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Ten Years Later

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Chapter XLIII. The King’s Secret.


On his way Louis met the Comte de Saint-Aignan. “Well, Saint-Aignan,” he inquired, with affected interest, “how is the invalid.”

“Really, sire,” stammered Saint-Aignan, “to my shame, I confess I do not know.”

“What! you do not know?” said the king, pretending to take in a serious manner this want of attention for the object of his predilection.

“Will your majesty pardon me; but I have just met one of our three loquacious wood-nymphs, and I confess that my attention has been taken away from other matters.”

“Ah!” said the king, eagerly, “you have found, then—”

“The one who deigned to speak of me in such advantageous terms; and, having found mine, I was searching for yours, sire, when I had the happiness to meet your majesty.”

“Very well; but Mademoiselle de la Valliere before everything else,” said the king, faithful to the character he had assumed.

“Oh! our charming invalid!” said Saint-Aignan; “how fortunately her fainting fit came on, since your majesty had already occupied yourself about her.”

“What is the name of your fair lady, Saint-Aignan? Is it a secret?”

“It ought to be a secret, and a very great one, even; but your majesty is well aware that no secret can possibly exist for you.”

“Well, what is her name?”

“Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente.”

“Is she pretty?”

“Exceedingly, sire; and I recognized the voice which pronounced my name in such tender accents. I accosted her, questioned her as well as I was able to do, in the midst of the crowd; and she told me, without suspecting anything, that a little while ago she was under the great oak, with her two friends, when the sound of a wolf or a robber had terrified them, and made them run away.”

“But,” inquired the king, anxiously, “what are the names of these two friends?”

“Sire,” said Saint-Aignan, “will your majesty send me forthwith to the Bastile?”

“What for?”

“Because I am an egotist and a fool. My surprise was so great at such a conquest, and at so fortunate a discovery, that I went no further in my inquiries. Besides, I did not think that your majesty would attach any very great importance to what you heard, knowing how much your attention was taken up by Mademoiselle de la Valliere; and then, Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente left me precipitately, to return to Mademoiselle de la Valliere.”

“Let us hope, then, that I shall be as fortunate as yourself. Come, Saint-Aignan.”

“Your majesty is ambitions, I perceive, and does not wish to allow any conquest to escape you. Well, I assure you that I will conscientiously set about my inquiries; and, moreover, from one or the other of those Three Graces we shall learn the names of the rest, and by the names their secrets.”

“I, too,” said the king, “only require to hear her voice to know it again. Come, let us say no more about it, but show me where poor La Valliere is.”

“Well,” thought Saint-Aignan, “the king’s regard is beginning to display itself, and for that girl too. It is extraordinary; I should never have believed it.” And with this thought passing through his mind, he showed the king the room to which La Valliere had been carried; the king entered, followed by Saint-Aignan. In a low chamber, near a large window looking out upon the gardens, La Valliere, reclining in a large armchair, was inhaling deep draughts of the perfumed evening breeze. From the loosened body of her dress, the lace fell in tumbled folds, mingling with the tresses of her beautiful fair hair, which lay scattered upon her shoulders. Her languishing eyes were filled with tears; she seemed as lifeless as those beautiful visions of our dreams, that pass before the mental eye of the sleeper, half-opening their wings without moving them, unclosing their lips without a sound escaping them. The pearl-like pallor of La Valliere possessed a charm it would be impossible to describe. Mental and bodily suffering had produced upon her features a soft and noble expression of grief; from the perfect passiveness of her arms and bust, she more resembled one whose soul had passed away, than a living being; she seemed not to hear either of the whisperings which arose from the court. She seemed to be communing within herself; and her beautiful, delicate hands trembled from time to time as though at the contact of some invisible touch. She was so completely absorbed in her reverie, that the king entered without her perceiving him. At a distance he gazed upon her lovely face, upon which the moon shed its pure silvery light.

“Good Heavens!” he exclaimed, with a terror he could not control, “she is dead.”

“No, sire,” said Montalais, in a low voice; “on the contrary, she is better. Are you not better, Louise?”

But Louise did not answer. “Louise,” continued Montalais, “the king has deigned to express his uneasiness on your account.”

“The king!” exclaimed Louise, starting up abruptly, as if a stream of fire had started through her frame to her heart; “the king uneasy about me?”

“Yes,” said Montalais.

“The king is here, then?” said La Valliere, not venturing to look round her.

“That voice! that voice!” whispered Louis, eagerly, to Saint-Aignan.

“Yes, it is so,” replied Saint-Aignan; “your majesty is right; it is she who declared her love for the sun.”

“Hush!” said the king. And then approaching La Valliere, he said, “You are not well, Mademoiselle de la Valliere? Just now, indeed, in the park, I saw that you had fainted. How were you attacked?”

“Sire,” stammered out the poor child, pale and trembling, “I really do not know.”

“You have been walking too far,” said the king; “and fatigue, perhaps—”

“No, sire,” said Montalais, eagerly, answering for her friend, “it could not be from fatigue, for we passed most of the evening seated beneath the royal oak.”

“Under the royal oak?” returned the king, starting. “I was not deceived; it is as I thought.” And he directed a look of intelligence at the comte.

“Yes,” said Saint-Aignan, “under the royal oak, with Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente.”

“How do you know that?” inquired Montalais.

