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Ten Years Later

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Chapter XL: The Nymphs of the Park of Fontainebleau.


The king remained for a moment to enjoy a triumph as complete as it could possibly be. He then turned towards Madame, for the purpose of admiring her also a little in her turn. Young persons love with more vivacity, perhaps with greater ardor and deeper passion, than others more advanced in years; but all the other feelings are at the same time developed in proportion to their youth and vigor: so that vanity being with them almost always the equivalent of love, the latter feeling, according to the laws of equipoise, never attains that degree of perfection which it acquires in men and women from thirty to five and thirty years of age. Louis thought of Madame, but only after he had studiously thought of himself; and Madame carefully thought of herself, without bestowing a single thought upon the king. The victim, however, of all these royal affections and affectations, was poor De Guiche. Every one could observe his agitation and prostration—a prostration which was, indeed, the more remarkable since people were not accustomed to see him with his arms hanging listlessly by his side, his head bewildered, and his eyes with all their bright intelligence bedimmed. It rarely happened that any uneasiness was excited on his account, whenever a question of elegance or taste was under discussion; and De Guiche’s defeat was accordingly attributed by the greater number present to his courtier-like tact and ability. But there were others—keen-sighted observers are always to be met with at court—who remarked his paleness and his altered looks; which he could neither feign nor conceal, and their conclusion was that De Guiche was not acting the part of a flatterer. All these sufferings, successes, and remarks were blended, confounded, and lost in the uproar of applause. When, however, the queens expressed their satisfaction and the spectators their enthusiasm, when the king had retired to his dressing-room to change his costume, and whilst Monsieur, dressed as a woman, as he delighted to be, was in his turn dancing about, De Guiche, who had now recovered himself, approached Madame, who, seated at the back of the theater, was waiting for the second part, and had quitted the others for the purpose of creating a sort of solitude for herself in the midst of the crowd, to meditate, as it were, beforehand, upon chorographic effects; and it will be perfectly understood that, absorbed in deep meditation, she did not see, or rather pretended not to notice, anything that was passing around her. De Guiche, observing that she was alone, near a thicket constructed of painted cloth, approached her. Two of her maids of honor, dressed as hamadryads, seeing De Guiche advance, drew back out of respect., whereupon De Guiche proceeded towards the middle of the circle and saluted her royal highness; but, whether she did or did not observe his salutations, the princess did not even turn her head. A cold shiver passed through poor De Guiche; he was unprepared for such utter indifference, for he had neither seen nor been told of anything that had taken place, and consequently could guess nothing. Remarking, therefore, that his obeisance obtained him no acknowledgement, he advanced one step further, and in a voice which he tried, though vainly, to render calm, said: “I have the honor to present my most humble respects to your royal highness.”

Upon this Madame deigned to turn her eyes languishingly towards the comte, observing. “Ah! M. de Guiche, is that you? good day!”

The comte’s patience almost forsook him, as he continued,—“Your royal highness danced just now most charmingly.”

“Do you think so?” she replied with indifference.

“Yes; the character which your royal highness assumed is in perfect harmony with your own.”

Madame again turned round, and, looking De Guiche full in the face with a bright and steady gaze, said,—“Why so?”

“Oh! there can be no doubt of it.”

“Explain yourself?”

“You represented a divinity, beautiful, disdainful, inconstant.”

“You mean Pomona, comte?”

“I allude to the goddess.”

Madame remained silent for a moment, with her lips compressed, and then observed,—“But, comte, you, too, are an excellent dancer.”

“Nay, Madame, I am only one of those who are never noticed, or who are soon forgotten if they ever happen to be noticed.”

With this remark, accompanied by one of those deep sighs which affect the remotest fibers of one’s being, his heart burdened with sorrow and throbbing fast, his head on fire, and his gaze wandering, he bowed breathlessly, and withdrew behind the thicket. The only reply Madame condescended to make was by slightly raising her shoulders, and, as her ladies of honor had discreetly retired while the conversation lasted, she recalled them by a look. The ladies were Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente and Mademoiselle de Montalais.

“Did you hear what the Comte de Guiche said?” the princess inquired.

“No.”

“It really is very singular,” she continued, in a compassionate tone, “how exile has affected poor M. de Guiche’s wit.” And then, in a louder voice, fearful lest her unhappy victim might lose a syllable, she said,—“In the first place he danced badly, and afterwards his remarks were very silly.”

She then rose, humming the air to which she was presently going to dance. De Guiche had overheard everything. The arrow pierced his heart and wounded him mortally. Then, at the risk of interrupting the progress of the fete by his annoyance, he fled from the scene, tearing his beautiful costume of Autumn in pieces, and scattering, as he went along, the branches of vines, mulberry and almond trees, with all the other artificial attributes of his assumed divinity. A quarter of an hour afterwards he returned to the theater; but it will be readily believed that it was only a powerful effort of reason over his great excitement that enabled him to go back; or perhaps, for love is thus strangely constituted, he found it impossible even to remain much longer separated from the presence of one who had broken his heart. Madame was finishing her figure. She saw, but did not look at De Guiche, who, irritated and revengeful, turned his back upon her as she passed him, escorted by her nymphs, and followed by a hundred flatterers. During this time, at the other end of the theater, near the lake, a young woman was seated, with her eyes fixed upon one of the windows of the theater, from which were issuing streams of light—the window in question being that of the royal box. As De Guiche quitted the theater for the purpose of getting into the fresh air he so much needed, he passed close to this figure and saluted her. When she perceived the young man, she rose, like a woman surprised in the midst of ideas she was desirous of concealing from herself. De Guiche stopped as he recognized her, and said hurriedly,—“Good evening, Mademoiselle de la Valliere; I am indeed fortunate in meeting you.”

