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Louise de la Valliere

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Chapter XLIII. An Interview with the Queen-Mother.


The queen-mother was in the bedroom at the Palais Royal, with Madame de Motteville and Senora Molina. King Louis, who had been impatiently expected the whole day, had not made his appearance; and the queen, who was growing impatient, had often sent to inquire about him. The moral atmosphere of the court seemed to indicate an approaching storm; the courtiers and the ladies of the court avoided meeting in the ante-chambers and the corridors in order not to converse on compromising subjects. Monsieur had joined the king early in the morning for a hunting-party; Madame remained in her own apartment, cool and distant to every one; and the queen-mother, after she had said her prayers in Latin, talked of domestic matters with her two friends in pure Castilian. Madame de Motteville, who understood the language perfectly, answered her in French. When the three ladies had exhausted every form of dissimulation and of politeness, as a circuitous mode of expressing that the king’s conduct was making the queen and the queen-mother pine away through sheer grief and vexation, and when, in the most guarded and polished phrases, they had fulminated every variety of imprecation against Mademoiselle de la Valliere, the queen-mother terminated her attack by an exclamation indicative of her own reflections and character. “Estos hijos!” said she to Molina—which means, “These children!” words full of meaning on a mother’s lips—words full of terrible significance in the mouth of a queen who, like Anne of Austria, hid many curious secrets in her soul.

“Yes,” said Molina, “children, children! for whom every mother becomes a sacrifice.”

“Yes,” replied the queen; “a mother sacrifices everything, certainly.” She did not finish her phrase; for she fancied, when she raised her eyes towards the full-length portrait of the pale Louis XIII., that light once more flashed from her husband’s dull eyes, and his nostrils grew livid with wrath. The portrait seemed animated by a living expression—speak it did not, but it seemed to threaten. A profound silence succeeded the queen’s last remark. La Molina began to turn over ribbons and laces on a large work-table. Madame de Motteville, surprised at the look of mutual intelligence which had been exchanged between the confidant and her mistress, cast down her eyes like a discreet woman, and pretending to be observant of nothing that was passing, listened with the utmost attention to every word. She heard nothing, however, but a very insignificant “hum” on the part of the Spanish duenna, who was the incarnation of caution—and a profound sigh on that of the queen. She looked up immediately.

“You are suffering?” she said.

“No, Motteville, no; why do you say that?”

“Your majesty almost groaned just now.”

“You are right; I did sigh, in truth.”

“Monsieur Valot is not far off; I believe he is in Madame’s apartment.”

“Why is he with Madame?”

“Madame is troubled with nervous attacks.”

“A very fine disorder, indeed! There is little good in M. Valot being there, when a very different physician would quickly cure Madame.”

Madame de Motteville looked up with an air of great surprise, as she replied, “Another doctor instead of M. Valot?—whom do you mean?”

“Occupation, Motteville, occupation. If any one is really ill, it is my poor daughter.”

“And your majesty, too.”

“Less so this evening, though.”

“Do not believe that too confidently, madame,” said De Motteville. And, as if to justify her caution, a sharp, acute pain seized the queen, who turned deadly pale, and threw herself back in the chair, with every symptom of a sudden fainting fit. Molina ran to a richly gilded tortoise-shell cabinet, from which she took a large rock-crystal bottle of scented salts, and held it to the queen’s nostrils, who inhaled it wildly for a few minutes, and murmured:

“It is hastening my death—but Heaven’s will be done!”

“Your majesty’s death is not so near at hand,” added Molina, replacing the smelling-bottle in the cabinet.

“Does your majesty feel better now?” inquired Madame de Motteville.

“Much better,” returned the queen, placing her finger on her lips, to impose silence on her favorite.

“It is very strange,” remarked Madame de Motteville, after a pause.

“What is strange?” said the queen.

“Does your majesty remember the day when this pain attacked you for the first time?”

“I remember only that it was a grievously sad day for me, Motteville.”

“But your majesty did not always regard that day as a sad one.”

“Why?”

“Because three and twenty years ago, on that very day, his present majesty, your own glorious son, was born at the very same hour.”

The queen uttered a loud cry, buried her face in her hands, and seemed utterly prostrated for some minutes; but whether from recollections which arose in her mind, or from reflection, or even with sheer pain, was doubtful. La Molina darted a look at Madame de Motteville, so full of bitter reproach, that the poor woman, perfectly ignorant of its meaning, was in her own exculpation on the point of asking an explanation, when, suddenly, Anne of Austria arose and said, “Yes, the 5th of September; my sorrow began on the 5th of September. The greatest joy, one day; the deepest sorrow the next;—the sorrow,” she added, “the bitter expiation of a too excessive joy.”