“In a very simple way. Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente told me so.”

“In that case, she probably told you the cause of Mademoiselle de la Valliere’s fainting?”

“Why, yes; she told me something about a wolf or a robber. I forget precisely which.” La Valliere listened, her eyes fixed, her bosom heaving, as if, gifted with an acuteness of perception, she foresaw a portion of the truth. Louis imagined this attitude and agitation to be the consequence of a terror only partially reassured. “Nay, fear nothing,” he said, with a rising emotion which he could not conceal; “the wolf which terrified you so much was simply a wolf with two legs.”

“It was a man, then!” said Louise; “it was a man who was listening?”

“Suppose it was so, mademoiselle, what great harm was there in his having listened? Is it likely that, even in your own opinion, you would have said anything which could not have been listened to?”

La Valliere wrung her hands, and hid her face in them, as if to hide her blushes. “In Heaven’s name,” she said, “who was concealed there? Who was listening?”

The king advanced towards her, to take hold of one of her hands. “It was I,” he said, bowing with marked respect. “Is it likely I could have frightened you?” La Valliere uttered a loud cry; for the second time her strength forsook her; and moaning in utter despair, she again fell lifeless in her chair. The king had just time to hold out his arm; so that she was partially supported by him. Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente and Montalais, who stood a few paces from the king and La Valliere, motionless and almost petrified at the recollection of their conversation with La Valliere, did not even think of offering their assistance, feeling restrained by the presence of the king, who, with one knee on the ground, held La Valliere round the waist with his arm.

“You heard, sire!” murmured Athenais. But the king did not reply; he remained with his eyes fixed upon La Valliere’s half-closed eyes, and held her quiescent hand in his own.

“Of course,” replied Saint-Aignan, who, on his side, hoping that Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, too, would faint, advancing towards her, holding his arms extended,—“of course; we did not even lose a single word.” But the haughty Athenais was not a woman to faint easily; she darted a terrible look at Saint-Aignan, and fled. Montalais, with more courage, advanced hurriedly towards Louise, and received her from the king’s hands, who was already fast losing his presence of mind, as he felt his face covered by the perfumed tresses of the seemingly dying girl. “Excellent,” whispered Saint-Aignan. “This is indeed an adventure; and it will be my own fault if I am not the first to relate it.”

The king approached him, and, with a trembling voice and a passionate gesture, said, “Not a syllable, comte.”

The poor king forgot that, only an hour before, he had given him a similar recommendation, but with the very opposite intention; namely, that the comte should be indiscreet. It followed, as a matter of course, that he latter recommendation was quite as unnecessary as the former. Half an hour afterwards, everybody in Fontainebleau knew that Mademoiselle de la Valliere had had a conversation under the royal oak with Montalais and Tonnay-Charente, and that in this conversation she had confessed her affection for the king. It was known, also, that the king, after having manifested the uneasiness with which Mademoiselle de la Valliere’s health had inspired him, had turned pale, and trembled very much as he received the beautiful girl fainting into his arms; so that it was quite agreed among the courtiers, that the greatest event of the period had just been revealed; that his majesty loved Mademoiselle de la Valliere, and that, consequently, Monsieur could now sleep in perfect tranquillity. It was this, even, that the queen-mother, as surprised as the others by the sudden change, hastened to tell the young queen and Philip d’Orleans. Only she set to work in a different manner, by attacking them in the following way:—To her daughter-in-law she said, “See, now, Therese, how very wrong you were to accuse the king; now it is said he is devoted to some other person; why should there be any greater truth in the report of to-day than in that of yesterday, or in that of yesterday than in that of to-day?” To Monsieur, in relating to him the adventure of the royal oak, she said, “Are you not very absurd in your jealousies, my dear Philip? It is asserted that the king is madly in love with that little La Valliere. Say nothing of it to your wife; for the queen will know all about it very soon.” This latter confidential communication had an immediate result. Monsieur, who had regained his composure, went triumphantly to look after his wife, and it was not yet midnight and the fete was to continue until two in the morning, he offered her his hand for a promenade. At the end of a few paces, however, the first thing he did was to disobey his mother’s injunctions.

“Do not tell any one, the queen least of all,” he said mysteriously, “what people say about the king.”

“What do they say about him?” inquired Madame.

“That my brother has suddenly fallen in love.”

“With whom?”

“With Mademoiselle de la Valliere.”

As it was dark, Madame could smile at her ease.

“Ah!” she said, “and how long is it since this has been the case?”

“For some days, it seems. But that was nothing but nonsense; it is only this evening that he has revealed his passion.”

“The king shows his good taste,” said Madame; “in my opinion she is a very charming girl.”

“I verily believe you are jesting.”

“I! in what way?”

“In any case this passion will make some one very happy, even if it be only La Valliere herself.”

“Really,” continued the princess, “you speak as if you had read into the inmost recesses of La Valliere’s heart. Who has told you that she agrees to return the king’s affection?”

“And who has told you that she will not return it?”

“She loves the Vicomte de Bragelonne.”

“You think so?”

“She is even affianced to him.”

“She was so.”

“What do you mean?”

“When they went to ask the king’s permission to arrange the marriage, he refused his permission.”

“Refused?”

“Yes, although the request was preferred by the Comte de la Fere himself, for whom the king has the greatest regard, on account of the part he took in your royal brother’s restoration, and in other events, also, which happened a long time ago.”