“I, also, M. de Guiche, am glad of this accidental meeting,” said the young girl, as she was about to withdraw.

“Pray do not leave me,” said De Guiche, stretching out his hand towards her, “for you would be contradicting the kind words you have just pronounced. Remain, I implore you: the evening is most lovely. You wish to escape from the merry tumult, and prefer your own society. Well, I can understand it; all women who are possessed of any feeling do, and one never finds them dull or lonely when removed from the giddy vortex of these exciting amusements. Oh! Heaven!” he exclaimed, suddenly.

“What is the matter, monsieur le comte?” inquired La Valliere, with some anxiety. “You seem agitated.”

“I! oh, no!”

“Will you allow me, M. de Guiche, to return you the thanks I had proposed to offer you on the very first opportunity? It is to your recommendation, I am aware, that I owe my admission among the number of Madame’s maids of honor.”

“Indeed! Ah! I remember now, and I congratulate myself. Do you love any one?”

“I!” exclaimed La Valliere.

“Forgive me, I hardly know what I am saying; a thousand times forgive me; Madame was right, quite right, this brutal exile has completely turned my brain.”

“And yet it seemed to me that the king received you with kindness.”

“Do you think so? Received me with kindness—perhaps so—yes—”

“There cannot be a doubt he received you kindly, for, in fact, you returned without his permission.”

“Quite true, and I believe you are right. But have you not seen M. de Bragelonne here?”

La Valliere started at the name. “Why do you ask?” she inquired.

“Have I offended you again?” said De Guiche. “In that case I am indeed unhappy, and greatly to be pitied.”

“Yes, very unhappy, and very much to be pitied, Monsieur de Guiche, for you seem to be suffering terribly.”

“Oh! mademoiselle, why have I not a devoted sister, or a true friend, such as yourself?”

“You have friends, Monsieur de Guiche, and the Vicomte de Bragelonne, of whom you spoke just now, is, I believe, one of the most devoted.”

“Yes, yes, you are right, he is one of my best friends. Farewell, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, farewell.” And he fled, like one possessed, along the banks of the lake. His dark shadow glided, lengthening as it disappeared, among the illumined yews and glittering undulations of the water. La Valliere looked after him, saying,—“Yes, yes, he, too, is suffering, and I begin to understand why.”

She had hardly finished when her companions, Mademoiselle de Montalais and Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, ran forward. They were released from their attendance, and had changed their costumes of nymphs; delighted with the beautiful night, and the success of the evening, they returned to look after their companion.

“What, already here!” they said to her. “We thought we should be first at the rendezvous.”

“I have been here this quarter of an hour,” replied La Valliere.

“Did not the dancing amuse you?”

“No.”

“But surely the enchanting spectacle?”

“No more than the dancing. As far as beauty is concerned, I much prefer that which these dark woods present, in whose depths can be seen, now in one direction and again in another, a light passing by, as though it were an eye, in color like a midnight rainbow, sometimes open, at others closed.”

“La Valliere is quite a poetess,” said Tonnay-Charente.

“In other words,” said Montalais, “she is insupportable. Whenever there is a question of laughing a little or of amusing ourselves, La Valliere begins to cry; whenever we girls have reason to cry, because, perhaps, we have mislaid our dresses, or because our vanity as been wounded, or our costume fails to produce an effect, La Valliere laughs.”

“As far as I am concerned, that is not my character,” said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente. “I am a woman; and there are few like me; whoever loves me, flatters me; whoever flatters me, pleases me; and whoever pleases—”

“Well!” said Montalais, “you do not finish.”

“It is too difficult,” replied Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, laughing loudly. “Do you, who are so clever, finish for me.”

“And you, Louise?” said Montalais, “does any one please you?”

“That is a matter that concerns no one but myself,” replied the young girl, rising from the mossy bank on which she had been reclining during the whole time the ballet lasted. “Now, mesdemoiselles, we have agreed to amuse ourselves to-night without any one to overlook us, and without any escort. We are three in number, we like one another, and the night is lovely. Look yonder, do you not see the moon slowly rising, silvering the topmost branches of the chestnuts and the oaks. Oh, beautiful walk! sweet liberty! exquisite soft turf of the woods, the happiness which your friendship confers upon me! let us walk arm in arm towards those large trees. Out yonder all are at this moment seated at table and fully occupied, or preparing to adorn themselves for a set and formal promenade; horses are being saddled, or harnessed to the carriages—the queen’s mules or Madame’s four white ponies. As for ourselves, we shall soon reach some retired spot where no eyes can see us and no step follow ours. Do you not remember, Montalais, the woods of Cheverny and of Chambord, the innumerable rustling poplars of Blois, where we exchanged our mutual hopes?”

