes regularly to London once a fortnight, and as the ordinary courier left for London not more than three days ago, I have been thinking that some serious circumstance alone could have induced her to write again so soon, for you know she is a very indolent correspondent.”

“Yes.”

“This letter has been written, therefore, something tells me so, at least, on your account.”

“On my account?” repeated the unhappy girl, mechanically.

“And I, who saw the letter lying on Madame’s desk before she sealed it, fancied I could read—”

“What did you fancy you could read?”

“I might possibly have been mistaken, though—”

“Tell me,—what was it?”

“The name of Bragelonne.”

La Valliere rose hurriedly from her chair, a prey to the most painful agitation. “Montalais,” she said, her voice broken by sobs, “all my smiling dreams of youth and innocence have fled already. I have nothing now to conceal, either from you or any one else. My life is exposed to every one’s inspection, and can be opened like a book, in which all the world can read, from the king himself to the first passer-by. Aure, dearest Aure, what can I do—what will become of me?”

Montalais approached close to her, and said, “Consult your own heart, of course.”

“Well; I do not love M. de Bragelonne; when I say I do not love him, understand that I love him as the most affectionate sister could love the best of brothers, but that is not what he requires, nor what I promised him.”

“In fact, you love the king,” said Montalais, “and that is a sufficiently good excuse.”

“Yes, I do love the king,” hoarsely murmured the young girl, “and I have paid dearly enough for pronouncing those words. And now, Montalais, tell me—what can you do either for me, or against me, in my position?”

“You must speak more clearly still.”

“What am I to say, then?”

“And so you have nothing very particular to tell me?”

“No!” said Louise, in astonishment.

“Very good; and so all you have to ask me is my advice respecting M. Raoul?”

“Nothing else.”

“It is a very delicate subject,” replied Montalais.

“No, it is nothing of the kind. Ought I to marry him in order to keep the promise I made, or ought I continue to listen to the king?”

“You have really placed me in a very difficult position,” said Montalais, smiling; “you ask me if you ought to marry Raoul, whose friend I am, and whom I shall mortally offend in giving my opinion against him; and then, you ask me if you should cease to listen to the king, whose subject I am, and whom I should offend if I were to advise you in a particular way. Ah, Louise, you seem to hold a difficult position at a very cheap rate.”

“You have not understood me, Aure,” said La Valliere, wounded by the slightly mocking tone of her companion; “if I were to marry M. de Bragelonne, I should be far from bestowing on him the happiness he deserves; but, for the same reason, if I listen to the king he would become the possessor of one indifferent in very many aspects, I admit, but one whom his affection confers an appearance of value. What I ask you, then, is to tell me some means of disengaging myself honorably either from the one or from the other; or rather, I ask you, from which side you think I can free myself most honorably.”

“My dear Louise,” replied Montalais, after a pause, “I am not one of the seven wise men of Greece, and I have no perfectly invariable rules of conduct to govern me; but, on the other hand, I have a little experience, and I can assure you that no woman ever asks for advice of the nature which you have just asked me, without being in a terrible state of embarrassment. Besides, you have made a solemn promise, which every principle of honor requires you to fulfil; if, therefore, you are embarrassed, in consequence of having undertaken such an engagement, it is not a stranger’s advice (every one is a stranger to a heart full of love), it is not my advice, I repeat, that can extricate you from your embarrassment. I shall not give it you, therefore; and for a greater reason still—because, were I in your place, I should feel much more embarrassed after the advice than before it. All I can do is, to repeat what I have already told you; shall I assist you?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Very well; that is all. Tell me in what way you wish me to help you; tell me for and against whom,—in this way we shall not make any blunders.”

“But first of all,” said La Valliere, pressing her companion’s hand, “for whom or against whom do you decide?”

“For you, if you are really and truly my friend.”

“Are you not Madame’s confidant?”