“Well! the poor lovers must wait until the king is pleased to change his opinion; they are young, and there is time enough.”

“But, dear me,” said Philip, laughing, “I perceive you do not know the best part of the affair.”

“No!”

“That by which the king was most deeply touched.”

“The king, do you say, has been deeply touched?”

“To the very quick of his heart.”

“But how?—in what manner?—tell me directly.”

“By an adventure, the romance of which cannot be equalled.”

“You know how I love to hear of such adventures, and yet you keep me waiting,” said the princess, impatiently.

“Well, then—” and Monsieur paused.

“I am listening.”

“Under the royal oak—you know where the royal oak is?”

“What can that matter? Under the royal oak, you were saying?”

“Well! Mademoiselle de la Valliere, fancying herself to be alone with her two friends, revealed to them her affection for the king.”

“Ah!” said Madame, beginning to be uneasy, “her affection for the king?”

“Yes.”

“When was this?”

“About an hour ago.”

Madame started, and then said, “And no one knew of this affection?”

“No one.”

“Not even his majesty?”

“Not even his majesty. The artful little puss kept her secret strictly to herself, when suddenly it proved stronger than herself, and so escaped her.”

“And from whom did you get this absurd tale?”

“Why, as everybody else did, from La Valliere herself, who confessed her love to Montalais and Tonnay-Charente, who were her companions.”

Madame stopped suddenly, and by a hasty movement let go her husband’s hand.

“Did you say it was an hour ago she made this confession?” Madame inquired.

“About that time.”

“Is the king aware of it?”

“Why, that is the very thing which constitutes the perfect romance of the affair, for the king was behind the royal oak with Saint-Aignan, and heard the whole of the interesting conversation without losing a single word of it.”

Madame felt struck to the heart, saying incautiously, “But I have seen the king since, and he never told me a word about it.”

“Of course,” said Monsieur; “he took care not to speak of it to you himself, since he recommended every one not to say a word about it.”

“What do you mean?” said Madame, growing angry.

“I mean that they wished to keep you in ignorance of the affair altogether.”

“But why should they wish to conceal it from me?”

“From the fear that your friendship for the young queen might induce you to say something about it to her, nothing more.”

Madame hung down her head; her feelings were grievously wounded. She could not enjoy a moment’s repose until she had met the king. As a king is, most naturally, the very last person in his kingdom who knows what is said about him, in the same way that a lover is the only one who is kept in ignorance of what is said about his mistress, therefore, when the king perceived Madame, who was looking for him, he approached her in some perturbation, but still gracious and attentive in his manner. Madame waited for him to speak about La Valliere first; but as he did not speak of her, she said, “And the poor girl?”

“What poor girl?” said the king.

“La Valliere. Did you not tell me, sire, that she had fainted?”

“She is still very ill,” said the king, affecting the greatest indifference.

“But surely that will prejudicially affect the rumor you were going to spread, sire?”

“What rumor?”

“That your attention was taken up by her.”

“Oh!” said the king, carelessly, “I trust it will be reported all the same.”

Madame still waited; she wished to know if the king would speak to her of the adventure of the royal oak. But the king did not say a word about it. Madame, on her side, did not open her lips about it; so that the king took leave of her without having reposed the slightest confidence in her. Hardly had she watched the king move away, than she set out in search of Saint-Aignan. Saint-Aignan was never very difficult to find; he was like the smaller vessels that always follow in the wake of, and as tenders to, the larger ships. Saint-Aignan was the very man whom Madame needed in her then state of mind. And as for him, he only looked for worthier ears than others he had found to have an opportunity of recounting the event in all its details. And so he did not spare Madame a single word of the whole affair. When he had finished, Madame said to him, “Confess, now, that is his all a charming invention.”

“Invention, no; a true story, yes.”

“Confess, whether invention or true story, that it was told to you as you have told it to me, but that you were not there.”

“Upon my honor, Madame, I was there.”

“And you think that these confessions may have made an impression on the king?”

“Certainly, as those of Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente did upon me,” replied Saint-Aignan; “do not forget, Madame, that Mademoiselle de la Valliere compared the king to the sun; that was flattering enough.”

“The king does not permit himself to be influenced by such flatteries.”

“Madame, the king is just as much Adonis as Apollo; and I saw plain enough just now when La Valliere fell into his arms.”

“La Valliere fell into the king’s arms!”

“Oh! it was the most graceful picture possible; just imagine, La Valliere had fallen back fainting, and—”

“Well! what did you see?—tell me—speak!”

“I saw what ten other people saw at the same time as myself; I saw that when La Valliere fell into his arms, the king almost fainted himself.”

Madame smothered a subdued cry, the only indication of her smothered anger.

“Thank you,” she said, laughing in a convulsive manner, “you relate stories delightfully, M. de Saint-Aignan.” And she hurried away, alone, and almost suffocated by painful emotion, towards the chateau.






Chapter XLIV. Courses de Nuit.