And, from that moment, Anne of Austria, whose memory and reason seemed to be suspended for the time, remained impenetrable, with vacant look, mind almost wandering, and hands hanging heavily down, as if life had almost departed.

“We must put her to bed,” said La Molina.

“Presently, Molina.”

“Let us leave the queen alone,” added the Spanish attendant.

Madame de Motteville rose; large tears were rolling down the queen’s pallid face; and Molina, having observed this sign of weakness, fixed her black vigilant eyes upon her.

“Yes, yes,” replied the queen. “Leave us, Motteville; go.”

The word “us” produced a disagreeable effect upon the ears of the French favorite; for it signified that an interchange of secrets, or of revelations of the past, was about to be made, and that one person was de trop in the conversation which seemed likely to take place.

“Will Molina, alone, be sufficient for your majesty to-night?” inquired the French woman.

“Yes,” replied the queen. Madame de Motteville bowed in submission, and was about to withdraw, when suddenly an old female attendant, dressed as if she had belonged to the Spanish court of the year 1620, opened the door, and surprised the queen in her tears. “The remedy!” she cried, delightedly, to the queen, as she unceremoniously approached the group.

“What remedy?” said Anne of Austria.

“For your majesty’s sufferings,” the former replied.

“Who brings it?” asked Madame de Motteville, eagerly; “Monsieur Valot?”

“No; a lady from Flanders.”

“From Flanders? Is she Spanish?” inquired the queen.

“I don’t know.”

“Who sent her?”

“M. Colbert.”

“Her name?”

“She did not mention it.”

“Her position in life?”

“She will answer that herself.”

“Who is she?”

“She is masked.”

“Go, Molina; go and see!” cried the queen.

“It is needless,” suddenly replied a voice, at once firm and gentle in its tone, which proceeded from the other side of the tapestry hangings; a voice which made the attendants start, and the queen tremble excessively. At the same moment, a masked female appeared through the hangings, and, before the queen could speak a syllable she added, “I am connected with the order of the Beguines of Bruges, and do, indeed, bring with me the remedy which is certain to effect a cure of your majesty’s complaint.” No one uttered a sound, and the Beguine did not move a step.

“Speak,” said the queen.

“I will, when we are alone,” was the answer.

Anne of Austria looked at her attendants, who immediately withdrew. The Beguine, thereupon, advanced a few steps towards the queen, and bowed reverently before her. The queen gazed with increasing mistrust at this woman, who, in her turn, fixed a pair of brilliant eyes upon her, through her mask.

“The queen of France must, indeed, be very ill,” said Anne of Austria, “if it is known at the Beguinage of Bruges that she stands in need of being cured.”

“Your majesty is not irremediably ill.”

“But tell me how you happen to know I am suffering?”

“Your majesty has friends in Flanders.”

“Since these friends, then, sent you, mention their names.”

“Impossible, madame, since your majesty’s memory has not been awakened by your heart.”

Anne of Austria looked up, endeavoring to discover through the mysterious mask, and this ambiguous language, the name of her companion, who expressed herself with such familiarity and freedom; then, suddenly, wearied by a curiosity which wounded every feeling of pride in her nature, she said, “You are ignorant, perhaps, that royal personages are never spoken to with the face masked.”

“Deign to excuse me, madame,” replied the Beguine, humbly.

“I cannot excuse you. I may, possibly, forgive you, if you throw your mask aside.”

“I have made a vow, madame, to attend and aid all afflicted and suffering persons, without ever permitting them to behold my face. I might have been able to administer some relief to your body and to your mind, too; but since your majesty forbids me, I will take my leave. Adieu, madame, adieu!”

These words were uttered with a harmony of tone and respect of manner that disarmed the queen of all anger and suspicion, but did not remove her feeling of curiosity. “You are right,” she said; “it ill-becomes those who are suffering to reject the means of relief Heaven sends them. Speak, then; and may you, indeed, be able, as you assert, to administer relief to my body—”

“Let us first speak a little of the mind, if you please,” said the Beguine—“of the mind, which, I am sure, must also suffer.”

“My mind?”