“And confidences too?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, “I also think a good deal; but I take care—”

“To say nothing,” said Montalais, “so that when Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente thinks, Athenais is the only one who knows it.”

“Hush!” said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, “I hear steps approaching from this side.”

“Quick, quick, then, among the high reed-grass,” said Montalais; “stoop, Athenais, you are so tall.”

Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente stooped as she was told, and, almost at the same moment, they saw two gentlemen approaching, their heads bent down, walking arm in arm, on the fine gravel walk running parallel with the bank. The young girls had, indeed, made themselves small—indeed invisible.

“It is Monsieur de Guiche,” whispered Montalais in Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente’s ear.

“It is Monsieur de Bragelonne,” whispered the latter to La Valliere.

The two young men approached still closer, conversing in animated tones. “She was here just now,” said the count. “If I had only seen her, I should have declared it to be a vision, but I spoke to her.”

“You are positive, then?”

“Yes; but perhaps I frightened her.”

“In what way?”

“Oh! I was still half crazy at you know what; so that she could hardly have understood what I was saying, and must have grown alarmed.”

“Oh!” said Bragelonne, “do not make yourself uneasy: she is all kindness, and will excuse you; she is clear-sighted, and will understand.”

“Yes, but if she should have understood, and understood too well, she may talk.”

“You do not know Louise, count,” said Raoul. “Louise possesses every virtue, and has not a single fault.” And the two young men passed on, and, as they proceeded, their voices were soon lost in the distance.

“How is it, La Valliere,” said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, “that the Vicomte de Bragelonne spoke of you as Louise?”

“We were brought up together,” replied Louise, blushing; “M. de Bragelonne has honored me by asking my hand in marriage, but—”

“Well?”

“It seems the king will not consent to it.”

“Eh! Why the king? and what has the king to do with it?” exclaimed Aure, sharply. “Good gracious! has the king any right to interfere in matters of that kind? Politics are politics, as M. de Mazarin used to say; but love is love. If, therefore, you love M. de Bragelonne, marry him. I give my consent.”

Athenais began to laugh.

“Oh! I am speaking seriously,” replied Montalais, “and my opinion in this case is quite as good as the king’s, I suppose; is it not, Louise?”

“Come,” said La Valliere, “these gentlemen have passed; let us take advantage of our being alone to cross the open ground and so take refuge in the woods.”

“So much the better,” said Athenais, “because I see the torches setting out from the chateau and the theater, and they seem as if they were preceding some person of distinction.”

“Let us run, then,” said all three. And, gracefully lifting up the long skirts of their silk dresses, they lightly ran across the open space between the lake and the thickest covert of the park. Montalais agile as a deer, Athenais eager as a young wolf, bounded through the dry grass, and, now and then, some bold Acteon might, by the aid of the faint light, have perceived their straight and well-formed limbs somewhat displayed beneath the heavy folds of their satin petticoats. La Valliere, more refined and more bashful, allowed her dress to flow around her; retarded also by the lameness of her foot, it was not long before she called out to her companions to halt, and, left behind, she obliged them both to wait for her. At this moment, a man, concealed in a dry ditch planted with young willow saplings, scrambled quickly up its shelving side, and ran off in the direction of the chateau. The three young girls, on their side, reached the outskirts of the park, every path of which they well knew. The ditches were bordered by high hedges full of flowers, which on that side protected the foot-passengers from being intruded upon by the horses and carriages. In fact, the sound of Madame’s and the queen’s carriages could be heard in the distance upon the hard dry ground of the roads, followed by the mounted cavaliers. Distant music reached them in response, and when the soft notes died away, the nightingale, with throat of pride, poured forth his melodious chants, and his most complicated, learned, and sweetest compositions to those who had met beneath the thick covert of the woods. Near the songster, in the dark background of the large trees, could be seen the glistening eyes of an owl, attracted by the harmony. In this way the fete of the whole court was a fete also for the mysterious inhabitants of the forest; for certainly the deer in the brake, the pheasant on the branch, the fox in its hole, were all listening. One could realize the life led by this nocturnal and invisible population from the restless movements that suddenly took place among the leaves. Our sylvan nymphs uttered a slight cry, but, reassured immediately afterwards, they laughed, and resumed their walk. In this manner they reached the royal oak, the venerable relic of a tree which in its prime has listened to the sighs of Henry II. for the beautiful Diana of Poitiers, and later still to those of Henry IV. for the lovely Gabrielle d’Estrees. Beneath this oak the gardeners had piled up the moss and turf in such a manner that never had a seat more luxuriously rested the wearied limbs of man or monarch. The trunk, somewhat rough to recline against, was sufficiently large to accommodate the three young girls, whose voices were lost among the branches, which stretched upwards to the sky.






Chapter XLI. What Was Said under the Royal Oak.