Monsieur quitted the princess in the best possible humor, and feeling greatly fatigued, retired to his apartments, leaving every one to finish the night as he chose. When in his room, Monsieur began to dress for the night with careful attention, which displayed itself from time to time in paroxysms of satisfaction. While his attendants were engaged in curling his hair, he sang the principal airs of the ballet which the violins had played, and to which the king had danced. He then summoned his tailors, inspected his costumes for the next day, and, in token of his extreme satisfaction, distributed various presents among them. As, however, the Chevalier de Lorraine, who had seen the prince return to the chateau, entered the room, Monsieur overwhelmed him with kindness. The former, after having saluted the prince, remained silent for a moment, like a sharpshooter who deliberates before deciding in what direction he will renew his fire; then, seeming to make up his mind, he said, “Have you remarked a very singular coincidence, monseigneur?”

“No; what is it?”

“The bad reception which his majesty, in appearance, gave the Comte de Guiche.”

“In appearance?”

“Yes, certainly; since, in reality, he has restored him to favor.”

“I did not notice it,” said the prince.

“What, did you not remark, that, instead of ordering him to go away again into exile, as was natural, he encouraged him in his opposition by permitting him to resume his place in the ballet?”

“And you think the king was wrong, chevalier?” said the prince.

“Are you not of my opinion, prince?”

“Not altogether so, my dear chevalier; and I think the king was quite right not to have made a disturbance against a poor fellow whose want of judgment is more to be complained of than his intention.”

“Really,” said the chevalier, “as far as I am concerned, I confess that this magnanimity astonishes me to the highest degree.”

“Why so?” inquired Philip.

“Because I should have thought the king had been more jealous,” replied the chevalier, spitefully. During the last few minutes Monsieur had felt there was something of an irritating nature concealed under his favorite’s remarks; this last word, however, ignited the powder.

“Jealous!” exclaimed the prince. “Jealous! what do you mean? Jealous of what, if you please—or jealous of whom?”

The chevalier perceived that he had allowed an excessively mischievous remark to escape him, as he was in the habit of doing. He endeavored, therefore, apparently to recall it while it was still possible to do so. “Jealous of his authority,” he said, with an assumed frankness; “of what else would you have the king jealous?”

“Ah!” said the prince, “that’s very proper.”

“Did your royal highness,” continued the chevalier, “solicit dear De Guiche’s pardon?”

“No, indeed,” said Monsieur. “De Guiche is an excellent fellow, and full of courage; but as I do not approve of his conduct with Madame, I wish him neither harm nor good.”

The chevalier had assumed a bitterness with regard to De Guiche, as he had attempted to do with regard to the king; but he thought he perceived that the time for indulgence, and even for the utmost indifference, had arrived, and that, in order to throw some light on the question, it might be necessary for him to put the lamp, as the saying is, beneath the husband’s very nose.

“Very well, very well,” said the chevalier to himself, “I must wait for De Wardes; he will do more in one day than I in a month; for I verily believe he is even more envious than I. Then, again, it is not De Wardes I require so much as that some event or another should happen; and in the whole of this affair I see none. That De Guiche returned after he had been sent away is certainly serious enough, but all its seriousness disappears when I learn that De Guiche has returned at the very moment Madame troubles herself no longer about him. Madame, in fact, is occupied with the king, that is clear; but she will not be so much longer if, as it is asserted, the king has ceased to trouble his head about her. The moral of the whole matter is, to remain perfectly neutral, and await the arrival of some new caprice and let that decide the whole affair.” And the chevalier thereupon settled himself resignedly in the armchair in which Monsieur permitted him to seat himself in his presence, and, having no more spiteful or malicious remarks to make, the consequence was that De Lorraine’s wit seemed to have deserted him. Most fortunately Monsieur was in high good-humor, and he had enough for two, until the time arrived for dismissing his servants and gentlemen of the chamber, and he passed into his sleeping-apartment. As he withdrew, he desired the chevalier to present his compliments to Madame, and say that, as the night was cool, Monsieur, who was afraid of the toothache, would not venture out again into the park during the remainder of the evening. The chevalier entered the princess’s apartments at the very moment she came in herself. He acquitted himself faithfully of the commission intrusted to him, and, in the first place, remarked all the indifference and annoyance with which Madame received her husband’s communication—a circumstance which appeared to him fraught with something fresh. If Madame had been about to leave her apartments with that strangeness of manner, he would have followed her; but she was returning to them; there was nothing to be done, therefore he turned upon his heel like an unemployed heron, appearing to question earth, air, and water about it; shook his head, and walked away mechanically in the direction of the gardens. He had hardly gone a hundred paces when he met two young men, walking arm in arm, with their heads bent down, and idly kicking the small stones out of their path as they walked on, plunged in thought. It was De Guiche and De Bragelonne, the sight of whom, as it always did, produced upon the chevalier, instinctively, a feeling of repugnance. He did not, however, the less, on that account, salute them with a very low bow, which they returned with interest. Then, observing that the park was nearly deserted, that the illuminations began to burn out, and that the morning breeze was setting in, he turned to the left, and entered the chateau again, by one of the smaller courtyards. The others turned aside to the right, and continued on their way towards the large park. As the chevalier was ascending the side staircase, which led to the private entrance, he saw a woman, followed by another, make her appearance under the arcade which led from the small to the large courtyard. The two women walked so fast that the rustling of their dresses could be distinguished through the silence of the night. The style of their mantles, their graceful figures, a mysterious yet haughty carriage which distinguished them both, especially the one who walked first, struck the chevalier.

“I certainly know those two,” he said to himself, pausing upon the top step of the small staircase. Then, as with the instinct of a bloodhound he was about to follow them, one of the servants who had been running after him arrested his attention.

