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Louise de la Valliere

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Chapter XLVI. La Fontaine in the Character of a Negotiator.


Fouquet pressed La Fontaine’s hand most warmly, saying to him, “My dear poet, write a hundred other tales, not only for the eighty pistoles which each of them will produce you, but, still more, to enrich our language with a hundred new masterpieces of composition.”

“Oh!” said La Fontaine, with a little air of pride, “you must not suppose that I have only brought this idea and the eighty pistoles to the superintendent.”

“Oh! indeed,” was the general acclamation from all parts of the room, “M. de la Fontaine is in funds to-day.”

“Exactly,” replied La Fontaine.

“Quick, quick!” cried the assembly.

“Take care,” said Pelisson in La Fontaine’s ear; “you have had a most brilliant success up to the present moment; do not go beyond your depth.”

“Not at all, Monsieur Pelisson; and you, who are a man of decided taste, will be the first to approve of what I have done.”

“We are talking of millions, remember,” said Gourville.

“I have fifteen hundred thousand francs here, Monsieur Gourville,” he replied, striking himself on the chest.

“The deuce take this Gascon from Chateau-Thierry!” cried Loret.

“It is not the pocket you must tap—but the brain,” said Fouquet.

“Stay a moment, monsieur le surintendant,” added La Fontaine; “you are not procureur-general—you are a poet.”

“True, true!” cried Loret, Conrart, and every person present connected with literature.

“You are, I repeat, a poet and a painter, a sculptor, a friend of the arts and sciences; but, acknowledge that you are no lawyer.”

“Oh! I do acknowledge it,” replied M. Fouquet, smiling.

“If you were to be nominated at the Academy, you would refuse, I think.”

“I think I should, with all due deference to the academicians.”

“Very good; if, therefore, you do not wish to belong to the Academy, why do you allow yourself to form one of the parliament?”

“Oh!” said Pelisson, “we are talking politics.”

“I wish to know whether the barrister’s gown does or does not become M. Fouquet.”

“There is no question of the gown at all,” retorted Pelisson, annoyed at the laughter of those who were present.

“On the contrary, it is the gown,” said Loret.

“Take the gown away from the procureur-general,” said Conrart, “and we have M. Fouquet left us still, of whom we have no reason to complain; but, as he is no procureur-general without his gown, we agree with M. de la Fontaine and pronounce the gown to be nothing but a bugbear.”

“Fugiunt risus leporesque,” said Loret.

“The smiles and the graces,” said some one present.

“That is not the way,” said Pelisson, gravely, “that I translate lepores.”

“How do you translate it?” said La Fontaine.

“Thus: The hares run away as soon as they see M. Fouquet.” A burst of laughter, in which the superintendent joined, followed this sally.

“But why hares?” objected Conrart, vexed.

“Because the hare will be the very one who will not be over pleased to see M. Fouquet surrounded by all the attributes which his parliamentary strength and power confer on him.”

“Oh! oh!” murmured the poets.

“Quo non ascendam,” said Conrart, “seems impossible to me, when one is fortunate enough to wear the gown of the procureur-general.” 9

“On the contrary, it seems so to me without that gown,” said the obstinate Pelisson; “what is your opinion, Gourville?”

“I think the gown in question is a very good thing,” replied the latter; “but I equally think that a million and a half is far better than the gown.”

“And I am of Gourville’s opinion,” exclaimed Fouquet, stopping the discussion by the expression of his own opinion, which would necessarily bear down all the others.

“A million and a half,” Pelisson grumbled out; “now I happen to know an Indian fable—”

“Tell it to me,” said La Fontaine; “I ought to know it too.”

“Tell it, tell it,” said the others.

“There was a tortoise, which was, as usual, well protected by its shell,” said Pelisson; “whenever its enemies threatened it, it took refuge within its covering. One day some one said to it, ‘You must feel very hot in such a house as that in the summer, and you are altogether prevented showing off your graces; there is a snake here, who will give you a million and a half for your shell.’”

“Good!” said the superintendent, laughing.

“Well, what next?” said La Fontaine, more interested in the apologue than in the moral.