“There are cancers so insidious in their nature that their very pulsations cannot be felt. Such cancers, madame, leave the ivory whiteness of the skin unblemished, and putrefy not the firm, fair flesh, with their blue tints; the physician who bends over the patient’s chest hears not, though he listens, the insatiable teeth of the disease grinding onward through the muscles, and the blood flows freely on; the knife has never been able to destroy, and rarely, even temporarily, to disarm the rage of these mortal scourges,—their home is in the mind, which they corrupt,—they gnaw the whole heart until it breaks. Such, madame, are the cancers fatal to queens; are you, too, free from their scourge?”

Anne slowly raised her arm, dazzling in its perfect whiteness, and pure in its rounded outlines as it was in the time of her earlier days.

“The evils to which you allude,” she said, “are the condition of the lives of the high in rank upon earth, to whom Heaven has imparted mind. When those evils become too heavy to be borne, Heaven lightens their burdens by penitence and confession. Thus, only, we lay down our burden and the secrets that oppress us. But, forget not that the same gracious Heaven, in its mercy, apportions to their trials the strength of the feeble creatures of its hand; and my strength has enabled me to bear my burden. For the secrets of others, the silence of Heaven is more than sufficient; for my own secrets, that of my confessor is enough.”

“You are as courageous, madame, I see, as ever, against your enemies. You do not acknowledge your confidence in your friends?”

“Queens have no friends; if you have nothing further to say to me,—if you feel yourself inspired by Heaven as a prophetess—leave me, I pray, for I dread the future.”

“I should have supposed,” said the Beguine, resolutely, “that you would rather have dreaded the past.”

Hardly had these words escaped her lips, than the queen rose up proudly. “Speak,” she cried, in a short, imperious tone of voice; “explain yourself briefly, quickly, entirely; or, if not—”

“Nay, do not threaten me, your majesty,” said the Beguine, gently; “I came here to you full of compassion and respect. I came here on the part of a friend.”

“Prove that to me! Comfort, instead of irritating me.”

“Easily enough, and your majesty will see who is friendly to you. What misfortune has happened to your majesty during these three and twenty years past—”

“Serious misfortunes, indeed; have I not lost the king?”

“I speak not of misfortunes of that kind. I wish to ask you, if, since the birth of the king, any indiscretion on a friend’s part has caused your majesty the slightest serious anxiety, or distress?”

“I do not understand you,” replied the queen, clenching her teeth in order to conceal her emotion.

“I will make myself understood, then. Your majesty remembers that the king was born on the 5th of September, 1638, at a quarter past eleven o’clock.”

“Yes,” stammered out the queen.

“At half-past twelve,” continued the Beguine, “the dauphin, who had been baptized by Monseigneur de Meaux in the king’s and your own presence, was acknowledged as the heir of the crown of France. The king then went to the chapel of the old Chateau de Saint-Germain, to hear the Te Deum chanted.”

“Quite true, quite true,” murmured the queen.

“Your majesty’s conferment took place in the presence of Monsieur, his majesty’s late uncle, of the princes, and of the ladies attached to the court. The king’s physician, Bouvard, and Honore, the surgeon, were stationed in the ante-chamber; your majesty slept from three o’clock until seven, I believe.”

“Yes, yes; but you tell me no more than every one else knows as well as you and myself.”

“I am now, madame, approaching that which very few persons are acquainted with. Very few persons, did I say, alas! I might say two only, for formerly there were but five in all, and, for many years past, the secret has been well preserved by the deaths of the principal participators in it. The late king sleeps now with his ancestors; Perronnette, the midwife, soon followed him; Laporte is already forgotten.”

The queen opened her lips as though to reply; she felt, beneath her icy hand, with which she kept her face half concealed, the beads of perspiration on her brow.