The softness of the air, the stillness of the foliage, tacitly imposed upon these young girls an engagement to change immediately their giddy conversation for one of a more serious character. She, indeed, whose disposition was the most lively,—Montalais, for instance,—was the first to yield to the influence; and she began by heaving a deep sigh, and saying:—“What happiness to be here alone, and at liberty, with every right to be frank, especially towards one another.”

“Yes,” said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente; “for the court, however brilliant it may be, has always some falsehood concealed beneath the folds of its velvet robes, or the glitter of its diamonds.”

“I,” replied La Valliere, “I never tell a falsehood; when I cannot speak the truth, I remain silent.”

“You will not long remain in favor,” said Montalais; “it is not here as it was at Blois, where we told the dowager Madame all our little annoyances, and all our longings. There were certain days when Madame remembered that she herself had been young, and, on those days, whoever talked with her found in her a sincere friend. She related to us her flirtations with Monsieur, and we told her of the flirtations she had had with others, or, at least, the rumors of them that had spread abroad. Poor woman, so simple-minded! she laughed at them, as we did. Where is she now?”

“Ah, Montalais,—laughter-loving Montalais!” cried La Valliere; “you see you are sighing again; the woods inspire you, and you are almost reasonable this evening.”

“You ought not, either of you,” said Athenais, “to regret the court at Blois so much, unless you do not feel happy with us. A court is a place where men and women resort to talk of matters which mothers, guardians, and especially confessors, severely denounce.”

“Oh, Athenais!” said Louise, blushing.

“Athenais is frank to-night,” said Montalais; “let us avail ourselves of it.”

“Yes, let us take advantage of it, for this evening I could divulge the softest secrets of my heart.”

“Ah, if M. Montespan were here!” said Montalais.

“Do you think that I care for M. de Montespan?” murmured the beautiful young girl.

“He is handsome, I believe?”

“Yes. And that is no small advantage in my eyes.”

“There now, you see—”

“I will go further, and say, that of all the men whom one sees here, he is the handsomest, and the most—”

“What was that?” said La Valliere, starting suddenly from the mossy bank.

“A deer hurrying by, perhaps.”

“I am only afraid of men,” said Athenais.

“When they do not resemble M. de Montespan.”

“A truce to raillery. M. de Montespan is attentive to me, but that does not commit me in any way. Is not M. de Guiche here, he who is so devoted to Madame?”

“Poor fellow!” said La Valliere.

“Why to be pitied? Madame is sufficiently beautiful, and of high enough rank, I suppose.”

La Valliere shook her head sorrowfully, saying, “When one loves, it is neither beauty nor rank;—when one loves it should be the heart, or the eyes only, of him, or of her whom one loves.”

Montalais began to laugh loudly. “Heart, eyes,” she said; “oh, sugar-plums!”

“I speak for myself;” replied La Valliere.

“Noble sentiments,” said Athenais, with an air of protection, but with indifference.

“Are they not your own?” asked Louise.

“Perfectly so; but to continue: how can one pity a man who bestows his attentions upon such a woman as Madame? If any disproportion exists, it is on the count’s side.”

“Oh! no, no,” returned La Valliere; “it is on Madame’s side.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I will. Madame has not even a wish to know what love is. She diverts herself with the feeling, as children do with fireworks, form which a spark might set a palace on fire. It makes a display, and that is all she cares about. Besides, pleasure forms the tissue of which she wishes her life to be woven. M. de Guiche loves this illustrious personage, but she will never love him.”

Athenais laughed disdainfully. “Do people really ever love?” she said. “Where are the noble sentiments you just now uttered? Does not a woman’s virtue consist in the uncompromising refusal of every intrigue that might compromise her? A properly regulated woman, endowed with a natural heart, ought to look at men, make herself loved—adored, even, by them, and say at the very utmost but once in her life, ‘I begin to think that I ought not to have been what I am,—I should have detested this one less than others.’”

“Therefore,” exclaimed La Valliere, “that is what M. de Montespan has to expect.”

“Certainly; he, as well as every one else. What! have I not said that I admit he possesses a certain superiority, and would not that be enough? My dear child, a woman is a queen during the entire period nature permits her to enjoy sovereign power—from fifteen to thirty-five years of age. After that, we are free to have a heart, when we only have that left—”

“Oh, oh!” murmured La Valliere.

“Excellent,” cried Montalais; “a very masterly woman; Athenais, you will make your way in the world.”

“Do you not approve of what I say?”

“Completely,” replied her laughing companion.

“You are not serious, Montalais?” said Louise.

“Yes, yes; I approve everything Athenais has just said; only—”

“Only what?”

“Well, I cannot carry it out. I have the firmest principles; I form resolutions beside which the laws of the Stadtholder and of the King of Spain are child’s play; but when the moment arrives to put them into execution, nothing comes of them.”

“Your courage fails?” said Athenais, scornfully.

“Miserably so.”

“Great weakness of nature,” returned Athenais. “But at least you make a choice.”

“Why, no. It pleases fate to disappoint me in everything; I dream of emperors, and I find only—”

“Aure, Aure!” exclaimed La Valliere, “for pity’s sake, do not, for the pleasure of saying something witty, sacrifice those who love you with such devoted affection.”