“The tortoise sold his shell and remained naked and defenseless. A vulture happened to see him, and being hungry, broke the tortoise’s back with a blow of his beak and devoured it. The moral is, that M. Fouquet should take very good care to keep his gown.”

La Fontaine understood the moral seriously. “You forget Aeschylus,” he said, to his adversary.

“What do you mean?”

“Aeschylus was bald-headed, and a vulture—your vulture, probably—who was a great amateur in tortoises, mistook at a distance his head for a block of stone, and let a tortoise, which was shrunk up in his shell, fall upon it.”

“Yes, yes, La Fontaine is right,” resumed Fouquet, who had become very thoughtful; “whenever a vulture wishes to devour a tortoise, he well knows how to break his shell; but happy is that tortoise a snake pays a million and a half for his envelope. If any one were to bring me a generous-hearted snake like the one in your fable, Pelisson, I would give him my shell.”

“Rara avis in terres!” cried Conrart. 10

“And like a black swan, is he not?” added La Fontaine; “well, then, the bird in question, black and rare, is already found.”

“Do you mean to say that you have found a purchaser for my post of procureur-general?” exclaimed Fouquet.

“I have, monsieur.”

“But the superintendent never said that he wished to sell,” resumed Pelisson.

“I beg your pardon,” said Conrart, “you yourself spoke about it, even—”

“Yes, I am a witness to that,” said Gourville.

“He seems very tenacious about his brilliant idea,” said Fouquet, laughing. “Well, La Fontaine, who is the purchaser?”

“A perfect blackbird, for he is a counselor belonging to the parliament, an excellent fellow.”

“What is his name?”

“Vanel.”

“Vanel!” exclaimed Fouquet. “Vanel the husband of—”

“Precisely, her husband; yes, monsieur.”

“Poor fellow!” said Fouquet, with an expression of great interest.

“He wishes to be everything that you have been, monsieur,” said Gourville, “and to do everything that you have done.”

“It is very agreeable; tell us all about it, La Fontaine.”

“It is very simple. I see him occasionally, and a short time ago I met him, walking about on the Place de la Bastile, at the very moment when I was about to take the small carriage to come down here to Saint-Mande.”

“He must have been watching his wife,” interrupted Loret.

“Oh, no!” said La Fontaine, “he is far from being jealous. He accosted me, embraced me, and took me to the inn called L’Image Saint-Fiacre, and told me all about his troubles.”

“He has his troubles, then?”

“Yes; his wife wants to make him ambitious.”

“Well, and he told you—”

“That some one had spoken to him about a post in parliament; that M. Fouquet’s name had been mentioned; that ever since, Madame Vanel dreams of nothing else than being called madame la procureur-generale, and that it makes her ill and kills her every night she does not dream about it.”

“The deuce!”

“Poor woman!” said Fouquet.

“Wait a moment. Conrart is always telling me that I do not know how to conduct matters of business; you will see how I managed this one.”

“Well, go on.”

“‘I suppose you know,’ said I to Vanel, ‘that the value of a post such as that which M. Fouquet holds is by no means trifling.’

“‘How much do you imagine it to be?’ he said.

“‘M. Fouquet, I know, has refused seventeen hundred thousand francs.’

“‘My wife,’ replied Vanel, ‘had estimated it at about fourteen hundred thousand.’

“‘Ready money?’ I said.

“‘Yes; she has sold some property of hers in Guienne, and has received the purchase money.’”

“That’s a pretty sum to touch all at once,” said the Abbe Fouquet, who had not hitherto said a word.

“Poor Madame Vanel!” murmured Fouquet.

Pelisson shrugged his shoulders, as he whispered in Fouquet’s ear, “That woman is a perfect fiend.”

“That may be; and it will be delightful to make use of this fiend’s money to repair the injury which an angel has done herself for me.”

Pelisson looked with a surprised air at Fouquet, whose thoughts were from that moment fixed upon a fresh object in view.

“Well!” inquired La Fontaine, “what about my negotiation?”

“Admirable, my dear poet.”