“It was eight o’clock,” pursued the Beguine; “the king was seated at supper, full of joy and happiness; around him on all sides arose wild cries of delight and drinking of healths; the people cheered beneath the balconies; the Swiss guards, the musketeers, and the royal guards wandered through the city, borne about in triumph by the drunken students. Those boisterous sounds of general joy disturbed the dauphin, the future king of France, who was quietly lying in the arms of Madame de Hausac, his nurse, and whose eyes, as he opened them, and stared about, might have observed two crowns at the foot of his cradle. Suddenly your majesty uttered a piercing cry, and Dame Perronnette immediately flew to your bedside. The doctors were dining in a room at some distance from your chamber; the palace, deserted from the frequency of the irruptions made into it, was without either sentinels or guards. The midwife, having questioned and examined your majesty, gave a sudden exclamation as if in wild astonishment, and taking you in her arms, bewildered almost out of her senses from sheer distress of mind, dispatched Laporte to inform the king that her majesty the queen-mother wished to see him in her room. Laporte, you are aware, madame, was a man of the most admirable calmness and presence of mind. He did not approach the king as if he were the bearer of alarming intelligence and wished to inspire the terror he himself experienced; besides, it was not a very terrifying intelligence which awaited the king. Therefore, Laporte appeared with a smile upon his lips, and approached the king’s chair, saying to him—‘Sire, the queen is very happy, and would be still more so to see your majesty.’ On that day, Louis XIII. would have given his crown away to the veriest beggar for a ‘God bless you.’ Animated, light-hearted, and full of gayety, the king rose from the table, and said to those around him, in a tone that Henry IV. might have adopted,—‘Gentlemen, I am going to see my wife.’ He came to your beside, madame, at the very moment Dame Perronnette presented to him a second prince, as beautiful and healthy as the former, and said—‘Sire, Heaven will not allow the kingdom of France to fall into the female line.’ The king, yielding to a first impulse, clasped the child in his arms, and cried, ‘Oh, Heaven, I thank Thee!’”

At this part of her recital, the Beguine paused, observing how intensely the queen was suffering; she had thrown herself back in her chair, and with her head bent forward and her eyes fixed, listened without seeming to hear, and her lips moving convulsively, either breathing a prayer to Heaven or imprecations on the woman standing before her.

“Ah! I do not believe that, if, because there could be but one dauphin in France,” exclaimed the Beguine, “the queen allowed that child to vegetate, banished from his royal parents’ presence, she was on that account an unfeeling mother. Oh, no, no; there are those alive who have known and witnessed the passionate kisses she imprinted on that innocent creature in exchange for a life of misery and gloom to which state policy condemned the twin brother of Louis XIV.”

“Oh! Heaven!” murmured the queen feebly.

“It is admitted,” continued the Beguine, quickly, “that when the king perceived the effect which would result from the existence of two sons, equal in age and pretensions, he trembled for the welfare of France, for the tranquillity of the state; and it is equally well known that Cardinal de Richelieu, by the direction of Louis XIII., thought over the subject with deep attention, and after an hour’s meditation in his majesty’s cabinet, he pronounced the following sentence:—‘One prince means peace and safety for the state; two competitors, civil war and anarchy.’”

The queen rose suddenly from her seat, pale as death, and her hands clenched together:

“You know too much,” she said, in a hoarse, thick voice, “since you refer to secrets of state. As for the friends from whom you have acquired this secret, they are false and treacherous. You are their accomplice in the crime which is being now committed. Now, throw aside your mask, or I will have you arrested by my captain of the guards. Do not think that this secret terrifies me! You have obtained it, you shall restore it to me. Never shall it leave your bosom, for neither your secret nor your own life belong to you from this moment.”

Anne of Austria, joining gesture to the threat, advanced a couple of steps towards the Beguine.

“Learn,” said the latter, “to know and value the fidelity, the honor, and secrecy of the friends you have abandoned.” And, then, suddenly she threw aside her mask.

“Madame de Chevreuse!” exclaimed the queen.

“With your majesty, the sole living confidante of the secret.”

“Ah!” murmured Anne of Austria; “come and embrace me, duchesse. Alas! you kill your friend in thus trifling with her terrible distress.”

And the queen, leaning her head upon the shoulder of the old duchesse, burst into a flood of bitter tears. “How young you are—still!” said the latter, in a hollow voice; “you can weep!”






Chapter XLIV. Two Friends.


The queen looked steadily at Madame de Chevreuse, and said: “I believe you just now made use of the word ‘happy’ in speaking of me. Hitherto, duchesse, I had thought it impossible that a human creature could anywhere be found more miserable than the queen of France.”

“Your afflictions, madame, have indeed been terrible enough. But by the side of those great and grand misfortunes to which we, two old friends, separated by men’s malice, were just now alluding, you possess sources of pleasure, slight enough in themselves it may be, but greatly envied by the world.”

“What are they?” said Anne of Austria, bitterly. “What can induce you to pronounce the word ‘pleasure,’ duchesse—you who, just now, admitted that my body and my mind both stood in need of remedies?”