“Monsieur,” he said, “the courier has arrived.”

“Very well,” said the chevalier, “there is time enough; to-morrow will do.”

“There are some urgent letters which you would be glad to see, perhaps.”

“Where from?” inquired the chevalier.

“One from England, and the other from Calais; the latter arrived by express, and seems of great importance.”

“From Calais! Who the deuce can have to write to me from Calais?”

“I think I recognize the handwriting of Monsieur le Comte de Wardes.”

“Oh!” cried the chevalier, forgetting his intention of acting the spy, “in that case I will come up at once.” This he did, while the two unknown beings disappeared at the end of the court opposite to the one by which they had just entered. We shall now follow them, and leave the chevalier undisturbed to his correspondence. When they had arrived at the grove of trees, the foremost of the two halted, somewhat out of breath, and, cautiously raising her hood, said, “Are we still far from the tree?”

“Yes, Madame, more than five hundred paces; but pray rest awhile, you will not be able to walk much longer at this rate.”

“You are right,” said the princes, for it was she; and she leaned against a tree. “And now,” she resumed, after having recovered her breath, “tell me the whole truth, and conceal nothing from me.”

“Oh, Madame,” cried the young girl, “you are already angry with me.”

“No, my dear Athenais, reassure yourself, I am in no way angry with you. After all, these things do not concern me personally. You are anxious about what you may have said under the oak; you are afraid of having offended the king, and I wish to tranquillize you by ascertaining myself if it were possible you could have been overheard.”

“Oh, yes, Madame, the king was close to us.”

“Still, you were not speaking so loud that some of your remarks may not have been lost.”

“We thought we were quite alone, Madame.”

“There were three of you, you say?”

“Yes; La Valliere, Montalais, and myself.”

“And you, individually, spoke in a light manner of the king?”

“I am afraid so. Should such be the case, will your highness have the kindness to make my peace with his majesty?”

“If there should be any occasion for it, I promise you I will do so. However, as I have already told you, it will be better not to anticipate evil. The night is now very dark, and the darkness is still greater under the trees. It is not likely you were recognized by the king. To inform him of it, by being the first to speak, is to denounce yourself.”

“Oh, Madame, Madame! if Mademoiselle de la Valliere were recognized, I must have been recognized also. Besides, M. de Saint-Aignan left no doubt on the subject.”

“Did you, then, say anything very disrespectful of the king?”

“Not at all; it was one of the others who made some very flattering speeches about the king; and my remarks must have been much in contrast with hers.”

“Montalais is such a giddy girl,” said Madame.

“It was not Montalais. Montalais said nothing; it was La Valliere.”

Madame started as if she had not known it perfectly well already. “No, no,” she said, “the king cannot have heard. Besides, we will now try the experiment for which we came out. Show me the oak. Do you know where it is?” she continued.

“Alas! Madame, yes.”

“And you can find it again?”

“With my eyes shut.”

“Very well; sit down on the bank where you were, where La Valliere was, and speak in the same tone and to the same effect as you did before; I will conceal myself in the thicket, and if I can hear you, I will tell you so.”

“Yes, Madame.”

“If, therefore, you really spoke loud enough for the king to have heard you, in that case—”

Athenais seemed to await the conclusion of the sentence with some anxiety.

“In that case,” said Madame, in a suffocated voice, arising doubtless from her hurried progress, “in that case, I forbid you—” And Madame again increased her pace. Suddenly, however, she stopped. “An idea occurs to me,” she said.

“A good idea, no doubt, Madame,” replied Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente.

“Montalais must be as much embarrassed as La Valliere and yourself.”

“Less so, for she is less compromised, having said less.”

“That does not matter; she will help you, I dare say, by deviating a little from the exact truth.”

“Especially if she knows that your highness is kind enough to interest yourself about me.”

“Very well, I think I have discovered what it is best for you all to pretend.”

“How delightful.”

“You had better say that all three of you were perfectly well aware that the king was behind the tree, or behind the thicket, whichever it might have been; and that you knew M. de Saint-Aignan was there too.”

“Yes, Madame.”

“For you cannot disguise it from yourself, Athenais, Saint-Aignan takes advantage of some very flattering remarks you made about him.”

“Well, Madame, you see very clearly that one can be overheard,” cried Athenais, “since M. de Saint-Aignan overheard us.”

Madame bit her lips, for she had thoughtlessly committed herself. “Oh, you know Saint-Aignan’s character very well,” she said, “the favor the king shows him almost turns his brain, and he talks at random; not only so, he very often invents. That is not the question; the fact remains, did or did not the king overhear?”

“Oh, yes, Madame, he certainly did,” said Athenais, in despair.

“In that case, do what I said: maintain boldly that all three of you knew—mind, all three of you, for if there is a doubt about any one of you, there will be a doubt about all,—persist, I say, that you knew that the king and M. de Saint-Aignan were there, and that you wished to amuse yourself at the expense of those who were listening.”

“Oh, Madame, at the king’s expense; we shall never dare say that!”

“It is a simple jest; an innocent deception readily permitted in young girls whom men wish to take by surprise. In this manner everything explains itself. What Montalais said of Malicorne, a mere jest; what you said of M. de Saint-Aignan, a mere jest too; and what La Valliere might have said of—”

“And which she would have given anything to recall.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“Perfectly.”