“Yes,” said Gourville; “but there are some people who are anxious to have the steed who have not even money enough to pay for the bridle.”

“And Vanel would draw back from his offer if he were to be taken at his word,” continued the Abbe Fouquet.

“I do not believe it,” said La Fontaine.

“What do you know about it?”

“Why, you have not yet heard the denouement of my story.”

“If there is a denouement, why do you beat about the bush so much?”

“Semper ad eventum. Is that correct?” said Fouquet, with the air of a nobleman who condescends to barbarisms. To which the Latinists present answered with loud applause. 11

“My denouement,” cried La Fontaine, “is that Vanel, that determined blackbird, knowing that I was coming to Saint-Mande, implored me to bring him with me, and, if possible, to present him to M. Fouquet.”

“So that—”

“So that he is here; I left him in that part of the ground called Bel-Air. Well, M. Fouquet, what is your reply?”

“Well, it is not respectful towards Madame Vanel that her husband should run the risk of catching cold outside my house; send for him, La Fontaine, since you know where he is.”

“I will go myself.”

“And I will accompany you,” said the Abbe Fouquet; “I will carry the money bags.”

“No jesting,” said Fouquet, seriously; “let the business be a serious one, if it is to be one at all. But first of all, let us show we are hospitable. Make my apologies, La Fontaine, to M. Vanel, and tell him how distressed I am to have kept him waiting, but that I was not aware he was there.”

La Fontaine set off at once, fortunately accompanied by Gourville, for, absorbed in his own calculations, the poet would have mistaken the route, and was hurrying as fast as he could towards the village of Saint-Mande. Within a quarter of an hour afterwards, M. Vanel was introduced into the superintendent’s cabinet, a description of which has already been given at the beginning of this story. When Fouquet saw him enter, he called to Pelisson, and whispered a few words in his ear. “Do not lose a single word of what I am going to say: let all the silver and gold plate, together with my jewels of every description, be packed up in the carriage. You will take the black horses: the jeweler will accompany you; and you will postpone the supper until Madame de Belliere’s arrival.”

“Will it be necessary to inform Madame de Belliere of it?” said Pelisson.

“No; that will be useless; I will do that. So, away with you, my dear friend.”

Pelisson set off, not quite clear as to his friend’s meaning or intention, but confident, like every true friend, in the judgment of the man he was blindly obeying. It is that which constitutes the strength of such men; distrust only arises in the minds of inferior natures.

Vanel bowed lowly to the superintendent, and was about to begin a speech.

“Do not trouble yourself, monsieur,” said Fouquet, politely; “I am told you wish to purchase a post I hold. How much can you give me for it?”

“It is for you, monseigneur, to fix the amount you require. I know that offers of purchase have already been made to you for it.”

“Madame Vanel, I have been told, values it at fourteen hundred thousand livres.”

“That is all we have.”

“Can you give me the money immediately?”

“I have not the money with me,” said Vanel, frightened almost by the unpretending simplicity, amounting to greatness, of the man, for he had expected disputes, difficulties, opposition of every kind.

“When will you be able to bring it?”

“Whenever you please, monseigneur;” for he began to be afraid that Fouquet was trifling with him.

“If it were not for the trouble you would have in returning to Paris, I would say at once; but we will arrange that the payment and the signature shall take place at six o’clock to-morrow morning.”

“Very good,” said Vanel, as cold as ice, and feeling quite bewildered.

“Adieu, Monsieur Vanel, present my humblest respects to Madame Vanel,” said Fouquet, as he rose; upon which Vanel, who felt the blood rushing to his head, for he was quite confounded by his success, said seriously to the superintendent, “Will you give me your word, monseigneur, upon this affair?”

Fouquet turned round his head, saying, “Pardieu, and you, monsieur?”

Vanel hesitated, trembled all over, and at last finished by hesitatingly holding out his hand. Fouquet opened and nobly extended his own; this loyal hand lay for a moment in Vanel’s most hypocritical palm, and he pressed it in his own, in order the better to convince himself of the compact. The superintendent gently disengaged his hand, as he again said, “Adieu.” And then Vanel ran hastily to the door, hurried along the vestibule, and fled as quickly as he could.