Madame de Chevreuse collected herself for a moment, and then murmured, “How far removed kings are from other people!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that they are so far removed from the vulgar herd that they forget that others often stand in need of the bare necessities of life. They are like the inhabitant of the African mountains, who, gazing from the verdant tableland, refreshed by the rills of melted snow, cannot comprehend that the dwellers in the plains below are perishing from hunger and thirst in the midst of the desert, burnt up by the heat of the sun.”

The queen colored, for she now began to perceive the drift of her friend’s remark. “It was very wrong,” she said, “to have neglected you.”

“Oh! madame, I know the king has inherited the hatred his father bore me. The king would exile me if he knew I were in the Palais Royal.”

“I cannot say that the king is very well disposed towards you, duchesse,” replied the queen; “but I could—secretly, you know—”

The duchesse’s disdainful smile produced a feeling of uneasiness in the queen’s mind. “Duchesse,” she hastened to add, “you did perfectly right to come here, even were it only to give us the happiness of contradicting the report of your death.”

“Has it been rumored, then, that I was dead?”

“Everywhere.”

“And yet my children did not go into mourning.”

“Ah! you know, duchesse, the court is very frequently moving about from place to place; we see M. Albert de Luynes but seldom, and many things escape our minds in the midst of the preoccupations that constantly beset us.”

“Your majesty ought not to have believed the report of my death.”

“Why not? Alas! we are all mortal; and you may perceive how rapidly I, your younger sister, as we used formerly to say, am approaching the tomb.”

“If your majesty believed me dead, you ought, in that case, to have been astonished not to have received the news.”

“Death not unfrequently takes us by surprise, duchesse.”

“Oh! your majesty, those who are burdened with secrets such as we have just now discussed must, as a necessity of their nature, satisfy their craving desire to divulge them, and they feel they must gratify that desire before they die. Among the various preparations for their final journey, the task of placing their papers in order is not omitted.”

The queen started.

“Your majesty will be sure to learn, in a particular manner, the day of my death.”

“In what way?”

“Because your majesty will receive the next day, under several coverings, everything connected with our mysterious correspondence of former times.”

“Did you not burn them?” cried Anne, in alarm.

“Traitors only,” replied the duchesse, “destroy a royal correspondence.”

“Traitors, do you say?”

“Yes, certainly, or rather they pretend to destroy, instead of which they keep or sell it. Faithful friends, on the contrary, most carefully secrete such treasures, for it may happen that some day or other they would wish to seek out their queen in order to say to her: ‘Madame, I am getting old; my health is fast failing me; in the presence of the danger of death, for there is the risk for your majesty that this secret may be revealed, take, therefore, this paper, so fraught with menace for yourself, and trust not to another to burn it for you.’”

“What paper do you refer to?”

“As far as I am concerned, I have but one, it is true, but that is indeed most dangerous in its nature.”

“Oh! duchesse, tell me what it is.”

“A letter, dated Tuesday, the 2d of August, 1644, in which you beg me to go to Noisy-le-Sec, to see that unhappy child. In your own handwriting, madame, there are those words, ‘that unhappy child!’”

A profound silence ensued; the queen’s mind was busy in the past; Madame de Chevreuse was watching the progress of her scheme. “Yes, unhappy, most unhappy!” murmured Anne of Austria; “how sad the existence he led, poor child, to finish it in so cruel a manner.”

“Is he dead?” cried the duchesse suddenly, with a curiosity whose genuine accents the queen instinctively detected.

“He died of consumption, died forgotten, died withered and blighted like the flowers a lover has given to his mistress, which she leaves to die secreted in a drawer where she had hid them from the gaze of others.”

“Died!” repeated the duchesse with an air of discouragement, which would have afforded the queen the most unfeigned delight, had it not been tempered in some measure with a mixture of doubt—“Died—at Noisy-le-Sec?”

“Yes, in the arms of his tutor, a poor, honest man, who did not long survive him.”

“That can easily be understood; it is so difficult to bear up under the weight of such a loss and such a secret,” said Madame de Chevreuse,—the irony of which reflection the queen pretended not to perceive. Madame de Chevreuse continued: “Well, madame, I inquired some years ago at Noisy-le-Sec about this unhappy child. I was told that it was not believed he was dead, and that was my reason for not having at first condoled with your majesty; for, most certainly, if I could have thought it were true, never should I have made the slightest allusion to so deplorable an event, and thus have re-awakened your majesty’s most natural distress.”