“A greater reason for being of service to you; if I were not to know what is going on in that direction I should not be of any service at all, and consequently you would not obtain any advantage from my acquaintance. Friendships live and thrive upon a system of reciprocal benefits.”

“The result is, then, that you will remain at the same time Madame’s friend also?”

“Evidently. Do you complain of that?”

“I hardly know,” sighed La Valliere, thoughtfully, for this cynical frankness appeared to her an offense both to the woman and the friend.

“All well and good, then,” said Montalais, “for if you did, you would be very foolish.”

“You wish to serve me, then?”

“Devotedly—if you will serve me in return.”

“One would almost say that you do not know my heart,” said La Valliere, looking at Montalais with her eyes wide open.

“Why, the fact is, that since we have belonged to the court, my dear Louise, we are very much changed.”

“In what way?”

“It is very simple. Were you the second queen of France yonder, at Blois?”

La Valliere hung down her head, and began to weep. Montalais looked at her in an indefinable manner, and murmured “Poor girl!” and then, adding, “Poor king!” she kissed Louise on the forehead, and returned to her apartment, where Malicorne was waiting for her.






Chapter XXXVI. The Portrait.


In that malady which is termed love the paroxysms succeed each other at intervals, ever accelerating from the moment the disease declares itself. By and by, the paroxysms are less frequent, in proportion as the cure approaches. This being laid down as a general axiom, and as the leading article of a particular chapter, we will now proceed with our recital. The next day, the day fixed by the king for the first conversation in Saint-Aignan’s room, La Valliere, on opening one of the folds of the screen, found upon the floor a letter in the king’s handwriting. The letter had been passed, through a slit in the floor, from the lower apartment to her own. No indiscreet hand or curious gaze could have brought or did bring this single paper. This, too, was one of Malicorne’s ideas. Having seen how very serviceable Saint-Aignan would become to the king on account of his apartment, he did not wish that the courtier should become still more indispensable as a messenger, and so he had, on his own private account, reserved this last post for himself. La Valliere most eagerly read the letter, which fixed two o’clock that same afternoon for the rendezvous, and which indicated the way of raising the trap-door which was constructed out of the flooring. “Make yourself look as beautiful as you can,” added the postscript of the letter, words which astonished the young girl, but at the same time reassured her.

The hours passed away very slowly, but the time fixed, however, arrived at last. As punctual as the priestess Hero, Louise lifted up the trap-door at the last stroke of the hour of two, and found the king on the steps, waiting for her with the greatest respect, in order to give her his hand to descend. The delicacy and deference shown in this attention affected her very powerfully. At the foot of the staircase the two lovers found the comte, who, with a smile and a low reverence distinguished by the best taste, expressed his thanks to La Valliere for the honor she conferred upon him. Then turning towards the king, he said:

“Sire, our man is here.” La Valliere looked at the king with some uneasiness.

“Mademoiselle,” said the king, “if I have begged you to do me the honor of coming down here, it was from an interested motive. I have procured a most admirable portrait painter, who is celebrated for the fidelity of his likenesses, and I wish you to be kind enough to authorize him to paint yours. Besides, if you positively wish it, the portrait shall remain in your own possession.” La Valliere blushed. “You see,” said the king to her, “we shall not be three as you wished, but four instead. And, so long as we are not alone, there can be as many present as you please.” La Valliere gently pressed her royal lover’s hand.

“Shall we pass into the next room, sire?” said Saint-Aignan, opening the door to let his guests precede him. The king walked behind La Valliere, and fixed his eyes lingeringly and passionately upon that neck as white as snow, upon which her long fair ringlets fell in heavy masses. La Valliere was dressed in a thick silk robe of pearl gray color, with a tinge of rose, with jet ornaments, which displayed to greater effect the dazzling purity of her skin, holding in her slender and transparent hands a bouquet of heartsease, Bengal roses, and clematis, surrounded with leaves of the tenderest green, above which uprose, like a tiny goblet spilling magic influence a Haarlem tulip of gray and violet tints of a pure and beautiful species, which had cost the gardener five years’ toil of combinations, and the king five thousand francs. Louis had placed this bouquet in La Valliere’s hand as he saluted her. In the room, the door of which Saint-Aignan had just opened, a young man was standing, dressed in a purple velvet jacket, with beautiful black eyes and long brown hair. It was the painter; his canvas was quite ready, and his palette prepared for use.