Chapter XLVII. Madame de Belliere’s Plate and Diamonds.


Fouquet had no sooner dismissed Vanel than he began to reflect for a few moments—“A man never can do too much for the woman he has once loved. Marguerite wishes to be the wife of a procureur-general—and why not confer this pleasure upon her? And, now that the most scrupulous and sensitive conscience will be unable to reproach me with anything, let my thoughts be bestowed on her who has shown so much devotion for me. Madame de Belliere ought to be there by this time,” he said, as he turned towards the secret door.

After he had locked himself in, he opened the subterranean passage, and rapidly hastened towards the means of communicating between the house at Vincennes and his own residence. He had neglected to apprise his friend of his approach, by ringing the bell, perfectly assured that she would never fail to be exact at the rendezvous; as, indeed, was the case, for she was already waiting. The noise the superintendent made aroused her; she ran to take from under the door the letter he had thrust there, and which simply said, “Come, marquise; we are waiting supper for you.” With her heart filled with happiness Madame de Belliere ran to her carriage in the Avenue de Vincennes, and in a few minutes she was holding out her hand to Gourville, who was standing at the entrance, where, in order the better to please his master, he had stationed himself to watch her arrival. She had not observed that Fouquet’s black horse arrived at the same time, all steaming and foam-flaked, having returned to Saint-Mande with Pelisson and the very jeweler to whom Madame de Belliere had sold her plate and her jewels. Pelisson introduced the goldsmith into the cabinet, which Fouquet had not yet left. The superintendent thanked him for having been good enough to regard as a simple deposit in his hands, the valuable property which he had every right to sell; and he cast his eyes on the total of the account, which amounted to thirteen hundred thousand francs. Then, going for a few moments to his desk, he wrote an order for fourteen hundred thousand francs, payable at sight, at his treasury, before twelve o’clock the next day.

“A hundred thousand francs profit!” cried the goldsmith. “Oh, monseigneur, what generosity!”

“Nay, nay, not so, monsieur,” said Fouquet, touching him on the shoulder; “there are certain kindnesses which can never be repaid. This profit is only what you have earned; but the interest of your money still remains to be arranged.” And, saying this, he unfastened from his sleeve a diamond button, which the goldsmith himself had often valued at three thousand pistoles. “Take this,” he said to the goldsmith, “in remembrance of me. Farewell; you are an honest man.”

“And you, monseigneur,” cried the goldsmith, completely overcome, “are the noblest man that ever lived.”

Fouquet let the worthy goldsmith pass out of the room by a secret door, and then went to receive Madame de Belliere, who was already surrounded by all the guests. The marquise was always beautiful, but now her loveliness was more dazzling than ever. “Do you not think, gentlemen,” said Fouquet, “that madame is more than usually beautiful this evening? And do you happen to know why?”

“Because madame is really the most beautiful of all women,” said some one present.

“No; but because she is the best. And yet—”

“Yet?” said the marquise, smiling.

“And yet, all the jewels which madame is wearing this evening are nothing but false stones.” At this remark the marquise blushed most painfully.

“Oh, oh!” exclaimed all the guests, “that can very well be said of one who has the finest diamonds in Paris.”

“Well?” said Fouquet to Pelisson, in a low tone.

“Well, at last I have understood you,” returned the latter; “and you have done exceedingly well.”

“Supper is ready, monseigneur,” said Vatel, with majestic air and tone.

The crowd of guests hurried, more quickly than is usually the case with ministerial entertainments, towards the banqueting-room, where a magnificent spectacle presented itself. Upon the buffets, upon the side-tables, upon the supper-table itself, in the midst of flowers and light, glittered most dazzlingly the richest and most costly gold and silver plate that could possibly be seen—relics of those ancient magnificent productions the Florentine artists, whom the Medici family patronized, sculptured, chased, and moulded for the purpose of holding flowers, at a time when gold existed still in France. These hidden marvels, which had been buried during the civil wars, timidly reappeared during the intervals of that war of good taste called La Fronde; at a time when noblemen fighting against nobleman killed, but did not pillage each other. All the plate present had Madame de Belliere’s arms engraved upon it. “Look,” cried La Fontaine, “here is a P and a B.”