“Oh, I do not trouble myself much about that; those who love me are sufficiently happy that I do not dismiss them altogether. So much the worse for myself if I have a weakness for any one, but so much the worse for others if I revenge myself upon them for it.”

“You are right,” said Athenais, “and, perhaps, you too will reach the goal. In other words, young ladies, that is termed being a coquette. Men, who are very silly in most things, are particularly so in confounding, under the term of coquetry, a woman’s pride, and love of changing her sentiments as she does her dress. I, for instance, am proud; that is to say, impregnable. I treat my admirers harshly, but without any pretention to retain them. Men call me a coquette, because they are vain enough to think I care for them. Other women—Montalais, for instance—have allowed themselves to be influenced by flattery; they would be lost were it not for that most fortunate principle of instinct which urges them to change suddenly, and punish the man whose devotion they so recently accepted.”

“A very learned dissertation,” said Montalais, in the tone of thorough enjoyment.

“It is odious!” murmured Louise.

“Thanks to that sort of coquetry, for, indeed, that is genuine coquetry,” continued Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente; “the lover who, a little while since, was puffed up with pride, in a minute afterwards is suffering at every pore of his vanity and self-esteem. He was, perhaps, already beginning to assume the airs of a conqueror, but now he retreats defeated; he was about to assume an air of protection towards us, but he is obliged to prostrate himself once more. The result of all this is, that, instead of having a husband who is jealous and troublesome, free from restraint in his conduct towards us, we have a lover always trembling in our presence, always fascinated by our attractions, always submissive; and for this simple reason, that he finds the same woman never twice of the same mind. Be convinced, therefore, of the advantages of coquetry. Possessing that, one reigns a queen among women in cases where Providence has withheld that precious faculty of holding one’s heart and mind in check.”

“How clever you are,” said Montalais, “and how well you understand the duty women owe themselves!”

“I am only settling a case of individual happiness,” said Athenais modestly; “and defending myself, like all weak, loving dispositions, against the oppressions of the stronger.”

“La Valliere does not say a word.”

“Does she not approve of what we are saying?”

“Nay; only I do not understand it,” said Louise. “You talk like people not called upon to live in this world of ours.”

“And very pretty your world is,” said Montalais.

“A world,” returned Athenais, “in which men worship a woman until she has fallen,—and insult her when she has fallen.”

“Who spoke to you of falling?” said Louise.

“Yours is a new theory, then; will you tell us how you intend to resist yielding to temptation, if you allow yourself to be hurried away by feelings of affection?”

“Oh!” exclaimed the young girl, raising towards the dark heavens her beautiful large eyes filled with tears, “if you did but know what a heart is, I would explain, and convince you; a loving heart is stronger than all your coquetry, more powerful than all your pride. A woman is never truly loved, I believe; a man never loves with idolatry, unless he feels sure he is loved in return. Let old men, whom we read of in comedies, fancy themselves adored by coquettes. A young man is conscious of, and knows them; if he has a fancy, or a strong desire, and an absorbing passion, for a coquette, he cannot mistake her; a coquette may drive him out of his senses, but will never make him fall in love. Love, such as I conceive it to be, is an incessant, complete, and perfect sacrifice; but it is not the sacrifice of one only of the two persons thus united. It is the perfect abnegation of two who are desirous of blending their beings into one. If ever I love, I shall implore my lover to leave me free and pure; I will tell him, and he will understand, that my heart was torn by my refusal, and he, in his love for me, aware of the magnitude of my sacrifice,—he, in his turn, I say, will store his devotion for me,—will respect me, and will not seek my ruin, to insult me when I shall have fallen, as you said just now, whilst uttering your blasphemies against love, such as I understand it. That is my idea of love. And now you will tell me, perhaps, that my love will despise me; I defy him to do so, unless he be the vilest of men, and my heart assures me that it is not such a man I would choose. A look from me will repay him for the sacrifices he makes, or will inspire him with the virtues which he would never think he possessed.”

“But, Louise,” exclaimed Montalais, “you tell us this, and do not carry it into practice.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are adored by Raoul de Bragelonne, who worships you on both knees. The poor fellow is made the victim of your virtue, just as he would be— nay, more than he would be, even—of my coquetry, or Athenais’s pride.”

“All this is simply a different shade of coquetry,” said Athenais; “and Louise, I perceive, is a coquette without knowing it.”

“Oh!” said La Valliere.

“Yes, you may call it instinct, if you please, keenest sensibility, exquisite refinement of feeling, perpetual play of restrained outbreaks of affection, which end in smoke. It is very artful too, and very effective. I should even, now that I reflect upon it, have preferred this system of tactics to my own pride, for waging war on members of the other sex, because it offers the advantage sometimes of thoroughly convincing them; but, at the present moment, without utterly condemning myself, I declare it to be superior to the non-complex coquetry of Montalais.” And the two young girls began to laugh.

La Valliere alone preserved silence, and quietly shook her head. Then, a moment after, she added, “If you were to tell me, in the presence of a man, but a fourth part of what you have just said, or even if I were assured that you think it, I should die of shame and grief where I am now.”