“You say that it is not believed the child died at Noisy?”

“No, madame.”

“What did they say about him, then?”

“They said—but, no doubt, they were mistaken—”

“Nay, speak, speak!”

“They said, that one evening, about the year 1645, a lady, beautiful and majestic in her bearing, which was observed notwithstanding the mask and the mantle that concealed her figure—a lady of rank, of very high rank, no doubt—came in a carriage to the place where the road branches off; the very same spot, you know, where I awaited news of the young prince when your majesty was graciously pleased to send me there.”

“Well, well?”

“That the boy’s tutor, or guardian, took the child to this lady.”

“Well, what next?”

“That both the child and his tutor left that part of the country the very next day.”

“There, you see there is some truth in what you relate, since, in point of fact, the poor child died from a sudden attack of illness, which makes the lives of all children, as doctors say, suspended as it were by a thread.”

“What your majesty says is quite true; no one knows it better than yourself—no one believes it more strongly than myself. But yet, how strange it is—”

“What can it now be?” thought the queen.

“The person who gave me these details, who was sent to inquire after the child’s health—”

“Did you confide such a charge to any one else? Oh, duchesse!”

“Some one as dumb as your majesty, as dumb as myself; we will suppose it was myself, Madame; this some one, some months after, passing through Touraine—”

“Touraine!”

“Recognized both the tutor and the child, too! I am wrong, thought he recognized them, both living, cheerful, happy, and flourishing, the one in a green old age, the other in the flower of his youth. Judge after that what truth can be attributed to the rumors which are circulated, or what faith, after that, placed in anything that may happen in the world! But I am fatiguing your majesty; it was not my intention, however, to do so, and I will take my leave of you, after renewing to you the assurance of my most respectful devotion.”

“Stay, duchesse; let us first talk a little about yourself.”

“Of myself, madame! I am not worthy that you should bend your looks upon me.”

“Why not, indeed? Are you not the oldest friend I have? Are you angry with me, duchesse?”

“I, indeed! what motive could I have? If I had reason to be angry with your majesty, should I have come here?”

“Duchesse, age is fast creeping on us both; we should be united against that death whose approach cannot be far off.”

“You overpower me, madame, with the kindness of your language.”

“No one has ever loved or served me as you have done, duchesse.”

“Your majesty is too kind in remembering it.”

“Not so. Give me a proof of your friendship, duchesse.”

“My whole being is devoted to you, madame.”

“The proof I require is, that you should ask something of me.”

“Ask—”

“Oh, I know you well,—no one is more disinterested, more noble, and truly loyal.”

“Do not praise me too highly, madame,” said the duchesse, somewhat anxiously.

“I could never praise you as much as you deserve to be praised.”

“And yet, age and misfortune effect a terrible change in people, madame.”

“So much the better; for the beautiful, the haughty, the adored duchesse of former days might have answered me ungratefully, ‘I do not wish for anything from you.’ Heaven be praised! The misfortunes you speak of have indeed worked a change in you, for you will now, perhaps, answer me, ‘I accept.’”

The duchesse’s look and smile soon changed at this conclusion, and she no longer attempted to act a false part.

“Speak, dearest, what do you want?”

“I must first explain to you—”

“Do so unhesitatingly.”

“Well, then, your majesty can confer the greatest, the most ineffable pleasure upon me.”

“What is it?” said the queen, a little distant in her manner, from an uneasiness of feeling produced by this remark. “But do not forget, my good Chevreuse, that I am quite as much under my son’s influence as I was formerly under my husband’s.”

“I will not be too hard, madame.”

“Call me as you used to do; it will be a sweet echo of our happy youth.”

“Well, then, my dear mistress, my darling Anne—”

“Do you know Spanish, still?”

“Yes.”

“Ask me in Spanish, then.”

“Will your majesty do me the honor to pass a few days with me at Dampierre?”

“Is that all?” said the queen, stupefied. “Nothing more than that?”

“Good heavens! can you possibly imagine that, in asking you that, I am not asking you the greatest conceivable favor? If that really be the case, you do not know me. Will you accept?”

“Yes, gladly. And I shall be happy,” continued the queen, with some suspicion, “if my presence can in any way be useful to you.”

“Useful!” exclaimed the duchesse, laughing; “oh, no, no, agreeable—delightful, if you like; and you promise me, then?”