But the most remarkable object present was the cover which Fouquet had assigned to the marquise. Near her was a pyramid of diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, antique cameos, sardonyx stones, carved by the old Greeks of Asia Minor, with mountings of Mysian gold; curious mosaics of ancient Alexandria, set in silver; massive Egyptian bracelets lay heaped on a large plate of Palissy ware, supported by a tripod of gilt bronze, sculptured by Benvenuto Cellini. The marquise turned pale, as she recognized what she had never expected to see again. A profound silence fell on every one of the restless and excited guests. Fouquet did not even make a sign in dismissal of the richly liveried servants who crowded like bees round the huge buffets and other tables in the room. “Gentlemen,” he said, “all this plate which you behold once belonged to Madame de Belliere, who, having observed one of her friends in great distress, sent all this gold and silver, together with the heap of jewels now before her, to her goldsmith. This noble conduct of a devoted friend can well be understood by such friends as you. Happy indeed is that man who sees himself loved in such a manner. Let us drink to the health of Madame de Belliere.”

A tremendous burst of applause followed his words, and made poor Madame de Belliere sink back dumb and breathless in her seat. “And then,” added Pelisson, who was always affected by a noble action, as he was invariably impressed by beauty, “let us also drink to the health of him who inspired madame’s noble conduct; for such a man is worthy of being worthily loved.”

It was now the marquise’s turn. She rose, pale and smiling; and as she held out her glass with a faltering hand, and her trembling fingers touched those of Fouquet, her look, full of love, found its mirror in that of her ardent and generous-hearted lover. Begun in this manner, the supper soon became a fete; no one tried to be witty, but no one failed in being so. La Fontaine forgot his Gorgny wine, and allowed Vatel to reconcile him to the wines of the Rhone, and those from the shores of Spain. The Abbe Fouquet became so kind and good-natured, that Gourville said to him, “Take care, monsieur l’abbe; if you are so tender, you will be carved and eaten.”

The hours passed away so joyously, that, contrary to his usual custom, the superintendent did not leave the table before the end of the dessert. He smiled upon his friends, delighted as a man is whose heart becomes intoxicated before his head—and, for the first time, looked at the clock. Suddenly a carriage rolled into the courtyard, and, strange to say, it was heard high above the noise of the mirth which prevailed. Fouquet listened attentively, and then turned his eyes towards the ante-chamber. It seemed as if he could hear a step passing across it, a step that, instead of pressing the ground, weighed heavily upon his heart. “M. d’Herblay, bishop of Vannes,” the usher announced. And Aramis’s grave and thoughtful face appeared upon the threshold of the door, between the remains of two garlands, of which the flame of a lamp had just burnt the thread that once united them.






Chapter XLVIII. M. de Mazarin’s Receipt.


Fouquet would have uttered an exclamation of delight on seeing another friend arrive, if the cold air and averted aspect of Aramis had not restored all his reserve. “Are you going to join us at dessert?” he asked. “And yet you would be frightened, perhaps, at the noise which our wild friends here are making?”

“Monseigneur,” replied Aramis, respectfully, “I will begin by begging you to excuse me for having interrupted this merry meeting; and then, I will beg you to give me, as soon as your pleasure is attended to, a moment’s audience on matters of business.”

As the word “business” had aroused the attention of some of the epicureans present, Fouquet rose, saying: “Business first of all, Monsieur d’Herblay; we are too happy when matters of business arrive only at the end of a meal.”

As he said this, he took the hand of Madame de Belliere, who looked at him with a kind of uneasiness, and then led her to an adjoining salon, after having recommended her to the most reasonable of his guests. And then, taking Aramis by the arm, he led him towards his cabinet. As soon as Aramis was there, throwing aside the respectful air he had assumed, he threw himself into a chair, saying: “Guess whom I have seen this evening?”