“Very well, an additional reason. Say the whole affair was a mere joke. M. de Malicorne will have no occasion to get out of temper; M. de Saint-Aignan will be completely put out of countenance; he will be laughed at instead of you; and lastly, the king will be punished for a curiosity unworthy of his rank. Let people laugh a little at the king in this affair, and I do not think he will complain of it.”

“Oh, Madame, you are indeed an angel of goodness and sense!”

“It is to my own advantage.”

“In what way?”

“How can you ask me why it is to my advantage to spare my maids of honor the remarks, annoyances, perhaps even calumnies, that might follow? Alas! you well know that the court has no indulgence for this sort of peccadillo. But we have now been walking for some time, shall we be long before we reach it?”

“About fifty or sixty paces further; turn to the left, Madame, if you please.”

“And you are sure of Montalais?” said Madame.

“Oh, certainly.”

“Will she do what you ask her?”

“Everything. She will be delighted.”

“And La Valliere—” ventured the princess.

“Ah, there will be some difficulty with her, Madame; she would scorn to tell a falsehood.”

“Yet, when it is in her interest to do so—”

“I am afraid that that would not make the slightest difference in her ideas.”

“Yes, yes,” said Madame. “I have been already told that; she is one of those overnice and affectedly particular people who place heaven in the foreground in order to conceal themselves behind it. But if she refuses to tell a falsehood,—as she will expose herself to the jests of the whole court, as she will have annoyed the king by a confession as ridiculous as it was immodest,—Mademoiselle la Baume le Blanc de la Valliere will think it but proper I should send her back again to her pigeons in the country, in order that, in Touraine yonder, or in Le Blaisois,—I know not where it may be,—she may at her ease study sentiment and pastoral life combined.”

These words were uttered with a vehemence and harshness that terrified Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente; and the consequence was, that, as far as she was concerned, she promised to tell as many falsehoods as might be necessary. It was in this frame of mind that Madame and her companion reached the precincts of the royal oak.

“Here we are,” said Tonnay-Charente.

“We shall soon learn if one can overhear,” replied Madame.

“Hush!” whispered the young girl, holding Madame back with a hurried gesture, entirely forgetful of her companion’s rank. Madame stopped.

“You see that you can hear,” said Athenais.

“How?”

“Listen.”

Madame held her breath; and, in fact, the following words pronounced by a gentle and melancholy voice, floated towards them:

“I tell you, vicomte, I tell you I love her madly; I tell you I love her to distraction.”

Madame started at the voice; and, beneath her hood, a bright joyous smile illumined her features. It was she who now held back her companion, and with a light step leading her some twenty paces away, that is to say, out of the reach of the voice, she said, “Remain here, my dear Athenais, and let no one surprise us. I think it must be you they are conversing about.”

“Me, Madame?”

“Yes, you—or rather your adventure. I will go and listen; if we were both there, we should be discovered. Or, stay!—go and fetch Montalais, and then return and wait for me with her at the entrance of the forest.” And then, as Athenais hesitated, she again said “Go!” in a voice which did not admit of reply. Athenais thereupon arranged her dress so as to prevent its rustling being heard; and, by a path beyond the group of trees, she regained the flower-garden. As for Madame, she concealed herself in the thicket, leaning her back against a gigantic chestnut-tree, one of the branches of which had been cut in such a manner as to form a seat, and waited there, full of anxiety and apprehension. “Now,” she said, “since one can hear from this place, let us listen to what M. de Bragelonne and that other madly-in-love fool, the Comte de Guiche, have to say about me.”






Chapter XLV. In Which Madame Acquires a Proof that Listeners Hear What Is Said.


There was a moment’s silence, as if the mysterious sounds of night were hushed to listen, at the same time as Madame, to the youthful passionate disclosures of De Guiche.

Raoul was about to speak. He leaned indolently against the trunk of the large oak, and replied in his sweet and musical voice, “Alas, my dear De Guiche, it is a great misfortune.”

“Yes,” cried the latter, “great indeed.”

“You do not understand me, De Guiche. I say that it is a great misfortune for you, not merely loving, but not knowing how to conceal your love.”

“What do you mean?” said De Guiche.

“Yes, you do not perceive one thing; namely, that it is no longer to the only friend you have,—in other words,—to a man who would rather die than betray you; you do not perceive, I say, that it is no longer to your only friend that you confide your passion, but to the first person that approaches you.”

“Are you mad, Bragelonne,” exclaimed De Guiche, “to say such a thing to me?”

“The fact stands thus, however.”

“Impossible! How, in what manner can I have ever been indiscreet to such an extent?”

“I mean, that your eyes, your looks, your sighs, proclaim, in spite of yourself, that exaggerated feeling which leads and hurries a man beyond his own control. In such a case he ceases to be master of himself; he is a prey to a mad passion, that makes him confide his grief to the trees, or to the air, from the very moment he has no longer any living being in reach of his voice. Besides, remember this: it very rarely happens that there is not always some one present to hear, especially the very things which ought not to be heard.” De Guiche uttered a deep sigh. “Nay,” continued Bragelonne, “you distress me; since your return here, you have a thousand times, and in a thousand different ways, confessed your love for her; and yet, had you not said one word, your return alone would have been a terrible indiscretion. I persist, then, in drawing this conclusion; that if you do not place a better watch over yourself than you have hitherto done, one day or other something will happen that will cause an explosion. Who will save you then? Answer me. Who will save her? for, innocent as she will be of your affection, your affection will be an accusation against her in the hands of her enemies.”