“Very well; die, poor tender little darling,” replied Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente; “for if there are no men here, there are at least two women, your own friends, who declare you to be attained and convicted of being a coquette from instinct; in other words, the most dangerous kind of coquette the world possesses.”

“Oh! mesdemoiselles,” replied La Valliere, blushing, and almost ready to weep. Her two companions again burst out laughing.

“Very well! I will ask Bragelonne to tell me.”

“Bragelonne?” said Athenais.

“Yes! Bragelonne, who is as courageous as Caesar, and as clever and witty as M. Fouquet. Poor fellow! for twelve years he has known you, loved you, and yet—one can hardly believe it—he has never even kissed the tips of your fingers.”

“Tell us the reason of this cruelty, you who are all heart,” said Athenais to La Valliere.

“Let me explain it by a single word—virtue. You will perhaps deny the existence of virtue?”

“Come, Louise, tell us the truth,” said Aure, taking her by the hand.

“What do you wish me to tell you?” cried La Valliere.

“Whatever you like; but it will be useless for you to say anything, for I persist in my opinion of you. A coquette from instinct; in other words, as I have already said, and I say it again, the most dangerous of all coquettes.”

“Oh! no, no; for pity’s sake do not believe that!”

“What! twelve years of extreme severity.”

“How can that be, since twelve years ago I was only five years old? The frivolity of the child cannot surely be placed to the young girl’s account.”

“Well! you are now seventeen; three years instead of twelve. During those three years you have remained constantly and unchangeably cruel. Against you are arrayed the silent shades of Blois, the meetings when you diligently conned the stars together, the evening wanderings beneath the plantain-trees, his impassioned twenty years speaking to your fourteen summers, the fire of his glances addressed to yourself.”

“Yes, yes; but so it is!”

“Impossible!”

“But why impossible?”

“Tell us something credible and we will believe you.”

“Yet, if you were to suppose one thing.”

“What is that?”

“Suppose that I thought I was in love, and that I am not.”

“What! not in love!”

“Well, then! if I have acted in a different manner to what others do when they are in love, it is because I do not love; and because my hour has not yet come.”

“Louise, Louise,” said Montalais, “take care or I will remind you of the remark you made just now. Raoul is not here; do not overwhelm him while he is absent; be charitable, and if, on closer inspection, you think you do not love him, tell him so, poor fellow!” and she began to laugh.

“Louise pitied M. de Guiche just now,” said Athenais; “would it be possible to detect an explanation of her indifference for the one in this compassion for the other?”

“Say what you please,” said La Valliere, sadly; “upbraid me as you like, since you do not understand me.”

“Oh! oh!” replied Montalais, “temper, sorrow, tears; we are jesting, Louise, and are not, I assure you, quite the monsters you suppose. Look at the proud Athenais, as she is called; she does not love M. de Montespan, it is true, but she would be in despair if M. de Montespan did not continue to love her. Look at me; I laugh at M. Malicorne, but the poor fellow whom I laugh at knows precisely when he will be permitted to press his lips upon my hand. And yet the eldest of us is not twenty yet. What a future before us!”

“Silly, silly girls!” murmured Louise.

“You are quite right,” said Montalais; “and you alone have spoken words of wisdom.”

“Certainly.”

“I do not dispute it,” replied Athenais. “And so it is clear you do not love poor M. de Bragelonne?”

“Perhaps she does,” said Montalais; “she is not yet quite certain of it. But, in any case, listen, Athenais; if M. de Bragelonne is ever free, I will give you a little friendly advice.”

“What is that?”

“To look at him well before you decide in favor of M. de Montespan.”

“Oh! in that way of considering the subject, M. de Bragelonne is not the only one whom one could look at with pleasure; M. de Guiche, for instance, has his value also.”

“He did not distinguish himself this evening,” said Montalais; “and I know from very good authority that Madame thought him insupportable.”

“M. de Saint-Aignan produced a most brilliant effect, and I am sure that more than one person who saw him dance this evening will not soon forget him. Do you not think so, La Valliere?”

“Why do you ask me? I did not see him, nor do I know him.”

“What! you did not see M. de Saint-Aignan? Don’t you know him?”

“No.”

“Come, come, do not affect a virtue more extravagantly excessive than our vanity!—you have eyes, I suppose?”

“Excellent.”

“Then you must have seen all those who danced this evening.”

“Yes, nearly all.”

“That is a very impertinent ‘nearly all’ for somebody.”

“You must take it for what it is worth.”

“Very well; now, among all those gentlemen whom you saw, which do you prefer?”

“Yes,” said Montalais, “is it M. de Saint-Aignan, or M. de Guiche, or M.—”

“I prefer no one; I thought them all about the same.”

“Do you mean, then, that among that brilliant assembly, the first court in the world, no one pleased you?”

“I do not say that.”

“Tell us, then, who your ideal is?”

“It is not an ideal being.”

“He exists, then?”

“In very truth,” exclaimed La Valliere, aroused and excited; “I cannot understand you at all. What! you who have a heart as I have, eyes as I have, and yet you speak of M. de Guiche, of M. de Saint-Aignan, when the king was there.” These words, uttered in a precipitate manner, and in an agitated, fervid tone of voice, made her two companions, between whom she was seated, exclaim in a manner that terrified her, “The king!”