“My dear chevalier, every time you begin in that manner, I am sure to hear you announce something disagreeable.”

“Well, and this time you will not be mistaken, either, my dear friend,” replied Aramis.

“Do not keep me in suspense,” added Fouquet, phlegmatically.

“Well, then, I have seen Madame de Chevreuse.”

“The old duchesse, do you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Her ghost, perhaps?”

“No, no; the old she-wolf herself.”

“Without teeth?”

“Possibly, but not without claws.”

“Well! what harm can she meditate against me? I am no miser with women who are not prudes. A quality always prized, even by the woman who no longer presumes to look for love.”

“Madame de Chevreuse knows very well that you are not avaricious, since she wishes to draw some money of you.”

“Indeed! under what pretext?”

“Oh! pretexts are never wanting with her. Let me tell you what it is: it seems that the duchesse has a good many letters of M. de Mazarin’s in her possession.”

“I am not surprised at that, for the prelate was gallant enough.”

“Yes, but these letters have nothing whatever to do with the prelate’s love affairs. They concern, it is said, financial matters rather.”

“And accordingly they are less interesting.”

“Do you not suspect what I mean?”

“Not at all.”

“Have you never heard speak of a prosecution being instituted for an embezzlement, or appropriation rather, of public funds?”

“Yes, a hundred, nay, a thousand times. Ever since I have been engaged in public matters I have hardly heard of anything else. It is precisely your own case, when, as a bishop, people reproach you for impiety; or, as a musketeer, for your cowardice; the very thing of which they are always accusing ministers of finance is the embezzlement of public funds.”

“Very good; but take a particular instance, for the duchesse asserts that M. de Mazarin alludes to certain particular instances.”

“What are they?”

“Something like a sum of thirteen millions of francs, of which it would be very difficult for you to define the precise nature of the employment.”

“Thirteen millions!” said the superintendent, stretching himself in his armchair, in order to enable him the more comfortably to look up towards the ceiling. “Thirteen millions—I am trying to remember out of all those I have been accused of having stolen.”

“Do not laugh, my dear monsieur, for it is very serious. It is positive that the duchesse has certain letters in her possession, and that these letters must be as she represents them, since she wished to sell them to me for five hundred thousand francs.”

“Oh! one can have a very tolerable calumny got up for such a sum as that,” replied Fouquet. “Ah! now I know what you mean,” and he began to laugh very heartily.

“So much the better,” said Aramis, a little reassured.

“I remember the story of those thirteen millions now. Yes, yes, I remember them quite well.”

“I am delighted to hear it; tell me about them.”

“Well, then, one day Signor Mazarin, Heaven rest his soul! made a profit of thirteen millions upon a concession of lands in the Valtelline; he canceled them in the registry of receipts, sent them to me, and then made me advance them to him for war expenses.”

“Very good; then there is no doubt of their proper destination.”

“No; the cardinal made me invest them in my own name, and gave me a receipt.”

“You have the receipt?”

“Of course,” said Fouquet, as he quietly rose from his chair, and went to his large ebony bureau inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold.

“What I most admire in you,” said Aramis, with an air of great satisfaction, “is, your memory in the first place, then your self-possession, and, finally, the perfect order which prevails in your administration; you, of all men, too, who are by nature a poet.”

“Yes,” said Fouquet, “I am orderly out of a spirit of idleness, to save myself the trouble of looking after things, and so I know that Mazarin’s receipt is in the third drawer under the letter M; I open the drawer, and place my hand upon the very paper I need. In the night, without a light, I could find it.”

And with a confident hand he felt the bundle of papers which were piled up in the open drawer. “Nay, more than that,” he continued, “I remember the paper as if I saw it; it is thick, somewhat crumpled, with gilt edges; Mazarin had made a blot upon the figure of the date. Ah!” he said, “the paper knows we are talking about it, and that we want it very much, and so it hides itself out of the way.”

And as the superintendent looked into the drawer, Aramis rose from his seat.

“This is very singular,” said Fouquet.

“Your memory is treacherous, my dear monseigneur; look in another drawer.”