“Alas!” murmured De Guiche; and a deep sigh accompanied the exclamation.

“That is not answering me, De Guiche.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Well, what reply have you to make?”

“This, that when the day arrives I shall be no more a living being than I feel myself now.”

“I do not understand you.”

“So many vicissitudes have worn me out. At present, I am no more a thinking, acting being; at present, the most worthless of men is better than I am; my remaining strength is exhausted, my latest-formed resolutions have vanished, and I abandon myself to my fate. When a man is out campaigning, as we have been together, and he sets off alone and unaccompanied for a skirmish, it sometimes happens that he may meet with a party of five or six foragers, and although alone, he defends himself; afterwards, five or six others arrive unexpectedly, his anger is aroused and he persists; but if six, eight, or ten others should still be met with, he either sets spurs to his horse, if he should still happen to retain one, or lets himself be slain to save an ignominious flight. Such, indeed, is my own case: first, I had to struggle against myself; afterwards, against Buckingham; now, since the king is in the field, I will not contend against the king, nor even, I wish you to understand, will the king retire; nor even against the nature of that woman. Still I do not deceive myself; having devoted myself to the service of such a love, I will lose my life in it.”

“It is not the lady you ought to reproach,” replied Raoul; “it is yourself.”

“Why so?”

“You know the princess’s character,—somewhat giddy, easily captivated by novelty, susceptible to flattery, whether it come from a blind person or a child, and yet you allow your passion for her to eat your very life away. Look at her,—love her, if you will,—for no one whose heart is not engaged elsewhere can see her without loving her. Yet, while you love her, respect, in the first place, her husband’s rank, then herself, and lastly, your own safety.”

“Thanks, Raoul.”

“What for?”

“Because, seeing how much I suffer through this woman, you endeavor to console me, because you tell me all the good of her you think, and perhaps even that which you do not think.”

“Oh,” said Raoul, “there you are wrong, comte; what I think I do not always say, but in that case I say nothing; but when I speak, I know not how to feign or to deceive; and whoever listens to me may believe me.”

During this conversation, Madame, her head stretched forward with eager ear and dilated glance, endeavoring to penetrate the obscurity, thirstily drank in the faintest sound of their voices.

“Oh, I know her better than you do, then!” exclaimed Guiche. “She is not merely giddy, but frivolous; she is not only attracted by novelty, she is utterly oblivious, and is without faith; she is not simply susceptible to flattery, she is a practiced and cruel coquette. A thorough coquette! yes, yes, I am sure of it. Believe me, Bragelonne, I am suffering all the torments of hell; brave, passionately fond of danger, I meet a danger greater than my strength and my courage. But, believe me, Raoul, I reserve for myself a victory which shall cost her floods of tears.”

“A victory,” he asked, “and of what kind?”

“Of what kind, you ask?”

“Yes.”

“One day I will accost her, and will address her thus: ‘I was young— madly in love, I possessed, however, sufficient respect to throw myself at your feet, and to prostrate myself in the dust, if your looks had not raised me to your hand. I fancied I understood your looks, I rose, and then, without having done anything more towards you than love you yet more devotedly, if that were possible—you, a woman without heart, faith, or love, in very wantonness, dashed me down again from sheer caprice. You are unworthy, princess of the royal blood though you may be, of the love of a man of honor; I offer my life as a sacrifice for having loved you too tenderly, and I die despairing you.’”

“Oh!” cried Raoul, terrified at the accents of profound truth which De Guiche’s words betrayed, “I was right in saying you were mad, Guiche.”

“Yes, yes,” exclaimed De Guiche, following out his own idea; “since there are no wars here now, I will flee yonder to the north, seek service in the Empire, where some Hungarian, or Croat, or Turk, will perhaps kindly put me out of my misery.” De Guiche did not finish, or rather as he finished, a sound made him start, and at the same moment caused Raoul to leap to his feet. As for De Guiche, buried in his own thoughts, he remained seated, with his head tightly pressed between his hands. The branches of the tree were pushed aside, and a woman, pale and much agitated, appeared before the two young men. With one hand she held back the branches, which would have struck her face, and, with the other, she raised the hood of the mantle which covered her shoulders. By her clear and lustrous glance, by her lofty carriage, by her haughty attitude, and, more than all that, by the throbbing of his own heart, De Guiche recognized Madame, and, uttering a loud cry, he removed his hands from his temple, and covered his eyes with them. Raoul, trembling and out of countenance, merely muttered a few words of respect.

“Monsieur de Bragelonne,” said the princess, “have the goodness, I beg, to see if my attendants are not somewhere yonder, either in the walks or in the groves; and you, M. de Guiche, remain here: I am tired, and you will perhaps give me your arm.”