La Valliere buried her face in her hands. “Yes,” she murmured; “the king! the king! Have you ever seen any one to be compared to the king?”

“You were right just now in saying you had excellent eyes, Louise, for you see a great distance; too far, indeed. Alas! the king is not one upon whom our poor eyes have a right to hinge themselves.”

“That is too true,” cried La Valliere; “it is not the privilege of all eyes to gaze upon the sun; but I will look upon him, even were I to be blinded in doing so.” At this moment, and as though caused by the words which had just escaped La Valliere’s lips, a rustling of leaves, and of what sounded like some silken material, was heard behind the adjoining bushes. The young girls hastily rose, almost terrified out of their senses. They distinctly saw the leaves move, without being able to see what it was that stirred them.

“It is a wolf or a wild boar,” cried Montalais; “fly! fly!” The three girls, in the extremity of terror, fled by the first path that presented itself, and did not stop until they had reached the verge of the wood. There, breathless, leaning against each other, feeling their hearts throb wildly, they endeavored to collect their senses, but could only succeed in doing so after the lapse of some minutes. Perceiving at last the lights from the windows of the chateau, they decided to walk towards them. La Valliere was exhausted with fatigue, and Aure and Athenais were obliged to support her.

“We have escaped well,” said Montalais.

“I am greatly afraid,” said La Valliere, “that it was something worse than a wolf. For my part, and I speak as I think, I should have preferred to have run the risk of being devoured alive by some wild animal than to have been listened to and overheard. Fool, fool that I am! How could I have thought, how could I have said what I did?” And saying this her head bowed like the water tossed plume of a bulrush; she felt her limbs fail, and her strength abandoning her, and, gliding almost inanimate from the arms of her companions, sank down upon the turf.






Chapter XLII. The King’s Uneasiness.


Let us leave poor La Valliere, who had fainted in the arms of her two companions, and return to the precincts of the royal oak. The young girls had hardly run twenty paces, when the sound which had so much alarmed them was renewed among the branches. A man’s figure might indistinctly be perceived, and putting the branches of the bushes aside, he appeared upon the verge of the wood, and perceiving that the place was empty, burst out into a peal of laughter. It is almost superfluous to add that the form in question was that of a young and handsome cavalier, who immediately made a sign to another, who thereupon made his appearance.

“What, sire,” said the second figure, advancing timidly, “has your majesty put our young sentimentalists to flight?”

“It seems so,” said the king, “and you can show yourself without fear.”

“Take care, sire, you will be recognized.”

“But I tell you they are flown.”

“This is a most fortunate meeting, sire; and, if I dared offer an opinion to your majesty, we ought to follow them.”

“They are far enough away by this time.”

“They would quickly allow themselves to be overtaken, especially if they knew who were following them.”

“What do you mean by that, coxcomb that you are?”

“Why, one of them seems to have taken a fancy to me, and another compared you to the sun.”

“The greater reason why we should not show ourselves, Saint-Aignan. The sun never shows itself in the night-time.”

“Upon my word, sire, your majesty seems to have very little curiosity. In your place, I should like to know who are the two nymphs, the two dryads, the two hamadryads, who have so good an opinion of us.”

“I shall know them again very well, I assure you, without running after them.”

“By what means?”

“By their voices, of course. They belong to the court, and the one who spoke of me had a remarkably sweet voice.”

“Ah! your majesty permits yourself to be influenced by flattery.”

“No one will ever say it is a means you make use of.”

“Forgive my stupidity, sire.”

“Come; let us go and look where I told you.”

“Is the passion, then, which your majesty confided to me, already forgotten?”

“Oh! no, indeed. How is it possible to forget such beautiful eyes as Mademoiselle de la Valliere has?”

“Yet the other one has a beautiful voice.”

“Which one?”

“The lady who has fallen in love with the sun.”

“M. de Saint-Aignan!”

“Forgive me, sire.”

“Well, I am not sorry you should believe me to be an admirer of sweet voices as well as of beautiful eyes. I know you to be a terrible talker, and to-morrow I shall have to pay for the confidence I have shown you.”

“What do you mean, sire?”

“That to-morrow every one will know that I have designs upon this little La Valliere; but be careful, Saint-Aignan, I have confided my secret to no one but you, and if any one should speak to me about it, I shall know who has betrayed my secret.”

“You are angry, sire.”

“No; but you understand I do not wish to compromise the poor girl.”

“Do not be afraid, sire.”

“You promise me, then?”

“I give you my word of honor.”

“Excellent,” thought the king, laughing to himself; “now every one will know to-morrow that I have been running about after La Valliere to-night.”

Then, endeavoring to see where he was, he said: “Why we have lost ourselves.”

“Not quite so bad as that, sire.”

“Where does that gate lead to?”

“To Rond-Point, sire.”

“Where were we going when we heard the sound of women’s voices?”

“Yes, sire, and the termination of a conversation in which I had the honor of hearing my own name pronounced by the side of your majesty’s.”