Fouquet took out the bundle of papers, and turned them over once more; he then grew very pale.

“Don’t confine your search to that drawer,” said Aramis; “look elsewhere.”

“Quite useless; I have never made a mistake; no one but myself arranges any papers of mine of this nature; no one but myself ever opens this drawer, of which, besides, no one, myself excepted, is aware of the secret.”

“What do you conclude, then?” said Aramis, agitated.

“That Mazarin’s receipt has been stolen from me; Madame de Chevreuse was right, chevalier; I have appropriated the public funds, I have robbed the state coffers of thirteen millions of money; I am a thief, Monsieur d’Herblay.”

“Nay, nay, do not get irritated—do not get excited.”

“And why not, chevalier? surely there is every reason for it. If legal proceedings are well arranged, and a judgment given in accordance with them, your friend the superintendent will soon follow Montfaucon, his colleague Enguerrand de Marigny, and his predecessor, Semblancay.”

“Oh!” said Aramis, smiling, “not so fast as that.”

“And why not? why not so fast? What do you suppose Madame de Chevreuse has done with those letters—for you refused them, I suppose?”

“Yes; at once. I suppose that she went and sold them to M. Colbert.”

“Well?”

“I said I supposed so; I might have said I was sure of it, for I had her followed, and, when she left me, she returned to her own house, went out by a back door, and proceeded straight to the intendant’s house in the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs.”

“Legal proceedings will be instituted, then, scandal and dishonor will follow; and all will fall upon me like a thunderbolt, blindly, pitilessly.”

Aramis approached Fouquet, who sat trembling in his chair, close to the open drawers; he placed his hand on his shoulder, and in an affectionate tone of voice, said: “Do not forget that the position of M. Fouquet can in no way be compared to that of Semblancay or of Marigny.”

“And why not, in Heaven’s name?”

“Because the proceedings against those ministers were determined, completed, and the sentence carried out, whilst in your case the same thing cannot take place.”

“Another blow, why not? A peculator is, under any circumstances, a criminal.”

“Criminals who know how to find a safe asylum are never in danger.”

“What! make my escape? Fly?”

“No, I do not mean that; you forget that all such proceedings originate in the parliament, that they are instituted by the procureur-general, and that you are the procureur-general. You see that, unless you wish to condemn yourself—”

“Oh!” cried Fouquet, suddenly, dashing his fist upon the table.

“Well! what? what is the matter?”

“I am procureur-general no longer.”

Aramis, at this reply, became as livid as death; he pressed his hands together convulsively, and with a wild, haggard look, which almost annihilated Fouquet, he said, laying a stress on every distinct syllable, “You are procureur-general no longer, do you say?”

“No.”

“Since when?”

“Since the last four or five hours.”

“Take care,” interrupted Aramis, coldly; “I do not think you are in the full possession of your senses, my friend; collect yourself.”

“I tell you,” returned Fouquet, “that a little while ago, some one came to me, brought by my friends, to offer me fourteen hundred thousand francs for the appointment, and that I sold it.”

Aramis looked as though he had been struck by lightning; the intelligent and mocking expression of his countenance assumed an aspect of such profound gloom and terror, that it had more effect upon the superintendent than all the exclamations and speeches in the world. “You had need of money, then?” he said, at last.

“Yes; to discharge a debt of honor.” And in a few words, he gave Aramis an account of Madame de Belliere’s generosity, and the manner in which he had thought it but right to discharge that act of generosity.

“Yes,” said Aramis, “that is, indeed, a fine trait. What has it cost?”

“Exactly the fourteen hundred thousand francs—the price of my appointment.”

“Which you received in that manner, without reflection. Oh, imprudent man!”

“I have not yet received the amount, but I shall to-morrow.”

“It is not yet completed, then?”

“It must be carried out, though; for I have given the goldsmith, for twelve o’clock to-morrow, an order upon my treasury, into which the purchaser’s money will be paid at six or seven o’clock.”

“Heaven be praised!” cried Aramis, clapping his hands together, “nothing is yet completed, since you have not yet been paid.”

“But the goldsmith?”