“I swear it,” said the queen, whereupon the duchesse seized her beautiful hand, and covered it with kisses. The queen could not help murmuring to herself, “She is a good-hearted woman, and very generous, too.”

“Will your majesty consent to wait a fortnight before you come?”

“Certainly; but why?”

“Because,” said the duchesse, “knowing me to be in disgrace, no one would lend me the hundred thousand francs, which I require to put Dampierre into a state of repair. But when it is known that I require that sum for the purpose of receiving your majesty at Dampierre properly, all the money in Paris will be at my disposal.”

“Ah!” said the queen, gently nodding her head in sign of intelligence, “a hundred thousand francs! you want a hundred thousand francs to put Dampierre into repair?”

“Quite as much as that.”

“And no one will lend you them?”

“No one.”

“I will lend them to you, if you like, duchesse.”

“Oh, I hardly dare accept such a sum.”

“You would be wrong if you did not. Besides, a hundred thousand francs is really not much. I know but too well that you never set a right value upon your silence and secrecy. Push that table a little towards me, duchesse, and I will write you an order on M. Colbert; no, on M. Fouquet, who is a far more courteous and obliging man.”

“Will he pay it, though?”

“If he will not pay it, I will; but it will be the first time he will have refused me.”

The queen wrote and handed the duchesse the order, and afterwards dismissed her with a warm embrace.






Chapter XLV. How Jean de La Fontaine Came to Write His First Tale.


All these intrigues are exhausted; the human mind, so variously complicated, has been enabled to develop itself at its ease in the three outlines with which our recital has supplied it. It is not unlikely that, in the future we are now preparing, a question of politics and intrigues may still arise, but the springs by which they work will be so carefully concealed that no one will be able to see aught but flowers and paintings, just as at a theater, where a colossus appears upon the scene, walking along moved by the small legs and slender arms of a child concealed within the framework.

We now return to Saint-Mande, where the superintendent was in the habit of receiving his select confederacy of epicureans. For some time past the host had met with nothing but trouble. Every one in the house was aware of and felt for the minister’s distress. No more magnificent or recklessly improvident reunions. Money had been the pretext assigned by Fouquet, and never was any pretext, as Gourville said, more fallacious, for there was not even a shadow of money to be seen.

M. Vatel was resolutely painstaking in keeping up the reputation of the house, and yet the gardeners who supplied the kitchens complained of ruinous delays. The agents for the supply of Spanish wines sent drafts which no one honored; fishermen, whom the superintendent engaged on the coast of Normandy, calculated that if they were paid all that was due to them, the amount would enable them to retire comfortably for life; fish, which, at a later period, was the cause of Vatel’s death, did not arrive at all. However, on the ordinary reception days, Fouquet’s friends flocked in more numerously than ever. Gourville and the Abbe Fouquet talked over money matters—that is to say, the abbe borrowed a few pistoles from Gourville; Pelisson, seated with his legs crossed, was engaged in finishing the peroration of a speech with which Fouquet was to open the parliament; and this speech was a masterpiece, because Pelisson wrote it for his friend—that is to say, he inserted all kinds of clever things the latter would most certainly never have taken the trouble to say of his own accord. Presently Loret and La Fontaine would enter from the garden, engaged in a dispute about the art of making verses. The painters and musicians, in their turn, were hovering near the dining-room. As soon as eight o’clock struck the supper would be announced, for the superintendent never kept any one waiting. It was already half-past seven, and the appetites of the guests were beginning to declare themselves in an emphatic manner. As soon as all the guests were assembled, Gourville went straight up to Pelisson, awoke him out of his reverie, and led him into the middle of a room, and closed the doors. “Well,” he said, “anything new?”

Pelisson raised his intelligent and gentle face, and said: “I have borrowed five and twenty thousand francs of my aunt, and I have them here in good sterling money.”

“Good,” replied Gourville; “we only what one hundred and ninety-five thousand livres for the first payment.”

“The payment of what?” asked La Fontaine.

“What! absent-minded as usual! Why, it was you who told us the small estate at Corbeli was going to be sold by one of M. Fouquet’s creditors; and you, also, who proposed that all his friends should subscribe—more than that, it was you who said that you would sell a corner of your house at Chateau-Thierry, in order to furnish your own proportion, and you come and ask—‘The payment of what?’”

This remark was received with a general laugh, which made La Fontaine blush. “I beg your pardon,” he said, “I had not forgotten it; oh, no! only—”

“Only you remembered nothing about it,” replied Loret.