“You return to that subject too frequently, Saint-Aignan.”

“Your majesty will forgive me, but I am delighted to know that a woman exists whose thoughts are occupied about me, without my knowledge, and without my having done anything to deserve it. Your majesty cannot comprehend this satisfaction, for your rank and merit attract attention, and compel regard.”

“No, no, Saint-Aignan, believe me or not, as you like,” said the king, leaning familiarly upon Saint-Aignan’s arm and taking the path he thought would lead them to the chateau; “but this candid confession, this perfectly disinterested preference of one who will, perhaps, never attract my attention—in one word, the mystery of this adventure excites me, and the truth is, that if I were not so taken with La Valliere—”

“Do not let that interfere with your majesty’s intentions: you have time enough before you.”

“What do you mean?”

“La Valliere is said to be very strict in her ideas.”

“You excite my curiosity and I am anxious to see her again. Come, let us walk on.”

The king spoke untruly, for nothing, on the contrary, could make him less anxious, but he had a part to play, and so he walked on hurriedly. Saint-Aignan followed him at a short distance. Suddenly the king stopped; the courtier followed his example.

“Saint-Aignan,” he said, “do you not hear some one moaning?”

“Yes, sire, and weeping, too, it seems.”

“It is in this direction,” said the king. “It sounds like the tears and sobs of a woman.”

“Run,” said the king; and, following a by-path, they ran across the grass. As they approached, the cries were more distinctly heard.

“Help, help,” exclaimed two voices. The king and his companion redoubled their speed, and, as they approached nearer, the sighs they had heard were changed into loud sobs. The cry of “Help! help!” was again repeated; at the sound of which, the king and Saint-Aignan increased the rapidity of their pace. Suddenly at the other side of a ditch, under the branches of a willow, they perceived a woman on her knees, holding another in her arms who seemed to have fainted. A few paces from them, a third, standing in the middle of the path, was calling for assistance. Perceiving the two gentlemen, whose rank she could not tell, her cries for assistance were redoubled. The king, who was in advance of his companion, leaped across the ditch, and reached the group at the very moment when, from the end of the path which led to the chateau, a dozen persons were approaching, who had been drawn to the spot by the same cries that had attracted the attention of the king and M. de Saint-Aignan.

“What is the matter, young ladies?” said Louis.

“The king!” exclaimed Mademoiselle de Montalais, in her astonishment, letting La Valliere’s head fall upon the ground.

“Yes, it is the king; but that is no reason why you should abandon your companion. Who is she?”

“It is Mademoiselle de la Valliere, sire.”

“Mademoiselle de la Valliere!”

“Yes, sire, she has just fainted.”

“Poor child!” said the king. “Quick, quick, fetch a surgeon.” But however great the anxiety with which the king had pronounced these words may have seemed to others, he had not so carefully schooled himself but that they appeared, as well as the gesture which accompanied them, somewhat cold to Saint-Aignan, to whom the king had confided the sudden love with which she had inspired him.

“Saint-Aignan,” continued the king, “watch over Mademoiselle de la Valliere, I beg. Send for a surgeon. I will hasten forward and inform Madame of the accident which has befallen one of her maids of honor.” And, in fact, while M. de Saint-Aignan was busily engaged in making preparations for carrying Mademoiselle de la Valliere to the chateau, the king hurried forward, happy to have an opportunity of approaching Madame, and of speaking to her under a colorable pretext. Fortunately, a carriage was passing; the coachman was told to stop, and the persons who were inside, having been informed of the accident, eagerly gave up their seats to Mademoiselle de la Valliere. The current of fresh air produced by the rapid motion of the carriage soon recalled her to her senses. Having reached the chateau, she was able, though very weak, to alight from the carriage, and, with the assistance of Athenais and of Montalais, to reach the inner apartments. They made her sit down in one of the rooms of the ground floor. After a while, as the accident had not produced much effect upon those who had been walking, the promenade was resumed. During this time, the king had found Madame beneath a tree with overhanging branches, and had seated himself by her side.

“Take care, sire,” said Henrietta to him, in a low tone, “you do not show yourself as indifferent as you ought to be.”

“Alas!” replied the king, in the same tone, “I much fear we have entered into an agreement above our strength to keep.” He then added aloud, “You have heard of the accident, I suppose?”

“What accident?”

“Oh! in seeing you I forgot I hurried here expressly to tell you of it. I am, however, painfully affected by it; one of your maids of honor, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, has just fainted.”

“Indeed! poor girl,” said the princess, quietly, “what was the cause of it?”

She then added in an undertone, “You forget, sire, that you wish others to believe in your passion for this girl, and yet you remain here while she is almost dying, perhaps, elsewhere.”

“Ah! Madame,” said the king, sighing, “how much more perfect you are in your part than I am, and how actively you think of everything.”

He then rose, saying loud enough for every one to hear him, “Permit me to leave you, Madame; my uneasiness is very great, and I wish to be quite certain, myself, that proper attention has been given to Mademoiselle de la Valliere.” And the king left again to return to La Valliere, while those who had been present commented upon the king’s remark:—“My uneasiness is very great.”