“You shall receive the fourteen hundred thousand francs from me, at a quarter before twelve.”

“Stay a moment; it is at six o’clock, this very morning, that I am to sign.”

“Oh! I will answer that you do not sign.”

“I have given my word, chevalier.”

“If you have given it, you will take it back again, that is all.”

“Can I believe what I hear?” cried Fouquet, in a most expressive tone. “Fouquet recall his word, after it has once been pledged!”

Aramis replied to the almost stern look of the minister by a look full of anger. “Monsieur,” he said, “I believe I have deserved to be called a man of honor? As a soldier, I have risked my life five hundred times; as a priest I have rendered still greater services, both to the state and to my friends. The value of a word, once passed, is estimated according to the worth of the man who gives it. So long as it is in his own keeping, it is of the purest, finest gold; when his wish to keep it has passed away, it is a two-edged sword. With that word, therefore, he defends himself as with an honorable weapon, considering that, when he disregards his word, he endangers his life and incurs an amount of risk far greater than that which his adversary is likely to derive of profit. In such a case, monsieur, he appeals to Heaven and to justice.”

Fouquet bent down his head, as he replied, “I am a poor, self-determined man, a true Breton born; my mind admires and fears yours. I do not say that I keep my word from a proper feeling only; I keep it, if you like, from custom, practice, pride, or what you will; but, at all events, the ordinary run of men are simple enough to admire this custom of mine; it is my sole good quality—leave me such honor as it confers.”

“And so you are determined to sign the sale of the very appointment which can alone defend you against all your enemies.”

“Yes, I shall sign.”

“You will deliver yourself up, then, bound hand and foot, from a false notion of honor, which the most scrupulous casuists would disdain?”

“I shall sign,” repeated Fouquet.

Aramis sighed deeply, and looked all round him with the impatient gesture of a man who would gladly dash something to pieces, as a relief to his feelings. “We have still one means left,” he said; “and I trust you will not refuse me to make use of that.”

“Certainly not, if it be loyal and honorable; as everything is, in fact, which you propose.”

“I know nothing more loyal than the renunciation of your purchaser. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Certainly: but—”

“‘But!’—if you allow me to manage the affair, I do not despair.”

“Oh! you shall be absolutely master to do what you please.”

“Whom are you in treaty with? What manner of man is it?”

“I am not aware whether you know the parliament.”

“Most of its members. One of the presidents, perhaps?”

“No; only a counselor, of the name of Vanel.”

Aramis became perfectly purple. “Vanel!” he cried, rising abruptly from his seat; “Vanel! the husband of Marguerite Vanel?”

“Exactly.”

“Of your former mistress?”

“Yes, my dear fellow; she is anxious to be the wife of the procureur-general. I certainly owed poor Vanel that slight concession, and I am a gainer by it; since I, at the same time, can confer a pleasure on his wife.”

Aramis walked straight up to Fouquet, and took hold of his hand. “Do you know,” he said, very calmly, “the name of Madame Vanel’s new lover?”

“Ah! she has a new lover, then? I was not aware of it; no, I have no idea what his name is.”

“His name is M. Jean-Baptiste Colbert; he is intendant of the finances: he lives in the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs, where Madame de Chevreuse has been this evening to take him Mazarin’s letters, which she wishes to sell.”

“Gracious Heaven!” murmured Fouquet, passing his hand across his forehead, from which the perspiration was starting.

“You now begin to understand, do you not?”

“That I am utterly lost!—yes.”

“Do you now think it worth while to be so scrupulous with regard to keeping your word?”

“Yes,” said Fouquet.

“These obstinate people always contrive matters in such a way, that one cannot but admire them all the while,” murmured Aramis.

Fouquet held out his hand to him, and, at the very moment, a richly ornamented tortoise-shell clock, supported by golden figures, which was standing on a console table opposite to the fireplace, struck six. The sound of a door being opened in the vestibule was heard, and Gourville came to the door of the cabinet to inquire if Fouquet would received M. Vanel. Fouquet turned his eyes from the gaze of Aramis, and then desired that M. Vanel should be shown in.