“That is the truth, and the fact is, he is quite right, there is a great difference between forgetting and not remembering.”

“Well, then,” added Pelisson, “you bring your mite in the shape of the price of the piece of land you have sold?”

“Sold? no!”

“Have you not sold the field, then?” inquired Gourville, in astonishment, for he knew the poet’s disinterestedness.

“My wife would not let me,” replied the latter, at which there were fresh bursts of laughter.

“And yet you went to Chateau-Thierry for that purpose,” said some one.

“Certainly I did, and on horseback.”

“Poor fellow!”

“I had eight different horses, and I was almost bumped to death.”

“You are an excellent fellow! And you rested yourself when you arrived there?”

“Rested! Oh! of course I did, for I had an immense deal of work to do.”

“How so?”

“My wife had been flirting with the man to whom I wished to sell the land. The fellow drew back from his bargain, and so I challenged him.”

“Very good, and you fought?”

“It seems not.”

“You know nothing about it, I suppose?”

“No, my wife and her relations interfered in the matter. I was kept a quarter of an hour with my sword in my hand; but I was not wounded.”

“And your adversary?”

“Oh! he wasn’t wounded either, for he never came on the field.”

“Capital!” cried his friends from all sides, “you must have been terribly angry.”

“Exceedingly so; I caught cold; I returned home and then my wife began to quarrel with me.”

“In real earnest?”

“Yes, in real earnest. She threw a loaf of bread at my head, a large loaf.”

“And what did you do?”

“Oh! I upset the table over her and her guests; and then I got on my horse again, and here I am.”

Every one had great difficulty in keeping his countenance at the exposure of this heroi-comedy, and when the laughter had subsided, one of the guests present said to La Fontaine: “Is that all you have brought back?”

“Oh, no! I have an excellent idea in my head.”

“What is it?”

“Have you noticed that there is a good deal of sportive, jesting poetry written in France?”

“Yes, of course,” replied every one.

“And,” pursued La Fontaine, “only a very small portion of it is printed.”

“The laws are strict, you know.”

“That may be; but a rare article is a dear article, and that is the reason why I have written a small poem, excessively free in its style, very broad, and extremely cynical in its tone.”

“The deuce you have!”

“Yes,” continued the poet, with assumed indifference, “and I have introduced the greatest freedom of language I could possibly employ.”

Peals of laughter again broke forth, while the poet was thus announcing the quality of his wares. “And,” he continued, “I have tried to excel everything that Boccaccio, Aretin, and other masters of their craft have written in the same style.”

“Its fate is clear,” said Pelisson; “it will be suppressed and forbidden.”

“Do you think so?” said La Fontaine, simply. “I assure you I did not do it on my own account so much as M. Fouquet’s.”

This wonderful conclusion again raised the mirth of all present.

“And I have sold the first edition of this little book for eight hundred livres,” exclaimed La Fontaine, rubbing his hands together. “Serious and religions books sell at about half that rate.”

“It would have been better,” said Gourville, “to have written two religious books instead.”

“It would have been too long, and not amusing enough,” replied La Fontaine tranquilly; “my eight hundred livres are in this little bag, and I beg to offer them as my contribution.”

As he said this, he placed his offering in the hands of their treasurer; it was then Loret’s turn, who gave a hundred and fifty livres; the others stripped themselves in the same way; and the total sum in the purse amounted to forty thousand livres. The money was still being counted over when the superintendent noiselessly entered the room; he had heard everything; and then this man, who had possessed so many millions, who had exhausted all the pleasures and honors the world had to bestow, this generous heart, this inexhaustible brain, which had, like two burning crucibles, devoured the material and moral substance of the first kingdom in Europe, was seen to cross the threshold with tears in his eyes, and pass his fingers through the gold and silver which the bag contained.

“Poor offering,” he said, in a softened and affected tone of voice, “you will disappear into the smallest corner of my empty purse, but you have filled to overflowing that which no one can ever exhaust, my heart. Thank you, my friends—thank you.” And as he could not embrace every one present, who were all tearful, too, philosophers as they were, he embraced La Fontaine, saying to him, “Poor fellow! so you have, on my account, been beaten by your wife and censured by your confessor.”

“Oh! it is a mere nothing,” replied the poet; “if your creditors will only wait a couple of years, I shall have written a hundred other tales, which, at two editions each, will pay off the debt.”