He bowed to La Valliere with the grave curiosity of an artist who is studying his model, saluted the king discreetly, as if he did not recognize him, and as he would, consequently, have saluted any other gentleman. Then, leading Mademoiselle de la Valliere to the seat he had arranged for her, he begged her to sit down.

The young girl assumed an attitude graceful and unrestrained, her hands occupied and her limbs reclining on cushions; and in order that her gaze might not assume a vague or affected expression, the painter begged her to choose some kind of occupation, so as to engage her attention; whereupon Louis XIV., smiling, sat down on the cushions at La Valliere’s feet; so that she, in the reclining posture she had assumed, leaning back in the armchair, holding her flowers in her hand, and he, with his eyes raised towards her and fixed devouringly on her face—they, both together, formed so charming a group, that the artist contemplated painting it with professional delight, while on his side, Saint-Aignan regarded them with feelings of envy. The painter sketched rapidly; and very soon, beneath the earliest touches of the brush, there started into life, out of the gray background, the gentle, poetry-breathing face, with its soft calm eyes and delicately tinted cheeks, enframed in the masses of hair which fell about her neck. The lovers, however, spoke but little, and looked at each other a great deal; sometimes their eyes became so languishing in their gaze, that the painter was obliged to interrupt his work in order to avoid representing an Erycina instead of La Valliere. It was on such occasions that Saint-Aignan came to the rescue, and recited verses, or repeated one of those little tales such as Patru related, and Tallemant des Reaux wrote so cleverly. Or, it might be that La Valliere was fatigued, and the sitting was, therefore, suspended for awhile; and, immediately, a tray of precious porcelain laden with the most beautiful fruits which could be obtained, and rich wines distilling their bright colors in silver goblets, beautifully chased, served as accessories to the picture of which the painter could but retrace the most ephemeral resemblance.

Louis was intoxicated with love, La Valliere with happiness, Saint-Aignan with ambition, and the painter was storing up recollections for his old age. Two hours passed away in this manner, and four o’clock having struck, La Valliere rose, and made a sign to the king. Louis also rose, approached the picture, and addressed a few flattering remarks to the painter. Saint-Aignan also praised the picture, which, as he pretended, was already beginning to assume an accurate resemblance. La Valliere in her turn, blushingly thanked the painter and passed into the next room, where the king followed her, after having previously summoned Saint-Aignan.

“Will you not come to-morrow?” he said to La Valliere.

“Oh! sire, pray think that some one will be sure to come to my room, and will not find me there.”

“Well?”

“What will become of me in that case?”

“You are very apprehensive, Louise.”

“But at all events, suppose Madame were to send for me?”

“Oh!” replied the king, “will the day never come when you yourself will tell me to brave everything so that I may not have to leave you again?”

“On that day, sire, I shall be quite out of my mind, and you must not believe me.”

“To-morrow, Louise.”

La Valliere sighed, but, without the courage to oppose her royal lover’s wish, she repeated, “To-morrow, then, since you desire it, sire,” and with these words she ran lightly up the stairs, and disappeared from her lover’s gaze.

“Well, sire?” inquired Saint-Aignan, when she had left.

“Well, Saint-Aignan, yesterday I thought myself the happiest of men.”

“And does your majesty, then, regard yourself to-day,” said the comte, smiling, “as the unhappiest of men?”

“No; but my love for her is an unquenchable thirst; in vain do I drink, in vain do I swallow the drops of water which your industry procures for me; the more I drink, the more unquenchable it becomes.”

“Sire, that is in some degree your own fault, and your majesty alone has made the position such as it is.”