Had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of the unhappy young man, he would have been less terrified than by her cold and severe tone. However, as he himself had just said, he was brave; and as in the depths of his own heart he had just decisively made up his mind, De Guiche arose, and, observing Bragelonne’s hesitation, he turned towards him a glance full of resignation and grateful acknowledgement. Instead of immediately answering Madame, he even advanced a step towards the vicomte, and holding out the arm which the princess had just desired him to give her, he pressed his friend’s hand in his own, with a sigh, in which he seemed to give to friendship all the life that was left in the depths of his heart. Madame, who in her pride had never known what it was to wait, now waited until this mute colloquy was at an end. Her royal hand remained suspended in the air, and, when Raoul had left, it sank without anger, but not without emotion, in that of De Guiche. They were alone in the depths of the dark and silent forest, and nothing could be heard but Raoul’s hastily retreating footsteps along the obscure paths. Over their heads was extended the thick and fragrant vault of branches, through the occasional openings of which the stars could be seen glittering in their beauty. Madame softly drew De Guiche about a hundred paces away from that indiscreet tree which had heard, and had allowed so many things to be heard, during the evening, and, leading him to a neighboring glade, so that they could see a certain distance around them, she said in a trembling voice, “I have brought you here, because yonder where you were, everything can be overheard.”

“Everything can be overheard, did you say, Madame?” replied the young man, mechanically.

“Yes.”

“Which means—” murmured De Guiche.

“Which means that I have heard every syllable you have said.”

“Oh, Heaven! this only was wanting to destroy me,” stammered De Guiche; and he bent down his head, like an exhausted swimmer beneath the wave which engulfs him.

“And so,” she said, “you judge me as you have said?” De Guiche grew pale, turned his head aside, and was silent. He felt almost on the point of fainting.

“I do not complain,” continued the princess, in a tone of voice full of gentleness; “I prefer a frankness that wounds me, to flattery, which would deceive me. And so, according to your opinion, M. de Guiche, I am a coquette, an a worthless creature.”

“Worthless,” cried the young man; “you worthless! Oh, no; most certainly I did not say, I could not have said, that that which was the most precious object in life for me could be worthless. No, no; I did not say that.”

“A woman who sees a man perish, consumed by the fire she has kindled, and who does not allay that fire, is, in my opinion, a worthless woman.”

“What can it matter to you what I said?” returned the comte. “What am I compared to you, and why should you even trouble yourself to know whether I exist or not?”

“Monsieur de Guiche, both you and I are human beings, and, knowing you as I do, I do not wish you to risk your life; with you I will change my conduct and character. I will be, not frank, for I am always so, but truthful. I implore you, therefore, to love me no more, and to forget utterly that I have ever addressed a word or a glance towards you.”

De Guiche turned around, bending a look full of passionate devotion upon her. “You,” he said; “you excuse yourself; you implore me?”

“Certainly; since I have done evil, I ought to repair the evil I have done. And so, comte, this is what we will agree to. You will forgive my frivolity and my coquetry. Nay, do not interrupt me. I will forgive you for having said I was frivolous and a coquette, or something worse, perhaps; and you will renounce your idea of dying, and will preserve for your family, for the king, and for our sex, a cavalier whom every one esteems, and whom many hold dear.” Madame pronounced this last word in such an accent of frankness, and even of tenderness, that poor De Guiche’s heart felt almost bursting.

“Oh! Madame, Madame!” he stammered out.

“Nay, listen further,” she continued. “When you shall have renounced all thought of me forever, from necessity in the first place, and, next, because you will yield to my entreaty, then you will judge me more favorably, and I am convinced you will replace this love—forgive the frivolity of the expression—by a sincere friendship, which you will be ready to offer me, and which, I promise you, shall be cordially accepted.”

De Guiche, his forehead bedewed with perspiration, a feeling of death in his heart, and a trembling agitation through his whole frame, bit his lip, stamped his foot on the ground, and, in a word, devoured the bitterness of his grief. “Madame,” he said, “what you offer is impossible, and I cannot accept such conditions.”

“What!” said Madame, “do you refuse my friendship, then?”

“No, no! I do not need your friendship, Madame. I prefer to die from love, than to live for friendship.”

“Comte!”

“Oh! Madame,” cried De Guiche, “the present is a moment for me, in which no other consideration and no other respect exist, than the consideration and respect of a man of honor towards the woman he worships. Drive me away, curse me, denounce me, you will be perfectly right. I have uttered complaints against you, but their bitterness has been owing to my passion for you; I have said I wish to die, and die I will. If I lived, you would forget me; but dead, you would never forget me, I am sure.”

Henrietta, who was standing buried in thought, and nearly as agitated as De Guiche himself, turned aside her head as but a minute before he had turned aside his. Then, after a moment’s pause, she said, “And you love me, then, very much?”

“Madly; madly enough to die from it, whether you drive me from you, or whether you listen to me still.”

“It is a hopeless case,” she said, in a playful manner; “a case which must be treated with soothing application. Give me your hand. It is as cold as ice.” De Guiche knelt down, and pressed to his lips, not one, but both of Madame’s hands.

“Love me, then,” said the princess, “since it cannot be otherwise.” And almost imperceptibly she pressed his fingers, raising him thus, partly in the manner of a queen, and partly as a fond and affectionate woman would have done. De Guiche trembled from head to foot, and Madame, who felt how passion coursed through every fiber of his being, knew that he indeed loved truly. “Give me your arm, comte,” she said, “and let us return.”

“Ah! Madame,” said the comte, trembling and bewildered; “you have discovered a third way of killing me.”

“But, happily, it is the slowest way, is it not?” she replied, as she led him towards the grove of trees they had so lately quitted.