“You are right.”

“In that case, therefore, the means to be happy, is to fancy yourself satisfied, and to wait.”

“Wait! you know that word, then?”

“There, there, sire—do not despair: I have already been at work on your behalf—I have still other resources in store.” The king shook his head in a despairing manner.

“What, sire! have you not been satisfied hitherto?”

“Oh! yes, indeed, yes, my dear Saint-Aignan; but invent, for Heaven’s sake, invent some further project yet.”

“Sire, I undertake to do my best, and that is all that any one can do.”

The king wished to see the portrait again, as he was unable to see the original. He pointed out several alterations to the painter and left the room, and then Saint-Aignan dismissed the artist. The easel, paints, and painter himself, had scarcely gone, when Malicorne showed his head in the doorway. He was received by Saint-Aignan with open arms, but still with a little sadness, for the cloud which had passed across the royal sun, veiled, in its turn, the faithful satellite, and Malicorne at a glance perceived the melancholy that brooded on Saint-Aignan’s face.

“Oh, monsieur le comte,” he said, “how sad you seem!”

“And good reason too, my dear Monsieur Malicorne. Will you believe that the king is still dissatisfied?”

“With his staircase, do you mean?”

“Oh, no; on the contrary, he is delighted with the staircase.”

“The decorations of the apartments, I suppose, don’t please him.”

“Oh! he has not even thought of that. No, indeed, it seems that what has dissatisfied the king—”

“I will tell you, monsieur le comte,—he is dissatisfied at finding himself the fourth person at a rendezvous of this kind. How is it possible you could not have guessed that?”

“Why, how is it likely I could have done so, dear M. Malicorne, when I followed the king’s instructions to the very letter?”

“Did his majesty really insist on your being present?”

“Positively.”

“And also required that the painter, whom I met downstairs just now, should be here, too?”

“He insisted upon it.”

“In that case, I can easily understand why his majesty is dissatisfied.”

“What! dissatisfied that I have so punctually and so literally obeyed his orders? I don’t understand you.”

Malicorne began to scratch his ear, as he asked, “What time did the king fix for the rendezvous in your apartments?”

“Two o’clock.”

“And you were waiting for the king?”

“Ever since half-past one; it would have been a fine thing, indeed, to have been unpunctual with his majesty.”

Malicorne, notwithstanding his respect for Saint-Aignan, could not help smiling. “And the painter,” he said, “did the king wish him to be here at two o’clock, also?”

“No; but I had him waiting here from midday. Far better, you know, for a painter to be kept waiting a couple of hours than the king a single minute.”

Malicorne began to laugh aloud. “Come, dear Monsieur Malicorne,” said Saint-Aignan, “laugh less at me, and speak a little more freely, I beg.”

“Well, then, monsieur le comte, if you wish the king to be a little more satisfied the next time he comes—”

“‘Ventre saint-gris!’ as his grandfather used to say; of course I wish it.”

“Well, all you have to do is, when the king comes to-morrow, to be obliged to go away on a most pressing matter of business, which cannot possibly be postponed, and stay away for twenty minutes.”

“What! leave the king alone for twenty minutes?” cried Saint-Aignan, in alarm.

“Very well, do as you like; don’t pay any attention to what I say,” said Malicorne, moving towards the door.

“Nay, nay, dear Monsieur Malicorne; on the contrary, go on—I begin to understand you. But the painter—”

“Oh! the painter must be half an hour late.”

“Half an hour—do you really think so?”

“Yes, I do, decidedly.”

“Very well, then, I will do as you tell me.”

“And my opinion is, that you will be doing perfectly right. Will you allow me to call upon you for the latest news to-morrow?”

“Of course.”

“I have the honor to be your most respectful servant, M. de Saint-Aignan,” said Malicorne, bowing profoundly and retiring from the room backwards.

“There is no doubt that fellow has more invention than I have,” said Saint-Aignan, as if compelled by his conviction to admit it.